Under the Sign of the Black Raven – Part II
by Timothy J Jarvis
Part II of ‘Under the Sign of the Black Raven’. The first part can be found here.
Soundtrack: Black to Comm, ‘Void’
Martin’s investigations into the strange handbill turned up nothing. But then, in late 2006, entirely by chance, while researching witch trials in early Jacobean London, he found, among an archive of worn seventeenth-century broadsides, one that told a tale that struck him cold:
[The quality of this reproduction isn’t good, and the text is hard to make out. It reads:
THE MOST VILE AND BLOODY MVRHTERS COMMITTED BY A VVITCH
of Highgate, called Rachael Camlet, who was executed at Tyburn the 16th of Februarie laſt paſt. 1608.
LONDON Printed for William Firebrand and Iohn Wright, and are to be ſold at Chriſts Church dore. 1608
On the 16th of Februarie laſt paſt a young woman Rachael Camlet of Highgate most worthily ſuffered death for Witchery and Black Murder. The harlot pleaded Innocence at her Arraignement, but the Opinione of the Court was of her Guilt, and ſhe was Convicted and Sentenced to be Hanged.
Witnesses related to the Court that Rachael was founde, in Januarie this Year, by a Neighboure, who, hearing a Deviliſh Tumulte, entered the Houſe of Rachaels Husbande, Walter Camlet, a Mercere. The Neighboure found Rachael in the Library of that Houſe, inſenſible, weltering in the bloode of her Husbande, Walter, and of their three Servantes. The Neighboure, ſtricken with horror at what he ſaw, called for aſsiſtance. Others were alſo diſtreſsed. There weere cleare Signs of Witchery and foulneſs and the Murders were moſt vile.
Rachael was taken to the Village Lock-up, for her Incarceration. When ſhe came againe to herſelf, ſhe raved about murderous Goode Folke. The manie who ſaw her in her cell ſpoke of Diabolic Poſseſsion.
At the Triall the Court was told, by Walters Mother, Marjorie Camlet, how Rachael had committed Adulterie with a fallen Prieſt, during one of her Husbandes long trade voyages, and got with child. Walter, a compaſsionate Man, returning to finde his Wife ſwolt, did not caſt her out, but let her ſtay on with him, at his Houſe. After the birth, during Rachaels Confinemente, the Child was given to an Orphanage, and Walter, a goode man, ſuffered his wife to ſtaye on with him.
Theere was one who ſpoke in defenſe of Rachael, a Mary Pepperhill, friend of the accuſed, a looſe woman certainly, and mayhap another Witch. She ſtated ſhe had been at the Froſt Faire on the Thames with Rachael the weeke before the murders, and that they had ſeene a Faerie Child theere, and that Rachael had become excited, certaine the Changeling was in ſooth the Child her Husband had taken from her, ſwore to get it back. She thought Rachael had acted on this Oathe, and that the Charlatans ſhewing the Changeling might be behinde the Murders. Marys teſtimony was diſcredited though, by her railing againſt the virtuous Walter and Marjorie, whom ſhe called Inceſtuous.
The Court did not pauſe before declaring Rachaels Guilte.
A curiouſe Appendix was provided by Locals of Highgate. It was tolde how Something was Wrong with the Houſe of Camlet after theſe Happenings, Something moſt Dreadful and terrible Strange, with the Proportions or the Shadowes, and no man could abide the place. Hence, in March, it was burn’d to the grounde by diſtract Villagers.]
For some time after discovering the newssheet, Martin continued his enquiries. He learnt nothing further, so far as I’m aware.
In the summer of 2007, I lost contact with him. I learnt, during the winter of that year, from mutual friends, that no one had seen or heard from him for some months, not even his family. Then, on the 13th March, 2008, during a hailstorm, I happened to look out the window and saw him, outside my building, huddled beneath an old oak. I went to the front door of the block, called him over, took him up to my flat. He told me he’d been waiting for me, then began raving about ‘the Folk’ and eldritch terrors, said he was going to destroy ‘the cursed handbill’. I asked him if, instead, he would be prepared to sell it to me. A look of cunning fleeted across his face and he agreed, naming a small price.
He went away, returning about an hour later with the flyer and a photocopy of the broadside he’d found. I paid him, and he left again. The next day, he rang me and, frantic, snivelling, begged me to burn the handbill. When I asked him why I should, he abruptly hung up.
Three weeks later, Martin came to my building again. It was late. This time he pressed the buzzer for my flat. When I answered, we spoke on the intercom. He begged me to come to the door of the block. There was a hitch in his voice, and he sounded close to sobs.
I went down. Opening the front door to see him huddled, cowering, in the porch, I was shocked; he looked ravaged: one eye blacked, swollen shut, face scratched, knuckles bruised, several teeth knocked out, blood down his shirt front. There was something feral about him too.
He’d been mugged, he told me, badly beaten. I urged him to go to hospital, but he wouldn’t. He just wanted to borrow some money. I took him to a cash machine, got some out for him. Baring his teeth in thanks, he took it from me, then turned, loped away.
I’ve not seen him since. Afterwards, I found out he’d attacked a young woman, a post-graduate student he’d been pestering for months, after getting her into his office on a pretext, one evening when the building was quiet. The same night he came to my flat. Her injuries were severe. Apparently she was so distressed she wouldn’t speak about what had happened, had barely spoken at all since. I don’t know what happened to her. I think she left London suddenly.
Two days later, I received a voicemail from Martin. Incoherent ranting about the handbill, the Folk. ‘They love a shambles,’ he yelled twice. Then, whining into his phone, ‘Meant no particular malice, though.’ He stifled a frenzied laugh. ‘Our screams. Our screams. Just thought we were having fun, I think.’
I deleted the message. Later, it occurred to me I should have played it to the police, maybe. But I didn’t.
I’ve no idea as to the truth of what happened, or if I take a risk sharing this story. I doubt that, but I’d never research the handbill myself.
There are two brief epilogues to this tale that shed no more light, only murk. In the summer of 2009, I was involved in a project studying the earliest ‘corantos’, or printed newssheets, circulated in Britain. In one, from May 1621, I found a brief item reporting the deaths of a pair of swindlers:
Then, about four months later, ascending the escalator at Southwark underground station, I found a folded piece of paper in the pocket of my overcoat, put there, I suppose, by someone under the cover of the press of the crowd on the tube. Some kind of prank. On it was scrawled some bizarre verse: