In the beginning of the churning process the movement of the dasher is slow, so that the cream may be thoroughly mixed. Then it goes more rapidly for a time, till, just as the arms grow weary, the butter begins to “come,” when the speed slackens to the end, the entire process occupying thirty or forty minutes. The butter collects in yellow lumps, which are at length taken from the churn, washed and kneaded to press out the buttermilk, and then moulded into pats. The pleasure of the finishing touches makes up for the fatiguing monotony of the churning. George Eliot, in the novel of “Adam Bede,” gives a charming description of Hetty Sorrel’s butter-making, with all the pretty attitudes and movements of patting and rolling the sweet-scented butter into moulds.
We can hardly tell, from the attitude of the woman in our picture, how far her work has progressed, but her expression of satisfaction seems to show that the butter is “coming” well. The work of butter-making varies curiously at different times. Sometimes the butter comes quickly and easily, and again, only after long and laborious delays. There seems, indeed, no rule about the process; it appears to be all a matter of “luck.” Country people have always been very superstitious in regard to it; and not understanding the true reasons for a successful or an unsuccessful churning, they attribute any remarkable effects to supernatural agencies.
In the old days of witchcraft superstitions, they used to think that when the cream did not readily turn to butter, the churn had been tampered with by some witch, like Mabel Martin’s mother in Whittier’s poem. Witches were sometimes supposed to work a baleful charm on the milk by putting under the doorsill some magical object, such as a picture of a toad or a lizard.
[Illustration: From a carbon print by Braun, Clement & Co. John Andrew & Son, Sc. THE WOMAN CHURNING]
In Scotland, when churning was easy it was because of the secret help of the “brownie.” He was a tiny, elf-like creature who lived in the barn and was never seen of men; but his presence was made known by his many deeds of helpfulness in kitchen and dairy, for which he was rewarded by a daily bowl of milk. Those who have read George MacDonald’s story of Sir Gibbie remember how the little waif from the city was mistaken for a brownie because he secretly helped in the churning.
In France a pious class of peasants pray to St. Blaise for a blessing on their various farm occupations, including the dairy work. A hymn written to the saint contains this petition:—
“In our dairies, curds and cream
And fair cheeses may we see:
Great St. Blaise, oh, grant our plea."
Some such prayer as this may be running through the mind of the woman in our picture. She has the earnest and simple character which belongs to the Norman peasant. Hers is a kindly nature, too, and the cat rubs familiarly against her as if sure of a friend who has often set a saucer of milk in his way. With sleeves rolled up and skirts tucked about her, she attacks her work in a strong, capable way which shows that it is a pleasure. The light comes from some high window at the left, and, gleaming on her arms, shows how firm and hard the flesh is.