His path converged towards that of the noisy company, and on coming nearer he found to his relief that they were several Egdon people whom he knew very well, while with them walked Fairway, of Blooms-End.
"What! Christian going too?" said Fairway as soon as he recognized the newcomer. "You've got no young woman nor wife to your name to gie a gown-piece to, I'm sure."
"What d'ye mean?" said Christian.
"Why, the raffle. The one we go to every year. Going to the raffle as well as ourselves?"
"Never knew a word o't. Is it like cudgel playing or other sportful forms of bloodshed? I don't want to go, thank you, Mister Fairway, and no offence."
"Christian don't know the fun o't, and 'twould be a fine sight for him," said a buxom woman. "There's no danger at all, Christian. Every man puts in a shilling apiece, and one wins a gown-piece for his wife or sweetheart if he's got one."
"Well, as that's not my fortune there's no meaning in it to me. But I should like to see the fun, if there's nothing of the black art in it, and if a man may look on without cost or getting into any dangerous wrangle?"
"There will be no uproar at all," said Timothy. "Sure, Christian, if you'd like to come we'll see there's no harm done."
"And no ba'dy gaieties, I suppose? You see, neighbours, if so, it would be setting father a bad example, as he is so light moral'd. But a gown-piece for a shilling, and no black art — 'tis worth looking in to see, and it wouldn't hinder me half an hour. Yes, I'll come, if you'll step a little way towards Mistover with me afterwards, supposing night should have closed in, and nobody else is going that way?"
One or two promised; and Christian, diverging from his direct path, turned round to the right with his companions towards the Quiet Woman.
When they entered the large common room of the inn they found assembled there about ten men from among the neighbouring population, and the group was increased by the new contingent to double that number. Most of them were sitting round the room in seats divided by wooden elbows like those of crude cathedral stalls, which were carved with the initials of many an illustrious drunkard of former times who had passed his days and his nights between them, and now lay as an alcoholic cinder in the nearest churchyard. Among the cups on the long table before the sitters lay an open parcel of light drapery — the gown-piece, as it was called — which was to be raffled for. Wildeve was standing with his back to the fireplace smoking a cigar; and the promoter of the raffle, a packman from a distant town, was expatiating upon the value of the fabric as material for a summer dress.
"Now, gentlemen," he continued, as the newcomers drew up to the table, "there's five have entered, and we want four more to make up the number. I think, by the faces of those gentlemen who have just come in, that they are shrewd enough to take advantage of this rare opportunity of beautifying their ladies at a very trifling expense."
Fairway, Sam, and another placed their shillings on the table, and the man turned to Christian.
"No, sir," said Christian, drawing back, with a quick gaze of misgiving. "I am only a poor chap come to look on, an it please ye, sir. I don't so much as know how you do it. If so be I was sure of getting it I would put down the shilling; but I couldn't otherwise."
"I think you might almost be sure," said the pedlar. "In fact, now I look into your face, even if I can't say you are sure to win, I can say that I never saw anything look more like winning in my life."
"You'll anyhow have the same chance as the rest of us," said Sam.
"And the extra luck of being the last comer," said another.
"And I was born wi' a caul, and perhaps can be no more ruined than drowned?" Christian added, beginning to give way.
Ultimately Christian laid down his shilling, the raffle began, and the dice went round. When it came to Christian's turn he took the box with a trembling hand, shook it fearfully, and threw a pair-royal. Three of the others had thrown common low pairs, and all the rest mere points.
"The gentleman looked like winning, as I said," observed the chapman blandly. "Take it, sir; the article is yours."
"Haw-haw-haw!" said Fairway. "I'm damned if this isn't the quarest start that ever I knowed!"
"Mine?" asked Christian, with a vacant stare from his target eyes. "I — I haven't got neither maid, wife, nor widder belonging to me at all, and I'm afeard it will make me laughed at to ha'e it, Master Traveller. What with being curious to join in I never thought of that! What shall I do wi' a woman's clothes in MY bedroom, and not lose my decency!"
"Keep 'em, to be sure," said Fairway, "if it is only for luck. Perhaps 'twill tempt some woman that thy poor carcase had no power over when standing empty-handed."
"Keep it, certainly," said Wildeve, who had idly watched the scene from a distance.
The table was then cleared of the articles, and the men began to drink.
"Well, to be sure!" said Christian, half to himself. "To think I should have been born so lucky as this, and not have found it out until now! What curious creatures these dice be — powerful rulers of us all, and yet at my command! I am sure I never need be afeared of anything after this." He handled the dice fondly one by one. "Why, sir," he said in a confidential whisper to Wildeve, who was near his left hand, "if I could only use this power that's in me of multiplying money I might do some good to a near relation of yours, seeing what I've got about me of hers — eh?" He tapped one of his money-laden boots upon the floor.
"What do you mean?" said Wildeve.
"That's a secret. Well, I must be going now." He looked anxiously towards Fairway.
"Where are you going?" Wildeve asked.
"To Mistover Knap. I have to see Mrs. Thomasin there — that's all."
"I am going there, too, to fetch Mrs. Wildeve. We can walk together."
Wildeve became lost in thought, and a look of inward illumination came into his eyes. It was money for his wife that Mrs. Yeobright could not trust him with. "Yet she could trust this fellow," he said to himself. "Why doesn't that which belongs to the wife belong to the husband too?"
He called to the pot-boy to bring him his hat, and said, "Now, Christian, I am ready."
"Mr. Wildeve," said Christian timidly, as he turned to leave the room, "would you mind lending me them wonderful little things that carry my luck inside 'em, that I might practise a bit by myself, you know?" He looked wistfully at the dice and box lying on the mantlepiece.
"Certainly," said Wildeve carelessly. "They were only cut out by some lad with his knife, and are worth nothing." And Christian went back and privately pocketed them.
Wildeve opened the door and looked out. The night was warm and cloudy. "By Gad! 'tis dark," he continued. "But I suppose we shall find our way."
"If we should lose the path it might be awkward," said Christian. "A lantern is the only shield that will make it safe for us."
"Let's have a lantern by all means." The stable lantern was fetched and lighted. Christian took up his gownpiece, and the two set out to ascend the hill.
Within the room the men fell into chat till their attention was for a moment drawn to the chimney-corner. This was large, and, in addition to its proper recess, contained within its jambs, like many on Egdon, a receding seat, so that a person might sit there absolutely unobserved, provided there was no fire to light him up, as was the case now and throughout the summer. From the niche a single object protruded into the light from the candles on the table. It was a clay pipe, and its colour was reddish. The men had been attracted to this object by a voice behind the pipe asking for a light.
"Upon my life, it fairly startled me when the man spoke!" said Fairway, handing a candle. "Oh — 'tis the reddleman! You've kept a quiet tongue, young man."