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Sub Tegmine Fagi

Marie Clothilde Balfour

THE sun strikes full upon a hillside sloping to the east, and
backed by long, swelling moorlands ; there are firs on the
western edge of the path, that guard a fragrant silence in their
brown, cool shadow ; but here one can catch the rustle of their
quivering needles aloft, where the breeze from the sea whispers to
them and brings gossip from their cousins in far countries. And
below there is grass, stretching widely, and falling to a little wood
of oaks and beeches, and an up-thrust cliff, along whose face
young foxes gambol and scamper ; and again an undulation of
young grass, and a swaying corner of green corn, and woods, and
further cliffs, till the land ends abruptly in a line of amethyst sea
that itself fades into the pearl and primrose of the far horizon,
and there is not a house to break the beauty of it—not a house,
though out of those further trees there is a faint line of smoke
rising, that is dimly white against the green; and round the
corner, behind the edge of the hill, there is a little sleepy town
huddled in the hollow ; but here there is not a house anywhere
set as a pock-mark upon the summer face of nature. There are
birds, busy below us; amid the trees and round the tufts of gorse,
plovers are calling to each other; and behind, on the moor, one
hears sometimes the shrill, sad cry of the curlew; and from the


                        200 “Sub Tegmine Fagi”

sky, like falling drops of water, comes the song of a lark. Now
it is loud, and if one has good eyes, one may see the small black
thing poised not far above us ; and then it rises suddenly, and the
sound fades suddenly into the thin, blue distance, like an echo far
amid the mountains.

Everywhere the bees are loud ; amid the gorse bloom, and occa-
sional clover heads, and the small, exquisite flowers that hide in
the short grass, the pimpernel, and the tiniest vetches, the bird’s-
eye, and a microscopic forget-me-not, mauve, and blue, and yellow,
white and scarlet—a world of bloom and colour blent into the
green, and trampled, unseen, under foot. And a thousand winged
things poise, and hover, and dart in the indolent air ; the sheep
come near us, so that we hear them nibbling, and look at us out
of wisely foolish eyes.

It is morning and it is June ; and one of those few days when
it is well to be alive, when the feeling of one’s flesh is a compli-
cated delight, and the wholesomeness of the world is pre-eminent.
One wonders when that approaching century arrives, when our
passions will be regulated, like our possession, to an equal smooth-
ness, and all of us will be mild anarchical dynamiters; one won-
ders whether the grey days of winter and the golden mornings of
summer will be mingled also into a dull, drab sameness. And
whether those who are young then will ever say, when they look
out upon the wide loveliness of land and water: “To-day it is good
to be alive”? Perhaps, after all, they will be too wise and have
too much work to do.

Down in the hollow, in the little town, people do not look out
of window and greet the day with acclamation. The time is
gone by when Strephon sat below the beeches and piped his pretty
loves to Lesbia and Chloe ; and when Dresden china shepherdesses
in high-heeled shoes herded sugar-candy sheep on green and lovely


                        By Marie Clothilde Balfour 201

uplands. Strephon now wears moleskins, odorous and uncleanly,
and a sleeveless waistcoat, of a forgotten colour, hanging open
over a dirty shirt ; and instead of piping his love upon a flute, he
tickles Lesbia, invitingly, and spits out a jest or two, mixed with
tobacco juice, and she does not blush ; while Chloe, in a mush-
room hat and kerchief about her throat and head, and a tight apron
outlining every protuberance of her figure, is weeding in the next
held, and cursing the sun and the sea air for burning the white
anaemic skin of her, and wondering whether Strephon will meet
her behind the hedge to-night, and whether he is just now
“making up” to Lesbia—which he is. That is the pastoral life
of to-day. It is pretty no longer; but it is human. There are no
piping shepherds to set the pink and white maids a-dancing, or to
sing when love goes awry with them: “Oh, blow the winds,
heigho!” as in the old Northumbrian ballad. It is only the
green trees and the grass, and the waters, and the eternal hills,
and the song of birds, and the nibbling sheep, that are the same;
and surely, even the sheep are blacker than they used to be.
The dainty china figures have become men and women—not too
clean, perhaps, of life or lip ; not lovely in their habits or in their
passions; taking their pleasures rudely, and their sorrows with
reviling; and loose-minded from the promiscuity of existence.
Their joys are as those of the beasts that couple in the fields, and
their leisure is replete with an unvirtuous indolence.

Yet they are men and women—flesh and blood; cursed with
the passions and the pains of humanity, and tasting thereof but
the cheaper pleasures. And humanity is something greater, if
less lovely, than a puppet-play: and in the blackest of truth there
is always the white line of eternity. Strephon and Chloe, the
pretty piping lovers, have fled the stage; and their place is taken
by Bill and Mary Ann; who are clad in the warm encumbrance


                        202 “Sub Tegmine Fagi”

of living flesh, and play the old drama—”the tragedy, Man”—
wearing their sex with a difference; for “male and female created
He them.”

No, Strephon no longer sits and pipes beneath the beeches;
nor does Tityrus lie dreaming of the joys of a pastoral life.
Strephon is washing sheep, yonder in the foul smelling pond by
the stunted hawthorn-trees ; and Tityrus is cursing the weather
and the irreconcilable desires of his crops, or trotting home
titubant from market.

Along the white road that crosses the plantation grounds like
an uncoiled ribbon, a lumbering cart proceeds, and a dim echo
reaches us of the thud of the horse’s slow feet, and the rumble of
the heavy wheels ; probably the driver is dozing on the shaft,
where by long habit, he can perch even when asleep. Old John
the carter travelled thus, trusting to his meditative mare, who
reflected over every step she took with her ponderous feet : and
thus they found him that drenching wet day, when they brought
him home in his own cart stiffened into a horribly undignified
bent thing beneath a wet cover that clung unkindly to his out-
lines . . .

It was a hopelessly wet day. In North Street—which is the
road leading to the northern moors from the small grey town in
the hollow—everyone was within doors; not even the children
put out their noses into the grim unceasing downpour. The
road was spread with a continuous surface of water, which leapt
in a million tiny fountains to meet the lashing of the descending
rain, and gathering streams clashed and gurgled about the gutters,
and swirled round the overflowing drains. Down the open
chimneys and spluttering into the fires beneath; battering upon
the roofs and against the small windows, and creeping in at every
hole and cranny ; entering in an insolent pool beneath the doors;


                        By Marie Clothilde Balfour 203

the rain was everywhere, and the low sky frowned in a black
promise of continuance.

But at the cottage of John the carter the door stood wide, and
the water took its way in without hindrance and lay comfortably
upon the floor, reflecting the red glow of the spluttering fire,
with the kettle singing cheerfully on the hob, and the tea-things
set out upon the little table at the side where the armchair stood.
It stole into the very flounce of the bed that hid itself modestly
behind curtains and woodwork, and only opened a wide black
mouth behind a hanging full of gaudy cotton. Hannah stood
outside—out in the rain—and stared up the road in a blasphemous
silence. John was out yonder in the wettest of the wet weather
—he who was so old and so frail and newly from a sick bed;
John who had married her—sometimes she wondered why—only
a few months ago; that he might have some one to nurse him
and cook his dinner, the neighbours said—but Hannah thought
differently. There were others who could have done that for
him ; but she, Hannah, who had trailed herself through the
mire of the town and had spent her youth in the bearing of
chance-got children and the bestiality of drunkenness; she at
whom the not overnice neighbours had looked askance, and whose
grey hairs had not brought her dignity, why had John, the
carter, who was sober and well to do, ever looked at her?
Hannah did not know, but she thought dimly that God had been
sorry for her, and she remembered the wild unspoken rage of
gratitude and devotion that had filled her, when John asked her
to come to his fireside, and to come there by way of the Church
door. She would have gone without that; but her simple un-
developed mind had its yearnings for paradise—a paradise where
she would know what it was to be “an honest woman” before
she died ; where she could be as others were, who had once never-


                        204 “Sub Tegmine Fagi”

theless been—not quite what she was, but still mothers of
nameless children also in forgotten years. And she left behind
her, for ever she hoped, the life that had been hers, and the misery
and the want, and the shame of it ; and like a little child that
turns smiling from its tears, she smoothed the wisps of grey hairs
upon her brow, and followed John the carter to his home, silent,
obedient, and consumed with an exceeding devotion. And John,
rough John, who had taken her none knew why, had done well
for himself, and was aware of it, too; though he swore at her
and grumbled after the manner of man, and his hand was heavy.
But Hannah had known worse than that… and now John was
out in the rain—out yonder; and she stood in the street, her
dress clinging to her gaunt haunches and shrunken breast, and
the water streaming from her scant grey hairs, to see “how wet
he would get”; and to recall the hideous words of the doctor
when he bade her “keep your man warm and out of the cold—if
you want him to live.” If she wanted him to live! God! And
Hannah looked at the black sky and blasphemed and shivered, as
she felt the rain beating—beating down upon him. And presently
the familiar cart turned into the street from the market-place and
came slowly towards her. But there were strange men leading
the old white mare, and women that gathered upon the doorsteps
as they passed. And Hannah looked, and the world stood still and
waited and waited with her, as the thud of the mare’s hoofs and
the rumble of the wheels and the splash of men’s feet through the
water, came up the street . . . it had never—never sounded like
that before. Then they reached the door, which was standing
open, and they went in carrying the bent distorted thing under
the clinging cover, and laid it in the black gulf of the bed; and
the water on the floor reflected the red glow of the fire, where the
kettle still sang, and touched the legs of the table which was set


                        By Marie Clothilde Balfour 205

out for tea for John the carter. But he did not want it now.
And that night Hannah, who had not looked at whisky since she
had known what it was to be an “honest woman,” rolled on the
wet floor drunken, and dabbled her grey head in the cold pool of
entering rain. It did not matter, for there was no one to care;
John—the thing within the darkness of the bed—could not see
her any more ; there was nothing left now but whisky. It did
not matter. John the carter was buried two days later, but
Hannah did not go to the funeral; she was drunk still; and she
went drunk to her pauper’s coffin, in a little while. There was
nobody to care and it did not matter at all.

One thinks of it now, seeing yonder cart cross the stillness ;
and the lives of a pastoral people are, it seems to one, so strangely
sad—even their crimes and their brutalities are such as gods weep

There is a gentle dove-voiced woman in one of the cottages,
whose eyes are fixed always on the invisible. One morning her
little son, one of a crowd of children, for she was the mother of
many, ran out and called to her gleefully that he was going for a
ride ; and she looked after him lovingly, and saw that the sun
glinted on his hair and turned it to gold. Presently a whisper
ran up the street that there had been an accident, and Mr. Main’s
little son had been hurt—was insensible—was dead; and Martha
ran, cooing, down the sidewalk to comfort the mourning mother.
And she met the little procession of men carrying the small
figure, and the doctor came to her and spoke—but she did not
understand. How could it be her Jacky, that thing covered over,
when Jacky had but just gone for a ride? And she followed
them home, her lips pouting with unspoken questions and a horrid
comprehension dazing her eyes. For three long days the small
coffin lay upon the bed, with flowers about it, and yellow hair


                        206 “Sub Tegmine Fagi”

curling on a white forehead, and eyelids that trembled when you
looked at them, but were never lifted; and flowers lay over the
mouth and chin that had met the horse’s hoof. . . . And the
mother moved about the room, and cooked at the fireside, and set
meals on the small table for the others of them; and the children
ate and lived and some of them slept, within the same four walls
as the open coffin on the white bed. And their father sat on the
settle, with tears glittering in the tangle of his grey beard, and
whispered to them hoarsely, “Be canny noo!” when he saw his
wife’s dull sad eyes, and the unspeakable sorrows hanging on her

When they took the coffin away, and all the town followed
Jacky to the churchyard, Martha wandered aimlessly about the
empty room and sought, sought, for something that she missed;
and at last, when the groping fingers touched the edge of madness,
they closed on a whistle—a sugar whistle that had been Jacky’s,
and which was half sucked and dirty, as it had been taken from
his pocket when they brought him home. And Martha found
her tears, and the seal upon her eyes was lifted, and she came
back to a whole mind and a broken heart. But often now, in the
midst of her stalwart boys and her pretty hard-working daughters,
if you ask her which is the best of them, she smiles and says
softly, “The one that does not grow any older and never leave?
my side,” and her eyes look over their shoulders to the yellow
head she sees always near her, and the father whispers hoarsely to
the others, “Be canny noo.”

It was he I remember and big Tom Jamieson who told us of
the Macara affair—a small thing which none troubled much about.
Big Tom and decent, gentle John Elliott were coming home one
night from the slakes, where they had been shooting wild duck
together; and as they came up North Street, they heard loud


                        By Marie Clothilde Balfour 207

from the miserable hut where Pete Macara lived, since he
came to the town a month or two back to work—when it pleased
him—in the quarry. Pete Macara was a perfectly lovely villain,
whose face was the colour of ancient ivory, carved into a mask of
the vilest sort of wisdom. From the top of his curly black head
to the tips of his slender fingers, he was beautiful as a black
panther and as vicious, and the eyes of him were limpid pools of
iniquity. He had a wife, whom we saw but seldom, till the latter
days, and whom we found perplexing ; a small, frail, white thing,
with a gentle frightened face, who sometimes forgot to speak
vulgarly, and whose soft hands were but newly roughened by

Pete swore at her, we knew, and beat her we suspected; and
therefore John and Big Tom stopped uneasily when they heard a
cry rising from the hut, and glued their eyes to the narrow slit of
bare window-pane beneath the rag that served as curtain. They
did not look long before the cry sharpened to a shriek, and there
was a dull thud, and a loud curse, which came from gentle John
Elliott’s mouth, that was wont to whisper hoarsely “Be canny.”
And big Tom Jamieson hurled his great shoulders at the door,
whereat the lock, as was to be expected, gave way obediently.
Pete Macara leapt to the threshold, and instantly met with a
shaking that made his bones rattle and his skin crack; while John
pushed past them, and bent over the bundle of clothes that was
huddled upon the floor, and whence there came a small crawling
worm of something red and sticky. . . . .

Tom went on shaking Pete at intervals, till he dropped him on
the floor, and swore at him comfortably. It took a good deal of
plain speech to ease big Tom when once his huge body woke up
to anger. The other gathered himself together, and surveyed the
scene sulkily, but with a wicked satisfaction twitching at his lips ;


                        208 “Sub Tegmine Fagi”

and John stood anxiously by the dirty bed, where he had lifted the
woman whom we called Peter Macara’s wife.

Tom went over and stood beside him.

“A’ll go fur tha doctor, if ye reckon a’d better,” he said,
meditatively; “an’ bring ‘un back wi’ me. Till’un it’s a maitter
o’ life an’ death—an’ maistly death.”

“Wull a goo?”

John shook his head. ” A think she’s comin’ roun’,” he
answered hoarsely, “a think so. It s mebbe more a matter for the
polis than the docter—

“The polis sure ’nuff. It’s ‘tempted manslaughter—hear that
noo?” and he glanced over his shoulder at Pete, who smiled, and
the stained ivory of his skin carved itself into wrinkles and made
of him a malicious Eastern god.

“Ax her,” was all he deigned to reply.

John and big Tom surveyed her as she sat up and looked about
her composedly, and touched the red wound on her forehead with
dazed wondering fingers ; and they said to each other some of the
things we had all been saying recently, when we looked from her
white sorrowful little face to the evil bestial brows of Pete
Macara. But she heard what they said, and it roused her. She
got off the bed and stood by it dizzily, and spoke—to the point.

” It’s none o’ your business,” she said, “what I am, or who I
am, or where I come from. All you need to know is that I
belong to Pete Macara—and he can do what he likes with me.
And if it pleases him to knock me down—or to kill me—I tell
you it’s none of your business, and I say he shall do it if he
chooses! And—this is his house—what are you doing here?—
go!” and she staggered forward and fell dizzily on her knees in
the middle of the stain upon the floor. There she groped for
Pete’s hand, laying her face against it, and he spurned her with his


                        By Marie Clothilde Balfour 209

foot. “You see?” she said, and laughed, a little wildly. “I
belong to Pete Macara—and you—you can go!”

Big Tom Jamieson and John Elliott went away without further
argument, and walked up the street together, thinking hard and
saying nothing. It was only when they came to John’s door,
that they looked at each other uncomfortably. “God!” said big
Tom; “she spoke like—like a lady—and he—he kicked her off
like a fawning bitch.” John looked away and moved his lips
uneasily. Then he turned to his own door, and muttered very
low. “Pah! she—she licked his hand.

People did not meddle much with Pete Macara or his wife after
that. But he forced her—so we supposed—to support him by the
vilest traffic, and he lived in happy indolence till the Squire got
tired of waiting for his rent and kicked him out. Then they left
us, unregretted ; but not before there were many other tales
whispered about the small pale woman who was Pete Macara’s
possession. . . .

When strangers came to the little grey town in the hollow,
they wondered at its uneventfulness, and pitied us for the long
monotonous months that slowly filled the years; but beneath the
surface, it seems, on looking back, that for those who had eyes to
see there was a constant succession of small tragedies, the tragi-
comedies that build up the commonplaceness of life. Not the
dainty operettas of Strephon and Chloe, as I said before, but
little melodramas, where one only did not weep because one was
too hopelessly wretched. For the pathos is apt to be so miserably
hideous, that the onlooker feels sick and turns away with a sigh ;
and yet it is but the setting and the mask; the actual passions are,
after all, the great simple underplan of life in all of us, and in such
as these they lie nearer the surface. And the innermost soul is
the same, when you reach it—or perhaps it is a little more

The Yellow Book—Vol. X. N


                        210 “Sub Tegmine Fagi”

childlike, and unharmed by the mire in which it is plunged.
Bobby Stobbs, for instance, I conceive had a soul that was as
lovely as in the flesh he was—otherwise. And since Bobby
Stobbs, like Hannah, and Martha, and like Pete Macara s miserable
wife, loved much. . . .

Bobby took a house in our street, and we stared in surprise;
for it was so ruinous and tumble-down that it did not
seem fit for pigs to litter in. We supposed he got it cheap;
but a penny would have been a fair rent to pay for it, and we
told him so. Bobby smiled at us superiorly. “Ah,” he said,
“Tusky will make it that smart an’ comf’able.” We were
interested, for we did not know he had female belongings; but he
went on to explain he was going to fetch home his wife and
children, and that Tusky would make the house all that it should
be. He went off with a borrowed cart and pony to fetch them.
It rained that day so heavily that he was already soaking as he
went down the street ; and when he returned with his precious
load, it was raining still, and Bobby sat on the shaft dripping and
shivering, his only coat wrapped round the baby in the cart. If
Bobby could have faced us naked, he would have given them the
small remainder of his garments too. We watched a small black
woman crawl out from beneath a table and help him to haul the
soaking bedding and the few broken chairs and a box of cracked
pottery in at the door ; and then three bundles tumbled into the
mud, shook down legs and followed their mother, while Bobby
led the lame pony back to its stable in the Watsons’ wash-house,
with his white face looking, so they told us afterwards, extremely
happy and well content, though his shoulders shook ominously.
Dinah Green went in late to see how they were getting on,
being of a neighbourly turn of mind.

“The beddin’ was afore the fire,” she told us next day, “an’


                        By Marie Clothilde Balfour 211

you could smell it acrost the street; and when you came in you
could see ’em a jumpin’ and a crahlin’ from the very doorstep.”
(Dinah was a clean woman and apt to see things to which other
people shut their eyes). Tusky was running about the room,
talking to the children, who crawled over the floor, amid a sea of
rags, potsherds and other things—which it is not necessary to
particularise. She was sticking a few gaudy pictures on the walls,
but had not thought of stopping the rain from drifting in at the
broken window ; and she was hampered in her work by having
with one hand to hold her garments together at the waist.
There was already a considerable piece of dirty skin visible.
There was also a whisky-bottle on the table, which was propped
up against the wall ; and it was half empty. Consequently
Tusky was cheerful and talkative.

Dinah listened to her awhile in grim silence.

“Where’s yer man?” she asked suddenly.
Tusky added another smear to her face by passing her free
hand over it.” He’s—here—I reckon,” she said vaguely. “Ha’
ye got a pin?”

Dinah passed her one at arm’s-length, and Tusky performed a
short toilet.

“Where’s yer man?” repeated the tall, gaunt woman in the
sun-bonnet, as the other conveyed the whisky-bottle to her
mouth ; but this time Tusky looked silly, and did not trouble
to answer. Then a voice came feebly from the depths of the

“I’m here—Dinah,” it said. “Get ye doon, my woman.
Tusky’s—that busy—she can’t—see t’ye.”

The words came in gasps, and Dinah peered into the darkness.

Bobby lay in his wet clothes in a pool of water. The bedding
was at the fire, so he lay upon the bare boards. He was not com-


                        212 “Sub Tegmine Fagi”

fortable. “My word,” said Dinah, “what’ll I do wi’ ye? Ye
can’t be took anywhere else, ye’re that dirty; and here”—.
She sniffed.

“I’m—cleaner—than or nar,” he murmured feebly; “come—
o’ bein’—in—the rain,” and his face looked strangely white in
the darkness of the bed.

Dinah came and went many times that evening, while Tusky
snored in the corner, and the children whimpered on the wet
floor. On her last journey the rain had turned to snow, and the
air had grown terribly cold. The poultice she carried between
hot plates was already tepid. But Bobby was grateful for it,
nevertheless, as he lay amid the blankets she had brought him,
breathing fast, and talking softly to himself, while Tusky snored,
and the candle and the fire were both nearly burned out. Dinah
did what she could for him, and turned him upon his side.

“I’ll bring the doctor first thing to-mara,” she said cheerily,
“an’ I reckon he’ll mak’ ye weel. He’s a terrible clever chap, our
doctor is, an’ a real decent man, too. He’ll mak’ ye weel.”

Bobby looked up composedly. “Ay, it’ll be a vera sore ex-
pense,” he murmured, “an’ that hard on Tusky—poor Tusky—
an’ she so handy—an’ goin’ to make the house that smart an
comf’able—Tusky—ah!—she’s a smart ‘un—Tusky,” and he
looked across at the dirty, drunken little figure huddled in the
corner, with wisps of hair straggling across her grimy and vixenish
face. Dinah looked that way, too, and snorted: “Ye maun?
keep warm, an’ sleep, an’ wait for the doctor,” she said, restraining
herself with energy, and preparing to depart. “Ye’re doin’ fine,
and ye’ve on’y got to wait for the doctor. I’ll gat ‘un fine’n

She let herself out into the snow, and saw that Bobby lay with,
his loving eyes fixed on his wife.


                        By Marie Clothilde Balfour 213

“Tusky smart—’un,” he murmured, and Dinah shut the

Bobby did not wait for the doctor, so his bill was saved, as
Tusky remarked, when she was sober enough to understand
about it.

“An’,” she added, “there’ll be an inquess, an’ the jurymen’ll
give me their shillin’s—they allus do,” and she tried the effect of a
black rag that she had found in the gutter, pinned about her
throat. Tusky thought that, some day, she would marry again.
But Bobby Stobbs had loved much.

Down yonder, under the beeches, upon a knoll, the sheep have
clustered prettily, and there are lambs in the lower field that bleat
and gambol in the sunshine. I can almost fancy that I see
Strephon a-piping where the shadow of the leaves flings a golden
tracery on the soft green grass; and surely Lesbia is dancing, and
under her feet the smell of the fallen pine needles rises pungently
sweet and pervading from the cool brown ground.

But Lesbia is sadly besmirched, and all her playmates are apt to
be unbeautiful nowadays, and in the flock she tends there are too
many black sheep.

The grass and the beeches below us, the firs behind; the
trimmed carpet of flowers and the song of the birds; the silver-
spangled sea beyond and the gladness of the eternal hills—only
these are the same; and so, after all, is humanity.

MLA citation:

Balfour, Marie Clothilde. “Sub Tegmine Fagi” The Yellow Book, vol. 10, July 1896, pp. 199-213 Yellow Book Digtal Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.