In the evening, the villagers gather in the remaining barn, lying on bales of hay and consuming the rich food Master Kent provides for the harvest feast. Master Kent has killed one of his own calves for the occasion. Everyone should be content, but they are unnerved from the morning’s excitement. Brooker Higgs and the Derby twins seem ashamed, as do all the men who held down the strange woman and cut her hair. By now everyone has figured out who really set the fire, and Walter says they “can be absolved only if these three guilty friends” confess and take their place instead of the strangers in the pillory.
Despite their demonstrated hostility to the strangers, the villagers do seem to know that they’re in the wrong. In fact, their sense of guilt towards the strangers is already corrupting their most treasured rituals, like the festival that follows the harvest. Walter’s suggestion that the villagers need “absolution” is ominous, suggesting that their behavior deserves and will certainly result in punishment.
Walter knows that the old man and young man’s punishment is unjust, but he’s decided it’s best to leave it alone. Once they’re released, it’s unlikely they’ll want to stay in the village, and then they’ll be free of them. In any case, seven days in the pillory isn’t much for roaming men like them, “men who have no roots but are like mistletoe.”
Walter also is callous towards the strangers, even though he was once new to the village and lacking in “roots” himself. By differentiating himself from the outsiders, he hopes to feel more secure within the village.
The pillory hasn’t been used in many years, ever since two cousins, related to Walter’s wife Cecily, had a dispute over a pig. They only spent a night in the pillory, and the instance ended the fight and became a subject of much humor. Instead, the pillory functions as the “village cross,” since the village has some land set aside for a church which has never been built. The villagers feel much closer to the animals they work with than “the Father who created us and them.” While they respect God, he’s irrelevant to their daily work and won’t help them bring the harvest in.
The pillory is central to village life. Although technically an object of punishment, it’s lost any ominous connotations through infrequent use. The juxtaposition of the pillory with the unbuilt church both shows the pillory’s spiritual significance in the village and demonstrates the extent to which the villagers are distanced from conventional religion.
The pillory stands on the site of the unbuilt church, taller than a man and shaped like a cross. In front of it, Master Kent officiates weddings, funerals, and baptisms. Both Master Kent’s wife Lucy and Walter’s Cecily had their funeral in this same spot. Walter is sad to see the two men hanging from the pillory in the same place where so many important village functions have occurred. It’s the first time he’s actually laid eyes on the prisoners, having just heard reports from his neighbors, John and Emma Carr, and the Widow Gosse. The old man has to stand on tiptoe to keep from being strangled in the pillory, and Walter resolves to bring him a log to stand on later.
The pillory’s location and shape create a resemblance to the Christian crucifix. Its function as a site for rituals like weddings and funerals, which would normally be performed in a church, shows the village’s reliance on improvised rituals, which are much more egalitarian (Master Kent, an aristocrat, and Walter, a peasant, had identical weddings). However, by hanging on the cross the strangers are aligned with Jesus Christ, highlighting their own innocence and the villagers’ guilt.
Now, at the feast, Master Kent stands up to make a speech. He introduces Mr. Quill, whose real name is Philip Earle. Master Kent says he’s come to make a map of all the common lands, in order to facilitate a new “organization to all our advantages.” Mr. Quill unfurls a map that purports to show the land, but all the villagers can make out are strange geometric shapes with no logic.
Mr. Quill’s job is to make sense of the land by recording it. However, his drawings are completely inaccessible to the villagers who have known the land all their lives. This moment foretells that the land will become unrecognizable to its inhabitants, negatively characterizing whatever changes are impending.
Master Kent stands uncertainly for a moment without explaining, but Walter knows what’s coming, having feared this ever since Lucy Kent died. He knows that in other towns, the masters have enclosed common fields with fences, cleared timber, and turned the land into sheep farms in order to produce and sell wool.
Walter’s knowledge of life outside the village gives him an edge in understanding what’s about to happen. Walter wants to be a full member of the village, not an individual character; at times, however, the qualities that differentiate him are useful.
Master Kent presents these changes as a “dream” he’s had. In the dream, all the villagers, whom he calls “friends and neighbors,” no longer have to work hard all year and face uncertain harvests. Instead, they will rely on sheep, which are predictable and don’t rely on good weather to produce fleece. Their work will consist of shepherding and spinning and weaving the cloth, which people in far away places will turn into clothes.
Master Kent is doing is best to make these changes palatable to the villagers, but the arguments he uses aren’t very relevant. They don’t think of their lives as hard and uncertain, and it’s not interesting to them if people far away use their products, since they have little interest in strangers and only care about their insular community. The attractions of “progress” have little value to the villagers.
Walter knows no one is in a position to object right now. They’ve all dined well on Master Kent’s food, and everyone is a little drunk. To lighten the mood, Thomas Rogers picks up his pipe and plays. Mr. Quill produces a fiddle and joins Thomas, in fact playing much better than him, to Thomas’s consternation. Everyone begins to dance, especially the young unmarried girls. After the music is over, the prettiest one will be selected as the Gleaning Queen, and the next morning she will inaugurate the barley gleaning by picking the first fallen grain from the field.
The villagers respond to the unwelcome news by retreating into their age-old rituals. The prospect of the annual gleaning ceremony is especially comforting. By equating the healthy and fertile girls with the harvested crop, the ceremony links the land’s abundance and the village’s vitality, promising that the community can always find renewal and stability by working the land.
Mr. Quill is “shaping us again” with his fiddle, making them lighthearted and friendly just as he has recorded and encapsulated the land with his pen. A middle-aged widower, Walter stands to the side with Master Kent and watches the young people drawing closer together than they should. The sight reminds Walter that the village is “more devoted to the customs and the Holy days than to the Holiness itself.” It’s lucky they don’t have a priest to exhort them to be more pious.
The village’s most valued rituals stand outside of and even in contrast to established religion. For example, the village values everything that connotes fertility and renewal, even if it’s unmarried coupling, while the church explicitly condemns this. Thus, the village rituals, and the satisfaction they provide, implicitly argue that conventional religion is unnecessary and irrelevant.
Just when they’re becoming truly merry, the strange woman approaches the barn, standing at the edge of the feast. Walter recognizes the shawl he’s heard so much about. Master Kent nudges him and points, nicknaming the woman Mistress Beldam; soon, everyone has stopped dancing to stare at her. The villagers know they ought to make amends and welcome her into the feast to dance and eat. They could even select her as the Gleaning Queen, and then everything would be made right. Walter imagines her leading the village into the field while the doves, still alive, circle in the sky. However, even in his imagination it seems that the doves can’t find any place to land.
Master Kent’s nickname is important. Beldam is an elision of “belle dame,” or “beautiful woman,” which highlights the stranger’s fascination for the men in the village; but “beldam” is also a contemporary term for a female sorceress. Her name thus emblematizes the allure and danger she emanates. The unspoken desire to name her the Gleaning Queen recalls Walter’s earlier description of her in terms of her similarity to nature, underscoring her close association with the land and its promises of fertility and renewal.
Mistress Beldam hesitates for a moment and then walks away through the gate. The villagers “exchange sheepish glances” and, with the atmosphere spoiled, everyone hurries away to bed.
Walter plays with language here, associating the villagers with the very creatures whose arrival they fear and detest.
Master Kent asks Walter to find Mistress Beldam and bring her to the barn, where she can find some shelter away from “danger.” Since there are few dangerous animals in the woods, Walter knows Master Kent is trying to protect her from any of the village men who might drunkenly search for her during the night.
Master Kent’s thoughtfulness again shows his respect for everyone under his care, even strangers. In this respect he’s different from his tenants. On the other hand, the village men seem capable of violence, despite Walter’s repeated description of the villagers as peaceful and harmless.
When he leaves the barn, Walter sees it’s raining hard. All the neighbors have returned to their cottages, but Walter feels the rain is cleansing, washing away the rich food and drink and helping the pain in his hand. He walks toward the pillory. When he sees the miserable old man and young man exposed to the elements, he wishes he could build a church right away, with an arch over the pillory to protect them. Now, the rain seems to him not cleansing but threatening.
Walter’s interpretations of natural phenomena change depending on goings-on in the village. Even though the land provides the villagers a stable life, it doesn’t give their actions any moral certainty. Walter’s desire to build a church, thus importing outside practices to the village, implies that the village norms, while satisfactory to the community, aren’t sufficient to address the problem of the strangers.
Walter approaches the pillory and introduces himself, but the men don’t respond. In the bad weather, Walter can’t even find a log for the old man to stand on; he tries to bring one of the stones intended for the church, but his hand hurts too much to drag it. Walter tells himself that the man can make it through the night, and in the morning he and John Carr will bring a bench for him.
While Walter is more sympathetic to the strangers than anyone else, he fails to act decisively on their behalf. Walter often feels that the village as a whole is at fault for their treatment of the strangers, but he rarely examines his personal culpability.
Then Walter goes in search of Mistress Beldam. He’s always been loyal to Master Kent’s instructions, having known him since childhood; Walter’s father worked for Master Kent’s, and his own mother was Master Kent’s wet nurse. The two men played together as children, and then Walter became Master Kent’s manservant, eventually accompanying him to the village when he married Lucy and took charge of her estates. Master Kent was kind to Walter when he announced his desire to marry a villager, Cecily, and become a farmer, even though it meant losing him as a servant. Now, Walter always speaks on Master Kent’s behalf to his neighbors, and he relates village grievances to the landlord.
Walter and Master Kent’s life shows the class differences between the two men; Walter has always been defined as a subordinate, and his path determined by his duty to serve his master. At the same time, their familiarity breaks down class boundaries between the two men. Their marriage to women from the same insular village, and their current status as widowers, emphasizes their similarities. Moreover, Walter’s special relationship to the landlord differentiates him further from his neighbors.
Walter hurries towards the shack, hoping Mistress Beldam has sought shelter there. He admits that his intentions aren’t entirely pure. Mistress Beldam is fascinating to him—not in the manner of his wife, Cecily, but in a new and “uncomfortable” way. Walter found comfort and security in his wife, but Mistress Beldam is more intriguing. In the darkness, he hears other men prowling about, and knows that they’re beset by the same thoughts as he is. He feels more entitled to search for the woman than they are, since he doesn’t have to hide her from a wife or family. Walter calls out to her many times, but he never receives an answer.
Although no one knows much about her, Mistress Beldam exercises a totemic fascination over the village men. They all desire her sexually, but since sex is linked to fertility and renewal, it’s clear they desire her as a means to reaffirm the cycles that drive village life. At this point in the narrative, Mistress Beldam embodies a hope for sustenance and growth in a village that is already suffering insidious decay.