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Authors: Henry Williamson

The Power of the Dead

BOOK: The Power of the Dead
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HENRY WILLIAMSON

THE POWER OF  THE DEAD

To
MAURICE WIGGIN

 

‘Nothing is more corruptible … than the artistic imagination living in mere probabilities.’

J. P. Stern

‘Grief, with a glass that ran—’

ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE

The early August sun burned upon the vale which lay, field upon field, to a line of downs under the southern sky. Distantly beyond those pale-green hills was a higher line of blue, the ox-drove of Cranborne Chase.

An elderly man, wearing a tweed jacket with the high velvet lapels of a bygone fashion, stood in a gate-way looking down upon the harvest scene. Beside him stood a young woman in a
home-made
print frock cut to conceal her pregnancy. They were resting on their way up the borstal dividing the upper fields of the farm. Thistle-seeds, arising with heated air from flints almost entirely covering the soil of an adjacent field, drifted past them. The web of a garden spider spun across the broken gate was a wheel of trembling floss.

“This field,” he said, pointing with a silver-mounted blackthorn walking stick, “is not worth the harvesting.”

Small sheaves, the corn heads almost hidden in thistle cardoons, irregularly lined the field. Goldfinches were busy feeding, a happy twittering filled the air. He continued, “The sooner Lobbett’s is put down to grass the better.”

Below the wretched field lay a land of gentle curving slopes. The earth upon a subsoil of chalk had been wave-smoothed by the sea in gradual recession in pre-historic times, leaving a marine deposit of shell and weed and fishbone to be rendered by the sun, moulded by the wind.

“But for the war, Lucy, the grazing up here would never have felt the plough. Down there the soil is a fat loam, up here it is merely the remains of a thin skin of rotted turf, forsaken even by the wire-worm.”

The valley lying under their gaze was divided into large arable slopes by hedges, and by far rows of beech trees planted as
windbreaks
. The nature of the ripening corn crops was revealed by
their colours—red-golds of the hard milling wheats, pale gold of softer French wheat used largely for biscuits; rotten-ripe barleys the weak straws of which were bleached nearly white, beside that buffish brown of oats so pleasing to the eye of the countryman, revealing a soil fertile after sheep in fold the previous autumn and winter upon roots.

“Even with sheep this land up here would hardly pay, Lucy. The war temporarily put farming on its feet, or rather it brought back the ewe-flocks—what used to be called the golden hoof—but for some years now the hoof has become leaden, with the importation of frozen mutton from Argentina, which has
undercut
the home market for farmers. It will soon be the same story with corn. Cheap barleys and wheats are now coming to the ports from Central Europe, where the wages of the peasants in Poland, Roumania, and the new state of Czecho-Slovakia are less than a third of those paid to the English labourer.”

“Yes, Phillip was telling me, Uncle John. Isn’t the price of a sack of wheat the labourer’s weekly wage?”

“That was always the ready reckoning. Let me see, the wage today is thirty-two shillings and sixpence; and since the repeal of the Corn Production Act three years ago corn-growing, at least on these upland fields, with their small yields, is a losing game, I’m afraid. ‘Horn and corn’ to maintain the fertility of the soil is a thing of the past. Free Trade is good for the towns, no doubt, but it spells ruin for the country.”

He looked at his watch. “We’ve half an hour in hand, Lucy. Would you like to rest here, or in the shade of the hanger?”

Phillip had asked for the tea-basket to be brought to the rick they were building at 5 p.m., in order to encourage the men to work an extra hour before going home. The men liked weak tea, he had explained to Lucy, with a little milk and plenty of sugar. They also preferred it in bottles. They didn’t want much to eat, so would she bring some lardy cakes, split open and spread with honey.

“Oh, I
love
the hanger, Uncle John.”

The borstal, a sunken grass-road rutted by cart Wheels, ended at the beech hanger on a spur of the downs. Below the edge of the wood, on the sward among carline thistles and late harebells, they sat down. Here was peace, here the small blue butterfly and the wild bee sought the late flowers in the light of the sun now in the south-west. There was always a cool breeze up here, and
silence, broken only by the occasional chatter of a magpie and the querulous scream of a jay.

“Sounds like a fox afoot. The birds are seeing him off, I fancy.”

He felt a sudden elation; he could hardly believe that he was no longer alone; that the years of solitary living were over; that Phillip and Lucy had accepted him as a friend, apart from the relationship; that they all got on so well together, his age did not seem to be any barrier.

John William Beare Maddison, rising sixty-six, looked at his niece by marriage, at the warm colouring of her cheeks, like the bloom on a ripe peach, the gentle line of the mouth, the grey eyes under the dark hair gathered in a bun at the nape of the neck. She was like one of the women in Botticelli’s Primavera, beautiful with contentment that they were with child. He recalled the wedding day at the end of May, it was now August; her child would be born in the spring. Dear Phillip, with his understanding and sympathy, he would make the best of fathers. How would Billy, his son by his first wife, feel when the baby was born, he wondered. Billy would be two when the baby came. He hoped it would not put the little fellow’s nose out of joint.

“Do you know, Lucy, this is the first time I have come here since the official end of the war? I walked here to see the beacons on the night of, let me see, it was July the Nineteenth, nineteen nineteen! I counted twenty-five fires in all, from those on the Chase”—he pointed south with his stick—“to those, so far west as to be mere spots of fire, on the Somerset hills.”

“Phillip saw them in Kent that night, he told me.” She
wondered
if she had said the wrong thing, for her companion was silent. Willie, his only son, had been with Phillip at Folkestone then.

“I’ve seen the beacons fired three times now, Lucy. The first occasion was the Jubilee of the Queen, then they burned again for the end of the South African War, and for the official end of the Great War in July ’nineteen. I remember my grandfather telling me about the beacons for Boney’s defeat at Waterloo.”

He fell into reverie. He had been alone on the three occasions; his wife had died giving birth to his only child, his son, the year before the Jubilee. Now both were lying in the churchyard. He wanted to put his arms round Lucy, to weep away all the unshed tears of the years—the phantom within himself crying out for all the past to be changed through love.

“Your home must lie to the south-east of Shakesbury, Lucy.”

The town on the hill lay across the plain, half dissolved in mist.

“I was just thinking the same thing, Uncle John.”

She wondered what Pa and the Boys were doing at that moment. ‘Mister’ had come over to see her that morning on his old
motorbike
, to tell Phillip that things weren’t going too well.

“Many a time my brothers Richard and Hilary and I have walked across the ridge to the ox-drove above the woods of the Chase, growing on the southern slopes, and back again, when we were boys. We used to set out before dawn, and walk all day, returning dog-tired under the stars. There were more woods in those days, of course. The last of them went out to Ypres, to make the corduroy roads. The Chase is now little more than a grazing tract.

“Yes, it must be fifty years ago when we walked there last,” he said, before turning to her with a smile. “And now, I see, Phillip is letting his beard grow. I cannot tell you what memories the sight of that beard calls up, for he has the same look about him that my brother Dickie had at his age.

“I can see Phillip’s father now, with his light brown beard. All young men wore beards in those days, Lucy. Dick and I did, but it never appealed to Hilary. He preferred the shaven cheek and chin in keeping with the new idea, as it was then, of steam navigation replacing sail. When is he coming here, have you any idea, Lucy?”

“Yes, I heard by the afternoon post that Uncle Hilary will be here for the week-end.”

They walked under the hanger, and came to the field which was being carted.

*

Phillip was on the rick, learning to lay sheaves like tiles upon a roof, keeping the middle well-filled to ensure that no rain would penetrate the heart of the rick. The visitors arrived during an interval between two waggons; the empty one was about to leave, its fellow was still being loaded in the field.

“Hullo,” he said, climbing down the short ladder. His face was thin and sunburned; his arms and legs bore many scratches, he wore khaki shorts with shoes and socks. Thistle-seed clung to his hair, his eyes were blood-shot with dust. “How good of you to come.”

He sat down and took off his shoes to empty them of small black seeds of charlock among shrivelled barley kernels. The horse
between the shafts was shuddering its skin. He walked over to squash a number of gadflies which had eaten through the hide and, with buried heads, were gorging on blood.

“I must do something about these keds, Uncle John,” as he squashed the bloated insects, taking care that no fly-heads were left in the horses’ skins. “There are plenty of old sacks in the corn barn. I thought of slitting them to make a sort of blanket. I’ve tried rubbing the hair with buckthorn oil, as recommended in
The
Stockbreeder
,
but it doesn’t keep these brutes away.” Slap, slap. “What we want is some tame swallows, or spotted fly-catchers. Where’s Billy?” to Lucy.

“He’s sleeping, the pet,” she said, softly. “I promised to bring him out later in his push-cart, when you’re carrying nearer the premises.”

John thought that his nephew looked very thin. His face had the look of a sparrow-hawk. “You seem to have been working hard, Phillip.”

“It sweats out the vice, Uncle John.”

“Well, don’t go too hard, my dear boy. You’ve got a month to six weeks before you.”

“That’s right, squire,” announced a husky voice of the bailiff from the rick above. “‘Littles by littles,’ that be what I told’n, zur.”

“Ned and I have been discussing the merits of a rick-cloth,” went on Phillip. “I want one, to cover up at night in case it rains. This blue haze looks like thunder.”

“Naow,” wheezed the voice from above. “It woan’t rain, not wi’ the boo’ ’aze on th’ ’ill, it woan’t. No need to meet trouble ’arf way.” Then peering over the edge, the rick-maker said in a different voice, “Us’ll leave’n well topped up, squire.”

The bailiff was dressed in shirt, vest, waistcoat, khaki trousers with thick pink woollen pants under them, and heavy boots with rags in lieu of socks. He and Phillip had discussed many things in the intervals of awaiting each waggon-load. They were in agreement about one thing only—neither could go through, again, what they had experienced on the Western front during the war. As for details of these experiences on the Somme and at
Passchendaele
, both shared a deep reluctance to talk other than briefly about them.

Just before the tea-basket had arrived they had had an argument about the effect of the sun’s rays on the flesh. The bailiff declared
that he kept cool by wearing many clothes, also his trousers stopped hawns and seeds from giving him blistered feet.

When his uncle and Lucy were gone, Phillip continued, “But Ned, supposing it does rain heavily—for a few days?”

“Look you a-here, guv’nor, I’ve a-seen nigh on fifty
corn-carryings
, man and boy——”

“Ned, my dear, you’m only forty-seven, and little more than a tacker.”

The bailiff laughed with mouth askew, he was pleased; many of his nights were passed in mental struggle with the death-fears and what would happen to wife and children if he became ‘past it’. He laughed askew because he had been shot through the face, the right jaw-bone had been shattered and the muscles of the other cheek destroyed. He received five shillings a week pension from the Government, and a further two shillings from the farm manager, Mr. Hibbs, for his services as foreman over and above the Wages Board rate of 32/6 a week. The other two men were also
ex-Army
men, but younger: a horseman and a cowman, both doing general farm-work for the minimum wage. There was no dole for the out-of-work farm labourer.

*

During the following days of bright sunlight, as he sweated to pitch the dishevelled and dusty barley sheaves, pictures of his past life passed through Phillip’s head. He thought of the sweating, blistered marches of August 1914, of the near-agony of having to keep on, step after step, laden with rifle and fifty pounds of kit and ammunition. If he could stick that, he could stick this; and above all he must make a success of farming for the sake of the men who would otherwise be out of work. It was good to drive oneself;
mens
sana
in
corpore
sano.
He weighed, on the sack-machine in the barn, a stone less than when he had arrived on the farm in June. His muscles were hard, his riding breeches made in 1917 still fitted him, and—a triumph—his 1916 service tunic was short across the chest by five or six inches. The expansion had come from using arms and shoulder blades, and also breathing deeply. Never again would that germ of impotence, indecision, and degeneration—
tuberculum
—find a feeding place in his lungs.

Pictures of the war passed through his mind as he pitched: the friendly face of Mr. Kerr, his tailor, when he was on leave, and dropped into his shop in Cundit Street, to be given a reception as though he were almost royalty, with whiskys-and-soda in the little
office, instead of a mere temporary gent. (“Mellow as milk, sir, you’ll find; it’s ‘Dew of Benevenagh’, thirty years in the wood.”) Flossie Flowers’ hotel; Teddie Gerrard and Jack Buchanan in
Bubbly
;
The
Lilac
Domino
at the Empire,
The
Bing
Boys
at the
Alhambra
; the leave train at Victoria; the rough, the deadly sea to
Boulogne
; the slow clank up to railhead; transport lines, distant rising flare, chlorinated whisky-and-soda in candle-lit dug-out. ‘Spectre’ West and his black eye-patch, black glove over wooden hand, and nine wound-stripes on sleeve. One day, one day—he dare not think further of the war. Let it lie hidden, until, one day——

BOOK: The Power of the Dead
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