‘Won’t it hurt your hands for sewing?’ asked Philip.
‘Oh, no, it wants soft hands. That’s why women pick better than men. If your hands are hard and your fingers all stiff with a lot of rough work you can’t pick near so well.’
He liked to see her deft movements, and she watched him too now and then with that maternal spirit of hers which was so amusing and yet so charming. He was clumsy at first, and she laughed at him. When she bent over and showed him how best to deal with a whole line their hands met. He was surprised to see her blush. He could not persuade himself that she was a woman; because he had known her as a flapper, he could not help looking upon her as a child still; yet the number of her admirers showed that she was a child no longer; and though they had only been down a few days one of Sally’s cousins was already so attentive that she had to endure a lot of chaffing. His name was Peter Gann, and he was the son of Mrs. Athelny’s sister, who had married a farmer near Ferne. Everyone knew why he found it necessary to walk through the hop-field every day.
A call-off by the sounding of a horn was made for breakfast at eight, and though Mrs. Athelny told them they had not deserved it, they ate it very heartily. They set to work again and worked till twelve, when the horn sounded once more for dinner. At intervals the measurer went his round from bin to bin, accompanied by the booker, who entered first in his own book and then in the hopper’s the number of bushels picked. As each bin was filled it was measured out in bushel baskets into a huge bag called a poke; and this the measurer and the pole-puller carried off between them and put on the waggon. Athelny came back now and then with stories of how much Mrs. Heath or Mrs. Jones had picked, and he conjured his family to beat her: he was always wanting to make records, and sometimes in his enthusiasm picked steadily for an hour. His chief amusement in it, however, was that it showed the beauty of his graceful hands, of which he was excessively proud. He spent much time manicuring them. He told Philip, as he stretched out his tapering fingers, that the Spanish grandees had always slept in oiled gloves to preserve their whiteness. The hand that wrung the throat of Europe, he remarked dramatically, was as shapely and exquisite as a woman’s; and he looked at his own, as he delicately picked the hops, and sighed with self-satisfaction. When he grew tired of this he rolled himself a cigarette and discoursed to Philip of art and literature. In the afternoon it grew very hot. Work did not proceed so actively and conversation halted. The incessant chatter of the morning dwindled now to desultory remarks. Tiny beads of sweat stood on Sally’s upper lip, and as she worked her lips were slightly parted. She was like a rosebud bursting into flower.
Calling-off time depended on the state of the oast-house. Sometimes it was filled early, and as many hops had been picked by three or four as could be dried during the night. Then work was stopped. But generally the last measuring of the day began at five. As each company had its bin measured it gathered up its things and, chatting again now that work was over, sauntered out of the garden. The women went back to the huts to clean up and prepare the supper, while a good many of the men strolled down the road to the public-house. A glass of beer was very pleasant after the day’s work.
The Athelnys’ bin was the last to be dealt with. When the measurer came Mrs. Athelny, with a sigh of relief, stood up and stretched her arms: she had been sitting in the same position for many hours and was stiff.
‘Now, let’s go to The Jolly Sailor,’ said Athelny. ‘The rites of the day must be duly performed, and there is none more sacred than that.’
‘Take a jug with you, Athelny,’ said his wife, ‘and bring back a pint and a half for supper.’
She gave him the money, copper by copper. The bar-parlour was already well filled. It had a sanded floor, benches round it, and yellow pictures of Victorian prize-fighters on the walls. The licencee knew all his customers by name, and he leaned over his bar smiling benignly at two young men who were throwing rings on a stick that stood up from the floor: their failure was greeted with a good deal of hearty chaff from the rest of the company. Room was made for the new arrivals. Philip found himself sitting between an old labourer in corduroys, with string tied under his knees, and a shiny-faced lad of seventeen with a love-lock neatly plastered on his red forehead. Athelny insisted on trying his hand at the throwing of rings. He backed himself for half a pint and won it. As he drank the loser’s health he said:
‘I would sooner have won this than won the Derby, my boy.’
He was an outlandish figure, with his wide-brimmed hat and pointed beard, among those country folk, and it was easy to see that they thought him very queer; but his spirits were so high, his enthusiasm so contagious, that it was impossible not to like him. Conversation went easily. A certain number of pleasantries were exchanged in the broad, slow accent of the Isle of Thanet, and there was uproarious laughter at the sallies of the local wag. A pleasant gathering! It would have been a hard-hearted person who did not feel a glow of satisfaction in his fellows. Philip’s eyes wandered out of the window where it was bright and sunny still; there were little white curtains in it tied up with red ribbon like those of a cottage window, and on the sill were pots of geraniums. In due course one by one the idlers got up and sauntered back to the meadow where supper was cooking.
‘I expect you’ll be ready for your bed,’ said Mrs. Athelny to Philip. ‘You’re not used to getting up at five and staying in the open air all day.’
‘You’re coming to bathe with us, Uncle Phil, aren’t you?’ the boys cried.
He was tired and happy. After supper, balancing himself against the wall of the hut on a chair without a back, he smoked his pipe and looked at the night. Sally was busy. She passed in and out of the hut, and he lazily watched her methodical actions. Her walk attracted his notice; it was not particularly graceful, but it was easy and assured; she swung her legs from the hips, and her feet seemed to tread the earth with decision. Athelny had gone off to gossip with one of the neighbours, and presently Philip heard his wife address the world in general.
‘There now, I’m out of tea and I wanted Athelny to go down to Mrs. Black’s and get some.’ A pause, and then her voice was raised: ‘Sally, just run down to Mrs. Black’s and get me half a pound of tea, will you? I’ve run quite out of it.’
‘All right, mother.’
Mrs. Black had a cottage about half a mile along the road, and she combined the office of postmistress with that of universal provider. Sally came out of the hut, turning down her sleeves.
‘Shall I come with you, Sally?’ asked Philip.
‘Don’t you trouble. I’m not afraid to go alone.’
‘I didn’t think you were; but it’s getting near my bedtime, and I was just thinking I’d like to stretch my legs.’
Sally did not answer, and they set out together. The road was white and silent. There was not a sound in the summer night. They did not speak much.
‘It’s quite hot even now, isn’t it?’ said Philip.
‘I think it’s wonderful for the time of year.’
But their silence did not seem awkward. They found it was pleasant to walk side by side and felt no need of words. Suddenly at a stile in the hedgerow they heard a low murmur of voices, and in the darkness they saw the outline of two people. They were sitting very close to one another and did not move as Philip and Sally passed.
‘I wonder who that was,’ said Sally.
‘They looked happy enough, didn’t they?’
‘I expect they took us for lovers too.’
They saw the light of the cottage in front of them, and in a minute went into the little shop. The glare dazzled them for a moment.
‘You are late,’ said Mrs. Black. ‘I was just going to shut up.’ She looked at the clock. ‘Getting on for nine.’
Sally asked for her half pound of tea (Mrs. Athelny could never bring herself to buy more than half a pound at a time), and they set off up the road again. Now and then some beast of the night made a short, sharp sound, but it seemed only to make the silence more marked.
‘I believe if you stood still you could hear the sea,’ said Sally.
They strained their ears, and their fancy presented them with a faint sound of little waves lapping up against the shingle. When they passed the stile again the lovers were still there, but now they were not speaking; they were in one another’s arms, and the man’s lips were pressed against the girl’s.
‘They seem busy,’ said Sally.
They turned a corner, and a breath of warm wind beat for a moment against their faces. The earth gave forth its freshness. There was something strange in the tremulous night, and something, you knew not what, seemed to be waiting; the silence was on a sudden pregnant with meaning. Philip had a queer feeling in his heart, it seemed very full, it seemed to melt (the hackneyed phrases expressed precisely the curious sensation), he felt happy and anxious and expectant. To his memory came back those lines in which Jessica and Lorenzo murmur melodious words to one another, capping each other’s utterance; but passion shines bright and clear through the conceits that amuse them. He did not know what there was in the air that made his senses so strangely alert; it seemed to him that he was pure soul to enjoy the scents and the sounds and the savours of the earth. He had never felt such an exquisite capacity for beauty. He was afraid that Sally by speaking would break the spell, but she said never a word, and he wanted to hear the sound of her voice. Its low richness was the voice of the country night itself.
They arrived at the field through which she had to walk to get back to the huts. Philip went in to hold the gate open for her.
‘Well, here I think I’ll say good-night.’
‘Thank you for coming all that way with me.’
She gave him her hand, and as he took it, he said:
‘If you were very nice you’d kiss me good-night like the rest of the family.’
‘I don’t mind,’ she said.
Philip had spoken in jest. He merely wanted to kiss her, because he was happy and he liked her and the night was so lovely.
‘Good-night then,’ he said, with a little laugh, drawing her towards him.
She gave him her lips; they were warm and full and soft; he lingered a little, they were like a flower; then, he knew not how, without meaning it, he flung his arms round her. She yielded quite silently. Her body was firm and strong. He felt her heart beat against his. Then he lost his head. His senses overwhelmed him like a flood of rushing waters. He drew her into the darker shadow of the hedge.