Without Walter, the villagers proceed in a large group towards the remaining fire. Master Kent rides in the back, “mindful of his horse’s dung.” Some of the villagers are armed with sticks. Walter says they’re not a fierce group, but in such an impoverished place, which requires everyone’s effort to produce enough food to survive, it makes sense to be wary of strangers.
The villagers’ improvised arms show that they’re unaccustomed both to conflict and to novelty. While the village’s isolation facilitates a simple lifestyle and an egalitarian relationship with Master Kent (who doesn’t even care about riding at the head of the procession) it also makes them unable to respond rationally to change.
Master Kent may own the land, which he’s inherited through his wife, Lucy Kent, but the villager’s labor is just as important as his legal rights. Walter points out that Master Kent would be helpless “if all he had to work his property were his own two hands.” Although the villagers don’t legally own everything, their labor gives them an informal right of possession over the land.
In Walter’s evaluation, while the agrarian system gives the villagers no formal rights, it gives them a lot of informal power, and requires their landlord to respect them. In this sense, ancient practices of allocating and farming land provide a better life for the peasantry than the new arrangements Master Jordan will advocate as signs of “progress.”
The villagers don’t want to share these rights with any strangers. It’s true that some inhabitants—including Walter himself—weren’t born in the village. But lately, the population has been declining and harvests have been bad. They’re suspicious as to why the strangers have arrived just as the harvest is being gathered, and they also know that strangers might carry disease. Only one person has died of the sweating sickness this year, but they don’t want to invite contagion into the town. Therefore, blaming the fire on the strangers might be a “blessing in disguise,” allowing the villagers to avoid respecting the law that demands they welcome the newcomers.
Walter’s revelation that he was born outside the village is important, since his community is highly attuned to distinctions of this kind. Even as he claims to speak for his neighbors and usually describes feelings and actions with the collective pronoun “we,” he’s separated from them by birth. It’s also notable that the village could solve some of its problems—like the dwindling population—by welcoming strangers. Instead, villagers respond to these stressors with increased hostility and largely groundless suspicions.
Walter sits outside his cottage, resting his hand. It’s rare to be among the village dwellings by himself. When Walter first arrived in the village, all the houses were full and always noisy. Now, many of them are empty; there’s actually lots of room to house newcomers, if only the village wasn’t so suspicious of them.
Throughout the novel, Walter will be absent from most of the collective actions he describes. Even while he speaks on behalf of the village, his reliance on hearsay shows that he’s not as integrated into the village as he likes to think, and that his narrative reflects his individual thoughts and feelings more than those of the community.
In moments like these, Walter misses the larger towns in which he grew up. Place like those towns have more choices, while the village is “ditched and fenced against the outside world,” so inhospitable that no new person has settled there since Walter and Master Kent arrived a dozen years ago. Still, Walter knows he is part of the village now, a “frowner” like all its other inhabitants. He even finds he’s becoming thickset like the other villagers, although he was skinny when he arrived.
It’s interesting that Walter describes the village’s hostility to strangers as a “fence,” when fences will become the emblem of Master Jordan’s hated plans for enclosure. His language suggests that the villagers’ attitude towards outsiders degrades its integrity, just as Jordan’s plans threaten its existence.
Although he hasn’t seen it, Walter reports that the strangers’ shack is poorly constructed, more fit for animals than people. No one is sure if such a hovel is enough to guarantee them the right of inclusion. In any case, Walter expects they’ll leave once they see how ill-disposed toward the villagers are toward strangers.
The villagers grudgingly respect the custom that allows the strangers to stay if they erect a home, while looking for loopholes to get around it. Their behavior is strikingly similar to Master Jordan’s devotion to the ideals of progress, which barely disguise his total self-interest.
The villagers, Master Kent, and Mr. Quill arrive at the shack, where the fire is burning out. In the ashes, everyone can see bird bones; Christopher Derby immediately declares that it’s one of the doves and everyone agrees, even though the bird has dark feathers and a yellow beak.
Even when the evidence clearly exonerates the strangers, the villagers persist in their accusations, showing how completely they prioritize their own comrades—even those who are guilty—over outsiders.
Brooker Higgs hits the roof of the shack with his stick and it collapses. As the other men step forward to demolish the shack, two men step out of the woods, aiming drawn bows at the villagers. They seem surprised, “more innocent than any of us would have liked.” In the face of these weapons, the villagers draw back and widen out, already calculating how to disarm and attack the men.
The villagers are struck and discomforted by their own similarities to the strangers. While the villagers will try to distinguish themselves from the strangers throughout the novel, the sight of their faces will always remind Walter of their shared humanity.
It’s Mr. Quill who tries to diffuse the situation. He limps forward with open hands; the other villagers wonder if he will be shot, and conclude it’s “a price they could afford,” since he himself is an outsider.
Here, Mr. Quill’s kindness and bravery contrast with the village’s careless disregard for anyone who isn’t a member of their community.
Then a woman emerges from the half-demolished shack. Her head is bloody from the collapse of the roof, and the injury turns an altercation between armed men in to an “occasion of shame.” The villagers let their weapons fall, and Mr. Quill helps the woman out of the shack. She’s not beautiful; she has a “weasel face” and shiny eyes like “belladonna berries.” Around her shoulders she wears a beautiful shawl, too expensive for a woman of her station to possess.
From her first appearance, the woman is notable in several ways. Walter describes her features in terms of their resemblance to animals and plants, establishing her as closely connected to nature. Moreover, the richness of her shawl suggests that it is stolen. While the village’s atmosphere is fairly egalitarian, they never blur class boundaries this far. Thus, the woman is immediately destabilizing to the hierarchies that govern village life.
The woman is enthralling to the men, not because of her beauty, but because she’s “within reach” and because of her proud and unafraid demeanor. One of the men is young and the other old, so they conclude that they are her brother and father, and that she’s conveniently unmarried. The women see her as a good partner for their sons or brothers, but she’s a tempting prospect for all the men, married or not. The village women are “like land—fenced in, assigned and spoken for” by their large family networks. In contrast, the stranger is “no better than any other wild quarry on common ground.”
On one hand, the immediate impulse to welcome the woman suggests that the villagers could improve their behavior towards outsiders, and thus solve the problem of decay they face. On the other hand, their conception of the woman as unprotected and an easy target is disturbing, suggesting that they can take advantage of her because she’s not yet part of the community. Notably, Walter will later observe that Jordan’s manservants consider the village women in much the same light.
Master Kent comes forward on Willowjack, his impressive horse. He demands they put the longbows aside, saying this is “no place for rough manners,” but the woman responds derisively that they’ve only seen rough manners since they arrived here. Master Kent decrees that the old man and young man will both spend one week in the pillory for stealing the birds. Their bows will be snapped, and all three will have their heads shaven. It’s a comparatively lenient punishment, but the woman spits on the ground in front of Master Kent. He tells her to consider herself lucky there isn’t space for three people in the pillory. She spits again, hitting Willowjack this time.
While the men remain passive throughout the interaction, the woman speaks for them and expresses anger on behalf, showing she possess an unusual amount of authority. Feeling herself in the right, she’s unwilling to concede Master Kent’s authority over her, even though it might mitigate her punishment. From the start, the woman is a strongly anarchic, if sometimes irrational, force.