It was long since dark when I left, and the night was cold with a north wind and the suggestion of rain in the air. A miserable night for any man to be out, and yet I could not bring myself to go home and had no craving for the company of my fellows. There was only one thing on my mind and I could not possibly talk of it; in such circumstances all other conversation would have seemed petty and pointless. Nor could I summon the calm necessary for music. There is, usually, something immeasurably restful about the unfolding of a piece and the perfectly sweet inevitability of a well-conceived conclusion. But any piece of music formed in that way repelled me that night, the turmoil of my mind was so far distant from any harmony.
I found myself instead wishing to see Sarah, and the desire grew on me despite all my attempts to quash it. But I did not want her company or consolation or yet her conversation; rather I found a resentment deep within me that sprang from unknown depths, as my mind became convinced that she, and she alone, was the source of the troubles which had been visited upon me. I revisited, once more, all those old suspicions and jealousies which I thought had been suppressed forever. Instead they burst up once again, like tinder in a dry summer forest that catches a spark, and turns into a conflagration at the gentlest of breezes. My fevered mind imagined that my apology had been farcical, my regret misplaced. All my suspicions (so I told myself) were true, for the girl was cursed, and anyone who befriended her would pay heavily for his affections. All this I told myself as I walked, wrapped up in my heavy winter cloak, my feet already damp from the mud only just beginning to freeze over in New College Lane. Even more did I assure myself of my ill fortune as I crossed the High Street into Merton Street, and then turned away from the door of my house, unwilling to see my mother, and disguise the hurt I might well cause her if Grove made good on his promises to turn my family into a laughingstock.
So I walked on, out into St. Aldate’s, thinking I might go into the countryside and walk along the river, for the sound of running water is another sure way of calming the soul, as is well attested by innumerable authorities. But I did not walk by the river that night, for I had barely passed Christ Church when I noticed a slight figure on the far side of the road, wrapped up in a shawl that was too thin to be of much use, with a bundle under her arm, walking purposefully along at a rapid pace. I knew instantly from the appearance and the bearing that it was Sarah, going off (so I thought in my delirium) to some secret assignation.
The opportunity finally to satisfy all my suspicions was there and I took it almost without thinking. I knew, of course, that she was in the habit of leaving Oxford either in the evening or for an entire day and night if she was free, and I had believed once that it was to go to find business for herself in those small towns where she would not be recognized; the penalties for whoredom were such that it was foolish for any woman to ply such a trade in her own town. I knew, also, that this was merest nonsense, but the more I told myself that she was a woman of rare goodness, the more the demons within laughed, so that I thought I would go as mad as Prest-cott through the contradictions which fought to possess my imagination. And so I decided to carry out my own exorcism, and discover the truth, since she would not tell me herself, and her refusal only stoked my curiosity.
In recounting this, I will give another example of how, proceeding from faulty assumptions, a false conclusion can be drawn from the assembly of indisputable fact. Dr. Wallis states that his theory of a deadly alliance between Cola and the discontented radicals was confirmed by the behavior of the Blundy girl, who spent much time traveling from Burford in the west to Abingdon in the south, carrying messages to sectaries who, he was sure, would in due course rise up as one when the murder of Clarendon had thrown the country into turmoil. When he questioned her, Sarah denied doing any such thing, but in such a way that he (so surely could he penetrate deceit) was convinced she was lying to cover her illegal actions.
She was lying; this is true. And she was trying to cover illegal actions; this is also true. In this respect Dr. Wallis’s understanding of the situation was perfectly accurate. For the girl was terrified that he would discover what she was doing, and knew full well that the punishment would be severe, not only for her but for others as well. She was not one of those who sought out martyrdom through pride, but rather was prepared to accept it in humility if it could not be honorably avoided—this, indeed, was her fate. In all other respects, however, Dr. Wallis was wrong.
My decision made all unthinking, I swiftly retraced my steps to my cousin’s tavern and begged the use of a horse. Fortunately I knew that part of the world well, and it was a simple matter to take tracks, out to Sandleigh and then back into Abingdon, which enabled me to arrive long before she did. I wore a dark cloak, and a hat pulled down over my forehead, and (as everyone always tells me) I am an inconspicuous person, not one to be noticed in a crowd. It was easy to place myself on the Oxford road, and wait for her to pass, which she did a half hour later. It was also simple to follow her and see what she did, as she took no pains to conceal her movements, or hide her destination, and had no suspicion of being followed. The town has a small quay on the river, used for landing goods for market, and it was to this place that she headed and knocked boldly on the door of a small warehouse that normally stored farmers’ produce the night before market. I was undecided about what I should do next and, as I stood there, I noticed first one, then more people also come up to the door and be given admittance. Unlike Sarah, these people were furtive in their movements, and were bundled up so that their faces could not be seen.
I stood back in a doorway for some time to consider this, and found myself entirely perplexed. I should say that, like Wallis, my instant thought was that this was some meeting of radicals, for Abingdon’s notoriety was considerable and virtually everyone in the town, from the aldermen down, were persistent offenders—or so reputation said. Nonetheless, it was strange—the town was infamous for the brazen way it defied the law, yet these people were acting in a secretive fashion, as if they were doing something of which even sectaries might disapprove.
I am neither courageous nor daring, and placing myself in a position of peril is strange to my nature, yet my curiosity was all-consuming and I knew that standing outside, waiting for the rain to fall, would answer nothing. Might I be attacked? This was a possibility, I thought. These people had no reputation for placidity in those days, and I had heard so many stories over the years I believed them capable of anything. A sensible person would slip away; a responsible one would make a report to a magistrate. But although I consider myself both, I did neither. Instead, my heart beating heavily in my chest, and my bowels churning from simple fear, I found myself walking up to that door, and the dour man who guarded it.
“Good evening, brother,” he said. “Welcome.” It was not the greeting I had expected; there was no suspicion, and instead of the caution I had anticipated, I was received with openness and friendship. But I still had no idea what all this was about. All I knew was that Sarah, among many others, had gone into that building. Who was she seeing? What meeting was she attending? I did not know but, strengthened by the lack of suspicion, I became more determined to find out.
“Good evening… brother,” I replied. “May I enter?” “Of course,” he said with some surprise. “Of course you may. Although you may not find much room.”
“I am not too late, I hope. I have come from out of town.” “Ah,” he said with satisfaction. “That is good. Very good. Then you are twice welcome. Whoever you are.” And he nodded for me to go into the warehouse. A little easier, but still conscious that I might be putting my neck into a fiendish trap, I walked past him.
It was a small, dingy room, scarcely lit, with huge dark shadows playing on the wall from the few lamps which provided the only illumination. It was warm, which surprised me, as there was no fire that I could see and it was cold outside; only gradually did I realize that the heat came from near forty people, who sat or kneeled on the floor so quietly, and with so little movement, that to begin with I didn’t realize they were alive at all; I thought that I was seeing bales of hay or corn, packed tightly together on the floor.
Somewhat at a loss, and more perplexed than ever, I made my way to the back of the room and squatted down myself in the darkness, making sure that my cloak was covering much of my face, as everyone there, I saw, had bared their heads in some gesture of commonality; even the women, I noted with some disdain, were similarly exposed. It was strange, I thought—such people were known for refusing to doff their hats even in the presence of the king, let alone any lesser man. Only God, they said with typical conceit, deserved such respect.
I thought that perhaps I had tumbled into a meeting of Quakers or some such, but knew enough of them to realize this was quite unlike their gatherings. Rarely could they manage more than half a dozen people, and even less frequently did they gather in such a fashion. Then I considered that perhaps these were radical sectaries, gathered together to plot some uprising; the thought made me queasy as I knew that, with my habitual ill fortune, the magistrate’s men would undoubtedly surround the place and cart me off to prison as a spreader of sedition. But the women? And such quietness? Hardly so; such people are characterized above all by raucous shouting as each and all express their opinions and damn all others. This tranquil mood was not what I associated with such devils.
And then I realized that all eyes in the place, every single person, were focused with extraordinary attention on a dim figure at the front, the only person standing, although as quiet as all the others. It took some time for my eyes to become accustomed to the gloom and I realized that this shadowy figure was Sarah herself, perfectly immobile, with her thick black hair falling loose around her shoulders and her head bowed so that her face was almost entirely obscured. Again, I was mystified; it was not as if she was doing anything, nor was there any expectation in the audience that she should. I think I was the only person there not wholly content with the proceedings.
How long she had stood like that I do not know; perhaps from the moment she came in, which was now nearly half an hour; I do know that we all sat there for another ten minutes in the most perfect of silence; and a strange experience it was to be so very still and immobile with all others in equal quietude. Had I not been perfectly in command of myself, I would have sworn I had heard a soft voice in the roof beams, telling me to be patient, and calm. It frightened me until I looked up and saw it was only a dove, fluttering from beam to beam as the presence of people disturbed its rest.
But even that did not alarm me as much as when Sarah moved. All she did was lift her head, until she was looking at the roof. The shock, and ripple of excitement that went through the audience was quite extraordinary, almost like being hit by lightning; a groan of anticipation from some quarters, a hiss of breath from others, and some shuffling, as many of the present leaned forward in anticipation.
“She will talk,” came a soft murmur from a woman close by, followed by a hushing sound from a man next to her.
But she did not. Merely moving her head conveyed quite enough dramatic effect for the audience; any more excitement, it seemed, would be too much for them. Instead she gazed at the roof for a few more minutes, then looked down at the assembled throng, who reacted with even more tremulous emotion than before. Even I, caught up in the fervor despite myself, found my heart beating faster in my chest, as the moment (whatever it was to be) drew nearer.
When she did utter, she spoke so softly and sweetly that her words were hard to hear; instead everyone there had to lean forward intently to catch what she was saying. And the words themselves, set down on paper with my pen, give nothing of the mood, for she entranced us all, bewitched us even, until grown men were crying openly, and women were rocking themselves to and fro with expressions of angelic peace such as I have never seen in any church. With her words, she gathered us all to her breast, and gave us comfort, reassuring us of our doubts, calming us of our fears and convincing us that all manner of things was good. I do not know how she did it; unlike actors she had no technique nor any manner of artifice in her address. Her hands remained clasped in front of her and made no gestures; she scarcely moved at all, and yet out of her mouth and her whole body came balm and honey, freely offered to all. By the end I was shaking with love for her and God and all mankind in equal measure, but had no idea why this was. All I know is that from that moment I consigned myself, freely and without hesitation, into her power, for her to do as she wished and knowing it would be nothing ill.
She spoke for well over an hour and it was like the finest consort of musicians, as the words flowed and turned and played over us until we too were like sounding boxes, vibrating and resonating with her speech. I have read the words over again. How much I disappoint myself, for the spirit is entirely lacking from them, nor have I in any way managed to encompass the perfect love she spoke, or the calm adoration she evoked in her listeners. I feel, indeed, like a man who wakes from sleep after a wondrously perfect dream, and writes it all down in a frenzy, then finds that all he has on the page are mere words bereft of feeling, as dry and unsatisfying as chaff when the corn is removed.
“To all men I say, there are many roads which lead to my door; some broad and some narrow, some straight and some crooked, some flat and commodious while others are rough, and pitted with dangers. Let no man say that his is the best and only road, for they say so out of ignorance alone.
“My spirit will be with you, I will lay stretched out on the earth, licking the dust and breathing in the earth; I will give milk from my breast for the earth, mother of our mother, and for Christ, father and husband and wife. I held him at night as a bundle of spice between my breasts, and knew it was myself. I saw my spirit on his face, and felt the witness of fire on my breasts, love’s fire that burns and heals and warms with healing like sunshine after rain.
“I am the bride of the lamb and the lamb itself; neither angel nor envoy, but I the Lord have come. I am the sweetness of the spirit and the honey of life. I will be in the grave with Christ, and will rise after betrayal. In each generation the Messiah suffers until mankind turns away from evil. I say, you wait for the kingdom of Heaven, but you see it with your own eyes. It is here and is always within your grasp. An end to religion and to sects, throw away your Bibles, they are needed no more—cast out tradition and hear my words instead.
“My grace and my peace and my mercy and my blessing are upon you. Few see my coming, and fewer still will see my going. This evening the last days begin, and men move to entrap me, the same men as before, the same as always. I forgive them now, for I will remember sins and iniquities no longer; I am come to give absolution in my blood. I must die and all must die, and will keep on dying to the end in every generation.”
As I say, such as I remember are but a few fragments of the whole discourse, which ranged from sensible practicality deep into madness and back again, swinging from simplicity into incoherence in a way which made it impossible to tell one from the other. It made no difference to any in the audience, and it made no difference to me either. I take no pride in my captivity, and recall it with pain, and do not intend to defend or excuse myself. I state it as it was, and to those who scorn me (as I would do myself, were I another) I can only say this—you were not there, and do not know what magic she wrought. All I can say is that I was sweating as if I had the most violent fever, was not alone in feeling the tears of joy and sadness rolling down my cheeks and, like all others present, scarcely even noticed when the words stopped dropping from her mouth, and she walked out a little side door. It took perhaps a quarter of an hour before the spell dissipated and, one by one, like an audience when a play ends, we came back to ourselves and discovered that all our limbs and muscles were as stiff as if we had labored in the fields for an entire day at harvest time.
The meeting was over, and it was obvious that the only reason it had assembled was to hear Sarah speak; in that town, and amongst those people, she had a notoriety that had already spread far. The merest mention that she might make an utterance was enough to bring men and women—the poor, the rough and those of low breeding—out in all weathers, and risk all manner of sanction from the authorities. Like everyone else, I scarcely knew what to do once it had finished, but eventually pulled myself together sufficiently to realize I must collect my horse and go back to Oxford. In a daze of the most complete peacefulness I walked back to the inn where I had left it and headed home.
Sarah was a prophetess. Only a few hours earlier the notion would have elicited the utmost scorn from me, for the country had been benighted by such people for years, thrown into the light of day by the troubles in the way that wood lice become visible when a stone is overturned. I remember one who had come to Oxford when I was about fourteen, a man spitting and foaming at the mouth as he raved in the street, dressed in rags like some early saint or stoic, damning all the world to hellfire before falling to the ground in a convulsion. He made no converts; I was not one of those who threw stones at him (which attacks pleased him mightily, as proving the Lord’s favor) but like all others, I was disgusted by the display and could easily see that, whatever he had been touched by, it was not by God. They locked him up and were then merciful in throwing him out of the city rather than imposing any harsher punishment.
A woman prophet was much worse, you might think, even less likely to inspire anything but contempt, yet I have already shown that it was not so. Is it not said that the Magdalen preached and converted, and was blessed for it? She was not condemned, nor ever has been, and I could not condemn Sarah either. It was clear to me that the finger of God had touched her forehead, for no devil or agent of Satan can reach into the hearts of men like that. There is always a bitterness in the devil’s gifts, and we know when we are deceived, even if we permit the deception. But I could say for a moment only what it was in her words that conveyed such peace and tranquillity; I had the experience of it merely, not the understanding.
My horse clopped along the empty road, better able than I to see where the track led in a darkness only lifted slightly by a moon which occasionally peeped from behind the clouds, and I let my mind wander over the evening, trying to recapture that feeling that had been mine so recently and which I felt, with the greatest of sadness, to be ebbing slowly away. So preoccupied with my thoughts was I that I scarcely noticed the shadowy figure on the road, walking slowly in front of me. When I did, I hailed it without thinking, before I realized who it was.
“It is late and dark to be on such a road alone, madam,” I said. “Do not be afraid but mount up here, and I will take you to your home. It is a strong horse, and will not mind.”
It was Sarah, of course, and when I saw the moon on her face, I was suddenly afraid of her. But instead, she held out her hand, and allowed me to pull her up, and she sat comfortably behind me, her arms around my waist to avoid slipping.
She said nothing, and I did not know what to say; I felt like telling her that I had been at the meeting, but feared to come out with some foolishness, or have my words taken as a mark of deceit and mistrust. So instead we went along in silence for a half hour, before she began to talk herself.
“I do not know what it is,” she said in my ear, so quietly that a man not three paces away would not have heard. “There is no point wondering, as I am sure you do. I have no recollection of what I say or why I say it.”
“You saw me?”
“I knew you were there.”
“You did not object?”
“I think that what I have to say is for anyone who wishes to listen. It is for them to judge whether it is worth the effort.”
“But you keep it secret.”
“Not for myself; that does not matter. But those who listen to me would be punished as well, and I cannot ask for that.”
“You have always done this? Your mother, too?”
“No. She is wise, but has nothing of this; her husband neither. As for myself, it started shortly after his death. I was at a meeting of simple people, and remember standing up to say something. I recollect nothing more until I found myself lying on the floor, with them all gathered around me. They said I had spoken the most extraordinary words. It happened again a few months later, and after a while people came to hear me. It was too dangerous in Oxford, so now I go to places like Abingdon. I often disappoint them, as I stand there and nothing comes over me. You heard me this evening. What did I say?”
She listened as though I was reporting a conversation which she did not hear, then shrugged when I was finished. “Strange,” she said. “What do you think? Am I cursed or mad? Perhaps you think I am both.”
“There is no harshness or cruelty in what you say; no threats or warnings. Nothing but gentleness and love. I think you are blessed, not cursed. But blessings can be even heavier burdens, as many people in the past have discovered.” I found that I was talking as quietly as she, so that I might have been talking only to myself.
“Thank you,” she said. “I did not want you of all people to scorn me.”
“You really have no idea what you say? There is no preparation?”
“None. The spirit moves in me, and I become its vessel. And when I awake, it is like coming out of the most gentle dream.”
“Your mother knows of all this?”
“Yes, of course. At first she thought it was just a prank, because I had always been scornful of fanatics and all those who run around pretending to be possessed to get money from people. I still am, and that makes it worse to have become one myself. So when I stood that first time, and she heard of it, she was shocked by my impiety; they were not our people in the conventicle, but they were good and kind and she was distressed I might make fun of them. It took quite a lot to convince her that I had not been deliberately offensive. She was unhappy about it, and still is. She thinks that sooner or later it will lead me into trouble with the law.”
“She is right.”
“I know. A few months back it nearly did; I was at Tid-marsh’s, and there was a raid by the watch. I only just got away. But there is not a great deal I can do about it. Whatever is sent me, I must accept. There is no point in doing anything other. Do you think I am mad?”
“If I went to someone like Lower, and told them what I have just witnessed, he would do his very best to cure you.”
“When I left that hall this evening, a woman came up to me, fell down on her knees in the ice and kissed the hem of my dress. She said that her baby had been dying, the last time I came to Abingdon. I walked past the door and it was instantly well.”
“Do you believe her?”
“She believes it. Your mother believes it. Many others in the past few years have held me responsible for such deeds. Mr. Boyle heard of it as well.”
“She was wracked with pain with a swollen ankle; it made her very ill-tempered, and she tried to beat me. I held her hand to make her stop, and she swore that at that moment the pain and the swelling went.”
“She never mentioned it to me.”
“I begged her not to. It is a terrible reputation to have.”
“He heard something, and thought I must have knowledge of herbs and potions, so asked for my recipe book. It was difficult to refuse him, as I could hardly tell him the truth.”
There was a long silence broken only by the sound of the horse’s hooves on the road, and the snuffle of its breath in the cold night air. “I do not want this, Anthony,” she said quietly, and I could hear the fear in her voice.
“Whatever this is. I don’t want to be a prophet, I don’t want to cure people, I don’t want them coming to me, and I don’t want to be punished for something I cannot prevent and do not will. I am a woman, and I want to marry and grow old and be happy. I don’t want humiliation and imprisonment. And I don’t want what will happen next.”
“What do you mean?”
“An Irishman came to see me; an astrologer. He said he had seen me in his charts, and came to warn me. He said I will die, that everyone will want me dead. Anthony, why would that be? What could I have done?”
“I’m sure he’s wrong. Who believes people like that?”
She was silent.
“Leave, then, if it worries you,” I said. “Go away.”
“I cannot. Nothing can be changed.”
“You will have to hope this Irishman is wrong and you are mad, then.”
“I do hope so. I am frightened.”
“Oh, I am sure there is nothing to worry about, really,” I said. I shook myself to cast off the atmosphere of ominous terror that had grown around us, and when I did so, I saw more clearly the foolishness of our conversation. Set down here, I suppose it seems even more so. “I don’t hold with Irishmen or astrologers and from my limited experience, prophets and Messiahs these days tend to rush around telling all the world of their powers. It is most unusual to hope that the cup be taken from you.”
She laughed, at least, but noticed my allusion, for she knew her Bible well, and looked curiously at me when I spoke it. For my part, I swear I did not notice till later what I had said, and it passed from my mind easily as we plodded on.
As I look back, I think that time on the horse was the happiest in my life. The return of the easy intimacy which I had so wantonly destroyed through my jealousy was such a blessing that, had it been possible, I would have continued on to Carlisle simply to preserve and lengthen our time together, the conversation of perfect amity and the feel of her arms around my waist. Despite the freezing chill in the air, I felt no cold at all, and might have been in the most commodious parlor, not on a muddy, wet road near midnight. I suppose the tumultuous events of that evening and night had fuddled my mind, and so shocked me out of my normal caution that I did not set her down on the outskirts of town so that we were not seen together in such a fashion. Rather, I kept her with me all the way back to my cousin’s tavern, and even then could not let her go.
“How is your mother?”
“She is in comfort.”
“You can do nothing for her?”
She shook her head. “It is the only thing I have ever wished for myself, and I cannot have it.”
“You’d best go and tend her, then.”
“She is in no need of me. A friend who knows me well offered to spend time with her, and only leave when she was sure she was asleep so I could attend that meeting. She will die soon, but not yet.”
“So stay with me still.”
We walked back to Merton Street, and went into my house, mounting the stairs quietly so that my mother would not hear, and then, in my room, we loved each other with a passion and ferocity I have never before, nor since, felt for any living person, nor has anyone shown such love to me. I had never before spent a night with a woman, had someone lying by my side in the quietness of the dark, hearing her breath and feeling her warmth beside me. It is a sin, and it is a crime. I say it frankly, for I have been taught so all my life, and only madmen have ever said otherwise. The Bible says it, the fathers of the church have said it, the prelates now repeat it without end, and all the statutes of the land prescribe punishment for what we did that night. Abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul. It must be so, for the Bible speaks only God’s truth. I sinned against the law, against God’s word reported, I abused my family and exposed them even more to risk of public shame, I again risked permanent exclusion from those rooms and books which were my delight and my whole occupation; yet in all the years that have passed since I have regretted only one thing—that it was but a passing moment, never repeated, for I have never been closer to God, nor felt His love and goodness more.