Skip to Content
Search Icon

The Pageant at Willowton

A ghost story.

Dale Nelson is associate professor of English emeritus of Mayville State University and a columnist for CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.

The railway had bypassed this corner of the county in the nineteenth century, and the nearest major motorway lay seven miles off. This stream or small river, the West Ock, wound undisturbed above the tiny village of Willowton.  

Bessy, the narrow boat, tutter-tuttered past the water lilies. From the stern, Keith Hungerford was steering. He called, “Nora, Susan, can you take a look?” His field guide lay close by. He pointed over the side of the boat at submerged green masses in the stream. “Huh! Look at that. I’m sure it’s Canadian water weed, drain devil, water thyme. Now, Susan: what would you suppose is beneath all that stuff?”  

“Some sort of grubby fish.  Bottom-feeders.”

“And Nora -- ?”

Leaning over the rail at the boat’s bow, Nora Lambert looked into the brown water. Some tiny bubbles rose amidst the green fronds. She turned to Keith and cried, “Clay?”  

“Oxfordshire’s past,” Keith said. “What you have here is yet another species which has taken over and crowded out the old native flora.  Just like the monkey-flower.” Half an hour ago, he had interrupted the women’s conversation about certain dilapidations at St. Leoba’s Hall, to point to yellow flowering plants along the streamside. “Poor old local flowers, they never had a chance, once some of these introduced plants got a foothold.” Susan had glanced, with faint misgivings, at the bachelor’s buttons growing in the flowerboxes on Bessy.

Nora, followed by Susan, made her way through the cabin to where Keith was standing aft. Susan brought along a bucket containing a bottle of wine.  

“I wish there were some stretch of river that was exactly as it was six hundred years ago. I should like to slide along the waterways with one of our manuscript herbals in hand, seeing just what old Walter Esham saw,” Nora said. Inwardly, she censured herself for a moment for feeling the appeal of the quaint–something hard to eradicate from medieval study.  Dragonflies with iridescent wings hovered and flashed. A swarm of midges swirled in an intricate helix where water met the shore. Bessy passed a meadow where sheep grazed.

“When those early industrialists cut the canals, it changed a lot of things.  River traffic could really take off when the canals were connected with the existing streams. All sorts of non-native species spread along our streams and rivers,” Keith said, and handed across his glass to his wife. Nora thought of saying something about The Wind in the Willows and how nice it was to mess about in boats, and how she had seen a water rat an hour ago and thought of that favorite book of her girlhood. Susan Hungerford refilled her husband’s glass from the bottle of Mosel Riesling she kept in the bucket of ice. There was a tiny store at the Willowton boatyard where one could buy ice.  

Susan looked across the water and said, “Oh, do you see those people over there, at the edge of the meadow – there, under those trees? What colorful costumes!  Perhaps it’s some lucky child’s fête.”  

And indeed there had been sounds of children’s cries and of music from somewhere for the past minute or two, though not, perhaps, from the vicinity of the figures. The three friends watched them till the boat’s movement brought their craft, a few moments later, to a place where leaves obscured their view. In the day’s mild, humid heat, it was pleasant to keep moving, however languidly, feeling the slight breeze created by their motion. If the day had been cooler, curiosity might have been keener, and someone might have suggested that Keith stop the boat and that they should get out and approach the figures. Today, the friends had an unspoken agreement just to idle along.

“Now what would you say these are?” Keith said, waving at trees and bushes with dense, hanging, sharp-tipped foliage.

“Willows,” Nora said, smiling.

“Yes, of course, white willows, crack willows, and hybrids, but what they represent is the whole reason why there’s a village back there.”

“Willowton, the willow-town, obviously.”

“For centuries they made baskets there, and of course your herbals would tell you about medicinal uses. And beehives, enclosures for cattle.  Willow is still used to make artificial limbs and cricket bats, isn’t that something, huh?”

“Very interesting, Keith,” said Susan. “Ah, here we are, this’ll be Silsley in a few minutes.  My grandfather used to fish over there, from those stones poking up through the ivy— now darling, don’t tell us whether this is native growth or not, please, we’ve had enough botanizing for one day.”  

Keith and Susan were research chemists at Bradwardine College. Their names had appeared at the top of several articles on electrical conductivity of polyacetylene. They were fans of C. P. Snow’s novels and planned to reread The Light and the Dark, The Masters,and The New Men yet this summer, taking turns reading aloud in the evenings. Inheritances and some good luck with patents had made them wealthy, and they owned a cottage in Willowton for weekends and a handsome narrow boat, but their unprepossessing home during term was near South Parks Road in Oxford.  

As girls, Susan and Nora had been friends at Wycombe Manor School.  Susan thought it was splendid, the way Nora was able to be so lighthearted, as she stayed with them on the Bessy for a few days—considering that Nora’s husband and daughter had died from drowning a little over two years ago. It seemed that Nora refused to let her life be circumscribed by painful memories. And now it seemed that she was making up her mind to marry the patient and excellent Gerald Walthow, who would spend the day with them tomorrow. Surely it was time he made a declaration, though.

Susan had introduced Nora to Gerald a year ago, at a fund-raiser for the Halkyard Sanatorium, of which Gerald was the managing director. In doing so, she’d had no particular object; he was one of several people to whom, that evening, Susan introduced her widowed friend. By that time, Susan had already realized that her first expectations, about Nora as a widow and mother whose child had been lost, had been in error. Nora was not shutting herself up in perpetual forlorn bereavement. That Nora’s grief was real and deep, she knew. But in fact Nora forced herself not to shrink from things that might stab her with new sensations of loss. She kept up with her friends and professional organizations.  

The car carrying Alan and Gillian had slipped on ice and plunged into the Ock, but Nora still drove along that very section of the road as she had done before the accident. In those lost days, Nora and Gillian had stayed with the Hungerfords on their narrow boat while Mr. Lambert was away on business; but Nora had not declined the invitation to stay with them again, several months after the accident. Tiny St. Leoba’s— one of the last examples of sham-Gothic in the whole island of Britain, Susan supposed— had places for only four women to live in, so Nora lived nearby. Once, some weeks after the funeral, Susan had come again to the house of the Lamberts for tea. A display of family photographs had been, she thought, rearranged since last time, but it did not appear to her to have become a shrine. Nora was coping, or indeed better than coping.  Susan began to sense that the conventional belief, that people are defined by their weaknesses, usually hidden ones, might not always be true.  

Susan didn’t know Gerald Walthow very well, but she knew a little of his personal history. He was about forty and had never married. Susan was better acquainted with his sister, Amy, and Amy had once said that she suspected that her brother found it difficult to develop close feelings for women because their mother had died of a wasting illness when he was ten years old. That was the way Amy put it: “a wasting illness.” It sounded old-fashioned to Susan, and faint memories of a biography of the Brontës, read in her teens, stirred. Susan looked for Nora amidst the people standing or sitting in groups at the fund-raiser, and spotted her sitting at a table with Gerald. They seemed to have hit it off.

On that first evening, Gerald saw Nora, at first, as a rather plain woman, with a good figure and pleasant manners. He was no medievalist but found her studies interesting to hear about. Early in their conversation, the conventional notion presented itself to his mind: here was a forlorn woman heading into middle age, burying herself in dusty manuscripts. Within a few minutes, he perceived that the real Nora Lambert was a much more interesting woman than that conjectural one. Manuscripts, and even dust, there were, but the pursuit of linguistic knowledge assuredly had its fascinations and its appeal to the imagination, the reconstruction not only of bygone lexicons and grammars but of old English ways of life: to know, to the degree possible, the truth, disinterestedly, about people, even forgotten ones, from centuries ago—there was a romance about it. At present, Nora was working with a unique manuscript of St. Leoba’s and seeking to ascertain if it were written in “the AB language,” and, if so, if it were the work of a particular scribe, the monk responsible for two Bodleian manuscripts, The Life of Seint Katherine and Hali Meidhad.  

When she mentioned that St. Leoba’s Hall was short of money, he was already interested, but this fact suggested his own concerns at the Halkyard Sanatorium. Under the patronage of a wealthy coal family headed by the contemporary Lord Halkyard, the hospital had been built and endowed, at about the same point in Victoria’s reign as when St. Leoba’s was founded, as a place for the care of consumptives. Happily, today tuberculosis was less common than formerly, and the small private hospital now admitted other patients. “We have remained dedicated to the treatment of patients with TB and similar diseases, even quite rare ones such as Whipple’s.  Some of our patients are from the slums, especially in the North, and several are Commonwealth arrivals. We have become a teaching hospital specializing in severe pulmonary bacterial diseases and emphysema. Some people wouldn’t think it,” he said, “but a hospital can be a lively place. Just like your college. And they both have their money worries,” and he and she smiled.

Nora had gone home that evening feeling that she had had a nicer time than she had anticipated. Gerald, she thought, had a pleasant voice. She remembered the lonely old secret services woman in the le Carré novel who would play tape recordings of the telephone conversations of a Russian diplomat suspected of being a spy, just because of the pleasure of listening to his voice. But she didn’t think she felt lonely—certainly not as lonely as that.  

Gerald had felt a little giddy and uneasy. He tried to sort out what had happened and how he had found himself to be talking so much, and with so much animation, to this woman. As if a limb that had been settled too long in the same place had shifted position, he felt a sort of spiritual pins and needles.

The day after the Hungerfords and Nora had watched the distant and unusual figures under the trees, they were joined by Gerald for another day on the Bessy. “We’ll just idle along to Purwell, shall we?” said Keith. “Then we’ll turn around there, and tie up here by nine o’clock?”

“That leaves plenty of time for me to drive back,” Gerald said. There was a place to sit on the deck next to Nora and he took it. “You’re a bit sunburned,” he said to her, while he was thinking, What a handsome woman she is.  

“Yes, the sun feels so nice, I didn’t like to wear my hat.” She had determined that she would not hide her grey hairs from him. Her white straw hat was somewhere in the boat. “Keith, Susan, will there be a place we can get up and walk around before long?”

“We’ll probably be near Colhanger House in half an hour,” said Keith. “But you won’t see the house, huh, it’s surrounded by a ten-foot stone wall that goes on and on.”

“Oh, I know the place,” said Nora. “We’ve passed it before. I’ve always wondered what was on the other side.”

“You’ll have to climb the ivy to see,” Susan said. 

“I will,” Nora said.  

“I think the house is late eighteenth-century, not in anyone’s hands now, National Trust?”

“I’m going to peek at it at least.”

Past rushes, alders, and willows, some of them pollarded, hawthorn and hazel, past Himalaya balsam (“Another recent intruder,” Keith said) and water avens, lady’s smock, daisies, kingcup, teasel, and ragged robin, Bessy moved, past, also, a public park, with people amusing themselves on the shore, sometimes with shiny chrome boomboxes, with dogs on and off leads, past wrappers and cigarette ends, floating plastic bottles, and newspaper sheets exhibiting photographs of Princess Diana.  

Sometimes it was meadows, sometimes it was trees right up to the waterside and the path out of sight, but now there was the path again, and a dark, indistinct wall coming into view beyond trees.  

“There’s where your Colhanger House’ll be,” said Keith.  “Now that was built by one of those vieux riches, a couple of centuries ago, back when this was the original site of Willowton, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Oh yes?” Nora asked.

“Yes—downstream Willowton today calls itself an old village, and there’s been a Willowton in this county back to Tudor times, but in our Willowton, you’ll have noticed, there’s nothing older than the early decades of the Regency. Well, when old Lord Colhanger decided to build his grand house, the villagers just had to clear off; their cottages were torn down, and he put the people in new ones—ever notice how all the cottages in the center of town are the same age? They didn’t have a lot of say in the matter, huh, he owned the old village. But I suppose, if the truth be told, some of them were happy enough to get out of their damp old dwellings.”

Gerald poked a long pole over the side. “The water’s staying nice and deep enough, if you want to draw right up here so we can all get out.”

“Let’s do,” Keith said. Susan said she would stay on board, and if they were going to navigate all the way to Purwell, at six miles away a two-hours’ journey, they shouldn’t roam around ashore for more than a few minutes.

Gerald turned to offer Nora assistance onto the stream bank, but she was already stepping from the deck onto the grass. She turned and held out a hand to him, smiling. Keith said, “Back there a couple of hundred yards or so I want to look at those fritillaries—I’m sure they were fritillaries.” He was clutching his field guide, and set off along the path, away from the wall.

Nora and Gerald walked beneath the wall. A breeze moved the ivy like a dog’s coat rippling while the animal is trembling in its sleep. Nora was looking for hand- and foot-holds. In another moment she found a place to work her right foot into a gap in the stones, just above two large stems of ivy, and, clutching a mass of dark leaves, she stepped off the ground. She climbed up and looked over the top of the wall, aware of, but ignoring, small spiders.

Gerald looked at her poised there and said to himself, “Nora Lambert, it’s you or no one.”

Nora laughed. For an instant Gerald thought he must unconsciously have spoken his thought aloud and excited her disdain. But she was still looking over the wall. Quietly, but not so quietly that he couldn’t hear her, she recited:

I had a secret laughter,
I laughed it near the wall.

“What do you see?”

“Some costumed people – I saw them yesterday from the boat. Here they are again. What are they doing?  They’re pretty close now.”

Gerald looked for a place nearby to climb the ivy, some place that would not be so close as to loosen the stem system that helped to support Nora.

He found a place and hoisted himself up the wall. As he did so, Nora looked across at him, smiling, her eyes bright. A wave of wind passed through their hair. Gerald looked and saw a grassy field with a few sheep, and a fine stone house with two cars in front, sunlight reflecting from their surfaces.  “Ah, I took too long getting up here, they have gone in.”

Nora held on to the ivy and searched the scene. It didn’t seem possible that the strange people could have crossed the ground in front of the house and entered it in only a moment. The only possibility (she didn’t like it) seemed to be that they were all pressed flat against the inner side of the wall, immediately beneath her. She stepped down onto the path. Gerald noticed that she was taking rather deep breaths. She began to stride determinedly up the path, and he followed her.

“Were you quoting a poem just now?”

She collected herself.  “Yes—something I always liked ever since I was a girl,” and Nora recited again:

I had a secret laughter,
I laughed it near the wall:
Only the ivy and the wind
May tell of it at all.

They walked slowly on the path, but not in the direction that would take them back to the Bessy. “Those funny people—I wish you had seen them.— My goodness, I seem to be a bit short of breath.” He reached for her hand, then his arm circled her waist.

They found their way back to the boat in what seemed to them a few moments. Keith and Susan had seen their two friends walking slowly and following a turn in the path and becoming lost to view from the boat.  Susan, and then Keith, had glanced at their watches. Now Keith said, “Look, there’s a nice little pub near the lock about a mile up from here, let’s get something to eat there, huh, and then I suppose we can go on a little ways and turn around, there’s a nice winding-hole, and we can see Purwell another day. Does that sound good?”  The others all thought that was a capital plan.

There were chairs and tables outside the pub, but they wanted to get out of the sun. While they waited for their refreshments to be brought to them, Keith began to talk about the fritillaries, but when he paused as their drinks arrived, Gerald suggested that Nora should describe what she had seen on the other side of the wall. “Yes, please do,” Susan said.  Keith put aside his field guide.

“Well, I think there were eight or nine of them. They were wearing costumes—very good ones, not at all the sort of thing mothers make or buy for their children.”

“Huh—my mother used to make excellent costumes for us kids,” Keith said. His wife touched his thigh and he didn’t go on.

Nora continued. “I thought the people were children, at first, they didn’t seem to have reached their full height, but no, they certainly were not children.  

“Some of them were wearing leather or armor, not cloth costumes, and the armor looked like real armor, rather beautiful and formidable.  The main thing is that they were each doing these sorts of repetitive movements. There was one, he wore robes and a turban, and he kept waving a curved sword above his head, and rolling his eyes up.  He wore a turban. He looked absolutely ferocious with his beard and the way his eyes shone against his dark skin. I think he was foaming at the mouth!  He kept brandishing his sword, and the way he kept doing it the same way made him look a bit ridiculous as well as frightening.  

“Then there was another man, who wore shiny armor. He kept striking a very theatrical pose and pointing off into the distance with his long sword, and then he would drop his sword onto the grass and throw his hands over his face and look like he was sobbing, and then pick up his sword and do it all over again. I should say that all this time nobody was speaking, though there was a sound like wind in the treetops.

“One man held a dagger and kept lunging and making stabbing motions.  He was wearing a white robe and sandals and there was blood splashed all over his clothes and his hand. It might have been horrible except he kept doing the same thing, like some sort of ham actor. I remember I felt like asking him, ‘Did you forget your lines?’

“The people were all men, by the way. One of them—Gerald, Keith, Susan, did you ever see that production of The Merchant of Venice by those Oxford players—I forget the name of the group—the ones who said they were going to put it on just the way it would’ve been done in Shakespeare’s day?— with Shylock having frizzy red hair, an immense hooked nose, just this horrible, grotesque caricature of an anti-Semitic stereotype. Well, one of the people on the grass looked like that, this nasty Jewish stereotype. He was dressed in long black robes with astrological signs all over them, and he had a bag of money, and kept pouring coins out into his hand and counting them, then putting them back in the bag, then pouring them out again, and winking at you. With those robes I don’t see how he could have been Shylock, but who he was supposed to be, I don’t know.

“But one of them, oh, he had to be David—you know, from the Bible. He was wearing a peasant tunic and buskins, and held a little lamb over his shoulder—but on his head was a splendid crown! He just stood there looking, I thought, like a sweet young adolescent boy—yes that’s right, all the others were grown-up men, but not David. He did look a little blank, though, simple, you know. 

“There were a couple of men with swords and spears who went sort of marching around as if they were in command of some great host of men.  And there were a couple of kings in rather magnificent robes and crowns.  One of them had a rich yellow beard all down his chest. He kept acting, I should say miming, as if he were pulling his sword out of something—obviously he was Arthur. It should have been splendid, but because he kept doing it, it looked rather silly. The other one stood there resting his hands on the pommel of his sword, staring off into nowhere, like he was the original monarch of all he surveyed.  

“How many is that? As I said, I think there were eight or nine, all of them doing their little routines. It seemed funny at the time, but now it makes me think of some kind of mental patients, you know, the ones who keep doing the same gestures and movements, thousands of times.”

Gerald said, “Obsessive-compulsive behavior. Is it possible that Colhanger House has become a mental institution? A quiet place in the country, with a high wall that’s not ugly to look at, but tall enough to prevent escapes, could be suitable. The staff would keep the ivy from growing on the inner side. Did you see any people around who looked like they could be asylum staff keeping an eye on these poor fellows?”

“No—but I suppose I was so intent on them that I mightn’t have noticed if there were some ordinary people in view too. But everyone disappeared so quickly! It was strange, really strange,” Nora said. “But I suppose they were just some local actors with really good costumes, rehearsing some kind of pantomime—for a festival or something— ?”

Their meals arrived and Gerald said it would be easy for him to track down any healthcare institutions in the area.  

Nora saw the figures for a final time two days later, on her last day of holiday on the narrow boat. 

She had had a couple of days to ponder the future that had come into view on the day when Gerald embraced her, which had not surprised her, and to which she had responded by leaning a little against him; and they had walked by the wall and beyond it. Afterwards she knew that she must settle, once and for all, whether she had no doubts about marrying again.  But her conscience was clear. In marrying again, she would not be failing in her love of Alan and Gillian. She would always love them. She did not feel the thrills of passion for Gerald, but she knew she had been loving him for several months and that she wanted to be his wife. So she would take a long walk by herself, and when she came back to the boat she would tell Keith and Susan. She felt grave, and happy.  

It was green all around her, trees and bushes and flowers and grass on both sides of the path, a lovely summer tunnel, still and warm, flying insects humming past her, birds calling. Twice she passed other walkers who had come from somewhere, an elderly couple with a terrier, and a young mother pushing a pram, but mostly she was alone. Now, to her right, the trees opened out upon a meadow.  The day really was quite warm.  She took a handkerchief from her skirt pocket and wiped her forehead and dabbed under her eyes. She looked and saw the figures.

This time they were closer. The sound of moving air was much more noticeable than before, but the people themselves were utterly silent, making no sounds as they enacted their movements. They, or the air around them, seemed to shimmer. Though now the figures’ costumes appeared tawdry to Nora, no identifiable detail of their garments nor of their facial expressions had changed. It was as if a repeating cinematic image were projected upon a screen somehow perfectly melded with the meadow.  

The closest one was about half a dozen steps from her. It was the warrior who pointed his long sword away at the sky and land, and dropped it and threw his hands to his face, crying, tears flowing, and stooped and picked up the weapon, and pointed off with it again. Nora forced herself to take a step, then another, towards the figure, forcing herself against the swelling panic. “Who are you?  Are you all right?  What are you all doing?” she said with much effort. As she stepped closer she felt that air was being pulled rapidly past away from her and towards the man with the sword.  Strands of her hair were rising and waving in front of her face and flickering at the edges of vision, and it was becoming hard to breathe. A roaring was in her ears and she thought she might lose consciousness.  Her neck, face, and fingertips hurt and her pulse was racing.  She took another step. It seemed that the figures were somehow drawing closer to her, continuing to enact their endless, mindless gestures. Though she felt oppressively unwell, she sensed a strange kind of suffering—not hers, but theirs. She was almost among them now. She raised her hand to ward them off.  

She stood alone in the meadow, gasping. The air was still, birds sang from the trees, a moth fluttered past her, its wings flickering in the sultry air.  Her heart was pounding and she felt giddy and sick.

A flying insect landed on her right calf and she reached down to brush it away. Lowering her head made her feel better. She looked at her shoes, at the grass, compelling herself to take deep, regular breaths. Would she see the figures when she raised her head?  

No—they still were gone. Sunlight lay across the meadow at an angle, showing countless tiny hills and valleys in the grass. She stood there, bent over, hands on her knees, drawing breath through her nostrils and expelling it through her mouth. After another minute, she decided there was nothing really to do but to resume her walk, or return to the boat now.  There was still Gerald to think about, and the changes, good changes in a life that was already good. She resumed her walk along the path by the stream. She thought: Here I am, in this beautiful place.  In a few minutes I will turn around. Good friends will be there, happy to see me. A good man loves me and I’m going to marry him.  

Nora had had an adventure; but unlike the Misses Jourdain and Moberly, after a while she did not think much about it, embroider it, or write about it.   If something in a conversation brought it to mind, she had no reluctance to mention how she had apparently seen residents of a village dressed in quite elaborate costumes, rehearsing for a pageant or pantomime it seemed, and how she had nearly fainted on the sultry day when she had approached them. She had soon afterwards become, once again, a married woman. St. Leoba’s charter specified a faculty composed only of women, but did not insist upon celibacy, though, through the years, not very many of its fellows had taken advantage of the freedom thereby permitted.

Nora, the Principal, and the other fellows of St. Leoba’s often had to discuss ways and means. At the December meeting (in the year in which Nora married Gerald, the same year she saw the uncanny figures), it was noted that the library contained a few stray post-medieval books that might be quite valuable. They did not really belong in a collection whose strength was original manuscripts and scholarly printed editions of works from the Middle Ages and Tudor era. Might it not be a good idea to sell them, so as to raise the wind? The Principal directed Venetia Alderson, the Librarian, to submit a list of such books in time for discussion in three months.

Among other tomes, Venetia examined a book attributed to Joseph Glanvil, with contributions by the Cambridge Platonist Henry More and others. This was Saducismus Triumphatus: Or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions, in Two Parts, the First Treating of Their Possibility, the Second of Their Real Existence. She discovered that the St. Leoba’s copy was dated 1691, the “fourth edition,” though the latest edition recorded in standard bibliographies was the third, that of 1689.  The 1691 volume must, then, be a remarkable rarity, and might bring a high price. If it proved to be a choice collector’s item or desirable acquisition for a rich university, what a boon the cash would be for the Hall! The book included a lengthy section on a late-seventeenth-century controversy between those who acknowledged witches and ghosts, and their opponents, here called Nullibists, followers of “Des Cartes,” and Holenmerians; all very interesting, no doubt, to scholars of a period rather later than that studied at the Hall. There, the book was unlikely to be used, and so probably could be sold without qualm.  

Venetia was the least sociable of the St. Leoba’s faculty. It happened that she had never been present when Nora alluded to the pageant at Willowton. For that reason, when she read the following extensive passage, she had no reason to bring it to her colleague’s attention.

“And that all the upper Stories of the Universe are furnish’d with Inhabitants, ’tis infinitely reasonable to conclude, from the analogy of Nature; since we see there is nothing so contemptible and vile in the world we reside in, but hath its living Creatures that dwell upon it; the Earth, the Water, the inferiour Air, the bodies of Animals, the flesh, the skin, the entrails; the leaves, the roots, the stalks of Vegetables; yea, and all kind of Minerals in the subterraneous Regions. I say, all these have their proper Inhabitants; yea, I suppose this rule may hold in all distinct kinds of Bodies in the world, That they have their peculiar Animals. The certainty of which, I believe the improvement of microscopical Observations will discover. From whence I infer, That since this little Spot is so thickly peopled in every Atome of it, ’tis exceedingly improbable, arguing from the same analogy, that they are all of the meer sensible nature, but that there are least some of the Rational and Intellectual Orders. Which supposed, there is good foundation for the belief of Witches and Apparitions, though the notion of a Spirit should prove as absurd, and unphilosophical, as I judge the denial of it.

“And for my part I must confess, that I think the common division of Spirits much too general; conceiving it likely there may be as a great a variety of intellectual Creatures in the invisible world, as there is of Animals in the visible: and that all the superiour, yea, and inferiour Regions, have their several kinds of spirits differing in their natural perfections, as well as in the kinds and degrees of their depravities; which being supposed, ’tis very probable that those of the basest and meanest Orders are they, who submit to the mention’d servilities.  

“A true Relation there is, of the visible Conversation of these inferiour Spirits, notorious in the county of Oxfordshire. In the village of Willowton, about the year 1665, was a prosperous Householder, one Boynton. His two boys, sons of his first wife, he sent to the Dame-school kept by Mrs. Ellis.  He had, however, by his second wife a Daughter, aet. eight years, who suffered from the passion to learn her Letters. She was called Margaret. Mrs. Ellis refusing to take girl-children as pupils, the little wench’s Parents tried to teach her themselves, but she despised their halting Instructions. At last, Mr. Boynton bethought him of Mrs. Moggerlowe, an ancient Woman, who, he found, was willing to undertake the task for such-and-such an amount. Now he had some doubts as to her fitness, since (‘twas said) she was a Witch, but he affected to believe there were no Witches, and so came to Terms with her.  She said, that she would teach the little maid her Letters, and the true history of the World taken from the Bible and true Books, from the time of Adam and Eve, and their Sons, and tell the little wench  of Nimrod the Babylonian hunter, Deborah the prophetess who was the sister of Moses, who danced before the Lord, (as she said, thereby betraying the faultiness of her knowledge), the Judges, namely Samson, Gideon, and (said she), Esau, and the kings of Israel, and also the kingdoms of the heathen Nations, and their sovereigns, with Cyrus, and Alexander, and Julius Caesar who subdued this Island, and many more, and the dear child would love to hear of them and would have all the learning of a Lady. So the girl’s Father and the ancient Woman agreed.

“Now this decayed old Woman was indeed a Witch, but her natural Powers had nearly failed even unto death by reason of her great years.   Therefore she bethought herself, that the little Child should learn to serve her, and assist her in the doing of those Ceremonies beloved by certain mean Spirits that submit to the bidding of men if they will do them. So she began to teach the Child such learning as she had, which was faulty through original ignorance and from the Impairments of Age; and also set about to fascinate the Child by the wonders of such Arts as she possessed. One morning, said she to the girl, Wouldst thou like to see pass before thine eyes the Nine Worthies?  Said the maid,— Who are they? Taking the child’s Hand in hers, and beginning the count with the small finger of the Maid’s left Hand, the Witch counted them off finger by finger—Iosue, David, Iudas Maccabæus, Simon Magus, Brutus, King Arthur, King Charlemagne, Mahomet, and Alexander.—Where do they live? said the Child, in London? Nay, said the Witch, they are all dead, but I will raise up them for you to see, little Queen. So saying, she conjured certain airy Spirits, Animals of that subtile element, and commanded them to congeal, and appear in the likenesses of the Dead; withal the Child heard and knew that she would see naught but Impostors. So, that when they appeared before her, though they appeared in such Forms and Trappings as they perceived from the Witch’s Thoughts, the Child was neither frightened nor deceived, but counted them servile Spirits that would obey the ancient Hagg, the Child saying to her, The Fayeries put on a better Show any day in the week and the Angels laugh thee to scorn. And the Witch was vexed with her, and sent her home for the day, and then called her back and reminded her to practice drawing her Letters and return the next morning, and then, while the Airy Men still played, and before she could dismiss them, was overcome of an Apoplexie, perhaps provoked by a Refluxion of Thoughts from the airy Creatures, and dyed even on the spot. But the Maid having learned so much as she had by then, Dame Ellis repented her refusal, and enrolled her in her School, and when the Girl was a Woman, she wrote the whole Story as ’tis given above. (Her christening was in 1657 and she dyed in childbirth, 1688.)

“Now, may these be such Creatures as, according to some, St. Paul referreth to, in his Epistle to the Galatians, where he writes of τα στoιχεια τoυ κoσμoυ,  – Elements of the World, and of those weak and beggarly Elements, the infirma et egena elementa; or indeed their meer Minions?  Many, ’tis true, suppose that the Apostle here alludeth to the Usages and Rites of the Old Covenant, but I find some who say rather that he speaks of Creatures. These, or rather their Minions, are, we may suppose, not Divells, Angels fallen from their originall Estate and perfection, but paltry Spirits, or Airy Men, or subtile Animals, (I suppose), Cattle now always unfriendly unto us Sinners, but biddable by a malicious and ignorant Hagg, such as this Janet Moggerlowe. They are not perfectly abstract from all Body and Matter. ’Tis a very hard and painful thing for them, to force their thin and tenuous Bodies into a visible Consistence, and such Shapes as are necessary for their designs in their Correspondencies with Witches. For in this action their Bodies must needs be exceedingly compress’d, which cannot well be without a painful sense.”   

Venetia’s list of books that might be sold was circulated in good time for consideration at the faculty meeting in March. Milein Powell questioned the list’s inclusion of an 18th-century botanical work after Venetia acknowledged that she had not had time to inspect it thoroughly and, yes, it was possible that it recorded traces of medieval lore not preserved elsewhere. Otherwise the seventeen books proposed for sale were acceptable for de-acquisition. The Principal directed that the Hall’s usual book dealer, Messrs Unsworth, should be approached. And so it came about that, a few years later, the Hall’s unique copy of Saducismus Triumphatus had ended up in Texas, and St. Leoba’s bills had been paid and some modest renovations completed.  

By then, Susan had got a promotion and a Persian cat, and Keith had taken up birdwatching. They had roses and castles painted afresh on their narrow boat. On one occasion, standing at Bessy’s tiller, he tracked a kingfisher flying across his line of sight and, as his gaze swept along a stretch of meadow and river, he glimpsed what might have been Nora’s Willowton figures in the distance, as he realized a moment later, after having logged his bird observation in a pocket notebook. They were not there now. Nora and Gerald had had holidays in Spain, the south of France, and Greece, but they hadn’t been aboard the Hungerfords’ narrow boat again. Nor has they revisited Willowton. One way and another, it didn’t seem likely that Nora would eventually ask any of the villagers if they could tell her more about a pageant there.