Torment among the trees…
Each autumn and winter for the last few years, I’ve been reading a ton of vintage horror short stories and I admit that most of them, while enjoyable at the time, are soon forgotten. But occasionally one lingers, and this is one of those. I read it a year or so ago, in the Weird Woods anthology, and it has haunted me a little ever since…
by Mary Webb
Cherry Orchard was for sale. The impossible thing, the thing that had yet threatened them always out of the misty future, had become fact. She could not believe it.
Laura’s father has become an invalid and their small stock of savings has dwindled. Now her father must sell the orchard which Laura has loved all her young life…
‘I’d as lief,’ she muttered, ‘think of selling myself.’
The father and daughter have a new neighbour who has come to pay them a visit…
Julius Winter was the new owner of Bitterne Hall. He had brought with him a wife almost as rich as himself, a Lady in her own right, and exactly like a pink sweet. Before Julius shone a vista of pleasant days with many smaller pink sweets about him.
Laura’s father tells her to show Julius the orchard and as they pass the great laurel tree outside the house, Laura tells him it is her name-tree…
‘This is my name-tree,’ she said. ‘Do you know the old belief about name-trees? If the tree dies, you die. If you sicken, the tree withers. If you desert it, a curse falls.’
Julius is fascinated by Laura’s deep passion for the orchard and his fascination soon turns to lust and a desire to possess…
He watched her, standing slim and gauche, in her old brown dress, her soul tormented by love for something vague and mysterious, something he could not touch or name, that seemed to lie beneath the earthly beauty that she saw, like a dreaming god. Desire surged over him—the poignant longing that jonquils bring, the longing to touch the silken petals, to gather the brittle, faintly-scented stalks.
And so he offers her a bargain…
….‘Would you like to keep Cherry Orchard for ever?’
….She looked at him, frowning.
….‘I will buy Cherry Orchard and give it you, if you will give me the keys of Heaven.’
….‘And Heaven is—?’
Laura is silent for a long time, as if communing with her beloved trees. Then she replies:
….‘I have no love to give,’ she said at last, ‘to you or any man.’
….‘Before the fruit falls in your orchard,’ he said, harsh and low, ‘you shall give it to me.’
And Julius, sure of his own power, buys the orchard and Laura’s home…
* * * * *
It’s not just the obvious masculine dominance in the story that makes it disturbing, though that’s important. It’s also Laura’s connection with nature which seems to go well beyond the norm, into a kind of witchy-woman feel – an elemental thing, a sexless dryad made human, female and powerless. The orchard and the trees are given a consciousness and have a kind of symbiotic relationship with Laura, as if she is their guardian and they are hers, but neither with the strength to withstand male destructiveness. Julius is a strong, pitiless man and Laura’s father is weak and selfish, but they both understand the power of money as a means to possess those things they desire. But at what cost?
The trees brooded over them like jewelled birds in some ancient tapestry. They filled him with an ache of longing. He wanted to possess them, as a god might. He would possess them in her. His soul could only reach the outer fringes of hers; his voice strove to win her; his eyes burnt on hers, but she lowered her lashes and was mute. She remained aloof: but through the body he would reach her. She should have nothing of herself left, no corner of her spirit that was not his.
Very well written in a folklorish style and strongly feminist in message, all the darkest parts are left vague and undescribed, and are all the more disturbing for it. I can’t find an online version of the story on its own, but if you would like to read it it’s one of the stories in a collection called Armour Wherein He Trusted, which can be downloaded free at fadedpage.com – here’s the link. Or of course you can read it in Weird Woods.
(The porpy didn’t get scared but he got angry!)