DESCRIPTION OF FARMER OAK–AN INCIDENT
When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they
were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were
reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them,
extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch
of the rising sun.
His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young
man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good
character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to
postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the
whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space
of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people of
the parish and the drunken section,–that is, he went to church, but
yawned privately by the time the congregation reached the Nicene
creed, and thought of what there would be for dinner when he meant to
be listening to the sermon. Or, to state his character as it stood
in the scale of public opinion, when his friends and critics were in
tantrums, he was considered rather a bad man; when they were pleased,
he was rather a good man; when they were neither, he was a man whose
moral colour was a kind of pepper-and-salt mixture.
Since he lived six times as many working-days as Sundays, Oak’s
appearance in his old clothes was most peculiarly his own–the mental
picture formed by his neighbours in imagining him being always
dressed in that way. He wore a low-crowned felt hat, spread out at
the base by tight jamming upon the head for security in high winds,
and a coat like Dr. Johnson’s; his lower extremities being encased
in ordinary leather leggings and boots emphatically large, affording
to each foot a roomy apartment so constructed that any wearer might
stand in a river all day long and know nothing of damp–their maker
being a conscientious man who endeavoured to compensate for any
weakness in his cut by unstinted dimension and solidity.
Mr. Oak carried about him, by way of watch, what may be called a
small silver clock; in other words, it was a watch as to shape and
intention, and a small clock as to size. This instrument being
several years older than Oak’s grandfather, had the peculiarity of
going either too fast or not at all. The smaller of its hands, too,
occasionally slipped round on the pivot, and thus, though the minutes
were told with precision, nobody could be quite certain of the hour
they belonged to. The stopping peculiarity of his watch Oak remedied
by thumps and shakes, and he escaped any evil consequences from the
other two defects by constant comparisons with and observations of
the sun and stars, and by pressing his face close to the glass of his
neighbours’ windows, till he could discern the hour marked by the
green-faced timekeepers within. It may be mentioned that Oak’s fob
being difficult of access, by reason of its somewhat high situation
in the waistband of his trousers (which also lay at a remote height
under his waistcoat), the watch was as a necessity pulled out by
throwing the body to one side, compressing the mouth and face to a
mere mass of ruddy flesh on account of the exertion required, and
drawing up the watch by its chain, like a bucket from a well.
But some thoughtful persons, who had seen him walking across one
of his fields on a certain December morning–sunny and exceedingly
mild–might have regarded Gabriel Oak in other aspects than these.
In his face one might notice that many of the hues and curves of
youth had tarried on to manhood: there even remained in his remoter
crannies some relics of the boy. His height and breadth would
have been sufficient to make his presence imposing, had they been
exhibited with due consideration. But there is a way some men have,
rural and urban alike, for which the mind is more responsible than
flesh and sinew: it is a way of curtailing their dimensions by their
manner of showing them. And from a quiet modesty that would have
become a vestal, which seemed continually to impress upon him that he
had no great claim on the world’s room, Oak walked unassumingly and
with a faintly perceptible bend, yet distinct from a bowing of the
shoulders. This may be said to be a defect in an individual if he
depends for his valuation more upon his appearance than upon his
capacity to wear well, which Oak did not.
He had just reached the time of life at which “young” is ceasing to
be the prefix of “man” in speaking of one. He was at the brightest
period of masculine growth, for his intellect and his emotions were
clearly separated: he had passed the time during which the influence
of youth indiscriminately mingles them in the character of impulse,
and he had not yet arrived at the stage wherein they become united
again, in the character of prejudice, by the influence of a wife and
family. In short, he was twenty-eight, and a bachelor.
The field he was in this morning sloped to a ridge called Norcombe
Hill. Through a spur of this hill ran the highway between Emminster
and Chalk-Newton. Casually glancing over the hedge, Oak saw coming
down the incline before him an ornamental spring waggon, painted
yellow and gaily marked, drawn by two horses, a waggoner walking
alongside bearing a whip perpendicularly. The waggon was laden with
household goods and window plants, and on the apex of the whole sat
a woman, young and attractive. Gabriel had not beheld the sight for
more than half a minute, when the vehicle was brought to a standstill
just beneath his eyes.
“The tailboard of the waggon is gone, Miss,” said the waggoner.
“Then I heard it fall,” said the girl, in a soft, though not
particularly low voice. “I heard a noise I could not account for
when we were coming up the hill.”
“I’ll run back.”
“Do,” she answered.
The sensible horses stood–perfectly still, and the waggoner’s steps
sank fainter and fainter in the distance.
The girl on the summit of the load sat motionless, surrounded by
tables and chairs with their legs upwards, backed by an oak settle,
and ornamented in front by pots of geraniums, myrtles, and cactuses,
together with a caged canary–all probably from the windows of the
house just vacated. There was also a cat in a willow basket, from
the partly-opened lid of which she gazed with half-closed eyes, and
affectionately surveyed the small birds around.
The handsome girl waited for some time idly in her place, and the
only sound heard in the stillness was the hopping of the canary up
and down the perches of its prison. Then she looked attentively
downwards. It was not at the bird, nor at the cat; it was at an
oblong package tied in paper, and lying between them. She turned her
head to learn if the waggoner were coming. He was not yet in sight;
and her eyes crept back to the package, her thoughts seeming to run
upon what was inside it. At length she drew the article into her
lap, and untied the paper covering; a small swing looking-glass was
disclosed, in which she proceeded to survey herself attentively. She
parted her lips and smiled.
It was a fine morning, and the sun lighted up to a scarlet glow the
crimson jacket she wore, and painted a soft lustre upon her bright
face and dark hair. The myrtles, geraniums, and cactuses packed
around her were fresh and green, and at such a leafless season they
invested the whole concern of horses, waggon, furniture, and girl
with a peculiar vernal charm. What possessed her to indulge in
such a performance in the sight of the sparrows, blackbirds, and
unperceived farmer who were alone its spectators,–whether the smile
began as a factitious one, to test her capacity in that art,–nobody
knows; it ended certainly in a real smile. She blushed at herself,
and seeing her reflection blush, blushed the more.
The change from the customary spot and necessary occasion of such an
act–from the dressing hour in a bedroom to a time of travelling out
of doors–lent to the idle deed a novelty it did not intrinsically
possess. The picture was a delicate one. Woman’s prescriptive
infirmity had stalked into the sunlight, which had clothed it in the
freshness of an originality. A cynical inference was irresistible by
Gabriel Oak as he regarded the scene, generous though he fain would
have been. There was no necessity whatever for her looking in the
glass. She did not adjust her hat, or pat her hair, or press a
dimple into shape, or do one thing to signify that any such intention
had been her motive in taking up the glass. She simply observed
herself as a fair product of Nature in the feminine kind, her
thoughts seeming to glide into far-off though likely dramas in which
men would play a part–vistas of probable triumphs–the smiles being
of a phase suggesting that hearts were imagined as lost and won.
Still, this was but conjecture, and the whole series of actions was
so idly put forth as to make it rash to assert that intention had any
part in them at all.
The waggoner’s steps were heard returning. She put the glass in the
paper, and the whole again into its place.
When the waggon had passed on, Gabriel withdrew from his point of
espial, and descending into the road, followed the vehicle to the
turnpike-gate some way beyond the bottom of the hill, where the
object of his contemplation now halted for the payment of toll.
About twenty steps still remained between him and the gate, when he
heard a dispute. It was a difference concerning twopence between the
persons with the waggon and the man at the toll-bar.
“Mis’ess’s niece is upon the top of the things, and she says that’s
enough that I’ve offered ye, you great miser, and she won’t pay any
more.” These were the waggoner’s words.
“Very well; then mis’ess’s niece can’t pass,” said the turnpike-keeper,
closing the gate.
Oak looked from one to the other of the disputants, and fell into
a reverie. There was something in the tone of twopence remarkably
insignificant. Threepence had a definite value as money–it was an
appreciable infringement on a day’s wages, and, as such, a higgling
matter; but twopence–“Here,” he said, stepping forward and handing
twopence to the gatekeeper; “let the young woman pass.” He looked up
at her then; she heard his words, and looked down.
Gabriel’s features adhered throughout their form so exactly to the
middle line between the beauty of St. John and the ugliness of Judas
Iscariot, as represented in a window of the church he attended, that
not a single lineament could be selected and called worthy either of
distinction or notoriety. The red-jacketed and dark-haired maiden
seemed to think so too, for she carelessly glanced over him, and told
her man to drive on. She might have looked her thanks to Gabriel on
a minute scale, but she did not speak them; more probably she felt
none, for in gaining her a passage he had lost her her point, and we
know how women take a favour of that kind.
The gatekeeper surveyed the retreating vehicle. “That’s a
handsome maid,” he said to Oak.
“But she has her faults,” said Gabriel.
“And the greatest of them is–well, what it is always.”
“Beating people down? ay, ’tis so.”
Gabriel, perhaps a little piqued by the comely traveller’s
indifference, glanced back to where he had witnessed her performance
over the hedge, and said, “Vanity.”
NIGHT–THE FLOCK–AN INTERIOR–ANOTHER INTERIOR
It was nearly midnight on the eve of St. Thomas’s, the shortest day
in the year. A desolating wind wandered from the north over the hill
whereon Oak had watched the yellow waggon and its occupant in the
sunshine of a few days earlier.
Norcombe Hill–not far from lonely Toller-Down–was one of the spots
which suggest to a passer-by that he is in the presence of a shape
approaching the indestructible as nearly as any to be found on
earth. It was a featureless convexity of chalk and soil–an ordinary
specimen of those smoothly-outlined protuberances of the globe which
may remain undisturbed on some great day of confusion, when far
grander heights and dizzy granite precipices topple down.
The hill was covered on its northern side by an ancient and decaying
plantation of beeches, whose upper verge formed a line over the
crest, fringing its arched curve against the sky, like a mane.
To-night these trees sheltered the southern slope from the keenest
blasts, which smote the wood and floundered through it with a sound
as of grumbling, or gushed over its crowning boughs in a weakened
moan. The dry leaves in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same
breezes, a tongue of air occasionally ferreting out a few, and
sending them spinning across the grass. A group or two of the latest
in date amongst the dead multitude had remained till this very
mid-winter time on the twigs which bore them and in falling rattled
against the trunks with smart taps.
Between this half-wooded half-naked hill, and the vague still horizon
that its summit indistinctly commanded, was a mysterious sheet of
fathomless shade–the sounds from which suggested that what it
concealed bore some reduced resemblance to features here. The thin
grasses, more or less coating the hill, were touched by the wind in
breezes of differing powers, and almost of differing natures–one
rubbing the blades heavily, another raking them piercingly, another
brushing them like a soft broom. The instinctive act of humankind
was to stand and listen, and learn how the trees on the right and the
trees on the left wailed or chaunted to each other in the regular
antiphonies of a cathedral choir; how hedges and other shapes to
leeward then caught the note, lowering it to the tenderest sob; and
how the hurrying gust then plunged into the south, to be heard no
The sky was clear–remarkably clear–and the twinkling of all the
stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse.
The North Star was directly in the wind’s eye, and since evening the
Bear had swung round it outwardly to the east, till he was now at
a right angle with the meridian. A difference of colour in the
stars–oftener read of than seen in England–was really perceptible
here. The sovereign brilliancy of Sirius pierced the eye with a
steely glitter, the star called Capella was yellow, Aldebaran and
Betelgueux shone with a fiery red.
To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as
this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement.
The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past
earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness,
or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the
wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin, the impression
of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a
phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification
it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night,
and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass
of civilised mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all
such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately
progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is
hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of
such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.
Suddenly an unexpected series of sounds began to be heard in this
place up against the sky. They had a clearness which was to be found
nowhere in the wind, and a sequence which was to be found nowhere in
nature. They were the notes of Farmer Oak’s flute.
The tune was not floating unhindered into the open air: it seemed
muffled in some way, and was altogether too curtailed in power to
spread high or wide. It came from the direction of a small dark
object under the plantation hedge–a shepherd’s hut–now presenting
an outline to which an uninitiated person might have been puzzled
to attach either meaning or use.
The image as a whole was that of a small Noah’s Ark on a small
Ararat, allowing the traditionary outlines and general form of
the Ark which are followed by toy-makers–and by these means are
established in men’s imaginations among their firmest, because
earliest impressions–to pass as an approximate pattern. The hut
stood on little wheels, which raised its floor about a foot from the
ground. Such shepherds’ huts are dragged into the fields when the
lambing season comes on, to shelter the shepherd in his enforced
It was only latterly that people had begun to call Gabriel “Farmer”
Oak. During the twelvemonth preceding this time he had been enabled
by sustained efforts of industry and chronic good spirits to lease
the small sheep-farm of which Norcombe Hill was a portion, and stock
it with two hundred sheep. Previously he had been a bailiff for a
short time, and earlier still a shepherd only, having from his
childhood assisted his father in tending the flocks of large
proprietors, till old Gabriel sank to rest.
This venture, unaided and alone, into the paths of farming as master
and not as man, with an advance of sheep not yet paid for, was a
critical juncture with Gabriel Oak, and he recognised his position
clearly. The first movement in his new progress was the lambing of
his ewes, and sheep having been his speciality from his youth, he
wisely refrained from deputing the task of tending them at this
season to a hireling or a novice.
The wind continued to beat about the corners of the hut, but the
flute-playing ceased. A rectangular space of light appeared in the
side of the hut, and in the opening the outline of Farmer Oak’s
figure. He carried a lantern in his hand, and closing the door
behind him, came forward and busied himself about this nook of the
field for nearly twenty minutes, the lantern light appearing and
disappearing here and there, and brightening him or darkening him
as he stood before or behind it.
Oak’s motions, though they had a quiet-energy, were slow, and their
deliberateness accorded well with his occupation. Fitness being the
basis of beauty, nobody could have denied that his steady swings and
turns in and about the flock had elements of grace. Yet, although if
occasion demanded he could do or think a thing with as mercurial a
dash as can the men of towns who are more to the manner born, his
special power, morally, physically, and mentally, was static, owing
little or nothing to momentum as a rule.
A close examination of the ground hereabout, even by the wan
starlight only, revealed how a portion of what would have been
casually called a wild slope had been appropriated by Farmer Oak for
his great purpose this winter. Detached hurdles thatched with straw
were stuck into the ground at various scattered points, amid and
under which the whitish forms of his meek ewes moved and rustled.
The ring of the sheep-bell, which had been silent during his absence,
recommenced, in tones that had more mellowness than clearness, owing
to an increasing growth of surrounding wool. This continued till Oak
withdrew again from the flock. He returned to the hut, bringing in
his arms a new-born lamb, consisting of four legs large enough for
a full-grown sheep, united by a seemingly inconsiderable membrane
about half the substance of the legs collectively, which constituted
the animal’s entire body just at present.
The little speck of life he placed on a wisp of hay before the small
stove, where a can of milk was simmering. Oak extinguished the
lantern by blowing into it and then pinching the snuff, the cot being
lighted by a candle suspended by a twisted wire. A rather hard
couch, formed of a few corn sacks thrown carelessly down, covered
half the floor of this little habitation, and here the young man
stretched himself along, loosened his woollen cravat, and closed his
eyes. In about the time a person unaccustomed to bodily labour would
have decided upon which side to lie, Farmer Oak was asleep.
The inside of the hut, as it now presented itself, was cosy and
alluring, and the scarlet handful of fire in addition to the candle,
reflecting its own genial colour upon whatever it could reach, flung
associations of enjoyment even over utensils and tools. In the
corner stood the sheep-crook, and along a shelf at one side were
ranged bottles and canisters of the simple preparations pertaining to
ovine surgery and physic; spirits of wine, turpentine, tar, magnesia,
ginger, and castor-oil being the chief. On a triangular shelf across
the corner stood bread, bacon, cheese, and a cup for ale or cider,
which was supplied from a flagon beneath. Beside the provisions lay
the flute, whose notes had lately been called forth by the lonely
watcher to beguile a tedious hour. The house was ventilated by two
round holes, like the lights of a ship’s cabin, with wood slides.
The lamb, revived by the warmth began to bleat, and the sound entered
Gabriel’s ears and brain with an instant meaning, as expected
sounds will. Passing from the profoundest sleep to the most alert
wakefulness with the same ease that had accompanied the reverse
operation, he looked at his watch, found that the hour-hand had
shifted again, put on his hat, took the lamb in his arms, and carried
it into the darkness. After placing the little creature with its
mother, he stood and carefully examined the sky, to ascertain the
time of night from the altitudes of the stars.
The Dog-star and Aldebaran, pointing to the restless Pleiades, were
half-way up the Southern sky, and between them hung Orion, which
gorgeous constellation never burnt more vividly than now, as it
soared forth above the rim of the landscape. Castor and Pollux with
their quiet shine were almost on the meridian: the barren and gloomy
Square of Pegasus was creeping round to the north-west; far away
through the plantation Vega sparkled like a lamp suspended amid the
leafless trees, and Cassiopeia’s chair stood daintily poised on the
“One o’clock,” said Gabriel.
Being a man not without a frequent consciousness that there was some
charm in this life he led, he stood still after looking at the sky
as a useful instrument, and regarded it in an appreciative spirit,
as a work of art superlatively beautiful. For a moment he seemed
impressed with the speaking loneliness of the scene, or rather with
the complete abstraction from all its compass of the sights and
sounds of man. Human shapes, interferences, troubles, and joys
were all as if they were not, and there seemed to be on the shaded
hemisphere of the globe no sentient being save himself; he could
fancy them all gone round to the sunny side.
Occupied thus, with eyes stretched afar, Oak gradually perceived
that what he had previously taken to be a star low down behind the
outskirts of the plantation was in reality no such thing. It was an
artificial light, almost close at hand.
To find themselves utterly alone at night where company is desirable
and expected makes some people fearful; but a case more trying by
far to the nerves is to discover some mysterious companionship when
intuition, sensation, memory, analogy, testimony, probability,
induction–every kind of evidence in the logician’s list–have united
to persuade consciousness that it is quite in isolation.
Farmer Oak went towards the plantation and pushed through its lower
boughs to the windy side. A dim mass under the slope reminded him
that a shed occupied a place here, the site being a cutting into the
slope of the hill, so that at its back part the roof was almost level
with the ground. In front it was formed of board nailed to posts and
covered with tar as a preservative. Through crevices in the roof and
side spread streaks and dots of light, a combination of which made
the radiance that had attracted him. Oak stepped up behind, where,
leaning down upon the roof and putting his eye close to a hole, he
could see into the interior clearly.
The place contained two women and two cows. By the side of the
latter a steaming bran-mash stood in a bucket. One of the women was
past middle age. Her companion was apparently young and graceful;
he could form no decided opinion upon her looks, her position being
almost beneath his eye, so that he saw her in a bird’s-eye view, as
Milton’s Satan first saw Paradise. She wore no bonnet or hat, but
had enveloped herself in a large cloak, which was carelessly flung
over her head as a covering.
“There, now we’ll go home,” said the elder of the two, resting her
knuckles upon her hips, and looking at their goings-on as a whole.
“I do hope Daisy will fetch round again now. I have never been more
frightened in my life, but I don’t mind breaking my rest if she
The young woman, whose eyelids were apparently inclined to fall
together on the smallest provocation of silence, yawned without
parting her lips to any inconvenient extent, whereupon Gabriel caught
the infection and slightly yawned in sympathy.
“I wish we were rich enough to pay a man to do these things,” she
“As we are not, we must do them ourselves,” said the other; “for you
must help me if you stay.”
“Well, my hat is gone, however,” continued the younger. “It went over
the hedge, I think. The idea of such a slight wind catching it.”
The cow standing erect was of the Devon breed, and was encased in a
tight warm hide of rich Indian red, as absolutely uniform from eyes
to tail as if the animal had been dipped in a dye of that colour, her
long back being mathematically level. The other was spotted, grey
and white. Beside her Oak now noticed a little calf about a day old,
looking idiotically at the two women, which showed that it had not
long been accustomed to the phenomenon of eyesight, and often turning
to the lantern, which it apparently mistook for the moon, inherited
instinct having as yet had little time for correction by experience.
Between the sheep and the cows Lucina had been busy on Norcombe Hill
“I think we had better send for some oatmeal,” said the elder woman;
“there’s no more bran.”
“Yes, aunt; and I’ll ride over for it as soon as it is light.”
“But there’s no side-saddle.”
“I can ride on the other: trust me.”
Oak, upon hearing these remarks, became more curious to observe her
features, but this prospect being denied him by the hooding effect of
the cloak, and by his aerial position, he felt himself drawing upon
his fancy for their details. In making even horizontal and clear
inspections we colour and mould according to the wants within us
whatever our eyes bring in. Had Gabriel been able from the first to
get a distinct view of her countenance, his estimate of it as very
handsome or slightly so would have been as his soul required a
divinity at the moment or was ready supplied with one. Having for
some time known the want of a satisfactory form to fill an increasing
void within him, his position moreover affording the widest scope for
his fancy, he painted her a beauty.
By one of those whimsical coincidences in which Nature, like a busy
mother, seems to spare a moment from her unremitting labours to turn
and make her children smile, the girl now dropped the cloak, and
forth tumbled ropes of black hair over a red jacket. Oak knew
her instantly as the heroine of the yellow waggon, myrtles, and
looking-glass: prosily, as the woman who owed him twopence.
They placed the calf beside its mother again, took up the lantern,
and went out, the light sinking down the hill till it was no more
than a nebula. Gabriel Oak returned to his flock.