“Precious Bane”, Mary Webb#

In the foreword to Precious Bane, p12, first published in 1924, author Mary Webb wrote:

In treating of the old subject of sin-eating, I am aware that William Sharpe [sic] has forestalled me and has written with consummate art. But sin-eaters were as well known on the Welsh border as in Scotland, and John Aubrey tells of one who lived ‘in a cottage on Rosse Highway,’ and was a ‘lementable poore raskell.’

The reference to William Sharpe (sic) is presumably directed towards The sin-eater, and other tales, the book Sharp published in 1895 under the pseudonym Fiona Macleod.

The chapter that is of particular interest to us in Precious Bane is chapter 4, at pp.33-40.

Chapter 4: Torches and Rosemary

It was a still, dewy summer night when we buried Father. In our time there was still a custom round about Sarn to bury people at night. In our family it had been done for hundreds of years. I was busy all day decking the waggon with yew and the white flowering laurel, that has such a heavy, sweet smell. I pulled all the white roses and a tuthree pinks that were in blow, and made up with daisies out of the hay grass. While I pulled them, I thought how angered Father would have been to see me there, trampling it, and I could scarcely help looking round now and again to see if he was coming.

After we’d milked, Gideon went for the beasts, and I put black streamers round their necks, and tied yew boughs to their horns. It had to be done carefully, for they were the Longhorn breed, and if you angered them, they’d hike you to death in a minute.

The miller was one bearer, and Mister Callard, of Callard’s Dingle, who farmed all the land between Sarn and Plash, was another. Then there were our two uncles from beyond the mountains.

Gideon, being chief mourner, had a tall hat with black streansers and black gloves and a twisted black stick with streamers on it. They took a long while getting the coffin out, for the doors were very nanow and it was a big, heavy coffin. It had always been the same at all the Sarn funerals, yet nobody ever seemed to think of making the doors bigger.

Sexton first with his hat off and a great torch in his hand. Then came the cart, with Miller’s lad and another to lead the beasts. The waggon was mounded up with leaves and branches, and they all said it was a credit to me. But I could only mind how poor Father was used to tell me to take away all those nasty weeds out of the house,, And now we were taking him away, jolting over the stones, from the place where he was maister, I was all of a puzzle with it. It, did seem so unkind, and disrcepectful as well, leaving the poor soul all by his lonesome at the other end of the mere. I was glad it was sweet June weather, and not dark.

We were bound to go the long way round, the other being only a foot road. When we were come out of the fold-yard, past the mixen, and were in the road, we took our places — Gideon behind the coffin by himself, then Mother and me in our black poke bonnets and shawls, with Prayer Books and branches of rosemary in our hands. Uncles and Miller and Mister Callard came next, all with torches and boughs of rosemary.

It was a good road, and smoother than most — the road to Lullingford. Parson used to say it was made by folk who lived in the days when the Redeemer lived. Romans, the name was. They could make roads right well, whatever their name was. It went along above the water, close by the lake; and as we walked solemnly onwards, I looked into the water and saw us there. It was a dim picture, for the only light there was came from the waning, clouded moon, and from the torches. But you could see, in the dark water, something .stirring, and gleams and flashes, and when the moon came clear we had our shapes, like the shadows of fish gliding in the deep. There was a great heap of black, that was the waggon, and the oxen were like clouds moving far down, and the torches were flung intu the water as if we wanted to dout them.

All the time, as we went, we could hear the bells ringing the corpse home. They sounded very strange over the water in the waste of night, and the echoes sounded yet stranger. Once a white owl came by, like a blown feather for lightness and softness. Mother said it was Father’s spirit looking for its body. There was no sound but the bells and the creaking of the wheels, till Parson’s pony, gracing in the glebe, saw the dim shapes of the oxen a long way off, and whinnied, not knowing, I suppose, but what they were ponies too, and being glad to think, in the lonesomeness of the night, of others like herself near by.

At last the creaking stopped at the lych-gate. They took out the coffin, resting it on trestles, and in the midst of the heavy breathing of the bearers came the promising words —

‘I am the resurrection and the life,’

They were like quiet rain after drought. Only I began to wonder, how should we come again in the resurrection? Should we come clear, or dim, like in the water? Would Father come in a fit of anger, as he’d died, or as a little boy running to Grandma with a bunch of primmyroses? Would Mother smile the same smile, or would she have found a light in the dark passage? Should I still be fast in a body I’d no mind for, or would they give us leave to weave ourselves bodies to our own liking out of the spinnings of our souls?

The coffin was moved to another trestle, by the grave-side, and a white cloth put over it. Our best tablecloth, it was. On the cloth stood the big pewter tankard full of elderberry wine. It was the only thing Mother could provide, and it was by good fortune that she had plenty of it, enough for the funeral feast and all, since there had been such a power of elderberries the year afore. It looked strange in the doubtful moonlight, standing there on the coffin, when we were used to sew it in the table, with the colour of the Christmas Band reflected in it.

Parson came forward and took it up, saying —

‘I drink to the peace of him that’s gone.’

Then everybody came in turn, and drank good health to Father’s spirit.

At the coffin foot was otir little pewter measure full of wine, and a crust of bread with it, but nobody touched them.

Then Sexton stepped forrard and said —

‘Be there a Sin Eater?’

And Mother cried out —

‘Alas, no! Woe’s me! There is no Sin Eater for poor Sam. Gideon gainsayed it.’

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying —

I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the the fields nor down the by-ways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.

And with a calm and grievous look he would go to his own place. Mostly, my Grandad used to say, Sin Eaters were such as had been Wise Men or layers of spirits, and had fallen on evil days. Or they were poor folk that had come, through some dark deed, out of the kindly life of men, and with whom none would trade, whose only food might oftentimes be the bread and wine that had crossed the coffin. In our time there were none left around Sarn. They had nearly died out, and they had to be sent for to the mountains. It was a long way to send, and they asked a big price, instead of doing it for nothing as in the old days. So Gideon said —

‘We’ll save the money. What good would the man do?’

But Mother cried and moaned all night alter. And when the Sexton said ‘Be there a Sin Eater?’ she cried again very pitifully, because Father had died in his wrath, with all his sins upon him, and besides, he had died in his boots, which is a very unket thing and bodes no good. So she thought he had great need of a Sin Eater, and she would not be comforted.

Then a strange, heart-shaking thing came to pass.

Gideon stepped up to the coffin and said —

‘There is a Sin Eater.’

‘Who then? I see none,’ said Sexton.

‘I ool be the Sin Eater.’

He took up the little pewter measure full of darkness, and he looked at Mother.

‘Oot turn over the farm and all to me if I be the Sin Eater, Mother?’ he said.

‘No, no! Sin Eaters be accurst!’

‘What harm, to drink a sup of your own wine and chumble a crust of your own bread? But if you dunna care, let be. He can go with the sin on him.’

‘No, no! Leave un go free, Gideon! Let un rest, poor soul! You be in life and young, but he’m cold and helpless, in the power of Satan, He went with all his sins upon him, in his boots, poor soul! If there’s none else to help, let his own lad take pity.’

‘And you’ll give me the farm, Mother?’

‘Yes, yes, my dear! What be the farm to me? You can take ail, and welcome.’

Then Gideon drank the wine all of a gulp, and swallowed the crust. There was no sound in all the place but the sound of his teeth biting it up.

Then he put his hand on the coffin, standing up tail in the high black hat, with a gleaming pale face, and he said —

‘I give easement and rest now to the, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.’

There was a sigh from everybody then, like the wind in dry bents. Even the oxen by the gate, it seemed to me, sighed as they chewed the cud.

But when Gideon said, ‘Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows,’ I thought he said it like somebody warning off a trespasser.

Now it was time to throw the rosemary into the grave. Then they lowered die coffin in, and all threw their burning torches down upon it, and douted them.

It was over at long last, and we went home by the shortest way, only Gideon going by the road with the waggon. We were a tidy few, for all that had been at the church came back for the funeral feast. There was the smith, and the ox-driver from Plash Farm, and the shepherd from the Mountain, and the miller’s man and a good few women, as well as those I spoke of afore.

Mother had asked Tivvy to mind the fire and see to the kettles for making spiced ale and posset, for the air struck a chill along the water at that time of night.

When we raught home there was Missis Beguildy as well, and Jancis. They had a nice gledy fire, and the horn of ale set upon it all ready. She was a kind soul, Missis Beguildly, but sorely misliked through being the wife of it wtizard, a preached-against man. She was never invited to weddings nor baptisms. But at a burying, when the harm’s on the house already, what ill can anybody do? Missis Beguiidy dearly loved an outing. She’d have liked to live in Lullingford and keep a shop, and go to church twice of a Sunday, and sing in the choir. She’d no faith at all in her goodman’s spells, though she never said so, except to me and a tuthree she knew well. Once, a long while after this, when there’d been trouble at the Stone House, which you’ll hear of in good time, when she’d quarrelled with Beguildy, I went in by chance and found her with Lady Camperdine’s bottle (in which he said he’d got the old lady’s ghost), shaking it as if it was an ill-mixed sauce, so that I thought the cork would come out, and shouting, I’ll learn ye! I’ll learn ye? Lady Camperdine indeed! Plash water! That’s what’s in this here bottle. Plash water and naught else.’

It was seldom anybody saw Missis Beguiidy. She was always out with the fowl or the ducks, or digging the garden, or fishing. She was a good fisherwoman. If it hadna been for her, they’d have clemmed, for Beguildy never reckoned to do anything but wizardry. She’d baked us a batch of funeral cakes in case we hadna, enough, and she was so kind and comely, being fair, like Jancis, and plump, and the posset she made was so good, that everybody forgot she was the wizard’s wife, even Parson.

‘I’m to take back the cattle, my dear,’ she said to Mother; ‘hay harvest, we use ‘em a deal.’

“Bin you started?’

‘Ah. Bin you?’

‘I start tomorrow,’ said Gideon.

Everybody looked at him,, tall in the doorway, with a kind of power in him. And it seemed to me that everybody drew away a bit, as if from summat untoert.

Parson got up to go.

‘It’s to-morrow now, young Sarn,’ he said. ‘See you do well in it, and in all the to-morrows.’

‘To-morrow! O to-morrow!’ said Jancis. ‘It be a word of promise.’

She yawned, and all in a minute her mouth was a rose, and I knew I couldna abide her.

‘One song!’ Sexton spoke very solemn. ‘One holy song afore we part.’

So we stood up about the table, where the twelve candles were guttering low, and we sang —

With a turf all at your heaf dear man,
And another at your feet,
Your good deeds and your bad ones all
Before the Lord shall meet.

There being a sight more men than women, the song sounded deep, like bees in a lime-tree. Jancis and Tivvy sang very clear and high, and cold too, as if they didna mind at all that the poor corpse lay out yonder with only turfs for company.

Then there was a trampling and a traversing, and they all went out, Mother standing by the door the while, doling out the funeral cakes. These were made of good sponge, with plenty of eggs, coffin-shaped and lapped up in black-edged paper.

By this the birds were singing very loud and clear, with a ringing, echoing noise. Our chimneys lay in the mere, which meant that it was sunrise. There was a cuckoo in the oak wood, and the first corncrake spoke up from the hay grass, very masterful.

Gideon, said —

‘It be too late for sleep now. To-morrow be come. Lets go down into the orchard. I want to tell you what I’ve planned out.’

Little did I think, as I followed him down into the orchard, where was neither blossom nor fruit, what those plans were to mean for us all.