On a frozen winter’s day, Mary Bicknor, the companion of a wealthy old woman, marries Easter Probert, whose child she is expecting. She cries bitterly throughout the service, which has been engineered by the vicar. Easter has no wedding ring for her, and though he lends her a silver ring of his own, he soon snatches it back—cursing her traitorous flesh—and boards a bus without her. Shocked, the vicar tries to tell himself he has done the right thing, but Mary, left to walk home alone, knows that misery lies ahead with the brutish Mr. Probert.
About the Author
Margiad Evans was a poet, artist, and the author of Country Dance and two memoirs, one of which is an account of her experience of epilepsy.
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Turf or Stone
By Margiad Evans
ParthianCopyright © 2010 Deborah Kay Davies
All rights reserved.
Early one February morning a tip cart, which was plastered with dried mud and driven by a man with one arm, turned out of a lane some eight miles from Salus, and journeyed slowly along the main road towards the town.
Heavy clouds retarded the progress of day, but at length the man pulled up, sprang to the ground, and opening the lamps, extinguished them with two vigorous puffs. He then mounted once more, settling himself on the front, his feet on the shaft.
The cart contained under a net three ewes, whose breath rose steamily in the cold air. The man, bare-headed, broad-shouldered, sat easily swaying to the movement of the shaft, expanding his chest though the east wind was blowing. He seemed indifferent, durable, hard as the cart itself. It was freezing again; there was dust on the grey road. The few people who were about walked with their heads bent, huddling their shoulders. From his seat the man could see the rounded frostbitten fields over the hedges and the vague encompassing hills patchy with lingering snow.
An hour later, when it was still three miles from Salus, the cart overtook a flock of sheep, and was obliged to come to a stand close to the path while the drover cleared a way for it. The carter noticed a young woman walking past, and struck by her weary air – she limped – called out to know whether she would be too proud to take a lift on the front with him.
The woman who was jaded in spirit rather than in fact, and whose painful meditations were the true brake on her steps, was about to answer him haughtily. She raised her eyes, hesitated, and suited her reply to the gentle gaze which met her own.
'Thank you,' she said, looking up at him. 'I should be glad enough, but I haven't far to go now.'
'How far, miss?'
'Get up ... it'll be a bit of a rest.'
Leaning forward he extended his one hand. Darting a contemptuous look at the smiling drover, she put her hand in the carter's. He swung her up: she sat beside him silently. He examined her sideways without turning his head. She was an elegant woman with a sombre expression, whose long neck shone warmly white against a dark fur. Her face was thin, without colour, her nose inclined to a downward curve, the wide nostrils nervously dilated. Her fresh lips protruded slightly, and this hint of a voluptuous pout suggesting a caress, lent her hollow countenance fascination. She had red hair which showed on one side beneath her hat. In her hands she held a prayer book and a clean white handkerchief. She wore a loose grey coat almost like a cloak which flowed over the rail. Her crossed feet in high-heeled shoes hung some inches above the shaft.
The carter saw that she had been crying, and he felt sorry for her. But he did not speak to her because she was a stranger and he admired her.
They proceeded thus the best part of a mile, until they reached a broad tarred lane branching off to the left. A granite war memorial, in the shape of a bleak grey cross, stood on the corner, garnished with a tattered laurel wreath. There she asked to be set down, thanked him, and drew away, wrapping her coat tightly across her as the wind whisked round the corner.
The carter slapped the reins on the horse's back and it broke into a clumsy trot, jerking the cart backwards; balancing himself he gave a long sigh of relief which yet had in it some regret. It was not until he reached Salus, that he discovered the prayer book inside the cart where it had fallen and been trodden on by the frightened ewes. She must have let it fall when she turned round to get down.
He opened it: there was a name written on the flyleaf.
'Mary Bicknor,' he read, and then he remembered he had heard about her.
She was half servant, half companion, to an old eccentric lady who within the last year had taken a house at Buck Castle, a small hamlet on the outskirts of Fown Mill parish where she was a complete stranger. The old lady, whose name was Tressan, spoiled and petted her, dressed her expensively, even submitted to her dominance, and easily persuaded her to give up all thoughts of marriage with her own natural equals. Without actually saying as much, she really expected Mary to remain single. Mary used to carry herself very proudly, snort at callers, regulate Miss Tressan's friendships from her own front door. Indeed, they were both very foolish and everybody laughed at them. ... Then one day Mary confessed to her mistress that she was pregnant. The old lady did not desert her, but she instantly withdrew her affection, nor did she at all approve of the hastily arranged marriage. She thought it a calamity with a preposterous ending, and as well as she could she ignored it. The vicar of Fown Mill brought the couple together. He took great credit to himself for this.
The carter recollected some of these circumstances. They were wasted on him. Being no gossip he was generally regarded as a shy, taciturn fellow without a great deal to say for himself. He went to the market carrying the white prayer book in his pocket.
* * *
Mary did not discover the loss of her prayer book until she reached the church. She was thinking of her mistress, whom she had left lying in bed.
When she took up the tea as usual, at eight o'clock, she saw Miss Tressan regarding her mournfully and steadily over the bed clothes. She pulled up the blinds, keeping her back to the bed.
They did not know what to say to each other. At last, as Mary was closing the window, the old lady stammered:
'Is it a fine day?'
She had asked this question first thing every morning for fifteen years, and no other words seemed possible. Mary told her it was freezing. She drew the sheet tight under her chin and shut her eyes: 'I'll have the fire and stay in bed today,' she said resolutely.
'Shall I light it?'
'No ... no ... keep your hands clean this morning. There, go along, and shut the door.'
But as Mary passed the bed with averted face, she suddenly sat up, tendering her an envelope. Her lips trembled.
'Take this. You must. I insist.'
'No, no, I can't.'
'You must ... I insist.' She repeated like a feeble cry.
Mary felt the envelope pushed into her hand and Miss Tressan's fingers close over her wrist for a moment in a loose clasp. Then she drew away her arm suddenly and lay back again, shutting her eyes.
'Goodbye,' she said bitterly.
Mary dropped the envelope on the floor.
'That's no use, no help at all.'
She looked around the room at the silk curtains, the cushions, the pictures, the soft carpet, the emaciated figure flat on the bed, and having looked, with a kind of sick disgust, went out and dressed for her marriage to a groom. She wept.
Descending the steep hill to the church, she met two women carrying baskets to market. She pulled herself together, she had cried for hours before she left the house, and her eyes were swollen. The women stared at her. The heavy baskets packed with butter and eggs had made them tired – they had missed the bus. One ejaculated loudly: 'Some people have no shame,' and the other cast down her eyes.
Mary cried: 'What have I done to you?'
Before misfortune had overtaken her she would not have spoken to them.
They threw up their chins and trudged on up the hill, exchanging glances.
Mary could not understand herself: it seemed as if she wished to descend as far as possible, to roll in the mud.
Rounding the bend, the church came into view, a small, renovated edifice with a Saxon tower. A straight walk, shaded by cut yews, led up to the porch, where the man she was about to marry stood talking to the vicar. She approached them nervously and the bridegroom, Easter Probert, came towards her swinging his arms.
He was peculiar in appearance. He did not look like a man who had ever had anything to do with horses except in a thieving, gypsyish, wayside kind of way. He might very easily have been a travelling kettle-mender. He was small; his skin shone faintly, through a yellow-brown tan, and his large black eyes protruded from the sockets, although they were set deep in the skull. His square-seamed forehead was marked by strong brows a shade lighter than the hair, which grew stiffly and tuftily back from the broad temples. The features were harsh, the cheekbones prominent, the mouth sunken. A mauve scar, triangular in shape, showed clearly a little below the right eye. When he talked or laughed his upper lip lifted at the corner, exposing beautifully sound teeth. A strange wary face, alert, hungry, malicious, subtly mournful. His movements, as he went to meet Mary, were very graceful, but suggested insolence; for a short man he took long strides, which lent him a rakish, high cockalorum air.
The same odd individuality marked his clothes: he wore a greenish coat, brown trousers, old and dirty, and a thick, twisted, silver ring on a little finger. It was said that his mother had been a gypsy, but of this no one could be certain, as he was a love child and she was dead.
He strode towards Mary and took her hand as he turned to walk beside her. They walked so to the door, where the vicar stood pulling his lips and staring at them dimly.
The vicar, an old man of seventy-odd, recalled some corrupt, degenerate idol which had decayed in a jungle. Fat, bloated, yet withered, he stood, his legs shaking visibly beneath the cassock, his head sunk between shoulders which had lost their outline and become mere pads of flesh. He wore a smile. Having attained his object he felt ready to be affable; he wished to speak kindly, but Easter's expression was so ferocious, Mary's so defiant, that a doubt crept into his negligible mind: 'Surely this is wrong and cruel! These people do not love each other,' he said to himself.
Then he thought of the child.
'No, it is too late. But God help them,' he concluded his momentary reflection.
He held out his hand. Mary took it, let it go, and drew a pair of clean gloves from her pocket. As she began to put them on she noticed the loss of her prayer book which Miss Tressan had given her years ago on her confirmation. Tears again rose to her eyes. The vicar saw them. In spite of himself he pitied her profoundly, following them into the dark church.
She lifted a prayer book from the shelf. 'You will not need that,' the vicar informed her. She dropped it again in a confused and hasty manner.
The verger, sniffing, stepped from a pew under the pulpit, where he had been sitting half asleep, and the clerk who was to be the other witness, came out of the vestry with an impatient air. He cast a hurried glance through the open door as he passed it, for he had tied his dog to a tombstone, and feared that it might howl. But it was lying quietly asleep on the grass.
Fown Mill church stands on the road, and there is a short cut to Salus through the churchyard. Being market day the parish was astir, so that throughout the service people were continually passing. Their conversation could be clearly overheard, and one or two looked in at the door. A small boy stood for some time by the font with his cap on, while the clerk made energetic signs to him to remove it. He grimaced, swung on his heel, and walked out, screwing up his nose. The clerk boiled with futile anger.
When the time came for Easter to fit the ring on Mary's finger it was discovered that he was without one. She turned paler, bit her lips, stared stonily at the altar. The service paused. Easter suddenly drew off the silver ring and slipped it on her finger. She was obliged to shut her hand to prevent it from falling to the ground. The ceremony concluded without the vicar taking the couple to the altar. This he had determined he would not do. When Mary took a step forward he shook his head, folding his lips tightly and moved resolutely towards the vestry; the clerk and the verger, who were prepared, followed the couple ungraciously. The church had not been heated. Mary trembled visibly with the cold, her very heart beat languidly and her hands shook so that she could hardly sign the register.
The verger had built up a fire in the vestry, a weak, smoky slack fire which smelt acrid. The smoke blew out and tasted bitter in their mouths. She dropped on her knees before it, holding out her hands. Seeing the ring she began to cry again, bending her head to hide her face from the men.
'Don't cry,' said the vicar in a low consoling murmur. He leant forward and touched her shoulder.
'Why are you crying? Come on, let's go,' Easter suggested, stepping restlessly to the vestry door. He looked at the east window, pretentious painted glass, purple, blue, and red, with no depths to the colours, at the varnished pews roped off with red cords for the important families, the arrogant brass eagle beating the open Bible, the pale pulpit, the snowdrops on the altar. Mary wept and wept, heedless of whispers and sympathetic glances. He wished he were outside in the wind.
'Let's go,' he repeated impatiently. The vicar glanced at him reproachfully, rolling his dull eyes under which showed livid smears. 'Can't you wait a little until your wife is better?'
Easter spoke harshly: 'Give over, Mary.'
She took no notice. His voice was affliction. Lifting his eyes he caught sight of the thick bell ropes which hung temptingly near his hand. He seized one in both hands and gave it a strong pull. Above their heads an unseen bell vibrated like a huge gong. It made Easter think of his master's, hanging in the hall, a bland brass circle between two foxes' masks with pointed teeth. ... 'Dinner!' he shouted.
The verger clutched his shoulder, the vicar was scandalised, but Easter laughed aloud as he shook himself free. Again he tugged – he'd give them something to remember! This time the bell rang out full and true.
'What are you doing?' the clerk stammered, shocked. A fantastic humour possessed Easter and gleamed in his puckered eyes. He felt it glowing, he felt he wanted to outrage and distract these stuffy people who had tied him up to that crouching woman: they stank, like the church itself they reeked of damp cold stone and the clammy tombs of dead institutions. Again he pulled the gay red and white bell-rope, interspersing himself between the verger who reached out to grab his wrists. The verger retreated.
'I'll ring my own wedding peal!'
Booming, the bell answered him. Mary lifted her head, her face shining with tears.
'He's drunk,' said the vicar angrily. His practical ignorance was colossal.
At that moment the bell's powerful motion wrenched the rope from Easter's unpractised grip; with a terrific swing it leapt the vestry partition. The verger and the clerk both held the vicar, who had quite lost his head. They forced him down.
'Be careful, sir, it's coming back,' the clerk cried, and they all cowered to avoid the blow. The rope slapped against the wall, jerked once or twice and became still. The bell vibrated. Easter pulled up his trousers and jeered at the vicar. The vicar puffed out his cheeks and his eyes were vicious.
'This is outrageous. ... I must speak to you outside,' he expostulated, smoothing the top of his head.
They went out.
The verger pushed a poker under the fire and it burst into roaring flame. Mary drew back from the heat. Her head ached, and, forgetting that she was in a church, she took off her hat, which had pressed her beautiful red hair close to the sides of her head: it clung to her temples and the delicate, prominent bones below her ears. The clerk watching her thought of Mary Magdalen, for to his mind this woman with her pale, miserable face still wet from tears, her full trembling mouth, her wan and working features, resembled his favourite saint. He poked the fire again and touched the cold hand lying in her lap. Like the carter earlier in the day, and the vicar, his pity stirred.
In the porch the vicar repeated that he considered Easter's behaviour outrageous: he really could find no other word to describe it. It seemed poor enough to a man of Easter's violent vocabulary. He smiled.
The wind blew the vicar's cassock against his legs and he wished he had not left the vestry without putting on his coat. He turned blue – the veins showed on his cheeks, he rubbed his freezing hands.
Easter disliked men, who were, most of them, larger than himself. As a rule he avoided them. When that was impossible he quarrelled with them, or ignored them. He felt neither shame nor repentance: he regarded the vicar boldly, not troubling to dispel his disapprobation, and making no attempt at a connected conversation, he broke into speech abruptly.
'I want my ring back. And then I must go. You've married us, there's no more to be done in there? Well, then, we'll be off. I gave the money to the clerk.'
Excerpted from Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans. Copyright © 2010 Deborah Kay Davies. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
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