The highroad into the village of Weydon-Priors was again carpeted with dust.
The trees had put on as of yore their aspect of dingy green, and where th_enchard family of three had once walked along, two persons not unconnecte_ith the family walked now.
The scene in its broad aspect had so much of its previous character, even t_he voices and rattle from the neighbouring village down, that it might fo_hat matter have been the afternoon following the previously recorded episode.
Change was only to be observed in details; but here it was obvious that a lon_rocession of years had passed by. One of the two who walked the road was sh_ho had figured as the young wife of Henchard on the previous occasion; no_er face had lost much of its rotundity; her skin had undergone a textura_hange; and though her hair had not lost colour it was considerably thinne_han heretofore. She was dressed in the mourning clothes of a widow. He_ompanion, also in black, appeared as a well-formed young woman abou_ighteen, completely possessed of that ephemeral precious essence youth, whic_s itself beauty, irrespective of complexion or contour.
A glance was sufficient to inform the eye that this was Susan Henchard'_rown-up daughter. While life's middle summer had set its hardening mark o_he mother's face, her former spring-like specialities were transferred s_exterously by Time to the second figure, her child, that the absence o_ertain facts within her mother's knowledge from the girl's mind would hav_eemed for the moment, to one reflecting on those facts, to be a curiou_mperfection in Nature's powers of continuity.
They walked with joined hands, and it could be perceived that this was the ac_f simple affection. The daughter carried in her outer hand a withy basket o_ld-fashioned make; the mother a blue bundle, which contrasted oddly with he_lack stuff gown.
Reaching the outskirts of the village they pursued the same track as formerly,
and ascended to the fair. Here, too it was evident that the years had told.
Certain mechanical improvements might have been noticed in the roundabouts an_igh-fliers, machines for testing rustic strength and weight, and in th_rections devoted to shooting for nuts. But the real business of the fair ha_onsiderably dwindled. The new periodical great markets of neighbouring town_ere beginning to interfere seriously with the trade carried on here fo_enturies. The pens for sheep, the tie-ropes for horses, were about half a_ong as they had been. The stalls of tailors, hosiers, coopers, linen-drapers,
and other such trades had almost disappeared, and the vehicles were far les_umerous. The mother and daughter threaded the crowd for some little distance,
and then stood still.
"Why did we hinder our time by coming in here? I thought you wished to ge_nward?" said the maiden.
"Yes, my dear Elizabeth-Jane," explained the other. "But I had a fancy fo_ooking up here."
"It was here I first met with Newson—on such a day as this."
"First met with father here? Yes, you have told me so before. And now he'_rowned and gone from us!" As she spoke the girl drew a card from her pocke_nd looked at it with a sigh. It was edged with black, and inscribed within _esign resembling a mural tablet were the words, "In affectionate memory o_ichard Newson, mariner, who was unfortunately lost at sea, in the month o_ovember 184—, aged forty-one years."
"And it was here," continued her mother, with more hesitation, "that I las_aw the relation we are going to look for—Mr. Michael Henchard."
"What is his exact kin to us, mother? I have never clearly had it told me."
"He is, or was—for he may be dead—a connection by marriage," said her mothe_eliberately.
"That's exactly what you have said a score of times before!" replied the youn_oman, looking about her inattentively. "He's not a near relation, I suppose?"
"Not by any means."
"He was a hay-trusser, wasn't he, when you last heard of him?
"I suppose he never knew me?" the girl innocently continued.
Mrs. Henchard paused for a moment, and answered un-easily, "Of course not,
Elizabeth-Jane. But come this way." She moved on to another part of the field.
"It is not much use inquiring here for anybody, I should think," the daughte_bserved, as she gazed round about. "People at fairs change like the leaves o_rees; and I daresay you are the only one here to-day who was here all thos_ears ago."
"I am not so sure of that," said Mrs. Newson, as she now called herself,
keenly eyeing something under a green bank a little way off. "See there."
The daughter looked in the direction signified. The object pointed out was _ripod of sticks stuck into the earth, from which hung a three-legged crock,
kept hot by a smouldering wood fire beneath. Over the pot stooped an old woma_aggard, wrinkled, and almost in rags. She stirred the contents of the po_ith a large spoon, and occasionally croaked in a broken voice, "Good furmit_old here!"
It was indeed the former mistress of the furmity tent—once thriving, cleanly,
white-aproned, and chinking with money—now tentless, dirty, owning no table_r benches, and having scarce any customers except two small whity-brown boys,
who came up and asked for "A ha'p'orth, please—good measure," which she serve_n a couple of chipped yellow basins of commonest clay.
"She was here at that time," resumed Mrs. Newson, making a step as if to dra_earer.
"Don't speak to her—it isn't respectable!" urged the other.
"I will just say a word—you, Elizabeth-Jane, can stay here."
The girl was not loth, and turned to some stalls of coloured prints while he_other went forward. The old woman begged for the latter's custom as soon a_he saw her, and responded to Mrs. Henchard-Newson's request for a pennywort_ith more alacrity than she had shown in selling six-pennyworths in he_ounger days. When the soi-disant widow had taken the basin of thin poor slo_hat stood for the rich concoction of the former time, the hag opened a littl_asket behind the fire, and looking up slily, whispered, "Just a thought o'
rum in it?—smuggled, you know—say two penn'orth—'twill make it slip down lik_ordial!"
Her customer smiled bitterly at this survival of the old trick, and shook he_ead with a meaning the old woman was far from translating. She pretended t_at a little of the furmity with the leaden spoon offered, and as she did s_aid blandly to the hag, "You've seen better days?"
"Ah, ma'am—well ye may say it!" responded the old woman, opening the sluice_f her heart forthwith. "I've stood in this fair-ground, maid, wife, an_idow, these nine-and-thirty years, and in that time have known what it was t_o business with the richest stomachs in the land! Ma'am you'd hardly believ_hat I was once the owner of a great pavilion-tent that was the attraction o_he fair. Nobody could come, nobody could go, without having a dish of Mrs.
Goodenough's furmity. I knew the clergy's taste, the dandy gent's taste; _new the town's taste, the country's taste. I even knowed the taste of th_oarse shameless females. But Lord's my life—the world's no memory;
straightforward dealings don't bring profit—'tis the sly and the underhan_hat get on in these times!"
Mrs. Newson glanced round—her daughter was still bending over the distan_talls. "Can you call to mind," she said cautiously to the old woman, "th_ale of a wife by her husband in your tent eighteen years ago to-day?"
The hag reflected, and half shook her head. "If it had been a big thing _hould have minded it in a moment," she said. "I can mind every serious figh_' married parties, every murder, every manslaughter, even every pocket-
picking—leastwise large ones—that 't has been my lot to witness. But _elling? Was it done quiet-like?"
"Well, yes. I think so."
The furmity woman half shook her head again. "And yet," she said, "I do. A_ny rate, I can mind a man doing something o' the sort—a man in a cord jacket,
with a basket of tools; but, Lord bless ye, we don't gi'e it head-room, w_on't, such as that. The only reason why I can mind the man is that he cam_ack here to the next year's fair, and told me quite private-like that if _oman ever asked for him I was to say he had gon_o—where?—Casterbridge—yes—to Casterbridge, said he. But, Lord's my life, _houldn't ha' thought of it again!"
Mrs. Newson would have rewarded the old woman as far as her small mean_fforded had she not discreetly borne in mind that it was by that unscrupulou_erson's liquor her husband had been degraded. She briefly thanked he_nformant, and rejoined Elizabeth, who greeted her with, "Mother, do let's ge_n—it was hardly respectable for you to buy refreshments there. I see none bu_he lowest do."
"I have learned what I wanted, however," said her mother quietly. "The las_ime our relative visited this fair he said he was living at Casterbridge. I_s a long, long way from here, and it was many years ago that he said it, bu_here I think we'll go."
With this they descended out of the fair, and went onward to the village,