While they were talking, they heard the far-off hooting of a pit.
“There goes th’ loose a’,” said Henry, coldly. “We’re NOT going to get that corner up today.”
The father looked round anxiously.
“Now, Maurice, are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m all right. Haven’t I told you?”
“Then you sit down there, and in a bit you can be getting dinner out. Henry, you go on the stack. Wheer’s Jim? Oh, he’s minding the hosses. Bill, and you, Geoffrey, you can pick while Jim loads.”
Maurice sat down under the wych elm to recover. The Fräulein had fled back. He made up his mind to ask her to marry him. He had got fifty pounds of his own, and his mother would help him. For a long time he sat musing, thinking what he would do. Then, from the float he fetched a big basket covered with a cloth, and spread the dinner. There was an immense rabbit pie, a dish of cold potatoes, much bread, a great piece of cheese, and a solid rice pudding.
These two fields were four miles from the home farm. But they had been in the hands of the Wookeys for several generations, therefore the father kept them on, and everyone looked forward to the hay harvest at Greasley: it was a kind of picnic. They brought dinner and tea in the milk-float, which the father drove over in the morning. The lads and the labourers cycled. Off and on, the harvest lasted a fortnight. As the high road from Alfreton to Nottingham ran at the foot of the fields, someone usually slept in the hay under the shed to guard the tools. The sons took it in turns. They did not care for it much, and were for that reason anxious to finish the harvest on this day. But work went slack and disjointed after Maurice’s accident.
When the load was teemed, they gathered round the white cloth, which was spread under a tree between the hedge and the stack, and, sitting on the ground, ate their meal. Mrs Wookey sent always a clean cloth, and knives and forks and plates for everybody. Mr Wookey was always rather proud of this spread: everything was so proper.
“There now,” he said, sitting down jovially. “Doesn’t this look nice now — eh?”
They all sat round the white spread, in the shadow of the tree and the stack, and looked out up the fields as they ate. From their shady coolness, the gold sward seemed liquid, molten with heat. The horse with the empty wagon wandered a few yards, then stood feeding. Everything was still as a trance. Now and again, the horse between the shafts of the load that stood propped beside the stack, jingled his loose bit as he ate. The men ate and drank in silence, the father reading the newspaper, Maurice leaning back on a saddle, Henry reading the Nation, the others eating busily.
Presently “Helloa! ’Er’s ’ere again!” exclaimed Bill. All looked up. Paula was coming across the field carrying a plate.
“She’s bringing something to tempt your appetite, Maurice,” said the eldest brother ironically. Maurice was midway through a large wedge of rabbit pie, and some cold potatoes.
“Aye, bless me if she’s not,” laughed the father. “Put that away, Maurice, it’s a shame to disappoint her.”
Maurice looked round very shamefaced, not knowing what to do with his plate.
“Give it over here,” said Bill. “I’ll polish him off.”
“Bringing something for the invalid?” laughed the father to the Fräulein. “He’s looking up nicely.”
“I bring him some chicken, him!” She nodded her head at Maurice childishly. He flushed and smiled.
“Tha doesna mean ter bust ’im,” said Bill.
Everybody laughed aloud. The girl did not understand, so she laughed also. Maurice ate his portion very sheepishly.
The father pitied his son’s shyness.
“Come here and sit by me,” he said. “Eh, Fräulein! Is that what they call you?”
“I sit by you, Father,” she said innocently.
Henry threw his head back and laughed long and noiselessly.
She settled near to the big, handsome man.
“My name,” she said, “is Paula Jablonowsky.”
“Is what?” said the father, and the other men went into roars of laughter.
“Tell me again,” said the father. “Your name —?”
“Paula? Oh — well, it’s a rum sort of name, eh? His name —” he nodded at his son.
“Maurice — I know.” She pronounced it sweetly, then laughed into the father’s eyes. Maurice blushed to the roots of his hair.
They questioned her concerning her history, and made out that she came from Hanover, that her father was a shop-keeper, and that she had run away from home because she did not like her father. She had gone to Paris.
“Oh,” said the father, now dubious. “And what did you do there?”
“In school — in a young ladies’ school.”
“Did you like it?”
“Oh no — no laïfe — no life!”
“When we go out — two and two — all together — no more. Ah, no life, no life.”
“Well, that’s a winder!” exclaimed the father. “No life in Paris! And have you found much life in England?”
“No — ah no. I don’t like it.” She made a grimace at the Vicarage.
“How long have you been in England?”
“Chreestmas — so.”
“And what will you do?”
“I will go to London, or to Paris. Ah, Paris! — Or get married!” She laughed into the father’s eyes.
The father laughed heartily.
“Get married, eh? And who to?”
“I don’t know. I am going away.”
“The country’s too quiet for you?” asked the father.
“Too quiet — hm!” she nodded in assent.
“You wouldn’t care for making butter and cheese?”
“Making butter — hm!” She turned to him with a glad, bright gesture. “I like it.”
“Oh,” laughed the father. “You would, would you?”
She nodded vehemently, with glowing eyes.
“She’d like anything in the shape of a change,” said Henry judicially.
“I think she would,” agreed the father. It did not occur to them that she fully understood what they said. She looked at them closely, then thought with bowed head.
“Hullo!” exclaimed Henry, the alert. A tramp was slouching towards them through the gap. He was a very seedy, slinking fellow, with a tang of horsey braggadocio about him. Small, thin, and ferrety, with a week’s red beard bristling on his pointed chin, he came slouching forward.
“Have yer got a bit of a job goin’?” he asked.
“A bit of a job,” repeated the father. “Why, can’t you see as we’ve a’most done?”
“Aye — but I noticed you was a hand short, an’ I thowt as ’appen you’d gie me half a day.”
“What, are YOU any good in a hay close?” asked Henry, with a sneer.
The man stood slouching against the haystack. All the others were seated on the floor. He had an advantage.
“I could work aside any on yer,” he bragged.
“Tha looks it,” laughed Bill.
“And what’s your regular trade?” asked the father.
“I’m a jockey by rights. But I did a bit o’ dirty work for a boss o’ mine, an’ I was landed. “E got the benefit, I got kicked out. “E axed me — an’ then ’e looked as if ’e’d never seed me.”
“Did he, though!” exclaimed the father sympathetically.
“’E did that!” asserted the man.
“But we’ve got nothing for you,” said Henry coldly.
“What does the boss say?” asked the man, impudent.
“No, we’ve no work you can do,” said the father. “You can have a bit o’ something to eat, if you like.”
“I should be glad of it,” said the man.
He was given the chunk of rabbit pie that remained. This he ate greedily. There was something debased, parasitic, about him, which disgusted Henry. The others regarded him as a curiosity.
“That was nice and tasty,” said the tramp, with gusto.
“Do you want a piece of bread ’n’ cheese?” asked the father.
“It’ll help to fill up,” was the reply.
The man ate this more slowly. The company was embarrassed by his presence, and could not talk. All the men lit their pipes, the meal over.
“So you dunna want any help?” said the tramp at last.
“No — we can manage what bit there is to do.”
“You don’t happen to have a fill of bacca to spare, do you?”
The father gave him a good pinch.
“You’re all right here,” he said, looking round. They resented this familiarity. However, he filled his clay pipe and smoked with the rest.
As they were sitting silent, another figure came through the gap in the hedge, and noiselessly approached. It was a woman. She was rather small and finely made. Her face was small, very ruddy, and comely, save for the look of bitterness and aloofness that it wore. Her hair was drawn tightly back under a sailor hat. She gave an impression of cleanness, of precision and directness.
“Have you got some work?” she asked of her man. She ignored the rest. He tucked his tail between his legs.
“No, they haven’t got no work for me. They’ve just gave me a draw of bacca.”
He was a mean crawl of a man.
“An’ am I goin’ to wait for you out there on the lane all day?”
“You needn’t if you don’t like. You could go on.”
“Well, are you coming?” she asked contemptuously. He rose to his feet in a rickety fashion.
“You needn’t be in such a mighty hurry,” he said. “If you’d wait a bit you might get summat.”
She glanced for the first time over the men. She was quite young, and would have been pretty, were she not so hard and callous-looking.
“Have you had your dinner?” asked the father.
She looked at him with a kind of anger, and turned away. Her face was so childish in its contours, contrasting strangely with her expression.
“Are you coming?” she said to the man.
“He’s had his tuck-in. Have a bit, if you want it,” coaxed the father.
“What have you had?” she flashed to the man.
“He’s had all what was left o’ th’ rabbit pie,” said Geoffrey, in an indignant, mocking tone, “and a great hunk o’ bread an’ cheese.”
“Well, it was gave me,” said the man.
The young woman looked at Geoffrey, and he at her. There was a sort of kinship between them. Both were at odds with the world. Geoffrey smiled satirically. She was too grave, too deeply incensed even to smile.
“There’s a cake here, though — you can have a bit o’ that,” said Maurice blithely.
She eyed him with scorn.
Again she looked at Geoffrey. He seemed to understand her. She turned, and in silence departed. The man remained obstinately sucking at his pipe. Everybody looked at him with hostility.
“We’ll be getting to work,” said Henry, rising, pulling off his coat. Paula got to her feet. She was a little bit confused by the presence of the tramp.
“I go,” she said, smiling brilliantly. Maurice rose and followed her sheepishly.
“A good grind, eh?” said the tramp, nodding after the Fräulein. The men only half-understood him, but they hated him.
“Hadn’t you better be getting off?” said Henry.
The man rose obediently. He was all slouching, parasitic insolence. Geoffrey loathed him, longed to exterminate him. He was exactly the worst foe of the hyper-sensitive: insolence without sensibility, preying on sensibility.
“Aren’t you goin’ to give me summat for her? It’s nowt she’s had all day, to my knowin’. She’ll ’appen eat it if I take it ’er — though she gets more than I’ve any knowledge of”— this with a lewd wink of jealous spite. “And then tries to keep a tight hand on me,” he sneered, taking the bread and cheese, and stuffing it in his pocket.
Last updated Saturday, May 23, 2015 at 22:23