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A short story by James Runciman

The Sibyl

Title:     The Sibyl
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

An old woman lived in a one-roomed cottage among the sand hills bordering the sea. Her place was only a hut with thatched roof and stone floor, but coals were plentiful, so Mary was able to make herself very comfortable. The wind made a great noise with moaning and shrieking among the bents, but Mary was not learned enough in romantic literature to be moved by weird sounds. She did not like to hear a fox howl on the hill, because that woeful cry boded ill fortune; but the tumult of ordinary winter evenings never affected her. All day she crouched over her fire, filling her pipe at intervals with coarse tobacco, and smoking sedately. She did not look up when people entered, for her sight was dim; yet she knew the tread and the voice of every lad in the village who had once been in her company, and she very rarely made mistakes in bestowing her greetings. Her face was like a walnut-shell, so deep and intricate were the creases in her brown skin; and the broad outlines of her features were massive and strong. At the end of the last century she had been a strapping girl with a fine gait, and she liked to tell how the young Squire used to admire her, and how he stopped his horse and spoke with her by the wayside. The young Squire had grown into an old man, but Mary always remembered him as he was when he cantered through the village on his croptailed roadster, and displayed his brass buttons and his neat buckskins for the admiration of the fisher-girls. No one knew how old Mary was: she herself fixed her age at "about a thousand," but even those who believed in her most regarded this estimate as exaggerated. She always spoke of the Squire as being younger than herself, and as she was still living when he was within five years of one hundred, she must have been very old indeed. Her chance allusions to past events were startling. She could remember the talk of her own grandmother, and when she repeated things which she had heard as a child, it seemed as though a dim light had been thrown on antiquity. She liked to speak about a mysterious French privateer that had landed men who "went and set up their gob to old Mrs. Turnbull at the Bleakmoor Farm, and tyok every loaf oot o' the pantry;" but no one could ever tell what privateer she meant. She had heard about Bonaparte, and she remembered when Big Meg, the village cannon, was brought down to the cliff and planted ready for invaders. Her grandmother had spoken often of the time when all the men from the Ratcliffe property, away west, had followed somebody that wanted to send the King away, but Mary's knowledge of this circumstance was severely indefinite. The lads in the place would have followed their Squire had he chosen to imitate "Ratcliffe," but the Squire of that day was a quiet man who liked the notion of keeping his head on his shoulders. Mary knew of one country beyond England, and she conceived that Englishmen were meant to thrash the inhabitants of that country on all possible occasions: beyond this her knowledge of Europe and the globe did not extend. Her function in the village was that of story-teller, and her house was a place of meeting for all the lads. She taught aspiring youths to smoke, and this harmful educational influence she supplemented by teaching her pupils many wild stories of a ghostly character. Her own sons had been four in number; one of them survived as an old one-armed man; the others were drowned. But when Mary got her little school of listeners about her, she said it made her feel "as if Tom and the other bairns were back agyen." Smart lads used to leave the village and come back after many days with flat caps and earrings, and a sailorly roll. Mary would say, "That should be Harry's Tommy, by the voice. Is that so, hinny?" and when Harry's Tommy answered "Yes," Mary would say, "Your awd pipe's on the top o' the oven; sit thee doon and give us your cracks." Mary's pupils all had pipes which were kept on the oven-top for them, and she was much distressed if she found that anyone smoked a pipe belonging to a lad who had been drowned. When the school gathered in the dark evenings, Mary liked to scold a little about the decay of manly spirit. In her time the men used to watch at night till the low black lugger stole into the bay. Then some discreet farmer would hear a trampling of horses in his stables, and if in the morning Bet and Ball and Matchem were splashed a good deal, and tired, there was always the keg of sound spirits at the kitchen door or in one of the mangers. Mary had often gone down the north road and up the Dead Man's Trail to listen for the Preventive men, and she spoke with glee of the fun, for she had been swift of foot, and her imitation of the Jenny Howlet's cry was perfect.

The old woman liked to frighten her hearers. She knew that most of the villagers believed profoundly in ghosts and bogles, and she was never so well pleased as when she knew that not one of her school cared for going home alone. Old George, the organist, had once seen the white lady from the tower, but he could not be induced to tell his experience. George's musical duties were restricted to turning a handle, for the tunes played by the organ were put in on separate rollers, and thus the musician's function was limited. But the fishermen regarded him as a fine player, and he did not care to imperil a serious reputation by telling frivolous ghost stories. So Mary, who had heard the story long ago from George's own lips, did duty as narrator:--

George was coming through the woods on a dark night. He came to a part of the walk where the path makes a descent to a hollow shaded by thick, arching branches. Suddenly (said Mary) George's collie ran back howling, and tried to snuggle its head under its master's coat. George patted the beast and laid him down, but the dog still clung about his master's feet, and moaned. George turned the poor animal round, and tried to force him forward. The collie gave one very loud cry, and died. Then George became mysteriously cold, and presently he saw a lady standing among the shrubs. She waved to him, and he saw that her eyes were white; then she moved through the trees and passed away. The sceptical shepherd said that the collie had eaten some phosphorus which had been spread for the rats, but Mary never gave this prosaic explanation. She and George believed that the dog died of fright, and that the grave organist had seen the lady from the tower, so many youths grew up believing that the grim square building was haunted.

On one night of 1859, Mary had told some of her stories with much effect. A gale was blowing from the east, and the hoarse roar of the wind sounded very strangely. The "school" was in the goose-skinned condition which must be attained by all who wish to catch the true flavour of a ghost story. There came a scraping sound at the door, and a gasping moan. The lads huddled together and dared not look round. The moan was repeated, and Mary ordered one of her pupils to go at once and open the door. But discipline was forgotten, and the young gentleman who was deputed to solve the mystery stayed open-mouthed in his seat. The old woman hobbled to the door, and found a man lying on his face. The poor fellow was a Portuguese sailor. He had swum through the surf from a vessel that was hard-and-fast on the rocks below the house, and it was his last exhausted effort that startled the assembly of youths. Mary told this story (with supernatural additions) until her death.

There are captains, mates, and sailor-men in all parts of the world who remember the old story-teller, for it is pretty certain that her influence had a good deal to do with sending many a tall fellow away southward to the great seaports in quest of adventures. Her cottage is still standing, but a sulky hind reigns there, and the unique collection of pipes is dispersed.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Sibyl