Inside the malthouse, the maltster is eating breakfast, undeterred by his lack of teeth. Henery Fray advances to the fire, while Matthew Moon, Poorgrass, and the other farmhands arrive from the cart-horse stables. Complaining about their hard work, they order cider. The maltster asks how Bathsheba is getting along without a bailiff, and Henery says she’ll regret it—there’s no way she can manage herself. Everyone nods in agreement.
Another scene humorously depicts country life around the setting of the malt-house, led by the owner himself, who is almost like a building or field, an unchanging part of the landscape. Henery Fray is one of the loudest proponents of traditional gender norms, which treat women’s authority with skepticism.
Moon and Poorgrass say that something bad is surely coming—they’ve had ominous dreams, and have seen white cats and other strange omens. Henery adds that Bathsheba is remarkably ignorant in some ways, like in cutting a rasher the wrong way. Everyone laughs, and he says that she won’t listen to advice: pride and vanity will be her downfall. Just the other day she rode up to him quickly, watched him work and rode away without even greeting him.
The farm hands mix vague knowledge about Biblical stories with pagan or other superstitious beliefs, including bad omens and unlucky signs. Meanwhile, Henery continues to play on the men’s stereotypes about women’s inability to do “men’s” work: he’s especially sensitive about Bathsheba’s pride and authority.
After a pause, Henery wonders what Bathsheba wants with a new piano—it seems her uncle’s things weren’t good enough for her. They all chime in with the new things she’s bought: looking glasses, “wicked” books, and framed pictures. Meanwhile Gabriel appears in the entry, looking healthy and vigorous and carrying four lambs over his shoulder. Poorgrass asks about this year’s lambing, and Gabriel says he and Cainy have had a hard time, especially with the harsh weather.
Now the group adds to their negative view of Bathsheba by suggesting that she’s materialistic and superficial. There’s a class element to such criticism: the farmers see items like looking glasses and framed pictures to have more to do with town than country life, city extravagance rather than rural simplicity.
Gabriel and the maltster talk about Norcombe, which has greatly changed since the former knew it. Then the maltster says they’ve been talking about the mistress—Gabriel asks sharply what they’ve said about her. Mark Clark says these men have been criticizing her pride and vanity, but for him her pretty face absolves her of a great deal. Gabriel sternly says he won’t allow such talk about Miss Everdene. Turning to Poorgrass, he asks if he too has spoken against her, and he and Matthew Moon begin to protest uneasily. Gabriel claims that anyone who speaks against her will have him to answer to. Clark shouts, “Hear hear,” interrupting the awkwardness.
Even when Mark Clark defends Bathsheba, he does so by acknowledging what to many of these men is her most positive trait—her beauty. Earlier, Gabriel has benefited from the chorus-like opinion of the malt-house circle, and the deep local knowledge that is pooled and distributed among the others, but here his feelings for Bathsheba (as well as his more progressive outlook on a woman’s ability to manage a farm) invite him to rebuke such gossip.
Matthew Moon adds that Gabriel is known to be clever; for instance, he is able to tell the time by the stars and make sun-dials. Poorgrass, in contrast, used to paint Farmer James Everdene’s name on his wagons and write his J and S the wrong way around. That’s always been difficult for him, Poorgrass agrees.
In responding to Gabriel’s rebukes, the men acknowledge that he seems to have learned to respect the laws of nature and work within them; this anecdote is another funny reminder of the rural world of the novel.
The nearly lifeless lambs now, revived by the fire, begin to bleat again, and Gabriel gives them milk. Henery says that before, if a lamb died before marking, the skin would belong to the shepherd; if after, then it would be the farmer’s. Now Gabriel has no right at all to the skins—Poorgrass says he has a bad deal, but Gabriel protests.
This scene reminds us of Gabriel’s earlier nursing of the lambs in his own small hut, as well as the way his social and economic status has shifted from the beginning of the novel to now, when he has so little to call his own.
Boldwood enters the malthouse, and gives Gabriel a letter. He reads it: it’s from Fanny, who encloses the money she owes him, and says she’s happy to say she will soon be married to her young man, Sergeant Troy, now quartered in Melchester. She asks him to keep this letter secret, before they can come to Weatherbury as husband and wife, and thanks him again for his kindness.
Fanny Robbin, we now learn for certain, was the poor woman that Gabriel met on his way to the farm. Now he can link the figure of a desperate woman whom he encountered with the story of a runaway servant that has been the talk of the village.
Gabriel shows the letter to Boldwood, who is dismayed. Boldwood says Troy is clever, the son of a medical man who left the country in debt. He cries that Fanny is a silly girl—she’s lost her character, since Troy will never marry her.
Gabriel is more discreet than the others, but Boldwood has a reason to learn news of Fanny. They both realize that for a precarious woman, this letter doesn’t bode well.
Cain Ball bursts in to say the ewes need Gabriel. He jumps up, marks the infant sheep with “B.E.”, then leaves with Cain. Boldwood leaves with him, and as they approach the field he draws Bathsheba’s letter, and asks if Gabriel knows the handwriting. Blushing, Gabriel identifies it, as he realizes with discomfort that the letter must be anonymous. Mistaking his confusion, Boldwood protests that the “fun” lies in trying to identify the sender of a valentine, though he says “fun” like “torture.” Returning home, he contemplates this new information.
Boldwood has used the opportunity of the letter to Gabriel in order to learn about something more directly relevant to himself—the author of the anonymous letter that he’s received. Although Boldwood tries to treat the valentine casually, he’s clearly even more disturbed by learning that Bathsheba was the one who sent it.