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Wessex tales : strange, lively, and commonplace (Volume 1) online

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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.'

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

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

' Certainly not,' broke in Fennel. ' 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.

* Why should you do this ? ' she said reproach-
fully, as soon as they w^ere alone. ' 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 stron^? ! And a stranger
unbeknown to any of us. For my part, I don't
like the look o' the man at all.'

' 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-burningf.'

*Yery well — this time, then,' she answered,
looking 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 ? '

' 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 effect-
ually 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

The latter did not immediately reply, and tlie


man in the cliimney-corner, with sudden demon-
strativeness, said, ' Anybody may know my trade
— I'm a wheelwright.'

'A very good trade for these parts,' said the

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

' You may generally tell what a man is by his
claws,' observed the hedge- carpenter, looking at
his own hands. ' ^ly 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
elucidation of this enigma, the shepherd's wife


once more called for a sonc^. 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 exclaiming that, to start the com-
pany, 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
extemporising gaze at the shining sheep-crooks
above the mantelpiece, began : —

' Ob. 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 wdien he had finished the

verse — with one exception, that of the man in

the chimney-corner, wdio, 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 Pitclier 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 meditatively on the ground, the shep-
herdess gazed keenly at the singer, and with
some suspicion ; she was doubting whether this
stranger were merely singing an old song from re-
collection, or was composing one there and then for
the occasion. All were as perplexed 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

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 ! '


Slieplierd 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 wanting in alacrity for catching her
she sat down trembling.

' Oh, he's the ! ' whispered the people in

the background, mentioning the name of an omi-
nous 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 Sommers, whose family
were a- starving, and so he went out of Shotts-
ford 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
preceded him, was a stranger. This time it was a
short, small personage, of fair complexion, and
dressed in a decent suit of dark clothes.

* 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 sono; 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
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 lia' merc-y

1 '

All this time the thii^d strani^er had been standinor
in the doorway. Finding now that he did not
come forward or go on speaking, the guests par-
ticularly 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.

' 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 farther


and farther from the giim gentleman in their
midst, whom some of them seemed to take for the
Prince of Darkness himself, till they formed a
remote circle, an empty space of floor being left
between them and him —

' . . . circulus, ciijus 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
windows-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

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

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


' What does that mean ? ' asked severaL

' 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 nev^er heard it till now.'

' I wonder if it is ray man ? ' murmured the
personage in cinder-gray.

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

*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.

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


' 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-

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

'We were all a-wonderinsf 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 of the corner, his betrothed beginning to sob
on the back of the chair.

' You are a sworn constable ? '

' I be, sii'.'

' Then pursue the criminal at once, with assist-
ance, 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 '11 be
cfone ! '

' 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.

' 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 for-
tunately a little abated.


Disturbed by the noise, or possibly by un-
pleasant 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 sflad 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 quantity that remained,
ravenously eating and drinking these as he stood.
He had not finished when another figure came in
just as quietly — his friend in cinder-gray.

' Oh — 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 fas-
cinating mug of old mead.

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

' 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.'

* 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 ? '

' 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
reached the end of the hog's-back elevation which
dominated this part of the coomb. They had


decided on no particular plan of action ; and,
finding that tlie 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 down the hill, and straightway several of
the party fell into the snare set by jSTature for all
misguided midnight ramblers over this part of
the cretaceous formation. The ' lynch ets,' or flint
slopes, which belted the escarpment 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 throusjh.

When they had again gathered themselves
together, 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 fugi-
tive than to assist them in the exploration, were ex-
tinguished, due silence was observed ; and in this


more rational or.cler they plunged into the vale. It
Avas 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 themselves near a lonely ash, the single tree
on this part of the upland, probably sown there by
a passing bird some fifty years before. And here,
standing a little to one side of the trunk, as motion-
less 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.

* Xo, 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 1 — Prisoner
at the bar, surrender, in the name of the Father
— the Crown, I mane 1 '

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 trepi-
dation 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
ye on the charge of not biding in Casterbridge
jail in a decent proper manner to be hung to-
morrow morning. Xeighbours, do your duty, and
seize the culpet ! '

On hearing the charge, the man seemed en-
lightened, and, saying not another word, re-


signed himself with preternatural ci^Tlity 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 dis-
covered the shepherd's living-room to be invaded
by two officers from Casterbridge jail, and a well-
known magistrate wdio lived at the nearest country-
seat, intelligence of the escape ha^dng become
<2jenerallv circulated.

* Gentlemen,' said the constable, ' I have brought
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.

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

' But how can it be otherwise ? ' asked the
constable. ' Or why was he so terrified at sight o'
the singing instrument of the law who sat there V
Here he related the strano-e behaviour of the third
stranger on entering the house during the hang-
man'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
forward after inquiring particulars from the


shepherd in the background. ' Haven't you got
the man after all ? '

' 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 I '

' A pretty kettle of fish altogether ! ' said the
maoistrate. ' 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 cliimney- corner seemed
to have moved him as nothing else could do.
* Sir,' he said, stepping forward to the magistrate,
' take no 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 con-
demned 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 Kfe, singing a
song about it and not knowing that it was his
victim who was close by, joining in to save ap-
pearances. My brother looked 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

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


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

' I 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.'

' '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.'

'Well, it appears to me that nothing can be
gained by retaining this poor man in custody,'
said the magistrate ; ' your business lies with the
other, unquestionably.'

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 con-
stable to raze out the written troubles in his brain,
for they concerned another whom he regarded


witli more solicitude thau 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

Next day, accordingly, the quest for the clever
sheep -stealer became general and keen, to all
appearance at least. But the intended punish-
ment was cruelly disproportioned to the trans-
gression, 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 darinu; in hob-and-nobbins^ with the
hangman, under the unprecedented circumstances
of the shepherd's party, won their admiration. So
that it may be questioned if all those who osten-
sibly made themselves so busy in exploring woods

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