Chapter 17The dairymaids and men had flocked down from their cottages and out of the dairy-house with the arrival of the cows from the meads; the maids walking in pattens, not on account of the weather, but to keep their shoes above the mulch of the barton. Each girl sat down on her three-legged stool, her face sideways, her right cheek resting against the cow; and looked musingly along the animal's flank at Tess as she approached. The male milkers, with hat-brims turned down, resting flat on their foreheads and gazing on the ground, did not observe her.
One of these was a sturdy middle-aged man - whose long white `pinner' was somewhat finer and cleaner than the wraps of the others, and whose jacket underneath had a presentable marketing aspect - the master-dairyman, of whom she was in quest, his double character as a working milker and butter-maker here during six days, and on the seventh as a man in shining broadcloth in his family pew at church, being so marked as to have inspired a rhyme--
Seeing Tess standing at gaze he went across to her.
The majority of dairymen have a cross manner at milking-time, but it happened that Mr Crick was glad to get a new hand - for the days were busy ones now - and he received her warmly; inquiring for her mother and the rest of the family - (though this as a matter of form merely, for in reality he had not been aware of Mrs Durbeyfield's existence till apprised of the fact by a brief business letter about Tess).
`Oh - ay, as a lad I knowed your part o' the country very well,' he said terminatively. `Though I've never been there since. And a aged woman of ninety that used to live nigh here, but is dead and gone long ago, told me that a family of some such name as yours in Blackmoor Vale came originally from these parts, and that 'twere a old ancient race that had all but perished off the earth - though the new generations didn't know it. But, Lord, I took no notice of the old woman's ramblings, not I.'
`Oh no - it is nothing,' said Tess.
Then the talk was of business only.
`You can milk 'em clean, my maidy? I don't want my cows going azew at this time o' year.'
She reassured him on that point, and he surveyed her up and down. She had been staying indoors a good deal, and her complexion had grown delicate.
`Quite sure you can stand it? 'Tis comfortable enough here for rough folk; but we don't live in a cowcumber frame.'
She declared that she could stand it, and her zest and willingness seemed to win him over.
`Well, I suppose you'll want a dish o' tay, or victuals of some sort, hey? Not yet? Well, do as ye like about it. But faith, if 'twas I, I should be as dry as a kex wi' travelling so far.'
`I'll begin milking now, to get my hand in,' said Tess.
She drank a little milk as temporary refreshment - to the surprise - indeed, slight contempt - of Dairyman Crick, to whose mind it had apparently never occurred that milk was good as a beverage.
`Oh, if ye can swaller that, be it so,' he said indifferently, while one held up the pall that she sipped from. `'Tis what I hain't touched for years - not I. Rot the stuff; it would lie in my innerds like lead. You can try your hand upon she,' he pursued, nodding to the nearest cow. `Not but what she do milk rather hard. We've hard ones and we've easy ones, like other folks. However, you'll find out that soon enough.'
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