Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Black meadows and knucklebones: The Scarecrow by Roger Johnson

….Far off, by the stones, and silhouetted against them, seeming tiny by comparison, was an awkwardly moving figure. It was more human than animal, as far as I could tell, and yet not quite human either.


“The Scarecrow” is a short story by Roger Johnson, from his collection In the Night In the Dark: Tales of Ghosts and Less Welcome Visitors. It was first published in Ghosts & Scholars #6, 1984.

The story has just about everything I like: a UK setting, scholarly narrators, telescoped plot, rural setting, folk songs and legends, standing stones, and a truly nasty thing.


***
Excerpt:

….We spent our first afternoon walking about the village, which was compact and seemed to us very pretty after the austereness of Cambridgeshire. In our youthful enthusiasm we were able to ignore the reality of life in those picturesque thatched cottages. The church was early Romanesque, with some fine pre-Reformation features that occupied my attention for a good couple of hours. By dinner-time were both ravenous, and happily did justice to the landlady’s game pie, after which we settled ourselves in the lounge with half a bottle of port and our pipes, and Ager took the opportunity to ask whether there were any notable singers in the area.

Our host looked very doubtful. “I don’t know,” he said, “that we’ve anyone here that a scholar like yourself would care to hear. There’s Tommy Wells, now, who plays the organ in church - he can sing fine, but I reckon all he knows is hymns, and between ourselves that’s all right on a Sunday, but I reckon a man needs a change during the week.”

That, said Ager, was just what he meant. Did any of the farm workers or such people come into the pub and sing?

“Why, bless you, yes! If you don’t mind its not being polished like, just you come down to the bar a little later on. Old Harry Arnold’ll be in about eight - he’s got a fine, strong voice - and then there’s Dennis Poacher and Percy Forrest and - “

Laughing, my friend assured him that it all sounded most satisfactory. The landlord, gratified, left us, and we fell to talking of those enigmatic stone circles that I planned to visit in the morning.

As we entered the bar, the landlord informed us that old Harry had just arrived, and that was him sitting over there, the big red-faced man, and yes, surely he’d be pleased to sing for us. Introductions were made, and Harry Arnold indicated in the subtlest way possible that he couldn’t sing without something to wet his throat. As soon as we’d attended to that, I sat back, while my friend set about coaxing songs from the obligingly extrovert farmer. Before long Ager himself had been drawn into the singing, and he and Harry Arnold were swapping songs for all the world as if they were old friends. Even I was induced to join in the choruses, while the landlord grinned broadly behind his bar.

I remember very little about the songs that were sung that evening, though no doubt I’ve heard some of them many times since. The one that clings to my mind was a very intense, very powerful performance by Farmer Arnold of the ballad of John Barleycorn - the death and resurrection of the corn. He shut his eyes and threw his head back and sang as though every word and every note was forcing its way up from the very bones of him. He well deserved the pint of beer that the landlord gave him, and Ager’s almost tearful congratulations. It was a remarkable experience, really remarkable.

The next song, though - that was something quite different. Harry Arnold took a deep draught from his mug and then, mopping his forehead with a large spotted handkerchief, he called out, “Dennis! Dennis Poacher!”

The man who looked up was stocky and weather-beaten. He had been at the forefront of the choruses.

“Give us ‘Rolling of the Stones’, will you?” said Harry. “It’s a long time since I heard that, boy, and I’d dearly like to hear it again.”

Now that, I thought, is a damned queer name for a song! My mind turned for an instant to the prehistoric remains that I’d come to see.

The stocky man began to sing, in a clear and surprisingly gentle voice: “Will you go to the rolling of the stones, the tossing of the ball...?” A curiously enigmatic and charming fragment - a mere part, surely, of a longer song.

My thoughts were interrupted by the sympathetic voice of Harry Arnold: “Does me good to hear it again, sir, so that does, but there’s no denying it’s a strange sort of song. I can see you’re wondering at it, and so did I when first I heard it. My mother used to sing that to me when I was a little child, and I always used to wonder at that bit about “the rolling of the stones”. Of course, that’s plain when you think about it: they mean fivestones - what my dad called knucklebones. But d’you know, the first stones that come to my mind over that was those great rings over to Normanton way. Them, and that clump of ‘em on our own farm - what we call Hell’s Gate.”

I couldn’t help smiling. Hell’s Gate. There was a name to conjure with! It suddenly occurred to me that, with a good amount of port and two - or was it three? - pints of beer inside me, I was really not quite sober. Otherwise I wouldn’t be attaching any weight to the absurd name of a mere group of standing stones.

On the far side of the farmer, Lionel Ager’s attention was confusedly divided between the singer (it was another singer now) and Harry Arnold.

“Hell’s Gate?” I said, hesitantly.

“That’s right,” said Harry. “Over in Black’s Meadow it is – though that’s never been a meadow ever to my knowing. Always been ploughed over, that has.” He looked from one to the other of us, and his broad red face broke into a grin, showing strong teeth. “You want to hear the story? Well, why not? It’s quite a little ghost story, and it may interest you.”

He drained his mug and set it down on the table.

“It’s this way, you see – you know the name of this pub, the Belchamp Arms? Well, you won’t find any Belchamps around here now, but for many long years they was the lords of the manor. As far as they was concerned, nobody else mattered. It was Yes, Squire, and touch your cap, or by God they’d know why!

“Now, this man was the very last Squire Belchamp, and he used to go over to them stones at night – without a by-your-leave to the farmer, of course – and he’d do things there that, well, I reckon they’re what gave the name of Hell’s Gate to the stones. O’ course, all this was something like a hundred years ago now...”

Sir Richard Belchamp, it was clear, was something more than the traditional wicked squire. Certainly he was an unbending autocrat, and eccentric to the point of madness. Equally certainly he had a strong reputation as a whoremaster, and was rather less widely thought to be a necromancer. Oderint dum metuant – that was his motto: Let ‘em hate, as long as they fear. Legends of his diverse misdeeds were not uncommon in the neighbourhood even now, particularly the tale that Harry Arnold told of the squire’s last sin, which led directly to his unmourned death. He had been caught in a rather horrid act, at those same stones, by the father of a young woman who was unwillingly involved. The father was a farmer – in fact, the owner of the land where the megaliths stood. He was also a man of few words and telling action. Being rightfully incensed, he took a staff and quite simply beat the squire to death.

There must have been some juggling with the law. The killer received the surprisingly lenient sentence of five years’ hard labour, which he accepted with calm resignation. He knew that justice had already been done; whatever the law might do couldn’t alter that fact. His sons were strong and well able to care for the farm in his absence. Only one thing troubled him. It was slight at first, but through the years in gaol it grew, and it gnawed more and more at his mind. Sir Richard Belchamp had cursed his killer as he died, and the curse was an awful one: Hell shall lie within your farm, and your filthy scarecrow shall be its gateman!

….“And what of the scarecrow?”

“Well, I don’t suppose it’s the same one - not likely, is it? - but there’s still a scarecrow in that field. We reckon to let well enough alone, and every seed-time out he comes from the barn, and when he’s not needed in the field we put him back there. Matter o’ fact, we do often let him stay in the field rather longer than needful. We reckon he belongs there, and we don’t want to upset him.”


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