The Rabdomancers

14 May

Tony slapped the singer’s cheek, then gave her a violently hard shove.

Shaking with fear, Paula Linkmere fell back, almost losing her balance. She retreated to the window of her accompanist’s hotel room. He has lost all control and will harm me, she trembled. This time his anger may cross the line from which there is no return.

The accordion player moved closer, his green eyes bulging to an incredible size. This could be the final explosion, realized the terrified soprano. How will I get out of this infernal situation safely? She could not see any escape near.

Then the knock at the door occurred. It distracted the drunken madman from his trance of fury.

All of a sudden, he turned away and went to answer whoever it might be there in the corridor.

Paula took a calm breath as the door opened and Tony had an exchange with the musical director of that afternoon’s vaudeville.

Saved by the knock’s intervention, she told herself. But will such a rescue happen to her next time?

Neither Stingo nor Jocko wished to be called a Gypsy.

Zingaro or Tsigane, that was quite alright to the two wandering dousers. But their special gifts as rabdomancers deserved a higher descriptive title than members of Romany gypsydom.

After all, neither bachelor knew of any blood descent from the East. Nor did they know more than a few words of the tribal tongue of the ancient wanderers.

Stingo Carragheen and Jocko Goidel had met on the road as small boys. Both their families roamed about as wagon people. Friendship had come immediately to the youngsters, so similar to each other. Both of them were short and slim. Hair, eyes, and features were black as ground coal. They became an indivisible team, learning the art of water-dousing from an old crofter who poured it on to them. Touring the countryside each year, making a wide circuit to serve landowners and cultivators. Jocko liked to hold the reins of their fat padnag more than his colleague did, so that he drove and guided the old horse more times than his partner did.

“Let’s go see the fair in Bodmin,” proposed Stingo one day on the road. We have never been that far in the West. It would be something different for us.”

So it came about that the pair headed for the county seat where they were to hear the singing of Paula Linkmere for the first time.

Stingo found a tree where the padnag could be tied while it grazed the grass. This was on public property, the commons of Bodmin, a place that any visitor was permitted to occupy. Lacking a large road wagon, the two made their way to the already crowded fairway.

“Vaudeville today!” shouted a white-suited barker. “Get our tickets for the finest show in all Cornwall!”

The dowsers stopped and looked at each other. Should we? each asked tacitly.

Jocko was first to give an affirmative nod. “Yes, this might be quite jolly.”

His partner smiled back somewhat devilishly.

They might see some partially dressed female performers inside the tent, as was usually the case at county fairs. Both of them knew that was true.

Jocko moved to the tail of the line before the ticket booth. Stingo immediately followed him. In seconds, they were walking into the large, rectangular tent.

“Let’s go down close to the stage,” suggested Stingo.

The only available seats were at the extreme right side, near the entrance meant for the performers.

The two dowsers discovered that they were nearly behind the edge of the low, oval stage. They would be seeing everything at an angle, viewing the people on stage in profile.

Jocko sat down, then Stingo. “Maybe we came too close,” muttered the latter under his breath. “There is no one as far back of the platform as we two are.”

In less than a minute, the wooden chairs were all occupied by an eager, excited audience from the town and countryside. A loud murmur rose, going down only when a tiny man in a green plaid suit walked through the back entrance and stepped onto the stage. The rabdomancers watched his every movement with intense interest.

“Ladies and gents,” shouted the master-of-ceremonies. “Welcome to our vaudeville here at Bodmin Fair. Our hope is that you enjoy every artist and player. We have booked the best acts available. Your pleasure is our only desire. So, without further talk, let us proceed to the program. We will begin with Magnifico, the Juggler, a famed master of the art of balance.”

Thus began the roster of entertainment on the oval stage.

Not just juggling, but acrobatics and slapstick comedy followed.

Fun and enjoyment captured the attention of those on the wooden stairs. Laughter, applause, then laughter again sounded. Loud guffaws and wild hilarity broke out, over and over, without pause or respite. Emotions of rapture had command of everyone, including the pair who lived on the road.

First Jocko, then Stingo, turned rightward on hearing something like a screech of pain. They peered out through the opening to find out what the trouble was.

A lithe female figure appeared, her wrist gripped hard by a large, dark bruin. She was attempting without evident success to break away from him. But his enormous hand held her tighter and tighter, producing pain on the woman’s fair, beautiful face.

The dowsers, forgetting the performing clown, stared at the strange scene outside.

Although the captive woman was trying to free herself, she had not enough strength to take her own hand out of his.

Stingo whispered lowly. “This doesn’t look good at all.”

Suddenly the audience began to clap loudly. The act on stage was over. Jumping off the platform, the absurdly dressed clown hurried toward the opening and quickly disappeared outside.

The master-of-ceremonies appeared from the back of the stage.

“Next, ladies and gents, we give you Paula Linkmere, the nightingale of the North Country. The melodious accordion of Tony Riant will accompany her delightful songs.”

As the new performers walked into the tent, warm applause greeted them.

The giant carried a small button box across his broad chest.

Now free of his grip, the blond singer dared not try to flee. Instead, she would start to sing her songs. Perhaps that was the only practical liberation possible, realized both of the rabdomancers.

Paula performed old country aires first. Everyone inside the tent knew them. The words and melodies were engraved in memory. Yet she sang them as if for the first time ever. So new and fresh, they seemed original with her. No longer old, they were as if newly born, it felt to everyone in the audience.

“So lovely,” murmured Jocko.

“Fascinating,” said Stingo in a whisper.

Paula went on to sing a popular love song, a great favorite in the West Country.

A traditional dirge of mourning followed it.

Last came a sprightly rigadoon that set the listeners clapping along in time with the singer’s voice and the accordion.

Stingo fell into an ecstasy of delight. Jocko was in a trance of infatuation, mesmerized by the charming Paula.

Neither partner knew that his colleague’s heart had been captured and conquered by the songbird with blond hair.

Neither could have foreseen what awaited them.

After the singer and the accordion-player left, there remained only one more performance on the show’s roster. The master-of-ceremonies announced there was no more to see or hear. It was time to leave.

Jocko pointed to the rear entrance. “Let’s go out that way,” he proposed. “We won’t have to wait for anyone else to leave first, before us.”

The pair rushed to the opening, Jocko leading the way out into the late afternoon sun.

Stingo suddenly stopped, his eyes turned to the tent where the performers changed clothes. At the entrance, in a plain gingham dress, stood the delightful Paula. She was staring out dreamily, her china blue eyes expressionless and blank.

Both road-rovers stopped in their tracks and gazed at the singer.

Was she taking notice of them? the twosome wondered. No, her eyes seemed to be focused far beyond where they were standing. Was she dreaming of the freedom she had lost by becoming what she now was?

All of a sudden, two enormous hands reached at her from behind. Her tormentor grabbed and pulled, removing the woman from the opening. Tony became visible to the pair of witnesses, but Paula could not be seen any longer.

They watched, stunned and startled, as the musician squeezed his fists and began to pound the victim with them. Again and again, his hands struck her.

Stingo and Jocko stood paralyzed, hardly believing what they saw. Battery, terrible pummeling, cruel violence. How could this happen with no one able to intervene? Was the bully too strong for anyone to try stopping him?

Jocko turned to his partner. “We have to do something,” he grumbled. “Serious harm and injury will happen to her if nothing is done in time.”

But then Tony Riant stepped out of the tent, holding the singer by one wrist. He led her away to the left, in the direction of the town of Bodmin.

“We must follow them at a distance,” declared Stingo. “They will lead us to where they are staying tonight. Something will have to be done on our part to save that unfortunate creature.”

The dowsers set up their watch in front of and behind the small hotel where the bruin had taken the soprano. They waited in these two locations, uncertain what to expect. It was not possible for them to enter or aid Paula until her tormentor was out of the way. Toward evening, Jocko caught sight of the accordionist exiting through the front entrance. He must be on his way to a tavern for grog, surmised the rescuers. This is our chance, this is our opportunity to act. Soon the two were together behind the hotel. They agreed to go in and introduce themselves to Paula Linkmere at once.

Opening her room door, she gaped at the strangers in alarm.

Jocko spoke softly to her. “Do not be afraid, Miss. We are here to help, not harm. There is no danger to you from us. Since the man who humiliates and injures you is absent, could we come in and talk with you?”

She inspected both men for several moments, then stepped aside to let them enter. Closing the door, Paula stood staring at the pair of unknowns.

“What is it that you want?” she asked them.

Stingo decided to speak bluntly. “We wish to save you from that brute. You must no longer allow him to batter and hurt you.”

Paula’s face took on a perplexed expression.

“You know?”

“Everyone can see how he mistreats you,” aid Jocko reassuringly. “We listened to your singing at the fair, but we also saw how he grabs and hurts you.”

“He is madly jealous,” shuddered the singer. “Nowhere can I be safe from this crazy demon.”

“It is possible for us to hide you where Tony Riant cannot follow. We live in a road-wagon, like old-time Zingars. Here today, tomorrow far away elsewhere. You see, we are rabdomancers.”

“What?” she inquired, puzzled at the word.

“Dousers who can locate underground water,” answered Jocko. “Farmers have permanent need for what I do. Our earnings are sufficient to keep us alive. He would never look for you among the wanderers who come and go.”

“You will be safe ,” promised Stingo. “There is nothing to fear from us.”

“But we must leave at once,” continued Jocko. “Just take a few things of yours and flee. There is no time to lose, Miss.”

“Call me Paula,” she told the two of them.

Only a moment of thought was needed for her to reach a decision.

“Very well,” she agreed, her face expressionless.

Only after three months on the roads of the West Country did the new traveler dare tell her story to the two dousers. One evening after supper, she opened up and spoke candidly.

“Tony was once my music teacher and opened the world of singing to me. In a strange way, it was his inspiration that permitted me to see my talent and dream of becoming a performer before the public.”

Stingo asked her a question.

“Why did the two of you take to the road?”

Paula turned her head and smiled at him.

“The idea began with Tony. He told me that country vaudeville and music halls would provide opportunity to sing to an audience continually, as we traveled over the country. It would season me for bigger things, he convinced me. But I could not foresee how he was to mistrust me.”

“Did that monster come to hate you?” inquired Jocko. “Is that why he became so violent?”

Paula looked at him a moment, then answered.

“At first, he professed a passion for me. One that I was unable to return.” She paused a short while. “And then this emotion turned into its opposite. Strange, isn’t it?”

The two men turned to each other and exchanged quick glances.

“That often happens when strong feelings are concerned,” opined Stingo. “One sees it in real life all the time, especially in cases of intense longing for someone.”

Both rabdomancers looked into her china blue eyes.

“I believe that Tony blames me for the diversion of his own ambition,” muttered the singer. “If it were not for me, he would have gone on to a famous conservatory to study music composition. That was his longtime dream, the one that he gave up so that he could roam the country with me.

“Now, that has become impossible for him, he thinks.”

Jocko reached into the pocket of his corduroy jacket and took out a tiny snuffbox. Opening it, he took out a small pinch of scented maccaboy and pushed it into his right nostril. Then he closed the lid and returned the box to his pocket.

“So, it appears to Tony that he has cause for pursuing you,” he reasoned out loud. “Or, at least, thinks that he has.”

No one said any more that evening about the vengeful musician who might be on their trail at that very moment.

The towering stranger ordered a pint of sour alegar at the counter of the tavern, then took it to a small table where he sat by himself, thinking and listening to several conversations on different sides of him. After a while, the oddly dressed giant in a multi-colored dress coat rose and returned to the counter for a second pint of the Dorset ale.

“How is your local crop coming up this year?” he asked the dog-faced, heavy publican, hoping to start a conversation and pick up some information.

The icy blue stare of the barkeep studied the enigmatic green eyes of Tony Riant.

“It has been uncommonly dry hereabouts,” gruffly uttered the suspicious man wearing a clean white apron. “A lot of seed has gone for naught, say the cultivators who take their drink here.” He paused, eyeing the outsider intently. “You are passing through for otherwhere?”

Smiling as best he could, the musician gave a small nod. “I am a teacher of singing and musical instruments, looking for a suitable location where I might settle and ply my profession.”

The other made a sour face. “There be little need for such like hereabout, I dare tell you, sir.”

Tony gritted his teeth. “My talents extend beyond the muse of music. Do the farmers in this area ever need rabdomancy?”

The publican gave him a hard look.”Is that some form of hocus-pocus trickery, may I ask?”

Riant grinned broadly. “Oh, no. I merely refer to the ancient art that is called water-dousing. I have the aptness for it, never failing to find underground springs and wells.”

“That sounds of interest,” said the tavernmaster. “I have heard of such traveling dousers in our district. In fact, most recently. It may have been several evenings past that a customer made mention of such. Now, who was it?”

Thinking a second, he lifted a hand to his chin and scratched it.

Suddenly, his mind clicked. The publican called past Tony, to someone sitting at one of the circular tables.

“Ward, come here,” his voice sounded. “We have a thing to inquire of you.”

A small, bow-legged crofter rose and walked up to the counter. He gave Tony a passing look. “What be this about?” was his question to the one who had just summoned him.

“Tell us about the pair of dousers up your way. Remember, you spoke of them a while ago here.”

Riant felt his pulse accelerate dramatically. He listened with total attention as the man named Ward described two men with a woman who had come to this area in a horse-drawn road-wagon. Patiently, his mind absorbed every detail known to the crofter.

Last of all, he found out where the dousers had parked their wagon.

“It is more a state of being prepared and in time than anything else,” stated Stingo, finishing his hard, dry saveloy. Paula had cooked the sausage in a thick, creamy béchamel sauce that had softened it somewhat.

The three sat about a small fire near the wagon. A joyful mood had taken hold of all of them, because Paula had performed her first discovery of underground water that afternoon. It appeared to have been a complete success in every way.

Jocko described her victory to the pair who were both now his partners.

“The special, selected willow stock is only the physical tool,” he gently told them. “No one finds a spring unless the mind is ready to receive the call from the water. From down below comes that call, that ringing inside the head of the douser. The sound is much like your music, dear Paula. It proves that you possess the sensitivity necessary to find water with a stick. We discover what we are after because of this ability to pick up the invisible echo of the water’s strange song.”

“That’s right,” gulped Paula with a start. “That is exactly how  felt when I knew where the spring was. It was like hearing some uncanny voice singing underground. The water was making music that no one else could receive or locate.”

Jocko smiled in the flickering firelight.”You have become a rabdomancer, dear one,” he said to her.

The attack came quickly and ended in less than a minute.

Tony Riant sprang from behind the wagon, a short dirk with a sharp edge to it in his right hand. He stood in the light of the flames, staring at the singer who had fled from him. “Come back to me, Paula. It will be different from now on, you will see.”

She trembled with terror, unable to say anything or move.

Stepping forward toward the fire, the bruin held his dagger so that its tip was pointed toward the blanket of stars overhead.

In an instant, one of the dousers jumped up off the ground and lunged at the intruder holding the knife.

Jocko was faster than Stingo, who only rose to his feet in the wake of his partner. Both men rushed toward the giant, one in front of the other.

Tony attempted to stab at the shape running toward him.

It was clear to Jocko that he had to deprive the madman of his dagger before it could be used. That was the only salvation for them, the only escape possible.

As if swatting at a fly, Tony lowered his arm and pierced the chest of his attacker with the point of the weapon in his hand.

Hot blood spouted from the cut vein of Jocko. The liquid of life came out in a fast flooding, forcing the brave fighter back before any battle had begun. He stumbled away, soon losing balance and falling to his knees. Astonishment made the face of Jocko into a distorted mask of what it had been less than a minute before.

Stingo continued his rushing, though, unable to stop himself. Determination to execute this evil force had seized hold of him. Later, if he survived, he would take care of the gravely wounded Jocko. He realized that he must somehow take the dirk away from the man in control of it.

A desperate maneuver was the only way left to him.

Hunching his back, Stingo made himself into a compact ball as he advanced. At the same time, the douser whirled himself around, presenting only his back directly before the surprised musician.

What trick is being tried? wondered Tony, momentarily startled at the figure hurtling past him. In a fraction of a second, Stingo had made it to a location behind their armed foe. And instead of having his back toward him, the douser was now directly facing the rear of the dangerous enemy.

This was the desired opportunity, decided Stingo. He had to take it immediately.

Without hesitation, before Tony was fully turned around toward him, he leaped up with all the force of his feet, onto the broad shoulders of the larger man.

Shock, astonishment, and confusion seized hold of the latter and did not leave.

Tony seemed to have lost any idea of what to do with his dirk. In fact, he surrendered control of it to the assaulter punching at his eyes and mouth. Over and over, Stingo pummeled the accordionist, his fists hitting like mechanical pistons in a steam engine.

Riant never realized that he had relinquished his knife to the man on top of him.

One forceful move was enough to plunge the sharp edge of steel into the thick flesh protecting the devilish heart. Tony gasped for air that was never to reach him. His knees buckled as the weight on his torso finally had its effect. Losing equilibrium, he collapsed to the ground. Stingo’s fall was cushioned by the dying body upon which the douser landed.

It took hours to bury the two bodies. First came Jocko. Then a rapid job in order to hide what had happened to the man who had followed the group of three there.

Paula sat next to the fire. Her hysteria gradually subsided.

When he was finished with his work, Stingo approached her. Was she still sane after all that had happened? Would the dear soul understand what he now said to her?

He sat down facing the singer and took her hand in his.

“We must leave before morning. Get away as far and as fast as possible. And forget this horrid night.”

She looked at him blankly. “I don’t understand. What will the future hold, now that we have seen…these deaths.”

Stingo looked deeply into her china blue eyes.

“We are rabdomancers, both of us. The people of this world have great need of what we can provide them, Paula.”

All at once, she knew that the place that Jocko had held in the partnership was now hers.

“Yes,” she gently replied. “I will have dousing to do in his stead.”

In a short while, the two of them took to the open road in the faint glow of approaching dawn.

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