Skull and Stones – 1845

‘Come on, come on,’ he shouted and lifted the fiddle to his shoulder. A sprightly jig for a summer’s day, enough to get people gathered around and a few ha’pennies in the hat. He could hear them, he could smell them. He could do everything but see them. But they were there, they’d gathered, and more were halting, curious. They were filling the pavement, forcing to people to step around them, into the road.

Martin knew exactly where he was. Some ten yards down Briggate from the Corn Exchange, his back close to one of the old houses on the street. Carts rumbled by, carriages and horsemen. But the people were gathering. They wanted a tale. God knew they needed something. With the price of wheat they couldn’t afford bread. And with all the talk of Chartism the skies of the north seemed to crackle with lightning. Something to take them out of themselves, away from their hunger and worries for a few minutes.

There were mutterings of insurrection and revolution in the air, in Leeds as much as anywhere.  Extend the franchise with a vote for every man. He’d heard it. He knew who said it, knew their voices, their footsteps as they crept around.

But then Martin knew this town and the people in it. He’d lived here all his life, he sensed his way around to within a foot or an inch. No need for a stick or a boy to lead him. He knew. A blind fiddler, a blind storyteller. You made your living however you could.

‘Come on, come on,’ he said again as he put up the bow. This was his call, with a tune to draw them in, then a tale. He gazed around, sensing them waiting. ‘You know about Skull and Stones Yard, don’t you?’

‘Go on, tell us,’ someone shouted from the back.

‘If you go down Kirkgate to the Crown and Fleece, you take a look in the yard there. Put your head up and glance at the barn. Do you know what you’ll see?’

‘No,’ cried a woman, although most of them knew all too well.

‘There’s a stone in the wall cut so two skulls seem to be coming out of it.’ He paused. ‘Human skulls. And they’re there to remember the pair who died in that barn many years ago.’

Martin had them now. He could sense it. They were listening, expectant. He moved his foot, tapping it against the old hat sitting upside down and jingling the few coins inside. A moment or two and there was the beautiful sound of more joining them.

‘Long ago, well before you and me were even twinkles in anyone’s eye, the recruiting sergeant was here on a market day. He had his orders: find men to join the colours and fight for their country. He’d marched in from Wakefield the night before and he’d had a raw time down there. No bugger wanted to know. It was the back end of November and all folk craved was the warmth of their hearth, if they had anything to burn. He took a room at the Crown and Fleece, and next morning he went around the market, trying to convince lads that they should join up. He told his stories of glory. All the joy of fighting and battles and becoming a hero. The friends they’d make. All they’d be able to make when they sacked a town. But the men turned away, because we’re not bloody fools in Leeds, are we?’ A ragged cheer went up from the crowd and he smiled. ‘We know that war means death or coming home without an arm or a leg, and the only ones who get rich off it are the ones who already have more than they can spend.’ A louder cheer. ‘That evening the sergeant went back to the Crown down in the mouth. He knew if he returned with no recruits they’d send him back to the lines. No more smart uniform and braid and white pipeclay on the facings. No more soft beds or pretty girls taken in by a smart red coat. But that evening, drinking in the bar, he saw two lads and began talking to them.’

He put the fiddle to his shoulder and began to play Over The Hills And Far Away. Just a couple of lines, enough to encourage them to give more money. He had a fund of tales, enough to tell ten or more a day for a year without repeating himself. He moved all around Leeds – by the market, the bridge, Holbeck, here, everywhere. And in the evenings he kept his ears open. There was always a new story to hear and remember.

‘These boys were brothers. They’d brought in the pigs from the farm out past Moortown to sell at the market. Made a few shillings and now they were having a drink before walking back home. But the sergeant, he started spinning his web for them. He lied like he’d never lied before. He bought ale and between the drink and all he told them, soon their eyes were glistening. At the bar, while he bought them another mug each, he slipped a shilling into each one.’ He paused, blind eyes staring around the crowd. ‘Do you know why?’

‘The King’s shilling!’

‘That’s right.’ He pointed with the bow. ‘You take the shilling and you’ve agreed to join the army. If it’s in your mug and you drink, you’ve accepted it. But these lads, they didn’t know how the world worked. They drank down, they drank deep, and they took the shilling. They belonged to the sergeant now.’

The hisses and booing heartened him.

‘Once they understood what they’d done, the brothers drank more just to try and forget, so much they could barely move. The sergeant wanted them somewhere secure overnight, a place they couldn’t just wake up and slip away. So he paid the landlord to use the barn. There was hay up in the loft, and plenty of it. After all, it was gone November and the horses needed their feed. The sergeant helped the lads up the ladder to the loft. He pushed and he prodded until they were settled and soon they were fast asleep. Then he locked the door to the barn and kept the key in his breeches for morning. But the night turned bitter, and when he went down just after dawn the frost was thickand hard on the cobbles in the yard. He unlocked the door to the barn and climbed the ladder to the loft.’

Martin paused again. He could sense their eagerness. Half of them must know the story by heart, he thought, it was a favourite. But they still wanted to hear it. They still wanted to feel it. Another gentle tap on the hat, another small shower of coins.

‘There was no one on top of the hay. The sergeant pushed his hand down to the wrist, but he couldn’t feel anything when he moved it around. He stood on the hay, searching and scattering the top layer. But the lads had vanished. They couldn’t have escaped. The barn had no windows and he had the key to the door. He looked everywhere, but the brothers had gone. They’d just vanished, yet that was impossible. The sergeant was growing frantic. He accused the landlord of having another key and letting the lads out during the night. He accused the maid, the potboy, everyone. Because men didn’t just disappear. They weren’t ghosts. They’d taken his shilling. But the lads weren’t there, and finally he had to admit defeat and go on his way, never knowing how they’d managed to get away.’

Cheers and a few people laughing. He was ready for the final part.

‘About a week later, or maybe it was a fortnight, because the times slips in the telling, the straw in the loft had gone down. And there was a very odd smell in there. The stable lad called the landlord and he climbed up with a pitchfork to see what it might be. When he dug down he found the two brothers. It had been a cold night when they slept in the hay, and they must have burrowed into the straw to keep warm. But they’d gone too deep, so far down that they couldn’t breathe….’ Martin let the words hang and another coin rattled into the hat. ‘The landlord was a good man. He made sure the lads received a burial. But it all kept worrying at him. He wanted to do more. So he commissioned a mason, telling him, “Cut me a stone, but I want a pair of skulls to protrude.” They talked and talked about how to do it, pushing ideas back and forth, and a week later the mason’s apprentice delivered what his master had made in the handcart. The landlord had him replace one of the stones in the wall of the stable with the new carved stone, making sure it faced out to the yard as a reminder of what occurred and how short life can be. Folk came from all around to see it, and within a few years they started calling it Skull and Stone Yard. It had taken on a life of its own, apart from the inn. The stone is there still, ladies and gentlemen, and now you can go and tell your children how it all came to be.’

Martin bowed then struck up another tune. A short flurry of coins and the people dispersed until he was alone. He tipped the money into the pocket of his ragged waistcoat and tapped the hat back on to his head before he walked away.

Historical Note: Skull and Stone Yard was the name by which the yard of the Crown and Fleece became known, and the story is a true Leeds tale. When the yard was demolished the stone vanished, only to be spotted in the wall of a warehouse on Buslingthorpe Lane in 1974. How it ended up there is another tale entirely…I told the story in a different way as part of my novel At the Dying of the Year.

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