THE vicarage lawn, bright green in the August sunshine, with beds of golden violas, had been galvanized into frantic gayety by the incursion of the entire village. It was the great day of the year in Cherrington Magna; for the school treat and the festival of the local club had been rolled into one enormous — and, to the hermit vicar, horrific — revel. A tea, a dance, and races were included in the programme. Tea was over and, with the lusty country scorn of digestion which prevails at such festivals, everybody was now prepared to run races. Their faces shone with pleasure, hope of useful prizes, and honest yellow soap. They were of the good but unemotional type produced by preoccupation with the material side of life, and they had the touch of harshness which comes from absorption in petty worries. The women’s dresses, of homely stuffs, in neutral or primary colors, made dark or brilliant patches on the green grass.
Apart from the rest, in deepest black, stood a tall, rather harsh-featured woman, who seemed to have about her something of the atmosphere of the pariah. She leaned against the churchyard wall in the purple shadow of the yew tree, which spread its flat, dark masses over the daisied lawn from the dank enclosure of the churchyard, and she had the look of a creature at bay — sullen, and inexpressive. She was of the age that corresponds to the apple tree’s time of hard, green fruit, half way between maturity and middle age. She had the spare angularity and weathered complexion of all fieldworkers. Yet, although she had no beauty, she was, in a curious subtle way, arresting. She had the air of remoteness that some people always take with them, so that their lives seem to move to a different rhythm from the lives around them, and one surprises in their eyes an impassioned secrecy, and feels in their presence the magnetism of great things forever unrevealed. She stood fronting a little crowd.
‘I ‘ll run for pig,’ she said.
‘What?’ cried Mrs. Parton of the shop, roundly, ‘d’you mean to tell me, Selina Stone, as you ‘re going to run for pig, and your lawful ‘usband lying by lonesome over the churchyard wall?’
A slight flicker of emotion lit Selina’s face and passed. It might have been anger or scorn or even mirth.
‘I ‘ll run for pig,’ she repeated tonelessly.
The sexton’s wife took up the argument as of inalienable right. ‘And poor Bobbie Stone only measured for coffin Friday was a week!’
‘ Scarce cold! Scarce cold! ‘
This was from Mrs. Marsh, the washerwoman, whose face was large and white, and had the appearance of perpetually reflecting the full moon, and whose hands were always bleached and wrinkled and water-logged. But her feet were, as she put it, ‘as the Lord made ‘em,’ and she intended to compete for the pig, and would have been pleased to know that Selina, with her long tireless legs, was out of it.
‘It’s not what the vicar will like,’ said Miss Milling, the schoolmistress, very quiet in gray silk, and having the air of politely ignoring the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Jane, the vicar’s cook, whose hair was so tidy that it looked like black paint, said ‘That it inna!’ She was going to run herself, as proxy for her sister, whose complaint it was that Providence, while giving her an enormous progeny and thus making her both need and deserve bacon at Christmas, saw fit every year to incapacitate her for competing for the pig by decreeing that she should be ‘in the family way.’ So Jane was to run for the family, and she felt that she was supremely in the right, and that this muscular Selina had ‘no call’ to triumph over her slight stoutness (due to the generous living at the vicarage) by thus breaking all the laws of good taste.
Jane’s sister looked up from suckling the latest addition to the family. ‘She’s got no little uns to feed. She dunna need bacon,’ she said decisively.
A murmur that matched the wind in the yew tree ran over the group, a shocked, and withal an interested, sigh.
‘Run she will!’
‘Dear ‘cart, to think on it!’
‘Run for pig, and poor Bob not sodded!’
‘You ‘re a bad ‘oman, Selina Stone!’
Selina’s sallow face looked sallower. She swallowed hard, but she gazed unflinchingly into the moon-face of the washerwoman, and she remained selfpoised, like a heavy pebble in a water-course. She held on to her own personality, though whelmed in the currents of public opinion.
Jane’s sister tried the human note, looking up over the bundle that was her new, creased, enthralling baby.
‘My dear, you’ve no need to do any such thing. Bob was insured, as I very well know. Think how my little uns could enjoy that dear little pig come Christmas. Dunna rob them! Of such is the kingdom of ‘eaven.’
‘Amen!’ said her husband.
Three or four girls, all more or less blooming and blossomy, looked at their young men and giggled. Save for these young men, the race would have been a ‘walk-over’ for them, but the consciousness of admiring eyes seriously disturbed their breathing apparatus and, by the justice of things, gave the unromantic a chance.
‘Selina! O Selina Stone!’ quavered a very old man with an impressive falsetto voice. ‘You ‘ll ne’er run, my wrench?’
‘Ah, I ‘ll run.’
‘You ‘ll fall afore the fall of the leaf if you do wrong by the dead.’
‘Oot give it up if Vicar says no?’
Selina, weary of repetition, merely shook her head and leaned back against the churchyard wall. Hostile eyes focused themselves upon her, hostile thoughts washed over her. A man pushed his way through the little crowd and came to her.
‘My girl,’ he said, stooping so that she could hear his undertone, ‘best not! Looks queer-like. Ye can have a plenty of bacon when ye set up with me.’
People nudged each other. This was Bill Jakeways, the hedger, to whom, it was said, Selina had given all he asked when, in sultry summer evenings, she had worked overtime, hoeing turnips, and he had done piecework at the hedges between hay harvest and corn harvest. What he had ever seen in her had always been a puzzle to the village. He might have taken his pick, it was said. He was the best-looking man in the place, a splendid creature, like a statue, minded like the naïve dumb things of wood and meadow. Like a dumb creature he had worked for Selina, carrying water, lugging wood, helping her in the fields.
‘I won’er what Stone thinks of it!’
This was one of the village phrases. But Bobbie Stone, slight and frail and tired, coughing now and again over his bespoke boots in Selina’s tidy kitchen, never divulged by any word or look what he thought. He and Selina lived like middle-aged people, far outside the scope of passion. He would look up and smile when she came in from the fields to get his tea of bacon and potatoes; and if she was late and more flushed than usual he never seemed to notice it. They were judged by the village to be well matched, for she had always been ‘ poor favored ‘ and he was ‘not much of a chap — a rickety piece.’
So life went on until Bobbie, coughing a little more each month, became too tired to push the needle through the leather. The doctor ordered this and that. Selina sat up at night and often stayed away from the fields. Bill was sent here and there for medicines and delicacies. But none the less, when the hot weather came, Bobbie laid his weary head on the pillow, and smiled wistfully at Selina, and said, ‘I’m tired, lass. I ‘ll sleep a bit.’
And he slept on now under the ugly battened mound of brown earth. The pansies nodded golden heads as they did last year, the pig awaited the race with the same complacent ignorance as had the pig of last year.
Jakeways was rather shocked at this callousness of Selina’s. ‘I doubt it’s no good to fly in the face of folk. It’s the same in pleachin’ — yo mun lay the bough the way it wants to go,’ he said.
‘Fine and pleased they be,’ remarked Mrs. Marsh to the sexton’s wife, ‘and it wunna be above a month or so afore there’s a wedding in Cherrington.’
‘She ‘s a lucky woman, no danger!’
‘Ah! A tidy chap. Keeps off the drink too. Never merry but of a Saturday night.’
Meanwhile the competitors were gathering for the most exciting race of the day. Even the vicar and the doctor drew towards the course to see the ladies distinguish themselves. The vicar kept a deaf ear turned to the broad jokes and the betting among the young men, each of whom backed his own girl, speaking of her in racing terms.
The doctor, knowing everybody’s constitution to a nicety, was entrusted with the handicapping. He gave Mrs. Marsh a tremendous start, because he knew she had incipient dropsy. Nobody else knew it, however, so there was a general groan. Mrs. Marsh decided to glaze the doctor’s collars as no collars had ever been glazed. She stood far up the course, and the judge, at the winning-post, saw her round white face shining there like an argent shield. Jane, with her cheeks as suddenly red as those of a Dutch doll, and her neat black hair, also like a Dutch doll’s, was heavily handicapped; and so were the half-dozen giggling village girls.
Behind all the rest stood Selina.
‘You ‘re not in the race, of course, Mrs. Stone,’ said Dr. Pierce.
‘Ah, sir, I be.’
He looked surprised. The vicar was distressed.
‘No, no, Selina! Think!’
‘I be to run, sir.’
‘It’s not wise, Mrs. Stone,’ murmured the doctor.
‘No, already there are strange rumors afoot,’ said the vicar. ‘It would not take much to make them say you murdered poor Bob.’
Selina flung her head back with the air of a savage queen.
‘What do I care if they do, saving your presence, sir! Let ‘em talk till their tongues shrivel! I shanna hear ‘em.’
‘Ready!’ shouted the starter.
The pig was placed in position by his owner’s oddman, and firmly held in spite of expostulation. Mrs. Marsh took off her bonnet. So might Britannia, for some enormous conflict, temporarily doff her helmet. The girls flung their hats to their mothers or friends.
Selina turned to Jakeways with a smile of great sweetness and sadness. It came on her harsh face like dawn on a mountain side. It was clear from her smile that she loved him, but with an anguished love.
‘I’m bound to run, lad,’ she said.
There was in her voice the mournful note that the wind raises about the shell of ruined masonry, its lament around old dead cities, its cry in the cornices of abandoned homes.
‘Ready — Steady — Go!’
The oddman let the pig go, and tumult broke over the course — yells from the various backers, squeals from the pig, hands held out to snatch, flying feet, laughter, fury.
‘Selina runs as if life and all was on it.’
‘I ‘ll be bound she ‘ll win.’
‘Go it, Mrs. Marsh!’ shouted the doctor.
Like a nest of hungry birds, Jane’s nephews and nieces lifted their voices: —
‘Keep at it, a’ntie!’ Then, jubilantly, ‘Mrs. Stone’s fell down.’
‘But she’s got the pig,’ wailed their mother.
Far up the course, with both arms round the pig, lay Selina. The roar of applause died away as she still lay there.
The crowd surged forward.
‘It’s a judgment.’
‘Ah! She’s strook.’
‘Sarve un right.’
‘Being so desper’t set on a pig! And poor Stone not sodded!’
‘Well, seems like she’s done for herself now, no danger.’
‘Struck down in ‘er pride!’
‘What is it?’
‘What’s took the woman?’
‘’T was poor Bobbie Stone as come agen in the middle of the race and called ‘er. They come agen very bad afore they’re sodded, you mind.’
Meanwhile, by the silent Selina and the shrieking pig knelt the doctor. She was coming round, but he knew the case was hopeless. It was heart-failure.
‘You know what I told you after that influenza — about your heart, Mrs. Stone?’
‘You knew what would happen. Why take such a risk for a pig?’
‘A pig? What pig?’
The doctor was puzzled, but silent.
Jakeways elbowed through the crowd, and, seeing her deathly face, burst into tears. He knelt down and loosened her tense, unconscious fingers from the pig.
‘There wunna no call for you to do it,’ he said mournfully. ‘I’d ha’ seen as you ‘d enough o’ meat, if you’d set up with me.’
‘I know ye would.’
‘I like ye right well, Selina.’
‘And I like you. Only I was sore set on poor Bob. Baby an’ all was Bob to me.’
Dr. Pierce returned with the vicar. ‘But if she did n’t want the pig, what did she run for?’ he was saying. ‘Ask her, vicar!’
The dreamy vicar stooped and took her hand. Their eyes met, and understanding flashed from one to the other. Then Selina’s heavy lids came down, and the only reply the doctor ever had was her faint, enigmatic smile.