The Sleight of Heart: a modern folk taleby Benjamin Parsons / Romance & Love
The Sleight of Heart: a modern folk tale
by Benjamin Parsons
Copyright 2012 Benjamin Parsons
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I forgot to tell you that on the coast of Cornwall there is another little fishing town, which sports a strange but lovely curiosity. Just at the quayside, on the very edge, where the froth and scum lap against the massive stones that form the harbour for the fleet, there stands a figure, looking out over the water.
This piece of statuary has been the cause of many a misunderstanding. When dusk falls, or the sea-mists roll in, and the obscurity makes it difficult to distinguish the living from the inanimate, passing strangers have often asked the figure for directions, supposing it to be a real person; or, imagining it is about to spring into the waves, have tried to arrest it— only to discover their error on touching the adamantly cold form.
Merrymakers too, stumbling out of the public house on the front, have regularly addressed the statue, and regaled it with taunts or cheers. Some amorous drunks have made to woo it; athletic drunks have tried to climb on its back; aggressive drunks have assailed it with their fists or other weapons, and of course acquisitive drunks have attempted to steal it. But nevertheless it remains, impassive to them— and on occasion has had a sort of revenge, on just such misty evenings as I have described— once or twice an inebriated wayfarer has mistaken it for a pedestrian, inferred that the pavement must lie that way, and staggered trustingly off the kerb into the bilge-water below.
Some say (and I suppose we must conclude that these aforementioned drinkers are chiefly responsible for the testimony) that the figure moves; others that it speaks; others that it weeps, winks, whistles, wakes up— really, there is almost no end to the talents attributed to this stationary image— and all these marks of animation are said to occur at specific times, such as sunrise, and when the tide is high, and a storm is coming.
I will not pretend to say I know for sure whether this little landmark possesses some or all of the properties ascribed to it— but I do know how it came to get there in the first place, and this you shall hear.
The town is more generally famed for something other than its harbourside monument— most people visit the place to see and enjoy the May Day festival, which is held every year and fills the narrow lanes with hordes of tourists and locals alike. The festival is a celebration of the spring, originating, perhaps, in some pagan rite; and while the modern-day tributes to the season principally involve libations of cider, lager and spirits, there yet survive a few traditional customs that give a sort of structure to the party. The most popular of these is the costumed parade, in which a band of townsmen march through the thronging streets dressed up in quaint and colourful outfits, replete with an arcane, medieval symbolism that nobody really understands anymore. They look as though they have sprung, life-size, onto the cobbles from out of a pack of Tarot cards— splendid and rather sinister at once.
The most lively of these revellers is the one attired as a hobby-horse. He wheels and frolics about among the spectators, and seems to have more licence for these antics than his fellow characters. His costume is black, with a great hooped skirt about his waist, on the front of which is a mâché horse’s head, whose jaw snaps open and shut as the actor operates a string. The tradition of the hobby-horse is that he lifts up the wide circle of his skirt as he dances by, and tries to trap young women beneath its circumference— and if he succeeds, they are sure to conceive within the year. Some ladies, naturally, are more ready to be caught than others, so the hobby-horse is seldom starved of his prey.
On the May Day that concerns this tale, a young man arrived in town to partake of the fun. He was everything a young man should be: finely built, full of good cheer and as handsome as handsome is— which meant he was also everything a young man should not be: arrogant of his attractions to women, convinced of his own opinions, and inclined to be a law unto himself. Nevertheless, he was one of those rogues who charms in spite of his flaws, and when in a holiday mood, as he was that day, few would find it in their power to dislike him. Having started as a sailor, he had recently acquired a small boat and brought it into port with a view to fitting it up and getting a quota to fish; so his ambition was in its first enthusiasm, and gave him every cause to be happy that day.
He and a companion were gamely jostling through the crowd with their pints held high out of danger, when a stubborn knot of people interrupted their progress. This was because the parade had recently passed by, and the hobby-horse, who came last, was performing a little ahead of them. Our sailor did not mind the pause, however, because he found himself looking across the thoroughfare into the most bewitching pair of green eyes. These belonged to an equally beautiful girl of about his own age, with a marble-clear complexion, jetty locks twisted up behind, and a form both as slim and rounded as will suit any fashion. But of all these graces it was her eyes that held him: there was something terribly meaning about them— not seductive, or even knowing, but deep and inscrutable. At first he assumed, naturally, that she was gazing as intently on him as he was upon her, but it came as something of a check to his vanity to realise that the direction of her glance was listless, and had fallen his way by accident. She was daydreaming, and perhaps did not see him at all.
This marked her out from those around her. She hardly engaged with the bustle, and while everybody else laughed and talked, she merely stood, and almost pined— which made him determine that he was the one to cheer her up.
Nudging his companion, who knew the town well, he asked: ‘Who’s that, there? If she’s a local you must know— there can’t be two like her.’
His friend looked over, but as he did, the woman in question was momentarily obscured by a tall, burly fellow with a thick shock of black hair and beard. This person he did recognise, and from him inferred the identity of the concealed beauty.
‘That’s Tom Parnell, from the Red Ship— so I expect you mean his wife, Artemisia.’
The disappointing term ‘wife’ contended with the enchantingly unusual name ‘Artemisia’ for a moment in the sailor’s thoughts, but at last he was obliged to comment on the former rather than praise the latter. ‘She’s married to him?’ he asked incredulously.
‘Every day,’ replied the other.
‘That explains why she looks so sad, anyway. I’m going to go and speak to her.’
‘You’d better not, Davey,’ his fellow warned, holding his arm as the impulsive young hero made to approach her. ‘She’s out of bounds.’
‘Because she’s married?’ he laughed, undaunted.
‘No, just because she’s married to him. He’s a real tyrant— notorious for it, and he’s vowed to kill anyone who touches her. I’ve heard him say it myself— I drink at the Red Ship sometimes, and he’s the landlord— when he gets in a rage he makes that oath to the whole bar, and I don’t doubt he means it. Believe me, you’d do well to steer clear of him.’
‘But I can’t steer clear of her,’ he argued. ‘The current’s got me.’
A husband, even an angry one, was no deterrent to our Davey. He relished a challenge, and besides, desire likes to have a little hindrance to beat against. But his friend was insistent.
‘I mean it, Davey, don’t look at her.’
‘Why not?’ he frowned. ‘I’m not afraid of him.’
‘But she is. If he gets the idea you’re interested, he’ll punish her for it, by all accounts. They say he keeps her locked up at home, and thrashes her too, I suppose.’
Davey sized up the husband in disgust. ‘Why does she stay, then?’
‘I told you— she’s afraid. He’s also said, loud and clear on many occasions, that if his wife ever leaves him, he’ll track her down— no matter where she goes, or what she does, he’ll come for her. You should hear him rant and rave! A man like that drives himself mad with a pretty wife.’
Davey was not in the least perturbed, of course. These anecdotes of persecution only excited him in her favour all the more, and he eagerly sought another glimpse of her face.
There it was— and just for a moment, the dark lashes lifted, and the green lamps fixed their light on him— she saw him this time, without a doubt, and though nothing more than a moment elapsed before she turned aside, he knew that she had taken him in, and understood him at once.
Just then, the hobby-horse was in their midst. He flailed and arced the hoop of his skirt around and around, while the scarlet mouth of the equine head snapped viciously at every bystander. Davey watched as this Tom Parnell moved behind his wife and clutched her shoulders protectively; then, with a cruellish