OF HALDEN, III
- Auksford, 2006
Robin Gordon 2006
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Brian understood. Like St Sweyne he had been
stripped of his manhood and had it miraculously restored.
Like St Sweyne he was called to the task that the Lord had assigned
him: to purge Baldersdale of its pagan superstition. Just as
the Druid of old had held the primitive peasants in thrall to ungodly
terrors, so now the Worm Master of Ormsgarth held, by wicked and
irreligious deception, the ignorant inhabitants of that benighted vale
in thrall to his own perverted doctrines. Unlike St Sweyne, Brian could
not kill the fountainhead of error, but, just as his ordeal had been
tempered to his ability to bear it, like the wind tempered to the shorn
lamb, as the scripture puts it, so his action must be tempered to the
modern age. He would not kill, but he would
persuade. He would convince the Worm Master of his sins, he
would urge him to turn from them and commit his life to the Lord
Jesus. Like St Sweyne he would overcome the evil.
The question was: how to go about it. He couldn't
very well cycle out to Baldersdale, march into Ormsgarth, whatever that
might be, and demand to see the Worm Master. As far as that
died-in-the-wool sinner was concerned, Brian was just a boy and could
be ignored. He would have to find some way of spying out the
land without arousing suspicion, and perhaps, somehow, get himself
introduced to the evil magician. But how?
The answer came to him the next day at school:
Specky-Four-Eyes Irving. For the remainder of that week Brian
assiduously cultivated the Baldersdale sceptic. Not once did
he mention his interest in the Worm Master or criticise in any way the
peculiar beliefs and practices of Irving's home valley. He
made himself agreeable, found topics of mutual interest, and, in short,
behaved like any other boy seeking to cement a friendship.
After a few days he suggested that Specky might like to visit him at
home on Saturday, have lunch, and stroll around Halden in the afternoon.
Specky, whose isolated dwelling cut him off from friendships
other than those of his home village outside school hours, eagerly
accepted, and, as Brian hoped and even hinted, issued a reciprocal
invitation for the following week.
There was a bus from Halden central bus-station at a quarter
to nine on Saturdays. It passed quite quickly through
Geddonthwaite and Geddonby, making only token stops there, and arrived
in Baldersthwaite at just before half-past nine. Brian was
the only passenger on the way out, but a crowd of women got on at
Baldersthwaite to make the journey to the Halden shops. The
return journey would bring them back by half-past four, when Brian
would again be the only passenger for Halden.
Specky was there to meet him. He led him along the
main street, over the beck, to the stone cottage where he
lived. Mrs Irving welcomed him warmly, delighted that her
lonely son had a school friend to visit him, but Brian did not want to
stay in the cottage. Despite the cold of an unseasonably
early winter, he wanted to go out and see the beauties of Baldersdale.
"Is that the beck that you have to beat?"
"Yes," said Specky.
"Do you just beat in one place, or do you walk along it
"Upstream," said Specky, "towards Ormsgarth."
"And that's where they throw you in?"
"Yes," said Specky.
"Like sacrifices to a river goddess?"
"What?" said Specky.
"Like sacrifices to a river goddess. Like in the
old days where they used to kill boys and throw them in the river to
appease the goddess."
"Don't think so,"said Specky. "They're just
bullies, that's all. Sometimes they throw lads in the beck
just for fun."
"Where's Ormsgarth?" Brian asked.
"Along the Beck."
"Can we go there?"
"If you want."
They strolled along beside the Baldersbeck as it tumbled down
its rocky bed, dashing against boulders and spilling over little rocky
falls. The path curved away from the water towards a stone
farmhouse and outbuildings with a few stunted trees around.
"Yon's Ormsgarth," said Specky.
"Is that where the Worm Master lives?"
"Can we go and see him?"
"No!" said Specky in alarm.
"Why not? Are you frightened of him?
"No," said Specky, "not exactly frightened, but you don't go
bothering t' Worm Master for nowt."
"Maybe it's not for nothing," said Brian. "Maybe
the reason I've been sent here is to talk to the Worm Master."
"What about? Sent? Who sent you?"
"Wist ye not," said Brian haughtily, "that I must be about my
"Oh, religion," said Specky. "That's what Jesus
said, isn't it? When 'e were twelve, like, and they couldn't
find 'im an' 'e were in t'temple talking to t' priests."
"What does the Worm Master do?" said Brian. "Why
does everbody think he's so important? Isn't he just a
farmer? Why is he called the
"You'll have to ask sombody else," said Specky. "I
don't know nowt about it."
"You are afraid of him, aren't you, Ronald?" said
Brian. "But there's no need to be, you know. When
we have Jesus on our side, no-one can harm us."
"I know nowt about it," said Specky. "Why don't you
ask George Batey?"
"I don't think he'd tell me anything," said Brian.
"He's superstitious. He wouldn't let you say anything that
time in church. I thought you were different.
Sensible. I thought you had a scientific mind."
"Aw," said Specky, with sudden relief, "if it's a scientific
mind you want, you can talk to Malachi.
He knows all about it."
Brian knew Malachi by sight. He was an ordinary
looking, fair-haired boy in the third-year sixth, said to be highly
intelligent, who had done an extra year at school, together with two or
three other gifted pupils, so that he could apply for a place at Oxford
or Cambridge. Brian wasn't sure of his surname, but his
Christian name was so unusual that, even in a school where nicknames
he was universally known as Malachi.
"Does he live in Baldersthwaite?" Brian asked.
"Naw," said Specky. "He lives at
Ormsgarth. 'E's t'Worm Master's grandson. Come on."
Specky now strode confidently towards Ormsgarth.
Brian followed with increasing nervousness. This was the
stronghold of the magician, the wicked sorcerer, the evil necromancer,
the man whom Specky said was not to be bothered, and here they were
strolling nonchalantly into his power.
Specky marched up to the back door and knocked. A
woman answered, wiping her wet hands on her apron.
"Morning, Mrs Boot," said Specky. "Is Malachi in,
"I'll call him," she answered, then yelled,
"Malachi! Ron Irving's here."
"How's your Dad's leg, Ron?"
"He's got them ulcers again, Mrs Boot. He couldn't
sleep last night."
"I'll tell t'Worm Master. Don't worry."
"Thanks, Mrs Boot."
Malachi appeared. Mrs Boot went back into her
"What's up?" said Malachi.
"This is Brian Adamson," said Specky, "from our
school. He wants to know about t'Worm Master."
"Have you tellt him owt?"
"Mind on then."
"I'll not say nowt. Will you come out?”
"Ay. I'm fair stewed ower them buiks. Me
grandad thinks I shouldn't go to college at all, but all them teachers
say I've got a good brain. What's the good of a brain if
you've got to stay in Baldersdale all your life."
"Why doesn't your grandad want you to go," said
Brian. "I though you were up for a scholarship to Cambridge."
"Not a scholarship," said Malachi. "I don't think
brainy. But I know I could make summat of meself if I 'ad the
chance. Mr Eldridge says … well, never mind that."
"But why doesn’t he want you to go?" Brian
"I'm to be t’next Worm Master," said
Malachi. "Me dad can't take it on. He was wounded
in t'war and he's never been right since. So it's to be
me. An' it could be anytime, me grandad says, though he looks
to me as if he's got many a year to go yet."
Brian's eyes gleamed. The next Worm
Master. Malachi, a boy only four years older than
himself. Someone he could talk to more or less as an
equal. If he could convince Malachi, he needn't ever have to
confront the necromancer himself. When the present Worm
Master died, Malachi would abolish the old superstitons.
Baldersdale would be properly Christian at last.
The three boys wandered along the beck, back towards
"Where did you hear about t' Worm Master?" Malachi asked.
"At school," said Brian. "It was on the day of the
storm. Someone mentioned him. I think they thought
he raised the storm because of what happened in St Sweyne's Church."
"T'Worm Master didn't raise t'storm," said Malachi.
"You been filling t'lad's head wi' nonsense, Specky?"
"Nay," said Specky. "I've tellt 'im nowt.
'E seems to think t' Worm Master's some sort o' devil-worshipping
"Well," said Malachi, "I suppose I'll have to put 'im
right. You run off hame, Specky. I'll bring him to
your house for his dinner."
Specky ducked away.
"Where's your friend," said his mother.
"Malachi's talking to him," Specky answered, and his mother
"I'm to be t' next Worm Master," said Malachi. "Do
I look like a devil-worshipping sorcerer?"
"No," Brian admitted, "but you don't want to be Worm Master,
"Would you?" demanded Malachi. "Do you know what it
means to be Worm Master? I'll have to keep watch here, all me
life, like me grandad before me, and like his father and his
grandad. Like all the generations of Boots, right back, and
like the people before we came, the druids, and the priests that were
here before the druids, like the people that built the stone circles."
"You could refuse," said Brian. "You could go to
Cambridge and get a degree in … whatever …"
"Physics," said Malachi. "Relativity. How
the Universe came into being. Did you ever think, there could
be more dimensions than we can recognise, not just three dimensions of
space and one of time. There could be dimensions outside
time, where you can look at time and see all of it at once."
"That's called eternity," said Brian. "It's where
God is, and He made the Universe. That's all you need to
"No it isn't," said Malachi. "If God made the
Universe, how did He make it? Has it been the same since the
beginning of time, or did it start with a Bang and explode?
Why is the speed of light constant? What is matter made up
of? We know that atoms aren't the basic building
blocks But what are protons and neutrons and electrons really
made of? How can a photon be a particle and a wave at the
same time? Will the Universe expand forever, or will it
collapse back on itself? How did life originate? -- and don't
just say God created it. How
did he create it? What caused the first amino acids to form?
There's so much to know."
"You can't stay here than," said Brian. "You've got
to get to university."
"I've got offers already from London, Manchester and Durham,"
said Malachi, "but Mr Eldridge says Cambridge is the place."
"Once you're away, you needn't ever come back," said
Brian. "The old superstitions would just die."
"I'd come back," said Malachi. "Of course I'd come
back. Me grandad thinks I might not, thinks I'd meet some
lass at college, and marry her, and she'd never agree to live
here. But I'd not turn me back on me duty. You
your back on your duty, would you?"
"No," said Brian confidantly. Things were going
well for him at last. "I've been given a mission," he
said. "Like St Sweyne. Though I am but a humble
sinner, I have been chosen to carry out the Lord's work."
"Get away!" said Malachi, impressed by Brian's serious and
self-confident demeanour. "How did you find out you had a
Brian hesitated a moment, then decided to tell all.
"My trousers disappeared," he said. "I was just walking along
an’ I met Norah Blackburn, and next thing I knew I had no
"That's not a miracle," said Malachi. "That's just
Norah following her natural inclinations. Did she throw them
into a tree or summat?"
"No," said Brian seriously. "It wasn't
Norah. She didn't do anything except laugh. They
just vanished, and then, after she'd gone, they suddenly
reappeared. It was a miracle, like when St Sweyne was
stripped of his manhood and left weak until he accepted the task Our
Lord had set him."
Most boys would have laughed derisively at Brian's account of
his miraculous debagging, but Malachi kept a straight face and listened
politely. He nodded approvingly when Brian told him he had
read about the life of St Sweyne in Gogfran Davies' article, and, he
proved such a good listener that, before it was time for Brian to go
back to the Irvings' cottage, he had poured out to Malachi everything
that troubled him: his dreams, his besetting sin, the lack of success
of his attempts to curb the lascivious conversations of his classmates,
and his increasing worries that there might be some truth in their view
of the relations between the sexes.
Gravely and without prurience Malachi explained the
procreative process and even laid to rest most of Brian's guilt-ridden
anxieties over his dreams of nakedness and nocturnal emissions, whether
involuntary or masturbatory. He talked too of the life of St
Sweyne, and about Baldersdale, explaining to Brian that Balder had been
the brightest and best-beloved of all the old gods of the Teutonic
peoples: the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Germans. So
beloved was Balder, that when he was troubled by evil dreams
foretelling his death, Odin himself descended to Hell to ask the
Seeress what would happen. She foretold the god's death at
the hands of his blind brother, Hod. Then the gods and
goddesses travelled about the whole of Middle Earth, and they made
every thing that existed swear never to harm Balder. Fire
swore and water swore. Earth swore and stone swore.
Oak and ash and every tree that lived in Middle Earth swore never to
harm Balder, and so did every living creature: the ox, the goat, the
wild boar, the mouse, the rat, the spider and the fly. Only
one thing was overlooked, the mistletoe, for Frigg, Balder's mother,
thought it too young and too weak to harm anything.
When the gods were sure that nothing could harm Balder they
began to amuse themselves by throwing things at him: a clod of earth, a
lump of wood, a stone. All bounced off before they touched
him and left him completely unharmed.
The one day there came to Frigg a garrulous old woman who
muttered and twined about what a disgraceful spectacle it was to see
people throwing stones at that handsome young man. Frigg
explained that all things in the world had sworn not to harm the
beloved Balder, but the old woman continued her nagging, wondering
whether it were true that every last thing had sworn, until Frigg,
tired of her badgering, confessed that she had left the mistletoe out.
The old woman was Loki, the trickster god, and he went
straight to the mistletoe, broke off a branch, and took it to Hod.
"It's unfair that you should be left out of the sport just
because you're blind," he said. "Here, take this little
branch. I'll help you aim at Balder, and then you can have
fun like the others."
So Loki guided Hod to where the others were throwing things
at Balder, and helped him to aim. Hod threw the branch, and
the mistletoe, which had sworn no oath, pierced the god Balder, and he
fell and died, never to return until Middle Earth shall pass away in
the destruction of Fimbul-winter, when Fenrir, the mighty Wolf shall
come forth, and all the monsters with him, when the Midgard Serpent
will rear up from the ocean's bed and shake the land to its doom, and
the burning fires of Muspell tear the sky apart.
"So you see, even the weakest of all creatures has its part
to play, for good or ill, in the struggle between good and evil, and
none of us can know what effect our action may have," said Malachi.
It was, in its way, a good Christian sermon, but Brian,
confused by Malachi's apparent regard for those old devils that had
been driven out by Christ, didn't really understand it, and he had no
chance to ask Malachi what he meant, for the Worm Master's grandson had
brought him back into Baldersthwaite, and Specky was waiting for him at
the door of his house.
Brian thought Malachi was the best and brightest of all the
boys he had ever met. At last he had found someone he could
talk to. It had at times crossed his guilty mind that he
ought to go to Canon Tollgate and make a full confession of his sins,
but he had rejected the idea as a temptation sent by the devil to lure
him into a popish practice – and what a relief that had been,
for he was sure the stern and upright Rector would have condemned his
disgusting wickedness and cast him into despair. Mr Mouse
would have been more approachable, but Brian shrank from exposing to
the Curate the vileness of his nocturnal practices. Martin
would never have understood, shrouded as he was in invincible
purity. His new friend Stew might have known what he was
talking about, but he would almost certainly have laughed, and he might
well have exposed Brian's weakness to the Bailey-Malone gang to buy
back their favour. Only Malachi understood and neither
laughed nor condemned.
Brian's afternoon with Specky Four-Eyes Irving was neither
very interesting nor very entertaining, but before he left to catch the
afternoon bus back home, Brian issued an invitation to him to come over
to Halden the following weekend, which Mrs Irving accepted with
alacrity on his behalf, and, as Brian hoped, invited him back for the
Saturday after. He had no doubt that he'd be able to ditch
Specky for a while and spend another couple of hours with Malachi.
On Monday he went to the prefects' study and asked to speak
to Malachi. All he really had to say was that he was coming
out to Baldersdale again the Saturday after next and that he wanted to
talk to Malachi again. The older boy received this news with
his usual grave politeness, and Brian chattered on for a few more
minutes before leaving.
On Thursday he thought of something he wanted to ask Malachi,
went again to the prefects' study, and spent a few more idyllic minutes
in Malachi's company, babbling cheerfully of this and that.
On Saturday he mooched round Halden with Specky Four-Eyes
Irving, thinking what a boring boy he was and willing the day to pass
until it was time for the afternoon bus back to Baldersdale.
On Tuesday he went again to the prefects' study and asked for
Malachi. Again he babbled inconsequentially and informed his
idol that he was coming out to Baldersdale that Saturday and hoped they
could continue their conversation. Malachi led him into an
"Listen, Brian," he said. "It's not a good idea to
keep coming to the prefects' study and asking for me. People
are beginning to laugh about it."
"Why," said Brian. "What's there to laugh
about? I like you. I want to talk to you."
"You know what I told you about men and women t'other week?"
said Malachi. "Well, sometimes there's summat not quite right
with a lad, and he gets a crush on another lad. I mean,
usually they grow out of it, but sometimes they don't. You
don't want people to think you're … well … you
Suddenly the words homosexual
maniac surfaced in Brian's
"No," he said. "I wouldn't want anyone to think
that. I won't come again. Will it be all right to
talk on Saturday though? I won't come if … but I
wanted to find out more about Baldersdale and St Sweyne and the Worm
Master, and that."
"Don't worry," said Malachi. "I
know you're all
right. We'll have another talk, and I'll mebbe introduce you
to me grandad."
Brian took Malachi's advice and stayed away from the
Saturday came at last and Brian was at the bus station by
twenty-five to nine, walking up and down impatiently until, at last, an
inspector went over to one of the buses and wound the destination board
round to Baldersthwaite. Brian bounded aboard, shivering in
the early-morning chill. He paid his fare to the conductor,
choked off the man’s attempt to chat with him, and sat in
silence, mulling over what he could say to Malachi to turn him from his
“It’s a nasty cold day,” said
Mrs Irving. You can sit in the front room and mebbe play ludo
or snakes and ladders.”
“I’d like to go out a bit,”
said Brian. “I’ve been cooped up in the
bus all this time with the heater going full blast. I think I
need some fresh air.”
Specky, who couldn’t stand the thought of snakes
and ladders, agreed. He was beginning to tire of
Brian’s company, and was as eager as Brian to go and find
Malachi. He really thought he’d rather be on his
own than have to entertain his guest, so when Brian said,
“Shall we go over towards Ormsgarth?” he was happy
Malachi was expecting them. He listened with his
usual politeness to what Brian had to say, then replied,
“Perhaps you should tell the Worm Master.
I’ve told him about you and he’d like to see
you. Come on through.”
Brian’s heart froze. He’d
thought he could escape ever having to confront the
necromancer. Malachi’s grandfather was old, and
Malachi was to be the next Worm Master. He thought all
he’d have to do was convince Malachi, but clearly the Lord
was not prepared to wait. Through Brian’s mind
passed the words, “Let this cup pass from me,”
followed rapidly by “Thy will be done,” as he
followed Malachi to the room where the evil presence waited.
He was expecting a tall saturnine figure with cold eyes and
an aura of satanic malevolence. Instead he met a slightly
built old man, a couple of inches shorter than Malachi, which made him
not much bigger than Brian himself. He had a short white beard, whispy
white hair, bright eyes and a friendly grin that reminded Brian of
“Ay, come in,” he said.
“So thu’s t’ lad
‘at’s been asking about St Sweyne and
t’Great Worm o’ Baldersdale. Well, ask
away, lad. I suppose I must expect questions after yon fella
Davies wrote his buik.”
Brian gaped and stuttered.
Malachi helped him.
“Brian thinks you’re a wicked
necromancer, Grandad,” he said. “He
thinks you’ve led the people o’ Baldersdale astray
by pretending you can do magic and that you scare them into doing your
bidding by threatening to set the Worm on them. He thinks it
was you that called up the storm that time.”
The Worm Master chuckled.
“Is that what you think? Well, we’ll just
have to let you go on thinking it, if it pleases you. But
you’ve read Gogfran Davies’ buik on St
“Yes,” said Brian.
“And you ken what Sweyne did?”
“He killed the Druid to get rid of pagan
“An’ I dare say you’d like to
kill me for the same reason?”
And what happened after Sweyne killed the Druid?”
The Dragon came forth and laid waste the land.”
“And do you know why?”
“The Druid sent it. Revenge.”
“Mmm. And why would I have sent a
“To punish the boys that desecrated St
“Oh, so, if I did that – not that I did,
mind – I must be on t’ same side as Sweyne,
don’t you think?”
“But you can’t be.”
“Could be you’ve misunderstood.
I’m going to show you our greatest treasure here in
Baldersdale. Come on wi’ me.”
Old Mr Boot went out into the hall and took down a key that
was hanging on a hook near the door. Brian and Malachi
followed him across the farmyard and out of the gate to a little stone
building that stood by itself. The Worm Master opened the
door and ushered Brian in. The boy entered cautiously, half afraid that
the old man would slam the door and lock him in. Malachi,
sensing his fear, followed him in and put his hand on his shoulder.
It was a little chapel, with a small stone altar at the far
The Worm Master gestured towards the wall behind the altar.
“What do you see there?”
“A cross,” said Brian.
“Ay, it’s cross-shaped,” said
the old man, but look at it closer.”
Brian peered across the gloomy chapel.
“It’s a sword,” he said.
“Ay,” said the Worm Master,
The old man said the strange word again, but Brian was none
“Sweyne’s sword,” said the Worm
as Dr Davies calls it in his buik, or Dragon-doom,
like. It’s been here in Baldersdale since the time
o’ Sweyne himself, and kept in a chapel on this site for all
“A relic,” Brian breathed.
“A relic if you like, but it’s also a
weapon of power when held in t’ right hands.
It’s a symbol, you see, of Sweyne’s own presence
and of his right to banish the Great Worm …”
Brian wasn’t listening. He knew that the
tale of Sweyne and the dragon was allegorical. He knew that
the dragon represented sin and that he, like every other Christian, had
to take up spiritual arms to combat the original sin that stained his
own soul. He knew that the worship of relics was a sinful,
Popish practice that had no place in the reformed Church of England,
something akin to the worship of idols and graven images. The
Worm Master’s words flowed on unheeded as Brian’s
troubled mind considered what should be done. Should the
sword be destroyed? But it was the only memento of St
Sweyne. As such it should be kept, but not in a chapel to be
adored by the unfortunate people of Baldersdale who had been seduced
and led astray by the Worm Master and his forefathers. If
anywhere it ought to be in a museum where it would be cared for
properly and where people could see it and remember St Sweyne and his
heroic deeds without being tempted into idolatry.
Mr Boot and Malachi had led him back to the house.
The Worm Master hung the key in its place, shook Brian’s hand
and wished him well, then disappeared back into his room.
“I’ll walk wi’ thee back to
Specky’s” said Malachi.
Brian walked in silence, and Malachi made no attempt to
interrupt him, probably thinking he was pondering on the Worm
Master’s words. Then, as they parted, Brian burst
“You shouldn’t worship relics.
It’s wrong! It’s what Catholics do! It
should be in a museum, and anyway the dragon’s just an
allegory. We have to take up arms against our own sins and
the sins of those around us. You’ve got to tell
them the truth when you’re Worm Master.”
“I shall tell them the truth,” said
Malachi. “You have done your bit now.
There isn’t any need for you to come back.”
Brian was relieved. It was true. He had
done his duty. He had confronted the necromancer, and, though
nothing had come of it, the old man would not last forever.
Malachi would tell the truth and the pagan superstitions would come to
an end. He stood at the bridge looking at Malachi as the
older boy walked quickly back towards Ormsgarth. To have a
friend like Malachi was a wonderful thing.
Then he turned and knocked on the door of the
Irving’s house. Mrs Irving let him in and gave him
lunch with Specky, and the two boys sat for the afternoon in the front
room, talking a bit, playing some of the games in a desultory way,
bored with each other’s company and wishing the time away,
while gusts of icy wind and squalls of sleet slapped across the dale
At last it was time for Brian to go. He
didn’t bother to invite Specky to visit him the next
week. Specky nodded a silent farewell and didn’t
offer to accompany him to the bus-stop, and Mrs Irving merely said
goodbye, without suggesting that he should come again.
A few women got off the bus. Brian got on, paid his
fare, and sat in solitary silence until he reached the Halden bus
station. It was over.
14: The Great Worm
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