“Strange Music” by T. F. Powys

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As the years move onward, sounds change. Sounds that used to be listened to in older times are not heard now.

Climb up Madder Hill on any still, frosty morning, you will hear no horse trotting on the turnpike road; the gentleman who once owned a smart gig and a high-stepping hackney has changed his gear.

Neither will you be likely to hear the cry of a wild bird; ravens are scarce now. Only a pair of them live upon the cliff near to Mockery Gap; if they fly inland, they are thought to be rooks. The cry of a curlew is not often heard; only a few snipe can be noticed, drumming, over Tadnol moor in the springtime.

Sounds that have once been common, when they are heard again, are sure to attract attention. They carry back the minds of those that hear them to forgotten times. They awaken feelings that have slept long. Without knowing why, and scarcely knowing what it is that one listens to, one’s thoughts travel backwards into the past.

One may have heard steady, resounding thuds—mere sounds only, the beating of carpets perhaps, but enough to awaken the remembrance of older times. One shuts one’s eyes and enters a barn. The dust flies, there is a smell of dry straw.

Two men are at work with flails. One of them—John Sherwood, who wears side-whiskers—wields dexterously a strange weapon, steadily beating a heap of beans—dry and black—that are stacked in the barn. Presently the black stalks are taken up and the beans sifted and placed in sacks. John Sherwood drinks from a stone jar.

Lost days have been found again; sounds move one backwards. What was now heard through the open window of the Dodder Inn caused the older men who were there to awake as from a deep sleep. Dillar, old Huddy, and Dady recollected freer, gayer times, when a man—if he had the money to spend—could drink at any hour of the day as much as he wished, days when no one tampered with the sun or turned the lock in a tavern door.

Dady bethought him that no one minded then what a man did. You could kill what you chose—so long as you let the Squire’s game alone—and kill how you liked.

James Dawe remembered the time when one could hoard to some purpose, when poor people were really poor, and all wanted bread.

Farmer Mere had his thoughts too, that came from the sound that was heard. A country girl was an easy prey then; no one interfered with those who had money. The law knew its betters. One could do as one chose then. Children’s ages were not inquired into. You could pick up a wench where you wished, and bastards had to keep themselves in those merry days.

Time changes sin, fashion in vice alters. What is cruelty to one generation, to another is only a compliment. Mr. Mere wished for the old times.

Those who sit idly themselves and hear some one at work, wonder what the worker is doing. There is jealousy in labour, as well as in love. When a workingman is idle he thinks that all others should be idle too. The mob distrusts anything that all do not share. If another works while they drink, he may be getting something more than they.

But what was the sound that set all thoughts wandering into the days gone by? The whetting of a scythe.

A scythe is still used in country places for cutting a path for the corn reaper. But harvest was not yet, and a scythe that has been recently ground can be sharpened in a few minutes. Even this is not done as it used to be, when fourteen mowers might be seen at work in one field, for now no one troubles whether a scythe cuts as it used. The art of scythe-play is lost.

No one spoke at the Dodder Inn. All listened as if strangely fascinated. The sound continued. Dady, old Huddy and the rest wondered. Each man wished to know who the artist was who sharpened so keenly, taking no rest. Whoever it was knew his weapon.

Though a countryman hardly ever knows himself, he always knows his own village. When a soft gust of summer wind brings the sound of a laugh to his ears, as he is setting out a few plants, he knows well enough who the merry one is, and names him, as he disentangles the roots of the little cabbages. If the voice of a scolding woman is heard, he will smile and know that it must be Mrs. Briggs—for no one else can use words so plentifully.

“Damn ’ee for a little toad!” It’s Mr. Huddy who thus reminds Winnie that he is her father—a reality that she sometimes forgets. Old Mrs. Dillar coughs; she spits, too. Her ways are human. All that is heard is known.

The sound of sharpening came from Card’s cottage.

“But, surely,” thought Mr. Dady, “John Death’s scythe must be sharp now, sharp enough to cut any meadow grass in Dodder village!” Did the man wish to make the scythe’s edge like a razor? Did he mean to mow Mr. Hayhoe’s lawn?

Evidently Card’s new tenant had been all his life a mower; the song of the whetstone that he used was truly Catholic. Mr. Titball laid his hand upon his picture-book.

The sound continued. There was no waiting, no respite, no rest. “The man must needs have a wrist of iron,” thought Mr. Dillar, “to continue so long.”

But the Bullman Arms was not the only place either where the sharpening could be heard.

Mr. Hayhoe heard the sound too. He had taken up The Watsons for a few moments after Mrs. Hayhoe had gone to bed, intending to read for a little by the study window. Mr. Hayhoe closed his book and listened. The sound made a strange music; it became loud, then soft. It grew angry. Stone upon steel, one could almost see the sparks fly; wild fierce rage was in the quick clash—utter destruction. Then, though the sharpening continued, the sound was softened, while around it, in some green meadow, the larks were singing.

Again there came a steady rhythm, a continuous note, and in this sound Mr. Hayhoe recognized the quick passing of time, and the certainty of man’s end.

Mr. Hayhoe sighed. His own going would not matter—though he hoped he would not have to lie a-bed too long before making his last journey—but some others had gone too early. There was his favourite—Jane. ’Twas enough to make any man sigh to think of her. Oh! why had she not been permitted to write a few more books! What good titles she could have found, what charming characters!…

Priscilla had not undressed; the summer airs crept in at the window, and she looked out of it.

Can a woman ever forget the sweet ways of her child? If only she could see him once more, only to remind her that he had once lived! Death, who had taken him, could he show him again? She would give all—her soul even, her promise of Heaven—to see him once more. Could she but meet Death, how she would court him! She would not mind what she did for his pleasure, so long as she obtained her wish.

The sound went on.

Sarah Bridle heard it in bed. A slight cramp in her leg made her think that the limb was broken. She was lying, not in Dodder, but midway between Darfur and Khartoum. She had been left behind in the desert. She was unable to move, the caravan had left her to die, and passed on. They were nearly out of sight. The night was come, the clear, white stars were her only companions. Her master had sold her to a new merchant, who had loaded her with his wares—rich silks of Damascus, the velvet of Tyre. They had loaded her too heavily. Others had drunk before her at the last pool; she could not bear so great a load; she staggered and fell.

The sound of the sharpening of the scythe became a laugh to her—the laughter of a hyena. The beast drew near to her, its laughter that at first was far away, came closer. Her gangrened limb began to rot. She knew the stench. She struggled to rise, but fell again upon the hard sand. More than one beast approached; she saw dark forms creep near. Each of them smelt corruption.

Sarah screamed in terror.…

At the Inn, the sound of the sharpening—that at first had merely interested—now began to excite anger.

Mr. Mere was angry that a man should work so long without yielding some profit to his employer. So much energy was being wasted, and all that the man was doing did not put one penny into the pocket of his master.

Would the sound never stop? Had the scythe that needed so much whetting been in use, more than half of Bridle’s field had been mown. And then, at the last, “after all the sharpening,” thought Mere, “should a wrong stroke come, the edge must be dulled, and all the labour wasted.”

Dillar and Tom Huddy were angry too. Who paid this man? Some master—who perhaps was richer than Farmer Mere? Did Squire Lord employ him, whose workmen every one envied, and who, in harvest-time, used to put seven reapers into one field? Mr. Lord might have bid John come to him on the morrow, and he was getting ready his gear.

“Some folks be luckier than I,” said Mr. Dillar. A simple fly flew into the room and settled upon the bar-table. Dady went softly to the fly, and killed it with his thumb.

Mr. Solly shuddered. A sound that went on so long was not likely to mean much good to him. Was all this whetting only the proper preparation for cutting down his nut-trees? Perhaps it was a good axe that was being sharpened, and no scythe. Some one might come in the night and destroy all his grove. Love has many servants. Who is not willing to obey his commands? But perhaps it was the god, himself, whom he heard. The naughty mischief-maker might, as likely as not, be sharpening his own arrows.

Mr. Solly, who was fond of stories, recollected the battle of Hastings. Because Love could not come to him nor shoot through his thick grove, would he aim his bow upwards into the sky? Solly had always heard that Love was a good shot. He might easily send up an arrow that would descend the chimney and transfix a poor man, even in bed. Solly thought he had better move his bed a little further from the fireplace.

Then the sound stopped.

Mr. Titball moved slowly to the side-table. The time had come to close the Inn. When the Inn was shut, it was not proper that the grand homes of the English gentry should be left open. Mr. Titball nursed the book lovingly. Again he placed it upon the table and covered it with a clean duster. Then he took down from a shelf a bottle of strong cordial waters, and filled a small glass. He held the glass respectfully above the great book, and drank to the homes of England and to their honoured possessors.

The proper ritual had been used; the Inn was closed.

Old Huddy and Mr. Dady were the first to leave. Dady looked about him in the lane; he wished to kill something. He expressed this desire to Tom Huddy, saying that, were he a bluebottle, he would know what to do. Tom Huddy moved a little to one side.

Dillar started to go to his cottage, then he changed his mind and walked in another direction. He had a wish to see an old woman named Bessy Hockey, who lived a little way out of Dodder upon the Shelton road. She had promised him a cabbage, he said.

Solly was startled when he heard that; he walked hurriedly in the opposite direction, to Madder. When he reached his nut-bushes, he believed he espied a little hole between two trees, through which a turnip might have scrambled. Mr. Solly unlocked his garden gate, went into his house in a hurry, and put a chair against the door.

Upon the chair he placed a Bible—to keep Love out.