Two months later, there is a yearly hiring fair in the town of Casterbridge, with several hundred farm and other laborers waiting. Gabriel is among them, asking if anyone needs a bailiff. He is paler, poorer, now, but also has a dignified air of calm and an indifference to fate which is noble, not villainous.
Gabriel has learned a great deal about responsibility and about the cold indifference of natural circumstances: while he has lost his livelihood and all his savings, he has gained a maturity that others lack.
At the end of the day, Gabriel hasn’t been hired, and he realizes that all the farmers seem to want shepherds. He has a shepherd’s crook made in a smith shop, then exchanges his overcoat for a smockfrock. A few farmers do talk to him, but the news that he had his own farm make many suspicious of him.
Gabriel was a bailiff (a farm manager or superintendent) after beginning as a simple shepherd: now he recognizes that he must go back two steps rather than just one in order to move forward at all.
That evening Gabriel draws out his flute, playing it with “Arcadian” sweetness, and makes a few shillings that way. He learns of another fair the next day at Shottsford, near Weatherbury. Recognizing the name, Gabriel decides to set off the six miles for Shottsford (though he wants to avoid the sight of Bathsheba). He follows a winding path through the landscape. After six miles all is black. Gabriel ascends a hill and passes by a deserted wagon. He eats some bread and cheese and falls asleep in it.
Gabriel had heard that Weatherbury was the place where Bathsheba had moved after leaving his neighborhood of Norcombe, and the familiarity alone is something for him to cling onto, now that he’s lost everything. Gabriel is portrayed as without bitterness in these pages: he is determined to do what it takes to survive.
After awhile, Gabriel awakens to find that the wagon is moving. Peering out from the hay, Gabriel hears the driver and his partner who are speaking, in country slang, about a handsome woman—though she’s also vain. Laughing, they agree that she’s said to look in the mirror before she goes to bed every night. And she’s not married! they exclaim. Gabriel suddenly wonders if they’re talking about Bathsheba.
The passages in country slang are some of the most humorous in the novel, chances for Hardy to show his in-depth knowledge of country life even as he makes fun of it. The men’s talk of woman’s vanity might seem stereotypical, but in Gabriel’s view may well refer to one woman in particular.
Gabriel slips out of the wagon, unseen. As he prepares to walk on, he sees an unusual light about half a mile away. He realizes something is on fire. He follows the direction of the flame, and his tired face is covered with an orange glow—it’s the rickyard, where hay is kept. A rick (that is, a haystack) is glowing, flames darting in and out. As smoke is blown aside, Gabriel sees that the rick is part of a large group, making the danger even greater. Then he comes across another man, running about and crying for Mark Clark, Billy Smallbury, Joseph Poorgrass, and Matthew Moon. Other figures appear and confusedly get to work.
Gabriel surveys the landscape around him in order to, as usual, best understand how to navigate in an uncertain environment. Although he is exhausted, he immediately recognizes the danger of the fire—something he’s learned to respect, having nearly been killed by it himself. Gabriel is an interloper in this scene—he doesn’t yet know any of the people mentioned in this passage—but he feels immediately implicated in the crisis.
Gabriel takes control, and begins to shout orders to the disorganized group. He clambers himself up to the top of the barn, with Billy Smallbury, one of the men who had been in the wagon, and Mark Clark, another farmhand. They beat the stack and try to dislodge any fiery pieces of hay. The villagers below do all they can to keep the blaze under control. At a distance, two women wonder who the young shepherd beating the fire with his crook might be. No one knows, they say. One asks Jan Coggan, nearby, if he thinks the fire is safe—he says he thinks so
Although no one knows who Gabriel is, he finds himself a natural leader, as he maintains his cool under pressure and manages to organize the disordered villagers and get the fire under control. While Gabriel hadn’t proved appealing enough to Bathsheba, here it is his actions that begin to establish how others think about him, including these villagers.
One of the women, on horseback, asks if anyone knows the shepherd’s name: she tells the other woman, Mary-ann, to thank him once he gets the fire under control. As she approaches Gabriel, he descends and asks where her master the farmer is. Mary-ann says it’s a mistress: she has recently arrived to take over her uncle’s farm, since he died suddenly. She’s very wealthy, a bystander says. Mary-ann points her out to Gabriel; he lifts his hat in respect, then asks if she happens to need a shepherd. She lifts the veil from her face: it’s Bathsheba. She doesn’t speak, and he mechanically repeats his question.
Little by little, the identity of this woman on horseback begins to grow clear to Gabriel—first, given her position of authority on horseback, then because of what he learns about her role on her uncle’s farm, the reason for which Bathsheba was supposed to have left Weatherbury. As the chapter ends, an air of awkwardness lingers, as the pair that has shared some intimacy meets again.