The time arrived for killing the pig which Jude and his wife had fattened in their sty during the autumn months, and the butchering was timed to take place as soon as it was light in the morning, so that Jude might get to Alfredston without losing more than a quarter of a day.
The night had seemed strangely silent. Jude looked out of the window long before dawn, and perceived that the ground was covered with snow — snow rather deep for the season, it seemed, a few flakes still falling.
"I'm afraid the pig-killer won't be able to come," he said to Arabella.
"Oh, he'll come. You must get up and make the water hot, if you want Challow to scald him. Though I like singeing best."
"I'll get up," said Jude. "I like the way of my own county."
He went downstairs, lit the fire under the copper, and began feeding it with bean-stalks, all the time without a candle, the blaze flinging a cheerful shine into the room; though for him the sense of cheerfulness was lessened by thoughts on the reason of that blaze — to heat water to scald the bristles from the body of an animal that as yet lived, and whose voice could be continually heard from a corner of the garden. At half-past six, the time of appointment with the butcher, the water boiled, and Jude's wife came downstairs.
"Is Challow come?" she asked.
They waited, and it grew lighter, with the dreary light of a snowy dawn. She went out, gazed along the road, and returning said, "He's not coming. Drunk last night, I expect. The snow is not enough to hinder him, surely!"
"Then we must put it off. It is only the water boiled for nothing. The snow may be deep in the valley."
"Can't be put off. There's no more victuals for the pig. He ate the last mixing o' barleymeal yesterday morning."
"Yesterday morning? What has he lived on since?"
"What — he has been starving?"
"Yes. We always do it the last day or two, to save bother with the innerds. What ignorance, not to know that!"
"That accounts for his crying so. Poor creature!"
"Well — you must do the sticking — there's no help for it. I'll show you how. Or I'll do it myself — I think I could. Though as it is such a big pig I had rather Challow had done it. However, his basket o' knives and things have been already sent on here, and we can use 'em."
"Of course you shan't do it," said Jude. "I'll do it, since it must be done."
He went out to the sty, shovelled away the snow for the space of a couple of yards or more, and placed the stool in front, with the knives and ropes at hand. A robin peered down at the preparations from the nearest tree, and, not liking the sinister look of the scene, flew away, though hungry. By this time Arabella had joined her husband, and Jude, rope in hand, got into the sty, and noosed the affrighted animal, who, beginning with a squeak of surprise, rose to repeated cries of rage. Arabella opened the sty-door, and together they hoisted the victim on to the stool, legs upward, and while Jude held him Arabella bound him down, looping the cord over his legs to keep him from struggling.
The animal's note changed its quality. It was not now rage, but the cry of despair; long-drawn, slow and hopeless.
"Upon my soul I would sooner have gone without the pig than have had this to do!" said Jude. "A creature I have fed with my own hands."
"Don't be such a tender-hearted fool! There's the sticking-knife — the one with the point. Now whatever you do, don't stick un too deep."
"I'll stick him effectually, so as to make short work of it. That's the chief thing."
"You must not!" she cried. "The meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow. We shall lose a shilling a score if the meat is red and bloody! Just touch the vein, that's all. I was brought up to it, and I know. Every good butcher keeps un bleeding long. He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying, at least."
"He shall not be half a minute if I can help it, however the meat may look," said Jude determinedly. Scraping the bristles from the pig's upturned throat, as he had seen the butchers do, he slit the fat; then plunged in the knife with all his might.
"'Od damn it all!" she cried, "that ever I should say it! You've over-stuck un! And I telling you all the time — "
"Do be quiet, Arabella, and have a little pity on the creature!"
"Hold up the pail to catch the blood, and don't talk!"
However unworkmanlike the deed, it had been mercifully done. The blood flowed out in a torrent instead of in the trickling stream she had desired. The dying animal's cry assumed its third and final tone, the shriek of agony; his glazing eyes riveting themselves on Arabella with the eloquently keen reproach of a creature recognizing at last the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends.
"Make un stop that!" said Arabella. "Such a noise will bring somebody or other up here, and I don't want people to know we are doing it ourselves." Picking up the knife from the ground whereon Jude had flung it, she slipped it into the gash, and slit the windpipe. The pig was instantly silent, his dying breath coming through the hole.
"That's better," she said.
"It is a hateful business!" said he.
"Pigs must be killed."
The animal heaved in a final convulsion, and, despite the rope, kicked out with all his last strength. A tablespoonful of black clot came forth, the trickling of red blood having ceased for some seconds.
"That's it; now he'll go," said she. "Artful creatures — they always keep back a drop like that as long as they can!"
The last plunge had come so unexpectedly as to make Jude stagger, and in recovering himself he kicked over the vessel in which the blood had been caught.
"There!" she cried, thoroughly in a passion. "Now I can't make any blackpot. There's a waste, all through you!"
Jude put the pail upright, but only about a third of the whole steaming liquid was left in it, the main part being splashed over the snow, and forming a dismal, sordid, ugly spectacle — to those who saw it as other than an ordinary obtaining of meat. The lips and nostrils of the animal turned livid, then white, and the muscles of his limbs relaxed.
"Thank God!" Jude said. "He's dead."
"What's God got to do with such a messy job as a pig-killing, I should like to know!" she said scornfully. "Poor folks must live."
"I know, I know," said he. "I don't scold you."
Suddenly they became aware of a voice at hand.
"Well done, young married volk! I couldn't have carried it out much better myself, cuss me if I could!" The voice, which was husky, came from the garden-gate, and looking up from the scene of slaughter they saw the burly form of Mr. Challow leaning over the gate, critically surveying their performance.
"'Tis well for 'ee to stand there and glane!" said Arabella. "Owing to your being late the meat is blooded and half spoiled! 'Twon't fetch so much by a shilling a score!"
Challow expressed his contrition. "You should have waited a bit" he said, shaking his head, "and not have done this — in the delicate state, too, that you be in at present, ma'am. 'Tis risking yourself too much."
"You needn't be concerned about that," said Arabella, laughing. Jude too laughed, but there was a strong flavour of bitterness in his amusement.
Challow made up for his neglect of the killing by zeal in the scalding and scraping. Jude felt dissatisfied with himself as a man at what he had done, though aware of his lack of common sense, and that the deed would have amounted to the same thing if carried out by deputy. The white snow, stained with the blood of his fellow-mortal, wore an illogical look to him as a lover of justice, not to say a Christian; but he could not see how the matter was to be mended. No doubt he was, as his wife had called him, a tender-hearted fool.