A Few Crusted Characters
It is a Saturday afternoon of blue and yellow autumn-time, and the scene is the High Street of a well-known market-town. A large carrier's van stands in the quadrangular fore-court of the White Hart Inn, upon the sides of its spacious tilt being painted, in weather-beaten letters: 'Burthen, Carrier to Longpuddle.' These vans, so numerous hereabout, are a respectable, if somewhat lumbering, class of conveyance, much resorted to by decent travellers not overstocked with money, the better among them roughly corresponding to the old French diligences.
The present one is timed to leave the town at four in the afternoon precisely, and it is now half-past three by the clock in the turret at the top of the street. In a few seconds errand-boys from the shops begin to arrive with packages, which they fling into the vehicle, and turn away whistling and care for the packages no more. At twenty minutes to four an elderly woman places her basket upon the shafts, slowly mounts, takes p a seat inside, and folds her hands and her lips. She has secured her corner for the journey, though there is as yet no sign of a horse being put in, nor of a carrier. At the three-quarters, two other women arrive, in whom the first recognizes the postmistress of Upper Longpuddle and the registrar's wife, they recognizing her as the aged groceress of the same village. At five minutes to the hour there approach Mr. Profitt, the schoolmaster, in a soft felt hat, and Christopher Twink, the master-thatcher; and as the hour strikes there rapidly drop in the parish clerk and his wife, the seedsman and his aged father, the registrar; also Mr. Day, the world-ignored local landscape-painter, an elderly man who resides in his native place, and has never sold a picture outside it, though his pretensions to art have been nobly supported by his fellow-villagers, whose confidence in his genius has been as remarkable as the outer neglect of it, leading them to buy his paintings so extensively (at a price of a few shillings each, it is true) that every dwelling in the parish exhibits three or four of those admired productions on its walls.
Burthen, the carrier, is by this time seen bustling round the vehicle; the horses are put in, the proprietor arranges the reins and springs up into his seat as if he were used to it—which he is.
'Is everybody here?' he asks preparatorily over his shoulder to the passengers within.
As those who were not there did not reply in the negative the muster was assumed to be complete, and after a few hitches and hindrances the van with its human freight was got under way. It jogged on at an easy pace till it reached the bridge which formed the last outpost of the town. The carrier pulled up suddenly.
'Bless my soul!' he said, 'I've forgot the curate!'
All who could do so gazed from the little back window of the van, but the curate was not in sight.
'Now I wonder where that there man is?' continued the carrier.
'Poor man, he ought to have a living at his time of life.'
'And he ought to be punctual,' said the carrier.
'"Four O'clock sharp is my time for starting," I said to 'en. And he said, " I'll be there." Now he's not here; and as a serious old church-minister he ought to be as good as his word. Perhaps Mr. Flaxton knows, being in the same line of life?' He turned to the parish clerk.
'I was talking an immense deal with him, that's true, half an hour ago,' replied that ecclesiastic, as one of whom it was no erroneous supposition that he should be on intimate terms with another of the cloth. 'But he didn't say he would be late.'
The discussion was cut off by the appearance round the corner of the van of rays from the curate's spectacles, followed hastily by his face and a few white whiskers, and the swinging tails of his long gaunt coat. Nobody reproached him, seeing how he was reproaching himself; and he entered breathlessly and took his seat.
'Now be we all here?' said the carrier again. They started a second time, and moved on till they were about three hundred yards out of the town, and had nearly reached the second bridge, behind which, as every native remembers, the road takes a turn, and travellers by this highway disappear finally from the view of gazing burghers.
'Well, as I'm alive!' cried the postmistress from the interior of the conveyance, peering through the little square back-window along the road townward.
'What?' said the carrier.
'A man hailing us!'
Another sudden stoppage. 'Somebody else?' the carrier asked.
'Ay, sure!' All waited silently, while those who could gaze out did so.
'Now, who can that be?' Burthen continued. 'I just put it to ye, neighbours, can any man keep time with such hindrances? Bain't we full a'ready? Who in the world can the man be?'
'He's a sort of gentleman,' said the schoolmaster, his position commanding the road more comfortably than that of his comrades.
The stranger, who had been holding up his umbrella to attract their notice, was walking forward leisurely enough, now that he found, by their stopping that it had been secured. His clothes were decidedly not of a local cut, though it was difficult to point out any particular mark of difference. In his left hand he carried a small leather travelling bag. As soon as he had overtaken the van he glanced at the inscription on its side, as if to assure himself that he had hailed the right conveyance, and asked if they had room.
The carrier replied that though they were pretty well laden he supposed they could carry one more, whereupon the stranger mounted, and took the seat cleared for him within. And then the horses made another move, this time for good, and swung along with their burden of fourteen souls all told.
'You bain't one of these parts, sir?' said the carrier. 'I could tell that as far as I could see 'ee.'
'Yes, I am one of these parts,' said the stranger.
The silence which followed seemed to imply a doubt of the truth of the new-comer's assertion. (I was speaking of Upper Longpuddle more particular,' continued the carrier hardily, 'and I think I know most faces of that valley.'
'I was born at Longpuddle, and nursed at Longpuddle, and my father and grandfather before me,' said the passenger quietly
'Why, to be sure,' said the aged groceress in the background, 'it isn't John Lackland's son—never—it can't be he who went to foreign parts five-and-thirty years ago with his wife and family?—Yet—what do I hear?—that's his father's voice!'
'That's the man,' replied the stranger. 'John Lackland was my father, and I am John Lackland's son. Five-and-thirty years ago, when I was a boy of eleven, my parents emigrated across the seas, taking me and my sister with them. Kytes's boy Tony was the one who drove us and our belongings to Casterbridge on the morning we left; and his was the last Longpuddle face I saw. We sailed the same week across the ocean, and there we've been ever since, and there I've left those I went with—all three.'
'Alive or dead?'
'Dead,' he replied in a low voice. 'And I have come back to the old place, having nourished a thought—not a definite intention, but just a thought—that I should like to return here in a year or two, to spend the remainder of my days.'
'Married man, Mr. Lackland?'
'And have the world used 'ee well, sir—or rather John, knowing 'ee as a child? In these rich new countries that we hear of so much, you've got rich with the rest?'
'I am not very rich,' Mr. Lackland said. 'Even in new countries, you know, there are failures. The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; and even if it sometimes is, you may be neither swift nor strong. However, that's enough about me. Now, having answered your inquiries, you must answer mine; for being in London, I have come down here entirely to discover what Longpuddle is looking like, and who are living there. That was why I preferred a seat in your van to hiring a carriage for driving across.
'Well, as for Longpuddle, we rub on there much as usual. Old figures have dropped out o' their frames, so to speak it, and new ones have been put in their places. You mentioned Tony Kytes as having been the one to drive your family and your goods to Casterbridge in his father's wagon when you left. Tony is, I believe, living still, but not at Longpuddle. He went away and settled at Lewgate, near, Mellstock after his marriage. Ah, Tony was a sort o man!'
'His character had hardly come out when I knew him.'
'No. But 'twas well enough, as far as that goes—except as to women. I shall never forget his courting—never!'
The returned villager waited silently, and the carrier went on: —