THE PEACE OF MOWSLE BARTON

Crefton Lockyer sat at his ease, an ease alike of body and

soul, in the little patch of ground, half-orchard and

half-garden, that abutted on the farmyard at Mowsle Barton.

After the stress and noise of long years of city life, the

repose and peace of the hill-begirt homestead struck on his

senses with an almost dramatic intensity. Time and space

seemed to lose their meaning and their abruptness; the

minutes slid away into hours, and the meadows and fallows

sloped away into middle distance, softly and imperceptibly.

Wild weeds of the hedgerow straggled into the flower-garden,

and wallflowers and garden bushes made counter-raids into

farmyard and lane. Sleepy-looking hens and solemn

preoccupied ducks were equally at home in yard, orchard, or

roadway; nothing seemed to belong definitely to anywhere;

even the gates were not necessarily to be found on their

hinges. And over the whole scene brooded the sense of a

peace that had almost a quality of magic in it. In the

afternoon you felt that it had always been afternoon, and

must always remain afternoon; in the twilight you knew that

it could never have been anything else but twilight.

Crefton Cockyer sat at his ease in the rustic seat beneath

an old medlar tree, and decided that here was the

life-anchorage that his mind had so fondly pictured and that

latterly his tired and jarred senses had so often pined for.

He would make a permanent lodging-place among these simple

friendly people, gradually increasing the modest comforts

with which he would like to surround himself, but falling in

as much as possible with their manner of living.

As he slowly matured this resolution in his mind an

elderly woman came hobbling with uncertain gait through the

orchard. He recognized her as a member of the farm

household, the mother or possibly the mother-in-law of Mrs.

Spurfield, his present landlady, and hastily formulated some

pleasant remark to make to her. She forestalled him.

“There’s a bit of writing chalked up on the door over

yonder. What is it?”

She spoke in a dull impersonal manner, as though the

question had been on her lips for years and has best be got

rid of. Her eyes, however, looked impatiently over

Crefton’s head at the door of a small barn which formed the

outpost of a straggling line of farm buildings.

“Martha Pillamon is an old witch” was the announcement

that met Crefton’s inquiring scrutiny, and he hesitated a

moment before giving the statement wider publicity. For all

he knew to the contrary, it might be Martha herself to whom

he was speaking. It was possible that Mrs. Spurfield’s

maiden name had been Pillamon. And the gaunt, withered old

dame at his side might certainly fulfil local conditions as

to the outward aspect of a witch.

“It’s something about some one called Martha Pillamon,”

he explained cautiously.

“What does it say?”

“It’s very disrespectful,” said Crefton; “it says she’s

a witch. Such things ought not to be written up.”

“It’s true, every word of it,” said his listener with

considerable satisfaction, adding as a special descriptive

note of her own, “the old toad.”

And as she hobbled away through the farmyard she shrilled

out in her cracked voice, “Martha Pillamon is an old

witch!”

“Did you hear what she said?” mumbled a weak, angry

voice somewhere behind Crefton’s shoulder. Turning hastily,

he beheld another old crone, thin and yellow and wrinkled,

and evidently in a high state of displeasure. Obviously

this was Martha Pillamon in person. The orchard seemed to

be a favourite promenade for the aged women of the

neighbourhood.

“’Tis lies, ’tis sinful lies,” the weak voice went on.

“’Tis Betsy Croot is the old witch. She an’ her daughter,

the dirty rat. I’ll put a spell on ’em, the old nuisances.”

As she limped slowly away her eye caught the chalk

inscription on the barn door.

“What’s written up there?” she demanded, wheeling round

on Crefton.

“Vote for Soarker,” he responded, with the craven

boldness of the practised peacemaker.

The old woman grunted, and her mutterings and her faded

red shawl lost themselves gradually among the tree-trunks.

Crefton rose presently and made his way towards the

farmhouse. Somehow a good deal of the peace seemed to have

slipped out of the atmosphere.

The cheery bustle of tea-time in the old farm kitchen,

which Crefton had found so agreeable on previous afternoons,

seemed to have soured today into a certain uneasy

melancholy. There was a dull, dragging silence around the

board, and the tea itself, when Crefton came to taste it,

was a flat, lukewarm concoction that would have driven the

spirit of revelry out of a carnival.

“It’s no use complaining of the tea,” said Mrs.

Spurfield hastily, as her guest stared with an air of polite

inquiry at his cup. “The kettle won’t boil, that’s the

truth of it.”

Crefton turned to the hearth, where an unusually fierce

fire was banked up under a big black kettle, which sent a

thin wreath of steam from its spout, but seemed otherwise to

ignore the action of the roaring blaze beneath it.

“It’s been there more than an hour, an’ boil it won’t,”

said Mrs. Spurfield, adding, by way of complete

explanation, “we’re bewitched.”

“It’s Martha Pillamon as has done it,” chimed in the old

mother; “I’ll be even with the old toad, I’ll put a spell

on her.”

“It must boil in time,” protested Crefton, ignoring the

suggestions of foul influences. “Perhaps the coal is

damp.”

“It won’t boil in time for supper, nor for breakfast

tomorrow morning, not if you was to keep the fire agoing all

night for it,” said Mrs. Spurfield. And it didn’t. The

household subsisted on fried and baked dishes, and a

neighbour obligingly brewed tea and sent it across in a

moderately warm condition.

“I suppose you’ll be leaving us now that things has

turned up uncomfortable,” Mrs. Spurfield observed at

breakfast; “there are folks as deserts one as soon as

trouble comes.”

Crefton hurriedly disclaimed any immediate change of

plans; he observed, however, to himself that the earlier

heartiness of manner had in a large measure deserted the

household. Suspicious looks, sulky silences, or sharp

speeches had become the order of the day. As for the old

mother, she sat about the kitchen or the garden all day,

murmuring threats and spells against Martha Pillamon. There

was something alike terrifying and piteous in the spectacle

of these frail old morsels of humanity consecrating their

last flickering energies to the task of making each other

wretched. Hatred seemed to be the one faculty which had

survived in undiminished vigour and intensity where all else

was dropping into ordered and symmetrical decay. And the

uncanny part of it was that some horrid unwholesome power

seemed to be distilled from their spite and their cursings.

No amount of sceptical explanation could remove the

undoubted fact that neither kettle nor saucepan would come

to boiling-point over the hottest fire. Crefton clung as

long as possible to the theory of some defect in the coals,

but a wood fire gave the same result, and when a small

spirit-lamp kettle, which he ordered out by carrier, showed

the same obstinate refusal to allow its contents to boil he

felt that he had come suddenly into contact with some

unguessed-at and very evil aspect of hidden forces. Miles

away, down through an opening in the hills, he could catch

glimpses of a road where motor-cars sometimes passed, and

yet here, so little removed from the arteries of the latest

civilization, was a bat-haunted old homestead, where

something unmistakably like witchcraft seemed to hold a very

practical sway.

Passing out through the farm garden on his way to the

lanes beyond, where he hoped to recapture the comfortable

sense of peacefulness that was so lacking around house and

hearth—especially hearth—Crefton came across the old

mother, sitting mumbling to herself in the seat beneath the

medlar tree. “Let un sink as swims, let un sink as swims,”

she was repeating over and over again, as a child repeats a

half-learned lesson. And now and then she would break off

into a shrill laugh, with a note of malice in it that was

not pleasant to hear. Crefton was glad when he found

himself out of earshot, in the quiet and seclusion of the

deep overgrown lanes that seemed to lead away to nowhere;

one, narrower and deeper than the rest, attracted his

footsteps, and he was almost annoyed when he found that it

really did act as a miniature roadway to a human dwelling.

A forlorn-looking cottage with a scrap of ill-tended cabbage

garden and a few aged apple trees stood at an angle where a

swift-flowing stream widened out for a space into a

decent-sized pond before hurrying away again trough the

willows that had checked its course. Crefton leaned against

a tree-trunk and looked across the swirling eddies of the

pond at the humble little homestead opposite him; the only

sign of life came from a small procession of dingy-looking

ducks that marched in single file down to the water’s edge.

There is always something rather taking in the way a duck

changes itself in an instant from a slow, clumsy waddler of

the earth to a graceful, buoyant swimmer of the waters, and

Crefton waited with a certain arrested attention to watch

the leader of the file launch itself on to the surface of

the pond. He was aware at the same time of a curious

warning instinct that something strange and unpleasant was

about to happen. The duck flung itself confidently forward

into the water, and rolled immediately under the surface.

Its head appeared for a moment and went under again, leaving

a train of bubbles in its wake, while wings and legs churned

the water in a helpless swirl of flapping and kicking. The

bird was obviously drowning. Crefton thought at first that

it had caught itself in some weeds, or was being attacked

from below by a pike or water-rat. But no blood floated to

the surface, and the wildly bobbing body made the circuit of

the pond current without hindrance from any entanglement. A

second duck had by this time launched itself into the pond,

and a second struggling body rolled and twisted under the

surface. There was something peculiarly piteous in the

sight of the gasping beaks that showed now and again above

the water, as though in terrified protest at this treachery

of a trusted and familiar element. Crefton gazed with

something like horror as a third duck poised itself on the

bank and splashed in, to share the fate of the other two.

He felt almost relieved when the remainder of the flock,

taking tardy alarm from the commotion of the slowly drowning

bodies, drew themselves up with tense outstretched necks,

and sidled away from the scene of danger, quacking a deep

note of disquietude as they went. At the same moment

Crefton became aware that he was not the only human witness

of the scene; a bent and withered old woman, whom he

recognized at once as Martha Pillamon, of sinister

reputation, had limped down the cottage path to the water’s

edge, and was gazing fixedly at the gruesome whirligig of

dying birds that went in horrible procession round the pool.

Presently her voice rang out in a shrill note of quavering

rage:

“’Tis Betsy Croot adone it, the old rat. I’ll put a

spell on her, see if I don’t.”

Crefton slipped quietly away, uncertain whether or no the

old woman had noticed his presence. Even before she had

proclaimed the guiltiness of Betsy Croot, the latter’s

muttered incantation “Let un sink as swims” had flashed

uncomfortably across his mind. But it was the final threat

of a retaliatory spell which crowded his mind with misgiving

to the exclusion of all other thoughts or fancies. His

reasoning powers could no longer afford to dismiss these

old-wives’ threats as empty bickerings. The household at

Mowsle Barton lay under the displeasure of a vindictive old

woman who seemed able to materialize her personal spites in

a very practical fashion, and there was no saying what form

her revenge for three drowned ducks might not take. As a

member of the household Crefton might find himself involved

in some general and highly disagreeable visitation of Martha

Pillamon’s wrath. Of course he knew that he was giving way

to absurd fancies, but the behaviour of the spirit-lamp

kettle and the subsequent scene at the pond had considerably

unnerved him. And the vagueness of his alarm added to its

terrors; when once you have taken the Impossible into your

calculations its possibilities become practically limitless.

Crefton rose at his usual early hour the next morning,

after one of the least restful nights he had spent at the

farm. His sharpened senses quickly detected that subtle

atmosphere of things-being-not-altogether well that hangs

over a stricken household. The cows had been milked, but

they stood huddled about in the yard, waiting impatiently to

be driven out afield, and the poultry kept up an importunate

querulous reminder of deferred feeding-time; the yard pump,

which usually made discordant music at frequent intervals

during the early morning, was today ominously silent. In

the house itself there was a coming and going of scuttering

footsteps, a rushing and dying away of hurried voices, and

long, uneasy stillnesses. Crefton finished his dressing and

made his way to the head of a narrow staircase. He could

hear a dull, complaining voice, a voice into which an awed

hush had crept, and recognized the speaker as Mrs.

Spurfield.

“He’ll go away, for sure,” the voice was saying; “there

are those as runs away from one as soon as real misfortune

shows itself.”

Crefton felt that he probably was one of “those,” and

that there were moments when it was advisable to be true to

type.

He crept back to his room, collected and, packed his few

belongings, placed the money due for his lodgings on a

table, and made his way out by a back door into the yard. A

mob of poultry surged expectantly towards him; shaking off

their interested attentions he hurried along under cover of

cowstall, piggery, and hayricks till he reached the lane at

the back of the farm. A few minutes’ walk, which only the

burden of his portmanteaux restrained from developing into

an undisguised run, brought him to a main road, where the

early carrier soon overtook him and sped him onward to the

neighbouring town. At a bend of the road he caught a last

glimpse of the farm; the old gabled roofs and thatched

barns, the straggling orchard, and the medlar tree, with its

wooden seat, stood out with an almost spectral clearness in

the early morning light, and over it all brooded that air of

magic possession which Crefton had once mistaken for peace.

The bustle and roar of Paddington Station smote on his

ears with a welcome protective greeting.

“Very bad for our nerves, all this rush and hurry,” said

a fellow-traveller; “give me the peace and quiet of the

country.”

Crefton mentally surrendered his share of the desired

commodity. A crowded, brilliantly over-lighted music-hall,

where an exuberant rendering of “1812” was being given by

a strenuous orchestra, came nearest to his ideal of a nerve

sedative.