Thomas Hardy.

The mayor of Casterbridge : the life and death of a man of character (Volume 1) online

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One evening of late summer, before the
present century had reached its thirtieth
year, a young man and woman, the latter
carrying a child, were approaching the large
village of Weydon-Priors on foot. They
were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick
hoar of dust which had accumulated on their
shoes and garments from an obviously long
journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to
their appearance just now.

The man was of fine figure, swarthy, and
stern in aspect ; and he showed in profile a
facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost
perpendicular. He wore a short jacket of
brown corduroy, newer than the remainder of

VOL. 1. ^


liis suit, whicli was a fustian waistcoat with
white horn buttons, breeches of the same,
tanned leggings, and a straw hat overlaid
with black glazed canvas. At his back he
carried by a looped strap a rush basket, from
which protruded at one end the crutch of a
hay-knife, a wimble for hay-bonds being also
visible in the aperture. His measured spring-
less walk was the walk of the skilled country-
man as distinct from the desultory shamble of
the general labourer ; v/hile in the turn and
plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged
and cynical indifference, personal to himself,
showing itself even in the regularly inter-
changing fustian folds, now in the left leg,
now in the right, as he paced along.

"What was really peculiar, however, in this
couple's progress, and would have attracted
the attention of any casual observer otherwise
disposed to overlook them, was the perfect
silence they preserved. They walked side by
side in such a way as to suggest afar off the
low, easy, confidential chat of people full of
reciprocity ; but on closer view it could be
discerned that the man was reading, or pre-
tending to read, a ballad-sheet which he kept
before ])is eyes with some difiiculty by the


hand tliat was passed tlirough tlie basket-
strap. Whether this apparent cause were the
real cause, or whether it were an assumed one
to escape an mtercourse that would have been
irksome to him, nobody but himself could
have said precisely ; but his taciturnity was
unbroken, and the woman enjoyed no society
whatever from his presence. Virtually she
walked the highway alone, save for the child
she bore. Sometimes the man's bent elbow
almost touched her shoulder, for she kept as
close to his side as was possible without
actual contact ; but she seemed to have no
idea of taking his arm, nor he of offering it ;
and far from exhibiting surprise at his ignoring
silence she appeared to receive it as a natural
thing. If any word at all was uttered by the
little group it was an occasional whisper of the
woman to the child — a tiny girl in short
clothes and blue boots of knitted yarn — and
the murmured babble of the child in reply.

The chief— almost the only — attraction of
the young woman's face was its mobility.
When she looked down sideways to the girl
she became pretty, and even handsome, parti-
cularly that in the action her features caught
slantwise the rays of the strongly coloured

B 2


sun, which made transparencies of her eyelids
and nostrils, and set fire on her lips. When
she plodded on in the shade of the hedge^
silently thinking, she had the hard, half-
apathetic expression of one who deems
anything possible at the hands of Time and
Chance, except, perhaps, fair-play. The first
phase was the work of Nature, the second
probably of civilization.

That the man and woman were husband
and wife,- and the parents of the girl in arms,
there could be little doubt. No other than
such relationship would have accounted for
the atmosphere of domesticity which the trio
carried along with them like a nimbus as they
moved down the road.

The wife mostly kept her eyes fixed ahead,
though with little interest — the scene for that
matter being one that might have been
matched at almost any spot in any county in.
England at this time of the year : a road
neither straight nor crooked, neither level
nor hilly, bordered by hedges, trees, and other
veofetation, which had entered the blackened-
green stage of colour that the doomed leaves
pass through on their way to dingy, and
yellow, and red. The grassy margin of thv


bank, and the nearest hedgerow boughs, were
powdered by the dust that had been stirred
over them by hasty vehicles, the same dust
as it lay on the road deadening their footfalls
like a carpet ; and this, with the aforesaid
total absence of conversation, allowed every
extraneous sound to be. heard.

For a long time there was none, beyond the
voice of a weak bird singing a trite old even-
ino; sono' that mi2:ht doubtless have been
heard on the hill at the same hour,, and with
the self-same trills, quavers, and breves, at
any sunset of tliat season for centuries untold.
But as they approached the village sundry
distant shouts and rattles reached their ears
from some elevated spot in that direction, as
yet screened from view by foliage. When
the outlying houses of Weydon-Priors could
just be descried, the family group was met by
a turnip-hoer with his hoe on his shoulder,
and his dinner-bag suspended from it. The
reader promptly glanced up.

" Any trade doing here V he asked phleg-
matically, designating the village in his van
by a wave of the broadsheet. And thinking
the labourer did not understand him, he added,
'' Anything in the hay-trussing line '? "


The turnip-hoer liad already begun shaking
his head. " Why, save the man, what
wisdom's in fashion that 'a should come to
Weydon for a job of that sort this time o'
year ? ''

"Then is there any house to let — a little
small new cottage just a builded, or such
like ? " asked the other.

The pessimist still maintained a negative :
" Pulling down is more the nater of Weydon.
There were five houses cleared away last year,
and three this ; and the fokes nowhere to go
— no, not so much as a thatched hurdle ;
that's the way o' Weydon-Priors."

The hay-trusser, which he obviously was,
nodded with some superciliousness. Looking
towards the village, he contiuued, " There is
something going on here, however, is there

''Ay. 'Tis Fair-Day. Though what you
hear now is little more than the clatter and
scurry of getting away the money o' children
and fools, for the real business is done earlier
than this. I've been working within sound
o't all day, but I didn't go up — not I. 'Twas
no business of mine."

The trusser and his family proceeded on


their way, and soon entered tlie Fair-field,
which showed standing-places and pens where
many hundreds of horses and sheep had been
exhibited and sold in the forenoon, but were
now in great part taken away. At present,
as their informant had observed, but little
real business remained on hand, the chief
being the sale by auction of a few inferior
animals, that could not otherwise be disposed
of, and had been absolutely refused by the
better class of traders, who came and went
early. Yet the crowd was denser now than
during the morning hours, the frivolous con-
tingent of visitors, including journeymen out
foi' a holiday, a stray soldier or two home on
furlough, village shopkeepers, and the like,
having latterly flocked in ; persons whose
activities found a cono^enial field amono- the
peep-shows, toy- stands, v»^ax-works, inspired
monsters, disinterested medical men who
travelled for the public good, thimble-riggers,
nick-nack vendors, and readers of Fate.

Neither of our pedestrians had much heart
for these things, and they looked around for
a refreshment tent among the many which
dotted the down. Two, which stood nearest
to them in the ochreous haze of expiring sun-


light, seemed almost equally inviting. One
was formed of new, milk-hued canvas, 'and
bore red flags on its summit ; it announced
"Good Home-brewed Beer, Ale, and Cyder."
The other was less new ; a little iron stove-
pipe came out of it at the back, and in front
appeared the placard, " Good Furmity Sold
Hear." The man mentally weighed the
two inscriptions, and inclined to the former

" No — no — the other one," said the woman.
" I always like furmity ; and so does Elizabeth-
Jane ; and so will you. It is nourishing after
a long hard day."

" I've never tasted it," said the man.
However, he gave way to her representations,
and they entered the furmity-booth forth-

A rather numerous company appeared
within, seated at the long narrow tables that
ran down the tent on each side. At the
upper end stood a stove, containing a charcoal
fire, over which hung a large three-legged
crock, sufficiently polished round the rim to
show that it was made of bell-metal. A hag-
gish creature of about fifty presided, in a
white apron, which, as it threw an air of


respectability over her as far as it extended,
was made so wide as to reach nearly round
her waist. She slowly stirred the contents
of the pot. The dull scrape of her large
spoon was audible throughout the tent as she
thus kept from burning the mixture of corn
in the grain, milk, raisins, currants, and what
not that composes the antiquated slop in
which she dealt. Vessels holding the separate
ingredients stood on a white-clothed table of
boards and trestles close by.

The young man and woman ordered a basin
each of the mixture, steaming hot, and sat
down to consume it at leisure. This was
very well so far, for furmity, as the woman
had said, was nourishing, and as proper a
food as could be obtained within the four
seas ; though, to those not accustomed to it,
the grains of wheat, swollen as large as lemon-
pips, which floated on its surface might have
a deterrent effect at first.

But there was more in that tent than met
the cursory glance ; and the man, with the
instinct of a perverse character, scented it
quickly. After a mincing attack on his bowl,
he watched the hag's proceedings from the
corner of his eye, and saw the game she


played. He winked to her, and passed up
his basin in reply to her nod ; when she took
a bottle from under the table, slily measured
out a quantity of its contents, and tipped the
same into the man's furmity. The liquor
poured in was ram. The man as slily sent
back money in payment.

He found the concoction, thus strongly
laced, much more to his satisfaction than it
had been in its natural state. His wife had
observed the proceeding with much uneasi-
ness, but he persuaded her to have hers laced
also, and she agreed to a milder allowance
after some misgiving.

The man finished his basin, and called for
another, the rum being signalled for in yet
stronger proportion. The effect of it was
soon apparent in his manner, and his wife
but too sadly perceived that in strenuously
steering off the rocks of the licensed liquor-
tent she had only got into Maelstrom depths
here amono-st the smuo:o:lers.

The child began to prattle imjDatiently, and
the wife more than once said to her husband,
" Michael, how about our lodging ? You
know we may have trouble in getting it if we
don't go soon."

But he turned a deaf ear to these bird-like


cliirpings. He talked loud to the company.
The child's black eyes, after slow, round,
ruminating gazes at the candles when they
were lighted, fell together ; then they opened,
then shut again, and she slept.

At the end of the first basin the man had
risen to serenity. At the second he was
jovial ; at the third argumentative. At the
fourth, the points signified by the shape of his
face, the occasional clench of his mouth, and
the fiery spark of his dark eye, began to tell
in his conduct ; he was overbearing — even
brilliantly quarrelsome.

The conversation took a high turn, as it
often does on such occasions. The ruin oi
good men by bad wives, and, more particularly,
the frustation of many a promising youth's
high aims and hopes, and the extinction of his
energies, by an early imprudent marriage, was
the theme.

" I did for myself that way thoroughly,''
said the trusser, with a contem23lative bitter-
ness that was well-nigh resentful. '' I married
at eighteen, like a fool that 1 was ; and this
is the consequence o't." He pointed at him-
self and family with a wave of the hand in-
tended to bring out the penuriousness of the


The young woman liis wife, who seemed
accustomed to such remarks, acted as if she
did not hear them, and continued her inter-
mittent private words on tender trifles to the
sleeping and waking child, who was just big
enough to be placed for a moment on the
bench beside her when she wished to ease her
arms. The man continued :

" I haven't more than fifteen shillino-s in
the world, and yet I am a good experienced
hand in my line. I'd challenge England to
beat me in the fodder business ; and if I were
a free man again I'd be worth a thousand
pound before I'd done o't. But a fellow never
knows these little things till all chance of
acting upon 'em is past."

The auctioneer sellino^ the old horses in the
field outside could be heard saying, " Now
this is the last lot — now who'll take the last
lot for a song ? Shall I say forty shillings ?
'Tis a very promising brood-mare, a trifle over
five years old, and nothing the matter with the
boss at all, except that she's a little holler in
the back and had her left eye knocked out by
the kick of another, her own sister, coming
along the road."

" For my part I don't see why men who


have got wives, and don't want 'em, shouldn't
get rid of 'em as these gipsy fellows do their
old horses," said the man in the tent. ^' Why
shouldn't they put 'em up and sell 'em by
auction to men who are in want of such
articles ? Hey ? Why, begad, I'd sell mine
this minute, if anybody would buy her ! "

" There's them that would do that," some
of the guests replied, looking at the woman,
who was by no means ill-favoured.

"True," said a smoking gentleman, whose
coat had the fine polish about the collar,
elbows, seams, and shoulder-blades that long-
continued friction with oily surfaces will
produce, and which is usually more desired
on furniture than on clothes. From his
appearance he had possibly been in former
time groom or coachman to some neighbouring
county family. " I've had my breedings in as
good circles, I inay say, as any man," he added,
*' and I know true cultivation, or nobody do ;
and I can declare she's got it — in the bone,
mind ye, I say — as much as any female in the
fair — though it may want a little bringing out. "
Then, crossing his legs, he resumed his pipe with
a nicely adjusted gaze at a point in the air.

The fuddled young husband stared for a few^


seconds at this unexpected praise of liis wife,
half in doubt of the wisdom of his own atti-
tude towards the possessor of such qualities.
But he speedily lapsed into his former convic-
tion, and said harshly :

" Well, then, now is your chance ; I am
open to an offer for this gem of creation."

She turned to her husband and murmured,
'* Michael, you have talked this nonsense in
public places before. A joke is a joke, but
you may make it once too often, mind ! ''

" I know I've said it before ; I meant it.
All I want is a buyer."

At the moment a swallow, one among the
last of the season, which had by chance found
its way through an opening into the upper
part of the tent, flew to and fro in quick
curves above their heads, causing all eyes to
follow it absently. In watching the bird till
it made its escape the assembled company
neglected to respond to the workman's offer,
and the subject dropped.

But a quarter of an hour later the man,
who had gone on lacing his furmity more and
more heavily, though he was either so strong-
minded or such an intrepid toper that he still
appeared fairly sober, recurred to the old strain,


as in a musical fantasy the instrument fetches
up the original theme. " Here — I am '>vaiting
to know about this offer of mine. The woman
is no good to me. Who'll have her ? "

The company had by this time decidedly
degenerated, and the renewed inquiry was
received with a laugh of appreciation. The
woman whispered ; she was imploring and
anxious : " Come, come, it is getting dark,
and this nonsense won't do. If you don't
come along I shall go without you. Come ! "

She waited and waited ; yet he did not
move. In ten minutes the man broke in upon
the desultory conversation of the furmity
drinkers with, '' I asked this question, and
nobody answered to 't. Will any Jack Eag
or Tom Straw among ye buy my goods ? "

The woman's manner changed, and her face
assumed the grim shape and colour of which
mention has been made.

''Mike, Mike," said she ; "this is getting
serious. Oh — too serious ! "

" Will anybody buy her ? " said the man.

''I wish somebody would," said she firmly.
" Her present owner is not at all to her liking !'^

'' Nor you to mine," said he. ''So we are
agreed about that. Gentlemen, you hear ?


It's an agreement to part. She shall take the
girl if she wants to, and go her ways. I'll
take my tools, and go my ways. Tis simple as
Scripture history. Now then, stand up, Susan,
and show yourself."

'' Don't, my chiel," whispered a buxom stay-
lace dealer in voluminous petticoats, who sat
near the woman ; "yer good man don't know
what he's saying."

The womaQ, however, did stand up. " Now,
who's auctioneer ? " cried the hay-trusser.

" I be," promptly answered a short man,
with a nose resembling a copper knob, a damp
voice, and eyes like button-holes. " Who'll
make an offer for this lady ? "

The woman looked on the ground, as if she
maintained her position by a supreme effort
of will.

" Five shillings," said some one, at which
there was a laugh.

'' No insults," said the husband. '' Wholl
say a guinea ? "

Nobody answered ; and the female dealer
in staylaces interposed.

'' Behave yerself moral, good man, for
Heaven's love ! Ah, what a cruelty is the
poor soul married to ! Bed and board is dear
at some figures, 'pon my 'vation 'tis ! "


" Set it higher, auctioneer," said the trusser.

" Two guineas 1 " said the auctioneer ; and
no one replied.

"If they don't take her for that, in ten
seconds they'll have to give more," said the
husband. " Very well. Now, auctioneer, add

" Three guineas — going for three guineas ! "
said the rheumy man.

" No bid ? " said the husband. " Good Lord,
why she's cost me fifty times the money, if a
penny. Go on."

" Four guineas ! " cried the auctioneer.

" 111 tell ye what — I won't sell her for less
than ^vej' said the husband, bringing down
his fist so that the basins danced. " I'll sell
her for five guineas to any man that will pay
me the money, and treat her well; and he
shall have her for ever, and never hear aught
o' me. But she sha'n't go for less. Now then
— five guineas — and she's yours. Susan, you
agree ?"

She bowed her head with absolute indif-

"Five guineas," said the auctioneer, "or
she'll be withdrawn. Do anybody give it ?
The last time. Yes or no ? ''



" Yes," said a loud voice from the doorway.

All eyes were turned. Standing in the
triangular opening which formed the door of
the tent was a sailor, who, unobserved by the
rest, had arrived there within the last two or
three minutes. A dead silence followed his

" You say you do ? " asked the husband,
staring at him.

" I say so," replied the sailor.

" Saying is one thing, and paying is another.
Where's the money ? "

The sailor hesitated a moment, looked anew
at the woman, came in, unfolded a crisj) piece
of paper, and threw it down upon the table-
cloth. It was a Bank-of-England note for five
pounds. Upon the face of this he chinked
down the shillings severally — one, two, three,
four, five.

The sight of real money in full amount, in
answer to a challenge for the same till then
deemed slightly hypothetical, had a great
effect upon the spectators. Their eyes became
riveted upon the faces of the chief actors, and
then upon the note, as it lay, weighted by the
shillings, on the table.

Up to this moment it could not positively


have been asserted that the man, in spite
of his tantalizing declaration, was really in
earnest. The spectators had, indeed, taken
the proceedings throughout as a piece of
mirthful irony carried to extremes ; and had
assumed that, being out of work, he was, as a
consequence, out of temper with the world,
and society, and his nearest kin. But with the
demand and response of real cash the jovial
frivolity of the scene departed. A lurid colour
seemed to fill the tent, and change the aspect
of all therein. The mirth-wrinkles left the
listeners' faces, and they waited with parting

" Now," said the woman, breaking the
silence, so that her low dry voice sounded
quite loud, " before you go further, Michael,
listen to me. If you touch that money, I and
this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke
no longer."

" A joke ? — Of course it is not a joke ! "
shouted her husband, his resentment rising at
her suggestion. " I take the money : the
sailor takes you. That's plain enough. It has
been done elsewhere — and why not here ? "

'' 'Tis quite on the understanding that the
young woman is willing," said the sailor,

C 2


blandly. '' I wouldn't Imrt her feelings for
the world."

''Faith, nor I," said her husband. "But
she is willing, provided she can have the child.
She said so only the other day when I talked
o't ! "

" That you swear ? " said the sailor to her.

*' I do/' said she, after glancing at her
husband's face and seeing no repentance there.

*' Very well, she shall have the child, and
the bargain's complete," said the trusser. He
took the sailor's note and deliberately folded
it, and put it with the shillings in a high
remote pocket with an air of finality.

The sailor looked at the woman and smiled.
'' Come along ! " he said, kindly. " The little
one, too — the more the merrier ! " She paused
for an instant, with a close glance at him.
Then dropping her eyes again, and saying
nothing, she took up the child and followed
him as he made towards the door. On reaching
it, she turned, and pulling off her wedding-
ring flung it across the room in the hay-
trusser's face.

''Mike," she said, "I've lived with thee
a couple of years and had nothing but
temper 1 Now I'm no more to you ; I'll try


my luck elsewhere. 'Twill be better for me
and the child, both. So good-bye."

Seizing the sailor's arm with her right hand,
and mounting the little girl on her left, she
went out of the tent, sobbing bitterly, and
apparently without a thought that she was
not strictly bound to go with the man who had
paid for her.

A stolid look of concern filled the husband's
face, as if, after all, he had not quite anticipated
this ending ; and some of the guests laughed.

" Is she gone? " he said.

*' Faith, ay ; she gone clane enough," said
some rustics near the door.

He rose and walked to the entrance with the
careful tread of one conscious of his alcoholic
load. Some others followed, and they stood
looking into the twilight. The difference
between the peacefulness of inferior nature

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Online LibraryThomas HardyThe mayor of Casterbridge : the life and death of a man of character (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 14)