Har­vest Home

This was al­ways an ex­cit­ing time of year. And I longed for Amos to choose me as his Corn Maiden . . .

The People's Friend - - SHORT STORY BY PAMELA KAVANAGH -

THERE’S wis­dom in old cus­toms,” Mam said. “Wis­dom and strength.” Well, that’s as maybe, though I doubted if those at the Hall kitchens would see it that way, up to the el­bows in flour, pum­melling and pound­ing in fren­zied preparation of Har­vest Home, a long-held cus­tom in these parts, up­held by gen­try and com­moner alike.

The out­side staff would be brush­ing the cob­webs off stored benches and tres­tles prior to set­ting things up in the barn where the feast was held.

I knew all this be­cause our Jed’s sweet­heart, Mil­lie, was house­maid at the Hall, and re­layed what hap­pened there back to us, chap­ter and verse.

Da and Gramps were still out on the fields, but Jed had re­turned to see to the evening chores on the farm. Ev­i­dently shar­ing my doubts on the power of an­cient coun­try lore, he looked up from the fire­side where he was now whit­tling away at a block of wood.

Jed had magic in his fin­gers when it came to carv­ing. A heron fash­ioned from a chunk of sea­soned oak could al­most fly from its plinth, it looked so real.

“By­gone tra­di­tions?” He shook his head. “I dunno so much. ’Twill take more than corn-lords and chant­ing to put things right be­tween Miss Eu­ge­nia and her folks, I reckon.”

Or make Amos Cooper look my way, I added silently. Amos was coach­man at the Hall and the very thought of his hand­some face was enough to make my bones melt.

Jed was re­fer­ring to the shindig be­tween the daugh­ter of the Hall and the squire and his lady.

Ap­par­ently Squire Rawl­ings had a good match lined up for his lass, but Miss Eu­ge­nia had other views, and a more than pass­ing in­ter­est in the Suf­fragette Move­ment that was mak­ing its mark in the south. It seemed a mil­lion miles from here, where talk cen­tred around the home, the land, and the go­ings-on at the Hall.

Mam, at the kitchen table, was as­sem­bling a bas­ket of yel­low stoneware jars which she had filled with ale and would place in the green-scented cool of the hedge for thirsty reapers on the mor­row. She sniffed.

“Tes a pow­er­ful rit­ual, Har­vest Home,” she said. “It stands for con­tin­u­a­tion, and not just of the crops. It goes deeper than that and that dunna mean chas­ing off to join a gag­gle of mil­i­tant wom­en­folk, no­ble though the cause might be,” she added.

Gran was sit­ting close to the fire, os­ten­si­bly doz­ing but in real­ity tak­ing in ev­ery word that was said.

Old ways and their pow­ers were sec­ond na­ture to Gran. She’d earned the ti­tle of vil­lage good­wife be­cause of her way with charms and sim­ples.

“Go to Granny Fir­ket­tle and she’ll put you right.”

Many a path was trod­den to our farm­stead door in the dimsy light of dawn, usu­ally a wearied mother want­ing a cure for a lit­tle one with the cough, oc­ca­sion­ally some trou­bled body with more test­ing is­sues.

It was Gran who fash­ioned the corn-dolly from the last of the stalks once the corn was cut. What it rep­re­sented was not al­ways clear, but there were those who had faith in its cred­i­bil­ity.

Come to think of it, all three of them were a mite

fey: Jed with his whit­tling, Mam and her philoso­phies and Gran with her lo­tions and po­tions.

Some­how the fam­ily trait had missed its mark with me. I was the odd one out; young Polly Fir­ket­tle who helped her mam around the house, ran er­rands for folks and knuck­led down to lend­ing a hand with the har­vest, be it hay, wheat or, as now, the crown of the farm­ing year, corn.

****

All the fol­low­ing week the men laboured un­der the warm Septem­ber sun, a long line of reapers, blades flash­ing sil­ver as the golden bounty fell un­der the rhythm of the scythe.

You cut the corn on the wane of the moon. Do it be­fore and there was trou­ble. Corn laid up at full moon went wrong and was prone to crack and burst. No-one needed Gran’s coun­sel to tell them that.

What was needed, though, now we had stacked the sheaves in stooks to dry, was her deft hand at fash­ion­ing the corn-dolly from those fi­nal stalks.

A nup­tial pair this time. Was it Miss Eu­ge­nia and her be­trothed? Had the squire won his case, af­ter all? Or could it rep­re­sent me and Amos Cooper? Oh, let it be so!

Dusk was draw­ing in as we left the fields, weary af­ter the long, hard day, leav­ing the rows of stooked corn to the night and the fall­ing dew, wait­ing to be gath­ered in, wait­ing for the rit­ual that Mam said was bind­ing.

****

The next day, Mrs Dil­wood who helped Mam in our dairy wanted me to take a mes­sage to her Lizzie, who worked in the dairy at the Hall. Lizzie was to bring home a jug of milk, ours all be­ing used to make the butter.

I set off read­ily, skirt­ing our own corn­fields and then those of the Hall, and tak­ing the path that led to the rear of the big house.

To reach the dairy I had to pass through the sta­b­le­yard, and Amos might be there. He might even smile my way.

My step quick­en­ing in hope, I lapsed into day­dreams. Amos, look­ing out for me and has­ten­ing across the cob­ble­stones of the yard to speak.

En­quir­ing, quite ca­su­ally but with ex­pec­ta­tion in his blue eyes (or were they grey?), if I would like to take a walk with him come Sun­day.

“Polly? Good mor­row to you.”

Jerked from my reverie, I looked up to see the raff­ish fig­ure of Finn Casey ap­proach­ing, a smile on his lean, dark face. Finn was head groom at the Hall and as al­ways his clothes were plas­tered with straw-bits and horses’ hair.

He was not the ob­ject of my dreams and my re­sponse was not as gra­cious as it might have been.

“Morn­ing, Finn. No work to­day?”

The smile widened. Noth­ing fazed Finn. Veiled or ob­vi­ous, an in­sult slid off him like rain­drops on a duck’s back.

“Sure I have. Then didn’t I see Polly Fir­ket­tle on the path and get dis­tracted?” “Why so?” I said.

His eyes danced rogu­ishly. Finn’s eyes re­ally were blue, I no­ticed for the first time; the deep, dark sap­phire that went with the ri­ot­ing black curls and bony fea­tures of his na­tive Gal­way.

“Be­cause I’m think­ing she’s sugar and spice and all things nice?” “Flat­terer!”

No-one could be out of sorts with Finn for long and we fell into step, chat­ting all the way to the Hall. In the sta­b­le­yard we parted com­pany, Finn to his horses and me to the dairy.

I gave Lizzie the mes­sage and turned to go, tak­ing my time, loi­ter­ing in a pre­tence of shak­ing a stone from my boot, any­thing to gain a few more min­utes in case he ap­peared.

But there was no Amos, and swal­low­ing the lump of dis­ap­point­ment in my throat, I headed home.

About half­way there, the thud­ding of hooves her­alded a rider, and can­ter­ing to­wards me came Miss Eu­ge­nia on her grey, Moon­dust.

Miss Eu­ge­nia and I were old ac­quain­tances. As chil­dren we’d both slip the watch­ful eyes of our guardians (in my case Gran, in hers, Nurse) and go pad­dling in the brook.

She loaned me her story books, which I read in bed at night in the wa­ver­ing light of a ta­per, and in re­turn I showed her where the vixen had her cubs and where the white owls roosted. In early girl­hood we shared se­crets.

In­evitably, as we be­came older we grew apart. None­the­less, bonds made in child­hood are en­dur­ing and now, Eu­ge­nia reined in be­side me.

I could see she had been weep­ing. Her green eyes were clouded and redrimmed, her lovely face woe­be­gone.

“Polly! It’s you,” she said, and gave me a wob­bly smile.

“Good morn­ing, miss. Are you well?”

“Well enough.” She heaved a sigh. “Ah, how I envy you, Polly.”

I stared at her, not quite know­ing how to an­swer.

“You have your free­dom,” she con­tin­ued in a low voice.

“No­body’s free, miss. We’re all tied in one way or an­other.”

“But not to un­wanted be­trothal plans.”

She looked so down­cast that for the mo­ment I for­got my heartache over Amos.

“You don’t care for him, your suitor?”

“Care for him? Of course I do. Wil­loughby’s a per­fect dar­ling.”

“Then why –?”

“Oh, Polly, you surely un­der­stand?”

I un­der­stood how this wild, reck­less spirit of hers was champ­ing at the bit.

“You don’t want to be fet­tered. You’d sooner fol­low your own path,” I said mat­ter-of-factly.

“That’s it ex­actly. We live in chang­ing times, and I fear that we at the Hall are locked in the past. There are days when I long for es­cape.”

“But, miss, you are needed here. Your folks have been at the Hall for gen­er­a­tions. The vil­lage looks to you for its sur­vival.”

“Maybe. Would that I had a brother to take over when the time comes. Still, it was not to be, and Papa says that Wil­loughby is well able to fill that par­tic­u­lar gap.

“But, oh, I don’t know. There is a wider world. I read about rights for women – the need for us to make our voices heard and not be mere chat­tels. All so vi­tal, don’t you think?”

I said noth­ing. My thoughts right now were all of Amos Cooper and wed­ding bells.

Miss Eu­ge­nia was into her stride, ex­plain­ing what went on in the “wider world” and the part she wished to play in it.

“There is a need for re­form. Wil­loughby him­self sees that. His con­cerns mostly lie with con­di­tions in the mills.

“He’s from a mill-own­ing back­ground, so knows what he is about. He talks end­lessly of want­ing to cham­pion the work­ing man.”

“Well, then, miss, seems you both think along the same lines. Have you told him your own views?”

“No. What would be the point? A wife’s du­ties are tied to the home and the cra­dle.”

“Beg­gin’ your par­don, miss – your suitor might be more mod­ern-think­ing than you ex­pect, all things con­sid­ered.”

“So what do you sug­gest?” Miss Eu­ge­nia replied, with a toss of her head. “I wed him and risk the con­se­quences?”

I bit my lip. I was a

“We live in chang­ing times, yet we are locked in the past”

vil­lage maid. This was all get­ting be­yond me, but I was fond of my child­hood play­mate. I didn’t like to see her so un­happy and I tried to fig­ure the prob­lem out.

“I reckon Gramps would say there’s more than one way to climb a moun­tain,” I be­gan hes­i­tantly. “You don’t have to go on marches and what-have-you to show where your sym­pa­thies lie.

“There must be other ways. Per­haps, wed to one of your in­tended’s stand­ing, a wife might wield a fair bit of power.” “Power?”

“In the right cir­cles, yes. Course, it de­pends how you ap­proach things. Mam says you some­times need to go round men­folk, rather than con­front them head on.”

Eu­ge­nia stared at me. Then she gave a lit­tle shrug, as if dis­miss­ing the whole de­bate out of hand.

“What of your­self, Polly? Your step was not as light as it might have been when I spot­ted you on the path.”

This was more like the Eu­ge­nia I knew; not en­tirely wrapped up in her own self, so to speak. I hes­i­tated, and then blurted out what was wrong.

She lis­tened, not in­ter­rupt­ing, un­til I came to a stam­mer­ing close.

“Carter would have been tak­ing Papa to the rail­way sta­tion when you passed through the sta­b­le­yard. He should be back by now. You wish to meet him?” she said.

I did, and yet didn’t. What would I say to him?

Miss Eu­ge­nia, how­ever, gave me no chance to back down. She nudged Moon­dust to­wards the trunk of a fallen tree, kick­ing her foot from the stir­rup of the side-saddle and in­di­cat­ing the makeshift mount­ing block.

“Stand on there and come aboard, Polly. Moon­dust shall carry us both back, sweet crea­ture that she is.”

I clam­bered up be­hind her, and my heart thud­ded in an­tic­i­pa­tion as the horse took us back to the Hall where doubt­less a full rack of hay awaited her in her stall.

We ar­rived in the sta­b­le­yard gig­gling like foolish girls.

A sta­ble lad ap­peared to take Moon­dust’s bri­dle and – oh, joy! – Amos Carter came strid­ing up to as­sist his lady from the saddle.

He stopped short when he saw the two of us and waited as I scram­bled down, be­fore gal­lantly lift­ing Miss Eu­ge­nia to the ground.

“My thanks, Carter. Polly, I have to go. Oh, shall you be at­tend­ing the Har­vest Sup­per? Of course you shall. Un­til then.”

A care­less lit­tle salute, and she was gone.

“Were you want­ing some­thing, miss?”

That was Amos. I looked up into his face and saw that his eyes were not blue at all, but a muddy brown.

Still, he was fetch­ing enough in his liv­ery of red and gold to make my cheeks grow warm and lock my tongue to­tally.

At that mo­ment Finn emerged from the sta­bles.

“Why, Polly, me girl. It’s glad I am to catch you. There’s a new foal just ar­rived. Will you come and see? Sure, if he isn’t a sight to be­hold!”

Finn’s ex­cite­ment was in­fec­tious. “Com­ing,” I called out. “Amos, what about you?” Amos shook his head. “Nay, I like my horses fully grown.”

With that, he gave me a nod and took his leave. The sta­ble-lad led Moon­dust clop­ping away and I joined Finn in the foal­ing box.

Sooty-black and wideeyed, with spindly legs and a lit­tle tuft of a tail, the foal was just strug­gling to his neat lit­tle hooves.

His mother, a fine grey car­riage mare, turned her head to nuz­zle him, her liq­uid dark eyes shin­ing with pride for her young son.

Finn was look­ing at the foal in open won­der.

“It never fails to move me. I must have seen dozens of foals born over the years and yet it’s a mar­vel ev­ery time, so it is.”

“I feel the same. Though I’m think­ing it’s late on in the year for foals.”

Finn nod­ded. “You’re right there, Polly. They need the summer sun on their backs, to be ideal. Let’s be hop­ing this fine spell lasts a bit, eh?”

“Amen to that,” I said, smil­ing.

****

The weather was kind and the air was warm as we all gath­ered in the fields to bring the corn in.

Ev­ery­one was there: vil­lagers young and old, Mam and Dad, Gran and Gramps, our Jed and his Mil­lie, the squire and his lady and, glory be, Miss Eu­ge­nia and Mas­ter Wil­loughby!

Judg­ing by the way they were look­ing at each other, not to men­tion the glim­mer of re­lieved sat­is­fac­tion on the faces of Mama and Papa, all wrong had been righted be­tween the two war­ring fac­tions.

I had won­dered if Amos would be Har­vest Lord, and sure enough, there he was, the cus­tom­ary cloak of green over his worka­day clothes, scar­let pop­pies and emer­ald bindweed round his rush hat.

The women had dressed the corn cart with flow­ers and fronds of bracken.

Crim­son rib­bons adorned the manes and tails of the horses and the brasses on their har­ness gleamed from ex­tra buff­ing, catch­ing the light from the set­ting sun.

The Har­vest Lord’s gaze roamed the gath­ered crowd, seek­ing out the maid of his choice to ac­com­pany him back to the Hall and lead the danc­ing af­ter the feast.

Please, oh, please let it be me! I held my breath, long­ing to be Corn Maiden. Would he pick me?

No. The mid-brown gaze fell on Becky Lowe, pert and pretty. She smiled coyly up at him as he claimed her hand.

To cheers all around, he marched her to the cart and, plac­ing his hands on her plump waist, he bounced her aboard, be­fore clam­ber­ing up be­side her.

It was the sig­nal for us to burst into song.

“We have ploughed, we have sowed

We have reaped, we have mowed,

We have brought home ev­ery load,

Hip! Hip! Hip! Har­vest Home!”

The horses heaved their com­bined weight into the shafts and slowly, surely, the great old farm cart creaked and rum­bled its way to­wards the open gate.

Ev­ery­one fell in be­hind, and still singing the har­vest song, we headed off along the dust-smelling lane to the Hall, evening shad­ows fall­ing across the shorn fields in our wake.

Dis­ap­point­ment lay heav­ily in the pit of my stom­ach and I tried not to think of Becky Lowe, sit­ting smugly be­side Amos on the cart.

Folks were pair­ing off to walk closer to­gether; hus­bands and wives, lads and lasses, sweet­hearts all.

It was Finn’s arm that stole around my trim waist. Finn’s eyes that looked into mine, a light shin­ing just for me deep in the blue.

Finn, who had watched out for me com­ing up the lane and saw won­der in the birth of a new foal.

Finn, in whose arms I would surely dance un­til tomorrow’s dawn lit the sky.

And in the warmth of Finn’s em­brace I for­got all about Amos Carter.

I had a fleet­ing mem­ory of Gran’s corn-dolly, rest­ing in a dish on the man­tel at home where it would watch over us for the next twelve months, bind­ing and all-pow­er­ful.

Wis­dom in cus­toms of long ago? Well, fate may need a help­ing hand now and again, but I reckon Mam was right and some­thing has to be said for the old ways, too. n

We ar­rived in the sta­b­le­yard gig­gling like foolish girls

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