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The Witch in the Woods
I was not quite nine years old on that Midsummer's Eve, but I shall never forget it because, after what happened on that memorable night, I ceased to be the innocent girl I had been up to that time.
My comfortable home, my easy life and my adored parents had given me no indication that such things could be. We lived amicably in what was more like a castle than a house. It had been the family home of the Cadorsons for generations. Cador meant "warrior" in the Cornish language, so our earliest ancestor must have been a great fighter. I could well believe that. The house stood on a cliff, so that from the windows we could look out on the sea. Built of grey stone, it looked forbidding. It was like a fortress. It probably had been at one time. There were two turrets and a path along the battlements from one to the other. It was known simply as Cador. My father was proud of it—my mother, too, although I sometimes thought she was a little nostalgic for her home on the other side of England—the south east corner. We were in the south west so when we visited my grandparents, or they came to us, it meant travelling the breadth of England.
When I was younger the grandparents used to come to us fairly often. Now we had to go to them for they were getting old, particularly Grandpapa Dickon.
Cador was situated about a quarter of a mile from the little town of West Poldorey, which was divided from East Poldorey by the river which cut through the wooded hills to flow into the sea. The two towns were connected by a bridge which had stood up to the weather for five hundred years and looked as if it would last as many more. Old men liked to congregate there and lean over the stone parapets contemplating life and the river. A great number of those men were fishermen and there were always boats lying in the little harbour.
I loved to be there when the fishing boats came in and to watch all the activity on the quay, which was always accompanied by the cry of the seagulls as they flew low watching for any of the fish which would be thrown back into the river.
The Cadors had for generations been lords of the manor whose unspoken duty it was to make sure of the prosperity of the two towns and the outlying neighbourhood. Consequently my brother and I were always treated with respect by the townsfolk. It was a very happy, cosy existence until I was brought face to face with another aspect of life on that Midsummer's Eve.
There was a family house in London, too. We used to meet there for it was not so very far for the grandparents to come—though it was a long journey for us. I loved travelling. As we went along through the narrow winding lanes my father often told us stories about highwaymen who held up coaches and demanded money. My mother would cry: "Stop it, Jake. You're frightening the children." That was true; but like most children we enjoyed being frightened while we felt perfectly safe in the company of our parents.
I loved them both dearly. I was sure they were the best parents in the world; but I did have a special feeling for my father and I think he had for me. Jacco was my mother's favourite—not so much because he was a boy but because she knew I was my father's, and she felt it necessary to adjust the balance.
My father was one of the two most exciting men I knew. The other was Rolf Hanson. My father was very tall and dark; he had very bright sparkling eyes which gave the impression that he was amused by life, although he could be serious sometimes. He had had an adventurous life and often talked about it. He had lived with the gypsies at one time; he had killed a man and been sent to Australia as a punishment and stayed there for nine years. My mother was beautiful with dark eyes and hair. It was small wonder that I was dark-haired; but I had inherited Grandmother Lottie's blue eyes which, as my mother said, turned up now and then in her family. I was on good terms with my brother Jacco though we had our differences now and then. Jacco was named after our father so he was Jake really. When he had been a baby he was known as Little Jake but it became confusing to have two Jakes in the family so he was called Jacco and that name stayed with him.
It was wonderful to live near the sea. On hot days Jacco and I would take off our shoes and stockings and paddle in the cove just below Cador. Sometimes we would get one of the fishermen to take us out and we went sailing out of the harbour and along the coast towards Plymouth Sound. Sometimes we caught shrimps and baby crabs and we hunted for semi-precious stones like topaz and amethyst along the shore. We often saw the poor people down on the beach collecting limpets which they used for some sort of dish, and perhaps buying the last of the fish which the fishermen had brought in and which had failed to find buyers among the more monied folk. I liked to go down with Isaacs our butler and listen to him bargaining for fish. He was a very stately gentleman and even Jacco was a little in awe of him. When Isaacs took the fish back to the house Mrs. Penlock, the cook, would examine it carefully and if it were not to her liking she would show her disapproval in her usual forceful manner. She was a very garrulous woman. Many times I heard her complain: "Is this the best you could do, Mr. Isaacs? My patience me, what am I expected to do with this? Couldn't you find me some nice plaice or some sizable John Dorys?" Mr. Isaacs always had the power to subdue any of his staff. He would sternly retort, "It is God who decides what goes into the sea and what comes out of it, Mrs. Penlock." That would silence her. She was very superstitious and afraid to question the matter when put like that.
It was at the quayside that I first noticed Digory. Lean, lively, his skin tanned to a deep brown by the weather, his black hair a mass of curls, his small dark eyes alert and cunning, his trousers ragged and his feet bare, he darted among the tubs and creels with the slippery ease of an eel and the cunning of a monkey.
He had sidled up to a tub of pilchards while fisherman Jack Gort was arguing with Isaacs about the price of hake and had his back to us. I gasped, for Digory had thrust his hand into the tub and picked up a handful of fish which, with a skill which must have come from long training, he slipped into a bag.
I opened my mouth to call Jack Gort's attention to the theft but Digory was looking straight at me. He put his finger to his mouth as though commanding silence; and oddly enough I was silent. Then, almost mockingly, he took another handful of fish which went into the bag, conveniently there for this purpose. He grinned at me before he darted away from the quayside.
I was too astounded to speak, and when Jack Gort had finished his conference with Isaacs, I said nothing. I watched anxiously while Jack surveyed the tub but apparently he did not notice that some of his stock had vanished, for he said nothing.
I believe Digory thought that because I had witnessed his villainy and not reported it, I had more or less connived at it; and that gave us a special understanding.
Shortly afterwards when I was walking in the woods, I saw him again. He was lying on the bank throwing stones into the river.
"Hi there," he said as I drew level with him.
I was about to walk haughtily past. That was not the way in which humble people spoke to our family and I thought he could not know who I was.
He seemed to read my thoughts for he said again: "Hi there, Cadorson girl."
"So ... you know me?"
"'Course I know 'ee. Everyone knows Cadorsons. Didn't I see 'ee down at the fish market?"
"I saw you steal fish," I said.
"Did 'ee and all."
"Stealing is wrong. You'll get punished for it."
"I don't," he said. "I be smart."
"Then wait till you get to Heaven. It's all recorded."
"I be too smart for 'em," he repeated.
"Not for the angels."
He looked surprised. He picked up a stone and threw it into the river.
"Bet 'ee can't throw as far."
For answer I showed him that I could, whereupon he picked up another stone and in a few seconds we were standing side by side throwing stones into the water.
He turned to me suddenly and said: "'Tweren't stealing. All fish in the sea belongs to everybody. 'Tis anybody's for the taking."
"Then why don't you go and fish for it like Jack Gort?"
"Why should I when he does it for me?"
"I think you're a very wicked boy."
He grinned at me. "Cos why?" he asked.
"Because you stole Jack Gort's fish."
"Telling on me?" he asked.
I hesitated and he came closer to me. "Don't 'ee dare," he said.
"What if I did?"
"Do you know my granny?"
I shook my head.
"She'd cast a spell on 'ee. Then you'd wither right away and die."
"Who says so?"
He came closer to me, narrowed his eyes and said in a whisper: "Cos she's a ..."
He shook his head. "Not telling. You be careful or it'll be the worse for 'ee, Cadorson girl."
With that he leaped into the air, and catching a branch of a tree, he swung on it for a few seconds, looking more than ever like a clever monkey. Then he dropped to the ground and ran off.
I felt the impulse to run after him and it was irresistible. We came to the cottage which was almost hidden by the thick shrubs which grew all round it. I was not far behind him. I watched him run through the jungle of shrubs to the small dwelling with its cob walls and thatched roof. The door was open and a black cat sat on the doorstep.
The boy turned to look back. He stood in the doorway and I knew he was daring me to follow him. I hesitated. Then he grimaced and disappeared into the cottage.
The cat remained on the doorstep watching me and its green eyes seemed malevolent.
I turned and ran home as fast as I could.
I knew he was, in Mrs. Penlock's words, "That varmint of Mother Ginny's." And I trembled with fear and amazement that I had stood on the threshold of Mother Ginny's evil abode and had really been on the point of going in.
I thought about the boy a great deal and I began to learn something about him, although Mother Ginny and her Varmint were evidently not a subject to be discussed in front of the young. Often when I entered the kitchen the conversation stopped. It was usually about girls having babies when they shouldn't or some misdemeanour which had been committed—and now, of course, Mother Ginny.
I knew that she lived in her lonely cottage in the woods with her cat and she had been quite alone until the coming of the Varmint, which had been only some months before. "That," said Mrs. Penlock to the company seated at the table, which included most of the staff, for they were having their midmorning refreshment—hot sweet tea and oat biscuits, "was something to set the cat among the pigeons. Who would have thought of Mother Ginny having a family! You'd have thought she'd been begot by the Devil. That Varmint is said to be her grandson so she must have had a husband or at least a son or daughter. And now she has this boy ... Digory."
He had come to her by stealth, I discovered. One day he hadn't been there and the next he was. The story went that he had been brought to his grandmother because he was now an orphan.
It was apparently not long before he had made his presence known. Even before I discovered him at the fish market people were aware of him—and watchful. "Such another as his Granny," they said.
Now more than ever I wanted to hear about Mother Ginny and the place where she and her grandson lived.
I learned by degrees. It was a pity the servants knew that Mother Ginny was not a subject my parents would wish to be discussed before me. They were therefore wary; but Mother Ginny and her grandson were irresistible topics of conversation, and I had a habit of making myself unobtrusive. I would sit curled up in a corner of the kitchen—even sometimes pretending to be asleep—while I listened to the chatter; and if I could remain really quiet and manage to fade into the kitchen landscape I could glean a good deal.
Mrs. Penlock was a great talker. She ruled the kitchen with rigid conventionality; she knew the procedure for every occasion—her rights and everyone else's rights; she was a great upholder of rights; she was determined that these should not be diminished or exceeded; and woe betide anyone who tried to prevent her from receiving her due.
She knew the habits of all the maids and I was sure they would find it very difficult to hide any transgression from her. She reckoned that she knew her place and she expected everyone else to know his or hers.
"Mother Ginny," I heard her say, "oh, I wouldn't like to get round the wrong side of that one. It would be more than your life was worth ... and I mean that. You girls can laugh but witches is witches and no matter if they do give you something to get you out of your little bits of trouble ... you'd be fools to get caught up with the likes of them. I've heard talk of folks as got real pisky-mazed cos they would wander in them woods after dark and go near Mother Ginny's place. Wander round and round they do, not knowing where they be to and the piskies all out there ... though you couldn't see 'em ... laughing at 'em ... And not to be right again till that Mother Ginny have took off the spell. It ain't no laughing matter, young 'Tilda. You go wandering out in them woods with Stableman John and you'll see what happens to 'ee. Then you'll be to Mother Ginny to see if she can give you something to help 'ee out. Wouldn't catch me being caught with the likes of Mother Ginny ... no matter what."
So Mother Ginny was a witch. I gathered little bits of information about her. Her clients usually went to consult her after dark because what they wanted to ask her about was a secret between her and themselves. When the servants passed her cottage they would cross their fingers; and some of them carried garlic with them because that was said to have special powers against evil. Few would venture past the cottage after dark. And that boy Digory actually lived there!
He and Mother Ginny had become of great interest to me.
When I wanted to learn something I asked my father. He and I often went riding together. He was proud of my skill on a horse and I was constantly trying to impress him with my excellence. The manner in which he always treated me as an adult endeared him to me, for he always listened to what I had to say and gave me a sensible answer.
It was autumn, I remember, and the leaves were just beginning to turn bronze. Many of them had already fallen and made a rich carpet beneath us. There was a dampness in the air, and mist, although it was midmorning, touched the trees with a greyish blue which made them look very mysterious.
We came to the beaten track which led to Mother Ginny's cottage and I said: "Papa, why are people afraid of Mother Ginny?"
He answered at once: "Because she is different from themselves. Many people would like us all to be made in the same mould. They fear what they do not understand."
"Why don't they understand Mother Ginny?"
"Because she dabbles in mysteries."
"Do you know what they are?"
He shook his head.
"Are you afraid of her?"
He burst out laughing. "I am not one of those people who wish everyone to conform. I think variety makes life more interesting. Besides, I'm rather odd myself. Do you know anyone else who is like me?"
"No," I said. "I certainly do not. There is only one of you. But that is different from being Mother Ginny."
"Because you are rich and important."
"Oh, there you have hit the nail right on the head. I can afford to be eccentric. I can do the strangest things and people dare not question."
"They would be afraid to."
"Because their well-being depends on me to some extent. That is why they respect me. They do not depend on Mother Ginny in that way but they think she has powers which come from the unknown and they are afraid of her."
"It is a good thing to have people afraid of you."
"If you are strong, perhaps. But the poor and the humble ... they must beware."
I continued to think of Mother Ginny. I was fascinated by everything connected with her—and that included Digory. I used to lie in wait for him and talk to him. We would sit on the banks of the river throwing stones into the water—a favourite occupation of his—listening to the plop as they dropped and seeing who could throw the farthest.
He asked me questions about the Big House, "That Cador" he called it. I described it in detail: the hall with its refectory table set with pewter plates and goblets; the coat of arms on the wall among the weaponry; helmets and halberds; the Elizabethan pole-arm, swords and shields; the drawing room with its tapestries depicting the Wars of the Roses; the fine linen-fold panelling; the punch room where the men took their punch and port wine; the chairs with their backs exquisitely embroidered in Queen Anne's tatting; the room where King Charles had slept when he was fleeing from the Roundheads—a very special room this, which must never be altered. I told him how I used to climb onto the bed in which the King had lain listening for the approach of his enemies and wondering how long it would be before they hunted him out.
Excerpted from Midsummer's Eve by Philippa Carr. Copyright © 1986 Philippa Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 6, 2013
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