Oak then struck up "Jockey to the Fair," and played that sparkling melody three times through, accenting the notes in the third round in a most artistic and lively manner by bending his body in small jerks and tapping with his foot to beat time.
"He can blow the flute very well — that 'a can," said a young married man, who having no individuality worth mentioning was known as "Susan Tall's husband." He continued, "I'd as lief as not be able to blow into a flute as well as that."
"He's a clever man, and 'tis a true comfort for us to have such a shepherd," murmured Joseph Poorgrass, in a soft cadence. "We ought to feel full o' thanksgiving that he's not a player of ba'dy songs instead of these merry tunes; for 'twould have been just as easy for God to have made the shepherd a loose low man — a man of iniquity, so to speak it — as what he is. Yes, for our wives' and daughters' sakes we should feel real thanksgiving."
"True, true, — real thanksgiving!" dashed in Mark Clark conclusively, not feeling it to be of any consequence to his opinion that he had only heard about a word and three-quarters of what Joseph had said.
"Yes," added Joseph, beginning to feel like a man in the Bible; "for evil do thrive so in these times that ye may be as much deceived in the cleanest shaved and whitest shirted man as in the raggedest tramp upon the turnpike, if I may term it so."
"Ay, I can mind yer face now, shepherd," said Henery Fray, criticising Gabriel with misty eyes as he entered upon his second tune. "Yes — now I see 'ee blowing into the flute I know 'ee to be the same man I see play at Casterbridge, for yer mouth were scrimped up and yer eyes a-staring out like a strangled man's — just as they be now."
"'Tis a pity that playing the flute should make a man look such a scarecrow," observed Mr. Mark Clark, with additional criticism of Gabriel's countenance, the latter person jerking out, with the ghastly grimace required by the instrument, the chorus of "Dame Durden:" —
'Twas Moll' and Bet', and Doll' and Kate',
And Dor'-othy Drag'-gle Tail'.
"I hope you don't mind that young man's bad manners in naming your features?" whispered Joseph to Gabriel.
"Not at all," said Mr. Oak.
"For by nature ye be a very handsome man, shepherd," continued Joseph Poorgrass, with winning sauvity.
"Ay, that ye be, shepard," said the company.
"Thank you very much," said Oak, in the modest tone good manners demanded, thinking, however, that he would never let Bathsheba see him playing the flute; in this resolve showing a discretion equal to that related to its sagacious inventress, the divine Minerva herself.
"Ah, when I and my wife were married at Norcombe Church," said the old maltster, not pleased at finding himself left out of the subject, "we were called the handsomest couple in the neighbourhood — everybody said so."
"Danged if ye bain't altered now, malter," said a voice with the vigour natural to the enunciation of a remarkably evident truism. It came from the old man in the background, whose offensiveness and spiteful ways were barely atoned for by the occasional chuckle he contributed to general laughs.
"O no, no," said Gabriel.
"Don't ye play no more shepherd" said Susan Tall's husband, the young married man who had spoken once before. "I must be moving and when there's tunes going on I seem as if hung in wires. If I thought after I'd left that music was still playing, and I not there, I should be quite melancholy-like."
"What's yer hurry then, Laban?" inquired Coggan. "You used to bide as late as the latest."
"Well, ye see, neighbours, I was lately married to a woman, and she's my vocation now, and so ye see — " The young man halted lamely.
"New Lords new laws, as the saying is, I suppose," remarked Coggan.
"Ay, 'a b'lieve — ha, ha!" said Susan Tall's husband, in a tone intended to imply his habitual reception of jokes without minding them at all. The young man then wished them good-night and withdrew.
Henery Fray was the first to follow. Then Gabriel arose and went off with Jan Coggan, who had offered him a lodging. A few minutes later, when the remaining ones were on their legs and about to depart, Fray came back again in a hurry. Flourishing his finger ominously he threw a gaze teeming with tidings just where his eye alighted by accident, which happened to be in Joseph Poorgrass's face.
"O — what's the matter, what's the matter, Henery?" said Joseph, starting back.
"What's a-brewing, Henrey?" asked Jacob and Mark Clark.
"Baily Pennyways — Baily Pennyways — I said so; yes, I said so!"
"What, found out stealing anything?"
"Stealing it is. The news is, that after Miss Everdene got home she went out again to see all was safe, as she usually do, and coming in found Baily Pennyways creeping down the granary steps with half a a bushel of barley. She fleed at him like a cat — never such a tomboy as she is — of course I speak with closed doors?"
"You do — you do, Henery."
"She fleed at him, and, to cut a long story short, he owned to having carried off five sack altogether, upon her promising not to persecute him. Well, he's turned out neck and crop, and my question is, who's going to be baily now?"
The question was such a profound one that Henery was obliged to drink there and then from the large cup till the bottom was distinctly visible inside. Before he had replaced it on the table, in came the young man, Susan Tall's husband, in a still greater hurry.
"Have ye heard the news that's all over parish?"
"About Baily Pennyways?"
"But besides that?"
"No — not a morsel of it!" they replied, looking into the very midst of Laban Tall as if to meet his words half-way down his throat.
"What a night of horrors!" murmured Joseph Poorgrass, waving his hands spasmodically. "I've had the news-bell ringing in my left ear quite bad enough for a murder, and I've seen a magpie all alone!"
"Fanny Robin — Miss Everdene's youngest servant — can't be found. They've been wanting to lock up the door these two hours, but she isn't come in. And they don't know what to do about going to bed for fear of locking her out. They wouldn't be so concerned if she hadn't been noticed in such low spirits these last few days, and Maryann d' think the beginning of a crowner's inquest has happened to the poor girl."
"Oh — 'tis burned — 'tis burned!" came from Joseph Poorgrass's dry lips.
"No — 'tis drowned!" said Tall.