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Halloween 1938There is no direct evidence that Alexander Keiller and Gerald Gardner ever met after 1932, although Gardner pays homage to Keiller in his first novel High Magic's Aid, published in 1949. The following story is therefore 'pure fiction', although plausible.
'Certainly not!' came the sharp reply. Elspeth looked around the glass display cases. She was worried that Gerald, full of his own opinions, would not hit it off with Alexander. But Gerald's infectious grin took over his face as he looked up. When the two men stood so close together their difference in stature was quite remarkable.
'Ah, you knew Dorothy too?' responded Alexander amiably.
'Of course, I was excavating with her at Hembury Hill only last year.'
Elspeth looked at the taller man. His face was somewhat furrowed, but in an interesting way. He spoke, how could she put it – in a distinguished way – yet not the plumy way of speaking of so many of the county set. Some other visitors came into the museum and were greeted by the custodian. Alexander looked over but clearly did not recognise them. She wandered over to where there was a display of objects retrieved from the excavations but which were more recent than the Stone Age. She was amused to see a broken Keiller marmalade jar. The sale of the company which made that conserve had paid for the excavations themselves and even this museum.
Gerald and Alexander had moved closer to where she had previously been standing, next to the animal skeletons. They were earnestly discussing whether someone called Daffine was a sacrificial offering. Alexander retorted, seemingly in a half-serious way, that surely it wouldn't have been a sacrifice to a goddess as the great god Pan was not yet dead. 'But do we have any evidence for a witch god?' Gerald had retorted, seeming to miss the jest.
'So, because Daffine's got horns, you think she would be sacrificed to the Devil?', Alexander had laughingly responded.
Gerald's expression revealed he had been wrong-footed. Actually, Elspeth herself realised she hadn't known that Alexander had reviewed that book. She must ask the librarian to find it.
'And, despite Halliday and L'Estrange Ewen – as well as myself – pulling the rug from under everything she claimed', – his distinguished voice had become more stentorian now – 'she damned well wrote another tome based on the same fantasies. Should have been shelved with novels, if you ask me. Except most fiction has more truth in it than her distortion of the facts.
These thoughts had only taken the briefest of moments, but she realised Alexander was waiting for an answer to her question. Gerald seemed on the brink of answering for her. But she fixed him with a quick stare and said, 'Well, speaking only for myself, I have to say that those critical reviews have certainly not received the same attention as the books themselves. There must be many people' – and that includes myself, she realised – 'who are interested in the witch cult who have never come across any suggestion that her ideas have such flaws.'
'By the way, Elsie, are you a descendent of "the" Elspeth Begg?'
An attractive and unusual name – not like her real name – and one which had worked impeccably as a pseudonym until now. Later Gerald had said that Elspeth Begg had been the wife of the victim of the last witch of Scotland – or, at least, the last witch to be persecuted in Scotland – back in the early eighteenth century. Of course, of course. If anyone would spot such an obscure connection, it would be the only expert on witchcraft in Scotland, the man standing in front of her now, waiting for her answer.
'Oh, not that I know of,' she said with a smile. 'I don't think anyone's followed our family history back. It's not as if we have a title or such like.'
She suspected Alexander had surmised it was not her birth name. There was a good chance, she realised, he too would also have introduced close female friends under assumed names. Whatever he was actually thinking, he seemingly changed the conversation, while making his train of thought clear, and still taking the opportunity to look at Elspeth rather than Gerald.
'My grandfather was a witch in Lancashire', added Gerald. 'And Elsie has good reason to believe she was a witch in a previous life.' Elspeth wasn't sure she wanted this to be known. Alexander's eyebrows visibly shifted up and the furrows on his brow deepened. With a big, infectious smile, he asked, 'Can you both join me for dinner tonight? After all, it is the eve of All Hallows, when the souls of the dead – and perhaps too the elvis – are most wont to be amongst us. Shall we meet for drinks at eight – I'll be in my library in the west wing. Oh, and don't worry, we have the guest room – two rooms, rather, you will be needing – so no need to book into an hotel.'
A quick glance to Gerald revealed that this was not an offer that was going to be declined. They both said 'Yes' almost at the same moment, with Gerald adding some pleasantries to the effect that this would a most interesting evening. The offer of two rooms was, she thought, a little too forced. Clearly her card had been marked as Gerald's lover. Not that she didn't expect to have to fend off a pass from her host in the course of the evening. But he seemed to be the gentlemanly sort, at least when sober.
But what a strange battered tin he used for his cigarettes. He could afford Russian cigarettes – the smell was distinctive and several had already been smoked while they'd been in the museum. Perhaps they should send for a taxi to be taken to a shop which sold silver cigarette cases; it would seem like a useful gift to offer in exchange for this unexpected hospitality.
Ah, thought Elspeth – and, she realised, increasingly thought of herself as Elspeth while with Gerald – that scuppers that plan. I'll never get Gerald out of there until it's time to get ready for drinks. And being able to look at Alexander Keiller's library had been her main ruse for getting him to come over. Not that she wasn't more than a little interested herself.
Gerald, to be polite, had accepted a tonic water but – as ever – made it quite clear he would be drinking it without gin. But Elspeth could see that such abstinence was not shared by their host. He was drinking vermouth and gin – she hadn't quite worked out the proportion but it was clearly important to Alexander, as was carefully pouring over the ice and then stirring, before being strained. Quite a ritual, though his staff seemed to be well-practised. But not something she'd been asked to do when a lady's maid in Baildon, she thought wryly. It was, she felt sure, a ritual which took place several times most evenings in the Keiller household. Her friends in Southampton, she mused, would have simply opened a bottle of Martini and dropped some ice in. Or, rather, simply drank their gin without any vermouth.
Mrs Sorel-Taylour was clearly more interested in making sure all the details of evening were sufficiently well-attended to by the other staff. She had just assured Elspeth that Doris would come down in a little while to join them for the meal, and then excused herself and left the room once more.
Alexander's distinctive tones carried across the room. 'No, it's the tall, narrow ones I call Type A. The lozenge-shaped ones are the Type B. But. which ever way round, you've got my notion. The stones along the Avenue were part of a fertility cult.'
Gerald beamed with another of his infectious smiles. 'You've got to work on that. People tell me that the "life force", the sexual energies if – may use the phrase were part of the seasonal rites of the witch cult. They were just as important as worshipping the sun, and all that went with that.'
Elspeth nonchalantly wandered closer. That phrase – 'all that went with' – was one of Gerald's ways of referring to naturism. She didn't think that Alexander would be the sort of man given to 'peeling off', as Gerald more often put it.
'Yes', she interjected, 'I'm rather taken with Gerald's ideas about how the goddess was more important that the gods or even the men. Do tell Alexander your ideas about Aphrodite.'
'Well,' Gerald interjected immediately without any further prompting, 'simply put, Venus – or Aphrodite as she was also known – was a very real person. She was a goddess, of course, but she commanded armies, and won great victories over hordes of troops. She built castles and palaces, many of which still remain. She evidently was a real person, who made a great impression on popular fancy, and on whom legends were fastened, as with King Arthur.'
'When do you think she was alive?' asked his host, looking a little perplexed in the face of so much certainty.
'Oh about around 1450 BC. On Cyprus, of course. In the book I'm just finishing – with Elsie's assistance – I have endeavoured to show how it would be possible for a woman to be received as a goddess, rising from the sea.'
'Sounds just like the woman who's just become the mayor of Wilton Town Council would like to think of herself', retorted Alexander, before taking a larger than usual sip of his drink, as if to take the taste of the thought away. 'The first time the councillors have ever been kept in order by a woman, that's for sure! Have you ever met Miss Edith Olivier?'
Gerald simply shook his head. Clearly the name meant nothing to him.
It was Alexander's turn to look a little perplexed. Gerald continued.
'When in the presence of any object of genuine antiquity there is a sense of complete familiarity with it. There is a sense of being able to recreate the life which had surrounded it from its inception. You've got to get yourself in… '
Doris appeared and with no more than a captivating smile towards Gerald, interrupted to ask Alexander if they could go through to the dining room yet, as she was famished and didn't want to wait till eleven before they sat down to eat. Elspeth wasn't sure she could cope either if the pre-dinner drinks were to continue for three hours.
Elspeth had taken Doris to be Alexander's wife, but has been tactfully corrected by Mrs Sorel-Taylour, who clearly knew much but said no more than was strictly necessary. 'No, Mrs Keiller doesn't come here any more. She leads her own life in London.' Although the secretary, clearly a married woman herself, was doing her best to disguise her opinions, Elspeth detected an strong whiff of disapproval about Doris's status in the household. She had simply changed the topic of conversation and allowed her curiosity about Doris to remain unresolved.
Elspeth thought this would be a good moment to engage in some polite conversation with Doris, and perhaps find out a little more about her, thereby allowing their men folk the chance to continue their conversation. Judging by his facial expression, Alexander was more than a little sceptical about Gerald's belief that he had been a sword-maker in Cyprus in a previous lifetime. Perhaps not the sort of revelation which would be readily accepted by someone who was at the forefront of seeing the past scientifically. Which probably also applied to Gerald's revelation that she thought she'd been a witch.
Elspeth enquired what time Doris preferred to eat, and stepped away from the men, requiring Doris to also leave Alexander's side and follow her towards the fireplace. Having established that eating at eleven at night was something of a normal thing in the Keiller household, despite her preference to eat much earlier, Doris went on to explain that she had come to Avebury to help do drawings for some of the earlier excavations. But Alexander kept insisting on her coming with him when he went off driving one of his sports cars. 'His favourite is a lovely little MG – it can go nearly as fast as the Bugatti which he turned over. He says that was going eighty-four miles an hour going up quite a steep hill when some part of it broke and it crashed into the side of a railway bridge. He was badly hurt and still suffers from his injuries now,' Doris revealed. Elspeth wasn't sure she would like to be going over eighty miles an hour anywhere near a railway bridge, but said nothing. Thankfully Gerald rarely drove, much preferring to take the train.
'What do you do?' asked Doris. Elspeth had little choice except to say what she did under her real name. 'Oh I teach dramatic arts and elocution.'
'Oh, how wonderful. Do you have lots of talented thespians to foster and encourage?'
Gerald, she noticed, was leaving the room. Alexander followed soon after, but headed in the opposite direction. 'Well', Elspeth replied, 'some of them respond just brilliantly to a little encouragement. But as these classes are mostly organised by the WEA then usually it's only a spare-time interest. I suspect few of my students would be tempted to give up their day jobs and attempt a career walking the boards. But bear in mind that some of them come for elocution lessons when they've become more than just the usual members of a local lodge and need to take, let's say, more central roles in the rituals.'
'Lodge rituals? But how can a woman know about those sort of things?' Doris seemed almost shaken with surprise. 'Masonry is just for the men. Their oath says they'd have to kill us if we knew their secrets,' followed by a rather theatrical giggle.
'Well, indeed, Masonic lodges were, until rather recently, indeed exclusively for men. But there is also Co-Masonry, where women are equal to the men in all respects.'
'Well, I knew emancipation was making some changes, but who'd have thought that the Masons would be the first to budge, eh?' responded Doris with a gleam in her eyes.
'Well, it's hardly a case of the Masons "budging" as you put it. More a case of a new system of lodges being created alongside the old ones. It started in France, but there is a Co-Mason lodge in Southampton, near where I'm living.'
'So, you teach your fellow… How did you call them?' 'Co-Masons', Elspeth prompted. 'So,' surmised Doris, 'you teach these men and lady masons elocution, so they can perform the rites and rituals more properly?'
'Well, only some of my students are Co-Masons. But, yes, both improved elocution and a basic understanding of the principles of the dramatic arts do make for much better ceremonies, indeed. Those that want to take such things further are invited to become part of the Rosicrucian Theatre in Christchurch.'
Doris turned her attention to the curious old wooden box which Gerald was bringing through into the room. Alexander was helpfully holding the door open and, with some gusto, spreading a newspaper over one of the side tables to avoid it getting scratched.
'This talisman made and sold by Matthew Hopkins was given to my father, Joseph Carter of Home Farm, Hill Top near Marlborough and contains the finger of Mary Holt, the notorious Wiltshire witch. Signed S. Carter.
'Well, this is a real find', continued Alexander, visibly excited. 'But it's rather a large box for a finger.'
'Of course, there's more than just a finger in here.' Gerald opened the lid. 'Oh!' said Doris, 'that's the foot of a cockerel!' 'Indeed', replied Gerald, 'it looks rather like a cockerel's foot. But if you look more closely you'll see it's an interesting shaped twig. In here there's also several pieces of bark and a hawthorn twig still covered in moss. But this here, this really is a bird's claw, although I'm stumped as to what sort of bird it's from. But here are the really interesting items. Look!'
Doris stepped back involuntarily. Gerald had between his fingers a small wax head, with hair attached to and all mounted on a rusty pin. 'That's not all. Here's the finger bone of Mary Holt. And this is also bone. There's even some skin attached, which is rather unpleasant.' Gerald passed this item to Alexander who examined it more closely. Gerald offered the finger bone to Doris, but she stepped backwards, shaking her head.
'Is that everything, Gerald?' enquired Alexander. 'Not at all. This six-pointed star… ' 'The Seal of Solomon no less', interjected Alexander. 'Indeed', responded Gerald, before drawing attention to a scrap of parchment. He read out the simple words written quite legibly on it, 'Matthew Hopkins talisman against all witch-crafts.'
'Well, I never. To think that there was some sort of hot-bed of witchcraft right here in the Savernake Forest. But why would Hopkins, the Witchfinder General himself, be making talismans? Are you sure these are genuine, Gerald?'
'One must presume that he confiscated these items from the witches he persecuted,' replied Gerald. 'Either that,' replied Alexander, 'or he was simply making a big fuss about nothing, making common people afraid of people that were perhaps not really witches at all, then selling talismans to the more gullible folk. Seems a nice little earner if you have the appetite for scare-mongering, as Hopkins most certainly seemed to have. But, whatever the truth of the matter might be, these are most interesting objects.'
'There is also this curious item', Gerald said while unwrapping the protective cloth. It was seemingly about a foot long, with a cross at one end. Gerald once more read out the label, 'Matthew Hopkins' sceptre or tutti stick, used during his travels in the south of England, finding and exposing witches.'
'What in heaven's name is a tutti stick?' exclaimed Doris. Her question remained unanswered as Alexander said, 'That's bone isn't it, the cross. Could that too be human?'
'It may be so, I don't know,' answered Gerald. He held the item out to Alexander for him to take. With his hands around the middle and the handle end proffered to the recipient Elspeth could not help but recognise a rather distinctive shape. 'Oh, it's all rather, um – can I say Freudian?' contributed Doris, followed by another of her slightly uncomfortable giggles, revealing that she too had made the same recognition.
'Oh', said Doris, turning towards the door where Stuart the helpful assistant now stood, 'Do come in, dear chap. I hadn't realised you were to join us too.' Stuart's attention was cleared fixated on the object in Alexander's hand. 'What in God's name is that?' he blurted out. 'The tutti stick used by Matthew Hopkins', replied Gerald immediately, the smile in his eyes betraying that he was well aware that such a bald statement was less an answer than a tease. 'Well, only if we can believe what the, ahmm, "curator", of these items wrote on the label at the time of "accession"', interjected Alexander, in what was clearly an allusion to the younger man's role in dealing with the finds from the excavations.
Alexander then theatrically held up the cross-like sceptre as if trying to banish evil spirits from his assistant who, apart from taking a step or two backwards, was rather non-plussed. 'Ah, it would seem', declaimed the bearer of the sceptre in a mock-Hopkins voice, 'the man we have before us bears none of the afflictions of the accursed witch cult', before turning his face towards Gerald. At that point he stopped, presumably realising that he risked causing offence by making the same accusations of his guest.
Instead he asked Gerald 'Do you think witches were really following an Old Religion? Or do your think they were Christians, but perhaps not of the same sort as Hopkins and his cronies?' 'Well, people tell me that these days a person can be a witch and also follow any other religion.' Elspeth realised that these were her own words being attributed to the anonymous 'people'.
'Well,' replied Alexander, turning the sceptre around in his hands so he was holding the bone cross so, seemingly quite nonchalantly, the end which had caught everyone's attention was now pointing up at a reasonably anatomically-accurate angle, 'Well, if that's the case then we can all partake in a little witchcraft rite without being damned into eternity. Follow me, everyone! We're going out into the garden to pay our respects to Pan!'
In response to a gesture and brief request, Stuart opened the door leading outside. Holding the tutti stick aloft in both hands, their host began speaking in what must have been Lowland Scots dialect. Whatever he was incanting made no sense to Elspeth but sounded most witch-like. Stuart was clearly used to his boss's wilder moments and joined in enthusiastically but none too seriously. Gerald had fallen into line immediately behind the spontaneous hierophant so was unaware of Stuart's antics. Elspeth looked around, at which moment Doris waved her on to keep up with the already advancing procession. Mrs Sorel Taylour it seemed would dutifully follow the request to follow, but clearly did not think that such strange behaviour should be taken seriously.
In the garden there was a splendid statute of Pan standing on a plinth. Alexander bowed three times before it, incanting 'Io Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan!' and then continuing with a couple of verses of poetry which Elspeth herself had read:
Pan is greatest, Pan is least,
Pan is all, and all is Pan;
Look for him in every-man;
Goat-hoof swift and shaggy thigh –
Follow him to Arcady.
He shall wake the living dead –
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