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The Samphire Gatherer

At sunset, when the strong wind from the sea was beginning to feel
cold, I stood on the top of the sandhill looking down at an old woman
hurrying about over the low damp ground beneath--a bit of sea-flat
divided from the sea by the ridge of sand; and I wondered at her,
because her figure was that of a feeble old woman, yet she moved--I had
almost said flitted--over that damp level ground in a surprisingly
swift light manner, pausing at intervals to stoop and gather something
from the surface. But I couldn't see her distinctly enough to satisfy
myself: the sun was sinking below the horizon, and that dimness in the
air and coldness in the wind at day's decline, when the year too was
declining, made all objects look dim. Going down to her I found that
she was old, with thin grey hair on an uncovered head, a lean dark face
with regular features and grey eyes that were not old and looked
steadily at mine, affecting me with a sudden mysterious sadness. For
they were unsmiling eyes and themselves expressed an unutterable
sadness, as it appeared to me at the first swift glance; or perhaps not
that, as it presently seemed, but a shadowy something which sadness had
left in them, when all pleasure and all interest in life forsook her,
with all affections, and she no longer cherished either memories or
hopes. This may be nothing but conjecture or fancy, but if she had been
a visitor from another world she could not have seemed more strange to
me.

I asked her what she was doing there so late in the day, and she
answered in a quiet even voice which had a shadow in it too, that she
was gathering samphire of that kind which grows on the flat saltings
and has a dull green leek-like fleshy leaf. At this season, she
informed me, it was fit for gathering to pickle and put by for use
during the year. She carried a pail to put it in, and a table-knife in
her hand to dig the plants up by the roots, and she also had an old
sack in which she put every dry stick and chip of wood she came across.
She added that she had gathered samphire at this same spot every August
end for very many years.

I prolonged the conversation, questioning her and listening with
affected interest to her mechanical answers, while trying to fathom
those unsmiling, unearthly eyes that looked so steadily at mine.

And presently, as we talked, a babble of human voices reached our ears,
and half turning we saw the crowd, or rather procession, of golfers
coming from the golf-house by the links where they had been drinking
tea. Ladies and gentlemen players, forty or more of them, following in
a loose line, in couples and small groups, on their way to the Golfers'
Hotel, a little further up the coast; a remarkably good-looking lot
with well-fed happy faces, well-dressed and in a merry mood, all freely
talking and laughing. Some were staying at the hotel, and for the
others a score or so of motor-cars were standing before its gates to
take them inland to their homes, or to houses where they were staying.

We suspended the conversation while they were passing us, within three
yards of where we stood, and as they passed the story of the links
where they had been amusing themselves since luncheon-time came into my
mind. The land there was owned by an old, an ancient, family; they had
occupied it, so it is said, since the Conquest; but the head of the
house was now poor, having no house property in London, no coal mines
in Wales, no income from any other source than the land, the twenty or
thirty thousand acres let for farming. Even so he would not have been
poor, strictly speaking, but for the sons, who preferred a life of
pleasure in town, where they probably had private establishments of
their own. At all events they kept race-horses, and had their cars, and
lived in the best clubs, and year by year the patient old father was
called upon to discharge their debts of honour. It was a painful
position for so estimable a man to be placed in, and he was much pitied
by his friends and neighbours, who regarded him as a worthy
representative of the best and oldest family in the county. But he was
compelled to do what he could to make both ends meet, and one of the
little things he did was to establish golf-links over a mile or so of
sand-hills, lying between the ancient coast village and the sea, and to
build and run a Golfers' Hotel in order to attract visitors from all
parts. In this way, incidentally, the villagers were cut off from their
old direct way to the sea and deprived of those barren dunes, which
were their open space and recreation ground and had stood them in the
place of a common for long centuries. They were warned off and told
that they must use a path to the beach which took them over half a mile
from the village. And they had been very humble and obedient and had
made no complaint. Indeed, the agent had assured them that they had
every reason to be grateful to the overlord, since in return for that
trivial inconvenience they had been put to they would have the golfers
there, and there would be employment for some of the village boys as
caddies. Nevertheless, I had discovered that they were not grateful but
considered that an injustice had been done to them, and it rankled in
their hearts.

I remembered all this while the golfers were streaming by, and wondered
if this poor woman did not, like her fellow-villagers, cherish a secret
bitterness against those who had deprived them of the use of the dunes
where for generations they had been accustomed to walk or sit or lie on
the loose yellow sands among the barren grasses, and had also cut off
their direct way to the sea where they went daily in search of bits of
firewood and whatever else the waves threw up which would be a help to
them in their poor lives.

If it be so, I thought, some change will surely come into those
unchanging eyes at the sight of all these merry, happy golfers on their
way to their hotel and their cars and luxurious homes. But though I
watched her face closely there was no change, no faintest trace of ill-
feeling or feeling of any kind; only that same shadow which had been
there was there still, and her fixed eyes were like those of a captive
bird or animal, that gaze at us, yet seem not to see us but to look
through and beyond us. And it was the same when they had all gone by
and we finished our talk and I put money in her hand; she thanked me
without a smile, in the same quiet even tone of voice in which she had
replied to my question about the samphire.

I went up once more to the top of the ridge, and looking down saw her
again as I had seen her at first, only dimmer, swiftly, lightly moving
or flitting moth-like or ghost-like over the low flat salting, still
gathering samphire in the cold wind, and the thought that came to me
was that I was looking at and had been interviewing a being that was
very like a ghost, or in any case a soul, a something which could not
be described, like certain atmospheric effects in earth and water and
sky which are ignored by the landscape painter. To protect himself he
cultivates what is called the "sloth of the eye": he thrusts his
fingers into his ears so to speak, not to hear that mocking voice that
follows and mocks him with his miserable limitations. He who seeks to
convey his impressions with a pen is almost as badly off: the most he
can do in such instances as the one related, is to endeavour to convey
the emotion evoked by what he has witnessed.

Let me then take the case of the man who has trained his eyes, or
rather whose vision has unconsciously trained itself, to look at every
face he meets, to find in most cases something, however little, of the
person's inner life. Such a man could hardly walk the length of the
Strand and Fleet-street or of Oxford-street without being startled at
the sight of a face which haunts him with its tragedy, its mystery, the
strange things it has half revealed. But it does not haunt him long;
another arresting face follows, and then another, and the impressions
all fade and vanish from the memory in a little while. But from time to
time, at long intervals, once perhaps in a lustrum, he will encounter a
face that will not cease to haunt him, whose vivid impression will not
fade for years. It was a face and eyes of that kind which I met in the
samphire gatherer on that cold evening; but the mystery of it is a
mystery still.

W. H. Hudson