Signs of storm seen in sky


"CHRISTMAS Eve came, and a party that Boldwood was to give in the evening was the subject of great talk in Weatherbury." That party, you may remember, provided the thrilling climax to Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, and a denouement that allowed Bathsheba and the faithful Gabriel to fulfil their destinies together.

Several years earlier, however, another party, a "harvest and supper dance", had been the backdrop for one of the most meteorologically eventful nights in English literature.

Thomas Hardy was a country man, who spent nearly all his life in the environs of his native Dorchester. He was familiar with the weather's changing moods, and with the many signs that were said by country folk to indicate a turning for the worst. In his novel, he uses them to good effect.

"In the sky," he begins, "dashes of buoyant cloud were sailing in a course at right angles to that of another stratum, neither of them in the direction of the breeze below. The same evening the sheep had trailed homeward head to tail, the rooks had been confused, and the horses had moved with timidity and caution.

"Now the sheep were crowded close together, all grouped in such a way that their tails, without exception, where towards the half of the horizon from which the storm threatened.

"Gabriel Oak proceeded towards his house. In approaching the door his toe kicked against something which felt soft, leathery and distended, like a boxing glove. It was a large toad, humbly travelling across the path. He knew what this direct message from the Great Mother meant.

Soon he saw yet another sign. "When he struck a light indoors there appeared upon the table a thin glistening streak, as if a brush of varnish had been lightly dragged across it. Oak's eyes followed the serpentine sheen to the other side, where it led up to a huge brown garden slug which had come indoors to, night for reasons of its own.

And later. "Two black spiders of the kind common in thatched houses promenaded the ceiling, ultimately dropping to the floor."

The meaning of these diverse happenings was clear. "There was to be a thunder storm, and afterwards, a cold continuous rain. The creeping things seemed to know all about the later rain, but little of the interpolating thunderstorm, whilst the sheep knew all about the thunderstorm and nothing of the later rain."