Ann Mellor’s Lover


Marjorie Bowen

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Ann Mellor’s Lover

I have always been interested in clairvoyance — after all, I hardly know anyone who isn’t; but my interest has always been rather overwhelming — a kind of haunting preoccupation, wholly pleasant but teasing, like something you can’t place or explain or reason about always must be.

I’ve never gone in for it scientifically, never had the time or the money — or perhaps, the courage.

But I’ve studied — well, all that kind of thing, half-furtively, and thought about it a great deal.

Of course, it hasn’t helped really — I mean not in explaining the queer things that have happened to me.

This is one of them.

I feel bound to put it down while it is clear in my mind. I find that unless I put these things into words I lose them. They become faded, then confused, and finally disappear altogether. It’s a great diversion to me, a great interest, and sometimes a queer sort of pain too.

I haven’t very much else in my life. Just an old bookshop that I keep myself and that keeps me quite comfortably. My father kept the shop before me, and I’ve hardly ever left it — it was through the books that the clairvoyance began, when I was quite a youth.

I say clairvoyance, but that is merely because I don’t know the right word or the exact word or a better word — I don’t mean crystal-gazing or raising spirits or anything of that kind.

I mean my peculiar affinity with the past. It is like a kind of second sight; but instead of seeing into the future, I can see into the past. Only now and then, of course, and fitfully and not at will.

Little glimpses are offered me now and then — tantalising, sometimes no use at all, sometimes startlingly complete, as this was.

I can’t explain it. I’ve heard it called race memory and cited as proof of reincarnation. I don’t know what to believe.

This is the tale.

One day I was undoing a parcel of secondhand books; they had lain in the shop some time, and I rather forgot where they had come from. I buy a great many books and from many strange places. There wasn’t much in the parcel, though some of the bindings were good — calf and vellum.

I picked up one of these — a fat volume of an enticing brown colour faintly traced with gold — and was looking for the half-effaced title when a loose sheet fluttered from between the covers on to the floor.

I picked it up and found it was a rubbed pencil drawing of a girl’s head. Nothing much in that, yet from that first second I set eyes on the thing I knew it was significant and vital. I knew that it was a clue that I was bound to follow through the labyrinth of the past. The feeling really was that I knew all about it — the whole story, but could not for the moment remember it.

Just a small pencil drawing on a neat square of yellowed paper; no signature or initials or date.

No help in the book, which was merely a volume of outrageously dull Nonconformist sermons printed a hundred and seventy years ago.

No help in the costume (I think I am an expert in that, and can place a period by a bow or ringlet), for the girl’s hair flowed unconfined in a perfectly natural fashion, and the sketch stopped at the curve of the bare throat.

She was dark and lively, looked at once wild and weak, and her eyes sought mine with a direct appeal.

‘Now who are you?’ I asked myself. ‘Who are you?’

I felt sure that I knew her and should soon know all about her — not at once and suddenly, but slowly, by the following up of small clues, as had happened to me before.

There was an old gilt frame in the shop among my lumber of fine old odds and ends, and I put the sketch into this, adjusting it carefully behind the glass, the frame being much too large, and then took it upstairs and hung it in my little parlour.

I was filled with the greatest curiosity and excitement. I felt that what I was going to find out affected me very closely and personally. I was entirely absorbed by this thought as I went about my business that day, and when evening came and the shop was shut I hastened upstairs to make myself comfortable in my old leather chair, fill my pipe, and stare at the pencilled head that hung above my mantelpiece.

I imagined that as I sat and gazed at her the whole thing would come back to me — as it sometimes did, a clear glimpse, a scene flashing out of the darkness of the past.

But this evening nothing came but two words that leapt into my mind and would not go — one was ‘Norway’ and the other ‘Nightingale’.

I was very disappointed, for the words meant nothing to me — no possible clue whatever; I knew nothing of Norway and had never even been attracted to the country; and ‘Nightingale’ was a mere word to me also, devoid of every association.

Yet I knew they must be connected in some way with my pencil sketch — the first feeble beginnings, as it were, of my fumblings into the past.

For two days nothing happened. For two days that face looked at me — no pencil lines on a bit of yellow paper, but now a warm-coloured human face; she lived before my inner eye, a complete creature. Her hair was dark brown and it hung in rather fine curls; the carnation of her face was glowing and warm; her expression flashed from resentment to appeal, and was always, bewildered.

In my mind I could not quite see her dress — but I thought that she wore something white, frilled, and that her background had water in it; that is, that she moved or lived in some place where there was water.

On the third day after my discovery of the pencil sketch that had affected me so powerfully, I attended a sale at an old house in rather on out-of-the-way part of London.

There were some fine old books there that I bought very cheaply, and I was quite pleased with my afternoon’s work. This satisfaction did not, however, interfere with my absorption in the unknown, dark, troubled creature about whom I felt such excitement. I discovered no further clues to her identity nor anything that explained the words, so persistently in my mind, of ‘Norway’ and ‘Nightingale.’

I turned for home very briskly. It was late December and brightly cold. I took the shortest cut I could to the nearest Tube station, asking my direction as I went, for I was not sure of my way in this neighbourhood, which was one of those fallen from substantial splendour into a kind of gloomy respectability. Heavy stone houses, built about fifty years ago, darkened the streets, and, hemmed in by these, I suddenly came upon an old church and churchyard, railed round neatly and divided by a paved path, which I knew to be my short cut through. I saw at a glance that the restored church was uninteresting and the rows of grey and white tombstones affected me with a sense of mere futile ugliness. I was hurrying on with a sense of the uncomfortable nip in the air and the grey dullness of my surroundings when something brought me to a sudden stop.

I found myself clinging to the railings of the churchyard, staring at a heavy square stone tomb, which was again surrounded by an iron railing, through which some patches of recent snow had drifted and now lay soiled and frozen.

There was one simple inscription on the flat side of the tomb:

ANN MELLOR
Who died in the 23rd year of her age, 1750
‘A broken and contrite heart, O Lord,
Thou wilt not despise.’

There was nothing strange in this, save that no names of relationship or residence were given. The text I had seen before on gravestones, but not often; it had always seemed to me too obvious an appeal to sentiment to be taken quite seriously.

But now I trembled with excitement and curiosity. I knew and felt that this was she.

I managed with some difficulty to mount the railings and examine the tomb all round. There was no further inscription — nothing whatever.

Still, I now knew her name, her age, the year she died. Ann Mellor! It was so familiar that I wondered how it was I had not recalled it before. I made my way through the tombs and found a gate near the church door.

It took me very little time to get hold of the verger and receive permission to look at the registers — but there was little reward for my pains. The entry was there accurately enough: ‘Ann Mellor, spinster, of this parish, aged twenty-two years.’

The date of the entry was December 24th, 1750.

So she had died in December and been buried on Christmas Eve.

I knew this much more about her, and I went on my way quite elated and shivering with a desperate kind of excitement.

In about another ten minutes in the colourless twilight I wandered round the neighbourhood, knowing quite well how useless it was. How could there be any relics of 1750 — a hundred and seventy years ago — among these massive Victorian houses, these wide modern streets?

‘Why,’ I reflected, ‘the place must have been in the country then — that church stood among fields — she used to come here by coach — yes, a small yellow-and-black coach. I can see her in it, with a wide hat and a black lace scarf tied under it, and —’

The picture was blurred again: I only knew that she used to come to this church by coach, a small black-and-yellow coach.

I remembered that the book from which the pencil sketch had fallen had borne the date 1749 — probably it had been in Ann Mellor’s possession during the last year of her life.

The thought of this book allured me. I was about to decide to get home to scrutinise it further when I found Myself almost running into a wooden hoarding, which in my absorption and the now encroaching darkness I had not noticed, stretched directly across the street, which was one of mean, drab, low-windowed villas that appeared to be mostly untenanted. I perceived that the fence enclosed a piece of waste ground; I placed my eye to a knot-hole in the wood and saw by the dismal white of the electric light given from the street lamp that the ground was covered with builders’ rubbish and the skeletons of half-demolished houses.

The sight was very dreary, yet as had the churchyard, it gave me no effect of depression. I stood quite a long time, regardless of the cold, staring at the heaps of fallen masonry, the scaffolding poles, the patches of shadow, the splotches of bleached light from the electric standard.

At last I turned and retraced my steps down the cul-desac.

At the corner I glanced up at the name of the street —‘Palmyra Villas.’ There was a policeman passing, and I asked him if this atrocious name was also that of the last portion of the street which was being demolished.

‘No,’ he said; ‘they used to call that Nightingale Lane. A nice old slum it was, too. Condemned it, they did, and time too.’

‘It wasn’t always a slum,’ I said.

‘Not likely. Fine old houses some of them was; quite a lot of chaps came over here buying knockers and fanlights and other bits. All gone now, though,’ he replied.

He evidently took me for a prowling and mercenary antique dealer. I fostered the idea and got from him the name of the firm doing the housebreaking.

Nightingale Lane —she had lived there — but not always, because she used to come to church by coach. ‘Of this parish’— not lived, but died there. Nightingale Lane — perhaps the nightingales had sung near here in 1750 — one hundred and seventy years ago.

After that I went home and wrote neatly on the edge of my pencil sketch: ‘Ann Mellor, who died in Nightingale Lane on Christmas Eve, 1750.’

Though I had found out so much, there seemed no opening for further investigation; yet I was not at all troubled — I knew that soon everything would be made clear to me.

It was not, of course, a question of coincidence (personally I do believe that there is such a thing), but of finding out, through this peculiar faculty of mine, the story of Ann Mellor.

I knew that this story had something to do with me; I felt such an extraordinary intimacy and interest, such an excitement, nay, palpitation at the thought of Ann Mellor.

I was not in the least distracted by the fact that I had looked at her tomb and read the entry of her death one hundred and seventy years ago. This death seemed to me a mere incident that we, she and I, had long left behind. A visit to the housebreakers of Nightingale Lane, a patient research among the purchasers of the oddments from the old tenements procured little result.

But there was a silver shoe-buckle found buried in the cellar of one of the houses. That I bought at once.

‘Why, that was her house, the house at the corner,’ I said. ‘And I remember going down to the cellar, when . . . ’

It was all blurred again — only just that glimpse when I recalled the house, and going down to the cellar, and losing a shoe-buckle in the dark, and searching a little for it, then giving it up impatiently. This connected me personally with Ann Mellor. I began to feel that we had been together in curious scenes — it was all blurred, dark, troubled, but I knew that I should understand very soon.

The haunting of the word ‘Norway’ puzzled me very much — it did not seem to fit into the story at all.

That evening I took the pencil sketch, the book from which it had fallen, the silver buckle, and holding all of them tightly in my hand, concentrated on an effort to find out more of the person or persons to whom they had belonged.

Usually when I did this my second sight, or clairvoyance or whatever you called the faculty I had, rewarded me with distinct visions or pictures.

This time there was nothing.

Instead, I felt there was somewhere I ought to go — impelled as it were, to get up and walk to some given point.

I put on my hat and coat, placed my treasures in my pocket, and hurried out. It was evening, wet and cold, and just at the hour when the theatres are full and the streets empty. Quite automatically and without knowing in the least where I was going, I walked rapidly to Oxford Street, then turned sharply to the left in the direction of the Marble Arch.

I was rather surprised and disappointed, for I thought I had been guided in the direction of Ann Mellor’s tomb and the ruins of Nightingale Lane. This part of the world appeared to have no association whatever with the story I was trying to discover.

The great closed opulent shops with the expanses of shining glass looked blank and alien, as did the long glimmer of the polished road, along which the huge and gaudy motorbuses rolled through the murky night splashed with artificial light.

I crossed Park Lane to the Marble Arch, crossed again, and walked along by the Park railings.

‘My God!’ I said suddenly, ‘I’ve been here before.’ A sudden pang of rage and terror possessed me, and I had a distinct vision of pine forests, mountains, and a large lake or bay— flashed, like a photo picture on the screen, across the dark fronts of the heavy houses fronting me.

The road was empty, and I swung across impulsively. In the centre I stopped and put my hand to my throat. I knew that I had reached the end of my journey.

Under my feet was the metal triangle let into the pavement to mark the site of Tyburn gallows.

I turned away very quickly, shuddering under the drizzling rain.

How did this sinister place enter into the story of Ann Mellor? And what was the meaning of that clearcut little vision of pines and mountains and lake?

I fell into an extreme agitation, and the material objects about me became unreal; they seemed to wane and roll away as if they were painted on a curtain that was being pulled aside.

I thought of what I had heard and read of the fourth dimension. That night when I went to bed I put the book, the buckle and the sketch under my pillow.

I knew what was going to happen and half dreaded it, yet deliberately prepared for it.

I was going to meet Ann Mellor. As I closed my eyes and lost all sensation of time and space, there seemed a second’s black unconsciousness. When I opened my eyes, I was standing at a little window that looked down from some height on to the Thames. There were ice-floes on the grey water, and the air was chill. By looking up the river I could see a vast amount of shipping; great masted vessels crowding together in the broad reach of the river.

A few seagulls swooped and swerved in front of me — gleaming, yet white and grey, like the river and the ice-floes.

I turned to face the room, which was completely panelled in plain wood. The floor sloped a little and the door was low; a tea equipage stood on the table; the fireplace had Dutch tiles with little figures in blue.

The room affected me with a delicious sense of home, and yet — something poignant and heart-searching.

The low door opened. And she entered.

She wore a white muslin dress all frilled, and carried a calf-bound book.

‘You like to keep me waiting,’ I said, speaking English awkwardly. Ann Mellor went to the tea-table.

‘Mrs Briscoe says you come too often,’ she said. ‘Do you come too often, Eric — do you?’

I faced her. ‘You are a hussy and lead me on. You will not let me stay away.’

She gave me a looks half smile, half frown, of wayward passion. ‘Ay, bully me,’ she said. ‘That is my thanks and my reward. My aunt scolds because you come — and this is your gratitude.’

‘You’ll marry me, you pretty little wretch, and then there will be an end of these quarrels,’ I said.

‘God helping me, no,’ she answered; ‘I’ll not marry you.’

‘You will,’ I swore.

I was close to her now, only the table between us, and her provoking face was a short space from mine.

The delicious magic of that moment seemed intolerable; when I held and kissed her, the joy of it seemed unbearable. It was supreme, but more a supreme pain than a supreme satisfaction. She had played fast and loose with me for so long — now yes, now no, denying, provoking — and I looked back on a life that had held very little denial or provocation.

‘You have got to marry me,’ I said. ‘You are nothing but a girl, and I’ll make you.’

‘I’ll not marry a foreigner,’ she pouted.

‘A penniless jade like you to choose! I am a rich man,’ I boasted. ‘I could put three thousand pounds into your English bank tomorrow.’

An elderly woman joined us and my chance was over. She looked on me with disfavour, and scolded Ann for trifles.

I was bored, but would not go for fear of missing another opportunity of talking to Ann alone. I picked up the book she had brought in and took it to the window. It was a dull volume of sermons, very new and stiff in the binding.

I yawned.

I took out my pocket-book and pencil and under cover of the open book made a pencil sketch of Ann as she sat at the tea-table bickering with Mrs Briscoe. When I had finished the sketch I idly shut it up in the book and put the book on the windowsill. For another half-hour I sat there listening to the women gossiping and scolding, then I rose.

I looked at Ann insolently, tormented by the thought of her crushed in my arms, angry with her for ignoring me.

‘Will you come to church this Sunday, as usual, Ann?’ I asked.

‘Leave her at peace in church, do, Mr Ericson!’ cried the aunt. ‘And we will not go to the Nightingale Lane Church tomorrow — it is too far.’

‘Yes, we will go,’ said Ann. ‘Hike the preacher and the coach ride.’

She looked at me as she spoke, and I went straight up to her and took her by the shoulders, regardless of the other woman.

‘My little love,’ I said, ‘do not deny me any more. Have you ever thought of death? We might be dead and cold — think how cold, these hearts of ours — before the spring is in flower —’

‘Dead,’ she laughed —‘dead!’

‘Dead and love frustrate.’

Mrs Briscoe drew her away from me. ‘God save us from these foreign manners,’ she shrilled. ‘You are nothing but a North Sea rover —’

I laughed very heartily at this, for I was one of the richest timber merchants in Kristiansund, and I swaggered away, fingering the sword on my hip.

As I walked through the streets of Wapping I was making plans to abduct the girl and marry her by force.

First I went to Nightingale Lane, looking for lodgings, and found them at the house of Mrs Porter. Then I went to the Black Bull in Holborn and picked up with some town bullies of my acquaintance, and arranged matters with them over a bottle of Tokay.

Two sham bailiffs were to arrest her for an imaginary debt on her way to church — to bring her to me at the Black Bull, where we should be married, I having my clergyman ready, and then I would take her to Nightingale Lane, near the church she so loved.

Here I cannot very well remember sequences — all is blurred, as by the haste and excitement of violent action.

I knew that for several hours I was moving about hastily in great agitation and temper from one place to another, chiefly between Wapping, the Black Bull, and Nightingale Lane.

Always was the cold, the rain, the scatters of snow, the iron-coloured river, the lead-coloured sky.

My schemes succeeded perfectly.

The sham bailiffs stopped the coach and forced out Ann Mellor, leaving Mrs Briscoe shrieking vainly in the grey silence of the wet Sunday morning, and brought her to me where I waited in the private room at the Black Bull.

My darling was brought in, not without indignity. I did not wish to spare her; I felt all the cruelty that passionate love will often show towards the beloved object.

‘I knew that it was you,’ she said.

‘Of course you knew it was I,’ I replied — what other man was there who would so dare to mishandle her?

I thought that she would appeal to my rascal clergyman or my ruffian witnesses, but she did not.

And we were married and left alone.

‘Take me away from here,’ she said; ‘anywhere from this vile tavern.’

‘I’ve lodgings,’ I said, ‘in Nightingale Lane.’

She turned her head away when I came near her, only repeating, ‘Take me away.’

‘You must watch your temper now, madam,’ I smiled. ‘You are my wife.’

At that she broke into violent weeping, like a little child, and gave me a deal of trouble to get her away into the coach.

When we reached our lodgings, which seemed the dearest place in the world to me, my wife fell from tears to abuse and railed incoherently. I tried to humour her.

‘Why, Ann,’ I said, ‘you know this is the best manner in which to deal with your tiresome relatives — come, look up and kiss me. You know that you love me.’

‘And if I do,’ she answered, with the foolish inconsistency of women, ‘does not that make it worse?’

So we quarrelled, she tragic, I smiling, till the landlady brought up the supper.

I asked her for some of the wine I had had sent in from the Black Bull yesterday, and she, grumbling, said it was in the cellar and had no mind to go there in the dark. So I took the key and the candle and went myself.

One of the buckles was loose and slipped on my shoe. I smiled to see it, thinking of Ann sewing it on for me, and laughing over the thread.

I stood awhile in the cellar, forgetful of my errand, thinking that this was my wedding night and how I loved my darling.

I thought of my own home, and how I would take her there, and the great joy and contentment we should have together.

When I had selected my wine, I noticed, in stooping, that the loose buckle was lost. As I searched for it, a draught blew my candle out, and being in the dark I gave up the business and went upstairs.

I found the house full of strangers; Mrs Briscoe was there with two of my wife’s uncles and four constables. I understood amid the noise and confusion (I could not understand the English so very well) that I was to be arrested on a charge of abduction.

I laughed in their faces. I was so sure of Ann. ‘The lady will tell you herself,’ I said, ‘that she is very willingly my wife.’

‘Swagger away, my fine young man,’ sneered Mrs Briscoe; ‘you are nowt but a foreign bully.’

‘Ann will tell you what she thinks of me,’ I answered.

We all went into the little room where she was. She must have heard us coming, for she stood ready, against the table. She still wore her hat with the black lace under it round her chin, and her dark cape over her white dress.

When she saw her relatives and the constables crowding in, she crossed instantly over to me and put her hand in mine.

I felt as if I should suffocate with the glad leap my heart gave. I placed my bottle of wine on the table.

‘You see,’ I said, ‘my wife stands by me.’

Ann took her hand away. They asked her formally if she was a willing party to her elopement and marriage.

‘Cannot you see,’ she cried, ‘by the way you find me that I am here by outrage and deceit?’

‘Girl,’ I asked aghast, ‘do you deny your husband?’

‘Had I had my will you would have been no husband of mine,’ she said bitterly.

I could afford to laugh at this, knowing how she loved me, but the others seized on her statement and made her swear to it, which the passionate girl did.

‘I’ll hurt you as you hurt me,’ she cried. ‘This shall be a black day’s work for you.’

I let them disarm and arrest me; I did not know much of the English laws, and I asked what my punishment would be.

One of the uncles answered me. ‘The girl’s an heiress. In stealing her you’ve stolen property.’

‘Twenty pounds a year and a thousand in the Government!’ I answered. ‘What is that to me? I am a rich man.’

‘No matter. You’ve committed a felony. We look after property in this country. If you are found guilty, it is the gallows.’

Ann and I looked at each other. ‘See how you frustrate love,’ I said. ‘I did not mean what I said,’ she stammered; ‘I married him willingly —’

‘The girl speaks in pity,’ said Mrs Briscoe; ‘I can prove how she was forced away —’

The girl tried to get at me now, but was forced back.

‘This is a bitter marriage night,’ I said. As they took me away, I heard her laughing like a maniac.

So I last saw her, down on her knees, holding them all at bay, laughing like a maniac.

I woke up in my little bedroom above the bookshop, and took from under the pillow the pencil sketch I had made so long ago, the book Ann was reading that day, and the buckle I had lost on my marriage day in the cellar in Nightingale Lane. It was all absolutely clear now; I remembered the trial, the walk to Tyburn, that devastating vision of my own land that had come upon me as I reached the fatal spot.

Two sentences of my dying speech stuck in my mind. I said, ‘I die for transgressing a law I knew not of’; and again, ‘I am so much in charity with my wife, that I believe she had no hand in this.’

I was rather curious to see what history had said of my case, so, that day being a Saturday, I went to the British Museum as soon as the shop was shut and looked up the trials for the year 1750. I could not find any full report here, nor did I trouble to search for it. The brief record was sufficient.

At Tyburn, in December 1750, was hanged Eric Ericson, a wealthy young Norwegian of good family, for the abduction and marriage of Ann Mellor, heiress of the late William Mellor, a merchant, of Wapping. He pleaded the complicity of the girl, but she denied him at first, retracting too late. Her relatives obtained permission to annul the marriage and for the girl to retain the name of Mellor.

I felt very exultant and triumphant.

‘She died of it,’ I said, as I closed the book, ‘in Christmas week my darling died. She went back to the lodgings I had taken for her. They could not do anything with her. She turned away from them all and died.’

I hurried home through the iron December twilight as I had hurried before to Nightingale Lane. At last I was going to be happy with Ann Mellor.

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