“THE PANTON ALLOTMENTS” (2/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising its contents. Ed.]
Then, quite unexpectedly, Oswald Pemberton, the borough’s senior member, resigned his seat in Parliament.
“I’m too old for the job, Digby,” he said, as they sat in the deserted library of the club; “and frankly I’ve lost my taste for politics. I’ve never been a good party man, as you know; and though I suppose it’s my duty in war time to keep quiet and watch all the things I’ve fought for go by the board, it’s getting a bit too much for me. I should do far better work in the country by sticking entirely to my own job.”
“Who will they get to fill your place?”
“We’re hoping that Panton will stand. Of course he’s only a nominal Liberal, but he’ll vote as he’s told, and the Tories would give him their vote. After the war, you can trust the Labour Party to see that he’s not returned. Personally, I dislike the man, but I suppose he’ll do. I’ve arranged for him to come down to my place next week-end. I’m expecting Arthur Amant, the Small Holdings man – he’s high up in the Ministry of Food Production, you know – and one or two more. It will be an opportunity for sounding him.”
“And it will be an excellent opportunity,” said Mr. Digby, “for you to do me a service. I want Panton’s field for allotments”; and he told Pemberton of his difficulties.
“It ought to be ploughed up this week,” he added, “unless the whole summer is to be wasted. Those good folk trust me to see the matter through. They’ll produce the food all right if we can get them the land.”
“Well, I’ll do my best for you,” said Pemberton. “If I were you, I’d wire to Panton on Friday evening, reply paid. He’ll find himself in a Radical atmosphere for a few days; and if you strike the iron while it is hot, you may get what you want.”
Mr. Digby was comforted.
“Things are moving, Mr. Entwhistle,” he said, when that evening he strolled up to the allotments.
“So are the seed potatoes,” the honorary secretary of the North Ward Allotment-Holders’ Association answered; “but still we’d be in time if old Panton could make up his mind. The Corporation have been trying some of these new tractors in Victoria Park. If we could have the loan of one of them, it would give us a week or two in hand.”
“That’s an excellent idea. I know the chairman of the Parks Committee. We may be late in taking the field; but we’ll make up for that by our equipment.
When Saturday came, Mr. Digby was in an excellent humour, for, awaiting him at the office, was a telegram from Sir Peter Panton, as welcome as it was unexpected.
“No objection to your taking field. Please make all necessary arrangements.”
“And now we’ll hustle,” said Mr. Digby.
He rang up the chairman of the Parks Committee. “The loan of a motor tractor for the afternoon?” They were all in use, except one that had broken down and would not be ready before Sunday. They were short of mechanics.
Mr. Digby offered to bring down a couple of engineers from the mill. If they got it going, could they use it in the evening? There was nothing to prevent them ploughing by night, and the matter was urgent. He would see that the men were well paid. It would be a good advertisement of municipal zeal.
The chairman of the Parks Committee was a little doubtful; but he finally agreed that if Digby’s men could get the tractor into working order, they could have the loan of it for the rest of the day. On Sunday it would be required elsewhere. A Bishop was to bless it.
By half-past ten Mr. Digby and three skilled mechanics were on their way in a taxi to Victoria Park. At half-past eleven he was explaining matters to Sir Peter’s incredulous Scotch gardener, who had had no orders, and who wished to leave the greens at least undisturbed. By twelve o’clock Mr. Digby had explained that greens, islanded in a sea of potatoes, would be useless for the purposes of golf. Half an hour later the head gardener, having received a couple of sovereigns, had agreed to arrange with the butcher for the immediate removal of his half-dozen sheep.
Mr. Digby lunched on a glass of milk and two bath buns and hurried to the allotments to find Mr. Entwhistle. He thought that he and the little Entwhistles would be interested in seeing the motor-plough at work. Mr. Entwhistle agreed, provided that his children did not ask too many questions.
At four o’clock the head mechanic rang up to say that the tractor would be ready in half an hour. At five, followed by a crowd of ragged urchins, it had entered the lodge gates, after colliding with and partially demolishing the stone griffin that supported one of the lamps.
“We plough the fields and scatter,” whistled the mechanic in charge.
“Steady, steady,” said Mr. Digby, anxiously; and he drew a sigh of relief, as the ponderous machine slewed round and turned into the field.
It began its work at the first green, taking the bunkers in its stride, while the allotment holders from Atterwell Lane stood and watched and the little Entwhistles asked unnecessary questions.
“A very good day’s work,” said Mr. Digby, as he made his way home. “I’m afraid I misjudged Panton. The field, after all, is rather near his house, and I suppose that, with all his love of notoriety and advertisement, the man may at times desire privacy.
When on the following afternoon he took his customary Sunday walk to the allotments, he was almost embarrassed by the congratulations he received.
“What am I to do with them?” he said to Mrs. Dyson at tea, as he held up a monster bouquet of daffodils, hyacinths, and polyanthus. “And they’ve sent me round a hamper of vegetables as well. What! You haven’t heard of our great doings yesterday? We misjudged Panton, Charlie. I’m afraid I’m becoming cynical in my old age”; and he told them all about it.
“I never saw you yesterday, Mr. Digby,” he said. “You had left before I got to the office, and when this telegram came just before twelve, I tried in vain to get you on the ’phone. As there didn’t seem to be any urgency, I let it wait until I saw you. I never dreamed that you’d hustle so.”
Mr. Digby took the telegram and read it, puzzled and incredulous. “Proposal quite impossible, Ground entirely unsuitable. Heavy clay. Panton.”
“But look at this,” he said, “which I received this morning – “No objection to your taking field. Please make all necessary arrangements.””
“Field,” said Charlie, “is the name of that fellow in Panton’s office I was telling you about, the man I thought would be so useful to us with the correspondence over the French and Russian contracts. I wrote to Panton about him at the beginning of the week.”
“Dear me!” exclaimed Mr. Digby, “this is really most awkward. The whole of the field is ploughed by now. There are only twenty yards, possibly less than twenty yards, of lawn left between it and Panton’s dining-room windows.”
“And the soil,” asked Charlie, “was it clay?”
“Loam, my boy,” said Mr. Digby, laughing in spite of his annoyance, “beautiful, rich loam. Charlie, you must break the news to Panton. I’m too old for this kind of thing. And there’s the gate-post too, you know. The motor tractor collided with it.”
Sir Peter took the matter more calmly than Charlie had thought possible; but then what passed with Sir Peter as calm would by every one else be described as storm. He considered that, as a Liberal candidate, his political faith had been grossly impeached upon, and told Mr. Digby as much when they met at the club.
“He’ll be reconciled to it,” said Charlie, “as soon as he realises that it is a good advertisement.”
And indeed Sir Peter, who habitually thought in posters, was already at work.
“Something like this,” he said to his agent a week later.
“The Spring Offensive
Peter Panton first in the field.
“We’re offering a good line in strong gents’ boots,” he added. “There would be no harm in bringing that in, if you could do it without spoiling the general artistic effect.”