by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
[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
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
"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
A cracked voice was suddenly lifted a dozen yards off, and within the
"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
"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
"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."
"Far as I can gather, they've been minded that way ever since their
daughter Jane died, last fall."
From the stile where they stood they could look down into the village
street. And old Jan Trueman was plain to see, in clean linen and his
Sunday suit, standing in the doorway and welcoming his guests.
"Come ye in—come ye in, good friends," he called, as they approached.
"There's cold bekkon, an' cold sheep's liver, an' Dutch cheese,
besides bread, an' a thimble-full o' gin-an'-water for every soul
among ye, to make it a day of note in the parish."
He looked back over his shoulder into the kitchen. A dozen men and
women, all elderly, were already gathered there. They had brought
their own chairs. Jan's wife wore her bonnet and shawl, ready to start
at a moment's notice. Her luggage in a blue handkerchief lay on the
table. As she moved about and supplied her guests, her old lips
twitched nervously; but when she spoke it was with no unusual tremor
of the voice.
"I wish, friends, I could ha' cooked ye a little something hot; but
there'd be no time for the washing-up, an' I've ordained to leave the
One of the old women answered—
"There's nought to be pardoned, I'm sure. Never do I mind such a gay
set-off for the journey. For the gin-an'-water is a little addition
beyond experience. The vittles, no doubt, you begged up at the
Vicarage, sayin' you'd been a peck o' trouble to the family, but this
was going to be the last time."
"I did, I did," assented Mr. Trueman.
"But the gin-an'-water—how on airth you contrived it is a riddle!"
The old man rubbed his hands together and looked around with genuine
"There was old Miss Scantlebury," said another guest, a smock-frocked
gaffer of seventy, with a grizzled shock of hair. "You remember Miss
"O' course, o' course."
"Well, she did it better 'n anybody I've heard tell of. When she fell
into redooced circumstances she sold the eight-day clock that was the
only thing o' value she had left. Brown o' Tregarrick made it, with
a very curious brass dial, whereon he carved a full-rigged ship that
rocked like a cradle, an' went down stern foremost when the hour
struck. 'Twas worth walking a mile to see. Brown's grandson bought
it off Miss Scantlebury for two guineas, he being proud of his
grandfather's skill; an' the old lady drove into Tregarrick Work'us
behind a pair o' greys wi' the proceeds. Over and above the carriage
hire, she'd enough left to adorn the horse wi' white favours an' give
the rider a crown, large as my lord. Aye, an' at the Work'us door she
said to the fellow, said she, 'All my life I've longed to ride in a
bridal chariot; an' though my only lover died of a decline when I was
scarce twenty-two, I've done it at last,' said she; 'an' now heaven
an' airth can't undo it!'"
A heavy silence followed this anecdote, and then one or two of the
women vented small disapproving coughs. The reason was the speaker's
loud mention of the Workhouse. A week, a day, a few-hours before, its
name might have been spoken in Mr. and Mrs. Trueman's presence. But
now they had entered its shadow; they were "going"—whether to the dim
vale of Avilion, or with chariot and horses of fire to heaven, let
nobody too curiously ask. If Mr. and Mrs. Trueman chose to speak
definitely, it was another matter.
Old Jan bore no malice, however, but answered, "That beats me, I own.
Yet we shall drive, though it be upon two wheels an' behind a single
horse. For Farmer Lear's driving into Tregarrick in an hour's time,
an' he've a-promised us a lift."
"But about that gin-an'-water? For real gin-an'-water it is, to sight
"Well, friends, I'll tell ye: for the trick may serve one of ye in the
days when you come to follow me, tho' the new relieving officer may
have learnt wisdom before then. You must know we've been considering
of this step for some while, but hearing that old Jacobs was going to
retire soon, I says to Maria, 'We'll bide till the new officer comes,
and if he's a green hand, we'll diddle 'en.' Day before yesterday,' as
you, was his first round at the work; so I goes up an' draws out my
ha'af-crown same as usual, an' walks straight off for the Four Lords
for a ha'af-crown's worth o' gin. Then back I goes, an' demands
an admission order for me an' the missus. 'Why, where's your
ha'af-crown?' says he. 'Gone in drink,' says I. 'Old man,' says he,
'you'm a scandal, an' the sooner you're put out o' the way o' drink,
the better for you an' your poor wife.' 'Right you are,' I says; an' I
got my order. But there, I'm wasting time; for to be sure you've most
of ye got kith and kin in the place where we'm going, and 'll be
wanting to send 'em a word by us."
* * * * *
It was less than an hour before Farmer Lear pulled up to the door in
his red-wheeled spring-cart.
"Now, friends," said Mrs. Trueman, as her ears caught the rattle of
the wheels, "I must trouble ye to step outside while I tidy up the
The women offered their help, but she declined it. Alone she put the
small kitchen to rights, while they waited outside around the door.
Then she stepped out with her bundle, locked the door after her, and
slipped the key under an old flower-pot on the window ledge. Her eyes
"Come along, Jan."
There was a brief hand-shaking, and the paupers climbed up beside
"I've made a sort o' little plan in my head," said old Jan at parting,
"of the order in which I shall see ye again, one by one. 'Twill be a
great amusement to me, friends, to see how the fact fits in wi' my
The guests raised three feeble cheers as the cart drove away, and hung
about for several minutes after it had passed out of sight, gazing
along the road as wistfully as more prosperous men look in through
churchyard gates at the acres where their kinsfolk lie buried.
The first building passed by the westerly road as it descends into
Tregarrick is a sombre pile of some eminence, having a gateway and
lodge before it, and a high encircling wall. The sun lay warm on its
long roof, and the slates flashed gaily there, as Farmer Lear came
over the knap of the hill and looked down on it. He withdrew his eyes
nervously to glance at the old couple beside him. At the same moment
he reined up his dun-coloured mare.
"I reckoned," he said timidly, "I reckoned you'd be for stopping
hereabouts an' getting down. You'd think it more seemly—that's what I
reckoned: an' 'tis down-hill now all the way."
For ten seconds and more neither the man nor the woman gave a sign of
having heard him. The spring-cart's oscillatory motion seemed to have
entered into their spinal joints; and now that they had come to
a halt, their heads continued to wag forward and back as they
contemplated the haze of smoke spread, like a blue scarf over the
town, and the one long slate roof that rose from it as if to meet
them. At length the old woman spoke, and with some viciousness, though
her face remained as blank as the Workhouse door.
"The next time I go back up this hill, if ever I do, I'll be carried
up feet first."
"Maria," said her husband, feebly reproachful, "you tempt the Lord,
that you do."
"Thank 'ee, Farmer Lear," she went on, paying no heed; "you shall
help us down, if you've a mind to, an' drive on. We'll make shift to
trickly 'way down so far as the gate; for I'd be main vexed if anybody
that had known me in life should see us creep in. Come along, Jan."
Farmer Lear alighted, and helped them out carefully. He was a clumsy
man, but did his best to handle them gently. When they were set on
their feet, side by side on the high road, he climbed back, and fell
to arranging the reins, while he cast about for something to say.
"Well, folks, I s'pose I must be wishing 'ee good-bye." He meant
to speak cheerfully, but over-acted, and was hilarious instead.
Recognising this, he blushed.
"We'll meet in heaven, I daresay," the woman answered. "I put
the door-key, as you saw, under the empty geranium-pot 'pon the
window-ledge; an' whoever the new tenant's wife may be, she can eat
off the floor if she's minded. Now drive along, that's a good soul,
and leave us to fend for ourselves."
They watched him out of sight before either stirred. The last decisive
step, the step across the Workhouse threshold, must be taken with none
to witness. If they could not pass out of their small world by the
more reputable mode of dying, they would at least depart with this
amount of mystery. They had left the village in Farmer Lear's cart,
and Farmer Lear had left them in the high road; and after that,
nothing should be known.
"Shall we be moving on?" Jan asked at length. There was a gate beside
the road just there, with a small triangle of green before it, and
a granite roller half-buried in dock-leaves. Without answering, the
woman seated herself on this, and pulling a handful of the leaves,
dusted her shoes and skirt.
"Maria, you'll take a chill that'll carry you off, sitting 'pon that
"I don't care. 'Twon't carry me off afore I get inside, an' I'm going
in decent, or not at all. Come here, an' let me tittivate you."
He sat down beside her, and submitted to be dusted.
"You'd as lief lower me as not in their eyes, I verily believe."
"I always was one to gather dust."
"An' a fresh spot o' bacon-fat 'pon your weskit, that I've kept the
moths from since goodness knows when!"
Old Jan looked down over his waistcoat. It was of good
"West-of-England broadcloth, and he had worn it on the day when he
married the woman at his side.
"I'm thinking—" he began.
"I'm thinking I'll find it hard to make friends in—in there. 'Tis
such a pity, to my thinking, that by reggilations we'll be parted so
soon as we get inside. You've a-got so used to my little ways
an' corners, an' we've a-got so many little secrets together an'
old-fash'ned odds an' ends o' knowledge, that you can take my meaning
almost afore I start to speak. An' that's a great comfort to a man o'
my age. It'll be terrible hard, when I wants to talk, to begin at the
beginning every time. There's that old yarn o' mine about Hambly's cow
an' the lawn-mowing machine—I doubt that anybody 'll enjoy it so
much as you always do; an' I've so got out o' the way o' telling the
beginning—which bain't extra funny, though needful to a stranger's
understanding the whole joke—that I 'most forgets how it goes."
"We'll see one another now an' then, they tell me. The sexes meet for
Chris'mas-trees an' such-like."
"I'm jealous that 'twon't be the same. You can't hold your triflin'
confabs with a great Chris'mas-tree blazin' away in your face as
important as a town afire."
"Well, I'm going to start along," the old woman decided, getting on
her feet; "or else someone 'll be driving by and seeing us."
Jan, too, stood up.
"We may so well make our congees here," she went on, "as under the
An awkward silence fell between them for a minute, and these two old
creatures, who for more than fifty years had felt no constraint in
each other's presence, now looked into each other's eyes with a
fearful diffidence. Jan cleared his throat, much as if he had to make
a public speech.
"Maria," he began in an unnatural voice, "we're bound for to part, and
I can trewly swear, on leaving ye, that—"
"—that for two-score year and twelve It's never entered your head to
consider whether I've made 'ee a good wife or a bad. Kiss me, my old
man; for I tell 'ee I wouldn' ha' wished it other. An' thank 'ee for
trying to make that speech. What did it feel like?"
"Why, 't rather reminded me o' the time when I offered 'ee marriage."
"It reminded me o' that, too. Com'st along."
They tottered down the hill towards the Workhouse gate. When they were
but ten yards from it, however, they heard the sound of wheels on
the road behind them, and walked bravely past, pretending to have no
business at that portal. They had descended a good thirty yards
beyond (such haste was put into them by dread of having their purpose
guessed) before the vehicle overtook them—a four-wheeled dog-cart
carrying a commercial traveller, who pulled up and offered them a lift
into the town.
Then, as soon as he passed out of sight, they turned, and began
painfully to climb back towards the gate. Of the two, the woman had
shown the less emotion. But all the way her lips were at work, and as
she went she was praying a prayer. It was the only one she used night
and morning, and she had never changed a word since she learned it as
a chit of a child. Down to her seventieth year she had never found it
absurd to beseech God to make her "a good girl"; nor did she find it
so as the Workhouse gate opened, and she began a new life.