MISTRESS AND MEN
Half-an-hour later Bathsheba, in finished dress, and followed by Liddy, entered the upper end of the old hall to find that her men had all deposited themselves on a long form and a settle at the lower extremity. She sat down at a table and opened the time-book, pen in her hand, with a canvas money-bag beside her. From this she poured a small heap of coin. Liddy chose a position at her elbow and began to sew, sometimes pausing and looking round, or, with the air of a privileged person, taking up one of the half-sovereigns lying before her and surveying it merely as a work of art, while strictly preventing her countenance from expressing any wish to possess it as money.
"Now before I begin, men," said Bathsheba, "I have two matters to speak of. The first is that the bailiff is dismissed for thieving, and that I have formed a resolution to have no bailiff at all, but to manage everything with my own head and hands."
The men breathed an audible breath of amazement.
"The next matter is, have you heard anything of Fanny?"
"Have you done anything?"
"I met Farmer Boldwood," said Jacob Smallbury, "and I went with him and two of his men, and dragged Newmill Pond, but we found nothing."
"And the new shepherd have been to Buck's Head, by Yalbury, thinking she had gone there, but nobody had seed her," said Laban Tall.
"Hasn't William Smallbury been to Casterbridge?"
"Yes, ma'am, but he's not yet come home. He promised to be back by six."
"It wants a quarter to six at present," said Bathsheba, looking at her watch. "I daresay he'll be in directly. Well, now then" — she looked into the book — "Joseph Poorgrass, are you there?"
"Yes, sir — ma'am I mane," said the person addressed. "I be the personal name of Poorgrass."
"And what are you?"
"Nothing in my own eye. In the eye of other people — well, I don't say it; though public thought will out."
"What do you do on the farm?"
"I do do carting things all the year, and in seed time I shoots the rooks and sparrows, and helps at pig-killing, sir."
"How much to you?"
"Please nine and ninepence and a good halfpenny where 'twas a bad one, sir — ma'am I mane."
"Quite correct. Now here are ten shillings in addition as a small present, as I am a new comer."
Bathsheba blushed slightly at the sense of being generous in public, and Henery Fray, who had drawn up towards her chair, lifted his eyebrows and fingers to express amazement on a small scale.
"How much do I owe you — that man in the corner — what's your name?" continued Bathsheba.
"Matthew Moon, ma'am," said a singular framework of clothes with nothing of any consequence inside them, which advanced with the toes in no definite direction forwards, but turned in or out as they chanced to swing.
"Matthew Mark, did you say? — speak out — I shall not hurt you," inquired the young farmer, kindly.
"Matthew Moon, mem," said Henery Fray, correctingly, from behind her chair, to which point he had edged himself.
"Matthew Moon," murmured Bathsheba, turning her bright eyes to the book. "Ten and twopence halfpenny is the sum put down to you, I see?"
"Yes, mis'ess," said Matthew, as the rustle of wind among dead leaves.
"Here it is, and ten shillings. Now the next — Andrew Randle, you are a new man, I hear. How come you to leave your last farm?"
"P-p-p-p-p-pl-pl-pl-pl-l-l-l-l-ease, ma'am, p-p-p-p-pl-pl-pl-pl-please, ma'am-please'm-please'm — "
"'A's a stammering man, mem," said Henery Fray in an undertone, "and they turned him away because the only time he ever did speak plain he said his soul was his own, and other iniquities, to the squire. 'A can cuss, mem, as well as you or I, but 'a can't speak a common speech to save his life."
"Andrew Randle, here's yours — finish thanking me in a day or two. Temperance Miller — oh, here's another, Soberness — both women I suppose?"
"Yes'm. Here we be, 'a b'lieve," was echoed in shrill unison.
"What have you been doing?"
"Tending thrashing-machine and wimbling haybonds, and saying 'Hoosh!' to the cocks and hens when they go upon your seeds, and planting Early Flourballs and Thompson's Wonderfuls with a dibble."
"Yes — I see. Are they satisfactory women?" she inquired softly of Henery Fray.
"Oh mem — don't ask me! Yielding women — as scarlet a pair as ever was!" groaned Henery under his breath.
Joseph Poorgrass, in the background twitched, and his lips became dry with fear of some terrible consequences, as he saw Bathsheba summarily speaking, and Henery slinking off to a corner.
"Now the next. Laban Tall, you'll stay on working for me?"
"For you or anybody that pays me well, ma'am," replied the young married man.
"True — the man must live!" said a woman in the back quarter, who had just entered with clicking pattens.
"What woman is that?" Bathsheba asked.
"I be his lawful wife!" continued the voice with greater prominence of manner and tone. This lady called herself five-and-twenty, looked thirty, passed as thirty-five, and was forty. She was a woman who never, like some newly married, showed conjugal tenderness in public, perhaps because she had none to show.
"Oh, you are," said Bathsheba. "Well, Laban, will you stay on?"