Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

Chapter 55

The March Following — “Bathsheba Boldwood”

WE pass rapidly on into the month of March, to a breezy day without sunshine, frost, or dew. On Yalbury Hill, about midway between Weatherbury and Casterbridge, where the turnpike road passes over the crest, a numerous concourse of people had gathered, the eyes of the greater number being frequently stretched afar in a northerly direction. The groups consisted of a throng of idlers, a party of javelin-men, and two trumpeters, and in the midst were carriages, one of which contained the high sheriff. With the idlers, many of whom had mounted to the top of a cutting formed for the road, were several Weatherbury men and boys — among others Poorgrass, Coggan, and Cain Ball.

At the end of half-an-hour a faint dust was seen in the expected quarter, and shortly after a travelling-carriage, bringing one of the two judges on the Western Circuit, came up the hill and halted on the top. The judge changed carriages whilst a flourish was blown by the big-cheeked trumpeters, and a procession being formed of the vehicles and javelin-men, they all proceeded towards the town, excepting the Weatherbury men, who as soon as they had seen the judge move off returned home again to their work.

“Joseph, I seed you squeezing close to the carriage,” said Coggan, as they walked. “Did ye notice my lord judge’s face?”

“I did,” said Poorgrass. “I looked hard at en, as if I would read his very soul; and there was mercy in his eyes — or to speak with the exact truth required of us at this solemn time, in the eye that was towards me.”

“Well, I hope for the best,” said Coggan, “though bad that must be. However, I shan’t go to the trial, and I’d advise the rest of ye that bain’t wanted to bide away. ’Twill disturb his mind more than anything to see us there staring at him as if he were a show.”

“The very thing I said this morning,” observed Joseph, “‘Justice is come to weigh him in the balances,’ I said in my reflectious way, ‘and if he’s found wanting, so be it unto him,’ and a bystander said ‘Hear, hear! A man who can talk like that ought to be heard.’ But I don’t like dwelling upon it, for my few words are my few words, and not much; though the speech of some men is rumoured abroad as though by nature formed for such.”

“So ’tis, Joseph. And now, neighbours, as I said, every man bide at home.”

The resolution was adhered to; and all waited anxiously for the news next day. Their suspense was diverted, however, by a discovery which was made in the afternoon, throwing more light on Boldwood’s conduct and condition than any details which had preceded it.

That he had been from the time of Greenhill Fair until the fatal Christmas Eve in excited and unusual moods was known to those who had been intimate with him; but nobody imagined that there had shown in him unequivocal symptoms of the mental derangement which Bathsheba and Oak, alone of all others and at different times, had momentarily suspected. In a locked closet was now discovered an extraordinary collection of articles. There were several sets of ladies’ dresses in the piece, of sundry expensive materials; silks and satins, poplins and velvets, all of colours which from Bathsheba’s style of dress might have been judged to be her favourites. There were two muffs, sable and ermine. Above all there was a case of jewellery, containing four heavy gold bracelets and several lockets and rings, all of fine quality and manufacture. These things had been bought in Bath and other towns from time to time, and brought home by stealth. They were all carefully packed in paper, and each package was labelled “Bathsheba Boldwood,” a date being subjoined six years in advance in every instance.

These somewhat pathetic evidences of a mind crazed with care and love were the subject of discourse in Warren’s malt-house when Oak entered from Casterbridge with tidings of sentence. He came in the afternoon, and his face, as the kiln glow shone upon it, told the tale sufficiently well. Boldwood, as every one supposed he would do, had pleaded guilty, and had been sentenced to death.

The conviction that Boldwood had not been morally responsible for his later acts now became general. Facts elicited previous to the trial had pointed strongly in the same direction, but they had not been of sufficient weight to lead to an order for an examination into the state of Boldwood’s mind. It was astonishing, now that a presumption of insanity was raised, how many collateral circumstances were remembered to which a condition of mental disease seemed to afford the only explanation — among others, the unprecedented neglect of his corn stacks in the previous summer.

A petition was addressed to the Home Secretary, advancing the circumstances which appeared to justify a request for a reconsideration of the sentence. It was not “numerously signed” by the inhabitants of Casterbridge, as is usual in such cases, for Boldwood had never made many friends over the counter. The shops thought it very natural that a man who, by importing direct from the producer, had daringly set aside the first great principle of provincial existence, namely that God made country villages to supply customers to county towns, should have confused ideas about the Decalogue. The prompters were a few merciful men who had perhaps too feelingly considered the facts latterly unearthed, and the result was that evidence was taken which it was hoped might remove the crime in a moral point of view, out of the category of wilful murder, and lead it to be regarded as a sheer outcome of madness.

The upshot of the petition was waited for in Weatherbury with solicitous interest. The execution had been fixed for eight o’clock on a Saturday morning about a fortnight after the sentence was passed, and up to Friday afternoon no answer had been received. At that time Gabriel came from Casterbridge Gaol, whither he had been to wish Boldwood good-bye, and turned down a by-street to avoid the town. When past the last house he heard a hammering, and lifting his bowed head he looked back for a moment. Over the chimneys he could see the upper part of the gaol entrance, rich and glowing in the afternoon sun, and some moving figures were there. They were carpenters lifting a post into a vertical position within the parapet. He withdrew his eyes quickly, and hastened on.

It was dark when he reached home, and half the village was out to meet him.

“No tidings,” Gabriel said, wearily. “And I’m afraid there’s no hope. I’ve been with him more than two hours.”

“Do ye think he REALLY was out of his mind when he did it?” said Smallbury.

“I can’t honestly say that I do,” Oak replied. “However, that we can talk of another time. Has there been any change in mistress this afternoon?”

“None at all.”

“Is she downstairs?”

“No. And getting on so nicely as she was too. She’s but very little better now again than she was at Christmas. She keeps on asking if you be come, and if there’s news, till one’s wearied out wi’ answering her. Shall I go and say you’ve come?”

“No,” said Oak. “There’s a chance yet; but I couldn’t stay in town any longer — after seeing him too. So Laban — Laban is here, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Tall.

“What I’ve arranged is, that you shall ride to town the last thing to-night; leave here about nine, and wait a while there, getting home about twelve. If nothing has been received by eleven to-night, they say there’s no chance at all.”

“I do so hope his life will be spared,” said Liddy. “If it is not, she’ll go out of her mind too. Poor thing; her sufferings have been dreadful; she deserves anybody’s pity.”

“Is she altered much?” said Coggan.

“If you haven’t seen poor mistress since Christmas, you wouldn’t know her,” said Liddy. “Her eyes are so miserable that she’s not the same woman. Only two years ago she was a romping girl, and now she’s this!”

Laban departed as directed, and at eleven o’clock that night several of the villagers strolled along the road to Casterbridge and awaited his arrival — among them Oak, and nearly all the rest of Bathsheba’s men. Gabriel’s anxiety was great that Boldwood might be saved, even though in his conscience he felt that he ought to die; for there had been qualities in the farmer which Oak loved. At last, when they all were weary the tramp of a horse was heard in the distance —

First dead, as if on turf it trode,

Then, clattering on the village road

In other pace than forth he yode.

“We shall soon know now, one way or other.” said Coggan, and they all stepped down from the bank on which they had been standing into the road, and the rider pranced into the midst of them.

“Is that you, Laban?” said Gabriel.

“Yes — ’tis come. He’s not to die. ’Tis confinement during her Majesty’s pleasure.”

“Hurrah!” said Coggan, with a swelling heart. “God’s above the devil yet!”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:22