Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Mellstock “Waits”
By Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)
From ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’

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 colored 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 mainly dressed 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 mean time put the old born 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.  1
  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 East Mellstock, the main village; half a mile from this were the church and the vicarage, called West Mellstock, and originally the most thickly populated portion. A mile northeast lay the hamlet of Lewgate, where the tranter lived; and at other points knots of cottages, besides solitary farmsteads and dairies.  2
  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.  3
  “Now mind, naibors,” 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 strik’ up all of a sudden, like spirits.”  4
  “Farmer Ledlow’s first?”  5
  “Farmer Ledlow’s first; the rest as usual.”  6
  “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 porch, as th’st know.”  7
  Just before the clock struck twelve, they lighted the lanterns and started. The moon, in her third quarter, had risen since the snow-storm; 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 howl 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.  8
  Most of the outlying homesteads and hamlets had been visited by about two o’clock; they then passed across the Home Plantation toward the main village. 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 trees, which in many spots formed dense overgrowths of interlaced branches.  9
  “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 country of the old string players. Barrel organs, and they next door to ’em that you blow wi’ your foot, have come in terribly of late years.”  10
  “Ah!” said Bowman, shaking his head; and old William, on seeing him, did the same thing.  11
  “More’s the pity,” replied another. “Time was—long and merry ago now!—when not one of the varmints was to be heard of; but it served some of the choirs right. They should have stuck to strings as we did, and kept out clar’nets, and done away with serpents. If you’d thrive in musical religion, stick to strings, says I.”  12
  “Strings are well enough, as far as that goes,” said Mr. Spinks.  13
  “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.”  14
  “Clar’nets however be bad at all times,” said Michael Mail. “One Christmas—years agone now, years—I went the rounds wi’ the Dibbeach choir. ’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; the players o’ ’em had to go into a hedger’s 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 knowledge.”  15
  “I can well bring back to my mind,” said Mr. Penny, “what I said to poor Joseph Ryme (who took the tribble part in High-Story 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 Providence; you can see it by looking at ’em,’ I said. And what cam o’t? Why, my dear souls, the parson set up a barrel organ on his own account within two years o’ the time I spoke, and the old choir went to nothing.”  16
  “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 farther off. There’s always a rakish, skampish countenance about a fiddle 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 some’at like ’em, if ye may believe picters.”  17
  “Robert Penny, you were in the right,” broke in the eldest Dewy. “They should ha’ stuck to strings. Your brass-man is brass—well and good; your reed-man is reed—well and good; your percussion-man is percussion—good again. But I don’t care who hears me say it, nothing will speak to your heart wi’ the sweetness of the man of strings!”  18
  “Strings forever!” said little Jimmy.  19
  “Strings alone would have held their ground against all the new-comers in creation.” (“True, true!” said Bowman.) “But clar’nets was death.” (“Death they was!” said Mr. Penny.) “And harmoniums,” William continued in a louder voice, and getting excited by these signs of approval, “harmoniums and barrel organs” (“Ah!” and groans from Spinks) “be miserable—what shall I call ’em?—miserable—”  20
  “Sinners,” suggested Jimmy, who made large strides like the men, and did not lag behind like the other little boys.  21
  “Miserable machines for such a divine thing as music!”  22
  “Right, William, and so they be!” said the choir with earnest unanimity.  23
  By this time they were crossing to a wicket in the direction of the school, which, standing on a slight eminence on the opposite side of a cross-lane, now rose in unvarying and dark flatness against the sky. The instruments were retuned, and all the band entered the inclosure, enjoined by old William to keep upon the grass.  24
  “Number seventy-eight,” he softly gave out, as they formed round in a semicircle, the boys opening the lanterns to get clearer light and directing their rays on the books.  25
  Then passed forth into the quiet night an ancient and well-worn hymn, embodying Christianity in words peculiarly befitting the simple and honest hearts of the quaint characters who sang them so 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
      Therefore 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,
      Our hearts to aid.
“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 did not scorn
      Our faults to take.
“Give thanks to God alway,
      O thou man:
Give thanks to God alway
      With heartfelt 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.  27
  “Forty breaths, and then, ‘O what unbounded goodness!’ number fifty-nine,” said William.  28
  This was duly gone through, and no notice whatever seemed to be taken of the performance.  29
  “Surely, ’tisn’t an empty house, as befell us in the year thirty-nine and forty-three!” said old Dewy, with much disappointment.  30
  “Perhaps she’s jist come from some noble city, and sneers at our doings,” the tranter whispered.  31
  “’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.”  32
  “Forty breaths, and then the last,” said the leader authoritatively. “‘Rejoice, ye tenants of the earth’; number sixty-four.”  33
  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:—  34
  “A merry Christmas to ye!”  35
  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, while down her shoulders fell a twining profusion of marvelously 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 gray 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.  36
  Opening the window, she said, lightly and warmly:—  37
  “Thank you, singers, thank you!”  38
  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 candle-light shone nebulously as before; then it moved away.  39
  “How pretty!” exclaimed Dick Dewy.  40
  “If she’d been rale wexwork she couldn’t ha’ been comelier,” said Michael Mail.  41
  “As near a thing to a spiritual vision as ever I wish to see!” said tranter Dewy fervently.  42
  “Oh, sich I never, never see!” said Leaf.  43
  All the rest, after clearing their throats and adjusting their hats, agreed that such a sight was worth singing for.  44
  “Now to Farmer Shinar’s, and then replenish our insides, father,” said the tranter.  45
  “Wi’ all my heart,” said old William, shouldering his bass-viol.  46
  Farmer Shinar’s was a queer lump of a house, standing at the corner of a lane that ran obliquely 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.  47
  The front of this building was reached, and the preliminaries arranged as usual.  48
  “Forty breaths, and number thirty-two,—‘Behold the morning star,’” said old William.  49
  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:—  50
  “Shut up! Don’t make your blaring row here. A feller wi’ a headache enough to split, likes a quiet night.”  51
  Slam went the window.  52
  “Hullo, that’s an ugly blow for we artists!” said the tranter in a keenly appreciative voice, and turning to his companions.  53
  “Finish the carrel, all who be friends of harmony!” said old William commandingly; and they continued to the end.  54
  “Forty breaths, and number nineteen!” said William firmly. “Give it him well; the choir can’t be insulted in this manner!”  55
  A light now flashed into existence, the window opened, and the farmer stood revealed as one in a terrific passion.  56
  “Drown en! drown en!” the tranter cried, fiddling frantically. “Play fortissimy, and drown his spaking!”  57
  “Fortissimy!” said Michael Mail, and the music and singing waxed so loud that it was impossible to know what Mr. Shinar had said, was saying, or was about to say; but wildly flinging his arms and body about in the form of capital X’s and Y’s, he appeared to utter enough invectives to consign the whole parish to perdition.  58
  “Very unseemly, 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!”  59
  “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-morrer night, I suppose, and so put en in track again. We bear no martel man ill-will.”  60
  They now crossed Twenty-acres to proceed to the lower village, and met Voss with the hot mead and bread and cheese as they were crossing the church-yard. This determined them to eat and drink before proceeding further, and they entered the belfry. 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 could be heard through the floor overhead a little world of undertones and creaks from the halting clockwork, which never spread farther than the tower they were born in, and raised in the more meditative minds a fancy that here lay the direct pathway of Time.  61
  Having done eating and drinking, the instruments were again tuned, and once more the party emerged into the night air….  62
  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 entertained towards him by the congregation below. 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; while the nave knew nothing of the gallery people, 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.  63
  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.  64
  But before they had taken their places, and while they were standing in a circle at the back of the gallery practicing 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 Shinar the churchwarden she proceeded to the short 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.  65
  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.  66
  Ever afterwards the young man could recollect individually each part of the service of that bright Christmas morning, and the minute occurrences which took place as its hours slowly drew along: the duties of that day dividing themselves by a complete line from the service 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.  67
  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 endeavored to reduce himself to his normal state of mind. He was the young vicar, Mr. Maybold.  68

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