Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478
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 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.
While the women exit upstairs to comfort a wailing baby, the first two strangers creep back into the cottage, having made little effort to search for the man supposed to be the prisoner. After eating and drinking a little more, they part.
The posse captures the third stranger. By the time they return, the local magistrate and two jailers are at the cottage. They realize the third stranger is not the escaped prisoner, but his brother, come to pay his last respects. The real prisoner was the first stranger, but now it is too late and too dark to look for him. In the morning, a desultory search is made for him, but as his crime was only that of stealing a sheep to feed a starving family, there is much local sympathy for him, and the search is soon abandoned. His calmness has saved him.