Extract of The Farthing Mark

It was a hot summer, the summer of 1886, when Hannah first saw the man. She had been in the front garden and happened to look up at the summit of the downs just as he came into view. Nearing midday, the sun was high in the sky and she had to lift her hand to shield her eyes so that she could see more clearly, but something compelled her to watch the man's progress.

     At first it wasn't apparent how tall he was because he was bent over the burden on his cart, but as he began the slow descent, he leant back, digging his heels into the dusty track in his effort to prevent the weight of the cart running away with him. And then she could see that he was a tall man, uncommonly tall, in stiff Sunday clothes and a hard felt hat obscuring the upper half of his face so that the only part visible was a square chin and a wide mouth set in a grim line.

     A small girl trailed in his shadow, dragging along a smaller boy. A solemn girl of six or seven, who kept craning her head upwards to dart uncertain eyes at the man, like a young dog trying to judge its master's mood and hoping to understand what was expected of it. She, too, was in her Sunday best; a blue cotton dress covered by a spotless white apron. On her feet she wore black button boots, coated with a fine film of dust, and her bright golden hair was tied back from her face with a blue ribbon. The little boy sucked his thumb.

     Every so often the man stopped to adjust his load, unhurriedly and with great care as if the cart contained his most precious possession. He stroked the box and patted it two or three times before resuming his journey.

     Hannah, curious, watched him as he came into the lane that led past her cottage and into the village. She was still standing at the gate as he passed by. He neither paused not greeted her, but continued on, staring straight ahead as if he hadn't seen her. The small boy, still sucking his thumb, fingers hooked over his nose, twisted his head to look back at her with round and innocent eyes.

     Hannah saw then what was on the cart. It was a plain wooden box made of new wood, partly covered by a cloth of worn linen. She wished now that she hadn't been standing there and lowered her eyes.

She hadn't realised the man was taking a coffin to the graveyard.

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