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The Flat-Iron Lot
by [?]

The fields were turning brown, and in the dusty gray of the roadside, closed gentians gloomed, and the aster burned like a purple star. It was the finest autumn for many years. People said, with every clear day, “Now this must be a weather-breeder;” but still the storm delayed. Then they anxiously scanned the heavens, as if, weeks beforehand, the signs of the time might be written there; for this was the fall of all others when wind and sky should be kind to Tiverton. She was going to celebrate her two hundred and fiftieth anniversary, and she was big with the importance of it.

On a still afternoon, over three weeks before that happy day, a slender old man walked erectly along the country road. He carried a cane over his shoulder, and, slung upon it, a small black leather bag, bearing the words, painted in careful letters, “Clocks repaired by N. Oldfield.” As he went on, he cast a glance, now and then, to either side, from challenging blue eyes, strong yet in the indomitable quality of youth. He knew every varying step of the road, and could have numbered, from memory, the trees and bushes that fringed its length; and now, after a week’s absence, he swept the landscape with the air of a manorial lord, to see what changes might have slipped in unawares. At one point, a flat triangular stone had been tilted up on edge, and an unpracticed hand had scrawled on it, in chalk, “4 M to Sudleigh.” The old man stopped, took the bag from his shoulder, and laid it tenderly on a stone of the wall. Then, with straining hands, he pulled the rock down into the worn spot where it had lain, and gave a sigh of relief when it settled into its accustomed place, and the tall grass received it tremulously. Now he opened his bag, took from it a cloth, carefully folded, and rubbed the rock until those defiling chalk marks were partially effaced.

“Little varmints!” he said, apostrophizing the absent school children who had wrought the deed. “Can’t they let nothin’ alone?” He took up his bag, and went on.

Nicholas Oldfield, as he walked the road that day, was a familiar figure to all the county round. He had a smooth, carefully shaven face, with a fine outline of nose and chin, and his straight gray hair shone from faithful brushing. He was almost aggressively clean. Even his blue eyes had the appearance of having just been washed, like a spring day after a shower. It was a frequent remark that he looked as if he had come out of a bandbox; and one critic even went so far as to assert that on Sundays he sandpapered his eyes and gave a little extra polish to his bones. But these were calumnies; though to-day his suit of home-made blue was quite speckless, and the checked gingham neckerchief, which made his ordinary wear, still kept its stiff, starched creases.

“Dirt don’t stick to you, Mr. Oldfield,” once said a seeking widow. “Your washing can’t be much. I guess anybody’d be glad to undertake it for you.” Mr. Oldfield nodded gravely, as one receiving the tribute which was justly his, and continued to do his washing himself.

As he walked the dusty road, bearing his little bag, so he had walked it for years, sometimes within a few miles of home, and again at the extreme limit of the county edge. The clocks of the region were all his clients, some regarded with compassion (“ramshackle things” that needed perpetual tinkering) and others with a holy awe. “The only thing Nicholas Oldfield bows the knee before is a double-back-action clock a thousand years old,” said Brad Freeman, the regardless. “That’s how he reads Ancient of Days.” The justice of the remark was acknowledged, though, as touching Mr. Oldfield, it was felt to be striking rather too keenly at the root of things. For Nicholas Oldfield was looked upon with a respect not so much inspired by his outward circumstances as by his method of taking them. There are, indeed, ways and ways among us who serve the public. When Tom O’Neil went round peddling essences, children saw him from afar, ran to meet him, and, falling on his pack, besought him for “two-three-drops-o’-c’logne” with such fervor that the mothers had to haul them off by main force, in order themselves to approach his redolence; but when the clock-mender appeared, with his little bag, propriety walked before him, and the naughtiest scion of the flock would come soberly in, to announce:–