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

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Her flesh crept. She descended slowly, and was
soon amid corn-fields and pastures. In another
half-hour, when it was almost dusk, Gertrude
reached the White Hart, the first inn of the town
on that side.


Little surprise ^vas excited by her arrival :
farmers' wives rode on horseback then more than
they do now ; though, for that matter, Mrs. Lodge
was not imagined to be a wife at all ; the inn-
keeper supposed her some harum-skarum young
woman who had come to attend ' hang-fair ' next
day. Xeither her husband nor herself ever dealt
in Casterbridge market, so that she was unknown.
While dismounting she beheld a crowd of boys
standing at the door of a harness-maker's shop just
above the inn, looking inside it with deep interest.

' What is going on there V she asked of the ostler.

' ]\Iaking the rope for to-morrow.'

She throbbed responsively, and contracted her

' 'lis sold by the inch afterwards,' the man
continued. ' I could get you a bit, miss, for
nothing, if you'd like ? '

She hastily repudiated any such wish, all the
more from a curious creeping feeling that the con-
demned wretch's destiny was becoming inter-



woven with her own ; and liaving engaged a room
for the night, sat down to think.

Up to this time she had formed but the vaguest
notions about her means of obtaining access to the
prison. The w^ords of the cunning-man returned
to her mind. He had implied that she should use
her beauty, impaired though it was, as a pass-key.
In her inexperience she knew little about jail
functionaries ; she had heard of a high-sheriff and
an under-sheriff, but dimly only. She knew, how-
ever, that there must be a hangman, and to the
hangman she determined to apply.



At this date, and for several years after, there was
a haogman to almost every jail. Gertrude found,
on inquiry, that the Casterbridge official dwelt
in a lonely cottage by a deep slow river flowing
under the cliff on which the prison buildings were
situate — the stream being the self-same one, though
she did not know it, which watered the Stickle-
ford and Holmstoke meads lower down in its

Having changed her dress, and before she had
eaten or drunk — for she could not take her ease
till she had ascertained some particulars — Gertrude
pursued her way by a path along the water-side to
the cottage indicated. Passing thus the outskirts




of the jail, she discerned on the level roof over the
gateway three rectangular lines against the sky,
where the specks had been moving in her distant
view ; she recognised what the erection was, and
passed quickly on. Another hundred yards
brought her to the executioner's house, which a
boy pointed out. It stood close to the same stream,
and was hard by a weir, the waters of which emitted
a steady roar.

While she stood hesitating the door opened, and
an old man came forth shading: a candle with one
hand. Locking the door on the outside, he turned
to a flight of wooden steps fixed against the end of
the cottage, and began to ascend them, this being
evidently the staircase to his bedroom. Gertrude
hastened forward, but by the time she reached
the foot of the ladder he was at the top. She
called to him loudly enough to be heard above the
roar of the weir ; he looked down and said, ' What
d'ye want here ?'

' To speak to you a minute.'



The candle-light, such as it was, fell upon her
imploring, pale, upturned face, and Davies (as the
hangman was called) backed down the ladder.
* I was just going to bed,' he said; ' "Early to bed
and early to rise," but I don't mind stopping a
minute for such a one as you. Come into
house.' He reopened the door, and preceded her
to the room within.

The implements of his daily work, which was
that of a jobbing gardener, stood in a corner, and
seeing probably that she looked rural, he said, ' If
you want me to undertake country work I can't
come, for I never leave Casterbridge for gentle
nor simple — not I. Though sometimes I make
others leave,' he added formally.

' Yes, yes ! That's it ! To-morrow ! '

' Ah ! I thought so. Well, what's the matter
about that ? 'Tis no use to come here about the
knot — folks do come continually, but I tell 'em
one knot is as merciful as another if ye keep it
under the ear. Is the unfortunate man a relation ;


or, I should say, perhaps' (looking at her dress)
' a person who's been in your employ ? '
' No. What time is the execution ? '

* The same as usual — twelve o'clock, or as soon
after as the London mail-coach gets in. We always
wait for that, in case of a reprieve.'

' Oh — a reprieve — I hope not ! ' she said in-

' Well, — he, he ! — as a matter of business, so do
I ! But still, if ever a young fellow deserved to
be let off, this one does ; only just turned eighteen,
and only present by chance when the rick was
fired. Howsomever, there's not much risk of it, as
they are obliged to make an example of him, there
having been so much destruction of property that
way lately.'

' I mean,' she explained, ' that I want to touch
him for a charm, a cure of an affliction, by the
advice of a man who has proved the virtue of the

* Oh yes, miss ! Now I understand. I've had



such people come in past years. But it didn't
strike me that you looked of a sort to require
blood-turning. What's the complaint ? The wrong
kind for this, I'll be bound.'

' My arm.' She reluctantly showed the withered

* Ah ! — 'tis all a-scram ! ' said the hangman, ex-
amining it.

' Yes,' said she.

' Well,' he continued with interest, ' that is the
class o' subject, I'm bound to admit ! I like the
look of the place ; it is truly as suitable for the
cure as any I ever saw. 'Twas a knowing-man
that sent 'ee, whoever he was.'

' You can contrive for me all that's necessary ? '
she said breathlessly.

' You should really have gone to the governor
of the jail, and your doctor with 'ee, and given
your name and address — that's how it used to be
done, if I recollect. Still, perhaps, I can manage
it for a triflinej fee.'



*' Oh, thank you ! I would rather do it this
way, as I should like it kept private.'

' Lover not to know, eh ? '

' No — husband.'

' Aha ! Very well. I'll get 'ee a touch of the

* Where is it now ? ' she said, shuddering.

'It? — 7^(', you mean; he's living yet. Just in-
side that little small winder up there in the glum.'
He signified the jail on the cliff above.

She thousfht of her husband and her friends.


' Yes,' of course, she said ; ' and how am I to
proceed ? '

He took her to the door. ' Now, do you be
waiting at the little wicket in the wall, that you'll
find up there in the lane, not later than one o'clock.
I will open it from the inside, as I shan't come
home to dinner till he's cut down. Good-night.
Be punctual ; and if you don't want anybody to
know 'ee, wear a veil. Ah — once I had such a
daughter as you ! '



She went away, and climbed the path above, to
assure herself that she would be able to find the
wicket next day. Its outline was soon visible to
her — a narrow opening in the outer wall of the
prison precincts. The steep was so great that,
having reached the wicket, she stopped a moment
to breathe ; and, looking back upon the water-side
cot, saw the hangman again ascending his outdoor
staircase. He entered the loft or chamber to
which it led, and in a few minutes extinguished
his li^ht.

The town clock struck ten, and she returned to
the A\Tiite Hart as she had come.



It was one o'clock on Saturday. Gertrude Lodge,
having been admitted to the jail as above described,
was sitting in a waiting-room within the second
gate, which stood under a classic archway of ashlar,
then comparatively modern, and bearing the in-
scription, ' COVNTY JAIL: 1793.' This had been
the facade she saw from the heath the day before.
Near at hand was a passage to the roof on which
the gallows stood.

The town was thronged, and the market sus-
pended ; but Gertrude had seen scarcely a soul.
Having kept her room till the hour of the appoint-
ment, she had proceeded to the spot by a way
which avoided the open space below the cliff



where the spectators had gathered ; but she could,
even now, hear the multitudinous babble of their
voices, out of which rose at intervals the hoarse
croak of a single voice, uttering the words, ' Last
dying speech and confession ! ' There had been
no reprieve, and the execution was over ; but the
crowd still waited to see the body taken down.

Soon the persistent girl heard a trampling over-
head, then a hand beckoned to her, and, following
directions, she went out and crossed the inner
paved court beyond the gatehouse, her knees
trembling so that she could scarcely walk. One of
her arms was out of its sleeve, and only covered
by her shawl.

On the spot at which she had now arrived were
two trestles, and before she could think of their
purpose she heard heavy feet descending stairs
somewhere at her back. Turn her head she would
not, or could not, and, rigid in this position, she
was conscious of a rough coffin passing her shoulder,
borne by four men. It was open, and in it lay the


body of a young man, wearing the smockfrock of
a rustic, and fustian breeches. It had been thrown
into the coffin so hastily that the skirt of the smock-
frock was hanging over. The burden was tem-
porarily deposited on the trestles.

By this time the young woman's state was such
that a gray mist seemed to float before her eyes,
on account of which, and the veil she wore, she
could scarcely discern anything : it was as though
she had nearly died, but was held up by a sort of

' Now,' said a voice close at hand, and she was
just conscious that it had been addressed to her.

By a last strenuous effort she advanced, at the
same time hearing persons approaching behind her.
She bared her poor curst arm ; and Davies, un-
covering the face of the corpse, took Gertrude's
hand, and held it so that her arm lay across the
dead man's neck, upon a line the colour of an
unripe blackberry, which surrounded it.

Gertrude shrieked : ' the turn o' the blood,'


predicted by the conjuror, had taken place. But
at that moment a second shriek rent the air of the
enclosure : it was not Gertrude's, and its effect
upon her was to make her start round.

Immediately behind her stood Ehoda Brook,
her face drawn, and her eyes red with weeping.
Behind Ehoda stood her own husband ; his coun-
tenance lined, his eyes dim, but without a tear.

^j) n you! what are you doino' here?' he

said hoarsely.

' Hussy — to come between us and our child
now ! ' cried Ehoda. ' This is the meaning of
what Satan showed me in the vision ! You are
Eke her at last 1 ' And clutching the bare arm of
the younger woman, she pulled her unresistingly
back against the wall. Immediately Brook had
loosened her hold the fragile young Gertrude sHd
down against the feet of her husband. When he
lifted her up she was unconscious.

The mere sicjht of the twain had been enou^jh
to suggest to her that the dead young man was


Ehoda's son. At that time the relatives of an
executed convict had the privilege of claiming the
body for burial, if they chose to do so ; and it
was for this purpose that Lodge was awaiting the
inquest with Ehoda. He had been summoned by
her as soon as the young man was taken in the
crime, and at different times since ; and he had
attended in court during the trial. This was the
' holiday ' he had been indulging in of late. The
two wretched parents had wished to avoid exposure;
and hence had come themselves for the body, a
waggon and sheet for its conveyance and covering
being in waiting outside.

Gertrude's case was so serious that it was
deemed advisable to call to her the surgeon who
was at hand. She was taken out of the jail into
the town ; but she never reached home alive. Her
delicate vitality, sapped perhaps by the paralysed
arm, collapsed under the double shock that
followed the severe strain, physical and mental,
to which she had subjected herself during the



previous tweuty-four hours. Her blood had
been 'turned' indeed — too far. Her death took
place in the town three days after.

Her husband was never seen in Casterbridge
again ; once only in the old market-place at Angle-
bury, which he had so much frequented, and very
seldom in public anywhere. Burdened at first
with moodiness and remorse, he eventually changed
for the better, and appeared as a chastened
and thoucrhtful man. Soon after attendinci; the
funeral of his poor young wife he took steps
towards giving up the farms in Holmstoke and the
adjoining parish, and, having sold every head of
his stock, he went away to Port-Bredy, at the other
end of the county, living there in solitary lodgings
till his death two years later of a painless decline.
It was then found that he had bequeathed the
whole of his not inconsiderable property to a re-
formatory for boys, subject to the payment of a
small annuity to PJioda Brook, if she. could be
found to claim it.


For some time she could not be found ; but
eventually she reappeared in her old parish, — abso-
lutely refusing, however, to have anything to do
with the provision made for her. Her monotonous
milking at the dairy was resumed, and followed
for many long years, till her form became bent,
and her once abundant dark hair white and worn
away at the forehead — perhaps by long pressure
against the cows. Here, sometimes, those who
knew her experiences would stand and observe
her, and wonder what sombre thoughts were beat-
ing inside that impassive, wrinkled brow, to the
rhythm of the alternating milk-streams.

Blackwood/s Magazine,
January 1888.



The shepherd on the east hill could shout out
lambing iutelligeuce to the shepherd on the west
hill, over the intervening town chimneys, without
great inconvenience to his voice, so nearly did the
steep pastures encroach upon the burghers' back-
yards. And at night it was possible to stand in
the very midst of the town and hear from their
native paddocks on the lower levels of green-
sward the mild lowing of the farmers' heifers,
and the profound, warm blowings of breath in
which those creatures indulge. But the com-
munity which had jammed itself in the valley
thus flanked formed a veritable town, with a


real mayor and corporatiou, and a staple manu-

During a certain damp evening five-and-thirty
years ago, before the twilight was far advanced, a
pedestrian of professional appearance, carrying a
small bag in his hand and an elevated umbrella,
was descending one of these hills by the turnpike
road when he was overtaken by a phaeton.

•'Hullo, Downe — is that you?' said the driver
of the vehicle, a young man of pale and refined
appearance. ' Jump up here with me, and ride
down to your door.'

The other turned a plump, cheery, rather self-
indulsfent face over his shoulder towards the hailer.

'Oh! good-evening, Mr. Barnet — thanks,' he
said, and mounted beside his acquaintance.

They were fellow-burgesses of the town which
lay beneath them, but though old and very
good friends, they were differently circumstanced.
Barnet was a richer man than the strufjcflin^

CO o

young lawyer Downe, a fact which, was to some


extent perceptible in Downe's manner towards
his companion, tliougli nothing of it ever showed
in Ijarnet's manner towards the solicitor. Barnet's
position in the town was none of his own making ;
his father had been a very successful flax-merchant
in the same place, where the trade was still carried
on as briskly as the small capacities of its quarters
would allow. Having acquired a fair fortune, old
^Ir. Barnet had retired from business, bringing up
liis son as a gentleman-burgher, and, it must be
added, as a well-educated, liberal-minded young

'How is Mrs. Barnet?' asked Downe.

' Mrs. Barnet was very well when I left home,'
the other answered constrainedly, exchanging his
meditative res^ard of the horse for one of self-

^Ir. Downe seemed to regret his inquiry, and
immediately took up another thread of conversa-
tion. He congratulated his friend on his election
as a council-man ; he thought he had not seen


him since that event took phice ; Mrs. Downe had
meant to call and congratulate Mrs. Barnet, but
he feared that she had failed to do so as yet.

Barnet seemed hampered in his replies. ' We
should have been glad to see you. I — my wife
would welcome Mrs. Downe at any time, as you
know. . . . Yes, I am a member of the corpora-
tion — rather an inexperienced member, some of
them say. It is quite true ; and I should have
declined the honour as premature — having other
things on my hands just now, too — if it had not
been pressed upon me so very heartily.'

'There is one thing you have on your hands
which I can never quite see the necessity for,' said
Downe, with irood-humoured freedom. * What the
deuce do you want to build that new mansion for,
when you have already got such an excellent
house as the one you live in ?'

Barnet's face acquired a warmer shade of
colour ; but as the question had been idly asked
by the solicitor while regarding the surrounding


flocks and fields, he answered after a moment witli
no apparent embarrassment —

' Well, we wanted to get out of the town, you
know ; the house I am living in is rather old and

Mr. Downe declared that he had chosen a
pretty site for the new building. They would be
able to see for miles and miles from the windows.
Was he going to give it a name ? he supposed

Barnet thought not. There was no other house
near that was likely to be mistaken for it. And
he did not care for a name.

' But I think it has a name 1 ' Downe observed :
' I went past — when was it ? — this morning ; and I
saw something, — " Chateau Eingdale," I think it
was, stuck up on a board ! '

'It was an idea she — we had for a short
time,' said Barnet hastily. ' But we have decided
finally to do without a name — at any rate such a
name as that. It must have been a week ago that


you saw it. It was taken down last Saturday. . . .
Upon that matter I am firm !' he added giimly.

Downe murmured in an unconvinced tone that
he thought he had seen it yesterday.

Talking thus they drove into the town. The
street was unusually still for the hour of seven in
the evening ; an increasing drizzle had prevailed
since the afternoon, and now formed a gauze across
the yellow lamps, and trickled with a gentle rattle
down tlie heavy roofs of stone tile, that bent the
hou-e-ridges hoUow-backed with its weight, and
in i'nne itibtances caused the walls to bulsje out-
weirds in tlie upper story. Their route took them
past the little town-hali, the Black-Bull Hotel,
and onward to the junction of a small street on
the right, consisting of a row of those two-and-two
brick residences of no particular age, which are
exactly alike wherever found, except in the people
they contain.

'Wait — I'll drive you up to your door,' said
Barnet, when Downe prepared to alight at the


corner. He thereupon turned into the narrow
street, when the faces of three little girls could
be discerned close to the panes of a lighted
window a few yards ahead, surmounted by that of
a young matron, the gaze of all four being directed
eagerly up the empty street. ' You are a fortunate
fellow, Downe,' Barnet continued, as mother and
children disappeared from the window to run to
the door. ' You must be happy if any man is.

I would give a hundred such houses as my new
one to have a home like yours.'

' Well — yes, we get along pretty comfortably,'
replied Downe complacently.

' That house, Downe, is none of my ordering,'
Barnet broke out, revealing a bitterness hitherto
suppressed, and checking the horse a moment to
finish his speech before delivering up his passenger.
The house I have already is good enough for me,
as you supposed. It is my own freehold ; it was
built by my grandfather, and is stout enough for

II castle. Mv father was born there, lived there.


and died there. I was born there, and have
always lived there ; yet I must needs build a
new one.'

' Why do you ? ' said Downe.

' Why do I ? To preserve peace in the house-
hold. I do anything for that ; but I don't succeed.
I was firm in resisting " Chateau Kingdale," how-
ever ; not that I would not have put up with the
absurdity of the name, but it was too much to
liave your house christened after Lord Eingdale,
because your wife once had a fancy for him. If
you only knew everything, you would think all
attempt at reconciliation hopeless. In your happy
home you have had no such experiences ; and
God forbid that you ever should. See, here they
are all ready to receive you 1 '

' Of course ! And so will your wife be waiting
to receive you,' said Downe. ' Take my word for
it she will 1 And with a dinner prepared for you
far better than mine.'

' I hope so,' Barnet replied dubiously.


He moved on to Downe's door, wliich the
solicitor's family had already opened. Downe
descended, but being encumbered with his bag
and umbrella, his foot slipped, and he fell upon
his knees in the gutter.

' Oh, my dear Charles ! ' said his ^Yife, running
down the steps ; and, quite ignoring the presence
of Barnet, she seized hold of her husband, pulled
him to his feet, and kissed him, exclaiming, ' I
hope you are not hurt, darling 1 ' The children
crowded round, chiming in piteously, ' Poor papa ! '

' He's all right,' said Barnet, perceiving that
Downe was only a little muddy, and looking
more at the wife than at the husband. Almost
at any other time — certainly during his fastidious
bachelor years — he would have thought her a
too demonstrative woman ; but those recent cir-
cumstances of his own life to which he had just
alluded made Mrs. Downe's solicitude so affecting
that his eye grew damp as he witnessed it.
Bidding the lawyer and his family good-night he


left them, and drove slowly into the main street
towards his own house.

The heart of Barnet was sufficiently impres-
sionable to be influenced by Downe's parting
prophecy that he might not be so unwelcome
home as he imagined : the dreary night might, at
least on this one occasion, make Downe's forecast
true. Hence it was in a suspense that he could
hardly have believed possible that he halted at
his door. On entering his wife was nowhere to
be seen, and he inquired for her. The servant in-
formed him that her mistress had the dressmaker
with her, and would be engaged for some time.

' Dressmaker at this time of day ! '

' She dined early, sir, and hopes you will ex-
cuse her joining you this evening.'

' But she knew I was coming to-night ? '

' Oh yes, sir.'

' Go up and tell her I am come.'

The servant did so ; but the mistress of the
house merely repeated her former words.



Barnet said nothing more, and presently sat
down to his lonely meal, which was eaten ab-
stractedly, the domestic scene he had lately
witnessed still impressing him liy its contrast
with the situation here. His mind fell back into
past years upon a certain pleasing and gentle
beinof whose face would loom out of their shades
at such times as these. Barnet turned in his
cliair, and looked with unfocused eyes in a
direction southward from where he sat, as if he
saw not the room but a long way beyond. ' I
wonder if she lives there still ! ' he said.


He rose with a sudden rebelliousness, put on
his hat and coat, and went out of the house,
pursuing his way along the glistening pavement
while eight o'clock was striking from St. Mary's
tower, and the apprentices and shopmen were
slamming up the shutters from end to end of the
town. In two minutes only those shops which
could boast of no attendant save the master or the

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Online LibraryThomas HardyWessex tales : strange, lively, and commonplace (Volume 1) → online text (page 5 of 10)