A STRANGE TALE FROM SUSSEX
By Sydney H. Kenwood (B.A. Cantab, et Londin.).
The following story was told by an ignorant Sussex labourer, whom I knew well, and who had, as far as I know, never been more than a few miles from the remote village in which he was born. The tale is so startling that few will think it true; but it is incredible to anyone who knew him to suppose that the hero invented it. He was, as I have said, an ignorant labourer; he might even have been called extremely ignorant; and imagination is not one of the gifts common among the Sussex peasantry. I have set down the facts as told to me, the name being the only fiction as far as I am concerned.
Henry Hogbin was a cowman on a farm in Sussex. He was a man of excellent character and well known as a sober, industrious and efficient hand. Having been associated with cow-keeping all his life, he was well acquainted with the peculiarities and perversities of cattle, and well able to deal with such difficulties as they arose. No one was more convinced of his competency than Hogbin himself, and it was a rude shock to the honest fellow when he found himself powerless to remedy the refusal of his best cow to give milk.
Naturally, he was at first full of hope, and even of assurance, that his rustic science would soon put matters right; but he tried in vain all the remedies known to him. Then Hogbin stooped to ask advice—not of neighbours, for he had his own peasant pride; but of distant farmers and their cowmen. Whatever they recommended he duly tried, and to no good effect.
Despair began to invade the heart of Henry Hogbin. Men of his breed and training do not easily give in: some of us would as soon have Sussex men by in the hour of danger as the most reliable and canny Scots ever sung of by gushing poets. But here he was up against the most unyielding thing in nature, a fact: and the fact was that he was beaten, and with the proverbial slowness of his race he was beginning to know it.
He was going rather sullenly about his work one day when a quavering voice hailed him. It was the oldest inhabitant, a person of extreme debility and questionable reputation, who was leaning on the yard gate.
“Mornin’,” piped the old man; “how’s dat dere cow?”
“Oo told you about the cow?” said Henry ungraciously. “No business of youm, I rackon.”
“’Taint none o’ yourn nuther, seems so!” retorted the village elder, “seein’ as you can’t do ‘er no good.”
Hogbin was silent, crushed by truth and the lack of suitable repartee.
“If you bain’t a fool you’re purty bly of one, not to come an’ ax me,” continued the old man; “an’ it’s only because yer grandad and me was friends, like, that I’ve come to you. Now you do what I say. You go into dat dere cow-shed with dat cow and stay dere all night, an’ whatever you see” (this with tremendous emphasis) “pick it up an’ stick it in the maxin. Mind you, whatever you see.”
The “maxin ” is the Sussex manure-heap. So much, of course, Hogbin fully understood; but the rest of the old man’s meaning was Greek to him. He ran after his aged adviser and begged, even humbly, for further light; but he could extract nothing more.
Hogbin walked slowly back to his work, reflecting on his failure and its probable effect on his reputation. After all, he thought, he had exhausted all orthodox resources, and nothing remained but to try the strange advice of a doddering old man. Strange advice it was, indeed; but though plenty of people could be found to call the oldest inhabitant a “bad lot,” none had ever been heard to suggest that he was a fool. The prevalent idea was, in fact, that he was “leery ”—which term suggests a rogue, but a clever one.
When night fell Hogbin fell also—to the temptation of following the apparently absurd counsel and putting it to the test of experience. He made his way to the shed in which was the rebellious cow, and took his seat on a milking-stool. As yet the night was dark, and in the gloomy byre he could see nothing; but presently the moon rose, and he was able to make out the dim shape of the animal, the window, and some few other objects. This seemed to be all he was likely to see. The old man had said “whatever you see.” Did he mean him to pick up the cow, the shed, and any other articles lying to hand, and stick them in the maxin? Hogbin laughed rather bitterly at his own joke. At any rate, it would do to twit old “grandfer” with on the morrow. He got up stiff, disgusted and sleepy. He would have no more of this nonsense. How could he have been such a fool? What would—–
What on earth was that? An unaccountable sound, evidently out in the yard. It was continuing, too, and coming nearer. Hogbin stole to the door and looked out.
The moon was shining brightly now, and but for the mysterious ting-ting, the yard looked normal. There was nothing to account for the noise, which, however, did not cease.
Ah! what was that?—something moving, certainly, in the shadow, moving towards him and the cow-shed. Soon, if it came nearer, it would be in the moonlight, and he would see.
It was nearing; it was coming into the light; now it was there!
It was a manure-fork walking!
Hogbin would have run if he could, but terror held him spellbound for a while. Then he acted, impelled probably as much by a dim feeling that this marvel had some connection with his trouble as by personal bravery. He ran forward, seized the fork, which struggled like a live thing in his grasp, and stuck it deep into the “maxin.” Then he turned and ran to his home, some distance away.
Next morning he went to the yard with a deep conviction that he had fallen asleep in the cow-shed and dreamt the whole thing.
Not so. Waist-deep in the maxin was an old woman. Hogbin recognized her as an inhabitant of his village.
The cow, he said, thenceforward gave milk as usual.
The Occult Review: April 1915
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: But what happened to the old lady in the manure? Was she alive or dead? To be Relentlessly Informative, the word “bly” may be defined as “a resemblance.” [A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect, William Douglas Parish.] That same Dictionary tells us that “maxon” is the term for a manure heap, from “meox,” the Anglo Saxon word for “dung.” Mr Kenwood, B.A. Cantab, so contemptuous of the Sussex labourer whose ignorance he belabours, seems to have incorrectly transliterated this word, the key to breaking the witch’s spell. But Mrs Daffodil will not stoop to the vulgarism of slinging muck.
There are a few instances of dung used as an anti-witch specific. For example: The buckthorn, made into little crosses and stuck in manure, will, according to a Bohemian superstition, keep one safe from all pranks of witches on their Walpurgis-night. One imagines that this particular Sussex witch, if she found herself alive and in the unpleasant position of being thorax-deep in the maxon, needed no buckthorn to induce her to reverse the spell on the cow.
Witches, of course, were known for turning themselves into hares, cats, and other animate creatures. But the walking manure-fork, is, Mrs Daffodil confesses, a novelty in the annals of witchery despite its resemblance to a pitchfork.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.