Sir William Graham lies dying alone in his bed. I keep the window into his garden open for air, and the door into his chamber closed for visitors. Other than myself, I permit only the minister to see him if needed.
At noon, I enter his chamber. He sleeps with face drawn, breath ragged, but steady. I touch his shoulder, waking him. “Master, let me help you up. Won’t you come and sit in the garden? Spring has come and the birds sing. It will cheer you and the air will be a boon.”
After he benefits from some air and sun, I will take Master into the drawing room and ask him to sign the papers. The papers I’ve had prepared. Papers master does not know about. We must do it today. All is ready, and the minister has agreed to sign as witness.
“No Sam. I don’t have the strength for the garden. But there is something else if you will help me?”
“You have but to name it, Master.”
He sat up, struggling. “Take the coach into town, please. Fetch Barbara Allen here to me. I must speak with her and she should see this place.”
Barbara Allen has no place here. Devil take her. Though I have never met her, I blame her for master’s condition. But I will not deny my master.
“If you wish it, Master, I will do it.”
“Be quick about it. It is important, and I fear tomorrow may be late.”
My master is known throughout the county and is called ‘Sweet William’ for his kindness and generosity. He courted Barbara Allen all winter, and now in spring their love should flower. Instead, she spurns him and he grows sick in heart, and sick in body.
I tell the coachman to hitch the team and make ready. Town is not far, and I favor walking the peaceful lanes winding through the fields, and past the kirkyard with its spring blooms. I don’t need the coach, but to bring Barbara Allen here, I will offer conveyance. I will do as my master asks.
The minister comes from the kitchen door and crosses the yard to me. He grabs my arm as I open the coach door. “Be quick, Sam, if you want to see him sign your papers. It’s a dying man’s errand he sends you on.” He leans closer. “We started the death watch. If you hear the kirk bell toll, he’s dead, and you are too late.”
Master William has no family, no heir. One sodden night after he’d returned late from the tavern, he asked me what I would think if Barbara Allen should inherit. I took it as nothing more than a drunken jest and told him so. I told him he would soon forget Barbara Allen. And I told him I’d been his faithful servant for all my years, always true to him. And he should be true to me.
Why shouldn’t I inherit?
The coachman parks in the market square and I’m out, quick of foot, enquiring for Barbara amongst the stalls.
A maid selling daffodils and bluebonnets informs me. “There.” She points to a stately town house in the square’s corner, faced with smooth pink stone. “She lives there with her mother and her sister, Annie. They buy my flowers. Mistress Annie buys lilies and Mistress Barbara favors roses.”
I step to the house, doff my cap, and knock at the door. While I wait, I whistle at my driver and wave for him to bring the coach around.
A young groom opens the door. I give my request, only to repeat it to the housemaid, and then finally the butler, who shows me to a carpeted sitting room. He asks me to wait.
He returns with a well dressed and gracious older lady who walks into the room using a cane.
Hat in hands, I dip my chin to show my respect for this lady of the house, who surely must be Barbara’s mother. “Madam, Sir William Graham respectfully requests a visit from the Mistress Barbara Allen. It is urgent. I’m sorry to say we believe he is dying.”
“Sir William is dying? What a horrid thing.” She sighs and leans with both hands on the cane. “Please fetch Barbara,” she says to the butler.
Soon, a tall and elegant young lady in a mint chiffon dress enters the room. She paints a lovely picture of health, with chestnut hair pinned in loose curls above her shoulders, quick eyes the color of a robin’s egg, and a robust, glowing complexion.
“William sent you to me?” she asks.
“Yes, mistress. With your mother’s permission, will you please accompany me? He hasn’t long and asks for you.”
“I daresay I owe that man no such courtesy.” She raises her chin and smirks, frigid eyes boring a hole through my pretense at manners in her home.
“Barbara,” her mother chides.
“Very well, mother. But I certainly will not go out like this. I must change from this house dress.” She spins on the ball of her slippered foot and leaves the room.
“Thank you kindly.” I nod to her mother and the butler shows me out.
I wait an hour for Barbara Allen. I pace and the coachman smokes. She emerges wearing a fine gown of lace and blue silk that catches the color of her eyes. I offer my hand, and she steps into the coach.
As the coachman drives from the square, she sits across from me, and looks out the window in quiet. She owns a delicate form and graceful poise unlike any other woman I’ve known.
“He will owe me for this,” she says to herself, ignoring me.
I do not like this Barbara Allen.
When we arrive, the minister is waiting for us in the hall, outside William’s room. He greets Barbara and follows us in as I show her into the master’s bedchamber. William lies with his face to the wall, but turns as we come in, and I help him sit up, plumping pillows under him. He is worse, eyes sunken, face ashen, moist from fever.
For a moment Barbara seems concerned, but then reclaims her contempt. “I have come William. You look poorly.”
“Barbara.” He holds his hand outstretched to her. “I abhor what happened and am sick to death from sorrow.” She ignores his hand, and it falls limp to his side. “Truly, I meant no disrespect to you.”
“The ladies in the tavern told me with twinkling eyes how kind you were to them some days past. Buying their wine and reveling late into the evening.”
“Just my friendly way, as I was with you when we first met.”
“Any man I’ve given my affection to cannot keep such company. You have slighted me. You can have your tavern friends, William Graham, but you will not have me!”
“You lay fading on your deathbed. So why ask to see me? Perhaps you hope my love can save you, but it has gone. Spoiled and driven away by you, never to return.”
“Don’t say that, please.” He reaches for her, again in vain.
“You may look upon me this last time, but even my beauty won’t keep you from death.”
His face twists.
I do not like this Barbara Allen!
I move forward and stand beside William’s bed. “Mistress, I will not allow-”
“Farewell.” She says to me, steps around the minister and walks out, through the hall and into the yard.
Anger burns in me like a dark iron bloom from a smelter. “Master, I swear to you. I’ll make her pay. I will-”
William closed his eyes. “No, Sam, no. Be kind to my Barbara Allen. She is my heir.” He turns his face to the wall and says no more.
Barbara Allen is his heir? Such a thing cannot be.
I leave the minister with William and follow her outside. She sits in the coach and seems content to be done with William Graham and away.
When we reach the kirkyard, I yell for the driver to stop, open the door and step out into the muddy lane.
“Get you out.” I say to her.
“You will take me home.”
“I shall not. Get out.”
She looks away. “You will not speak to me like that.”
“We will unhitch these horses and leave you here if need be. Now get you out.”
She steps out. I refuse her hand, as she refused William’s. A moment later, the kirk bell tolls.
I will not let such a thing be.
“You hear the kirk bell tolling? That signifies the death of Sir William Graham.”
Her eyes widen.
“What would it have cost you to spare a kind word to my dying master?”
The bell tolls again. “Each time it rings, it names you ‘Cruel Barbara Allen.’”
Her face pales and her lip quivers.
It tolls again. “Cruel Barbara Allen! You broke his heart.”
The bell tolls. “Cruel Barbara Allen! You sealed his death.”
The bell tolls a fifth and final time. I place my palm on her breast, over her heart. “Cruel Barbara Allen! I curse your own heart and may the devil take you!”
She screams, picks up her skirts and flees away down the lane, wailing in fear and sorrow.
A day later, five bells ring out again, this time for Barbara Allen. They say she died of a broken heart.
I know better.
My master left all he owned to Barbara, and Barbara left all to her sister Annie. I console Annie when they bury William and Barbara side by side in the kirkyard, where the blooms grow. Annie is nothing like her sister. She is plain in a charming way that I’m grateful for, but also kind hearted, gracious, and possessing of beauty in her soul, unlike any other woman I have known.
I marry Annie, and we are a good match. Annie is mistress, and I am now master of the house that William left to Barbara. Every spring, Annie and I leave our house, walk down peaceful lanes, winding through the fields, to the kirkyard to visit the graves of Sweet William and Cruel Barbara Allen. From Barbara, a cruel green briar grows. From William, a sweet, sweet red rose. Entwined, they grow together and embrace each other in a true love’s knot.
M.M. Ferry writes speculative fiction and lives in Southern California with his family and too many cats. His passion is to create unusual stories offering unexpected perspectives, fueled by material from a life spent looking at things in strange ways.