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THE THREE STRANGERS

from Stories By English Authors: England





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 eweleases,
as they are indifferently called, that fill a large area of certain
counties in the south and southwest. 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 what of that? Five miles of irregular
upland, during the long, imnimical 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 execution of these forlorn dwellings; but in the present
case such a kind of shelter had been disregarded. 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 foot-paths at right angles hard by, which may have crossed
there and thus for a good five hundred years. The house was thus
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 the 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
inconvenienced 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 nights that
were wont to call forth these expressions of commiseration. The
level rain-storm smote walls, slopes, and hedges like the cloth-yard
shafts of Senlac and Crecy. Such sheep and outdoor animals as had
no shelter stood with their buttocks to the wind, 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 misplaced. For that
cheerful rustic was entertaining a large party in glorification of
the christening of his second girl.

The guests had arrived before the rain began 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 eventful
evening would have resulted in the opinion that it was as cosey 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 fireplace, 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 than the grease which enveloped them,
in sticks that were never used but at high-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 laughter 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-companionship, 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 prevailed in being unhampered by conventional restrictions.
Absolute confidence in one another'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 ministering to
the needs of a coming family. 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 undisturbed 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 counterbalancing 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
intermediate 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
"tweedledee" 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. Dancing
was instantaneous, Mrs. Fennel privately enjoining 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. Moreover, 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 cumulative 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
shepherd's cottage.

It was nearly the time of full moon, and on this account, though
the sky was lined with 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 instinctive agility, though not so far as to be otherwise
than rapid of motion when 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 nine.

Notwithstanding the regularity of his tread, there was caution in
it, as in that of one who mentally 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 homestead partially broke
the force of wind and rain, and this induced him to stand still.
The most salient of the shepherd'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 conventional frontage 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 pentroof for shelter.

While he stood, the boom of the serpent within 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 insufficiency
of water, and a casual rainfall was utilised 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 through 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 his entry.

In his indecision he turned and surveyed the scene around. Not a
soul was anywhere 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 the place of movement and musical
sound. The hedge-carpenter was suggesting a song to the company,
which nobody just then was inclined to undertake, so that the knock
afforded a not unwelcome diversion.

"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 candies, and turned to look at him.

Their light disclosed that the stranger 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 glance round the room. He seemed pleased with the survey,
and, baring his shaggy head, said, in a rich, deep voice, "The 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 having a bit of a fling
for a glad 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 stranger.

"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, which
before entering had been so dubious, was now altogether that of a
careless and candid man.

"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, who, having got completely 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 the country."

"I thought so. And so am I; and by your tongue you come from my
neighbourhood."

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

This testimony to the youthfulness of his hostess had the effect
of stopping her cross-examination.

"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 confusion "Give it to me
in a screw of paper."

Lighting 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
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 engaged 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 fire 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 stranger.

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, comrades, or I shall be wetted to my
skin before I get to Casterbridge."

"Make yerself at home, master," said the shepherd, perrhaps 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 altogether comfortable 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 invited 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 way of breaking the ice of unacquaintance,
and the first stranger handed his neighbour the large mug--a
huge vessel of brown ware, having its upper edge worn away, like
a threshold, by the rub of whole genealogies of thirsty lips that
had gone the way of all flesh, and bearing the following inscription
burned upon its rotund side in yellow letters:





Next: THERE IS NO FUN UNTILL I CUM.

Previous: THE WRONG BLACK BAG



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