Thomas Hardy.

The writings of Thomas Hardy in prose and verse, with prefaces and notes (Volume 9) online

. (page 3 of 20)
Online LibraryThomas HardyThe writings of Thomas Hardy in prose and verse, with prefaces and notes (Volume 9) → online text (page 3 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


mane ! '

The man under the tree seemed now to notice
them for the first time, and, giving them no oppor-
tunity whatever for exhibiting their courage, he
strolled slowly towards them. He was, indeed, the
little man, the third stranger ; but his trepidation had
in a great measure gone.

' Well, travellers,' he said, ' did I hear ye speak to
me?'

* You did : you've got to come and be our prisoner
at once ! ' said the constable. ' We arrest 'ee on the
charge of not biding in Casterbridge jail in a decent
proper manner to be hung to-morrow morning.
Neighbours, do your duty, and seize the culpet ! '

On hearing the charge the man seemed en-
lightened, and, saying not another word, resigned
himself with preternatural civility to the search-party,
who, with their staves in their hands, surrounded him
on all sides, and marched him back towards the
shepherd's cottage.

It was eleven o'clock by the time they arrived.
The light shining from the open door, a sound of
men's voices within, proclaimed to them as they
approached the house that some new events had
arisen in their absence. On entering they discovered
the shepherd's living room to be invaded by two
officers from Casterbridge jail, and a well-known
magistrate who lived at the nearest country-seat,
intelligence of the escape having become generally
circulated.

' Gentlemen/ said the constable, ' I have brought

25



WESSEX TALES

back your man not without risk and danger ; but
every one must do his duty ! He is inside this circle
of able-bodied persons, who have lent me useful aid,
considering their ignorance of Crown work. Men,
bring forward your prisoner ! ' And the third stranger
was led to the light.

' Who is this ? ' said one of the officials.

'The man,' said the constable.

1 Certainly not,' said the turnkey ; and the first
corroborated his statement.

' But how can it be otherwise ? ' asked the con-
stable. ' Or why was he so terrified at sight o" the
singing instrument of the law who sat there?' Here
he related the strange behaviour of the third stranger
on entering the house during the hangman's song.

' Can't understand it,' said the officer coolly. ' All
I know is that it is not the condemned man. He's
quite a different character from this one ; a gauntish
fellow, with dark hair and eyes, rather good-looking,
and with a musical bass voice that if you heard it once
you'd never mistake as long as you lived.'

'Why, souls 'twas the man in the chimney-
corner ! '

'Hey what?' said the magistrate, coming for-
ward after inquiring particulars from the shepherd in
the background. ' Haven't you got the man after all?'

1 Well, sir,' said the constable, * he's the man we
were in search of, that's true ; and yet he's not the
man we were in search of. For the man we were in
search of was not the man we wanted, sir, if you
understand my every-day way ; for 'twas the man in
the chimney-corner ! '

' A pretty kettle of fish altogether ! ' said the
magistrate. ' You had better start for the other man
at once.'

The prisoner now spoke for the first time. The
mention of the man in the chimney-corner seemed to
have moved him as nothing else could do. ' Sir,' he
said, stepping forward to the magistrate, 'take no

26



THE THREE STRANGERS

more trouble about me. The time is come when I
may as well speak. I have done nothing ; my crime
is that the condemned man is my brother. Early this
afternoon I left home at Shottsford to tramp it all the
way to Casterbridge jail to bid him farewell. I was
benighted, and called here to rest and ask the way.
When I opened the door I saw before me the very
man, my brother, that I thought to see in the
condemned cell at Casterbridge. He was in this
chimney-corner ; and jammed close to him, so that
he could not have got out if he had tried, was the
executioner who'd come to take his life, singing a
song about it and not knowing that it was his victim
who was close by, joining in to save appearances.
My brother threw a glance of agony at me, and I
knew he meant, " Don't reveal what you see ; my
life depends on it." I was so terror-struck that I
could hardly stand, and, not knowing what I did, I
turned and hurried away.'

The narrator's manner and tone had the stamp of
truth, and his story made a great impression on all
around. ' And do you know where your brother is
at the present time ? ' asked the magistrate.

1 1 do not. I have never seen him since I closed
this door.' .

1 1 can testify to that, for we've been between ye
ever since,' said the constable.

'Where does he think to fly to? what is his
occupation ? '

' He's a watch-and-clock-maker, sir.'

1 'A said 'a was a wheelwright a wicked rogue,'
said the constable.

' The wheels of clocks and watches he meant, no
doubt,' said Shepherd Fennel. ' I thought his hands
were palish for's trade.'

1 Well, it appears to me that nothing can be gained
by retaining this poor man in custody,' said the magis-
trate ; ' your business lies with the other, unquestion-
ably.'

27



WESSEX TALES

And so the little man was released off-hand ; but
he looked nothing the less sad on that account, it
being beyond the power of magistrate or constable
to raze out the written troubles in his brain, for they
concerned another whom he regarded with more
solicitude than himself. When this was done, and
the man had gone his way, the night was found to be
so far advanced that it was deemed useless to renew
the search before the next morning.

Next day, accordingly, the quest for the clever
sheep-stealer became general and keen, to all appear-
ance at least. But the intended punishment was
cruelly disproportioned to the transgression, and the
sympathy of a great many country-folk in that district
was strongly on the side of the fugitive. Moreover,
his marvellous coolness and daring in hob-and-nobbing
with the hangman, under the unprecedented circum-
stances of the shepherd's party, won their admiration.
So that it may be questioned if all those who ostensibly
made themselves so busy in exploring woods and
fields and lanes were quite so thorough when it came
to the private examination of their own lofts and out-
houses. Stories were afloat of a mysterious figure
being occasionally seen in some old overgrown track-
way or other, remote from turnpike roads ; but when
a search was instituted in any of these suspected
quarters nobody was found. Thus the days and
weeks passed without tidings.

In brief, the bass -voiced man of the chimney-
corner was never recaptured. Some said that he
went across the sea, others that he did not, but buried
himself in the depths of a populous city. At any rate,
the gentleman in cinder-gray never did his morning's
work at Casterbridge, nor met anywhere at all, for
business purposes, the genial comrade with whom he
had passed an hour of relaxation in the lonely house
on the slope of the coomb.

The grass has long been green on the graves of
Shepherd Fennel and his frugal wife ; the guests who

28



THE THREE STRANGERS

made up the christening party have mainly followed
their entertainers to the tomb ; the baby in whose
honour they all had met is a matron in the sere and
yellow leaf. But the arrival of the three strangers at
the shepherd's that night, and the details connected
therewith, is a story as well known as ever in the
country about Higher Crowstairs.

March 1883.



A TRADITION OF

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FOUR



A TRADITION OF

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FOUR

THE widely discussed possibility of an invasion of
England through a Channel tunnel has more than
once recalled old Solomon Selby's story to my mind.

The occasion on which I numbered myself among
his audience was one evening when he was sitting in
the yawning chimney-corner of the inn-kitchen, with
some others who had gathered there, and I entered
for shelter from the rain. Withdrawing the stem of
his pipe from the dental notch in which it habitually
rested, he leaned back in the recess behind him and
smiled into the fire. The smile was neither mirthful
nor sad, not precisely humorous nor altogether
thoughtful. We who knew him recognized it in a
moment : it was his narrative smile. Breaking off
our few desultory remarks we drew up closer, and he
thus began :

' My father, as you mid know, was a shepherd all
his life, and lived out by the Cove four miles yonder,
where I was born and lived likewise, till I moved
here shortly afore I was married. The cottage that
first knew me stood on the top of the down, near the
sea ; there was no house within a mile and a half of
it ; it was built o' purpose for the farm-shepherd, and
had no other use. They tell me that it is now pulled
down, but that you can see where it stood by the
mounds of earth and a few broken bricks that are
still lying about. It was a bleak and dreary place in

33



WESSEX TALES

winter-time, but in summer it was well enough, though
the garden never came to much, because we could not
get up a good shelter for the vegetables and currant
bushes ; and where there is much wind they don't
thrive.

* Of all the years of my growing up the ones that
bide clearest in my mind were eighteen hundred and
three, four, and five. This was for two reasons : I
had just then grown to an age when a child's eyes
and ears take in and note down everything about him,
and there was more at that date to bear in mind than
there ever has been since with me. It was, as I need
hardly tell ye, the time after the first peace, when
Bonaparte was scheming his descent upon England.
He had crossed the great Alp mountains, fought in
Egypt, drubbed the Turks, the Austrians, and the
Proossians, and now thought he'd have a slap at us.
On the other side of the Channel, scarce out of sight
and hail of a man standing on our English shore, the
French army of a hundred and sixty thousand men
and fifteen thousand horses had been brought together
from all parts, and were drilling every day. Bonaparte
had been three years a-making his preparations ; and
to ferry these soldiers and cannon and horses across
he had contrived a couple of thousand flat-bottomed
boats. These boats were small things, but wonder-
fully built. A good few of 'em were so made as to
have a little stable on board each for the two horses
that were to haul the cannon carried at the stern. To
get in order all these, and other things required, he
had assembled there five or six thousand fellows that
worked at trades carpenters, blacksmiths, wheel-
wrights, saddlers, and what not. O 'twas a curious
time !

1 Every morning Neighbour Boney would muster
his multitude of soldiers on the beach, draw 'em up
in line, practise 'em in the manoeuvre of embarking,
horses and all, till they could do it without a single
hitch. My father drove a flock of ewes up into

34



EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FOUR

Sussex that year, and as he went along the drover's
track over the high downs thereabout he could see
this drilling actually going on the accoutrements of
the rank and file glittering in the sun like silver. It
was thought and always said by my uncle Job,
sergeant of foot (who used to know all about these
matters), that Bonaparte meant to cross with oars on
a calm night. The grand query with us was, Where
would my gentleman land ? Many of the common
people thought it would be at Dover ; others, who
knew how unlikely it was that any skilful general
would make a business of landing just where he was
expected, said he'd go either east into the River
Thames, or west'ard to some convenient place, most
likely one of the little bays inside the Isle of Portland,
between the Beal and St. Alban's Head and for
choice the three-quarter-round Cove, screened from
every mortal eye, that seemed made o' purpose, out
by where we lived, and which I've dimmed up with
two tubs of brandy across my shoulders on scores o'
dark nights in my younger days. Some had heard
that a part o' the French fleet would sail right round
Scotland, and come up the Channel to a suitable
haven. However, there was much doubt upon the
matter ; and no wonder, for after-years proved that
Bonaparte himself could hardly make up his mind
upon that great and very particular point, where to
land. His uncertainty came about in this wise, that
he could get no news as to where and how our troops
lay in waiting, and that his knowledge of possible
places where flat-bottomed boats might be quietly run
ashore, and the men they brought marshalled in order,
was dim to the last degree. Being flat-bottomed,
they didn't require a harbour for unshipping their
cargo of men, but a good shelving beach away from
sight, and with a fair open road toward London.
How the question posed that great Corsican tyrant
(as we used to call him), what pains he took to settle
it, and, above all, what a risk he ran on one particular

35



WESSEX TALES

night in trying to do so, were known only to one
man here and there ; and certainly to no maker of
newspapers or printer of books, or my account o't
would not have had so many heads shaken over it as
it has by gentry who only believe what they see in
printed lines.

' The flocks my father had charge of fed all about
the downs near our house, overlooking the sea and
shore each way for miles. In winter and early spring
father was up a deal at nights, watching and tending
the lambing. Often he'd go to bed early, and turn
out at twelve or one ; and on the other hand, he'd
sometimes stay up till twelve or one, and then turn in
to bed. As soon as I was old enough I used to help
him, mostly in the way of keeping an eye upon the
ewes while he was gone home to rest. This is what
I was doing in a particular month in either the year
four or five I can't certainly fix which, but it was
long before I was took away from the sheepkeeping
to be bound prentice to a trade. Every night at that
time I was at the fold, about half a mile, or it may be
a little more, from our cottage, and no living thing at
all with me but the ewes and young lambs. Afeard ?
No ; I was never afeard of being alone at these times ;
for I had been reared in such an out-step place that
the lack o' human beings at night made me less fearful
than the sight of 'em. Directly I saw a man's shape
after dark in a lonely place I was frightened out of
my senses.

' One day in that month we were surprised by a
visit from my uncle Job, the sergeant in the Sixty-first
foot, then in camp on the downs above King George's
watering-place, several miles to the west yonder.
Uncle Job dropped in about dusk, and went up with
my father to the fold for an hour or two. Then he
came home, had a drop to drink from the tub of
sperrits that the smugglers kept us in for housing
their liquor when they'd made a run, and for burning
'em off when there was danger. After that he

36



EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FOUR

stretched himself out on the settle to sleep. I went
to bed : at one o'clock father came home, and waking
me to go and take his place, according to custom,
went to bed himself. On my way out of the house
I passed Uncle Job on the settle. He opened his
eyes, and upon my telling him where I was going he
said it was a shame that such a youngster as I should
go up there all alone ; and when he had fastened up
his stock and waist-belt he set off along with me,
taking a drop from the sperrit-tub in a little flat bottle
that stood in the corner-cupboard.

' By and by we drew up to the fold, saw that all
was right, and then, to keep ourselves warm, curled
up in a heap of straw that lay inside the thatched
hurdles we had set up to break the stroke of the wind
when there was any. To-night, however, there was
none. It was one of those very still nights when, if
you stand on the high hills anywhere within two or
three miles of the sea, you can hear the rise and fall
of the tide along the shore, coming and going every
few moments like a sort of great snore of the sleeping
world. Over the lower ground there was a bit of a
mist, but on the hill where we lay the air was clear,
and the moon, then in her last quarter, flung a fairly
good light on the grass and scattered straw.

'While we lay there Uncle Job amused me by
telling me strange stories of the wars he had served
in and the wownds he had got. He had already
fought the French in the Low Countries, and hoped
to fight 'em again. His stories lasted so long that at
last I was hardly sure that I was not a soldier myself,
and had seen such service as he told of. The wonders
of his tales quite bewildered my mind, till I fell asleep
and dreamed of battle, smoke, and flying soldiers, all
of a kind with the doings he had been bringing up
to me.

' How long my nap lasted I am not prepared to
say. But some faint sounds over and above the rustle
of the ewes in the straw, the bleat of the lambs, and

37



WESSEX TALES

the tinkle of the sheep-bell brought me to my waking
senses. Uncle Job was still beside me ; but he too
had fallen asleep. I looked out from the straw, and
saw what it was that had aroused me. Two men, in
boat-cloaks, cocked hats, and swords, stood by the
hurdles about twenty yards off.

' I turned my ear thitherward to catch what they
were saying, but though I heard every word o't, not
one did I understand. They spoke in a tongue that
was not ours in French, as I afterward found. But
if I could not gain the meaning of a word, I was
shrewd boy enough to find out a deal of the talkers'
business. By the light o' the moon I could see that
one of 'em carried a roll of paper in his hand, while
every moment he spoke quick to his comrade, and
pointed right and left with the other hand to spots
along the shore. There was no doubt that he was
explaining to the second gentleman the shapes and
features of the coast. What happened soon after
made this still clearer to me.

'All this time I had not waked Uncle Job, but
now I began to be afeared that they might light upon
us, because uncle breathed so heavily through's nose.
I put my mouth to his ear and whispered, " Uncle
Job."

' 'What is it, my boy?" he said, just as if he
hadn t been asleep at all.

' ' Hush!" says I. "Two French generals "

' ' French ? " says he.

' ' Yes," says I. " Come to see where to land
their army ! "

' I pointed 'em out ; but I could say no more, for
the pair were coming at that moment much nearer
to where we lay. As soon as they got as near as
eight or ten yards, the officer with a roll in his hand
stooped down to a slanting hurdle, unfastened his roll
upon it, and spread it out. Then suddenly he sprung
a dark lantern open on the paper, and showed it to be
a map.

38



EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FOUR

"'What be they looking at?" I whispered to
Uncle Job.

'"A chart of the Channel," says the sergeant
(knowing about such things).

' The other French officer now stooped likewise,
and over the map they had a long consultation, as
they pointed here and there on the paper, and then
hither and thither at places along the shore beneath
us. I noticed that the manner of one officer was very
respectful toward the other, who seemed much his
superior, the second in rank calling him by a sort of
title that I did not know the sense of. The head one,
on the other hand, was quite familiar with his friend,
and more than once clapped nim on the shoulder.

' Uncle Job had watched as well as I, but though
the map had been in the lantern-light, their faces had
always been in shade. But when they rose from
stooping over the chart the light flashed upward, and
fell smart upon one of 'em's features. No sooner had
this happened than Uncle Job gasped, and sank down
as if he'd been in a fit.

1 "What is it what is it, Uncle Job ?" said I.

' " O good God ! " says he, under the straw.

'"What? "says I.

' " Boney ! " he groaned out.

4 "Who?" says I.

' " Bonaparty," he said. "The Corsican ogre. O
that I had got but my new-flinted firelock, that there
man should die ! But I haven't got my new-flinted
firelock, and that there man must live. So lie low, as
you value your life ! "

' I did lie low, as you mid suppose. But I couldn't
help peeping. And then I too, lad as I was, knew
that it was the face of Bonaparte. Not know Boney ?
I should think I did know Boney. I should have
known him by half the light o' that lantern. If I had
seen a picture of his features once, I had seen it a
hundred times. There was his bullet head, his short
neck, his round yaller cheeks and chin, his gloomy

39



WESSEX TALES

face, and his great glowing eyes. He took off his hat
to blow himself a bit, and there was the forelock in
the middle of his forehead, as in all the draughts of
him. In moving, his cloak fell a little open, and I
could see for a moment his white-fronted jacket and
one of his epaulets.

' But none of this lasted long. In a minute he and
his general had rolled up the map, shut the lantern,
and turned to go down toward the shore.

1 Then Uncle Job came to himself a bit. " Slipped
across in the night-time to see how to put his men
ashore," he said. " The like o' that man's coolness
eyes will never again see ! Nephew, I must act in
this, and immediate, or England's lost!"

' When they were over the brow, we crope out,
and went some little way to look after them. Half-
way down they were joined by two others, and six or
seven minutes brought them to the shore. Then,
from behind a rock, a boat came out into the weak
moonlight of the Cove, and they jumped in ; it put off
instantly, and vanished in a few minutes between the
two rocks that stand at the mouth of the Cove as we
all know. We dimmed back to where we had been
before, and I could see, a short way out, a larger
vessel, though still not very large. The little boat
drew up alongside, was made fast at the stern as I
suppose, for the largest sailed away, and we saw no
more.

' My uncle Job told his officers as soon as he got
back to camp ; but what they thought of it I never
heard neither did he. Boney's army never came,
and a good job for me ; for the Cove below my
father's house was where he meant to land, as this
secret visit showed. We coast-folk should have been
cut down one and all, and I should not have sat here
to tell this tale.'

We who listened to old Selby that night have
been familiar with his simple grave-stone for these ten
years past. Thanks to the incredulity of the age his

40



EIGHTEEN HUNDRED AND FOUR

tale has been seldom repeated. But if anything short
of the direct testimony of his own eyes could persuade
an auditor that Bonaparte had examined these shores
for himself with a view to a practicable landing-place,
it would have been Solomon Selby's manner of
narrating the adventure which befell him on the
down.

Christmas iSSa.



THE MELANCHOLY HUSSAR

OF THE GERMAN LEGION



THE MELANCHOLY HUSSAR

OF THE GERMAN LEGION



HERE stretch the downs, high and breezy and green,
absolutely unchanged since those eventful days. A
plough has never disturbed the turf, and the sod that
was uppermost then is uppermost now. Here stood
the camp ; here are distinct traces of the banks thrown
up for the horses of the cavalry, and spots where the
midden-heaps lay are still to be observed. At night,
when I walk across the lonely place, it is impossible
to avoid hearing, amid the scourings of the wind over
the grass-bents and thistles, the old trumpet and bugle
calls, the rattle of the halters ; to help seeing rows of
spectral tents and the impedimenta of the soldiery.
From within the canvases come guttural syllables of
foreign tongues, and broken songs of the fatherland ;
for they were mainly regiments of the King's German
Legion that slept round the tent-poles hereabout at
that time.

It was nearly ninety years ago. The British uni-
form of the period, with its immense epaulettes, queer
cocked-hat, breeches, gaiters, ponderous cartridge-box,
buckled shoes, and what not, would look strange and
barbarous now. Ideas have changed ; invention has
followed invention. Soldiers were monumental objects
then. A divinity still hedged kings here and there ;
and war was considered a glorious thing.

45



WESSEX TALES

Secluded old manor-houses and hamlets lie in
the ravines and hollows among these hills, where a
stranger had hardly ever been seen till the King
chose to take the baths yearly at the sea-side watering-
place a few miles to the south ; as a consequence of
which battalions descended in a cloud upon the open
country around. Is it necessary to add that the
echoes of many characteristic tales, dating from that
picturesque time, still linger about here in more or
less fragmentary form, to be caught by the attentive
ear ? Some of them I have repeated ; most of them


1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryThomas HardyThe writings of Thomas Hardy in prose and verse, with prefaces and notes (Volume 9) → online text (page 3 of 20)