Strange things have been brewing in the village of Ashlaw in 1923: the once-prosperous drapers' shop has gone bankrupt and three separate families' lives have each, it seems, been hexed. In a bigger town such news might happen every day, but in tiny, remote Ashlaw, even one of these curses can set the whole village off-kilter.
So what could be responsible for the stir? Margot, a local, precocious schoolgirl, has been trying to figure this out, especially since hers was one of the three ill-fated families. She comes to a strange conclusion--each of these curses somehow involves one Linden Grey, the most intriguing woman Margot has ever met. She determines to understand, once and for all, Linden's identity and her preternatural, even deadly, powers. But in her search, is Margot willing to hand over her childish innocence?
With eerie suspense and clever turns of plot, Anna Gilbert bewitches believers and non-believers alike in A Hint of Witchcraft, a chronicle of a village's encounter with the other-worldly.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
|File size:||350 KB|
About the Author
Anna Gilbert was born the second child of a schoolmaster in a village of England's North Country, where she still lives. A teacher of literature for many years, she is the author of several novels, including The Treachery of Time, which won Britain's prestigious Catherine Cookson Award for fiction, and A Hint of Witchcraft.
Anna Gilbert was born the second child of a schoolmaster in a village of England's North Country. A teacher of literature for many years, she is the author of several novels, including The Treachery of Time, which won Britain's prestigious Catherine Cookson Award for fiction; The Look of Innocence, winner of the Romantic Novelists' Award; A Morning in Eden; and A Hint of Witchcraft.
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Blinds were drawn at all the windows. The shrouded panes always ruddy with firelight when she came home from school in the winter dusk were a reminder that the house was empty: she was free to linger in the shade by the side door, remembering those others who had gone in and out.
Skirting a damp patch by the water butt, she came round into the sunshine and walked slowly down to the front gate. The low-leaning pear tree had shed its petals on the path. Soon wild roses, intruders from the lane, would mantle the high garden wall. The old gate with its rustic arch had gone.
The arch had been a rickety affair: a ridiculous thing to have over a gate, her father said, without ever bringing himself to get rid of it. As a child she could look up and see within its curve segments of sky wreathed in a tangle of clematis. The side pieces enclosed a view of the Dene and central to the view, between the trees, the War Memorial.
As she grew taller, the memorial had grown too but with much less ease, its growth impeded by disputes and lack of funds. And yet the long-delayed day of its dedication had marked not only an end but a beginning: it was the day when they all came together for the first time. Margot's smile was wistful. Could it have stolen in already on that first day, the threat of change, bringing an altered mood, a shift of influence imperceptible at first as a hairline crack in porcelain? So soon?
It was a morning in April 1923: early sunshine promising a bright day; trees turning green; wall-flowers opening; birdssinging; every omen favourable.
True, Margot herself had been bothered by a possible awkwardness.
'Suppose they arrive while we're still at the ceremony. There won't be anyone here, not even in the kitchen.'
It would be over in less than an hour, she was told, and the Greys would not arrive before twelve. In any case they would find the front door unlocked and lunch cold tongue, ham and salads all ready laid in the dining-room.
'Like that ship. The Marie Celeste. They'll think we're all dead.'
'Your friends are not blind, I presume.' Alex swallowed the last of a purloined hard-boiled egg. 'Or too short-sighted to see the entire population of Ashlaw, Hope Carr and Fellside assembled at the monument directly opposite our gate.'
'Of course not.'
It was the second time she had come downstairs to join the others in the hall. The first time she had been wearing her white dress. Practically every girl in England had a white dress for special occasions. Even the poorest families had one to be shared among sisters. She had been sent back to change.
'Your navy kilt and blouse.' Her mother was firm. 'It isn't summer or a party.'
It was no use trying to explain; they didn't know Linden. When they saw her, they would realize that her first visit ranked as an experience every bit as special as a party, though in a different way: a more refined and elegant way.
'This is an occasion for solemnity.' Her brother flicked a yellow speck of yolk from his tie. 'Strictly speaking, we should all be in mourning for the Fallen.' He was wearing grey flannels and his dark-green school blazer with the Ist XI cricket badge on the pocket.
'We'll stand on the east side,' Lance Pelman said. 'Then if they do come early, you'll be able to see the taxi turning into Church Lane and slip away. I reckon it would take less than sixty seconds to scoot back and be waiting at the gate to meet them.'
'They won't arrive before twelve.' Mrs Humbert buttoned her gloves and led the way.
'There's just one thing.' Margot reached the door first and faced them desperately. 'Please, don't anyone call me Meg, not in front of Linden. That's all I ask. Promise.'
'We will use only your baptismal name,' her father said.
'Though it occurs to me,' Alex said, 'that I might not much care for a girl in whose presence I must not call my sister by her familiar name.'
'Oh, you'll like her. Honestly. She's marvellous. Phyllis and Freda think so too. We all do.'
There was no more to be said. The authority of the girls at the Elmdon High School was known to be incontrovertible.
In predicting the size of the crowd, Alex had exaggerated. Disputes as to where the memorial should be placed had been heated and long drawn out. Eventually Fellside and Hope Cart had conceded Ashlaw's claim that fourteen names out of the twenty-six on the roll of honour entitled them to choose the site. So far as Fellside and Hope Carr were concerned it also entitled Ashlaw to the most active share in the work and expense involved.
So that it was chiefly Ashlaw folk who stood in a jagged half-circle facing the memorial: a plain column surmounted by a cross, approached by three shallow steps and flanked by two rows of chairs for the official party. The chosen spot was picturesque: level ground at the foot of a green slope with gorse and wild cherry in bloom in the uncultivated stretch of land known as the Dene. Long ago the monks of Langland Priory had hunted deer there: an historic spot, Mr Ashton, the schoolmaster, had said, giving it his vote, though there were dark hints that the Dene was prone to subsidence. Look what happened to the Quaker schoolroom and the old Rectory.
There had been time for the post-war tide of grief and thanksgiving to ebb a little; yet now that the moment had come there arose in the quiet gathering of shabby folk a mood to match the hour. Most of them were women. Men coming off work at Hope Carr had a mile and a half to walk and could hardly come in their pit dirt. But others on night shift had turned up, as well as farm-workers and some of the unemployed.
Standing between her brother and Lance and facing west, Margot was thankful for the correctness of her kilt. The white dress would have stood out like a sore thumb. Besides there might just be time to change before the Greys came. For a few minutes she contrived to forget them. Every day, for ages it seemed, she had seen the memorial taking shape but she had never been interested in whatever it was the thing stood for or shared the thoughts she now vaguely imagined the other people were thinking. And how ignorant she had been, not knowing east from west!
Heads turned as between the trees bordering Church Lane gleamed the black and silver of a motor car. Her heart sank; the worst had happened: the Greys had come too soon.
'Keep calm,' Lance said. 'It isn't a taxi.'
It was the Daimler from Bainrigg House. She breathed again. The Rilstons and their grandson descended and approached. Amid a general hush, attentive rather than respectful, they shook hands with the rector, several councillors, Father (representing the Coal Company) and Mother (wearing the clerical grey coat and skirt she had worn when opening the hospital bazaar).
'O God our help in ages past....'
Overpowered by the Hope Brass Band, voices were thin in the open air. Margot's attention wandered from the white cherry blossom on the green slope to the smaller schoolchildren pretending to read from their hymn books; to Mrs Dobie, black-clad and red-faced and, as Alex said, seeming to breathe fire; to Rob and Emily Judd, dark-browed and scowling; to Katie Judd. With disapproval she saw that Katie's stockings were coming down. Really it was too bad. People had tried to do something with, as well as for, Katie. She stood in her usual attitude, sideways with one foot turned in, shoulders hunched, eyes staring as if from fear. The fear was genuine; Katie was always afraid. But the stockings! Something must be done. Suspenders? It would probably have to be garters, though according to Miss Peters they caused varicose veins.
But wait. The rector was reading out the names inscribed on the column. Joseph Judd. That was Katie's father. Poor Katie!
Stony-faced at Katie's side, Mrs Judd heard without a tear. She was past weeping. The bitter years since the Battle of the Somme had drained her of tears. From under the dark brim of her sateen-trimmed hat she stared sombrely into space, no longer able to see in it a vision of Jo, his face crumpled in his derisive smile; no longer caring about anything except how to feed and clothe her family, all now at ages when they ate like wolves. They were all present, she had seen to that, although Ewan had arrived, hot and panting, and had to be nudged to take his cap off. His face above his white muffler was sullen.
'"He maketh wars to cease in all the world".' The rector read with exasperating slowness. '"He breaketh the bow and knappeth the spear in sunder and burneth the chariots in the fire. Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life ...".'
And suddenly, as at the crack of doom, the mild morning exploded in disarray.
'Crowns?' Mrs Dobie elbowed her way to the front, ignored the rector, glared at the memorial. 'We don't none of us want crowns.' Her voice was rough and loud, her face redder than ever before. Like a fiery prophet she raised her bare right fist. 'We want them lads back, that's what we want. Every one of them lads should be here now, I'm telling you.'
They listened, appalled. The rector lost his place on the page. She stood upright, a solid black shape, in the deep-crowned hat and long coat she had worn since the day of Queen Victoria's funeral and would wear until a few days before her own; her black buttoned boots firm on the ground, her feet firm inside them.
'I'm telling you, they've all been cast away for nothing, them lads have. It's been a wicked waste of living flesh and blood. And now you're trying to bring God into it. It's too late to bring God into it. He had nought to do with it, hadn't God. And He's got nought to do with yon monument either.'
Her outburst ended in a few muttered words. She pushed through the people behind her and walked heavily away, not to the village but towards the river, along a path between ancient oaks that had not even been acorns when the monks hunted deer there. Somehow she seemed to belong to their long past; somehow it was she, Mrs Dobie, who had brought God into it as she raised her eyes and her fist to the sky.
Not one of those present ever forgot her. In the unwritten annals of Ashlaw she had achieved as lasting a place as if her name, too, had been inscribed in stone. To look at the memorial was to remember her with discomfort and only after that to remember the men who had died. Indeed the memory of Mrs Dobie outlasted the memorial. Threatened as it was from the outset by subsidence owing to mine workings below, it was already obsolescent, a trifle forlorn. Lifeless, it could not compete with so formidable an embodiment of active wrath as Mrs Dobie.
They watched her, all the blacker for the sunlight between branches, until she had trudged out of sight. Only then, as with a communal sigh, did they begin to recover.
'She's right,' Lance muttered.
'Yes. Bows and spears would have been pretty useless in the trenches, never mind crowns. Still, she was a bit illogical about the Fallen. It's because they aren't here that we are.'
It may not have been the last clever-sounding thing that Alex said purely for its effect, but it could have been among the last. Mrs Dobie had not taken him by the shoulders and shaken him until his teeth rattled, but she had shaken some of the nonsense out of him and shoved him in a new direction. Alex had already undergone several changes of direction and there would be more, but he had recognized in her protest the ring of fearless sincerity. A new-found directness, while it lasted, was to cost him several friends.
Chaos had threatened but had not quite come. In response to an unseen signal a bugler from the Elmdon Barracks stepped smartly forward to sound The Last Post. The brazen notes cleft the April air, raising grief to a pitch beyond speech, beyond comfort. Those lost, they proclaimed, could never come back. For those who were left there was no hope, only endurance. Having condensed in their merciless message the totality of human suffering, the bugle notes ceased.
As the last of them died into silence, Margot felt her flesh creep, her scalp tingle. She seemed at last almost to understand why they were there; why they had bothered to build the memorial. It was because there was nothing else they could do. That was why Mrs Dobie had shaken her fist at the Cross and been rude to the rector because there was nothing else she could do to make up for....
For what? Margot was aware of a huge unanswered question, as unanswerable as it was huge; and as the bandmaster raised his baton for 'All people that on earth do dwell', she began to cry and felt in vain for her handkerchief, unwisely secreted in an inaccessible part of her clothing instead of up her sleeve where it would have been easier to get at but might have fallen out, which was why she had preferred to rely on elastic. Conscious of having made a wrong decision, she had to let the tears fall.
Alex looked down sternly.
'People,' he had more than once decreed, 'don't cry in public.'
'But if they can't help it?' she had once asked, snivelling.
'They can always help it.'
The remedy, it seemed, was to think of something else. Presumably it worked for him. He was not immune to tears. Once when he was donkey in the card game, he had rushed away, red-eared and blowing his nose, for a quite unnecessary drink of water; and when his rabbit, gorged by over-feeding, then starved by neglect, had patiently died, Alex had gone into the garden shed and wept in remorse.
But not in public. One thought of something else. Pressed for an example, he had recommended the French Foreign Legion in which at that time he was intending as soon as possible to enlist. Margot closed her wet eyes and fixed her mind on the cover of The Gallant Legionnaire, on horsemen in head-dresses with flaps galloping wildly over a hill of sand....
The band was playing 'God Save the King': the ceremony was over.
'Let's go,' Alex said. 'I'm famished.'
'Me too.' Lance handed Margot a handkerchief.
'But I don't suppose we'll be eating yet, not for a good half-hour.'
'Then what about getting on with the job? There'd be time to put a thin layer of shellac on the cardboard. Then we can wind the coil on to the formers this afternoon.'
'It looks as if the Rilstons are being asked in for sherry or something. I'd better hang about here but you can go. See you at lunch.'
Lance looked at his watch and disappeared. It would take him exactly three minutes to get home, a further thirty seconds to reach his bedroom. Assuming the same length of time for getting back to Monk's Dene and adding another minute for hand-washing etc., that would leave just under twenty-three minutes for coating the cardboard formers and possibly, though it would be a rush, drilling holes in the fibre ready for the terminals. No time need be wasted on popping in to the surgery: his father would still be out on his rounds. They hadn't seen each other for a couple of days owing to a difficult confinement and a nasty accident with a chain-saw.
Absorbed though he was in these calculations as he turned into the main street at top speed, Lance noticed two people standing on the pavement to his right opposite Burdons' shop: females; strangers. It was no time to be standing at the bus-stop. If they were waiting for the 11.55, they had missed it. In that case they might as well settle down to wait two hours and eight minutes for the next. If, on the other hand, they had got off the 11.55, why were they still there seven minutes later, assuming that the bus had been on time? Putting on a spurt, he reached his own front door with two seconds in hand.
They had alighted from the bus to the sound of music. Somewhere close at hand a band was playing.
'A service of some sort. I wonder.' Mrs Grey looked round anxiously as the bus lumbered off. 'It can't be far to walk. On Church Lane to the left of the main street, Sarah said in her letter.'
'Then that must be Monk's Dene. It's the only house.'
It was half hidden by a high wall, but its size and the tops of orchard trees were enough to confirm the impression that Sarah Humbert had done well for herself. Marian Grey had sensed that at once when, after a separation of twenty-one years, they had met by chance in town. She had felt the contrast with her own situation; had felt too the absolute necessity of concealing it. Years of war and its aftermath had been less than kind to her, but it was one's duty to hide the scars, especially from an old school-friend who had so obviously prospered. But the humiliation of having to walk to her front door with the dirt of the lane on their shoes!
She was already tired. So far the day had not gone well. There had been rather an unpleasant incident as they waited for the bus in Elmdon, standing on the pavement like working people. It was a cool, sunless spot, shaded by a warehouse wall and still damp from overnight rain. The only other would-be passenger was an insolent-looking youth wearing a cloth cap and a white muffler, no doubt to conceal his lack of shirt collar.
The bus a wretched little local affair came at last, drew up with a lurch and almost splashed them with muddy water from a puddle. They had both been obliged to step back smartly. Her own stockings were spattered; the marks still showed though she had done what she could with a handkerchief. Fortunately Linden had got out of the way in time, but in stepping back she had bumped into someone standing against the warehouse wall: a gypsy-looking woman with a pedlar's tray of goods slung round her neck. The woman lost her balance, the tray tilted and her things were spilled on the pavement: laces, packets of tape and so on.
She had been extremely offensive, out of all proportion to so small an accident. She had actually sworn at Linden and muttered some kind of threat. Fortunately a policeman was passing, otherwise there might have been more unpleasantness. Of course, there was nothing they could do but get into the bus quickly the conductor was impatient and pay no attention. The youth in the cap kept them waiting while he picked up some of the things and put them back on the tray, until the conductor threatened to leave without him.
The three of them were the only passengers. At the top of Ashlaw's steep main street the bus slowed down for him, he jumped off and made a rude sign to them from the roadside. Linden had simply turned away: she was always cool-headed and never out of temper. But she herself suffered from sensitive nerves and the incident had upset her.
And now they waited until the hymn ended and was followed by the National Anthem.
'It's over, whatever it was.'
On the other side of the wall there were no houses, only open land sloping to a hollow with trees and clumps of primroses.
'It's quite pretty really. I thought when you said Mr Humbert was a colliery agent, there'd be....'
'An agent has a very good position and doesn't have to live near a colliery. Actually there isn't one at Ashlaw.'
'There are a lot of people down there and a motor car.'
To have to manoeuvre one's way through a crowd was an added inconvenience. Fortunately people were dispersing, though in no particular hurry, except for an athletic-looking, russet-haired boy who came up the hill at an astonishing speed and made for the house with a brass plate, set back a little from the street. The doctor's? An emergency?
'It's a big car.' They had drifted to the turning and could look down the lane. 'If we had come in a taxi, we wouldn't have been able to get to the gate.'
'Exactly.' Mrs Grey's manner had changed. 'Come along.'
They exchanged smiles of understanding and hesitated no longer.