"O, man — fire, fire! A good master and a bad servant is fire, fire! — I mane a bad servant and a good master. Oh, Mark Clark — come! And you, Billy Smallbury — and you, Maryann Money — and you, Jan Coggan, and Matthew there!" Other figures now appeared behind this shouting man and among the smoke, and Gabriel found that, far from being alone he was in a great company — whose shadows danced merrily up and down, timed by the jigging of the flames, and not at all by their owners' movements. The assemblage — belonging to that class of society which casts its thoughts into the form of feeling, and its feelings into the form of commotion — set to work with a remarkable confusion of purpose.
"Stop the draught under the wheat-rick!" cried Gabriel to those nearest to him. The corn stood on stone staddles, and between these, tongues of yellow hue from the burning straw licked and darted playfully. If the fire once got UNDER this stack, all would be lost.
"Get a tarpaulin — quick!" said Gabriel.
A rick-cloth was brought, and they hung it like a curtain across the channel. The flames immediately ceased to go under the bottom of the corn-stack, and stood up vertical.
"Stand here with a bucket of water and keep the cloth wet." said Gabriel again.
The flames, now driven upwards, began to attack the angles of the huge roof covering the wheat-stack.
"A ladder," cried Gabriel.
"The ladder was against the straw-rick and is burnt to a cinder," said a spectre-like form in the smoke.
Oak seized the cut ends of the sheaves, as if he were going to engage in the operation of "reed-drawing," and digging in his feet, and occasionally sticking in the stem of his sheep-crook, he clambered up the beetling face. He at once sat astride the very apex, and began with his crook to beat off the fiery fragments which had lodged thereon, shouting to the others to get him a bough and a ladder, and some water.
Billy Smallbury — one of the men who had been on the waggon — by this time had found a ladder, which Mark Clark ascended, holding on beside Oak upon the thatch. The smoke at this corner was stifling, and Clark, a nimble fellow, having been handed a bucket of water, bathed Oak's face and sprinkled him generally, whilst Gabriel, now with a long beech-bough in one hand, in addition to his crook in the other, kept sweeping the stack and dislodging all fiery particles.
On the ground the groups of villagers were still occupied in doing all they could to keep down the conflagration, which was not much. They were all tinged orange, and backed up by shadows of varying pattern. Round the corner of the largest stack, out of the direct rays of the fire, stood a pony, bearing a young woman on its back. By her side was another woman, on foot. These two seemed to keep at a distance from the fire, that the horse might not become restive.
"He's a shepherd," said the woman on foot. "Yes — he is. See how his crook shines as he beats the rick with it. And his smock-frock is burnt in two holes, I declare! A fine young shepherd he is too, ma'am."
"Whose shepherd is he?" said the equestrian in a clear voice.
"Don't know, ma'am."
"Don't any of the others know?"
"Nobody at all — I've asked 'em. Quite a stranger, they say."
The young woman on the pony rode out from the shade and looked anxiously around.
"Do you think the barn is safe?" she said.
"D'ye think the barn is safe, Jan Coggan?" said the second woman, passing on the question to the nearest man in that direction.
"Safe-now — leastwise I think so. If this rick had gone the barn would have followed. 'Tis that bold shepherd up there that have done the most good — he sitting on the top o' rick, whizzing his great long-arms about like a windmill."
"He does work hard," said the young woman on horseback, looking up at Gabriel through her thick woollen veil. "I wish he was shepherd here. Don't any of you know his name."
"Never heard the man's name in my life, or seed his form afore."
The fire began to get worsted, and Gabriel's elevated position being no longer required of him, he made as if to descend.
"Maryann," said the girl on horseback, "go to him as he comes down, and say that the farmer wishes to thank him for the great service he has done."
Maryann stalked off towards the rick and met Oak at the foot of the ladder. She delivered her message.
"Where is your master the farmer?" asked Gabriel, kindling with the idea of getting employment that seemed to strike him now.
"'Tisn't a master; 'tis a mistress, shepherd."
"A woman farmer?"
"Ay, 'a b'lieve, and a rich one too!" said a bystander. "Lately 'a came here from a distance. Took on her uncle's farm, who died suddenly. Used to measure his money in half-pint cups. They say now that she've business in every bank in Casterbridge, and thinks no more of playing pitch-and-toss sovereign than you and I, do pitch-halfpenny — not a bit in the world, shepherd."
"That's she, back there upon the pony," said Maryann; "wi' her face a-covered up in that black cloth with holes in it."
Oak, his features smudged, grimy, and undiscoverable from the smoke and heat, his smock-frock burnt into holes and dripping with water, the ash stem of his sheep-crook charred six inches shorter, advanced with the humility stern adversity had thrust upon him up to the slight female form in the saddle. He lifted his hat with respect, and not without gallantry: stepping close to her hanging feet he said in a hesitating voice, —
"Do you happen to want a shepherd, ma'am?"
She lifted the wool veil tied round her face, and looked all astonishment. Gabriel and his cold-hearted darling, Bathsheba Everdene, were face to face.
Bathsheba did not speak, and he mechanically repeated in an abashed and sad voice, —
"Do you want a shepherd, ma'am?"