Cunning Murrell - Arthur Morrison - ebook

Cunning Murrell ebook

Arthur Morrison



Spirit of Old Essex draws together Arthur Morrison’s lost treasure of a novel „Cunning Murrell”, a jocular tale of witchcraft, old salts, pugilists, smuggling and country life long lost, together with additional background information on Morrison’s research and inspiration. „Cunning Murrell” is a fictionalized biography of James Murrell, also known as Cunning Murrell, who was an English cunning man, or professional folk magician. In this capacity, he reportedly employed magical means to aid in healing both humans and animals, exorcising malevolent spirits, countering witches, and restoring lost or stolen property to its owner.

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THE sun was low in the haze that hid the hills about Tilbury Fort, ten miles up the Hope. Here, at the Thames mouth, where there was no more river, but salt sea, green marshes made the shore, and Canvey Island lay broad and flat and low, like a duller, thicker water rather than land, marked off from the shore by the Ray, pale gold in the reddening light. Deep in coarse grasses and salt sedge, with purple thistles between, Casey Marsh lay low and level for half a mile inland. Thence the ground rose, gently at first, then more steeply, to the irregular green ridge that backed the marshes far as eye could see.

Stately and grey on the boldest hill rose the ruined towers of Hadleigh Castle, mighty still in their decay, and imposing even because of their rent flanks and the vast thickness of wall there displayed. About their foundations and clogged under-passages the fallen masonry was half covered with bramble and bush, and, lower, a thicker coppice fringed the hill and marked the foot of its steeper slope.

From the ruins the view was wide. Two miles along the marshes below, toward the east and the open sea, stood the fishing village of Leigh, its jumble of red roofs seeming to rest on the broad water itself, thick trees clothing the hill behind it, and its grey church tower standing high over all. Across the estuary, five miles away at its nearest, lay the Kent shore, now growing misty, and the quiet, smooth water between was dotted with the Leigh boats, like gnats on a pond.

From the lowest of the loop-holes in the castle’s boldest tower the end of a brass telescope protruded, for there Roboshobery Dove kept his daily watch for the sole news of the outer world that he cared for–news of the war, in so far as it might be learned from the traffic about the Nore. For it had been his fortune, since the Baltic fleet had been at work, more than a few times to spy a sloop of war with a tail of captured Russian vessels, making across the Little Nore for the Medway mouth, on the way to Sheerness hulks and Chatham Dockyard.

The hole was far wider within than without, and among the boulders of ragstone Roboshobery sat snugly, his unstrapped wooden leg fixed in a crack, and so offering, with its wide socket, a convenient rest for the telescope. He was a large man, though his size was mainly a matter of breadth. His face was brown and round, and his broken nose gave it an undue appearance of flatness; nor was it the handsomer for the few large pock-marks that speckled its surface. His hair hung thick in iron-grey curls that were nearly black from beneath the hard glazed hat, which was the commonest head-gear in the neighbourhood alike for seamen and landsmen; and all of beard that was unshorn was the thick roll–sometimes called “monkey-choker”–that grew from ear to ear below his jaw. His green smock might have inclined the observer to judge him an agriculturist, were it not contradicted by the earrings visible among his thick curls; earrings that were a tradition and a matter of professional equipment among mariners for the bettering of the eyesight. So that, upon the whole, one would judge Roboshobery Dove a retired seaman with rustic connections, which guess would be correct.

The sun grew redder in the haze, and the Thurrock hills bit into its lower edge; the Leigh roofs were duller, and the sea-line to the east was lost in the rising grey. Down in the coppice shadows grew thick, and the light was gone from the tops of the tallest thorns. Nests were settling to rest with diminishing twitters, save where a nightingale, hoarse with summer, began his broken song. A rabbit peeped out on the hillside, scampered three yards madly, and stopped to nibble; and another joined it. Then the sun was a mere fiery edge above the mist, and in the east a speck of light broke out in the gathering dark. At that the watcher took his eye from the telescope and shut the instrument hastily. The Nore Light had recalled him to a sense of time. The wooden leg was on the stump and buckled in scarce three movements, and Roboshobery Dove, with an agility characterised rather than hampered by the rigid limb, scrambled to the ground and hurried off toward the lane behind the hill. For though, of course, wooden leg notwithstanding, he was afraid of nothing and nobody, and the old women’s tales of the bedevilment about the castle after dark were not seriously to be considered, still there was no need to stay now that it was growing too dark to see a sail a mile away. And moreover, there was news to tell, for three Russian vessels–mere brigs, it was true–had been taken past the Grain Spit scarce two hours back.

The lane was low and dark in the hollow behind the hill. Thence it climbed gently, throughout its half-mile of length, to Hadleigh village. Early on the way a cottage looked down from a bank, and at its garden rail a girl stood.

Roboshobery Dove raised his telescope and hailed, though, indeed, the girl had been watching for him. “Three,” he said. “Three through in the art’noon. But no good–coastin’ brigs an’ that. Wonnerful few good prizes lately–took ‘em all, I count.”

“No frigate?” The girl’s voice was subdued but anxious.

“Frigate? O–convoy, you mean. Lor’ sink me, no. They woan’t send frigates to mind a row o’ wash-tubs. Ye woan’t see the Phyllis this side o’ October–more like November.” Roboshobery grinned, and wasted a wink in the gloom, for he understood. Then, as the girl turned at a sharp call from the cottage, he went his way up the lane.

Bats flitted over his head, and followed him as he tramped the steadily-rising path, but no other living thing came near till he stood on higher ground than the castle hill, and was within stone-throw of Hadleigh street. For the dark castle lane was no popular resort after dusk. One might meet the White Lady, or perhaps her victim, Wryneck Sal, and there was the man that hanged himself in the castle barn. True, the year was 1854, and in London everybody was surprisingly enlightened, and all a great deal wiser and more knowing than any of their fathers before them. But Hadleigh, thirty-seven miles from London by road, was a century away in thought and manners; it knew nothing of the railway beyond what the literate among the village fathers might read in an old copy of the Chelmsford Chronicle: sowed beans with a dibble: was generally much as it was in King Charles’s time: and had not discovered its forefathers to have been fools. Indeed, when at last the railway actually came in sight a mile away on the marshes below, it brought no station to disturb Hadleigh, but went its journey and left the village to sleep for another thirty years.

So that Roboshobery Dove met nobody in the lane–not even the White Lady nor the Black Man–till he had topped the rise and was again out of darkness and in twilight. But here he spied a friend, and hailed again.

“Steve, O! Steve Lingood, ahoy!”

The man stopped and turned; a tall, hard fellow of twenty-eight, in a fur cap and leather apron; a smith visibly, and nothing but a smith.

“Well,” he asked, “news?”

“Three little ‘uns–nothen but shore-scrapers; come to the pot-rakin’s, ‘twould seem. Banham ha’n’t brote in a paper, hev he?”

“Banham ha’n’t been out–the gal’s that bad young Dick took the cart.”

“War, war, bloody war, north, south, east, an’ west–an’ Banham stops home to nuss a big gal, ‘stead o’ goin’ to Chelmsford reg’lar an’ bringin’ a paper o’ noos! But to-morrow’s fair day, an’ there’s sure to be some brote in. What’s so bad with the gal?”

“Dunno. Sort o’ allovers, ‘twould seem. Banham, he’s gone to Cunnin’ Murrell, an’ Murrell’s brote me a little job over it.”

“Iron bottle?”

Lingood nodded.

“Witchcraft an’ deviltry! Well, he’s a wise ‘un, that’s sarten; but I don’t count to hev nor make with sich truck.”

“That’s as it fare. To me it’s shilluns an’ pence–no more. Though I’ve ‘arned it this day, double, an’ done nothen. If I was like some I’d say my fire was as far bewitched as Banham’s gal, or else the iron. Can’t make nothen of it; won’t shape, won’t be jown up–obs’nit as a lump o’ stone.”

“‘Tis the witch, depend on’t,” said Roboshobery, with a serious bating of voice. “She do feel the spell a-makin’, an’ puts the trouble on the iron...Sink me, there’s Master Murr’ll hisself!”

Lingood turned his head. The lane ended beside a row of half a dozen wooden cottages, all of Hadleigh village that was not ranged along the Southchurch road. A little old man, in act of opening his door, espied the two, dropped the latch, and came toward them. Lingood moved to meet him, and Roboshobery followed indeterminately, going wide as he went.

The little old man presented the not very common figure of a man small every way proportionately. He was perhaps a trifle less than five feet high, thin and slight, but the smallness of his head and hands somewhat mitigated, at first sight, the appearance of shortness. Quick and alert of movement, keen of eye, and sharp of face. Cunning Murrell made a distinctive figure in that neighbourhood, even physically, and apart from the atmosphere of power and mystery that compassed him about. Now he wore a blue frock coat, a trifle threadbare, though ornamented with brass buttons, and on his head was just such a hard glazed hat as was on Roboshobery Dove’s. Over his shoulder he carried a large gingham umbrella, with thick whalebone ribs, each tipped with a white china knob, and from its handle hung a frail basket. He nodded sharply to Roboshobery, who backed doubtfully, made a feint of pulling at his forelock, jerked out “Good evenin’. Master Murrell, sir, good evenin’,” and took himself off into the dark. For Cunning Murrell was the sole living creature that Roboshobery Dove feared, and it was Roboshobery’s way not only to address the wise man (when he must) with the extremest respect, but to do it from a respectful distance; much as though he suspected him of a very long tail with a sting at the end of it. And he stayed no longer than he could help.

Murrell turned to Lingood. “Job done?” he piped, in a thin but decided voice. “Job done?”

“No,” the smith answered, “tarn’t; an’ not like ‘twill be, seems to me. You’ll hev t’ unbewitch the iron, or the fire, or summat, ‘fore you can get to unbewitchin’ Banham’s gal.”


“Iron won’t weld, nohow. Won’t be jown up. Never met nothen like it; obs’nit as flint.”

“Ah, we mus’ see–we mus’ see. ‘Tis a powerful mighty witch, doubtless.” Murrell said this with a sharp look upward at Lingood, who was suspected of less respect than was common in Hadleigh both for Murrell himself and for his foes, the witches. And the two turned toward the village street.

Murrell stopped at his door and entered, while Lingood waited without. The small room into which the door opened seemed the smaller because of the innumerable bunches of dried and drying herbs which hung everywhere from walls and ceiling. Murrell put down his frail and umbrella, and then, after a few moments’ rummaging, blew out the rushlight, and rejoined Lingood.

“Come,” he said, “try the job again.” And the two turned into Hadleigh street.

The smithy stood a hundred and fifty yards beyond the Castle Inn, and on the other side of the road. All was black within, save where the fire declared its dull red. Lingood groped, and found a lantern, and, after a little trouble, lit the wick of the guttered pile of grease within it; while Murrell, behind him, passed his hand twice or thrice over the hot cinders of the fire, though, indeed, there seemed little reason for any man to warm his fingers on a June evening such as this.

“Do you forge, Stephen Lingood,” he said, with a voice as of one taking command, “an’ I will blow this stubborn fire.”

He seized the lever and tugged, and with the blast the glow arose and spread wide among the cinders. The smith lifted from the floor a clumsy piece of iron, partly worked into the rough semblance of a bottle, and dropped it on the fire.

“Here stand I, an’ blow the fire,” said Murrell, as one announcing himself to invisible powers; “an’ let no witch nor ev’l sparrit meddle.”

Lingood said nothing, but turned the iron in the fire. Slowly it reddened, and then more quickly grew pale and fierce, while Murrell tugged at the bellows. He muttered vehemently as he tugged, and presently grew more and more distinct, till the smith could distinguish his words, howsoever few of them he understood.

“...creepin’ things, an’ man on the Sixth Day...Power over all creatures...An’ by the name of the Angels servin’ in the Third Host before Hagiel a Great Angel an’ strong an’ powerful Prince, an’ by the name of his star which is Venus, and by his seal which is holy;...I conjure upon thee Angel who art the chief ruler of this day that you labour for me!”

Neither surprised nor impressed by this invocation, Lingood seized a hammer, carried the radiant iron to the anvil, and hammered quickly. The mass lapped about the anvil’s horn, met, and joined; and without more words the job was finished. With another heating an end was closed, and with one more the mouth was beaten close about a heavy nut. Then the thing fell into the tank with an explosive hiss and a burst of steam, and the neck was shrunk on the nut, and the work done.

“Well, it’s a nation curious thing,” Lingood said at length, screwing a short bolt, by way of stopper, into the nut that made the bottle’s mouth; “it’s a nation curious thing that iron ‘oodn’t work proper before. Might a’most ha’ thote it was filin’s or summat chucked on the fire. But nobody ‘ud do that, an’ there’s no filin’s about.”

Murrell shook his head. “Stephen Lingood,” he squeaked, “them as bewitched your fire agin my lawful conjurations needed use no mortal hands. Den’t you feel, Stephen Lingood, as you forged and I blowed, with words o’ power an’ might, den’t you feel the ev’l sparrits o’ darkness about you a-checkin’ an’ a-holdin’ you, hammer an’ arm?”

“No,” answered the smith stolidly, taking his pipe in his mouth and groping in his pocket for tobacco. “No, I den’t.”

“No,” Murrell pursued, without hesitation, though with a quick glance; “you did not. Sich was the power an’ might o’ my words, Stephen Lingood.”

The smith lit his pipe at the lantern, and for answer gave a grunt between two puffs. Then he said: “I’ve a mind to go an’ see how Banham’s gal is myself. D’ ye go there now, Master Murr’ll?”

It was not Cunning Murrell’s way to cultivate any closer personal acquaintance than he could help with anybody. Detachment and mystery were instruments of his trade. “No,” he said, “I go first home for things I need.”


LINGOOD closed the smithy and came into the street. It was such a night as June brings, warm and clear and starry. Half Hadleigh was abed, and from the black stalls and booths that stood about at random in the street, waiting for to-morrow’s fair, there came neither sound nor streak of light. The smith walked along the middle of the street among these, and at last turned into a narrow passage by the side of the Castle Inn. Once clear of the house-walls, he traversed a path among small gardens distinguished by a great array of shadowy scarlet runners, and the mingled scents of bean and wallflower; and so came on a disorderly litter of sheds about a yard, with a large cottage, or small house, standing chief among them. The place was on the ridge that looked over the marshes and the Thames mouth; near by the Castle Lane, and between the village and the cottage, lower on the hill, where Roboshobery Dove had first delivered his tidings of war. Lights were in the lower parts of the house. The circumstance would have been remarkable at this late hour on most other nights of the year, but on the evening before fair day Hadleigh housewives were wont to be diligent in the making of Gooseberry Pie long after the common hour of sleep; Gooseberry Pie being the crown, glory, high symbol, and fetish of Hadleigh Fair, and having been so from everlasting. But it was no matter of gooseberry pie that kept awake the household of Banham the carrier. For on the sofa in the living room sat, or lay, or rolled, young Em Banham, moody or flushing, or sobbing or laughing, and sore bewitched, by every rule of Murrell’s science. Bed she would not go near, nor had done for two nights. Food she refused, and cried that all drink burned and choked her. Other troubles she had, too, and once had had a terrifying fit. A man of medical science would instantly have perceived it to be a case of extreme hysteria. But out in this forgotten backwater of civilisation, where such another case had never been heard of, the Hadleigh vocabulary could offer no better word for poor little Em’s affliction than that she was “took comical;” the word “comical” being generally useful to express anything uncommon, or beyond the speaker’s power of explanation, and implying nothing at all of comedy; often, indeed, telling of something much nearer tragedy.

Lingood clicked the latch, and a man opened the door. It was Banham himself, a shortish, shaven man, with weak eyes and an infirm mouth. The light fell on Lingood’s face, and Banham turned his head doubtfully and reported within, “‘Tis Steve Lingood.”

“Arl right; let him in, can’t ye?” answered a female voice, in which weariness, anxiety, and natural ill-temper had their parts. So Banham pulled the door wider, and said, with a vague cordiality: “O, come yow in, Steve; come yow in. ‘Tare rare fanteegs we’re in; but the missis, she–she” and the sentence tailed away to nothing, as was the way of many of the unimportant Banham’s sentences.

Lingood stepped straight into the keeping-room and into the presence of the Banham family, of which the majority, as to number, was ranged up the staircase at a corner of the room; those of ten or eleven on the lower stairs, and the rest, in order of juniority, on those above; the smallest and last of the babies signifying his presence on the upper landing by loud wails. Mrs Banham, a large, energetic, but slatternly woman, whose characteristic it always seemed to grow more slatternly and to spread more general untidiness the more energetic she showed herself, sat in a chair with her hands in her lap and a blue glass smelling bottle in one of them. Opposite her stood Mag Banham, the first-born, a stout, fair, blowzy girl of twenty or so. Both were contemplating the sufferer, a girl of sixteen, haggard and flushed, who sat on a sofa, rocking her head and shoulders, looking piteously from one face to another, and now and again twitching one cheek with the monstrous semblance of a wink.

“O, mother! O, Mag!” she moaned indistinctly, “I do fare that bad! Yow woan’t let me suffer mother, will ye? Mag, yow love me, doan’t ye? An’ father–”

“Ah, my gal, we’ll see ye better soon,” said the mother, and Mag murmured sympathetically.

“Yow den’t ote to give way so, deary,” Mrsnham went on. “Master Murr’ll’s to putt ye aw to rights.”

“Yow doan’t pity me, mother,” the girl pursued, beseeching all present with her eyes; “yow doan’t pity me!”

“Ees, deary, us do, all on us. Take a drink o’ barley watter, do, to squench the fever;” and Mrs Banham offered a quart jug. But the patient would have none of it, thrust it away angrily, indeed, and moaned anew. “An’ when I’m dead you’ll arl say ye’re sorry, p’r’aps–no, yow woan’t, you’ll be glad I’m a-gone!”

Mrs Banham looked despairingly up at Lingood.

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