The Paupers

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 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."

"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 place tidy."

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 pride.

"There was old Miss Scantlebury," said another guest, a smock-frocked gaffer of seventy, with a grizzled shock of hair. "You remember Miss Scantlebury?"

"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 an' taste."

"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 floor."

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 were dry.

"Come along, Jan."

There was a brief hand-shaking, and the paupers climbed up beside
Farmer Lear.

"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 little plan."

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 cold stone."

"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 porter's nose."

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.

They declined.

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.