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    The Samphire Gatherer

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    Chapter 10
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    At sunset, when the strong wind from the sea was beginning to feel
    cold, I stood on the top of the sandhill looking down at an old woman
    hurrying about over the low damp ground beneath--a bit of sea-flat
    divided from the sea by the ridge of sand; and I wondered at her,
    because her figure was that of a feeble old woman, yet she moved--I had
    almost said flitted--over that damp level ground in a surprisingly
    swift light manner, pausing at intervals to stoop and gather something
    from the surface. But I couldn't see her distinctly enough to satisfy
    myself: the sun was sinking below the horizon, and that dimness in the
    air and coldness in the wind at day's decline, when the year too was
    declining, made all objects look dim. Going down to her I found that
    she was old, with thin grey hair on an uncovered head, a lean dark face
    with regular features and grey eyes that were not old and looked
    steadily at mine, affecting me with a sudden mysterious sadness. For
    they were unsmiling eyes and themselves expressed an unutterable
    sadness, as it appeared to me at the first swift glance; or perhaps not
    that, as it presently seemed, but a shadowy something which sadness had
    left in them, when all pleasure and all interest in life forsook her,
    with all affections, and she no longer cherished either memories or
    hopes. This may be nothing but conjecture or fancy, but if she had been
    a visitor from another world she could not have seemed more strange to
    me.

    I asked her what she was doing there so late in the day, and she
    answered in a quiet even voice which had a shadow in it too, that she
    was gathering samphire of that kind which grows on the flat saltings
    and has a dull green leek-like fleshy leaf. At this season, she
    informed me, it was fit for gathering to pickle and put by for use
    during the year. She carried a pail to put it in, and a table-knife in
    her hand to dig the plants up by the roots, and she also had an old
    sack in which she put every dry stick and chip of wood she came across.
    She added that she had gathered samphire at this same spot every August
    end for very many years.

    I prolonged the conversation, questioning her and listening with
    affected interest to her mechanical answers, while trying to fathom
    those unsmiling, unearthly eyes that looked so steadily at mine.

    And presently, as we talked, a babble of human voices reached our ears,
    and half turning we saw the crowd, or rather procession, of golfers
    coming from the golf-house by the links where they had been drinking
    tea. Ladies and gentlemen players, forty or more of them, following in
    a loose line, in couples and small groups, on their way to the Golfers'
    Hotel, a little further up the coast; a remarkably good-looking lot
    with well-fed happy faces, well-dressed and in a merry mood, all freely
    talking and laughing. Some were staying at the hotel, and for the
    others a score or so of motor-cars were standing before its gates to
    take them inland to their homes, or to houses where they were staying.

    We suspended the conversation while they were passing us, within three
    yards of where we stood, and as they passed the story of the links
    where they had been amusing themselves since luncheon-time came into my
    mind. The land there was owned by an old, an ancient, family; they had
    occupied it, so it is said, since the Conquest; but the head of the
    house was now poor, having no house property in London, no coal mines
    in Wales, no income from any other source than the land, the twenty or
    thirty thousand acres let for farming. Even so he would not have been
    poor, strictly speaking, but for the sons, who preferred a life of
    pleasure in town, where they probably had private establishments of
    their own. At all events they kept race-horses, and had their cars, and
    lived in the best clubs, and year by year the patient old father was
    called upon to discharge their debts of honour. It was a painful
    position for so estimable a man to be placed in, and he was much pitied
    by his friends and neighbours, who regarded him as a worthy
    representative of the best and oldest family in the county. But he was
    compelled to do what he could to make both ends meet, and one of the
    little things he did was to establish golf-links over a mile or so of
    sand-hills, lying between the ancient coast village and the sea, and to
    build and run a Golfers' Hotel in order to attract visitors from all
    parts. In this way, incidentally, the villagers were cut off from their
    old direct way to the sea and deprived of those barren dunes, which
    were their open space and recreation ground and had stood them in the
    place of a common for long centuries. They were warned off and told
    that they must use a path to the beach which took them over half a mile
    from the village. And they had been very humble and obedient and had
    made no complaint. Indeed, the agent had assured them that they had
    every reason to be grateful to the overlord, since in return for that
    trivial inconvenience they had been put to they would have the golfers
    there, and there would be employment for some of the village boys as
    caddies. Nevertheless, I had discovered that they were not grateful but
    considered that an injustice had been done to them, and it rankled in
    their hearts.

    I remembered all this while the golfers were streaming by, and wondered
    if this poor woman did not, like her fellow-villagers, cherish a secret
    bitterness against those who had deprived them of the use of the dunes
    where for generations they had been accustomed to walk or sit or lie on
    the loose yellow sands among the barren grasses, and had also cut off
    their direct way to the sea where they went daily in search of bits of
    firewood and whatever else the waves threw up which would be a help to
    them in their poor lives.

    If it be so, I thought, some change will surely come into those
    unchanging eyes at the sight of all these merry, happy golfers on their
    way to their hotel and their cars and luxurious homes. But though I
    watched her face closely there was no change, no faintest trace of ill-
    feeling or feeling of any kind; only that same shadow which had been
    there was there still, and her fixed eyes were like those of a captive
    bird or animal, that gaze at us, yet seem not to see us but to look
    through and beyond us. And it was the same when they had all gone by
    and we finished our talk and I put money in her hand; she thanked me
    without a smile, in the same quiet even tone of voice in which she had
    replied to my question about the samphire.

    I went up once more to the top of the ridge, and looking down saw her
    again as I had seen her at first, only dimmer, swiftly, lightly moving
    or flitting moth-like or ghost-like over the low flat salting, still
    gathering samphire in the cold wind, and the thought that came to me
    was that I was looking at and had been interviewing a being that was
    very like a ghost, or in any case a soul, a something which could not
    be described, like certain atmospheric effects in earth and water and
    sky which are ignored by the landscape painter. To protect himself he
    cultivates what is called the "sloth of the eye": he thrusts his
    fingers into his ears so to speak, not to hear that mocking voice that
    follows and mocks him with his miserable limitations. He who seeks to
    convey his impressions with a pen is almost as badly off: the most he
    can do in such instances as the one related, is to endeavour to convey
    the emotion evoked by what he has witnessed.

    Let me then take the case of the man who has trained his eyes, or
    rather whose vision has unconsciously trained itself, to look at every
    face he meets, to find in most cases something, however little, of the
    person's inner life. Such a man could hardly walk the length of the
    Strand and Fleet-street or of Oxford-street without being startled at
    the sight of a face which haunts him with its tragedy, its mystery, the
    strange things it has half revealed. But it does not haunt him long;
    another arresting face follows, and then another, and the impressions
    all fade and vanish from the memory in a little while. But from time to
    time, at long intervals, once perhaps in a lustrum, he will encounter a
    face that will not cease to haunt him, whose vivid impression will not
    fade for years. It was a face and eyes of that kind which I met in the
    samphire gatherer on that cold evening; but the mystery of it is a
    mystery still.
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