The town band is playing merrily in front of the King's Arms, Casterbridge's chief hotel. A dinner is being held inside for all the town dignitaries and well-to-do citizens, although the windows are left open so the lesser folk can hear. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are attracted to the gathering in front of the hotel. There they learn that Michael Henchard is the Mayor of Casterbridge. At forty, he is a dynamic, commanding figure, with "a rich complexion, . . . a flashing black eye, and dark, bushy brows and hair." A townsman among the group of spectators informs them that Henchard is also a wealthy businessman, the corn-factor who had sold bad wheat. A surprising note is interjected when the news is given that the mayor is a complete teetotaler. Rumor has it that a long time ago the Mayor rook a "gospel oath" to abstain from alcoholic beverages for many years, and that only two years remain until the oath expires. He gives the impression of a man with "no pity for weakness."
Elizabeth-Jane is eager and excited at learning of the prosperity and high status of her "relation," but Susan is despondent and frightened of meeting Henchard. Elizabeth-Jane discovers by talking to a few villagers that Henchard is thought to be a widower. The feast proceeds merrily inside the hotel until a member of a group of lesser merchants sitting at the farther end of the room asks if Henchard will replace the poor wheat he has sold them with wholesome wheat. The query is echoed among the onlookers outside. Henchard is visibly upset by the demand, and answers: "If anybody will tell me how to turn grown wheat into wholesome wheat I'll take it back with pleasure. But it can't be done." Previous to this Henchard had informed the assembly that he, too, had been taken in when he bought the wheat. In order to minimize the chances of the recurrence of such a mistake, Henchard has advertised for a competent manager of the corn department. The matter is then dropped.
It is easy for us to understand Susan's consternation. She does not see in Michael Henchard a kind and forgiving personality. She is intimidated, too, by his power and affluence: "He overpowers me!" And thus she is left in despair.
Hardy introduces two elements of suspense in this chapter. What will happen when Henchard's oath of abstinence expires in two years? And what kind of manager will he hire? As he does so often, Hardy provides a commentary on the action by presenting the talk of the villagers — his "Wessex" types. In England the term "corn" means wheat. What Americans call corn is termed "maize" by the English.
fall a veil attached to the hat which women wore as a custom of modesty when walking in public.
rummers a tall stemless glass for drinking.
"shaken a little to-year" disturbed or bothered this year.
list a strip, or steak.