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The Fading Year
by [?]

Even in this distressed England of ours there are still districts where the simple reapers regard the harvest labour as a frolic; the dulness of their still lives is relieved by a burst of genuine but coarse merriment, and their abandoned glee is not unpleasant to look upon. Then come the harvest suppers–noble spectacles. The steady champ of resolute jaws sounds in a rhythm which is almost majestic; the fearsome destruction wrought on solid joints would rouse the helpless envy of the dyspeptics of Pall Mall, and the playful consumption of ale–no small beer, but golden Rodney–might draw forth an ode from a teetotal Chancellor of the Exchequer. August winds up in a blaze of gladness for the reaper. On ordinary evenings he sits stolidly in the dingy parlour and consumes mysterious malt liquor to an accompaniment of grumbling and solemn puffing of acrid tobacco, but the harvest supper is a wildly luxurious affair which lasts until eleven o’clock. Are there not songs too? The village tenor explains–with a powerful accent–that he only desires Providence to let him like a soldier fall. Of course he breaks down, but there is no adverse criticism. Friendly hearers say, “Do yowe try back, Willum, and catch that up at start agin;” and Willum does try back in the most excruciating manner. Then the elders compare the artist with singers of bygone days, and a grunting chorus of stories goes on. Then comes the inevitable poaching song. Probably the singer has been in prison a dozen times over, but he is regarded as a moral and law-abiding character by his peers; and even his wife, who suffered during his occasional periods of seclusion, smiles as he drones out the jolting chorus. When the sportsman reaches the climax and tells how–

We slung her on our shoulders,
And went across the down;
We took her to a neighbour’s house,
And sold her for a crown.

We sold her for a crown, my boys,
But I ‘on’t tell ye wheer,
For ’tis my delight of a shiny night
In the season of the year

–then the gentlemen who have sold many a hare in their time exchange rapturous winks, and even a head-keeper might be softened by the prevailing enthusiasm. Hodge is a hunter by nature, and you can no more restrain him from poaching than you can restrain a fox. The most popular man in the whole company is the much-incarcerated poacher, and no disguise whatever is made of the fact. A theft of a twopenny cabbage from a neighbour would set a mark against a man for life; a mean action performed when the hob-nailed company gather in the tap-room would be remembered for years; but a sportsman who blackens his face and creeps out at night to net the squire’s birds is considered to be a hero, and an honest man to boot. He mentions his convictions gaily, criticises the officials of each gaol that he has visited in the capacity of prisoner, and rouses roars of sympathetic laughter as he tells of his sufferings on the tread-mill. No man or woman thinks of the facts that the squire’s pheasants cost about a guinea apiece to rear, that a hare is worth about three-and-sixpence, that a brace of partridges brings two shillings even from the cunning receiver who buys the poachers’ plunder. No; they joyously think of the fact that the keepers are diddled, and that satisfies them.

Alas, the glad and sad times alike must die, and the dull prose of October follows hard on the wild jollity of the harvest supper, while Winter peers with haggard gaze over Autumn’s shoulder! The hoarse winds blow now, and the tender flush of decay has begun to touch the leaves with delicate tints. In the morning the gossamer floats in the glittering air and winds ropes of pearls among the stubble; the level rays shoot over a splendid land, and the cold light is thrillingly sweet. But the evenings are chill, and the hollow winds moan, crying, “Summer is dead, and we are the vanguard of Winter. Soon the wild army will be upon you. Steal the sunshine while you may.”