Thomas Hardy.

Wessex tales : strange, lively, and commonplace (Volume 1) online

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The Three Strangers ..... 1

The Withered Arm . . . . . .55

Fellow-Towxsmex . . . . .127




Among the few features of agricultural England
which retain an appearance but little modified by
the lapse of centuries, may be reckoned the high,
grassy, and furzy downs, coombs, or ewe-leases, as
they are indifferently called, that fill a large area
of certain counties in the south and south-west.
If any mark of human occupation is met with
hereon, it usually takes the form of the solitary
cottage of some shepherd.

Fifty years ago such a lonely cottage stood on
such a down, and may possibly be standing there
now. In spite of its loneliness, however, the spot,
by actual measurement, was not more than five
miles from a county -town. Yet that affected it
little. Five miles of irregular upland, during the


long iuimical seasons, with their sleets, snows, rains,
and mists, afford withdrawing space enough to
isolate a Timon or a Nebuchadnezzar ; much less,
in fair weather, to please that less repellent tribe,
the poets, philosophers, artists, and others who
' conceive and meditate of pleasant things.'

Some old earthen camp or barrow, some clump
of trees, at least some starved fragment of ancient
hedge, is usually taken advantage of in the erec-
tion of these forlorn dwellings. But, in the pre-
sent case, such a kind of shelter had been disre-
o-arded. Higher Crowstairs, as the house was
called, stood quite detached and undefended. The
only reason for its precise situation seemed to be
the crossing of two footpaths at right angles hard
by, which may have crossed there and thus for a
good five hundred years. Hence the house was
exposed to the elements on all sides. But, though
the wind up here blew unmistakably when it did
blow, and the rain hit hard whenever it fell, the
various weathers of the winter season were not


quite so formidable on tlie coomb as they were
imagined to be by dwellers on low ground. The
raw rimes were not so pernicious as in the hollows,
and the frosts were scarcely so severe. When the
shepherd and his family who tenanted the house
were pitied for their sufferings from the exposure,
they said that upon the whole they were less in-
convenienced by ' wuzzes and flames ' (hoarses and
phlegms) than when they had lived by the stream
of a snug neighbouring valley.

The night of March 28, 182-, was precisely one
of the ni^^hts that were wont to call forth these
expressions of commiseration. The level rainstorm
smote walls, slopes, and hedges like the clothyard
shafts of SenlaC and Crecy. Such sheep and out-
door animals as had no shelter stood with their
buttocks to the winds ; while the tails of little
birds trying to roost on some scraggy thorn were
blown inside-out like umbrellas. The gable- end
of the cottage was stained with wet, and the eaves-
droppings flapped against the wall. Yet never


was commiseration for the shepherd more mis-
placed. For that cheerful rustic was entertaining
a large party in glorification of the cliristening of
Ms second girl.

The quests had arrived before the rain beojan
to fall, and they were all now assembled in the
chief or living room of the dwelling. A glance
into the apartment at eight o'clock on this event-
ful evening would have resulted in the opinion
that it was as cosy and comfortable a nook as
could be wished for in boisterous weather. The
calling of its inhabitant was proclaimed by a
number of highly-polished sheep-crooks without
stems that were hung ornamentally over the fire-
place, the curl of each shining crook varying from
the antiquated type engraved in the patriarchal
pictures of old family Bibles to the most approved
fashion of the last local sheep-fair. The room was
lighted by half a dozen candles, having wicks only
a trifle smaller than the grease which enveloped
them, in candlesticks that were never used but at


liigh-days, holy -days, and family feasts. The
lights were scattered about the room, two of them
standing on the chimney-piece. This position of
candles was in itself significant. Candles on the
chimney-piece always meant a party.

On the hearth, in front of a back-brand to give
substance, blazed a fire of thorns, that crackled
' like the lauditer of the fool.'

Nineteen persons were gathered here. Of these,
five women, wearing gowns of various bright hues,
sat in chairs along the wall ; girls shy and not shy
filled the window - bench ; four men, including
Charley Jake the hedge-carpenter, Elijah New the
parish -clerk, and John Pitcher, a neighbouring
dairyman, the shepherd's father-in-law, lolled in
the settle ; a young man and maid, who were
blushing over tentative pourparlers on a life-com-
panionsliip, sat beneath the corner-cupboard ; and
an elderly engaged man of fifty or upward moved
restlessly about from spots where his betrothed
was not to the spot where she was. Enjoyment


was pretty general, and so much the more pre-
vailed in being unhampered by conventional
restrictions. Absolute confidence in each other's
good opinion begat perfect ease, while the finishing
stroke of manner, amounting to a truly princely
serenity, was lent to the majority by the absence
of any expression or trait denoting that they wished
to get on in the world, enlarge their minds, or do
any eclipsing thing whatever — which nowadays
so generally nips the bloom and bonhomie of all
except the two extremes of the social scale.

Shepherd Fennel had married well, his wife
being a dairyman's daughter from the valley below,
who brought fifty guineas in her pocket — and kept
them there, till they should be required for minis-
terino- to the needs of a cominof familv. This
frugal woman had been somewhat exercised as to
the character that should be given to the gathering.
A sit-still party had its advantages ; but an un-
disturbed position of ease in chairs and settles was
apt to lead on the men to such an unconscionable


deal of toping that they would sometimes fairly
drink the house dry. A dancing-party was the
alternative ; but this, while avoiding the foregoing
objection on the score of good drink, had a counter-
balancing disadvantage in the matter of good
victuals, the ravenous appetites engendered by
the exercise causing immense havoc in the buttery.
Shepherdess Fennel fell back upon the inter-
mediate plan of mingling short dances with short
periods of talk and singing, so as to hinder any
ungovernable rage in either. But this scheme
was entirely confined to her own gentle mind : the
shepherd himself was in the mood to exhibit the
most reckless phases of hospitality.

The fiddler was a boy of those parts, about
twelve years of age, who had a wonderful dexterity
in jigs and reels, though his fingers were so small
and short as to necessitate a constant shifting for
the high notes, from which he scrambled back to
the first position with sounds not of unmixed
purity of tone. At seven the shrill tweedle-dee


of this youngster had begun, accompanied by a
booming ground-bass from Elijah New, the parish-
clerk, who had thoughtfully brought with him his
favourite musical instrument, the serpent. Danc-
ing was instantaneous, Mrs. Fennel privately en-
joining the players on no account to let the dance
exceed the length of a quarter of an hour.

But Elijah and the boy, in the excitement of
their position, quite forgot the injunction. More-
over, Oliver Giles, a man of seventeen, one of the
dancers, who was enamoured of his partner, a fair
girl of thirty -three rolling years, had recklessly
handed a new crown-piece to the musicians, as a
bribe to keep going as long as they had muscle
and wind. Mrs. Fennel, seeing the steam begin
to generate on the countenances of her guests,
crossed over and touched the fiddler's elbow and
put her hand on the serpent's mouth. But they
took no notice, and fearing she might lose her
character of genial hostess if she were to interfere
too markedly, she retired and sat down helpless.


And SO the dance whizzed on with cnmnlative fury,
the performers moving in their planet-like courses,
direct and retrograde, from apogee to perigee, till
the hand of the well-kicked clock at the bottom
of the room had travelled over the circumference
of an hour.

While these cheerful events were in course of
enactment within Fennel's pastoral dwelling, an
incident having considerable bearing on the party
had occurred in the gloomy night without. Mrs.
Fennel's concern about the growing fierceness of
the dance corresponded in point of time with the
ascent of a human figure to the solitary hill of
Higher Crowstairs from the direction of the distant
town. This personage strode on through the rain
without a pause, following the little -worn path
which, farther on in its course, skirted the shep-
herd's cottage.

It was nearly the time of full moon, and on
this account, though the sky was lined witli a
uniform sheet of dripping cloud, ordinary objects


out of doors were readily visible. The sad wan
light revealed the lonely pedestrian to be a man
of supple frame; his gait suggested that he had
somewhat passed the period of perfect and in-
stinctive agility, though not so far as to be other-
wise than rapid of motion w4ien occasion required.
In point of fact, he might have been about forty
years of age. He appeared tall, but a recruiting
sergeant, or other person accustomed to the judging
of men's heights by the eye, would have discerned
that this was chiefly owing to his gauntness, and
that he was not more than five -feet -eight or

Notwithstanding the regularity of his tread,
there was caution in it, as in that of one who men-
tally feels his way; and despite the fact that it
was not a black coat nor a dark garment of any
sort that he wore, there was something about him
which suggested that he naturally belonged to the
black-coated tribes of men. His clothes were of
fustian, and his boots hobnailed, yet in his progress


he showed not the mud -accustomed bearing of
hobnailed and fustianed peasantry.

By the time that he had arrived abreast of the
shepherd's premises the rain came down, or rather
came along, with yet more determined violence.
The outskirts of the little settlement partially
broke the force of wind and rain, and this in-
duced him to stand still. The most salient of
the she^^herd's domestic erections was an empty
sty at the forward corner of his hedgeless garden,
for in these latitudes the principle of masking the
homelier features of your establishment by a con-
ventional frontasre was unknown. The traveller's
eye was attracted to this small building by the
pallid shine of the wet slates that covered it. He
turned aside, and, finding it empty, stood under
the pent-roof for shelter.

AYhile he stood, the boom of the serpent within
the adjacent house, and the lesser strains of the
fiddler, reached the spot as an accompaniment to
the surging hiss of the flying rain on the sod, its


louder beating on the cabbage-leaves of the garden,
on the eight or ten beehives just discernible by
the path, and its dripping from the eaves into a
row of buckets and pans that had been placed
under the walls of the cottage. For at Higher
Crowstairs, as at all such elevated domiciles, the
grand difficulty of housekeeping was an insuffi-
ciency of water ; and a casual rainfall was utilized
by turning out, as catchers, every utensil that the
house contained. Some queer stories might be
told of the contrivances for economy in suds and
dish-waters that are absolutely necessitated in
upland habitations during the droughts of summer.
But at this season there were no such exigencies :
a mere acceptance of what the skies bestowed was
sufficient for an abundant store.

At last the notes of the serpent ceased and
the house was silent. This cessation of activity
aroused the solitary pedestrian from the reverie
into which he had lapsed, and, emerging from the
shed, with an apparently new intention, he walked


up the path to the house-door. Arrived here, his
first act was to kneel down on a large stone beside
the row of vessels, and to drink a copious draught
from one of them. Having quenched his thirst
he rose and lifted his hand to knock, but paused
with his eye upon the panel. Since the dark
surface of the wood revealed absolutely nothing,
it was evident that he must be mentally looking
throuf^h the door, as if he wished to measure
thereby all the possibilities that a house of this
sort might include, and how they might bear upon
the question of liis entry.

In his indecision he turned and surveyed the
scene around. Xot a soul was anywliere visible.
The garden -path stretched downward from his
feet, gleaming like the track of a snail ; the roof
of the little well (mostly dry), the well cover, the
top rail of the garden-gate, were varnished with
the same dull liquid glaze ; while, far away in the
vale, a faint whiteness of more than usual extent
showed that the rivers were high in the meads.


Beyond all this winked a few bleared lamplights
through the beating drops, lights that denoted the
situation of the county-town from which he had
appeared to come. The absence of all notes of life
in that direction seemed to clinch his intentions,
and he knocked at the door.

Within, a desultory chat had taken tlie place
of movement and musical sound. The hedge-
carpenter was suggesting a song to the company,
which nobody just then was inclined to under-
take, so that the knock afforded a not unwelcome

* Walk in !' said the shepherd promptly.

The latch clicked upward, and out of the night
our pedestrian appeared upon the door-mat. The
shepherd arose, snuffed two of the nearest candles,
and turned to look at him.

Their liQ,ht disclosed that the stran^^er was
dark in complexion and not unprepossessing as to
feature. His hat, which for a moment he did not
remove, hung low over his eyes, without concealing


that they were large, open, and determined, moving
with a flash rather than a c»iance round the room.
He seemed pleased with the survey, and, baring
his shaggy head, said, in a rich deep voice, ' Tlie
rain is so heavy, friends, that I ask leave to come
in and rest awhile.'

' To be sure, stranger,' said the shepherd. ' And
faith, you've been lucky in choosing your time, for
we are ha\inor a bit of a llin^ for a ulad cause —
though, to be sure, a man could hardly wish that
glad cause to happen more than once a year.'

' Nor less,' spoke up a woman. ' For 'tis best to
get your family over and done with, as soon as you
can, so as to be all the earlier out of the fag o't.'

' And what may be this glad cause ? ' asked the

' A birth and christening,' said the shepherd.

The stranger hoped his host might not be made
unhappy either by too many or too few of such
episodes, and being invited by a gesture to a pull
at the mug, he readily acquiesced. His manner,

VOL. I c


which, before entering, had been so dubious, was

now altogether that of a careless and candid


' Late to be traipsing athwart this coomb —

hey?' said the engaged man of fifty.

' Late it is, master, as you say. — I'll take a seat

in the chimney-corner, if you have nothing to urge

against it, ma'am ; for I am a little moist on the

side that was next the rain.'

Mrs. Shepherd Fennel assented, and made room
for the self-invited comer, ^\'ho, having got com-
pletely inside the chimney-corner, stretched out
his legs and his arms with the expansiveness of a
person quite at home.

' Yes, I am rather thin in the vamp,' he said
freely, seeing that the eyes of the shepherd's wife
fell upon his boots, ' and I am not well fitted
either. I have had some rough times lately, and
have been forced to pick up what I can get in the
way of wearing, but I must find a suit better fit for
working-days when I reach home.'


' One of hereabouts ?' she inquired.

' Not quite that — farther up tlie country.'

' I thougjht so. And so am I ; and bv your
tonorue vou come from my neighbourhood/

* But you would hardly have heard of me,' he
said quickly. ' ]My time ^yould be long before
yours, ma'am, you see.'

This testimony to the youth fulness of his
hostess had the effect of stopping her cross-

' There is only one thing more wanted to make
me happy,' continued the new-comer. 'And that
is a little baccy, which I am sorry to say I am
out of

' I'll fill your pipe,' said the shepherd.

' I must ask you to lend me a pipe likewise.'

' A smoker, and no pipe about ye ? '

' I have dropped it somewhere on the road.'

The shepherd filled and handed him a new
clay pipe, saying, as he did so, 'Hand me your
baccy-box — I'll fill that too, now I am about it.'


The man went through the movement of
searching his pockets.

'Lost that too?' said his entertainer, with
some surprise.

'I am afraid so/ said the man with some con-
fusion. ' Give it to me in a screw of paper.' Light-
ing his pipe at the candle with a suction that
drew the whole flame into the bowl, he resettled
himself in the corner, and bent his looks upon the
faint steam from his damp legs, as if he wished
to say no more.

Meanwhile the general body of guests had
been taking little notice of this visitor by reason
of an absorbing discussion in which they were
enoaored with the band about a tune for the next
dance. The matter being settled, they were about
to stand up, when an interruption came in the
shape of another knock at the door.

At sound of the same the man in the chimney-
corner took up the poker and began stirring the
lire as if doing it thoroughly were the one aim of


his existence ; and a second time the shepherd
said ' Walk in ! ' In a moment another man
stood upon the straw-woven door-mat. He too
was a strano-er.

This individual was one of a type radically
different from the first. There was more of the
commonplace in his manner, and a certain jovial
cosmopolitanism sat upon his features. He was
several years older than the first arrival, his hair
being slightly frosted, his eyebrows bristly, and
his whiskers cut back from his cheeks. His face
was rather full and flabby, and yet it was not
altogether a face without power. A few grog-
blossoms marked the neighbourhood of his nose.
He flung back his long drab greatcoat, revealing
that beneath it he wore a suit of cinder-gray shade
throughout, large heavy seals, of some metal or
other that would take a polish, dangling from his
fob as his only personal ornament. Shaking the
water-drops from his low-crowned glazed hat, he
said, ' I must ask for a few minutes' shelter, com-


rades, or I shall be wetted to my skin before I get
to Casterbridge.'

' Make yourself at home, master,' said the shep-
herd, perhaps a trifle less heartily than on the
first occasion. 'Not that Fennel had the least
tinge of niggardliness in his composition ; but the
room was far from large, spare chairs were not
numerous, and damp companions were not alto-
gether desirable at close quarters for the women
and girls in their bright-coloured gowns.

However, the second comer, after taking off his
greatcoat, and hanging his hat on a nail in one of
the ceiling-beams as if he had been specially in-
vited to put it there, advanced and sat down at
the table. This had been pushed so closely into
the chimney-corner, to give all available room to
the dancers, that its inner edge grazed the elbow
of the man who had ensconced himself by the
fire ; and thus the two strangers were brought
into close companionship. They nodded to each
other by way of breaking the ice of unacquaint-


ance, and the first stranger handed his neighbour
the family mug — a huge vessel of brown ware, hav-
ing its upper edge worn away like a threshold by
the rub of whole generations of thirsty lips that
had gone the way of all flesh, and bearing the
following inscription burnt upon its rotund side
in yellow letters : —


The other man, nothing loth, raised the mug to
his lips, and drank on, and on, and on — till a
curious blueness overspread the countenance of
the shepherd's wife, who had regarded with no
little surprise the first stranger's free offer to the
second of what did not belong to him to dis-

' I knew it I ' said the toper to the shepherd
with much satisfaction. ' When I walked up your
garden before coming in, and saw the hives all of a
row, I said to myself, " "Where there's bees there's
honey, and where there's honey there's mead."


But mead of such a truly comfortable sort as this
I really didn't expect to meet in my older days/
He took yet another pull at the mug, till it
assumed an ominous elevation.

' Glad you enjoy it ! ' said the shepherd

' It is goodish mead,' assented Mrs. Fennel
with an absence of enthusiasm, which seemed to
say that it was possible to buy praise for one's
cellar at too heavy a price. ' It is trouble enough
to make — and really I hardly think we shall make
any more. For honey sells well, and we ourselves
can make shift with a drop o' small mead and
metheglin for common use from the comb-wash-

'Oh, but you'll never have the heart!' re-
proachfully cried the stranger in cinder-gray, after
taking up the mug a third time and setting it
down empty. ' I love mead, when 'tis old like
this, as I love to go to church o' Sundays, or to
relieve the needy any day of the week.'


' Ha, ha, ha ! ' said the man in the chimney-
corner, who, in spite of the taciturnity induced by
the pipe of tobacco, could not or would not refrain
from this slight testimony to his comrade's

Now the old mead of those days, brewed of
the purest first-year or maiden honey, four pounds
to the gallon — with its due complement of white
of eggs, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, rosemary,
yeast, and processes of working, bottling, and cel-
laring — tasted remarkably strong ; but it did not
taste so strong as it actually was. Hence, pres-
ently, the stranger in cinder-gray at the table,
moved by its creeping influence, unbuttoned his
waistcoat, threw himself back in his chair, spread
his legs, and made his presence felt in various ways.

* Well, well, as I say,' he resumed, ' I am going
to Casterbridcre, and to Casterbrid^e I must q:o.
I should have been almost there by this time ;
but the rain drove me into your dwelling, and I'm
not sorry for it.'


'You (lou't live in Casterbridge ? ' said the

* Not as yet ; though I shortly mean to move

' Going to set up in trade, perhaps ? '

' No, no,' said the shepherd's wife. ' It is easy
to see that the gentleman is rich, and don't want
to work at anything.'

The cinder-gray stranger paused, as if to con-
sider whether he would accept that definition of
himself. He presently rejected it by answering,
' Eich is not quite the word for me, dame. I do
work, and I must work. And even if I only get
to Casterbridge by midnight I must begin work
there at eisjht to-morrow morninf^. Yes, het or
wet, blow or snow, famine or sword, my day's
work to-morrow must be done.'

' Poor man ! Then, in spite o' seeming, you be
worse off than we ? ' replied the shepherd's wife.

' 'Tis the nature of my trade, men and maidens.
'Tis the nature of my trade more than my poverty.


. . . But really and truly I must up and off, or I
shan't cfet a lodcjinf^ in the town.' However, the

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Online LibraryThomas HardyWessex tales : strange, lively, and commonplace (Volume 1) → online text (page 1 of 10)