Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986
On a pleasant March Saturday in the Sussex countryside, Mrs. Ashcroft entertains her old friend Mrs. Feetley for afternoon tea. At the outset, talk quickly turns to memories of the past, and the story unfolds entirely through the ensuing dialogue. Mrs. Ashcroft recalls the death of her husband many years earlier. She hints that it had not been the happiest of marriages, and that both sides carried their share of the blame. Her husband had warned her on his deathbed that retribution lay in store: “I can see what’s comin’ to you.” However, this ominous note does not fully prepare the reader for the strange story, involving mysterious and supernatural events, that Mrs. Ashcroft now relates to her spellbound friend.
After her husband’s unlamented death, Mrs. Ashcroft, who combines the practical worldliness of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath with the simplicity of the countrywoman, traveled to London, finding a job as a cook in an upper-class home. It was an easy life, and she fared well. After a year, she moved back to Smalldene, a village in Sussex, where she worked on a farm. It is there that she met Harry Mockler, and their lives were destined to become entwined in a curious and baffling manner. Mrs. Ashcroft regarded Harry as her master, although, looking back, she certainly holds no illusions about romantic love. “What did ye get out of it?” Mrs. Feetley asks. “The usuals. Everythin’ at first—worse than naught after,” is the reply. Although she loved Harry unquestioningly, far more than she had ever loved her husband, eventually he deserted her, and she suffered greatly.
Now her story takes an unexpected turn. She relates that one day, suffering from a bad headache, she found the playful company of young Sophy Ellis, the daughter of the local charwoman, irksome. Sophy, having discovered the reason for Mrs. Ashcroft’s irritability, immediately promised to relieve her headache, as if to do so was the easiest thing in the world. She promptly left the house. Within ten minutes, the headache vanished. Mrs. Ashcroft naturally assumed this to be a coincidence, but Sophy insisted on her return that it was she who was responsible for the cure, and that she was now suffering from the same headache herself. As Mrs. Ashcroft questioned the child, she heard with increasing amazement about the Wish House, a deserted house in nearby Wadloes Road, in which a spirit, known as a Token, lived. The Token had the power, if asked, to transfer an affliction from one person to another. No one, however, could wish good for himself; the spirit dealt only in bad.
Some months elapsed, during which this incident lay at the back of Mrs. Ashcroft’s mind. The next summer, she traveled once more to London, and then again to Smalldene. By chance, she met Harry, whom she still loved, but found that he was tragically changed from his former self. Having sustained a bad leg injury, which had turned poisonous, he was a broken figure and was not expected to live more than a few months. Acutely distressed, she urged him to see a doctor in London, but he refused. In desperation, Mrs. Ashcroft decided that there was only one thing that she could do for him. In the evening, single-minded in her purpose, she set off for the Wish House. On her arrival, she rang the bell boldly and immediately heard the approach of shuffling footsteps. The footsteps reached the front door, where they stopped. It was an eerie moment. Mrs. Ashcroft leaned forward to the letter box and said, “Let me take everythin’ bad that’s in store for my man, ’Arry Mockler, for love’s sake.” She heard nothing from behind the door except an expulsion of breath. Then the footsteps returned downstairs to the kitchen.
For several months nothing appeared to happen, but in November, Mrs. Ashcroft learned that Harry had fully recovered and returned to his job. Her own troubles, however, were about to begin. The following spring, she developed a boil on her shin that refused to heal. At first, she made no firm connection between this event and Harry’s earlier recovery. Later, however, when Harry suffered a kick from his horse, her wound got worse, and she believed that it was drawing the strength out of her. Harry got better. At that point, she knew the truth and uttered a shout of triumph that was also a prayer: “You’ll take your good from me ’thout knowin’ it till my life’s end. O God, send me long to live for ’Arry’s sake!”
As the months and years went by, Mrs. Ashcroft learned to regulate the pain and discomfort from her wound. Sometimes the wound appeared to clear up, and she learned that this was an indication that Harry would be in good health for a while, so she conserved her strength. When the wound got worse, she knew that Harry was in need. This continued for years. She gained nothing from this strange situation because no one knew of it except herself; Harry took little notice of her, although, to her relief, he did not take up with another woman.
The final twist in the story takes place when Mrs. Ashcroft reveals that her wound has turned cancerous. She is slowly dying. In a moment of uncertainty, she seeks reassurance from her friend that the pain she endures is not wasted, that it keeps her Harry safe. Mrs. Feetley willingly concurs. Finally, Mrs. Ashcroft asks her friend to look at the wound before she leaves. At the sight of it Mrs. Feetley shudders but kisses Mrs. Ashcroft with sympathy and understanding. The story ends on this note of compassion for the dying woman, who has selflessly taken on the troubles of a man to whom she is devoted and who has given her nothing in return.
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