Story type: Essay
When the drone of the thresher breaks through the autumn sighing of trees and wind, or through that stillness of the first frost, I get restless and more restless, till, throwing down my pen, I have gone out to see. For there is nothing like the sight of threshing for making one feel good–not in the sense of comfort, but at heart. There, under the pines and the already leafless elms and beech-trees, close to the great stacks, is the big, busy creature, with its small black puffing engine astern; and there, all around it, is that conglomeration of unsentimental labour which invests all the crises of farm work with such fascination. The crew of the farm is only five all told, but to-day they are fifteen, and none strangers, save the owners of the travelling thresher.
They are working without respite and with little speech, not at all as if they had been brought together for the benefit of some one else’s corn, but as though they, one and all, had a private grudge against Time and a personal pleasure in finishing this job, which, while it lasts, is bringing them extra pay and most excellent free feeding. Just as after a dilatory voyage a crew will brace themselves for the run in, recording with sudden energy their consciousness of triumph over the elements, so on a farm the harvests of hay and corn, sheep-shearing, and threshing will bring out in all a common sentiment, a kind of sporting energy, a defiant spurt, as it were, to score off Nature; for it is only a philosopher here and there among them, I think, who sees that Nature is eager to be scored off in this fashion, being anxious that some one should eat her kindly fruits.
With ceremonial as grave as that which is at work within the thresher itself, the tasks have been divided. At the root of all things, pitchforking from the stack, stands–the farmer, moustached, and always upright was he not in the Yeomanry?–dignified in a hard black hat, no waistcoat, and his working coat so ragged that it would never cling to him but for pure affection. Between him and the body of the machine are five more pitch forks, directing the pale flood of raw material. There, amongst them, is poor Herd, still so sad from his summer loss, plodding doggedly away. To watch him even now makes one feel how terrible is that dumb grief which has never learned to moan. And there is George Yeoford, almost too sober; and Murdon plying his pitchfork with a supernatural regularity that cannot quite dim his queer brigand’s face of dark, soft gloom shot with sudden humours, his soft, dark corduroys and battered hat. Occasionally he stops, and taking off that hat, wipes his corrugated brow under black hair, and seems to brood over his own regularity.
Down here, too, where I stand, each separate function of the thresher has its appointed slave. Here Cedric rakes the chaff pouring from the side down into the chaff-shed. Carting the straw that streams from the thresher bows, are Michelmore and Neck–the little man who cannot read, but can milk and whistle the hearts out of his cows till they follow him like dogs. At the thresher’s stern is Morris, the driver, selected because of that utter reliability which radiates from his broad, handsome face. His part is to attend the sacking of the three kinds of grain for ever sieving out. He murmurs: “Busy work, sir!” and opens a little door to show me how “the machinery does it all,” holding a sack between his knees and some string in his white teeth. Then away goes the sack–four bushels, one hundred and sixty pounds of “genuines, seconds, or seed”–wheeled by Cedric on a little trolley thing, to where George-the-Gaul or Jim-the-Early-Saxon is waiting to bear it on his back up the stone steps into the corn-chamber.
It has been raining in the night; the ground is a churn of straw and mud, and the trees still drip; but now there is sunlight, a sweet air, and clear sky, wine-coloured through the red, naked, beechtwigs tipped with white untimely buds. Nothing can be more lovely than this late autumn day, so still, save for the droning of the thresher and the constant tinny chuckle of the grey, thin-headed Guinea-fowl, driven by this business away from their usual haunts.
And soon the feeling that I knew would come begins creeping over me, the sense of an extraordinary sanity in this never-ceasing harmonious labour pursued in the autumn air faintly perfumed with wood-smoke, with the scent of chaff, and whiffs from that black puffing-Billy; the sense that there is nothing between this clean toil–not too hard but hard enough–and the clean consumption of its clean results; the sense that nobody except myself is in the least conscious of how sane it all is. The brains of these sane ones are all too busy with the real affairs of life, the disposition of their wages, anticipation of dinner, some girl, some junketing, some wager, the last rifle match, and, more than all, with that pleasant rhythmic nothingness, companion of the busy swing and play of muscles, which of all states is secretly most akin to the deep unconsciousness of life itself. Thus to work in the free air for the good of all and the hurt of none, without worry or the breath of acrimony–surely no phase of human life so nears the life of the truly civilised community–the life of a hive of bees. Not one of these working so sanely–unless it be Morris, who will spend his Sunday afternoon on some high rock just watching sunlight and shadow drifting on the moors–not one, I think, is distraught by perception of his own sanity, by knowledge of how near he is to Harmony, not even by appreciation of the still radiance of this day, or its innumerable fine shades of colour. It is all work, and no moody consciousness–all work, and will end in sleep.
I leave them soon, and make my way up the stone steps to the “corn chamber,” where tranquillity is crowned. In the whitewashed room the corn lies in drifts and ridges, three to four feet deep, all silvery-dun, like some remote sand desert, lifeless beneath the moon. Here it lies, and into it, staggering under the sacks, George-the-Gaul and Jim-the-Early Saxon tramp up to their knees, spill the sacks over their heads, and out again; and above where their feet have plunged the patient surface closes again, smooth. And as I stand there in the doorway, looking at that silvery corn drift, I think of the whole process, from seed sown to the last sieving into this tranquil resting-place. I think of the slow, dogged ploughman, with the crows above him on the wind; of the swing of the sower’s arm, dark up against grey sky on the steep field. I think of the seed snug-burrowing for safety, and its mysterious ferment under the warm Spring rain, of the soft green shoots tapering up so shyly toward the first sun, and hardening in air to thin wiry stalk. I think of the unnumerable tiny beasts that have jangled in that pale forest; of the winged blue jewels of butterfly risen from it to hover on the wild-rustling blades; of that continual music played there by the wind; of the chicory and poppy flowers that have been its lights-o’ love, as it grew tawny and full of life, before the appointed date when it should return to its captivity. I think of that slow-travelling hum and swish which laid it low, of the gathering to stack, and the long waiting under the rustle and drip of the sheltering trees, until yesterday the hoot of the thresher blew, and there began the falling into this dun silvery peace. Here it will lie with the pale sun narrowly filtering in on it, and by night the pale moon, till slowly, week by week, it is stolen away, and its ridges and drifts sink and sink, and the beasts have eaten it all….
When the dusk is falling, I go out to them again. They have nearly finished now; the chaff in the chaff-shed is mounting hillock-high; only the little barley stack remains unthreshed. Mrs. George-the-Gaul is standing with a jug to give drink to the tired ones. Some stars are already netted in the branches of the pines; the Guinea-fowl are silent. But still the harmonious thresher hums and showers from three sides the straw, the chaff, the corn; and the men fork, and rake, and cart, and carry, sleep growing in their muscles, silence on their tongues, and the tranquillity of the long day nearly ended in their souls. They will go on till it is quite dark.