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Lascelles Abercrombie

(9 January 1881 – 27 October 1938 / Ashton)

Witchcraft: New Style


The sun drew off at last his piercing fires.
Over the stale warm air, dull as a pond
And moveless in the grey quieted street,
Blue magic of a summer evening glowed.
The sky, that had been dazzling stone all day,
Hollowed in smooth hard brightness, now dissolved
To infinite soft depth, and smoulder'd down
Low as the roofs, dark burning blue, and soared
Clear to that winking drop of liquid silver,
The first exquisite star. Now the half-light
Tidied away the dusty litter parching
Among the cobbles, veiled in the colour of distance
Shabby slates and brickwork mouldering, turn'd
The hunchback houses into patient things
Resting; and golden windows now began.

A little brisk grey slattern of a woman,
Pattering along in her loose-heel'd clogs,
Pushed the brass-barr'd door of a public-house;
The spring went hard against her; hand and knee
Shoved their weak best. As the door poised ajar,
Hullabaloo of talking men burst out,
A pouring babble of inflamed palaver,
And overriding it and shouted down
High words, jeering or downright, broken like
Crests that leap and stumble in rushing water.
Just as the door went wide and she stepped in,
'She cannot do it!' one was bawling out:
A glaring hulk of flesh with a bull's voice.
He finger'd with his neckerchief, and stretched
His throat to ease the anger of dispute,
Then spat to put a full stop to the matter.

The little woman waited, with one hand
Propping the door, and smiled at the loud man.
They saw her then; and the sight was enough
To gag the speech of every drinker there:
The din fell down like something chopt off short.
Blank they all wheel'd towards her, with their mouths
Still gaping as though full of voiceless words.
She let the door slam to; and all at ease,
Amused, her smile wrinkling about her eyes,
Went forward: they made room for her quick enough.
Her chin just topt the counter; she gave in
Her bottle to the potboy, tuckt it back,
Full of bright tawny ale, under her arm,
Rapt down the coppers on the planisht zinc,
And turned: and no word spoken all the while.

The first voice, in that silent crowd, was hers,
Her light snickering laugh, as she stood there
Pausing, scanning the sawdust at her feet.
Then she switcht round and faced the positive man
Whose strong 'She cannot do it!' all still felt
Huskily shouting in their guilty ears.

'She can't, eh? She can't do it? ' — Then she'd heard!

The man, inside his ruddy insolent flesh,
Had hoped she did not hear. His barrel chest
Gave a slight cringe, as though the glint of her eyes
Prickt him. But he stood up to her awkwardly bold,
One elbow on the counter, gripping his mug
Like a man holding on to a post for safety.

The Man:
You can't do what's not nature: nobody can.

The Woman:
And louts like you have nature in your pocket?

The Man:
I don't say that —

The Woman:
If you kept saying naught, No one would guess the fool you are.

Second Man:
Almost
My very words!

The Woman:
O you're the knowing man!
The spark among the cinders!

First Man:
You can't fetch
A free man back, unless he wants to come.

The Woman:
Nay, I'll be bound he doesn't want to come!

Third Man:
And he won't come: he told me flat he wouldn't.

The Woman:
Are you there too?

Third Man:
And if he does come back
It will be devilry brought him.

The Woman:
I shall bring him; —
Tonight.

First Man:
How will he come?

The Woman:
Running: unless
He's broke his leg, and then he'll have to come
Crawling: but he will come.

First Man:
How do you know
What he may choose to do, three counties off?

The Woman:
He choose?

Third Man:
You haven't got him on a lead.

The Woman:
Haven't I though!

Second Man:
That's right; it's what I said.

The Woman:
Ay, there are brains in your family.

First Man:
You have
Some sort of pull on him, to draw him home?

The Woman:
You may say that: I have hold of his mind.
And I can slack it off or fetch it taut.
And make him dance a score of miles away
An answer to the least twangling thrum
I play on it. He thought he lurkt at last
Safely; and all the while, what has he been?
An eel on the end of a night line; and it's time
I haul'd him in. You'll see, to-night I'll land him.

Third Man:
Bragging's a light job.

The Woman:
You daren't let me take
Your eyes in mine! — Haul, did I say? no need:
I give his mind a twitch, and up he comes
Tumbling home to me. Whatever work he's at,
He drops the thing he holds like redhot iron
And runs — runs till he falls down like a beast
Pole-axt, and grunts for breath; then up and on,
No matter does he know the road or not:
The strain I put on his mind will keep him going
Right as a homing-pigeon.

First Man:
Devilry I call it.

The Woman:
And you're welcome.

Second Man:
But the law should have a say here.

The Woman:
What, isn't he mine,
My own? There's naught but what I please about it.

Third Man:
Why did you let him go?

The Woman:
To fetch him back!
For I enjoy this, mind. There's many a one
Would think, to see me, There goes misery!
There's a queer starveling for you! — and I do
A thing that makes me like a saint in glory,
The life of me the sound of a great tune
Your flesh could never hear: I can send power
Delighting out of me! O, the mere thought
Has made my blood go smarting in my veins,
Such a flame glowing along it! — And all the same
I'll pay him out for sidling off from me.
But I'll have supper first.


When she was gone,
Their talk could scarcely raise itself again
Above a grumble. But at last a cry
Sharp-pitcht came startling in from the street: at once
Their moody talk exploded into flare
Of swearing hubbub, like gunpowder dropt
On embers; mugs were clapt down, out they bolted
Rowdily jostling, eager for the event.

All down the street the folk throng'd out of doors,
But left a narrow track clear in the middle;
And there a man came running, a tall man
Running desperately and slowly, pounding
Like a machine, so evenly, so blindly;
And regularly his trotting body wagg'd.
Only one foot clatter'd upon the stones;
The other padded in his dogged stride:
The boot was gone, the sock hung frayed in shreds
About his ankle, the foot was blood and earth;
And never a limp, not the least flinch, to tell
The wounded pulp hit stone at every step.
His clothes were tatter'd and his rent skin showed,
Harrowed with thorns. His face was pale as putty,
Thrown far back; clots of drooping spittle foamed
On his moustache, and his hair hung in tails,
Mired with sweat; and sightless in their sockets
His eyeballs turned up white, as dull as pebbles.
Evenly and doggedly he trotted,
And as he went he moaned. Then out of sight
Round a corner he swerved, and out of hearing.

— 'The law should have a say to that, by God!'

Submitted: Thursday, April 08, 2010

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