Summary and Analysis
Casterbridge was holding its February hiring fair. A few hundred hearty workers stood about, each showing the symbol of his trade: carters, a bit of whipcord on their hats; thatchers, straw; shepherds, their crooks. One young fellow's "superiority was marked enough to lead several ruddy peasants standing by to speak to him inquiringly, as to a farmer, and to use 'Sir' as a finishing word. His answer always was, — 'I am looking for a place myself — a bailiff's.'"
No one seemed to need bailiffs. Toward the end of the day, Gabriel went to have a shepherd's crook fashioned, and he also exchanged his overcoat for a regulation smock. Now, ironically, bailiffs were in demand; yet prospective employers seemed to edge away when Gabriel said he'd lost his farm.
Watching the evening's merriment, Gabriel felt his flute in his pocket. "Here was an opportunity for putting his dearly bought wisdom into practice." His tunes were so well received that soon he had earned enough pence to feel more secure. There was another fair in Shottsford the next day. Hearing that this town lay beyond Weatherbury, Gabriel thought of Bathsheba and resolved to go to the fair via Weatherbury. After going about four miles in that direction, he saw a haywagon without horses beside the road and lay down in it for a rest. After dark he wakened to find the wagon in motion. He eavesdropped on the conversation of the two men in front and conjectured that the vain woman whom they were discussing was Bathsheba. Dismissing the thought, since the woman under discussion seemed to be the owner of a large farm, he slipped out of the wagon unseen.
Suddenly Gabriel saw a fire in the distance. As he ran toward it, he realized that the fire was in a rickyard. His familiarity with the nature of burning hay drove him to hurry to save it before it enveloped the piled-up corn. Others were converging on the fire, too. In the general confusion, Gabriel stood out as one who naturally takes command.
To one side stood two veiled women. They identified Gabriel as a shepherd, for he was wielding a crook, but no one seemed to know him. Finally the fire was extinguished. One of the women sent the other, her maid, to thank Gabriel. The maid told Gabriel that the other woman owned the farm. Gabriel approached her, saying, "Do you happen to want a shepherd, ma'am?" Silently, the astonished Bathsheba lifted her veil. Gabriel mechanically repeated his question.
This long chapter abounds with architectural terminology and with evidence of Hardy's skills as an artist and a writer. We view masses of people in motion, but from the immense canvas detailed individual figures emerge as well. Hardy portrays many facets of the fair — speech, customs, costumes, indigenous trades, a sergeant, and a recruiter.
Gabriel continues his service as an on-the-spot observer for Hardy. The farmer has been matured by the reverses he has experienced and is learning to compromise. Even as the workers are "waiting on Chance," so is Gabriel. In Hardy's works, many such evidences of belief in fate and fortune exist. Oak's effort to "help" the fates by changing his costume is unavailing. When he decides to continue to Shottsford in his search for employment, the motivation is not too farfetched, for there are not many roads to choose; he is poor and cannot afford an inn. His rest in the wagon and the overheard conversation give Hardy an opportunity to introduce more dialect and to further characterize the Wessex folk.
The animation of the fire scene is a dramatization of country life and of some of the hazards encountered in the seemingly serene landscape.