It is during a stormy evening in March, in the third decade of the ‘700 that Thomas Hardy’s The Three Strangers begins. An English clergyman and his family are gathered together with some friends in their cottage, Higher Crowstairs, to celebrate the baptism of one of their daughters. During the evening three strangers knock on the door asking for shelter and they will eventually join the party, creating havoc and misunderstanding that will be resolved only at the end of the story.
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The Three Strangers by Thomas Hardy
In the south-west of England there are many long, low, grassy hills, which have not changed their appearance for centuries. Farmers still keep their sheep on them, and the only buildings are lonely cottages, where shepherds live.
Fifty years ago there was a shepherd’s cottage on one of these hills. It was only three miles from the market town of Casterbridge, but it was unusual for travellers to pass this way. There was no road, just two footpaths which crossed in front of the cottage door. During the long winters, snow and rain fell heavily here, which made travelling difficult.
The night of March 28th, 1825, was one of the coldest and wettest that winter, but inside the cottage all was warm and cheerful. Shepherd Fennel had invited family and friends to drink to the health of his youngest child, a recent arrival in the family. Nineteen people were at the party: married women and single girls, shepherds and farm workers, young people talking of love, and old friends talking of the past.
Shepherd Fennel had chosen his wife well. She was a farmer’s daughter from one of the valleys, and when she married, she brought fifty pounds with her in her pocket and kept it there, for the needs of a coming family. She did not like to spend money unnecessarily, and had worried about the kind of party to give that evening. ‘At a sit-still party,’ she thought, ‘the men’ll get too comfortable and drink the house dry. But at a dancing-party people get hungry and then they’ll eat all our food! We’ll have both sitting and dancing – that’s the best way.’ And secretly she told the fiddler to play for no more than fifteen minutes at a time.
But when the dancing began, nobody wanted to stop. The fiddler refused to catch Mrs Fennel’s eye, and played on. The music got louder and louder, and the excited dancers stepped faster and faster. Mrs Fennel could do nothing about it, so she sat helplessly in a corner, as the minutes became an hour.
While this was happening indoors, outside in the heavy rain and darkness a figure was climbing up the hill from Casterbridge. It was a tall, thin man, about forty years old, dressed all in black and wearing thick, heavy boots.
When he reached the shepherd’s cottage, the rain came down harder than ever. The man left the footpath and went up to the door. He listened carefully, but the music inside had now stopped, and the man seemed unsure what to do…