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The Old Man's Delusion

We know that our senses are subject to decay, that from our middle
years they are decaying all the time; but happily it is as if we didn't
know and didn't believe. The process is too gradual to trouble us; we
can only say, at fifty or sixty or seventy, that it is doubtless the
case that we can't see as far or as well, or hear or smell as sharply,
as we did a decade ago, but that we don't notice the difference. Lately
I met an extreme case, that of a man well past seventy who did not
appear to know that his senses had faded at all. He noticed that the
world was not what it had been to him, as it had appeared, for example,
when he was a plough-boy, the time of his life he remembered most
vividly, but it was not the fault of his senses; the mirror was all
right, it was the world that had grown dim. I found him at the gate
where I was accustomed to go of an evening to watch the sun set over
the sea of yellow corn and the high green elms beyond, which divide the
cornfields from the Maidenhead Thicket. An old agricultural labourer,
he had a grey face and grey hair and throat-beard; he stooped a good
deal, and struck me as being very feeble and long past work. But he
told me that he still did some work in the fields. The older farmers
who had employed him for many years past gave him a little to do; he
also had his old-age pension, and his children helped to keep him in
comfort. He was quite well off, he said, compared to many. There was a
subdued and sombre cheerfulness in him, and when I questioned him about
his early life, he talked very freely in his slow old peasant way. He
was born in a village in the Vale of Aylesbury, and began work as a
ploughboy on a very big farm. He had a good master and was well fed,
the food being bacon, vegetables, and homemade bread, also suet pudding
three times a week. But what he remembered best was a rice pudding
which came by chance in his way during his first year on the farm.
There was some of the pudding left in a dish after the family had
dined, and the farmer said to his wife, "Give it to the boy"; so he had
it, and never tasted anything so nice in all his life. How he enjoyed
that pudding! He remembered it now as if it had been yesterday, though
it was sixty-five years ago.

He then went on to talk of the changes that had been going on in the
world since that happy time; but the greatest change of all was in the
appearance of things. He had had a hard life, and the hardest time was
when he was a ploughboy and had to work so hard that he was tired to
death at the end of every day; yet at four o'clock in the morning he
was ready and glad to get up and go out to work all day again because
everything looked so bright, and it made him happy just to look up at
the sky and listen to the birds. In those days there were larks. The
number of larks was wonderful; the sound of their singing filled the
whole air. He didn't want any greater happiness than to hear them
singing over his head. A few days ago, not more than half a mile from
where we were standing, he was crossing a field when a lark got up
singing near him and went singing over his head. He stopped to listen
and said to himself, "Well now, that do remind me of old times!"

"For you know," he went on, "it is a rare thing to hear a lark now.
What's become of all the birds I used to see I don't know. I remember
there was a very pretty bird at that time called the yellow-hammer--a
bird all a shining yellow, the prettiest of all the birds." He never
saw nor heard that bird now, he assured me.

That was how the old man talked, and I never told him that yellow
hammers could be seen and heard all day long anywhere on the common
beyond the green wall of the elms, and that a lark was singing loudly
high up over our heads while he was talking of the larks he had
listened to sixty-five years ago in the Vale of Aylesbury, and saying
that it was a rare thing to hear that bird now.

W. H. Hudson