After The Sale – Short Story

Day After Sale was first published in Duality 5. ‘Style’ Edited by Alec Beattie. 2001. Available at www.dualitythebook.co.uk

After The Sale

Chapter One.

On the hill above Weydon Priors, a forlorn figure looked glumly down on the scene below. The troubled Michael Henchard surveyed the half-dismantled pens where yesterday proud beasts had been displayed by even prouder owners. Now they contained nothing bar wisps of soiled straw and even that was rapidly being trampled and dispersed by the boots of the sluggish labourers charged with restoring the sward to its former tranquillity. The labourers worked without purpose, the exertions of the previous evening making all urgency most unwanted.
Henchard did not scrutinise them closely although the distance would have allowed, he knew instinctively that many were his companions of the previous evening and he knew the tale they were telling to those fortunate enough to have been permitted he pleasures of the liquor tent direct who as a consequence had not been witness to Henchard’s folly.
Henchard’s eyes left the scene of indolence, the skilled hay-trusser could not find it in his heart to reproach the unenergetic souls below. What had they to hurry for? The fair’s next venue was less than five miles distant, leaving time enough to dismantle and rebuild before the nights’ revelries were due to commence.
Henchard’s eyes first rested on the tent that had been forbidden to him on the previous evening; the ale tent, it was rapidly collapsing and thus Henchard’s vision passed on to the next, the furmity tent. He had hoped his eyes would skim mercifully over it, but the two poles from which it had been suspended impaled his eyes, compelling his reluctant attention. In the short time since he had quit that establishment the proprietress had marshalled helpers and begun to oversee the taking down of the canvas.
Without it’s canvas raiment the furmity tent was laid bare to Henchard’s view. The Proprietress and several helpers struggled with the collapsible furniture before depositing it on a cart of such antique design that it was uncommon even in this area of Wessex which did not profess to be at the forefront of agricultural advancement. An animal of similarly uncommon aspect attended the ancient cart, although it’s lack of prepossession owed less to age than the carter’s eye for a bargain.
Presently the woman left her unfamiliar helpers and made her way to the main table of the tent whereupon stood the bowl in which the furmity was prepared and distributed. Lying around this bowl were the drab earthenware bowls in which individual portions of furmity were served. The woman commenced arranging these bowls into piles suitable for transportation. Henchard noted her expected lack of care and suspected she was adding to each bowls already extensive collection of cracks and chips. He also noted that the bowls were not washed.
The barely manageable stacks of bowls were roughly placed in the larger bowl and the whole teetering construction transported to the cart by a staggering minion. The proprietress then removed the curd-soiled cloth from the table and folded it roughly, ready for packing. The shelf that once housed the ingredients for the clandestine Mithradites brewing was now empty. The bottles of illicit spirits having been stealthily removed. The proprietress had wisely hidden all evidence of her open secret from her helpers, no doubt with the aim of pleading the unpopularity of furmity and thus denying her employees adequate recompense for their morning’s labour.
Henchard turned away and pointed his faltering step he knew not whence.
Fresh morning air has a healthy effect on even the most sullen of demeanours and Michael Henchard’s was no exception. Little by little a characteristic air of arrogance returned to his gait. The effects of the furmity for all its illicit alcohol content were soon overcome.
He pointed his steps south, choosing not to follow the path of the fair, reasoning that Susan and her new companion, Henchard had almost called the man her new owner would do likewise. Through the fug of the previous night Henchard vaguely recalled that the man was a sailor and thus south to the sea appeared the obvious choice of route. He noted also that the man may have been returning home to commence a period of leave and thus the sea would be precisely the wrong direction in which to head.
There was one other matter he had to attend to before commencing his enquiries and to this end Henchard strode off in the direction of a building he recalled passing on entering Weydon Priors the previous evening. Without his hat he rapidly warmed in the increasing sun and as his brow warmed so did his mood and repeatedly he checked a whistle deeming it inappropriate in the circumstances.
Presently he came upon the church at Weydon Priors. As he stood in the lynch gate amongst the garlands of spring flowers that had bedecked the gate for a recent wedding Henchard marvelled at the good time he made from the fair ground, deliberately putting from his mind all thoughts of the happy event, the evidence of which he was now standing amongst. From his position in the chiaroscuro Henchard’s thoughts continued on this track. The reason for his good progress was his lack of slow moving companions and he recalled his previous boasts of the star bound course he would follow were he once more a free man. He stood with his hand on smooth elm gate, to open it meant to give up that freedom. To turn away meant dizzy heights. His hand gripped the gate, should he find his wife and save both their reputations He stood transfixed. Just as he crossed the ground faster without the encumbrances of wife of and child so he would move in life. Henchard thought for but one moment before putting down his tools and entering the churchyard. His journey to this gate had been made with head bowed and that could not continue because Michael Henchard looked every man in the eye and he would do so again.
As he walked through the church yard not pausing to take in it’s quiet beauty, Henchard recalled the day not two years previous when he had walked to a similar building. His wedding day was quiet and simple, Susan’s father being of limited means could afford nothing more. Henchard had ground his teeth in silent indignation, he had money saved and friends aplenty to entertain, but uncharacteristically he had shrunk from confrontation, acceding to Susan’s plaintive appeal that he respect his father in law’s self esteem and offer the old man no financial assistance. He kept his mouth and his purse closed already planning the memorable entertainment his friends would enjoy on the birth of his son.
Susan’s father owned a small seed shop and business was steady but hardly thriving, so Susan was pleased to meet Michael Henchard at the aisle. Henchard was not wealthy but enjoyed a level of financial security far above that of the seed merchant. His income was steady and he had money saved. He had worked steadily for many years, having taken the experience of agriculture gained on his father’s knee and a bag of tools on the road in search of employment. Those were halcyon days, Work aplenty and evening recreation sufficient to stun the pot bellied Dane. He could equal any man at labour, was a nose ahead at drinking and with his fists was more than the match of most. His size and strength were such that few men insulted him with impunity and he possessed a rarer quality, science in his pugilism. A charge from a more powerful man would find Henchard dancing at his rear, dealing a stinging blow to the kidneys. Despite his proven prowess Henchard took no glory in pugilism.
Henchard made but rare visits to his home village and there he took on a very different persona. Many a man will be wild where he is a stranger but once home will become decorum personified. Such a man was Michael Henchard, he would never become the subject of the local tosspot’s idle gossip. He did not frequent the village inn and rarely attended the popular if staid village dances. The maids of village having heard rumours of his exploits held him in awe but were forever frustrated at so rarely crossing his path.
After two months at his parental home Henchard decided that the time had come for him to take his leave permanently. He resolved again to become a wayfarer so as to preserve a modicum of friendship with his kin. He despaired of dragging them towards efficiency and consequent monetary advancement, taking to heart the lesson that his personal advancement would be secured more speedily with him as the sole navigator on the road ahead.
It was on an errand to collect a consignment of seeds that Henchard met the seed merchant’s daughter. Susan was not the belle of the village but she was flaxen and pleasing, possessing the full rosy countenance of all the bucolic sisterhood. She served Henchard that day not without a blush and somewhat self-consciously directed the shop lad to load the Henchard’s cart. When Henchard over politely took his leave Susan remained mute but stooped him a clumsy curtsey, which caused Henchard to smile. Susan blushed further and before Henchard could speak hastily left in search of the account book. Henchard attempted to follow but was met in the doorway by the proprietor and was thus forced to conclude his business with this less comely salesman.
Henchard pondered this meeting and resolved to spend more time in the village proper and from that day volunteered to run errands to the village with greater frequency than had been his custom, even as a schoolboy in search of a sixpence. On most trips he contrived to call at the seed shop and Susan was more frequently in attendance than had been her habit since she too had been a schoolgirl in search of pocket money. The shop and it’s customers had lost it’s drudgery for her and although her father would have gladly allowed her to spend the autumn at play with the other village maids, Susan chose to spend the final fine days of the season indoors. The old man was gratified by her devotion to him although the keen old bookkeeper had not failed to notice the increase in business from the Henchard establishment. On the occasions of their meeting, Henchard perceived that Susan took on an aspect approaching beauty although Susan would bestow that look on him less frequently after their marriage and by the time of their trip to Weydon Priors the infant Elizabeth-Jane was the only witness to her concealed beauty.
Henchard was not a man to permit procrastination, he could not be content with furtive looks and snatched hand claspings so he decided he would have her for his wife. He called on the old man without delay. No objection was raised and a date was set.
And so Henchard and Susan met at a not dissimilar church gate to the one at which he stood on the morning that concerns us. That earlier appointment had been in the depths of winter but today the early summer sun shone boldly, illuminating the shadowless graveyard. Henchard halted again at the door of the church, he had been an irregular churchgoer but he had planned to attend royally on the occasion of his daughter’s christening: “By heaven I’ll not miss that event” he swore and pushed open the heavy church door.
Once inside he made purposefully for the altar and vigorously commenced: “I Michael Henchard, on this morning of the sixteenth of September, do take oath in this solemn place that I will avoid all strong liquors for the space of twenty years to come, being a year for every year that I have lived. And this I swear upon the book before me: and may I be strook dumb, blind and helpless, if I break this my oath!”
His business concluded, Henchard emerged from the church and stood awhile adjusting to the brightness that struck him. Drink was now a thing of the past and he would not regret it. When he had left the church on the day of his nuptials he was already much fortified and he and his boon companions had proceeded to turn mild fortification into over indulgence. If most guests at the wedding breakfast were content with the meagre fare provided by his father in law, Michael Henchard was not, extra bottles were ordered, distributed and carousing followed. When Susan retired her new husband left her longer than propriety required and little of the night remained when an almost sleeping Susan became the wife of Michael Henchard in body as well as in law.
Henchard made for the Budmouth road, walking quickly and enquiring as he went of every traveller he encountered. These were few in number and their information of little use so he was not unduly delayed. He had covered some distance when he realised he had no breakfast. Wishing to forestall the weariness caused by lack of victuals he stopped at the first inn he came upon. Henchard reasoned that it would have closed long before the sailor and Susan would have passed it’s impressive facade and so gave little for his chances of gaining information about their flight. Still he entered and enquired of the landlord when ordering his meal, as to persons matching his wife and her companion’s description, only for his suspicions on the threshold to be proved correct. The only thing of use that he would get from the inn would be refreshment.
The serving girl brought with his repast a large tankard of ale, which Henchard involuntarily put to his lips. His olfactory system saved him and Henchard slammed down the vessel. Scarcely resisting the impulse to dash it to the ground, he tersely requested the girl to replace the offending brew with water. This brought a non-plussed look from the girl but as the request came from the glowering Michael Henchard, it was swiftly complied with.
Henchard continued his meal in silence, shrinking into corner that housed his table. Henchard’s mistake at entering an area of such rapidly changing population quickly became apparent, every entrant to the house was a potential witness to the previous evenings debacle. Henchard had not the nerve for the hostelry or the stomach for the food. His beef and potatoes went mostly untouched.
The house was busy at that time and local topers constantly filed passed Henchard’s table. They rested no more than a glance upon him and gave him even less thought, but after every entrance and every imagined look of recognition, Henchard’s subconscience told him: ‘that fellow had next table to Susan and I,’ or ‘Those two occupied the far corner of the furmity tent.’ Manfully he chased such thoughts from his mind, but creeping paranoia returned with each new arrival. He placed what was still the bulk of his meal on the bread and transported the unwieldy sandwich to his carpetbag, planning a more leisurely repast to be taken later in an environment more suited to his nervous condition. He stuffed his mouth with the remaining potatoes in one last vain attempt to gain immediate sustenance and approached the landlord aiming to settle his account.
Henchard handed the landlord a shilling, the sailors shilling. He had nothing but the sailor’s coins left, his own money having been spent on adulterated furmity. He faced a dilemma, finance his search with the sailor’s money or find employment and postpone his enquiries. He decided quickly: find Susan, an arrangement could then be reached with the sailor concerning his refund.
The Landlord hardly gave Henchard time to make his exit before turning to the nearest customer, a regular tosspot judging by his appearance:
“Tis strange John Smithyson that a man should muddle around his victuals so.”
“Aye” replied Smithyson “I baint never zeed a head so shrunk into a wights shoulders afore. Yon fella was weighted down with guilt, perhaps twere a murderer fleeing from the law.”
“Nay nay “. replied the Landlord “He had too honest a face to be a murderer. Twas a guilty lover perhaps.”
“There may be some truth in that John Barton.” Said another of the party. ” I were at Weydon Priors yester eve and being accompanied by my good lady had to partake of furmity, her being unwilling to let me take anything stronger, we being in company like.”
The other members of the party being acquainted with the speaker’s appetites nodded at the sagacity of his wife’s actions.
Adam Jenssen continued. “While I was drinking that vile brew, fit only for women and babes, a young man not unlike he that’s just left sold his wife and chile. He got up int middle of tent and conducted an auction, a taking bids all professional like.”
“No cannot be true.”
“Thee had took a little too much brandy in your furmity Jenssen.” Said the landlord.
“Tis true I tell ee. The lord be my witness. A sailor bought her. He handed over his money and went away with the woman and chile. Yonder fellow took his money and carried on a drinking.”
“What price did the fellow, if twas that fellow get for his family then Jenssen.”
“Four or five guineas I canst quite recall.”
“Well if tis true tis a rum story Jenssen I’ll be bound.” Said the landlord who left the gossips about their favourite occupation. Several of these hard working revellers stepped into the road to try and catch a glimpse of the wayward celebrity so recently in their midst. Their view was but short as the contours of the road saved Henchard from humiliation and cut short the tosspots entertainment. The drinkers returned to their former, more accustomed station, not unduly disappointed. Adam Jenssen, bringing up the rear, observed to the general company: “Sold his wife did he? Well I never.” Then he announced to himself: “If only I had the courage to do the same.”
Henchard continued on his way, blind to the awakening of nature all about him. The burgeoning hedgerows ringing with sound were nothing to him but encumbrances over which he was forced to crane and stretch in order to bawl his enquiries to the unhelpful toilers in the fields within.
He made enquiries of everyone he met but he learnt nothing of Susan and Elizabeth-Jane.

Thus a month went by and his search proved fruitless. He arrived by a circuitous route, one evening at the port of Budmouth, with a heavy heart and a light purse. As night fell and before securing lodging for the night he headed for docks intending to catch the trawlermen as they set out on that night’s piscatorial adventure. His interrogation of these sturdy fellows was predictably unsuccessful. Henchard could only give a detailed description of the woman and child, his recollection of the sailor was at best blurred. The masters of the Budmouth fleet were quick to point out that the sailors in their employ seldom brought their families along with them and thus without a proper description of the sailor in question, they simply had too little information to go on.
Henchard left the quayside in search of lodgings disheartened but not devoid of hope. On the morrow he would conduct inquiries of the myriad charterers, chandlers, clerks and merchants who frequented the docks by day and may perhaps have more detailed knowledge of the domestic arrangements of the seafarers they encountered there.
Henchard stopped at the first cheap boarding house that his path crossed. The house’s outward aspect was unpromising and Henchard had entered reluctantly. He had little money and evening was drawing on, so reasoning that he could always decamp at first light should the interior match the exterior, he summoned the landlord by use of a dull brass bell positioned for that purpose on the rough deal bar. The bell was not quickly attended to and Henchard drummed his fingers on the shabby bar before impatiently striking the bell once more. The landlady, for it proved to be a woman, finally stumbled from behind a deep red velveteen curtain to Henchard’s left. Henchard quickly removed his cap and surveyed the woman’s faded beauty..
“What can I do for you?” asked the landlady. Henchard checked a stammer and requested a room for the night.
“I can do that for you sir.”
Henchard reached for his purse.
“T’will perhaps be better if you settle your account in the morning Sir.”
Henchard said nothing but looked at the landlady enquiringly.
“Who knows of what little extras you may care to avail yourself of.?” said the landlady in reply to Henchard’s look.
The intimation passed Henchard by. “My needs are but few madam.” He answered.
“As you wish sir.” Replied the landlady, smiling at the imminent prospect of Henchard’s innocence being rudely shattered.
Before entering the main chamber of the house, Henchard commenced enquiries of the landlady regarding Susan. The landlady was unable to help. She received many sailors into her house but she could not recall an occasion when such a gentleman had made a visit accompanied by his wife. So Henchard entered the main chamber of the house. He immediately understood into what kind of establishment he had inadvertently trod. The room was furnished in a style of faded continental decadence, suggesting corruption to even the most naïve observer. The walls were of the deepest red and the hangings of a deeper purple. The chamber was populated by a dozen or more listless young women who visibly brightened on seeing Henchard.
Henchard blanched at the scene but exhaustion prevented from making a panicked exit and wearily he asked the landlady for his key. He could not be prevailed upon to take supper or to sample any other of the delights on offer and made his way upstairs.
Henchard had grown accustomed to lack of sleep in recent times but he arose the next morning less refreshed than was the norm and made his way down stairs.
On entering the main chamber of the house Henchard discovered the once elegant landlady in her true morning colours. Gone was he artificial hue she had worn the night before, her morning aspect being nothing more interesting than a dull ochre pallor. She offered Henchard tea and he seated himself at a battered pine table and awaited the promised refreshment. The landlady was soon at his shoulder carrying an earthenware teapot distinguished only by its grimy outer coating. The tardy grey liquid within the pot crawled into Henchard’s mug and he drank unwillingly, unconvinced of its restorative qualities. The landlady informed Henchard that she was alone that morning and would he mind waiting for his meal. Following his experience with the tea and hardly feeling esurient Henchard was pleased to consent to the delay. The landlady repaired to the kitchen and proceeded to make a din sufficient for the preparation of a great banquet, not a nondescript breakfast for one. Henchard paced the room impatiently and for the first time that day he looked at the scene without. He sighed grimly for outside the casement sufficient quantities of rain to float a later day Ark fell from the ash grey sky. Henchard stood at the window and cursed silently for he had no raincoat.
A tray of grey miasmic porridge arrived for Henchard to break his fast. He had missed supper and so found even this unwholesome repast not unpalatable and partook heartily but he wisely declined a refill from the frightening teapot. He immediately readied himself for the days round of intelligence gathering. As Henchard was about to leave, the landlady asked. “Have you business in the town?” she asked.
“I have.” replied Henchard anxious to be on his way.
“Does it require you to be out and about on a day such as this?”
“It does madam, regretfully, so I will bid you good day.” replied Henchard shortly.
He made swiftly for the door, deaf to the landlady’s entreaties, that for the sake of his health he should remain indoors and avail himself of the ample amenities her house had to offer.
Henchard walked swiftly along the rain swept street, daring the cold and damp to do their worst. The quayside was once again his destination. The various commercial establishments that lined it would have been Henchard’s first port of call had he not spotted what he perceived to be a new arrival at the docks. Conditions made reliable reconnaissance burdensome but Henchard was sure no ship had occupied this position on the previous evening. He approached the overnight arrival and asked a weary matelot for permission to step aboard. The sailor directed Henchard to the wheelhouse without giving him a second glance. Henchard knocked loudly on the salt stained wheelhouse door. Receiving no reply He banged the door with yet more force and accompanied his knock with a yell.
A recently awakened sailor of some seniority opened the door.
“What is all this noise.” The sailor grumbled as he surveyed Henchard before barking: “State your business and be brief.”
Henchard began: “I have important enquiries to make.” and continued with the carefully calculated insult: “So if you will kindly direct me to someone in authority I’ll trouble you no more.”
The sailor bristled and replied. “I am the second mate on this vessel and I can deal with enquiries from the likes of you. Now state your business or be off with you.”
Henchard began: “I am engaged on a search for a man, a sailor, accompanied by a woman and a child. Have such a trio sought passage on your vessel.”
“Are you a detective?” asked the second mate, his surliness increasing. “No.” replied Henchard: “I am a …..relative. I have an important communication for the …….” Henchard hesitated again; he had no idea by what name the sailor and his newly acquired family went. Thinking swiftly Henchard concluded his enquiry with “travellers” and awaited a reply.
“Many a couple as that take passage on this ship. I cannot help you, unless you tell me more of them.” Answered the mate.
“The woman was tall and fair and the babe a girl of about twelve month.”
“We took a woman and child matching that description. What was the man like?” asked the mate.
“T’were a sailor, smaller than I, fair like the woman and slender also.”
“Aye I reckon it where they. T’were strange though, a babe of twelve month and the man and woman at times behaved like strangers. The woman was reluctant to share her husband’s cabin and he did not force her, as a husband should.”
Henchard asked: “To whence were they bound?”
The second mate searched his memory: “I’ve a mind they disembarked at our last port of call.”
His impatience growing Henchard interrupted: “Where was that?”
“It t’were Newport.” Replied the mate.
“Did they mean to reside in Newport?” enquired Henchard.
“I can’st tell ee.” Replied the mate: “They spoke no word of their plans to me and for all I know they could have travelled on anywhere. Americky’s a vast land my friend and I’ll warrant that your message will not find them unless they try to find you in this country.”
Henchard thanked the sailor and made his way down the steamer’s gangplank. He turned his back on the docks and dawdled along the headland. The rain had not abated and it buffeted and speared Henchard as he slowly made his way to the seawall.
Henchard mounted the grey granite edifice and gazed out across the ocean. The horizon was obscured and sea and sky were as one. He stared out at this blank and turbulent sheet. His wife and child were lost to him forever, striking out in the new world. He gazed at the grey wall of despair and cursed Susan’s simpleness. How could she be so stupid and go with that man as if she were his wife? He cursed again Susan’s stupidity which had robbed him of his daughter. Henchard shrieked: “Elizabeth-Jane” at the top of his lungs before slumping down on the seawall with his legs stretched over the edge and his eyes downward:
“One push and t’will all be over.” he said out loud. The waves would dash me against the unforgiving hardness of the wall and bring this despair to an end.
Henchard remained on the wall thinking such thoughts for he knew not how long. Darkness had begun to fall before he stirred and his rain-drenched limbs were slow to respond to his call to action. By an unintentionally circuitous route he reached his lodging, which was by now a scene of bawdy animation, the landlady and her fallen nymphs abandoning themselves to the pleasures of corruption. Henchard took himself directly to his room.
Once in the safety of his room Henchard undressed. His sodden clothing was stuck fast to his skin and it required all of Henchard’s faltering strength to remove it. He slumped upon the bed and wrapped himself in the flimsy sheets in a vain effort to gain warmth. Sleep of a sort came quickly but warmth did not. Henchard shivered as he lay and slept only fitfully. When heat finally reached his body, it came in the form of a fever.
The next morning Henchard had barely the strength to answer the landlady’s knock. Upon entering, the landlady quickly took stock of the situation and reasoning that there was money to be made for caring for the sick, she raised one of her employees and set her to watching at the invalid’s bedside.
The landlady herself equipped the girl with a supply of towels and hot water with which to minister to her patient’s needs. Broth was prepared and although Henchard could take but a sip of it an appropriate albeit hefty adjustment was made to his account.