Skip to Main Content

The Desert Crop

A Novel

About The Book

Shocking tragedy unexpectedly frees a young man to pursue the love and happiness he thought were unattainable in this family saga by Catherine Cookson, who remains even after her death one of the world's best loved historical novelists.
Money was tight in the fanning communities around Fellburn, England, in the 1880s, so when Hector Stewart, only two years after the death of his long-suffering wife, announces to his children, Daniel and Pattie, that he is to marry Moira Conelly, a "wealthy" distant relative who lives in "a castle" in Ireland, it is easy to discern his motive. As for Moira, who had not been entirely honest about her background or finances, she has convinced herself that she would be marrying into landed gentry, allowing her the leisured lifestyle to which she believes herself entitled. It is with sonic surprise, therefore, after she arrives with her companion, Maggie Ann, that she realizes she is now the mistress of a ramshackle farm without any servants. Nonetheless, with her ever-cheerful disposition, Moira soon settles into the Stewart family routine.
Pattie, always the rebel, leaves home to be married, but Daniel, deprived of an opportunity to study at university by his father's insistence that he stay on the farm, can see no escape. Moira and Hector's marriage of convenience works well enough at first, but as their growing family compounds their financial difficulties, Hector's behavior toward her changes disturbingly. A horrifying act of violence provokes an even more shocking act of retribution in the family.
Yet, this tragedy opens the way for Daniel to expand his horizons and to find the love and joy that have long been denied him.
Set in Catherine Cookson's now familiar area of northeast England, Fellburn and its surroundings, this deeply felt novel of family conflict will be admired as one of the most powerful Cookson wrote in a career that spanned more that forty years.


Chapter 1
Daniel stared up at his father and wondered why a man so old could still retain boyish habits, for his father wasn't sitting behind but on the edge of his study desk and was swinging one leg the while he talked to Pattie. When he had anything of importance to say he always talked to Pattie, never to him, perhaps because she was four years older, being thirteen now. Yet at the same time he knew his father very often got angry with Pattie, and he was showing signs of it now because his leg was swinging more quickly than usual. She had just said to him, 'Mother has only been dead for two years, and the house goes on the same way, so why...?'
'I know your mother's been dead only two years, but two years is a decent enough time to wait until one marries again. As for the house, it isn't run as it was before: Rosie is a lazy bitch; the meals get worse.'
Daniel now turned his gaze on his sister, awaiting her reply, and she said, 'It's a big house. She has to clean the place, besides cooking now. And there were two other maids when Mother was alive.'
Daniel noticed his father's leg had become still; then he slid off the end of the desk, stood straight for a moment, before bending towards his daughter and saying, 'There were lots of things different when your mother was alive; for instance, you were spoilt. If you are finding the house dirty then you should bestir yourself and get a duster in your hand, if not a pail and mop, Miss Stewart.'
The plain fair-haired girl did not flinch from her father's stern gaze as she retaliated, saying, "You sent me to school, the village one, but you could send Daniel, here, to a boarding school. Why?'
'Why, miss? Because he's a boy and needs special education, whereas you, all you've got to do is to prepare yourself for marriage.'
'I may not want to get married, Father. Not everybody gets married.'
'Those with sense do, child, so that they are enabled to run their own household. But if you've decided already that you're not going to be married then you will have to make yourself useful in my household. Now, have you anything more to say, daughter?'
The boy watched them staring at each other; then his sister said boldly, 'Yes, Father. Why are you marrying Moira Conelly? She's a relation, isn't she? Moreover, she's Irish.'
Hector Stewart drew in a long breath; then turning sharply to his son, he said, 'You have a sister, boy, who's going to find life very hard, for already she is proving to be a finnicky, pestering female. But I shall answer her questions and enlighten you too. I am going to marry Moira Conelly because I happen to like her. As for being related to her, her father was my father's half-cousin. Now when you're doing your mathematics, work that out. As for her nationality, you both know' -- he now jerked his head towards his daughter -- 'that she is Irish, for she has spent two holidays here, hasn't she? That was when your mother was alive.'
Daniel spoke for the first time: a slight smile on his face now, he said, 'She lives in a castle, doesn't she, Father?'
Once more Hector Stewart drew in a long breath before returning his son's smile and saying, 'Yes, Daniel, in a way she lives in a castle, but it isn't as we think of a castle. Nevertheless it's called a castle.'
'She is old.'
Hector's head jerked back towards his daughter as he demanded, 'What do you mean, old?'
'She must be twenty-five.'
'Yes. Yes, she is all of twenty-five years. And you consider that old?'
Pattie did not seem to be able to find an answer to this, and her father, his expression softening now and his voice too, said, 'Wait till she comes: you will grow to love her; you won't be able to help yourself for she's such a happy soul. She will lighten this house.'
When again Pattie seemed unable to find anything to say, or perhaps she had considered it expedient to keep her opinion to herself, her father said, 'Well now, time's getting on. This young gentleman is for the road to his school tomorrow. Go and help him pack.'
'I've already packed, Father,' Daniel said.
'Oh, you have, have you? Ah well.' He straightened his shoulders, buttoned the middle button of his collarless jacket, then looking from one to the other, his manner a little awkward now, he said, 'I have work to do. I'm away to the farm. And you, Pattie, I would suggest you go to the kitchen to see what mess Rosie has concocted to present us with at supper time. As for you, boy: as it is your last night at home for a while I'll leave you to your own devices.' And on this he unbuttoned the middle button of his coat again before marching out of the room.
Daniel turned to his sister. Her usually pale face was flushed, indicating she was in a temper, and his voice had a soothing note as he said, 'I remember her, Pattie. She was jolly, and she made me laugh. You might get to like her. And Father said she's bringing her maid with her, and she is a working maid, so you may not have to do any work at all.' He put out his hand and took hold of hers, and now her voice came strange, almost a whimper, as she said, 'You won't be here, Dan. You don't know what it's been like since Mother died. He never bothers with me, and there's nobody to talk to, that's why -- ' she now paused and, lowering her head, shook it before going on, 'when I do get the chance I keep asking him questions, just to make him talk to me.'
'I shall write to you from school.' Daniel's tone was tender.
She looked at him, her eyelids now blinking rapidly. 'It isn't the same,' she said.
'Haven't you made friends at school yet?'
'Oh, that crowd. Betty McIntosh, Theresa Holmes, they're stupid, dull, and the boys are like clodhoppers. As for Miss Brooker, she doesn't know how to teach. I could teach her. Mother taught me my tables when I was four. As for being able to tell the time and count up to a hundred, and reading, I can't even remember learning those things. Mother was so advanced in her knowledge. But that school! Huh!'
She now threw off his hand as if getting rid of the whole school and its occupants. And when she turned away he had the urge to pull her back and put his arms about her and hold her close, to comfort her and at the same time be comforted himself.
He now followed her out of the room, down a passage and into a stone-flagged hall from which the shallow oak stairs rose. And he watched her hesitate at the foot of the stairs, then shrug her body about and make for the kitchen door at the far end of the hall.
Daniel walked to the front door and so out on to the flagged terrace that bordered the front of the house. He walked to one of the two small stone pillars that headed the six steps which led down to the gravel drive and, laying his forearms on the flat top, he gazed away over the expanse of his father's farmland.
The house was situated on a rise and this gave a view of the patchwork of fields straight ahead and also of those stretching away to the right. To the left there was a cluster of buildings obscuring the view, behind which he knew there to be the five cottages. But away beyond the cottages the hills rose, as they did for some way behind the house, thus giving some protection against rain, sleet and the north-east winds.
Daniel did not know why, loving this house and its surrounding land as he did, that it should make him feel lonely. He had been thinking of late that if, like his sister, he had a probing mind, he would have already been given the answer. All he could tell himself was that he needed something, but he would never allow himself to go as far as to think that what he needed was to hold and be held.
He recalled the day they had buried his mother and the strange thought that had come into his head as he stood by her grave, for it was true she had never hugged him. His mother hadn't believed in hugging, and she had stopped Rosie from hugging him. His mother hadn't even believed in holding his hand.
He straightened up and sighed. He'd be glad to get back to school tomorrow. He liked Crawley House. The food wasn't very good but that didn't matter; the matron was very nice. He was very fond of her. In the spring, when he'd had a cough, she had given him linctus, and she had kept him in bed for a day and had stroked his hair. She was the first one he could remember ever stroking his hair. Rosie used to ruffle it. His father had, now and again, ruffled it, too, but no one had ever stroked it until Matron did.
In the far distance over the gardens he could see Barney Dunlop, Rosie's husband, ploughing the barley field. It had been a good harvest but the ploughing pointed out that they would soon be in autumn. He thought he would go and say goodbye to Barney. He liked Barney.
He went down the steps, turned left and walked to the end of the house and round the corner to where it opened out into the yard. There was no-one in the yard. The four horse boxes were empty, the tack room door was closed, as were the outhouse doors; but when he approached the open barn two dogs which had been lying on the straw got up lazily and sauntered towards him. They gave him no barked greeting but, one at each side, they walked just a step behind him; and he turned and looked from one to the other, saying, 'Good boy, Laddie,' then, 'Your ear better, Flo?' And for answer both dogs wagged their tails.
A doorway at the far end of the yard led into a walled vegetable garden. It was a large area of land, and prominent were rows of late beans and peas.
Keeping to a pathway that skirted one wall, he went through an archway and into a field that had at one time been a lawn. Walking through the long grass he was reminded of his surprise when he had returned from school last summer and realised how quickly grass grew when it was not kept cut, and also how quickly weeds spread among the flowers and obliterated them. This had been brought about, he knew, by his father's dismissal of Peter Kent and Will Brown. Peter had seen to the vegetables and the garden, and Will had helped him now and again when he wasn't attending the horses. But now the two hunters and the two carriage horses were kept down on the farm. This had all happened since his mother died.
Why? This was the question he had put to Pattie when he had first seen the long grass on the lawn, and her answer had been, 'Mother's money went with her.'
At the time he had thought that very odd and he had had a mental picture of the money being spread round her as she lay in her coffin on the billiard table, which had been draped in black.
Would things return to what they were before, after his father married Moira Conelly, the Irish woman? Perhaps she had money.
Everything seemed to depend on money. His father had to pay money to keep him at this school, and he had pointed out to him that he was lucky. He supposed he was.
This thought set him running and the dogs bounded away from his side and chased each other in the long grass.
The field ended where a stretch of woodland began, and he ran zig-zagging through this, the dogs at his heels now barking with excitement. Once through the wood they were into ploughed land and skirting the neat furrows. In the distance he could see Barney Dunlop unharnessing the horses from the plough. When he reached them, the old man turned and spoke as if he hadn't been made aware of his approach by the barking dogs, saying, 'Why, there you are, Master Daniel. Where've you sprung from?'
'Granny Smith's Well.'
The old man and the boy now smiled knowingly at each other; for a long time this had been their usual greeting and answer. It was the answer Barney's wife always gave him when he asked her where she had been: 'Down Granny Smith's Well,' she would say.
Granny Smith's Well was the deepest in the district and it was known never to have run dry, even in the season when no rain had fallen for weeks.
'All ready for the morrow mornin', eh?'
'Yes, all ready, Barney.'
'Want to lead Princess? although she needs no leading, stone blind she could be an' still find her way. But Daisy, her daughter here' -- he thumped the other horse on the rump now -- 'daft as a brush, she is, skittish she is, would be off to the market in Fellburn, she would, if I wasn't keepin' an eye on her.'
As Daniel walked by the head of the big shire horse and listened to the old man chattering away he experienced a feeling of contentment. He wasn't sure why he felt this way, but at this end of the estate life seemed to go on in a different pattern from the other end.
The farmyard was filled with noise and movement. Arthur Beaney was driving in the cows from the pasture; Alex Towney was carrying fodder for the horses, and at the far end of the long earth yard his father was talking to Bob Shearman, the shepherd, his hand waving as if he were angry.
He had reached the stable door and let go of Princess's halter and was turning to ask Barney if he could help him water the horses, when he saw that he too was looking to where the shepherd was now coming across the yard towards them. As he passed to go into the stable Bob Shearman hissed, 'You know what now, Barney? he's bloody well telling me I've got to take Falcon into the market the morrow. I asked him why not one of the carriage horses. He told me to bloody-well mind me own business. But I told him I was a horse man afore he put me on shepherding and that Falcon isn't past it; he's still got a lot of jump in him yet and would burst a blood vessel to please him. But no, it's him that'll have to go; he must keep the carriage horses for his fancy piece that's comin'. I tell you, Barney, this place is goin' to hell quickly.'
'Be quiet! Be quiet!'
Bob Shearman glanced to where Barney was indicating the boy. And now he said, 'What odds? he'll learn how the land lies soon enough. And when he should come into his own there'll be nowt to come in to. You mark my words.'
Daniel did not ask Barney if he could help water the horses, but he said, 'I'll say goodbye, Barney; I've got to go now.'
'Goodbye, Master Daniel. It won't be long afore I'll be seein' you again. Christmas isn't all that far off. What's ten weeks or so?'
Without saying goodbye to Bob Shearman Daniel turned away; but as he walked through the wood he thought of the man's words, 'When he should come into his own there'll be nowt to come in to.' Was this all because his mother's money had died with her, as Pattie had said? But what about the money his father got from selling the corn and the eggs and the vegetables and the milk, and of course the pigs and the sheep. That must come to a great deal, surely. What did he do with it? He couldn't ask him, so he supposed he'd never know.
Oh, well, he was glad he was going back to school tomorrow for there was so much to do there that you never had time to think about unpleasant things such as nothing to inherit when you grew up. He now called to the dogs and galloped with them through the wood.
Copyright © 1997 by the Estate of Catherine Cookson

About The Author

Catherine Cookson lived in Northumberland, England, the setting of many of her international bestsellers. Born in Tyne Dock, she was the illegitimate daughter of an impoverished woman, Kate, whom she was raised to believe was her older sister. She began to work in the civil service but eventually moved south to Hastings, where she met and married a local grammar school master.
Although she was originally acclaimed as a regional writer, in 1968 her novel The Round Tower won the Winifred Holtby Award, her readership quickly spread worldwide, and her many bestselling novels established her as one of the most popular contemporary authors. After receiving an OBE in 1985, Catherine Cookson was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1993. She died shortly before her ninety-second birthday, in June 1998, having completed 104 works.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 27, 2011)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451660104

Browse Related Books

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Catherine Cookson