Return of the Native Book 1: The Three Women, Chapters 1 - 4
The setting is the isolated, desolate, wild land called Egdon Heath on a cold November evening. Nighttime brings the heath to life, awakens possibilities for its inhabitants. The people of the heath live and work comfortably here, even though it is overgrown and obscure, untouched for ages except by the wide road that now travels its length: "The sea changed, the fields changed, the rivers, the villages, and the people changed, yet Egdon remained" Book 1, Chapter 1, pg. 3.
As he's walking along the road, Captain Vye, a retired naval officer, sees a van in the distance, heading the same way he is. The van and its driver are completely covered with red coloring, and Captain Vye--frail, hunched, and white-haired--knows that the driver must be a reddleman, a person whose job is to supply farmers with red coloring for their sheep. The old man notices that the reddleman is young and handsome, and he wonders why a good-looking, well-to-do man would choose such a tiring, tedious profession. The reddleman ignores the old man at first, but after he attracts the attention of Captain Vye by looking repeatedly into the van, he tells Vye that there is a young woman inside his van. The young man is very protective of and concerned about this woman, and will not allow the old man to see who she is. The old man has a guess, but does not say. The two men part ways, the young man settling down to rest and the old man continuing his walk.
The reddleman, whose name is Diggory Venn, surveys the topography of the heath, his gaze resting on the sight of a barrow against the darkening sky. The barrow is the highest summit on the heath, a great sight to behold. Venn notices that a figure is standing on top of the barrow, a figure as still and motionless as the barrow and the heath below it. When the figure turns abruptly to leave, Venn realizes it's a woman and that her disappearance was caused by the sudden approach of men climbing the barrow. The men stay, and the woman, the reddleman realizes, will most likely not be returning as long as the men are there.
The men on the barrow are furze-gatherers. They gather all the furze they have cut and build a huge pyramid on the summit of the barrow, which the villagers refer to as Rainbarrow. As soon as they set fire to the driest bushes of furze, other bonfires across the heath can be seen, lighting up the dark night.
Women and children also gather on the barrow. Grandfer Cantle starts singing native songs. The villagers then talk about the Yeobright family: how Mrs. Yeobright's niece, Thomasin Yeobright, is supposed to be married to Damon Wildeve, and how her son, Clym Yeobright, is supposed to return home for Christmas and keep his mother company now that her niece has gotten married. The villagers are upset that Thomasin and Wildeve have not gotten married in town and plan to serenade them. They also remark that Damon Wildeve, although not as smart and clever as Clym Yeobright, wasted his chance of having a good job by taking the ownership of the Quiet Woman Inn instead of using his engineering skills. Christian Cantle, Grandfer Cantle's youngest son, remarks sadly that no woman will want him for a husband.
Although most of the fires are slowly being extinguished, the fires in the far distance are still going strong because the vegetation and soil are different from that of the heath's. The only exception is one fire near them, which continues to burn as steadily as when it started. The villagers realize that the fire is from Mistover Knap, where Captain Vye's home is located. The villagers, especially Susan Nunsuch, then remark on how strange Captain Vye's granddaughter is, living by herself, never wanting to know anyone, never participating in heath activities. The villagers then dance and sing wildly.
The reddleman interrupts the villagers festivities, asking them for directions to Mrs. Yeobright's home on Blooms-End, and then setting off in that direction. One of the villagers, Humphrey, seems to recognize the young reddleman, although he cannot remember who he is. No sooner does the reddleman leave when a well-liked and well-respected widowed woman, Mrs. Yeobright, arrives. She is genteel, but she looks at the villagers with a bit of condescension. Timothy Fairway informs her that a reddleman was inquiring about her. Mrs. Yeobright tells them that she is heading toward her niece's new home and that she would like Olly Dowden to accompany her. Olly tells her that the light coming from Thomasin and Wildeve's home will help them find their way through the heath.
Olly and Mrs. Yeobright are accustomed to the harsh, wild landscape and weather, so they are not delayed as a stranger would be. As they walk, Olly speaks of Thomasin and Wildeve's marriage and Mrs. Yeobright's opposition to it. Olly tells her that she has thought before that Wildeve is not suited for the Yeobright family, and Mrs. Yeobright agrees with her that they cannot undo the marriage. Olly asks Mrs. Yeobright to remind Wildeve about the bottle of wine he had promised her sick husband.
Near the inn, Mrs. Yeobright sees a reddleman, and realizes that it must be the reddleman who was asking for her. She recognizes him as Diggory Venn, whose father had been a dairyman. Venn informs Mrs. Yeobright that her niece, Thomasin Yeobright, is in the van--the niece had seen him in Anglebury and asked him to take her home. They had known each other since childhood, and she had immediately recognized him. The young woman, beautiful, sweet, and fair, once happy and hopeful, was now humiliated and grief-stricken. Venn, out of consideration, leaves the two of them alone in his van, and Mrs. Yeobright awakens her niece. When she hears they are near home, Thomasin insists that she'll walk. When Mrs. Yeobright asks Venn, who's returned, what made him pass up on the dairy profession; Venn can only look at Thomasin. The reddleman is reluctant to let Thomasin and her aunt walk the rest of the way home, but eventually leaves them.