Two old labourers came out of the lane leading to Great End Farm. Both carried bags slung on sticks over their shoulders. One, the eldest and tallest, was a handsome fellow, with regular features and a delicately humorous mouth. His stoop and his slouching gait, the gray locks also, which straggled from under his broad hat, showed him an old man—probably very near his old-age pension. But he carried still with him a look of youth, and he had been a splendid creature in his time. The other was short of stature and of neck, bent besides by field work. A broadly-built, clumsy man, with something gnome-like about him, and the cheerful look of one whose country nerves had never known the touch of worry or long sickness. The name of the taller man was Peter Halsey, and Joseph Batts was his companion.
It was a fine July evening, with a cold north wind blowing from the plain which lay stretched to their right. Under the unclouded sun, which by its own “sun-time” had only reached half-past four in the afternoon, though the clock in the village church had already struck half-past five, the air was dry and parching, and the fields all round, the road itself, and the dusty hedges showed signs of long drought.
“It du want rain,” said Peter Halsey, looking at a crop of oats through an open gate, “it du want rain—bad.”
“Aye!” said the other, “that it du. Muster Shenstone had better ’a read the prayer for rain lasst Sunday, I’m thinkin’, than all them long ones as ee did read.”
Halsey was silent a moment, his half-smiling eyes glancing from side to side. At last he said slowly,—
“We du be prayin’ a lot about ower sins, and Muster Shenstone is allus preachin’ about ’em. But it’s the sins o’ the Garmins I be thinkin’ of. If it hadn’t a bin for the sins o’ the Garmins my Tom wouldn’t ha’ lost ’is right hand.”
“An’ ower Jim wouldn’t be goin’ into them trenches next November as ever is,” put in Batts. “It’s the sins o’ the Garmins as ha’ done that, an’ nothin’ as you or I ha’ done, Peter.”
Halsey shook his head assentingly.
“Noa—for all that pratin’, pacifist chap was sayin’ lasst week. I didn’t believe a word ee said. ‘Yis,’ I says, ’if you want this war to stop, I’m o’ your mind,’ I says, ’but when you tells me as England done it—you’m—’”
The short man burst into a cackling laugh.
“‘You’m a liar!’ Did you say that, Peter?”
Peter fenced a little.
“There be more ways nor one o’ speakin’ your mind,” he said at last. “But I stood up to un. Did you hear, Batts, as Great End Farm is let?”
The old man turned an animated look on his companion.
“Well, for sure!” said Batts, astonished. “An’ who’s the man?”
“It’s not a man. It’s a woman.”
“A woman!” repeated Batts, wondering. “Well, these be funny times to live in, when the women go ridin’ astride an’ hay-balin’, an’ steam-ploughin’, an’ the Lord knows what. And now they must be takin’ the farms, and turnin’ out the men. Well, for sure.”