The Sending by Geoffrey Household.
Household's protagonist Alfgif Hollaston has returned to his rural, ancestral home after a career in the Indian Army. He discovers he is the descendant of local Wise Men going back hundreds of years. He inherits the familiar of a recently murdered friend: a polecat named Meg.
Here he lunches with the enticing Somerville don Eita, who vacations in a cottage near his home.
….I asked [Rita] to lunch after Meg and I had celebrated by stealing out in the late twilight to catch a dish of crayfish, to which Meg, regardless of the season, had added an unsuspecting mallard grabbed with a leap as it rose from the rushes. The invitation seems to have happily surprised her, and when I showed her my Columns of the Sun there were tears on her cheeks. She did not examine it closely, so I think her emotion was due more to my eyes and bearing. Ginny, who is fascinated by my drawings but can’t abide them funny pictures, was also inclined to be tearful. It appears that I am like a botched work of art, cherished because it has been over the mantelpiece for so long.
After lunch we sat in the garden and Rita again pressed on me her theory that the depression from which I had suffered could be a backlash from the sort of powers I was using. I denied that I had any more powers than the rest of us. I merely knew they existed because I had been on terms of close friendship with a shaman.
‘The difference between you and the rest of us is that you appear to have them,’ she said.
I told her that nobody could seriously believe anything of the sort. She then announced, merry and mocking, her hands setting the scene for me, that she would have another small brandy and put me on trial in 1664 acting as prosecuting counsel within the beliefs of the time. I reproduce it as best I can:
‘Prisoner at the bar, you are charged on suspicion of the felony of witchcraft to the Great Offence of God’s Law, Hurt and Damage of the King’s Subjects and to the Infamy and Disquietness of the Realm. Upon the first charge of bewitching Master William Hutchins’ bullocks how say you now to His Lordship and this jury? Guilty or Not Guilty?’
‘Guilty, your worships, but not with intent.’
‘So now to the second charge, sirrah, of possessing an imp in the likeness of a polecat which you did nourish with your blood. How say you?’
‘I never did.’
‘Call Mistress Rita Vernon.… Mistress Vernon, tell us whether upon the fourteenth June last you did not witness this abomination!’
‘I did indeed witness it, good sirs.’
‘Damn it, Rita! Just because I once let Meg lick up the blood where she had scratched me with her claws!’
‘Silence in Court! Guilty or Not Guilty?’
‘Well, on a technicality…’
‘The third charge is that you, Hollaston, did receive visits from the Devil and swore to be his servant. Dare you say you are not guilty?’
‘If counsel is referring to Robin’s chasuble of animal skin and tail, or to his appearance as the Man in Black when dressed as any other priest for visiting his parishioners, I deny having received any such visits and know nothing of the organisation and practice of the religion. I confess to have been visited by an incorporeal devil, but against my will.’
‘Most damnable! And there is yet a fourth charge which he cannot answer, for examination showeth that he beareth upon his upper arm the mark by which the devil claimed him as his own. How now, Hollaston? What say you to his Lordship?’
‘My Lord, I have indeed been initiated by a mark, but see no more harm in it than circumcision or scarring of the face. I confess to the formality of an exchange of blood with the local representative of the Divine. His conception of sin, my Lord, was much the same as yours, plus a few extras. The scar upon my upper arm is permanent because herb juice was rubbed into the cut to keep it suppurating. And how the hell did you know, Rita?’
‘Because Ginny told me. Silence in Court! Not only does the prisoner confess to abominable practices, but would persuade us that they resemble those of Holy Church. Let him to be taken out and hanged by the neck until he is dead!’
Well, it must be fun to be alive to past and present, and a beautiful woman with it. But now she took the wrappings off the parcel.
‘Will you admit, Alfgif, that you could be taken for a sorcerer?’
‘Not unless you would call Paddy Gadsden a sorcerer, which he certainly wasn’t.’
‘Your von Pluwig thought he was.’
I said that was putting it far too romantically. Paddy’s receptors interacting with nature were more sensitive than mine, but that did not make him a sorcerer. And who in the world, apart from a few of the more superstitious, could possibly think that I was?
‘Somebody who in fact can use the powers you only experiment with. Somebody like your tiger brother brought up to date, so that your horrible sending wasn’t a freak like Gargary’s rabbit warren but a quite deliberate attempt on you.’
I had to agree that at least it was possible, since I was not invulnerable like sceptical urban man, but receptive as a tribesman whom the witch doctor can influence to die.
‘I have no enemies so far as I know.’
‘Then find him, her or it,’ she said.
Absurd! Am I blacklisted because I haven’t joined the union? A joke when I put it that way. Yet tiger brother did not approve of competition. He would not admit that he had anything to do with accidents, but they happened—just as to that harmless chap boring me with his chatter about abstract art. Concentrated venom could at least distract his thoughts to the point of tripping over himself. And is there any more deadly method of distraction than to make the mind consume itself, obsessed with terror?
What alarms me in the witch trials is that the judges—one can’t answer for the juries—were able men experienced in distinguishing truth from falsehood and misrepresentation. Acquittals, light sentences and pardons were frequent. Accusations plainly deriving from malice or superstitious illiterates were thrown out. So what is one to make of the death sentences?
Leave out Satan and his imps, and the evidence is as straightforward as in any police court, clear, factual and obeying the rules such as they were. Wincanton witches were guilty of using a baptised image for cursing; witches of East Anglia used the familiar. Both could also heal, but not much is recorded about that. In any case, healing by means of incantations was considered no less a crime than cursing….