Has olim exuvias mihi perfidus ille reliquit,
Pignora cara sui: quae nunc ego limine in ipso,
Terra, tibi mando; debent haec pignora Daphnin–
Ducite ab urbe domum, mea, carmina, ducite Daphnin.
I knew the superstition lingered along the country-side: and I was sworn to find it. But the labourers and their wives smoothed all intelligence out of their faces as soon as I began to hint at it. Such is the way of them. They were my good friends, but had no mind to help me in this. Nobody who has not lived long with them can divine the number of small incommunicable mysteries and racial secrets chambered in their inner hearts and guarded by their hospitable faces. These alone the Celt withholds from the Saxon, and when he dies they are buried with him.
A chance word or two of my old nurse, by chance caught in some cranny of a child’s memory and recovered after many days, told me that the charm was still practised by the woman-folk, or had been practised not long before her death. So I began to hunt for it, and, almost as soon, to believe the search hopeless. The new generation of girls, with their smart frocks, in fashion not more than six months behind London, their Board School notions, and their consuming ambition to “look like a lady”–were these likely to cherish a local custom as rude and primitive as the long-stone circles on the tors above? But they were Cornish; and of that race it is unwise to judge rashly. For years I had never a clue: and then, by Sheba Farm, in a forsaken angle of the coast, surprised the secret.
Sheba Farm stands high above Ruan sands, over which its windows flame at sunset. And I sat in the farm kitchen drinking cider and eating potato-cake, while the farmer’s wife, Mrs. Bolverson, obligingly attended to my coat, which had just been soaked by a thunder-shower. It was August, and already the sun beat out again, fierce and strong. The bright drops that gemmed the tamarisk-bushes above the wall of the town-place were already fading under its heat; and I heard the voices of the harvesters up the lane, as they returned to the oat-field whence the storm had routed them. A bright parallelogram stretched from the window across the white kitchen-table, and reached the dim hollow of the open fire-place. Mrs. Bolverson drew the towel-horse, on which my coat was stretched, between it and the wood fire, which (as she held) the sunshine would put out.
“It’s uncommonly kind of you, Mrs. Bolverson,” said I, as she turned one sleeve of the coat towards the heat. “To be sure, if the women in these parts would speak out, some of them have done more than that for the men with an old coat.”
She dropped the sleeve, faced round, and eyed me.
“What do you know of that?” she asked slowly, and as if her chest tightened over the words. She was a woman of fifty and more, of fine figure but a worn face. Her chief surviving beauty was a pile of light golden hair, still lustrous as a girl’s. But her blue eyes–though now they narrowed on me suspiciously–must have looked out magnificently in their day.
“I fancy,” said I, meeting them frankly enough, “that what you know and I don’t on that matter would make a good deal.”
She laughed harshly, almost savagely.
“You’d better ask Sarah Gedye, across the coombe. She buried a man’s clothes one time, and–it might be worth your while to ask her what came o’t.”
If you can imagine a glint of moonlight running up the blade of a rapier, you may know the chill flame of spite and despite that flickered in her eyes then as she spoke.
“I take my oath,” I muttered to myself, “I’ll act on the invitation.”