Jay, the Farmer's Daughter
A haunting tale of a young girl who reaches her destination after receiving true love from another human being.
Jay was just fifteen when I met her. I wasn't a regular churchgoer, but I went that evening to the harvest thanksgiving. There was always something special about that service; the aisles stacked with sheaves of corn, the window ledges decorated with fruits, vegetables, dahlias, chrysanthemums and autumn foliage; the whole place aglow in candlelight.
I noticed a few people looking sidelong at me. Still somewhat of a newcomer, I imagined I was often the subject of gossip. Until then I'd rarely mingled, and perversely enjoyed the intrigue I created. However, that particular evening I decided to give everyone either the pleasure or displeasure of discovering I was quite human after all.
After church there was a potluck supper in the hall. It was no slap-dash affair. We were all seated at the long trestle tables very properly, each place setting having a knife, fork and spoon, a glass and a paper serviette. The tablecloths were white damask.
To my right sat a man, the father I realized, of the girl on my left. I didn't know then that she'd skipped along a place, and thus incurred his displeasure for days. I didn't take to him. He was heavily jowled and had piggy eyes. He had a way of asking personal questions in a snide, suggestive way. It was inevitable, given our backgrounds that our conversation, for what it was, would fizzle out. Becoming disinterested, he turned away and began to banter with the young woman sitting opposite him. She seemed to be miffed with her sweetheart, and although it was unlikely she had any serious intentions towards the farmer, she flirted with him and laughed at his crudities like a silly filly.
Not wishing to be drawn into their obscene exchange I slighted the blonde by ignoring one of her comments and turned instead to converse with the farmer's daughter. She was shy and all too aware of her father; although his attention was on the female opposite him, I could see he noticed Jay's every move. If he should notice laughter in her voice, his eyes would dart to her warningly.
She was, I think, greatly relieved when dinner was over and she could move away from me. We arose from the tables that were packed away to make room for the dancing. I could sense Jay's excitement, her disappointment too, because I was sure no one would lead her onto the dance floor. I saw many a man's eye flicker her way, but the farmer guarded her like a ferocious old dog. It was, I thought, more than mere fatherly protection
Through making a few discreet inquiries, I found that he was called Briggs Brown, although he was known as Digger. I unearthed something about Jay, too. I learned she was not liked by the other girls. Most dislike is fear, and I wondered if their suspicions were for personal reasons or because of her family: couples paired off and families met with friends, yet the farmer and his own were as enigmatic as myself, and sat alone. The difference was, I was avoided because I was a mystery; they were shunned because people knew them.
By the end of the evening I'd made up my mind. I approached Digger and asked if his daughter might come to work for me.
I could see he'd taken a dislike to me. He was cunning though, not a man to allow an opportunity to slip by. He enjoyed the moment of power, allowing the question to hang between us.
I was impatient with his game. I added that I was prepared to pay. That soon moved his tongue.
"What would you want 'er to be doin' then?" he said, narrowing his eyes.
"Filing. Tidying my affairs," I said.
He sniggered. "'Er? Tidy? You'll be lucky."
"I'll teach her," I said politely. "She seems bright enough."
"Oh, 'er's bright enough all right. Regular little foxie 'er be." He turned down the sides of his thick, gross lips while he played me for more time. Eventually he said, "'Er can come Wednesdays. That's all."
"Thank you, Mr. Brown," I said. "I shall expect her on Wednesday morning at nine sharp then."
"The middle of the morning you mean," he sneered. "You city folk can't get up at a proper 'our then?"
Not that it was any of his business, but I retorted, "It's not a bad time considering I often write into the early hours of the morning."
He grunted and walked away. We were worlds apart; neither of us the least interested in discovering if we had anything in common. I saw him murmur something to Jay, and she gave me a curious glance as they left.
Jay came to my cottage the next week, two minutes before time. Her first words were, "I 'ave to be 'ome by four, Father says so."
I looked at her curiously, and I have to admit to a feeling of being let down. In one so lovely, I had expected more perhaps. Gratitude, for rescuing her? A sweeter disposition?
I shooed my silly disappointment away. My expectations had risen out of my imagination, not reality.
"Come in," I said, and stepped aside to allow her in.
She met my eyes only briefly, but she wasn't shy at looking around the cottage. She devoured everything, her eyes wide with wonderment.
"Those all your books?" she said, in her soft low voice, the burr of Devonshire hanging on every syllable.
"Yes," I said. Adding, because she pleased me by saying that, "You're welcome to borrow any you like."
"Oh, but I couldn't take them 'ome," she said.
She nevertheless went to my bookcases and touched a few books, as though committing their presence to her memory.
I handled her gently that day, and on through those ever darkening days that led up to the winter solstice. It was a bitterly cold December that year, yet her presence warmed me more than any summer could.
She was a bright and eager student and did her job willingly and well. I was startled when, one afternoon she said quite vehemently, "I hate these winter days."
I felt stung. I'd foolishly imagined I was bringing the same joy into her life as she brought into mine.
"I wouldn't want you to think I was ungrateful," she said, putting down her sheaf of papers and coming to stand beside me. Her hands fidgeted with the back of the chair. "'Tis the best winter I ever 'ad. What I mean is, I shall be glad of the lighter evenin's." Her eyes became shifty, and she added quietly, "'E's more to do in spring."
I reached out and caught her hand, pressing it so she would look at me.
She saw my question. She closed her eyes, and two fat tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Oh, Jay, no."
I drew her down upon my lap and we sat quietly for a while, each lost in our own desperation.
"Can't your mother do anything? Say something?"
"She don't care. Saves 'er, don't it?"
"Is there nothing I can do? Anywhere you can go?"
"No. Nowhere. Not a thing anyone can do."
I'd never heard such hopelessness in a young girl's voice. I wanted suddenly to shake her for her apathy. I was going to insist she allow me to help her. And then, when I looked into her eyes I saw defiance and anger mixed with the helplessness and pain. Oh, such depth of pain. She didn't accept it. She hated what was happening, but she had no choice. She was too young to leave home without her father's consent, and if I kept her, he would simply come and fetch her away.
"I've loved comin' 'ere," she whispered, fiddling with one of my buttons. I moved her hand away. As I did, I caught her look of hurt.
"No," I said quickly. "I'm not rejecting you; I'm just not sure."
"Would it be a sin then?" she whispered.
My reply was to lead her from the room and up the stairs.
It is said that thought brings a deed closer, and in this instance I believe it had. Perhaps she had been contemplating it too, because she showed no resistance to my advances.
There was no fire lit in my bedroom. We could see our breath cloud on the air, yet we were so fevered we didn't feel the cold.
I knew this moment would never come again. The first time was the best there'd ever be. In hindsight, what a fool I was to even imagine there would be another time.
She was shy afterwards. It made me feel so much a thief I asked her if she regretted it. She shook her head, but I feared she lied. Later, I knew she had, but not for the reason I thought then.
"I couldn't ever hurt you, if that's what you are thinking," I said. "I would take care of you forever. Why don't you come here? I could ask him. Never mind what anyone would say, others live this way."
She put a finger to my lips. "Don't," she whispered. "Please, don't."
She didn't look around as she walked down the path; nor wave as she usually did. The click of the gate closing sounded so final. I called her name, but she didn't reply and I turned away.
It was a misunderstanding that convinced me not to inquire why she didn't come to the cottage the following week. I thought perhaps she needed time to digest what had happened between us, and once she came to terms with it, she would turn up on my doorstep. So I didn't go to the farm.
I had to go up to London for a while, but I left a message for her pinned on the front door, just in case she should come while I was away.
When I returned, it was still there.
Any gratification I might have felt in the dealings with my publisher was washed away by a wave of despair. I decided then that I would go to the farm. I must know for certain why Jay had ceased coming. It was hard for me to accept that it was because of what we'd done. I just felt it must be something more.
The morning I was to go, I was walking down the path when I heard voices. It was blustery, as those late winter/early spring days often are on the moor; sunny though, because I had to shade my eyes and squint to see who was approaching. It was hard to tell from where I stood as the track outside curved away and down the hill, I could only see the heads of several people. Curious, I went to the gate.
It was a group of six or seven men carrying a coffin. They were followed by a clutch of women holding up one in their midst who could hardly stand for weeping. It was Jay's mother.
I shrank away. I thought my heart would burst.
One of the followers saw me and came over.
"Found 'er in the barn," she said, nodding towards Jay's coffin. "Left a note, but 'er didn't say who the father was. Just said 'er couldn't go on like it any more."
As she said this I glanced ahead and caught Digger Brown looking at me. If I'd been a man, I would have knocked him to the ground.
The woman followed my eyes and sighed. After a moment she put her hand on my arm.
"An awful thing to say, my dear, but perhaps in this instance 'tis for the better." Her eyes met mine then dropped, and she walked on.
My reason for living in the village had been to write about the mysteries of the moor; never did I think I'd help create one. From that day forward I put flowers on Jay's grave. It became my haunting place.
It still is.