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A BROAD red roof of tile is a conspicuous object on the same road which winds and turns in true crooked country fashion, with hedgerows, trees, and fields on-both sides, and scarcely a dwelling visible. It is not, indeed, so crooked as a lane in Gloucestershire, which I verily believe passes the same tree thrice, but the curves are frequent enough to vary the view pleasantly.
Approaching from either direction, on turning a certain corner a great red roof rises high above the hedges, and the line of its ridge is seen every way through the trees. With this old barn, as with so much of the architecture of former times, the roof is the most important part. The gables, for instance, of Elizabethan houses occupy the eye far more than the walls; and so, too, with the antique halls that still exist. The roof of this old barn is itself the building; the roof and the doors, for the sweeping slope of the tiles comes down within reach of the hand, while the great doors extend half-way to the ridge.
By the low black wooden walls a little chaff has been spilt, and has blown out and mingles with the dust of the road. Loose straws lie across the footpath, trodden flat by passing feet; straws have wandered across the road and lodged on the mound, and others have roamed still farther round the corner. Between the gatepost and the wall that encloses the rickyard more straws are jammed, and yet more are borne up by the nettles beneath it.
Mosses have grown over the old red brick wall, both on the top and following the lines of the mortar, and bunches of wall grasses flourish along the top. The wheat, and barley, and hay carted home to the rickyard contain the seeds of innumerable plants, many of which, dropping to the ground, come up next year. The trodden earth round where the ricks stood seems favourable to their early appearance; the first poppy blooms here, though its colour is paler than those which come afterwards in the fields.
In spring most of the ricks are gone, threshed and sold, but there remains the vast pile of straw — always straw — and the three-cornered stump of a hay-rick which displays bands of different hues, one above the other, like the strata of a geological map. Some of the hay was put up damp, some in good condition, and some had been browned by bad weather before being carted.
About the straw-rick, and over the chaff that everywhere strews the earth, numerous fowls search, and by the gateway Chanticleer proudly stands, tall and upright, the king of the rickyard still, as he and his ancestors have been these hundreds of years. Under the granary, which is built on stone staddles, to exclude the mice, some turkeys are huddled together calling occasionally for a "halter," and beyond them the green, glossy neck of a drake glistens in the sunshine.
When the corn is high, and sometimes before it is well up, the doors of the barn are daily open, and shockheaded children peer over the hatch. There are others within playing and tumbling on a heap of straw — always straw — which is their bed at night. The sacks which form their counterpane are rolled aside, and they have half the barn for their nursery. If it is wet, at least one great girl and the mother will be there too, gravely sewing, and sitting where they can see all that goes along the road.
A hundred yards away, in a corner of an arable field, the very windiest and most draughty that could be chosen, where the hedge is cut down so that it can barely be called a hedge, and where the elms draw the wind, the men of the family crowd over a smoky fire. In the wind and rain the fire could not burn at all had they not by means of a stick propped up a hurdle to windward, and thus sheltered it. As it is there seems no flame, only white embers and a flow of smoke, into which the men from time to time cast the dead wood they have gathered. Here the pot is boiled and the cooking accomplished at a safe distance from the litter and straw of the rick-yard.
These people are Irish, who come year after year to the same barn for the hoeing and the harvest, travelling from the distant West to gather agricultural wages on the verge of the metropolis.
In fine summer weather, beside the usual business traffic, there goes past this windy bare corner a constant stream of pleasure-seekers, heavily laden four-in-hands, tandems, dog-carts, equestrians, and open carriages, filled with well-dressed ladies. They represent the abundant gold of trade and commerce. In their careless luxury they do not notice — how should they? — the smoky fire in the barren corner, or the shock-headed children staring at the equipages over the hatch at the barn.
Within a mile there is a similar fire, which by day is not noticeable, because the spot is under a hedge two meadows back from the road. At night it shows brightly, and even as late as eleven o'clock dusky figures may be seen about it, as if the family slept in the open air. A third fire is kept up in the same neighbourhood, but in a different direction, in a meadow bordering on a lonely lane. There is a thatched shed behind the hedge, which is the sleeping-place — the fire burns some forty yards away .Still another shines at night in an open arable field, where is a barn.
One day I observed a farmer's courtyard completely filled with groups of men, women, and children, who had come travelling round to do the harvesting. They had with them a small cart or van — not of the kind which the show folk use as movable dwellings, but for the purpose of carrying their pots, pans, and the like. The greater number carry their burdens on their backs, trudging afoot.
A gang of ten or twelve once gathered round me to inquire the direction of some spot they desired to reach. A powerful-looking woman, with reaping-hook in her hand and cooking implements over her shoulder, was the speaker. The rest did not appear to know a word of English, and her pronunciation was so peculiar that it was impossible to understand what she meant except by her gestures. I suppose she wanted to find a farm, the name of which I could not get at, and then perceiving she was not understood her broad face flushed red and she poured out a flood of Irish in her excitement. The others chimed in, and the din redoubled. At last I caught the name of a town and was thus able to point the way.
About harvest time it is common to meet an Irish labourer dressed in the national costume: a tall, upright fellow with a long-tailed coat, breeches, and worsted stockings. He walks as upright as if drilled, with a quick easy gait and springy step, quite distinct from the Saxon stump. When the corn is cut these bivouac fires go out, and the camp disappears, but the white ashes remain, and next season the smoke will rise again.
The barn here with its broad red roof, and the rick-yard with the stone staddles, and the litter of chaff and straw, is the central rendezvous all the year of the resident labourers. Day by day, and at all hours, there is sure to be some of them about the place. The stamp of the land is on them. They border on the city, but are as distinctly agricultural and as immediately recognisable as in the heart of the country. This sturdy carter, as he comes round the corner of the straw-rick, cannot be mistaken.
He is short and thickly set, a man of some fifty years, but hard and firm of make. His face is broad and red, his shiny fat cheeks almost as prominent as his stumpy nose, likewise red and shiny. A fringe of reddish whiskers surrounds his chin like a cropped hedge. The eyes are small and set deeply, a habit of half-closing the lids when walking in the teeth of the wind and rain has caused them to appear still smaller. The wrinkles at the corners and the bushy eyebrows are more visible and pronounced than the eyes themselves, which are mere bright grey points twinkling with complacent good humour.
These red cheeks want but the least motion to break into a smile; the action of opening the lips to speak is sufficient to give that expression. The fur cap he wears allows the round shape of his head to be seen, and the thick neck which is the colour of a brick. He trudges deliberately round the straw-rick: there is something in the style of the man which exactly corresponds to the barn, and the straw, and the stone staddles, and the waggons. Could we look back three hundred years, just such a man would be seen in the midst of the same surroundings, deliberately trudging round the straw-ricks of Elizabethan days, calm and complacent though the Armada be at hand. There are the ricks just the same, here is the barn, and the horses are in good case; the wheat is coming on well. Armies may march, but these are the same.
When his waggon creaks along the road towards the town his eldest lad walks proudly by the leader's head, and two younger boys ride in the vehicle. They pass under the great elms; now the sunshine and now the shadow falls upon them; the horses move with measured step and without haste, and both horses and human folks are content in themselves.
As you sit in summer on the beach and gaze afar over the blue waters scarcely flecked with foam, how slowly the distant ship moves along the horizon. It is almost, but not quite, still. You go to lunch and return, and the vessel is still there; what patience the man at the wheel must have. So, now, resting here on the stile, see the plough yonder, travelling as it were with all sails set.
Three shapely horses in line draw the share. The traces are taut, the swing-tree like a yard braced square, the helmsman at the tiller bears hard upon the stilts. But does it move? The leading horse, seen distinct against the sky, lifts a hoof and places it down again, stepping in the last furrow made. But then there is a perceptible pause before the next hoof rises, and yet again a perceptible delay in the pull of the muscles. The stooping ploughman walking in the new furrow, with one foot often on the level and the other in the hollow, sways a little with the lurch of his implement, but barely drifts ahead.
While watched they scarcely move; but now look away for a time and on returning the plough itself and the lower limbs of the ploughman and the horses are out of sight. They have gone over a slope, and are "hull down"; a few minutes more, and they disappear behind the ridge. Look away again and read or dream, as you would on the beach, and then, see, the head and shoulders of the leading horse are up, and by-and-by the plough rises, as they come back on the opposite tack. Thus the long hours slowly pass.
Intent day after day upon the earth beneath his feet or upon the tree in the hedge yonder, by which, as by a lighthouse, he strikes out a straight furrow, his mind absorbs the spirit of the land. When the plough pauses, as he takes out his bread and cheese in the corner of the field for luncheon, he looks over the low cropped hedge and sees far off the glitter of the sunshine on the glass roof of the Crystal Palace. The light plays and dances on it, flickering as on rippling water. But, though hard by, he is not of London. The horses go on again, and his gaze is bent down upon the furrow.
A mile or so up the road there is a place where it widens, and broad strips of sward run parallel on both sides. Beside the path, but just off it, so as to be no obstruction, an aged man stands watching his sheep. He has stood there so long that at last the restless sheep dog has settled down on the grass. He wears a white smock-frock, and leans heavily on his long staff, which he holds with both hands, propping his chest upon it. His face is set in a frame of white — white hair, white whiskers, short white beard. It is much wrinkled with years; but still has a hale and hearty hue.
The sheep are only on their way from one part of the farm to another, perhaps half a mile; but they have already been an hour, and will probably occupy another in getting there. Some are feeding steadily; some are in a gateway, doing nothing, like their pastor; if they were on the loneliest slope of the Downs he and they could not be more unconcerned. Carriages go past, and neither the sheep nor the shepherd turn to look.
Suddenly there comes a hollow booming sound — a roar, mellowed and subdued by distance, with a peculiar beat upon the ear, as if a wave struck the nerve and rebounded and struck again in an infinitestimal fraction of time — such a sound as can only bellow from the mouth of cannon. Another and another. The big guns at Woolwich are at work. The shepherd takes no heed — neither he nor his sheep.
His ears must acknowledge the sound, but his mind pays no attention. He knows of nothing but his sheep. You may brush by him along the footpath and it is doubtful if he sees you. But stay and speak about the sheep, and instantly he looks you in the face and answers with interest.
Round the corner of the straw-rick by the red-roofed barn there comes another man, this time with smoke-blackened face, and bringing with him an odour of cotton waste and oil. He is the driver of a steam ploughing engine, whose broad wheels in summer leave their impression in the deep white dust of the roads, and in moist weather sink into the soil at the gateways and leave their mark as perfect as in wax. But though familiar with valves, and tubes, and gauges, spending his hours polishing brass and steel, and sometimes busy with spanner and hammer, his talk, too, is of the fields.
He looks at the clouds, and hopes it will continue fine enough to work. Like many others of the men who are employed on the farms about town he came originally from a little village a hundred miles away, in the heart of the country. The stamp of the land is on him, too.
Besides the Irish, who pass in gangs and generally have a settled destination, many agricultural folk drift along the roads and lanes searching for work. They are sometimes alone, or in couples, or they are a man and his wife, and carry hoes. You can tell them as far as you can see them, for they stop and look over every gateway to note how the crop is progressing, and whether any labour is required.
On Saturday afternoons, among the crowd of customers at the shops in the towns, under the very shadow of the almost palatial villas of wealthy "City" men, there may be seen women whose dress and talk at once mark them out as agricultural. They have come in on foot from distant farms for a supply of goods, and will return heavily laden. No town-bred woman, however poor, would dress so plainly as these cottage matrons. Their daughters who go with them have caught the finery of the town, and they do not mean to stay in the cottage.
There is a bleak arable field, on somewhat elevated ground, not very far from the same old barn. In the corner of this field for the last two or three years a great pit of roots has been made that is, the roots are piled together and covered with straw and earth. When this mound is opened in the early spring a stout, elderly woman takes her seat beside it, billhook in hand, and there she sits the day through trimming the roots one by one, and casting those that she has prepared aside ready to be carted away to the cattle.
A hurdle or two propped up with stakes, and against which some of the straw from a mound has been thrown, keeps off some of the wind. But the easterly breezes sweeping over the bare upland must rush round and over that slight bulwark with force but little broken. Holding the root in the left hand, she turns it round and slashes off the projections with quick blows, which seem to only just miss her fingers, laughing and talking the while with two children who have brought her some refreshment, and who roll and tumble and play about her. The scene might be bodily removed and set down a hundred miles away, in the midst of a western county, and would there be perfectly at one with the surroundings.
Here, as she sits and chops, the east wind brings the boom of trains continually rolling over an iron bridge to and from the metropolis. She was there two successive seasons to my knowledge; she, too, had the stamp of the land upon her.
The broad sward where the white-haired shepherd so often stands watching his sheep feeding along to this field, is decked in summer with many flowers. By the hedge the agrimony frequently lifts its long stem, surrounded with small yellow petals. One day towards autumn I noticed a man looking along a hedge, and found that he was gathering this plant. He had a small armful of the straggling stalks, from which the flowers were then fading. The herb had once a medicinal reputation, and, curious to know if it was still remembered, I asked him the name of the herb and what it was for. He replied that it was agrimony. "We makes tea of it, and it is good for the flesh," or, as he pronounced it, "fleysh."