The Devil’s Piece


John Gadd, our accessions officer, is a local historian and writer.  He has published several short stories in Fontmell Magna`s monthly magazine “ The Gossip Tree”

 As this periodical is distributed to residents and ex-residents only, website viewers may be interested in these intriguing tales based on an imaginary Fontmell of the past.

 The author reserves copyright.

  The Devil’s Piece.

When Queen Victoria was alive, William Still of Fontmell was an ambitious and successful man, and he had a wonderful way with animals. His friends up in Shaftesbury made light of it and said it came from gypsy blood on his mother’s side, but we in the village know better. In his youth, you see, he sold his soul to the Devil.

William was only twenty-one when he decided, if he was only to have one life on earth, it was worth trying for something more ambitious than labouring at the Springhead mill. He wished for broad acres and a dairy farm down Marnhull way.

When he had made up his mind, he went to see old Moll Hagger, the local ‘wise woman’, who lived in a cottage on Margaret Marsh. Margaret was pleased to see William who had often done her some small kindnesses and never danced round her and called her a witch as we did when we were children.

The old woman knew exactly what he should do, and gave him a bag of frogs bones. On Halloween he was to cast these bones into the Fontmell brook, and watch what happened – frogs bones being so delicate they are the only ones which float.

“Be sure to choose a gentle flow – where they’ll float nicely”, she said “ and you mind closely what happens, and then do what I tell ‘ee”.

Secretly William selected a place for his ritual and tumbled the bones into the stream to begin their long journey to the sea. Were they all going past him? No, one of them – he thought it was a breast bone – appeared to be moving upstream.  It was true what old Moll had said. If he was brave enough to pick that bone out of the water, he could wish for whatever he liked – but the Devil would have his soul.

Will hesitated for a full minute, then with a muttered, “What do I care for the Devil anyway?” he ran a few yards upstream, splashed in, picked up the bone and made his wish. He asked for such power as would make him a rich and successful man.

That Christmas Will gave up his job at Springhead and went to work for old Charlie Jenkins the blacksmith at the foot of North Street. From the very first he had a wonderful touch with horses, even the most savage kicker was quiet and patient under his hands.

The year after Will had picked the Devil’s piece out of the brook, he did something which caused more talk in the Blackmore Vale than even the arrest of John Grange over at Shilling Okeford.  Farmer Barnes was a gross and overbearing man who farmed down Blandford way.

He was hurrying to the Christmas market in Shaftesbury when his mare cast a shoe.

Cursing, he drove into the smithy and shouted for Will. Will was busy with a restive three year-old and so couldn’t come at once. Barnes stamped about in beery impatience, calling Will a lazy oaf. But when Will had finished shoeing the young horse, he took the mare and quickly set her to rights. Instead of thanking the young smith, the farmer threw a shilling down and prepared to drive off without so much as a civil word.

Will was by the mare’s head, and Barnes, now late for market, cut bad-temperedly at her with his whip to get her going, but the thong just caught the smith’s cheek.

Will flinched but said nothing, then leant forward to murmur something in the mare’s ear before returning to the smithy. Barnes flicked the reins. “Come up, mare” he bawled. The mare stood there unmoving. She seemed to be asleep.

And there she stood for two mortal hours. Nothing would shift her. We tried every known trick. We pulled, we shoved, we flattered, we cursed, we offered food and water. It was useless until Will went past her on his way back to dinner, when she woke up and started off home as if nothing had happened, with old Barnes waving his whip and shouting fit to burst as he lumbered after her and the cart. How we laughed!

Of course Barnes missed all the deals, including the meeting to get the Turnpike people to renew the bridge over the Stour which was on his land. The job was never done for years – more’s the pity as you shall see.

After this people looked a little strangely at Will, but he appeared not to notice, being as friendly and civil as ever. But there was a hidden power in him and he earned much extra income in curing the ills of the farm stock which even Ezra Mayo, the local veterinary, couldn’t manage.

Eventually Will got his farm near Cut Mill and became rich before he was thirty.

Not so farmer Barnes, whose farm declined. Will went to Barnes’ closing-down sale and, returning with his wagon heavily-laden with purchases, the old bridge over the Stour gave way and Will was thrown into the flooded river. Curiously his body was found twenty yards upstream, caught in some willow branches.

We never could explain that. We said the Devil had claimed his due.

Parson Edmonds tut-tutted and said we weren’t to talk that way.

But we in the village know better.

Author: John Gadd