THE BLOOD-FEUD OF TOAD-WATER

A WEST-COUNTRY EPIC

The Cricks lived at Toad-Water; and in the same lonely

upland spot Fate had pitched the home of the Saunderses, and

for miles around these two dwellings there was never a

neighbour or a chimney or even a burying-ground to bring a

sense of cheerful communion or social intercourse. Nothing

but fields and spinneys and barns, lanes and waste-lands.

Such was Toad-Water; and, even so, Toad-Water had its

history.

Thrust away in the benighted hinterland of a scattered

market district, it might have been supposed that these two

detached items of the Great Human Family would have leaned

towards one another in a fellowship begotten of kindred

circumstances and a common isolation from the outer world.

And perhaps it had been so once, but the way of things had

brought it otherwise. Indeed, otherwise. Fate, which had

linked the two families in such unavoidable association of

habitat, had ordained that the Crick household should

nourish and maintain among its earthly possessions sundry

head of domestic fowls, while to the Saunderses was given a

disposition towards the cultivation of garden crops. Herein

lay the material, ready to hand, for the coming of feud and

ill-blood. For the grudge between the man of herbs and the

man of live stock is no new thing; you will find traces of

it in the fourth chapter of Genesis. And one sunny

afternoon in late spring-time the feud came—came, as such

things mostly do come, with seeming aimlessness and

triviality. One of the Crick hens, in obedience to the

nomadic instincts of her kind, wearied of her legitimate

scratching-grounds, and flew over the low wall that divided

the holdings of the neighbours. And there, on the yonder

side, with a hurried consciousness that her time and

opportunities might be limited, the misguided bird scratched

and scraped and beaked and delved in the soft yielding bed

that had been prepared for the solace and well-being of a

colony of seedling onions. Little showers of earth-mould

and root-fibres went spraying before the hen and behind her,

and every minute the area of her operations widened. The

onions suffered considerably. Mrs. Saunders, sauntering at

this luckless moment down the garden path, in order to fill

her soul with reproaches at the iniquity of the weeds, which

grew faster than she or her good man cared to remove them,

stopped in mute discomfiture before the presence of a more

magnificent grievance. And then, in the hour of her

calamity, she turned instinctively to the Great Mother, and

gathered in her capacious hands large clods of the hard

brown soil that lay at her feet. With a terrible sincerity

of purpose, though with a contemptible inadequacy of aim,

she rained her earth bolts at the marauder, and the bursting

pellets called forth a flood of cackling protest and panic

from the hastily departing fowl. Calmness under misfortune

is not an attribute of either menfolk or womenkind, and

while Mrs. Saunders declaimed over her onion bed such

portions of the slang dictionary as are permitted by the

Nonconformist conscience to be said or sung, the Vasco da

Gama fowl was waking the echoes of Toad-Water with crescendo

bursts of throat music which compelled attention to her

griefs. Mrs. Crick had a long family, and was therefore

licensed, in the eyes of her world, to have a short temper,

and when some of her ubiquitous offspring had informed her,

with the authority of eye-witnesses, that her neighbour had

so far forgotten herself as to heave stones at her hen—her

best hen, the best layer in the countryside—her thoughts

clothed themselves in language “unbecoming to a Christian

woman”—so at least said Mrs. Saunders, to whom most of

the language was applied. Nor was she, on her part,

surprised at Mrs. Crick’s conduct in letting her hens stray

into other body’s gardens, and then abusing of them, seeing

as how she remembered things against Mrs. Crick—and the

latter simultaneously had recollections of lurking episodes

in the past of Susan Saunders that were nothing to her

credit. “Fond memory, when all things fade we fly to

thee,” and in the paling light of an April afternoon the

two women confronted each other from their respective sides

of the party wall, recalling with shuddering breath the

blots and blemishes of their neighbour’s family record.

There was that aunt of Mrs. Crick’s who had died a pauper

in Exeter workhouse—every one knew that Mrs. Saunders’

uncle on her mother’s side drank himself to death —then

there was that Bristol cousin of Mrs. Crick’s! From the

shrill triumph with which his name was dragged in, his crime

must have been pilfering from a cathedral at least, but as

both remembrancers were speaking at once it was difficult to

distinguish his infamy from the scandal which beclouded the

memory of Mrs. Saunders’ brother’s wife’s mother—who may

have been a regicide, and was certainly not a nice person as

Mrs. Crick painted her. And then, with an air of

accumulating and irresistible conviction, each belligerent

informed the other that she was no lady—after which they

withdrew in a great silence, feeling that nothing further

remained to be said. The chaffinches clinked in the apple

trees and the bees droned round the berberis bushes, and the

waning sunlight slanted pleasantly across the garden plots,

but between the neighbour households had sprung up a barrier

of hate, permeating and permanent.

The male heads of the families were necessarily drawn into

the quarrel, and the children on either side were forbidden

to have anything to do with the unhallowed offspring of the

other party. As they had to travel a good three miles along

the same road to school every day, this was awkward, but

such things have to be. Thus all communication between the

households was sundered. Except the cats. Much as Mrs.

Saunders might deplore it, rumour persistently pointed to

the Crick he-cat as the presumable father of sundry kittens

of which the Saunders she-cat was indisputably the mother.

Mrs. Saunders drowned the kittens, but the disgrace

remained.

Summer succeeded spring, and winter summer, but the feud

outlasted the waning seasons. Once, indeed, it seemed as

though the healing influences of religion might restore to

Toad-Water its erstwhile peace; the hostile families found

themselves side by side in the soul-kindling atmosphere of a

Revival Tea, where hymns were blended with a beverage that

came of tea-leaves and hot water and took after the latter

parent, and where ghostly counsel was tempered by

garnishings of solidly fashioned buns—and here, wrought up

by the environment of festive piety, Mrs. Saunders so far

unbent as to remark guardedly to Mrs. Crick that the evening

had been a fine one. Mrs. Crick, under the influence of

her ninth cup of tea and her fourth hymn, ventured on the

hope that it might continue fine, but a maladroit allusion

on the part of the Saunders good man to the backwardness of

garden crops brought the Feud stalking forth from its comer

with all its old bitterness. Mrs. Saunders joined heartily

in the singing of the final hymn, which told of peace and

joy and archangels and golden glories; but her thoughts were

dwelling on the pauper aunt of Exeter.

Years have rolled away, and some of the actors in this

wayside drama have passed into the Unknown; other onions

have arisen, have flourished, have gone their way, and the

offending hen has long since expiated her misdeeds and lain

with trussed feet and look of ineffable peace under the

arched roof of Barnstaple market. But the Blood-feud of

Toad-Water survives to this day.