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The Reaper by Dorothy Easton

(From The English Review)

1922

Milgate is a rich farmer, owning his own machines; not like those poorer, smaller men who hire an engine from a neighbour. He has his reaping machine, a red and yellow “Walter Wood” Cleveland brand. Every morning now, as soon as it's dry enough, about nine o'clock, the engine starts, and from the farmer's Manor House its heavy, drowsy sounds are heard. For those on the machine the noise is harder. The only human sound that penetrates it is the old conductor's “Ohoy!” to the driver if the canvas sticks, or if weeds are making a “block.” Then the young man in front slows his engine down, and wipes his forehead with his hand. Reaping goes on until nine at night.

No strange workman sits on the reaper, but one of Milgate's best men, the most trustworthy, most faithful—the waggoner; a man well over sixty, with side-whiskers, grey eyes, a long nose, and forehead and chin carved out of granite. On his head a flat “wide-awake” hat, on his bent back a white jacket. When he speaks, his mouth moves sideways first; there's always a spot of dried blood on his lip; when he smiles a tooth-stump appears like an ancient fossil. He talks slowly, stopping to spit now and then; every day of his life he gets up at half-past three. Now, mounted on the high iron seat (a crumpled sack for saddle), he rides like some old charioteer, a Hercules with great bowed back, head jutting out, chin straight; a hard, weathered look about his face, and in his heart disgust—this year, for the first time, they are using a motor engine to pull the reaper round instead of horses. He lives for his horses; he's the “Waggoner,” they are his “job;” if one falls ill, he sleeps with it. He believes in horses; but, speaking of the motor, he says: “She's arlraight—when she's arlraight!” with a look which ends the sentence for him! In his youth he had reaped with a scythe.

This “Walter Wood” is a neat arrangement, you can't deny that; one bit of mechanism works as a divider, while a big, light kind of wooden windmill arrangement, continually revolving, beats the corn down into a flat pan from which it's carried, on a canvas slide, up an incline, then shot over and down the other side in one continual long, flat stream like yellow matting. And then the needle, the “threadle” as he calls it, nips in somewhere, binding the flat mass into separate, neat, round sheaves, pitched out every few moments with perfect precision by a three-pronged iron fork. Above the one big, heavy central wheel the charioteer is shaken and jolted from nine till nine. In front, on another iron seat by the boxlike engine, the driver works. Behind runs a red-faced labourer “clearing corners.” The motor has to run out the full length of its cogged iron wheel bands before it can turn, and sheaves dropped on the last round get in the way; so at each corner they have to be lifted and set back. The labourer “clears,” then runs after the machine—now half-way up the field—stops at the next corner, stoops once more to lift and shift three sheaves, then runs again.

This labourer was a man of forty with a face as naive as a boy of fifteen. Though getting bald, his eyes were young; his mouth loose, untrained as a child's. He's “touched,” as we say, and had never really grown up. He slept in an attic, ate in a kitchen, and worked, but was not “responsible;” he was always given “light jobs”—walking with the “clappers,” weeding, cleaning sties, “clearing.” His greatest friend was a boy of twelve; on Sundays they'd laugh for an hour at nothing. Going to the coast for the first time last year, he was so taken by a Punch and Judy show that he never saw the sea. His smile was the most ridiculous thing in the world. He blushed continually, panted, grinned like some boy caught kissing, and was always apologetic. Lightning made him hide his head, and he was afraid of engines—their regularity upset him. Running behind the reaper—this quick-moving, noisy thing smelling of oil, made up of sliding chains—appalled him; there were five wheels at an angle, and all the time an oil-wet, black, flat, chain-band ran round over them! Underneath, the heavy central wheel ran round and round! To the imbecile the waggoner's courage appeared supernatural.

There should have been another man to take two corners, but all hands were wanted; so the labourer had to run all day. It was hot, no wind, no shade. If he looked up for a moment, the hills and distant elms appeared bright blue. The big field itself was ablaze with colour; wheat like brown burnt amber, poppies, small white daisies, thistles. When the engine stopped the only sounds were plaintive, anxious bird-calls from the centre of the field; sometimes a rabbit or a hare looked out, then bolted back. Once five graceful, sleek, brown pheasants ran out towards the hedge, then lost their nerve, turned and went running back. The sun shone steadily; sheaves picked up by the labourer made his hands smell oily, their string band raised a blister on his forefinger. Very often he grabbed hold of nettles and sharp thistles, and the backs of his hands were swollen and covered with stings. Blue butterflies twirled in front of his face, pale moths flew out. When his hat fell off he had no time to get it. The sweat ran down his egg-shaped forehead to his long, square, hairy chin (though he could shave himself on Sundays, he looked a little like a monkey).

When the engine stuck, the waggoner asked in his slow, flat voice:

“Woan't she speak?”

“She's not comin' out!” was the youth's reply.

Once the driver was thrown up a foot when the motor went over a hole. He yelled: “Men are often killed by the reaper.” The imbecile got the startled look of a child seeing snakes at the Zoo. Each time the engine snorted, or the waggoner called out “Ohoy!” a spurt of sweat ran down his spine; the blood was beating in his head; the sun shone mercilessly on his pale, bald patch; the field began to bounce before his eyes, bloodshot from stooping. When yards of bindweed shackled the machinery, the waggoner just turned his head—a sign—for the labourer, who had to run, had to catch and tear away the long green chains full of small pink flowers.

By four o'clock they were overtaking him before he got round; the driver had to turn more sharply, the canvas stuck.

“Doan you do that agen!” the old waggoner scolded with stern eye; “you'll tourn us oover!”

The engine stuck when they tried to start again; for half an hour the young driver tinkered with tools from the box, unscrewing small oily “nuts,” testing “wires,” feeling “levers,” and in desperation wiping his black, dripping hands on his hair. Twenty times he turned the “starting handle,” but “she wouldn't speak!” Then, suddenly, with a sound like a pistol-shot, the engine “fired,” the machine ran backwards, upsetting the labourer, and before he could move, the central wheel ran over his ankles.

When the imbecile came to himself they were still at the corner, his feet were tied up in a jacket, he was suffering horribly, yet seemed unable to focus it; but seeing the red and yellow reaper standing close beside his head, some memory soaked his face with sweat; he fainted.

Brandy was fetched; they had lifted him on to a hurdle when he recovered again. The whole group were still at the corner. His employer stood there, stout, well-dressed, and anxious, in his grey felt hat, dark coat and trousers; the driver stood there, too, and the old waggoner. Corn was still “up” in the middle of the field. The labourer looked surprised at seeing sky before him; as a rule when he stared he saw fields. He turned his face; the men watching saw his round, boyish eyes project at sight of something red and wet and sticky (like the mess they made out sheep-killing) splashed on the stubble, while two broken boots lay oozing the same stuff in a large pool of it. Following this look, the old waggoner said slowly:

“Eh, me boy, they'm youers....” Tears were running down his stiff, dried cheeks.

“How d'you feel?” asked the farmer. His labourer blushed, then whispered to the waggoner:

“What's 'appened, Mister Collard?”

“Why, you've a-loarst your feet.”

For yet another minute the imbecile lay panting, shy, self-conscious under his master's eye—until an idea struck him; once more whispering to the waggoner, he said:

“'Elp me oop. I'll get 'ome, Willy.”

“You carn't walk,” said the old man simply. “You carn't walk no moar.”

Black hairs stiffened suddenly on the idiot's chin; he had understood that in those bleeding, mangled boots his feet were lying; he began to cry. But then, catching sight of his master, smiled as though to apologise——

 
 
 

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