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In Thomas Hardy's "A Trampwoman's Tragedy," a woman travels with her lover, Mother Lee and "jeering John." Based on the title, it seems these are people that travel from town to town, looking for handouts: food, shelter, etc. The speaker lists many places they see, traveling past places they have passed before:
We beat afoot the northward way
We had travelled times before.
It's easy to assume that the people who own these taverns know them. Some may be generous, but we get the sense that most are not. The trip is long: they cross water "unhelped by bridge" and are "stung by every Marshwood midge" (bug).
The speaker notes that her lover, "my fancy man," and she loved "lone inns...where folks might sit unseen." With little or no money, inns of higher repute would chase the poor, nonpaying guests out, but it sounds as if some would allow them to rest in the quiet shadows.
Then one day, the speaker plays a deadly game of teasing her lover by flirting with "jeering John"—simply out of boredom. She cuddles close to John and ignores her sweetheart, despite his dark looks:
I teased my fancy man in play
And wanton idleness.
I walked alongside jeering John,
I laid his hand my waist upon;
I would not bend my glances on
My lover's dark distress.
They finally find a place where "at last we won." I take this to mean that they begged for a meal and were fed, at the well-known ("far-famed) Poldon top. Our narrator is delighted, doubting if there was any nicer place "Within this royal realm."
They enter and sit, all four of them. Still flirting, the speaker sits with "jeering John," even on his knee, while her "fancy man" ends up in the company of Mother Lee. "Jeering John" may well be called this because he gloats, and there can be little doubt that he lets all know that he has won the prize: the woman. We can assume that the speaker really loves her "fancy man" because she refers to him as "My only love" when he calls her out—he asks (in a voice she has never heard before—this is foreshadowing) whose child she is carrying: his or John's, even though he has taken care of her for months. Not aware of the jealous rage she has stirred in the man she loves, she continues to tease him, and indicates that John is the father, effectively telling her "fancy man" that he has been cuckolded.
Suddenly he gets up and with the flash of a knife, kills John; the woman and Mother Lee are stunned: "...Ere scarcely Mother Lee and I / Knew that the deed was done." And so her "sweetheart" was arrested and hanged:
The taverns tell the gloomy tale,
The gloomy tale,
How that at Ivel-Chester jail
My love, my sweetheart swung...
...though he had only one stolen a horse—and only because he needed it. The day her "fancy man" dies, she goes into labor, giving birth to a stillborn child—near the jail and under the cover of a tree—alone...for Mother Lee died at Glaston. And as she lay there on the ground, "the ghost of him I'd die to kiss / Rose up..." He asks if the child was his, saying that to know this, he can rest in peace.
The speaker admits that she never broke the vow they had sworn to each other over a kiss. With that, he disappears. However, it seems that she dies also...
...And here alone I stray
Haunting the Western Moor.
The tragedy destroys all the characters: lost because the speaker is thoughtless and selfish of the feelings of her lover. Jealousy is a powerful emotion!
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