Read Cunning Murrell Online

Authors: Arthur Morrison

Tags: #Historical Romance

Cunning Murrell (10 page)

He pushed aside the heaped papers, and drew from under them a thin book of
straggling manuscript, of octavo size, scrawled throughout with uncouth
figures of seals, sigils, pentacles, characters, and intelligences; set about
thick with faded writing, some his own, some that of the forgotten
necromancer whose property the book had been originally. Here were the
conjurations and considerations proper to every day and night of the week and
every month of the year; and it was his way to keep them in memory by conning
them over at odd times. He had put his heavy iron-rimmed goggles on his nose,
and turned the yellow page where the sunlight through the little casement
fell on it, when there was a timid click at the latch. Murrell pursued his
study, his mouth noiselessly forming the words as he went; for it was his
daughter’s business to attend the door. But plainly she did not hear, and
presently, lifting his eyes, he perceived dimly through the curtains that
some short figure, probably a woman’s, was receding irresolutely from the
step. Now Murrell’s most profitable clients among the women were not
uncommonly the most timid, and he must not lose this one. So, letting go his
dignity, and keeping his reproof of Ann Pett for a more favourable moment, he
rose and opened the door.

A young woman in a print gown and white sunbonnet stood without, carrying
a baby. A fair though a commonplace young woman, with an anxious and
sorrowful face. Murrell’s sudden appearance before her, terrible in large
goggles, increased her discomposure, and she receded another step, murmuring
indistinct apologies.

“Is’t for askin’ or healin’ you’re come?” he asked, in the mild tone
wherewith he encouraged the diffident. Though, indeed, he knew the girl, as
it was his way to know, or to know of, everybody; and he had the means for a
good guess at her errand; albeit what he knew did not warrant the hope of
great profit.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Master Murr’ll,” the girl said, with an effort,
“‘tis a question I do want to ask.”

“Come yow in, my child, an’ I will try my best.”

Murrell stood aside to admit her, but still she hesitated. Even more
faintly than before she asked: “How much do ‘ee charge?”

“‘Tis but what you can afford,” the cunning man replied. Plainly it was a
poor customer, as he had feared. “The skill God hev given me be for rich an’
poor, an’ they pay by count o’ their means, from golden guineas down
to—to sixpences.” He judged it useless to put the minimum higher.

The girl followed him in, timorous still, and the baby coughed and wailed
weakly in the pungent air, laden with the dust of a thousand drying herbs.
“Sit you down, now, an’ tell me your name an’ the question you ask,” Murrell
said, taking pen and paper.

“Dorcas Brooker,” the girl said, and paused.

Murrell wrote the name, and waited.

“‘Tis about—about my young man.” She looked down at her knees, and
her face took on a heavy flush.

“Ah!” Despite himself there was a dry touch in Murrell’s voice. He had
been pretty certain of it; and what was coming now he knew well enough.

“I want to know where he be, an’ when he will come to me.”

“Name?” asked the old man.

“Samuel Gill.”

“Whereof?”

“Leigh. But he hev been in Sheppy of late, though I get no word of
him.”

Needless questions both, but Murrell noted the answers carefully, all the
same. Then he looked up, and pointed with his pen at the baby. “And that?” he
queried.

Her head drooped lower, and she lifted the baby as though to hide her
face, till their cheeks touched, and she kissed the child passionately twice
or thrice, so that the little voice woke again in a feeble cry.

“His?”

She lifted her face, all tear-stained, for a moment, and wailed, “Ees! ees
it be!” and dropping her head again she rocked the child to and fro. “An’ O,
it be a bitter shame an’ sorrow for a poor gal!”

Murrell, who had had more than twenty children of his own, and had lost
and forgotten nearly all of them long ago, scratched his head with the
feather end of his pen and turned to the drawer full of papers that he had
lately shut. The note he had made from Golden Adams’s information as to Gill
lay at the top, and it was so new in his memory that there was scarce need to
put it among the leaves of the book of conjuration and read it again. Howbeit
he did so, and read the note:
Saml. Gill of Leigh gone from Sheppy now and
left Portsmouth by shipp for West Indes.

“Come,” Murrell exclaimed as he rose to his feet and slipped the book back
in the drawer; “come, wipe eyes, Dorcas Brooker, for yow need them clear to
see what I shall show yow.”

He went to the back door and called to Ann Pett for a pail of water. For
some moments there was the clank of the pail and the creak and thud of a
neighbouring pump, and then Ann Pett came, worn and dull as ever, and slow
with her burden. Murrell took it, and set it down where the sunlight fell on
the rocking water in dancing shapes. Then he took a bottle from a shelf, and
poured from it a black liquid, which spread on the surface as oil would,
showing a slight iridescence.

“Stand you here,” Murrell requested of the girl, who was watching him
wistfully; “stand you here an’ look down into that.”

She bent her head, and Murrell, standing by her, placed a hand on each
side of her forehead.

Presently said Murrell: “D’ye see anything?”

“I see the watter,” answered the girl innocently.

“Ah—you see the watter, the wide watter, the great, stormy ocean.
Look well on it an’ tell me what you see.”

“No—yes…I think I see a something.”

“You see something on the sea, rockin’ an’ plungin’ an’ drivin’ before the
wind. What is it?”

“A ship! Ay, a ship!” the girl cried, with sudden excitement. “I see’t!
‘Tis a ship, an’ he be in it, an’ it go drivin’, drivin’ in the gale!”

Her breath came short, and Murrell held her close by the forehead, for she
seemed unsteady, though she clasped the baby firmly still.

“O, I see’t drivin’ an’ drivin’,” she cried, “an’ the waves curlin’ over
it! An’ I see ‘tis arl dark before it—no, ‘tis a rock, a great black
rock! It be on it! O God, ‘tis a wreck! O!”

Murrell took his hands from her head and caught her about the waist,
letting her back into a chair and steadying the child in her arms. This was a
little more than he had intended; the girl’s brain had galloped ahead of him.
But perhaps this were the most merciful end for her pitiful
romance—short and sharp though it might be.

She did not faint, for that was not the habit of a Leigh girl. But she lay
back in the chair, and rolled her head in an agony of tears. Cunning Murrell
feared that he must do more than earn his sixpence ere he could be rid of
her. He put a bottle of oil of hartshorn to her nose, and he rubbed her
forehead. But the fit of grief did not last long. She was not of the sort who
could afford to waste time in useless “dolouring.” Presently she shifted the
baby to her other arm, kissed it, and wiped her eyes with her apron. Then she
rose and said simply: “Thank ‘ee kindly, Master Murrell. ‘Tis a cruel hard
blow, but I must a-bear it for the child’s sake, for’t hev no other friend,
no more than I.”

She took a screw of paper from her pocket, and unfolding it, revealed a
sixpence and some coppers. She put the sixpence on the table corner, folded
the paper over the halfpence, and returned it to her pocket. “I take it kind
you chargin’ low to poor people,” she said, “an’ I wish I could pay more. I
hope ‘tis enough?”

“O ay, ‘tis enough,” Murrell answered brusquely, picking up the money;
“‘tis accordin’ to means, as I tell ‘ee.” And he opened the door.

The girl shifted the baby back to her right arm and went out into the
lane, no more of her grief visible than was betrayed by a fitful tear or two,
overrunning from full eyes as she went.

Cunning Murrell opened his hand and looked at the sixpence, turned his
eyes up toward the Dutch clock, and scratched his cheek. Then he looked at
the sixpence again, and then at his hat.

“Damn it!” said Cunning Murrell aloud, and almost dropped at the word; for
he was a devout man, and scrupulous in his words, as was becoming in one with
so exact an acquaintance with their power in spells, charms, conjurations,
exorcisms, prayers, and maledictions. He paused with the shock, his gaze
still fixed on the hat. Then he reached and snatched it, and ran down the
lane after the girl.

He caught her at the stile, just beyond the cottages. “Here!” he said
abruptly, thrusting the sixpence into her hand; and instantly hurried
back.

He flung his hat on the table, kicked open the back door, and shouted
fiercely: “Ann Pett! Be yow goin’ to leave this pail o’ watter slummuckin’
about here arl day? Will ‘ee pitch it away, or wait till I come an’ pitch it
over ‘ee?”

Ann Pett came, submissive and soapy, and carried the pail away. She
perceived that her father’s ill temper was increasing, though it was no part
of her nature to wonder why.

X. — PROFITLESS DIPLOMACY

IT was Murrell’s habit to take much of his sleep at day, and
it was his faculty to take it when opportunity offered. It was now late in
the afternoon, and for a little while he debated within himself whether he
should lie on his bed above, or doze merely where he sat. But there was more
business for him, and he had scarce resolved on a nap in his chair when a
heavy step was stayed without, and the door shook with the thump of a
fist.

“Come in!” cried Cunning Murrell. And with that the door opened, and Steve
Lingood looked in on the little old man, curled in repose amid his cobweb of
dusty herbs.

“Good day t’ ye, Stephen Lingood,” said Murrell, with that dignity that
characterised his dealings and conversation with the villagers; though he
remembered with some misgiving that he had not yet paid the smith for the
bottle used in the relief of Em Banham from witchcraft.

“Good day, Master Murrell,” Lingood answered, in his deliberate tones; “I
come on a small matter o’ business.”

Murrell was not reassured by the expression, but he motioned toward a
chair, and Lingood sat, putting his fur cap on his knee.

“‘Tis to consult about a matter in your line,” he said, “that I should
like done, an’ will pay for, o’ course. Pay for high.”

Plainly Steve Lingood felt some embarrassment in opening the matter, and
now he paused to pull out from his pocket, rather awkwardly, a small canvas
bag, which clinked as he set it on the table. Murrell watched him with much
satisfaction; not so much because of the money—though, of course, that
was something just now—as because of inward triumph to see the
independent young smith, least deferential among the villagers, coming at
last to acknowledge his powers, and to beg for his aid.

“‘Tis as regards Mrs Martin,” Lingood began, and Murrell’s eyes sharpened,
though he said nothing. “As regards Mrs Martin,” Lingood repeated,
unmistakably ill at ease; “she fare not very well…Nor her niece…”

Murrell would say nothing to help him out, so presently the smith went on.
“She fare bad, more in mind than body, an’ when her son is away at the war it
come ill to be held up for a witch.”

“It come ill, Stephen Lingood, for any woman to make compact with the
devil an’ use evil sparrits to bring grief on her neighbours.”

This was not a proposition that Lingood was prepared to dispute with an
adept, and, rubbing his cap along his thigh thoughtfully, he sought to find a
way round it. “Perhaps,” he said, cautiously, “there might be some
mistake.”

“Mistake? An’ whose mistake? Hev you come here, young Stephen Lingood, to
teach me my mistakes in my lawful arts that I was master in before your
father was born?”

Lingood felt desperately that he was near wrecking the whole negotiation.
The last thing he desired was to anger the cunning man. He hastened to
apologise, as well as he was able. “I meant no offence. Master Murr’ll,” he
explained, “still less to doubt your larnin’. ‘Twould be beyond me to teach
anything out o’ my own trade, an’ you more than anybody. I did but offer that
you might find yourself that some mistake—I den’t say mistake o’
yours—that some mistake might ha’ crep’ in from wrong information or a
mistellin’ o’ the gal’s trouble or what not. An’ what I come to say
is”—here his talk grew firmer—“if there hev been any such
mistake, you can find that mistake as nobody else could; an’ for the findin’
o’ that mistake I am willin’ to pay high; pay private, o’ course, an’ say not
a word to nobody.”

“How much?” There was no asperity in Murrell’s voice now, nor in his
manner, but a quiet intentness.

Lingood dropped a hand on the canvas bag.

“Would five pound satisfy ye?” he asked.

“Five pound for findin’ some mistake in the provin’ o’ Sarah Martin to be
a witch—an’ givin’ it out, arterwards, that she were no witch, I
suppose?”

“Ay, just so,” responded the smith, beginning to feel successful. “Givin’
it out, plain, of course, among the neighbours, so as she an’ Dorri—her
niece, won’t be put to more pain an’ shame such as has been.”

“Ah!…I s’pose, though,” said Murrell blandly, “‘twould be much the same
to you an’ Mrs Martin—
an
‘ her niece—if I give it out plain
among the neighbours that she be no witch,
without
troublin’ to find
out any mistake first, eh?”

“Ay, that o’ course,” Lingood replied readily, glad to see the cunning man
rising so well. “You needn’t give yourself needless trouble. I’d ha’ said it
before, onny I thote you mightn’t like it put like that. So long as you give
it out an’ put ‘em straight with the village, that’s enough, an’ I’ll pay
five pound willin’.”

“Steve Lingood,” said Cunning Murrell, with an odd grin, “I fear you be a
deep fellow.”

The smith chuckled quietly and rubbed his fur cap over his knee again.
“Ah,” he said, “deep as may be, I shoon’t like to make a match with ‘ee,
Master Murr’ll. But I’m right glad we unnerstand one another, an’ what we say
together”—he lifted the fur cap and crumpled it tight in his
hand—“is close an’ private, you may depend.”

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