As the festivities proceed within the King's Arms Hotel, a handsome stranger "of a fair countenance, bright-eyed, and slight in build," stops before the hotel, his attention arrested by the discussion about corn. After hearing Henchard's closing words on the subject, he hastily scribbles a note and instructs a waiter to deliver it to the mayor. Having also asked the waiter about a less expensive hotel, he immediately leaves for the Three Mariners Inn. During all this time, Elizabeth-Jane has watched the young man's actions, and after his departure suggests to her mother that they, too, look for a lodging at the Three Mariners. Susan agrees and they also leave.
Henchard is given the note and upon reading it becomes evidently interested in its contents. He learns from the waiter that a young Scotsman sent the note and that he has gone to the Three Mariners. Henchard leaves the dinner-party — where most of the members have become tipsy — and walks to the inn.
This chapter may be considered the beginning of the complex plot movements of the novel. It is interesting because a number of chance happenings occur which create the initial impetus of the events to follow: By chance a handsome Scotsman passes by the hotel and hears the discussion concerning corn; Elizabeth-Jane has traveled a great distance to listen to the same discussion and by chance to notice the young Scotsman; the three strangers go to the same inn, and Henchard, leaving the dinner-party to seek out the young Scotsman, by chance just misses his wife and Elizabeth-Jane. If Henchard had come upon Susan five minutes earlier, he might never have gone to the Three Mariners and the story would have been drastically altered. But this is only one of many chance "if's" the reader will encounter within the movement of the plot.
The Three Mariners is lovingly described, illustrating Hardy's recurrent fascination with the old, quaint, "native" aspects of Wessex.
mullioned a vertical dividing strip in an opening or a window. The sense of the passage is that the vertical strips on the windows should be perpendicular to the ground, but they are not. Thus, the building looks quaintly out of kilter.
yard of clay a long clay pipe.
ruddy polls ruddy — reddish, healthy glow; poll — top or back of the head. Hence shiny bald heads visible through the shutters of the Inn.