The Harvest Song
As it was, Ben ate his roast beef to–night with a serene
sense of having stolen nothing more than a few peas and beans
as seed for his garden since the last harvest supper, and felt
warranted in thinking that Alick’s suspicious eye, for
ever upon him, was an injury to his innocence.
But now the roast beef was finished and the cloth was drawn,
leaving a fair large deal table for the bright drinking–cans,
and the foaming brown jugs, and the bright brass candlesticks,
pleasant to behold. Now, the great ceremony of the evening was
to begin—the harvest–song, in which every man must
join. He might be in tune, if he liked to be singular, but he
must not sit with closed lips. The movement was obliged to be
in triple time; the rest was ad libitum.
As to the origin of this song—whether it came in its actual
state from the brain of a single rhapsodist, or was gradually
perfected by a school or succession of rhapsodists, I am ignorant.
There is a stamp of unity, of individual genius upon it, which
inclines me to the former hypothesis, though I am not blind
to the consideration that this unity may rather have arisen
from that consensus of many minds which was a condition of primitive
thought, foreign to our modern consciousness. Some will perhaps
think that they detect in the first quatrain an indication of
a lost line, which later rhapsodists, failing in imaginative
vigor, have supplied by the feeble device of iteration. Others,
however, may rather maintain that this very iteration is an
original felicity, to which none but the most prosaic minds
can be insensible.
The ceremony connected with the song was a drinking ceremony.
(That is perhaps a painful fact, but then, you know, we cannot
reform our forefathers.) During the first and second quatrain,
sung decidedly forte, no can was filled.
Here’s a health unto our master,
The founder of the feast;
Here’s a health unto our master
And to our mistress!
And may his doings prosper,
Whate’er he takes in hand,
For we are all his servants,
And are at his command.
But now, immediately before the third quatrain or chorus, sung
fortissimo, with emphatic raps of the table, which gave the
effect of cymbals and drum together, Alick’s can was filled,
and he was bound to empty it before the chorus ceased.
Then drink, boys, drink!
And see ye do not spill,
For if ye do, ye shall drink two,
For ’tis our master’s will.
When Alick had gone successfully through this test of steady–
handed manliness, it was the turn of old Kester, at his right
hand—and so on, till every man had drunk his initiatory
pint under the stimulus of the chorus. Tom Saft—the rogue—took
care to spill a little by accident; but Mrs. Poyser (too officiously,
Tom thought) interfered to prevent the exaction of the penalty.
To any listener outside the door it would have been the reverse
of obvious why the “Drink, boys, drink!” should
have such an immediate and often–repeated encore; but
once entered, he would have seen that all faces were at present
sober, and most of them serious—it was the regular and
respectable thing for those excellent farm–labourers to
do, as much as for elegant ladies and gentlemen to smirk and
bow over their wine–glasses. Bartle Massey, whose ears
were rather sensitive, had gone out to see what sort of evening
it was at an early stage in the ceremony, and had not finished
his contemplation until a silence of five minutes declared that
“Drink, boys, drink!” was not likely to begin again
for the next twelvemonth. Much to the regret of the boys and
Totty: on them the stillness fell rather flat, after that glorious
thumping of the table, towards which Totty, seated on her father’s
knee, contributed with her small might and small fist.
Meanwhile the conversation at the head of the table had taken
a political turn. Mr. Craig was not above talking politics occasionally,
though he piqued himself rather on a wise insight than on specific
information. He saw so far beyond the mere facts of a case that
really it was superfluous to know them.
“I’m no reader o’ the paper myself,”
he observed to–night, as he filled his pipe, “though
I might read it fast enough if I liked…”
from Book 6, Chapter 53 (“The Harvest Supper”) of
by the great 19th century British novelist George Eliot,
psuedonym of Marian Evans.