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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sociability in the Malt-House
By Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)
From ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’

GABRIEL’S nose was greeted by an atmosphere laden with the sweet smell of new malt. The conversation (which seemed to have been concerning the origin of the fire) immediately ceased, and every one ocularly criticized him to the degree expressed by contracting the flesh of their foreheads and looking at him with narrow eyelids, as if he had been a light too strong for their sight. Several exclaimed meditatively, after this operation had been completed:—  1
  “Oh, ’tis the new shepherd, ’a b’lieve.”  2
  “We thought we heard a hand pawing about the door for the bobbin, but weren’t sure ’twere not a dead leaf blowed across,” said another. “Come in, shepherd; sure, ye be welcome, though we don’t know yer name.”  3
  “Gabriel Oak, that’s my name, neighbors.”  4
  The ancient maltster sitting in the midst turned at this—his turning being as the turning of a rusty crane.  5
  “That’s never Gable Oak’s grandson over at Norcombe—never!” he said, as a formula expressive of surprise, which nobody was supposed for a moment to take literally.  6
  “My father and my grandfather were old men of the name of Gabriel,” said the shepherd placidly.  7
  “Thought I knowed the man’s face as I seed him on the rick! thought I did! And where be ye trading o’t to now, shepherd?”  8
  “I’m thinking of biding here,” said Mr. Oak.  9
  “Knowed yer grandfather for years and years!” continued the maltster, the words coming forth of their own accord as if the momentum previously imparted had been sufficient.  10
  “Ah, and did you!”  11
  “Knowed yer grandmother.”  12
  “And her too!”  13
  “Likewise knowed yer father when he was a child. Why, my boy Jacob there and your father were sworn brothers—that they were, sure, weren’t ye, Jacob?”  14
  “Ay, sure,” said his son, a young man about sixty-five, with a semi-bald head and one tooth in the left centre of his upper jaw, which made much of itself by standing prominent, like a milestone in a bank. “But ’twas Joe had most to do with him. However, my son William must have knowed the very man afore us, didn’t ye, Billy, afore ye left Norcombe?”  15
  “No, ’twas Andrew,” said Jacob’s son Billy, a child of forty or thereabouts, who manifested the peculiarity of possessing a cheerful soul in a gloomy body, and whose whiskers were assuming a chinchilla shade here and there.  16
  “I can mind Andrew,” said Oak, “as being a man in the place when I was quite a child.”  17
  “Ay; the other day I and my youngest daughter Liddy were over at my grandson’s christening,” continued Billy. “We were talking about this very family, and ’twas only last Purification Day in this very world, when the use-money is gi’ed away to the second-best poor folk, you know, shepherd, and I can mind the day because they all had to traypse up to the vestry—yes, this very man’s family.”  18
  “Come, shepherd, and drink. ’Tis gape and swaller with us—a drap of sommit, but not of much account,” said the maltster, removing from the fire his eyes, which were vermilion red and bleared by gazing into it for so many years. “Take up the God-forgive-me, Jacob. See if ’tis warm, Jacob.”  19
  Jacob stooped to the God-forgive-me, which was a two-handled tall mug standing in the ashes, cracked and charred with heat: it was rather furred with extraneous matter about the outside, especially in the crevices of the handles, the innermost curves of which may not have seen daylight for several years by reason of this incrustation thereon—formed of ashes accidentally wetted with cider and baked hard; but to the mind of any sensible drinker the cup was no worse for that, being incontestably clean on the inside and about the rim. It may be observed that such a class of mug is called a God-forgive-me in Weatherbury and its vicinity for uncertain reasons; probably because its size makes any given toper feel ashamed of himself when he sees its bottom in drinking it empty.  20
  Jacob, on receiving the order to see if the liquor was warm enough, placidly dipped his forefinger into it by way of thermometer, and having pronounced it nearly of the proper degree, raised the cup and very civilly attempted to dust some of the ashes from the bottom with the skirt of his smock-frock, because shepherd Oak was a stranger.  21
  “A clane cup for the shepherd,” said the maltster commandingly.  22
  “No, not at all,” said Gabriel, in a reproving tone of considerateness. “I never fuss about dirt in its pure state, and when I know what sort it is.” Taking the mug, he drank an inch or more from the depths of its contents and duly passed it to the next man. “I wouldn’t think of giving such trouble to neighbors in washing up when there is so much work to be done in the world already,” continued Oak in a moister tone, after recovering from the stoppage of breath which is occasioned by pulls at large mugs.  23
  “A right sensible man,” said Jacob.  24
  “True, true; it can’t be gainsaid!” observed a brisk young man—Mark Clark by name, a genial and pleasant gentleman, whom to meet anywhere in your travels was to know, to know was to drink with, and to drink with was, unfortunately, to pay for.  25
  “And here’s a mouthful of bread and bacon that mis’ess have sent, shepherd. The cider will go down better with a bit of victuals. Don’t ye chaw quite close, shepherd, for I let the bacon fall in the road outside as I was bringing it along, and maybe ’tis rather gritty. There, ’tis clane dirt; and we all know what that is, as you say, and you bain’t a particular man, we see, shepherd.”  26
  “True, true; not at all,” said the friendly Oak.  27
  “Don’t let your teeth quite meet, and you won’t feel the sandiness at all. Ah! ’tis wonderful what can be done by contrivance!”  28
  “My own mind exactly, neighbor.”  29
  “Ah, he’s his granfer’s own grandson! his grandfer were just such a nice unparticular man!” said the maltster.  30
  “Drink, Henry Fray, drink,” magnanimously said Jan Coggan, a person who held Saint-Simonian notions of share and share alike where liquor was concerned, as the vessel showed signs of approaching him in its gradual revolution among them.  31
  Having at this moment reached the end of a wistful gaze into mid-air, Henry did not refuse. He was a man of more than middle age, with eyebrows high up in his forehead, who laid it down that the law of the world was bad, with a long-suffering look through his listeners at the world alluded to, as it presented itself to his imagination. He always signed his name “Henery”—strenuously insisting upon that spelling; and if any passing schoolmaster ventured to remark that the second “e” was superfluous and old-fashioned, he received the reply that “H-e-n-e-r-y” was the name he was christened and the name he would stick to—in the tone of one to whom orthographical differences were matters which had a great deal to do with personal character.  32
  Mr. Jan Coggan, who had passed the cup to Henery, was a crimson man with a spacious countenance and private glimmer in his eye, whose name had appeared on the marriage register of Weatherbury and neighboring parishes as best man and chief witness in countless unions of the previous twenty years; he also very frequently filled the post of head godfather in baptisms of the subtly jovial kind.  33
  “Come, Mark Clark, come. Ther’s plenty more in the barrel,” said Jan.  34
  “Ay, that I will; ’tis my only doctor,” replied Mr. Clark, who, twenty years younger than Jan Coggan, revolved in the same orbit. He secreted mirth on all occasions for special discharge at popular parties.  35
  “Why, Joseph Poorgrass, ye han’t had a drop!” said Mr. Coggan to a self-conscious man in the background, thrusting the cup towards him.  36
  “Such a modest man as he is!” said Jacob Smallbury. “Why, ye’ve hardly had strength of eye enough to look in our young mis’ess’s face, so I hear, Joseph?”  37
  All looked at Joseph Poorgrass with pitying reproach.  38
  “No, I’ve hardly looked at her at all,” simpered Joseph, reducing his body smaller whilst talking, apparently from a meek sense of undue prominence. “And when I seed her, ’twas nothing but blushes with me!”  39
  “Poor feller,” said Mr. Clark.  40
  “’Tis a curious nature for a man,” said Jan Coggan.  41
  “Yes,” continued Joseph Poorgrass; his shyness, which was so painful as a defect, filling him with a mild complacency now that it was regarded as an interesting study. “’Twere blush, blush, blush with me every minute of the time when she was speaking to me.”  42
  “I believe ye, Joseph Poorgrass, for we all know ye to be a very bashful man.”  43
  “’Tis a’ awkward gift for a man, poor soul,” said the maltster. “And how long have ye suffered from it, Joseph?”  44
  “Oh, ever since I was a boy. Yes, mother was concerned to her heart about it—yes. But ’twas all naught.”  45
  “Did ye ever go into the world to try and stop it, Joseph Poorgrass?”  46
  “Oh ay, tried all sorts o’ company. They took me to Greenhill Fair, and into a great large jerry-go-nimble show, where there were women-folk riding round—standing upon horses with hardly anything on but their smocks; but it didn’t cure me a morsel. And then I was put errand-man at the Woman’s Skittle Alley at the back of the Tailor’s Arms in Casterbridge. ’Twas a horrible evil situation, and a very curious place for a good man. I had to stand and look ba’dy people in the face from morning till night; but ’twas no use—I was just as bad as ever after all. Blushes hev been in the family for generations. There, ’tis a happy Providence that I be no worse, and I feel the blessing.”  47
  “True,” said Jacob Smallbury, deepening his thoughts to a profounder view of the subject. “’Tis a thought to look at, that ye might have been worse; but even as you be, ’tis a very bad affliction for ye, Joseph. For ye see, shepherd, though ’tis very well for a woman, dang it all, ’tis awkward for a man like him, poor feller.” He appealed to the shepherd by a feeling glance.  48
  “’Tis, ’tis,” said Gabriel, recovering from a meditation. “Yes, very awkward for the man.”  49
  “Ay, and he’s very timid, too,” observed Jan Coggan. “Once he had been working late at Yalbury Bottom, and had had a drap of drink, and lost his way as he was coming home along through Yalbury Wood, didn’t ye, Master Poorgrass?”  50
  “No, no, no; not that story!” expostulated the modest man, forcing a laugh to bury his concern.  51
  “And so ’a lost himself quite,” continued Mr. Coggan with an impassive face, implying that a true narrative, like time and tide, must run its course and would respect no man. “And as he was coming along in the middle of the night, much afeared, and not able to find his way out of the trees nohow, ’a cried out, ‘Man-a-lost! man-a-lost!’ A owl in a tree happened to be crying ‘Whoo-whoo-whoo!’ as owls do, you know, shepherd” (Gabriel nodded), “and Joseph all in a tremble said, ‘Joseph Poorgrass of Weatherbury, sir!’”  52
  “No, no, now—that’s too much!” said the timid man, becoming a man of brazen courage all of a sudden. “I didn’t say sir. I’ll take my oath I didn’t say ‘Joseph Poorgrass o’ Weatherbury, sir.’ No, no; what’s right is right, and I never said sir to the bird, knowing very well that no man of a gentleman’s rank would be hollering there at that time o’ night. ‘Joseph Poorgrass of Weatherbury,’—that’s every word I said, and I shouldn’t ha’ said that if ’t hadn’t been for Keeper Day’s metheglin…. There, ’twas a merciful thing it ended where it did.”  53
  The question of which was right being tacitly waived by the company, Jan went on meditatively:—  54
  “And he’s the fearfullest man, bain’t ye, Joseph? Ay, another time ye were lost by Lambing-Down Gate, weren’t ye, Joseph?”  55
  “I was,” replied Poorgrass, as if there were some conditions too serious even for modesty to remember itself under, this being one.  56
  “Yes; that were the middle of the night, too. The gate would not open, try how he would, and knowing there was the Devil’s hand in it, he kneeled down.”  57
  “Ay,” said Joseph, acquiring confidence from the warmth of the fire, the cider, and a perception of the narrative capabilities of the experience alluded to. “My heart died within me, that time; but I kneeled down and said the Lord’s Prayer, and then the Belief right through, and then the Ten Commandments, in earnest prayer. But no, the gate wouldn’t open; and then I went on with Dearly Beloved Brethren, and thinks I, this makes four, and ’tis all I know out of book, and if this don’t do it nothing will, and I’m a lost man. Well, when I got to Saying After Me, I rose from my knees and found the gate would open,—yes, neighbors, the gate opened the same as ever.”  58
  A meditation on the obvious inference was indulged in by all, and during its continuance each directed his vision into the ash-pit, which glowed like a desert in the tropics under a vertical sun, shaping their eyes long and liny, partly because of the light, partly from the depth of the subject discussed.  59
  Gabriel broke the silence. “What sort of a place is this to live at, and what sort of a mis’ess is she to work under?” Gabriel’s bosom thrilled gently as he thus slipped under the notice of the assembly the innermost subject of his heart.  60
  “We d’ know little of her—nothing. She only showed herself a few days ago. Her uncle was took bad, and the doctor was called with his worldwide skill; but he couldn’t save the man. As I take it, she’s going to keep on the farm.”  61
  “That’s about the shape o’t, ’a b’lieve,” said Jan Coggan. “Ay, ’tis a very good family. I’d as soon be under ’em as under one here and there. Her uncle was a very fair sort of man. Did ye know en, shepherd—a bachelor man?”  62
  “Not at all.”  63
  “I used to go to his house a-courting my first wife Charlotte, who was his dairymaid. Well, a very good-hearted man were farmer Everdene, and I being a respectable young fellow was allowed to call and see her and drink as much ale as I liked, but not to carry away any—outside my skin I mane, of course.”  64
  “Ay, ay, Jan Coggan; we know yer maning.”  65
  “And so, you see, ’twas beautiful ale, and I wished to value his kindness as much as I could, and not to be so ill-mannered as to drink only a thimbleful, which would have been insulting the man’s generosity—”  66
  “True, Master Coggan, ’twould so,” corroborated Mark Clark.  67
  “—And so I used to eat a lot of salt fish afore going, and then by the time I got there I were as dry as a lime-basket—so thorough dry that that ale would slip down—ah, ’twould slip down sweet! Happy times! heavenly times! Such lovely drunks as I used to have at that house! You can mind, Jacob? You used to go wi’ me sometimes.”  68
  “I can, I can,” said Jacob. “That one, too, that we had at Buck’s Head on a White Monday was a pretty tipple.”  69
  “’Twas. But for a drunk of really a noble class, that brought you no nearer to the Dark Man than you were afore you begun, there was none like those in farmer Everdene’s kitchen. Not a single damn allowed; no, not a bare poor one, even at the most cheerful moment when all were blindest, though the good old word of sin thrown in here and there at such times is a great relief to a merry soul.”  70
  “True,” said the maltster. “Nater requires her swearing at the regular times, or she’s not herself; and unholy exclamations is a necessity of life.”…  71
  Gabriel thought fit to change the subject. “You must be a very aged man, malter, to have sons growed up so old and ancient,” he remarked.  72
  “Father’s so old that ’a can’t mind his age, can ye, father?” interposed Jacob. “And he’s growed terrible crooked, too, lately,” Jacob continued, surveying his father’s figure, which was rather more bowed than his own. “Really, one may say that father there is three-double.”  73
  “Crooked folk will last a long while,” said the maltster grimly, and not in the best humor.  74
  “Shepherd would like to hear the pedigree of yer life, father—would’nt ye, shepherd?”  75
  “Ay, that I should,” said Gabriel, with the heartiness of a man who had longed to hear it for several months. “What may your age be, malter?”  76
  The maltster cleared his throat in an exaggerated form for emphasis, and elongating his gaze to the remotest point of the ash-pit said, in the slow speech justifiable when the importance of a subject is so generally felt that any mannerism must be tolerated in getting at it:—  77
  “Well, I don’t mind the year I were born in, but perhaps I can reckon up the places I’ve lived at, and so get it that way. I bode at Upper Longpuddle across there” (nodding to the north) “till I were eleven. I bode seven at Kingsbere” (nodding to the east), “where I took to malting. I went therefrom to Norcombe, and malted there two-and-twenty years, and two-and-twenty years I was there turnip-hoeing and harvesting. Ah, I knowed that old place Norcombe, years afore you were thought of, Master Oak” (Oak smiled a corroboration of the fact). “Then I malted at Durnover four year, and four year turnip-hoeing; and I was fourteen times eleven months at Millpond St. Jude’s” (nodding north-west-by-north). “Old Twills wouldn’t hire me for more than eleven months at a time, to keep me from being chargeable to the parish if so be I was disabled. Then I was three year at Mellstock, and I’ve been here one-and-thirty year come Candlemas. How much is that?”  78
  “Hundred and seventeen,” chuckled another old gentleman, given to mental arithmetic and little conversation, who had hitherto sat unobserved in a corner.  79
  “Well then, that’s my age,” said the maltster emphatically.  80
  “Oh no, father!” said Jacob. “Your turnip-hoeing were in the summer and your malting in the winter of the same years, and ye don’t ought to count both halves, father.”  81
  “Chok’ it all! I lived through the summers, didn’t I? That’s my question. I suppose ye’ll say next I be no age at all to speak of?”  82
  “Sure we shan’t,” said Gabriel soothingly.  83
  “Ye be a very old aged person, malter,” attested Jan Coggan, also soothingly. “We all know that, and ye must have a wonderful talented constitution to be able to live so long, mustn’t he, neighbors?”  84
  “True, true; ye must, malter, wonderful,” said the meeting unanimously.  85
  The maltster, being now pacified, was even generous enough to voluntarily disparage in a slight degree the virtue of having lived a great many years, by mentioning that the cup they were drinking out of was three years older than he.  86
  While the cup was being examined, the end of Gabriel Oak’s flute became visible over his smock-frock pocket, and Henery Fray exclaimed, “Surely, shepherd, I seed you blowing into a great flute by now at Casterbridge?”  87
  “You did,” said Gabriel, blushing faintly. “I’ve been in great trouble, neighbors, and was driven to it. I used not to be so poor as I be now.”  88
  “Never mind, heart!” said Mark Clark. “You should take it careless-like, shepherd, and your time will come. But we could thank ye for a tune, if ye bain’t too tired.”  89
  “Neither drum nor trumpet have I heard this Christmas,” said Jan Coggan. “Come, raise a tune, Master Oak!”  90
  “Ay, that I will,” said Gabriel readily, pulling out his flute and putting it together. “A poor tool, neighbors; but such as I can do ye shall have and welcome.”  91
  Oak then struck up ‘Jockey to the Fair,’ and played that sparkling melody three times through, accenting the notes in the third round in a most artistic and lively manner by bending his body in small jerks and tapping with his foot to beat time.  92
  “He can blow the flute very well, that ’a can,” said a young married man, who, having no individuality worth mentioning, was known as “Susan Tall’s husband.” He continued admiringly, “I’d as lief as not be able to blow into a flute as well as that.”  93
  “He’s a clever man, and ’tis a true comfort for us to have such a shepherd,” murmured Joseph Poorgrass in a soft cadence. “We ought to feel real thanksgiving that he’s not a player of ba’dy songs instead of these merry tunes; for ’twould have been just as easy for God to have made the shepherd a loose low man—a man of iniquity, so to speak it—as what he is. Yes, for our wives’ and daughters’ sakes we should feel real thanksgiving.”  94
  “True, true,—real thanksgiving!” dashed in Mark Clark conclusively, not feeling it to be of any consequence to his opinion that he had only heard about a word and three-quarters of what Joseph had said.  95
  “Yes,” added Joseph, beginning to feel like a man in the Bible; “for evil do thrive so in these times, that ye may be as much deceived in the clanest shaved and whitest shirted man as in the raggedest tramp upon the turnpike, if I may term it so.”  96
  “Ay, I can mind yer face now, shepherd,” said Henery Fray, criticizing Gabriel with misty eyes as he entered upon his second tune. “Yes, now I see ye blowing into the flute I know ye to be the same man I see play at Casterbridge, for yer mouth were scrimped up and yer eyes a-staring out like a strangled man’s—just as they be now.”  97
  “’Tis a pity that playing the flute should make a man look such a scarecrow,” observed Mr. Mark Clark, with additional criticism of Gabriel’s countenance, the latter person jerking out, with the ghastly grimace required by the instrument, the chorus of ‘Dame Durden’:—
  “’Twas Moll’ and Bet’, and Doll’ and Kate’,
And Dor’-othy Drag’-gle-Tail’.”
  “I hope you don’t mind that young man Mark Clark’s bad manners in naming your features?” whispered Joseph to Gabriel privately.  99
  “Not at all,” said Mr. Oak.  100
  “For by nature ye be a very handsome man, shepherd,” continued Joseph Poorgrass, with winning suavity.  101
  “Ay, that ye be, shepherd,” said the company.  102
  “Thank you very much,” said Oak, in the modest tone good manners demanded; thinking, however, that he would never let Bathsheba see him playing the flute.  103

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