(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

The country people said there had been something queer about the Sarn family since old Timothy Sarn was struck by forked lightning. The lightning seemed to have gone into Timothy and into all the Sarns. In Prue’s father, the lightning took the form of a raving temper, and in Prue’s brother, Gideon, the lightning was the more frightening because it was quiet but deadly. Dogs and horses turned away from Gideon’s gray eyes. Prue understood her brother better than most, but even she was frightened when Gideon offered to be the sin-eater at their father’s funeral. For a sin-eater took the sins of the dead person and sold his soul for a price. Gideon’s price was the farm that would have been his mother’s. Mrs. Sarn feared to accept the terms, for a sin-eater’s destiny was dreadful; but she feared more to let her husband go to his grave with all of his sins, and so she gave Gideon the farm.

On the night after the funeral, Gideon told Prue his plans. They were going to become rich, own a house in town, and have fine clothes and beautiful furniture. Gideon promised Prue that for her help he would give her fifty pounds to have her harelip fixed. He warned her, however, that he would work her as he would an animal. Because Prue had hated her harelip for many years, she consented to his terms. They signed an agreement and took an oath on the Bible that Gideon would be the master and Prue his servant.

Prue also was to learn to read and write and do sums so that she could keep the farm accounts. Her teacher would be Wizard Beguildy, a neighbor who was preached against in church because he earned his living by working spells and charms. Wizard was the father of Jancis Beguildy, a childhood friend of Prue and Gideon.

During the next four years, Prue and Gideon slaved long hours in the field. Prue grew thinner and thinner, and their mother became quite feeble. She was compelled to watch the pigs, for Gideon would let no one be idle. The farm prospered.

One part of Gideon’s plan, however, did not work out as he had arranged. He was in love with Jancis Beguildy and decided that he would make his fortune and then marry her. Jancis did not want to wait that long, but Gideon would not change his mind.

Gideon and Jancis were handfasted, and Jancis had a love-spinning, even though her father swore that she could never marry Gideon. At the love-spinning, Prue first saw Kester Woodseaves, the weaver. When Kester came into the room, it seemed to Prue that a beautiful mist surrounded her. Then she turned sadly away. Gideon had told her often enough that no man would love a girl with a harelip.

A few days after the spinning, Jancis went to tell Gideon that her father threatened either to sell her to a rich squire for his pleasure or to hire her out for three years as a dairymaid. Her only...

(The entire section is 1164 words.)