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A Strange Gathering
by [?]

I was walking one summer day in the pleasant hilly country near my home. There is a road which I often traverse, partly because it is a very lonely one, partly because it leads out on a high brow or shoulder of the uplands, and commands a wide view of the plain. Moreover, the road is so deeply sunken between steep banks, overgrown with hazels, that one is hardly aware how much one climbs, and the wide clear view at the top always breaks upon the eye with a certain shock of agreeable surprise. A little before the top of the hill a road turns off, leading into a long disused quarry, surrounded by miniature cliffs, full of grassy mounds and broken ground, overgrown with thickets and floored with rough turf. It is a very enchanting place in spring, and indeed at all times of the year; many flowers grow there, and the birds sing securely among the bushes. I have always imagined that the Red Deeps, in The Mill on the Floss, was just such a place, and the scenes described as taking place there have always enacted themselves for me in the quarry. I have always had a fancy too that if there are any fairies hereabouts, which I very much doubt, for I fear that the new villas which begin to be sprinkled about the countryside have scared them all away, they would be found here. I visited the place one moonlight night, and I am sure that the whole dingle was full of a bright alert life which mocked my clumsy eyes and ears. If I could have stolen upon the place unawares, I felt that I might have seen strange businesses go forward, and tiny revels held.

That afternoon, as I drew near, I was displeased to see that my little retreat was being profaned by company. Some brakes were drawn up in the road, and I heard loud voices raised in untuneful mirth. As I came nearer I was much bewildered to divine who the visitors were. They seemed on the point of departing; two of the brakes were full, and into another some men were clambering. As I came close to them I was still more puzzled. The majority of the party were dressed all alike, in rough brown clothes, with soft black felt hats; but in each of the brakes that were tenanted sat a man as well, with a braided cap, in a sort of uniform. Most of the other men were old or elderly; some had white beards or whiskers, almost all were grizzled. They were talking, too, in an odd, inconsequent, chirping kind of way, not listening to each other; and moreover they were strangely adorned. Some had their hats stuck full of flowers, others were wreathed with leaves. A few had chains of daisies round their necks. They seemed as merry and as obedient as children. Inside the gate, in the centre of the quarry, was a still stranger scene. Here was a ring of elderly and aged men, their hats wreathed with garlands, hand-in-hand, executing a slow and solemn dance in a circle. One, who seemed the moving spirit, a small wiry man with a fresh-coloured face and a long chin-beard, was leaping high in the air, singing some rustic song, and dragging his less active companions round and round. The others all entered into the spirit of the dance. One very old and feeble man, with a smile on his face, was executing little clumsy hops, deeply intent on the performance. A few others stood round admiring the sport; a little apart was a tall grave man, talking loudly to himself, with flowers stuck all over him, who was spinning round and round in an ecstasy of delight. Becoming giddy, he took a few rapid steps to the left, but fell to the ground, where he lay laughing softly, and moving his hands in the air. Presently one of the officials said a word to the leader of the dance; the ring broke up, and the performers scattered, gathering up little bundles of leaves and flowers that lay all about in some confusion, and then trooping out to the brakes. The quarry was deserted. Several of the group waved their hands to me, uttering unintelligible words, and holding out flowers.