An Atherton’s Artificial Artifact!
Part I of ???
My dear Robert,
As you know, when I became Vicar of Ditchford Frary, in Gloucestershire, I had hoped to be the recipient of much rural lore. I imagined myself in my rural fastness, writing learned articles and even the occasional little monograph on the subject. I believe the letter I sent you just before I left London for my new parish was optimistic on this point, almost to the point of giddiness.
Alas, things rarely accord with our pleasurable anticipations. I have been here now for six months, and, until yesterday, I haven’t elicited from my flock anything in the folklore way- not so much as a cure for the ague! I tried everything I could think of by way of conversational bait. I told Mrs. Hedges, my worthy housekeeper, that I sometimes fancied I heard strange noises in the Vicarage at night. I was hoping, of course, for a ghost story. Instead, she said it was probably mice. I told Mr. Gryme, my gardener and groundskeeper, that in my old parish the folk’d had many strange superstitions about everything to do with planting and harvesting (a lie, my dear Robert, and I must pray it will be forgiven me, for as you know my last parish was in London). Gryme said nothing. Gryme goes in for Grimness. I have hinted to several elderly persons about ailments I do not possess; they tell me to go see Doctor Whetherlocke. It is frustrating, and leading me into the sin of lying. But I knew, you see, that the village was positively stuffed with superstitions (or at least I felt sure about it), and I couldn’t understand why none of the villagers would talk to me about any of them. I think now that it was due to my Cloth. They didn’t think it proper to discuss such things with a Clergyman. They do treat me with a strange mixture of reverence and protective sympathy, you know, as if they are terribly worried that new knowledge might hurt or disillusion me.
But! Notice the Past Tense, my friend! Today, Gryme’s reserve broke down completely, and he has confided a packet of fascinating local lore to me- or at least he’s given me a hint that ought to lead to much that he did not say. I thought I had tried everything to get the villagers to speak, but I was wrong. I hadn’t thought of chopping down Rowan trees (locally called Quicken Trees). But I am giddy, and I see that my writing grows disorganized. Let me recollect myself, and tell it in order.
Yesterday was so mild that, in the afternoon, I found myself looking about the Vicarage grounds for some useful out-of-doors occupation, so that I could enjoy the fine weather without quite wasting it. And almost at once, I found the very thing, for there was an ancient Quicken tree (I shall use the local name, for it is picturesque) growing near the wall that separates the Vicarage grounds and the graveyard. It was old, and stunted, and ugly. Also, it looked as if it might be dead. I decided I’d have it down at once. An hour or so with an axe and the job was done; also, the light was going, and some of the warmth of the day was fading into evening chill. I tidied up the site, stowed what wood I’d managed to salvage (for the tree, though not dead, was dying, I think, and much of it dissolved under the blows of my axe) in the woodpile, and went inside to continue work on my next Sunday’s sermon.
Today, I had just finished breakfast, and was stepping outside to see what kind of day it was, when Gryme came running towards me. “Did ee chop un down?” He bellowed. His face was red and furious. It occurred to me that underneath the fury there was stark terror.
“If you mean the Rowan tree, yes, Gryme. It was old, and it seemed almost dead. I am slightly surprised,” I said, looking at him censoriously (for I find that shuffling a little of the blame onto the accuser is sometimes useful; I fear I must have learned this particular truth from the Great Enemy, for it is not a good or Godly strategy to pursue), “that you didn’t have it down long ago.”
My stratagem did not work on this occasion. He got angrier; his red face moved quite close to mine, and his voice boomed. “You hae nae business chopping yon Quicken tree. Now th’ auld bezom ull be up, witchifying and witherdy, mammocking all tae witters and rames. Een now th’ wind hae a snatch and a sniping in it. To think on tree standing this years, thrum or sere, and to-year here comes Vicar with twybill…” And he started to shake. I saw his fear was now overcoming his fury, and helped him to sit down on the back steps. “Sorry I’m sure, Vicar,” he said after a moment. “I’m all totterdy and twerty, but there ain’t no call to vossle at you. But it do werret me to think Quicken tree’s gone.” And he shook his head gravely.
“Don’t you think,” I said gently, “you ought to tell me what’s wrong?”
“Do ye nae know?” He stared at me with vague surprise. I assured him I did not know, but would very much like to. He seemed then at a loss about where to begin. My innocence seemed so vast. At least, that is how I interpreted his expression.
“I take it,” I said, “that you think I oughtn’t to have chopped down the Rowan- that is, the Quicken tree.”
“I know as you shouldn’t hae done,” he said.
“Because,” I continued, “of some old woman…” and I stopped, for I am slow at translating the Gloucestershire dialect in my head, and it had just struck me that the old woman he was afraid would rise was a witch. Concealing my excitement, I continued. “Was someone buried under the Quicken tree?”
“Auld Ezabell Walker, ater they hanged her. Tree was planted as protection, like, to keep her below, and nae overlooking us.”
Now, Robert, you know, for we have talked of it many times, that ‘to overlook’ means ‘to bewitch, to give the Evil Eye.’ Material, so long denied by the reticent populace, was now coming at me so fast I could barely catch at it. I tried to ask questions, but at that he became silent again, and looked weary and drained. After a time, he did speak.
“What do ye count we’d best do?” He asked. “Tree be gone, and no holp for it.” Then an idea came to him. “Where’d un put th’ droxy auld bavons?”
I showed him the woodpile; he looked at it gloomily, and touched the rotten wood with fingers that still had a shake in them. I left him to it, and returned to my study, to write all of this down before anything was lost. Now I’ve done so, my next task must be to search through the county histories and sermons in the admirable Vicarage library, looking for any mention of Ezabell Walker.
Believe me, my dear Robert, very sincerely yours,
The Rev. Cecil R. Rantipole
P.S.- The sound of hammering brought me to a back window just now, and I see that Gryme is erecting a wooden cross where the Quicken tree stood.
END OF PART THE FIRST
Gloucestershire dialect in the above is drawn from two texts:
A Glossary of the Cotswold (Gloucestershire) Dialect (1868)
A Glossary of Archaic and Dialect Words Used in the County of Gloucester (1890)