It is the eve of St. Thomas (December 21) and Norcombe Hill is covered by ancient beech trees, which shelter one slope from the growling blasts of wind and shaking of the dry leaves on the ground. Between the hill and horizon is a sheet of shadow: one might stand and listen as these trees wail to the others. The sky is clear, the constellations sparkling, such that an observer might feel the very turn of the earth.
A number of the book’s chapters begin with such descriptions of the country landscape. Like others, this description suggests both a tranquil, calm, and natural beauty, but also a sense that within this vast world humans are largely insignificant.
The sounds of Farmer Gabriel’s flute begin to pierce the silence. They come from a shepherd’s hut under a plantation hedge, which looks like a small Noah’s Ark against the plain.
The comparison to Noah’s Ark is in part earnest but also a teasingly inapt comparison, given the homeliness of Gabriel’s cottage.
Only in the past year has Gabriel been called “Farmer.” As a boy he was a shepherd, then a bailiff, before leasing the sheep farm that includes Norcombe Hill and stocking it with 200 sheep—a venture that he recognizes as requiring great responsibility.
This is an example of the kind of social mobility that was available in the English countryside at the time—Gabriel is able to establish himself as a self-sufficient farmer.
Holding a lantern, Gabriel comes out and paces the well-cleared fields slowly but deliberately. He carries a new-born lamb back into the hut and places it on hay in front of the stove before going to sleep. The inside of the hut is cozy and small. The lamb is revived, begins to bleat, and wakens Gabriel, who carries it back outside to its mother, and determines the time—one o’clock—from the stars. He stands still, appreciating the beauty of the sky.
Gabriel’s serious, determined attitude seems to suggest that he is on the right path to becoming a successful farmer. This includes being careful to monitor the status of all the animals and take care of them when they seem to be waning. Gabriel’s ability to read the stars shows that he is able to navigate the demands of nature better than many.
Then Gabriel sees an artificial light some yards away. He walks towards it and remembers that there’s a shed here. Peering inside from the roof, he sees two women and two cows. One woman is older, while the other is young, though he can only see her “as Satan first saw Paradise” (that is, from above). The elder says they’ll go home now; the other yawns and says she wishes they were rich enough to pay a man to do these things.
Gabriel shows himself again to be well-attuned to his surroundings and alert to any change in the natural landscape. But he’s also not entirely mature—he doesn’t hesitate to spy on two women, who are discussing the difficulties of being self-sufficient women.
Calling the elder woman “aunt,” the young woman says her hat has blown away. Gabriel sees a small, newborn calf between the two cows, and realizes what they’re here for. The aunt says there’s no more bran, so the niece says she’ll ride over for it in the daylight, even without a side saddle, as her aunt protests.
Like Gabriel, these two women are also responsible for other living creatures. The niece seems to be the one of the pair who’s in a position of authority.
This makes Gabriel even more curious to see her features, though he immediately assumes she’s beautiful. In a sudden coincidence, though, the girl drops the cloak tied tight around her, and as her black hair falls over her jacket, Gabriel immediately recognizes her as the girl from the yellow wagon.
Gabriel has a romantic notion that any woman who’s independent-minded enough to ride side-saddle must also be beautiful; now he recognizes that such a woman can also be proud and vain.