The first has come from the direction of town and asks shelter from the rain. He dries off by the hearth but is evasive when asked about himself. Although he enjoys smoking, he has neither pipe, tobacco, nor pouch.
Shortly after, a second stranger knocks, this one is headed toward Casterbridge. Again, he wishes to dry off and sits down at the table, right next to the first stranger, penning him in. He is much more jovial than the first stranger and asks for drink. He then begins to sing. Only the first stranger joins in the chorus. It is obvious from the song that he is a public hangman, coming to hang a prisoner slated for execution the next day at the county jail.
A third stranger enters during the song, looks terrified, and rushes out. Just then a gun is heard firing from the town, indicating a prisoner has escaped. One of the guests, “the engaged man of fifty,” declares himself a constable and, after some knockabout humor, eventually sets off in pursuit of the third stranger with a posse.
This is how they all came to be in the Shepards cottage,