Reflected deeply over Culpepper’s oratory on Nostradamus, marveling at his poetic speaking on prophecy. The pleasant odor of sage permeated the darkening room as he sat down at his meditation desk, having placed the basin on the table. Sitting on the stool, his back straightened, his eyes looked fixedly at the water and the reflection of a candle flame placed beside it. I felt I too should take a reverential position, my back also stiffening, and my eyes staring intently at the candle-lit basin from my more distant station.
Nicholas spoke quietly and slow.
“Henry, I have found that the visionary power is very much like the ancient Greek Oracle you have heard of in myth; tis dumb until a question is posed. It need not be a verbal address; only a prayerful thought is sufficient. I ask you to hold in mind some deep and noble concern for yourself or others; I shall adjust my thought to receive your prayer. We then await in perfect silence the response.”
Nicholas stood, and like Nostradamus, consecrated his altar by reading a rite in Latin from his book of divination. Upon dipping the feet and the fringe of his robe in the waters, he sat once more.
I felt uneasy, a bewildering doubt troubled me, as I watched grotesque shadows flitter across the walls around his alcove. There he sat, ramrod in his four-corned medical hat, his bearded countenance in a monk-like stony gaze on the basin waters. Gently picking up his divining stick, he held it above the basin, resting the forked portion loosely between his fingers—the stick perfectly still with no shaking of his hands. With it poised inches above the water, the candle flame jumped periodically like a disembodied spirit as what must have been brief currents of air swirled by. I was past the point of protest, having felt the sudden weight of the silence of twilight, and so compelled my mind and eyes to concentrate on the reflection of the flame.
I thought hard of my recent doubts and addressed an image of myself that morning prostrate before the picture of my Queen Mary. How was I to resume my work as a composer, husband, and father? How to put an end to grieving; regain my confidence and health in the face of a crumbling career, fatigue, and melancholy.
Suddenly, the flame image jolted—the dip of Culpepper’s stick—leaving rings of circles emanating, and the forked laurel branch now dipped violently without any motion of his hands or fingers. The type of stick was said to be important, as Nicholas had said that not any branch would do. The dancing stick occasionally touched the basin surface as the spreading rings became more numerous. Now it came alive in demonic quivering as if it had been struck by a thunderbolt. As a purple vaporous light appeared, Nicholas quickly but smoothly put the branch aside and picked up his quill and tablet. His pen assumed the quaking with a power that seemed to be struggling to burst forth from him. The purple vapor swirled above the waters and reflected obscure shapes in its undulating surface, now swallowed by it; it was obviously a personal experience between the vapor and its instrument. There: a subtle yet sudden change in the light; a dull purple to a sparkling iridescence.
His hand wrote of itself; I saw no images, only the purple-haze hanging over the ‘altar’, the candle mystically flaring, and Nicholas’s hand writing a phrase or two, possessed. The ‘oracle’ went mute, his hand ceased, he picked up his stick again and the candle dimmed.
Again, the branch poised, I closed my eyes and contemplated deeply my life concerns. Behind my eyelids a bright pinkness flared and I sensed the candle flame dancing wildly above the water—I opened my eyes and again saw Nicholas’ hand feverishly scribbling on the tablet, as once more the flame grew steady, the purple vapor swirling away from the rippling basin.
Were figures stirring on the mirror of the basin water? When I leaned to take a closer look, the vapor swirled over, obscuring the vision to anyone but the instrument’s eyes. Culpepper’s hand abruptly stopped, the vapor vanishing, and the candle snuffed by its swirling departure. I distinctly felt a disruption of the silence; now aware of small noises in our surroundings that made the preceding moments seem even more silent.
In reverence, Nicholas got up and came the few feet to my table. Motioning me not to speak, he smoothly put the writing tablet before me with the quatrain that held my first prophecy.
Astonishment—not one, nor two, but three verses emerged from the scrawl on the scroll:
I. The lady shall remain to rule alone,
Her unique spouse dead, first in honour.
She will weep in regret through twelve long years,
And a long life fades in one grand hour.
II. He who was admiral, now a Prospero of sea,
Shall leave the fleet to make an island his throne.
Plays with pawns, by his books, a pawn to deceive,
Acrimony cannot drown his child’s loss to bemoan.
III. A ship sails no further then tenth and five;
Escapes with Soul greater by death than alive.
Ariel sings: ‘No stars shall hurt thee from above,’
Victory over Wave, Fate secure in songs of Love.
fter I read the quatrains and Nicholas insisted I take the script with me, I felt somewhat disconcerted; this seemed very much a prophecy of doom—far from the healing I was seeking. I wondered if I was indeed in the presence of a friend and healer or rather a man taken with delusions. Had Nicholas made these verses up or were they true visions? In my discomfort, I questioned him and he defended the quatrains with a logical conclusion.
“Henry, if I were to compose these verses out of my fancy, I certainly could not do so with such facility. Look at this script—it is not smoothly done in my own normal hand, which consists of printed characters like this—here my manuscript assumes an almost demonic hand and as though some power controlled my quill. I am no writer; for me to compose such metered prose, I should rather have to stop and reflect deeply. ‘Tis not I but the angel of the oracle that perceives and writes.”
“So it seems—yet I find no comfort in it,” I said.
“Comfort may not be what life now has in store for you. New experiences rarely make good bedfellows with ingrained habits,” said Nicholas, taking several clumps of herb from a spray on the wall.
“What of the three quatrains? I should think one would have sufficed—if it ‘twere only a matter of burying me,” I said sarcastically.
“You are pre-occupied with death ever since our Queen passed away. I beheld three separate images, though I only divined the power of the oracle twice with the rod,” said Nicholas now weaving the sprays of herb into a wreathe, his old fingers working nimbly.
“One was clearly of your wife, living well, but alone, you apparently absent. Two, an immense character of much sea-going experience, sailing in stormy seas, ensconced upon a coral-crusted island, with a book in hand, chanting incantations. A figure of awe, yet with a fair maiden as child to tend to; my point Henry, is that I neither understand the images, nor spawn any of it. It is not I who writes; I am only the spirit’s channel and instrument.”
“And what of this line: “A ship sails no further then tenth and five?” I’m clearly indicated next—and surely, I shall die, but sail to a heavenly life greater than death. I shan’t say I am looking forward to that way to new life. I had in mind a healing and new career options—rather in this world than the next…”
“Now Henry, let’s not build anxiety over cryptic verses. You cannot take them at face value. I have never known the oracular angel to indulge in evil untruths for the sake of destroying others. The purpose is only to foreshadow events—to warn ye to see them in their true light.”
Nicholas finished the herbal wreath and pronounced it an amulet, a gift for both its medicinal properties and as a charm. He gave me a copper bracelet to wear on my left arm; which he said would channel the astronomical energies of the stars into a healing current.
“Nevertheless, I am more at ill-ease than before,” I said getting up from the table. “What will all this achieve?”
“The amulet made of the plague herb I told ye of, and St. John’s wort,” said Culpepper. “has a protecting charm and a medicinal fragrance. You still need to find fresh herb for making a tincture that will ward off plague—if you do so believe ye’ve contacted it.”
“I like the bracelet, but are you not indulging in superstition?”
“More like practicing astronomy, and perhaps astrology. As far back as ancient times, seers have proclaimed the value of amulets made of special metals to channel the energies of the stars.”
Henry thought that Culpepper would certainly qualify as a renaissance man, yet he was a peculiar acolyte, living alone for his cats and his herbs; having loved only once. Then what is more fleeting than youth?
Loved only once? To love once is not too little at all, but to never love another is a fate worse than death—unless you have the essence of love in some great pursuit such as music or painting. Too few are the sunlit days of shimmering seascapes, open roads, and patchwork skies; the flexible body of youth—an elastic mind, unstained by evil, yours or fate’s unseen hand. The world is yours until your habits catch up with you. Then death stares at you—from the blunt horror of disease or its sublime hideaway of shortened expectations. To keep a fresh young mind is the answer. This he thought Culpepper had done admirably for an ancient of three score and ten.
“Henry, have I put ye into a more morose contemplation by my discourse on fortunes?”
“No Nicholas. Yet, I think of how Time deals her cards swiftly. My days seem numbered; my pawns taken; my King stands unguarded, to be checkmated.”
“Think not that! Rise above it.”
I walked over to the alcove, stared at the stubble of candle, dying down to a faint glow. The smoke drifted over the basin, one that smoldered was now extinguished, smothered by the pool of wax in its grotto.
“If fate is purpose, I know mine. But if fate is the unexpected hand of an indifferent god, I am powerless. The tide turns and waits for no man; a man rises with the ‘Ocean of Life’, but after the peak, he ebbs with that sea. It is inevitable—Can anyone swim against that current?”
“Enough! Imagine yourself on the white cliffs at Dover on a bright day. You are at the Earl of Margate’s estate, looking east over the Channel, a warm southerly breeze riffling your hair, the dazzling noon sun shattering into diamonds on the rolling sea before you.”
“Yes, I see your technique! ‘Tis to use your mind to color your world as you wish it to be. But I wish the actual experiences to help my imagination,” I said more animated.
“No Henry, you must remember, it is to use your imagination to build your experiences—not the other way around. First you must create your world, and color your days within your mind, then you’ll have the life of your heart’s desires,” said the sagely herbalist and diviner. I saw that Nicholas was devoted to healing in more ways than I had previously suspected.
“Henry before ye go, I’ve thought of someone ye can see tomorrow in Hampshire; an herbalist in Ryegate by the name of Hildegard Aldwych. She knows where to gather the plant you need.”
“That name sounds suspicious.”
“Do not bother about that. Like all healers, she’s been accused of witchcraft; those who oppose her natural methods have brought every accusation against her. But the St. John’s Wort grows profusely in her garden.
She lives alone because she’s barren after an accident in childbirth, falsely accused of abortion by the townspeople who are fornicators and adulterers themselves. Ol’ bag I call her. Go to see her once and awhile. I say she’s a true druid that’s all, forced to shun society because they shun her. She has good teeth and gums when most women her age haven’t even one. She eats carrot and parsley, and brushes with myrrh. They hate her for it.”
“No I think she has something. You know they’re of the same catalog of plants according to L’Clusius. Something’s common in each that nourishes the gums.”
“In any case, go see her. She lives in the meadow behind the Old Bayley Road; quite striking for an old wench of 45 years. But, do not partake of her Valerian Root tea—you’ll sleep through the day! That’s how she got me to stay over the first time. She’s lonely,” Nicholas paused, grinned bashfully, and added, “but not neglected!”
“So you’re no acolyte then?” I teased.
“And Henry, after you gather the herb, take in that view at the Fifth Earl of Margate’s. Why he knows you as well as I and is a lover of your songs. Let your fancy free—an artist needs that. Write your music in the clouds and the sea breaking on the rocks. But watch out. Walk the knife edge between too much and too little discipline.”
I thanked Nicholas Culpepper for his gift of the amulet, his prayers, and his compassion. I’d search for the plague herb tomorrow. He had no name for it, calling it the cure, making a necklace for me to help identify it in the woods.
“How will I know exactly where to look Nicholas?”
“Ye must find the little white petals falling on boggy earth. A certain place in the Hampshire Hills west of town is where I hear it grows. But beware Henry, the fresh roots are poison and ‘tis easy to confuse with the Water Hemlock, which is quite poisonous, and has similar leaflets. Hemlock saplings also grow by running water being more of a tree than a plant.”
“Do you not know a place to start, Sir?”
“Hildegard knows the woods. Follow her instructions faithfully. She must prepare the herb properly before ingesting it. The faithful call it St. Michael’s flower for when it blooms around his feast day on the 8th day of May. If only ye were a week later, I believe ye would surely find it flowering.”
he short ride to a pub in Berkshire took until after dark. I was in sore need of a walk in the English countryside on the morn, and Sedwick and I sought the comfort of supper and a hot mug of mulled cider that evening.