The late afternoon sun mellowed the creamy Chilmark stone of St
Osbert’s Anglican Church. It was the same stone that Constable had
painted so warmly when he depicted Salisbury Cathedral.
The vicar had glanced at the latest entry in the Visitors’ Book, before
wandering into the churchyard.
Howard Lawes, MD, Alabama, he pondered.
Dr Lawes appeared to be a typical American tourist, judging by the
inordinate amount of camera equipment that he was carrying. His
surname was ringing bells, but not in a campanological fashion, for the
vicar. Wasn’t it the same name that was to be found on many of the
gravestones in Dinton?
The visitor was in the unhallowed burial section, adjusting his lenses and
trying to capture a special view of the steeple. This had caused many a
photographer of lesser ability to flatten the wildflowers which grew
profusely in its shade.
Good afternoon! greeted the Rev Dodgson. I believe you are a long way
from home? This was a tried and tested opening gambit which may have
given some an impression of his virtual omniscience and benevolence.
Yes- and no, drawled the complex and surprisingly pale Dr Lawes,
in an expansive non-British fashion. Yes, I am from Alabama, but my
roots are right here in the Wylye Valley. I visited Philipps House this
morning and, in conversation, discovered quite a bit about my ancestors
and their Royalist connections.
Lawes… the vicar pondered. Ah, the Comus link. Have you had musical
genes passed down to you?
Sadly not, replied the photographer, screwing the lens cap back onto his
camera. But I could have sworn that I was seeing creatures from my
namesake’s masque in your churchyard. It may have been a trick of the
light, but a curious presence seemed to follow me around and then I saw
what looked like a human mouth begin to materialise. It quite unnerved
me. To tell you the truth, I’m glad to see someone else is here. But
maybe I’m becoming paranoid. Am I? he joked, unconvincingly.
How would one ever know if one was mad? retorted the Rev Dodgson,
lapsing into his tedious habit of responding to difficult questions by
posing further interrogatives. I could quote MY namesake and add
‘You must be mad to come here.’ However, the fact is, Dr Lawes…
Howard, please, interrupted the American.
The Rev Dodgson ignored this plea and continued,…the fact is, you
have just espied our resident ghost, Risus Sardonicus. The Latin
suggests a male gender, but I can assure you that she…
Why doesn’t he just say ‘you have just seen’? Lawes thought to
himself. Aloud, he repeated: She?
Yes, she has similarities to that phantom feline, The Cheshire Cat,
but she is less forthcoming. You are not the first to have been sneered
at by Mary Norton, she of the distinctively green eyes, which some have
assigned to glow-worm activity. However, the stare often comes from an
elevation that not many animals could scale.
(Photo: Timo Newton-Syms, Flickr)
Do we know anything about this Mary Norton?
You were practically standing over the spot where we believe she was
buried, replied Dodgson. It is an unmarked grave, so you were not to
know. Maybe she doesn’t appreciate being trampled on. This was intended
to be a mild plaisanterie.
I’m sure I didn’t intend to desecrate anyone’s resting place, apologised
Lawes, who was unsure of English irony. Only, the view of the steeple,
with Grovelly Wood in the background, was so photogenic.
Indeed. You couldn’t have known. As one of our dramatists has said:
‘Youth emits smiles without any reason. It is one of its chiefest charms.’
Don’t regard it as an expression of personal animosity. She does it all
the time as she was not too keen on how our parishioners treated her.
I think she would have preferred to have been buried with certain of
her relatives-over there.
Is that why she’s restless? postulated the tourist, placing his heavy
camera bag on a ledger stone and then thinking better of it and laying
it more respectfully on the grass.
Hmmm…Yes. I don’t think people like to be publicly excommunicated.
Apparently, Mary had an unfortunate habit of bursting into totally
inappropriate laughter at Eucharist and other services. The locals thought
she was demon-possessed. She would rock back and forth…
The vicar ignored the interruption: …emitting guttural noises, her
tongue lolling. Maybe the girl was ‘touched’ but these were less
tolerant times. People were quick to detect blasphemy. No one knows
the precise manner of her death. Her body was discovered in Grovelly
Wood. She’d been exercising her ancient right to collect free firewood.
I think she died on May 29th, Oak Apple Day, in 1865. All the youngsters
used to go to Salisbury and dance on the lawns in The Close. Then
they’d lay oak boughs on the altar. I forget why.
Well, there she lies- or doesn’t. I could say with my favourite poet,
Browning: Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, whenever I passed her;
but who passed without much the same smile? Unfortunately, though
commands have been given, the smiles don’t stop altogether.
Lawes was tiring of the literary references, but he had been thinking
very hard during this expatiation.
Poor Mary Norton! he reflected. No wonder she is so unquiet. Her ears
have not yet materialised, so perhaps she will not hear my thoughts on
the matter. I can assure you, sir, that there was no question of diabolical
(Photo of oak apple by Bob Embleton)
to be continued…!