Read Chapter X - The coombe-bottom.  Conclusion of Round About a Great Estate , free online book, by Richard Jefferies, on ReadCentral.com.

‘There is “two-o’clock bush,"’ said Cicely, pointing to a large hawthorn; ’the shepherds look from the corner of the entrenchment, and if the sun is over that bush they know it is two o’clock.’  She was driving me in the pony-trap over the Downs, and we were going to call on Mrs. Luckett’s brother, who had a farm among the hills.  He had not been down to Lucketts’ Place for more than twelve months, and Cicely was resolved to make him promise to come.  Though they may be in reality much attached and affectionate, country folk are apt to neglect even their nearest and dearest.  The visit is put off from month to month; then comes the harvest, and nothing else can be thought of; and the longer the lapse the more difficult is the remedy.  The footpath of friendship, says the ancient British triad, if not frequently travelled becomes overgrown with briars.

Those who live by the land forget the passage of the years.  A year is but a harvest.  After the ploughing and sowing and cleaning, the reaping and thatching and threshing, what is there left of the twelvemonth?  It has gone like a day.  Thus it is that a farmer talks of twenty years since as if it was only last week, and seems unable to grasp the flight of time till it is marked and emphasised by some exceptional occurrence.  Cicely meant to wake her uncle from this slumber.

We started early on a beautiful July morning — partly to avoid the heat, and partly because Cicely wished to be away when young Aaron shortened the tails of the puppies in the rickyard. (This he did in the old-fashioned way, with his teeth.) Besides we thought that, if we waited till later, Uncle Bennet might be gone to market at Overboro’.  We passed several farmers leaning or sitting on the stiles by the road, watching for a friend to come along and give them a lift into town.  Some of them had waited like this every market morning for years.  There were fewer on the road than usual, it being near harvest, when many do not so much care to leave home.

Upon reaching the foot of the Downs, Cicely left the highway and entered a narrow lane without hedges, but worn low between banks of chalk or white rubble.  The track was cut up with ruts so deep that the bed of the pony-trap seemed almost to touch the ground.  As we went rather slowly along this awkward place we could see the wild thyme growing on the bank at the side.  Presently we got on the slope of the hill, and at the summit passed the entrenchment and the shepherds’ timepiece.  Thence our track ran along the ridge, on the short sweet turf, where there were few or no ruts, and these easily avoided on that broad open ground.  The quick pony now put out his speed, and we raced along as smoothly as if the wheels were running on a carpet.  Far below, to the right, stretched wheatfield after wheatfield in a plain between two ranges of the hills.  Over the opposite slope, a mile away, came the shadows of the clouds — then down along the corn towards us.  Stonechats started from the flints and low bushes as we went by; an old crow — it is always an old crow — rose hastily from behind a fence of withered thorn; and a magpie fluttered down the hill to the fields beneath, where was a flock of sheep.  The breeze at this height made the sunshine pleasant.

Cicely said that once some snow lingered in the fosse of the entrenchment we had left behind till the haymaking.  There was a snowstorm late in the spring, and a drift was formed in a hollow at the bottom of the fosse.  The weather continued chilly (sometimes even in June it is chilly, and the flowers seem out of harmony with the temperature), and this drift, though of course it was reduced, did not melt but became consolidated like ice:  a part still remained when the haymaking commenced.  The pony now slackened his pace at a sharp ascent, and as he walked up we could hear the short song of the grasshoppers.  There was a fir copse at the summit through which the track went; by the gateway as we entered there was a convolvulus out.  Cicely regretted to see this sign that the sun had reached his greatest height:  the tide of summer was full.  Beyond the copse we descended by a deep-worn track into a ‘coombe-bottom,’ or valley, where were some cottages.

Cicely, who knew some of the old people, thought she would call, though most probably they would be away.  We stopped at a garden-gate:  it was open, but there was no one about.  Cicely lifted the latch of the door to step in, country fashion, but it was locked; and, hearing the noise, a cat came mewing round the corner.  As if they had started out of the ground, a brown-faced boy and a thin girl suddenly appeared, having come through the hedge.

‘Thaay be up to barken’ (rickyard), said the boy:  so we went on to the next door.  It was locked too, but the key was in the lock outside.  Cicely said that was a signal to callers that the wife had only gone out for a few minutes and would return soon.  The children had followed us.

‘Where is she?’ asked Cicely.

‘Hur be gone to dipping-place,’ replied the boy.  We went to a third door, and immediately he cried out, ’Thuck’s our feyther’s:  the kay’s in the thatch.’  We looked and could see the handle of the key sticking out of the eave over the door.

‘Where are they all?’ I said.

‘Aw, Bill’s in the clauver; and Joe — he’s in th’ turmuts; and Jack be at public, a’ spose; and Bob’s wi’ the osses; and — ’

‘They will be home to luncheon?’ said Cicely.

’Aw, no um wunt; they wunt be whoam afore night; thaay got thur nuncheon wi’ um.’

‘Is there no one at home in all the place?’ I inquired.

‘Mebbe Farmer Bennet.  Thur beant nobody in these yer housen.’

So we went on to Uncle Bennet’s, whose house was hidden by a clump of elms farther down the coombe.  There were cottagers in this lonely hill hamlet, not only old folk but young persons, who had never seen a train.  They had not had the enterprise or curiosity to walk into Overboro’ for the purpose.  Some of the folk ate snails, the common brown shell-snail found in the hedges.  It has been observed that children who eat snails are often remarkably plump.  The method of cooking is to place the snail in its shell on the bar of a grate, like a chestnut.  And well-educated people have been known, even in these days, to use the snail as an external medicine for weakly children:  rubbed into the back or limb, the substance of the snail is believed to possess strengthening virtues.

We found Uncle Bennet just taking his lunch in the stone-flagged sitting-room, which, however, had a square of cocoa-nut matting.  He was getting on in years, but very active.  He welcomed us warmly:  still I thought I detected some uneasiness in his manner.  His conscience warned him that Cicely was going to attack him for his remissness; and how was he to defend himself?

Without any preliminary, she at once demanded why he had not come down to see them.

‘Mary,’ said he, calling the servant, as if he did not hear her, ’Some ale, and the ginger wine, and the grey-beard — mebbe you’d like a drop a’ shart’ — to me; but I declined.  She repeated her question, but Uncle Bennet was looking towards me.

‘The wuts be very forrard,’ said he, ‘I got some a-most ready to cut.’

‘Do you hear?’ cried Cicely, angrily.

‘Niece,’ replied the farmer, turning to her, ’there’s them summer apples as you used to like, there be some ready; will ‘ee have one?’

‘I don’t want your apples; why didn’t you come down?’

‘Aw; that’s what you be a-talking about.’

‘Yes, that’s it.’

‘The turmots wants some rain terrable bad’ (to me) — ’you med see the fly a-hopping about ’em.’

‘I hope they will spoil your turnips,’ said Cicely; ’you are a very rude man not to answer a lady when she speaks to you.’

‘You be a-coming on nicely, Cissy,’ said he.  ’Have ’ee got are a gage-ring yet?’

‘How dare you!’ (blushing).  ’Tell me instantly why have you not been to see us?  You know how angry it makes me.’

‘Well, I was a-coming,’ deliberately.

‘When were you coming?’

‘Well, I got to see a man down your way, Cissy; a’ owes me for a load a’ straw.’

‘Then why don’t you come down and get the money?’

’I telled ’ee I was a-coming.  He wants some of our sheep to feed off a meadow; s’pose I must see about it’ — with a sigh, as if the idea of a decision was insupportable.

‘Why didn’t you come before?’

’Aw, I don’t seem to have no time’ — farmers having more time than anybody else.

‘You could have come in June.’

’Bless ‘ee, your feyther’s got the hay about; a’ don’t want no strangers bothering.’

‘As if you were a stranger!  Well, why didn’t you come in May?’

’Lor bless ‘ee, my dear.’

‘In April?’

‘Us was main busy a-hoeing.’

‘In March?’

‘I had the rheumatism bad in March.’

‘Well, then,’ concluded Cicely, ’now just change your coat and come to-day.  Jump up in the pony-trap — we will make room.’

‘To-day!’ in hopeless bewilderment, his breath quite taken away at the idea of such sudden action.  ’Couldn’t do’t — couldn’t do’t.  Got to go down to Thirty Acre Corner:  got to get out the reaping machine — a’ wants oiling, a’ reckon; got some new hurdles coming; ’spects a chap to call about them lambs;’ a farmer can always find a score of reasons for doing nothing.

‘All rubbish!’ cried Cicely, smiling.

‘Nieces be main peart now-a-days,’ said he, shutting one eye and keeping it closed, as much as to say — I won’t be driven.  Then to me, ‘There won’t be many at market to-day.’

‘I am hungry,’ said Cicely softly; ’I should like some bread and honey.’

’Aw; should ‘ee?’ in gentler tones; ’I’ll get ’ee some:  will’ee have it in th’ comb?  I got a bit left.’

She knew his pride in his bees and his honey; hill farmers still keep large stocks.  He brought her a slice of home-baked bread and a piece of comb.  She took the comb in her white fingers, and pressed the liquid gold from the cells; the luscious sweetness gathered from a thousand flowers making her lips still sweeter.  Uncle Bennet offered me a jar full to the brim:  ‘Dip your vinger in,’ said he.

‘Why is the honey of the hills so much nicer?’ asked Cicely, well knowing, but drawing him on.

‘It be th’ clover and th’ thyme, and summat in the air.  There bean’t no hedges for um to fly up against, and so um carries home a bigger load.’

‘How many hives have you?’ I inquired.

’Let’s see’ — he counted them up, touching a finger for each twenty — ’There be three score and sixteen; I have a’ had six score years ago, but folk don’t care for honey now sugar be so cheap.’

‘Let us go and see them,’ said Cicely.  We went out and looked at the hives; they were all in a row, each protected by large ‘pan-sherds’ from heavy rain, and placed along beneath the wall of the garden, which sheltered them on one side.  Uncle Bennet chatted pleasantly about his bees for an hour, and would, I believe, have gossiped all day, notwithstanding that he had so little time for anything.  Nothing more was said about the delayed visit, but just as we were on the point of departure, and Cicely had already taken the reins, he said to her, as if it were an afterthought, ’Tell your mother, I s’pose I must look down that way next week.’

We passed swiftly through the little hamlet; the children had gathered by a gateway to watch us.  Though so far from the world, they were not altogether without a spice of the impudence of the city arab.  A tall and portly gentleman from town once chanced to visit this ‘coombe-bottom’ on business, and strolled down the ‘street’ in all the glory of shining boots, large gold watch-chain, black coat and high hat, all the pomp of Regent-street; doubtless imagining that his grandeur astonished the rustics.  A brown young rascal, however, looking him up — he was a tall man — with an air of intelligent criticism, audibly remarked, ‘Hum!  He be very well up to his ankles — and then a’ falls off!’

That evening was one of the most beautiful I remember.  We all sat in the garden at Lucketts’ Place till ten o’clock; it was still light and it seemed impossible to go indoors.  There was a seat under a sycamore tree with honeysuckle climbing over the bars of the back; the spot was near the orchard, but on slightly higher ground.  From our feet the meadow sloped down to the distant brook, the murmur of whose stream as it fell over a bay could be just heard.  Northwards the stars were pale, the sun seems so little below the horizon there that the glow of the sunset and the glow of the dawn nearly meet.  But southwards shone the dull red star of summer — Antares, seen while the wheat ripens and the ruddy and golden tints come upon the fruits.  Then nightly describing a low curve he looks down upon the white shimmering corn, and carries the mind away to the burning sands and palms of the far south.  In the light and colour and brilliance of an English summer we sometimes seem very near those tropical lands.

So still was it that we heard an apple fall in the orchard, thud on the sward, blighted perhaps and ripe before its time.  Under the trees as the months went on there would rise heaps of the windfalls collected there to wait for the cider-mill.  The mill was the property of two or three of the village folk, a small band of adventurers now grown old, who every autumn went round from farm to farm grinding the produce of the various orchards.  They sometimes poured a quantity of the acid juice into the mill to sharpen it, as cutting a lemon will sharpen a knife.  The great press, with its unwieldy screw and levers, squeezed the liquor from the cut-up apples in the horse-hair bags:  a cumbersome apparatus, but not without interest; for surely so rude an engine must date back far in the past.  The old fellows who brought it and put it up with slow deliberative motions were far, far past the joy with which all the children about the farm hailed its arrival.  With grave faces and indifferent manner they ground the apples, and departed as slowly and deliberately as they came; verily men of the autumn, harbingers of the fall of the year.

As I dreamed with the honeysuckle over my shoulder, and Antares southwards, Hilary talked at intervals about his wheat as usual and the weather, but I only caught fragments of it.  All the signs were propitious, and as it had been a fine harvest under similar conditions before, people said it would be fine this time.  But, unlike the law, the weather acknowledged no precedent, and nobody could tell, though folk now thought they knew everything.  How all things had changed since the Queen ascended the throne!  Not long since Hilary was talking with a labourer, an elderly man, who went to the feast in Overboro’ town on the day of the coronation.  The feast was held in the market-place, and the puddings, said the old fellow regretfully, were so big they were brought in on hand-barrows.

It was difficult since he himself remembered even to learn the state of the markets.  So few newspapers came into country places that before service on Sundays the farmers gathered round anybody in the churchyard who was known to take in a paper, to get particulars from this fortunate individual.  Letters rarely came to the farmhouse door then.  The old postman made a very good thing of his office — people were so eager for news, and it was easy to take a magpie glance at a newspaper.  So he called at the butcher’s before he started out, and in exchange for a peep at the paper got a little bit of griskin, or a chop, and at the farmhouses as he passed they gave him a few eggs, and at the inns a drop of gin.  Thus a dozen at least read scraps before it reached the rightful owner.

If anything very extraordinary had happened he would shout it out as he went through the hamlet.  Hilary said he well remembered being up on the roof of the house one morning, mending the thatch, when suddenly a voice — it was the postman’s — cried from the road, ’Royal Exchange burned down!’ In this way news got about before the present facilities were afforded.  But some of the old folk still regretted the change and believed that we should some day be punished for our worship of steam.  Steam had brought us to rely on foreign countries for our corn, and a day would come when through a war, or a failure of the crops there, the vast population of this country would be in danger of famine.  But ‘old folk’ are prone to prophesy disaster and failure of all kinds.

Mrs. Luckett chimed in here, and said that modern ways were not all improvements, the girls now were so fond of gadding about.  This was a hint for Cicely, who loved a change, and yet was deeply attached to the old home.  She rose at this, doubtless pouting, but it was too dusky to see, and went indoors, and presently from the open window came the notes of her piano.  As she played I dreamed again, till presently Mrs. Luckett began to argue with Hilary that the shrubs about the garden ought to be cut and trimmed.  Hilary said he liked to see the shrubs and the trees growing freely; he objected to cut and trim them.  ‘For,’ said he, ‘God made nothing tidy.’  Just then Cicely called us to supper.