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Title: Many a Tear
Author: M. P. Shiel
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Language: English
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Date first posted: July 2006
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Many a Tear
M. P. Shiel


"God counts a woman's tears."--THE TALMUD


I first heard the name of Margaret Higgs one gloomy afternoon, when
passing over the Chase by Tydenham, with Severn (they don't say "the"
Severn there) trailing itself away through a vale of haze far down on
my right. The aged clergyman I was making the journey with showed me
the mass of rags and grey locks, where the woman sat alone on a rock
on the Chase, saying to me---"Mark that woman, a remarkable being, I
assure you, a woman who during sixteen years has plumbed even the
deeps of human woe; for I say that if ever the arm of the Almighty
bared itself to be known openly in the affairs of men, it was in that
life. There, like a pine blighted by the lightning's wrath, sits
Margaret now, a living pledge of that Power which governs the world."

He spoke with no little solemnity, though I must say that when he went
on to tell me the facts, he left me utterly unconvinced of this "arm
of the Almighty"; and I hope that by this time he, too, has nobler
thoughts with regard to Margaret Higgs.

"I remember her when she had no resemblance to the object you see
there," he told me, "a shapely wench with a tripping run on her toes,
soft-spoken and most soft-eyed, dark blue eyes and black hair, a gay
gossip--'news-hunter' they say here--with a prayer-book in her hand in
the lanes on Sunday, and a name for 'knocking around' with the young
men; one of those earth-born souls of this part, unconscious of a
world beyond Severn--save of Gloucester, because the magistrates say
to the naughty ones: 'Go to Gloucester for a month.'

"She came of good farmer-folk in a small way, who died almost
together, upon which Margaret chose to marry beneath her, a quarry-man
from the Wyebanks near, a thickset, rather taciturn and nervous
person, named Higgs, a widower some fifteen years Margaret's senior.
He had a son of twelve or so called Fred Higgs; and I think I have
heard it said that as a girl Margaret had had the nursing of this boy,
and that it was her fondness for the boy which caused the heiress to
make choice of the father.

"Well, Margaret and Higgs got on very well for several years. I have
observed them driving toward St. Bride's of a week-end to market,
frequently have called in to visit them, and they appeared happy.
However, one summer there came to lodge with them a stranger--a sailor
they say he was, though, as the house stands well out of the way in a
bower, and as the stranger never at all showed his nose abroad, not
much is known of him; one or two, however, of the Woolaston villagers
lower down the mountain--a group of people known as the most 'news-
hunting' in the country--gave it out that the stranger was a good-
looking chap, and that Margaret had lost her heart to him; a tale
which was confirmed when he was one afternoon loudly ordered out of
the house by Higgs, and was observed to pass out of the house and away
over the mountains.

"Well, some time after nine that night, when the boy Fred Higgs went
to bed, Margaret, from motives of revenge, probably, destroyed her
husband; for from that night Higgs has never been seen, and a daft
fellow called Felix, who would frequently roam the countryside all
night, reported that near three that morning he had seen Mrs. Higgs
struggling in a storm across the fields towards Severn beneath the
burden of a body.

"This was all the evidence to begin with, except the queer fact that
Margaret breathed not a syllable to anyone with regard to her
husband's disappearance; but other signs and evidences soon followed,
as I have told you, from--Heaven itself."

Owing, maybe, to the fact that this witness, Felix, was not a man able
to appreciate the nature of an oath, the police took no open action in
the matter; and at this apparent sluggishness of the law, you never
saw such a gush of fury, every boatman for miles up the two rivers
becoming an eye to scan the waters for a body; and both where the
banks are all mud, and where there are reaches of beach, parties of
diggers, organised by the villagers, were ferreting for a buried body.

"Well, no body was ever discovered; but by society, I can tell you, a
way was discovered to avenge itself, and the woman was punished. The
baker's cart ceased to wait at Woodside farm, the butcher declined to
deal; even so far off as St. Bride's and the Forest of Dean, Margaret
Higgs could neither sell her starved calf nor get meal for her pig,
nor find a forgiving smile."

"Her's done away wi'n right enough," was the word everywhere: "hanging
be too good for she, and shame ought to cover the face of the police."
Passing by the farm one morning, I walked up the garden-path, and saw
Margaret. The round of industry there was suspended now, her stepson
appeared to be aiming shots at imaginary rabbits, and the young woman,
swinging her knee between her hands, was seated on the door-sill of
her snowy low home. She sprang up to offer me a chair, and I said then
sorrowfully to her:

"Well, Mrs. Higgs, things are not so well with you as they have been,"
at which she at once became visibly inflamed, and cried out, "the
gossiping, news-hunting lot, ignorant as wagon-horses!

"I do have nothing off they, Mr. Somerset! They don't keep me! Why
should I trouble about what they have to say?"

"But how, Mrs. Higgs, do you propose to live, to manage the farm?" I
asked.

"I did live and find bread for the boy before, and I'll do it again,
sir," she answered.

"But for one to defy many is up-hill work, and you without a protector
now," I said..."Tell me the truth, Margaret," I added, "is Higgs
dead?"

She stood against the wall, eyeing the ground, and after a silence
said with a shrug of her shoulders: "'Er be dead, I suppose--God
knows; I don't."

Well, I was angry at this callous shrugging, and left her at once.

The next Sunday she dared to come to church, and as I surmised that
this would be resented, especially as she walked up the aisle with so
haughty a toss of the head, I uttered in my sermon a few words as to
the beauty of Christian forbearance. But it had no effect, and all up
the back lane that leads steeply to Woodside, though it was a stormy
afternoon, Margaret was followed by the congregation---most of them
her cousins, and cousins of one another. They did not at first molest
her, but tittered coughs, whistles, catcalls; all which she endured
without looking round, till by becks and signs they managed to induce
her boy to leave her side and join the enemy, and thenceforth the walk
became a cross-fire of abuse yelled from side to side, the woman
hastening on in front afraid, with a grey face, but defiant eyes on
fire, the people eagerly speeding upon her heels with no peaceable
meaning.

"Go on!" she shouted to them, laughing with a rather ghastly grin of
the mouth--"you gossiping, news-hunting lot! Shame ought to cover your
face!"

"Where's Higgs?" they all roared at her.

"Go on, you! ignorant as wagon-horses, with your silly, foolhardy
questions!" And so till they came to her house, where the crowd
surrounded her; and now, finding herself at bay, her defiance suddenly
failing, the woman broke into tears, and falling to her knees, called
out upon the Almighty in passionate tones of reproach, saying "What
have I done, my good God? If I have done any wrong, send that my house
may be burnt to the ground, may every evil befall me, may I be struck
paralysed from my crown to my foot--" a vow so apparently hearty, and
so awful to the villagers that they went away and left her.

But that night her house was burned to the ground.

When the crowd had left her, she had flung herself upon a couch in the
house, where she had remained in the grip of an ague till nine in the
night; and getting up then to go to bed her still trembling hand had
dropped the lamp....

The news of that thing flew that night like loosened effluvia, and in
a few minutes Woolaston was at Woodside. They found the boy, Fred
Higgs, confined in the house by the fire, for in the first panic
Margaret had run out, calling out to him, but he had been asleep, and
now was screaming at his window, which was too little for him to
squeeze through to leap to the ground.

Seeing this, some of the crowd darted off to look for the orchard-
ladder, when Margaret herself, to the awe of all, dived back into the
fire, and presently appeared tearing at the framework of the boy's
window, half of which was a fixture, and half a sideward slide. Well,
as she as ever a person of great strength, the woodwork gave way to
her tuggings, leaving space for the leap to the ground, and they came
down safely.

Fred Higgs was taken home by Price, the grocer; and Margaret, now all
bald and baked on one side of the face, found a shelter in her stable
with the body of her starved horse, which had died that day.

But the woman's spirit was not yet broken. When, the next morning,
Morgan, the policeman, called to invite her, things being as they
were, to make a clean breast of what had happened to Higgs, she still
sat dumb, rocking her body to and fro. She seems to have entertained
still the crazy hope of carrying on the farm on which she was born,
but that same day Mr. Millings, Loreburn's land-steward, called to
tell her that, of course, she must go now, offering, however, to give
her a price for her implements, etc., which no one else would buy of
her. These terms she had to accept; but she showed then as ever a
fierce determination not to leave the place of her birth, and like a
spider whose web has been torn, at once the woman set mutely to work
to build up her life anew.

On the third day after the fire she came with her face in bandages to
my daughter, Nina, who owned a cottage high up there near the Chase;
and though I felt bound to warn my daughter of the danger of letting,
she chose to do so. On this the woman went away to Newport, bought
there some new things, took her sow and fowls to her new abode, and
was about once more to commence housekeeping. But it was not to be:
for when all was ready, and she went down to Price, the grocer, who
had taken in her boy, the boy roundly refused to go with her, saying
to her: 'No, mother, I don't want to see thee face never again.' These
words seemed to strike the woman quite silly; and turning toward the
crowd for pity, with a wry mouth that tried to smile, she let slip the
words: "Why, it was for him chiefly I did it!" "Did it! You hear her?
Did what?" cried some, while the rest of the boors booed and hissed
her.

"Come with your mother, hearty," wooed the woman to the boy, "don't be
hard."

"Thee go away," said the boy, emboldened by the mob, "thee bisn't my
own mother, nor I never did despise anybody so much as I do despise
thee, never in all my life, and shame ought to cover thee face."
Margaret looked awe-struck at this last disaster. She said nothing
more, but throwing her arm languidly at him was gone with lagging
steps, as if broken down now, given over, cowed, and done for; nor
from that day, I think, did she ever show any resistance to whatever
was done to her, except once, when she threw a stone at a throng of
boys who were pursuing her.

Morgan, the policeman, however, and I also, thought that with regard
to the boy, to whom from his youth the woman had ever been a good
mother, a hardship had been done her; especially as without his help
her new nook of land would be of little use to her. So after three
weeks of talk the grocer formally agreed to give up the boy; and the
same morning Morgan, happening to be passing up there, called to
Margaret across her gate that her boy would be coming back to her at
once. Upon this she seems to have run to stand under an ash tree at
the end of the lane to see him coming up the hill; several persons,
hurrying past in the rain, saw her standing there that day with her
dress thrown over her head; and though the boy did not come for some
hours, there she stood patiently on the look out, until the afternoon
had become late and dark with storm. At last the boy came. But it was
to find her lying helpless on her right side, apparently struck by
lightning--the ash, at any rate, had been shivered, and she was found
paralysed right down one side. Babbling with her blighted tongue, she
begged the boy to give her a hand, to try to get her home without
uttering a word to anyone, but he, as if out of his wits, flew down
the hill, howling out the news to the four winds.

Well, however deep the woman's sin, what followed for her that evening
is really shocking to recount, for a legion of fiends seem to have
taken possession of the people to make a scene out of pandemonium on
the mountain that evening. The words arose, "drum her out"--for, of
course, whatever doubt may have lingered in any mind with regard to
Margaret's guilt was gone now, since all that her vow had called down
upon herself was now fallen upon her; nor did the rain and darkness
make any difference; with one accord the crowd started up the
mountain. Happily, she guessed their approach, and in her terror,
gathering whatever forces remained to her, she fled before them,
managing to drag her frame into some bush before they reached the
tree; while they, going on to her cottage to find her, and not finding
her, threw all her new goods into a hurly-burly, and by accident or
design burned to the ground my daughter's house. It was not till the
next morning that Margaret was discovered lying in the field called
the Morplepiece, and was then carried away by the police, to be put
into the St. Bride's infirmary.

There pressure was afresh brought to bear upon the woman to make some
sort of confession, but she remained as dumb as ever; and after some
months was sent out with that maimed drag in her gait and speech,
which even now marks her. She dared again, though now penniless and
hopeless of gaining a living here, to face the load of pain that
awaited her in her native place; and hereabouts, Heaven knows how, has
continued to exist. My daughter Nina, whose heart has always deeply
grieved for her, sometimes of an angry night will say to me: "That
poor Margaret Higgs, papa; perhaps out on the Chase in it all." Aye,
and I have known her go out with a groom and a lantern to look for the
woman, and on discovering her under one of those two-arched kilns
which are common in this part, has wooed the poor soul to come home
with her. Margaret when dragged has come, but always before morning
was gone again. In deed, she had soon become much of a wild woman,
imbued with the mood of storm-winds and dark nights, as shy and
gloomy-eyed as those shaggy nags on the Chase, her only mates, whose
manes and great tails the gales up there ever fret; so that belated
yokels on their way home have often paused to hearken to some moan or
laugh of hers in the dark. Once she was sent to prison, when, ever
unlucky, on happening to throw a stone at a throng of boys, the stone
cut one of them, and the magistrates gave her their go to Gloucester
for a month. One of these magistrates, by the way, was none other
than her stepson, Fred Higgs, who had been taken up by some mysterious
business man---in Glasgow they say it was--had graduated at Oxford,
and is now, you may say, one of our magnates. The man has simply
ignored his stepmother's existence.

However, the new proprietor of Glanna has given orders that the woman
be housed, and provided with the means of a livelihood--has let it be
understood, too, that whoever injures her will incur his displeasure.
In fact, during the few weeks that this Mr. Ogden has been in
residence, his goodness to the poor has become the talk, though he
seems something of a queer sort, and almost a hermit. At any rate,
through him, the condition of Margaret may shortly be expected to
undergo a change, though it is not easy to rescue her--she resists,
appears to be suspicious, can't now believe perhaps that anyone really
wishes her well--and whether she is capable of being reclaimed from
her half-savage state it is hard to say: for the years alter us all,
sir, the years leave the marks of their passing upon us.

So much Mr. Somerset, the aged clergyman, was able to give me of the
story of Margaret Higgs, and that morose star of hers; and two days
later I learned in further detail that every effort was being made to
tame and help her.

But the bad destiny that seemed to have the woman in hand was not even
yet done with her.

Her new abode was actually ready for her, and she had agreed to go
into it, glad, I suppose, poor soul, of a bed at last, when some men,
digging for a foundation down by Severn, found the remains of a man.

It was near the spot where the daft Felix over fifteen years before
had seen Margaret Higgs with a body on her back one dark morning, and
the cry arose, "the body of Higgs at last."

Again, then, was Margaret taken to prison; and I, hearing of all the
to-do, took train to St. Bride's to witness her trial in the petty sessions there.

Of the two justices one was her own stepson, Fred Higgs, a good-
looking man of not much more than thirty, and the other, the new lord
of the Manor of Glanna.

As to the woman herself, she sat through it all--she was too woefully
weak to stand--in a spiritless attitude, as unmoving as a statue. It
was understood that, on being pressed in prison, she had admitted that
the body discovered was that of her husband, buried by her; to which
admission one Inspector Jonas deposed, and spoke as to the enforcing
of the Coroner's warrant, and the whole story of the horror.

But what struck me from the first was the nervousness of one of the
justices, the lord of Glanna--a short-built and broad-faced man, with
cropped hair, and squat fingers, with which he kept tapping on his
chin, tapping on his chair, tapping ever on everything near him.

And presently his keenness to procure the release of the accused
became quite clear, till it was painful. One never saw a judge so
jumpy in his chair, so agitated, so impatient of opposition.

When his brother justice once leaned toward him, perhaps to whisper
some remonstrance, Mr. Ogden cried out loudly: "You be sure to shut your mouth!" and I then noticed that the very slight rocking of Margaret Higgs's body, which
was going on as regularly as a pendulum's swing, suddenly ceased, and
the woman seemed to start and hearken.

Evidence, however, is evidence, and no magistrate could have saved the
woman from the County assizes, had it not been that at the last, when
the prosecution was summing-up, saying, "there can be no doubt
therefore that the remains now found are actually those of Barnaby
Higgs--" Mr. Ogden at those words leaped from his chair, calling out:
"But how can all that be so certain to you, sir, when here's Barnaby
Higgs himself, a living man, talking to ye?"

The hand which the old man spread before us shivered with strong
emotion, while tears blinded his eyes. I heard Mr. Somerset, seated
near me on the bench, twice breathe to himself:

"My God!" The mass of rags in the dock sprang straight with a crazy
stare. Throughout the crowded room hardly a sound was heard till Mr.
Higgs, stepping to the rail, spoke--with a most painful agitation at
the beginning, but presently more calmly and then again with wrathful
agitation when, turning upon Fred Higgs, he scourged his son with
invective. And ever afresh at the object of sorrow and rags arraigned
before him he stretched his forefinger, with red-veined eyes, and a
moan of love in his choked throat, calling her blessed, calling her
saint.

It was the same Barnaby Higgs, he told the court--was rather surprised
that some of them hadn't recognised him--only sixteen years older now,
and a big-wig, in a frock-coat, and without a beard, but the same.

One summer there had come to the farm a man named John Cheyne--a
sailorman he was--a cousin, who had got into trouble for abducting a
girl, and Higgs had hidden him.

But the chap had not been three days on the place when Higgs began to
be jealous.

"Though she told me that there was nothing in it, I didn't believe
her, nor I don't now believe her, for I distinctly saw John Cheyne
kissing, or trying to kiss, her behind the sty; and that same day,
between three-thirty and four by the clock, I turned the fellow off
the place."

The sailor took his departure, but by ten in the night was back at the
farm, craving to be again taken in; this Higgs refused. Cheyne pushed
himself in, hot words arose, then fisticuffs, during which Cheyne, who
must have had heart-disease, "dropped down dead before a right-handed
cross-counter in the left ribs, after a lead-off with the left by
himself." Some moments afterwards, Margaret, who had been out "at
fair," walked in and saw what that was which Higgs was crouched down
over on the floor.

Higgs, in the crowd of his terrors, knowing that his row with the
sailor was known, could foresee nothing but the gallows; but Margaret,
after sitting like a stone a long time, proposed flight, she to bury
the body down by Severn, and in three nights' time to meet Higgs
secretly on the Chase, to let him know whether he might safely return
home.

This was agreed. Higgs ran, Margaret buried the sailor--no one
suspected that he was dead, but as to the rendezvous on the Chase on
the third day Higgs, ever nervous, had shirked it.

Terrified by the tidings heard in his hiding that Margaret had been
seen carrying a body on her back, he had not dared to return into the
region of danger, but, having reached Liverpool, took ship.

"Yes," he said from the bench, "I abandoned her, little thinking that
she'd be seriously charged with killing me, who knew myself to be
alive and hearty, and all the time I was in South Africa I was that
shy and sick of my cowardice I couldn't write to her; I preferred she
should think me dead and gone. But I didn't know, I made sure she'd be
going on all right in the old style....

Hadn't I left one to protect her, friends? Didn't I get a business
friend in Glasgow to adopt him? He did nothing for her. My own son--
this man--he did nothing for her. Ah! the squalls that caught her and
the frosts that froze her bones were never a bit so hard on her as
this bitter heart.

It was for him she did it, friends, just think! She said to me that
night, for she was cross wi' me, it's not to screen thee, I do it,
she said, so I tell thee straight; but what kind of a life will it be
for Fred with everybody having it to say he be a murderer's son? And
she kept the truth dark from him and from all--how long? For two
months? For ten? While he was a dutiful boy to her? No, sixteen solid
years down to this hour, though he was a beast to her. Why, sirs,
talking of Christianity, there stands a Christian for you, I think?
And you--you, couldn't you do some little something for her who did so
much for you? Were you really bound to send her to Gloucester? And
when you saw that her own husband had coward-like abandoned her, and
all the crowd of them was hounding her, and the Almighty God on high
Himself that ought to have been her Father was all dead agen her, and
she stood dumb and astonished, was that the moment for you, too, Fred,
hard heart...? For if only from this confession she has made that
she did kill me, I can pretty well judge what she's been through; she
has confessed because, when she'd once tasted her prison cell that's
proved a palace of rest to her after her kilns, and her brackens, and
her barns, and her storms, she was afraid of being set free, maybe, if
she didn't confess; or maybe she was too aweary to trouble to say no
to aught they asked her. Oh, well, poor wounded woman, you've had it
to do, haven't you, poor mute ewe, with all your wounds and bruises on
you; but a bosom is here at last to guard you, Margaret Higgs, like
the morning to a murky night, and the turning to a long lane, aye, a
bosom is here to guard you...The prisoner is discharged!

"Officer, I give myself in charge for the manslaughter of one John
Cheyne."

It was now that the woman, babbling something, put out both her hands
one moment toward her husband, but in the very act failed and fell.
She was raised and taken out, and I, rushing out with the rest just
behind her husband, witnessed everything that was done in vain to
revive her, and the raver's frenzied vain prayers to his dead.



THE END



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