The lower classes of Raveloe are gathered at the Rainbow while their betters are attending Mrs. Osgood's birthday dance. The conversation there has begun slowly this evening, with a mild argument between the farrier and the butcher over a cow that the butcher had slaughtered the day before. The landlord settles the dispute by declaring that they are both right and both wrong. However, the ownership of the cow by Mr. Lammeter leads the landlord to ask Mr. Macey to recall when Mr. Lammeter's father first came to Raveloe. Mr. Macey, before beginning the tale, directs some jibes at his assistant, Mr. Tookey. Macey and Ben Winthrop, leader of the church choir, aim some heavy humor at Tookey for his out-of-tune singing. The landlord again decides the point by allowing that everyone is right and everyone wrong. He then directs the conversation back to the subject of Mr. Lammeter's father.
This time, Macey stays on his subject, pausing now and then to admit the customary questions at the usual places. He recalls that the elder Mr. Lammeter came to Raveloe from "a bit north'ard," bringing his sheep with him. He married the sister of Mr. Osgood and settled at the Warrens. Macey, in his capacity as parish clerk, helped to marry them, and he alone noticed that during the ceremony the rector reversed the key phrases, saying, "Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded wife?" and, "Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded husband?" Macey was worried that this would invalidate the ceremony: he couldn't decide whether the meaning or the form was the important thing. He decided "it isn't the meanin', it's the glue." But when he questioned the rector, the rector informed him that the important thing was the register.
This story is familiar to all the hearers, and they put the correct questions to Macey. The landlord asks about the land where Mr. Lammeter settled, the Warrens. Macey says it once belonged to a London tailor who tried to make his son a country gentlemen there. After the boy died, the father died raving and left all his property to a London charity. His ghost is said to haunt the stables yet.
Mr. Dowlas, the farrier, has only scorn for ghosts, but several others pity his lack of comprehension. The landlord compromises with the argument that the ability to see ghosts is like a nose for smelling cheese: some have it and some don't.
At this moment, Silas is seen standing within the room, and even the farrier is startled by the feeling that a ghost has come among them. At last the landlord asks Silas what his business is. Silas exclaims that he has been robbed. Seeing Jem Rodney there, he demands his money back. Rodney denies taking it. At last Silas is made to sit down and tell his story. In the end, he apologizes to Jem for accusing him.
Silas is so distraught that there is immediate sympathy for him, and all suspicion vanishes. The farrier proposes that "two of the sensiblest o' the company" should go for the constable, who is ill in bed, and have one appointed as a deputy. The farrier clearly expects to be deputized himself. However, Mr. Macey recalls that his father told him that no doctor could be a constable, and even a cow doctor is a doctor. The farrier doesn't wish to decline the title of doctor, but argues that the law means that a doctor doesn't have to serve if he wishes not to. Nevertheless, he is driven by Macey's "merciless reasoning" to deny that he wants to be the constable. The landlord settles the dispute by persuading the farrier to go as the second man.
The company at the Rainbow serve as a sort of chorus to comment on the action. These characters also help to round out the local society as a background for the main characters. The discussion before Silas' entry is not strictly essential to the plot, but it modifies our response to the other characters and gives wider meaning and application to the main events.
Raveloe society, which has already been commented on by Eliot, is now seen in the flesh. Both these and the central characters are conceived as being fully a part of the social structure. Eliot depicts character as being rooted in environment or defined within one social structure. These people cannot be uprooted: it would be hard to imagine Mr. Macey, for example, in any other surroundings. Yet there is very little description of these characters; the emphasis is on their psychology and moral nature. They are visualized through their reactions to other people and events. Their reactions are distinct enough that different characters are fully distinguished, but they fall well short of caricature.
The background of the story (and of the village) is filled in during the conversation. A good deal is said of the character of the Lammeter family, and this pertains directly to the relationship of Godfrey and Nancy. There is also a renewal of the examination of Raveloe religion. Of superstition there is plenty, but no great amount of religious thought or feeling. Christianity is semi-magical here. For example, Macey is much concerned with just which element of the ceremony makes a wedding valid.
The choosing of a deputy constable plays on the importance of ceremony by taking a mock-ceremonial form. It is based on the ritual of nolo episcopari — that is, the ceremony preceding the consecration of a bishop, in which the candidate formally denies any desire to become bishop.
There is little real thought of any sort exhibited. The conversation runs on in a set pattern (chorus-like) with everyone knowing his part. It is for this reason that the landlord can agree with both sides of an argument when the two cannot be logically reconciled. There is no thought involved. He is simply the peacemaker — it is in his interest to be so, and it is felt to be his proper part.
There is a third sort of ceremony mentioned in addition to religion and conversation: the observance of custom. Mr. Lammeter was first respected as "a new parish'ner as know'd the rights and customs o' things, and kep a good house, and was well looked on by everybody." Custom and ceremony are the threads that hold the social fabric together. By observing them, Mr. Lammeter was quickly accepted, even though, like Silas, he came from "a bit north'ard." That Silas partakes neither of the ceremony of the church nor the public house is a contribution to his exiled state.
Silas' appearance is suited to the conversation that has been taking place. Recall that in the first pages of the novel, the Raveloe people referred to him as "a dead man come to life again." His appearance now is like that in those fits that led to his reputation: he appears as if "his soul went loose from his body." In a figurative sense this is true: Silas' whole life was centered in his gold, which is now gone from him. It is this that causes his deathly appearance.
The excellent humor of the debate over who shall be constable is based on a multiple development of irony. First there is irony of action — that is, events turn out the opposite of what was intended. The farrier confidently volunteers as a deputy, but in the end professional pride forces him to declare that he does not want to go. Along with this is an irony of statement: the implied meaning of the words is the opposite of their face value. Thus when Eliot speaks of the farrier's "pregnant speech," she means the speech was dull and empty. A third sort of irony rises from the difference between Eliot's implied view of a situation and that stated by a character. Macey wonders at his own "cuteness," while his reasoning is actually based on a twisted logic; and the farrier is persuaded to go for the constable as "a second person disinclined to act officially," although his inclination to act officially is very great indeed.
This debate, like the earlier conversation among the company, contains some fine comic dialogue. It offers some good examples of Eliot's ability to fit comedy to a variety of characters without lapsing into farce.