Story type: Literature
Has olim exuvias mihi perfidus ille reliquit,
Pignora cara sui: quae nunc ego limine in ipso,
Terra, tibi mando; debent haec pignora Daphnin–
Ducite ab urbe domum, mea, carmina, ducite Daphnin.
I knew the superstition lingered along the country-side: and I was sworn to find it. But the labourers and their wives smoothed all intelligence out of their faces as soon as I began to hint at it. Such is the way of them. They were my good friends, but had no mind to help me in this. Nobody who has not lived long with them can divine the number of small incommunicable mysteries and racial secrets chambered in their inner hearts and guarded by their hospitable faces. These alone the Celt withholds from the Saxon, and when he dies they are buried with him.
A chance word or two of my old nurse, by chance caught in some cranny of a child’s memory and recovered after many days, told me that the charm was still practised by the woman-folk, or had been practised not long before her death. So I began to hunt for it, and, almost as soon, to believe the search hopeless. The new generation of girls, with their smart frocks, in fashion not more than six months behind London, their Board School notions, and their consuming ambition to “look like a lady”–were these likely to cherish a local custom as rude and primitive as the long-stone circles on the tors above? But they were Cornish; and of that race it is unwise to judge rashly. For years I had never a clue: and then, by Sheba Farm, in a forsaken angle of the coast, surprised the secret.
Sheba Farm stands high above Ruan sands, over which its windows flame at sunset. And I sat in the farm kitchen drinking cider and eating potato-cake, while the farmer’s wife, Mrs. Bolverson, obligingly attended to my coat, which had just been soaked by a thunder-shower. It was August, and already the sun beat out again, fierce and strong. The bright drops that gemmed the tamarisk-bushes above the wall of the town-place were already fading under its heat; and I heard the voices of the harvesters up the lane, as they returned to the oat-field whence the storm had routed them. A bright parallelogram stretched from the window across the white kitchen-table, and reached the dim hollow of the open fire-place. Mrs. Bolverson drew the towel-horse, on which my coat was stretched, between it and the wood fire, which (as she held) the sunshine would put out.
“It’s uncommonly kind of you, Mrs. Bolverson,” said I, as she turned one sleeve of the coat towards the heat. “To be sure, if the women in these parts would speak out, some of them have done more than that for the men with an old coat.”
She dropped the sleeve, faced round, and eyed me.
“What do you know of that?” she asked slowly, and as if her chest tightened over the words. She was a woman of fifty and more, of fine figure but a worn face. Her chief surviving beauty was a pile of light golden hair, still lustrous as a girl’s. But her blue eyes–though now they narrowed on me suspiciously–must have looked out magnificently in their day.
“I fancy,” said I, meeting them frankly enough, “that what you know and I don’t on that matter would make a good deal.”
She laughed harshly, almost savagely.
“You’d better ask Sarah Gedye, across the coombe. She buried a man’s clothes one time, and–it might be worth your while to ask her what came o’t.”
If you can imagine a glint of moonlight running up the blade of a rapier, you may know the chill flame of spite and despite that flickered in her eyes then as she spoke.
“I take my oath,” I muttered to myself, “I’ll act on the invitation.”
The woman stood straight upright, with her hands clasped behind her, before the deal table. She gazed, under lowered brows, straight out of window; and following that gaze, I saw across the coombe a mean mud hut, with a wall around it, that looked on Sheba Farm with the obtrusive humility of a poor relation.
“Does she–does Sarah Gedye–live down yonder?”
“What is that to you?” she enquired fiercely, and then was silent for a moment, and added, with another short laugh–
“I reckon I’d like the question put to her: but I doubt you’ve got the pluck.”
“You shall see,” said I; and taking my coat off the towel-horse, I slipped it on.
She did not turn, did not even move her head, when I thanked her for the shelter and walked out of the house.
I could feel those steel-blue eyes working like gimlets into my back as I strode down the hill and passed the wooden plank that lay across the stream at its foot. A climb of less than a minute brought me to the green gate in the wall of Sarah Gedye’s garden patch; and here I took a look backwards and upwards at Sheba. The sun lay warm on its white walls, and the whole building shone against the burnt hillside. It was too far away for me to spy Mrs. Bolverson’s blue print gown within the kitchen window, but I knew that she stood there yet.
The sound of a footstep made me turn. A woman was coming round the corner of the cottage, with a bundle of mint in her hand.
She looked at me, shook off a bee that had blundered against her apron, and looked at me again–a brown woman, lean and strongly made, with jet-black eyes set deep and glistening in an ugly face.
“You want to know your way?” she asked.
“No. I came to see you, if your name is Sarah Gedye.”
“Sarah Ann Gedye is my name. What ‘st want?”
I took a sudden resolution to tell the exact truth.
“Mrs. Gedye, the fact is I am curious about an old charm that was practised in these parts, as I know, till recently. The charm is this–When a woman guesses her lover to be faithless to her, she buries a suit of his old clothes to fetch him back to her. Mrs. Bolverson, up at Sheba yonder–“
The old woman had opened her mouth (as I know now) to curse me. But as Mrs. Bolverson’s name escaped me, she turned her back, and walked straight to her door and into the kitchen. Her manner told me that I was expected to follow.
But I was not prepared for the face she turned on me in the shadow of the kitchen. It was grey as wood-ash, and the black eyes shrank into it like hot specks of fire.
“She–she set you on to ask me that?” She caught me by the coat and hissed out: “Come back from the door–don’t let her see.” Then she lifted up her fist, with the mint tightly clutched in it, and shook it at the warm patch of Sheba buildings across the valley.
“May God burn her bones, as He has smitten her body barren!”
“What do you know of this?” she cried, turning upon me again.
“I know nothing. That I have offered you some insult is clear: but–“
“Nay, you don’t know–you don’t know. No man would be such a hound. You don’t know; but, by the Lord, you shall hear, here where you’m standin’, an’ shall jedge betwix’ me an’ that pale ‘ooman up yonder. Stand there an’ list to me.
“He was my lover more’n five-an’-thirty years agone. Who? That ‘ooman’s wedded man, Seth Bolverson. We warn’t married”–this with a short laugh. “Wife or less than wife, he found me to his mind. She–she that egged you on to come an’ flout me–was a pale-haired girl o’ seventeen or so i’ those times–a church-goin’ mincin’ strip of a girl–the sort you men-folk bow the knee to for saints. Her father owned Sheba Farm, an’ she look’d across on my man, an’ had envy on ‘en, an’ set her eyes to draw ‘en. Oh, a saint she was! An’ he, the poor shammick, went. ‘Twas a good girl, you understand, that wished for to marry an’ reform ‘en. She had money, too. I? I’d ha’ poured out my blood for ‘en: that’s all I cud do. So he went.
“As the place shines this day, it shone then. Like a moth it drew ‘en. Late o’ summer evenin’s its windeys shone when down below here ’twas chill i’ the hill’s shadow. An’ late at night the candles burned up there as he courted her. Purity and cosiness, you understand, an’ down here–he forgot about down here. Before he’d missed to speak to me for a month, I’d hear ‘en whistlin’ up the hill, so merry as a grig. Well, he married her.
“They was married three months, an’ ’twas harvest time come round, an’ I in his vield a-gleanin’. For I was suffered near to that extent, seem’ that the cottage here had been my fathers’, an’ was mine, an’ out o’t they culdn’ turn me. One o’ the hands, as they was pitchin’, passes me an empty keg, an’ says, ‘Run you to the farm-place an’ get it filled.’ So with it I went to th’ kitchen, and while I waited outside I sees his coat an’ wesket ‘pon a peg i’ the passage. Well I knew the coat; an’ a madness takin’ me for all my loss, I unhitched it an’ flung it behind the door, an’, the keg bein’ filled, picked it up agen and ran down home-along.
“No thought had I but to win Seth back. ‘Twas the charm you spoke about: an’ that same midnight I delved a hole by the dreshold an’ buried the coat, whisperin’, ‘Man, come back, come back to me!’ as Aun’ Lesnewth had a-taught me, times afore.
“But she, the pale woman, had a-seen me, dro’ a chink o’ the parlour-door, as I tuk the coat down. An’ she knowed what I tuk it for. I’ve a-read it, times and again, in her wifely eyes; an’ to-day you yoursel’ are witness that she knowed. If Seth knowed–“
She clenched and unclenched her fist, and went on rapidly.
“Early next mornin’, and a’most afore I was dressed, two constables came in by the gate, an’ she behind ’em treadin’ delicately, an’ he at her back, wi’ his chin dropped. They charged me wi’ stealin’ that coat–wi’ stealin’ it–that coat that I’d a-darned an’ patched years afore ever she cuddled against its sleeve!”
“What happened?” I asked, as her voice sank and halted.
“What happened? She looked me i’ the eyes scornfully; an’ her own were full o’ knowledge. An’ wi’ her eyes she coaxed and dared me to abase mysel’ an’ speak the truth an’ win off jail. An’ I, that had stole nowt, looked back at her an’ said, ‘It’s true. I stole the coat. Now cart me off to jail; but handle me gently for the sake o’ my child unborn.’ When I spoke these last two words an’ saw her face draw up wi’ the bitterness o’ their taste, I held out my wrists and clapped the handcuffs together like cymbals and laughed wi’ a glad heart.”
She caught my hand suddenly, and drawing me to the porch, pointed high above Sheba, to the yellow upland where the harvesters moved.
“Do ‘ee see ‘en there?–that tall young man by the hedge–there where the slope dips? That’s my son, Seth’s son, the straightest man among all. Neither spot has he, nor wart, nor blemish ‘pon his body; and when she pays ‘en his wages, Saturday evenin’s, he says ‘Thank ‘ee, ma’am,’ wi’ a voice that’s the very daps o’ his father’s. An’ she’s childless. Ah, childless woman! Childless woman! Go back an’ carry word to her o’ the prayer I’ve spoken upon her childlessness.”
And “Childless woman!” “Childless woman!” she called twice again, shaking her fist at the windows of Sheba Farm-house, that blazed back angrily against the westering sun.