A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 8

Fortunately I woke early next morning, for I was now a member of an early-rising family, and anxious to conform to rules. On going to the door I found, to my inexpressible disgust, that I might easily have closed it in the way I had seen the other door closed, by simply pulling a sliding panel. There was ventilation enough without having the place open to prowling beasts of prey. I also found that if I had turned up the little stray bed I should have had warm woolen sheets to sleep in.

I resolved to say nothing about my nocturnal visitor, not wishing to begin the day by furnishing fresh instances of what might seem like crass stupidity on my part. While occupied with these matters I began to hear people moving about and talking on the terrace, and peeping out, I beheld a curious and interesting spectacle. Down the broad steps leading to the water the people of the house were hurrying, and flinging themselves like agile, startled frogs on the bosom of the stream. There, in the midst of his family, my venerable host was already disporting himself, his long, silvery beard and hair floating like a foam on the waves of his own creating. And presently from other sleeping-rooms on a line with mine shot forth new bewitching forms, each sparsely clothed in a slender clinging garment, which concealed no beauteous curve beneath; and nimbly running and leaping down the slope, they quickly joined the masculine bathers.

Looking about I soon found a pretty thing in which to array myself, and quickly started after the others, risking my neck in my desire to imitate the new mode of motion I had just witnessed. The water was delightfully cool and refreshing, and the company very agreeable, ladies and gentlemen all swimming and diving about together with the unconventional freedom and grace of a company of grebes.

After dressing, we assembled in the eating-room or portico where we had supped, just when the red disk of the sun was showing itself above the horizon, kindling the clouds with yellow flame, and filling the green world with new light. I felt happy and strong that morning, very able and willing to work in the fields, and, better than all, very hopeful about that affair of the heart. Happiness, however, is seldom perfect, and in the clear, tender morning light I could not help contrasting my own repulsively ugly garments with the bright and beautiful costumes worn by the others, which seemed to harmonize so well with their fresh, happy morning mood. I also missed the fragrant cup of coffee, the streaky rasher from the dear familiar pig, and, after breakfast, the well-flavored cigar; but these lesser drawbacks were soon forgotten.

After the meal a small closed basket was handed to me, and one of the young men led me out to a little distance from the house, then, pointing to a belt of wood about a mile away, told me to walk towards it until I came to a plowed field on the slope of a valley, where I could do some plowing. Before leaving me he took from his own person a metal dog-whistle, with a string attached, and hung it round my neck, but without explaining its use.

Basket in hand I went away, over the dewy grass, whistling light-heartedly, and after half an hour’s walk found the spot indicated, where about an acre and a half of land had been recently turned; there also, lying in the furrow, I found the plow, an implement I knew very little about. This particular plow, however, appeared to be a simple, primitive thing, consisting of a long beam of wood, with an upright pole to guide it; a metal share in the center, going off to one side, balanced on the other by a couple of small wheels; and there were also some long ropes attached to a cross-stick at the end of the beam. There being no horses or bullocks to do the work, and being unable to draw the plow myself as well as guide it, I sat down leisurely to examine the contents of my basket, which, I found, consisted of brown bread, dried fruit, and a stone bottle of milk. Then, not knowing what else to do, I began to amuse myself by blowing on the whistle, and emitted a most shrill and piercing sound, which very soon produced an unexpected effect. Two noble-looking horses, resembling those I had seen the day before, came galloping towards me as if in response to the sound I had made. Approaching swiftly to within fifty yards they stood still, staring and snorting as if alarmed or astonished, after which they swept round me three or four times, neighing in a sharp, ringing manner, and finally, after having exhausted their superfluous energy, they walked to the plow and placed themselves deliberately before it. It looked as if these animals had come at my call to do the work; I therefore approached them, with more than needful caution, using many soothing, conciliatory sounds and words the while, and after a little further study I discovered how to adjust the ropes to them. There were no blinkers or reins, nor did these superb animals seem to think any were wanted; but after I had taken the pole in my hand, and said “Gee up, Dobbin,” in a tone of command, followed by some inarticulate clicks with the tongue, they rewarded me with a disconcerting stare, and then began dragging the plow. As long as I held the pole straight the share cut its way evenly through the mold, but occasionally, owing to my inadvertence, it would go off at a tangent or curve quite out of the ground; and whenever this happened the horses would stop, turn round and stare at me, then, touching their noses together seem to exchange ideas on the subject. When the first furrow was finished, they did not double back, as I expected, but went straight away to a distance of thirty yards, and then, turning, marched back, cutting a fresh furrow parallel with the first, and as straight as a line. Then they returned to the original starting-point and cut another, then again to the new furrow, and so on progressively. All this seemed very wonderful to me, giving the impression that I had been a skillful plowman all my life without knowing it. It was interesting work; and I was also amused to see the little birds that came in numbers from the wood to devour the worms in the fresh-turned mold; for between their fear of me and their desire to get the worms, they were in a highly perplexed state, and generally confined their operations to one end of the furrow while I was away at the other. The space the horses had marked out for themselves was plowed up in due time, whereupon they marched off and made a fresh furrow as before, where there was nothing to guide them; and so the work went on agreeably for some hours, until I felt myself growing desperately hungry. Sitting down on the beam of the plow, I opened my basket and discussed the homely fare with a keen appetite.

After finishing the food I resumed work again, but not as cheerfully as at first: I began to feel a little stiff and tired, and the immense quantity of mold adhering to my boots made it heavy walking; moreover, the novelty had now worn off. The horses also did not work as smoothly as at the commencement: they seemed to have something on their minds, for at the end of every furrow they would turn and stare at me in the most exasperating manner.

“Phew!” I ejaculated, as I stood wiping the honest sweat from my face with my moldy, ancient, and extremely dirty pocket-handkerchief. “Three hundred and sixty-four days of this sort of thing is a rather long price to pay for a suit of clothes.”

While standing there, I saw an animal coming swiftly towards me from the direction of the forest, bounding along over the earth with a speed like that of a greyhound — a huge, fierce-looking brute; and when close to me, I felt convinced that it was an animal of the same kind as the one I had seen during the night. Before I had made up my mind what to do, he was within a few yards of me, and then, coming to a sudden halt, he sat down on his haunches, and gravely watched me. Calling to mind some things I had heard about the terrifying effect of the human eye on royal tigers and other savage beasts, I gazed steadily at him, and then almost lost my fear in admiration of his beauty. He was taller than a boarhound, but slender in figure, with keen, fox-like features, and very large, erect ears; his coat was silvery-gray, and long; there were two black spots above his eyes; and the feet, muzzle, ear-tips, and end of the bushy tail were also velvet-black. After watching me quietly for two or three minutes, he started up, and, much to my relief, trotted away towards the wood; but after going about fifty yards he looked back, and seeing me still gazing after him, wheeled round and rushed at me, and when quite close uttered a sound like a ringing, metallic yelp, after which he once more bounded away, and disappeared from sight.

The horses now turned round, and, deliberately walking up to me, stood still, in spite of all I could do to make them continue the work. After waiting a while they proceeded to wriggle themselves out of the ropes, and galloped off, loudly neighing to each other, and flinging up their disdainful heels so as to send a shower of dirt over me. Left alone in this unceremonious fashion, I presently began to think that they knew more about the work than I did, and that, finding me indisposed to release them at the proper moment, they had taken the matter into their own hands, or hoofs rather. A little more pondering, and I also came to the conclusion that the singular wolf-like animal was only one of the house-dogs; that he had visited me in the night to remind me that I was sleeping with the door open, and had come now to insist on a suspension of work.

Glad at having discovered all these things without displaying my ignorance by asking questions, I took up my basket and started home.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38