(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Higher Crowstairs is an isolated cottage some three miles from Casterbridge, the county town where the county jail is situated. It is late winter, in the evening of a very rainy day. Shepherd Fennel and his wife are holding a christening party, to which about twenty relatives and neighbors have come, all well known to one another. Inside it is warm and snug, with a blazing fire in the hearth. Mrs Fennel, a somewhat frugal lady, is hoping to strike a balance between dancing and talking, so that no one gets too thirsty or too hungry. The musicians are a twelve-year-old fiddler and the parish clerk, who plays the serpent, an old-fashioned brass instrument.

Into this festive scene, three strangers intrude, one by one. 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 drinks the mead (a fermented honey drink) in large quantities, much to Mrs. Fennel’s consternation. When asked about his occupation, he sings a song for the locals to guess. Only the first stranger joins in the chorus. It is obvious from the song that he is a public...

(The entire section is 478 words.)