by Petra McQueen
Wind was in the valley, dancing and pushing, glancing from hillsides, tugging at stone. Corn surrendered, trees bowed low. Sheep huddled in hollows and cows stood by the great oak, nosing their calves close to the bark. In the sties, in the kennels, in the henhouse, and in the barns, creatures cowered in corners, buried themselves in the warm stink of each other. Night came early, pushed through gaps and cracks in the farmhouse, flowed low across the stone flags.
The farmer and the Squire pulled their chairs closer to the fire.
‘I need another drink,’ said Melford, the Squire, peering into the dull silver of his cup. His handsome face was solemn, eyes half-closed. He wanted to be at home, but had yet to fix a price for the gelding.
‘‘My girl will fetch you some,’ said the farmer.
‘Now?’ Melford glancing out of the window. ‘She’d be scared.’
‘Ha!’ The farmer barked. ‘Tully Meadows be afeared of nothing alive nor dead.’
The farmer called and she came. The girl was bonny, fair faced and not yet twenty. She took the hue of the fire, and her curls were golden, her face glowed. She listened without a word, palmed the money and left. Melford stared after her and even when the door had closed held an image of her precise and clear.
‘It’s rummin she be so bold.’
‘Ha!’ said the Farmer, ‘That’s nothing at all.’
‘That so?’ said Melford.
‘I’ll bet you cannot name a thing she would not do,’ said the farmer.
At that moment, Melford remembered his old friend, the sexton. He reckoned that if he planned things right he could name a thing that the girl would not do. And if the farmer would agree to bet him the gelding then he’d be riding once more.
The very next night when the clock struck quarter to midnight, Tully untied her apron and yawned. All day she’d soaped, rinsed, and wrung linens. She wanted now to go to bed, but Squire Melford had given her one last task. She fetched a lamp, lit it and went to the parlour. Melford and the farmer were there, standing with their backs to the fire.
‘A skullbone, Tully, now don’t forget,’ said Melford.
‘Yes, sir,’ said she. ‘And the dead house is unlocked?’
The farmer laughed. ‘See Melford? I told you again and again. She ain’t scared. She’ll finish the task and you won’t be getting that gelding you wanted. You’ll be paying double for the horse like you promised you would. You should’ve set her an even more difficult thing to do.’
Melford’s smile wavered. He turned to Tully. ‘Yes, the door is unlocked,’ he said. ‘I made sure of that.’ They escorted her to gate. When she turned at the brow of the hill, she glanced back and saw them: black silhouettes against the orange glow of the lamps they held.
There was no rain and the wind had blown itself dead. She came to the churchyard. The moon shone dully through a gap in the cloud, and the gravestones were black against the grey. Clicking open the gate, she went direct to the dead house. The key was in the lock as Melford had promised. She pushed open the door, and walked into the blackness.
Close to the entrance lay a village woman, not long dead. ‘How be, Edith?’ said Tully. ‘That son of yours has found some work now, mother, and soon you’ll be safe underground.’ She walked on, lantern high, to the far end of the house where the bones lay jumbled.
She heard a noise and stopped.
It was the old sexton, in a corner, shaking. Oh, how he wished he wasn’t there. He’d said he didn’t want to trick the girl, but the squire hadn’t listened and had spoken on and on until the sexton was weary. Eventually, he’d agreed so as to quieten the fellow. And because he’d been promised five florins, a dozen goose eggs and an old rocking horse.
Tully, thinking it was a rat, walked on. She picked up a skull bone. The Sexton took a deep breath and wailed, ‘Let that be, that’s my mother’s skull bone.’
Tully looked at the skull, as though it had spoken. Gently, she put it down and picked up another.
Again the sexton wailed, ‘Let that be, that’s my father’s skull bone.’
Hesitating a moment, she put that down too, then chose another skull, browner than the rest.
The Sexton began, ‘Let that be–’. But Tully interrupted, ‘Father or Mother, sister or brother, I must have a skull bone and that’s my last word.’ With that she tucked the skull under her arm, left the dead house and locked it behind her.
Coming into the farmhouse, Tully put the skull on the mantelpiece. The farmer laughed loudly, and clapped Melford on the back. ‘What did I tell you?’
Tully nodded. ‘Is that all, sir?’
The farmer roared with laughter again. ‘Yes! That be all.’
‘Wait!’ said Melford. ‘Did you hear nothing, Tully?’
‘Well,’ she said, as though hearing the words again. ‘Some fool of a ghost called out to me, ‘Let that be, that’s my father’s skull bone, and let be, that’s my mother’s skull bone.’ But I told him straight that father or mother, sister or brother I must have a skull bone and that’s my last word.’
The farmer stood with his mouth open. Melford’s brow was furrowed.
‘Oh,yes,’ she continued, ‘and as I was going away after I’d locked the door, I heard the ghost a-hallering and shrieking like mad.’
Grabbing Tully’s lantern, Melford ran to the church, stumbling over tree roots, lurching into brambles. The lantern danced shadows on the graves as he ran across the gravel to the dead house. He turned the key, but could not open the door. ‘Sexton! Sexton!’ he shouted, hammering on the wood. There was no answer. How could there be? The old man was lying at the foot of the door, his heart having stopped from fright. Dead for five florins, a dozen goose eggs and old rocking horse.
Melford did not ride the gelding he’d paid the farmer double for. He stayed at home, sometimes thinking of the poor dead sexton and sometimes of the money he’d lost.
‘I have gold,’ said his mother.
‘Is that so?’ he said, softly, and turned back to the fire. Madness was spreading along the veins of the old lady’s reason. She’d sit down for supper at breakfast time, unpick the threads from her bonnet and cry. That morning, she’d mistaken him for his dead father and cursed like a turnip-picker when he said he was her son.
One cold dawn, Melford found the old woman collapsed by the chicken coop. He picked her up and carried her like a child. It seemed as if she wanted to speak but did not have the breath.
‘Hush, Mother, rest,’ said Melford.
Before he’d got her to her room, she was dead.
Melford wept bitterly and felt his loneliness sharp about him. He wanted a marble mausoleum for his mother but discovering that her jewels were paste, buried her with a plain stone.
One night, soon after, he went to the dining room, to eat his supper. He felt a cool wind, and looked towards the door, thinking he’d left it open. His mother, dressed in her funeral gown, came through the wood of the door, through the chairs, through the table and toward Melford. The ghost held out her hands, as though to touch him.
‘No! No!’ he cried, running from the room.
He prayed for his mother’s soul. But no matter how he prayed, his mother visited every meal. Sometimes you could see all of her, and sometimes just her hands, and sometimes not even her hands but the cutlery would thrum against the table. Melford grew pale and thin and hungry. Every servant ran away.
He thought of Tully and asked to have her. It was arranged. She arrived with a neat bundle of clothes and a silver-backed hairbrush. That evening, the girl laid a place for the ghost. She put bluebells in a vase and a meaty chop on the old woman’s plate. ‘Pepper, ma’am?’ said Tully, but the ghost did not sit, only banged the chair against the floor. Melford ran from the room.
‘Perhaps she needs to tell you something, sir,’ said Tully later. ‘If we sit quietly, she might speak.’
But try as he might, Melford could not stay in the same room as his mother.
He decided to leave for the air of Cromer, and left Tully alone. She was scrubbing the parlour grate when a strong breeze blew. Tully knew without looking that the ghost was in the room. And sure enough, when the girl turned, there was the old mother, skin stretched thin over bones.
‘Hello, ma’am,’ said Tully.
‘Tully?’ said the ghost. ‘Are you not afeared of me?’
‘I’ve no call to be afeared of you, for I am alive and you are dead.’
The ghost cocked her head at that, then said, ‘Come. Bring no light, I’ll shine enough to lead the way.’
Tully wiped her hands upon her apron and followed the ghost. The old woman floated down the passage way and into the dining room. She made Tully move the table and the rug beneath. Tully was out of breath by the time she saw the trapdoor. She lifted it. A narrow ladder led into the dark.
The ghost floated into the gloom, illuminating a narrow room, big enough for two fat priests to hide. Tully followed.
‘Pick that up,’ said the ghost, pointing to the flagstone in the corner of the room. The stone was heavy and Tully grunted a little as she lifted it. At first Tully could see nothing under but dirt, but as the ghost shone brighter, she saw two coir bags: one big and one small. Inside, were gold coins, shining dully in the ghost’s light.
‘The big bag is for my son,’ said the ghost. ‘And the little one’s for you.’
‘For me, ma’am?’
‘Why, yes. You deserve it for being a dauntless girl who ain’t afeared of nothing that’s alive nor dead.’
Then the old woman faded until she was as small as candlefire. With a hiss, all was dark. Tully tied up the bags and put them back under the flag. Then she felt her way out of the cellar and finished scrubbing the grate.
When Melford arrived home, Tully told him she had something to show him. She opened the trapdoor and went down the ladder. When she was at the bottom she shouted for him to join her. Melford, swallowed hard. ‘Need I come? It’s so dark.’
‘I will light your way.’
He crossed himself and went down the ladder.
‘What is this place?’ he said.
Without answering, she handed him the lamp. The flame flickered across the dirt walls as he trembled.
‘Please, Squire Melford,’ she said. ‘Put the light lower.’
He did so and she retrieved the bags and let the slab fall. Untying the smaller bag, she showed him how it was filled with gold.
‘Mother was right!’ he said.
‘The little bag is for you,’ she said. ‘And the big one is for me.’
‘For you?’ said Melford.
‘Yes, sir. For you see, your mother thought me a dauntless girl that ain’t afraid of anything that’s alive or dead.’
Knowing the truth of that, Melford took his small bag and they left the cellar.
That night, Tully was careful to cross the knives and forks so the old lady wouldn’t come and tell her son the trick she’d played on her son. But the lady never came again, even when Tully bought a little farm by the brook, and wasn’t in the house any longer.
Melford often thought about Tully, and her money. He listened out for stories of her in the village, but heard nothing. One day, he woke to the sound of a Great Tit in the rowan tree outside his window, and as he listened it seemed to saying, ‘Tully, Tully. Tully, Tully, Tully.’ A thought, which had been whispering to him since Tully left, came loud into his head and this time he could not shake it out. He saddled his gelding, and went to the little farm.
It was a fine day. Great boughs of May hung over the brook and the air was full of tiny insects and the sound of bees busy in the hazel. Tully was at the front of her house. Hens clucked, fat and red, around her feet as she scattered grain.
‘What ho, Tully!’ said Melford as he rode to her.
Tully looked up. ‘Squire Melford. You took your time.’
She smiled up at him, then said, ‘I ‘spect you’re thirsty.’
Melford nodded, slid off his horse, tethered him, and followed Tully into her cottage. The copper pots were bright. Red checked curtains were at the window. A kettle was boiling. Tully made tea and put a cup in front of Melford.
Melford felt the blood hot in his cheeks. The voice in his head, the voice that had been whispering to him all these weeks, that had stirred at the sound of the bird at his window, was louder now, insistent, and he felt that if he didn’t listen and say what the voice was telling him he might burst. He cleared his throat, cleared it again, and side-stepped the voice. ‘You must get lonely here at night,’ he said.
She laughed. ‘No, not I.’
‘When it’s winter then? And cold.’
The girl said nothing and took a sip of tea, then sat back in her chair and studied Melford. ‘Sir, I won’t marry you,’ she said.
He opened his mouth to protest, to pretend that he hadn’t heard a voice in his head telling him to do that very thing.
‘But,’ said the girl, rising from her chair. ‘I want you to take this.’ She went to a cupboard, took out her bag of money and put it on the table.
He stared at the bag, then looked at the girl who had her arms crossed and was smiling down at him.
‘It’s yours,’ she said. ‘Your mother meant it for you, but I took it.’
‘Why?’ he said.
‘I needed the farm and wanted to give the sexton a fine headstone, but I’ve done all that and there’s plenty left. It’s yours now.’
He stroked the bag, then furrowed his brow. ‘But what will you do in the winter, or if there’s no rain?’
‘Oh, I’ll be alright,’ said the girl.
And so she would, he thought. For the Dauntless Girl didn’t need him, didn’t need more money and was afeared of nothing alive nor dead.
Petra McQueen is a full time writer and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. ‘The Dauntless Girl’ was inspired by a class taught by Marina Warner. Petra’s work more usually explores the boundaries between fact and fiction. Her current project mixes fantasy with biography, and can be found at: www.wheredoallthedeadpeoplego.blogspot.com. Petra is also involved in a project dedicated to showcasing art and literature at her local railway station.