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The chapter opens with the author painting a picture of Norcombe Hill on a clear, cold winter's night. The author vividly describes the great power nature can exercise on humanity. Inside, Gabriel is playing his flute, and the notes can be heard indistinctly. Gabriel's hut is simple, but comfortable. It is mobile and has especially served the shepherd well during lambing time. Oak has just recently become an independent sheep farmer. Since he has put a large amount of his hard-earned money into the buying of sheep, he takes a keen, personal interest in each of them, particularly the lambs. He carries the newborns into his hut to sleep warmly by the fire. When the lamb bleats, Farmer Oak wakes, gets out of bed, and carries the lamb through the darkness to its mother. He stands in the open air to guess the time of night by looking at the stars. Farmer Oak is impressed and overcome by the beauty of the sky and the stars on Norcombe Hill.
While he stands and admires the stars, Oak suddenly notices an artificial light in the distance. He goes towards the light and finds a little shed built on the slope of the hill. Peeping through the roof, Oak discovers that there are two women;: one slightly older and the other younger. They are tending the birth of a calf. The older woman expresses relief that the cow seems better. The younger woman, however, just wishes that a helper could be hired for such jobs. She cares more about her hat being carried off by the wind than she does about the animal. As he watches, Gabriel Oak becomes more and more curious about the young woman. He even begins to imagine her as a beautiful woman. The young woman then drops her cloak, and Gabriel recognizes the young woman as the one who had come in the wagon. After placing the calf near its mother, the two women prepare to leave the shed, and Gabriel returns to his flock.
In this chapter, the author establishes the pastoral setting for his characters. Farmer Oak's world is not mechanical in any way; instead, everything around him is filled with peace, quiet, and beauty.. He takes the time to appreciate the loveliness of his surroundings and to tell time by the position of the stars and the lengths of the shadows. It is the perfect environment for this simple, natural man who seems born to be a shepherd. The young woman, on the other hand, is not so natural. In her vanity and pride, she seems to care more about her own appearance and well being than the beauty that surrounds her. She is more concerned about her hat than about the cow.
As always, Hardy employs the pastoral setting to help in the development of his characters. The winter winds do not dampen the spirits of Gabriel, who is completely at ease in such weather. He is also aware of and at ease in the larger universe. He notices the beauty of Norcombe Hill and peers at the stars to tell time. He is equally at ease amongst his animals. He is seen snuggling a newborn lamb in order to keep it warm and interrupting his sleep to take it to its mother. This shows how finely attentive he is to the needs of his fellow creatures, both animal and human.
Gabriel is also curious. When he sees a light in the distance, he goes to seek its source and then reveals what he finds. The scene with the two women working in the cow shed highlights several points. First, it reinforces the fact that the young woman is tremendously concerned about her appearance, fretting that her hat has blown away. It is also apparent that she does not care for menial work, such as tending cows. Her reaction to the birthing scene is a total contrast to Gabriel's reaction to the birthing of his sheep. Finally, the reader sees Gabriel, despite his placidity, yearning for a pretty female to fulfill his human need for companionship. Before she drops her cloak, Gabriel dreams that the figure inside the shed is a beautiful woman.