It is in the nature of men and angels to pursue with death such birds as are uncommon, such animals as are rare; and Society had no use for one like Tod, so uncut to its pattern as to be practically unconscious of its existence. Not that he had deliberately turned his back on anything; he had merely begun as a very young man to keep bees. The better to do that he had gone on to the cultivation of flowers and fruit, together with just enough farming as kept his household in vegetables, milk, butter, and eggs. Living thus amongst insects, birds, cows, and the peace of trees, he had become queer. His was not a very reflective mind, it distilled but slowly certain large conclusions, and followed intently the minute happenings of his little world. To him a bee, a bird, a flower, a tree was well-nigh as interesting as a man; yet men, women, and especially children took to him, as one takes to a Newfoundland dog, because, though capable of anger, he seemed incapable of contempt, and to be endowed with a sort of permanent wonder at things. Then, too, he was good to look at, which counts for more than a little in the scales of our affections; indeed, the slight air of absence in his blue eyes was not chilling, as is that which portends a wandering of its owner on his own business. People recognized that it meant some bee or other in that bonnet, or elsewhere, some sound or scent or sight of life, suddenly perceived--always of life! He had often been observed gazing with peculiar gravity at a dead flower, bee, bird, or beetle, and, if spoken to at such a moment, would say, "Gone!" touching a wing or petal with his finger. To conceive of what happened after death did not apparently come within the few large conclusions of his reflective powers. That quaint grief of his in the presence of the death of things that were not human had, more than anything, fostered a habit among the gentry and clergy of the neighborhood of drawing up the mouth when they spoke of him, and slightly raising the shoulders. For the cottagers, to be sure, his eccentricity consisted rather in his being a 'gentleman,' yet neither eating flesh, drinking wine, nor telling them how they ought to behave themselves, together with the way he would sit down on anything and listen to what they had to tell him, without giving them the impression that he was proud of himself for doing so. In fact, it was the extraordinary impression he made of listening and answering without wanting anything either for himself or for them, that they could not understand. How on earth it came about that he did not give them advice about their politics, religion, morals, or monetary states, was to them a never-ending mystery; and though they were too well bred to shrug their shoulders, there did lurk in their dim minds the suspicion that 'the good gentleman,' as they called him, was 'a tiddy-bit off.' He had, of course, done many practical little things toward helping them and their beasts, but always, as it seemed, by accident, so that they could never make up their minds afterward whether he remembered having done them, which, in fact, he probably did not; and this seemed to them perhaps the most damning fact of all about his being--well, about his being--not quite all there. Another worrying habit he had, too, that of apparently not distinguishing between them and any tramps or strangers who might happen along and come across him. This was, in their eyes, undoubtedly a fault; for the village was, after all, their village, and he, as it were, their property. To crown all, there was a story, full ten years old now, which had lost nothing in the telling, of his treatment of a cattle-drover. To the village it had an eerie look, that windmill-like rage let loose upon a man who, after all, had only been twisting a bullock's tail and running a spiked stick into its softer parts, as any drover might. People said--the postman and a wagoner had seen the business, raconteurs born, so that the tale had perhaps lost nothing--that he had positively roared as he came leaping down into the lane upon the man, a stout and thick-set fellow, taken him up like a baby, popped him into a furzebush, and held him there. People said that his own bare arms had been pricked to the very shoulder from pressing the drover down into that uncompromising shrub, and the man's howls had pierced the very heavens. The postman, to this day, would tell how the mere recollection of seeing it still made him sore all over. Of the words assigned to Tod on this occasion, the mildest and probably most true were: "By the Lord God, if you treat a beast like that again, I'll cut your liver out, you hell-hearted sweep!"
The incident, which had produced a somewhat marked effect in regard to the treatment of animals all round that neighborhood, had never been forgotten, nor in a sense forgiven. In conjunction with the extraordinary peace and mildness of his general behavior, it had endowed Tod with mystery; and people, especially simple folk, cannot bring themselves to feel quite at home with mystery. Children only--to whom everything is so mysterious that nothing can be--treated him as he treated them, giving him their hands with confidence. But children, even his own, as they grew up, began to have a little of the village feeling toward Tod; his world was not theirs, and what exactly his world was they could not grasp. Possibly it was the sense that they partook of his interest and affection too much on a level with any other kind of living thing that might happen to be about, which discomfited their understanding. They held him, however, in a certain reverence.
That early morning he had already done a good two hours' work in connection with broad beans, of which he grew, perhaps, the best in the whole county, and had knocked off for a moment, to examine a spider's web. This marvellous creation, which the dew had visited and clustered over, as stars over the firmament, was hung on the gate of the vegetable garden, and the spider, a large and active one, was regarding Tod with the misgiving natural to its species. Intensely still Tod stood, absorbed in contemplation of that bright and dusty miracle. Then, taking up his hoe again, he went back to the weeds that threatened his broad beans. Now and again he stopped to listen, or to look at the sky, as is the way of husbandmen, thinking of nothing, enjoying the peace of his muscles.
"Please, sir, father's got into a fit again."
Two little girls were standing in the lane below. The elder, who had spoken in that small, anxious voice, had a pale little face with pointed chin; her hair, the color of over-ripe corn, hung fluffy on her thin shoulders, her flower-like eyes, with something motherly in them already, were the same hue as her pale-blue, almost clean, overall. She had her smaller, chubbier sister by the hand, and, having delivered her message, stood still, gazing up at Tod, as one might at God. Tod dropped his hoe.
"Biddy come with me; Susie go and tell Mrs. Freeland, or Miss Sheila."
He took the frail little hand of the elder Tryst and ran. They ran at the child's pace, the one so very massive, the other such a whiff of flesh and blood.
"Did you come at once, Biddy?"
"Where was he taken?"
"In the kitchen--just as I was cookin' breakfast."
"Ah! Is it a bad one?"
"Yes, sir, awful bad--he's all foamy."
"What did you do for it?"
"Susie and me turned him over, and Billy's seein' he don't get his tongue down his throat--like what you told us, and we ran to you. Susie was frightened, he hollered so."
Past the three cottages, whence a woman at a window stared in amaze to see that queer couple running, past the pond where the ducks, whiter than ever in the brightening sunlight, dived and circled carelessly, into the Tryst kitchen. There on the brick floor lay the distressful man, already struggling back out of epilepsy, while his little frightened son sat manfully beside him.
"Towels, and hot water, Biddy!"
With extraordinary calm rapidity the small creature brought what might have been two towels, a basin, and the kettle; and in silence she and Tod steeped his forehead.
"Eyes look better, Biddy?"
"He don't look so funny now, sir."
Picking up that form, almost as big as his own, Tod carried it up impossibly narrow stairs and laid it on a dishevelled bed.
"Phew! Open the window, Biddy."
The small creature opened what there was of window.
"Now, go down and heat two bricks and wrap them in something, and bring them up."
Tryst's boots and socks removed, Tod rubbed the large, warped feet. While doing this he whistled, and the little boy crept up-stairs and squatted in the doorway, to watch and listen. The morning air overcame with its sweetness the natural odor of that small room, and a bird or two went flirting past. The small creature came back with the bricks, wrapped in petticoats of her own, and, placing them against the soles of her father's feet, she stood gazing at Tod, for all the world like a little mother dog with puppies.
"You can't go to school to-day, Biddy."
"Is Susie and Billy to go?"
"Yes; there's nothing to be frightened of now. He'll be nearly all right by evening. But some one shall stay with you."
At this moment Tryst lifted his hand, and the small creature went and stood beside him, listening to the whispering that emerged from his thick lips.
"Father says I'm to thank you, please."
"Yes. Have you had your breakfasts?"
The small creature and her smaller brother shook their heads.
"Go down and get them."
Whispering and twisting back, they went, and by the side of the bed Tod sat down. In Tryst's eyes was that same look of dog-like devotion he had bent on Derek earlier that morning. Tod stared out of the window and gave the man's big hand a squeeze. Of what did he think, watching a lime-tree outside, and the sunlight through its foliage painting bright the room's newly whitewashed wall, already gray-spotted with damp again; watching the shadows of the leaves playing in that sunlight? Almost cruel, that lovely shadow game of outside life so full and joyful, so careless of man and suffering; too gay almost, too alive! Of what did he think, watching the chase and dart of shadow on shadow, as of gray butterflies fluttering swift to the sack of flowers, while beside him on the bed the big laborer lay?...
When Kirsteen and Sheila came to relieve him of that vigil he went down-stairs. There in the kitchen Biddy was washing up, and Susie and Billy putting on their boots for school. They stopped to gaze at Tod feeling in his pockets, for they knew that things sometimes happened after that. To-day there came out two carrots, some lumps of sugar, some cord, a bill, a pruning knife, a bit of wax, a bit of chalk, three flints, a pouch of tobacco, two pipes, a match-box with a single match in it, a six-pence, a necktie, a stick of chocolate, a tomato, a handkerchief, a dead bee, an old razor, a bit of gauze, some tow, a stick of caustic, a reel of cotton, a needle, no thimble, two dock leaves, and some sheets of yellowish paper. He separated from the rest the sixpence, the dead bee, and what was edible. And in delighted silence the three little Trysts gazed, till Biddy with the tip of one wet finger touched the bee.
"Not good to eat, Biddy."
At those words, one after the other, cautiously, the three little Trysts smiled. Finding that Tod smiled too, they broadened, and Billy burst into chuckles. Then, clustering in the doorway, grasping the edibles and the sixpence, and consulting with each other, they looked long after his big figure passing down the road.
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