- Author: John Pilkington
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THE WITCHING POOL
Copyright © John Pilkington 2020.
The right of John Pilkington to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
First published in 2020 by Sharpe Books.
Table of Contents
In the spring of 1617, following that tempestuous Year of Astonishment, I reached my sixty-second birthday. Henceforth, after a hard winter - though tempered by a pleasant Christmas when Hester and I were joined by my daughter Anne and my beloved grandchild Kate - I was resolved to spend an untaxing year enjoying life on my modest acres. Fishing the Severn, of course, reading and sometimes riding to visit friends for cards and discourse. Life at Thirldon was pleasant enough, I decided, a far cry from the stench and corruption of London that had so disarmed me the year before.
The King, I heard, was now in Scotland, his first journey to his homeland since his coronation fourteen years earlier. Here in balmy Worcestershire all was quiet - until once again, by quirk of fate, an incident occurred which would throw my life into disarray. I wonder at times whether former magistrate Robert Belstrang is destined for a peaceful decline into slippered dotage, but must forever be leaving his fireside to undertake some further quest. But that Maytime I found myself caught up in a fearful business, that I feel it my duty to record. I speak of a dark cloud that passed over our corner of the county, whereby my peace of mind – let alone that of many others - was shaken to the core.
It began with the tragic death of a young maiden who was found drowned, only four miles south of Thirldon.
The news came to me on a visit into Worcester, where I had ridden to see my merchant about a consignment of French wines. I took dinner with my old friend Doctor Boyd, that dry and phlegmatic Scots physician whose company I had always enjoyed. We were leaving the Old Talbot Inn by the Minster, intending to take a stroll along the river before I collected Leucippus from the stables. Whereupon the good doctor, who had been silent for some minutes, mentioned that he intended to attend an inquest the following morning: that of a drowned girl, the eldest daughter of a landowner I knew Boyd heartily disliked, Giles Cobbett.
‘But that’s dreadful,’ I exclaimed. ‘When did it happen?’
‘Two days ago, I believe. It seems a man whose dog had strayed found the body. It’s said that the girl took her own life. Susanna Cobbett – she was but seventeen years old.’
As I took in the grim tidings he added: ‘A matter of the heart, perhaps. My own daughter was given to such extremes of feeling at that age, before she saw sense and married.’
‘Well, I barely know the family,’ I said. ‘And from what I do know of Giles Cobbett, he’s a cold-hearted man. Even so, such an event would be hard for any father to bear. Yet knowing your opinion of him, I wonder at your interest.’
‘The act of self-murder has always been of interest to me,’ my friend answered. ‘What drives people to such desperation – or wickedness, as some would term it? In truth I’ve never had much sympathy for those who stoop to it, but I’m curious to hear the evidence.’
I asked him where the proceedings were being held.
‘In a tithe barn at Powick,’ came the reply. ‘It’s close to where the crime was committed – that is, a pond on the edge of Newland wood, a mile or so south of the village.’
I stopped. ‘Good God, do you mean the Witching Pool?’
‘The very place. But I’ve no more patience with such superstitious chaff than you have.’
‘Well, this will set tongues wagging,’ I said. ‘The pool’s reputation goes back a long way.’
‘It may well do,’ Boyd said. ‘Though I never heard of anyone drowning themselves there.’
As we began to stroll again, I pictured the tree-shrouded pond from memory: a gloomy place. ‘As I recall, it’s shallow enough to stand up in,’ I said. ‘Of little use to a sporting man - unless you’re fishing for minnows.’
‘That’s another reason the case interests me. The girl must have been most determined, to see the business through.’
He wore an expression I knew well: Boyd had long been a sceptic, and hence a man after my own heart. After pondering the matter, I slowed my pace. ‘I should be getting home. Hester has been at the Thirldon account books. She likes me to look them over, not that I can ever improve on her handiwork.’
Boyd nodded, and we turned about to retrace our steps. ‘If the verdict tomorrow is that the Cobbett girl took her own life, it will pose difficulties for her father,’ he observed.
‘Because a suicide may not be buried in consecrated ground?’
‘Indeed. And as I’ve said, I’m curious to hear the circumstances.’
‘Well, you’ve aroused my curiosity too,’ I told him. ‘I’m almost tempted to ride down to Powick with you tomorrow. Do you know who will hold the inquest?’
‘I believe Justice Standish will preside,’ Boyd answered, with a sidelong glance at me. ‘He’s not merely magistrate, he’s acting coroner at present.’ When my face fell, he suppressed a smile. ‘No friend of yours, as I recall.’
I made no reply. It was no secret that Matthew Standish and I disliked each other. Back in 1612, when I was obliged to step down as magistrate, the man had pretended sympathy at my downfall. Yet I had never trusted him: a sour-faced pedant. To be in his company was the last thing I desired.