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Authors: Martin Armstrong

The Stepson

BOOK: The Stepson
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THE STEPSON

MARTIN ARMSTRONG

Contents

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

Chapter XI

Chapter XII

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIV

Chapter XV

Chapter XVI

Chapter XVII

Chapter XVIII

Chapter XIX

Chapter XX

Chapter XXI

Chapter XXII

Chapter XXIII

Chapter XXIV

Chapter XXV

The water is wide, I cannot get o'er,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that will carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

O down in the meadows the other day,
A-gathering flowers both fine and gay,
A-gathering flowers both red and blue,
I little thought what love can do.

I put my hand into one soft bush
Thinking the sweetest flower to find.
I pricked my finger right to the bone
And left the sweetest flower alone.

★

A ship there is and she sails the sea,
She's loaded deep as deep can be,
But not so deep as the love I'm in;
    I know not if I sink or swim.

A Somerset Folk Song

I

It was market-day in Elchester and the town seethed with slowly moving folk from the surrounding country. Anyone approaching the town in the morning or late afternoon found the roads blocked by jostling herds of cattle and flocks of sheep urged on by their shouting, sweating shepherds and the sheep-dogs, slim, quick-witted collies, black and white or pepper-and-salt and tan, many of them with a wall-eye that looked up pale and blue and kind and, it seemed, independent of the other, at the passer-by.

Seen from the air, the old grey and scarlet town, heaved up on the great mound over which it sprawled, would on such a day have appeared as a huge heart set in the wide green body of the countryside; for roads, like branched and twining veins, ran into it from the four quarters of the compass, and along all these roads coursed a slow circulation of motors, gigs, wagons, carts, driven sheep and cattle, and pedestrians. They came from the south, from the flat or gently undulating land watered by the twisting Eavon, which, except for the pastures along the river, was chiefly devoted to the culture of grain and roots; from the east and west where the country swelled into great hilly mounds, as though giants with huge knees raised slept under the green turf and flocks of sheep nibbled the short, sweet grass all the year round, looking in the distance like groups of
round grey rocks scattered upon the smoothly rolling surfaces of the hills; and from the north, where a loftier and wilder country, whose southern edge bounded and barricaded the northward view from Elchester, showed black and sinister in winter, and took on every shade from the purest pink to the deepest purple when summer brought to bloom the heather which covered it.

At this season of the flowering of the heather, those cottagers within easy reach of the moors who kept a row of five or six beehives in their gardens, loaded the hives after dark, when all the bees had flown home, on to a cart and drove them up to the moors, setting them down in a sheltered place among the heather, so that for a month or two the bees should harvest the rich brown heather-honey, a honey that must be eaten in the comb or the comb crushed till the honey exudes, for it is too glutinous to be run off like the other kinds. Even nowadays there were few roads across those moors, though the roads that existed were good; but in times not so long past, when the only roads were rough and boggy tracks and habitations were few, it had been no uncommon thing for the shepherds that drove the great herds of sheep southwards out of that country to be a week on the move before they reached their destination, relying for food and drink on the springs and streams they passed on their journey and the bag of oatmeal they carried with them.

And so market-day in Elchester was a great gathering together of scattered folk, a great draining into that one central receptacle of all the dispersed humanity of the thinly populated countryside; a great crowding and congesting, a great turmoil of talk and shouting and whistling, of lowing and bleating and barking, of discussing and bargaining and the formal sealing of bargains in the public-house of the ‘Ring of Bells': and, in the afternoon, a great scattering back to north, south, east, and west, till Elchester, emptied of its invaders, became again the quiet, roomy country town of ordinary days.

The cattle-market was on the slope of the hill over which the town spread itself, not far from the railway station. A stone wall fenced it from the broad street which climbed past it into the heart of the town. The air was full of noises of lowing and bleating, shouts of men and the sharp barking of dogs. From time to time horned heads and wet muzzles appeared over the top of the wall and wondering eyes gazed for a moment into the street.

It was a featureless street, a recent extension of the town, without the character and individuality of the older parts. Opposite the long wall of the cattle-market ran a row of ugly stone houses climbing the slope. The central house was crowned by a meagre pediment on which was carved ‘Jubilee Terrace, 1887.' But at the top of the slope the street narrowed, and there the houses were old. Some were
roofed with scarlet tiles, some with great stone slabs; there was even a thatch or two among them. From there Bargate branched off to the left, a narrow, crooked channel working a way for itself between the huddled shops and houses to the market-place. It was so narrow and so packed with bland, unhurrying countryfolk that a trap or motor-car had to nose its way through the press at a walking-pace. Women old and young carried baskets of country produce covered with clean white cloths; men of all kinds, from the rough shepherds and farm-hands to the prosperous gentlemen farmers, pushed their leisurely way towards the market-place or stood about in groups in the roadway or outside the ‘Ring of Bells' where, every market-day, there was a farmers' ordinary. Sometimes a gig pushed its way through the crowd, driven perhaps by a large red-faced farmer with his sober lady-like wife by his side, her correctness and dignity contrasting comically with the jaunty two-wheeler in which she was perched: but the more up to date and prosperous drove their motor-cars to market, forcing a difficult passage down Bargate with many halts and hootings, towards the market-place where cars and traps could be parked.

The market-place itself seemed empty and quiet after the narrow Bargate, although it too was filled with people; for there the crowd spread out into tranquillity, like water bursting from a narrow, stony channel into the calm of a great reservoir. At the far
end of it the Abbey, with its great square central tower, rose solemnly, head and shoulders above the rest of the town. It had stood there watching the brief generations doing their marketing for six hundred years. Along the north side of the square a miscellaneous collection of cars, carts, and gigs was ranked in a long row, as if on exhibition. A high, weather-worn market-cross rose out of the loosely packed crowd in the centre, and along the square's southern edge ran an open market, a venerable plantation of stone pillars supporting a pointed stone-slabbed roof bright with golden lichen. Under it a busy crowd moved to and fro among the stalls where eggs, butter, poultry and vegetables were displayed. On certain market-days in the year the hirings also were held here: then, besides the market-stuff, men and women displayed themselves, the men standing in one row, the women in another, waiting to be hired on the farms. The farmer in need of a labourer, a dairymaid, or any kind of servant, would saunter down the rows or inspect them from a discreet distance, picking out the man or woman who took his fancy.

On the edge of this loosely packed crowd and not far from the row of parked vehicles, a group of four or five men stood talking. Their attitude and manner and the way one or another would turn and calmly survey the scene gave the impression of an infinite leisure, as if they had nothing whatever to do but stand
there and talk as long as the mood lasted. They were all, despite the differences in their dress, unmistakably men whose concern was with the earth and with horses, cows, and sheep. One, a great man with a cropped black beard, wore an old cloth hat, a fawn-coloured coat and waistcoat, riding-breeches and leggings. He carried an ash stick under his arm. His name was Robert Reed. The thinness of his legs in the close leggings and the breeches fitting tightly to the knees made the upper part of the man, with the great belly and broad shoulders, look dangerously top-heavy. Another of the group was James Robson, a little, wiry man. He wore a bowler hat and a grey coat and trousers, yet he too was unmistakably a farmer, perhaps because the suit, though townish in type, was made of rough homespun, and his face, with the small bristling grey moustache, was weathered by suns and rains to a marbled red. The others with whom these two were standing seemed to be various blends of the pair of them. They talked easily, continuously, quietly, except when a short laugh broke out among them, a laugh in which Bob Reed's bass swallowed up the different tones of the rest. Bob Reed, when he laughed, took a half turn on one heel. With his hands thrust deep into the front pockets of his riding-breeches, he looked at such a moment like a great spinning-top at the end of its spin. During one of such swings his eye caught sight of a man threading his way through the crowd,
and he stopped short in his laugh and stared for a moment. Then he turned back to his friends.

‘The Squire's looking wonderful smart,' he said, signing with his head towards the moving man. All the others raised their eyes. Old Ben Humphrey, whom his friends half humorously and half respectfully called the Squire, had just arrived. He had left his horse and gig at a small inn in the marketplace and was crossing the square towards the group that watched him. And as they watched him he stopped suddenly to have a word with a couple of acquaintances. Suddenness and smartness were, you saw at once, typical of him. There was a touch of the soldier in his carriage and movements. He would be smart in business too, impulsive and sometimes violent in behaviour, and always smartly turned out, even if, as the big man had remarked, he was smarter to-day than usual, in his bowler hat, his well-cut coat of brown whipcord and the smart check riding-breeches. There was the bright pink splash of a flower in his buttonhole.

‘Yes, he's smart and no mistake,' said the little man. ‘Got up to the nines. And you know why, I suppose?'

‘Yes, I know why. I heard yesterday. It was Harry Miller told me. Is she a young woman, do you know?'

‘A good bit less than half his age. She's twenty-nine, I'm told, and a fine well-set-up lass.'

‘Ah yes! He likes 'em big. His first and second were both big women.'

‘Well, good luck to him! He's good for another twenty years yet, by the look of him. What is he now? Sixty-eight, isn't it?'

‘Sixty-nine. Sixty-nine last November,' said the little man. ‘I know, because I met him in the “Ring of Bells” and asked him what he'd take. “You're drinking with me to-day, James Robson,” he says to me, “because it happens to be my birthday.” Yes, sixty-nine past, and look at him. As spick and span as a chap of thirty.'

‘It's wonderful,' said another of the group, ‘how courting smartens a man up.'

They all laughed. ‘It's only nature,' said Reed. ‘The cock bird putting on his feathers. Only the bird grows 'em and we've got to buy ‘em, worse luck.'

‘Well,' said James Robson, ‘you'll not find me marrying again at sixty-five if my missus leaves me in the lurch before then. But he's always been a one for the women, has the Squire. As soon as I heard the late Mrs. H. was gone, I said to myself: “Well now, who'll be the next?” for a next I knew there'd be. The only wonder is that he's taken three years about choosing one. Yes, he's always been a one for the women.'

BOOK: The Stepson
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