One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one- third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, wer_pproaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. The_ere plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which ha_ccumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent _isadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.
The man was of fine figure, swarthy, and stern in aspect; and he showed i_rofile a facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost perpendicular. H_ore a short jacket of brown corduroy, newer than the remainder of his suit, which was a fustian waistcoat with white horn buttons, breeches of the same, tanned leggings, and a straw hat overlaid with black glazed canvas. At hi_ack he carried by a looped strap a rush basket, from which protruded at on_nd the crutch of a hay-knife, a wimble for hay-bonds being also visible i_he aperture. His measured, springless walk was the walk of the skille_ountryman as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general labourer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged an_ynical indifference personal to himself, showing its presence even in th_egularly interchanging 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 hav_ttracted the attention of any casual observer otherwise disposed to overloo_hem, was the perfect silence they preserved. They walked side by side in suc_ way as to suggest afar off the low, easy, confidential chat of people ful_f reciprocity; but on closer view it could be discerned that the man wa_eading, or pretending to read, a ballad sheet which he kept before his eye_ith some difficulty by the hand that was passed through the basket strap.
Whether this apparent cause were the real cause, or whether it were an assume_ne to escape an intercourse that would have been irksome to him, nobody bu_imself could have said precisely; but his taciturnity was unbroken, and th_oman enjoyed no society whatever from his presence. Virtually she walked th_ighway alone, save for the child she bore. Sometimes the man's bent elbo_lmost touched her shoulder, for she kept as close to his side as was possibl_ithout actual contact, but she seemed to have no idea of taking his arm, no_e of offering it; and far from exhibiting surprise at his ignoring silenc_he appeared to receive it as a natural thing. If any word at all were uttere_y the little group, it was an occasional whisper of the woman to the child—_iny girl in short clothes and blue boots of knitted yarn—and the murmure_abble of the child in reply.
The chief—almost the only—attraction of the young woman's face was it_obility. When she looked down sideways to the girl she became pretty, an_ven handsome, particularly that in the action her features caught slantwis_he rays of the strongly coloured sun, which made transparencies of he_yelids and nostrils and set fire on her lips. When she plodded on in th_hade of the hedge, silently thinking, she had the hard, half-apatheti_xpression of one who deems anything possible at the hands of Time and Chanc_xcept, perhaps, fair play. The first phase was the work of Nature, the secon_robably of civilization.
That the man and woman were husband and wife, and the parents of the girl i_rms there could be little doubt. No other than such relationship would hav_ccounted for the atmosphere of stale familiarity which the trio carried alon_ith them like a nimbus as they moved down the road.
The wife mostly kept her eyes fixed ahead, though with little interest—th_cene for that matter being one that might have been matched at almost an_pot in any county in England at this time of the year; a road neithe_traight nor crooked, neither level nor hilly, bordered by hedges, trees, an_ther vegetation, which had entered the blackened-green stage of colour tha_he doomed leaves pass through on their way to dingy, and yellow, and red. Th_rassy margin of the bank, and the nearest hedgerow boughs, were powdered b_he dust that had been stirred over them by hasty vehicles, the same dust a_t lay on the road deadening their footfalls like a carpet; and this, with th_foresaid total absence of conversation, allowed every extraneous sound to b_eard.
For a long time there was none, beyond the voice of a weak bird singing _rite old evening song that might doubtless have been heard on the hill at th_ame hour, and with the self-same trills, quavers, and breves, at any sunse_f that season for centuries untold. But as they approached the village sundr_istant shouts and rattles reached their ears from some elevated spot in tha_irection, as yet screened from view by foliage. When the outlying houses o_eydon-Priors could just be described, the family group was met by a turnip- hoer with his hoe on his shoulder, and his dinner-bag suspended from it. Th_eader promptly glanced up.
"Any trade doing here?" he asked phlegmatically, designating the village i_is van by a wave of the broadsheet. And thinking the labourer did no_nderstand him, he added, "Anything in the hay-trussing line?"
The turnip-hoer had already begun shaking his head. "Why, save the man, wha_isdom's in him that 'a should come to Weydon for a job of that sort this tim_' year?"
"Then is there any house to let—a little small new cottage just a builded, o_uch like?" asked the other.
The pessimist still maintained a negative. "Pulling down is more the nater o_eydon. There were five houses cleared away last year, and three this; and th_olk nowhere to go—no, not so much as a thatched hurdle; that's the way o'
The hay-trusser, which he obviously was, nodded with some superciliousness.
Looking towards the village, he continued, "There is something going on here, however, is there not?"
"Ay. 'Tis Fair Day. Though what you hear now is little more than the clatte_nd scurry of getting away the money o' children and fools, for the rea_usiness is done earlier than this. I've been working within sound o't al_ay, 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 the Fair- field, which showed standing-places and pens where many hundreds of horses an_heep had been exhibited and sold in the forenoon, but were now in great par_aken away. At present, as their informant had observed, but little rea_usiness remained on hand, the chief being the sale by auction of a fe_nferior animals, that could not otherwise be disposed of, and had bee_bsolutely refused by the better class of traders, who came and went early.
Yet the crowd was denser now than during the morning hours, the frivolou_ontingent of visitors, including journeymen out for a holiday, a stra_oldier or two come on furlough, village shopkeepers, and the like, havin_atterly flocked in; persons whose activities found a congenial field amon_he peep-shows, toy-stands, waxworks, inspired monsters, disinterested medica_en who travelled for the public good, thimble-riggers, nick-nack vendors, an_eaders of Fate.
Neither of our pedestrians had much heart for these things, and they looke_round for a refreshment tent among the many which dotted the down. Two, whic_tood nearest to them in the ochreous haze of expiring sunlight, seemed almos_qually inviting. One was formed of new, milk-hued canvas, and bore red flag_n its summit; it announced "Good Home-brewed Beer, Ale, and Cyder." The othe_as less new; a little iron stove-pipe came out of it at the back and in fron_ppeared the placard, "Good Furmity Sold Hear." The man mentally weighed th_wo inscriptions and inclined to the former tent.
"No—no—the other one," said the woman. "I always like furmity; and so doe_lizabeth-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 he_epresentations, and they entered the furmity booth forthwith.
A rather numerous company appeared within, seated at the long narrow table_hat 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. _aggish creature of about fifty presided, in a white apron, which as it thre_n air of respectability over her as far as it extended, was made so wide a_o 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 thu_ept from burning the mixture of corn in the grain, flour, milk, raisins, currants, and what not, that composed the antiquated slop in which she dealt.
Vessels holding the separate ingredients stood on a white-clothed table o_oards and trestles close by.
The young man and woman ordered a basin each of the mixture, steaming hot, an_at down to consume it at leisure. This was very well so far, for furmity, a_he woman had said, was nourishing, and as proper a food as could be obtaine_ithin the four seas; though, to those not accustomed to it, the grains o_heat swollen as large as lemon-pips, which floated on its surface, might hav_ deterrent effect at first.
But there was more in that tent than met the cursory glance; and the man, wit_he instinct of a perverse character, scented it quickly. After a mincin_ttack on his bowl, he watched the hag's proceedings from the corner of hi_ye, and saw the game she played. He winked to her, and passed up his basin i_eply to her nod; when she took a bottle from under the table, slily measure_ut a quantity of its contents, and tipped the same into the man's furmity.
The liquor poured in was rum. The man as slily sent back money in payment.
He found the concoction, thus strongly laced, much more to his satisfactio_han it had been in its natural state. His wife had observed the proceedin_ith much uneasiness; but he persuaded her to have hers laced also, and sh_greed to a milder allowance after some misgiving.
The man finished his basin, and called for another, the rum being signalle_or in yet stronger proportion. The effect of it was soon apparent in hi_anner, and his wife but too sadly perceived that in strenuously steering of_he rocks of the licensed liquor-tent she had only got into maelstrom depth_ere amongst the smugglers.
The child began to prattle impatiently, and the wife more than once said t_er husband, "Michael, how about our lodging? You know we may have trouble i_etting it if we don't go soon."
But he turned a deaf ear to those bird-like chirpings. He talked loud to th_ompany. The child's black eyes, after slow, round, ruminating gazes at th_andles when they were lighted, fell together; then they opened, then shu_gain, and she slept.
At the end of the first basin the man had risen to serenity; at the second h_as jovial; at the third, argumentative, at the fourth, the qualitie_ignified by the shape of his face, the occasional clench of his mouth, an_he fiery spark of his dark eye, began to tell in his conduct; he wa_verbearing—even brilliantly quarrelsome.
The conversation took a high turn, as it often does on such occasions. Th_uin of good men by bad wives, and, more particularly, the frustration of man_ promising youth's high aims and hopes and the extinction of his energies b_n early imprudent marriage, was the theme.
"I did for myself that way thoroughly," said the trusser with a contemplativ_itterness that was well-night resentful. "I married at eighteen, like th_ool that I was; and this is the consequence o't." He pointed at himself an_amily with a wave of the hand intended to bring out the penuriousness of th_xhibition.
The young woman his wife, who seemed accustomed to such remarks, acted as i_he did not hear them, and continued her intermittent private words of tende_rifles to the sleeping and waking child, who was just big enough to be place_or a moment on the bench beside her when she wished to ease her arms. The ma_ontinued—
"I haven't more than fifteen shillings in the world, and yet I am a goo_xperienced hand in my line. I'd challenge England to beat me in the fodde_usiness; and if I were a free man again I'd be worth a thousand pound befor_'d done o't. But a fellow never knows these little things till all chance o_cting upon 'em is past."
The auctioneer selling the old horses in the field outside could be hear_aying, "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 broodmare, a trifle ove_ive years old, and nothing the matter with the hoss at all, except that she'_ little holler in the back and had her left eye knocked out by the kick o_nother, 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 th_an in the tent. "Why shouldn't they put 'em up and sell 'em by auction to me_ho are in need of such articles? Hey? Why, begad, I'd sell mine this minut_f anybody would buy her!"
"There's them that would do that," some of the guests replied, looking at th_oman, who was by no means ill-favoured.
"True," said a smoking gentleman, whose coat had the fine polish about th_ollar, elbows, seams, and shoulder-blades that long-continued friction wit_rimy surfaces will produce, and which is usually more desired on furnitur_han on clothes. From his appearance he had possibly been in former time groo_r coachman to some neighbouring county family. "I've had my breedings in a_ood circles, I may 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—a_uch 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 _oint in the air.
The fuddled young husband stared for a few seconds at this unexpected prais_f his wife, half in doubt of the wisdom of his own attitude towards th_ossessor of such qualities. But he speedily lapsed into his forme_onviction, and said harshly—
"Well, then, now is your chance; I am open to an offer for this gem o'
She turned to her husband and murmured, "Michael, you have talked thi_onsense in public places before. A joke is a joke, but you may make it onc_oo 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 chanc_ound its way through an opening into the upper part of the tent, flew to an_rom quick curves above their heads, causing all eyes to follow it absently.
In watching the bird till it made its escape the assembled company neglecte_o 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 furmit_ore and more heavily, though he was either so strong-minded or such a_ntrepid toper that he still appeared fairly sober, recurred to the ol_train, as in a musical fantasy the instrument fetches up the original theme.
"Here—I am waiting to know about this offer of mine. The woman is no good t_e. Who'll have her?"
The company had by this time decidedly degenerated, and the renewed inquir_as received with a laugh of appreciation. The woman whispered; she wa_mploring and anxious: "Come, come, it is getting dark, and this nonsens_on'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 i_pon the desultory conversation of the furmity drinkers with. "I asked thi_uestion, and nobody answered to 't. Will any Jack Rag or Tom Straw among y_uy my goods?"
The woman's manner changed, and her face assumed the grim shape and colour o_hich mention has been made.
"Mike, Mike," she said; "this is getting serious. O!—too serious!"
"Will anybody buy her?" said the man.
"I wish somebody would," said she firmly. "Her present owner is not at all t_er 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 he_ays. 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 staylace dealer in voluminous petticoats, who sat near the woman; "yer good man don't know what he's saying."
The woman, 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, _amp 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 suprem_ffort of will.
"Five shillings," said someone, at which there was a laugh.
"No insults," said the husband. "Who'll 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 th_oor soul married to! Bed and board is dear at some figures 'pon my 'vation
"Set it higher, auctioneer," said the trusser.
"Two guineas!" 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 another."
"Three guineas—going for three guineas!" said the rheumy man.
"No bid?" said the husband. "Good Lord, why she's cost me fifty times th_oney, if a penny. Go on."
"Four guineas!" cried the auctioneer.
"I'll tell ye what—I won't sell her for less than five," said the husband, bringing down his fist so that the basins danced. "I'll sell her for fiv_uineas to any man that will pay me the money, and treat her well; and h_hall have her for ever, and never hear aught o' me. But she shan't go fo_ess. Now then—five guineas—and she's yours. Susan, you agree?"
She bowed her head with absolute indifference.
"Five guineas," said the auctioneer, "or she'll be withdrawn. Do anybody giv_t? 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 doo_f the tent was a sailor, who, unobserved by the rest, had arrived ther_ithin the last two or three minutes. A dead silence followed his affirmation.
"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, unfolde_ive crisp pieces of paper, and threw them down upon the tablecloth. They wer_ank-of-England notes for five pounds. Upon the face of this he clinked dow_he shillings severally—one, two, three, four, five.
The sight of real money in full amount, in answer to a challenge for the sam_ill then deemed slightly hypothetical had a great effect upon the spectators.
Their eyes became riveted upon the faces of the chief actors, and then upo_he notes as they lay, weighted by the shillings, on the table.
Up to this moment it could not positively have been asserted that the man, i_pite of his tantalizing declaration, was really in earnest. The spectator_ad indeed taken the proceedings throughout as a piece of mirthful iron_arried to extremes; and had assumed that, being out of work, he was, as _onsequence, 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 th_cene departed. A lurid colour seemed to fill the tent, and change the aspec_f all therein. The mirth-wrinkles left the listeners' faces, and they waite_ith parting lips.
"Now," said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounde_uite loud, "before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch tha_oney, 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 resentmen_ising at her suggestion. "I take the money; the sailor takes you. That'_lain enough. It has been done elsewhere—and why not here?"
"'Tis quite on the understanding that the young woman is willing," said th_ailor blandly. "I wouldn't hurt her feelings for the world."
"Faith, nor I," said her husband. "But she is willing, provided she can hav_he 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 n_epentance there.
"Very well, she shall have the child, and the bargain's complete," said th_russer. He took the sailor's notes and deliberately folded them, and put the_ith 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. "Th_ittle one too—the more the merrier!" She paused for an instant, with a clos_lance at him. Then dropping her eyes again, and saying nothing, she took u_he child and followed him as he made towards the door. On reaching it, sh_urned, and pulling off her wedding-ring, flung it across the booth in th_ay-trusser's face.
"Mike," she said, "I've lived with thee a couple of years, and had nothing bu_emper! Now I'm no more to 'ee; I'll try my luck elsewhere. 'Twill be bette_or me and Elizabeth-Jane, both. So good-bye!"
Seizing the sailor's arm with her right hand, and mounting the little girl o_er left, she went out of the tent sobbing bitterly.
A stolid look of concern filled the husband's face, as if, after all, he ha_ot quite anticipated this ending; and some of the guests laughed.
"Is she gone?" he said.
"Faith, ay! she's gone clane enough," said some rustics near the door.
He rose and walked to the entrance with the careful tread of one conscious o_is alcoholic load. Some others followed, and they stood looking into th_wilight. The difference between the peacefulness of inferior nature and th_ilful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place. In contras_ith the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight o_everal horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as the_aited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey. Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet. The sun had recently set, and th_est heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowl_hanged. To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from _arkened auditorium. In presence of this scene after the other there was _atural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, an_hat mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet object_ere raging loud.
"Where do the sailor live?" asked a spectator, when they had vainly gaze_round.
"God knows that," replied the man who had seen high life. "He's without doub_ stranger here."
"He came in about five minutes ago," said the furmity woman, joining the res_ith her hands on her hips. "And then 'a stepped back, and then 'a looked i_gain. I'm not a penny the better for him."
"Serves the husband well be-right," said the staylace vendor. "A comel_espectable body like her—what can a man want more? I glory in the woman'_perrit. I'd ha' done it myself—od send if I wouldn't, if a husband ha_ehaved so to me! I'd go, and 'a might call, and call, till his keacorn wa_aw; but I'd never come back—no, not till the great trumpet, would I!"
"Well, the woman will be better off," said another of a more deliberativ_urn. "For seafaring natures be very good shelter for shorn lambs, and the ma_o seem to have plenty of money, which is what she's not been used to lately, by all showings."
"Mark me—I'll not go after her!" said the trusser, returning doggedly to hi_eat. "Let her go! If she's up to such vagaries she must suffer for 'em. She'_o business to take the maid—'tis my maid; and if it were the doing again sh_houldn't have her!"
Perhaps from some little sense of having countenanced an indefensibl_roceeding, perhaps because it was late, the customers thinned away from th_ent shortly after this episode. The man stretched his elbows forward on th_able leant his face upon his arms, and soon began to snore. The furmit_eller decided to close for the night, and after seeing the rum-bottles, milk, corn, raisins, etc., that remained on hand, loaded into the cart, came t_here the man reclined. She shook him, but could not wake him. As the tent wa_ot to be struck that night, the fair continuing for two or three days, sh_ecided to let the sleeper, who was obviously no tramp, stay where he was, an_is basket with him. Extinguishing the last candle, and lowering the flap o_he tent, she left it, and drove away.