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