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- St. George and St. Michael - 5/94 -
'There be among those who call themselves the godly, who will endure no mummery but of their own inventing. Cousin Thomas hath written a multitude of plays, but that he studied at Cambridge, and to good purpose, this book, which I was reading when you entered, bears good witness.'
'What is the book, father?'
'Stay, I will read thee a portion. The greater part is of learning rather than wisdom--the gathered opinions of the wise and good concerning things both high and strange; but I will read thee some verses bearing his own mind, which is indeed worthy to be set down with theirs.'
He read that wonderful poem ending the second Book of the Hierarchy, and having finished it looked at his son.
'I do not understand it, sir,' said Richard.
'I did not expect you would,' returned his father. 'Here, take the book, and read for thyself. If light should dawn upon the page, as thou readest, perhaps thou wilt understand what I now say--that I care but little for the bones concerning which king and parliament contend, but I do care that men--thou and I, my son--should be free to walk in any path whereon it may please God to draw us. Take the book, my son, and read again. But read no farther save with caution, for it dealeth with many things wherein old Thomas is too readily satisfied with hearsay for testimony.'
Richard took the small folio and carried it to his own chamber, where he read and partly understood the poem. But he was not ripe enough either in philosophy or religion for such meditations. Having executed his task, for as such he regarded it, he turned to look through the strange mixture of wisdom and credulity composing the volume. One tale after another, of witch, and demon, and magician, firmly believed and honestly recorded by his worthy relative, drew him on, until he sat forgetful of everything but the world of marvels before him--to none of which, however, did he accord a wider credence than sprung from the interest of the moment. He was roused by a noise of quarrel in the farmyard, towards which his window looked, and, laying aside reading, hastened out to learn the cause.
It was a bright Autumn morning. A dry wind had been blowing all night through the shocks, and already some of the farmers had begun to carry to their barns the sheaves which had stood hopelessly dripping the day before. Ere Richard reached the yard, he saw, over the top of the wall, the first load of wheat-sheaves from the harvest-field, standing at the door of the barn, and high-uplifted thereon the figure of Faithful Stopchase, one of the men, a well-known frequenter of puritan assemblies all the country round, who was holding forth, and that with much freedom, in tones that sounded very like vituperation, if not malediction, against some one invisible. He soon found that the object of his wrath was a certain Welshwoman, named Rees, by her neighbours considered objectionable on the ground of witchcraft, against whom this much could with truth be urged, that she was so far from thinking it disreputable, that she took no pains to repudiate the imputation of it. Her dress, had it been judged by eyes of our day, would have been against her, but it was only old-fashioned, not even antiquated: common in Queen Elizabeth's time, it lingered still in remote country places--a gown of dark stuff, made with a long waist and short skirt over a huge farthingale; a ruff which stuck up and out, high and far, from her throat; and a conical Welsh hat invading the heavens. Stopchase, having descried her in the yard, had taken the opportunity of breaking out upon her in language as far removed from that of conventional politeness as his puritanical principles would permit. Doubtless he considered it a rebuking of Satan, but forgot that, although one of the godly, he could hardly on that ground lay claim to larger privilege in the use of bad language than the archangel Michael. For the old woman, although too prudent to reply, she scorned to flee, and stood regarding him fixedly. Richard sought to interfere and check the torrent of abuse, but it had already gathered so much head, that the man seemed even unaware of his attempt. Presently, however, he began to quail in the midst of his storming. The green eyes of the old woman, fixed upon him, seemed to be slowly fascinating him. At length, in the very midst of a volley of scriptural epithets, he fell suddenly silent, turned from her, and, with the fork on which he had been leaning, began to pitch the sheaves into the barn. The moment he turned his back, Goody Rees turned hers, and walked slowly away.
She had scarcely reached the yard gate, however, before the cow-boy, a delighted spectator and auditor of the affair, had loosed the fierce watch-dog, which flew after her. Fortunately Richard saw what took place, but the animal, which was generally chained up, did not heed his recall, and the poor woman had already felt his teeth, when Richard got him by the throat. She looked pale and frightened, but kept her composure wonderfully, and when Richard, who was prejudiced in her favour from having once heard Dorothy speak friendlily to her, expressed his great annoyance that she should have been so insulted on his father's premises, received his apologies with dignity and good faith. He dragged the dog back, rechained him, and was in the act of administering sound and righteous chastisement to the cow-boy, when Stopchase staggered, tumbled off the cart, and falling upon his head, lay motionless. Richard hurried to him, and finding his neck twisted and his head bent to one side, concluded he was killed. The woman who had accompanied him from the field stood for a moment uttering loud cries, then, suddenly bethinking herself, sped after the witch. Richard was soon satisfied he could do nothing for him.
Presently the woman came running back, followed at a more leisurely pace by Goody Rees, whose countenance was grave, and, even to the twitch about her mouth, inscrutable. She walked up to where the man lay, looked at him for a moment or two as if considering his case, then sat down on the ground beside him, and requested Richard to move him so that his head should lie on her lap. This done, she laid hold of it, with a hand on each ear, and pulled at his neck, at the same time turning his head in the right direction. There came a snap, and the neck was straight. She then began to stroke it with gentle yet firm hand. In a few moments he began to breathe. As soon as she saw his chest move, she called for a wisp of hay, and having shaped it a little, drew herself from under his head, substituting the hay. Then rising without a word she walked from the yard. Stopchase lay for a while, gradually coming to himself, then scrambled all at once to his feet, and staggered to his pitchfork, which lay where it had fallen. 'It is of the mercy of the Lord that I fell not upon the prongs of the pitchfork,' he said, as he slowly stooped and lifted it. He had no notion that he had lain more than a few seconds; and of the return of Goody Rees and her ministrations he knew nothing; while such an awe of herself and her influences had she left behind her, that neither the woman nor the cow-boy ventured to allude to her, and even Richard, influenced partly, no doubt, by late reading, was more inclined to think than speak about her. For the man himself, little knowing how close death had come to him, but inwardly reproached because of his passionate outbreak, he firmly believed that he had had a narrow escape from the net of the great fowler, whose decoy the old woman was, commissioned not only to cause his bodily death, but to work in him first such a frame of mind as should render his soul the lawful prey of the enemy.
A CHAPTER OF FOOLS.
The same afternoon, as it happened, a little company of rustics, who had just issued from the low hatch-door of the village inn, stood for a moment under the sign of the Crown and Mitre, which swung huskily creaking from the bough of an ancient thorn tree, then passed on to the road, and took their way together.
'Hope you then,' said one of them, as continuing their previous conversation, 'that we shall escape unhurt? It is a parlous business. Not as one of us is afeard as I knows on. But the old earl, he do have a most unregenerate temper, and you had better look to't, my masters.'
'I tell thee, master Upstill, it's not the old earl as I'm afeard on, but the young lord. For thou knows as well as ere a one it be not without cause that men do call him a wizard, for a wizard he be, and that of the worst sort.'
'We shall be out again afore sundown, shannot we?' said another. 'That I trust.'
'Up to the which hour the High Court of Parliament assembled will have power to protect its own--eh, John Croning?'
'Nay, that I cannot tell. It be a parlous job, and for mine own part, whether for the love I bear to the truth, or the hatred I cherish toward the scarlet Antichrist, with her seven tails--'
'Tush, tush, John! Seven heads, man, and ten horns. Those are the numbers master Flowerdew read.'
'Nay, I know not for your horns; but for the rest I say seven tails. Did not honest master Flowerdew set forth unto us last meeting that the scarlet woman sat upon seven hills--eh? Have with you there, master Sycamore!'
'Well, for the sake of sound argument, I grant you. But we ha'got to do with no heads nor no tails, neither--save and except as you may say the sting is in the tail; and then, or I greatly mistake, it's not seven times seven as will serve to count the stings, come of the tails what may.'
'Very true,' said another; 'it be the stings and not the tails we
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