A Maggot


By John Fowles

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In the spring of 1736 four men and one woman, all traveling under assumed names, are crossing the Devonshire countryside en route to a mysterious rendezvous. Before their journey ends, one of them will be hanged, one will vanish, and the others will face a murder trial. Out of the truths and lies that envelop these events, John Fowles has created a novel that is at once a tale of erotic obsession, an exploration of the conflict between reason and superstition, an astonishing act of literary legerdemain, and the story of the birth of a new faith.


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IN THE LATE AND LAST AFTERNOON of an April long ago, a forlorn little group of travellers cross a remote upland in the far south-west of England. All are on horseback, proceeding at a walk along the moorland track. There lies about them, in the bleak landscape, too high to have yet felt the obvious effects of spring, in the uniform grey of the overcast sky, an aura of dismal monotony, an accepted tedium of both journey and season. The peaty track they follow traverses a waste of dead heather and ling; below, in a steep-sided valley, stand unbroken dark woodlands, still more in bud than in leaf. All the farthest distances fade into a mist, and the travellers' clothes are by chance similarly without accent. The day is quite windless, held in a dull suspension. Only in the extreme west does a thin wash of yellow light offer some hope of better weather to come.

A man in his late twenties, in a dark bistre greatcoat, boots and a tricorn hat, its upturned edges trimmed discreetly in silver braid, leads the silent caravan. The underparts of his bay, and of his clothes, like those of his companions, are mud-splashed, as if earlier in the day they have travelled in mirier places. He rides with a slack rein and a slight stoop, staring at the track ahead as if he does not see it. Some paces behind comes an older man on a smaller, plumper horse. His greatcoat is in dark grey, his hat black and plainer, and he too looks neither to left nor right, but reads a small volume held in his free hand, letting his placid pad tread its own way. Behind him, on a stouter beast, sit two people: a bareheaded man in a long-sleeved blouse, heavy drugget jerkin and leather breeches, his long hair tied in a knot, with in front of him, sitting sideways and resting against his breast—he supports her back with his right arm—a young woman. She is enveloped in a brown hooded cloak, and muffled so that only her eyes and nose are visible. Behind these two a leading-line runs back to a packhorse. The animal carries a seam, or wooden frame, with a large leather portmanteau tied to one side, and a smaller wooden box, brassbound at its corners, on the other. Various other bundles and bags lie bulkily distributed under a rope net. The overburdened beast plods with hanged head, and sets the pace for the rest.

They may travel in silence, but they do not go unobserved. The air across the valley opposite, above where its steepness breaks into rocks and small cliffs, is noisy with deep and ominous voices, complaining of this intrusion into their domain. These threatening voices come from a disturbed ravenry. The bird was then still far from its present rare and solitary state, but common and colonial, surviving even in many towns, and abundantly in isolated countryside. Though the mounted and circling black specks stay at a mile's distance, there is something foreboding in their alarm, their watchful hostility. All who ride that day, despite their difference in many other things, know their reputation; and secretly fear that snoring cry.

One might have supposed the two leading riders and the humble apparent journeyman and wife chance-met, merely keeping together for safety in this lonely place. That such a consideration—and not because of ravens—was then requisite is plain in the leading rider. The tip of a sword-sheath protrudes beneath his greatcoat, while on the other side a bulge in the way the coat falls suggests, quite correctly, that a pistol is hung behind the saddle. The journeyman also has a brass-ended holstered pistol, even readier to hand behind his saddle, while strung on top of the netted impedimenta on the dejected packhorse's back is a long-barrelled musket. Only the older, second rider seems not armed. It is he who is the exception for his time. Yet if they had been chance-met, the two gentlemen would surely have been exchanging some sort of conversation and riding abreast, which the track permitted. These two pass not a word; nor does the man with the woman behind him. All ride as if lost in their own separate worlds.

The track at last begins to slope diagonally down the upland towards the first of the woods in the valley below. A mile or so on, these woods give way to fields; and as far away again, where the valley runs into another, can just be made out, in a thin veil of wood-smoke, an obscure cluster of buildings and an imposing church-tower. In the west the sky begins to show amber glints from invisible breaks of cloud. That again, in other travellers, might have provoked some remark, some lighter heart; but in these, no reaction.

Then, dramatically, another figure on horseback appears from where the way enters the trees, mounting towards the travellers. He does provide colour, since he wears a faded scarlet riding-coat and what seems like a dragoon's hat; a squareset man of indeterminate age with a large moustache. The long cutlass behind his saddle and the massive wooden butt of a stout-cased blunderbuss suggest a familiar hazard; and so does the way in which, as soon as he sees the approaching file ahead, he kicks his horse and trots more briskly up the hill as if to halt and challenge them. But they show neither alarm nor excitement. Only the elder man who reads as he rides quietly closes his volume and slips it into his greatcoat pocket. The newcomer reins in some ten yards short of the leading younger gentleman, then touches his hat and turns his horse to walk beside him. He says something, and the gentleman nods, without looking at him. The newcomer touches his hat again, then pulls aside and waits until the last pair come abreast of him. They stop, and the newcomer leans across and unfastens the leading-line of the packhorse from its ring behind the saddle. No friendly word seems spoken, even here. The newcomer then takes his place, now leading the packhorse, at the rear of the procession; and very soon it is as if he has always been there, one more mute limb of the indifferent rest.

They enter the leafless trees. The track falls steeper and harsher, since it serves as a temporary stream-bed during the winter rains. More and more often comes the ring of iron shoes striking stone. They arrive at what is almost a ravine, sloping faces of half-buried rock, an awkward scramble even on foot. The leading rider seems not to notice it, though his horse hesitates nervously, picking its way. One of its hind feet slips, for a moment it seems it must fall, and trap its rider. But somehow it, and the lurching man, keep balance. They go a little slower, negotiate one more slip and scramble with a clatter of frantic hooves, then come to more level ground. The horse gives a little snorting whinny. The man rides on, without even a glance back to see how the others fare.

The older gentleman has stopped. He glances round at the pair behind him. The man there makes a little anti-clockwise circle with a finger and points to the ground: dismount and lead. The man in the scarlet coat at the rear, wise from his own recent upward passage, has already got down, and is tying the packhorse to an exposed root by the trackside. The older gentleman dismounts. Then his counsellor behind jumps off, with a singular dexterity, kicking free of his right stirrup and swinging his leg over the horse's back and slipping to the ground all in one lithe movement. He holds his arms out for the woman, who leans and half sinks towards him, to be caught, then swung free and set down.

The elderly man goes gingerly down the ravine, leading his cob, then the bareheaded man in the jerkin, and his horse. The woman walks behind, her skirts held slightly off the ground so that she can see her feet and where they are placed; then the last man, he in the faded scarlet coat. Once down, he extends the rein of his riding-horse to the man in the jerkin to hold, then turns and climbs heavily back for the packhorse. The older gentleman laboriously mounts again, and rides on. The woman raises her hands and pushes back the hood of her cloak, then loosens the white linen band she has swathed round the lower part of her face. She is young, hardly more than a girl, pale-faced, with dark hair bound severely back beneath a flat-crowned chip, or willow-shaving, hat. Its side-brims are tied down against her cheeks, almost into a bonnet, by the blue kissing-ribbons beneath her chin. Such a chip or wheat-straw hat is worn by every humbler English country-woman. A little fringe of white also appears beneath the bottom of her cloak: an apron. She is evidently a servant, a maid.

Unfastening the top of her cloak, and likewise undoing the kissing-ribbons, she goes beside the track a little ahead and stoops where some sweet-violets are still in flower on a bank. Her companion stares at her crouched back, the small movements of her hands, the left one picking, ruffling the heart-shaped green leaves to reveal the hidden flowers, the right one holding the small sprig of deep mauve heads she has found. He stares as if he does not comprehend why she should do this.

He has a strangely inscrutable face, which does not reveal whether its expressionlessness is that of an illiterate stupidity, an ignorant acceptance of destiny not far removed from that of the two horses he is holding; or whether it hides something deeper, some resentment of grace, some twisted sectarian suspicion of personable young women who waste time picking flowers. Yet it is also a strikingly regular, well-proportioned face, which, together with his evident agility, an innate athleticism and strength, adds an incongruous touch of the classical, of an Apollo, to one of plainly low-born origins and certainly not Greek ones, for his strangest features are his eyes, that are of a vacant blue, almost as if he were blind, though it is clear he is not. They add greatly to the impression of inscrutability, for they betray no sign of emotion, seem always to stare, to suggest their owner is somewhere else. So might twin camera lenses see, not normal human eyes.

Now the girl straightens and comes back towards him, smelling her minuscule posy; then gravely holds the purple flowers, with their little flecks of orange and silver, out and up for him to smell as well. Their eyes meet for a moment. Hers are of a more usual colour, a tawny brown, faintly challenging and mischievous, though she does not smile. She pushes the posy an inch or two nearer still. He briefly sniffs, nods; then as if they waste time, turns and mounts with the same agile grace and sense of balance that he showed before, still holding the other horse's rein. The girl watches him a moment more while he sits above, tightening the loosened linen muffler, pulling it to cover her mouth once more. She tucks her violets carefully inside the rim of white cloth, just below her nostrils.

The man in the military coat comes with the packhorse—he has stopped above to piss beside it—and takes his own horse from the man in the jerkin, and reties the leading-line. The girl stands waiting beside the pillion horse's withers; and now, in a seemingly familiar ritual, the military man comes round, faces her, then bends and enlaces his fingers to make a mounting stirrup. She sets her left foot in his hands, springs and is lightly lifted to her blanketed seat before the impassive man in the jerkin. She looks down, the bunch of violets like an absurd moustache beneath her nose. The man in the scarlet coat dryly tips his forefinger to his hat and winks. She looks away. Her companion, who has observed this, abruptly kicks the pillion horse's sides. It breaks into an immediate clumsy trot. He reins the beast sharply back, and she has to catch against him. Fists on hips, the man in the military coat watches them go for a moment or two, soon to settle to a walk, then mounts and follows.

A faint sound comes to his ears, as they wind down through the woodland. The young woman is singing, or rather humming a tune to herself. It is that of the melancholy old folk-air, "Daphne," already ancient in this time; yet it seems, this intrusion of a human voice in the previous silence, less melancholy than vaguely impudent. The man at the rear rides closer, to hear the voice better. The sound of hooves, an occasional creak of leather, a tiny jingle of harness metal; tumbling water below, and the sound of a missel-thrush also singing, from far across the valley, barely audible, as fragmented as the muffled girl's voice. Through the bare branches ahead, there is a gleam of luminous gold, where the sinking western sun has found a first direct interstice in the clouds.

Now the sound of rushing water dominates. They ride for a little way close above a fast and furious moorland stream and greener vegetation: more violets, wood-sorrel, first ferns, nests of primroses, emerald young rushes and grass. They come to a small clearing where the track descends to stream-level, then bends into the water, smoother here, at a ford. On the other side, facing them, wait the two gentlemen on their horses; and it is evident now, as masters wait for laggard servants. The elder, behind, takes snuff. The girl stops her singing. The three horses splash across, beside a line of stepping-stones, blundering their way among the small rocks beneath the swift-running water. The younger gentleman stares at the girl, at her floral moustache, as if she is in some way to blame for this delay. She does not look at him, but nestles close against her companion, whose arms surround her to keep her balanced. Only when all three horses and their burdens are safely across does the younger gentleman turn his horse and proceed, in the same order as before, and the same silence.

Some few minutes later this sombre cavalcade of five came out of the trees and once more upon an open prospect, for here the valley-bottom broadened considerably. The track ran slightly downhill across a long open meadow. In those days a single animal dominated the agricultural economy of the West of England: the sheep—and the needs of its pasturing. The huge hundred-acre sheep-run was a much more frequent feature of cultivated landscapes than today's densely hedged and enclosed patchwork of small fields. In the distance could be seen the small town whose church-tower they had made out from the moorland above. Three or four flocks studded the long meadow before them; and as many shepherds, monolithic figures in cloaks of brown frieze, like primitive bishops with their crooks. One had two children beside him. Their sheep, Exmoor Horns, were smaller and scraggier than modern sheep, and tight-coated. To the travellers' left, where the hillside came down to the valley-bottom, was a massive stone pen, and yet another farther along.

The younger gentleman reined in slightly and let the older come beside him; and from then on they rode abreast, though still without talking. The two shepherd children ran across the close-cropped turf to the side of the open track, ahead of the party, and waited once they were there, with strangely intent eyes, watching beings from fable, not reality, approach; and as if they imagined themselves not seen in return. They made no greeting, this small upstaring boy and his sister, both barefoot; and received none. The younger gentleman ignored them completely, the elder gave no more than a casual glance. The manservant on the doubly laden horse similarly ignored them, while the man in the scarlet coat seemed to find himself, even before such a minute audience as this, put upon dignity. He rode a little more erect, staring ahead, like a would-be cavalry trooper. Only the young woman smiled, with her eyes, down at the small girl.

For three hundred yards the two children alternately walked and trotted beside the travellers; but then the boy ran ahead, for a first banked hedge and a gate now barred the road. He heaved it off its latch, then pushed it wide back and open; and stood there, staring at the ground, with a hand outstretched. The older gentleman felt in his greatcoat pocket, and tossed a farthing down. The boy and his sister both scrambled for it as it rolled on the ground, but the boy had it first. Now once more they both stood, with outstretched small arms, the palms upwards, heads bowed, as the rear of the cavalcade passed. The young woman raised her left hand and took a pinch of her spray of violets, then threw them at the small girl. They fell across the child's arm, over her bent crown of no doubt lice-ridden hair, then to the ground: where the child stared at them, the arm dropped, nonplussed by this useless, incomprehensible gift.

A quarter of an hour later the five came to the outskirts of the small town of C———. It was town more by virtue of being a few hundred inhabitants larger than any surrounding village in this thinly populated area than in any modern sense of the term; town also by virtue of an ancient charter, granted in palmier or more hopeful days four hundred years before; and which still absurdly permitted its somnolent mayor and tiny corporation to elect two members to parliament. It boasted also a few tradesmen and craftsmen, a weekly market, an inn besides its two or three ale-and ciderhouses, and even an ancient grammar-school, if one can call school one aged master, also parish clerk, and seven boys; but in all else it was a village.

Nothing, indeed, could have misled more than the majestic high-pinnacled and battlemented tower of its medieval church; it now dominated and surveyed a much less prosperous and confident place than the one that had built it nearly three centuries earlier, and stood far more relic than representative. No gentry lived permanently there, though a manor-house existed. The place was too remote, and like all remote Britain then, without turnpike or decent carriage-road. Above all it was without attraction to an age whose notion of natural beauty—in those few capable of forming such notions—was strictly confined to the French or Italianate formal garden at home and the denuded but ordered (through art) classical landscapes of Southern Europe abroad.

To the educated English traveller then there was nothing romantic or picturesque at all in domestic wild landscapes, and less than nothing in the cramped vernacular buildings of such townlets as C———. All this was so much desert, beneath the consideration of anyone who pretended to taste. The period had no sympathy with unregulated or primordial nature. It was aggressive wilderness, an ugly and all-invasive reminder of the Fall, of man's eternal exile from the Garden of Eden; and particularly aggressive, to a nation of profit-haunted puritans, on the threshold of an age of commerce, in its flagrant uselessness. The time had equally no sense (except among a few bookworms and scholars) of the antique outside the context of Greece and Rome; even its natural sciences, such as botany, though by now long founded, remained essentially hostile to wild nature, seeing it only as something to be tamed, classified, utilised, exploited. The narrow streets and alleys, the Tudor houses and crammed cottage closes of such towns conveyed nothing but an antediluvian barbarism, such as we can experience today only in some primitive foreign land… in an African village, perhaps, or an Arab souk.

A twentieth-century mind, could it have journeyed back and taken on the sensibilities and eyes of those two better-class travellers riding that day into the town, would have felt itself landed, or becalmed, in some strange doldrum of time, place and spirit; in one of those periods when Clio seems to stop and scratch her tousled head, and wonder where the devil to go next from here. This particular last day of April falls in a year very nearly equidistant from 1689, the culmination of the English Revolution, and 1789, the start of the French; in a sort of dozing solstitial standstill, a stasis of the kind predicted by those today who see all evolution as a punctuated equilibrium, between those two zenith dates and all they stand for; at a time of reaction from the intemperate extremisms of the previous century, yet already hatching the seeds (perhaps even in that farthing and careless strew of fallen violets) of the world-changing upheaval to come. Certainly England as a whole was indulging in its favourite and sempiternal national hobby: retreating deep within itself, and united only in a constipated hatred of change of any kind.

Yet like so many seemingly inert troughs in history, it was not altogether a bad time for the six million or so there then were of the English; and however humble they might be. The two begging children by the road wore ragged and patched clothes; but at least they were visibly neither starved nor starving. There were higher real wages than for centuries past—and for very nearly two centuries to come. Indeed it was only just becoming anything but a distinctly prosperous time for this county of Devon. Its ports, its ships, its towns and villages lived, and largely thrived, as they had for the last half-millennium, on one great staple: wool. In the abrupt course of the next seventy years this trade was to be first slowly throttled, then finally annihilated by a national change of taste, towards lighter fabrics, and the more enterprising North of England; but still at this time half of Europe, even colonial America and imperial Russia, bought and made clothes from the Devonshire dozen, its famous length of serge and perpetuana.

There was evidence of the cloth trade in nearly every thatched doorway and open cottage shutter of C———; women spinning, men spinning, children spinning, their hands so accustomed that eyes and tongues were entirely free; or if not doing that, then engaged in cleaning, carding and combing the raw fleece-wool. Here and there in a dark interior might be glimpsed or heard looms, but the spinning predominated. The mechanical jenny was still several decades in the future and the bottleneck in the ancient hand process always lay with the production of the yarn, for which the great weaving, finishing and market centres like Tiverton and Exeter and their rich clothiers had an insatiable greed. In all this, too, the endless treadling, blurred wheels, distaffs, the very scent of raw wool, our travellers found nothing picturesque or of interest. Throughout the country, industry still lay inside the cottage, in outwork, in the domestic system.

This contempt, or blindness, was returned, in an inverse way. The riders were forced to go at an even slower pace by a lumbering ox-cart, which left no room to pass; and the doorway spinners, the townspeople about in the street, or attracted to their windows and thresholds by the horses' hooves, betrayed a similar sense of alienation by staring, as the shepherd's children had, at these strangers as if they were indeed foreigners, and not to be trusted. There was also the beginning of a political and a class feeling about this. It had been proved fifty years earlier, in the neighbouring counties of Somerset and Dorset, when nearly half of those who had flocked to join the Monmouth Rebellion had come from the cloth trade; most of the rest had come from the agricultural community, and virtually none at all from the local gentry. It would be wrong to speak yet of a trade-union-mindedness, or even of the mob spirit by then recognised and feared in larger cities; but of an inherent resentment of those who lived in a world not ruled by cloth, here was evidence.

The two gentlemen studiously avoided the watching eyes; and a sternness and gravity in their demeanour forebade greeting or enquiry, if not chowring comment. The young woman passenger did from time to time glance shyly sideways; but something bizarre in her muffled appearance puzzled the spectators. Only the man in the faded scarlet coat at the rear seemed like a normal traveller. He gave stare for stare; and even tipped his hat to two girls in a doorway.

Then a young man in a smock darted forward from the niche of a cob buttress supporting a leaning cottage wall and brandished an osier ring of dead birds up at the military-looking man. He had the sly grin of a yokel, half joker, half village idiot.

"Buy 'un, maister? Penny a 'oop, penny a 'oop!"

He was waved aside, but walked backwards, still thrusting the little ring of dead birds, each pierced through the neck, crimson and brown breasts and coal-black heads, up towards the rider. Hoops, or bullfinches, then had a price on their head, paid against their bodies by parish vestries.

"Where be's 'ee to then, maister?"

The man in the scarlet coat rode on a pace or two in silence, and threw an answer back over his shoulder.

"The fleas in thy poxy inn."

"What business?"

Again the rider waited to answer, and this time did not turn his head.

"None o' thine."

The ox-cart now turned into a smith's yard, and the cavalcade could go more quickly. In a hundred yards or so they came to a more open square, paved with small dark setts sunk on edge. Though the sun had set, the sky had now cleared extensively in the west. Rose streaks of vapour floated in a honey-coloured light, suffusing the canopy still above with pink and amethyst tints. Somewhat finer and taller buildings surrounded this square and its central building, an open-sided shed, or market, made of massive oak timbers and with a steep-pitched and stone-tiled roof. There was a clothier's shop, a saddler's, a grocer's, an apothecary and barber-surgeon's, the latter being the nearest the place had to a doctor; a cord-wainer's. At the far end of the square beyond the market-house stood a knot of people, around a long wooden pole lying on its side, the central totem for the next day's celebrations, in process of being dressed with streamers.

Closer, beside the roof-supporting outer columns of the market-house, groups of children noisily played lamp-loo and tutball, those primitive forms of tag and baseball. Modern lovers of the second game would have been shocked to see that here it was preponderantly played by the girls (and perhaps also to know that its traditional prize, for the most skilled, was not the million-dollar contract, but a mere tansy pudding). An older group of lads, some men among them, stood all with short knob-ended sticks of heavy holly and hawthorn in their hands, and took turns to throw at a bizarre and ragged shape of stuffed red cloth, vaguely birdlike, set at the foot of the market-house wall. To the travellers this last was a familiar sight, no more than practice for the noble, ancient and universal English sport to be played on the morrow: that of cocksquailing, or slaughtering cocks by throwing the weighted squailers, or sticks, at them. Its traditional main season was Shrovetide; but in Devon it was so popular, as cockfighting was among the gentry, that it was celebrated at other festivals. A very few hours would see a series of terrified living birds tied in place of the stuffed red puppet, and blood on the setts. Eighteenth-century man was truly Christian in his cruelty to animals. Was it not a blasphemous cock that crowed thrice, rejoicing each time the apostle Peter denied? What could be more virtuous than bludgeoning its descendants to death?

The two gentlemen reined in, as if somewhat taken aback by this unexpected open stage and animated crowd. The cock-throwers had already turned away from their rehearsal; the children as quickly dropped their games. The younger gentleman looked back to the man in the scarlet coat, who pointed across to the northern side of the square, at a ramshackle stone building with a crudely painted black stag on a wall-board above its porch and an archway to a stableyard beside it.

The clattering and clopping procession now headed up across the slightly sloping square. The maypole was also forsaken for this more interesting entertainment, which had already gathered a small train on its way to the square. Some seventy or eighty faces were waiting, when they approached the inn; but just before they came to dismount, the younger gentleman politely gestured the elder forward, as if he must take precedence. A florid-faced man with a paunch came out under the porch, a serving-girl and a potboy behind him; then a man with a bustling limp from the yard, the ostler. He took the older gentleman's horse as he slid stiffly to the ground; the potboy, the younger gentleman's behind him. The landlord bowed.

"Welcome, sirs. Puddicombe, at your service. Us trust you be come an easy journey."

The elder gentleman answered.

"All is ready?"

"As your man bespoke, sir. To the letter."


On Sale
Apr 2, 2013
Page Count
464 pages

John Fowles

About the Author

John Fowles (1926-2005) was educated at Oxford and subsequently lectured in English at universities in Greece and the UK. The success of his first novel, The Collector, published in 1963, allowed him to devote all his time to writing. His books include the internationally acclaimed and bestselling novels The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Daniel Martin. Fowles spent the last decades of his life on the southern coast of England in the small harbor town of Lyme Regis.

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