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Far from the Madding Crowd

16.
All Saints' and All Souls'
ON a week-day morning a small congregation, consisting mainly of women and
girls, rose from its knees in the mouldy nave of a church called All Saints', in the
distant barrack- town before mentioned, at the end of a service without a sermon.
They were about to disperse, when a smart footstep, entering the porch and
coming up the central passage, arrested their attention. The step echoed with a
ring unusual in a church; it was the clink of spurs. Everybody looked. A young
cavalry soldier in a red uniform, with the three chevrons of a sergeant upon his
sleeve, strode up the aisle, with an embarrassment which was only the more
marked by the intense vigour of his step, and by the determination upon his face
to show none. A slight flush had mounted his cheek by the time he had run the
gauntlet between these women; but, passing on through the chancel arch, he
never paused till he came close to the altar railing. Here for a moment he stood
alone.
The officiating curate, who had not yet doffed his surplice, perceived the new-
comer, and followed him to the communion- space. He whispered to the soldier,
and then beckoned to the clerk, who in his turn whispered to an elderly woman,
apparently his wife, and they also went up the chancel steps.
"'Tis a wedding!" murmured some of the women, brightening. "Let's wait!"
The majority again sat down.
There was a creaking of machinery behind, and some of the young ones turned
their heads. From the interior face of the west wall of the tower projected a little
canopy with a quarter-jack and small bell beneath it, the automaton being driven
by the same clock machinery that struck the large bell in the tower. Between the
tower and the church was a close screen, the door of which was kept shut during
services, hiding this grotesque clockwork from sight. At present, however, the
door was open, and the egress of the jack, the blows on the bell, and the
mannikin's retreat into the nook again, were visible to many, and audible through-
out the church.
The jack had struck half-past eleven.
"Where's the woman?" whispered some of the spectators.
The young sergeant stood still with the abnormal rigidity of the old pillars around.
He faced the south-east, and was as silent as he was still.
The silence grew to be a noticeable thing as the minutes went on, and nobody
else appeared, and not a soul moved. The rattle of the quarter-jack again from its
niche, its blows for three-quarters, its fussy retreat, were almost painfully abrupt,
and caused many of the congregation to start palpably.
"I wonder where the woman is!" a voice whispered again.
There began now that slight shifting of feet, that artificial coughing among
several, which betrays a nervous suspense. At length there was a titter. But the
soldier never moved. There he stood, his face to the south-east, upright as a
column, his cap in his hand.
The clock ticked on. The women threw off their nervousness, and titters and
giggling became more frequent. Then came a dead silence. Every one was
 
 
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