They settled themselves, as usual, on the sack-strewn cot in front of the fires, and, when Hobden drew up the shutter, stared, as usual, at the flameless bed of coals spouting its heat up the dark well of the old-fashioned roundel. Slowly he cracked off a few fresh pieces of coal, packed them, with fingers that never flinched, exactly where they would do most good; slowly he reached behind him till Dan tilted the potatoes into his iron scoop of a hand; carefully he arranged them round the fire, and then stood for a moment, black against the glare. As he closed the shutter, the oast-house seemed dark before the day’s end, and he lit the candle in the lanthorn. The children liked all these things because they knew them so well.
The Bee Boy, Hobden’s son, who is not quite right in his head, though he can do anything with bees, slipped in like a shadow. They only guessed it when Bess’s stump-tail wagged against them.
A big voice began singing outside in the drizzle:
‘Old Mother Laidinwool had nigh twelve months been dead,
She heard the hops were doing well, and then popped up her head.’
‘There can’t be two people made to holler like that!’ cried old Hobden, wheeling round.
‘For, says she, “The boys I’ve picked with when I was young and fair,
They’re bound to be at hoppin’, and I’m——”’
A man showed at the doorway.
‘Well, well! They do say hoppin’ll draw the very deadest, and now I belieft ’em. You, Tom? Tom Shoesmith!’ Hobden lowered his lanthorn.
‘You’re a hem of a time makin’ your mind to it, Ralph!’ The stranger strode in—three full inches taller than Hobden, a grey-whiskered, brown-faced giant with clear blue eyes. They shook hands, and the children could hear the hard palms rasp together.
‘You ain’t lost none o’ your grip,’ said Hobden. ‘Was it thirty or forty year back you broke my head at Peasmarsh Fair?’
‘Only thirty an’ no odds ’tween us regardin’ heads, neither. You had it back at me with a hop-pole. How did we get home that night? Swimmin’?’
‘Same way the pheasant come into Gubbs’s pocket—by a little luck an’ a deal o’ conjurin’.’ Old Hobden laughed in his deep chest.
‘I see you’ve not forgot your way about the woods. D’ye do any o’ this still?’ The stranger pretended to look along a gun.
Hobden answered with a quick movement of the hand as though he were pegging down a rabbit-wire.
‘No. That’s all that’s left me now. Age she must as Age she can. An’ what’s your news since all these years?’
‘Oh, I’ve bin to Plymouth, I’ve bin to Dover—
I’ve bin ramblin’, boys, the wide world over,’
the man answered cheerily. ‘I reckon I know as much of Old England as most.’ He turned towards the children and winked boldly.
‘I lay they told you a sight o’ lies, then. I’ve been into England fur as Wiltsheer once. I was cheated proper over a pair of hedging-gloves,’ said Hobden.
‘There’s fancy-talkin’ everywhere. You’ve cleaved to your own parts pretty middlin’ close, Ralph.’
‘Can’t shift an old tree ’thout it dyin’,’ Hobden chuckled. ‘An’ I be no more anxious to die than you look to be to help me with my hops to-night.’
The great man leaned against the brick-work of the roundel, and swung his arms abroad. ‘Hire me!’ was all he said, and they stumped upstairs laughing.
The children heard their shovels rasp on the cloth where the yellow hops lie drying above the fires, and all the oasthouse filled with the sweet, sleepy smell as they were turned.
‘Who is it?’ Una whispered to the Bee Boy.
‘Dunno, no more’n you—if you dunno,’ said he, and smiled.
The voices on the drying-floor talked and chuckled together, and the heavy footsteps moved back and forth. Presently a hop-pocket dropped through the press-hole overhead, and stiffened and fattened as they shovelled it full. ‘Clank!’ went the press, and rammed the loose stuff into tight cake.
‘Gently!’ they heard Hobden cry. ‘You’ll bust her crop if you lay on so. You be as careless as Gleason’s bull, Tom. Come an’ sit by the fires. She’ll do now.’
They came down, and as Hobden opened the shutter to see if the potatoes were done Tom Shoesmith said to the children, ‘Put a plenty salt on ’em. That’ll show you the sort o’ man I be.’ Again he winked, and again the Bee Boy laughed and Una stared at Dan.
‘I know what sort o’ man you be,’ old Hobden grunted, groping for the potatoes round the fire.
‘Do ye?’ Tom went on behind his back. ‘Some of us can’t abide Horseshoes, or Church Bells, or Running Water; an’, talkin’ o’ runnin’ water’—he turned to Hobden, who was backing out of the roundel—‘d’you mind the great floods at Robertsbridge, when the miller’s man was drowned in the street?’
‘Middlin’ well.’ Old Hobden let himself down on the coals by the fire-door. ‘I was courtin’ my woman on the Marsh that year. Carter to Mus’ Plum I was, gettin’ ten shillin’s week. Mine was a Marsh woman.’
‘Won’erful odd-gates place—Romney Marsh,’ said Tom Shoesmith. ‘I’ve heard say the world’s divided like into Europe, Ashy, Afriky, Ameriky, Australy, an’ Romney Marsh.’
‘The Marsh folk think so,’ said Hobden. ‘I had a hem o’ trouble to get my woman to leave it.’
‘Where did she come out of? I’ve forgot, Ralph.’
‘Dymchurch under the Wall,’ Hobden answered, a potato in his hand.
‘Then she’d be a Pett—or a Whitgift, would she?’
‘Whitgift.’ Hobden broke open the potato and ate it with the curious neatness of men who make most of their meals in the blowy open. ‘She growed to be quite reasonable-like after livin’ in the Weald awhile, but our first twenty year or two she was odd-fashioned, no bounds. And she was a won’erful hand with bees.’ He cut away a little piece of potato and threw it out to the door.
‘Ah! I’ve heard say the Whitgifts could see further through a millstone than most,’ said Shoesmith. ‘Did she, now?’
‘She was honest-innocent of any nigro-mancin’,’ said Hobden. ‘Only she’d read signs and sinnifications out o’ birds flyin’, stars fallin’, bees hivin’, and such. An’ she’d lie awake listenin—for calls, she said.’
‘That don’t prove naught,’ said Tom. ‘All Marsh folk has been smugglers since time everlastin’. ’Twould be in her blood to listen out o’ nights.’
‘Nature-ally,’ old Hobden replied, smiling. ‘I mind when there was smugglin’ a sight nearer us than the Marsh be. But that wasn’t my woman’s trouble. ’Twas a passel o’ no-sense talk’—he dropped his voice—‘about Pharisees.’
‘Yes. I’ve heard Marsh men belieft in ’em.’ Tom looked straight at the wide-eyed children beside Bess.
‘Pharisees,’ cried Una. ’Fairies? Oh, I see!’
‘People o’ the Hills,’ said the Bee Boy, throwing half of his potato towards the door.
‘There you be!’ said Hobden, pointing at him. ‘My boy, he has her eyes and her out-gate senses. That’s what she called ’em!’
‘And what did you think of it all?’
‘Um—um,’ Hobden rumbled. ‘A man that uses fields an’ shaws after dark as much as I’ve done, he don’t go out of his road excep’ for keepers.’
‘But settin’ that aside?’ said Tom, coaxingly. ‘I saw ye throw the Good Piece out-at-doors just now. Do ye believe or—do ye?’
‘There was a great black eye to that tater,’ said Hobden, indignantly.
‘My liddle eye didn’t see un, then. It looked as if you meant it for—for Any One that might need it. But settin’ that aside. D’ye believe or—do ye?’
‘I ain’t sayin’ nothin’, because I’ve heard naught, an’ I’ve seen naught. But if you was to say there was more things after dark in the shaws than men, or fur, or feather, or fin, I dunno as I’d go far about to call you a liar. Now turnagain, Tom. What’s your say?’
‘I’m like you. I say nothin’. But I’ll tell you a tale, an’ you can fit it as how you please.’
‘Passel o’ no-sense stuff,’ growled Hobden, but he filled his pipe.
‘The Marsh men they call it Dymchurch Flit,’ Tom went on slowly. ’Hap you have heard it?’
‘My woman. she’ve told it me scores o’ times. Dunno as I didn’t end by belieftin’ it—sometimes.’
Hobden crossed over as he spoke, and sucked with his pipe at the yellow lanthorn flame. Tom rested one great elbow on one great knee, where he sat among the coal.
‘Have you ever bin in the Marsh?’ he said to Dan.
‘Only as far as Rye, once,’ Dan answered.
‘Ah, that’s but the edge. Back behind of her there’s steeples settin’ beside churches, an’ wise women settin’ beside their doors, an’ the sea settin’ above the land, an’ ducks herdin’ wild in the diks’ (he meant ditches). ‘The Marsh is justabout riddled with diks an’ sluices, an’ tidegates an’ water-lets. You can hear ’em bubblin’ an’ grummelin’ when the tide works in ’em, an’ then you hear the sea rangin’ left and right-handed all up along the Wall. You’ve seen how flat she is—the Marsh? You’d think nothin’ easier than to walk eend-on acrost her? Ah, but the diks an’ the water-lets, they twists the roads about as ravelly as witch-yarn on the spindles. So ye get all turned round in broad daylight.’
‘That’s because they’ve dreened the waters into the diks,’ said Hobden. ‘When I courted my woman the rushes was green—Eh me! the rushes was green—an’ the Bailiff o’ the Marshes, he rode up and down as free as the fog.’
‘Who was he?’ said Dan.
‘Why, the Marsh fever an’ ague. He’ve clapped me on the shoulder once or twice till I shook proper. But now the dreenin’ off of the waters have done away with the fevers; so they make a joke, like, that the Bailiff o’ the Marshes broke his neck in a dik. A won’erful place for bees an’ ducks ’tis too.’
‘An’ old,’ Tom went on. ‘Flesh an’ Blood have been there since Time Everlastin’ Beyond. Well, now, speakin’ among themselves, the Marshmen say that from Time Everlastin’ Beyond, the Pharisees favoured the Marsh above the rest of Old England. I lay the Marsh men ought to know. They’ve been out after dark, father an’ son, smugglin’ some one thing or t’other, since ever wool grew to sheep’s backs. They say there was always a middlin’ few Pharisees to be seen on the Marsh. Impident as rabbits, they was. They’d dance on the nakid roads in the nakid daytime; they’d flash their liddle green lights along the diks, comin’ an’ goin’, like honest smugglers. Yes, an’ times they’d lock the church doors against parson an’ clerk of Sundays.’
‘That ’ud be smugglers layin’ in the lace or the brandy till they could run it out o’ the Marsh. I’ve told my woman so,’ said Hobden.
‘I’ll lay she didn’t belieft it, then—not if she was a Whitgift. A won’erful choice place for Pharisees, the Marsh, by all accounts, till Queen Bess’s father he come in with his Reformatories.’
‘Would that be a Act o’ Parliament like?’ Hobden asked.
‘Sure-ly. ’Can’t do nothing in Old England without Act, Warrant, an’ Summons. He got his Act allowed him, an’, they say, Queen Bess’s father he used the parish churches something shameful. Justabout tore the gizzards out of I dunnamany. Some folk in England they held with ’en; but some they saw it different, an’ it eended in ’em takin’ sides an’ burnin’ each other no bounds, accordin’ which side was top, time bein’. That tarrified the Pharisees: for Goodwill among Flesh an’ Blood is meat an’ drink to ’em, an’ ill-will is poison.’
‘Same as bees,’ said the Bee Boy. ‘Bees won’t stay by a house where there’s hating.’
‘True,’ said Tom. ‘This Reformatories tarrified the Pharisees same as the reaper goin’ round a last stand o’ wheat tarrifies rabbits. They packed into the Marsh from all parts, and they says, “Fair or foul, we must flit out o’ this, for Merry England’s done with, an’ we’re reckoned among the Images.”’
‘Did they all see it that way?’ said Hobden.
‘All but one that was called Robin—if you’ve heard of him. What are you laughing at?’ Tom turned to Dan. ‘The Pharisees’s trouble didn’t tech Robin, because he’d cleaved middlin’ close to people like. No more he never meant to go out of Old England—not he; so he was sent messagin’ for help among Flesh an’ Blood. But Flesh an’ Blood must always think of their own concerns, an’ Robin couldn’t get through at ’em, ye see. They thought it was tide-echoes off the Marsh.’
‘What did you—what did the fai—Pharisees want?’ Una asked.
‘A boat, to be sure. Their liddle wings could no more cross Channel than so many tired butterflies. A boat an’ a crew they desired to sail ’em over to France, where yet awhile folks hadn’t tore down the Images. They couldn’t abide cruel Canterbury Bells ringin’ to Bulverhithe for more pore men an’ women to be burnded, nor the King’s proud messenger ridin’ through the land givin’ orders to tear down the Images. They couldn’t abide it no shape. Nor yet they couldn’t get their boat an’ crew to flit by without Leave an’ Good-will from Flesh an’ Blood; an’ Flesh an’ Blood came an’ went about its own business the while the Marsh was swarvin’ up, an’ swarvin’ up with Pharisees from all England over, striving all means to get through at Flesh an’ Blood to tell ’em their sore need . . . . I don’t know as you’ve ever heard say Pharisees are like chickens?’
‘My woman used to say that too,’ said Hobden, folding his brown arms.
‘They be. You run too many chickens together, an’ the ground sickens like, an’ you get a squat, an’ your chickens die. ’Same way, you
crowd Pharisees all in one place—they don’t die, but Flesh an’ Blood walkin’ among ’em is apt to sick up an’ pine off: They don’t mean it, an’ Flesh an’ Blood don’t know it, but that’s the truth-—as I’ve heard. The Pharisees through bein’ all stenched up an’ frighted, an’ tryin’ to come through with their supplications, they nature-ally changed the thin airs and humours in Flesh an’ Blood. It lay on the Marsh like thunder. Men saw their churches ablaze with the wildfire in the windows after dark; they saw their cattle scatterin’ and no man scarin’; their sheep flockin’ and no man drivin’; their horses latherin’ an’ no man leadin’; they saw the liddle low green lights more than ever in the dik-sides; they heard the liddle feet patterin’ more than ever round the houses; an’ night an’ day, day an’ night, ’twas all as though they were bein’ creeped up on, and hinted at by Some One or other that couldn’t rightly shape their trouble. Oh, I lay they sweated! Man an’ maid, woman an’ child, their nature done ’em no service all the weeks while the Marsh was swarvin’ up with Pharisees. But they was Flesh an’ Blood, an’ Marsh men before all. They reckoned the signs sinnified trouble for the Marsh. Or that the sea ’ud rear up against Dymchurch Wall an’ they’d be drownded like Old Winchelsea; or that the Plague was comin’. So they looked for the meanin’ in the sea or in the clouds—far an’ high up. They never thought to look near an’ kneehigh, where they could see naught.
‘Now there was a poor widow at Dymchurch under the Wall, which, lacking man or property, she had the more time for feeling; and she come to feel there was a Trouble outside her doorstep bigger an’ heavier than aught she’d ever carried over it. She had two sons—one born blind, and t’other struck dumb through fallin’ off the Wall when he was liddle. They was men grown, but not wage-earnin’, an’ she worked for ’em, keepin’ bees and answerin’ Questions.’
‘What sort of questions?’ said Dan.
‘Like where lost things might be found, an’ what to put about a crooked baby’s neck, an’ how to join parted sweethearts. She felt the Trouble on the Marsh same as eels feel thunder. She was a wise woman.’
‘My woman was won’erful weather-tender, too,’ said Hobden. ‘I’ve seen her brish sparks like off an anvil out of her hair in thunderstorms. But she never laid out to answer Questions.’
‘This woman was a Seeker like, an’ Seekers they sometimes find. One night, while she lay abed, hot an’ aching, there come a Dream an’ tapped at her window, and “Widow Whitgift,” it said, “Widow Whitgift!”
‘First, by the wings an’ the whistling, she thought it was peewits, but last she arose an’ dressed herself, an’ opened her door to the Marsh, an’ she felt the Trouble an’ the Groaning all about her, strong as fever an’ ague, an’ she calls: “What is it? Oh, what is it?”
‘Then ’twas all like the frogs in the diks peeping: then ’twas all like the reeds in the diks clip-clapping; an’ then the great Tide-wave rummelled along the Wall, an’ she couldn’t hear proper.
‘Three times she called, an’ three times the Tide-wave did her down. But she catched the quiet between, an’ she cries out, “What is the Trouble on the Marsh that’s been lying down with my heart an’ arising with my body this month gone?” She felt a liddle hand lay hold on her gown-hem, an’ she stooped to the pull o’ that liddle hand.’
Tom Shoesmith spread his huge fist before the fire and smiled at it.
‘“Will the sea drown the Marsh?” she says. She was a Marsh-woman first an’ foremost.
‘“No,” says the liddle voice. “Sleep sound for all o’ that.”
‘“Is the Plague comin’ to the Marsh?” she says. Them was all the ills she knowed.
‘“No. Sleep sound for all o’ that,” says Robin.
‘She turned about, half mindful to go in, but the liddle voices grieved that shrill an’ sorrowful she turns back, an’ she cries: “If it is not a Trouble of Flesh an’ Blood, what can I do?”
‘The Pharisees cried out upon her from all round to fetch them a boat to sail to France, an’ come back no more.
‘“There’s a boat on the Wall,” she says, “but I can’t push it down to the sea, nor sail it when ’tis there.”
‘“Lend us your sons,” says all the Pharisees. “Give ’em Leave an’ Good-will to sail it for us, Mother—O Mother!”
‘“One’s dumb, an’ t’other’s blind,” she says. “But all the dearer me for that; and you’ll lose them in the big sea.” The voices justabout pierced through her; an’ there was childern’s voices too. She stood out all she could, but she couldn’t rightly stand against that. So she says: “If you can draw my sons for your job, I’ll not hinder ’em. You can’t ask no more of a Mother.”
S‘he saw them liddle green lights dance an’ cross till she was dizzy; she heard them liddle feet patterin’ by the thousand; she heard cruel Canterbury Bells ringing to Bulverhithe, an’ she heard the great Tide-wave ranging along the Wall. That was while the Pharisees was workin’ a Dream to wake her two sons asleep: an’ while she bit on her fingers she saw them two she’d bore come out an’ pass her with never a word. She followed ’em, cryin’ pitiful, to the old boat on the Wall, an’ that they took an’ runned down to the Sea.
‘When they’d stepped mast an’ sail the blind son speaks: “Mother, we’re waitin’ your Leave an’ Good-will to take Them over.”’
Tom Shoesmith threw back his head and half shut his eyes.
‘Eh, me!’ he said. ‘She was a fine, valiant woman, the Widow Whitgift. She stood twistin’ the eends of her long hair over her fingers, an’ she shook like a poplar, makin’ up her mind. The Pharisees all about they hushed their children from cryin’ an’ they waited dumb-still. She was all their dependence. ’Thout her Leave an’ Good-will they could not pass; for she was the Mother. So she shook like a aps-tree makin’ up her mind. ’Last she drives the word past her teeth, an “Go!” she says. “Go with my Leave an’ Goodwill.”
‘Then I saw—then, they say, she had to brace back same as if she was wadin’ in tide-water; for the Pharisees just about flowed past her—down the beach to the boat, I dunnamany of ’em—with their wives an’ children an’ valooables, all escapin’ out of cruel Old England. Silver you could hear clinkin’, an’ liddle bundles hove down dunt on the bottom-boards, an’ passels o’ liddle swords an’ shields raklin’, an’ liddle fingers an’ toes scratchin’ on the boatside to board her when the two sons pushed her off. That boat she sunk lower an’ lower, but all the Widow could see in it was her boys movin’ hampered-like to get at the tackle. Up sail they did, an’ away they went, deep as a Rye barge, away into the offshore mistes, an’ the Widow Whitgift she sat down and eased her grief till mornin’ light.’
‘I never heard she was all alone,’ said Hobden.
‘I remember now. The one called Robin he stayed with her, they tell. She was all too grievious to listen to his promises.’
‘Ah! She should ha’ made her bargain beforehand. I allus told my woman so!’ Hobden cried.
‘No. She loaned her sons for a pure love-loan, bein’ as she sensed the Trouble on the Marshes, an’ was simple good-willing to ease it.’ Tom laughed softly. ‘She done that. Yes, she done that! From Hithe to Bulverhithe, fretty man an’ petty maid, ailin’ woman an’ wailin’ child, they took the advantage of the change in the thin airs just about as soon as the Pharisees flitted. Folks come out fresh an’ shining all over the Marsh like snails after wet. An’ that while the Widow Whitgift sat grievin’ on the Wall. She might have belieft us—she might have trusted her sons would be sent back! She fussed, no bounds, when their boat come in after three days.’
‘And, of course, the sons were both quite cured?’ said Una.
‘No-o. That would have been out o’ Nature. She got ’em back as she sent ’em. The blind man he hadn’t seen naught of anything, an’ the dumb man nature-ally, he couldn’t say aught of what he’d seen. I reckon that was why the Pharisees pitched on ’em for the ferrying job.’
‘But what did you—what did Robin promise the Widow?’ said Dan.
‘What did he promise, now?’ Tom pretended to think. ‘Wasn’t your woman a Whitgift, Ralph? Didn’t she ever say?’
‘She told me a passel o’ no-sense stuff when he was born.’ Hobden pointed at his son. ‘There was always to be one of ’em that could see further into a millstone than most.’
‘Me! That’s me!’ said the Bee Boy so suddenly that they all laughed.
‘I’ve got it now!’ cried Tom, slapping his knee. ‘So long as Whitgift blood lasted, Robin promised there would allers be one o’ her stock that—that no Trouble ’ud lie on, no Maid ’ud sigh on, no Night could frighten, no Fright could harm, no Harm could make sin, an’ no Woman could make a fool of.’
‘Well, ain’t that just me?’ said the Bee Boy, where he sat in the silver square of the great September moon that was staring into the oasthouse door.
‘They was the exact words she told me when we first found he wasn’t like others. But it beats me how you known ’em,’ said Hobden.
‘Aha! There’s more under my hat besides hair!’ Tom laughed and stretched himself. ‘When I’ve seen these two young folk home, we’ll make a night of old days, Ralph, with passin’ old tales—eh? An’ where might you live?’ he said, gravely, to Dan. ‘An’ do you think your Pa ’ud give me a drink for takin’ you there, Missy?’
They giggled so at this that they had to run out. Tom picked them both up, set one on each broad shoulder, and tramped across the ferny pasture where the cows puffed milky puffs at them in the moonlight.
‘Oh, Puck! Puck! I guessed you right from when you talked about the salt. How could you ever do it?’ Una cried, swinging along delighted.
‘Do what?’ he said, and climbed the stile by the pollard oak.
‘Pretend to be Tom Shoesmith,’ said Dan, and they ducked to avoid the two little ashes that grow by the bridge over the brook. Tom was almost running.
‘Yes. That’s my name, Mus’ Dan,’ he said, hurrying over the silent shining lawn, where a rabbit sat by the big white-thorn near the croquet ground. ‘Here you be.’ He strode into the old kitchen yard, and slid them down as Ellen came to ask questions.
‘I’m helping in Mus’ Spray’s oast-house,’ he said to her. ‘No, I’m no foreigner. I knowed this country ’fore your Mother was born; an’—yes, it’s dry work oasting, Miss. Thank you.’
Ellen went to get a jug, and the children went in—magicked once more by Oak, Ash, and Thorn !