[Greek: ou men gar tou ge kreisson kai areion, ae hoth homophroneonte noaemasin oikon echaeton anaer aede gunae.]
Round the skirts of the plantation, and half-way down the hill, there runs a thick fringe of wild cherry-trees. Their white blossom makes, for three weeks in the year, a pretty contrast with the larches and Scotch firs that serrate the long ridge above; and close under their branches runs the line of oak rails that marks off the plantation from the meadow.
A labouring man came deliberately round the slope, as if following this line of rails. As a matter of fact, he was treading the little-used footpath that here runs close alongside the fence for fifty yards before diverging down-hill towards the village. So narrow is this path that the man’s boots were powdered to a rich gold by the buttercups they had brushed aside.
By-and-bye he came to a standstill, looked over the fence, and listened. Up among the larches a faint chopping sound could just be heard, irregular but persistent. The man put a hand to his mouth, and hailed–
“Hi-i-i! Knock off! Stable clock’s gone noo-oon!”
Came back no answer. But the chopping ceased at once; and this apparently satisfied the man, who leaned against the rail and waited, chewing a spear of brome-grass, and staring steadily, but incuriously, at his boots. Two minutes passed without stir or sound in this corner of the land. The human figure was motionless. The birds in the plantation were taking their noonday siesta. A brown butterfly rested, with spread wings, on the rail–so quietly, he might have been pinned there.
A cracked voice was suddenly lifted a dozen yards off, and within the plantation–
“Such a man as I be to work! Never heard a note o’ that blessed clock, if you’ll believe me. Ab-sorbed, I s’pose.”
A thin withered man in a smock-frock emerged from among the cherry-trees with a bill-hook in his hand, and stooped to pass under the rail.
“Ewgh! The pains I suffer in that old back of mine you’ll never believe, my son, not till the appointed time when you come to suffer ’em yoursel’. Well-a-well! Says I just now, up among the larches, ‘Heigh, my sonny-boys, I can crow over you, anyways; for I was a man grown when Squire planted ye; and here I be, a lusty gaffer, markin’ ye down for destruction.’ But hullo! where’s the dinner?”
“There bain’t none.”
“There bain’t none.”
“How’s that? Damme! William Henry, dinner’s dinner, an’ don’t you joke about it. Once you begin to make fun o’ sacred things like meals and vittles–“
“And don’t you flare up like that, at your time o’ life. We’re fashionists to-day: dining out. ‘Quarter after nine this morning I was passing by the Green wi’ the straw-cart, when old Jan Trueman calls after me, ‘Have ‘ee heard the news?” What news?’ says I. ‘Why,’ says he, ‘me an’ my missus be going into the House this afternoon–can’t manage to pull along by ourselves any more,’ he says; ‘an’ we wants you an’ your father to drop in soon after noon an’ take a bite wi’ us, for old times’ sake. ‘Tis our last taste o’ free life, and we’m going to do the thing fittywise,’ he says.”
The old man bent a meditative look on the village roofs below.
“We’ll pleasure ‘en, of course,” he said slowly. “So ’tis come round to Jan’s turn? But a’ was born in the year of Waterloo victory, ten year’ afore me, so I s’pose he’ve kept his doom off longer than most.”
The two set off down the footpath. There is a stile at the foot of the meadow, and as he climbed it painfully, the old man spoke again.
“And his doorway, I reckon, ‘ll be locked for a little while, an’ then opened by strangers; an’ his nimble youth be forgot like a flower o’ the field; an’ fare thee well, Jan Trueman! Maria, too–I can mind her well as a nursing mother–a comely woman in her day. I’d no notion they’d got this in their mind.”