It was indeed the former mistress of the furmity tent — once thriving, cleanly, white-aproned, and chinking with money — now tentless, dirty, owning no tables or 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 served in a couple of chipped yellow basins of commonest clay.
"She was here at that time," resumed Mrs. Newson, making a step as if to draw nearer.
"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 her mother went forward. The old woman begged for the latter's custom as soon as she saw her, and responded to Mrs. Henchard-Newson's request for a pennyworth with more alacrity than she had shown in selling six-pennyworths in her younger days. When the soi-disant widow had taken the basin of thin poor slop that stood for the rich concoction of the former time, the hag opened a little basket 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 like cordial!"
Her customer smiled bitterly at this survival of the old trick, and shook her head with a meaning the old woman was far from translating. She pretended to eat a little of the furmity with the leaden spoon offered, and as she did so said blandly to the hag, "You've seen better days?"
"Ah, ma'am — well ye may say it!" responded the old woman, opening the sluices of her heart forthwith. "I've stood in this fair-ground, maid, wife, and widow, these nine-and-thirty years, and in that time have known what it was to do business with the richest stomachs in the land! Ma'am you'd hardly believe that I was once the owner of a great pavilion-tent that was the attraction of the 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; I knew the town's taste, the country's taste. I even knowed the taste of the coarse shameless females. But Lord's my life — the world's no memory; straightforward dealings don't bring profit — 'tis the sly and the underhand that get on in these times!"
Mrs. Newson glanced round — her daughter was still bending over the distant stalls. "Can you call to mind," she said cautiously to the old woman, "the sale 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 I should have minded it in a moment," she said. "I can mind every serious fight o' married parties, every murder, every manslaughter, even every pocket-picking — leastwise large ones — that 't has been my lot to witness. But a selling? Was it done quiet-like?"
"Well, yes. I think so."
The furmity woman half shook her head again. "And yet," she said, "I do. At any 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, we don't, such as that. The only reason why I can mind the man is that he came back here to the next year's fair, and told me quite private-like that if a woman ever asked for him I was to say he had gone to — where? — Casterbridge — yes — to Casterbridge, said he. But, Lord's my life, I shouldn't ha' thought of it again!"
Mrs. Newson would have rewarded the old woman as far as her small means afforded had she not discreetly borne in mind that it was by that unscrupulous person's liquor her husband had been degraded. She briefly thanked her informant, and rejoined Elizabeth, who greeted her with, "Mother, do let's get on — it was hardly respectable for you to buy refreshments there. I see none but the lowest do."
"I have learned what I wanted, however," said her mother quietly. "The last time our relative visited this fair he said he was living at Casterbridge. It is a long, long way from here, and it was many years ago that he said it, but there I think we'll go."
With this they descended out of the fair, and went onward to the village, where they obtained a night's lodging.