The Apple Tree
by Sydney Fowler
"I don't want that little rat coming here", and John Burcott, his six-foot four height, with a breadth proportionate, darkening the doorway as he went out into the garden before his only daughter could find words to continue the conversation.
Joan Burcott, though smaller, was of her father's pattern, with something of the placidity which is sometimes given to women of generous proportions, but with something also of his stubborn temper, of which he was well enough aware, and which may have influenced the strategic moment at which his ultimatum was given. Though she had not been quick to reply, she made no difference in her preparations for the Saturday-afternoon tea, setting a third plate, as she had done regularly for the last two months, in anticipation that William Bestwick would lean his bicycle at the gate, toward the end of the afternoon, after cycling from Potminster, where he was senior articled clerk to the very flourishing firm of Rendell, Rendell and Witherskin, with a confident ambition of obtaining his practicing certificate before the coming winter was over. And when Joan Burcott came into tea an hour later, in an unusually bad temper, Bill was already seated at the table, while Joan was ministering to him in a manner, which an only daughter should obviously reserve for her remaining parent.
"Here again?" said John, with no pretence of cordiality.
"Yes, sir," the young man answered, with diplomatic respect. "It's been a warm ride. It's very pleasant here in the cool, after the Potminster road. I reckon there's two miles without any shade at all."
"I know where we could do with a bit less."
Bill Bestwick looked puzzled, and Joan broke a rather uncomfortable silence to ask: "Has grand-dad been wanting the apples again?"
"Celery-bed's trod flat; an' those late turnips are a fair mash," her father answered bitterly.
John Burcott senior inhabited the cottage next door, and though not an enthusiastic gardener like his son, he had one large and ancient apple-tree, which, though it had its roots and a proportion of its trunk in its owner's garden, yet, with the crabbed perversity of the tree which is reputed to have lured our first parents to destruction, it had contrived to spread most of its branches over that which belonged to his son, who charged it with drawing the nourishment from the earth, and obstructing the sun, which his vegetables required. Aggravating injury, the old man claimed, with illegal obstinacy, the right to collect his apples from the trampled garden on which they fell.
Bill Bestwick listened respectfully. He was a slim young man, not very tall, but hardly deserving the contemptuous epithet which John Burcott had bestowed upon him. There could be no doubt of the nature of the emotion which he had inspired in Joan's placidly-voluptuous breast, and which he appeared to reciprocate equally. If it were maliciously said that she was not insensible to the fact that her father had the name of a well-to-do man, is it necessary to believe more than that he had a reputation for natural shrewdness? Nature delights in such attractions of opposites. Bill Bestwick could be shrewd enough, as we soon see, but that is not to say that his feelings were not sincere, or that they would not be a very happy pair if the parental blessing could be won, which now seemed to be a rather dubious anticipation.
He meant no more than to take the side of the man whom he had selected as father-in-law and, perhaps, to show the extent of his legal knowledge, when he began to talk of the restricted rights of the owner of the tree's roots, and the unrestricted rights of Mr. Burcott junior to lop the offending boughs.
John Burcott looked at him with a heavy sarcasm. "Think I don't know that, do you? Nice thing that'ud be, with Cousin Martha at him twice a week as it is to give her Willie the lump, and him owning Seeley's farm, and half the houses in Robbins Lane to the Green Man!
Bill saw that the problem was more difficult than when it had first appeared, but an idea came to him as he talked, and before he left he had arrived at an understanding that if he could persuade the old man to cut down the tree without causing trouble within the family, or bringing the name of John Burcott junior into the question, he would be a tolerated, if not welcome visitor upon future occasions.
"How should I know your grandfather, if I happened to meet him?" he asked Joan, when she was clearing the table, and her father had removed himself to his usual fire-side seat.
"He's a good deal like dad," the girl answered, "only sandier where he isn't gone white." She gave other details which we need not follow.
"Does he go out much?"
"He's in the parlour of the Green Man most evenings about this time."
"Do you think that he would know whom I am?"
"I don't see how he'd have heard your name."
"Well, I'll be going. I don't want to be back late tonight."
He went off after saying that, earlier than usual, without inviting Joan to the stroll which she had come to expect when tea was over, and the washing-up had been done. He was a young man who acted promptly in an idea came into his head. He started in the direction of Potminster, but when he came to Robbins Lane he turned off towards the Green Man,
A week later, Bill Bestwick set out from Potminster at his usual hour, and arrived at his destination as Joan was laying the tea. He entered boldly enough, even though he did not fail to observe that no more than two places had been prepared, but he was met by Joan with less than her usual equanimity. "Bill," she said, coming quietly to the point at once, as her way was "have you said aught to gran'dad about that tree?"
"Not exactly to him. He might have heard me talking at the Green Man. Is it down?" he enquired hopefully.
"No, nor likely to be. . . Dad's gone to Exton Market. You'd best be gone before he gets back. . . He's that mad. . . He said that it was some fool game of yours, more likely than not, that had set him on, and he might have had more sense than talk of your interfering."
"What's the trouble?"
"You'd best come and see."
They went into the garden together. Looking over the fence, they saw that digging operations were proceeding round the trunk, and half a cart-load of manure was piled beside it, ostensibly to be applied for its nourishment.
"Gran'dad said that it's never had such a crop as it had this autumn, not for ten years, and he thought it needed little extra feeding, or he wouldn't get much next. It doesn't usually bear well two years running."
"I see," said Bill. He was thoughtful, and even seemed rather depressed (for him), but he hung about the garden a bit and was quite bright again when he came in. He had sufficient discretion to take his leave before John Burcott returned from market.
The next Saturday, Bill came riding along the road from Potminster in some trepidation, till he got near enough to see the gardens of the two cottages, but after that he walked in as jauntily as though he were entering his own house.
"Yes," said Joan, "Gran'dad's cut it down. Come and see. He said he found that the root was all cankered, and going bad." Certainly the tree was prone. It was not only cut down. The job was being thoroughly done. The old roots had been thoroughly rubbed out. It had left a surprisingly large hole. The roots of old trees extent so far into the soil. . . As for these roots, some of them were rotten at the core, but, for the most part, they looked sound enough.
"How did you do it, Bill?" she said wonderingly.
"I? said Bill. "Your father said I'd done naught. It's right enough to cut a tree down if there's rot at the roots. But they don't look as bad as they might. It is a bit queer." And that was all he said that night, or any other, till the wedding bells had ceased, and they were in the train for Llangollen, and she asked him again at a time he couldn't help himself, and then it turned out to be quite a simple thing, as queer-seeming things mostly are.
"I just dropped in at the Green Man, and got talking about how Uncle Joe made his pile."
"Uncle Joe? I thought your uncle was Ted?"
"Well, this one was Joe. I happened to mention how he's reckoned out how people used to hide their money in holes in gardens and places for hundreds of years, or it may be thousands, before there were any banks, and how there was some to be found, more likely than not, in all gardens that were old enough, and mostly under old trees where no one could have dug for no one knows how long, and he used to rent old places for a few months, and just dig it out till he got quite rich - but I did let out one thing which I shouldn't have said."
"What was that?" Joan asked, looking more puzzled than credulous of the surprising source of the wealth of an uncle of whom she had never heard.
"I let out that Uncle Joe had to do his digging at night, because the Government's so sharp after treasure trove, and the land-lords might have been awkward as well, but of course if you've got a garden of your own you hadn't got quite that much to fear, and you could always make out that you were pruning the roots, or giving it a good dose of dressing,"
"So that was why gran'dad pretended he wanted to manure the root. . .? But what made him cut it down altogether the next week? You didn't go to the Green Man again did you?"
"No, I just dropped a couple of George First guineas into the hole."