Following the sounds of the brass band, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive outside of the chief hotel in Casterbridge, the Golden Crown. The blinds of the front room of the hotel are open and across the street a group of idlers stands surveying the events in the front room of the hotel. Susan encourages Elizabeth-Jane to make some inquiries of his group about Henchard.
Lower class characters in the street observe the goings-on in the Golden Crown. Throughout the novel, the differences in wealth and class in Casterbridge are made clear.
Elizabeth-Jane asks an old man in the group what is going on, and he tells her that they are watching a dinner of the foremost men in town, including the councilmen and the mayor, Henchard. Surprised, Elizabeth-Jane and Susan climb the steps across the street, so they can look into the hotel room. Henchard sits at the head of the table within the room, laughing occasionally, his face matured, and his clothes fine with jeweled studs. At his right hand is only a glass of water.
The marks of the change Henchard has gone through since he stopped drinking are apparent in his position (as mayor), his mannerisms (laughter), and his physical indications of wealth (fine clothes and jewels). He is clearly not drinking alcohol, as he once would have done at any opportunity.
As Susan looks at Henchard, she is overcome with emotion and withdraws into the shadows. Elizabeth-Jane asks her mother if she has seen their relative, and Susan exclaims that she has seen him and now only wants to “go—pass away—die.” Elizabeth-Jane thinks her mother is afraid that Henchard will not want to help them, and says she thought he seemed like a generous man, pointing out his gentlemanly looks and his diamond studs. Susan says he overpowers her, and she doesn’t wish to see him anymore.
Susan’s reaction to Henchard’s elevated position is one of intimidation and shame. Perhaps she remembers Henchard’s force of character even when he was a lowly hay-trusser, and fears his current power. Perhaps she is ashamed by the economic differences between them that have been the product of eighteen years apart.
Elizabeth-Jane is excited by their connection to the mayor, and watches the scene inside with interest. She notices that Henchard’s wine glass is never filled and points this out to the old man in the crowd. The old man says that Henchard is famous for his abstinence from liquor because he swore an oath to not drink, for at least another two years. Another old man joins their conversation and the two refer to Henchard as a lonely widower. Elizabeth-Jane asks when he lost his wife, and learns that it was long ago, before he came to Casterbridge. Henchard, the men report, owns the most profitable business in wheat and corn, and has worked his way up to the top of local society. However, recently his business has sold a crop of bad wheat.
Elizabeth-Jane, unlike Susan, finds Henchard more appealing because of his position and his obvious marks of wealth. From the crowd, Elizabeth-Jane learns of Henchard’s abstinence from liquor, his loss of a wife in his past, and his profitable business. All of the details of this information are revealed to be surprisingly accurate for town gossip. Throughout the novel, the townsfolk have access to information and secrets, often before those who the secrets concern.
One of the minor tradesmen seated at the foot of the table in the hotel asks Henchard about the bad bread. Despite this man’s lower social standing, others take up his question. Henchard’s face darkens with temper, but he tells the listeners that they must make allowances for the running of a large business and the poor weather that year. He says he has advertised for a manager to help with his business and to prevent such mistakes. When pressed on whether he will replace the poor purchased wheat, he says, he would if anyone could tell him how to turn bad wheat into wholesome wheat, but that this cannot be done.
Henchard’s face darkening with temper shows that he has not lost all of his natural passion. However, in this situation, he responds rationally to the questions about his bad wheat. He says he is seeking a manager, which foreshadows the introduction of Farfrae’s character, but also reveals Henchard’s tendency to blame others, or the absence of others, when something goes wrong.