Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Within twenty miles of London in the nineteenth century
WITHIN TWENTY MILES OF LONDON IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
A desire to take rubbings of some ancient brasses led me a few days since to the quaint little church of ——, in Surrey, where I found so much that was interesting in the edifice itself, its curiously sculptured monuments, and the information freely given by the pleasant old clerk, that evening drew on before my task was half completed.
Unwilling to leave the neighbourhood without fully accomplishing the errand that led me into it, I made my way to a clean little hostelry where a comfortable bed was promised; and to wile away an hour or two, turned into the tap-room to fraternise with the good folks there, who were sleepily boosing over a roaring wood fire.
My entrance caused a little sensation, which might have been flattering to my vanity—(I have my share)—had not my nearest neighbour loudly whispered his impression that I was a packman, in which opinion the general company seemed instantly to coincide, for I was greeted with civil inquiries as to how I found business. With equal civility I assured them that it was tolerable, and knowing the Englishman to be a thirsty animal, who, while he would undoubtedly turn up his nose at the bread and salt of the Oriental, may be easily propitiated with malt liquor, ordered in some ale, which immediately put us on an amicable footing, and secured me the seat of honour in the chimney corner, where I underwent all the phases of hot, hotter, and intolerably hot, until I became as used to it as the rest of my new acquaintances.
Through the tobacco mist which floated round us, I surveyed the villagers as curiously, if less openly, as they had inspected me. Opposite, with his knees in constant danger of singeing, sat a blacksmith—old, ugly, and smutty as his great forefather, Vulcan. Next to him, a punch-like drayman, from the little brewery close by, which was apparently built on the model of my sister’s doll-house. By his side lounged a tall, round-shouldered sawyer, the only one of the party who seemed interested in the newspaper, which he was spelling out in whispers to himself. There was also a shepherd redolent of haystack and cow-house, and three or four labourers from the adjacent farms, who had dropped in to enjoy an extra pint on the strength of its being Friday, or pay-night.
Conversation commenced with the weather, soaring to the moon, about which capricious lady a dispute arose, Bill contending that she changed her quarters at one o’clock; Jack standing out for another five minutes. An almanack proving both in the wrong, we fell back to earth and the crops, where I became hopelessly involved in wheat, wuts, folium, roy grass, and turmuts, receiving some excellent information, which shall be forwarded to my agricultural friends, as soon as it rises to the surface of my absorbing mind, in which it lies at the present moment too deeply embedded for extrication.
Our circle now received an addition, in the person of a middle-aged, hard-featured dame, who had been to “shop,” and called with true feminine thoughtfulness to take “her Jack” safe home along with her. Jack somewhat ungraciously grunted out a command to sit down and wait till he was ready, so the seat I rose to offer was accepted, and Mrs. Jack warmed her feet, and nodded across the room to the sawyer, who, she confidentially told me, was a sort of relation. A very dry sort he looked; but we were not yet sufficiently intimate to venture on further inquiries.
Labourer Bill took his pipe out of his mouth to ask after Simpson. Mrs. Jack shook her head at the question—“He just is bad, poor man! norful bad! I looked in as I came by, and it’s sad to see him; no rest, his missus says, night nor day. Ah! there’s something about that chap more nor most people thinks!”
“What does the doctor say to un?” asked the blacksmith.
“Well,” she answered, “he don’t say much, and he don’t do un a mortal of good. He says better send un to a hospital; but what’s the use on it? Depend upon it there’s a spell on him, and we pretty well guess who’s done it.”
“Do you believe such a thing possible, ma’am?” I exclaimed, opening my eyes with astonishment.
“Lord, sir!” she cried, turning sharply round on me, “ain’t it in the Bible about sperits and sich like? Don’t you never read it? I ain’t scholard enough myself, and Jack’s eyes is bad; but our gal, she just do read it off quite pretty.”
Mrs. Jack was too much for me, so I subsided into my Turkish bath, and heard without further comment.
The sawyer had laid down his paper and was looking up with an evident desire to proceed with Simpson’s case.
“Then you think that’s what ails him, missus?”
“There ain’t no doubt about it,” was the prompt reply, “and I just do feel for him, for I knows what it is myself.”
The blacksmith put the question I was dying to ask.
“Did you ever have a spell?”
“Ah! didn’t I!” she answered, “when I was a gal about twenty, and bad enough I lay all through the summer. We knowed who did it well enough; she wer the mother of the young man as courted me then, and she didn’t like as us two should come together. So, at last, mother up and sent for a cunning man, and worn’t he a clever one for fits! I knows lots he cured about here; it’s a pity such clever folk should ever die, ain’t it? Well, when he come, he says, ‘You mustn’t let any one in while I’m here!’ But mother she wer frightened like, and forgot to fasten the back door, and I’m blest if that wicked old wretch didn’t come right in, and up to my bedside! Then the cunning man said it wer no use, he couldn’t do nothing agen she, I must be sent right away; so mother sent me up to my aunt’s in London, and in three months I was as well and as fat as a pig!”
As no one seemed inclined to raise a murmur of doubt on the conclusion of Mrs. Jack’s story, I did not presume to do so, but swallowed it in another glass of the ale.
One of the labouring men, a good-humoured six-foot fellow, now entered the lists.
“I went to a cunning woman once; when them ducks of mine was stolen; you remember ’em, Bill?”
Yes, Bill perfectly remembered them; one was white with a streak on the wing, and t’other two, &c., &c.
“Well,” continued six feet, “she holds up her finger at me, and says she:—
“‘Ducks!—a running stream!—a dark woman! Go home, and don’t let anybody know what I’ve told you, and your luck’ll turn!’”
“I thought this worn’t much for a shilling; but sure enough they were found next day!”
“Ha!” said the sawyer, gravely, “that arn’t nothing to what I’ve seen and known!”
“And me, too,” cried the drayman, pushing the red cap off his red little face and staring fiercely round, “when I wer about fourteen I chased a thing without a head for more than a mile, and then it got away from me over a hedge!”
“Like enough,” interrupted Sawdust. “I’ve seen worse nor that myself!”
“And ’tain’t very long,” continued the drayman, “since I had my horses bewitched. We wer a going up a hill and they tugged and tugged, and I whipped and swore, but all for nought; up that hill they couldn’t get. By-and-by, marm comes out herself, out of her cottage close handy, and says she—”
“‘Why don’t ye whip your horses, master?’
“‘You faggot,’ says I. ‘I wish I had the burning of you! Take yourself off, or I’ll come and thrash you as long as I can see you!’ An’ I made one step at her, an’ off she goes, an’ away goes my horses like wild cats! ’Tworn’t long before we got to our journey’s end, I can tell you!”
Every one drew a long breath and took a long draught but Sawdust, who solemnly repeated the assurance that it worn’t nothing to what he’d seen.
“Then,” asked Mrs. Jack, briskly, “if you knows more than other people, why don’t you up and tell us all about it?”
“Because,” he prophetically replied, “there was some one there as would only laugh at it, and sperits worn’t to be made game of like that!”
“Queer goings on there is in this world!” exclaimed Vulcan, rubbing his roasted knees. “Wife always sticks a rusty knife over the head of our bed-settle, and that keeps away nightmare and all them sort o’ hobgobbles; so, perhaps, that’s how it is I never see nothing myself—but twice.”
Every one was breathless with awe, only Mrs. Jack summoning courage to utter an interrogative “Well?”
“Well,” he repeated, gazing contemplatively up the wide chimney, “the first I see, I don’t like to be too sure about, ’cos I went to bed pretty considerably tight, and can’t be certain whether I wer asleep or awake; t’other time it wer a strange cat got in the room. Lord, how frightened I wer to be sure!”
Such a lame and impotent conclusion was disappointing, but the shepherd who had sat very quiet since this subject had been on the tapis, now told us that something rather strange had happened in his family that he’d tell us if we liked. Every one was agreeable to listen, Mrs. Jack assured him, so he cleared his throat and began:
“One of my brothers was Tom; he wer the youngest lad but one, and she was a gal, and died; so mother and father took to Tom most of all of us, and Tom wer very fond of them, and after he went to sea, every time he come home he bringed the old woman something.
“One of them times he buyed her a beautiful set of chaney tea things; real chaney they was, all complete and gilted over with gold most beautiful! Mother only used them on high days and holidays.
“Let’s see, I think it was my eldest sister as had the two twins, ah! so it was; pretty babies they was too, as ever I see, and I was one of the godfathers, and after the christening we all went down to mother’s to tea.
“Out comes the best chaney in course, and mother she makes the tea, and we was all a talking and laughing, merry enough, when all of a sudden the chaney teapot cracked from top to bottom! Then mother she slaps her hand on the table, and bustes out a crying, and says:
“There’s something happened to my poor Tom, I know there is!’ and sure enough there was, for he was drowned off Ingy, just about the time the chaney teapot cracked!”
“Well, that wor’ a warning, surely,” said Mrs. Jack, thoughtfully; “some people says there ain’t nothing in warnings, but I knows there is. When my sister’s husband died, I said to her:
“‘There, don’t fret, the worst’s over!’
“‘No,’ she says, ‘Mary, I know there’s worse to come, for the poor dear’s corpse is that limp, you might throw him anywhere; and just to see the trouble that dear cretur’s gone through—my blessed!”
Mrs. Jack’s reminiscences cast a shade over us all, and the clock striking ten caused a general move; Jack himself stood out for another half hour, but his better half declaring that she couldn’t go home by herself, for it’d scare the wits out of her to cross the churchyard alone, he yielded the point; the drayman yawningly rolled away, and the labourers generously waited for each other, no one seeming anxious for a solitary walk.
With many a civil “Good night, master, and thank ye,” they departed, and after vainly endeavouring to sift from Sawdust his extra experiences, I transferred myself to my bed chamber, where I noted down this record of an ignorance and credulity quite unexpected, in this enlightened age. I can well imagine many throwing this article down with expressions of unbelief, yet I vouch for its being an unexaggerated report; and, let me ask, if these simple, very simple villagers are in verity more eccentric, than those men and women of higher education and greater intelligence, who are daily exhibiting themselves as converts to spiritualism,—a system concerning which and its mysteries we have already expressed our opinion.
A cloud from the dark ages still rests over England, and it needs wiser heads than mine to point out a way to disperse it; but it will be well for all to remember that the superstition which may be held harmless while it takes no deeper hue than a foolish girl’s desire to pry into her future, usurps a vile domination over the mind when it assumes a darker shape.