Just eighteen months after I was travelling up to London in the Zulu express. A large Fair Trade meeting had been held at Plymouth the night before, and three farmers in the compartment with me were discussing that morning’s leader in the Western Daily Mercury. One of them had already been goaded into violent speech when we halted at Newton Abbot and another passenger stepped in—a little old man in a suit of black.
I recognised him at once. And yet he was changed woefully. He had fallen away in flesh; the lines had deepened beside his upper lip; and in spite of a glossier suit he had an appearance of hopelessness which he had not worn when I saw him for the first time.
He took his seat, looked about him vacantly and caught the eye of the angry farmer, who nodded, broke off his speech in the middle of a sentence, and asked in a curiously gentle voice—
“Travellin’ up to Exeter?”
The old man bent his head for “yes,” and I saw the tears well up in his weak eyes.
“There’s no need vur to ax your arrand.” The farmer here dropped his tone almost to a whisper.
“Naw, naw. I be goin’ up to berry ’en. Ees, vriends,” he went on, looking around and asking, with that glance, the sympathy of all present, “to berry my zon, my clever zon, my only zon.”
Nobody spoke for a few seconds. Then the kindly farmer observed—
“Aye, I’ve heerd zay a’ was very clever to his traaede. ‘Uxtable an’ Co., his employers, spoke very handsome of ’en, they tell me. I can’t call to maind, tho’, that I’ve a-zet eyes ’pon the young man since he was a little tacker.”
The old man began to fumble in his breastpocket, and drawing out a photograph, handed it across.
“That’s the last that was took of ’en.”
“Pore young chap,” said the farmer, holding the likeness level with his eyes and studying it; “Pore young chap! Zuch a respectable lad to look at! They tell me a’ made ye a gude zon, too.”
“Gude?” The tears ran down the father’s face and splashed on his hands, trembling as they folded over the knob of his stout stick. “Gude? I b’lieve, vriends, ye’ll call it gude when a young man zends the third o’ his earnin’s week by week to help his parents. That’s what my zon did, vrum the taime he left whome. An’ presunts—never a month went by, but zome little gift ud come by the postman; an’ little ’twas he’d got to live ’pon, at the best, the dear lad—”
The farmer was passing back the photograph. “May I see it?” I asked: and the old man nodded.
It was the same face—the same suit, even—that had roused my contempt eighteen months before.