The penultimate two chapters of The Secret Places (Elkin Mathews & Marrot London 1929) - a chronicle of the 'pilgrimages' of the author, Reginald Francis Foster (1896-1975), and his friend 'Longshanks' idly rambling in Sussex, Kent and Surrey. See our posting of the first chapters for more on Foster and this book, including a contemporary review in
In the end of such journeyings is a deeper content than of those made in fair weather. When the light failed over the eastward hills and the shifting wind brought a greater cold, we came upon a barn, and entered it as men who come to their last rest. As we heaved the door into place the day died over Sussex.
After I had combed the ice from my beard and Longshanks also had given heed to his comfort, we gathered hay and, having supped on our emergency ration of cold sausage and biscuits, we lay ourselves down to sleep, mindful of the need for an early rising lest we should be discovered in our trespass. That it was yet but early evening mattered nothing, for such vagabonds as we have no regard for clocks.
I should have slept in peace but that as I dozed I heard a distant bell chime and knew thereby that we were near houses. Longshanks heard it, too, for he stirred. I became conscious of draughts and the dripping wet. Discontent assailed our heaven.
“We will go into the village,” said Longshanks out of the darkness. “For why should we sleep rough when there is an inn nearby? Remember what Father Raymond said.”
Already I was struggling with the door. We shivered as the night belched upon us. Then, collecting our scanty belongings, we went out from that place, eager with the hope of warmth, more food, and a Christian bed.
Before long we saw a light on our left, and not knowing whether the road half circled in that direction, we scrambled through the hedge, crossed a polished field (which had an evil smell), and found another road on its farther side. The light that we had seen was that of a carriage lamp.
When I saw the ancient vehicle that bore it, I told myself that I was in the barn fast asleep and dreaming. For it must have been old when my father was a boy, and that is a long time ago. The queer thing about it was that for all its faded magnificence it had but a decrepit farm horse between its shafts. A great, resplendent coachman sat aloft in antique finery and with a monstrous whip held butt-ended on his thigh. I understood, then, why we had thought that the light was stationary: the old horse could scarcely crawl along.
The coachman saw us. “Make way for his lordship!” he bawled.
Wondering, we stood aside, and as the equipage creaked by we looked through the carved window-frame. The interior was lighted by a swinging lamp, and in its uncertain glow sat a very old man, his hands resting on the knob of a stick. The vision passed: spellbound we watched its going, and then, without discussion followed.
Against the murk of the night a black mass was vaguely silhouetted. We knew that we saw a house, though no window was lighted. The great coachman stopped the horse, descended from his perch, opened a pair of iron gates, climbed back again, and drove his beast between them. As he passed under the iron arch he reached up and tugged at a rope. A deep chime throbbed on to the wind. This, then, was the bell that had tempted us to leave the barn.
Still wondering, we followed the equipage up the drive, saw it halt before the house, watched the ancient traveller alight, assisted by his coachman, who also opened the door of the house, and the old man toiled painfully inside. The door was closed. The flickering light of a candle showed through the fanlight; the coachman led his horse round the house where, having followed him noiselessly, we saw him unharness the beast and lead it into a stable. Then we crept silently away.
We went back to our barn, saying no word to each other of what we had seen. On the morrow we questioned the landlord of the inn (which was, after all, not far from the house), and he told us the truth of the strange affair–a story which you may believe or not. He said that the old gentleman, who was referred to locally as “Old Crack-pot,” was of noble descent, but without money, that he and his coachman lived alone in his ancestral hall, and that each night after dark–for he was sensitive to ridicule–he drove in state in his family carriage (which now had but a very old farm horse to draw it) for the space of half an hour, announcing his going and his return by a chime on the great bell over the gate.
The name of the place where this nightly ritual is performed may not be noised abroad. But that we had seen the ancient carriage the publican would have told us nought of “Old Crackpot,” for the folk of that village venerate him as a great man–their familiar name for him is proof of that–and would not willingly bring him into ridicule. But the place is not far from Pluckily; if you go thither may your quest be attended with bad fortune!
In a little while Ben, the landlord’s son, who was reported to be half-witted and who had an enormous mis-shapen head that wobbled as he walked, said that he had a sure cure for sprains. Longshanks spoke softly to him, bidding him describe it. Then the boy left us, and when he returned he brought herbs which he said he had gathered in the thicket behind the church. These he must stew and so make a poultice which would cure the injured ankle. And Longshanks should have great faith in the medicament; “for,” said Ben, “it is of very ancient origin, its composition having been revealed by St, Luke the Physician–the same who wrote the Gospel–to Joseph of Arimathea who, when he came to England, left the secret with the monks at Glastonbury–though where that is I do not know.”
Then we knew that he was mad, and Longshanks spoke yet more gently to him, saying that but for a solemn oath which bound him to eschew all poultices he would have subjected himself to treatment. Ben departed, therefore, on his small business, and his sadness kept us silent long after.
Now the people of that village were not loth to talk of ugly Ben, and it was plain that they were of one mind concerning him. Also they deemed him good-for-nothing, and a shame to the place; indeed, the blacksmith (to whom he had once been apprenticed) became very wroth when he passed by, so that he shook his great arms at him, and thus signed his own beard with the horseshoe in the tongs that he held.
But all those villagers agreed that Ben had healing powers which were passing strange, and it was hinted that he was a male witch–for the masculine of that dark word was not in their language.
That night an old woman came to the inn and asked for aid for a cow whose leg had been bitten by a lap-dog belonging to the Squire’s lady, and Ben went with her. Longshanks limped out behind them. And because I mistrusted my companion, I followed.
Ben examined the cow in the shed behind the old woman’s cottage; then he took a paper bag from his pocket and, smearing his hand in the mess it contained, he rubbed it on the cow’s leg. The beast gave a queer grunt as though the ointment stung her, but she made no further protest, and presently she swung her silly head round to him and licked his neck with a steaming tongue.
When he asked the old woman for money, as a proper man should, she denied him payment and pushed him into the yard. But he gave her no curse, such as he had title to do; instead he shook his head and went slowly to the road.
Discovering himself, Longshanks put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and bade him take comfort. “You shall cure my ankle, after all,” he promised, “and I will have faith in your poultice.”
With great joy, therefore, Ben led us round the church to a thicket that stood blackly in the moonflood, and as he went he told us a strange story of one of the Glastonbury monks who, pining for his native “wodger”–that Kentish stew–had left his monastery and sought this southern land, finally living as an anchorite in that very thicket. In proof of that Ben showed us a mouldering wall a few feet high. Then he fumbled in his inner pocket and produced a rough statue which he set on a niche in that wall. He said that the image was of Our Lady and that, having a great devotion to her–for She it was who had taught him how to heal–he had made it himself.
While we stood marvelling and somewhat fearful, he fumbled in the grass along the wall and presently produced a rusty saucepan which, we saw, contained a sticky mess. It was the medicament.
Longshanks had to sit on the grass and remove his shoe and sock. The boy passed his gnarled hands over the injured ankle. Then he applied his poultice, using an unclean rag which his pocket contained, and bade Longshanks sit still awhile. Without embarrassment Ben knelt before his crude statue.
Now I speak of a miracle. In the space of seventeen and a half minutes the injured ankle was healed and Longshanks was able to walk, and that without lameness. He timed himself by his silver watch, I having left mine at Rochester–as a ticket which I had proved. And Ben’s ugly face was that of an angel when we walked soberly back to the inn.