The Withered Arm
by Thomas Hardy
I — A Lorn Milkmaid
It was an
eighty-cow dairy, and the troop of milkers, regular and
supernumerary, were all at work; for, though the time of
year was as yet but early April, the feed lay entirely in
water-meadows, and the cows were 'in full pail.' The hour
was about six in the evening, and three-fourths of the
large, red, rectangular animals having been finished off,
there was opportunity for a little conversation.
bring home his bride to-morrow, I hear. They've come as
far as Anglebury to-day.'
seemed to proceed from the belly of the cow called
Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face
was buried in the flank of that motionless beast.
anybody seen her?' said another.
There was a
negative response from the first. 'Though they say she's
a rosy-cheeked, tisty-tosty little body enough,' she
added; and as the milkmaid spoke she turned her face so
that she could glance past her cow's tail to the other
side of the barton, where a thin, fading woman of thirty
milked somewhat apart from the rest.
younger than he, they say,' continued the second, with
also a glance of reflectiveness in the same direction.
'How old do
you call him, then?'
forty,' broke in an old milkman near, in a long white
pinafore or 'wropper,' and with the brim of his hat tied
down, so that he looked like a woman. ''A was born before
our Great Weir was builded, and I hadn't man's wages when
I laved water there.'
discussion waxed so warm that the purr of the
milk-streams became jerky, till a voice from another
cow's belly cried with authority, 'Now then, what the
Turk do it matter to us about Farmer Lodge's age, or
Farmer Lodge's new mis'ess? I shall have to pay him nine
pound a year for the rent of every one of these milchers,
whatever his age or hers. Get on with your work, or
'twill be dark afore we have done. The evening is pinking
in a'ready.' This speaker was the dairyman himself; by
whom the milkmaids and men were employed.
more was said publicly about Farmer Lodge's wedding, but
the first woman murmured under her cow to her next
neighbour, ''Tis hard for SHE,' signifying the thin worn
said the second. 'He ha'n't spoke to Rhoda Brook for
milking was done they washed their pails and hung them on
a many-forked stand made of the peeled limb of an
oak-tree, set upright in the earth, and resembling a
colossal antlered horn. The majority then dispersed in
various directions homeward. The thin woman who had not
spoken was joined by a boy of twelve or thereabout, and
the twain went away up the field also.
course lay apart from that of the others, to a lonely
spot high above the water-meads, and not far from the
border of Egdon Heath, whose dark countenance was visible
in the distance as they drew nigh to their home.
just been saying down in barton that your father brings
his young wife home from Anglebury to-morrow,' the woman
observed. 'I shall want to send you for a few things to
market, and you'll be pretty sure to meet 'em.'
mother,' said the boy. 'Is father married then?'
'Yes . . .
You can give her a look, and tell me what's she's like,
if you do see her.'
dark or fair, and if she's tall—as tall as I. And if she
seems like a woman who has ever worked for a living, or
one that has been always well off, and has never done
anything, and shows marks of the lady on her, as I expect
up the hill in the twilight, and entered the cottage. It
was built of mud-walls, the surface of which had been
washed by many rains into channels and depressions that
left none of the original flat face visible; while here
and there in the thatch above a rafter showed like a bone
protruding through the skin.
kneeling down in the chimney-corner, before two pieces of
turf laid together with the heather inwards, blowing at
the red-hot ashes with her breath till the turves flamed.
The radiance lit her pale cheek, and made her dark eyes,
that had once been handsome, seem handsome anew. 'Yes,'
she resumed, 'see if she is dark or fair, and if you can,
notice if her hands be white; if not, see if they look as
though she had ever done housework, or are milker's hands
again promised, inattentively this time, his mother not
observing that he was cutting a notch with his
pocket-knife in the beech-backed chair.
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