She Hath Done What She Could
I drove to the hospital in the Yorkshire Dales and asked for Elizabeth Anne Langley, Bronte Ward. I asked the ward sister how the operation had gone.
"Very well," she replied, "knees can be a bit of a problem but she's a tough old bird, isn't she? Very good for eighty-five. She should be able to go home in a couple of days. Just one thing—when she was coming out of anaesthetic, she cried a bit and said 'It were a wicked thing to do.' I don't know what she meant but people do react strangely sometimes."
"I can't imagine what that was about," I said, "her life has been very quiet. Maybe she meant she'd forgotten to fill the bird feeders."
Aunt Lizzie lay in bed, supported by pillows, wearing a blue nightdress and shawl. I kissed her and gave her a bunch of freesias and a box of her favourite mint imperials. She asked me to bring the September parish magazine when I next came. We chatted until she became tired.
"Look after Ivy Cottage for me," she said, "I'll be home soon."
Aunt Lizzie lives alone in the village of Burston at the foot of Stanridge Pike. Lizzie and my mother were born in the next village and moved to Ivy Cottage as children. Lizzie is fond of saying "I think you could say I were local." She has never travelled outside Yorkshire. She never married, although there was a fiancé, killed in the war in 1916. I am her only relative, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Health with no attachments except for good friends, and I visit Lizzie often. On my desk in Whitehall, I have photographs of the Dales with its limestone crags, stone houses, ancient churches and light swelling and receding across surges of hills.
I went to the small local supermarket to buy food and wine, then picked up Lizzie's dog, Pedro, a brown and black Jack Russell terrier, from her "gentleman friend" in nearby Grassington. Lizzie has had a Jack Russell for as long as I can remember; they live to great ages, then are wrapped in a sack and buried in her garden.
I drove to the cottage along the river Wharfe. Willow fronds dipped into the water. Dragonflies whirred and flashed. The river shimmered, ruffled by stones in its shallows. Children with buckets paddled under the bridge, scooping and pouring. I used to catch minnows here, then throw them back and watch them dart downstream, quick and silver.
It was cold for October. I lit the Aga in the kitchen, made a log fire in the sitting room and turned on the central heating, installed, together with a phone and a television, five years ago. The cottage dates from the 17th century and has low beams and a vast fireplace with a bread oven. An ancient aspidistra has stood in a green pot on the window ledge since I was a child.
After an early dinner, I drove up the valley, with Pedro, to my favourite church, St Cuthbert's in Debden. Each pew has a small mouse carved into the oak by Robert (Mouseman) Thompson in the 1920s. The rest of the church is Norman, with an ancient rood screen, a square clock tower and arched doorway. The evening sun, filtering through the stained glass windows, dappled the flagstones in red, green and blue. On the west wall above a radiator, was a brass plaque which had not been there last time I visited. It was inscribed:
"In memory of Sarah Jane Reeves who departed this life on April 15th, 1934, aged 18. Placed here by the Earl and Countess of Middleham.
'She hath done what she could.'"
A jar of meadowsweet and cranesbill had been placed on the floor under the plaque.
I wondered if Sarah Jane had died in childbirth, of some terrible disease, or in an accident. The quotation seemed familiar. Mathew? Mark? A tall young man pushed open the door and introduced himself as the new vicar.
"That's from Mark, Chapter 14," he said. "A woman brings an alabaster box of ointment of precious spikenard to the house of Simon, the leper. She pours it over the head of Jesus. The priests and scribes complain, saying it could have been sold and given to the poor. Jesus says 'she hath done what she could' and is anointing his body prior to burying."
"Do you know anything about the young woman?" I asked.
"Only that the plaque was in the broom cupboard until it was moved last year. I've heard that the girl drowned herself. The previous vicar said that nobody should be excluded from the church but there was a battle about it. When he retired, the parish council gave in and I had the plaque moved. The Middlehams were an aristocratic family and have a turreted mausoleum in the churchyard; you've probably seen it. Their daughter is still alive, but afflicted, they say. Some of the elderly people round here might know something about Sarah Jane, but they can be a bit resentful and tight with foreigners. Let me know if you learn anything."
I drove back in the still, whispering evening. Trees were beginning to lose their leaves, and shuddered, half stripped, in the firm breeze. The Wharfe was higher now, bustling over rocks and dragging at the reeds on the bank. I let Pedro off the lead once we reached Burston. He ran off up the hill, yapping and snuffling. I found him down a rabbit hole, back legs scuttling the earth. I dragged him out and wiped the soil from his nostrils. He sniffed and sneezed. It was turning cold and he needed a bath, his warm bedtime milk and his basket.
I went to the hospital early next day, leaving Pedro in the cottage. Aunt Lizzie had had a good night. She sat, spry, wearing a beige hand-knitted cardigan over her nightdress, her white hair newly brushed. She asked what I had done yesterday.
"It's about time they put that plaque where it belongs," she said.
"Who was Sarah Jane?" I asked, "And what happened?"
"It were a bad business," said my aunt, "let sleeping dogs lie, I say."
She lay back on the pillow, and arranged her arms under the sheets.
"I'm a bit tired now, love. I'll see you tomorrow." She closed her eyes.
I collected Pedro and drove to the nearest pub, The Curlew. A few stocky farmers were having a pint. I ordered a half of Black Sheep, a local brew, and a cheese Ploughman's sandwich. Pedro had some crisps. I asked the landlord if he knew anything about Sarah Jane Reeves.
"I don't," he said, "but mother might. She's having her nap but if you can hang on a bit, you can see her."
A ruddy man, with a stick, sat on a bench by the fire, his lean brown whippet at his feet.
"There were a rum do," he said. "T' Middlehams what had yon plaque done, owned Middleham Hall t' other side of Ilkley, about twenty miles away. It burned down in, now let me think, 1936. T' Middlehams had lost nearly all their money and had sold to a solicitor from Leeds. He were burned to death. There's a bit o' th'hall still standing. Somebody bought it and put a housekeeper there wi' t'Middleham daughter. Now she would know a lot, but doesn't talk, poor thing, and is a bit do-lally. They say that the ghost of that girl, Sarah Jane, what drownded, sometimes goes out of an evening round Hugo's crag and by the stepping stones over t' Wharfe i' Baxden."
I went upstairs to talk to Mrs Hargreaves, the mother. On the planked floor was a peg rug, made of different scraps of material. Mrs Hargreaves sat on the crocheted quilt of the single bed. Beside it was a table with a brush and comb, matted with hair. She stood, and seemed too tall for the low room even though she stooped. Her grey hair was sparse and permed, and false teeth too big for her mouth.
"I don't know much. It were a long time ago, and my memory's not what it were," she said.
"Sarah Jane were adopted from an orphanage in Harrogate by t' Reeves family who were tenant farmers i' Middleham. They say they got paid a tidy sum for tekking babby but nobbody knew who t'mother were. They had four childer o'their own, all boys. Sarah Jane got friendly wi' t' Middleham daughter somehow, then t' Middlehams lost their money, poor Sarah Jane drownded and t' daughter went strange. You might get summat out of Mrs Leigh, that's her housekeeper, but she's not one for visitors."
"Where did she drown?" I asked.
"Well," said Mrs Hargreaves, "A fisherman found her early one morning. She were hooked onto a branch in t' Wharfe. There were plenty of rumours, but nobbody really knows what happened. She had a gret bruise on her cheek and were expecting."
"Did anybody know who might have been the father?"
"Nay, a mystery. Just like her mother. O'course, Sarah Jane were born during t'war so onnything could have happened."
I put Pedro in the back of the car and drove to the cottage to pick up warm clothes and snacks. It would be twilight at around seven. The old farmer had said that Sarah Jane sometimes appeared in the evenings, at Hugo's Crag, a swollen outcrop of limestone near Kettlewell. We could be there by six. I know the area well; when I was a child, my parents used to bring me up from London for the Kettlewell scarecrow festival in summer. Scarecrow farmers herded scarecrow sheep, scarecrow Santas climbed rooftops, scarecrow walkers were dressed in boots and rucksacks. Then there was the carnival with stalls and competitions—darts, coconut shies, fish catching, raffles, tombola. For the duck race, you paid your pennies and put your name on a plastic duck, released upstream. The first duck to reach Kettlewell first won a prize. I always put the name of my aunt's current Jack Russell on the duck—Poppy Langley, Percy Langley, Perky Langley. After the carnival, we would scrabble up the hill to have a picnic under the crag.
I parked next to the pub. It was cold, damp and misty. I put on my anorak and walking boots and picked up the rucksack with refreshments. Once out of the village and on the hill, I released Pedro. He spotted rabbits and leapt over dry stone walls in chase.
The crows made a raucous din in the copse where nests lodged. Sheep huddled together and sturdy cows glared and munched, twitching to flick away midges. We reached the crag. The earth was damp and soft and pushed me up as I trod. Knapweed and cow parsley still lingered and blue campanula crouched amongst the tufts. The curlews were beginning to migrate south, but would be back in May. I drank some water, and put my rucksack on the ground to watch the low cloud swallow the amber sun.
Fog closed round us. Pedro whimpered and came close. I could see nothing. The village below was hidden, the cows and sheep smudges. A wind swirled the fog into wisps. Pedro howled. I moved to pat him and slipped on a piece of limestone rock. My left ankle strained to one side as I fell. My rucksack was taken by wind and tossed down the invisible hillside. Small rocks scattered from the crag.
"Who's there?" I called.
My ankle was swelling and painful. I unfastened the boot and prodded it. Pedro snarled and ripped the ground with his teeth. I stroked his soft back. I could not see where the path was, and didn't think I could walk. Larger stones scraped down the crag. One hit Pedro and he jumped, yelped and twisted. The coils of mist were now green tipped and glowing. I wondered what the temperature would be at night if we had to stay there. We could not walk in the dark; I knew that, lower down were sinister swamps and deep clefts cut out by ancient tin mines. I shouted for help and Pedro barked. The echoes drummed back from the crag. I heard a murmuring, as if two voices were talking together, the moans and shrieks. I moved, slipped, hit my head on a rock and knew nothing.
I woke up in a bedroom of the pub in Kettlewell, covered in blankets. The landlord's wife had bound my ankle, and rubbed butter on my bruised head. "You were lucky Michael went up to find a sheep," she said. "Nobbody likes to be on yon crag at night." I thanked her, and found where Michael lived so that I could take him a bottle of whisky the following day. I drove back to the cottage in pain, bathed and dried Pedro, soaked in a bath, had a large glass of brandy, gave Pedro his dry dog food with milk, and went to bed. I slept badly.
I visited Lizzie the next day, my forehead bruised and throbbing.
"What on earth have you done to yourself," asked my aunt.
I said that I had slipped in the garden but nothing was broken.
"Daft devil," said Lizzie.
"That's a term of endearment in Yorkshire," said the nurse, "have you been looked at?"
I picked up two bottles of whisky from the supermarket, one to thank for Michael and one for the gentleman friend. I drove to Grassington to tell him that Lizzie would be home the next day. I asked if he knew anything about Sarah Jane.
"Not a lot," he said, "I know they moved t'plaque. But I'm not really local. I only moved here thirty years ago after t' wife died."
The hospital provided an ambulance to take Lizzie home. I made her a special supper of fish pie with a glass of wine. The gentleman friend called round in his old car, bringing vegetables and rhubarb from his garden. Lizzie said he gave up his motorbike last year when he ran into a sheep one foggy night, and came off worse. We all had a glass of whisky and I settled Lizzie, with an alarm, in a bed downstairs in the parlour. Pedro slept in his basket behind the door.
For three days, I cooked, read and worked. Lizzie dozed, watched television and cut recipes out of the parish magazine. Neighbours called with flowers and food. I knew some of them, but Lizzie said things were changing. As people died, the cottages were bought either as weekend homes, or by people in Leeds who could commute. A crime writer lived up the road, and called in to give auntie his latest novel; a vet lived at the top of the hill; an opera singer, Deborah West, with Opera North in Leeds, rented the big house and gave the villagers tickets for her performances.
"I once went," said auntie, "in a little bus. It were all stabbings and death. Deborah took a knife to somebody, mind you he'd asked for it. Then she jumped out of a window. I tell you, I were surprised to see her walking about after."
"She was playing Tosca," I said. "I've seen her sing that in London. She's brilliant. I'd love to meet her."
"Well, tha will," said Lizzie. "She's very nice when she's not going around killing people."
We went through old photographs and found some of me and my parents, taken when we visited The Dales; others were older and sepia coloured, including one of the fiancé in uniform.
"Was he from round here?" I asked.
"Nay," Lizzie replied, "he were from Lancashire, near Blackpool. He came over to work in t' mines. Lovely lad. Everybody liked him, and then he were killed."
She looked down at her hands, and then sipped her tea.
"A bit more sugar, please, love."
I returned to find her dabbing her eyes with a shawl.
"Terrible thing, war. We would have got married and everything would have been all right."
I asked if there were any photos of any of the village families, like the Reeves and Sarah Jane, or the Middlehams at the big house.
"Nay," she said, "and don't thee go meddling, it were a bad business and best forgotten."
"I'm curious," I said.
"Tha knows what curiosity did—killed cats and plenty more."
I decided to visit Middleham Hall the following morning before I left for London.
I left Lizzie with breakfast in bed and Pedro in his basket. I said I had to go to the post office in Grassington and would get back just after the nurse arrived. I drove up the hill to the ruined Hall. A rusty old tractor was on the hillside, a battered car by the house. The bricks were black from the fire which had destroyed it. Part of the family coat of arms was notched above a cracked arch. Jagged pieces of masonry hovered above empty windows. I found the small annexe where the Middleham girl and the housekeeper lived and knocked on the door. A curved old woman, with grey hair and wearing an apron over tattered clothes, opened it. She opened her mouth. Her teeth were sparse and ridged with brown. I offered her cakes I had bought in the village.
"Who are ye?" she asked.
I told her I was staying with my aunt, Lizzie Langley, and was interested in the plaque in the church.
"Aye, well," she said. "It were a rum do, and now here I am wi' poor Charlotte who never says owt, just sits and rocks. Can hardly get 'er to wash or eat. She won't let onnybody near her."
"What happened?" I asked.
"Tha'd best come in. I've got some tea, just about. Sit down."
I sat in a creaking wooden chair, covered in stained embroidered cloth. A thin cat mewed and wanted to sit on my lap. I pushed it away.
The housekeeper brought thick, dark tea with no milk or sugar. She sat to face me in a greasy armchair.
"I'll tell thi what I knows," she said, "there's plenty nobbody will ever know, and there's plenty nobbody'll tell thi:
"Sarah Jane, I expect tha' knows, were adopted, as a babby, by Jim and Agnes Reeves. It so 'appened that th' Earl and Countess 'ad not been able to have children but then, when they was getting on a bit, she had a daughter, Charlotte. Right from t'beginning, Countess would call on Mrs Reeves wi' Charlotte. O' course, she had a nanny and what have you, but t' Countess, being over forty and t' child likely to be only one, would tek Charlotte about wi' 'er. Anyway, it got so t' Countess would sometimes leave little Charlotte for an hour or so to play wi' Sarah Jane. Little lasses got on well and when it were time for Charlotte to 'ave private lessons wi' a tutor, th' Earl and Countess asked if Sarah Jane could join 'er. They did embroidery and such but th' Earl and Countess were very modern, if you like, and wanted Charlotte to be well educated and do Latin and Greek and such. So this is what 'appened, and t' two lasses were good playmates. Sometimes Sarah Jane would stay at Middleham. Reeves were glad not to have so many childer about and thought education a good idea if you could afford it. I believe Sarah Jane were very clever.
"So, these two lasses grew up together. Couldn't be separated. When they was fourteen or fifteen, there was talk. They seemed very close, if you know what I mean and they was seen 'olding 'ands on walks. News of this got to t' parents and they was separated. Sarah Jane was stopped going to th' hall, but they used to meet in secret and wrote each other letters that t' servants was told to get 'old of.
"Then it were decided that Charlotte should go to school somewhere abroad. No question, of course, of Sarah Jane going, but th' Earl did offer to send 'er to college where she could train to be a teacher. It seems that Charlotte kicked up a terrible fuss and said that she wanted to be a teacher, too, and didn't want to go somewhere where she would learn about flower arranging and how to walk proper. She persuaded 'er parents to allow 'er and Sarah Jane to write to each other. It seems they 'ad plans to train as teachers, live together and set up a little school."
"What year would this be?"
"Oh, about 1934 or 35.
"Then, th'Earl lost a lot of money. Something to do wi' a dead brother's debts and foreign business. Anyhow, they had to sell th' hall and move to a smaller house in Middleham. Charlotte were to stop at school until th' end of t' year, Sarah Jane were studying i' Skipton and living at home. Heaven knows how she did it wi' all them people about. But, as I said, she were clever. Anyhow, a young man started to call on 'er. He were a doctor's son from Ilkley and wanting to be a doctor hisself. I don't know how they met, but he were round a lot.
"Suddenly, Charlotte arrived home, saying she were never going back to that place and wanting to see Sarah Jane. A week later, Sarah Jane's body were found in t'river. She 'ad a bruise on her 'ead and she were four months gone. Charlotte never spoke again. When t' police came to talk to 'er, she wrote on a piece of paper 'I know nothing'. T' doctor's son was questioned. All he said there was no funny business, they met to read poetry."
"But she was having a baby," I interrupted, "who was the father?"
"Nobbody knows. All t' young men hereabouts was questioned and 'er friends in Skipton asked about any man friends. It was even said th' old Earl might have had summat to do wi'it. Or old Reeves. Or a brother. Nothing were ever proved. Anyhow, it were decided she killed herself, and were not buried in t' churchyard but in a little grave in t'woods. I don't know where. I expect nobbody does any more. Charlotte might know more than she lets on. Th'Earl and Countess had a plaque done for Sarah Jane but vicar wouldn't have it i'church. T' Reeves moved down south to relatives. Middleham burned down. Th' Earl and Countess died soon after wi'in a month of each other. Young doctor went to Canada. That's all I can tell thi. There's no telling, is there? Thanks for t' cakes. I'll see if Charlotte wants one."
Before I left Burston, I arranged for the district nurse to call on Lizzie and deal with hospital checkups. I said that I would phone every day and visit once a month. The gentleman friend and neighbours would call in with meals.
I went to the library in Westminster the day after I returned to London, and took out a copy of Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage Guide to find the Middlehams. The entry read:
"Middleham, Earl (Middleham) (Earl UK 1790)
ROGER MIDDLEHAM, 8th Earl b 1 May 1910, d 1950 ed. Eton and Oxford, formerly Lieutenant, Royal Hussars m Alice only da. of late Christopher Giles and his issue
Daughter living Charlotte Alice, b 1915
No other living relatives. Seat formerly Middleham Hall, Middleham Yorks"
I phoned Harrogate Town Hall to ask about the orphanage where Sarah Jane had been placed. It had been converted into expensive flats. The list of adoptions was held in the town hall in Leeds, but there was no record of Sarah Jane.
"It could have been a private adoption," said the registrar, "somebody paying to have a baby placed. It used to happen, especially during the war in villages."
I took a week's holiday in February and drove to Wharfedale. The road between Skipton and Burston was frosty, the trees crisped with white and the valley stark and clear.
Spring flowers pushed through the banks by the roadside. I stopped at Arncliffe churchyard to see the snowdrops, stems arched like green fishing rods tipped with white, hovering over tufts of frost. Lizzie's garden was beginning to spurt with crocuses, daffodils and cyclamen. The viburnum flowers grew on bare branches, and oozed perfume. I picked some to put in a jug on the kitchen table. Dark, studious hellebores gazed at the ground.
Lizzie was moving well, without a stick. She had knitted another cardigan in green. The buttons were all fastened in the right places and she looked smart and lively. The hairdresser had been to give her a shampoo and cut.
I decided to do a long walk the day after I arrived. I put on my thick coat and walking boots and strapped a little tartan jacket round Pedro. We went up the hill, past Stanforth waterfall, spurting over slabs of rock and full of melting ice. I followed the river path for three miles and realised I was near the stepping stones where Sarah Jane had been found. I sat watching the river heaving and rushing.
The shiny green head of a lone drake bobbed in the current. He struggled but could not scramble up onto a stepping stone. He constantly washed back and buffeted, quacking fiercely. I pushed myself down the bank, telling Pedro to wait. I leaned over, and put my foot on the first stone to reach for him. The drake screeched and rose above me. I saw a green reflection in the water and shapes dancing round the base of the stones. I heard murmurings, then howls. I slipped and was pulled into the foam. I clung to a wet, slippery stone, my legs unable to control my movements. The water churned around me, its foam seething and beckoning. I could not wriggle out of my heavy clothes. Pedro barked.
"Stay," I shouted. But he slid down to the edge of the bank and tried to scramble onto the first stone. A gush caught him and tumbled him into the water. I screamed. I saw a rope, one end tied to a tree on the right bank, the other to a tree on the left, but severed in the middle, its frayed ends squirming in the water, out of reach. I pushed myself to the next stone, caught the rope and wrapped the end round my wrist. I could now heave myself to the bank. I thought I heard a laugh.
I could not see Pedro. His tiny body could not have survived the torrent. I shook and dripped and staggered to the road. A girl on a bike found me and went back to the village to get her father. He arrived in a farm cart, with blankets. I sobbed and told him the story.
"Bit dangerous, that," he said, "but there should be ropes on either side of them stones, like a bridge."
"One had gone," I said and the other was dragging in the water."
"Locals don't go down there at night," he said, "tha'll have heard about poor lass what drownded years ago."
It was dark when we arrived at Lizzie's. She opened the door. I thanked the farmer.
"I'll pick t' blankets up tomorrow," he said, "thee get warm."
"Where on earth have you been?" she said. "I were going to phone t'police. Where's Pedro?"
I sat down, shaking, and cried. She gave me brandy.
"Auntie," I said, "I'll get you another dog."
"You never know wi' Jack Russells," she said, "they're plucky little things and survivors. He's been in scrapes afore."
I had hot soup, a long bath and more brandy, but I could not get warm. I lied about where I had fallen in the river. At ten o'clock, there was a knock on the door. A man stood there with Pedro, wrapped in a towel. My aunt grabbed him and stroked the tangled fur on his neck.
"He were found, soaked, under t'bridge at Stanforth. I phoned all t'vets and this one here said it were yours. He'll be round in a minute."
He was; he examined Pedro and said all was well. Pedro had a bath and some of his special chicken as a treat.
I stayed on in Yorkshire for another few days, walking, reading and visiting villages and churches. In Debden, the plaque had been polished and chrysanthemums placed underneath.
"Who did this?" I asked the vicar.
"A friend of your aunt comes in every week."
Two years later, my aunt died from pneumonia after a fall in her garden. I went to Yorkshire to deal with the funeral and the deeds of the house, now mine. The gentleman friend would have Pedro. I cleared out drawers, and threw away parish magazines, dating back twenty years. In the bottom of a drawer in the bedroom, I found a beige folded paper. It was a birth certificate for a girl, born in 1915. It read: Mother: Elizabeth Anne Langley. Father: Unknown. Name: Sarah Jane.
I folded the paper and walked to the fire. On the day of Aunt Lizzie's funeral, I would take some flowers from the tributes and put them under Sarah Jane's plaque.