Once upon a time, a time not so very long ago, a plague of doubt spread across a large portion of Europe as well as the New World. The subject of the plague was of the greatest concern: the state of the human soul. But the operations conducted against that plague have become eternal examples of fear-mongering and paranoia. We speak, of course, of the second half of the seventeenth century, when a number of purported evildoers were scorched or asked to pass impossible tests that damned their body one way or their soul another. What do we mean by doing evil? Perhaps very generally not doing good or, as was likely the situation at many trials, relying on pagan rituals to enhance terrestrial life. Reviewing the seventeenth century's misadventures has made many modern minds scoff at the notion of true witches; admittedly, some of the evidence looks so contrived as to resemble the trim and tidy criminal proceedings found to this day within totalitarian borders. Yet some not as much. Countenancing the havoc wreaked by Church and State may seem appalling to the person who cannot believe in abstract entities unless they are identified by a numerical formula, that is, by the counting drums of man; but to avouch there was absolutely nothing afoot is to ignore the fact that there is always something afoot, something wicked and unwholesome and very real. The believer knows we live not only in a world of fossils, but amidst shadows, some of darker tint than others. And what do these shades contain? All the vilest hues of human imagination, which could explain the events in this exquisite tale.
Our time is 1690, and our first and most unfortunate protagonist is a certain Sir Matthew Fell, deputy sheriff in Suffolk and resident of this site's fine, Italian-porticoed country-house, Castringham Hall. We are informed that in this same dreadful year a number of impossible tests were inflicted upon some of the district's inhabitants. Tests, mind you, that were meant to terminate anyone's curiosity as to the inhabitants' intentions as well as the inhabitants themselves:
Whether the persons accused of this offence really did imagine that they were possessed of unusual powers of any kind; or whether they had the will at least, if not the power, of doing mischief to their neighbours; or whether all the confessions, of which there are so many, were extorted by the mere cruelty of the witch-finders, these are questions which are not, I fancy, yet solved.
Sir Matthew contributes to this onslaught by fingering a denizen who "clad only in her shift" had sauntered up an ash tree near Sir Matthew's bedroom window and was proceeding to truncate small twigs "with a peculiarly curved knife," and, what is more, talking to herself as she did so. This strange woman was known only as Mrs. Mothersole and "mainly on this evidence" was united in infamy with a host of other strange women whose behavior did not meet with approval by her co-villagers. If this description sounds a wee cavalier, consider how little it took at that time to engender suspicion; also consider that any genuine worshipper of baleful forces would likely be at pains to exclude herself from incendiary gossip and act as normal as possible. This little conundrum woefully unaddressed, Mrs. Mothersole was hauled off to the gallows; but unlike "the other victims [who] were apathetic or broken down with misery," our alleged hag had nothing of fear or apprehension in her. Instead, according to one contemporary account, "she presented the living aspect of a mad devil," and was heard to say "the seemingly meaningless words, 'there will be guests at the Hall.'" After the suspects were dispatched, as we would like to believe, to the hell they so adored, Sir Matthew returned to his house and its guardian ash tree only to espy, from a distance, something "run[ning] up and down the stem of the ash." The next morning, Sir Matthew Fell having exceeded his customary waking time by over two hours, his servants entered his locked room and "found their master dead and black." Of course, more bad things occur (so many livestock are affected by random attacks as to oblige farmers to speak of "The Castringham sickness"), albeit sparing one generation, that of Sir Matthew's son, also Sir Matthew, who had the sterling idea of sporting his father's room forever. It is then the latter's grandson, Sir Richard, a "pestilent innovator," who shall rediscover the ash tree that most everyone agrees needs no rediscovery.
If you have some knowledge of this tongue you may know that the word for ash tree is derived from the word for "spear"; you would also know, if you are familiar with Norse mythology (as James most certainly was), that the first man was sprung from such a plant. James's works are the composite of Germanic philology, Gothic atmosphere, and a love for old Britain and its devilish ways, all filtered through one of the most fastidious and delightful styles in the English language. Even in its foray into seventeenth-century usage (the contemporary eyewitness account of Mrs. Mothersole's fate, composed by a Vicar Crome, resorts in the end to the Scriptures and bibliomancy) has its charm and authenticity, and experienced readers of James know that the professor could hardly ever resist the inclusion of this or that dialect because the simple voice is often the truest. Sir Richard, alas, cannot be counted among the simple. And so it follows that his grand designs intrude upon the awkward truce established, not quite willingly, by his ancestor:
It was in his time that the great family pew was built out on the north side of the parish church. So large were the Squire's ideas that several of the graves on that unhallowed side of the building had to be disturbed to satisfy his requirements. Among them was that of Mrs. Mothersole, the position of which was accurately known, thanks to a note on a plan of the church and yard, both made by Mr. Crome. A certain amount of interest was excited in the village when it was known that the famous witch, who was still remembered by a few, was to be exhumed. And the feeling of surprise, and indeed disquiet, was very strong when it was found that, though her coffin was fairly sound and unbroken, there was no trace whatever inside it of body, bones, or dust. Indeed, it is a curious phenomenon, for at the time of her burying no such things were dreamt of as resurrection-men, and it is difficult to conceive any rational motive for stealing a body otherwise than for the uses of the dissecting-room.
The incident revived for a time all the stories of witch-trials and of the exploits of the witches, dormant for forty years, and Sir Richard's orders that the coffin should be burnt were thought by a good many to be rather foolhardy, though they were duly carried out.
Mr. Crome would be naturally the same vicar who charted the wiles of Mrs. Mothersole and concluded that, as it were, some things are better kept unknown to man and his sensitive thoughts. Is this why the three auspices he drew spoke of a tree, a place that should never again be inhabited, and an animal whose young ones do certain things just like their mother? Certain things, that is, only a particular type of mother would ever want her children to do.