Woon Gate by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

It was on a cold and drenching afternoon in October that I spent an hour at Woon Gate: for in all the homeless landscape this little round-house offers the only shelter, its windows looking east and west along the high-road and abroad upon miles of moorland, hedgeless, dotted with peat-ricks, inhabited only by flocks of grey geese and a declining breed of ponies, the chartered vagrants of Woon Down. Two miles and more to the north, and just under the rim of the horizon, straggle the cottages of a few tin-streamers, with their backs to the wind. These look down across an arable country, into which the women descend to work at seed-time and harvest, and whence, returning, they bring some news of the world. But Woon Gate lies remoter. It was never more than a turnpike; and now the gate is down, the toll-keeper dead, and his widow lives alone in the round-house. She opened the door to me–a pleasant-faced old woman of seventy, in a muslin cap, red turnover, and grey gown hitched very high. She wore no shoes inside her cottage, but went about in a pair of coarse worsted stockings on all days except the very rawest, when the chill of the lime-ash floor struck into her bones.

“May I wait a few minutes till the weather lifts?” I asked.

She smiled and seemed almost grateful.

“You’m kindly welcome, be sure: that’s if you don’t mind the Vaccination.”

I suppose that my face expressed some wonder: for she went on, shaking my dripping hat and hanging it on a nail by the fire–

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“Doctor Rodda’ll be comin’ in half-an-hour’s time. ‘Tis district Vaccination to-day, and he always inoculates here, ’tis so handy.”

She nodded her head at half a dozen deal chairs and a form arrayed round the wall under a row of sacred texts and tradesmen’s almanacks.

“There’ll be nine to-day, as I makes it out. I counted ’em up several times last night.”

It was evidently a great day in her eyes.

“But you’ve allowed room for many more than nine,” I pointed out.

“Why, of course. There’s some brings their elder childer for a treat–an’ there’s always ‘Melia Penaluna.”

I was on the point of asking who Amelia Penaluna might be, when my attention was drawn to the small eastern window. Just outside, and but a dozen paces from the house, there stretched a sullen pond, over which the wind drove in scuds and whipped the sparse reeds that encroached around its margin. Beside the further bank of the pond the high-road was joined by a narrow causeway that led down from the northern fringe of Woon Down; and along this causeway moved a procession of women and children.

They were about twenty in all, and, as they skirted the pond, their figures were sharply silhouetted against the grey sky. Each of the women held a baby close to her breast and bent over it as she advanced against the wind, that beat her gown tightly against her legs and blew it out behind in bellying folds. Yet beneath their uncouth and bedraggled garments they moved like mothers of a mighty race, tall, large-limbed, broad of hip, hiding generous breasts beneath the shawls–red, grey, and black–that covered their babes from the wind and rain. A few of the children struggled forward under ricketty umbrellas; but the mothers had their hands full, and strode along unsheltered. More than one, indeed, faced the storm without bonnet or covering for the head; and all marched along the causeway like figures on some sculptured frieze, their shadows broken beneath them on the ruffled surface of the pond. I said that each of the women carried a babe: but there was one who did not–a plain, squat creature, at the tail of the procession, who wore a thick scarf round her neck, and a shawl of divers bright colours. She led a small child along with one hand, and with the other attempted to keep a large umbrella against the wind.

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“Nineteen–twenty–twenty-one,” counted the toll-keeper’s widow behind me as I watched the spasmodic jerkings of this umbrella. “I wasn’t far out in my reckon. And you, sir, make twenty-two. It niver rains but it pours, they say. Times enow I don’t see a soul for days together, not to hail by name, an’ now you drops in on top of a Vaccination.”

Her sigh over this plethora of good fortune was interrupted by a knocking at the door, and the mothers trooped in, their clothes dripping pools of water on the sanded lime-ash. One or two of them, after exchanging greetings with their hostess, bade me Good-morning: others eyed me in silence as they took their seats round the wall. All whose babes were not sound asleep quietly undid their bodices and began to give them suck. The older children scrambled into chairs and sat kicking their heels and tracing patterns on the floor with the water that ran off their umbrellas. They were restless but rather silent, as if awed by the shadow of the coming Vaccination. The woman who had brought up the procession, found a place in the far corner, and began to unwind the comforter around her neck. Her eyes were brighter and more agitated than any in the room.

“A brave trapse all the way from Upper Woon,” remarked the youngest mother, wiping a smear of rain from her baby’s forehead.

“Ah, ’tis your first, Mary Polsue. Wait till you’ve carried twelve such loads, my dear,” said a tall middle-aged woman, whose black hair, coarse as a mane, was powdered grey with, raindrops.

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“Dear now, Ellen; be this the twelfth?” our hostess exclaimed. “I was reckonin’ it the ‘leventh.”

“Ay, th’ twelfth–tho’ I’ve most lost count. I buried one, you know.”

“For my part,” put in a pale-eyed blonde, who sat near the door, “‘t seems but yestiddy I was here with Alsia yonder.” She nodded her head towards a girl of five who was screwing herself round in her chair and trying to peep out of the window.

“Ay, they come and come: the Lord knows wherefore,” the tall woman assented. “When they’m young they make your arms ache, an’ when they grow up they make your heart ache.”

“But ‘Melia Penaluna’s been here more times than any of us,” said the blonde with a titter, directing her eyes towards a corner of the room. The rest looked too, and laughed. Turning, I saw that the plain-faced woman had unwound her comforter, and now I could see, hanging low on her chest, an immense lump wrapped in clean white linen and bound up with a gaudy yellow handkerchief. It was a goitre.

“Iss, my dears,” she answered, touching it and smiling, but with tears in her eyes; “this here’s my only child, an’ iver will be. Ne’er a man’ll look ‘pon me, so I’m forced to be content wi’ this babe and clothe ‘en pretty, as you see. Ah, you’m lucky, you’m lucky, though you talk so!”

“She’s terrible fond o’ childer,” said one of the women audibly, addressing me. “How many ‘noculations have you ‘tended, ‘Melia?”

“Six-an’-twenty, countin’ to-day,” ‘Melia announced with pride in her trembling voice. But at this point one of the infants began to cry, and before he could be hushed the noise of wheels sounded down the road, and Dr. Rodda drove up in his reedy gig.

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He was a round, dapper practitioner, with slightly soiled cuffs and an extremely business-like manner. On entering the room he jerked his head in a general nod to all present, and stepping to the table, drew a small packet from his waistcoat, and unfolded it. It contained about a score of small pieces of ivory, pointed like pens, but flat. Then, pulling out a paper and consulting it hastily, he set to work, beginning with the child that lay on the blonde woman’s lap, next to the door.

I looked around. The children were staring with wide, admiring eyes. Their mothers also watched, but listlessly, still suckling their babes as each waited its turn. Only ‘Melia Penaluna winced and squeezed her hands together whenever a feeble wailing told that one of the vaccine points had made itself felt.

“Do ‘ee think it hurts the poor mites?” the youngest mother asked.

“Not much, I reckon,” answered the big woman.

Nevertheless her own child cried pitifully when its turn came. And as it cried, the childless woman in the corner got off her chair and ran forward tremulously.

“‘Becca, let me take him. Do’ee, co!”

“‘Melia Penaluna, you’m no better ‘n a fool.”

But poor, misnamed Amelia was already back in her corner with the child, hugging it, kissing it, rocking it in her arms, crooning over it, holding it tightly against the lump that hung down on her barren bosom. Long after the baby had ceased to cry she sat crooning and yearning over it. And the mothers watched her, with wonder and scornful amusement in their eyes.

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