"I suppose you wouldn't. 'Tis altered very much."
"Is it true that Dicky Hill's wooden cider-house is pulled down?"
"Oh yes — years ago, and Dicky's cottage just above it."
"Well, to be sure!"
"Yes; and Tompkins's old apple-tree is rooted that used to bear two hogsheads of cider; and no help from other trees."
"Rooted? — you don't say it! Ah! stirring times we live in — stirring times."
"And you can mind the old well that used to be in the middle of the place? That's turned into a solid iron pump with a large stone trough, and all complete."
"Dear, dear — how the face of nations alter, and what we live to see nowadays! Yes — and 'tis the same here. They've been talking but now of the mis'ess's strange doings."
"What have you been saying about her?" inquired Oak, sharply turning to the rest, and getting very warm.
"These middle-aged men have been pulling her over the coals for pride and vanity," said Mark Clark; "but I say, let her have rope enough. Bless her pretty face — shouldn't I like to do so — upon her cherry lips!" The gallant Mark Clark here made a peculiar and well known sound with his own.
"Mark," said Gabriel, sternly, "now you mind this! none of that dalliance-talk — that smack-and-coddle style of yours — about Miss Everdene. I don't allow it. Do you hear?"
"With all my heart, as I've got no chance," replied Mr. Clark, cordially.
"I suppose you've been speaking against her?" said Oak, turning to Joseph Poorgrass with a very grim look.
"No, no — not a word I — 'tis a real joyful thing that she's no worse, that's what I say," said Joseph, trembling and blushing with terror. "Matthew just said — "
"Matthew Moon, what have you been saying?" asked Oak.
"I? Why ye know I wouldn't harm a worm — no, not one underground worm?" said Matthew Moon, looking very uneasy.
"Well, somebody has — and look here, neighbours," Gabriel, though one of the quietest and most gentle men on earth, rose to the occasion, with martial promptness and vigour. "That's my fist." Here he placed his fist, rather smaller in size than a common loaf, in the mathematical centre of the maltster's little table, and with it gave a bump or two thereon, as if to ensure that their eyes all thoroughly took in the idea of fistiness before he went further. "Now — the first man in the parish that I hear prophesying bad of our mistress, why" (here the fist was raised and let fall as Thor might have done with his hammer in assaying it) — "he'll smell and taste that — or I'm a Dutchman."
All earnestly expressed by their features that their minds did not wander to Holland for a moment on account of this statement, but were deploring the difference which gave rise to the figure; and Mark Clark cried "Hear, hear; just what I should ha' said." The dog George looked up at the same time after the shepherd's menace, and though he understood English but imperfectly, began to growl.
"Now, don't ye take on so, shepherd, and sit down!" said Henery, with a deprecating peacefulness equal to anything of the kind in Christianity.
"We hear that ye be a extraordinary good and clever man, shepherd," said Joseph Poorgrass with considerable anxiety from behind the maltster's bedstead, whither he had retired for safety. "'Tis a great thing to be clever, I'm sure," he added, making movements associated with states of mind rather than body; "we wish we were, don't we, neighbours?"
"Ay, that we do, sure," said Matthew Moon, with a small anxious laugh towards Oak, to show how very friendly disposed he was likewise.
"Who's been telling you I'm clever?" said Oak.
"'Tis blowed about from pillar to post quite common," said Matthew. "We hear that ye can tell the time as well by the stars as we can by the sun and moon, shepherd."
"Yes, I can do a little that way," said Gabriel, as a man of medium sentiments on the subject.
"And that ye can make sun-dials, and prent folks' names upon their waggons almost like copper-plate, with beautiful flourishes, and great long tails. A excellent fine thing for ye to be such a clever man, shepherd. Joseph Poorgrass used to prent to Farmer James Everdene's waggons before you came, and 'a could never mind which way to turn the J's and E's — could ye, Joseph?" Joseph shook his head to express how absolute was the fact that he couldn't. "And so you used to do 'em the wrong way, like this, didn't ye, Joseph?" Matthew marked on the dusty floor with his whip-handle
[the word J A M E S appears here with the "J" and the "E" printed backwards]
"And how Farmer James would cuss, and call thee a fool, wouldn't he, Joseph, when 'a seed his name looking so inside-out-like?" continued Matthew Moon with feeling.
"Ay — 'a would," said Joseph, meekly. "But, you see, I wasn't so much to blame, for them J's and E's be such trying sons o' witches for the memory to mind whether they face backward or forward; and I always had such a forgetful memory, too."
"'Tis a very bad afiction for ye, being such a man of calamities in other ways."
"Well, 'tis; but a happy Providence ordered that it should be no worse, and I feel my thanks. As to shepherd, there, I'm sure mis'ess ought to have made ye her baily — such a fitting man for't as you be."
"I don't mind owning that I expected it," said Oak, frankly. "Indeed, I hoped for the place. At the same time, Miss Everdene has a right to be her own baily if she choose — and to keep me down to be a common shepherd only." Oak drew a slow breath, looked sadly into the bright ashpit, and seemed lost in thoughts not of the most hopeful hue.
The genial warmth of the fire now began to stimulate the nearly lifeless lambs to bleat and move their limbs briskly upon the hay, and to recognize for the first time the fact that they were born. Their noise increased to a chorus of baas, upon which Oak pulled the milk-can from before the fire, and taking a small tea-pot from the pocket of his smock-frock, filled it with milk, and taught those of the helpless creatures which were not to be restored to their dams how to drink from the spout — a trick they acquired with astonishing aptitude.
"And she don't even let ye have the skins of the dead lambs, I hear?" resumed Joseph Poorgrass, his eyes lingering on the operations of Oak with the necessary melancholy.
"I don't have them," said Gabriel.
"Ye be very badly used, shepherd," hazarded Joseph again, in the hope of getting Oak as an ally in lamentation after all. "I think she's took against ye — that I do."
"Oh no — not at all," replied Gabriel, hastily, and a sigh escaped him, which the deprivation of lamb skins could hardly have caused.
Before any further remark had been added a shade darkened the door, and Boldwood entered the malthouse, bestowing upon each a nod of a quality between friendliness and condescension.
"Ah! Oak, I thought you were here," he said. "I met the mail-cart ten minutes ago, and a letter was put into my hand, which I opened without reading the address. I believe it is yours. You must excuse the accident please."
"Oh yes — not a bit of difference, Mr. Boldwood — not a bit," said Gabriel, readily. He had not a correspondent on earth, nor was there a possible letter coming to him whose contents the whole parish would not have been welcome to peruse.
Oak stepped aside, and read the following in an unknown hand: —