Authors: Eleanor Scott
16 Orchard Street
First published in 1929
This edition published by Oleander Press, Cambridge, 2010
© Adam Leys, 2010. All Rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for the book is available from the British Library.
Designed and typeset by Ayshea Carter
Printed in England
THOUGH written at different times and under all sorts of conditions, these stories have all had their origin in dreams. They have, of course, been given shape, so that each forms a connected whole rather than a series of detached incidents or scenes: I do not know whether, by this adjustment, they have lost some of the horror experienced by the dreamer. But to give them shape was necessary; in dreams there is a kind of connecting thread so frail that no art can ever reproduce it - it is not possible to put it into the language and associations of waking life; and only in the first awakening, when one is, as it were, in the borderland between the world of dreams and the world of every day, remote from both yet understanding both as one never does when fully awake or fully asleep, can one remember the thread and try, however vainly, to translate it into terms of every day.
These dreams, as I say, were terrifying enough to the dreamer. I know what young Grindley endured in The Room because I myself have suffered that experience in a dream. I have sought for the clue of the Twelve Apostles; I have heard what Annis Breck heard at Queen’s Garth, and seen more than Foster or M. Vetier saw on the beach at Kerouac. It may be that simply because these things were so terrifying I have failed to convey the horror I felt. I do not know. But I hope that some readers at least will experience an agreeable shudder or two in the reading of them.
“OF COURSE, I don’t pretend to be aesthetic and all that,” said Heyling in that voice of half contemptuous indifference that often marks the rivalry between Science and Art, “but I must say that this folk–song and dance business strikes me as pretty complete rot. I dare say there may be some arguments in favour of it for exercise and that, but I’m dashed if I can see why a chap need leap about in fancy braces because he wants to train down his fat.”
He lit a cigarette disdainfully.
“All revivals are a bit artificial, I expect,” said Mortlake in his quiet, pleasant voice, “but it’s not a question of exercise only in this case, you know. People who know say that it’s the remains of a religious cult – sacrificial rites and that. There certainly are some very odd things done in out–of–the–way places.”
“How d’you mean?” asked Heyling, unconvinced. “You can’t really think that there’s any kind of heathen cult still practised in this country?”
“Well,” said Mortlake, “there’s not much left now. More in Wales, I believe, and France, than here. But I believe that if we could find a place where people had never lost the cult, we might run into some queer things. There are a few places like that,” he went on, “places where they’re said to perform their own rite occasionally. I mean to look it up some time. By the way,” he added, suddenly sitting upright, “didn’t you say you were going to a village called Randalls for the weekend?“
“Yes – little place in the Cotswolds somewhere. Boney gave me an address.”
“Going to work, or for an easy?”
“Not to work. Boney’s afraid of my precious health. He thinks I’m overworking my delicate constitution.”
“Well, if you’ve the chance, I wish you’d take a look at the records in the old Guildhall there and see if you can find any references to folk customs. Randalls is believed to be one of the places where there is a genuine survival. They have a game I think, or a dance, called Randalls Round. I’d very much like to know if there are any written records – anything definite. Not if you’re bored you know, or don’t want to. Just if you’re at a loose end.”
“Right, I will,” said Heyling; and there the talk ended.
It is unusual for Oxford undergraduates to take a long weekend off in the Michaelmas term with the permission of the college authorities; but Heyling, from whom his tutor expected great things, had certainly been reading too hard. The weather that autumn was unusually close and clammy, even for Oxford; and Heyling was getting into such a state of nerves that he was delighted to take the chance of getting away from Oxford for the weekend.
The weather, as he cycled out along the Woodstock Road, was moist and warm; but as the miles slipped by and the ground rose, he became aware of the softness of the air, the pleasant lines of the bare, sloping fields, the quiet of the low, rolling clouds. Already he felt calmer, more at ease.
The lift of the ground became more definite, and the character of the country changed. It became more open, bleaker; it had something of the quality of moorland, and the little scattered stone houses had that air of being one with the earth that is the right of moorland houses.
Randalls was, as Heyling’s tutor had told him, quite a small place, though it had once boasted a market. Round a little square space, grass–grown now, where once droves of patient cattle and flocks of shaggy Cotswold sheep had stood to be sold, were grouped houses, mostly of the seventeenth or early eighteenth century, made of the beautiful mellow stone of the Cotswolds; and Heyling noticed among these one building of exceptional beauty, earlier in date than the others, long and low, with a deep square porch and mullioned windows.
“That’s the Guildhall Mortlake spoke of I expect,” he said to himself as he made his way to the Flaming Hand Inn, where his quarters were booked. “Quite a good place to look up town records. Queer how that sort of vague rot gets hold of quite sensible men.”
Heyling received a hearty welcome at the inn. Visitors were not very frequent at that time of year, for Randalls is rather far from the good hunting country. Even a chance weekender was something of an event. Heyling was given a quite exceptionally nice room (or rather, a pair of rooms – for two communicated with one another) on the ground floor. The front one, looking out on to the old square, was furnished as a sitting–room; the other gave onto the inn yard, a pleasant cobbled place surrounded by a moss–grown wall and barns with beautiful lichened roofs. Heyling began to feel quite cheerful and vigorous as he lit his pipe and prepared to spend a lazy evening.
As he was settling down in his chair with one of the inn’s scanty supply of very dull novels, he was mildly surprised to hear children’s voices chanting outside. He reflected that Guy Fawkes’ Day was not due yet, and that in any case the tune they sang was not the formless huddle usually produced on that august occasion. This was a real melody – rather an odd, plaintive air, ending with an abrupt drop that pleased his ear. Little as he knew folk–lore, and much as he despised it, Heyling could not but recognise that this was a genuine folk air, and a very attractive one.
The children did not appear to be begging; their song finished, they simply went away; but Heyling was surprised when some minutes later he heard the same air played again, this time on a flute or flageolet. There came also the sound of many feet in the market square. It was evident that the whole population had turned out to see some sight. Mildly interested, Heyling rose and lounged across to the bay window of his room.
The tiny square was thronged with villagers, all gazing at an empty space left in the centre. At one end of this space stood a man playing on a long and curiously sweet pipe: he played the same haunting plaintive melody again and again. In the very centre stood a pole, as a maypole stands in some villages; but instead of garlands and ribbons, this pole had flung over it the shaggy hide of some creature like an ox. Heyling could just see the blunt heavy head with its short thick horns. Then, without a word or a signal, men came out from among the watchers and began a curious dance.
Heyling had seen folk–dancing done in Oxford, and he recognised some of the features of the dance; but it struck him as being a graver, more barbaric affair than the performances he had seen before. It was almost solemn.
As he watched, the dancers began a figure that he recognised. They took hands in a ring, facing outwards; then, with their hands lifted, they began to move slowly round, counter–clockwise. Memory stirred faintly, and two things came drifting into Heyling’s mind: one, the sound of Mortlake’s voice as the two men had stood watching a performance of the Headington Mummers – “That’s the Back Ring. It’s supposed to be symbolic of death – a survival of a time when a dead victim lay in the middle and the dancers turned away from him.” The other memory was dimmer, for he could not remember who had told him that to move in a circle counter–clockwise was unlucky. It must have been a Scot, though, for he remembered the word “widdershins.”
These faint stirrings of memory were snapped off by a sudden movement in the dance going on outside. Two new figures advanced – one a man, whose head was covered by a mask made in the rough likeness of a bull; the other shrouded from head to foot in a white sheet, so that even the sex was indistinguishable. Without a sound these two came into the space left in the centre of the dance. The bull–headed man placed the second figure with its back to the pole where hung the hide. The dancers moved more and more slowly. Evidently some crisis of the dance was coming.
Suddenly the bull–headed man jerked the pole so that the shaggy hide fell outspread on the shrouded figure standing before it. It gave a horrid impression – as if the creature hanging limp on the pole had suddenly come to life, and with one swift, terrible movement had engulfed and devoured the helpless victim standing passively before it.
Heyling felt quite shocked – startled, as if he ought to do something. He even threw the window open, as though he meant to spring out and stop the horrid rite. Then he drew back, laughing a little at his own folly. The dance had come to an end: the bull– headed man had lifted the hide from the shrouded figure and thrown it carelessly over his shoulder. The flute–player had stopped his melody, and the crowd was melting away.
“What a queer performance!” said Heyling to himself. “I see now what old Mortlake means. It does look like a survival of some sort. Where’s that book of his?“
He rummaged in his rucksack and produced a book that Mortlake had lent him – one volume of a very famous book on folk–lore. There were many accounts of village games and “feasts”, all traced in a sober and scholarly fashion to some barbaric, primitive rite. He was interested to see how often mention was made of animal masks, or of the hides or tails of animals being worn by performers in these odd revels. There was nothing fantastic or strained in these accounts – nothing of the romantic type that Heyling scornfully dubbed “aesthetic.” They were as careful and well authenticated as the facts in a scientific treatise. Randalls was mentioned, and the dance described – rather scantily, Heyling thought, until, reading on, he found that the author acknowledged that he had not himself seen it, but was indebted to a friend for the account of it. But Heyling found something that interested him.