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pipe, saying, as he did so, 4 Hand me your baccy-box
I'll fill that too, now I am about it.'

The man went through the movement of search-
ing his pockets.

4 Lost that too ? ' said his entertainer, with some
surprise.

4 1 am afraid so,' said the man with some confusion.
4 Give it to me in a screw of paper.' Lighting his
pipe at the candle with a suction that drew the whole
flame into the bowl, he resettled himself in the corner
and bent his looks upon the faint steam from his
damp legs, as if he wished to say no more.

Meanwhile the general body of guests had been

ii



WESSEX TALES

taking little notice of this vir ; tor by reason of an
absorbing discussion in which they were engaged
with the band about a tune for the next dance. The
matter being settled, they were about to stand up
when an interruption came in the shape of another
knock at the door.

At sound of the same the man in the chimney-
corner took up the poker and began stirring the
brands as if doing it thoroughly were the one aim of
his existence ; and a second time the shepherd said,
4 Walk in ! ' In a moment another man stood upon the
straw- woven door-mat. He too was a stranger.

This individual was one of a type radically different
from the first. There was more of the commonplace
in his manner, and a certain jovial cosmopolitanism
sat upon his features. He was several years older
than the first arrival, his hair being slightly frosted,
his eyebrows bristly, and his whiskers cut back from
his cheeks. His face was rather full and flabby, and
yet it was not altogether a face without power. A
few grog-blossoms marked the neighbourhood of his
nose. He flung back his long drab greatcoat, reveal-
ing that beneath it he wore a suit of cinder-gray shade
throughout, large heavy seals, of some metal or other
that would take a polish, dangling from his fob as his
only personal ornament. Shaking the water-drops
from his low-crowned glazed hat, he said, ' I must ask
for a few minutes' shelter, comrades, or I shall be
wetted to my skin before I get to Casterbridge.'

1 Make yourself at home, master,' said the shepherd,
perhaps a trifle less heartily than on the first occasion.
Not that Fennel had the least tinge of niggardliness
in his composition ; but the room was far from large,
spare chairs were not numerous, and damp companions
were not altogether desirable at close quarters for the
women and girls in their bright-coloured gowns.

However, the second comer, after taking off his
greatcoat, and hanging his hat on a nail in one of the
ceiling-beams as if he had been specially invited to put

12



THE THREE STRANGERS

it there, advanced and sat down at the table. This
had been pushed so closely into the chimney-corner,
to give all available room to the dancers, that its inner
edge grazed the elbow of the man who had ensconced
himself by the fire ; and thus the two strangers were
brought into close companionship. They nodded to
each other by way of breaking the ice of unacquaint-
ance, and the first stranger handed his neighbour the
family mug a huge vessel of brown ware, having its
upper edge worn away like a threshold by the rub of
whole generations of thirsty lips that had gone the
way of all flesh, and bearing the following inscription
burnt upon its rotund side in yellow letters :

THERE IS NO FUN
UNTiLL i CUM.

The other man, nothing loth, raised the mug to his
lips, and drank on, and on, and on till a curious
blueness overspread the countenance of the shepherd's
wife, who had regarded with no little surprise the first
stranger's free offer to the second of what did not
belong to him to dispense.

' I knew it ! ' said the toper to the shepherd with
much satisfaction. ' When I walked up your garden
before coming in, and saw the hives all of a row, I
said to myself, "Where there's bees there's honey, and
where there's honey there's mead." But mead of
such a truly comfortable sort as this I really didn't
expect to meet in my older days.' He took yet
another pull at the mug, till it assumed an ominous
elevation.

' Glad you enjoy it ! ' said the shepherd warmly.

' It is goodish mead,' assented Mrs. Fennel, with
an absence of enthusiasm which seemed to say that it
was possible to buy praise for one's cellar at too heavy
a price. ' It is trouble enough to make and really I
hardly think we shall make any more. For honey
sells well, and we ourselves can make shift with a

13



WESSEX TALES

drop o' small mead and metheglin for common use
from the comb-washings.'

' O, but you'll never have the heart!' reproachfully
cried the stranger in cinder-gray, after taking up the
mug a third time and setting it down empty. ' I
love mead, when 'tis old like this, as I love to go to
church o' Sundays, or to relieve the needy any day
of the week.'

' Ha, ha, ha ! ' said the man in the chimney-corner,
who, in spite of the taciturnity induced by the pipe
of tobacco, could not or would not refrain from this
slight testimony to his comrade's humour.

Now the old mead of those days, brewed of the
purest first-year or maiden honey, four pounds to the
gallon with its due complement of white of eggs,
cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, rosemary, yeast, and
processes of working, bottling, and cellaring tasted
remarkably strong ; but it did not taste so strong as
it actually was. Hence, presently, the stranger in
cinder-gray at the table, moved by its creeping in-
fluence, unbuttoned his waistcoat, threw himself back
in his chair, spread his legs, and made his presence
felt in various ways.

' Well, well, as I say,' he resumed, ' I am going
to Casterbridge, and to Casterbridge I must go. I
should have been almost there by this time ; but the
rain drove me into your dwelling, and I'm not sorry
for it.'

1 You don't live in Casterbridge ? ' said the
shepherd.

1 Not as yet ; though I shortly mean to move
there.'

' Going to set up in trade, perhaps ? '

4 No, no,' said the shepherd s wife. ' It is easy to
see that the gentleman is rich, and don't want to work
at anything.'

The cinder-gray stranger paused, as if to consider
whether he would accept that definition of himself.
He presently rejected it by answering, ' Rich is not

14



THE THREE STRANGERS

quite the word for me, dame. I do work, and I must
work. And even if I only get to Casterbridge by
midnight I must begin work there at eight to-morrow
morning. Yes, het or wet, blow or snow, famine or
sword, my day's work to-morrow must be done.'

4 Poor man ! Then, in spite o' seeming, you be
worse off than we ? ' replied the shepherd's wife.

4 'Tis the nature of my trade, men and maidens.
'Tis the nature of my trade more than my poverty. . . .
But really and truly I must up and off, or I shan't get
a lodging in the town.' However, the speaker did
not move, and directly added, ' There's time for one
more draught of friendship before I go; and I'd
perform it at once if the mug were not dry.'

4 Here's a mug o' small,' said Mrs. Fennel. 4 Small,
we call it, though to be sure 'tis only the first wash o'
the combs.'

' No,' said the stranger disdainfully. 4 1 won't
spoil your first kindness by partaking o' your second.'

4 Certainly not,' broke in Fennel. 4 We don't
increase and multiply every day, and I'll fill the mug
again.' He went away to the dark place under the
stairs where the barrel stood. The shepherdess
followed him.

4 Why should you do this ? ' she said reproachfully,
as soon as they were alone. 4 He's emptied it once,
though it held enough for ten people ; and now he's
not contented wi' the small, but must needs call for
more o' the strong ! And a stranger unbeknown to
any of us. For my part, I don't like the look o' the
man at all.'

4 But he's in the house, my honey ; and 'tis a wet
night, and a christening. Daze it, what's a cup of
mead more or less? There'll be plenty more next
bee-burning.'

4 Very well this time, then,' she answered, look-
ing wistfully at the barrel. ' But what is the man's
calling, and where is he one of, that he should come
in and join us like this ? '

IS



WESSEX TALES

' I don't know. I'll ask him again.'

The catastrophe of having the mug drained dry at
one pull by the stranger in cinder-gray was effectually
guarded against this time by Mrs. Fennel. She
poured out his allowance in a small cup, keeping the
large one at a discreet distance from him. When he
had tossed off his portion the shepherd renewed his
inquiry about the stranger's occupation.

The latter did not immediately reply, and the man
in the chimney-corner, with sudden demonstrative-
ness, said, 'Anybody may know my trade I'm a
wheelwright.'

1 A very good trade for these parts,' said the
shepherd.

4 And anybody may know mine if they've the
sense to find it out,' said the stranger in cinder-gray.

1 You may generally tell what a man is by his
claws,' observed the hedge-carpenter, looking at his
own hands, ' My fingers be as full of thorns as an
old pin-cushion is of pins.'

The hands of the man in the chimney-corner
instinctively sought the shade, and he gazed into the
fire as he resumed his pipe. The man at the table
took up the hedge-carpenter's remark, and added
smartly, ' True ; but the oddity of my trade is that,
instead of setting a mark upon me, it sets a mark
upon my customers.'

No observation being offered by anybody in eluci-
dation of this enigma the shepherd's wife once more
called for a song. The same obstacles presented
themselves as at the former time one had no voice,
another had forgotten the first verse. The stranger
at the table, whose soul had now risen to a good
working temperature, relieved the difficulty by ex-
claiming that, to start the company, he would sing
himself. Thrusting one thumb into the arm-hole of
his waistcoat, he waved the other hand in the air,
and, with an extemporizing gaze at the shining sheep-
crooks above the mantelpiece, began :

16



THE THREE STRANGERS

' O my trade it is the rarest one,

Simple shepherds all
My trade is a sight to see ;

For my customers I tie, and take them up on high,
And waft 'em to a far countree ! '

The room was silent when he had finished the verse
with one exception, that of the man in the chimney-
corner, who, at the singer's word, ' Chorus ! ' joined
him in a deep bass voice of musical relish

' And waft 'em to a far countree ! '

Oliver Giles, John Pitcher the dairyman, the parish-
clerk, the engaged man of fifty, the row of young
women against the wall, seemed lost in thought not
of the gayest kind. The shepherd looked medita-
tively on the ground, the shepherdess gazed keenly
at the singer, and with some suspicion ; she was
doubting whether this stranger were merely singing
an old song from recollection, or was composing one
there and then for the occasion. All were as per-
plexed at the obscure revelation as the guests at
Belshazzar's Feast, except the man in the chimney-
corner, who quietly said, ' Second verse, stranger,'
and smoked on.

The singer thoroughly moistened himself from his
lips inwards, and went on with the next stanza as
requested :

' My tools are but common ones,

Simple shepherds all
My tools are no sight to see :

A little hempen string, and a post whereon to swing,
Are implements enough for me ! '

Shepherd Fennel glanced round. There was no
longer any doubt that the stranger was answering
his question rhythmically. The guests one and all
started back with suppressed exclamations. The
young woman engaged to the man of fifty fainted
half-way, and would have proceeded, but finding him

17



WESSEX TALES

wanting in alacrity for catching her she sat down
trembling.

1 O, he's the ! ' whispered the people in the

background, mentioning the name of an ominous
public officer. ' He's come to do it ! 'Tis to be at
Casterbridge jail to-morrow the man for sheep-
stealing the poor clock-maker we heard of, who
used to live away at Shottsford and had no work to
do Timothy Summers, whose family were a-starving,
and so he went out of Shottsford by the high-road,
and took a sheep in open daylight, defying the farmer
and the farmer's wife and the farmer's lad, and every
man jack among 'em. He ' (and they nodded towards
the stranger of the deadly trade) ' is come from up
the country to do it because there's not enough to do
in his own county-town, and he's got the place here
now our own county man's dead ; he's going to live
in the same cottage under the prison wall.'

The stranger in cinder-gray took no notice of this
whispered string of observations, but again wetted his
lips. Seeing that his friend in the chimney-corner
was the only one who reciprocated his joviality in any
way, he held out his cup towards that appreciative
comrade, who also held out his own. They clinked
together, the eyes of the rest of the room hanging
upon the singer's actions. He parted his lips for the
third verse ; but at that moment another knock was
audible upon the door. This time the knock was
faint and hesitating.

The company seemed scared ; the shepherd looked
with consternation towards the entrance, and it was
with some effort that he resisted his alarmed wife's
deprecatory glance, and uttered for the third time
the welcoming words, ' Walk in ! '

The door was gently opened, and another man
stood upon the mat. He, like those who had pre-
ceded him, was a stranger. This time it was a
short, small personage, of fair complexion, and dressed
in a decent suit of dark clothes.

18



THE THREE STRANGERS

1 Can you tell me the way to ? ' he began :

when, gazing round the room to observe the nature
of the company amongst whom he had fallen, his
eyes lighted on the stranger in cinder-gray. It was
just at the instant when the latter, who had thrown
his mind into his song with such a will that he
scarcely heeded the interruption, silenced all whispers
and inquiries by bursting into his third verse :

* To-morrow is my working day,

Simple shepherds all
To-morrow is a working day for me :

For the farmer's sheep is slain, and the lad who did it ta'en,
And on his soul may God ha' merc-y ! '

The stranger in the chimney-corner, waving cups with
the singer so heartily that his mead splashed over on
the hearth, repeated in his bass voice as before :

' And on his soul may God ha' merc-y ! '

All this time the third stranger had been standing
in the doorway. Finding now that he did not come
forward or go on speaking, the guests particularly
regarded him. They noticed to their surprise that
he stood before them the picture of abject terror
his knees trembling, his hand shaking so violently
that the door-latch by which he supported himself
rattled audibly : his white lips were parted, and his
eyes fixed on the merry officer of justice in the
middle of the room. A moment more and he had
turned, closed the door, and fled.

1 What a man can it be ? ' said the shepherd.

The rest, between the awfulness of their late
discovery and the odd conduct of this third visitor,
looked as if they knew not what to think, and said
nothing. Instinctively they withdrew further and
further from the grim gentleman in their midst,
whom some of them seemed to take for the Prince
of Darkness himself, till they formed a remote circle,

19



WESSEX TALES

an empty space of floor being left between them and

him

'. . . circulus, cujus centrum diabolus.'

The room was so silent though there were more
than twenty people in it that nothing could be heard
but the patter of the rain against the window-shutters,
accompanied by the occasional hiss of a stray drop
that fell down the chimney into the fire, and the
steady puffing of the man in the corner, who had
now resumed his pipe of long clay.

The stillness was unexpectedly broken. The
distant sound of a gun reverberated through the
air apparently from the direction of the county-town.

' Be jiggered ! ' cried the stranger who had sung
the song, jumping up.

4 What does that mean ? ' asked several.

4 A prisoner escaped from the jail that's what it
means.'

All listened. The sound was repeated, and none
of them spoke but the man in the chimney-corner,
who said quietly, ' I've often been told that in this
county they fire a gun at such times ; but I never
heard it till now.'

4 I wonder if it is my man ? ' murmured the per-
sonage in cinder-gray.

4 Surely it is ! ' said the shepherd involuntarily.
4 And surely we've zeed him ! That little man who
looked in at the door by now, and quivered like a
leaf when he zeed ye and heard your song ! '

4 His teeth chattered, and the breath went out
of his body,' said the dairyman.

' And his heart seemed to sink within him like
a stone,' said Oliver Giles.

4 And he bolted as if he'd been shot at,' said the
hedge-carpenter.

4 True his teeth chattered, and his heart seemed
to sink ; and he bolted as if he'd been shot at,' slowly
summed up the man in the chimney-corner.

20



' I didn't notice it,' remarked the hangman.

' We were all a-wondering what made him run
off in such a fright,' faltered one of the women against
the wall, ' and now 'tis explained ! '

The firing of the alarm-gun went on at intervals,
low and sullenly, and their suspicions became a
certainty. The sinister gentleman in cinder-gray
roused himself. ' Is there a constable here ? ' he
asked, in thick tones. ' If so, let him step forward.'

The engaged man of fifty stepped quavering out
from the wall, his betrothed beginning to sob on the
back of the chair.

' You are a sworn constable ? '

'I be, sir.'

4 Then pursue the criminal at once, with assistance,
and bring him back here. He can't have gone far.'

' I will, sir, I will when I've got my staff. I'll
go home and get it, and come sharp here, and start
in a body.'

'Staff! never mind your staff; the man'll be
gone ! '

' But I can't do nothing without my staff can
I, William, and John, and Charles Jake? No; for
there's the king's royal crown a painted on en in
yaller and gold, and the lion and the unicorn, so as
when I raise en up and hit my prisoner, 'tis made
a lawful blow thereby. I wouldn't 'tempt to take
up a man without my staff no, not I. If I hadn't
the law to gie me courage, why, instead o' my taking
up him he might take up me ! '

'Now, I'm a king's man myself, and can give
you authority enough for this,' said the formidable
officer in gray. ' Now then, all of ye, be ready.
Have ye any lanterns?'

' Yes have ye any lanterns ? I demand it ! '
said the constable.

' And the rest of you able-bodied '

' Able-bodied men yes the rest of ye ! ' said the
constable.

21



WESSEX TALES

' Have you some good stout staves and pitch-
forks '

' Staves and pitchforks in the name o' the law !
And take 'em in yer hands and go in quest, and do
as we in authority tell ye ! '

Thus aroused, the men prepared to give chase.
The evidence was, indeed, though circumstantial,
so convincing, that but little argument was needed
to show the shepherd's guests that after what they
had seen it would look very much like connivance
if they did not instantly pursue the unhappy third
stranger, who could not as yet have gone more than
a few hundred yards over such uneven country.

A shepherd is always well provided with lanterns ;
and, lighting these hastily, and with hurdle-staves in
their hands, they poured out of the door, taking a
direction along the crest of the hill, away from the
town, the rain having fortunately a little abated.

Disturbed by the noise, or possibly by unpleasant
dreams of her baptism, the child who had been
christened began to cry heart-brokenly in the room
overhead. These notes of grief came down through
the chinks of the floor to the ears of the women below,
who jumped up one by one, and seemed glad of the
excuse to ascend and comfort the baby, for the
incidents of the last half-hour greatly oppressed them.
Thus in the space of two or three minutes the room
on the ground-floor was deserted quite.

But it was not for long. Hardly had the sound of
footsteps died away when a man returned round the
corner of the house from the direction the pursuers
had taken. Peeping in at the door, and seeing
nobody there, he entered leisurely. It was the
stranger of the chimney-corner, who had gone out
with the rest. The motive of his return was shown
by his helping himself to a cut piece of skimmer-cake
that lay on a ledge beside where he had sat, and
which he had apparently forgotten to take with him.
He also poured out half a cup more mead from the

22



THE THREE STRANGERS

quantity that remained, ravenously eating and drink-
ing these as he stood. He had not finished when
another figure came in just as quietly his friend in
cinder-gray.

' O you here ? ' said the latter, smiling. ' I
thought you had gone to help in the capture.' And
this speaker also revealed the object of his return by
looking solicitously round for the fascinating mug of
old mead.

' And I thought you had gone,' said the other,
continuing his skimmer-cake with some effort.

1 Well, on second thoughts, I felt there were
enough without me,' said the first confidentially, ' and
such a night as it is, too. Besides, 'tis the business
o' the Government to take care of its criminals not
mine.'

' True ; so it is. And I felt as you did, that there
were enough without me.'

' I don't want to break my limbs running over the
humps and hollows of this wild country.'

' Nor I neither, between you and me.'

' These shepherd-people are used to it simple-
minded souls, you know, stirred up to anything in a
moment. They'll have him ready for me before the
morning, and no trouble to me at all.'

1 They'll have him, and we shall have saved our-
selves all labour in the matter.'

' True, true. Well, my way is to Casterbridge ;
and 'tis as much as my legs will do to take me that
far. Going the same way ? '

1 No, I am sorry to say ! I have to get home over
there ' (he nodded indefinitely to the right), ' and I
feel as you do, that it is quite enough for my legs
to do before bedtime.'

The other had by this time finished the mead in
the mug, after which, shaking hands heartily at the
door, and wishing each other well, they went their
several ways.

In the meantime the company of pursuers had

23



WESSEX TALES

reached the end of the hog's-back elevation which
dominated this part of the down. They had decided
on no particular plan of action ; and, finding that the
man of the baleful trade was no longer in their
company, they seemed quite unable to form any such
plan now. They descended in all directions clown the
hill, and straightway several of the party fell into
the snare set by Nature for all misguided midnight
ramblers over this part of the cretaceous formation.
The ' lanchets,' or flint slopes, which belted the escarp-
ment at intervals of a dozen yards, took the less
cautious ones unawares, and losing their footing on
the rubbly steep they slid sharply downwards, the
lanterns rolling from their hands to the bottom, and
there lying on their sides till the horn was scorched
through.

When they had again gathered themselves to-
gether the shepherd, as the man who knew the
country best, took the lead, and guided them round
these treacherous inclines. The lanterns, which
seemed rather to dazzle their eyes and warn the
fugitive than to assist them in the exploration, were
extinguished, due silence was observed ; and in this
more rational order they plunged into the vale. It
was a grassy, briery, moist defile, affording some
shelter to any person who had sought it ; but the
party perambulated it in vain, and ascended on the
other side. Here they wandered apart, and after an
interval closed together again to report progress.
At the second time of closing in they found them-
selves near a lonely ash, the single tree on this part
of the coomb, probably sown there by a passing bird
some fifty years before. And here, standing a little
to one side of the trunk, as motionless as the trunk
itself, appeared the man they were in quest of, his
outline being well defined against the sky beyond.
The band noiselessly drew up and faced him.

' Your money or your life ! ' said the constable
sternly to the still figure.

24



THE THREE STRANGERS

' No, no/ whispered John Pitcher. ' 'Tisn't our
side ought to say that. That's the doctrine of vaga-
bonds like him, and we be on the side of the law.'

' Well, well,' replied the constable impatiently ; ' I
must say something, mustn't I ? and if you had all the
weight o' this undertaking upon your mind, perhaps
you'd say the wrong thing too ! Prisoner at the bar,
surrender, in the name of the Father the Crown, I


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