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3

The fire

 

Two months later Gabriel went to the great fair at Casterbridge,hoping to find a job as farm manager. But when he realized by late afternoon that none of the farmers at Casterbridge wanted a farm manager,or even a shepherd,he decided to try his luck at another fair the next day. It was fifteen miles further away,in a village the other side of Weatherbury. The name Weatherbury reminded him of Bathsheba,and he wondered if she still lived there. He set out on foot as it was getting dark,and had already walked three or four miles when he saw a cart,half-full of hay,by the side of the road. ‘That's a comfortable place to sleep,’he thought,and he was so tired after his long,disappointing day at the fair that when he climbed into the cart,he fell asleep immediately.

A couple of hours later,however,he was woken by the movement of the cart. It was being driven towards Weather-bury by two farm workers,who had not noticed Gabriel. He listened to their conversation.

She's a handsome woman,that's true,’said one,‘but proud too!And very vain,that's what people say!’

Oh,if she's vain,Billy Smallbury,I'll never be able to look at her!I'm such a shy man,as you know!’said the other. ‘A single woman,and vain!And does she pay her farm workers well?’

I don't know about that,Joseph Poorgrass. ’

Gabriel thought they could be talking about Bathsheba,except that the woman they were discussing seemed to be the mistress of a farm. As the cart was now quite near Weather-bury,Gabriel jumped out,unseen by the two men. He climbed a gate into a field,intending to sleep for the rest of the night under a hay-rick,but then he noticed an unusual light in the darkness,about half a mile away. Something was on fire.

He hurried across the fields towards the fire. Soon,in the rich orange light of the flames,he could see a hay-rick burning fiercely. It was too late to save the rick,so for a few minutes he stood and stared at the flames. But when the smoke cleared for a moment,he was horrified to see,very close to the burn-ing rick,a whole row of wheat-ricks. These probably con-tained most of the wheat produced on the farm that year,and could catch fire at any moment.

As he rushed towards the wheat-rick that was most in dan-ger,he saw he was not alone. A crowd of farm workers had seen the fire and run into the field to help save the wheat,but they were so confused they did not know what to do. Gabriel took control and gave orders.

Get a large cloth!’he shouted. ‘Put it over the wheat-rick,so the wind can't blow the flames from the hay-rick on to it!Now,you,stand here with a bucket of water and keep the cloth wet!’The men hurried to obey him. The flames,prevented from burning the bottom and sides of the wheat-32 rick,began to attack its roof.

Get me a ladder!’cried Gabriel. ‘And a branch,and some water!’He climbed up the wheat-rick and sat on the top,beating down the flames with the branch. Billy Smallbury,one of the men who had been in the cart,climbed up with a bucket of water, to throw water on Gabriel and keep the flames off him. The smoke was at its thickest at this corner of the rick, but Gabriel never stopped his work.

On the ground the villagers were doing what they could to stop the fire,which was not much. A little further away was a young woman who had just arrived on her horse,witn her maid on foot. They were watching the fire and discussing Gabriel.

He's a fine young man,ma'am,’said Liddy,the maid. ‘And look at his clothes!They're all burnt!’

Who does he work for?’asked the woman in a clear voice.

I don't know,ma'am,nor do the others. He's a stranger. ’

Jan Coggan!’called the woman to one of her workers. ‘Do you think the wheat is safe now?’

I think so,yes,ma'am,’he answered. ‘If the fire had spread to this wheat-rick,all the other ricks would have caught fire too. That brave young man up there on top of the rick is the one who's saved your wheat. ’

He does work hard,’said the young woman,looking up at Gabriel, who had not noticed her. ‘I wish he worked for me. ’

As the ricks were no longer in danger, Gabriel started to climb down,and at the bottom he met the maid.

I have a message from the farmer,who wishes to thank you for all you've done,’she said.

Where is he?’asked Gabriel,suddenly aware of the chance of getting some work.

It isn't a he,it's a she,’answered the girl.

A woman farmer?’asked Gabriel.

Yes,and a rich one too!’said a villager who was standing near. ‘She inherited her uncle's farm,when he died suddenly. She has business in every bank in Casterbridge!’

She's over there,wrapped in a cloak,on her horse,’added the maid. In the darkness Gabriel could only see the shape of a woman sitting on a horse. He walked over to her. Although his face was black from the smoke and his clothes were burnt by the fire,he remembered to lift his hat politely,and asked, looking up at her,‘Do you want a shepherd,ma'am?’She let her cloak fall back from her head in surprise. Gabriel and his cold-hearted darling,Bathsheba Everdene,stared at each other. She did not speak. He only repeated sadly,‘Do you want a shepherd,ma'am?’

Bathsheba turned away into the shadows to consider. She was a little sorry for him, but also glad that she had improved her position since they last met. She realized she had almost forgotten his offer of marriage on Norcombe Hill.

Yes,’she answered quietly,blushing a little,‘I do want a shepherd. But—’

He's just the right man,ma'am,’said one of the villagers.

That's right!’said a second,and a third.

Then will you men tell him to speak to the farm manager?’said Bathsheba in a businesslike way,as she rode off.

Gabriel soon arranged the details of his employment with Bathsheba's farm manager,Benjy Pennyways,and walked on to the village to find a place to live. As he walked,he thought of Bathsheba. How quickly the young girl he remembered had become the capable mistress of a farm!

When he passed the churchyard,and the ancient trees around it,he noticed that someone was standing behind one of the trees.

Is this the right way to Weatherbury?’asked Gabriel.

Oh yes,straight on,’said a girl's voice,low and sweet. After a pause she added,‘You're not a Weatherbury man?’

No,I'm the new shepherd,just arrived. ’

Only a shepherd!You seem almost like a farmer to me. ’

Only a shepherd,’repeated Gabriel in a dull voice,think-ing of the disaster that had destroyed his hopes of being a farmer.

Please don't tell anyone in the village that you've seen me,’begged the girl. ‘I'm rather poor,and I don't want anyone to know about me. ’ Her thin arms trembled in the cold.

I won't tell anyone,’said Gabriel,‘but you ought to be wearing a cloak on a night like this. ’

Oh,it doesn't matter. Please go on and leave me. ’

He hesitated ‘Perhaps you'd accept this. It's not much,but it's all I have to spare. ’He put a coin into her small hand,and as he touched her wrist he noticed how quickly the blood was beating. It was the same quick,hard beat that he felt in his lambs when they were close to death.

What's the matter?Can't I help you?’he asked. He felt a deep sadness in this thin,weak creature.

No,no!Don't tell anyone you've seen me!Good night!’She stayed in the shadows,and Gabriel went on to Weather-bury.

 


 

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