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BLACK
MAGIC

A Tale of the Wisdom
of Witless Dick

by
H. C. Bailey

Contents


THERE is a portrait of him. The Elizabethan artist, as usual, makes him without complexion and very respectable. But I do not believe in that. He is a lean, lumbering weight of a man. His brow would be too big for his head if he had not such a mass of jaw. Under the shade of the brow there is a stabbing gray glint of uncommon eyes. There he sits with hands prosperously folded, prosperously ordinary in has white ruff and black velvet and gold chain. There’s his wife, sedate in the placid beauty of her St. Martin’s Summer, tender and gentle and pure. But—but, she has a smile. I protest he was not respectable. Hear how he began:

 

HE EARNED, I suppose, a pound by the year, with all the mutton and beer he could swallow; with gray frieze enough to keep him warm; with a mat of rushes and a log by the kitchen fire to make him bed and pillow when he slept indoors. He was a Berkshire shepherd when Mary who burnt the heretics was Queen. He had no name but Dick, like his father, the swineherd, before him. The maids called him “silly shepherd,” because they found him a heavy lout and dull.

Close upon Assynton village the downs stand bluff and gray. The murmur and light of a swift stream are about its church and there alone the rolling acres of bare land allow trees. From the old manor-house— what’s left of it now is a barn—Mistress Mary Rymingtowne was pleased to come and walk there.

She was a child of fifteen, but girls were swiftly women in her day. From her bearing you might have guessed her father emperor of the world, not merely lord of a decent Berkshire manor. Her face was ivory pale and thin. She was tall and of a long-limbed grace. She had about her a rare delicacy, as of a creature aloof from all things ugly or unclean. So you see her coming, a daintily haughty child, straight and slight in her silver blue dress.

She heard heavy steps and turned to look. The silly shepherd, loose-limbed and bent, was shambling after her. His heavy face gave no sign of sense. His head rolled to and fro. On a sudden she checked and stood still and drew aside, waiting for him to pass. But Dick, the shepherd, stopped, too, and lounged against a tree and plucked grass and began to chew it. After a moment, she turned to look for him and saw him so at his ease, staring. With her broad brow puckered, she swept down upon him: “What are you doing, sirrah?”

He spat out his grass carefully. He put a big finger to his forehead. “Nought, nought,” he drawled and began to scratch his shoulder against the tree, but he did not remove the steady, curious stare of his dull gray eyes.

“I do not desire to have you gape at me!” she cried.

Whereat he did gape. With the fall of the big jaw, he was all stupid surprise.

She exclaimed at him. She swept past him and back the way she had come. Then the shepherd gathered himself together and slouched after her.

The child heard his heavy steps again and hated the instinct that bade her be afraid and hurried on. So they came at speed toward the church, the dainty child with a heavy lout shambling fast on her track.

The sight startled the pious features of a black-gowned priest coming from his prayers, and he stood still to watch. You are introduced to the child’s cousin, the rector of the parish, called after the respectful fashion of the time, Sir Ralph Rymingtowne. He was large and plump, and vivacious eyes made his smug, full face look like a mask. As the child came up, she slackened speed, crying, breathless, “Good morrow, Sir Ralph!”

He turned to walk with her: “You are in a heat, Mary.”

“I hate that shepherd!” she panted. “I will have him whipped—only my father will never whip any one!”

“Your father’s gentleness should be an ensample to us all,” said the priest demurely. “What has the shepherd done?”

“He—he—prowls!” she exploded. “He is always about me. And I hate his wooden face!”

“Pho, child, the poor lad means no ill. ’Tis the purest simpleton. But I will school him.” Sir Ralph turned and hailed. “Diccon, lad! Away with you! Get back to the farm.”

The shepherd stared and stood still and put up a forefinger.

“I will give you company home, Mary. But I do not like to see you thus timid. Diccon is meek as a lamb.”

She tossed her head. A red spot burnt on her cheek. Sir Ralph paced placidly beside her, talking smooth morality. She broke into the midst of it with a cry: “I knew! Oh, he is a masterless rogue!” She turned and pointed. The shepherd was shambling close behind them still.

Sir Ralph frowned. “The poor lad hath but half his wits,” he explained and called out: “Come hither, sirrah!” The silly shepherd slouched up and stood limp and bent, staring. “Sirrah, I bade thee away!”

“I thought as you was a-wanting to speak to me,” the shepherd drawled.

Sir Ralph burst out laughing at so fatuous an answer. “Faith, the fellow is all but idiot,” he confided to Mary. Then, “Look thee, Diccon, if I wanted speech with thee, I should not drive thee off. So——

The heavy face was twisted into a cunning smile. “Eh, but there’s reasons!” The shepherd nodded and winked. “We knows each other for sure.”

“Oh! Oh, I leave you to your friend, Sir Ralph!” the child cried fiercely and sped away.

 

SIR RALPH gave the shepherd a glance like a blow and turned and called after her. She did not stop. He turned back angrily with a growl: “Hast no wit at all in thy chuckle head?”

The shepherd giggled stupidly: “If I had, you’d have no use for me, master.”

Sir Ralph frowned at him a moment, then with a mutter of “Follow!” led the way toward a dark copse. On the way he talked over his shoulder: “Why must you show Mistress Mary you are my man?”

“Bless me, why not, now?” the shepherd cried. They faced each other in the shade of the hazels. “And besides, I thought you was a-making up to her, and she as sweet as you please. Might ha’ been a-courting, you might.”

“Go to, fool, I am a priest!”

The shepherd giggled again. “So you be for sure. And can’t have never a wife. That’s a pity, too, that is.”

Sir Ralph demanded truculently what he meant and could get nothing out of him but a stupid leer. Sir Ralph reviled him for a grinning jackass.

The shepherd scratched his head. “Mother Meg Blackavice said as you had some’ut to say. Be that all of it?”

Sir Ralph controlled himself. “Have you forgot what I said to you a month since, Diccon?”

“Oh dear, oh dear, that I ha’ not!” the shepherd cried. “Why, you was to give me five gold pound when Squire Gabriel dies and you be lord of the manor.”

Sir Ralph came nearer. “Well, Dick, well?”

“Well, I hope he will die soon, to be sure,” the shepherd giggled.

Sir Ralph laid his hand on the heavy shoulder. “Diccon lad, why is he not dead? When he walks alone on the down by night, star-gazing, is there no chalk-pit that would break his neck, or no dew-pond where he could drown?”

The shepherd gaped and stared and then: “There—there——” he quavered. “I was afeared you meant me to stick un.” And all his big frame began to shiver and shake.

“Why, what has given you the palsy?”

“Oh, but he’s a ready man, is Squire Gabriel, and a man of his hands and a soldier-man he was! And he is a conjuror too, and he hath devils and sprites.”

“Therefore is he the enemy of every Christian man,” said Sir Ralph piously. The shepherd crossed himself in a hurry and stood gaping. “Look you, Diccon. They tell me he goes up o’ nights to the old wind mill, to the chamber he hath made himself there, to work his magic and conjure with the stars.”

“And so he doth,” the shepherd cried. “I ha’ seen him catching star-magic in a pipe.”

“Why, then, from the manor to the down he must cross the Avon by the plank bridge. What’s easier for a bold fellow who would be rich than to shift the mid planks o’ some dark night?”

The shepherd drew back. His heavy face was contorted with coarse cunning. “You’m minded to do such, Sir Ralph?” he asked.

“I see a way for a bold fellow that I know to come by five pounds. And there might be a crown or two in hand for him beside,” the priest smiled genially. “And if he were careful to put back the planks—after, no man were ever the wiser.”

The shepherd grinned and held out his hand.

 

LIKE that, if I have made anything of the masses of queer papers at Assynton Towers, Dick the shepherd began the profitable business of his life. They digress to a large description of Assynton manor and Gabriel Rymingtowne, its lord. For the first, what matters to us is that it could be inherited only by males. Therefore on Gabriel Rymingtowne’s death it must pass, not to his daughter Mary, but to his cousin the priest. You can sympathize now with the anxieties of Sir Ralph. You will see the reason why Gabriel Rymingtowne did not love him.

Mr. Gabriel Rymingtowne, as I read the Assynton papers, hated no man, finding every one too comical. He had soldiered in Italy and brought back a very complete understanding of the ways of the world and a liking for astrology, alchemy and Greek. Therefore he built for himself a library and laboratory in the old manor-house and made an observatory out of the haunted windmill on the crest of the down.

 

II


IT WAS as late as ten o’clock on the May night and Assynton village had been long abed. There was no moon, but the stars were bright in a clear, dark sky. From the gardens of the manorhouse Mr. Gabriel Rymingtowne came crossing the home meadow to the river. He was slight and erect, light of foot for a man whose beard was white. He crossed the plank bridge and took the upward path.

When he was out of sight round the shoulder of the down the shepherd came from the hazel copse. For a little while he was on the middle of the bridge, on hands and knees, looming in the dark like a huge uncouth beast. A gap yawned over the swift eddying water, there was a dull clatter of wood, and the planks were set to yield to the first step. He rose and tried them with his foot; then turned and followed Mr. Rymingtowne. And now, for all his clumsy bulk he moved very quickly and without a sound.

Flat on his stomach on the close turf of the down he looked up at the windmill. The sails of it were gone and it stood a bare tower. Mr. Rymingtowne had put a flat roof on it and there he sat, a cloaked, shapeless figure in the dark, his telescope pointed at the red gleam of Mars. The shepherd plucked a sprig of thyme to chew and composed himself for waiting.

Midnight had sounded from the church in the valley before Mr. Rymingtowne came back to earth and went homeward. The shepherd lay still and waited a while before he followed. As they went down the steep path the shepherd’s feet sent a flint bouncing on ahead. Mr. Rymingtowne turned and cried out: “Who goes there?” The shepherd jumped aside, fell on hands and knees and tried to hide among the little juniper bushes. He made much noise.

Interested in this strange beast, Mr. Rymingtowne came placidly up the hill again. He saw the clumsy creature crouching in the shelter of the bushes and delivered a kick where it was invited. A ridiculous grunt repaid him. The shepherd staggered to his feet, rubbing the damaged part. “It’s a pleasure to see you, sir,” said Mr. Rymingtowne, “but why should I?”

The shepherd, with one hand guarding his rear, with the other pulling his forelock, retired backwards. “Be a-looking for a strayed ewe,” he muttered.

“Do they nest in the junipers?” said Mr. Rymingtowne pleasantly. “Sir, am I like a ewe?”

“No, if it please God,” the shepherd said humbly. “Being as you’ve a beard.”

Mr. Rymingtowne took him by the shoulder and, as he wriggled away, took him by the ear. “Diccon, my friend, you are magnificently a fool. And is it possible that you think I am? Do me the honor to walk with me.” By the ear he led the shepherd on and rebuked a whine of pain with: “Hush, hush! I know that you yearn for my society. In fact, Diccon, you are but too interested in me and my family. My daughter,” he took a firmer grip of the ear, “my daughter complains that you prowl after her. Now, I resent that.”

“I never done her no harm,” the shepherd whined.

“My friend,” Mr. Rymingtowne’s voice was more genial than ever, “if you did, there would be one shepherd the less in Assynton.” He twisted the ear and took the shepherd down the hill faster. “But you puzzle me and I do not like it. First you prowl after her and then you prowl after me. Why?”

“You ha’ been a-talking to Sir Ralph now,” the shepherd complained.

Mr. Rymingtowne was naturally surprised. “Sir Ralph? Why, what’s my good cousin to do with this?”

“He said I was idiot. He said it before Mistress Mary,” the shepherd complained. “And if I be a fool, why, I would not have it spoke of neither.”

Mr. Rymingtowne laughed. “At last I find a modest man. But why did he call thee idiot, Diccon?”

The shepherd gave a queer, grumbling snigger. “Being as I was more a fool than he needed, belike—or not so much. What’s a fool, to be sure? ’Tis a fox that goes to ground.” He muttered to himself and edged away. They were down upon level ground and drew near the bridge.

 

MR. RYMINGTOWNE went on laughing. “Why, sir, you philosophize. But I think you do not explain why you prowl.”

The shepherd jerked himself free, crying: “No, no, I will not go over the bridge!”

Mr. Rymingtowne, with an Italian exclamation, snatched his ear again: “Sir, you are a very treasury of mysteries! And why, so please your worship, will you not go over the bridge?”

“I’m a poor Christian,” the shepherd whined and crossed himself.

“I believe you are a very poor Christian,” Mr. Rymingtowne agreed, and peered at his face through the gloom. “Do you think the bridge leads to—heaven?”

The shepherd began to shiver. “No, no, no!” his teeth chattered. “You’m a conjuror and I will not go over the bridge!”

“Sir, you deceive yourself,” said Mr. Rymingtowne firmly and took him firmly by the ear and hauled him on to the planks. “It is very likely that you deceive me. Nevertheless——” And he continued to haul. So they proceeded to cross the bridge, the shepherd shuffling and hanging back and squealing and clasping anguished hands about the hand that held his ear.

When they came close to the pier on which the mid planks hung perilous, the shepherd, gripping Mr. Rymingtowne’s hand, flung all his weight back and checked. There was a moment of sway and struggle. Then the shepherd’s clumsy feet dislodged the planks. They slipped and fell with a splash. The two men drew back together from the swift eddying water.

Mr. Rymingtowne kept his hold of the ear. “Ah! So you did not altogether deceive me, my friend!” he said quietly. “And how did you know that the bridge had been made ready for me to cross?”

“Oh dear, oh dear!” the shepherd whined. “Sir Ralph said as I was idiot!”

“Sir Ralph?” Mr. Rymingtowne repeated. For the first time something of anger came into his voice. “Ay, and I think Sir Ralph will say that if you were not an idiot you had never blundered into my hands and blundered into warning me!”

“Dearie me,” said the shepherd sadly. “And so it is, to be sure, and an idiot I be, or I would not have let you lead me by the ear,”—suddenly he freed himself—“or ever let you find me when I was a-hiding, neither!” As he spoke he sped away with hardly a sound of footfall and was lost in the dark.

He was too sudden, too swift for Mr. Rymingtowne, who, after a futile spring at him, stood still, staring. It was some time before Mr. Rymingtowne walked slowly back down stream to the bridge in the village. He was gay with thought. He found the shepherd interesting.

He had often looked in the eyes of death. On the peril escaped he wasted little thought. He had no doubt that he was in debt to Sir Ralph. Who but his reverend cousin could gain anything by killing him? Sir Ralph’s part was plain enough—as plain as that there was no proof against him. For what proof of anything in a loose plank? So of Sir Ralph Mr. Rymingtowne’s mind made short work. He had seen too much of life in Italy to be excited by any villainy.

But the shepherd entertained him. Either the lad was a very sublime fool, or—or he was beyond understanding. But if he were a fool, how had he managed so neat an escape at the first moment he chose? And if he were not a fool, what in the world was he at? The more Mr. Rymingtowne thought, the more he was delighted by enigmas. He went to sleep upon them.

 

III

EARLY in the morning, Sir Ralph was up. The piety of his temper compelled him to go sing matins before he attended to business. It is instructive to imagine his sensations as he knelt in prayer. From the church he hurried breathless up the river-bank. Sure enough, there in the middle of the bridge the planks were gone. He peered down into the clear gray-green water with hope and horror. He was disappointed.

Thereafter he felt faint and sought his rectory for food and drink. He could not eat, but a long draught of double ale stopped his shivering. Also it excited him, so that he must needs find out at once whether his man were dead or no. He hurried away to the manor-house.

As he came round the yew hedge of the herb-garden he met Mr. Rymingtowne face to face. He started back fairly into the hedge, clutching at it with nervous hands. He flushed purple and his veins knotted in his temples. Mr. Rymingtowne laughed genially. But in a moment the priest had command of his voice if not of his complexion: “God bless thee with a good day,” he said kindly.

“Well done!” Mr. Rymingtowne applauded. “Piety should ever bear ill luck bravely.”

The priest had quite recovered himself. He put on a puzzled frown. “Your jests are too cunning for me, cousin.”

“Why, would you have a ghost talk plainly?”

“Ghost?” the priest echoed.

Mr. Rymingtowne made a clutch at his shoulder: “Will you make oath I am flesh and blood?” he said in a hollow voice.

“Are you mad?” Sir Ralph cried and started away.

Mr. Rymingtowne laughed. “Cousin, you have ever amused me. But never so much as now that you are a murderer.”

“Mr. Rymingtowne!” the priest exclaimed with dignity. “Sir, you exceed the license of a jest! You wrong not me but the whole church. This is blasphemy!”

“Oh,brave!” Mr. Rymingtowne laughed. And then with a sudden ferocity: “Man, look at your hands!” The priest started and glanced nervously this way and that. “Good cousin, a man of your supersititions will never enjoy his murders. And I give you warning I’ll take care that you shall never manage mine!” He turned on his heel.

Sir Ralph cried out, “I protest you are mad!” and as the back contemptuously receded: “Sir, it does not become my office to listen to such insolence!” Then he departed with much magnificence of gait.

Mr. Rymingtowne went smiling to breakfast and his daughter. “Mary,” said he, “you will not walk beyond the garden unless I am with you.”

The child’s broad brow frowned. “Because of the shepherd?” she asked angrily. “I hate him.”

“Of course,” said Mr. Rymingtowne, and considered her with grave interest.

 

THE shepherd’s flock was on the lower slopes of the down, watched by his dog. The shepherd lay in the shade of a gnarled old blackthorn, and Sir Ralph, as he saw him from far, fancied that he had a book under his nose. But it was impossible that the silly shepherd should know how to read, and indeed there was no sign of his studying anything but bread and cheese when Sir Ralph came up.

The shepherd grinned broadly, with his mouth full. “Have you brought my five pound?” said he.

“Sirrah, what befell last night?” the priest snapped.

The shepherd laughed. “They planks was loosed. Squire, he come down in the dark. There was a gurt splash, there was. And you do owe a poor boy five pound.”

“Fool, the man is alive and well!”

The shepherd’s face was contorted with fear. He crossed himself again and again and shivered. “That is witchcraft, that is!” he mumbled. “I told ’e he was a gurt conjuror. That is black witchcraft, to be sure! Oh dear, oh dear, his devils still be riding of I!” And he rolled on the turf and writhed.

A moment Sir Ralph stood over him, watching with alarm not wholly contemptuous. Then he turned and walked slowly away. The silly shepherd had provided him with an idea.

Witchcraft was felony. Nay, it was close akin to heresy and might well be taken for heresy, when the man who practised it was of free thought and speech. The bishops were very zealous after heretics. All across England the fires were glowing. A man could win favor and place by finding fresh victims. And what victim would burn more justly than Mr. Rymingtowne with his magic of alchemy and astrology and his mockery of Holy Church? It was the sacred duty of a faithful priest to send him to the stake. With joyous excitement Sir Ralph beheld the law of man and God arranging the death that he needed.

 

IV

IN THE golden twilight of a showery day two men rode up to the rectory. They were soberly, somberly dressed and so much alike that the younger seemed to be wearing the elder’s old clothes. The elder was a heavy man with a keen, tired face; the younger, slim and stolid.

Sir Ralph hurried out to meet them and was greeted with precise formality: “I am Dr. Oscott, the bishop’s commissioner. My secretary, Thomas Saunders.” Sir Ralph was much honored, and welcomed them effusively into his parlor. Dr. Oscott fell wearily into a chair and looked Sir Ralph over. Mr. Saunders sat on the edge of a stool and stared at the hangings of faded red and green saye.

“His lordship commends your zeal, Sir Ralph. It is of high import that the lurking enemies of the faith should be sought out and destroyed. One heretic in secret may do more harm than twenty bold professors. Therefore, my lord thanks you.”

Sir Ralph was eloquently grateful and pressed upon them generous entertainment. They ate and drank like gentlemen who found good appetite in heretic-hunting. Not till they were full and content did Sir Ralph approach his business.

He expounded vigorously the iniquities of Mr. Rymingtowne: how he practised white magic and black; how he had built himself secret places in which to conceal his ugly mysteries; how all the people cowered before him as a man of more than human power; and how he used his ascendancy to make them heretics by ever casting scorn on the Catholic faith and Holy Church.

“Such a man is of all infidels most dangerous and devilish,” said Dr. Oscott, and looked at his secretary.

“I think the man is his reverence’s cousin?” said Mr. Saunders meekly.

“Therefore I have hesitated long to inform against him. Perhaps too long. And now it is with a heavy heart.”

“Your words, sir, do you honor,” said Dr. Oscott.

Sir Ralph bowed. “Even while we speak he is to be seen in his observatory seeking magical aid of the stars.”

“I might perhaps see him, sir.” Mr. Saunders rose.

“Nay, gentlemen, but I fear you are too weary. On another night were better. I——

“We will go,” Dr. Oscott said.

Sir Ralph led them on to the down, not without anxieties. Mr. Rymingtowne might choose that night to stay at home. Such callousness was in his character. But a light twinkled from the windmill. As they came up, they saw a man move between them and the pale crescent of the new moon. Mr. Rymingtowne was on the roof with his telescope.

“So,” Sir Ralph pointed and whispered, “so he will sit with his magic glass and then go in and all night through work out his spells by what it hath shown him.”

Dr. Oscott peered up at the motionless astrologer. “I like it not when a man would see more than is granted to men’s eyes,” he said severely.

Sir Ralph shook his head sadly. “The very spirit of Satan.”

“Oh dear, oh dear, you make me crawl all over!” The whine seemed to come out of the ground. The good gentlemen started aside to see the silly shepherd heave up his ungainly bulk. “Oh, you shouldn’t, you shouldn’t! And me just dreaming of rabbit-pie and all!”

Sir Ralph explained in rapid undertones. “A shepherd lad, a very simple, honest fellow. If you would know how the man is feared, no better witness.”

Dr. Oscott nodded. “Come, my lad, why so frightened?”

The shepherd giggled. “Why now, I ben’t sure what his reverence be wanting me to say.”

“The truth,” said Mr. Saunders.

“Speak out, Diccon lad. What does Mr. Rymingtowne do there?”

The shepherd gaped. “I dunno.”

“Nay, then why do you fear him?”

“Aw, Sir Ralph, you know that, to be sure.”

“Come, my lad, tell us!” Dr. Oscott insisted.

“Why, Sir Ralph here wants to be rid of him.”

Mr. Saunders, the stolid secretary, put his hand on his master’s arm. There was a moment’s silence. Then Sir Ralph cried angrily: “Come, sirrah, what was it you said to me of magic and devils?”

“Magical devils?” the shepherd drawled stupidly. “Devils, says you to I?”

“Beshrew thee for a fool!” cried Sir Ralph. “Come, gentlemen, the poor lad is dazed! But you have seen,” he waved his hand at the astrologer.

“Quite,” said Mr. Saunders. They went back to the rectory and Sir Ralph was voluble.

 

NOW when they were gone the shepherd lay down again and with his chin on his hands, chewing a scrap of thyme, waited wakeful till Mr. Rymingtowne came down the hill homeward, stout stick in hand, sword at side. In a little while the silly shepherd rose up and made for the windmill. The door was on the latch—there were no locks on Assynton doors then—he entered and climbed the ladder to the upper room, moving in the dark with an assured ease that proved him no stranger there. He put his hand on the tinder-box and lit a candle. In a moment’s glance he found papers covered with figures and signs. He stuffed them into his bosom, blew out the light and was gone, swift and adroit as he had come. Then he slept happily till dawn.

In the early morning he left his dog with his sheep and came down the hill whistling merrily “Lady Greensleeves.” From behind a hedge he watched Sir Ralph take the two strange gentlemen down to the church for matins. While they were gone he slipped into the hall of the rectory. He dropped two of his stolen papers by the table where the inkhorn stood. He thrust the rest into most obvious concealment among the books above.

Then he lounged down toward the church. The two strange gentlemen came out first and strolled up to the rectory while Sir Ralph was taking off his surplice. The shepherd waited for Sir Ralph.

Shambling, shuffling, grinning, plucking his forelock, he waited. “What is it, sirrah? Hast found thy wits?”

“You’m cruel hard on a poor lad,” the shepherd whined plaintively. “Oh dear, and if as you had not made me so afeard I would ha’ said whate’er your reverence pleased!”

“I wanted you to say the truth,” said Sir Ralph with dignity.

The shepherd stared at him with stupid, puzzled eyes. “Oh, magic and devils!” he muttered. “Oh, but you shouldn’t ask me! I be afeard. Take the gentlemen into the windmill for to see for theirselves. Squire do never use to be there till two hour after sundown. You could go by twilight like I did and none the wiser.”

“What did you see, Diccon?”

“Oh, dear, ’tis hideous indeed. There’s glass and there’s gold and all. And I took and ran.”

Sir Ralph reflected. “Hideous with glass and gold”—that spelt black magic plainly enough. But he wanted more than magic. He wanted heresy. “Hark thee, Diccon. Didst see any books there?”

The shepherd shook his head. “No books for sure. Only a mort of papers.”

And again Sir Ralph reflected. “Diccon, lad, could you put some books there for me?”

The shepherd stared lack of understanding. It was repeated and explained—explained at last with a crown-piece. The shepherd chuckled.

“Go on to the rectory, sirrah, and the cook-maid shall give thee breakfast.”

Meanwhile Dr. Oscott and his secretary had come into the rectory hall to wait their host. The secretary, crossing to look at Sir Ralph’s books, saw before him those papers covered with strange figures, pentagons and pentagrams and cabalistic signs. He held them out to Dr. Oscott: “It seems, sir, that our good Sir Ralph also does something in astrology.”

Dr. Oscott bent his brows upon them, while Mr. Saunders pulled out the bundle of papers clumsily thrust among the books. “He would seem to have a great appetite for it,” said Mr. Saunders, and held out these, too.

Dr. Oscott turned them over. “He goes something beyond me,” he frowned. Mr. Saunders agreed.

Sir Ralph came in, and his geniality was surprised by Dr. Oscott’s questioning stare. “You are yourself an astrologer, SirRalph?”

“I?” Sir Ralph stared. “Nay, God forbid!”

Dr. Oscott held out the papers. “You keep these on your desk.”

Sir Ralph turned them over with astonishment unfeigned. “This is Mr. Rymingtowne’s hand!” he cried. “Why, gentlemen, here is such evidence of his ill practise as we need!”

Dr. Oscott and his secretary exchanged glances. “How came the evidence here?” said Mr. Saunders.

“I profess I know no more than you.” Sir Ralph was honestly amazed. “Unless—unless that silly shepherd——” he left the room in a hurry.

“That shepherd,” said Mr. Saunders, “seems to occur conveniently.”

Sir Ralph found him on the kitchen settle with his nose deep in a tankard of double ale. Sir Ralph hauled him out spluttering. “Rogue, what work were you at in my hall?” The shepherd gaped a dribbling mouth at him. “Those papers of my cousin’s!” Sir Ralph tried to shake sense into him. “Come, sirrah, I know you must have brought them.”

“Dearie me,” the shepherd whined, “and me as thought you would like them!”

“Like them! Beshrew thee for a fool! I like them well enough, but why i’ God’s name could you not tell me of them? Faith, thou art a marvelous ass. If thou doest a good thing thou must needs turn it into a bad.”

 

THE shepherd began to whimper and sob grotesquely, so that Sir Ralph had much ado to soothe him. After a while he was persuaded, reluctant, to face the gentlemen and tell his tale, but as soon as Sir Ralph had him at the door of the hall, as soon as he saw the grave faces within, he began to howl once more. “Come, Diccon, come!” Sir Ralph cried. “No harm’s meant thee. Tell the gentlemen how the papers came here.” Diccon sobbed and whimpered still. “Booby, speak out!”

The shepherd shrank away and trembled. “Sir Ralph—Sir Ralph bids me say as I brought they papers,” he gasped.

Mr. Saunders changed a glance with Dr. Oscott. “Where didst find them, my lad?” said he.

The shepherd looked at Sir Ralph for inspiration. Sir Ralph made an impatient gesture.

“In squire’s windmill,” the shepherd cried in a hurry.

“But who bade thee seek them?” said Mr. Saunders sharply.

The shepherd shuffled back and gaped at him. In mute, stupid fear he made clumsy signs at Sir Ralph.

Sir Ralph laughed. “’Tis an honest lad, gentlemen, but the dullest simpleton.”

“I see that,” Mr. Saunders said. Sir Ralph waved the silly shepherd out.

Thereafter, at breakfast, he found the good gentlemen something reserved. It is probable that they were themselves not sure what they thought of him. Their natural desire to believe a priest and see heretics everywhere had been much impeded by the silly shepherd. Yet the priest was plausible and excellently devout. Moreover, if the mysterious papers were indeed Mr. Rymingtowne's, the priest was plainly right to charge him with magic. When the priest advised that they should visit the observatory and see for themselves what evidence of evil it held, they began to be pleased with him. Such a plan savored of bold honesty. It agreed also with their official habits. Secret search of suspected houses was part of the regular order of the hunt for heresy.

That day they spent in talk here and there with country-folk to discover how Mr. Rymingtowne was commonly regarded. They found him with a reputation for kindliness and uncanny powers and were the more inclined to believe in Sir Ralph.

He was in the best of spirits. Some copies of the New Testament in English, seized from the pack of a wicked pedler, he had thrust upon the shepherd and sworn him to get them into the windmill room before sunset. English testaments among the tools of magic must be enough to send any man to the stake.

 

V

THE morning was hot. The swift gray-green river allured Mary Rymingtowne, who sat down among the kingcups. A shadow fell across the water. She looked up into the face of the silly shepherd. “You’m no right to go wandering without your father,” he drawled. Her look was as fierce as a flogging, but did not disturb the shepherd, who continued to stare down at her with dull, heavy curiosity.

She blushed richly, sprang up and rushed away. The shepherd slouched after her. They came upon Mr. Rymingtowne, benign, under a tree with Theocritus.

“Father, this knave——” the girl began.

The shepherd turned his back on her. “I wants you, master,” he drawled.

“Oh, sir, at your service!” Mr. Rymingtowne laughed. “What has the gentleman done, Mary?”

The girl was in a difficulty. “He—he looked,” she stammered and blushed painfully again.

Mr. Rymingtowne rose and, beckoning to the shepherd, walked down stream. Out of sight of the girl, he turned. “Understand me, sir. I’ll not have you prowl and peep.”

The silly shepherd stared. It is upon record that Mr. Rymingtowne saw something remarkable in his deep-set eyes. “You’m a heretic,” he drawled.

“Now God ha’ mercy!” Mr. Rymingtowne burst out laughing.

“There be they as will burn you for such. Sir Ralph, he hath got two catchpolls after you. ’Tis a Dr. Oscott and a Mr. Saunders. They’m minded to search your windmill to-night for the magic there. Do ’e go and hide it before sunset if you ha’ no mind to try a fire.”

Mr. Rymingtowne was amazed into silence for a moment. For a moment the gleaming dark eyes of the silly shepherd stared into his. Then he found himself looking at nothing. The hazels were swaying behind the shepherd’s back. Mr. Rymingtowne called after him in vain.

But he had told enough. Mr. Rymingtowne knew his world well enough to know that a taste for astrology might condemn a man to death. That his cousin was zealous to procure his death he had seen. If Dr. Oscott were come to Assynton—Dr. Oscott who had hunted heretics down all over the diocese—the danger was imminent. He knew how to act. In a moment he was climbing the down to the windmill. He saw his way. He would abolish all evidence of his science. He would let the good gentlemen come and search and, when they had found nothing, break in upon them. It would be hard if he could not make the fanatic doctor believe his cousin a knave.

In the whirl of his own concerns he paused again and again to wonder at the silly shepherd. Who could have dreamed that the dull, heavy lout had such a clear brain in him? Why had he chosen to hide it? Why was he pleased to reveal it now for the service of Mr. Rymingtowne? They were questions that could wait for an answer, but questions that insisted on being heard. And Mr. Rymingtowne would have found them more insistent if he had known all, the plan on which the brain in that heavy head was working placidly.

 

VI

THROUGH the twilight Sir Ralph led his guests up to the windmill. They were in a good humor with him, having persuaded themselves that they were on the track of guilt. But as they came to the door the shepherd rose out of the ground, grinning and pulling his forelock, and Mr. Saunders, a suspicious mind, was disturbed. He did not understand why the shepherd had always to assist, and moreover it seemed to him that Sir Ralph made signs at the shepherd and certainly the shepherd nodded and gave a silly laugh.

Sir Ralph opened the door. “Oh dear, you’m bold, you’m bold!” said the shepherd, and they came into darkness. Lanterns were lit and they found themselves inside an empty shell of stone. The mill had been all dismantled. All the timbers were gone, and the stones and wheels. Only a ladder reached up through the darkness to the room beneath the roof. Sir Ralph began to climb and the shepherd came last.

Before he was at the top he heard exclamations. When he came through the trap-door he found them hunting nervously about a room “bare as your hand.” It had in it no more than two wooden chairs and a table, and on the table a little book.

Dr. Oscott turned, flushing, upon Sir Ralph: “It seems you have deceived yourself, sir! At least you have sought to deceive us!”

Sir Ralph, who was pale and unsteady, stammered out: “I—I am amazed! The man is certainly a sorcerer! Perhaps this is sorcery. I——

Mr. Saunders had been looking at the book on the table. “Perhaps this is heresy,” he suggested and held it out. It was a breviary printed at Rome.

Sir Ralph recoiled from it, saw the silly shepherd stand gaping and sprang at him. “What is this, knave? You told me the place——

“No, no!” the shepherd cried. “It was you as told I! You told I to——

Sir Ralph struck him aside. “Must you prate, rogue? Get you gone, I say!” and tried to drive him to the ladder.

“What was he going to say?” said Mr. Saunders.

Sir Ralph turned and forced a laugh. “Oh, ’tis a dull fool! Come, gentlemen, I doubt we must search more cunningly. Doubtless there is some secret place.” He pointed them into the corners of the room and himself made a bustle of searching. At the worst he hoped for the Testaments.

The shepherd began to whimper. “You ha’ come too soon,” he whined.

Sir Ralph started round. “What dost mean by that?” he cried. “Come, Diccon!” He took the shepherd’s arm and began to draw him aside. “The Testaments, lad!” he whispered.

Mr. Saunders, who had been affecting an interest in the walls, laid a finger on Dr. Oscott and swung round. “Certainly. What does he mean?” said he.

“And why do you whisper, sir?” Dr. Oscott cried and advanced upon them.

The shepherd shuffled back, whining: “’Tiddn’t my fault! I hadn’t no time. You come too soon!”

Sir Ralph cried out: “Nay, doctor, ’tis an innocent, a natural! He knows not what he says. You must not heed him!” And he made frenzied signs to the shepherd.

“I know not who is innocent, sir, nor why you fear the lad so!” Dr. Oscott said sternly. “Come, lad, tell me the truth and thou’lt have no harm. Why did we come too soon?”

“Sir Ralph he bade me put they little books here for you to find un',” the shepherd whined. “And I hads’t no time!”

“He is mad—he——” Sir Ralph screamed, and was checked by Mr. Saunders’s hand heavy on his shoulder.

“You do not forget that you are your cousin’s heir, sir!” said Mr. Saunders, and Sir Ralph stared at him and muttered.

Dr. Oscott glanced aside and turned again to the shepherd. “Sir Ralph bade you put books here for us to find. What books, my lad?”

“I ha’ not stole they!” the shepherd whined. “Here a’ be.” He fumbled in his bosom and plucked out the English Testaments.

With some wild cry Sir Ralph started forward to seize them. Mr. Saunders held him. Dr. Oscott opened the books and one look was enough. “So, sir, this is the mystery!” he cried. “You contrive false evidence to compass your cousin’s death!”

“It is a lie!” Sir Ralph screamed. “The fool is mad! He is possessed of the devil! You are mad to heed him! You are besotted! You——

“Thou miserable knave!” Oscott advanced upon him, white with a fanatic’s anger.

Sir Ralph drew back, but screaming still, and as he drew back the shepherd thrust out a foot. Sir Ralph stumbled over it, staggered and fell backward through the trapdoor down the dark shaft. There was a scream and a thud and silence.

“Oh dear, oh dear, you ha’ killed un!” the shepherd cried.

The two gentlemen looked at each other, and, gathering up their lanterns, began to descend the ladder. On the stones below they found only death.

As they knelt together Mr. Rymingtowne opened the door. “Why! Why, you are guests unasked, gentlemen!” he said. “And pray, which of you am I to charge with my cousin’s death?” Silent and swift the shepherd slunk out.

Dr. Oscott rose. “Mr. Gabriel Rymingtowne?” Mr. Rymingtowne bowed. “I give you joy on a great deliverance. The man who lies there would have contrived false evidence to convict you of heresy. He lies stricken by the hand of God.”

“I have your word for it,” said Mr. Rymingtowne.

Dr. Oscott told who he was and all the tale as he knew it.

“It is not for me to question Dr. Oscott’s word,” said Mr. Rymingtowne gravely. “Nevertheless, as the man was my cousin, I must needs ask that you give me your story in hand of writ.” Dr. Oscott bowed. They passed out into the night.

 

MARY RYMINGTOWNE was walking all white in her rose garden. She turned from a sweetbriar upon the silly shepherd. She grew pale. “My father has sought you everywhere,” she said in a low voice. The shepherd laughed. “He says that you saved him from—from terrible things,” her voice fell lower still.

“You’m not to mind that,” the shepherd said.

There was a moment’s silence while she looked away from the gleam of his deep-set eyes. “You must go speak with him,” she said.

“Nay, I be going away,” the shepherd laughed.

“Going away?” He saw the blue eyes round in her pale face.

“I could not be going afore,” he apologized. “You was not safe. Now ’tis all well.”

The pale face was white, but her eyes met his without fear. “Why are you going away?”

“For to come back,” he said, and was gone.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1961, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.