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A Story of a Walnut

He was a small old man, curious to look at, and every day when I came
out of my cottage and passed his garden he was there, his crutches
under his arms, leaning on the gate, silently regarding me as I went
by. Not boldly; his round dark eyes were like those of some shy animal
peering inquisitively but shyly at the passer-by. His was a tumble-down
old thatched cottage, leaky and miserable to live in, with about three-
quarters of an acre of mixed garden and orchard surrounding it. The
trees were of several kinds--cherry, apple, pear, plum, and one big
walnut; and there were also shade trees, some shrubs and currant and
gooseberry bushes, mixed with vegetables, herbs, and garden flowers.
The man himself was in harmony with his disorderly but picturesque
surroundings, his clothes dirty and almost in rags; an old jersey in
place of a shirt, and over it two and sometimes three waistcoats of
different shapes and sizes, all of one indeterminate earthy colour; and
over these an ancient coat too big for the wearer. The thin hair, worn
on the shoulders, was dust-colour mixed with grey, and to crown all
there was a rusty rimless hat, shaped like an inverted flowerpot. From
beneath this strange hat the small strange face, with the round,
furtive, troubled eyes, watched me as I passed.

The people I lodged with told me his history. He had lived there many
years, and everybody knew him, but nobody liked him,--a cunning, foxy,
grabbing old rascal; unsocial, suspicious, unutterably mean. Never in
all the years of his life in the village had he given a sixpence or a
penny to anyone; nor a cabbage, nor an apple, nor had he ever lent a
helping hand to a neighbour nor shown any neighbourly feeling.

He had lived for himself alone; and was alone in the world, in his
miserable cottage, and no person had any pity for him in his loneliness
and suffering now when he was almost disabled by rheumatism.

He was not a native of the village; he had come to it a young man, and
some kindly-disposed person had allowed him to build a small hut as a
shelter at the side of his hedge. Now the village was at one end of a
straggling common, and many irregular strips and patches of common-land
existed scattered about among the cottages and orchards. It was at a
hedge-side on the border of one of these isolated patches that the
young stranger, known as an inoffensive, diligent, and exceedingly
quiet young man, set up his hovel. To protect it from the cattle he
made a small ditch before it. This ditch he made very deep, and the
earth thrown out he built into a kind of rampart, and by its outer edge
he put a row of young holly plants, which a good-natured woodman made
him a present of. He was advised to plant the holly behind the ditch,
but he thought his plan the best, and to protect the young plants he
made a little fence of odd sticks and bits of old wire and hoop iron.
But the sheep would get in, so he made a new ditch; and then something
else, until in the course of years the three-quarters of an acre had
been appropriated. That was the whole history, and the pilfering had
gone no further only because someone in authority had discovered and
put a stop to it. Still, one could see that (in spite of the powers) a
strip a few inches in breadth was being added annually to the estate.

I was so much interested in all this that from time to time I began to
pause beside his gate to converse with him. By degrees the timid,
suspicious expression wore away, and his eyes looked only wistful, and
he spoke of his aches and pains as if it did him good to tell them to
another.

I then left the village, but visited it from time to time, usually at
intervals of some months, always to find him by his gate, on his own
property, which he won for himself in the middle of the village, and
from which he watched his neighbours moving about their cottages, going
and coming, and was not of them. Then a whole year went by, and when I
found him at the old gate in the old attitude, with the old wistful
look in the eyes, he seemed glad to see me, and we talked of many
things. We talked, that is, of the weather, with reference to the
crops, and his rheumatism. What else in the world was there to talk of?
He read no paper and heard no news and was of no politics; and if it
can be said that he had a philosophy of life it was a low-down one,
about on a level with that of a solitary old dog-badger who lives in an
earth he has excavated for himself with infinite pains in a strong
stubborn soil--his home and refuge in a hostile world.

Finally, casting about in my mind for some new subject of conversation--
for I was reluctant to leave him soon after so long an absence--it
occurred to me that we had not said anything about his one walnut tree.
Of all the other trees and the fruit he had gathered from them he had
already spoken. "By-the-way," I said, "did your walnut tree yield well
this year?"

"Yes, very well," he returned; then he checked himself and said,
"Pretty well, but I did not get much for them." And after a little
hesitation he added, "That reminds me of something I had forgotten.
Something I have been keeping for you--a little present."

He began to feel in the capacious pockets of his big outside waistcoat,
but found nothing. "I must give it up," he said; "I must have mislaid
it."

He seemed a little relieved, and at the same time a little
disappointed; and by-and-by, on my remarking that he had not felt in
all his pockets, began searching again, and in the end produced the
lost something--a walnut! Holding it up a moment, he presented it to me
with a little forward jerk of the hand and a little inclination of the
head; and that little gesture, so unexpected in him, served to show
that he had thought a good deal about giving the walnut away, and had
looked on it as rather an important present. It was, perhaps, the only
one he had ever made in his life. While giving it to me he said very
nicely, "Pray make use of it."

The use I have made of it is to put it carefully away among other
treasured objects, picked up at odd times in out-of-the-way places. It
may be that some minute mysterious insect or infinitesimal mite--there
is almost certain to be a special walnut mite--has found an entrance
into this prized nut and fed on its oily meat, reducing it within to a
rust-coloured powder. The grub or mite, or whatever it is, may do so at
its pleasure, and flourish and grow fat, and rear a numerous family,
and get them out if it can; but all these corroding processes and
changes going on inside the shell do not in the least diminish my nut's
intrinsic value.

W. H. Hudson