THE HIGGLERCategory: Land + People
On a cold-April afternoon a- higgler, was driving across Shag Moor in a two-wheeled cart. .
H. Witlow Dealer in Poultry Dinnop was painted on the hood; the horse was of mean appearance but notorious ancestry. A high upland common was this moor, two miles from end to end, and full of furze and bracken. There were no trees and not a house, nothing but a line of telegraph poles following the road, sweeping with rigidity from north to south; nailed upon one of them a small scarlet notice to stone-throwers was prominent as a wound. On so high and wide a region as Shag Moor the wind always blew, or if it did not quite blow there was a cool activity in the air. The furze was always green and growing, and, taking no account of seasons, often golden. Here in summer solitude lounged and snoozed; at other times, as now, it shivered and looked sinister.
Higglers in general are ugly and shrewd, old and hard, crafty and callous, but Harvey Witlow, shrewd, was not ugly; he was hard but not old, crafty but not at all unkind. If you had eggs to sell he would buy them, by the score he would, or by the long hundred. Other odds and ends he would buy or do, paying good bright silver, bartering a bag of apples, carrying your little pig to ma’rket, or fetching a tree from the nurseries. But the season was backward, eggs were scarce, trade was bad by crumps, it was indeed!— and as he crossed the moor Harvey could not help discussing the situation with himself.
“If things don’t change, and change for the better, and change soon, I can’t last and I can’t endure it; I’ll be damned and done, and I’ll have to sell,” he said, proddingthe animal with the butt of his whip, “this cob. And,” he said, as if in afterthought, prodding the footboard, “this cart, and go back to the land. And I’ll have lost my fifty pounds. Well, that’s what war does for you. It does it for you, sir,” he announced sharply to the vacant moor, “and it does it for me. Fifty pounds! I was better off in the war. I was better off working for farmers — much. But it’s no good chattering about it, it’s the trick of life; when you get so far, then you can go and order your funeral. Get along, Dodger!”
The horse responded briskly for a few moments.
“I tell ye,” said Harvey adjuring the ambient air, “you can go and order your funeral. Get along, Dodger!”
Again Dodger got along.
“Then there’s Sophy, what about Sophy and me?”
He was not engaged to Sophy Daws, not exactly, but he was keeping company with her. He was not pledged or affianced, he was just keeping company with her. But Sophy, as he knew, not only desired a marriage with Mr Witlow, she expected it, and expected it soon. So did her parents, her friends, and everybody in the village, including the postman who did not live in it but wished he did, and the parson who did live in it but wished he didn’t.
“Well, that’s damned and done, fair damned and done now, unless things take a turn, and soon, so it’s no good chattering about it.”
And just then and there things did take a turn. He had never been across the moor before; he was prospecting for trade. At the end of Shag Moor he saw standing back on the common, fifty yards from the road, a neat square house set in a little farm. Twenty acres, perhaps. The house was girded by some white palings; beside it was a snug orchard in a hedge covered with blackthorn bloom. It was very green and pleasant in front of the house. The turf was cleared and closely cropped, some ewes were grazing and under the blackthorn, out of the wind, lay half a dozen lambs, but what chiefly moved the imagination of Harvey Witlow was a field on the far side of the house. It had a small rickyard with a few small stacks in it; everything here seemed on the small scale, but snug, very snug; and in that field and yard were hundreds of fowls, hundreds, of good breed, and mostly white. Leaving his horse to sniff the greensward, the higgler entered a white wicket gateway and passed to the back of the house, noting as he did so a yellow waggon inscribed Elisabeth Sadgrove, Prattle Corner.
At the kitchen door he was confronted by a tall gaunt woman of middle age with a teapot in her hands.
“Afternoon, ma’am. Have you anything to sell?” began Harvey Witlow, tilting his hat with a confident affable air. The tall woman was cleanly dressed, a superior person; her hair was grey. She gazed at him.
“It’s cold,” he continued. She looked at him as uncomprehendingly as a mouse might look at a gravestone.
“I’ll buy any mottal thing, ma’am. Except trouble; I’m full up wi’ that already. Eggs? Fowls?”
“I’ve not seen you before,” commented Mrs Sadgrove a little bleakly, in a deep husky voice.
“No, ’tis the first time as ever I drove in this part. To tell you the truth, ma’am, I’m new to the business. Six months. I was in the war a year ago. Now I’m trying to knock up a connection. Difficult work. Things are very quiet.”
Mrs Sadgrove silently removed the lid of the teapot, inspected the interior of the pot with an intent glance, and then replaced the lid as if she had seen a blackbeetle there.
“Ah, well,” sighed the higgler. You’ve a neat little farm here, ma’am.”
“It’s quite enough” said she.
“Sure it is, ma’am; but you does it well, I can see. Oh, you’ve some nice little ricks of corn, eh! I does well enough at the dealing now and again, but it’s teasy work, and mostly I don’t earn enough to keep my horse in shoe leather.”
“I’ve a few eggs, perhaps,” said she.
“I could do with a score or two, ma’am, if you could let me have ’em.”
“You’ll have to come all my way if I do.”
“Name your own price, ma’am, if you don’t mind trading with me.”
“Mind! Your money’s as good as my own, isn’t it?”
“It must be ma’am. That’s meaning no disrespects to you,” the young higgler assured her hastily, and was thereupon invited to enter the kitchen.
A stone floor with two or three mats; open hearth with burning logs; a big dresser painted brown, carrying a row of white cups on brass hooks and shelves of plates overlapping each other like the scales of fish. A dark settle half hid a flight of stairs with a small gate at the top. Under the window a black sofa, deeply indented, invited you a little rapellingly, and in the middle of the room stood a large table, exquisitely scrubbed, with one end of it laid for tea. Evidently a living-room as well as kitchen. A girl, making toast at the fire, turned as the higgler entered. Beautiful she was: red hair, a complexion like the inside of a nut, blue eyes, and the hands of a lady. He saw it all at once, jacket of bright green wool, black dress, grey stockings and shoes, and forgot his errand, her mother, his fifty pounds, Sophy — momentarily he forgot everything. The girl stared strangely at him. He was tall, clean-shaven, with a loop of black hair curling handsomely over one side of his brow.
“Good afternoon,” said Harvey Witlow, as softly as if he had entered a church.
“Some eggs, Mary,” Mrs Sadgrove explained. The girl laid down her toasting-fork. She was less tall than her mother, whom she resembled only enough for the relationship to be noted. Silently she crossed the kitchen and opened a door that led into a dairy. Two pans of milk were creaming on a bench there, and on the flags were two great baskets filled with eggs.
“How many are there?” asked Mrs Sadgrove, and the girl replied: “Fifteen score, I think.”
“Take the lot, higgler?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he cried eagerly, and ran out to his cart and fetched a number of trays. In them he packed the eggs as the girl handed them to him from the baskets. Mrs Sadgrove left them together.
(From Fishmongers Fiddle by E. A. Coppard)