A Tiding of Magpies

romance story

One for Sorrow,

Two for Joy,

Three for a Girl and Four for a Boy,

Five for Silver,

Six for Gold,

Seven for a Secret never to be told,

Eight’s a Wedding,

Nine’s a Birth,

Ten, you must walk to the Ends of the Earth.

Traditional counting-rhyme


One for Sorrow.

The young girl sits at the bedroom window, watching the snow sleeting down. A magpie sits outside on a bare branch of the Crabtree, its throaty cackle loud enough for her to hear above the wind. She can just remember how snow used to look in the City, soon turning to slush beneath the cab-horses’ hooves, but gleaming white on the rooftops, like the fairy palace in the picture-book her Mother used to read to her and her brothers and sisters. There are no picture-books now.

When she was seven, Cholera came to the City, and she alone of all her family survived. So, she was packed off to the Village, to the guardianship of her Great-Aunt, who does not approve of fairy-tales. Only Prayer-books are allowed and fables of bad children who die as just punishment for their faults.

She has many faults, according to her Great-Aunt. Dreamy, inattentive, her long silvery-fair hair untidy, clumsy at the uselessly-ladylike skills she is required to learn – embroidery, lace-making, playing little tunes on the pianoforte that stands like a coffin in the Withdrawing-room. Four hours a day practice, as her Great-Aunt sits in her comfortable armchair by the fire, whining about her rheumatics and the outrageous level of taxation, feeding sweetmeats to her little lapdog with its snappish temper and needle-sharp teeth.

There is a hierarchy in the village; farm-workers and servants are the lowest of the low; then come the respectable shopkeepers and tradesmen – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker – who are patronized only for their skills and services. Then the gentry, with whom she is allowed to associate – the Parson, her Aunt, her Aunt’s friends, with their endless tea-parties full of spiteful gossip and complaints about the laziness of servants. Finally, the Squire, in his eighties, suffering from gout due to his penchant for Madeira, who descends from the Palladian splendours of his Manor only once a week to attend church.

The young girl feels nothing for these social strictures. She will talk to anyone; servants, shopkeepers, village children, despite the fact her Great-Aunt finds this condescension unladylike. Obediently, she accompanies her Great-Aunt to church in the ancient pony-trap pulled by a tired old Grey, and driven by the stable boy, who, with the maid, are her Great-Aunt’s only servants. (Boy is an exaggeration; he is sixty if he’s a day.) The stable boy spends most of his meagre pay at the village tavern, or on baccy for his foul pipe. He loses no chance of thrashing the tired old Grey, to show that, for all his years, he’s lost none of his manly vigour.

At church, the young girl endures the sermon, and after the service, watches the Parson’s attendance on the Squire and the gentry. She bows her head when he tells her to always be grateful for her Benefactress’ charity in caring for a penniless orphan.

The young girl sits at the window, watching the snow. Sometimes, when her Great-Aunt and the sour-faced maid are busy, she will creep up to the attic, where she has found some books in an old trunk. Romeo and Juliet. Hero and Leander. Lancelot and Guinevere. When will her deliverer come?


Two for Joy.

The old stable boy has died of an apoplexy after a particularly festive evening at the tavern. Great-Aunt is too parsimonious to pay a man’s wages in full, so the new stable boy is a boy. Fifteen summers old, with curly red hair, freckles, and a ready smile. Under his care, the old Grey regains its strength, and becomes a proud steed, it’s carefully-groomed coat gleaming like alabaster. The young girl slips down to the stables to watch the boy combing the horse’s mane and tail, rubbing handfuls of bran into the hair to make it shine like silk. She starts in alarm as a pair of magpies swoops down from the Crabtree to perch on the stable-gate, cackling like demons. No need to fear, the boy smiles. You only have to greet them and they’ll do you no harm. Say Good Morning, Magpies. She repeats his words, and the birds flirt their blue-green tail feathers coquettishly before flying off. She smiles at him shyly, then at her Great-Aunt’s voice, calling her to pianoforte practice, turns and runs indoors.

The visits to the stable become more frequent. She will sit on the mounting-block and watch him school the horse up and down the stable-yard, groom it, feed it or muck out its stall They will talk together, telling each other the tales of their past lives. He, too, is an orphan; his father went for a soldier in Ireland, and his mother died of a broken heart when she learned of his death from a French musket-bullet.

She tells him of her Great-Aunt’s strictures, her grief for her lost family, her longing to leave the village forever. He tells her of his ambition to somehow make his fortune; perhaps as a groom or carriage-driver to a rich family. She tells him of the picture-book with the fairy palace. He shares with her tales his mother told him in his childhood, of the Fair Folk who live Under the Hill, who will lure a pretty boy or girl to their kingdom for a night of revels, but when the young mortal returns home the next morning, none recognise them, for a hundred years have passed.

She narrates the tales of the doomed lovers from the books in the attic. He teaches her the Magpie rhyme, One for sorrow, two for joy, which can predict how your day will fall out, according to how many of them you see at a time. It’s a Tiding of Magpies, not a Flock, he explains, because they give you tidings of the life you’ll live. One day, sitting on the mounting-block together, their hands touch by accident. She blushes, but clasps his hand in hers. You’re my true love, he whispers. You’re my heart’s delight. They kiss, and she whispers to him, never has she felt such joy.


Three for a Girl and Four for a Boy.

The girl and boy become lovers. They slip away whenever the Great-Aunt is snoring in her armchair or a bed with the rheumatics. They make love in the stable, cushioned in the warm, sweet-smelling hay. They make love in the long grass and wildflowers of the meadows, on the banks of the stream, in the beech-grove, beneath a cathedral dome of branches where the sunlight gleams through the leaves. With tenderness, with desperation, and with wild abandon, they make love.

Afterwards, lying in one another’s arms, they make fantastical plans. They will run away to the circus together, he says; she will become an exotic dancer, clad only in her long silvery-fair hair, he will become an acrobat or a clown or a trick-rider, they will live happily ever after. They will go to the City, she says; she will write books of poems about tragic lovers that will sell by the thousands, so he can buy a stable and breed beautiful Arab horses, and they will live happily ever after. They will cross the ocean to the Americas, travel to the wilderness, where gold lies in streams for anyone to find, become rich, and live happily ever after.

He spends a day at the County Fair and comes back with a brass ring. Kneeling together in the beech-grove, he slips it onto her finger, as they vow to love each other for evermore. Now we’re wed, he says, and laughs as four chuckling magpies swoop through the branches over their heads. Hear that? he cries. They’re singing us a wedding march! The girl keeps the ring in a small wooden box in her room, hidden from her Great-Aunt. She no longer cares about the pianoforte-practice, the tea-parties, the sermons, her Great-Aunt’s nagging and whining and mean little economies. All she cares about is the boy who has become her husband, in a Greenwood Wedding witnessed only by the beech-leaves and the auspicious magpies, their happiness, and their mad plans for more happiness still.


Five for Silver.

The war in France continues. Garbled news of battles won or lost on land and sea trickle down to the tavern and the village tea-tables. The Parson’s interminable sermons are now on the subject of Duty, of the brave Israelites conquering the heathen Philistines. The boy and girl, too enraptured in their happiness, take no heed of such petty matters.

One Market-day, a Recruiting Officer arrives in the village. Accompanied by a smart, brass-buttoned drummer-boy, he stands in the marketplace, bellowing over the rattling drumbeat, calling for brave lads to seize their fortune with both hands and take the King’s Shilling. In the tavern, he shows the wide-eyed villagers his medals, and boasts of acts of astounding valour against the Frenchies. The drummer-boy, while ferrying to and fro his master’s free pints of ale, sniggers with the village louts and loafers over tales of comely French whores and their tricks abed.

The boy holds his hand out to the girl; in his palm, a tarnished silver shilling.

It’s a cavalry regiment, he tells her. They need someone who’ll be good with the horses. It’ll be hard work, but there’s more prospects on a soldier’s pay than stuck here on half-wages as a stable boy. I can rise in the army, he tells her, even become a sergeant, perhaps. She weeps and begs him to change his mind. It’s too late now, he tells her sadly; he’s taken the shilling, signed the paper. He has his duty. Don’t fret, sweet girl, he says, I’ll send for you when I’ve saved enough from my pay. You’ll be a brave soldier’s wife, and be damned to your Aunt and all her old biddies. She laughs through her tears, and they cling together.

The next day, the Officer and his recruits march off. She cannot leave the house without her Great-Aunt noticing – another tea-party – but she manages to slip away to her bedroom. Five magpies perch on the flowering branch of the Crabtree outside her window, silently gazing down at the crowd of cheering villagers in the marketplace. A train of awkward village lads, some loud with ale, some looking scared to death, follow the swaggering sergeant and his drum-rattling boy on their way out of the village. The last in the procession, a boy with blazing red hair, is pale-faced, but marching steadily. He turns to wave up to a window where a girl with silvery-fair hair leans out, fluttering her pocket handkerchief. She continues until all the recruits are out of sight, over the hills and far away.


Six for Gold.

The Squire’s liver has succumbed at last to decades of Madeira, and he lies in a mahogany coffin with gold handles in the family vault. His inheritor, a second cousin once removed, moves down from the City with six wagon-loads of luggage.

Great-Aunt is displeased. Her troublesome ward is more irritating than usual. Brooding, mopish, she does nothing but pine in her room. Great-Aunt doses her with Syrup of Figs and Cod-liver Oil, and berates her for her slothfulness. Has she not heard that the new Squire is coming to tea? The maid will need help if their domicile is to be shown to its best advantage. So, the best porcelain is taken out of the china cabinet, the silver tea-service polished, and an exhaustive regime of sweeping, dusting and baking begins. The young girl moves slowly through all this uproar, performing her duties like a ghost.

Everything about him is fine, the maid gossips excitedly to the girl, who sits, uncaring, in the kitchen, while the Mistress of the house entertains her guest in the Withdrawing-room. Such quantities of gold I never did see! Gold rings, gold watch-chain, even gold buckles to his shoes! But she must get on; the saffron buns are ready to be served.

Great-Aunt rings for her ward. She curtsies to her and guest, seated at the tea-table, sipping Bohea and eating Madeira-cake. The new Squire is in his fifties, corpulent, manicured, his hair curled and dusted with violet-scented powder. He rises as she enters, bows, kisses her hand with wet lips rimmed with cake-crumbs. She is to entertain their guest at the pianoforte. The young girl sits and plays a little tune, scarcely noticing the others’ conversation, her Great-Aunt’s fawning pleasantries, the Squire’s suave boasting of the luxurious delights of City society, his sly glances at her bodice and ankles, the lapdog’s costive whining. She plays automatically, like a clockwork doll, her heart and mind over the hills and far away.

The visits become regular; eventually, they are even invited to the Manor itself. Her Great-Aunt brags to her envious acquaintances of its splendours – the oriental carpets, the curtains of Venetian damask, the paintings, the marble statues, the gold-framed mirrors, the landscaped grounds with their follies and summer-houses, the ornamental lake and deer-park. In the summer sunlight, pheasants cough, peacocks screech, and six magpies wheel over the ancient oak-trees, cackling derisively.

Great-Aunt upbraids her ward, orders her to be more amiable to their attentive neighbour. He would be a great catch for a penniless girl with no dowry, besides taking a useless burden off her own hands. The girl scarcely notices her Great-aunt’s castigations, walks in a dream of loss and longing, ignores the Squire, even his furtive fumbling whenever her discreet chaperone leaves them for brief moments alone. Her thoughts are with a smiling face and a mop of curly red hair.

One morning a letter arrives, addressed to her. Creased and stained, the wax seal crumbled and cracked, it has obviously travelled great distances. Inquisitive, Great-Aunt demands to know what it says. The page slips through the young girl’s fingers. Nothing, she replies, nothing in the world.


Seven for a Secret never to be told.

The young girl has been ill – not drinking, not eating, scarcely sleeping, only crying softly in her bedroom for hours on end. The Great-Aunt is exasperated; how can she hope to make a good match if she refuses to keep in good health? Eventually, she seems to recover. The Squire resumes his tea-time visits, this time loaded with rich presents. A bolt of olive-green taffeta for his gracious hostess, a rope of pearls for her ward, a new cap and pinafore trimmed with Mechlin lace for the maid, even a jeweled collar for the dog.

One afternoon, after a tea of Orange Pekoe and plum-cake, the Squire, having first, naturally, requested her Guardian’s leave, lowers his bulk to one knee, and formally asks for the girl’s hand. The maid gapes; the lapdog yaps in a frenzy; her Great-Aunt can scarcely contain her excitement. She feels nothing. What can she feel, now her true love lies dead on some distant battlefield? Calmly, she consents. The Squire heaves himself unsteadily to his feet, kisses her, and takes the opportunity to slip a clammy hand inside her bodice while Great-Aunt’s attention is distracted with the frantic dog. Onto the third finger of her left hand, once circled by simple brass, he slips a pink sapphire engagement ring. She feels nothing.

The preparations for the wedding continue apace. The leaking church roof is repaired in time for the service. A new carriage and horses are made ready for the wedding day. (The ancient pony-trap would not be suitable; besides, the horse pined away and died when its young groom went for a soldier.) Jewelers bring necklaces, bracelets, and earrings glittering with gems and orient pearls for the Squire’s betrothed to choose. Seven squawking magpies beat their wings against the window, eager to snatch these sparking toys away to their nests. Dressmakers and milliners assemble to create the young bride’s trousseau. The young girl submits to their attentions gravely, patiently. All the chaos of the preparations touches her not one whit.

Her Great-Aunt, by contrast, is almost hysterical with elation. The thought of her tea-party cronies’ envy fills her with bliss. She has ordered an extravagant ensemble for the wedding day, made up from the Squire’s gifted taffeta edged with sable, and a matching bonnet trimmed with a panache of olive-green ostrich feathers. It is while having her bonnet fitted by the milliner that she suddenly gives a croak, topples down, and jerks in convulsions on the floor of her dressing-room. A stroke, is the verdict of the hastily-summoned physician, brought on by over-exertion. Serious, but not fatal, as long as she is kept quiet and comfortable, and does not suffer any further perturbation.

That evening, after the crowd has left the house and all is quiet, the young girl goes to her Great-Aunt’s bedchamber. The old woman lies huddled beneath the piled-up coverlets, the left side of her face sloping down as if she were wearing a wax mask that was melting. Her ward sits by the bedside and by the light of a single candle, begins to tell her benefactress, in a quiet, uninflected voice, the tale of her lover. She tells her of their first meeting, their friendship, their love, their dreams of happiness. She tells her of his ambition, her loneliness, untimely, his death. She tells her that she wishes she could follow him to the land of the Dead. She tells her that her courses have dried up. As she speaks, the old woman’s wheezing, shallow breathing quickens, deepens, rises to a hoarse rapid rattle, and abruptly ceases.


Eight’s a Wedding.

The Great-Aunt’s funeral is a hurried affair. The Parson is consulted, and gives his opinion that her bereaved Grand-niece’s usual year-long period of mourning may be postponed due to the imminence of the wedding. The villagers are torn between scandalised disapproval at this unorthodox flouting of ritual misery, and avid curiosity as to the splendours of the impending ceremony.

Paraded through the village in a smart new cabriolet drawn by six chestnuts, cheered on by villagers raucous with free ale – the Squire’s largesse for the day to his tenantry – the young girl sits silent. The church is packed with the Squire’s friends down from the City, all mentally pricing his wedding gift to the bride; a glittering parure of pink sapphires; oh yes, very elegant choice. Her gown is far too plain. Sprigged muslin indeed! Almost countrified. The service proceeds, the Groom proudly booming out his responses for all to hear, she speaking hers scarcely above a murmur. As they emerge from the church, a flock of eight magpies, disturbed by the cheering congregation, flies up from a fresh mound of earth in the graveyard. One takes the opportunity to lose its droppings onto the shoulder of the Groom’s best claret-coloured velvet.

The wedding breakfast, held in the dining-hall of the Manor beneath a ceiling painted with steatopygous cherubs, is scarcely less rowdy than the festivities at the village inn. Sipping occasionally at a glass of Rhenish, quiet amidst the speeches, laughter and loud toasts, the Bride sits by her new master’s side. Later, in the Master Bedchamber, pinned beneath his hissing, grunting bulk, the reek of violet hair-powder in her nostrils, she closes her eyes and dreams of a bed of sweet-smelling hay. In the early morning, as her master snores, she rises, takes a hatpin from her dressing-table, and drives the point into her finger. Drops of bright blood spill down, mingling with the oily stain on the linen bedsheet.

After breakfast, the servants line up in the Butler’s Pantry for their new mistress’ inspection. Cooks and maids, grooms and gardeners, pageboys and footmen, the Butler, wearing the key to the wine-cellar on a chain. Finally, the Housekeeper, a decayed gentlewoman proud in black bombazine. The Bride has, of course, heard the rumours that this woman has been the Squire’s mistress for years, yet she greets her politely. The Housekeeper curtsies, and bestows on her usurper a thin-lipped smile.


Nine’s a birth.

The Squire has decided to introduce his newly-acquired Lady to Society. The Housekeeper will accompany them to the City, he announces, as she now has no living relative to act as chaperone. Months pass, of balls and routs, dinners and teas, nights at the opera, days at the races. She is presented at court, her simple gowns of white gauze or muslin now considered quite the fashion; a Classical simplicity. The lords and gentry congratulate the Squire on his pretty young wife, slap his back, call him a lucky dog. Their ladies pronounce her a sweet young thing, but between themselves consider her a tad simple; no conversation.

The young wife accompanies her Master to these constant festivities, always with the sharp-eyed chaperone at her side, watching her every move, waiting for the least slip or indiscretion. Nothing occurs worth tale-bearing; her mistress responds to the flirtatious advances of the young bucks and rakes who cluster round her with nothing but a polite, vague smile. One thing, however, might be of interest to the Housekeeper. She has sometimes seen her mistress take a cheap brass ring out of a little wooden box on her tiring-table. She never wears it; simply gazes at it, turning it round and round in her fingers. Now what might that signify?

As the Season ends, they return to the Manor. Winter has come early this year, with stronger gales than the country folk have heard of since their grandsire’s days. By this time, it is plain to see that the young wife’s belly has begun to swell. The Squire swells too, proud at this evidence of his masculine potency. He proclaims one last lavish dinner-party for her to attend before her time of confinement begins. All the gentry of the county are invited, to see his lady decked out in all her finery, and to congratulate him on the prospect of an heir.

The wind howls round the Manor like a chorus of lost souls as the evening of the great dinner arrives. The Mistress and her lady’s-maid make their way to the Tiring-room, where a gown of white gauze and the parure of pink sapphires are waiting. The door opens onto a scene of chaos. The gale has blown open the windows, and a screeching flock of nine magpies has flown into the room. The gown has been ripped to shreds and spattered with droppings, the furniture toppled, the crystal toilet-set shattered to fragments. On the tiring-table, a pair of magpies is bickering over the necklace, others snatch at the brooches and earrings. Sharp beaks pluck the gems from the tiara. One magpie is strutting in front of its reflection in the smashed looking-glass, wearing a bracelet around its neck like a collar.

At the maid’s shrieks, the Housekeeper comes rustling in, flaps a towel uselessly at the mad flock, shouting above their mocking cackles – Devil-birds, devil-birds! Croaking with glee, the magpies scoop up the sparkling plunder in their claws, and dive through the open window. The Mistress, ashen-faced, clutches her belly. Don’t stand there sniveling, girl, snaps the Housekeeper to the maid. Send for the midwife; her pains have come on early.


Nine’s a Birth.

The dinner-guests have departed in confusion. The village wet-nurse has been summoned and is regaling herself with gin in the Butler’s Pantry. After hours of listening to his wife’s distant screams, the Squire, fortified with tawny port, summons the midwife to his study. A premature labour, he is informed. The birth is proving difficult. If she should lose the child, enquires the Squire, how long before she can bear again? A male heir, most important… The midwife attempts to reassure her employer, forced to raise her voice to make herself heard over the desperate, abandoned screaming from the floor above. Suddenly there is utter silence. The Squire looks up; silence still. Abruptly, there are more screams, this time the Housekeeper’s voice. He sets down his glass, and makes unsteadily for the stairs.

In the birthing-chamber, the mother lies supine on the bloodied sheets, eyes closed, limp with exhaustion. The Housekeeper bends over her, screaming in her face, Whore! Whore! Filthy whore! – slapping and shaking her and pulling her hair. In the crib, gazing up at the appalled Squire, is a healthy, full-term baby boy, with a mop of blazing red curls.


Ten, You must walk to the Ends of the Earth.

The young girl sits alone on the lowest step of the grand staircase, giving suck to her baby. (The wet-nurse has flounced off back to the village, loudly declaring she’ll not be wasting her good milk on a bastard.) In his study sits the Squire, maudlin with port and self-pity, having given his faithful Housekeeper leave to deal with this disgraceful situation as she thinks best.

The girl looks up as the Housekeeper sweeps down the stairs, flanked by two grim-faced footmen. She seizes the girl’s left hand, wrenches off her wedding and engagement rings, spits in her face. Then she takes a small wooden box, which she empties at the girl’s feet. There, hussy, take your cheap trinket and your mongrel brat and go. Where shall I go? the girl asks quietly. What do I care, you little harlot? Go to the ends of the earth; go to perdition. The footmen open the great doors onto a vista of pure whiteness. The girl takes up the brass ring, slips it onto the third finger of her left hand, then picks up her child, turns wordlessly and walks out into the snow.

As she makes her way to her parlour, there is a pursed smile on the Housekeeper’s thin lips. Everything has fallen out to her satisfaction. Her rival discarded as a whore, her master stupid with port and easily managed. Soon the Manor will be ruled by her again. All is as it should be. Turning a corner of the passageway, she comes upon a whispering huddle of kitchen staff. What is the meaning of this? If you please, Ma’am, pipes up the scullery maid, it’s them birds. They’ve got in again. She pushes past the scared servants and throws open the kitchen door.

Ten magpies are perched in a row on top of the sideboard, gazing down at her, silent and unblinking, their eyes like chips of jet. The glow of the kitchen hearth turns the white feathers in their plumage a fiery red. As the Housekeeper, her eyes wide, backs slowly away, one of the birds swoops down, snatches up a burning brand from the hearth in its claws, and drops it onto the skirt of her black bombazine gown.

The young girl has been walking for hours. She is cold, wet and unbearably tired. Evening is coming on. The wind is dying down, but the thick snow still falls. She sees a skeletal shape rearing up black against the snow; an ancient oak-tree. The baby is crying thinly; she rocks it in her arms, and slumps beneath the tree to shelter from the snow and feed her child. Above her head, a bare, overhanging branch, with an abandoned bird’s nest cradled in its fork. She sings softly to her baby at her breast. She supposes, dully, that they will die of cold, unless they can reach the City before nightfall. What then? Poverty, starvation, homelessness. Even if she survives, she will be forced into a life of whoredom to feed her baby, and the Housekeeper’s insults will have come true. She can see a burning orange glow on the horizon; are those the City lights? No, they shine faintly in the opposite direction. Perhaps she will reach them, though she is so tired she would rather lie down and die. Yet try she must, for her child’s sake. She struggles to her feet. A sudden gust of wind blows down the bird’s nest, which lands at her feet with a soft thud. From the untidy clutter of dried twigs and roots, sparks of rose-coloured scintillance gleam in the dying light and spill onto the snow. It is a magpie’s stolen nest, and in it lie the lost pink sapphires.

The young girl stoops to touch the glittering gems, gazes at them incredulously. Not lost at all, but kept safe for her direst need. The baby gurgles as she dangles a broken earring over his waving hands. She gathers up her precious jewels, wraps the baby in the shawl and sets out resolutely for the City. Over her head, as she strides towards the distant lights, she hears the joyous chuckling of a tiding of magpies.


Finished A Tiding of Magpies by Cathryn Haynes and looking for something similar? Try D A Adamson’s The Miner who Would be a Gannet.