A BROADSHEET BALLAD
BY A.E. COPPARD
At noon the tiler and the mason stepped down
from the roof of the village church which they
were repairing and crossed over the road to
the tavern to eat their dinner. It had been a
nice little morning, but there were clouds
massing in the south. Sam, the tiler, remarked
that it looked like thunder. The two men sat
in the dim little tap-room eating, Bob, the
mason, at the same time reading from a newspaper
an account of a trial for murder.
"I dunno what thunder looks like," Bob said,
"but I reckon this chap is going to be hung,
though I can't rightly say for why. To my
thinking he didn't do it at all; but murder's
a bloody thing and someone ought to suffer
"I don't think," spluttered Sam as he impaled
a flat piece of beet-root on the point of a
pocket-knife and prepared to contemplate it
with patience until his stuffed mouth was
ready to receive it, "he ought to be hung."
"There can't be no other end for him though,
with a mob of lawyers like that, and a judge
like that, and a jury too -- why the rope's
half round his neck this minute; he'll be
in glory within a month, they only have three
Sundays, you know, between the sentence and
the execution. Well, hark at that rain then!"
A shower that began as a playful sprinkle
grew to a powerful steady summer downpour.
It splashed in the open window, and the dim
room grew more dim and cool.
"Hanging's a dreadful thing," continued Sam,
"and 'tis often unjust I've no doubt, I've
no doubt at all."
"Unjust! I tell you -- at the majority of
trials those who give their evidence mostly
knows nothing at all about the matter; them
as knows a lot -- they stays at home and don't
budge, not likely!"
"No? But why?"
"Why? They has their reasons. I know that,
I knows it for truth -- hark at that rain,
it's made the room feel cold."
They watched the downfall in complete silence
for some moments.
"Hanging's a dreadful thing," Sam at length
repeated, with almost a sigh.
"I can tell you a tale about that, Sam, in a
minute," said the other. He began to fill his
pipe from Sam's brass box, which was labelled
cough lozenges and smelled of paregoric.
"Just about ten years ago I was working over
in Cotswold country. I remember I'd been into
Gloucester one Saturday afternoon and it rained.
I was jogging along home in a carrier's van;
I never seen it rain like that afore, no, nor
never afterwards, not like that. B-r-r-r-r! it
came down. Bashing! And we come to a cross-roads
where there's a public-house called the Wheel
of Fortune, very lonely and onsheltered it is
just there. I see'd a young woman standing in
the porch awaiting us, but the carrier was wet
and tired and angry or something and wouldn't
stop. 'No room,' he bawled out to her, 'full
up, can't take you!' and he drove on. 'For the
love o' God, mate,' I says, 'pull up and take
that young creature! She's -- she's -- can't
you see!' 'But I'm all behind as 'tis,' he
shouts to me, 'You know your gospel, don't
you -- time and tide wait for no man?' 'Ah, but
dammit all, they always call for a feller,' I
says. With that he turned round and we drove
back for the girl. She clumb in and sat on my
knees; I squat on a tub of vinegar, there was
nowhere else, and I was right and all, she was
going on for a birth. Well, the old van rattled
away for six or seven miles; whenever it stopped
you could hear the rain clattering on the
tarpaulin, or sounding outside on the grass as
if it was breathing hard, and the old horse
steamed and shivered with it. I had knowed the
girl once in a friendly way, a pretty young
creature, but now she was white and sorrowful
and wouldn't say much. By and by we came to
another cross-roads near a village, and she got
out there. 'Good day, my gal,' I says, affable
like, and 'Thank you, sir,' says she -- and off
she popped in the rain with her umbrella up. A
rare pretty girl, quite young, I'd met her before,
a girl you could get uncommon fond of, you know,
but I didn't meet her afterwards, she was mixed
up in a bad business. It all happened in the next
six months while I was working round these parts.
Everybody knew of it. This girl's name was Edith
and she had a younger sister, Agnes. Their father
was old Harry Mallerton, kept the British Oak at
North Quainy; he stuttered. Well, this Edith had
a love affair with a young chap, William, and
having a very loving nature she behaved foolish.
Then she couldn't bring the chap up to the scratch
nohow by herself, and of course she was afraid to
tell her mother or father: you know how girls are
after being so pesky natural, they fear, oh, they
do fear! But soon it couldn't be hidden any longer
as she was living at home with them all, so she
wrote a letter to her mother. 'Dear Mother,' she
wrote, and told her all about her trouble.
"By all accounts the mother was angry as an old
lion, but Harry took it calm like and sent for
young William, who'd not come at first. He lived
close by in the village so they went down at last
and fetched him.
"'Alright, yes,' he said, 'I'll do what's lawful
to be done. There you are, I can't say no fairer,
that I can't.'
"'No,' they said, 'you can't.'
"So he kissed the girl and off he went, promising
to call in and settle affairs in a day or two.
The next day Agnes, which was the younger girl,
she also wrote a note to her mother telling her
some more strange news.
"'God above!' the mother cried out, 'can it be
true, both of you girls, my own daughters, and
by the same man! Whatever were you thinking on,
both of ye! Whatever can be done now!"
"What!" ejaculated Sam, "both on 'em, both on 'em!"
"As true as God's my mercy -- both on 'em -- same
chap. Ah! Mrs. Mallerton was afraid to tell her
husband at first, for old Harry was the devil
born again when he were roused up, so she sent
for young William herself, who'd not come again,
of course, not likely. But they made him come,
oh yes, when they told the girls' father.
"'Well, may I go to my d-d-d-damnation at once!'
roared old Harry -- he stuttered, you know -- 'at
once, if that ain't a good one!' So he took off
his coat, he took up a stick, he walked down the
street to William and cut him off his legs. Then
he beat him until he howled for his mercy, and
you couldn't stop old Harry once he were roused
up -- he was the devil born again. They do say
as he beat him for a solid hour; I can't say
as to that, but then old Harry picked him up
and carried him off to the British Oak on his
own back and threw him down in his own kitchen
between his own two girls like a dead dog. They
do say that the little one, Agnes, flew at her
father like a raging cat until he knocked her
senseless with a clout over head; rough man he
"Well, a' called for it, sure," commented Sam.
"Her did," agreed Bob, "but she was the quietest
known girl for miles round those parts, very shy
"A shady lane breeds mud," said Sam.
"What do you say? -- Oh ah! -- mud, yes. But
pretty girls both, girls you could get very
fond of, skin like apple bloom, and as like as
two pinks they were. They had to decide which
of them William was to marry."
"Of course, ah!"
"I'll marry Agnes,' says he.
"'You'll not,' says the old man. 'You'll
"'No I won't,' William says; 'it's Agnes I
love and I'll be married to her or I won't be
married to e'er of 'em.' All the time Edith sat
quiet, dumb as a shovel, never a word, crying
a bit; but they do say the young one went on
like a -- a young -- Jew."
"The jezebel!" commented Sam.
"You may say it; but wait, my man, just wait.
Another cup of beer? We can't go back to church
until this humbugging rain have stopped."
"No, that we can't."
"It's my belief the 'bugging rain won't stop
this side of four o'clock."
"And if the roof don't hold it off, it 'ull
spoil they Lord's Commandments that's just
done up on the chancel front."
"Oh, they be dry by now." Bob spoke reassuringly
and then continued his tale. "'I'll marry Agnes
or I won't marry nobody,' William says, and
they couldn't budge him. No, old Harry cracked
on, but he wouldn't have it, and at last Harry
says: 'It's like this.' He pulls a half-crown out
of his pocket and 'Heads it's Agnes,' he says,
'or tails it's Edith,' he says."
"Never! Ha! Ha!" cried Sam.
"'Heads it's Agnes, tails it's Edie, so help me
God.' And it come down Agnes, yes, heads it
was -- Agnes -- and so there they were."
"And they lived happy ever after?"
"Happy! You don't know your human nature, Sam;
wherever was you brought up? 'Heads it's Agnes,'
said old Harry, and at that Agnes flung her
arms round William's neck and was for going off
with him then and there, ha! But this is how it
happened about that. William hadn't any kindred,
he was a lodger in the village, and his landlady
wouldn't have him in her house one mortal hour
when she heard of it; give him the right-about
there and then. He couldn't get lodgings anywhere
else, nobody would have anything to do with him,
so of course, for safety's sake, old Harry had
to take him, and there they all lived together
at the British Oak -- all in one happy family.
But they girls couldn't bide the sight of each
other, so their father cleaned up an old outhouse
in his yard that was used for carts and hens and
put William and his Agnes out in it. And there
they had to bide. They had a couple of chairs,
a sofa, and a bed and that kind of thing, and
the young one made it quite snug."
"'Twas a hard thing for that other, that Edie,
"It was hard, Sam, in a way, and all this was
happening just afore I met her in the carrier's
van. She was very sad and solemn then; a pretty
girl, one you could like. Ah, you may choke me,
but there they lived together. Edie never opened
her lips to either of them again, and her father
sided with her, too. What was worse, it came out
after the marriage that Agnes was quite free of
trouble -- it was only a trumped-up game between
her and this William because he fancied her better
than the other one. And they never had no child,
them two, though when poor Edie's mischance come
along I be damned if Agnes weren't fonder of it
than its own mother, a jolly sight more fonder,
and William -- he fair worshipped it."
"You don't say!"
"I do. 'Twas a rum go, that, and Agnes worshipped
it, a fact, can prove it by scores o' people to
this day, scores, in them parts. William and Agnes
worshipped it, and Edie -- she just looked on,
'long of it all, in the same house with them,
though she never opened her lips again to her
young sister to the day of her death."
"Ah, she died? Well, it's the only way out of
such a tangle, poor woman."
"You're sympathizing with the wrong party." Bob
filled his pipe again from the brass box; he
ignited it with deliberation; going to the open
window, he spat into a puddle in the road. "The
wrong party, Sam; 'twas Agnes that died. She
was found on the sofa one morning stone-dead,
dead as a adder."
"God bless me!" murmured Sam.
"Poisoned!" added Bob, puffing serenely.
Bob repeated the word "poisoned." "This was the
way of it," he continued. "One morning the
mother went out in the yard to collect her
eggs, and she began calling out: 'Edie, Edie,
here a minute, come and look where that hen
have laid her egg; I would never have believed
it,' she says. And when Edie went out, her
mother led her round the back of the outhouse,
and there on the top of a wall this hen had
laid an egg. 'I would never have believed it,
Edie,' she says; 'scooped out a nest there
beautiful, ain't she? I wondered where her was
laying. T'other morning the dog brought an egg
round in his mouth and laid it on the doormat.
There now, Aggie, Aggie, here a minute, come
and look where the hen have laid that egg.'
And as Aggie didn't answer, the mother went in
and found her on the sofa in the outhouse,
"How'd they account for it?" asked Sam, after
a brief interval.
"That's what brings me to the point about this
young feller that's going to be hung," said Bob,
tapping the newspaper that lay upon the bench.
"I don't know what would lie between two young
women in a wrangle of that sort; some would get
over it quick, but some would never sleep soundly
any more, not for a minute of their mortal lives.
Edie must have been one of that sort. There's
people living there now as could tell a lot if
they'd a mind to it. Some knowed all about it,
could tell you the very shop where Edie managed
to get hold of the poison, and could describe to
me or to you just how she administrated it in a
glass of barley water. Old Harry knew all about
it, he knew all about everything, but he favoured
Edith and he never budged a word. Clever old chap
was Harry, and nothing came out against Edie at
the inquest -- nor the trial either."
"Was there a trial then?"
"There was a kind of a trial. Naturally. A beautiful
trial. The police came and fetched poor William.
They took him away and in due course he was hanged."
"William! But what had he got to do with it?"
"Nothing. It was rough on him, but he hadn't
played straight and so nobody struck up for him.
They made out a case against him -- there was
some onlucky bit of evidence which I'll take my
oath old Harry knew something about -- and William
was done for. Ah, when things take a turn against
you it's as certain as twelve o'clock, when they
take a turn; you get no more chance than a rabbit
from a weasel. It's like dropping your matches
into a stream, you needn't waste the bending of
your back to pick them out -- they're no good on,
they'll never strike again. And Edith, she sat
in court through it all, very white and trembling
and sorrowful, and when the judge put his black
cap on, they do say she blushed and looked across
at William and gave a bit of a smile. Well, she
had to suffer for his doings, so why shouldn't
he suffer for hers. That's how I look at it."
"But God-a-mighty -- !"
"Yes, God-a-mighty knows. Pretty girls they were,
both, and as like as two pinks."
There was quiet for some moments while the tiler
and the mason emptied their cups of beer. "I
think," said Sam then, "the rain's give over now."
"Ah, that it has," cried Bob. "Let's go and do a
bit more on this 'bugging church or she won't be
done afore Christmas."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~