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As Gabriel approaches the Malthouse, he hears voices inside. The room is lit only from the kiln, which casts a glow onto the owner, the maltster, an elderly man with white hair sitting by the fire. The conversation stops, and everyone looks up at Gabriel, recognizing him as the hero of the fire. The owner, learning his name, cries that he knew both Gabriel’s grandparents. His son, Jacob, says that his own son Billy might have known Gabriel, but Billy says it was his brother Andrew: Gabriel agrees. He was just talking about the Oaks with his youngest daughter Liddy, Billy says.
Although Gabriel is new in Weatherbury, the (fictional) area of Wessex is the definition of a small world, where families remain for generations and anyone who lives long enough, like the maltster, can identify any newcomer who happens to arrive. Other members of the Smallbury family are introduced too, all economically dependent on Bathsheba and her farm.
Jacob hands some malt to Gabriel, who says he doesn’t need a clean cup. Mark Clark approves of this. Jan Coggan gives an older man, Henry Fray, some of his own cup to drink. Henry always signs his name “Henery,” insisting that this was the name with which he was christened. Coggan invites Mark Clark, who is always amused and social, to join the drinking.
Gabriel fits in well in this jovial, friendly group: he has no airs like a person from a town or city might, and fades into his surroundings to allow the others, who are more talkative, to continue to hold court at the malt-house.
Coggan calls over to Joseph Poorgrass, saying he hasn’t drunk anything. Joseph tells the group that he blushes every time he sees the new mistress, though he’s always been shy. Jacob Smallbury tells Gabriel that such shyness is becoming for a woman, though awkward for a man: Gabriel agrees. The others chime in with more stories about Poorgrass’s bashfulness.
This is a group of people that knows each other well enough to identify and acknowledge each small attribute of each farm hand. Gabriel is simply expected to nod and acquiesce at the general opinions expressed by the group.
Gabriel asks what kind of place this farm is and what the mistress is like, but it appears that she’s only been here a few days. Coggan says he used to court his first wife Charlotte, a dairy maid, at Farmer Everdene’s, and he was kind and generous, plying him with ale. He’d eat salt beforehand so he could drink as much as possible. Coggan begins to talk ruefully of Charlotte’s death.
Someone in the malt-house has a story associated with any detail or piece of information about the village or farm, including the inhabitants, past and present: while Bathsheba is new to the farm hands, they will be able to compare her to her uncle and his management.
Trying to keep the conversation on track, Gabriel asks about Miss Everdene’s parents. They were town folk, Jacob says, and gentlemanly—but the husband lost hundreds of pounds in gold. He was a fickle husband, Coggan chimes in, whose will to be good wasn’t strong enough. Henery Fray remarks that Bathsheba was never that pretty then, and Coggan remarks he hopes her temper is as nice as her face.
Gabriel has to be insistent in order to keep the conversation on track and learn what interests him, as the group does certainly possess a great deal of knowledge about Bathsheba’s family. The hands often tend to judge women’s appearances casually.
Henery begins to complain about Bailiff Pennyway’s thieving ways, but Gabriel interrupts to remark that the maltster must be very old to have such aged sons. Jacob says his father’s so old he no longer minds his age. The maltster says he can’t recall the year he was born, but has lived in various places: he mentions each while nodding in its direction. After listing them all, he asks how many years that accounts for—another old man says a hundred and seventeen, so the maltster concludes that’s his age. But the cup they’re drinking out of, he adds, is older than himself.
Gabriel is interested in Bathsheba’s family because of the feelings he continues to nurse for her, but he’s also curious about maltster, a true fount of local knowledge. In general, the malt-house guests function in the novel as a kind of Greek chorus, which in ancient Greek plays would comment periodically on what was going on and give a gloss on the events.
Henery cries to Gabriel that he’s sure he saw him fluting at Casterbridge: Gabriel blushes and says he’s struggling to get by. Coggan asks Gabriel to play for them, and he does. A young man, Laban Tall (known mostly as “Susan Tall’s husband”), remarks that he can play well. Poorgrass remarks that he’s a clever man, and they should be grateful to have such a man for a shepherd, especially for their wives’ and daughters’ sakes. Even more so given how handsome he is, they all say. Gabriel thanks them modestly, but decides to himself that he’ll never let Bathsheba see him playing his flute (a wisdom worthy of Minerva).
Gabriel had taken up his flute to make a few shillings, and, as is typical in Weatherbury, he cannot escape scrutiny or comment from one person or another. But Gabriel is slowly establishing trust among the other farm hands, which will prove important as he attempts to establish himself in Weatherbury. Another classical allusion, this time to the Roman goddess of wisdom, elevates Gabriel just as the townspeople do.
Laban Tall is the first to leave, followed by Henery Fray. Gabriel leaves with Coggan, who’s offered him lodging. Then Henery returns, out of breath, to remark that Bathsheba has in fact caught Bailiff Pennyways stealing some barley. Miss Everdene flew at him, and he ran away.
When one person learns of news, it’s soon common knowledge throughout, thanks to the newspaper-like role of the malt-house in spreading information.
As Henery rests, Laban Tall returns, remarking at more news: Fanny Robbin (Miss Everdene’s youngest servant) can’t be found. Mary-ann is worried something’s happened—Fanny was in low spirits recently. They all hasten up to the main house, except the maltster, who remains inside like always. From the bedroom window Bathsheba calls down to ask if any of the men can make inquiries about Fanny. Jacob asks if any young man in the parish has been courting her. No one thinks it’s the case: Bathsheba says any respectable lover would have come to the house. But she’s concerned that Fanny was last seen outside the house with only an indoor working gown on—not something to wear to her young man.
The fact that the maltster never leaves the tavern is another comical detail that lightens the mood of the novel, which is structured around stable, unchanging elements that remain fixed even as the circumstances of other characters are in flux. Fanny’s private life is discussed at length here—it’s surprising, in fact, that no one has yet admitted to knowing something more about her disappearance, given how difficult it is for secrets to remain so in Weatherbury.
Then, though, Mary-ann says she did have a young man, a soldier in Casterbridge. Bathsheba asks Billy Smallbury to go tomorrow to find him. Uneasily, she wishes every goodnight. Meanwhile, Gabriel is just content at being able to see Bathsheba in the flesh.
Mary-ann undoes some of the mystery by suggesting that Fanny does, in fact, have a lover—in this novel, a potentially dangerous sign of vulnerability for a woman.