Transcribed by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org from the 1912 Macmillan and Co. edition. Proofed by Margaret Rose Price, Dagny and David Price.
UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE or THE MELLSTOCK QUIRE A RURAL PAINTING OF THE DUTCH SCHOOL by Thomas Hardy
This story of the Mellstock Quire and its old established west-gallery musicians, with some supplementary descriptions of similar officials in Two on a Tower, A Few Crusted Characters, and other places, is intended to be a fairly true picture, at first hand, of the personages, ways, and customs which were common among such orchestral bodies in the villages of fifty or sixty years ago.
One is inclined to regret the displacement of these ecclesiastical bandsmen by an isolated organist (often at first a barrel-organist) or harmonium player; and despite certain advantages in point of control and accomplishment which were, no doubt, secured by installing the single artist, the change has tended to stultify the professed aims of the clergy, its direct result being to curtail and extinguish the interest of parishioners in church doings. Under the old plan, from half a dozen to ten full-grown players, in addition to the numerous more or less grown-up singers, were officially occupied with the Sunday routine, and concerned in trying their best to make it an artistic outcome of the combined musical taste of the congregation. With a musical executive limited, as it mostly is limited now, to the parson's wife or daughter and the school- children, or to the school-teacher and the children, an important union of interests has disappeared.
The zest of these bygone instrumentalists must have been keen and staying to take them, as it did, on foot every Sunday after a toilsome week, through all weathers, to the church, which often lay at a distance from their homes. They usually received so little in payment for their performances that their efforts were really a labour of love. In the parish I had in my mind when writing the present tale, the gratuities received yearly by the musicians at Christmas were somewhat as follows: From the manor-house ten shillings and a supper; from the vicar ten shillings; from the farmers five shillings each; from each cottage-household one shilling; amounting altogether to not more than ten shillings a head annually—just enough, as an old executant told me, to pay for their fiddle-strings, repairs, rosin, and music-paper (which they mostly ruled themselves). Their music in those days was all in their own manuscript, copied in the evenings after work, and their music-books were home-bound.
It was customary to inscribe a few jigs, reels, horn-pipes, and ballads in the same book, by beginning it at the other end, the insertions being continued from front and back till sacred and secular met together in the middle, often with bizarre effect, the words of some of the songs exhibiting that ancient and broad humour which our grandfathers, and possibly grandmothers, took delight in, and is in these days unquotable.
The aforesaid fiddle-strings, rosin, and music-paper were supplied by a pedlar, who travelled exclusively in such wares from parish to parish, coming to each village about every six months. Tales are told of the consternation once caused among the church fiddlers when, on the occasion of their producing a new Christmas anthem, he did not come to time, owing to being snowed up on the downs, and the straits they were in through having to make shift with whipcord and twine for strings. He was generally a musician himself, and sometimes a composer in a small way, bringing his own new tunes, and tempting each choir to adopt them for a consideration. Some of these compositions which now lie before me, with their repetitions of lines, half-lines, and half-words, their fugues and their intermediate symphonies, are good singing still, though they would hardly be admitted into such hymn-books as are popular in the churches of fashionable society at the present time.
Under the Greenwood Tree was first brought out in the summer of 1872 in two volumes. The name of the story was originally intended to be, more appropriately, The Mellstock Quire, and this has been appended as a sub- title since the early editions, it having been thought unadvisable to displace for it the title by which the book first became known.
In rereading the narrative after a long interval there occurs the inevitable reflection that the realities out of which it was spun were material for another kind of study of this little group of church musicians than is found in the chapters here penned so lightly, even so farcically and flippantly at times. But circumstances would have rendered any aim at a deeper, more essential, more transcendent handling unadvisable at the date of writing; and the exhibition of the Mellstock Quire in the following pages must remain the only extant one, except for the few glimpses of that perished band which I have given in verse elsewhere.
T. H. April 1912.
PART THE FIRST—WINTER
CHAPTER I: MELLSTOCK-LANE
To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.
On a cold and starry Christmas-eve within living memory a man was passing up a lane towards Mellstock Cross in the darkness of a plantation that whispered thus distinctively to his intelligence. All the evidences of his nature were those afforded by the spirit of his footsteps, which succeeded each other lightly and quickly, and by the liveliness of his voice as he sang in a rural cadence:
"With the rose and the lily And the daffodowndilly, The lads and the lasses a-sheep-shearing go."
The lonely lane he was following connected one of the hamlets of Mellstock parish with Upper Mellstock and Lewgate, and to his eyes, casually glancing upward, the silver and black-stemmed birches with their characteristic tufts, the pale grey boughs of beech, the dark-creviced elm, all appeared now as black and flat outlines upon the sky, wherein the white stars twinkled so vehemently that their flickering seemed like the flapping of wings. Within the woody pass, at a level anything lower than the horizon, all was dark as the grave. The copse-wood forming the sides of the bower interlaced its branches so densely, even at this season of the year, that the draught from the north-east flew along the channel with scarcely an interruption from lateral breezes.
After passing the plantation and reaching Mellstock Cross the white surface of the lane revealed itself between the dark hedgerows like a ribbon jagged at the edges; the irregularity being caused by temporary accumulations of leaves extending from the ditch on either side.
The song (many times interrupted by flitting thoughts which took the place of several bars, and resumed at a point it would have reached had its continuity been unbroken) now received a more palpable check, in the shape of "Ho-i-i-i-i-i!" from the crossing lane to Lower Mellstock, on the right of the singer who had just emerged from the trees.
"Ho-i-i-i-i-i!" he answered, stopping and looking round, though with no idea of seeing anything more than imagination pictured.
"Is that thee, young Dick Dewy?" came from the darkness.
"Ay, sure, Michael Mail."
"Then why not stop for fellow-craters—going to thy own father's house too, as we be, and knowen us so well?"
Dick Dewy faced about and continued his tune in an under-whistle, implying that the business of his mouth could not be checked at a moment's notice by the placid emotion of friendship.
Having come more into the open he could now be seen rising against the sky, his profile appearing on the light background like the portrait of a gentleman in black cardboard. It assumed the form of a low-crowned hat, an ordinary-shaped nose, an ordinary chin, an ordinary neck, and ordinary shoulders. What he consisted of further down was invisible from lack of sky low enough to picture him on.
Shuffling, halting, irregular footsteps of various kinds were now heard coming up the hill, and presently there emerged from the shade severally five men of different ages and gaits, all of them working villagers of the parish of Mellstock. They, too, had lost their rotundity with the daylight, and advanced against the sky in flat outlines, which suggested some processional design on Greek or Etruscan pottery. They represented the chief portion of Mellstock parish choir.
The first was a bowed and bent man, who carried a fiddle under his arm, and walked as if engaged in studying some subject connected with the surface of the road. He was Michael Mail, the man who had hallooed to Dick.
The next was Mr. Robert Penny, boot- and shoemaker; a little man, who, though rather round-shouldered, walked as if that fact had not come to his own knowledge, moving on with his back very hollow and his face fixed on the north-east quarter of the heavens before him, so that his lower waist-coat-buttons came first, and then the remainder of his figure. His features were invisible; yet when he occasionally looked round, two faint moons of light gleamed for an instant from the precincts of his eyes, denoting that he wore spectacles of a circular form.
The third was Elias Spinks, who walked perpendicularly and dramatically. The fourth outline was Joseph Bowman's, who had now no distinctive appearance beyond that of a human being. Finally came a weak lath-like form, trotting and stumbling along with one shoulder forward and his head inclined to the left, his arms dangling nervelessly in the wind as if they were empty sleeves. This was Thomas Leaf.
"Where be the boys?" said Dick to this somewhat indifferently-matched assembly.
The eldest of the group, Michael Mail, cleared his throat from a great depth.
"We told them to keep back at home for a time, thinken they wouldn't be wanted yet awhile; and we could choose the tuens, and so on."
"Father and grandfather William have expected ye a little sooner. I have just been for a run round by Ewelease Stile and Hollow Hill to warm my feet."
"To be sure father did! To be sure 'a did expect us—to taste the little barrel beyond compare that he's going to tap."
"'Od rabbit it all! Never heard a word of it!" said Mr. Penny, gleams of delight appearing upon his spectacle-glasses, Dick meanwhile singing parenthetically—
"The lads and the lasses a-sheep-shearing go."
"Neighbours, there's time enough to drink a sight of drink now afore bedtime?" said Mail.
"True, true—time enough to get as drunk as lords!" replied Bowman cheerfully.
This opinion being taken as convincing they all advanced between the varying hedges and the trees dotting them here and there, kicking their toes occasionally among the crumpled leaves. Soon appeared glimmering indications of the few cottages forming the small hamlet of Upper Mellstock for which they were bound, whilst the faint sound of church- bells ringing a Christmas peal could be heard floating over upon the breeze from the direction of Longpuddle and Weatherbury parishes on the other side of the hills. A little wicket admitted them to the garden, and they proceeded up the path to Dick's house.
CHAPTER II: THE TRANTER'S
It was a long low cottage with a hipped roof of thatch, having dormer windows breaking up into the eaves, a chimney standing in the middle of the ridge and another at each end. The window-shutters were not yet closed, and the fire- and candle-light within radiated forth upon the thick bushes of box and laurestinus growing in clumps outside, and upon the bare boughs of several codlin-trees hanging about in various distorted shapes, the result of early training as espaliers combined with careless climbing into their boughs in later years. The walls of the dwelling were for the most part covered with creepers, though these were rather beaten back from the doorway—a feature which was worn and scratched by much passing in and out, giving it by day the appearance of an old keyhole. Light streamed through the cracks and joints of outbuildings a little way from the cottage, a sight which nourished a fancy that the purpose of the erection must be rather to veil bright attractions than to shelter unsightly necessaries. The noise of a beetle and wedges and the splintering of wood was periodically heard from this direction; and at some little distance further a steady regular munching and the occasional scurr of a rope betokened a stable, and horses feeding within it.
The choir stamped severally on the door-stone to shake from their boots any fragment of earth or leaf adhering thereto, then entered the house and looked around to survey the condition of things. Through the open doorway of a small inner room on the right hand, of a character between pantry and cellar, was Dick Dewy's father Reuben, by vocation a "tranter," or irregular carrier. He was a stout florid man about forty years of age, who surveyed people up and down when first making their acquaintance, and generally smiled at the horizon or other distant object during conversations with friends, walking about with a steady sway, and turning out his toes very considerably. Being now occupied in bending over a hogshead, that stood in the pantry ready horsed for the process of broaching, he did not take the trouble to turn or raise his eyes at the entry of his visitors, well knowing by their footsteps that they were the expected old comrades.
The main room, on the left, was decked with bunches of holly and other evergreens, and from the middle of the beam bisecting the ceiling hung the mistletoe, of a size out of all proportion to the room, and extending so low that it became necessary for a full-grown person to walk round it in passing, or run the risk of entangling his hair. This apartment contained Mrs. Dewy the tranter's wife, and the four remaining children, Susan, Jim, Bessy, and Charley, graduating uniformly though at wide stages from the age of sixteen to that of four years—the eldest of the series being separated from Dick the firstborn by a nearly equal interval.
Some circumstance had apparently caused much grief to Charley just previous to the entry of the choir, and he had absently taken down a small looking-glass, holding it before his face to learn how the human countenance appeared when engaged in crying, which survey led him to pause at the various points in each wail that were more than ordinarily striking, for a thorough appreciation of the general effect. Bessy was leaning against a chair, and glancing under the plaits about the waist of the plaid frock she wore, to notice the original unfaded pattern of the material as there preserved, her face bearing an expression of regret that the brightness had passed away from the visible portions. Mrs. Dewy sat in a brown settle by the side of the glowing wood fire—so glowing that with a heedful compression of the lips she would now and then rise and put her hand upon the hams and flitches of bacon lining the chimney, to reassure herself that they were not being broiled instead of smoked—a misfortune that had been known to happen now and then at Christmas-time.
"Hullo, my sonnies, here you be, then!" said Reuben Dewy at length, standing up and blowing forth a vehement gust of breath. "How the blood do puff up in anybody's head, to be sure, a-stooping like that! I was just going out to gate to hark for ye." He then carefully began to wind a strip of brown paper round a brass tap he held in his hand. "This in the cask here is a drop o' the right sort" (tapping the cask); "'tis a real drop o' cordial from the best picked apples—Sansoms, Stubbards, Five-corners, and such-like—you d'mind the sort, Michael?" (Michael nodded.) "And there's a sprinkling of they that grow down by the orchard- rails—streaked ones—rail apples we d'call 'em, as 'tis by the rails they grow, and not knowing the right name. The water-cider from 'em is as good as most people's best cider is."
"Ay, and of the same make too," said Bowman. "'It rained when we wrung it out, and the water got into it,' folk will say. But 'tis on'y an excuse. Watered cider is too common among us."
"Yes, yes; too common it is!" said Spinks with an inward sigh, whilst his eyes seemed to be looking at the case in an abstract form rather than at the scene before him. "Such poor liquor do make a man's throat feel very melancholy—and is a disgrace to the name of stimmilent."
"Come in, come in, and draw up to the fire; never mind your shoes," said Mrs. Dewy, seeing that all except Dick had paused to wipe them upon the door-mat. "I am glad that you've stepped up-along at last; and, Susan, you run down to Grammer Kaytes's and see if you can borrow some larger candles than these fourteens. Tommy Leaf, don't ye be afeard! Come and sit here in the settle."
This was addressed to the young man before mentioned, consisting chiefly of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his movements, apparently on account of having grown so very fast that before he had had time to get used to his height he was higher.
"Hee—hee—ay!" replied Leaf, letting his mouth continue to smile for some time after his mind had done smiling, so that his teeth remained in view as the most conspicuous members of his body.
"Here, Mr. Penny," resumed Mrs. Dewy, "you sit in this chair. And how's your daughter, Mrs. Brownjohn?"
"Well, I suppose I must say pretty fair." He adjusted his spectacles a quarter of an inch to the right. "But she'll be worse before she's better, 'a b'lieve."
"Indeed—poor soul! And how many will that make in all, four or five?"
"Five; they've buried three. Yes, five; and she not much more than a maid yet. She do know the multiplication table onmistakable well. However, 'twas to be, and none can gainsay it."
Mrs. Dewy resigned Mr. Penny. "Wonder where your grandfather James is?" she inquired of one of the children. "He said he'd drop in to-night."
"Out in fuel-house with grandfather William," said Jimmy.
"Now let's see what we can do," was heard spoken about this time by the tranter in a private voice to the barrel, beside which he had again established himself, and was stooping to cut away the cork.
"Reuben, don't make such a mess o' tapping that barrel as is mostly made in this house," Mrs. Dewy cried from the fireplace. "I'd tap a hundred without wasting more than you do in one. Such a squizzling and squirting job as 'tis in your hands! There, he always was such a clumsy man indoors."
"Ay, ay; I know you'd tap a hundred beautiful, Ann—I know you would; two hundred, perhaps. But I can't promise. This is a' old cask, and the wood's rotted away about the tap-hole. The husbird of a feller Sam Lawson—that ever I should call'n such, now he's dead and gone, poor heart!—took me in completely upon the feat of buying this cask. 'Reub,' says he—'a always used to call me plain Reub, poor old heart!—'Reub,' he said, says he, 'that there cask, Reub, is as good as new; yes, good as new. 'Tis a wine-hogshead; the best port-wine in the commonwealth have been in that there cask; and you shall have en for ten shillens, Reub,'—'a said, says he—'he's worth twenty, ay, five-and-twenty, if he's worth one; and an iron hoop or two put round en among the wood ones will make en worth thirty shillens of any man's money, if—'"
"I think I should have used the eyes that Providence gave me to use afore I paid any ten shillens for a jimcrack wine-barrel; a saint is sinner enough not to be cheated. But 'tis like all your family was, so easy to be deceived."
"That's as true as gospel of this member," said Reuben.
Mrs. Dewy began a smile at the answer, then altering her lips and refolding them so that it was not a smile, commenced smoothing little Bessy's hair; the tranter having meanwhile suddenly become oblivious to conversation, occupying himself in a deliberate cutting and arrangement of some more brown paper for the broaching operation.
"Ah, who can believe sellers!" said old Michael Mail in a carefully-cautious voice, by way of tiding-over this critical point of affairs.
"No one at all," said Joseph Bowman, in the tone of a man fully agreeing with everybody.
"Ay," said Mail, in the tone of a man who did not agree with everybody as a rule, though he did now; "I knowed a' auctioneering feller once—a very friendly feller 'a was too. And so one hot day as I was walking down the front street o' Casterbridge, jist below the King's Arms, I passed a' open winder and see him inside, stuck upon his perch, a-selling off. I jist nodded to en in a friendly way as I passed, and went my way, and thought no more about it. Well, next day, as I was oilen my boots by fuel-house door, if a letter didn't come wi' a bill charging me with a feather-bed, bolster, and pillers, that I had bid for at Mr. Taylor's sale. The slim-faced martel had knocked 'em down to me because I nodded to en in my friendly way; and I had to pay for 'em too. Now, I hold that that was coming it very close, Reuben?"
"'Twas close, there's no denying," said the general voice.
"Too close, 'twas," said Reuben, in the rear of the rest. "And as to Sam Lawson—poor heart! now he's dead and gone too!—I'll warrant, that if so be I've spent one hour in making hoops for that barrel, I've spent fifty, first and last. That's one of my hoops"—touching it with his elbow—"that's one of mine, and that, and that, and all these."
"Ah, Sam was a man," said Mr. Penny, contemplatively.
"Sam was!" said Bowman.
"Especially for a drap o' drink," said the tranter.
"Good, but not religious-good," suggested Mr. Penny.
The tranter nodded. Having at last made the tap and hole quite ready, "Now then, Suze, bring a mug," he said. "Here's luck to us, my sonnies!"
The tap went in, and the cider immediately squirted out in a horizontal shower over Reuben's hands, knees, and leggings, and into the eyes and neck of Charley, who, having temporarily put off his grief under pressure of more interesting proceedings, was squatting down and blinking near his father.
"There 'tis again!" said Mrs. Dewy.
"Devil take the hole, the cask, and Sam Lawson too, that good cider should be wasted like this!" exclaimed the tranter. "Your thumb! Lend me your thumb, Michael! Ram it in here, Michael! I must get a bigger tap, my sonnies."
"Idd it cold inthide te hole?" inquired Charley of Michael, as he continued in a stooping posture with his thumb in the cork-hole.
"What wonderful odds and ends that chiel has in his head to be sure!" Mrs. Dewy admiringly exclaimed from the distance. "I lay a wager that he thinks more about how 'tis inside that barrel than in all the other parts of the world put together."
All persons present put on a speaking countenance of admiration for the cleverness alluded to, in the midst of which Reuben returned. The operation was then satisfactorily performed; when Michael arose and stretched his head to the extremest fraction of height that his body would allow of, to re-straighten his back and shoulders—thrusting out his arms and twisting his features to a mass of wrinkles to emphasize the relief aquired. A quart or two of the beverage was then brought to table, at which all the new arrivals reseated themselves with wide-spread knees, their eyes meditatively seeking out any speck or knot in the board upon which the gaze might precipitate itself.
"Whatever is father a-biding out in fuel-house so long for?" said the tranter. "Never such a man as father for two things—cleaving up old dead apple-tree wood and playing the bass-viol. 'A'd pass his life between the two, that 'a would." He stepped to the door and opened it.
"Ay!" rang thinly from round the corner.
"Here's the barrel tapped, and we all a-waiting!"
A series of dull thuds, that had been heard without for some time past, now ceased; and after the light of a lantern had passed the window and made wheeling rays upon the ceiling inside the eldest of the Dewy family appeared.
CHAPTER III: THE ASSEMBLED QUIRE
William Dewy—otherwise grandfather William—was now about seventy; yet an ardent vitality still preserved a warm and roughened bloom upon his face, which reminded gardeners of the sunny side of a ripe ribstone-pippin; though a narrow strip of forehead, that was protected from the weather by lying above the line of his hat-brim, seemed to belong to some town man, so gentlemanly was its whiteness. His was a humorous and kindly nature, not unmixed with a frequent melancholy; and he had a firm religious faith. But to his neighbours he had no character in particular. If they saw him pass by their windows when they had been bottling off old mead, or when they had just been called long-headed men who might do anything in the world if they chose, they thought concerning him, "Ah, there's that good-hearted man—open as a child!" If they saw him just after losing a shilling or half-a-crown, or accidentally letting fall a piece of crockery, they thought, "There's that poor weak-minded man Dewy again! Ah, he's never done much in the world either!" If he passed when fortune neither smiled nor frowned on them, they merely thought him old William Dewy.
"Ah, so's—here you be!—Ah, Michael and Joseph and John—and you too, Leaf! a merry Christmas all! We shall have a rare log-wood fire directly, Reub, to reckon by the toughness of the job I had in cleaving 'em." As he spoke he threw down an armful of logs which fell in the chimney-corner with a rumble, and looked at them with something of the admiring enmity he would have bestowed on living people who had been very obstinate in holding their own. "Come in, grandfather James."
Old James (grandfather on the maternal side) had simply called as a visitor. He lived in a cottage by himself, and many people considered him a miser; some, rather slovenly in his habits. He now came forward from behind grandfather William, and his stooping figure formed a well- illuminated picture as he passed towards the fire-place. Being by trade a mason, he wore a long linen apron reaching almost to his toes, corduroy breeches and gaiters, which, together with his boots, graduated in tints of whitish-brown by constant friction against lime and stone. He also wore a very stiff fustian coat, having folds at the elbows and shoulders as unvarying in their arrangement as those in a pair of bellows: the ridges and the projecting parts of the coat collectively exhibiting a shade different from that of the hollows, which were lined with small ditch-like accumulations of stone and mortar-dust. The extremely large side-pockets, sheltered beneath wide flaps, bulged out convexly whether empty or full; and as he was often engaged to work at buildings far away—his breakfasts and dinners being eaten in a strange chimney-corner, by a garden wall, on a heap of stones, or walking along the road—he carried in these pockets a small tin canister of butter, a small canister of sugar, a small canister of tea, a paper of salt, and a paper of pepper; the bread, cheese, and meat, forming the substance of his meals, hanging up behind him in his basket among the hammers and chisels. If a passer-by looked hard at him when he was drawing forth any of these, "My buttery," he said, with a pinched smile.
"Better try over number seventy-eight before we start, I suppose?" said William, pointing to a heap of old Christmas-carol books on a side table.
"Wi' all my heart," said the choir generally.
"Number seventy-eight was always a teaser—always. I can mind him ever since I was growing up a hard boy-chap."
"But he's a good tune, and worth a mint o' practice," said Michael.
"He is; though I've been mad enough wi' that tune at times to seize en and tear en all to linnit. Ay, he's a splendid carrel—there's no denying that."
"The first line is well enough," said Mr. Spinks; "but when you come to 'O, thou man,' you make a mess o't."
"We'll have another go into en, and see what we can make of the martel. Half-an-hour's hammering at en will conquer the toughness of en; I'll warn it."
"'Od rabbit it all!" said Mr. Penny, interrupting with a flash of his spectacles, and at the same time clawing at something in the depths of a large side-pocket. "If so be I hadn't been as scatter-brained and thirtingill as a chiel, I should have called at the schoolhouse wi' a boot as I cam up along. Whatever is coming to me I really can't estimate at all!"
"The brain has its weaknesses," murmured Mr. Spinks, waving his head ominously. Mr. Spinks was considered to be a scholar, having once kept a night-school, and always spoke up to that level.
"Well, I must call with en the first thing to-morrow. And I'll empt my pocket o' this last too, if you don't mind, Mrs. Dewy." He drew forth a last, and placed it on a table at his elbow. The eyes of three or four followed it.
"Well," said the shoemaker, seeming to perceive that the interest the object had excited was greater than he had anticipated, and warranted the last's being taken up again and exhibited; "now, whose foot do ye suppose this last was made for? It was made for Geoffrey Day's father, over at Yalbury Wood. Ah, many's the pair o' boots he've had off the last! Well, when 'a died, I used the last for Geoffrey, and have ever since, though a little doctoring was wanted to make it do. Yes, a very queer natured last it is now, 'a b'lieve," he continued, turning it over caressingly. "Now, you notice that there" (pointing to a lump of leather bradded to the toe), "that's a very bad bunion that he've had ever since 'a was a boy. Now, this remarkable large piece" (pointing to a patch nailed to the side), "shows a' accident he received by the tread of a horse, that squashed his foot a'most to a pomace. The horseshoe cam full-butt on this point, you see. And so I've just been over to Geoffrey's, to know if he wanted his bunion altered or made bigger in the new pair I'm making."
During the latter part of this speech, Mr. Penny's left hand wandered towards the cider-cup, as if the hand had no connection with the person speaking; and bringing his sentence to an abrupt close, all but the extreme margin of the bootmaker's face was eclipsed by the circular brim of the vessel.
"However, I was going to say," continued Penny, putting down the cup, "I ought to have called at the school"—here he went groping again in the depths of his pocket—"to leave this without fail, though I suppose the first thing to-morrow will do."
He now drew forth and placed upon the table a boot—small, light, and prettily shaped—upon the heel of which he had been operating.
"The new schoolmistress's!"
"Ay, no less, Miss Fancy Day; as neat a little figure of fun as ever I see, and just husband-high."
"Never Geoffrey's daughter Fancy?" said Bowman, as all glances present converged like wheel-spokes upon the boot in the centre of them.
"Yes, sure," resumed Mr. Penny, regarding the boot as if that alone were his auditor; "'tis she that's come here schoolmistress. You knowed his daughter was in training?"
"Strange, isn't it, for her to be here Christmas night, Master Penny?"
"Yes; but here she is, 'a b'lieve."
"I know how she comes here—so I do!" chirruped one of the children.
"Why?" Dick inquired, with subtle interest.
"Pa'son Maybold was afraid he couldn't manage us all to-morrow at the dinner, and he talked o' getting her jist to come over and help him hand about the plates, and see we didn't make pigs of ourselves; and that's what she's come for!"
"And that's the boot, then," continued its mender imaginatively, "that she'll walk to church in to-morrow morning. I don't care to mend boots I don't make; but there's no knowing what it may lead to, and her father always comes to me."
There, between the cider-mug and the candle, stood this interesting receptacle of the little unknown's foot; and a very pretty boot it was. A character, in fact—the flexible bend at the instep, the rounded localities of the small nestling toes, scratches from careless scampers now forgotten—all, as repeated in the tell-tale leather, evidencing a nature and a bias. Dick surveyed it with a delicate feeling that he had no right to do so without having first asked the owner of the foot's permission.
"Now, neighbours, though no common eye can see it," the shoemaker went on, "a man in the trade can see the likeness between this boot and that last, although that is so deformed as hardly to recall one of God's creatures, and this is one of as pretty a pair as you'd get for ten-and- sixpence in Casterbridge. To you, nothing; but 'tis father's voot and daughter's voot to me, as plain as houses."
"I don't doubt there's a likeness, Master Penny—a mild likeness—a fantastical likeness," said Spinks. "But I han't got imagination enough to see it, perhaps."
Mr. Penny adjusted his spectacles.
"Now, I'll tell ye what happened to me once on this very point. You used to know Johnson the dairyman, William?"
"Ay, sure; I did."
"Well, 'twasn't opposite his house, but a little lower down—by his paddock, in front o' Parkmaze Pool. I was a-bearing across towards Bloom's End, and lo and behold, there was a man just brought out o' the Pool, dead; he had un'rayed for a dip, but not being able to pitch it just there had gone in flop over his head. Men looked at en; women looked at en; children looked at en; nobody knowed en. He was covered wi' a sheet; but I catched sight of his voot, just showing out as they carried en along. 'I don't care what name that man went by,' I said, in my way, 'but he's John Woodward's brother; I can swear to the family voot.' At that very moment up comes John Woodward, weeping and teaving, 'I've lost my brother! I've lost my brother!'"
"Only to think of that!" said Mrs. Dewy.
"'Tis well enough to know this foot and that foot," said Mr. Spinks. "'Tis long-headed, in fact, as far as feet do go. I know little, 'tis true—I say no more; but show me a man's foot, and I'll tell you that man's heart."
"You must be a cleverer feller, then, than mankind in jineral," said the tranter.
"Well, that's nothing for me to speak of," returned Mr. Spinks. "A man lives and learns. Maybe I've read a leaf or two in my time. I don't wish to say anything large, mind you; but nevertheless, maybe I have."
"Yes, I know," said Michael soothingly, "and all the parish knows, that ye've read sommat of everything a'most, and have been a great filler of young folks' brains. Learning's a worthy thing, and ye've got it, Master Spinks."
"I make no boast, though I may have read and thought a little; and I know—it may be from much perusing, but I make no boast—that by the time a man's head is finished, 'tis almost time for him to creep underground. I am over forty-five."
Mr. Spinks emitted a look to signify that if his head was not finished, nobody's head ever could be.
"Talk of knowing people by their feet!" said Reuben. "Rot me, my sonnies, then, if I can tell what a man is from all his members put together, oftentimes."
"But still, look is a good deal," observed grandfather William absently, moving and balancing his head till the tip of grandfather James's nose was exactly in a right line with William's eye and the mouth of a miniature cavern he was discerning in the fire. "By the way," he continued in a fresher voice, and looking up, "that young crater, the schoolmis'ess, must be sung to to-night wi' the rest? If her ear is as fine as her face, we shall have enough to do to be up-sides with her."
"What about her face?" said young Dewy.
"Well, as to that," Mr. Spinks replied, "'tis a face you can hardly gainsay. A very good pink face, as far as that do go. Still, only a face, when all is said and done."
"Come, come, Elias Spinks, say she's a pretty maid, and have done wi' her," said the tranter, again preparing to visit the cider-barrel.
CHAPTER IV: GOING THE ROUNDS
Shortly after ten o'clock the singing-boys arrived at the tranter's house, which was invariably the place of meeting, and preparations were made for the start. The older men and musicians wore thick coats, with stiff perpendicular collars, and coloured handkerchiefs wound round and round the neck till the end came to hand, over all which they just showed their ears and noses, like people looking over a wall. The remainder, stalwart ruddy men and boys, were dressed mainly in snow-white smock-frocks, embroidered upon the shoulders and breasts, in ornamental forms of hearts, diamonds, and zigzags. The cider-mug was emptied for the ninth time, the music-books were arranged, and the pieces finally decided upon. The boys in the meantime put the old horn-lanterns in order, cut candles into short lengths to fit the lanterns; and, a thin fleece of snow having fallen since the early part of the evening, those who had no leggings went to the stable and wound wisps of hay round their ankles to keep the insidious flakes from the interior of their boots.
Mellstock was a parish of considerable acreage, the hamlets composing it lying at a much greater distance from each other than is ordinarily the case. Hence several hours were consumed in playing and singing within hearing of every family, even if but a single air were bestowed on each. There was Lower Mellstock, the main village; half a mile from this were the church and vicarage, and a few other houses, the spot being rather lonely now, though in past centuries it had been the most thickly-populated quarter of the parish. A mile north-east lay the hamlet of Upper Mellstock, where the tranter lived; and at other points knots of cottages, besides solitary farmsteads and dairies.
Old William Dewy, with the violoncello, played the bass; his grandson Dick the treble violin; and Reuben and Michael Mail the tenor and second violins respectively. The singers consisted of four men and seven boys, upon whom devolved the task of carrying and attending to the lanterns, and holding the books open for the players. Directly music was the theme, old William ever and instinctively came to the front.
"Now mind, neighbours," he said, as they all went out one by one at the door, he himself holding it ajar and regarding them with a critical face as they passed, like a shepherd counting out his sheep. "You two counter- boys, keep your ears open to Michael's fingering, and don't ye go straying into the treble part along o' Dick and his set, as ye did last year; and mind this especially when we be in 'Arise, and hail.' Billy Chimlen, don't you sing quite so raving mad as you fain would; and, all o' ye, whatever ye do, keep from making a great scuffle on the ground when we go in at people's gates; but go quietly, so as to strike up all of a sudden, like spirits."
"Farmer Ledlow's first?"
"Farmer Ledlow's first; the rest as usual."
"And, Voss," said the tranter terminatively, "you keep house here till about half-past two; then heat the metheglin and cider in the warmer you'll find turned up upon the copper; and bring it wi' the victuals to church-hatch, as th'st know."
* * * * *
Just before the clock struck twelve they lighted the lanterns and started. The moon, in her third quarter, had risen since the snowstorm; but the dense accumulation of snow-cloud weakened her power to a faint twilight, which was rather pervasive of the landscape than traceable to the sky. The breeze had gone down, and the rustle of their feet and tones of their speech echoed with an alert rebound from every post, boundary-stone, and ancient wall they passed, even where the distance of the echo's origin was less than a few yards. Beyond their own slight noises nothing was to be heard, save the occasional bark of foxes in the direction of Yalbury Wood, or the brush of a rabbit among the grass now and then, as it scampered out of their way.
Most of the outlying homesteads and hamlets had been visited by about two o'clock; they then passed across the outskirts of a wooded park toward the main village, nobody being at home at the Manor. Pursuing no recognized track, great care was necessary in walking lest their faces should come in contact with the low-hanging boughs of the old lime-trees, which in many spots formed dense over-growths of interlaced branches.
"Times have changed from the times they used to be," said Mail, regarding nobody can tell what interesting old panoramas with an inward eye, and letting his outward glance rest on the ground, because it was as convenient a position as any. "People don't care much about us now! I've been thinking we must be almost the last left in the county of the old string players? Barrel-organs, and the things next door to 'em that you blow wi' your foot, have come in terribly of late years."
"Ay!" said Bowman, shaking his head; and old William, on seeing him, did the same thing.
"More's the pity," replied another. "Time was—long and merry ago now!—when not one of the varmits was to be heard of; but it served some of the quires right. They should have stuck to strings as we did, and kept out clarinets, and done away with serpents. If you'd thrive in musical religion, stick to strings, says I."
"Strings be safe soul-lifters, as far as that do go," said Mr. Spinks.
"Yet there's worse things than serpents," said Mr. Penny. "Old things pass away, 'tis true; but a serpent was a good old note: a deep rich note was the serpent."
"Clar'nets, however, be bad at all times," said Michael Mail. "One Christmas—years agone now, years—I went the rounds wi' the Weatherbury quire. 'Twas a hard frosty night, and the keys of all the clar'nets froze—ah, they did freeze!—so that 'twas like drawing a cork every time a key was opened; and the players o' 'em had to go into a hedger-and-ditcher's chimley-corner, and thaw their clar'nets every now and then. An icicle o' spet hung down from the end of every man's clar'net a span long; and as to fingers—well, there, if ye'll believe me, we had no fingers at all, to our knowing."
"I can well bring back to my mind," said Mr. Penny, "what I said to poor Joseph Ryme (who took the treble part in Chalk-Newton Church for two-and- forty year) when they thought of having clar'nets there. 'Joseph,' I said, says I, 'depend upon't, if so be you have them tooting clar'nets you'll spoil the whole set-out. Clar'nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at 'em,' I said. And what came o't? Why, souls, the parson set up a barrel-organ on his own account within two years o' the time I spoke, and the old quire went to nothing."
"As far as look is concerned," said the tranter, "I don't for my part see that a fiddle is much nearer heaven than a clar'net. 'Tis further off. There's always a rakish, scampish twist about a fiddle's looks that seems to say the Wicked One had a hand in making o'en; while angels be supposed to play clar'nets in heaven, or som'at like 'em, if ye may believe picters."
"Robert Penny, you was in the right," broke in the eldest Dewy. "They should ha' stuck to strings. Your brass-man is a rafting dog—well and good; your reed-man is a dab at stirring ye—well and good; your drum-man is a rare bowel-shaker—good again. But I don't care who hears me say it, nothing will spak to your heart wi' the sweetness o' the man of strings!"
"Strings for ever!" said little Jimmy.
"Strings alone would have held their ground against all the new comers in creation." ("True, true!" said Bowman.) "But clarinets was death." ("Death they was!" said Mr. Penny.) "And harmonions," William continued in a louder voice, and getting excited by these signs of approval, "harmonions and barrel-organs" ("Ah!" and groans from Spinks) "be miserable—what shall I call 'em?—miserable—"
"Sinners," suggested Jimmy, who made large strides like the men, and did not lag behind like the other little boys.
"Right, William, and so they be—miserable dumbledores!" said the choir with unanimity.
By this time they were crossing to a gate in the direction of the school, which, standing on a slight eminence at the junction of three ways, now rose in unvarying and dark flatness against the sky. The instruments were retuned, and all the band entered the school enclosure, enjoined by old William to keep upon the grass.
"Number seventy-eight," he softly gave out as they formed round in a semicircle, the boys opening the lanterns to get a clearer light, and directing their rays on the books.
Then passed forth into the quiet night an ancient and time-worn hymn, embodying a quaint Christianity in words orally transmitted from father to son through several generations down to the present characters, who sang them out right earnestly:
"Remember Adam's fall, O thou Man: Remember Adam's fall From Heaven to Hell. Remember Adam's fall; How he hath condemn'd all In Hell perpetual There for to dwell.
Remember God's goodnesse, O thou Man: Remember God's goodnesse, His promise made. Remember God's goodnesse; He sent His Son sinlesse Our ails for to redress; Be not afraid!
In Bethlehem He was born, O thou Man: In Bethlehem He was born, For mankind's sake. In Bethlehem He was born, Christmas-day i' the morn: Our Saviour thought no scorn Our faults to take.
Give thanks to God alway, O thou Man: Give thanks to God alway With heart-most joy. Give thanks to God alway On this our joyful day: Let all men sing and say, Holy, Holy!"
Having concluded the last note, they listened for a minute or two, but found that no sound issued from the schoolhouse.
"Four breaths, and then, 'O, what unbounded goodness!' number fifty-nine," said William.
This was duly gone through, and no notice whatever seemed to be taken of the performance.
"Good guide us, surely 'tisn't a' empty house, as befell us in the year thirty-nine and forty-three!" said old Dewy.
"Perhaps she's jist come from some musical city, and sneers at our doings?" the tranter whispered.
"'Od rabbit her!" said Mr. Penny, with an annihilating look at a corner of the school chimney, "I don't quite stomach her, if this is it. Your plain music well done is as worthy as your other sort done bad, a' b'lieve, souls; so say I."
"Four breaths, and then the last," said the leader authoritatively. "'Rejoice, ye Tenants of the Earth,' number sixty-four."
At the close, waiting yet another minute, he said in a clear loud voice, as he had said in the village at that hour and season for the previous forty years—"A merry Christmas to ye!"
CHAPTER V: THE LISTENERS
When the expectant stillness consequent upon the exclamation had nearly died out of them all, an increasing light made itself visible in one of the windows of the upper floor. It came so close to the blind that the exact position of the flame could be perceived from the outside. Remaining steady for an instant, the blind went upward from before it, revealing to thirty concentrated eyes a young girl, framed as a picture by the window architrave, and unconsciously illuminating her countenance to a vivid brightness by a candle she held in her left hand, close to her face, her right hand being extended to the side of the window. She was wrapped in a white robe of some kind, whilst down her shoulders fell a twining profusion of marvellously rich hair, in a wild disorder which proclaimed it to be only during the invisible hours of the night that such a condition was discoverable. Her bright eyes were looking into the grey world outside with an uncertain expression, oscillating between courage and shyness, which, as she recognized the semicircular group of dark forms gathered before her, transformed itself into pleasant resolution.
Opening the window, she said lightly and warmly—"Thank you, singers, thank you!"
Together went the window quickly and quietly, and the blind started downward on its return to its place. Her fair forehead and eyes vanished; her little mouth; her neck and shoulders; all of her. Then the spot of candlelight shone nebulously as before; then it moved away.
"How pretty!" exclaimed Dick Dewy.
"If she'd been rale wexwork she couldn't ha' been comelier," said Michael Mail.
"As near a thing to a spiritual vision as ever I wish to see!" said tranter Dewy.
"O, sich I never, never see!" said Leaf fervently.
All the rest, after clearing their throats and adjusting their hats, agreed that such a sight was worth singing for.
"Now to Farmer Shiner's, and then replenish our insides, father?" said the tranter.
"Wi' all my heart," said old William, shouldering his bass-viol.
Farmer Shiner's was a queer lump of a house, standing at the corner of a lane that ran into the principal thoroughfare. The upper windows were much wider than they were high, and this feature, together with a broad bay-window where the door might have been expected, gave it by day the aspect of a human countenance turned askance, and wearing a sly and wicked leer. To-night nothing was visible but the outline of the roof upon the sky.
The front of this building was reached, and the preliminaries arranged as usual.
"Four breaths, and number thirty-two, 'Behold the Morning Star,'" said old William.
They had reached the end of the second verse, and the fiddlers were doing the up bow-stroke previously to pouring forth the opening chord of the third verse, when, without a light appearing or any signal being given, a roaring voice exclaimed—
"Shut up, woll 'ee! Don't make your blaring row here! A feller wi' a headache enough to split his skull likes a quiet night!"
Slam went the window.
"Hullo, that's a' ugly blow for we!" said the tranter, in a keenly appreciative voice, and turning to his companions.
"Finish the carrel, all who be friends of harmony!" commanded old William; and they continued to the end.
"Four breaths, and number nineteen!" said William firmly. "Give it him well; the quire can't be insulted in this manner!"
A light now flashed into existence, the window opened, and the farmer stood revealed as one in a terrific passion.
"Drown en!—drown en!" the tranter cried, fiddling frantically. "Play fortissimy, and drown his spaking!"
"Fortissimy!" said Michael Mail, and the music and singing waxed so loud that it was impossible to know what Mr. Shiner had said, was saying, or was about to say; but wildly flinging his arms and body about in the forms of capital Xs and Ys, he appeared to utter enough invectives to consign the whole parish to perdition.
"Very onseemly—very!" said old William, as they retired. "Never such a dreadful scene in the whole round o' my carrel practice—never! And he a churchwarden!"
"Only a drap o' drink got into his head," said the tranter. "Man's well enough when he's in his religious frame. He's in his worldly frame now. Must ask en to our bit of a party to-morrow night, I suppose, and so put en in humour again. We bear no mortal man ill-will."
They now crossed Mellstock Bridge, and went along an embowered path beside the Froom towards the church and vicarage, meeting Voss with the hot mead and bread-and-cheese as they were approaching the churchyard. This determined them to eat and drink before proceeding further, and they entered the church and ascended to the gallery. The lanterns were opened, and the whole body sat round against the walls on benches and whatever else was available, and made a hearty meal. In the pauses of conversation there could be heard through the floor overhead a little world of undertones and creaks from the halting clockwork, which never spread further than the tower they were born in, and raised in the more meditative minds a fancy that here lay the direct pathway of Time.
Having done eating and drinking, they again tuned the instruments, and once more the party emerged into the night air.
"Where's Dick?" said old Dewy.
Every man looked round upon every other man, as if Dick might have been transmuted into one or the other; and then they said they didn't know.
"Well now, that's what I call very nasty of Master Dicky, that I do," said Michael Mail.
"He've clinked off home-along, depend upon't," another suggested, though not quite believing that he had.
"Dick!" exclaimed the tranter, and his voice rolled sonorously forth among the yews.
He suspended his muscles rigid as stone whilst listening for an answer, and finding he listened in vain, turned to the assemblage.
"The treble man too! Now if he'd been a tenor or counter chap, we might ha' contrived the rest o't without en, you see. But for a quire to lose the treble, why, my sonnies, you may so well lose your . . . " The tranter paused, unable to mention an image vast enough for the occasion.
"Your head at once," suggested Mr. Penny.
The tranter moved a pace, as if it were puerile of people to complete sentences when there were more pressing things to be done.
"Was ever heard such a thing as a young man leaving his work half done and turning tail like this!"
"Never," replied Bowman, in a tone signifying that he was the last man in the world to wish to withhold the formal finish required of him.
"I hope no fatal tragedy has overtook the lad!" said his grandfather.
"O no," replied tranter Dewy placidly. "Wonder where he's put that there fiddle of his. Why that fiddle cost thirty shillings, and good words besides. Somewhere in the damp, without doubt; that instrument will be unglued and spoilt in ten minutes—ten! ay, two."
"What in the name o' righteousness can have happened?" said old William, more uneasily. "Perhaps he's drownded!"
Leaving their lanterns and instruments in the belfry they retraced their steps along the waterside track. "A strapping lad like Dick d'know better than let anything happen onawares," Reuben remarked. "There's sure to be some poor little scram reason for't staring us in the face all the while." He lowered his voice to a mysterious tone: "Neighbours, have ye noticed any sign of a scornful woman in his head, or suchlike?"
"Not a glimmer of such a body. He's as clear as water yet."
"And Dicky said he should never marry," cried Jimmy, "but live at home always along wi' mother and we!"
"Ay, ay, my sonny; every lad has said that in his time."
They had now again reached the precincts of Mr. Shiner's, but hearing nobody in that direction, one or two went across to the schoolhouse. A light was still burning in the bedroom, and though the blind was down, the window had been slightly opened, as if to admit the distant notes of the carollers to the ears of the occupant of the room.
Opposite the window, leaning motionless against a beech tree, was the lost man, his arms folded, his head thrown back, his eyes fixed upon the illuminated lattice.
"Why, Dick, is that thee? What b'st doing here?"
Dick's body instantly flew into a more rational attitude, and his head was seen to turn east and west in the gloom, as if endeavouring to discern some proper answer to that question; and at last he said in rather feeble accents—"Nothing, father."
"Th'st take long enough time about it then, upon my body," said the tranter, as they all turned anew towards the vicarage.
"I thought you hadn't done having snap in the gallery," said Dick.
"Why, we've been traypsing and rambling about, looking everywhere, and thinking you'd done fifty deathly things, and here have you been at nothing at all!"
"The stupidness lies in that point of it being nothing at all," murmured Mr. Spinks.
The vicarage front was their next field of operation, and Mr. Maybold, the lately-arrived incumbent, duly received his share of the night's harmonies. It was hoped that by reason of his profession he would have been led to open the window, and an extra carol in quick time was added to draw him forth. But Mr. Maybold made no stir.
"A bad sign!" said old William, shaking his head.
However, at that same instant a musical voice was heard exclaiming from inner depths of bedclothes—"Thanks, villagers!"
"What did he say?" asked Bowman, who was rather dull of hearing. Bowman's voice, being therefore loud, had been heard by the vicar within.
"I said, 'Thanks, villagers!'" cried the vicar again.
"Oh, we didn't hear 'ee the first time!" cried Bowman.
"Now don't for heaven's sake spoil the young man's temper by answering like that!" said the tranter.
"You won't do that, my friends!" the vicar shouted.
"Well to be sure, what ears!" said Mr. Penny in a whisper. "Beats any horse or dog in the parish, and depend upon't, that's a sign he's a proper clever chap."
"We shall see that in time," said the tranter.
Old William, in his gratitude for such thanks from a comparatively new inhabitant, was anxious to play all the tunes over again; but renounced his desire on being reminded by Reuben that it would be best to leave well alone.
"Now putting two and two together," the tranter continued, as they went their way over the hill, and across to the last remaining houses; "that is, in the form of that young female vision we zeed just now, and this young tenor-voiced parson, my belief is she'll wind en round her finger, and twist the pore young feller about like the figure of 8—that she will so, my sonnies."
CHAPTER VI: CHRISTMAS MORNING
The choir at last reached their beds, and slept like the rest of the parish. Dick's slumbers, through the three or four hours remaining for rest, were disturbed and slight; an exhaustive variation upon the incidents that had passed that night in connection with the school-window going on in his brain every moment of the time.
In the morning, do what he would—go upstairs, downstairs, out of doors, speak of the wind and weather, or what not—he could not refrain from an unceasing renewal, in imagination, of that interesting enactment. Tilted on the edge of one foot he stood beside the fireplace, watching his mother grilling rashers; but there was nothing in grilling, he thought, unless the Vision grilled. The limp rasher hung down between the bars of the gridiron like a cat in a child's arms; but there was nothing in similes, unless She uttered them. He looked at the daylight shadows of a yellow hue, dancing with the firelight shadows in blue on the whitewashed chimney corner, but there was nothing in shadows. "Perhaps the new young wom—sch—Miss Fancy Day will sing in church with us this morning," he said.
The tranter looked a long time before he replied, "I fancy she will; and yet I fancy she won't."
Dick implied that such a remark was rather to be tolerated than admired; though deliberateness in speech was known to have, as a rule, more to do with the machinery of the tranter's throat than with the matter enunciated.
They made preparations for going to church as usual; Dick with extreme alacrity, though he would not definitely consider why he was so religious. His wonderful nicety in brushing and cleaning his best light boots had features which elevated it to the rank of an art. Every particle and speck of last week's mud was scraped and brushed from toe and heel; new blacking from the packet was carefully mixed and made use of, regardless of expense. A coat was laid on and polished; then another coat for increased blackness; and lastly a third, to give the perfect and mirror-like jet which the hoped-for rencounter demanded.
It being Christmas-day, the tranter prepared himself with Sunday particularity. Loud sousing and snorting noises were heard to proceed from a tub in the back quarters of the dwelling, proclaiming that he was there performing his great Sunday wash, lasting half-an-hour, to which his washings on working-day mornings were mere flashes in the pan. Vanishing into the outhouse with a large brown towel, and the above-named bubblings and snortings being carried on for about twenty minutes, the tranter would appear round the edge of the door, smelling like a summer fog, and looking as if he had just narrowly escaped a watery grave with the loss of much of his clothes, having since been weeping bitterly till his eyes were red; a crystal drop of water hanging ornamentally at the bottom of each ear, one at the tip of his nose, and others in the form of spangles about his hair.
After a great deal of crunching upon the sanded stone floor by the feet of father, son, and grandson as they moved to and fro in these preparations, the bass-viol and fiddles were taken from their nook, and the strings examined and screwed a little above concert-pitch, that they might keep their tone when the service began, to obviate the awkward contingency of having to retune them at the back of the gallery during a cough, sneeze, or amen—an inconvenience which had been known to arise in damp wintry weather.
The three left the door and paced down Mellstock-lane and across the ewe- lease, bearing under their arms the instruments in faded green-baize bags, and old brown music-books in their hands; Dick continually finding himself in advance of the other two, and the tranter moving on with toes turned outwards to an enormous angle.
At the foot of an incline the church became visible through the north gate, or 'church hatch,' as it was called here. Seven agile figures in a clump were observable beyond, which proved to be the choristers waiting; sitting on an altar-tomb to pass the time, and letting their heels dangle against it. The musicians being now in sight, the youthful party scampered off and rattled up the old wooden stairs of the gallery like a regiment of cavalry; the other boys of the parish waiting outside and observing birds, cats, and other creatures till the vicar entered, when they suddenly subsided into sober church-goers, and passed down the aisle with echoing heels.
The gallery of Mellstock Church had a status and sentiment of its own. A stranger there was regarded with a feeling altogether differing from that of the congregation below towards him. Banished from the nave as an intruder whom no originality could make interesting, he was received above as a curiosity that no unfitness could render dull. The gallery, too, looked down upon and knew the habits of the nave to its remotest peculiarity, and had an extensive stock of exclusive information about it; whilst the nave knew nothing of the gallery folk, as gallery folk, beyond their loud-sounding minims and chest notes. Such topics as that the clerk was always chewing tobacco except at the moment of crying amen; that he had a dust-hole in his pew; that during the sermon certain young daughters of the village had left off caring to read anything so mild as the marriage service for some years, and now regularly studied the one which chronologically follows it; that a pair of lovers touched fingers through a knot-hole between their pews in the manner ordained by their great exemplars, Pyramus and Thisbe; that Mrs. Ledlow, the farmer's wife, counted her money and reckoned her week's marketing expenses during the first lesson—all news to those below—were stale subjects here.
Old William sat in the centre of the front row, his violoncello between his knees and two singers on each hand. Behind him, on the left, came the treble singers and Dick; and on the right the tranter and the tenors. Farther back was old Mail with the altos and supernumeraries.
But before they had taken their places, and whilst they were standing in a circle at the back of the gallery practising a psalm or two, Dick cast his eyes over his grandfather's shoulder, and saw the vision of the past night enter the porch-door as methodically as if she had never been a vision at all. A new atmosphere seemed suddenly to be puffed into the ancient edifice by her movement, which made Dick's body and soul tingle with novel sensations. Directed by Shiner, the churchwarden, she proceeded to the small aisle on the north side of the chancel, a spot now allotted to a throng of Sunday-school girls, and distinctly visible from the gallery-front by looking under the curve of the furthermost arch on that side.
Before this moment the church had seemed comparatively empty—now it was thronged; and as Miss Fancy rose from her knees and looked around her for a permanent place in which to deposit herself—finally choosing the remotest corner—Dick began to breathe more freely the warm new air she had brought with her; to feel rushings of blood, and to have impressions that there was a tie between her and himself visible to all the congregation.
Ever afterwards the young man could recollect individually each part of the service of that bright Christmas morning, and the trifling occurrences which took place as its minutes slowly drew along; the duties of that day dividing themselves by a complete line from the services of other times. The tunes they that morning essayed remained with him for years, apart from all others; also the text; also the appearance of the layer of dust upon the capitals of the piers; that the holly-bough in the chancel archway was hung a little out of the centre—all the ideas, in short, that creep into the mind when reason is only exercising its lowest activity through the eye.
By chance or by fate, another young man who attended Mellstock Church on that Christmas morning had towards the end of the service the same instinctive perception of an interesting presence, in the shape of the same bright maiden, though his emotion reached a far less developed stage. And there was this difference, too, that the person in question was surprised at his condition, and sedulously endeavoured to reduce himself to his normal state of mind. He was the young vicar, Mr. Maybold.
The music on Christmas mornings was frequently below the standard of church-performances at other times. The boys were sleepy from the heavy exertions of the night; the men were slightly wearied; and now, in addition to these constant reasons, there was a dampness in the atmosphere that still further aggravated the evil. Their strings, from the recent long exposure to the night air, rose whole semitones, and snapped with a loud twang at the most silent moment; which necessitated more retiring than ever to the back of the gallery, and made the gallery throats quite husky with the quantity of coughing and hemming required for tuning in. The vicar looked cross.
When the singing was in progress there was suddenly discovered to be a strong and shrill reinforcement from some point, ultimately found to be the school-girls' aisle. At every attempt it grew bolder and more distinct. At the third time of singing, these intrusive feminine voices were as mighty as those of the regular singers; in fact, the flood of sound from this quarter assumed such an individuality, that it had a time, a key, almost a tune of its own, surging upwards when the gallery plunged downwards, and the reverse.
Now this had never happened before within the memory of man. The girls, like the rest of the congregation, had always been humble and respectful followers of the gallery; singing at sixes and sevens if without gallery leaders; never interfering with the ordinances of these practised artists—having no will, union, power, or proclivity except it was given them from the established choir enthroned above them.
A good deal of desperation became noticeable in the gallery throats and strings, which continued throughout the musical portion of the service. Directly the fiddles were laid down, Mr. Penny's spectacles put in their sheath, and the text had been given out, an indignant whispering began.
"Did ye hear that, souls?" Mr. Penny said, in a groaning breath.
"Brazen-faced hussies!" said Bowman.
"True; why, they were every note as loud as we, fiddles and all, if not louder!"
"Fiddles and all!" echoed Bowman bitterly.
"Shall anything saucier be found than united 'ooman?" Mr. Spinks murmured.
"What I want to know is," said the tranter (as if he knew already, but that civilization required the form of words), "what business people have to tell maidens to sing like that when they don't sit in a gallery, and never have entered one in their lives? That's the question, my sonnies."
"'Tis the gallery have got to sing, all the world knows," said Mr. Penny. "Why, souls, what's the use o' the ancients spending scores of pounds to build galleries if people down in the lowest depths of the church sing like that at a moment's notice?"
"Really, I think we useless ones had better march out of church, fiddles and all!" said Mr. Spinks, with a laugh which, to a stranger, would have sounded mild and real. Only the initiated body of men he addressed could understand the horrible bitterness of irony that lurked under the quiet words 'useless ones,' and the ghastliness of the laughter apparently so natural.
"Never mind! Let 'em sing too—'twill make it all the louder—hee, hee!" said Leaf.
"Thomas Leaf, Thomas Leaf! Where have you lived all your life?" said grandfather William sternly.
The quailing Leaf tried to look as if he had lived nowhere at all.
"When all's said and done, my sonnies," Reuben said, "there'd have been no real harm in their singing if they had let nobody hear 'em, and only jined in now and then."
"None at all," said Mr. Penny. "But though I don't wish to accuse people wrongfully, I'd say before my lord judge that I could hear every note o' that last psalm come from 'em as much as from us—every note as if 'twas their own."
"Know it! ah, I should think I did know it!" Mr. Spinks was heard to observe at this moment, without reference to his fellow players—shaking his head at some idea he seemed to see floating before him, and smiling as if he were attending a funeral at the time. "Ah, do I or don't I know it!"
No one said "Know what?" because all were aware from experience that what he knew would declare itself in process of time.
"I could fancy last night that we should have some trouble wi' that young man," said the tranter, pending the continuance of Spinks's speech, and looking towards the unconscious Mr. Maybold in the pulpit.
"I fancy," said old William, rather severely, "I fancy there's too much whispering going on to be of any spiritual use to gentle or simple." Then folding his lips and concentrating his glance on the vicar, he implied that none but the ignorant would speak again; and accordingly there was silence in the gallery, Mr. Spinks's telling speech remaining for ever unspoken.
Dick had said nothing, and the tranter little, on this episode of the morning; for Mrs. Dewy at breakfast expressed it as her intention to invite the youthful leader of the culprits to the small party it was customary with them to have on Christmas night—a piece of knowledge which had given a particular brightness to Dick's reflections since he had received it. And in the tranter's slightly-cynical nature, party feeling was weaker than in the other members of the choir, though friendliness and faithful partnership still sustained in him a hearty earnestness on their account.
CHAPTER VII: THE TRANTER'S PARTY
During the afternoon unusual activity was seen to prevail about the precincts of tranter Dewy's house. The flagstone floor was swept of dust, and a sprinkling of the finest yellow sand from the innermost stratum of the adjoining sand-pit lightly scattered thereupon. Then were produced large knives and forks, which had been shrouded in darkness and grease since the last occasion of the kind, and bearing upon their sides, "Shear-steel, warranted," in such emphatic letters of assurance, that the warranter's name was not required as further proof, and not given. The key was left in the tap of the cider-barrel, instead of being carried in a pocket. And finally the tranter had to stand up in the room and let his wife wheel him round like a turnstile, to see if anything discreditable was visible in his appearance.
"Stand still till I've been for the scissors," said Mrs. Dewy.
The tranter stood as still as a sentinel at the challenge.
The only repairs necessary were a trimming of one or two whiskers that had extended beyond the general contour of the mass; a like trimming of a slightly-frayed edge visible on his shirt-collar; and a final tug at a grey hair—to all of which operations he submitted in resigned silence, except the last, which produced a mild "Come, come, Ann," by way of expostulation.
"Really, Reuben, 'tis quite a disgrace to see such a man," said Mrs. Dewy, with the severity justifiable in a long-tried companion, giving him another turn round, and picking several of Smiler's hairs from the shoulder of his coat. Reuben's thoughts seemed engaged elsewhere, and he yawned. "And the collar of your coat is a shame to behold—so plastered with dirt, or dust, or grease, or something. Why, wherever could you have got it?"
"'Tis my warm nater in summer-time, I suppose. I always did get in such a heat when I bustle about."
"Ay, the Dewys always were such a coarse-skinned family. There's your brother Bob just as bad—as fat as a porpoise—wi' his low, mean, 'How'st do, Ann?' whenever he meets me. I'd 'How'st do' him indeed! If the sun only shines out a minute, there be you all streaming in the face—I never see!"
"If I be hot week-days, I must be hot Sundays."
"If any of the girls should turn after their father 'twill be a bad look- out for 'em, poor things! None of my family were sich vulgar sweaters, not one of 'em. But, Lord-a-mercy, the Dewys! I don't know how ever I cam' into such a family!"
"Your woman's weakness when I asked ye to jine us. That's how it was I suppose." But the tranter appeared to have heard some such words from his wife before, and hence his answer had not the energy it might have shown if the inquiry had possessed the charm of novelty.
"You never did look so well in a pair o' trousers as in them," she continued in the same unimpassioned voice, so that the unfriendly criticism of the Dewy family seemed to have been more normal than spontaneous. "Such a cheap pair as 'twas too. As big as any man could wish to have, and lined inside, and double-lined in the lower parts, and an extra piece of stiffening at the bottom. And 'tis a nice high cut that comes up right under your armpits, and there's enough turned down inside the seams to make half a pair more, besides a piece of cloth left that will make an honest waistcoat—all by my contriving in buying the stuff at a bargain, and having it made up under my eye. It only shows what may be done by taking a little trouble, and not going straight to the rascally tailors."
The discourse was cut short by the sudden appearance of Charley on the scene, with a face and hands of hideous blackness, and a nose like a guttering candle. Why, on that particularly cleanly afternoon, he should have discovered that the chimney-crook and chain from which the hams were suspended should have possessed more merits and general interest as playthings than any other articles in the house, is a question for nursing mothers to decide. However, the humour seemed to lie in the result being, as has been seen, that any given player with these articles was in the long-run daubed with soot. The last that was seen of Charley by daylight after this piece of ingenuity was when in the act of vanishing from his father's presence round the corner of the house—looking back over his shoulder with an expression of great sin on his face, like Cain as the Outcast in Bible pictures.
* * * * *
The guests had all assembled, and the tranter's party had reached that degree of development which accords with ten o'clock P.M. in rural assemblies. At that hour the sound of a fiddle in process of tuning was heard from the inner pantry.
"That's Dick," said the tranter. "That lad's crazy for a jig."
"Dick! Now I cannot—really, I cannot have any dancing at all till Christmas-day is out," said old William emphatically. "When the clock ha' done striking twelve, dance as much as ye like."
"Well, I must say there's reason in that, William," said Mrs. Penny. "If you do have a party on Christmas-night, 'tis only fair and honourable to the sky-folk to have it a sit-still party. Jigging parties be all very well on the Devil's holidays; but a jigging party looks suspicious now. O yes; stop till the clock strikes, young folk—so say I."
It happened that some warm mead accidentally got into Mr. Spinks's head about this time.
"Dancing," he said, "is a most strengthening, livening, and courting movement, 'specially with a little beverage added! And dancing is good. But why disturb what is ordained, Richard and Reuben, and the company zhinerally? Why, I ask, as far as that do go?"
"Then nothing till after twelve," said William.
Though Reuben and his wife ruled on social points, religious questions were mostly disposed of by the old man, whose firmness on this head quite counterbalanced a certain weakness in his handling of domestic matters. The hopes of the younger members of the household were therefore relegated to a distance of one hour and three-quarters—a result that took visible shape in them by a remote and listless look about the eyes—the singing of songs being permitted in the interim.
At five minutes to twelve the soft tuning was again heard in the back quarters; and when at length the clock had whizzed forth the last stroke, Dick appeared ready primed, and the instruments were boldly handled; old William very readily taking the bass-viol from its accustomed nail, and touching the strings as irreligiously as could be desired.
The country-dance called the 'Triumph, or Follow my Lover,' was the figure with which they opened. The tranter took for his partner Mrs. Penny, and Mrs. Dewy was chosen by Mr. Penny, who made so much of his limited height by a judicious carriage of the head, straightening of the back, and important flashes of his spectacle-glasses, that he seemed almost as tall as the tranter. Mr. Shiner, age about thirty-five, farmer and church-warden, a character principally composed of a crimson stare, vigorous breath, and a watch-chain, with a mouth hanging on a dark smile but never smiling, had come quite willingly to the party, and showed a wondrous obliviousness of all his antics on the previous night. But the comely, slender, prettily-dressed prize Fancy Day fell to Dick's lot, in spite of some private machinations of the farmer, for the reason that Mr. Shiner, as a richer man, had shown too much assurance in asking the favour, whilst Dick had been duly courteous.
We gain a good view of our heroine as she advances to her place in the ladies' line. She belonged to the taller division of middle height. Flexibility was her first characteristic, by which she appeared to enjoy the most easeful rest when she was in gliding motion. Her dark eyes—arched by brows of so keen, slender, and soft a curve, that they resembled nothing so much as two slurs in music—showed primarily a bright sparkle each. This was softened by a frequent thoughtfulness, yet not so frequent as to do away, for more than a few minutes at a time, with a certain coquettishness; which in its turn was never so decided as to banish honesty. Her lips imitated her brows in their clearly-cut outline and softness of bend; and her nose was well shaped—which is saying a great deal, when it is remembered that there are a hundred pretty mouths and eyes for one pretty nose. Add to this, plentiful knots of dark-brown hair, a gauzy dress of white, with blue facings; and the slightest idea may be gained of the young maiden who showed, amidst the rest of the dancing-ladies, like a flower among vegetables. And so the dance proceeded. Mr. Shiner, according to the interesting rule laid down, deserted his own partner, and made off down the middle with this fair one of Dick's—the pair appearing from the top of the room like two persons tripping down a lane to be married. Dick trotted behind with what was intended to be a look of composure, but which was, in fact, a rather silly expression of feature—implying, with too much earnestness, that such an elopement could not be tolerated. Then they turned and came back, when Dick grew more rigid around his mouth, and blushed with ingenuous ardour as he joined hands with the rival and formed the arch over his lady's head; which presumably gave the figure its name; relinquishing her again at setting to partners, when Mr. Shiner's new chain quivered in every link, and all the loose flesh upon the tranter—who here came into action again—shook like jelly. Mrs. Penny, being always rather concerned for her personal safety when she danced with the tranter, fixed her face to a chronic smile of timidity the whole time it lasted—a peculiarity which filled her features with wrinkles, and reduced her eyes to little straight lines like hyphens, as she jigged up and down opposite him; repeating in her own person not only his proper movements, but also the minor flourishes which the richness of the tranter's imagination led him to introduce from time to time—an imitation which had about it something of slavish obedience, not unmixed with fear.
The ear-rings of the ladies now flung themselves wildly about, turning violent summersaults, banging this way and that, and then swinging quietly against the ears sustaining them. Mrs. Crumpler—a heavy woman, who, for some reason which nobody ever thought worth inquiry, danced in a clean apron—moved so smoothly through the figure that her feet were never seen; conveying to imaginative minds the idea that she rolled on castors.
Minute after minute glided by, and the party reached the period when ladies' back-hair begins to look forgotten and dissipated; when a perceptible dampness makes itself apparent upon the faces even of delicate girls—a ghastly dew having for some time rained from the features of their masculine partners; when skirts begin to be torn out of their gathers; when elderly people, who have stood up to please their juniors, begin to feel sundry small tremblings in the region of the knees, and to wish the interminable dance was at Jericho; when (at country parties of the thorough sort) waistcoats begin to be unbuttoned, and when the fiddlers' chairs have been wriggled, by the frantic bowing of their occupiers, to a distance of about two feet from where they originally stood.
Fancy was dancing with Mr. Shiner. Dick knew that Fancy, by the law of good manners, was bound to dance as pleasantly with one partner as with another; yet he could not help suggesting to himself that she need not have put quite so much spirit into her steps, nor smiled quite so frequently whilst in the farmer's hands.
"I'm afraid you didn't cast off," said Dick mildly to Mr. Shiner, before the latter man's watch-chain had done vibrating from a recent whirl.
Fancy made a motion of accepting the correction; but her partner took no notice, and proceeded with the next movement, with an affectionate bend towards her.
"That Shiner's too fond of her," the young man said to himself as he watched them. They came to the top again, Fancy smiling warmly towards her partner, and went to their places.
"Mr. Shiner, you didn't cast off," said Dick, for want of something else to demolish him with; casting off himself, and being put out at the farmer's irregularity.
"Perhaps I sha'n't cast off for any man," said Mr. Shiner.
"I think you ought to, sir."
Dick's partner, a young lady of the name of Lizzy—called Lizz for short—tried to mollify.
"I can't say that I myself have much feeling for casting off," she said.
"Nor I," said Mrs. Penny, following up the argument, "especially if a friend and neighbour is set against it. Not but that 'tis a terrible tasty thing in good hands and well done; yes, indeed, so say I."
"All I meant was," said Dick, rather sorry that he had spoken correctingly to a guest, "that 'tis in the dance; and a man has hardly any right to hack and mangle what was ordained by the regular dance-maker, who, I daresay, got his living by making 'em, and thought of nothing else all his life."
"I don't like casting off: then very well; I cast off for no dance-maker that ever lived."
Dick now appeared to be doing mental arithmetic, the act being really an effort to present to himself, in an abstract form, how far an argument with a formidable rival ought to be carried, when that rival was his mother's guest. The dead-lock was put an end to by the stamping arrival up the middle of the tranter, who, despising minutiae on principle, started a theme of his own.
"I assure you, neighbours," he said, "the heat of my frame no tongue can tell!" He looked around and endeavoured to give, by a forcible gaze of self-sympathy, some faint idea of the truth.
Mrs. Dewy formed one of the next couple.
"Yes," she said, in an auxiliary tone, "Reuben always was such a hot man."
Mrs. Penny implied the species of sympathy that such a class of affliction required, by trying to smile and to look grieved at the same time.
"If he only walk round the garden of a Sunday morning, his shirt-collar is as limp as no starch at all," continued Mrs. Dewy, her countenance lapsing parenthetically into a housewifely expression of concern at the reminiscence.
"Come, come, you women-folk; 'tis hands across—come, come!" said the tranter; and the conversation ceased for the present.
CHAPTER VIII: THEY DANCE MORE WILDLY
Dick had at length secured Fancy for that most delightful of country-dances, opening with six-hands-round.
"Before we begin," said the tranter, "my proposal is, that 'twould be a right and proper plan for every mortal man in the dance to pull off his jacket, considering the heat."
"Such low notions as you have, Reuben! Nothing but strip will go down with you when you are a-dancing. Such a hot man as he is!"
"Well, now, look here, my sonnies," he argued to his wife, whom he often addressed in the plural masculine for economy of epithet merely; "I don't see that. You dance and get hot as fire; therefore you lighten your clothes. Isn't that nature and reason for gentle and simple? If I strip by myself and not necessary, 'tis rather pot-housey I own; but if we stout chaps strip one and all, why, 'tis the native manners of the country, which no man can gainsay? Hey—what did you say, my sonnies?"
"Strip we will!" said the three other heavy men who were in the dance; and their coats were accordingly taken off and hung in the passage, whence the four sufferers from heat soon reappeared, marching in close column, with flapping shirt-sleeves, and having, as common to them all, a general glance of being now a match for any man or dancer in England or Ireland. Dick, fearing to lose ground in Fancy's good opinion, retained his coat like the rest of the thinner men; and Mr. Shiner did the same from superior knowledge.
And now a further phase of revelry had disclosed itself. It was the time of night when a guest may write his name in the dust upon the tables and chairs, and a bluish mist pervades the atmosphere, becoming a distinct halo round the candles; when people's nostrils, wrinkles, and crevices in general, seem to be getting gradually plastered up; when the very fiddlers as well as the dancers get red in the face, the dancers having advanced further still towards incandescence, and entered the cadaverous phase; the fiddlers no longer sit down, but kick back their chairs and saw madly at the strings, with legs firmly spread and eyes closed, regardless of the visible world. Again and again did Dick share his Love's hand with another man, and wheel round; then, more delightfully, promenade in a circle with her all to himself, his arm holding her waist more firmly each time, and his elbow getting further and further behind her back, till the distance reached was rather noticeable; and, most blissful, swinging to places shoulder to shoulder, her breath curling round his neck like a summer zephyr that had strayed from its proper date. Threading the couples one by one they reached the bottom, when there arose in Dick's mind a minor misery lest the tune should end before they could work their way to the top again, and have anew the same exciting run down through. Dick's feelings on actually reaching the top in spite of his doubts were supplemented by a mortal fear that the fiddling might even stop at this supreme moment; which prompted him to convey a stealthy whisper to the far-gone musicians, to the effect that they were not to leave off till he and his partner had reached the bottom of the dance once more, which remark was replied to by the nearest of those convulsed and quivering men by a private nod to the anxious young man between two semiquavers of the tune, and a simultaneous "All right, ay, ay," without opening the eyes. Fancy was now held so closely that Dick and she were practically one person. The room became to Dick like a picture in a dream; all that he could remember of it afterwards being the look of the fiddlers going to sleep, as humming-tops sleep, by increasing their motion and hum, together with the figures of grandfather James and old Simon Crumpler sitting by the chimney-corner, talking and nodding in dumb-show, and beating the air to their emphatic sentences like people near a threshing machine.
The dance ended. "Piph-h-h-h!" said tranter Dewy, blowing out his breath in the very finest stream of vapour that a man's lips could form. "A regular tightener, that one, sonnies!" He wiped his forehead, and went to the cider and ale mugs on the table.
"Well!" said Mrs. Penny, flopping into a chair, "my heart haven't been in such a thumping state of uproar since I used to sit up on old Midsummer- eves to see who my husband was going to be."
"And that's getting on for a good few years ago now, from what I've heard you tell," said the tranter, without lifting his eyes from the cup he was filling. Being now engaged in the business of handing round refreshments, he was warranted in keeping his coat off still, though the other heavy men had resumed theirs.
"And a thing I never expected would come to pass, if you'll believe me, came to pass then," continued Mrs. Penny. "Ah, the first spirit ever I see on a Midsummer-eve was a puzzle to me when he appeared, a hard puzzle, so say I!"
"So I should have fancied," said Elias Spinks.
"Yes," said Mrs. Penny, throwing her glance into past times, and talking on in a running tone of complacent abstraction, as if a listener were not a necessity. "Yes; never was I in such a taking as on that Midsummer- eve! I sat up, quite determined to see if John Wildway was going to marry me or no. I put the bread-and-cheese and beer quite ready, as the witch's book ordered, and I opened the door, and I waited till the clock struck twelve, my nerves all alive and so strained that I could feel every one of 'em twitching like bell-wires. Yes, sure! and when the clock had struck, lo and behold, I could see through the door a little small man in the lane wi' a shoemaker's apron on."
Here Mr. Penny stealthily enlarged himself half an inch.
"Now, John Wildway," Mrs. Penny continued, "who courted me at that time, was a shoemaker, you see, but he was a very fair-sized man, and I couldn't believe that any such a little small man had anything to do wi' me, as anybody might. But on he came, and crossed the threshold—not John, but actually the same little small man in the shoemaker's apron—"
"You needn't be so mighty particular about little and small!" said her husband.
"In he walks, and down he sits, and O my goodness me, didn't I flee upstairs, body and soul hardly hanging together! Well, to cut a long story short, by-long and by-late, John Wildway and I had a miff and parted; and lo and behold, the coming man came! Penny asked me if I'd go snacks with him, and afore I knew what I was about a'most, the thing was done."
"I've fancied you never knew better in your life; but I mid be mistaken," said Mr. Penny in a murmur.
After Mrs. Penny had spoken, there being no new occupation for her eyes, she still let them stay idling on the past scenes just related, which were apparently visible to her in the centre of the room. Mr. Penny's remark received no reply.
During this discourse the tranter and his wife might have been observed standing in an unobtrusive corner, in mysterious closeness to each other, a just perceptible current of intelligence passing from each to each, which had apparently no relation whatever to the conversation of their guests, but much to their sustenance. A conclusion of some kind having at length been drawn, the palpable confederacy of man and wife was once more obliterated, the tranter marching off into the pantry, humming a tune that he couldn't quite recollect, and then breaking into the words of a song of which he could remember about one line and a quarter. Mrs. Dewy spoke a few words about preparations for a bit of supper.
That elder portion of the company which loved eating and drinking put on a look to signify that till this moment they had quite forgotten that it was customary to expect suppers on these occasions; going even further than this politeness of feature, and starting irrelevant subjects, the exceeding flatness and forced tone of which rather betrayed their object. The younger members said they were quite hungry, and that supper would be delightful though it was so late.
Good luck attended Dick's love-passes during the meal. He sat next Fancy, and had the thrilling pleasure of using permanently a glass which had been taken by Fancy in mistake; of letting the outer edge of the sole of his boot touch the lower verge of her skirt; and to add to these delights the cat, which had lain unobserved in her lap for several minutes, crept across into his own, touching him with fur that had touched her hand a moment before. There were, besides, some little pleasures in the shape of helping her to vegetable she didn't want, and when it had nearly alighted on her plate taking it across for his own use, on the plea of waste not, want not. He also, from time to time, sipped sweet sly glances at her profile; noticing the set of her head, the curve of her throat, and other artistic properties of the lively goddess, who the while kept up a rather free, not to say too free, conversation with Mr. Shiner sitting opposite; which, after some uneasy criticism, and much shifting of argument backwards and forwards in Dick's mind, he decided not to consider of alarming significance.
"A new music greets our ears now," said Miss Fancy, alluding, with the sharpness that her position as village sharpener demanded, to the contrast between the rattle of knives and forks and the late notes of the fiddlers.
"Ay; and I don't know but what 'tis sweeter in tone when you get above forty," said the tranter; "except, in faith, as regards father there. Never such a mortal man as he for tunes. They do move his soul; don't 'em, father?"
The eldest Dewy smiled across from his distant chair an assent to Reuben's remark.
"Spaking of being moved in soul," said Mr. Penny, "I shall never forget the first time I heard the 'Dead March.' 'Twas at poor Corp'l Nineman's funeral at Casterbridge. It fairly made my hair creep and fidget about like a vlock of sheep—ah, it did, souls! And when they had done, and the last trump had sounded, and the guns was fired over the dead hero's grave, a' icy-cold drop o' moist sweat hung upon my forehead, and another upon my jawbone. Ah, 'tis a very solemn thing!"
"Well, as to father in the corner there," the tranter said, pointing to old William, who was in the act of filling his mouth; "he'd starve to death for music's sake now, as much as when he was a boy-chap of fifteen."
"Truly, now," said Michael Mail, clearing the corner of his throat in the manner of a man who meant to be convincing; "there's a friendly tie of some sort between music and eating." He lifted the cup to his mouth, and drank himself gradually backwards from a perpendicular position to a slanting one, during which time his looks performed a circuit from the wall opposite him to the ceiling overhead. Then clearing the other corner of his throat: "Once I was a-setting in the little kitchen of the Dree Mariners at Casterbridge, having a bit of dinner, and a brass band struck up in the street. Such a beautiful band as that were! I was setting eating fried liver and lights, I well can mind—ah, I was! and to save my life, I couldn't help chawing to the tune. Band played six-eight time; six-eight chaws I, willynilly. Band plays common; common time went my teeth among the liver and lights as true as a hair. Beautiful 'twere! Ah, I shall never forget that there band!"
"That's as tuneful a thing as ever I heard of," said grandfather James, with the absent gaze which accompanies profound criticism.
"I don't like Michael's tuneful stories then," said Mrs. Dewy. "They are quite coarse to a person o' decent taste."
Old Michael's mouth twitched here and there, as if he wanted to smile but didn't know where to begin, which gradually settled to an expression that it was not displeasing for a nice woman like the tranter's wife to correct him.
"Well, now," said Reuben, with decisive earnestness, "that sort o' coarse touch that's so upsetting to Ann's feelings is to my mind a recommendation; for it do always prove a story to be true. And for the same reason, I like a story with a bad moral. My sonnies, all true stories have a coarse touch or a bad moral, depend upon't. If the story- tellers could ha' got decency and good morals from true stories, who'd ha' troubled to invent parables?" Saying this the tranter arose to fetch a new stock of cider, ale, mead, and home-made wines.