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A Maggot, Page 1

John Fowles

  A Maggot

  John Fowles


  A MAGGOT IS the larval stage of a winged creature; as is the written text, at least in the writer's hope. But an older though now obsolete sense of the word is that of whim or quirk. By extension it was sometimes used in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century of dance-tunes and airs that otherwise had no special title ... Mr Beveridge's Maggot, My Lord Byron's Maggot, The Carpenters' Maggot, and so on. This fictional maggot was written very much for the same reason as those old musical ones of the period in which it is set: out of obsession with a theme. For some years before its writing a small group of travellers, faceless, without apparent motive, went in my mind towards an event. Evidently in some past; since they rode horses, and in a deserted landscape; but beyond this very primitive image, nothing. I do not know where it came from, or why it kept obstinately rising from my unconscious. The riders never progressed to any destination. They simply rode along a skyline, like a sequence of looped film in a movie projector; or like a single line of verse, the last remnant of a lost myth.

  However, one day one of the riders gained a face. By chance I acquired a pencil and water-colour drawing of a young woman. There was no indication of artist, simply a little note in ink in one corner, which seemingly says, in Italian, 16July 1683. This precise dating pleased me at first as much as the drawing itself, which is not of any distinction; yet something in the long dead girl's face, in her eyes, an inexplicable presentness, a refusal to die, came slowly to haunt me. Perhaps it was that refusal to die that linked this real woman with another I have much longer admired, from rather later in history.

  This fiction is in no way biographically about that second woman, though it does end with her birth in about the real year and quite certainly the real place where she was born. I have given that child her historical name; but I would not have this seen as a historical novel. It is maggot.

  John Fowles 1985

  (Historical Chronicle scans provided as separate files)

  IN THE LATE and last afternoon of an April long ago, a forlorn little group of travellers cross a remote upland in the far south-west of England. All are on horseback, proceeding at a walk along the moorland track. There lies about them, in the bleak landscape, too high to have yet felt the obvious effects of spring, in the uniform grey of the overcast sky, an aura of dismal monotony, an accepted tedium of both journey and season. The peaty track they follow traverses a waste of dead heather and ling; below, in a steep-sided valley, stand unbroken dark woodlands, still more in bud than in leaf. All the furthest distances fade into a mist, and the travellers' clothes are by chance similarly without accent. The day is quite windless, held in a dull suspension. Only in the extreme west does a thin wash of yellow light offer some hope of better weather to come.

  A man in his late twenties, in a dark bistre greatcoat, boots and a tricorn hat, its upturned edges trimmed discreetly in silver braid, leads the silent caravan. The underparts of his bay, and of his clothes, like those of his companions, are mud-splashed, as if earlier in the day they have travelled in mirier places. He rides with a slack rein and a slight stoop, staring at the track ahead as if he does not see it. Some paces behind comes an older man on a smaller, plumper horse. His greatcoat is in dark grey, his hat black and plainer, and he too looks neither to left nor right, but reads a small volume held in his free hand, letting his placid pad tread its own way. Behind him, on a stouter beast, sit two people: a bareheaded man in a long-sleeved blouse, heavy drugget jerkin and leather breeches, his long hair tied in a knot, with in front of him, sitting sideways and resting against his breast - he supports her back with his right arm - a young woman. She is enveloped in a brown hooded cloak, and muffled so that only her eyes and nose are visible. Behind these two a leading-line runs back to a pack horse. The animal carries a seam, or wooden frame, with a large leather portmanteau tied to one side, and a smaller wooden box, brassbound at its corners, on the other. Various other bundles and bags lie bulkily distributed under a rope net. The overburdened beast plods with hanged head, and sets the pace for the rest.

  They may travel in silence, but they do not go unobserved. The air across the valley opposite, above where its steepness breaks into rocks and small cliffs, is noisy with deep and ominous voices, complaining of this intrusion into their domain. These threatening voices come from a disturbed ravenry. The bird was then still far from its present rare and solitary state, but common and colonial, surviving even in many towns, and abundantly in isolated countryside. Though the mounted and circling black specks stay at a mile's distance, there is something foreboding in their alarm, their watchful hostility. All who ride that day, for all their difference in many other things, know their reputation; and secretly fear that snoring cry.

  One might have supposed the two leading riders and the humble apparent journeyman and wife chance-met, merely keeping together for safety in this lonely place. That such a consideration - and not because of ravens - was then requisite is plain in the leading rider. The tip of a sword-sheath protrudes beneath his greatcoat, while on the other side a bulge in the way the coat falls suggests, quite correctly, that a pistol is hung behind the saddle. The journeyman also has a brass-ended holstered pistol, even readier to hand behind his saddle, while strung on top of the netted impedimenta on the dejected pack-horse's back is a long-barrelled musket. Only the older, second rider seems not armed. It is he who is the exception for his time. Yet if they had been chance-met, the two gentlemen would surely have been exchanging some sort of conversation and riding abreast, which the track permitted. These two pass not a word; nor does the man with the woman behind him. All ride as if lost in their own separate worlds.

  The track at last begins to slope diagonally down the upland towards the first of the woods in the valley below. A mile or so on, these woods give way to fields; and as far away again, where the valley runs into another, can just be made out, in a thin veil of wood smoke, an obscure cluster of buildings and an imposing church tower. In the west the sky begins to show amber glints from invisible breaks of cloud. That again, in other travellers, might have provoked some remark, some lighter heart; but in these, no reaction.

  Then, dramatically, another figure on horseback appears from where the way enters the trees, mounting towards the travellers. He does provide colour, since he wears a faded scarlet riding-coat and what seems like a dragoon's hat; a squareset man of indeterminate age with a large moustache. The long cutlass behind his saddle and the massive wooden butt of a stout-cased blunderbuss suggest a familiar hazard; and so does the way in which, as soon as he sees the approaching file ahead, he kicks his horse and trots more briskly up the hill as if to halt and challenge them. But they show neither alarm nor excitement. Only the elder man who reads as he rides quietly closes his volume and slips it into his greatcoat pocket. The newcomer reins in some ten yards short of the leading younger gentleman, then touches his hat and turns his horse to walk beside him. He says something, and the gentleman nods, without looking at him. The newcomer touches his hat again, then pulls aside and waits until the last pair come abreast of him. They stop, and the newcomer leans across and unfastens the leading-line of the pack-horse from its ring behind the saddle. No friendly word seems spoken, even here. The newcomer then takes his place, now leading the pack-horse, at the rear of the procession; and very soon it is as if he has always been there, one more mute limb of the indifferent rest.

  They enter the leafless trees. The track falls steeper and harsher, since it serves as a temporary stream bed during the winter rains. More and more often comes the ring of iron shoes striking stone. They arrive at what is almost a ravine, sloping faces of half-buried rock, an awkward scramble even on foot. The leading rider seems not to notice it, though his horse hesit
ates nervously, picking its way. One of its hind feet slips, for a moment it seems it must fall, and trap its rider. But somehow it, and the lurching man, keep balance. They go a little slower, negotiate one more slip and scramble with a clatter of frantic hooves, then come to more level ground. The horse gives a little snorting whinny. The man rides on, without even a glance back to see how the others fare.

  The older gentleman has stopped. He glances round at the pair behind him. The man there makes a little anti-clockwise circle with a finger and points to the ground: dismount and lead. The man in the scarlet coat at the rear, wise from his own recent upward passage, has already got down, and is tying the pack horse to an exposed root by the trackside. The older gentleman dismounts. Then his counsellor behind jumps off, with a singular dexterity, kicking free of his right stirrup and swinging his leg, over the horse's back and slipping to the ground all in one lithe movement. He holds his arms out for the woman, who leans and half sinks towards him, to be caught, then swung free and set down.

  The elderly man goes gingerly down the ravine, leading his pad, then the bareheaded man in the jerkin, and his horse. The woman walks behind, her skirts held slightly off the ground so that she can see her feet and where they are placed; then the last man, he in the faded scarlet coat. Once down, he extends the rein of his riding-horse to the man in the jerkin to hold, then turns and climbs heavily back for the pack-horse. The older gentleman laboriously mounts again, and rides on. The woman raises her hands and pushes back the hood of her cloak, then loosens the white linen band she has swathed round the lower part of her face. She is young, hardly more than a girl, pale-faced, with dark hair bound severely back beneath a flat-crowned chip, or willow-shaving, hat. Its side-brims are tied down against her cheeks, almost into a bonnet, by the blue kissing-ribbons beneath her chin. Such a chip or wheat-straw hat is worn by every humbler English country-woman. A little fringe of white also appears beneath the bottom of her cloak: an apron. She is evidently a servant, a maid.

  Unfastening the top of her cloak, and likewise undoing the kissing-ribbons, she goes beside the track a little ahead and stoops where some sweet-violets are still in flower on a bank. Her companion stares at her crouched back, the small movements of her hands, the left one picking, ruffling the heart-shaped green leaves to reveal the hidden flowers, the right one holding the small sprig of deep mauve heads she has found. He stares as if he does not comprehend why she should do this.

  He has a strangely inscrutable face, which does not reveal whether its expressionlessness is that of an illiterate stupidity, an ignorant acceptance of destiny not far removed from that of the two horses he is holding; or whether it hides something deeper, some resentment of grace, some twisted sectarian suspicion of personable young women who waste time picking flowers. Yet it is also a strikingly regular, well-proportioned face, which, together with his evident agility, an innate athleticism and strength, adds an incongruous touch of the classical, of an Apollo, to one of plainly low-born origins - and certainly not Greek ones, for his strangest features are his eyes, that are of a vacant blue, almost as if he were blind, though it is clear he is not. They add greatly to the impression of inscrutability, for they betray no sign . of emotion, seem always to stare, to suggest their owner is somewhere else. So might twin camera lenses see, not normal human eyes.

  Now the girl straightens and comes back towards him, smelling her minuscule posy; then gravely holds the purple flowers, with their little flecks of orange and silver, out and up for him to smell as well. Their eyes meet for a moment. Hers are of a more usual colour, a tawny brown, faintly challenging and mischievous, though she does not smile. She pushes the posy an inch or two nearer still. He briefly sniffs; nods, then as if they waste time, turns and mounts with the same agile grace and sense of balance that he showed before, still holding the other horse's rein. The girl watches him a moment more while he sits above, tightening the loosened linen muffler, pulling it to cover her mouth once more. She tucks her violets carefully inside the rim of white cloth, just below her nostrils.

  The man in the military coat comes with the pack-horse - he has stopped above to piss beside it - and takes his own horse from the man in the jerkin, and reties the leading-line. The girl stands waiting beside the pillion horse's withers; and now, in a seemingly familiar ritual, the military man comes round, faces her, then bends and enlaces his fingers to make a mounting stirrup. She sets her left foot in his hands, springs and is lightly lifted up to her blanketed seat before the impassive man in the jerkin. She looks down, the bunch of violets like an absurd moustache beneath her nose. The man in the scarlet coat drily tips his forefinger to his hat and winks. She looks away. Her companion, who has observed this, abruptly kicks the pillion horse's sides. It breaks into an immediate clumsy trot. He reins the beast sharply back, and she has to catch against him. Fists on hips, the man in the military coat watches them go for a moment or two, soon to settle to a walk, then mounts and follows.

  A faint sound comes to his ears, as they wind down through the woodland. The young woman is singing, or rather humming a tune to herself. It is that of the melancholy old folk-air, Daphne, already ancient in this time; yet it seems, this intrusion of a human voice in the previous silence, less melancholy than vaguely impudent. The man at the rear rides closer, to hear the voice better. The sound of hooves, an occasional creak of leather, a tiny jingle of harness metal; tumbling water below, and the sound of a misselthrush also singing, from far across the valley, barely audible, as fragmented as the muffled girl's voice. Through the bare branches ahead, there is a gleam of luminous gold, where the sinking western sun has found a first direct interstice in the clouds.

  Now the sound of rushing water dominates. They ride for a little way close above a fast and furious moorland stream and greener vegetation: more violets, wood-sorrel, first ferns, nests of primroses, emerald young rushes and grass. They come to a small clearing where the track descends to stream-level,, then bends into the water, smoother here, at a ford. On the other side, facing them, wait the two gentlemen on their horses; and it is evident now, as masters wait for laggard servants. The elder, behind, takes snuff. The girl stops her singing. The three horses splash across, beside a line of stepping-stones, blundering their way among the small rocks beneath the swift-running water. The younger gentleman stares at the girl, at her floral moustache, as if she is in some way to blame for this delay. She does not look at him, but nestles close against her companion, whose arms surround her to keep her balanced. Only when all three horses and their burdens are safely across does the younger gentleman turn his horse and proceed, in the same order as before, and the same silence.

  * * *

  Some few minutes later this sombre cavalcade of five came out of the trees and once more upon an open prospect, for here the valley bottom broadened considerably. The track ran slightly downhill across a long open meadow. In those days a single animal dominated the agricultural economy of the West of England: the sheep - and the needs of its pasturing. The huge hundred-acre sheep-run was a much more frequent feature of cultivated landscapes than today's densely hedged and enclosed patchwork of small fields. In the distance could be seen the small town whose church tower they had made out from the moorland above. Three or four flocks studded the long meadow before them; and as many shepherds, monolithic figures in cloaks of brown frieze, like primitive bishops with their crooks. One had two children beside him. Their sheep, Exmoor Horns, were smaller and scraggier than modern sheep, and tight-coated. To the travellers' left, where the hillside came down to the valley bottom, was a massive stone pen, and yet another further along.

  The younger gentleman reined in slightly and let the older come beside him; and from then on they rode abreast, though still without talking. The two shepherd children ran across the closecropped turf to the side of the open track, ahead of the party, and waited once they were there, with strangely intent eyes, watching beings from fable, not reality, approach; and as if they imagined themselves
not seen in return. They made no greeting, this small upstaring boy and his sister, both barefoot; and received none. The younger gentleman ignored them completely, the elder gave them no more than a casual glance. The manservant on the doubly laden horse similarly ignored them, while the man in the scarlet coat seemed to find himself, even before such a minute audience as this, put upon dignity. He rode a little more erect, staring ahead, like a would-be cavalry trooper. Only the young woman smiled, with her eyes, down at the small girl.

  For three hundred yards the two children alternately walked and trotted beside the travellers; but then the boy ran ahead, for a first banked hedge and a gate now barred the road. He heaved it off its latch, then pushed it wide back and open; and stood there, staring at the ground, with a hand outstretched. The older gentleman felt in his greatcoat pocket, and tossed a farthing down. The boy and his sister both scrambled for it as it rolled on the ground, but the boy had it first. Now once more they both stood, with outstretched small arms, the palms upwards, heads bowed, as the rear of the cavalcade passed. The young woman raised her left hand and took a pinch of her spray of violets, then threw them at the small girl. They fell across the child's arm, over her bent crown of no doubt lice-ridden hair, then to the ground: where the child stared at them, the arm dropped, nonplussed by this useless, incomprehensible gift.

  A quarter of an hour later the five came to the outskirts of the small town of C-. It was town more by virtue of being a few hundred inhabitants larger than any surrounding village in this thinly populated area than in any modern sense of the term; town also by virtue of an ancient charter, granted in palmier or more hopeful days four hundred years before; and which still absurdly permitted its somnolent mayor and tiny corporation to elect two members to parliament. It boasted also a few tradesmen and craftsmen, a weekly market, an inn beside its two or three ale- and ciderhouses, and even an ancient grammar-school, if one can call school one aged master, also parish clerk, and seven boys; but in all else it was a village.