Far from the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD THOMAS HARDY I did not anticipate that this application of the word to a modern use would extend outside the chapters of my own chronicles. But the name was soon taken up elsewhere as a local designation. The first to do so was the now defunct Examiner which in the impression bearing date July 15 1876 entitled one of its articles "The Wessex Labourer" the article turning out to be no dissertation on farming during the Heptarchy but on the modern peasant of the south-west counties and his presentation in these stories. Since then the appellation which I had thought to reserve to the horizons and landscapes of a merely realistic dream- country has become more and more popular as a practical definition; and the dream-country has by degrees solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to take a house in and write to the papers from. But I ask all good and gentle readers to be so kind as to forget this and to refuse steadfastly to believe that there are any inhabitants of a Victorian Wessex outside the pages of this and the companion volumes in which they were first discovered. Moreover the village called Weatherbury wherein the scenes of the present story of the series are for the most part laid would perhaps be hardly discernible by the explorer without help in any existing place nowadays; though at the time comparatively recent at which the tale was written a sufficient reality to meet the descriptions both of backgrounds and personages might have been traced easily enough. The church remains by great good fortune unrestored and intact and a few of the old houses; but the ancient malt-house which was formerly so characteristic of the parish has been pulled down these twenty years; also most of the thatched and dormered cottages that were once lifeholds. The game of prisoner's base which not so long ago seemed to enjoy a perennial vitality in front of the worn-out stocks may so far as I can say be entirely unknown to the rising generation of schoolboys there. The practice of divination by Bible and key the regarding of valentines as things of serious import the shearing-supper and the harvest-home have too nearly disappeared in the wake of the old houses; and with them have gone it is said much of that love of fuddling to which the village at one time was notoriously prone. The change at the root of this has been the recent supplanting of the class of stationary cottagers who carried on the local traditions and humours by a population of more or less migratory labourers which has led to a break of continuity in local history more fatal than any other thing to the preservation of legend folk-lore close inter-social relations and eccentric individualities. For these the indispensable conditions of existence are attachment to the soil of one particular spot by generation after generation. T.H. February 1895 CHAPTER I DESCRIPTION OF FARMER OAK -- AN INCIDENT WHEN Farmer Oak smiled the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears his eyes were reduced to chinks and diverging wrinkles appeared round them extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun. His Christian name was Gabriel and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment easy motions proper dress and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views rather given to postponing and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people of the parish and the drunken section -- that is he went to church but yawned privately by the time the congregation reached the Nicene creed and thought of what there would be for dinner when he meant to be listening to the sermon. Or to state his character as it stood in the scale of public opinion when his friends and critics were in tantrums he was considered rather a bad man; when they were pleased he was rather a good man; when they were neither he was a man whose moral colour was a kind of pepper-and-salt mixture. Since he lived six times as many working-days as Sundays Oak's appearance in his old clothes was most peculiarly his own -- the mental picture formed by his neighbours in imagining him being always dressed in that way. He wore a low-crowned felt hat spread out at the base by tight jamming upon the head for security in high winds and a coat like Dr. Johnson's; his lower extremities being encased in ordinary leather leggings and boots emphatically large affording to each foot a roomy apartment so constructed that any wearer might stand in a river all day long and know nothing of damp -- their maker being a conscientious man who endeavoured to compensate for any weakness in his cut by unstinted dimension and solidity. Mr. Oak carried about him by way of watch what may be called a small silver clock; in other words it was a watch as to shape and intention and a small clock as to size. This instrument being several years older than Oak's grandfather had the peculiarity of going either too fast or not at all. The smaller of its hands too occasionally slipped round on the pivot and thus though the minutes were told with precision nobody could be quite certain of the hour they belonged to. The stopping peculiarity of his watch Oak remedied by thumps and shakes and he escaped any evil consequences from the other two defects by constant comparisons with and observations of the sun and stars and by pressing his face close to the glass of his neighbours' windows till he could discern the hour marked by the green- faced timekeepers within. It may be mentioned that Oak's fob being difficult of access by reason of its somewhat high situation in the waistband of his trousers (which also lay at a remote height under his waistcoat) the watch was as a necessity pulled out by throwing the body to one side compressing the mouth and face to a mere mass of ruddy flesh on account of the exertion required and drawing up the watch by its chain like a bucket from a well. But some thoughtful persons who had seen him walking across one of his fields on a certain December morning -- sunny and exceedingly mild -- might have regarded Gabriel Oak in other aspects than these. In his face one might notice that many of the hues and curves of youth had tarried on to manhood: there even remained in his remoter crannies some relics of the boy. His height and breadth would have been sufficient to make his presence imposing had they been exhibited with due consideration. But there is a way some men have rural and urban alike for which the mind is more responsible than flesh and sinew: it is a way of curtailing their dimensions by their manner of showing them. And from a quiet modesty that would have become a vestal which seemed continually to impress upon him that he had no great claim on the world's room Oak walked unassumingly and with a faintly perceptible bend yet distinct from a bowing of the shoulders. This may be said to be a defect in an individual if he depends for his valuation more upon his appearance than upon his capacity to wear well which Oak did not. He had just reached the time of life at which "young" is ceasing to be the prefix of "man" in speaking of one. He was at the brightest period of masculine growth for his intellect and his emotions were clearly separated: he had passed the time during which the influence of youth indiscriminately mingles them in the character of impulse and he had not yet arrived at the stage wherein they become united again in the character of prejudice by the influence of a wife and family. In short he was twenty-eight and a bachelor. The field he was in this morning sloped to a ridge called Norcombe Hill. Through a spur of this hill ran the highway between Emminster and Chalk-Newton. Casually glancing over the hedge Oak saw coming down the incline before him an ornamental spring waggon painted yellow and gaily marked drawn by two horses a waggoner walking alongside bearing a whip perpendicularly. The waggon was laden with household goods and window plants and on the apex of the whole sat a woman young and attractive. Gabriel had not beheld the sight for more than half a minute when the vehicle was brought to a standstill just beneath his eyes. "The tailboard of the waggon is gone Miss" said the waggoner. "Then I heard it fall" said the girl in a soft though not particularly low voice. "I heard a noise I could not account for when we were coming up the hill." "I'll run back." "Do" she answered. The sensible horses stood -- perfectly still and the waggoner's steps sank fainter and fainter in the distance. The girl on the summit of the load sat motionless surrounded by tables and chairs with their legs upwards backed by an oak settle and ornamented in front by pots of geraniums myrtles and cactuses together with a caged canary -- all probably from the windows of the house just vacated. There was also a cat in a willow basket from the partly-opened lid of which she gazed with half-closed eyes and affectionately-surveyed the small birds around. The handsome girl waited for some time idly in her place and the only sound heard in the stillness was the hopping of the canary up and down the perches of its prison. Then she looked attentively downwards. It was not at the bird nor at the cat; it was at an oblong package tied in paper and lying between them. She turned her head to learn if the waggoner were coming. He was not yet in sight; and her eyes crept back to the package her thoughts seeming to run upon what was inside it. At length she drew the article into her lap and untied the paper covering; a small swing looking- glass was disclosed in which she proceeded to survey herself attentively. She parted her lips and smiled. It was a fine morning and the sun lighted up to a scarlet glow the crimson jacket she wore and painted a soft lustre upon her bright face and dark hair. The myrtles geraniums and cactuses packed around her were fresh and green and at such a leafless season they invested the whole concern of horses waggon furniture and girl with a peculiar vernal charm. What possessed her to indulge in such a performance in the sight of the sparrows blackbirds and unperceived farmer who were alone its spectators -- whether the smile began as a factitious one to test her capacity in that art -- nobody knows; it ended certainly in a real smile. She blushed at herself and seeing her reflection blush blushed the more. The change from the customary spot and necessary occasion of such an act -- from the dressing hour in a bedroom to a time of travelling out of doors -- lent to the idle deed a novelty it did not intrinsically possess. The picture was a delicate one. Woman's prescriptive infirmity had stalked into the sunlight which had clothed it in the freshness of an originality. A cynical inference was irresistible by Gabriel Oak as he regarded the scene generous though he fain would have been. There was no necessity whatever for her looking in the glass. She did not adjust her hat or pat her hair or press a dimple into shape or do one thing to signify that any such intention had been her motive in taking up the glass. She simply observed herself as a fair product of Nature in the feminine kind her thoughts seeming to glide into far-off though likely dramas in which men would play a part -- vistas of probable triumphs -- the smiles being of a phase suggesting that hearts were imagined as lost and won. Still this was but conjecture and the whole series of actions was so idly put forth as to make it rash to assert that intention had any part in them at all. The waggoner's steps were heard returning. She put the glass in the paper and the whole again into its place. When the waggon had passed on Gabriel withdrew from his point of espial and descending into the road followed the vehicle to the turnpike-gate some way beyond the bottom of the hill where the object of his contemplation now halted for the payment of toll. About twenty steps still remained between him and the gate when he heard a dispute. It was a difference concerning twopence between the persons with the waggon and the man at the toll-bar. "Mis'ess's niece is upon the top of the things and she says that's enough that I've offered ye you great miser and she won't pay any more." These were the waggoner's words. "Very well; then mis'ess's niece can't pass" said the turnpike-keeper closing the gate. Oak looked from one to the other of the disputants and fell into a reverie. There was something in the tone of twopence remarkably insignificant. Threepence had a definite value as money -- it was an appreciable infringement on a day's wages and as such a higgling matter; but twopence -- "Here" he said stepping forward and handing twopence to the gatekeeper; "let the young woman pass." He looked up at her then; she heard his words and looked down. Gabriel's features adhered throughout their form so exactly to the middle line between the beauty of St. John and the ugliness of Judas Iscariot as represented in a window of the church he attended that not a single lineament could be selected and called worthy either of distinction or notoriety. The red-jacketed and dark-haired maiden seemed to think so too for she carelessly glanced over him and told her man to drive on. She might have looked her thanks to Gabriel on a minute scale but she did not speak them; more probably she felt none for in gaining her a passage he had lost her her point and we know how women take a favour of that kind. The gatekeeper surveyed the retreating vehicle. "That's a handsome maid" he said to Oak. "But she has her faults" said Gabriel. "True farmer." "And the greatest of them is -- well what it is always." "Beating people down? ay 'tis so." "O no." "What then?" Gabriel perhaps a little piqued by the comely traveller's indifference glanced back to where he had witnessed her performance over the hedge and said "Vanity." CHAPTER II NIGHT -- THE FLOCK -- AN INTERIOR -- ANOTHER INTERIOR IT was nearly midnight on the eve of St. Thomas's the shortest day in the year. A desolating wind wandered from the north over the hill whereon Oak had watched the yellow waggon and its occupant in the sunshine of a few days earlier. Norcombe Hill -- not far from lonely Toller-Down -- was one of the spots which suggest to a passer-by that he is in the presence of a shape approaching the indestructible as nearly as any to be found on earth. It was a featureless convexity of chalk and soil -- an ordinary specimen of those smoothly- outlined protuberances of the globe which may remain undisturbed on some great day of confusion when far grander heights and dizzy granite precipices topple down. The hill was covered on its northern side by an ancient and decaying plantation of beeches whose upper verge formed a line over the crest fringing its arched curve against the sky like a mane. To-night these trees sheltered the southern slope from the keenest blasts which smote the wood and floundered through it with a sound as of grumbling or gushed over its crowning boughs in a weakened moan. The dry leaves in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same breezes a tongue of air occasionally ferreting out a few and sending them spinning across the grass. A group or two of the latest in date amongst the dead multitude had remained till this very mid-winter time on the twigs which bore them and in falling rattled against the trunks with smart taps. Between this half-wooded half naked hill and the vague still horizon that its summit indistinctly commanded was a mysterious sheet of fathomless shade -- the sounds from which suggested that what it concealed bore some reduced resemblance to features here. The thin grasses more or less coating the hill were touched by the wind in breezes of differing powers and almost of differing natures -- one rubbing the blades heavily another raking them piercingly another brushing them like a soft broom. The instinctive act of humankind was to stand and listen and learn how the trees on the right and the trees on the left wailed or chaunted to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir; how hedges and other shapes to leeward then caught the note lowering it to the tenderest sob; and how the hurrying gust then plunged into the south to be heard no more. The sky was clear -- remarkably clear -- and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body timed by a common pulse. The North Star was directly in the wind's eye and since evening the Bear had swung round it outwardly to the east till he was now at a right angle with the meridian. A difference of colour in the stars -- oftener read of than seen in England -- was really perceptible here. The sovereign brilliancy of Sirius pierced the eye with a steely glitter the star called Capella was yellow Aldebaran and Betelgueux shone with a fiery red. To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords or by the wind or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night and having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilised mankind who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is hard to get back to earth and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame. Suddenly an unexpected series of sounds began to be heard in this place up against the sky. They had a clearness which was to be found nowhere in the wind and a sequence which was to be found nowhere in nature. They were the notes of Farmer Oak's flute. The tune was not floating unhindered into the open air: it seemed muffled in some way and was altogether too curtailed in power to spread high or wide. It came from the direction of a small dark object under the plantation hedge -- a shepherd's hut -- now presenting an outline to which an uninitiated person might have been puzzled to attach either meaning or use. The image as a whole was that of a small Noah's Ark on a small Ararat allowing the traditionary outlines and general form of the Ark which are followed by toy-makers -- and by these means are established in men's imaginations among their firmest because earliest impressions -- to pass as an approximate pattern. The hut stood on little wheels which raised its floor about a foot from the ground. Such shepherds' huts are dragged into the fields when the lambing season comes on to shelter the shepherd in his enforced nightly attendance. It was only latterly that people had begun to call Gabriel "Farmer" Oak. During the twelvemonth preceding this time he had been enabled by sustained efforts of industry and chronic good spirits to lease the small sheep-farm of which Norcombe Hill was a portion and stock it with two hundred sheep. Previously he had been a bailiff for a short time and earlier still a shepherd only having from his childhood assisted his father in tending the flocks of large ...