The north road from Casterbridge is tedious and lonely, especially in winter-time. Along a part of its course it connects with Long-Ash Lane, a monotonous track without a village or hamlet for many miles, and with very seldom a turning. Unapprized wayfarers who are too old, or too young, or in other respects too weak for the distance to be traversed, but who, nevertheless, have to walk it, say, as they look wistfully ahead, ‘Once at the top of that hill, and I must surely see the end of Long-Ash Lane!’ But they reach the hilltop, and Long-Ash Lane stretches in front as mercilessly as before.
Some few years ago a certain farmer was riding through this lane in the gloom of a winter evening. The farmer’s friend, a dairyman, was riding beside him. A few paces in the rear rode the farmer’s man. All three were well horsed on strong, round-barrelled cobs; and to be well horsed was to be in better spirits about Long-Ash Lane than poor pedestrians could attain to during its passage.
But the farmer did not talk much to his friend as he rode along. The enterprise which had brought him there filled his mind; for in truth it was important. Not altogether so important was it, perhaps, when estimated by its value to society at large; but if the true measure of a deed be proportionate to the space it occupies in the heart of him who undertakes it, Farmer Charles Darton’s business to-night could hold its own with the business of kings.
He was a large farmer. His turnover, as it is called, was probably thirty thousand pounds a year. He had a great many draught horses, a great many milch cows, and of sheep a multitude. This comfortable position was, however, none of his own making. It had been created by his father, a man of a very different stamp from the present representative of the line.
Darton, the father, had been a one-idea’d character, with a buttoned-up pocket and a chink-like eye brimming with commercial subtlety. In Darton the son, this trade subtlety had become transmuted into emotional, and the harshness had disappeared; he would have been called a sad man but for his constant care not to divide himself from lively friends by piping notes out of harmony with theirs. Contemplative, he allowed his mind to be a quiet meeting-place for memories and hopes. So that, naturally enough, since succeeding to the agricultural calling, and up to his present age of thirty-two, he had neither advanced nor receded as a capitalist–a stationary result which did not agitate one of his unambitious, unstrategic nature, since he had all that he desired. The motive of his expedition to-night showed the same absence of anxious regard for Number One.
The party rode on in the slow, safe trot proper to night-time and bad roads, Farmer Darton’s head jigging rather unromantically up and down against the sky, and his motions being repeated with bolder emphasis by his friend Japheth Johns; while those of the latter were travestied in jerks still less softened by art in the person of the lad who attended them. A pair of whitish objects hung one on each side of the latter, bumping against him at each step, and still further spoiling the grace of his seat. On close inspection they might have been perceived to be open rush baskets–one containing a turkey, and the other some bottles of wine.
‘D’ye feel ye can meet your fate like a man, neighbour Darton?’ asked Johns, breaking a silence which had lasted while five-and-twenty hedgerow trees had glided by.
Mr. Darton with a half-laugh murmured, ‘Ay–call it my fate! Hanging and wiving go by destiny.’ And then they were silent again.