ON THE sixth of June, 1932, an evangelist named Jeraboam T. Roe was overtaken by night in the woods between Fort Royal and Taverton. He had suffered engine trouble, for he was an up-to-date evangelist and travelled in a car with a caravan trailer, from whose roof protruded a pair of large loud-speakers. On the chaste white flank of the trailer appeared in shining gilt letters the words, “Jehovah’s Prophet.”
The Prophet made a comfortable living by travelling the country towns, selling self-written tracts which he turned out on a small mimeograph, or simply passing a plate as the loud-speakers bellowed the closing hymn. He was making for Taverton because it was the county seat, and at the moment full of farmers and woodsmen who had come to town for court week. There was a humorous superstition in Princess County that rain always fell in court week, and it was raining hard when Jeraboam paused at the crossroads above Deep Hollow and considered where he would spend the night. Thirty miles of forest lay behind him, forty lay ahead. There was a narrow folding cot in the trailer, and a patent stove and tinned food; but he liked neither the look nor the thought of the long dark miles of woods, and he craved human society, a broad bed and a decent breakfast in the morning.
At Deep Hollow the post road turned aside to avoid the sharp drop and subsequent climb. The small settlement hidden in the glen was connected with the highway by a loop of dirt road. After examining the sign in the glare of his headlights; the Prophet turned down a narrow track, with huckleberry bushes swishing wetly against his mudguards, and after a steep descent emerged from the woods into the cleared bottom of the glen. With the windings of the road his lights picked out a scatter of houses. He was a good judge of hospitality and he did not like the look of them. They were small, unpainted, ramshackle houses, with sag-roofed barns set in the midst of stony fields. He stopped at one or two and got out in the rain, only to be driven back by savage dogs. The houses remained dark and silent. His shouts boomed queerly in the Hollow, and echoes, flattened by the rain, were all the answer he got.
At last he drove on, and stopped for the night on the slope south of the settlement, just where the road plunged into the woods again on its climb back to the highway. It was an eerie place, the gloomy cavern of the forest ahead, the bleak fields and dead houses in the rain below, and after a vain attempt to sleep in the patent folding bed the Prophet turned on the gramophone for comfort. There was no way of disconnecting the loudspeakers on the roof. Hymns and organ diapasons boomed into the night over the Hollow. He knew this must disturb the slumbers of the inhospitable village below, but he did not care; in fact, as the first hint of morning thinned the darkness in the easy and while the Hollow was still in deep night, :e switched on the voice equipment and in a spirit of pious revenge recited one or two of the more watchful psalms. And he went his way.
Jehovah's Prophet never came back to Deep Hollow. But another visitor, the angel of death, came close behind, and laid a rather heavy hand on a farmer named Beit in passing. This was reported to the Mounted Police in Taverton.
The Taverton subdetachment consisted of Corporal Jollett and young Constable Welkin, and they had their quarters in an old-fashioned white-clapboarded green-shuttered colonial house on Maple Avenue, just off Main Street. It stood under big elms, dripping now with the court-week rains. A neat black-and-white sign announced R.C.M.P. to passers-by, and a Union Jack drooped wetly from the staff over the walk. The house overflowed with young Jolletts of all ages from seven to seventeen, and with stout comfortable Mrs. Jollett.
The police office was once the parlor of a bygone Taverton merchant. A big writing desk sat before a bay window looking out on Maple Avenue, a typewriter desk stood against the wall to the left, and there was a stove, a battered couch and a rag of carpet. A calendar hung on one wall, a framed photograph of King George and Queen Mary upon another; a printed sign over the corporal’s desk reminded him insistently to “Watch Your Diary Dates.” Two Lee-Enfields rested in a wooden rack over the couch, shining with oil, an oiled rag stuck in each muzzle, the breeches gaping; the bolts were locked, together with a pair of police revolvers, in a drawer in the corporal’s desk.
They had just returned from the morning’s duty at court, in full dress, as occasion demanded. Jollett was a chunky man of forty-five, his legs bowed a little in the polished long boots. His face, hands and boots were of a color. The red serge jacket with its blue shoulder straps fitted his big chest perfectly, the blue breeches with their broad yellow seam stripes clung to his thick knees like a skin. Two gold dog-legs on his right sleeve gleamed importantly. He and Welkin made a fine splash of color in the shabby room, like a pair of scarlet maples in an autumn swamp; but there was a marked difference between them.
People looked at Jollett and saw only a thickset brown man in a Stetson hat. They preferred to look at the slim and handsome Welkin. He was a recruit fresh from training at Regina, the skin between his knees still hard with the calluses of the riding school. He walked with a swagger that came partly from equitation drills and partly from pride in himself and his uniform. When people looked at Welkin they could think of nothing but The Force, its magnificent traditions and romantic associations; and women pictured a number of Welkins, exactly alike, roving the Prairies and the frozen wastes of the North, carrying the white man’s burden on splendid scarlet shoulders.
Welkin had hoped for a post in the North. He saw the Maintiens le Droit on his gleaming brass badge in terms of romance, the Do-or-Die, Get-Your-Man, God-Save-The-Queen romance that flourished before he was born. But he had been ordered east to the Maritime Provinces, to the salt smell of the Atlantic, and he had spent two months in Taverton examining motorists’ licenses and checking lights and brakes; seizing illicit spirits and seed beer from the bootleggers of the small county town, and arresting Saturday night drunks whenever the elderly town policeman called for aid. He yearned for a horse. His steed was a three-year-old police car, with sides dented and upholstery torn by obstreperous drunks. Much of the time he merely straddled a chair before the office typewriter, pecking out interminable two-fingered reports. But he clutched his thin-worn illusions about him still, and when word came that a man lay slain at Deep Hollow he saw an opportunity.
"You’ll have to go,” Jollett grunted. "I can’t leave the sessions. Take Doc Jarvis with you to hold an inquest.” Welkin turned to go. "One moment,” the corporal said, with an absent eye on the street.
"Those people, Welkin—I wouldn’t bite too hard on anything they say.”
"Of course not.” Welkin managed to keep the impatience out of his voice. He liked Jollett but he felt that Jollett was no policeman. Jollett was a member of the old provincial force, taken over lately by the Mounted Police as a big firm takes over a small one’s assets and liabilities. Jollett had been twelve years in Taverton, and Welkin thought it poor business to leave a policeman so long in one place. He had become a citizen, you might say. He had a Dutch-uncle way of talking to offenders that irked Welkin to the soul, and he had a Dutch-uncle manner in court, giving evidence as if the whole affair were something sadly personal. Welkin felt that a policeman should be brisk and aloof, like an undertaker at a pauper’s funeral.
He left at once, without stopping to change to service dress, picked up Doctor Jarvis, and swung the police car out on the gravel highway toward Fort Royal. The road was potholed by the June rains, and for the doctor’s comfort Welkin drove at less than his usual speed. Doc Jarvis was a plump pink old man with an obscure medical degree and a bristle of white mustache, too old-fashioned and too careless with his grammar to compete with the adroit young doctors of Taverton; but he knew the country districts like a book which he turned with a kindly thumb. He was the Princess County coroner, and a crony of Jollett’s.
When they reached the lonely crossroads in the woods, the rain had ceased, but the sky was still grey and low, and a sombre tunnel of pines and hemlocks dripped on the car roof as Welkin turned off the highway. The byroad took them steeply down a long curve and emerged suddenly into the open. Fifteen or twenty dispirited houses straggled beside the road along the glen floor, each aloof from its neighbors and the road. The fields had a runout look; there was a lot of sorrel in the hay fields, the sure mark of a sour soil. Each house had a few gnarled and barren apple trees about it. There were no flowers, and no paint. On one of the houses, in better repair than the rest, they saw the enamelled post-office plate, and went in.
The postmaster’s lean ginger-stubbled face and sharp black eyes met them at the door and ushered them into a parlor, where a pine table and homemade rack of pigeonholes awaited His Majesty’s mail. On one wall a framed parchment, gift of the Princess County Council in 1919, declared that Kurt Donovan had fought for King and Country in the Great War.
"Kurt,” Doc Jarvis said, "this is Constable Welkin of the Mounties. You sent in word about a homicide. ’Fore we go take a look-see, what’s the story?”
Donovan smiled faintly. "Dunno much, Doc. Y’see—it’s Jake Beit.”
"Jake Old Jake?”
"Yes.” In silence Donovan looked from Doc Jarvis to the red-coated policeman, and back again. “Jake, he hired Caspar Jones to come make an ox yoke for him. Caspar went there s’mornin’, ’bout the middle o’ the forenoon, with a chunk o’veller birch on his shoulder, to measure the oxen an make the yoke. Found Old Jake layin’ in the chip yard in the rain, with his skull split.”
"What about this Jones?” Welkin said at once.
"He never done it. I seen him go by with the piece o’ wood on his shoulder. Twenty minutes or so he was back, hollerin’ Old Jake was dead. I went an’ found Jake stiff as a board. I seen lots o’ dead men in the war. Jake must a’ bin dead when Caspar reached him.” He talked with an accent, rapid and guttural, that Welkin could not place.
"What’s your idea?” Welkin asked. Kurt shrugged and looked at Doc Jarvis.
"Don’t be afraid, Kurt,” the old man said.
Donovan muttered, "Nothin’ I could tell you ’bout this place you don’t know a’ready, Doc. Somethin’ happened in the night; a knockin’ at the doors, an’ dogs barkin’ that kind o’ thing. You know how the people are; they wouldn’t open a door after dark for a fortune. Stayed in bed an’ shut their eyes. Later on there was somethin’ else —music, very loud, an’ singin’ like in a big church.”
"Oh, come, come,” Doc Jarvis protested.
"I heard ’em myself, Doc—don’t look at me like that! I ain’t like the others here”—proudly—"I bin to the war, an’ seen the world. Music, I tell you. An’ people singin’ in a choir. Toward mornin’ the music stopped, an’ there was a loud voice cryin’ somethin’ about people shuttin’ their doors on Jehovah’s Prophet, an’ their hearts to his word, an’ somethin’ about the wickedness o’ the wicked comin’ to an end; an’ ‘He hath also prepared for him the instruments of death’—everybody heard that. The whole settlement was awake. The voice rung in the Hollow like thunder. In the mornin’ they all come to tell me—me bein’ postmaster. I ain’t the Bible-reader some of ’em are, but old Friedrich Llewellyn declared the words was out o’ the Scriptures—the seventh psalm. Then, Caspar Jones come runnin’, yellin’ that Jake Beit was dead in his own chip yard. I went an’ had a look, an’ when the mail driver come through from Fort Royal I told him to tell the p’lice in Taverton.”
"Who killed him?” snapped Welkin. The postmaster started, and flushed. He avoided the constable’s eye and muttered, “Dunno.”
“You must suspect somebody,” Doc Jarvis urged.
"A man can’t suspect The Almighty.”
Constable Welkin snorted, and Jarvis said dourly, "We’d better take a look at Jake.”
It was almost the last house along the road. There seemed to be no life in the village except the blue wood smoke at the chimneys and a furtive face at a window here and there. Beit’s house was like the rest, a shingled wooden box of two rickety stories, grey with weather, rags stuffed in broken panes. A beaten path wriggled around boulders in the field between the road and the kitchen door. The front door, like most others in the Hollow, looked unused; grass grew high before it.
A big black horse cropped the sparse grass in a corner of the field. In the yard between house and barn, beside the chopping block and wood pile, lay an elderly man in grey flannel shirt and blue denim overalls, face down in a wide smear of blood that the rain had diluted and mostly washed away among the chips. A huge wound gaped in his bald head, and an edge of shattered bone shone white in the gash. The sun had come out hot, the air was still.
There was a mighty buzz of flies as the doctor stooped. He arose at last and scratched his chin. “Dead eight or ten hours, I’d say. Puts it about daylight.”
“And lets out Caspar Jones,” Welkin suggested. A double-bitted axe was stuck in the block. About the dead man and under him lay a scatter of split, wood. The axe was clean. “Might’ve been washed by the rain,” Welkin said. “What d’you make of it?”
Doc Jarvis rubbed his white mustache with a knuckle. “He split that wood for the mornin’ fire. lie was stoopin’ prob’ly had an armful o’ wood when somebody knocked him on the head.”
“Offhand, I’d say an axe.”
Welkin explored the house. It was thinly furnished, all but the parlor, which was cluttered with cheap stuffed furniture of the pre-1914 era, motheaten and furry with dust. Only the kitchen and a bedroom showed frequent use. Beneath a mattress in the bedroom Welkin found a small roll of currency, in small bills, soiled and creased. He tore the mattress apart and found more, done up in packets of small bills, each amounting to one hundred dollars. Altogether there were three thousand dollars of dirty, much-fingered currency. He put it in a sack and went out to Doc Jarvis. “Seems to have been the local Rockefeller. Who are the neighbors?”
“Neighbors? Farm to the north belongs to a feller named Jacob Beit, a nephew o’ the corpse. They call him Young Jake. The one to the south belongs to Dietrich Sweeney.”
THEY FOUND Young Jake and his wife in their kitchen. They looked like the rest of the Hollow folk, the unshaven hard-eyed man, the flabby woman and her yellow kitchen - imprisoned face. A sick child lay in a blanket on the kitchen couch. They had heard the music and the voice in the night, they said: otherwise they knew nothing. They looked at Welkin’s red jacket with awe, remembering old tales of a time when their forefathers came to Deep Hollow wearing the ragged ruin of such coats. They called him “Sir.” Doc Jarvis looked at the child, and went down to the car to get his old black bag. Constable Welkin struck across the fields to interview the Sweeneys. Fifteen minutes later, from Young Jake’s kitchen door, Doc Jarvis noticed Welkin signalling violently from the Sweeney house. He went over at a breathless trot.
“Got my man!” Welkin announced. He was pleased with himself and showed it. “They were waiting for me when I came Sweeney with his best clothes on, ready to go to jail. 'I done it,’ he said, just like that. ‘I’m the man you want.’ He started to pour out the whole story, so I stopped him and warned him anything he said might be used as evidence all that and was starting out to get you when I saw you come to Young Jake’s door. I want you to take the confession down in writing. You’re a J.P. That ought to make it foolproof for the court.”
In the small parlor Dietrich Sweeney sat stiffly, a small man, partly bald, eyes very blue in a narrow sunburned face. A woman, flabby-fat, with mournful eyes, sat beside him, holding one of his work-gnarled hands.
“Begin again now, Dietrich, please,” Welkin said briskly. “Doctor Jarvis you know him, I guess he’s going to take it down.”
Dietrich waited calmly while the doctor fumbled for a notebook and poised his fountain pen; then he recited slowly, almost dreamily: “Jacob was a bad man. It was time he died. He wanted more money, and we had no more. Nobody had any money any more. My ox, Bright, was sick. Somebody had put a hex on him. Jacob told me it was this one or that one, and sold me charms to spoil the hex. Till I had no more money. Two or three nights ago the ox fell in the stall and hurt his right foreleg. In the morning I seen Jake Beit limping about his chip yard. Then I knowed. It was Jacob hexing me, hexing all of us, all these years to get our money. I talked to my wife what I should do. We read the Bible all day. Last night God talked to us. ‘Let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end.’ I got down on my knees and said, ‘How, Lord?’ The Lord went on shouting. The Lord was angry. It was a fearsome sound. At last the Lord said, ‘His mischief shall return upon his own head, his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate.’ I knowed what I should do, then. Sarah fetched me the axe—”
“Where’s the axe?” Welkin interrupted. The woman went out to the barn and brought it, wrapped in sacking, which the policeman tore off. The steel was stained and clotted with dried blood.
“Take your time now, Dietrich,” Welkin said gently, “so Doctor Jarvis can get it all. What did you do with the axe when she brought it?”
“I went out in the barn and lit a lantern. The ox was down. He tried to get up, but he couldn’t. His eyes was glassy-like. The hex was on him strong. I called out, ‘Jacob Beit, come out of my ox.’ The ox just moved his head from side to side, like this, like he was saying No. Then I struck him on the head.”
“Ah!” Doc Jarvis cried. “And then, Dietrich?”
“That’s all, Doctor. The ox rolled on his side. The blood run all over the stall. In a minute he was dead. I sat up till morning, with Sarah. We read the Bible together, and when daylight come we watched Jacob’s house. In the forenoon we saw Caspar Jones go up the path. We saw him stop, and throw down his piece of yokewood, and run. We run down to the road and called out to him. He said Jacob was laying dead in the chip yard with his skull split open.”
The woman spoke up suddenly. “The Lord’s will be done !”
WELKIN turned his astonished eyes to Doc Jarvis. The old man shrugged. The constable had a queer suspicion that Doc had known exactly what the man would say. Savagely he burst out, “They’re mad, all of ’em, the whole darned village. Voices in the sky -—murdering a man inside an ox—hex — what’s hex?”
“Know anything about witchcraft, son?” Doc Jarvis asked mildly.
“In Canada—in the twentieth century?”
“These people ain’t mad, son. They’re superstitious, all of ’em. It’s in their bones. Now, you take the moon. Clearin’, plowin’, plantin’, harvestin’, yes, an’ huntin’, an’ love-makin’—all’s got to be done in the right phase o’ the moon. When you pooh-pooh the moon, they remind you of the tides. Then they take you down the cellar an’ show you the sauerkraut bar’l. Why, they ask, does the pickle rise an’ fall in the bar’l on the full an’ dark o’ the moon? Because, hang it, Welkin, it does !
“When the moon’s full, the brine’s frothin’ up through the chopped cabbage like the bead on a glass o’ beer; on the dark, it’s gone, ebbed like the tide, toward the bottom o’ the bar’l—you’ve got to dig down through the cabbage to find it. Can you explain it? ’Course you can’t! Well then, they say, why can’t the moon raise up fat punkins, or set up a ferment in the heart of a girl you want; why can’t it shrink the life out o’ maple stumps, cut when the moon’s dark, so they won’t grow in the pasture again?”
“Sounds pretty harmless, Doc.” It was quaint to be discussing the Hollow folk before Dietrich and his wife like this. They sat, stony-faced, as if none of it concerned them.
“Sure,” Doc Jarvis said. “But somebody breaks a leg, or his cow gits sick, an’ t’aint the moon any more. Somebody’s witchin’ the feller.”
“An old woman on a broomstick?”
“More simple than that, son. Usually it’s a neighbor with a grudge. He’s put a hex on you.”
“By night. Neighbor transforms himself into a witch, comes into your house, through a keyhole, an open window, a crack in the wall; gets at you while you’re asleep. Crawls through your mouth or nose, raises hell with your insides. Or mebbe it’s your cow, out there in the stable.”
Welkin grinned. “What d’you do about it?” It was fantastic.
“Consult the oracle there’s always somebody knows the answers. You’ve got to remember this hex stuff’s believed an’ practiced all through the next county, where the German people settled. If the oracle can’t tell you who’s doin’ the witchin’, there’s a way to find out. Say your ox is sick. You go out at night an’ beat blazes out o’ the beast with a loggin’ chain, or somethin’ else that’ll leave a mark. Witches have to be back in their normal shape by daylight, so, come mornin’, you hunt about the village for a man, woman or child that’s got a new mark or scar. That’s the one.”
“You buy some antiwitch advice from the local expert. ’Couple o’ days’ time, if you’ve still got a bellyache, or the ox won’t eat, you go buy some more. If you can’t get a cure, you’re apt to go an’ beat the human form o’ the witch with your fists, or a pick handle, say.”
“Um ! And that’s where the police come in?”
“Not at all. If they did, the Taverton subdetachment’d have to move its quarters to Deep Hollow. Arson, cattle maimin’, poisonin’, assault-an’battery, heaven knows what not. All the time. Darkness! Darkness! The Power that walks by night! You don’t know what goes on. They stop short o’ murder the oracle sees to that. They’re mighty scared o’ him.”
Welkin laughed aloud. “You don’t mean there’s a witch doctor?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
“A professional rival!”
“Put it that way if you like. I don’t get many calls to Deep Hollow, an’ it don’t bother me none. They’re poor pay. Used to think mebbe I could talk ’em out o’ this hex business, with medical examples. ’Twas too strong for me. There’s things that can’t be explained—that voice in the night, for instance. Angels, mebbe, can deal with the powers o’ darkness. I’m just a shabby old country doctor that couldn’t make a livin’ in the town.”
The emotion in the kindly old voice surprised Constable Welkin.
“Call it witchcraft if you like,” he snorted. “I still think they’re all nuts.”
“They were good stock, son,” Doc Jarvis said, as if it were something personal.
“Soldiers disbanded after Waterloo and offered grants in Canada. The woods were full of ’em, wanderin’ in search o’ good soil that hadn’t been taken up. Some came this way, through Hanover County. They settled in groups here an’ there, an’ gave their villages swell names like Victory, Conquerall, Wellington, New Waterloo. But it’s like the story in the Scripture; some fell on good soil, some on bad. The bunch that wandered up the Skudakumitch stream into Princess County settled in Deep Hollow—mighty poor soil. Tired o’ wanderin’, I reckon. Nearest neighbors were German peasants, lately come to the country like ’emselves, at a settlement called Neustadt, twenty miles away by a path through the woods. No cross-country road from Taverton to Fort Royal then, nor for many years. They married German women and took ’em to Deep Hollow. A hard an’ lonely life, then an’ now. Ambitious young fellers an’ girls, generation after generation, got out, soon as they could. The rest carried on the breed an’ the beliefs o’ the pioneers. Here they are still, people with English, Irish an’ Welsh names, talkin’ English with a thick low Dutch accent, regulatin’ their lives by the moon, an’ practicin’ a witchcraft straight from old-time Germany.”
“Pagans!” ejaculated Welkin, with a curious look at the Sweeneys.
“Most religious people ever you saw. Minister drives over from Neustadt in a buggy once a fortnight an’ holds service, but he can’t teach ’em a thing. They know the Bible backward an’ forward, an’ sleep with it under their pillows at night to keep the witches off. Pastor on that circuit told me one time ’twas Christianity gone sour from standin’ too long, an’ full o’ creepy-crawlies.”
CONSTABLE WELKIN stood up. “Well, this isn’t getting us anywhere. You think this man’s innocent? He simply killed an ox?”
“Just that.” They walked out, under the stupefied gaze of the Sweeneys.
“Look here,” Welkin said. “This witch doctor—I’ve got a hunch he’s at the bottom of all this. Who is he?” They were crossing the field to Old Jake’s house, and Doctor Jarvis pointed grimly ahead. “That’s him. Old Jake. Dead men make no statements.”
The old man pointed out the rusty horseshoes nailed to the doorsteps, the little crosses of mountain-ash twigs fastened over each door and window.
“To keep out witches. Jake believed in his own medicine.”
“Looks like they caught up with him,” the policeman said. “Phew! They didn’t teach anything like this at Regina. Is this Canada, or am I just Alice in Wonderland with a notion that somebody’s pulling my leg?” There was a certain anger in that.
“I suppose,” he added, “everybody’ll have the same story. Well, I might as well hear the whole madhouse while I’m at it. Here’s a man dead; nobody loved him; somebody killed him. You can’t explain that away with witchcraft, Doc.”
Young Jake and his wife emerged from their house and walked hand in hand to the line fence, staring dumbly at Constable Welkin. They had an urgent air. “Here comes Confession Number Two,” Doc Jarvis said. He fetched a blanket from Old Jake’s house to cover the corpse.
“Jacob’s got somethin’ to say,” the pallid woman said. “Go on, Jacob. Tell the p’liceman. They can’t hang you for doin’ what the Lord said.”
“Oho!” uttered Welkin. Across the narrow field he could see twig crosses over Young Jake’s doors and windows, horseshoes nailed to the doorstep.
“I killed him,” Young Jake said quietly. “He was my uncle but a bad man. He put a hex on us. He took all our money. When we hadn’t got no more, he wouldn’t have mercy on us, though we got down on our knees. But last night the Lord spoke to us. ‘Let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end.’ I didn’t want to do it. I was afraid of Uncle Jake. But Minna brought me the axe—”
“Ah!” shouted Constable Welkin. It was too much. “I know you did it between dark and daylight, when the witches shuffle off home. And you wrapped the axe in a sack so it wouldn’t offend the sight of the Lord. That was it, wasn’t it?”
“How’d you know?” muttered the woman, wide-eyed.
“I know too much for my own sanity,” snapped Welkin. Doctor Jarvis was standing by. He turned on the old man, as if it were all his fault. ‘‘I think you’d better hold your inquest before I go any further. I’ve no doubt I can get a confession from every man in the village; but what’s the truth? It was done in the rain, which spoils any chance of fingerprints. It was done in the half-light of daybreak, before most of these superstitious fools would venture to look out of a window - which means no witnesses. I tell you, Doc, it’s got me buffaloed.”
AS THEY reached the road and the car, Constable Welkin stopped suddenly, snapping his fingers. “Hold on holdon, Doc! Young Jake the hex it was their kid that was sick. Their kid, by heaven ! They wouldn’t smite their own kid with an axe, Voice or no Voice—” He had taken a step back toward Young Jake’s house when the doctor’s hand closed on his arm. The old man’s grip was surprisingly strong.
“Son,” he said softly, “that li’l sick girl’s their only child. They tried everything - the rowan twigs, the horseshoes, knives stuck in the doorposts, wearin’ their clothes inside out heaven knows what silly business they didn’t try. There was one more thing—supposed to be a sure cure. They shut their doors an’ windows, sealed with paper every crack, plugged the chimney, an’ lit a smudge — to smoke the witch out. Yes ! They sat there, besieged by their own fancies, with the windows covered with blankets, chokin’ in the dark, beside the sick child, for four days and nights. Outside, the oxen bellerin’ in the barn for food an’ water, the cow mooin’ at the pasture rails, udder swollen for want o’ milkin’. An’ the kid gettin’ worse all the time. After four days an’ nights o’ that, people ain’t responsible for what they say.”
“Nor what they do?”
“Son, I’ve been coroner in Princess County twenty years. Seen a lot o’ death in one form or another, an’ heard a lot o’ nonsense talked about it in court. One thing I learned. Justice an’ the law ain’t one an’ the same. That man under the blanket yonder got a kind o’ justice that ain’t handed out in the courts. Darkness, the Power that walks by night a man can’t meddle with that forever.
It caught up with him at last.”
“I can’t put that in a police report,” Welkin said.
“ ’Course you can’t! Jollett found that out, years ago. He dragged several o’ these witchcraft cases into court, an’ never got anywhere. You take this case into court, an’ I’ll tell you what’ll happen: on the stand, the witnesses’ll refuse to give evidence, out o’ sheer fear o’ the supernatural; or they’ll mumble an’ stammer, an’ contradict what they said before, an’ recite chapter after chapter o’ the Scriptures: the jury’ll throw the case out, the crown prosecutor’ll froth at the mouth in your direction, not theirs an’ finally the judge’ll have some sour advice for the police. Darkness! Darkness! You’ve got to leave it alone, or make a fool o’ yourself—an’ the law.”
“But look here,” Constable Welkin cried violently. “Here’s a man killed-- ”
“And you want your man! But what man? All the concentrated hate an’ fear o’ the village was in the blow that killed him. I’m no policeman, son. I’m just an old man that knows the other side o’ life in the back blocks, the little country places where everything seems sweet an’ pleasant an’ plain-to-be-seen, like the apples on the trees. There’s worms in apples. Tell you what I’m goin’ to do. I’m goin’ to call an inquest here, on the spot. We’ll hear the evidence o’ the witness Caspar Jones, an’ the witness Kurt Donovan. Then I’ll give the medical evidence. The dead man was killed by a blow on the head, delivered with somethin’ heavy an’ fairly sharp. I’ll testify that in my experience I’ve seen three men killed by horse kicks in just such a fashion struck on the head while stoopin’, an’ the calk o’ the horseshoe cuttin’ a long gash in the skull. I’ll point out the black horse, down yonder in the field. He’s got a nasty eye, he’s what these people call ugly. A farmer up the Hollow, name o’ Fitzgerald, has been payin’ Old Jake to drive the witches out o’ that horse. Jake’s method, aside from a certain amount of hocus-pocus, was to beat the horse, night an’ mornin’, with a fence stake. After that, you can say what you like, son. I can tell you what the verdict’ll be.”
It was dark when Constable Welkin got back to Taverton, and he found the corporal in socks and shirtsleeves, pen in hand, winding up the case files disposed of at that day’s sessions.
“What’s the verdict?” Jollett said, without looking up.
“Death by misadventure.”
Corporal Jollett caught the flat note in it. He swung around in his chair. There was a little grin on his broad brown face.
“And what d’you think, Welkin?” Welkin threw his Stetson on the couch and unbuttoned the uncomfortable red jacket.
“I think,” he said slowly, “I’ll send in another application for the North. A policeman’s life is simple there.”