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A Seventeenth-Century Story
by [?]

There is a story in every name in that first column of The Times–Births, Marriages, and Deaths–down which we glance each morning, but, unless the name is known to us, we do not bother about the stories of other people. They are those not very interesting people, our contemporaries. But in a country churchyard a name on an old tombstone will set us wondering a little. What sort of life came to an end there a hundred years ago?

In the parish register we shall find the whole history of them; when they were born, when they were married, how many children they had, when they died–a skeleton of their lives which we can clothe with our fancies and make living again. Simple lives, we make them, in that pleasant countryside; “Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath”; that is all. Simple work, simple pleasures, and a simple death.

Of course we are wrong. There were passions and pains in those lives; tragedies perhaps. The tombstones and the registers say nothing of them; or, if they say it, it is in a cypher to which we have not the key. Yet sometimes the key is almost in our hands. Here is a story from the register of a village church– four entries only, but they hide a tragedy which with a little imagination we can almost piece together for ourselves.

The first entry is a marriage. John Meadowes of Littlehaw Manor, bachelor, took Mary Field to wife (both of this parish) on 7th November 1681.

There were no children of the marriage. Indeed, it only lasted a year. A year later, on l2th November 1682, John died and was buried.

Poor Mary Meadowes was now alone at the Manor. We picture her sitting there in her loneliness, broken-hearted, refusing to be comforted. …

Until we come to the third entry. John has only been in his grave a month, but here is the third entry, telling us that on l2th December 1682, Robert Cliff, bachelor, was married to Mary Meadowes, widow. It spoils our picture of her. …

And then the fourth entry. It is the fourth entry which reveals the tragedy, which makes us wonder what is the story hidden away in the parish register of Littlehaw–the mystery of Littlehaw Manor. For here is another death, the death of Mary Cliff, and Mary Cliff died on … l3th December 1682.

And she was buried in unconsecrated ground. For Mary Cliff (we must suppose) had killed herself. She had killed herself on the day after her marriage to her second husband.

Well, what is the story? We shall have to make it up for ourselves. Here is my rendering of it. I have no means of finding out if it is the correct one, but it seems to fit itself within the facts as we know them.

Mary Field was the daughter of well-to-do parents, an only child, and the most desirable bride, from the worldly point of view, in the village. No wonder, then, that her parents’ choice of a husband for her fell upon the most desirable bridegroom of the village–John Meadowes. The Fields’ land adjoined Littlehaw Manor; one day the child of John and Mary would own it all. Let a marriage, then, be arranged.

But Mary loved Robert Cliff whole-heartedly –Robert, a man of no standing at all. A ridiculous notion, said her parents, but the silly girl would grow out of it. She was taken by a handsome face. Once she was safely wedded to John, she would forget her foolishness. John might not be handsome, but he was a solid, steady fellow; which was more–much more, as it turned out–than could be said for Robert.

So John and Mary married. But she still loved Robert. …

Did she kill her husband? Did she and Robert kill him together? Or did she only hasten his death by her neglect of him in some illness? Did she dare him to ride some devil of a horse which she knew he could not master; did she taunt him into some foolhardy feat; or did she deliberately kill him–with or without her lover’s aid? I cannot guess, but of this I am certain. His death was on her conscience. Directly or indirectly she was responsible for it –or, at any rate, felt herself responsible for it. But she would not think of it too closely; she had room for only one thought in her mind. She was mistress of Littlehaw Manor now, and free to marry whom she wished. Free, at last, to marry Robert. Whatever had been done had been worth doing for that.

So she married him. And then–so I read the story–she discovered the truth. Robert had never loved her. He had wanted to marry the rich Miss Field, that was all. Still more, he had wanted to marry the rich Mrs. Meadowes. He was quite callous about it. She might as well know the truth now as later. It would save trouble in the future, if she knew.

So Mary killed herself. She had murdered John for nothing. Whatever her responsibility for John’s death, in the bitterness of that discovery she would call it murder. She had a murder on her conscience for love’s sake–and there was no love. What else to do but follow John? …

Is that the story? I wonder.