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A Maggot, Page 2

John Fowles

  Nothing, indeed, could have misled more than the majestic high-pinnacled and battlemented tower of its medieval church; it now dominated and surveyed a much less prosperous and confident place than the one that had built it nearly three centuries earlier, and stood far more relic than representative. No gentry lived permanently there, though a manor house existed. The place was too remote, and like all remote Britain then, without turnpike or decent carriage-road. Above all it was without attraction to an age whose notion of natural beauty - in those few capable of forming such notions - was strictly confined to the French or Italianate formal garden at home and the denuded but ordered (through art) classical landscapes of southern Europe abroad.

  To the educated English traveller then there was nothing romantic or picturesque at all in domestic wild landscapes, and less than nothing in the cramped vernacular buildings of such townlets as C-. All this was so much desert, beneath the consideration of anyone who pretended to taste. The period had no sympathy with unregulated or primordial nature. It was aggressive wilderness, an ugly and all-invasive reminder of the Fall, of man's eternal exile from the Garden of Eden; and particularly aggressive, to a nation of profit-haunted puritans, on the threshold of an age of commerce, in its flagrant uselessness. The time had equally no sense (except among a few bookworms and scholars) of the antique outside the context of Greece and Rome; even its natural sciences, such as botany, though by now long founded, remained essentially hostile to wild nature, seeing it only as something to be tamed, classified, utilized, exploited. The narrow streets and alleys, the Tudor houses and crammed cottage closes of such towns conveyed nothing but an antediluvian barbarism, such as we can experience today only in some primitive foreign land ... in an African village, perhaps, or an Arab souk.

  A twentieth-century mind, could it have journeyed back and taken on the sensibilities and eyes of those two better-class travellers riding that day into the town, must have felt itself landed, or becalmed, in some strange doldrum of time, place and spirit; in one of those periods when Clio seems to stop and scratch her tousled head, and wonder where the devil to go next from here. This particular last day of April falls in a year very nearly equidistant from 1689, the culmination of the English Revolution, and 1789, the start of the French; in a sort of dozing solstitial standstill, a stasis of the kind predicted by those today who see all evolution as a punctuated equilibrium, between those two zenith dates and all they stand for; at a time of reaction from the intemperate extremisms of the previous century, yet already hatching the seeds (perhaps even in that farthing and careless strew of fallen violets) of the world-changing upheaval to come. Certainly England as a whole was indulging in its favourite and sempiternal national hobby: retreating deep within itself, and united only in a constipated hatred of change of any kind.

  Yet like so many seemingly inert troughs in history, it was not altogether a bad time for the six million or so there then were of the English, however humble. The two begging children by the road might wear ragged and patched clothes; but at least they were visibly neither starved nor starving. There were higher real wages than for centuries past - and for very nearly two centuries to come. Indeed it was only just becoming anything but a distinctly prosperous time for this county of Devon. Its ports, its ships, its towns and villages lived, and largely thrived, as they had for the last half-millennium, on one great staple: wool. In the abrupt course of the next seventy years this trade was to be first slowly throttled, then finally annihilated by a national change of taste, towards lighter fabrics, and the more enterprising North of England; but still at this time half Europe, even colonial America and imperial Russia, bought and made clothes from the Devonshire dozen, its famous length of serge and perpetuana.

  There was evidence of the cloth trade in nearly every thatched doorway and open cottage shutter of C ; women spinning, men spinning, children spinning, their hands so accustomed that eyes and tongues were entirely free; or if not doing that, then engaged in cleaning, carding and combing the raw fleece-wool. Here and there in a dark interior might be glimpsed or heard looms, but the spinning predominated. The mechanical jenny was still several decades in the future and the bottleneck in the ancient hand process always lay with the production of the yarn, for which the great weaving, finishing and market centres like Tiverton and Exeter and their rich clothiers had an insatiable greed. In all this, too, the endless treadling, blurred wheels, distaffs, the very scent of raw wool, our travellers found nothing picturesque or of interest. Throughout the country, industry still lay inside the cottage, in outwork, in the domestic system.

  This contempt, or blindness, was returned, in an inverse way. The riders were forced to go at an even slower pace by a lumbering ox-cart, which left no room to pass; and the doorway spinners, the townspeople about in the street, or attracted to their windows and thresholds by the horses' hooves, betrayed a similar sense of alienation by staring, as the shepherd's children had, at these strangers as if they were indeed foreigners, and not to be trusted. There was also the beginning of a political and a class feeling about this. It has been proved fifty years earlier, in the neighbouring counties of Somerset and Dorset, when nearly half of those who had flocked to join the Monmouth Rebellion had come from the cloth trade; most of the rest had come from the agricultural community, and virtually none at all from the local gentry. It would be wrong to speak yet of a trade-union mindedness, or even of the mob spirit by then recognized and feared in larger cities; but of an inherent resentment of those who lived in a world not ruled by cloth, here was evidence.

  The two gentlemen studiously avoided the watching eyes; and a sternness and gravity in their demeanour forbade greeting or enquiry, if now chowring comment. The young woman passenger did from time to time glance shily sideways; but something bizarre in her muffled appearance puzzled the spectators. Only the man in the faded scarlet coat at the rear seemed like a normal traveller. He gave stare for stare; and even tipped his hat to two girls in a doorway.

  Then a young man in a smock darted forward from the niche of a cob buttress supporting a leaning cottage wall and brandished an osier ring of dead birds up at the military-looking man. He had the sly grin of a yokel, half joker, half village idiot.

  'Buy 'un, maister? Penny a'oop, penny a'oop!'

  He was waved aside, but walked backwards, still thrusting the little ring of dead birds, each pierced through the neck, crimson and brown breasts and coal-black heads, up towards the rider. Hoops, or bullfinches, then had a price on their head, paid against their bodies by parish vestries.

  'Where be's 'ee to then, maister?'

  The man in the scarlet coat rode on a pace or two in silence, and threw an answer back over his shoulder.

  'The fleas in thy poxy inn.'

  'What business?'

  Again the rider waited to answer, and this time did not turn his head.

  'None o' thine.'

  The ox-cart now turned into a smith's yard, and the cavalcade could go more quickly. In a hundred yards or so they came to a more open square, paved with small dark setts sunk on edge. Though the sun had set, the sky had now cleared extensively in the west. Rose streaks of vapour floated in a honeycoloured light, suffusing the canopy still above with pink and amethyst tints. Somewhat finer and taller buildings surrounded this square and its central building, an open-sided shed, or market, made of massive oak timbers and with a steep-pitched and stone-tiled roof. There was a clothier's shop, a saddler's, a grocer's, an apothecary and barber-surgeon's, the latter being the nearest the place had to a doctor; a cordwainer's. At the far end of the square beyond the market house stood a knot of people, around a long wooden pole lying on its side, the central totem for the next day's celebrations, in process of being dressed with streamers.

  Closer, beside the roof-supporting outer columns of the market house, groups of children noisily played lamp-loo and tutball, those primitive forms of tag and baseball. Modern lovers of the second game would have been shocked to see that here it wa
s preponderantly played by the girls (and perhaps also to know that its traditional prize, for the most skilled, was not the milliondollar contract, but a mere tansy pudding). An older group of lads, some men among them, stood all with short knob-ended sticks of heavy holly and hawthorn in their hands, and took turns to throw at a bizarre and ragged shape of stuffed red cloth, vaguely birdlike, set at the foot of the market-house wall. To the travellers this last was a familiar sight, no more than practice for the noble, ancient and universal English sport to be played on the morrow: that of cocksquailing, or slaughtering cocks by throwing the weighted squailers, or sticks, at them. Its traditional main season was Shrovetide; but in Devon it was so popular, as cockfighting was among the gentry, that it was celebrated at other festivals. A very few hours would see a series of terrified living birds tied in place of the stuffed red puppet, and blood on the setts. Eighteenth-century man was truly Christian in his cruelty to animals. Was it not a blasphemous cock that crowed thrice, rejoicing each time the apostle Peter denied? What could be more virtuous than bludgeoning its descendants to death?

  The two gentlemen reined in, as if somewhat taken aback by this unexpected open stage and animated crowd. The cockthrowers had already turned away from their rehearsal; the children as quickly dropped their games. The younger gentleman looked back to the man in the scarlet coat, who pointed across to the northern side of the square, at a ramshackle stone building with a crudely painted black stag on a wall-board above its porch and an archway to a stableyard beside it.

  The clattering and clopping procession now headed up across the slightly sloping square. The maypole was also forsaken for this more interesting entertainment, which had already gathered a small train on its way to the square. Some seventy or eighty faces were waiting, when they approached the inn; but just before they came to dismount, the younger gentleman politely gestured the elder forward, as if he must take precedence. A florid-faced man with a paunch came out under the porch, a serving-girl and a

  potboy behind him; then a man with a bustling limp from the yard, the ostler. He took the older gentleman's horse as he slid stiffly to the ground; the potboy, the younger gentleman's behind him. The landlord bowed.

  'Welcome, sirs. Puddicombe, at your service. Us trust you be came an easy journey.'

  The elder gentleman answered. 'All is ready?'

  'As your man bespoke, sir. To the letter.'

  'Then show to our chambers. We are much fatigued.'

  The landlord backed, and offered entrance. But the younger gentleman waited a moment or two, watching the other three horses and their riders into the yard, to which they had headed direct. His senior eyed him, then the ring of onlookers, and spoke with a firm, even faintly testy, authority.

  'Come, nephew. Enough of being the cynosure of nowhere.'

  With that he passed into the inn, leaving his nephew to follow.

  * * *

  In the best upstairs chamber, the uncle and nephew have just finished their supper. Candles have been lit on a wall-sconce by the door, three more in a pewter branch on the table. An ash-log fire burns in a wide open hearth not far away, and the faintly acrid smell of its smoke pervades the trembling shadows in the large old room. A four-poster bed, its curtains drawn, stands with its head against a side wall opposite the fire, with a ewer and bowl on a stand beside it. There is another table and chair by the window. Two ancient and worm-eaten wooden-armed chairs with leather-padded seats face each other on either side of the hearth; a long seventeenth-century benchstool guards the foot of the bed. There is no other furniture. The windows are hidden by folding shutters, now latched across; there are no hangings, drawings or pictures, except for a framed engraving, on the wall above the fire, of the last but one monarch, Queen Anne, and a small tarnished mirror by the wall-sconce.

  Ranged by the door lie the leather trunk, lid flung open on clothes, and the brassbound wooden chest. The fire and its shifting lights and shadows somewhat hide the room's bareness, and at least the old half-panelling and uncarpeted yet polished broadplanks are warm.

  The nephew fills his glass from a blue-and-white china decanter of madeira, then rises and goes to the fire. He stares down at it for a few moments in silence. He has unbuckled his neck-stock and put on a damask night-gown (at that period a loose informal coat, not what it means today) over his long waistcoat and breeches. He has also taken his wig off, revealing that he is shaven-headed to the apparent point, in the poor light, of baldness; and indeed looks like nothing so much as a modem skinhead, did not his clothes deny it. His riding-coat and long suit-coat, and the fashionably brief campaign wig, hang from hooks by the door, the top-boots and sword stand below. His uncle has remained more formally dressed, and still wears his hat and much fuller wig, whose knot-ends lie against his coat. The two men bear little physical resemblance. The nephew is slightly built, and his face shows, as he stares at the fire, a blend of fastidiousness and intransigence. It is, with its aquiline nose and fine mouth, not an unhandsome face; but something broods in it. It certainly does not suggest any lack of breeding or urbanity, indeed he looks like a man confident, even certain, of his position in life, and of his general philosophy, despite his comparative youth. But unmistakably it suggests will, and an indifference to all that is not that will.

  Its present meditative expression is in marked contrast to that of the corpulent uncle, at first sight a man of more imposing mien:: jowly, doctorial, heavy-browed, incipiently choleric. Yet for all that he seems distinctly less at ease than his companion, whose stance in front of the fire, the downbent face, he now contemplates. His look reveals a certain wryness, not untinged with impatience. But he ends by looking down at his plate. His quick glance up, when suddenly the younger man speaks, although it is seemingly to the fire, suggests that the meal, like the journey, has lacked conversation.

  'I thank you for bearing with me, Lacy. And my vacua.'

  'I had fair warning, sir. And fair fee.'

  'Even so. For one to whom speech must be the bread of life ... I fear I have been poor company.'

  They do not speak like nephew and uncle. The older man produces a snuffbox; and slides a sly look under his eyebrows at his interlocutor.

  'Speech has brought me rotten cabbages before now. And far worse rewards than yours.' He takes snuff. 'No more than the cabbages themselves, on occasion.'

  The man by the fire looks back then, with a faint smile. 'I'll wager never such a part as this.'

  'I can't deny you there, sir. Most assuredly no such part as this.'

  'I am grateful. You have played it well.'

  The older man bows, though with a perceptibly mock exaggeration.

  'I might have played it better still had I...' but he breaks off, and opens his hands.

  'Had you had more confidence in the author?'

  'In his final design, Mr Bartholomew. With respect.'

  The younger man stares back at the fire.

  'We might all say that, might we not? In comoedia vitae.'

  'True, sir.' He takes a lace handkerchief out and dabs at his nose. 'But our craft conforms us. We like to have our morrows fixed. Therein cloth lie our art. Without we are disarmed of half our powers, sir.'

  'I have not remarked it.'

  The actor smiles down, and closes his snuffbox. The younger man walks slowly to the window and idly unlatches the shutters, and folds a creaking half-panel back. He looks out, almost as if he expects to see someone waiting below in the market-place. But it is empty now and dark. In one or two of the surrounding houses windows shine faintly with candlelight. There is still a very barely perceptible luminescence, a last breath of the gone day, in the western sky; and stars, some nearly overhead, announce that the sky continues to clear eastwards. He recloses the shutter and turns to face the man at the table.

  'We may ride the same road for an hour tomorrow. Then we must part.'

  The older man looks down with a slight rise of his eyebrows and a tilted nod of reluctant acquiescence, like a ch
ess-player forced to acknowledge he has met his master.

  'I trust I may at least hope to meet you in more auspicious circumstances.'

  'If fortune wishes it.'

  The actor gives him a prolonged look.

  'Come, sir. At this happy juncture -did you yourself not mock at superstition but a day or two ago? You speak as if fortune is your foe.'

  'Hazard is no superstition, Lacy.'

  'One throw of the dice, perhaps. But you may throw again.'

  'May one cross the Rubicon twice?'

  'But the young lady -'

  'This time ... or never more.'

  Lacy is silent a moment.

  'My dear sir, with all respect, you take too tragical a view of matters. You are no Romeo in a history, bound upon destiny's wheel. Such notions are but a poet's contrivance, to achieve his effect.' He pauses, but gets no answer. 'Very well, you may fail this time in your venture, as you tell me you failed before. But may you not try again - as true lovers must? The old adage warns us so.'

  The young man goes back to his chair and sits, and once more stares at the fire a long moment.

  'Say it were a history that has neither Romeo nor Juliet. But another end, as dark as the darkest night.' He looks up. There is a sudden force, a directness in his look. 'What then, Lacy?'

  'The comparison is better made between ourselves. When you speak thus, it is I who am thrown into darkest night.'

  Again the younger man is slow to reply.

  'Allow me to put a strange fancy to you. You spake just now of fixed morrows. Suppose one came to you, to you alone, and said that he had pierced the secrets of the world to come - I mean not those of Heaven, but of this world we live in. Who could persuade you he was no fairbooth charlatan, but had truly discovered what he pretended by some secret study, mathematick science, astrology, what you will. Then told you of the world to come, what shall happen tomorrow, shall happen this day month, next year, a hundred, a thousand years from now. All, as in a history. Now - would you run crying it in the streets or keep silent?'