T. F. Powys’s Unclay is out next month from New Directions
John Reads a Notice
The day was now as fair as ever it had promised to be earlier in the morning. There was not a sign anywhere to be seen of the dark cloud that had so lately overshadowed the lane.
Mr. Hayhoe, pleased with his company, walked along gaily. Already, during the short time that they had been together, he had grown very fond of his companion, whose every remark seemed fresh and interesting to him.
Nothing that they passed in their walk escaped John’s observant eye. He was delighted with a flock of rooks that fed in a field upon Joseph Bridle’s new-sown barley, and gazed with pleasure upon their sleek black coats, clapping his hands together to see them fly. Near to Madder Hill, Death stopped to listen, and asked of Mr. Hayhoe what was the low and distant rumble that he heard, and was answered that he heard the waves of the sea.
Going down a little hill in a shady part of the lane, they came upon a hedgehog who, seeing strangers so near to him, and not being sure of their behaviour, wisely curled up into a ball—to John’s vast amusement. He had often, he said, seen people straighten out when he came to them, but never before had he seen a creature turn into a ball.
As they went along, the countryside blushed like a young girl, for the spring—being a mere child—had not yet got used to the eyes of men who regarded her so warmly.
A blackthorn was fully out—a purity of bloom as white as snow—and, below the hedges, the large leaves of the lords and ladies curled amorously. In places, too, there was green in the hedges, the green of elder and honeysuckle, and everywhere there were pleasant meadows and cornlands newly tilled.
“How was it?” inquired Mr. Hayhoe, after a short pause in the conversation, “how was it, John, that you came to lose what is of so great value?”
“Because,” replied John, “instead of heeding the good advice of John Bunyan in the Pilgrim’s Progress, I must needs step into a field on my way to Dodder and rest a while. I even walked a little in this very lane; and it was while waiting in a Dodder meadow to admire the flowers that I discovered my loss.—I am one, I fear, who has always liked to wander a little in out-of-the-way places.”
“Perhaps you lost your paper in the field where you lingered,” suggested Mr. Hayhoe. “That, I should say, from the flowers that you mention, must have been Joseph Bridle’s. It is one of the pleasantest meadows in Dodder. Whoever goes in there to rest will wish to stay the whole day. I myself have spent hours in that field, looking into the waters of the pond, that are very deep. Resting there, it is likely that the most busy man would forget how time goes, and, instead of continuing his labours, should lie down and dream of God. I do not wonder that you dropped your
“Though I am a busy man,” answered Death, “time is nothing to me, for I work at all hours and know no calendar. But I do not think that I lost my order in the field which pleased my fancy, and must be the one you speak of, near to the edge of the pond.”
“Where Miss Sarah Bridle keeps her ducks,”
observed Mr. Hayhoe.
“There was a girl’s name, written with smooth pebbles, laid upon the grass. I read the name—
‘Susie Dawe.’ ”
“That must have been Joe’s doing,” said Mr. Hayhoe.
“Doubtless it was,” observed Death, “but as I looked upon that name, a curious sensation came into my head for the first time—it is called ‘pity’—and I hoped that my visit to Dodder had nothing to do with the young girl whose name was written with pebbles upon the grass. It was then that I felt in my pocket for the parchment, wishing to read the names upon it, and found that it was gone. At first I thought little of my loss, merely supposing that, in climbing the stile into the field, I had dropped the paper from my pocket, and I expected to find it at once. Finding nothing under the stile, I began to search elsewhere, and even leaned down over the pond to look, and though at the bottom I could clearly see the bones of an infant and other human remains too, yet my parchment was nowhere to be seen.”
“A man may easily lose a piece of paper,” said Mr. Hayhoe, plucking a primrose from the bank, “and—unless the parchment that you have lost bears upon it the signature of the chief cashier of the Bank of England—there is no need to attach so much importance to it. And, even if the order that you have lost is of great importance, yet surely upon a glad day of sunshine such as this, a business mistake should be forgotten.”
“I cannot let the matter go so easily,” replied Death, “even if I might wish to—and would you be so good as to tell me what sort of a man Joseph Bridle may be?”
“Only a poor man,” answered Mr. Hayhoe, “though honest. He owns but one good field and a few acres of downland that yield him next to nothing, for what the rooks leave the wireworm eat. Joe is one of the most harmless of men. He neither hurts nor destroys.”
“Every one to his taste,” replied John, with a laugh.“But, from what you tell me of Joseph, I do not think that he has my paper.”
“Neither do I,” said Mr. Hayhoe, “and for a good reason too—Joe Bridle is in love!”
“I do not understand you,” observed Death.
“He loves a girl,” explained Mr. Hayhoe.
“You mean,” said Death, “that he wishes to reproduce his kind, with the help of a woman; but such doings must be extremely common here upon earth, as my occupation proves, for in some parts of the world there are as many children as flies.”
“A clerk to a registrar,” murmured Mr. Hayhoe, leaning over the bank to pluck another primrose.
“I am willing to allow,” he said, smiling upon Death, “that love is common to mankind, but some are stricken more deeply with his darts than others. Joe Bridle’s feelings in this matter are of no ordinary kind, and the only cure for him is the coming together—with the sanction and blessing of the Church of Christ—in Holy Matrimony.
“It is said in Dodder that, although Joe is forty years old, he has hardly ever looked upon a maid before, and has certainly never walked out with one. Joseph is a sober man. He has never been one to seek here and there for his pleasures, to pluck at all and to gather none. One has only to look at him to know that his passion for a girl—if once permitted—would be for all time, and that he would be faithful to the one that he loved unto death.”
“And why not afterwards?” asked John lightly.
“A proper rebuke,” rejoined Mr. Hayhoe, “for our religion teaches us that those who love truly, with the Church’s blessing, will never be separated.”
“And who is it, then,” inquired Death, “that so strong a lover as Mr. Bridle has taken a fancy to?”
“Methinks,” answered Mr. Hayhoe, “that you would answer that question well enough yourself, if you saw the young lady. Joseph loves faithfully, and wishes to marry, Susie Dawe.”
“Why,” answered Death, carelessly, “ever since I saw Susie’s name written in pebbles beside the pond, I have intended to lie with her myself.” Mr. Hayhoe looked troubled.
“Though your words are scriptural,” he said, “and far more to my liking than the vulgar expressions that are common now-a-days, yet I trust you will choose for a bride some other Dodder maid than she whom Mr. Bridle wishes to marry.”
“Perhaps,” replied Death, stooping to pick up a flint that showed signs of having been worked, “Joseph Bridle may one day give her to me of his own free will. Has not this poor man any one who can tell him of the dangers of loving too faithfully, for even the very gods have discovered that true love is often a very doubtful happiness. Surely some one should tell Joe of the sorrows of loving.”
“He has Mr. Solly,” replied the clergyman, “a gentle man older than himself, who lives at Madder, and is his closest friend. Mr.Solly regards women as a kind of wurzel.”
“Ha!” exclaimed Death, “then he must consider that they are best buried.”
“That is exactly what he does think,” replied Mr. Hayhoe, “but I, for one, very much disapprove of his views.”
“A mere matter of taste,” said John. “But how, I pray, does Mr.Solly express himself about women?”
“He says,” observed Mr. Hayhoe, a little hesitatingly, “that when they are not required for cooking or cleaning, they ought to be kept in a grave, covered first with straw and then with earth.”
“This worthy Solly,” replied John Death, “must be a true friend to Bridle, who, if only he gave heed to him, would live always happily. And I—like Solly—think poorly of love. But, tell me, has Joseph no relation living with him, who might have picked up my paper?”
“There is only his aunt,” answered Mr. Hayhoe, “Sarah Bridle, who, when she was a child, had a fright that left her with a strange delusion. She is now a middle-aged woman, a hard worker, very gentle and willing, but she has a fancy that those who do not know her may consider a little curious; she thinks she is a camel.”
“She might have eaten my paper,” said John, “though I fear the signature thereon would be a little hard to digest. But tell me, Mr. Hayhoe, is there no harlot in Dodder? for he that keepeth company with harlots spendeth his substance, and I know well enough that my parchment may be sold for a good price.”
“Alas!” answered Mr. Hayhoe, with a sigh, “there is Daisy Huddy.”
Death laughed loudly.
Mr. Hayhoe looked very sad.
“I assure you, John,” he said, “that Daisy is no thief, she keeps nothing—that is even her own. She sells herself so cheaply to Farmer Mere that what he gives her hardly pays for old Huddy’s tobacco.”
“I will go in to her,” said Death, readily.
“You mean that you will visit her,” observed Mr. Hayhoe, “to advise her to lock her door to Mr. Mere. But you had better be careful, John. Farmer Mere is a very rich man, and all-powerful in Dodder.”
“I will remember his name,” said Death, quietly. “And is there no one else,” he asked, “who might find and keep something that is a little out of the common?”
“There are Dillar, old Huddy, and Mr. Dady, who go to the Inn,” replied Mr. Hayhoe. “There is also Mr. Titball—the tavern landlord—who has the highest respect for the great of the land, and can never praise Lord Bullman enough. There is also the rich landowner and farmer—Mr. Mere—whose wife is dead.”
“But I have forgotten James Dawe,” said Mr. Hayhoe.
“Who is he?” inquired John Death.
“An old man,” replied Mr. Hayhoe, “who is said to be a great miser. But he not only hoards all he can, he also likes to sell what has cost him nothing—he will sell the skin from a dead dog even. He is the father of Susie, and is a widower.”
“You mention pretty Susie,” he observed, “as though you like her too, and perhaps you have given her
“I gave her Sense and Sensibility,” answered Mr. Hayhoe, blushing deeply.
“You love her,” said Death.
“I respect her very much,” replied Mr. Hayhoe, “and I also admire her. No young creature of seventeen could possibly be more charming. Susie sits next to me in the choir at church and often, when I stand up to pronounce the absolution, I look down at her as she kneels beside me.”
“You had much better keep your eyes upon your book,” said John, “or perhaps you do not know the danger of looking at a maid?”
“You must not think ill of me,” replied Mr. Hayhoe, “but surely, a thing of beauty ought to be admired! All the poets say so, and Susie must delight all who see her. She has the sweetest voice that ever man heard, and no father could wish for a better child. I have heard it said by Mrs. Moggs—who lives at the Dodder shop, and sells ink sometimes—that Susie’s mother was exactly like her, and evil rumour says that James Dawe only married his wife in order to sell her for money. He was an old man when he married. But she was not allowed to sin, for God prevented it.”
“You mean she died?” said John.
“Death is often kind,” observed Mr. Hayhoe, in a low tone.
“I am glad you think so,” said John, “though, of course, good—as well as evil—is prevented by him.”
“Goodness is never destroyed, only evil ends,” remarked Mr. Hayhoe. “But I have now, I think, mentioned every one into whose hands your property might have fallen.”
“My paper might have been pawned for beer,” suggested John, “by one of those who, you say, go to the Inn?”
“Had that happened,” replied Mr. Hayhoe, “Mr. Titball—noticing the signature that must be, from what you tell me of your master, a determined one—would have at once carried the paper to West Dodder Hall, and given it into the hands of Lord Bullman, who is, as all know, the chairman of the Maidenbridge bench.
“Mr. Titball would be the last man in the world to keep anything that he thought ought to be given to a great man. He honours Lord Bullman above all, and I have had the utmost difficulty in explaining to him that the creator of the world is as important. I remember remarking—in order to show where true worship should be rendered—that God has the larger family. But to that argument Mr. Titball replied that Lord Bullman—were his wishes and rights properly allowed—would have the greater number, and after all, the world is only one village, and Dodder another.”
“An honest gentleman!” said John gaily.
They were now near to Dodder, and approached an old shed that, when every gale came, expected to be blown over, yet remained standing. Going up to this shed, Death stopped to read a police notice, that the Shelton officer had just pinned upon it.
The notice, that was written in a large hand, asked for any information about a man—a description of him was not given—who had robbed of his clothes the corpse of a poor suicide. The notice explained that a man who had hanged himself in his best clothes in Merly Wood had been found by his wife, stark naked. The colour and the size of the clothes were given, and a small reward offered for the apprehension of the thief.
John Death read this notice, with the greatest care, two or three times, and, smiling for a moment or two at his trousers, he brushed them carefully, and then returned to Mr. Hayhoe who was admiring a coloured butterfly that had settled upon a flower in the hedge.
The pair walked on in silence. Mr. Hayhoe was considering how he might bring his new friend into the loving arms of the Church, knowing him as one who would be likely to give close attention to a good sermon.
Walking thus, they soon reached Dodder village, and were noticed by a lady who, leaving the churchyard where she had been waiting, came to meet her husband.
Priscilla Answers a Question
Mr. Hayhoe stepped gladly to his wife. Evidently he had only to be away from her for a very little while in order to return to her joyously.
“This is Mr. John Death,” he said, presenting his new-made friend, “a gentleman that I was fortunate to meet soon after seeing Lord Bullman. But I must not let you wait longer for the news—the living of Dodder is ours.”
Priscilla was looking at Death.
“John has had the misfortune,” explained Mr. Hayhoe, “to lose something hereabouts that he very much values, and he wishes to live a while in this village until he finds what he has lost.”
Priscilla regarded her husband with anxiety; something, evidently, had troubled her. Though she had looked at her husband’s companion, she had not noticed his name, and even the news that Lord Bullman had offered the living did not appear to please her as much as Mr. Hayhoe expected.
Her husband wondered why she was not more glad. All the way, in coming along the lane, he had looked forward to the pleasure of telling her that now they might leave the dingy lodgings at Shelton, where everything reminded them of the death of their child. Something unpleasing to his wife, he feared, must have happened while he was away.
Priscilla had not welcomed John very kindly. This was strange, for, usually, she welcomed any friend of his—however poor—with the greatest friendliness. Only a week before, he remembered how gladly she had received a travelling tinker, Mr. Jar, at their lodgings, giving him all there was in the cupboard to eat—but now she seemed disinclined to speak to Death.
“I hope that Mr. Mere’s fierce dog has not sprung out at you,” Mr. Hayhoe asked of his wife, looking at her with concern. “That dog ought never to be allowed so much liberty; one day it will do some one a hurt.”
“No dog has frightened me,” answered Priscilla, “and if you did not find me as pleased as you expected at the good news, it is only that I fear sometimes that what we do here is not always for the good of the people, for, in passing along the street on my way to the church, I saw something that made me wonder.”
“You saw nothing that I have lost?” inquired
“No, sir,” replied Priscilla. “I am quite sure that what I saw—and blushed to see—had nothing to do with you. It was merely a scarlet thread hanging out of Daisy Huddy’s bedroom window.”
Mr. Hayhoe coloured deeply.
“Alas!” he said, “I am altogether to blame, for before reading the Bible to Daisy, I ought to have explained to her that all scriptural doings are not meant for us to copy. I called a few days ago upon the young woman and, knowing nothing then of her way of living, read all the way through the book of Joshua. I shall never trust myself again; I put the Bible into my pocket instead of Persuasion! Never was a poor clergyman more unlucky than I! Only the other day I advised Mr. Solly, who despises love, to read the Song of Songs. I am always showing people the way to go wrong, and when I tell them to do right they hate me. I advised Mr. Mere to give all that he had to the poor, in order to save his soul, and he set his dog upon me. Even Mr. Jar, the tinker, looked at me with surprise, when I told him he was the chief of sinners. And now I have caused poor Daisy to own publicly to all the world that she is a harlot.”
“Never mind, my dear,” said Mrs. Hayhoe, looking at her husband with the greatest affection, “God knows your mistake and also, that in reading His word to Daisy, you hoped to do good. Before long I am sure that she will learn where true happiness is to be found.”
“Be so good, madam,” inquired John Death, who had listened with interest to the lady, “as to tell me where true happiness is to be found?”
“In plain sewing,” replied Priscilla.
An Old Woman’s Eye
Every village, whose buildings were first made of mud, has the soul of an old woman. Her spirit is everywhere. She is never seen, and yet she guides all the doings that go on. If one stands upon Madder Hill and looks down upon Dodder her lineaments may be discovered.
Her forehead is the green and her nose is the church tower: she is neither Miss Pettifer nor Mrs. Fancy, and yet she is a person. When she laughs, a horse runs away with a wagon, crashes through a gate, and frightens every one—and when she smiles, a man is lowered into a grave.
The old woman’s soul has but one eye, which is Joe Bridle’s pond. When she winks there is a flash of lightning, and when she sleeps the waterweeds close over the pond. It has been said that all the worlds are tiny cells in the brain of God, and so why should not all Dodder dwell in one old woman?
No one can escape her tittle-tattle. When the church bell rings, calling the people to their prayers, all know that ’tis to the old woman’s gossip that they are going to listen. Even the fox-hunting squire—Lord Bullman—cannot escape her, and is interested in the doings of Daisy Huddy, reported to him very soberly by Mr. Pix, who said that he once found Daisy lying in the rushes over Madder Hill.
“Alone?” asked Lord Bullman excitedly.
“Why, no,” Mr. Pix replied, “for I believe that Tinker
Jar was with her . . . .”
No one who ever comes to Dodder escapes the old spider, whose invisible web binds him tightly, a web not altogether unholy, which holds a man to the earth, that at the last—and let us gather no more sorrow than we can bear—unravels the web and delivers man to Death.
At the first house in Dodder Mr. Hayhoe met his wife, and together they showed John Death the village. This was easy to do, for the Vicarage was near to the green, and the cottages by the side of the lane.
Going a little farther along the street, they waited beside a gate that led into a little garden close by the village green.
Here a removal was taking place. A man, named John Card, was leaving Dodder to return to Tadnol whence he had come, and was leaving his cottage empty. This man had been useful to the late vicar, Mr. Dibben, in many little ways, and when Canon Dibben left for Stonebridge, Card wished to move too. He obtained a place at Tadnol, where, besides his usual occupation of chimney-sweeping, he might also trap rabbits for Farmer Spenke.
Mr. Card was leaving Dodder sooner than he intended. When he came there, Canon Dibben had promised to pay his rent for a twelvemonth, and so Card had hired a cottage for that period. But now Dibben was gone and would pay nothing, and John Card was left with a house in one place and a house in another, which would mean two rents.
John Card decided to leave Dodder—though in an ill temper. He would have to pay two landlords each week, and Mr. Mere was not the kind of man to forgive a debtor. “Houses,” Card considered, “were not like wives.” During his life he had married two wives—one in one place, and one in another—and each had presented him with money before he buried her. Two giving wives were one thing, two houses were another.
When Mr. Card was cross, he always complained to the clergy. Seeing Mr. Hayhoe beside his garden gate, he told him his trouble, and John Death was left with Priscilla.
Priscilla asked John where it was that he met her husband. John answered her gladly. He told her that they had met in the lane, and that Mr. Hayhoe had been very kind to him and had never for one moment wished him away as most people did.
Priscilla looked towards her husband, and then at the churchyard.
While they waited, the village children came-as children will—to gaze upon the stranger, the foremost amongst them being Winnie Huddy, who was returned from the hunt, where nothing interesting had happened.
No sooner did Miss Winnie see John, and know him to be the same man that she had met in the lane, than she began to mock him—though at a safe distance—calling out “Moppet John,” and pulling at her own little chin as if she wore a goat’s beard like his.
Unnoticed by Priscilla, John turned to Winnie and made certain country gestures with his fingers—that the Devil uses when he meets a witch—and set all the girls a-laughing. The noise troubled Mrs. Hayhoe, who chid the children for being so rude and sent them away.
When they were gone, John Death started suddenly and looked extremely dismayed.
“Of all the fools;” he cried out, “I believe I am the greatest.”
“Why, what’s the matter?” asked Priscilla, a little frightened.
“It’s my scythe,” exclaimed John. “I left my precious scythe in Merly Wood. This countryside must be bewitched! I dropped my parchment, which has been stolen, and now I discover that I have left my scythe in the wood. Though my memory is so bad, I have never yet forgotten to carry my scythe with me when I go upon a journey. What a fool was I to loiter so long in the wood!”
“If you were in Merly Wood,” said Priscilla, moving a step backwards, “perhaps you may have seen the thief who stole the poor suicide’s clothes?”
“I trust that my scythe was not stolen too,” replied Death anxiously, “for I believe I hung it upon the very tree where the man swung.”
“How came you,” Priscilla asked, in an altered tone, “to leave your scythe there, and so near to where a poor man was hanged?”
“One cannot remember everything when one is busy,” replied Death, “and I have lately had a great deal of young grass to cut near Maidenbridge, and did not I know that, when the grass is grown, it would be sure to be trodden down by heavy beasts, I might have felt sorry to mow it so young. But I cannot work without my scythe, and I ought to go back at once to the wood and see if it is still there—the scythe might be a danger to any who touched it.”
“Your scythe is very sharp, then?” inquired Priscilla, in a low tone.
“Not so sharp as it ought to be,” replied Death, “and I fear if it hangs long idle it may grow rusty. It’s really surprising how easily a scythe can be blunted, and I hate to bungle a good cut.”
Mr. Hayhoe stepped near.
“I think,” he said, smiling at his friend John and speaking to his wife, “that if Mr, Death means to stay for a while in Dodder, he may, if he wishes, hire this cottage from Mr. Card, who is most anxious to obtain a little rent for it. Mr. Card tells me that he is willing to leave in the house a small bed and a few other necessary things for the use of the new tenant. A week’s notice to be given by either of the parties, and the rent to be paid in advance.”
“Nothing could have fallen out better,” exclaimed John, “for, whenever I have entered a cottage, I have been treated with reverence, and so I am sure I shall live in one happily. A lowly place, perhaps, but far better than a mansion!”
Death stepped briskly to the little gate and looked into the garden, where his new landlord was pulling up by its roots a small plant. John Death watched him admiringly.
“You did that as well as I could have done it,” he cried, watching Card place the shrub in his cart. “But you must know, friend, that every flower is not a Rose of Jericho.”
“Neither be every woman a whore,” replied John Card angrily, for though Mr. Hayhoe had recommended Death to him as an honest man, Card did not like his looks.
“I wish to have your cottage,” he said winningly. “Cottage be to let,” replied John Card slyly, “to any who mid pay a good rent.”
John Death felt in his pockets; he found nothing. Card laughed. Evidently the man had no money.
Death looked glum. But presently his face brightened, and he hurried into the churchyard and disappeared amongst the tombs.
“He be looking for money,” cried John Card.
Almost as he was speaking, Death returned.
“I have not, at the moment, any current coin to pay you with,” he said, “but if this gold ring will content you, so that I may have the cottage, you are welcome to whatever you can make of it.”
Death rubbed the ring on his coat, and handed it to Mr. Card’.
“Thee didn’t steal ’en, I hope?” asked Card suspiciously, taking the ring into his hand—it looked a valuable one—and holding it tightly.
“Oh no,” answered Death carelessly, “it’s mine if it’s any one’s, though once I think it belonged to a Lady Bullman; but you must know that I have often to act as a residuary legatee.”
“What be ’en worth?” asked John Card, looking greedily at the ring.
“Enough to buy more than you can drink in a month, though you open your mouth never so widely,” replied Death.
Mr. Card edged himself away. He was afraid that his tenant might ask for the ring again, and he wished to get off quietly. He walked softly to the horse, that began to move, and without saying good-bye to the company he started his journey, leaving the cottage open for Death.
The arrival of John Death and the departure of Card had been watched with interest by the neighbours. Every one had noticed the discomfiture of the stranger when he felt in his pockets and found nothing, and wondered why it was he had run in such a hurry into the churchyard, returned again so quickly, and received the cottage key in exchange for something that he handed to his landlord.
Even Mrs. Moggs, who sold notepaper and clothes-pegs as well as ink at the little shop, moved a window-flower so that she could have a better view of what was happening. She noticed that Mr. Card never looked back once when he left the village.
As soon as Card was gone, John Death entered into possession. He locked the cottage door and put the key into his pocket. He then bid good-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Hayhoe, and started off at a brisk pace toward Merly Wood.
Mr. Hayhoe looked at his wife a little wonderingly.
“He is a strange man,” he said.“He went off in a hurry.”
“He is a mower,” replied Mrs. Hayhoe, “and has left his scythe behind him in a wood, where I suppose he spent the night. Perhaps he comes from Ireland?”
“He will be the more welcome in Heaven,” replied Mr. Hayhoe, smiling. “But come, my dear, we will go to the Vicarage, and choose a bedroom from which we can see Tommy’s grave.”
Mr. Joseph Bridle was often in difficulties. He could not help himself; the fates were against him.
If a cow slipped its calf or broke a leg, it was Joe’s. If the wireworm were hungry and wished for a dinner, they ate the green shoots off Mr. Bridle’s young corn. If a milkdealer or a corn-merchant went bankrupt, it was always the one who owed Joe Bridle money. His uncle had robbed him. He was Farmer Bridle of Shelton—a very ill-tempered man—who kept for himself certain monies that had been left to his nephew, Joe. When asked for them, Mr. Bridle replied that his man, Tapper, had stolen them. This, Joe could hardly believe. When he left the house, after asking for his money, he had heard his uncle wish him to Hell.
But, for all his disappointment, Joe returned happily enough to his cottage and forgot about the money. And after tea he took out his knife, found a piece of wood, and cut out a large toad for a Noah’s Ark, with a head like his uncle’s.
Joe had a friendly disposition; he disliked fighting. If a champion in a grand cause had to be chosen, no one would have thought of choosing Joe Bridle. He preferred to enjoy himself in other ways. In drink or riot he saw no pleasure; he preferred to watch the tadpoles in his pond. He was the kind of man who could be merry for nothing; he could also be serious. His looks were reliable, he wore a moustache, had the kindest of eyes, and could cut anything out of a block of wood—except Dodder church.
Often the greatest misfortune that a poor man can have is to look rich. This was another trouble for Joseph. If a man looks well-to-do, yet has nothing, he is the more tormented.
If anything was needed at Dodder—if a subscription was required—Mr. Bridle was always the first to be asked to give. He was always at home, always easy to find, and never tried to hide out of the way. No tramp passed by his gate without going in, and though no beggar would call at rich Mr.Mere’s or Miser Dawe’s, yet all in want visited Bridle.
Joe liked conversation, and so every one would speak to him and hinder his work, so that at times—when he met many on his way to the down—he would never get there at all. Joseph enjoyed a glass—though he rarely took one, because his pockets were nearly always empty—he could sing a song and tell a merry story as well as another.
If any stranger saw him leaning over the little bridge that led to his field and watching the water that flowed under, he regarded him as a friendly man from whom he might inquire the nearest way to Maidenbridge. And be told no lie.
He would do any ona good turn, though without thinking the better of himself for doing it. He dug Mrs. Moggs’s garden for nothing, only because she claimed him as a distant relation—through Adam. He admired Madder Hill, and lived to be happy. That was Joseph.
But perhaps Bridle was too simple. There was nothing unpleasant about him, and so he did not get on. He had no real eye to his own advantage; he merely worked. He might have done better—so the people said in Dodder-if he kept more pigs, sold milk instead of butter, and harnessed his aunt to the plough, instead of a horse.
But, even with these omissions, Joseph Bridle succeeded well enough in being merry, until one day. That one day comes to all; before then the river of life flows smoothly, and all is well.
Then the change comes. The first change—the forerunner of Death—is Love. When the sun of Love rises, and a man walks in its glory, he may be sure that a shadow approaches him—Death.
Love creates and separates; Death destroys and heals. A dead thistle-stalk, a fallen ash-leaf are the same thing. Man, alone, is separate and different from nature. Love has bewitched, bewildered him. Love comes up in the dark, and, before a man knows what has happened, he is pricked by an arrow. That stab is a sign. The man will soon sleep again in an unknowing consciousness: he will die. He will be like the thistle-stalk and the dead leaf. Let the young years belong, there is no trouble in them, let them last: “Be thou as little children.”
But to be so is not easy. The day comes, the mine explodes, the man is blinded, Joe Bridle loves.
At first the fierce explosion took him off his feet and cast him into the sun. Then he fell headlong. Where there had been quiet and content, all was become unrest, longing, and a burning fire. An altar had been set up, and Bridle was the victim. Love held the knife to his throat.
He believed, his feelings were true, he was confident in his power.
No sooner did he love Susie than he felt her presence always near to him. She was his spouse, his fair one, and from her he knew he could never be parted. His love for her could not be defeated, nor turned into any other channel.
The breath of longing that burned so hot in him must draw her with the power of that longing to him. She was a young creature—lively—a being of flesh that wished and desired, and her flesh covered the heart of a woman, glad and faithful. God had planned her out, He had made her a wanting thing, an eager wish, a soft hope. She was something that wished to receive, in order that she might give again in full measure.
When Joseph was cast up into the sun, he caught a-fire. That fire became his heart, and burned with furious joy. His heart—that was well alight—set fire to all that he did.
At first he was riotous, a spendthrift of his days. His joy leaped and danced with him; he hardly trod upon the earth; he walked the hills with disdain. His Aunt Sarah looked at him with terror; the light in his eyes frightened her, and she began to fear him.
She was but a tame beast: he looked wild. Was he changed? Would he devour her? Was he hungry? And she was more careful than ever to cook plenty of food for him.
Where things had been ordinary, Joe saw now only wonders. A heart that lives in the fields remains very youth ful. No day now was too long for him. The hours passed curiously; they were coloured hours, and made music; they seemed to kiss with a woman’s lips as they went by. Where there had only been a mild pale light—enough to show a man the way to do his common tasks—there now burnt a fierce radiance. Joe Bridle breathed deep. He was like a runner in a race, where every movement spurs him to stronger exertion. He must win—no idea of defeat could enter his head.
And so Bridle lived for the first days of his new being, but gradually more sober thoughts conquered his early outbreak of the fever of love. He settled down again to work; every thing that needed doing upon his small farm, that he did. He rose early and performed all his tasks with vigour; he worked late and nothing seemed too hard for him to do.
He had fine hopes about his one good meadow; perhaps this meadow would provide him with the means to marry Susie. There was nothing he had that he would not part with for the sake of her. He might even sell the first cut of the field grass, and later the field itself. For, when he married Susie, his own hands and her loving care would see that they did not want.
He had only three cows now—the down grass would be enough for them until the meadow was cut, and then they could feed there for a while. Somehow he must get money, but that would be easy, and then Susie would be his. Her laughter was everywhere, and at night her eyes shone in the sky. The air he breathed was Susie; whatever he touched was her too.
He passed people in the lane without even seeing them. In the rustle of the wind, in the trees, he heard Susie’s voice, and when he saw her, he was bewitched by love.
At the moment when Mr. Hayhoe was unfastening the gate for Lord Bullman, ]oe Bridle—full of his plans for the betterment of his farm—went to roll his meadow. He had but one horse, and this horse he harnessed to the roller. On the way to the field he went by ]ames Dawe’s cottage and saw Susie. She was trying to catch a broody hen that had deserted its eggs. Joseph stopped his horse, and watched her. The hen bustled out into the lane through a hole in the fence, and ran towards Joe. He joined in the chase, and very soon the hen was captured.
Susie allowed him to stroke its feathers, while she held it in her arms as if it were her babe.
The sun shone warmly, and the hen opened and shut its fierce little eyes. Upon the Dodder green there were children laughing, a sheep’s bell tinkled from the down, and a dog barked. Susie began to fondle and to croon over the hen, holding it closer to her breasts. Then she began to talk merrily, gossiping about Dodder.
“Oh!” she cried, “Winnie Huddy met a stranger in the lane this morning, and asked him for a penny. She called him ‘John’—there never was such a naughty girl! She talks to any man she meets, and no wonder, when her sister, Daisy, has a red string tied to her bed, taken from the Bible, and let out of the window!”
Susie smiled coyly and stroked the hen. Joseph Bridle had little to say; he could only look at her. Her girl’s body appeared a lively, a loving grace. He saw, for the first time, the whole of her beauty. Nothing escaped him; she was his dish to love. He breathed deep; before him, and so near that he could have touched her, was this being—a maid, created for his enjoyment. Her hair was a brown gold. She was the darkness and the light of his desire.
Joe Bridle stood silent before her. She began to talk to the hen, chiding it for having left its eggs, and calling it a wicked mother. Then she turned and ran into the garden because her father had called her.
He watched her as she went. Her movements filled his heart with longing. She bore about her the simple seductive beauty that can bite and tear the entrails of a man. To see her made sadness come. Without knowing what she did, she called up storms and dark clouds, hailstones and fire. She waited, asking to be culled. But by whom? Joseph answered the question boldly—himself. No one should touch her, only he.
And why should he not have her as well as another? She was a maid proper to marry, a little young maybe, but eager and loving. Her eyes told him so. She could be trusted to know whom she liked, and a village maiden can be a very faithful creature. Bridle knew that; he also knew that Susie was fond of him. She had once kissed him all of a sudden, when he had least expected it.
Joseph had made no secret of his love. He had told Mr. Hayhoe, who had shaken him strongly by the hand, and wished him all happiness, as if they were to be married the next day.
Joe was sure of her. He might live many years with Susie as his loving wife.
In the country, married joy can still be found. Life can be merry and happy where keen winter blasts and the smoke of autumn bonfires keep the devil away. Two straws, blown into a corner, hold together; the dark night keeps them near each other. One never knows when Madder Hill may begin to talk; and when fear creeps in under the stairs, two are better than one.
Joseph also told Mr. Solly that he loved Susie. Mr. Solly only blew his nose hard.
Joe Bridle led the horse into the field. But he did not begin to roll the meadow at once, he wished first to go and look into the pond. He felt impelled to do so, though he did not know why.
Sometimes a man’s feet behave oddly; they wish to walk, the mind wonders why. For no reason at all, a man will step out of the path, and will pick a flower as if that were what he had meant to do.
Joseph’s pond was in the middle of his field; it was said to have no bottom. In Dodder a story used to be told of a greedy farmer who, in a time of scarcity, kept all his grain from the poor and then, to tantalize the people, drove a wagon-load of wheat into the pond. And neither the wagon nor the horses were ever
The water in the pond—where there were no lily-leaves—was black. Mournful flowers grew about the edge, and there were places in the pond where large bull-rushes grew. And some said the water smelt strangely.
There was a reason for that, for if any poor creature was lost in the neighbourhood, the country people knew well enough that he might be found—if any one cared to look for him—in Joe Bridle’s pond.
The pond had a curious existence; it tempted, it fascinated. It was said that to drown oneself there gave no pain. One only had to step in, and sink at once. Drowning there was thought to be a pleasure. Little children, in times past, had ventured, and old men. The pond pitied all men’s sorrows, and the relief that it gave was death.
Before Joe Bridle went to the pond, he looked at his horse. The beast trembled. Something had frightened it. Joe patted the horse, and went to the pond.
The day began to darken strangely. Joe stopped and looked back at the horse—for some reason or other he did not care to gaze at once into the pond. The horse looked at him, still frightened. Its eyes begged him to return; then it bowed its head low.
Joe Bridle looked from the horse to a great elm-tree that grew nearby. What was happening to the tree? Though no wind blew, the whole tree bowed towards the pond, as if a great tempest had blown upon it. Above the field certain rooks were flying. The rooks behaved wildly, rushing downward with a fierce sound, then flying off in fear.
Joe Bridle looked into the pond.
Where the waters were black—though near to the edge of the pond—he saw something floating. What was it? The thing looked like thick paper, or parchment, and Joe Bridle could see that there were words written upon it.
Then a strange thing happened to the paper; it began to flame. Though floating upon the water, it was on fire. A marvellous tongue of flame rose from it, golden at first and then scarlet. The paper burned in the water and yet it was not consumed. Joe Bridle knew that he was near a dreadful thing. He might have fled, and yet he did not do so. The parchment, that had the power to burn and yet could not be consumed, held him in his place.
Joe Bridle was not without strength, he had power—love. He was on fire, too. He burnt, and yet was not destroyed. And he alone might take the paper out of the water, without being harmed by it.
Joe Bridle leaned over the pond; he stretched out his hand, and took the paper.
At the moment when he touched it, the tongue of flame that rose from it vanished. Joe Bridle held in his hand only a piece of parchment. As soon as he had touched this, there came a low mutter of thunder. Clouds gathered in the sky and all grew dark.
Though he held the paper in his hand, Joe Bridle dared not look at it, but he looked into the pond, the waters of which had grown very clear.
As Joe Bridle bent over the pond, two dead corpses rose up, but, when he thought he knew their sodden dead faces, the waters thickened and the faces vanished.
Joseph gazed into the sky. That a spring morning that had looked fair should turn so dismal was very strange. But often clouds come unexpectedly, and when they drop suddenly from nowhere and the sun is hid, the country people say that a blight is come.
Joe Bridle held the parchment firmly. He wondered why, but he soon knew. A sudden tempest rising, it seemed, out of the pond, rushed by him and tried to tear the paper away. A few weeks ago—before he had spoken to Susie—he would have let it go, but now he held tightly to what he had found, for the power upholding him was love. Though a quiet and peace-loving man, he had now the strength and fury of a god.
When the wind grew still, other things happened. Horrid creatures—great pond beasts—newts and vipers, swarmed about him in the darkness. A year-old corpse crawled out of the water and clutched at the paper with foul dripping fingers.
Then the light of many little burning candles shone over the pond, and a lovely nymph, with tangled hair in which water-flowers were entwined, came to Joseph, out of the pond. She begged him to ease her desire, to embrace her. She lay near to him, looking up at him with soft eyes, then suddenly she sprang up and tried to snatch the paper from his hand. Then she vanished.
After the nymph, there came a beautiful naked boy, who knelt down beside the pond, in order to see his own loveliness reflected in the water. He gazed for a while as though ravished by the sight, and then, coming to Joe Bridle and kneeling down again, begged for the paper with soft words, in a strange tongue. He wept and stretched out his hands, but Joe Bridle held the parchment firmly and would not let it go.
Next, a huge toad with splendid glowing eyes, like coals of fire, crept out of the pond and, pressing his great soft body against Bridle’s, tried to force him into the water. The monster was covered with slime and stank foully, but Joe Bridle held the paper and did not move. Love makes a man stubborn; whatever the paper was, Joe Bridle did not mean to let it go.
Joe looked boldly about him. He believed he had a right to keep what he had found.
Soon he heard sounds like dying groans, and from the bottom of the pond there rose up a mass of decayed carrion. What he had seen before was as nothing to this new horror. The pond was changed. It was become a charnel-yard, full of cadavers, all visible. A hideous stench surrounded him. Fleshly corruption, in its most revolting and dreadful forms, clung to him. A snake, crawling out of the body of a child, raised its head and hissed at him; pond newts swarmed over the breasts of a woman who was newly drowned. Fingers, soiled with grave-mould, tried to pluck the paper away, but all in vain—for Joe Bridle would not let it go.
Then the cloud lifted, the pond looked as usual, the sun shone again, and a lark rose up from the green meadow to sing. Joe Bridle felt bolder; he even dared to look at the paper that he held in his hand. It was quite dry, and appeared neither to have been burnt by the fire, nor soiled by the water.
Upon the top of the paper was written a command, and underneath that word two names—
Joseph Bridle read the names, but quickly held the paper away from his eyes, and only just in time. Had he looked longer, he would have been blinded.
The order was signed. Scrawled unevenly below the names, and across the bottom of the parchment, there was the signature. The name twisted like a serpent. Who could see it and live? Joe Bridle saw that the paper was signed, then he shut his eyes tight.
What had he looked at? Something that in the same moment could Unclay a man, let a star fade into nothingness, turn a city into a wilderness, and create a fair garden of life in empty space. A name that could hurl a sun across the firmament, and make an emmet hurry across a lane upon Shelton Heath.
The field faded. Dodder, Madder, the whole world were gone too. Only that name remained . . . .
Joseph Bridle hid the parchment in his bosom, and returned to his horse. What he had found concerned himself very nearly—and one other. He must keep the paper, for neither Susie nor himself could be harmed while the parchment was his.
Joe Bridle began to roll the field, and completed the labour sooner than he expected. When he had finished he looked at the grass. The grass of the field appeared richer and more green than he had ever known it before, and a sweet scent rose from the meadow.
When Joe Bridle, leaving the roller in the field, entered the lane in order to lead his horse home, he was surprised to see that the sun was nearly setting. How long he had been in the meadow he did not know, but all the time he had spent there had seemed to be but a few moments. He waited, allowing the horse to feed in the lane.
The sun rested—a great golden ball—on the top of Madder Hill. Never had a Dodder evening seemed so lovely! The spring, new-risen from its winter sleep, and yet unspoilt by summer idleness, had awaked singing. Never had Joe Bridle felt a greater desire for life. No air could be sweeter than that which he breathed, blowing from the wide seas over Madder Hill. Scented by the sweet earth and the newly-rolled meadow, the air tasted like honey. The old horse ate the grass gladly. Never had there seemed to be a better prospect for the blessed fruits of the earth to grow. And where better could a man be in the spring than in a country lane in a green land?
All was quiet in the village; there was no human sound. Joe Bridle was content to wait there for ever, watching his horse feed.
But presently he turned very cold. In the Dodder village he had heard a cottage door shut. Some one had come out of John Card’s cottage. Joe Bridle saw this man walking in the lane. He knew who he was.Though he walked in so ordinary a manner, he knew that he was a great king.
A merry one, too, for he borrowed Jackie Dillar’s hoop and trundled it into a ditch, then he chased and caught Winnie Huddy, who had put out her tongue at him.—A king on holiday at Dodder, but being there as an ordinary man, a friend of Mr. Hayhoe’s, and one who hoped to be happy, a king who liked to play. Joe Bridle watched him.
A group of little children surrounded Death; he was telling them a long story. Dairyman Dady came by and tried to drive the children away. “Who wants to be pestered by these little devils?” he said. But John Death invited the children to come near to him; he even took little Jackie in his arms: He laughed as a man would who has cast away a burden and means to live carelessly, forgetting all labour.
Joe Bridle knew him: he was Death.