The Return Of The Charm

by


I


"Nor I," cried John Harcourt, pulling up in the moon-silvered mist and clapping his hand to his pocket, "not a groat! Stay, here is a crooked sixpence of King James that none but a fool would take. The merry robbers left me that for luck."

Dick Barton growled as he turned in his saddle. "We must ride on, then, till we find a cousin to loan us a few pounds. Sir Empty-purse fares ill at an inn."

"By my sore seat," laughed Harcourt, "we'll ride no farther to-night. Here we 'light, at the sign of the Magpie in the Moon. The rogues of Farborough Cross have trimmed us well; the honest folk of Market Farborough shall feed us better!"

"For a crooked sixpence!" grumbled Barton. "Will you beg our entertainment like a pair of landlopers, or will you take it by force like our late friends on the road?"

"Neither," said Harcourt, "but in the fashion that befits gentlemen--with a bold face, a gay tongue, and a fine coat well carried. Remember, Dick, look up, and no snivelling! Tell your ill-fortune and you bid for more. 'Tis Monsieur Debonair that owns the tavern."

Their lusty shouts brought the hostler on the trot to take their steaming horses, and the landlord stood in the open door, his broad face a welcome to such handsome guests. They entered as if the place belonged to them, and called for the best it contained as if it were just good enough. The whole house was awake and astir with their coming. The smiling maids ran to and fro; the rustics in the long room stared and admired: the table was spread with a fair cloth and loaded with a smoking supper; and afterward there were pots of ale for all the company, and a song with a chorus. The landlord, with his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat, patted himself to see his business go so merrily. But the landlady came to the door, now and then, and looked in with anxious eyes.

"Mark the mistress," whispered Barton; "she has her suspicions."

"Her troubles," answered Harcourt, "and that I relish not. I will have all happy around me, else my spirit sinks and the game is lost. I'll talk with her."

He beckoned her to his side with a courteous gesture.

"A famous supper, Mistress," said he, "but your face is too downcast for the maker of such a masterpiece. What is it that ails you?"

"It is my child," she answered; "kind sir, my little Faith is ill of fever, and the physician has been called away. He has left her a draught, but she grows worse, and the fever holds her from sleep. It may be that you know something of the healing art."

"As much as any man," said Harcourt, confidently. "You see in me, despite my youth, a practitioner of the oldest school in the world, a disciple of Galen's grandfather. Let me go with you to look at the child."

The little girl lay in a close room. Her curls were tangled on the pillow and her thin, brown arms tossed on the hot counterpane. By her side was a glass of some dark medicine, and her black eyes held more of rebellion than of fever as she gazed at the stranger.

He leaned over her with a smile, smoothing her wrists lightly, with slow, downward touches, and whispering in her ear. The sound of the singing below came through the door ajar, and the child listened to her visitor as if he were telling her a wonderful tale.

"Open the window," he said, after a while, to the mother, pulling the sheet softly over the child's shoulders, "the air to-night is full of silver threads which draw away the fever."

Then he threw the black draught out of the window. And the child, watching him, laughed a little.

"It is the wrong medicine," said he. "Bring me paper and pen."

He wrote by the light of the flickering candle, hiding the words with his other hand: _Fortune favour Faith_.

Then he slipped the crooked sixpence into the paper, folded it carefully, tucking the ends one into the other, and marked it with a cross.

"Hold it tight," he said to the child, closing the fingers of her right hand upon the little packet. "It will let you into the Garden of Good Dreams. And now your carriage is ready, and now your horses are trotting, gently, gently, quickly, softly along the white moon-road to the Land of Nod. Will you go--are you going--are you gone?"

Her eyelids drooped and fell, and she turned on her right side with a sigh, thrusting her brown fist under the pillow. Harcourt drew the mother to the door.

"Hush," he whispered; "leave the window wide. Your Faith holds an ancient potent charm, thousands of years old, better than all medicines. Do not speak of it to any one. If you open it, you will lose it. Let her sleep with it so, and bring it me on the morrow."

In the morning, when the landlord had served breakfast with his own hands, Harcourt called boldly for the bill; and Barton stared at him, but the landlord was confused.

"My wife," he stammered--"you must excuse her, gentlemen, nothing will do but she must speak with you herself about the reckoning. I'll go call her."

She came with a wonder of gladness in her face, and the little girl clinging to a fold of her mother's dress by the left hand and pressing the other brown fist close to her neck.

"You see," said the mother. "She is well! Run, Faith, and kiss the gentleman's hand. Oh, sir, there can be no talk of payment between us--we are deep in your debt; but if my child might keep this ancient potent charm?"

The question hung in her voice. Harcourt delayed a moment, as if in doubt, before he answered, smiling:

"I am loath to part from it," he said at last, "but since she has proved it, let her keep it and believe in it for good--never for evil. Come, little Faith, kiss me good-bye--no, not on the hand!"

When they were alone together, Barton turned upon his companion with reproachful looks.

"What is this charm?" he asked.

"A secret," answered the other curtly.

"I like it not," said Barton, shaking his head; "you go too far, Jack. You put a deception on these simple folk."

"Who knows?" laughed Harcourt. "At least I have done them no harm. We leave them happy and ride on. How far to your nearest cousin?"


II

"The next case is a strange one," said Sir Richard Barton, Justice of the Peace, sitting on the bench by his friend, the famous Judge who was holding court for Market Farborough.

"How is it strange?" asked the Judge, whose face showed ruddy and strong beneath his white wig.

"It is an accusation of witchcraft," answered Sir Richard, "and that is a serious thing in these days. Yet it seems the woman has a good heart and harms nobody."

"Beneficent witchcraft!" said the Judge--"that is a rarity indeed. What do you make of it?"

"I am against all superstition," said Sir Richard solemnly; "it brings disorder. For religion we have the clergy, and for justice the lawyers, and for health the doctors. All outside of that partakes of license and unreason."

"Yet outside of that," mused the Judge, "there are things that neither clergy nor lawyers nor doctors can explain. Tell me, what do people think concerning this witch?"

"The strict and godly folk," answered Sir Richard, "reckon her a scandal to the town and an enemy of religion. They are of opinion that she should be put away, whether by hanging or drowning, or by shutting her in a madhouse. But many poor people have an affection for her, because she has helped them."

"And you?" asked the Judge.

Sir Richard looked at him keenly. "I can better tell," said he, "when you have seen her yourself and heard her story."

"That is plainly my duty," said the Judge. "Clerk, call the next case."

As the clerk read the name of the accused and the charge against her, the eyes of the Judge were fixed curiously upon the prisoner at the bar, as if he sought for something forgotten.

Tall and dark, with sunburned face and fearless eyes, she stood quietly while her way of life was told; her dwelling, since the death of her parents, in a cottage on the heath beyond the town; her comings and goings among the neighbours; her wonderful cures of sick animals and strange diseases, but especially of little children. There were some who testified that she was wilful and malicious; yet it appeared they could only allege she had withheld her cure, saying that it was beyond her power. The doctor was bitter against her, as an unlawful person; and the parson condemned her, though she came often to church; "for," said he, "the Scripture commands us, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.'"

The face of the Judge was troubled. "Tell me," he said, leaning forward and speaking gravely, "are you a witch?"

"Not for evil, my Lord," answered the woman simply, "but I have a healing gift."

"How do you work your cures?" he asked. "What do you to the children?"

"I open the windows of the room where they lie," she answered.

The face of the Judge relaxed, and his eyes twinkled kindly. "And then?" said he.

"I throw the black draught out of the window and tell the children a tale of the Garden of Good Dreams."

"Is that all?" said the Judge, shading his face with his hand.

"No, my Lord," replied the woman. "When the children are near to sleep, I put my charm in their hands."

"Whence had you this charm?" he said. "And what is it?"

"I pray your Lordship," cried the woman, "ask me not, for I can never tell."

"Let me see it," said the Judge, with a smile.

So the woman, trembling and reluctant, drew a dark-red ribbon from her breast, and at the end of it a packet of fine linen bound closely with white silk. She laid it before the Judge. He broke the silken thread and unrolled the linen, fold after fold, until he came to a yellow piece of paper with writing on it, and in the paper a crooked sixpence of King James.

The coin and the scrap of paper lay in his hand as he looked up and met the shrewd questioning eyes of Sir Richard.

"Yes," answered the Baron Harcourt in a low voice, "you have seen the coin before, and now you may read what is written on the paper."

"Now I know," said Sir Richard, shaking his head, "what charm you gave to the woman and her child forty years ago. Was I not right? It was a deception."

"Who knows?" said the Baron Harcourt cheerfully. "It has not failed to-day. Fortune has favoured Faith."

He turned to the clerk. "Make record that this case is dismissed for want of evidence against the accused. The woman has done no harm. The court is adjourned."

"And my charm," said the woman eagerly--"oh, my Lord, you will give me back my charm?"

"That I must keep for you," he said with kindness, as to a child. "But you may still open the windows, and throw out the black draught, and tell the children of the Garden of Good Dreams. Trust me, that will work wonders."


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