Far from the Madding Crowd HTML version

2. Night -- The Flock -- An Interior -- Another Interior
IT was nearly midnight on the eve of St. Thomas's, the shortest day in the year. A
desolating wind wandered from the north over the hill whereon Oak had watched
the yellow waggon and its occupant in the sunshine of a few days earlier.
Norcombe Hill -- not far from lonely Toller-Down -- was one of the spots which
suggest to a passer-by that he is in the presence of a shape approaching the
indestructible as nearly as any to be found on earth. It was a featureless
convexity of chalk and soil -- an ordinary specimen of those smoothly- outlined
protuberances of the globe which may remain undisturbed on some great day of
confusion, when far grander heights and dizzy granite precipices topple down.
The hill was covered on its northern side by an ancient and decaying plantation
of beeches, whose upper verge formed a line over the crest, fringing its arched
curve against the sky, like a mane. To-night these trees sheltered the southern
slope from the keenest blasts, which smote the wood and floundered through it
with a sound as of grumbling, or gushed over its crowning boughs in a weakened
moan. The dry leaves in the ditch simmered and boiled in the same breezes, a
tongue of air occasionally ferreting out a few, and sending them spinning across
the grass. A group or two of the latest in date amongst the dead multitude had
remained till this very mid-winter time on the twigs which bore them and in falling
rattled against the trunks with smart taps.
Between this half-wooded half naked hill, and the vague still horizon that its
summit indistinctly commanded, was a mysterious sheet of fathomless shade --
the sounds from which suggested that what it concealed bore some reduced
resemblance to features here. The thin grasses, more or less coating the hill,
were touched by the wind in breezes of differing powers, and almost of differing
natures -- one rubbing the blades heavily, another raking them piercingly,
another brushing them like a soft broom. The instinctive act of humankind was to
stand and listen, and learn how the trees on the right and the trees on the left
wailed or chaunted to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir;
how hedges and other shapes to leeward then caught the note, lowering it to the
tenderest sob; and how the hurrying gust then plunged into the south, to be
heard no more.
The sky was clear -- remarkably clear -- and the twinkling of all the stars seemed
to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse. The North Star was
directly in the wind's eye, and since evening the Bear had swung round it
outwardly to the east, till he was now at a right angle with the meridian. A
difference of colour in the stars -- oftener read of than seen in England -- was
really perceptible here. The sovereign brilliancy of Sirius pierced the eye with a
steely glitter, the star called Capella was yellow, Aldebaran and Betelgueux
shone with a fiery red.
To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll
of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be
caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is
perceptible in a few minutes of stillness, or by the better outlook upon space that