ON a cold April afternoon a higgler was driving across Shag Moor in a two-wheeled cart.
Dealer in Poultry
was painted on the hood; the horse was of mean appearance but notorious ancestry. A high upland common was this moor, two miles from end to end, and full of furze and bracken. There were no trees and not a house, nothing but a line of telegraph poles following the road, sweeping with rigidity from north to south; nailed upon one of them a small scarlet notice to stone throwers was prominent as a wound. On so high and wide a region as Shag Moor the wind always blew, or if it did not quite blow there was a cool activity in the air. The furze was always green and growing, and taking no account of seasons, often golden. Here in summer solitude lounged and snoozed; at other times, as now, it shivered and looked sinister.
Higglers in general are ugly and shrewd, old and hard, crafty and callous, but Harvey Witlow though shrewd was not ugly; he was hard but not old, crafty but not at all unkind. If you had eggs to sell he would buy them, by the score he would, or by the long hundred. Other odds and ends he would buy or do, paying good bright silver, bartering a bag of apples, carrying your little pig to market, or fetching a tree from the nurseries. But the season was backward, eggs were scarce, trade was bad—by crumps, it was indeed!—and as he crossed the moor Harvey could not help discussing the situation with himself.
“If things don’t change, and change for the better, and change soon, I can’t last and I can’t endure it; I’ll be damned and done, and the quicker I’ll have to sell,” he said, prodding the animal with the butt of his whip “this cob. And” he said, as if in afterthought, prodding the footboard “this cart, and go back to the land. And I’ll have lost my fifty pounds. Well that’s what war does for you. It does it for you, sir,” he announced sharply to the vacant moor, “and it does it for me. Fifty pounds! I was better off in the war. I was better off working for farmers; much; but it’s no good chattering about it, it’s the trick of life; when you get so far then you can go and order your funeral. Get along, Dodger!”
The horse responded briskly for a few moments.
“I tell ye,” said Harvey adjuring the ambient air, “you can go and order your funeral. Get along, Dodger!”
Again Dodger got along.
“Then there’s Sophy, what about Sophy and me?”
He was not engaged to Sophy Daws, not exactly, but he was keeping company with her. He was not pledged or affianced, he was just keeping company with her. But Sophy, as he knew, not only desired a marriage with Mr. Witlow, she expected it, and expected it soon. So did her parents, her friends and everybody in the village, including the postman who didn’t live in it but wished he did, and the parson who did live in it but wished he didn’t.
“Well, that’s damned and done, fair damned and done now, unless things take a turn, and soon, so it’s no good chattering about it.”
And just then and there things did take a turn. He had never been across the moor before; he was prospecting for trade. At the end of Shag Moor he saw standing back in the common, fifty yards from the road, a neat square house set in a little farm. Twenty acres, perhaps. The house was girded by some white palings; beside it was a snug orchard in a hedge covered with blackthorn bloom. It was very green and pleasant in front of the house. The turf was cleared and closely cropped, some ewes were grazing and under the blackthorn, out of the wind, lay half a dozen lambs, but what chiefly moved the imagination of Harvey Witlow was a field on the far side of the house. It had a small rickyard with a few small stacks in it; everything here seemed on the small scale, but snug, very snug; and in that field and yard were hundreds of fowls, hundreds, of good breed, and mostly white. Leaving his horse to sniff the greensward, the higgler entered a white wicket gateway and passed to the back of the house, noting as he did so a yellow waggon inscribed Elizabeth Sadgrove, Prattle Corner.