Their neighbour played his lively pipe; their cousin was keeping the tune on the fiddle, while everyone else danced on the village green. Ponies, enjoying fresh grass, tapped their hooves to the music. The infirm elderly clapped and encouraged the more agile to bend their knees and quicken their steps. Whoops and cheers greeted each change of pace as the musicians skilfully turned the melody. All the men’s shoes were highly polished and all the ladies wore flowers, primroses, bluebells, violets pinned to their pretty dresses. The cuckoo in the hedge sang another rhythm but no one heard. Happily the girl watched from her seclusion. Hidden behind a large fuchsia bush she enjoyed the celebration. One of the dancers stopped and walked in her direction. She squirmed into the old gnarled branches trusting she was invisible. Bending down it seemed as if the dancer looked straight at her, but the trim old lady picked up her flask, had a drink, then returned to the merry throng. The girl relieved in not being discovered moved back to her viewpoint. Such joy, such gaiety.
As the sun neared the horizon the dancers started leaving and finally the piper and fiddler called ‘last dance’. There was much busyness as the dancers bade farewell, so many hugs and kisses, laughter and chatter, that finally only one trim old lady remained, putting her wicker basket onto a smartly groomed pony. The girl relaxed. She had enjoyed the afternoon’s entertainment.
‘I know your there’ said a voice from the other side of the fuchsia bush. ‘ Would you like some tea? I have a little left in my flask.’ The girl was annoyed. She had been seen after all. Oh well, too late now. No point in pretending when her concealment had failed. She was a practical girl, and here was a chance of drink, maybe even some food. She crawled from under the bush and stood up. ‘Yes, thank you, I would like that very much.’ She grasped the offered flask with rough soil ingrained hands. The old lady looked at the girl, a tattered shawl, and a brown dress with frayed hem, bare legs and no shoes. ‘You might care to join myself and daughters for supper’ she offered. ‘We have more than enough as I baked too much for the afternoon dance.’ How could the girl refuse? She was hungry and good food was available. ‘Yes, thank you, I would like that very much’ she replied politely.
The old lady mounted the white pony and set off along the road, the girl following a few paces behind. At a large whitewashed house the old lady dismounted. Two young women came from inside the cosy home to greet their mother, two the girl recognised from the dance. They started to help their mother with the basket, then in unison noticed the girl, who stood part hidden behind the pony. ‘Who is this?’ they screeched at their parent, staring in disgust at the girl’s unkempt appearance. The mother hastened her offspring into the house then quickly reappeared to tell the girl to take the pony to the barn, to brush it down and feed it. She hastily returned to her daughters, explained how strong the girl was and how useful a servant would be, and then called to the barn that supper was laid on the table. When the girl appeared by the open door the fine old lady suggested that she might care to wash in the horse trough, as the road to the house had been a little dusty and she was the sure the girl would like to refresh herself. Duly cleaned, the girl returned to stand by the house door.
‘Come in’, greeted the old lady. The two daughters were seated at table, dressed now in bright new dresses and with their hair freshly brushed. ‘There is a wooden stool in the corner by the fire’ said the fine old lady and set a plate of buttered coarse bread and plain cheese on the hearth. The two maidens shared the remaining cakes and biscuits between themselves and their mother and poured tea into china cups. When finished they went out of the front door where the old lady turned, saying, ‘if you would wash the dishes and set the table for breakfast you may stay the night under our roof.’ The girl thought that this was a fair deal for the food and said. ‘Yes, thank you, I would like that very much.’ She carefully did as she was bid and was well pleased when the table was cleared and set for four places for the morning meal. Outside the mother and daughters chatted in the evening light, laughing at the events of the afternoon dance, recalling incidents with delight. As the girl approached the mother said, ‘we have no spare bed in the house but there is space in the barn with the pony.’ Then she and the maidens went into the house and firmly closed the door.
The straw was comfortable and the pony warm. It was a bed for the night and the girl was content enough. In the morning the fine old lady appeared in the barn doorway. ‘There is corn meal in the sack for the chickens, feed them and bring in three fresh eggs for breakfast.’ Then she disappeared before the girl could reply. She took two large scoops of the meal and walked to the rear of the barn where she had heard clucking sounds. Finding three eggs she returned to the house door and knocked. One of the daughters opened it and took the fresh eggs. The smell of cooking bacon and boiling coffee filled the entrance. The girl entered and the old lady turned from the large frying pan she was tending and said ‘the stool in the corner is ready and I have put some black sausage and milk there for you.’ The mother and daughters sat at the table, knives and forks digging and slicing into bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and silver spoons stirring steaming coffee and cream. Their meal ended the lady said to the girl, ‘my daughters and I have an important visit to our neighbours, you wash the dishes and clear the embers from the grate.’ The girl watched them depart, the mother on the pony, the girls laughing at her side, the brightly coloured ribbons from their bonnets flowing down their backs.
The girl looked at the dirty plates and breakfast crumbs strewn across the table, the three legged stool in the corner by the ashes, the brush leaning against the wall. She recalled the pictures in her favourite childhood storybook and she remembered the fine old lady’s instructions. ‘No, thank you, I would not like that at all.’ She walked out of the house and into the sunshine of a new day.
Page last updated: 13th Jan 2011