"Well, now, you'd hardly believe it, but that man — our Miss Everdene's father — was one of the ficklest husbands alive, after a while. Understand? 'a didn't want to be fickle, but he couldn't help it. The pore feller were faithful and true enough to her in his wish, but his heart would rove, do what he would. He spoke to me in real tribulation about it once. 'Coggan,' he said, 'I could never wish for a handsomer woman than I've got, but feeling she's ticketed as my lawful wife, I can't help my wicked heart wandering, do what I will.' But at last I believe he cured it by making her take off her wedding-ring and calling her by her maiden name as they sat together after the shop was shut, and so 'a would get to fancy she was only his sweetheart, and not married to him at all. And as soon as he could thoroughly fancy he was doing wrong and committing the seventh, 'a got to like her as well as ever, and they lived on a perfect picture of mutel love."
"Well, 'twas a most ungodly remedy," murmured Joseph Poorgrass; "but we ought to feel deep cheerfulness that a happy Providence kept it from being any worse. You see, he might have gone the bad road and given his eyes to unlawfulness entirely — yes, gross unlawfulness, so to say it."
"You see," said Billy Smallbury, "The man's will was to do right, sure enough, but his heart didn't chime in."
"He got so much better, that he was quite godly in his later years, wasn't he, Jan?" said Joseph Poorgrass. "He got himself confirmed over again in a more serious way, and took to saying 'Amen' almost as loud as the clerk, and he liked to copy comforting verses from the tombstones. He used, too, to hold the money-plate at Let Your Light so Shine, and stand godfather to poor little come-by-chance children; and he kept a missionary box upon his table to nab folks unawares when they called; yes, and he would box the charity-boys' ears, if they laughed in church, till they could hardly stand upright, and do other deeds of piety natural to the saintly inclined."
"Ay, at that time he thought of nothing but high things," added Billy Smallbury. "One day Parson Thirdly met him and said, 'Good-Morning, Mister Everdene; 'tis a fine day!' 'Amen' said Everdene, quite absent-like, thinking only of religion when he seed a parson. Yes, he was a very Christian man."
"Their daughter was not at all a pretty chiel at that time," said Henery Fray. "Never should have thought she'd have growed up such a handsome body as she is."
"'Tis to be hoped her temper is as good as her face."
"Well, yes; but the baily will have most to do with the business and ourselves. Ah!" Henery gazed into the ashpit, and smiled volumes of ironical knowledge.
"A queer Christian, like the Devil's head in a cowl, as the saying is," volunteered Mark Clark.
"He is," said Henery, implying that irony must cease at a certain point. "Between we two, man and man, I believe that man would as soon tell a lie Sundays as working-days — that I do so."
"Good faith, you do talk!" said Gabriel.
"True enough," said the man of bitter moods, looking round upon the company with the antithetic laughter that comes from a keener appreciation of the miseries of life than ordinary men are capable of. "Ah, there's people of one sort, and people of another, but that man — bless your souls!"
Gabriel thought fit to change the subject. "You must be a very aged man, malter, to have sons growed mild and ancient," he remarked.
"Father's so old that 'a can't mind his age, can ye, father?" interposed Jacob. "And he's growed terrible crooked too, lately," Jacob continued, surveying his father's figure, which was rather more bowed than his own. "Really one may say that father there is three-double."
"Crooked folk will last a long while," said the maltster, grimly, and not in the best humour.
"Shepherd would like to hear the pedigree of yer life, father — wouldn't ye, shepherd?"
"Ay that I should," said Gabriel with the heartiness of a man who had longed to hear it for several months. "What may your age be, malter?"
The maltster cleared his throat in an exaggerated form for emphasis, and elongating his gaze to the remotest point of the ashpit, said, in the slow speech justifiable when the importance of a subject is so generally felt that any mannerism must be tolerated in getting at it, "Well, I don't mind the year I were born in, but perhaps I can reckon up the places I've lived at, and so get it that way. I bode at Upper Longpuddle across there" (nodding to the north) "till I were eleven. I bode seven at Kingsbere" (nodding to the east) "where I took to malting. I went therefrom to Norcombe, and malted there two-and-twenty years, and-two-and-twenty years I was there turnip-hoeing and harvesting. Ah, I knowed that old place, Norcombe, years afore you were thought of, Master Oak" (Oak smiled sincere belief in the fact). "Then I malted at Durnover four year, and four year turnip-hoeing; and I was fourteen times eleven months at Millpond St. Jude's" (nodding north-west-by-north). "Old Twills wouldn't hire me for more than eleven months at a time, to keep me from being chargeable to the parish if so be I was disabled. Then I was three year at Mellstock, and I've been here one-and-thirty year come Candlemas. How much is that?"
"Hundred and seventeen," chuckled another old gentleman, given to mental arithmetic and little conversation, who had hitherto sat unobserved in a corner.
"Well, then, that's my age," said the maltster, emphatically.
"O no, father!" said Jacob. "Your turnip-hoeing were in the summer and your malting in the winter of the same years, and ye don't ought to count-both halves, father."
"Chok' it all! I lived through the summers, didn't I? That's my question. I suppose ye'll say next I be no age at all to speak of?"
"Sure we shan't," said Gabriel, soothingly.
"Ye be a very old aged person, malter," attested Jan Coggan, also soothingly. "We all know that, and ye must have a wonderful talented constitution to be able to live so long, mustn't he, neighbours?"
"True, true; ye must, malter, wonderful," said the meeting unanimously.
The maltster, being now pacified, was even generous enough to voluntarily disparage in a slight degree the virtue of having lived a great many years, by mentioning that the cup they were drinking out of was three years older than he.
While the cup was being examined, the end of Gabriel Oak's flute became visible over his smock-frock pocket, and Henery Fray exclaimed, "Surely, shepherd, I seed you blowing into a great flute by now at Casterbridge?"
"You did," said Gabriel, blushing faintly. "I've been in great trouble, neighbours, and was driven to it. I used not to be so poor as I be now."
"Never mind, heart!" said Mark Clark. You should take it careless-like, shepherd, and your time will come. But we could thank ye for a tune, if ye bain't too tired?"
"Neither drum nor trumpet have I heard since Christmas," said Jan Coggan. "Come, raise a tune, Master Oak!"
"Ay, that I will," said Gabriel, pulling out his flute and putting it together. "A poor tool, neighbours; but such as I can do ye shall have and welcome."