The news was true. The life--the one fragile life--that had been used as a
measuring-tape of time by law, was in danger of being frayed away. It was the
last of a group of lives which had served this purpose, at the end of whose
breathings the small homestead occupied by South himself, the larger one of
Giles Winterborne, and half a dozen others that had been in the possession of
various Hintock village families for the previous hundred years, and were now
Winterborne's, would fall in and become part of the encompassing estate.
Yet a short two months earlier Marty's father, aged fifty-five years, though
something of a fidgety, anxious being, would have been looked on as a man
whose existence was so far removed from hazardous as any in the parish, and
as bidding fair to be prolonged for another quarter of a century.
Winterborne walked up and down his garden next day thinking of the
contingency. The sense that the paths he was pacing, the cabbage- plots, the
apple-trees, his dwelling, cider-cellar, wring-house, stables, and weathercock,
were all slipping away over his head and beneath his feet, as if they were painted
on a magic-lantern slide, was curious. In spite of John South's late indisposition
he had not anticipated danger. To inquire concerning his health had been to
show less sympathy than to remain silent, considering the material interest he
possessed in the woodman's life, and he had, accordingly, made a point of
avoiding Marty's house.
While he was here in the garden somebody came to fetch him. It was Marty
herself, and she showed her distress by her unconsciousness of a cropped poll.
"Father is still so much troubled in his mind about that tree," she said. "You know
the tree I mean, Mr. Winterborne? the tall one in front of the house, that he thinks
will blow down and kill us. Can you come and see if you can persuade him out of
his notion? I can do nothing."
He accompanied her to the cottage, and she conducted him up- stairs. John
South was pillowed up in a chair between the bed and the window exactly
opposite the latter, towards which his face was turned.
"Ah, neighbor Winterborne," he said. "I wouldn't have minded if my life had only
been my own to lose; I don't vallie it in much of itself, and can let it go if 'tis
required of me. But to think what 'tis worth to you, a young man rising in life, that
do trouble me! It seems a trick of dishonesty towards ye to go off at fifty-five! I
could bear up, I know I could, if it were not for the tree--yes, the tree, 'tis that's
killing me. There he stands, threatening my life every minute that the wind do