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PAGE 3

The Cobweb
by [?]

“I’m afraid old Martha is dying,” said Emma. Jim was not the sort of person to whom one had to break news gently.

“Nonsense,” he said; “Martha means to live to a hundred. She told me so, and she’ll do it.”

“She may be actually dying at this moment, or it may just be the beginning of the break-up,” persisted Emma, with a feeling of contempt for the slowness and dulness of the young man.

A grin spread over his good-natured features.

“It don’t look like it,” he said, nodding towards the yard. Emma turned to catch the meaning of his remark. Old Martha stood in the middle of a mob of poultry scattering handfuls of grain around her. The turkey-cock, with the bronzed sheen of his feathers and the purple-red of his wattles, the gamecock, with the glowing metallic lustre of his Eastern plumage, the hens, with their ochres and buffs and umbers and their scarlet combs, and the drakes, with their bottle-green heads, made a medley of rich colour, in the centre of which the old woman looked like a withered stalk standing amid a riotous growth of gaily-hued flowers. But she threw the grain deftly amid the wilderness of beaks, and her quavering voice carried as far as the two people who were watching her. She was still harping on the theme of death coming to the farm.

“I knew ’twere a-coming. There’s been signs an’ warnings.”

“Who’s dead, then, old Mother?” called out the young man.

“‘Tis young Mister Ladbruk,” she shrilled back; “they’ve just a-carried his body in. Run out of the way of a tree that was coming down an’ ran hisself on to an iron post. Dead when they picked un up. Aye, I knew ’twere coming.”

And she turned to fling a handful of barley at a belated group of guinea-fowl that came racing toward her.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The farm was a family property, and passed to the rabbit-shooting cousin as the next-of-kin. Emma Ladbruk drifted out of its history as a bee that had wandered in at an open window might flit its way out again. On a cold grey morning she stood waiting, with her boxes already stowed in the farm cart, till the last of the market produce should be ready, for the train she was to catch was of less importance than the chickens and butter and eggs that were to be offered for sale. From where she stood she could see an angle of the long latticed window that was to have been cosy with curtains and gay with bowls of flowers. Into her mind came the thought that for months, perhaps for years, long after she had been utterly forgotten, a white, unheeding face would be seen peering out through those latticed panes, and a weak muttering voice would be heard quavering up and down those flagged passages. She made her way to a narrow barred casement that opened into the farm larder. Old Martha was standing at a table trussing a pair of chickens for the market stall as she had trussed them for nearly fourscore years.