[Around 1760: John Trenchard, a fugitive, wants to say goodbye to his beloved, Grace]
A girl’s voice asked, ‘Who is there?’
I spoke out in our round Dorset speech…’A poor boy who is out of his way.’
When we were out of earshot I spoke in my own voice, quick but low:
‘Grace, it is I, John Trenchard, who am come to say goodbye before I leave these parts.’…
These recent sufferings had taken from her something of light and frolic girlhood, and left her with a manner more staid and sober. She was dressed in black, with longer skirts, and her hair caught up behind; and perhaps it was the mourning frock that made her look pale and thin… While I looked at her, she looked at me, and could not choose but smile to see my carter’s smock; and as for my brown face and hands, thought I had been hiding in some country underneath the sun, until I told her of the walnut-juice.
observations: After reading The Nebuly Coat by the same author, I decided to re-read this: it was a massive favourite of mine in my childhood and teens, and I wondered if it would still enchant me. Well, if anything I loved it more than ever: because I could remember how enthralled I had been by it, I could remember the nerve-wracking scenes (even though I knew how they would end) of the banging coffins, the corpse to be searched, the auction tied to the pin in the candle. As referenced with the Nebuly book, Falkner does that thing of having real people with faults and problems, people who behave badly, and yet he has a forgiving manner, he does not judge them: he is like Chekhov.
This story is full of greedy, ruthless people, and yet we can see through to their humanity. But it is also quite extraordinarily exciting – it’s not a long book, but has a large number of major scenes in bizarre settings, from the vault full of corpses under the church to the wellhouse at Carisbrooke Castle, from the merchant’s house in the Hague to the climax on Moonfleet Beach. The final line is: ‘and more than once I have stood rope in hand in that same awful place, and tried to save a struggling wretch; but never saw one come through the surf alive, in such a night as he saved me.’ Surely you’d have to be stone dead not to respond to that? Only Treasure Island can match this one for memorable characters and heart-stopping adventures. And, you can visit the original of many of the settings if you go to the coast of Dorset – 15 years after I first read it I was thrilled to do exactly that.
Many an old-time book or fairy-tale features walnut juice in terms of skin-darkening. It seems so unlikely that it would work… but supposedly the explorer Richard Burton (not the actor) used it to pass for an Arab in order to visit Mecca. Walnut juice is also regularly recommended as a natural hair dye.
The picture, from the Athenaeum website, is called Rustic Courtship, by Gainsborough.