Chapter XIX. . The Berries of Merciful Death

Late into that night Master Nathaniel paced the floor of his pipe-room, trying to pierce through the intervening medium of the dry words of the Law and the vivider though less reliable one of Mistress Ivy’s memory, and reach that old rustic tragedy, as it had been before the vultures of Time had left nothing of it but dry bones.

He felt convinced that Mistress Ivy’s reconstruction was correct – as far as it went. The farmer had been poisoned, though not by osiers. But by what? And what had been the part played by Pugwalker, alias Endymion Leer? It was, of course, gratifying to his vanity that his instinctive identification of the two had been correct. But how tantalizing it would be if this dead man’s tale was to remain but a vague whisper, too low to be heard by the ear of the Law!

On his table was the slipper that Master Ambrose had facetiously suggested might be of use to him. He picked it up, and stared at it absently. Ambrose had said the sight of it had made Endymion Leer jump out of his skin, and that the reason was obvious. And yet those purple strawberries did not look like fairy fruit. Master Nathaniel had recently become but too familiar with the aspect of that fruit not to recognize it instantly, whatever its variety. Though he had never seen berries exactly like these, he was certain that they did not grow in Fairyland.

He walked across to his bookcase and took out a big volume bound in vellum. It was a very ancient illustrated herbal of the plants of Dorimare.

At first he turned its pages somewhat listlessly, as if he did not really expect to find anything of interest. Then suddenly he came on an illustration, underneath which was written THE BERRIES OF MERCIFUL DEATH. He gave a low whistle, and fetching the slipper laid it beside the picture. The painted berries and the embroidered ones were identical.

On the opposite page the berries were described in a style that a literary expert would have recognized as belonging to the Duke Aubrey period. The passage ran thus: –

THE BERRIES OF MERCIFUL DEATH

These berries are wine-coloured, and crawl along the ground, and have the leaves of wild strawberries. They ripen during the first quarter of the harvest moon, and are only to be found in certain valleys of the West, and even there they grow but sparsely; and, for the sake of birds and children and other indiscreet lovers of fruit, it is well that such is the case, for they are a deadly and insidious poison, though very tardy in their action, often lying dormant in the blood for many days. Then the poison begins to speak in itchings of the skin, while the tongue, as though in punishment for the lies it may have told, becomes covered with black spots, so that it has the appearance of the shards of a ladybird, and this is the only warning to the victim that his end is approaching. For, if evil things ever partake of the blessed virtues, then we may say that this malign berry is mercifully cruel, in that it spares its victims belchings and retchings and fiery humours and racking colics. And, shortly before his end, he is overtaken by a pleasant drowsiness, yielding to which he falls into a peaceful sleep, which is his last. And now I will give you a receipt, which, if you have no sin upon your conscience, and are at peace with the living and the dead, and have never killed a robin, nor robbed an orphan, nor destroyed the nest of a dream, it may be will prove an antidote to that poison – and may be it will not. This, then, is the receipt: Take one pint of salad oil and put it into a vial glass, but first wash it with rose-water, and marygold flower water, the flowers being gathered towards the West. Wash it till the oil comes white; then put it into the glass, and then put thereto the buds of Peonies, the flowers of Marygold and the flowers and tops of Shepherd’s Thyme. The Thyme must be gathered near the side of a hill where the Fairies are said to dance.

Master Nathaniel laid down the book, and his eyes were more frightened than triumphant. There was something sinister in the silent language in which dead men told their tales – with sly malice embroidering them on old maids’ canvas work, hiding them away in ancient books, written long before they were born; and why were his ears so attuned to this dumb speech?

For him the old herbalist had been describing a murderer, subtle, sinister, mitigating dark deeds with mercy – a murderer, the touch of whose bloody hands was balm to the sick in body, and whose voice could rock haunted minds to sleep. And, as well, in the light of what he already knew, the old herbalist had told a story. A violent, cruel, reckless woman had wished to rid herself of her enemy by the first means that came to her hand – osiers, the sap of which produced an agonizing, cruel death. But her discreet though murderous lover took the osiers from her, and gave her instead the berries of merciful death.

The herbalist had proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the villain of the story was Endymion Leer.

Yes, but how should he make the dead tell their tale loud enough to reach the ear of the Law?

In any case, he must leave Lud, and that quickly.

Why should he not visit the scene of this old drama, the widow Gibberty’s farm? Perhaps he might there find witnesses who spoke a language understood by all.

The next morning he ordered a horse to be saddled, packed a few necessaries in a knapsack, and then he told Dame Marigold that, for the present, he could not stay in Lud. “As for you,” he said, “you had better move to Polydore’s. For the moment I’m the most unpopular man in town, and it would be just as well that they should think of you as Vigil’s sister rather than as Chanticleer’s wife.”

Dame Marigold’s face was very pale that morning and her eyes were very bright. “Nothing would induce me,” she said in a low voice, “ever again to cross the threshold of Polydore’s house. I shall never forgive him for the way he has treated you. No, I shall stay here – in your house. And,” she added, with a little scornful laugh, “you needn’t be anxious about me. I’ve never yet met a member of the lower classes that was a match for one of ourselves – they fall to heel as readily as a dog. I’m not a bit afraid of the mob, or anything they could do to me.”

Master Nathaniel chuckled. “By the Sun, Moon and Stars!” he cried proudly, “you’re a chip off the old block, Marigold!”

“Well, don’t stay too long away, Nat,” she said, “or else when you come back you’ll find that I’ve gone mad like everybody else, and am dancing as wildly as Mother Tibbs, and singing songs about Duke Aubrey!” and she smiled her charming crooked smile.

Then he went up to say good-bye to old Hempie.

“Well, Hempie,” he cried gaily. “Lud’s getting too hot for me. So I’m off with a knapsack on my back to seek my fortune, like the youngest son in your old stories. Will you wish me luck?”

There were tears in the old woman’s eyes as she looked at him, and then she smiled.

“Why, Master Nat,” she cried, “I don’t believe you’ve felt so light-hearted since you were a boy! But these are strange times when a Chanticleer is chased out of Lud-in-the-Mist! And wouldn’t I just like to give those Vigils and the rest of them a bit of my mind!” and her old eyes flashed. “But don’t you ever get downhearted, Master Nat, and don’t ever forget that there have always been Chanticleers in Lud-in-the-Mist, and that there always will be! But it beats me how you’re to manage with only three pairs of stockings, and no one to mend them.”

“Well, Hempie,” he laughed, “they say the Fairies are wonderfully neat-fingered, and, who knows, perhaps in my wanderings I may fall in with a fairy housewife who will darn my stockings for me,” and he brought out the forbidden word as lightly and easily as if it had been one in daily use.

About an hour after Master Nathaniel had ridden away Luke Hempen arrived at the house, wild-eyed, dishevelled, and with very startling news. But it was impossible to communicate it to Master Nathaniel, as he had left without telling anyone his destination.

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