Precious Bane - Mary Webb - ebook

Precious Bane ebook

Mary Webb

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Precious Bane is also the story of Gideon, the doomed brother of Prue, no less decisive, but with different motives. Determined to defeat the poverty of their farm, he devotes all his strength to making money. The only thing that distracts him from these ambitions is that he abandons her for a stronger attraction to his money.

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Liczba stron: 495

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Contents

Book One

chapter one: Sarn Mere

chapter two: Telling the Bees

chapter three: Prue takes the Bidding Letters

chapter four: Torches and Rosemary

chapter five: The First Swath Falls

chapter six: “Saddle your Dreams before you Ride ’em”

chapter seven: Pippins and Jargonelles

Book Two

chapter one: Riding to Market

chapter two: The Mug of Cider

chapter three: “Or Die in ’tempting It”

chapter four: The Wizard of Plash

chapter five: The Love-Spinning

chapter six: The Game of Costly Colours

chapter seven: “The Maister Be Come”

chapter eight: Raising Venus

chapter nine: The Game of Conquer

Book Three

chapter one: The Hiring Fair

chapter two: The Baiting

chapter three: “The Best Tall Script, Flourished”

chapter four: Jancis Runs Away

chapter five: Dragon-flies

Book Four

chapter one: Harvest Home

chapter two: Beguildy Seeks a Seventh Child

chapter three: The Deathly Bane

chapter four: All on a May Morning

chapter five: The Last Game of Conquer

chapter six: The Breaking of the Mere

chapter seven

Book One

chapter one: Sarn Mere

IT was at a love-spinning that I saw Kester first. And if, in these new-fangled days, when strange inventions crowd upon us, when I hear tell there is even a machine coming into use in some parts of the country for reaping and mowing, if those that mayhappen will read this don’t know what a love-spinning was, they shall hear in good time. But though it was Jancis Beguildy’s love-spinning, she being three-and-twenty at that time and I being two years less, yet that is not the beginning of the story I have set out to tell.

Kester says that all tales, true tales or romancings, go farther back than the days of the child; aye, farther even than the little babe in its cot of rushes. Maybe you never slept in a cot of rushes; but all of us did at Sarn. There is such a plenty of rushes at Sarn, and old Beguildy’s missus was a great one for plaiting them on rounded barrel-hoops. Then they’d be set on rockers, and a nice clean cradle they made, soft and green, so that the babe could feel as big-sorted as a little caterpillar (painted butterflies-as-is-to-be, Kester calls them) sleeping in its cocoon. Kester’s very set about such things. Never will he say caterpillars. He’ll say, “There’s a lot of butterflies-as-is-to-be on our cabbages, Prue.” He won’t say “It’s winter.” He’ll say, “Summer’s sleeping.” And there’s no bud little enough nor sad-coloured enough for Kester not to callen it the beginnings of the blow.

But the time is not yet come for speaking of Kester. It is the story of us all at Sarn, of Mother and Gideon and me, and Jancis (that was so beautiful), and Wizard Beguildy, and the two or three other folk that lived in those parts, that I did set out to tell. There were but a few, and maybe always will be, for there’s a discouragement about the place. It may be the water lapping, year in and year out–everywhere you look and listen, water; or the big trees waiting and considering on your right hand and on your left; or the unbreathing quiet of the place, as if it was created but an hour gone, and not created for us. Or it may be that the soil is very poor and marshy, with little nature or goodness in the grass, which is ever so where reeds and rushes grow in plenty, and the flower of the paigle. Happen you call it cowslip, but we always named it the paigle, or keys of heaven. It was a wonderful thing to see our meadows at Sarn when the cowslip was in blow. Gold-over they were, so that you would think not even an angel’s feet were good enough to walk there. You could make a tossy-ball before a thrush had gone over his song twice, for you’d only got to sit down and gather with both hands. Every way you looked, there was nought but gold, saving towards Sarn, where the woods began, and the great stretch of grey water, gleaming and wincing in the sun. Neither woods nor water looked darksome in that fine spring weather, with the leaves coming new, and buds the colour of corn in the birch-tops. Only in our oak wood there was always a look of the back-end of the year, their young leaves being so brown. So there was always a breath of October in our May. But it was a pleasant thing to sit in the meadows and look away to the far hills. The larches spired up in their quick green, and the cowslip gold seemed to get into your heart, and even Sarn Mere was nothing but a blue mist in a yellow mist of birch-tops. And there was such a dream on the place that if a wild bee came by, let alone a bumble, it startled you like a shout. If a bee comes in at the window now to my jar of gillyflowers, I can see it all in clear colours, with Plash lying under the sunset, beyond the woods, looking like a jagged piece of bottle glass. Plash Mere was bigger than Sarn, and there wasn’t a tree by it, so where there were no hills beyond it you could see the clouds rooted in it on the far side, and I used to think they looked like the white water-lilies that lay round the margins of Sarn half the summer through. There was nothing about Plash that was different from any other lake or pool. There was no troubling of the waters, as at Sarn, nor any village sounding its bells beneath the furthest deeps. It was true, what folks said of Sarn, that there was summat to be felt there.

It was at Plash that the Beguildys lived, and it was at their dwelling, that was part stone house and part cave, that I got my book learning. It may seem a strange thing to you that a woman of my humble station should be able to write and spell, and put all these things into a book. And indeed when I was a young wench there were not many great ladies, even, that could do much more scribing than to write a love-letter, and some could but just write such things as “This be quince and apple” on their jellies, and others had ado to put their names in the marriage register. Many have come to me, time and again, to write their love-letters for them, and a bitter old task it is, to write other women’s love-letters out of your own burning heart.

If it hadna been for Mister Beguildy I never could have written down all these things. He learned me to read and write, and reckon up figures. And though he was a preached-against man, and said he could do a deal that I don’t believe he ever could do, and though he dabbled in things that are not good for us to interfere with, yet I shall never forget to thank God for him. It seems to me now a very uncommon working of His power, to put it into Beguildy’s heart to learn me. For a wizard could not rightly be called a servant of His, but one of Lucifer’s men. Not that Beguildy was wicked, but only empty of good, as if all the righteousness was burnt out by the flame of his fiery mind, which must know and intermeddle with mysteries. As for love, he did not know the word. He could read the stars, and tell the future, and he claimed to have laid spirits. Once I asked him where the future was, that he could see it so plain. And he said, “It lies with the past, child, at the back of Time.” You couldn’t ever get the better of Mister Beguildy. But when I told Kester what he said, Kester would not have it so. He said the past and the future were two shuttles in the hands of the Lord, weaving Eternity. Kester was a weaver himself, which may have made him think of it thus. But I think we cannot know what the past and the future are. We are so small and helpless on the earth that is like a green rush cradle where mankind lies, looking up at the stars, but not knowing what they be.

As soon as I could write, I made a little book with a calico cover, and every Sunday I wrote in it any merry time or good fortune we had had in the week, and so kept them. And if times had been troublous and bitter for me, I wrote that down too, and was eased. So when our parson, knowing of the lies that were told of me, bade me write all I could remember in a book, and set down the whole truth and nothing else, I was able to freshen my memory with the things I had put down Sunday by Sunday.

Well, it is all gone over now, the trouble and the struggling. It be quiet weather now, like a still evening with the snow all down, and a green sky, and lambs calling. I sit here by the fire with my Bible to hand, a very old woman and a tired woman, with a task to do before she says good night to this world. When I look out of my window and see the plain and the big sky with clouds standing up on the mountains, I call to mind the thick, blotting woods of Sarn, and the crying of the mere when the ice was on it, and the way the water would come into the cupboard under the stairs when it rose at the time of the snow melting. There was but little sky to see there, saving that which was reflected in the mere; but the sky that is in the mere is not the proper heavens. You see it in a glass darkly, and the long shadows of rushes go thin and sharp across the sliding stars, and even the sun and moon might be put out down there, for, times, the moon would get lost in lily leaves, and, times, a heron might stand before the sun.

chapter two: Telling the Bees

MY brother Gideon was born in the year when the war with the French began. That was why Father would have him called Gideon, it being a warlike name. Jancis used to say it was a very good name for him, because it was one you couldn’t shorten. You can make most names into little love-names, like you can cut down a cloak or a gown for children’s wearing. But Gideon you could do nought with. And the name was like the man. I was more set on my brother than most are, but I couldna help seeing that about him. If nobody calls you out of your name, your name’s like to be soon out of mind. And most people never even called him by his Christian name at all. They called him Sarn. In Father’s life it was old Sarn and young Sarn. But after Father died, Gideon seemed to take the place to himself. I remember how he went out that summer night, and seemed to eat and drink the place, devouring it with his eyes. Yet it was not for love of it, but for what he could get out of it. He was very like Father then, and more like every year, both to look at and in his mind. Saving that he was less tempersome and more set in his ways, he was Father’s very marrow. Father’s temper got up despert quick, and when it was up he was a ravening lion. Maybe that was what gave Mother that married-all-o’er look. But Gideon I only saw angered, to call angered, three times. Mostly a look was enough. He’d give you a look like murder, and you’d let him take the way he wanted. I’ve seen a dog cringing and whimpering because he’d given it one of those looks. Sarns mostly have grey eyes–cold grey like the mere in winter–and the Sarn men are mainly dark and sullen. “Sullen as a Sarn,” they say about these parts. And they say there’s been something queer in the family ever since Timothy Sarn was struck by forkit lightning in the times of the religious wars. There were Sarns about here then, and always have been, ever since there was anybody. Well, Timothy went against his folk and the counsels of a man of God, and took up with the wrong side, whichever that was, but it’s no matter now. So he was struck by lightning and lay for dead. Being after awhile recovered, he was counselled by the man of God to espouse the safe side and avoid the lightning. But Sarns were ever obstinate men. He kept his side, and as he was coming home under the oakwood he was struck again. And seemingly the lightning got into his blood. He could tell when tempest brewed, long afore it came, and it is said that when a storm broke, the wildfire played about him so none could come near him. Sarns have the lightning in their blood since his day. I wonder sometimes whether it be a true tale, or whether it’s too old to be true. It used to seem to me sometimes as if Sarn was too old to be true. The woods and the farm and the church at the other end of the mere were all so old, as if they were in somebody’s dream. There was frittening about the place, too, and what with folk being afraid to come there after dusk, and the quiet noise of the fish jumping far out in the water, and Gideon’s boat knocking on the steps with little knocks like somebody tapping at the door, and the causeway that ran down into the mere as far as you could see, from just outside our garden gate, being lost in the water, it was a very lonesome old place. Many a time, on Sunday evenings, there came over the water a thin sound of bells. We thought they were the bells of the village down under, but I believe now they were nought but echo bells from our own church. They say that in some places a sound will knock against a wall of trees and come back like a ball.

It was on one of those Sunday evenings, when the thin chimes were sounding along with our own four bells, that we played truant from church for the second time. It being such a beautiful evening, and Father and Mother being busy with the bees swarming, we made it up between us to take dog’s leave, and to wait by the lych-gate for Jancis and get her to come with us. For old Beguildy never werrited much about her church-going, not being the best of friends with the parson himself. He sent her off when the dial made it five o’clock every fourth Sunday–for we had service only once a month, the parson having a church at Bramton, where he lived, and another as well, which made it the more wicked of us to play truant–but whether she got there early or late, or got there at all, he’d never ask, let alone catechize her about the sermon. Our Father would catechize us last thing in the evening when our night-rails were on. Father would sit down in the settle with the birch-rod to his hand, and the settle, that had looked such a great piece of furniture all the week, suddenly looked little, like a settle made for a mommet. Whatever Father sat in, he made it look little. We stood barefoot in front of him on the cold quarries, in our unbleached homespun gowns that mother had spun and the journeyman weaver had woven up in the attic at the loom among the apples. Then he’d question us, and when we answered wrong he made a mark on the settle, and every mark was a stroke with the birch at the end of the catechizing. Though Father couldn’t read, he never forgot anything. It seemed as if he turned things over in his head all the while he was working. I think he was a very clever man with not enow of things to employ his mind. If he’d had one of the new-fangled weaving machines I hear tell of to look after, it would have kept him content, but there was no talk of such things then. We were all the machines he had, and we wished very heartily every fourth Sunday, and Christmas and Easter, that we were the children of Beguildy, though he was thought so ill of by our parson, and often preached against, even by name.

I mind once, when Father leathered us very bad, after the long preaching on Easter Sunday, Gideon being seven and me five, how Gideon stood up in the middle of the kitchen and said, “I do will and wish to be Maister Beguildy’s son, and the devil shall have my soul. Amen.”

Father got his temper up that night, no danger! He shouted at Mother terrible, saying she’d done very poorly with her children, for the girl had the devil’s mark on her, and now it seemed as if the boy came from the same smithy. This I know, because Mother told it to me. All I mind is that she went to look very small, and being only little to begin with, she seemed like one of the fairy folk. And she said–“Could I help it if the hare crossed my path? Could I help it?” It seemed so strange to hear her saying that over and over. I can see the room now if I shut my eyes, and most especially if there’s a bunch of cowslips by me. For Easter fell late, or in a spell of warm weather that year, and the cowslips were very forrard in sheltered places, so we’d pulled some. The room was all dim like a cave, and the red fire burning still and watchful seemed like the eye of the Lord. There was a little red eye in every bit of ware on the dresser too, where it caught the gleam. Often and often in after years I looked at those red lights, which were echoes of the fire, just as the ghostly bells were reflections of the chime, and I’ve thought they were like a deal of the outer show of this world. Rows and rows of red, gledy fires, but all shadows of fires. Many a chime of merry bells ringing, and yet only the shadows of bells; only a sigh of sound coming back from a wall of leaves or from the glassy water. Father’s eyes caught the gleam too, and Gideon’s; but Mother’s didna, for she was standing with her back to the fire by the table where the cowslips were, gathering the mugs and plates together from supper. And if it seem strange that so young a child should remember the past so clearly, you must call to mind that Time engraves his pictures on our memory like a boy cutting letters with his knife, and the fewer the letters the deeper he cuts. So few things ever happened to us at Sarn that we could never forget them. Mother’s voice clings to my heart like trails of bedstraw that catch you in the lanes. She’d got a very plaintive voice, and soft. Everything she said seemed to mean a deal more than the words, and times it was like a person fumbling in the dark, or going a long way down black passages with a hand held out on this side, and a hand held out on that side, and no light. That was how she said, “Could I help it if the hare crossed my path–could I help it?”

Everything she said, though it might not have anything merry in it, she smiled a bit, in the way you smile to take the edge off somebody’s anger, or if you hurt yourself and won’t show it. A very grievous smile it was, and always there. So when Father gave Gideon another hiding for wishing he was Beguildy’s boy, Mother stood by the table saying, “Oh, dunna, Sarn! Hold thy hand, Sarn!” and smiling all the while, seeming to catch at Father’s hands with her soft voice. Poor Mother! Oh, my poor Mother! Shall we meet you in the other world, dear soul, and atone to you for our heedlessness?

I’d never forgotten that Easter, but Gideon had, seemingly, for when I remembered him of it, saying we surely durstn’t take dog’s leave, he said, “It’s nought. We’ll make Sexton’s Tivvy listen to the sermon for us, so as we can answer well. And I dunna care much if I am leathered, so long as I can find some good conkers and beat Jancis, for last time she beat me.”

Conkers, maybe you know, are snail shells, and children put the empty ones on strings, and play like you play with chestnut cobs. Our woods were a grand place for snails, and Gideon had conker matches with lads from as far away as five miles the other side of Plash. He was famous all about, because he played so fiercely, and not like a game at all.

All the bells were sounding when we started that Sunday in June–the four metal bells in the church and the four ghost bells from nowhere. Mother was helping Father with the bees, getting a new skep ready, down where the big chestnut tree was, to put the play of bees in. They’d swarmed in a dead gooseberry bush, and Mother said, with her peculiar smile, “It be a sign of death.”

But Gideon shouted out–

“A play of bees in May is worth a noble that same day.

A play in June’s pretty soon.”

And he said–

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