Chapter 8 : Chapter Eight
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The men came. They were the ministers my husband sent for, fellow brothers of the Puritan faith. Pastors of congregations in Beverly, Andover and even Boston. They came and were boarded in the village at the inn. I sat by the window in Constance’s room while she slept and watched the lanes thicken with crowds of the curious and the vulgar. And in my womb, the babe stirred, unhappy to be conceived in such a time of ugliness. Of sin and fear and doubt.
They said Mr. Chestnut still prayed in the jail. Prayed every night on his knees. God help me, but I believed the man to be innocent.
And yet it was told that he had often sent out his familiar spirit to torment my own stepdaughter. She had said so herself only a week ago, and were the dreadful contortions of her body not evidence enough for my eyes, then her otherworldly shrieks certainly would have been. It seemed as though Doctor Norris had been right and Samuel was now quick to agree. Constance was haunted by something unnatural.
She was bewitched.
Perhaps it was that same unnatural power that had led to her queer behavior and the strange things Mr. Rockwood had spoken of. In my mind’s eye, I remembered the tablecloth being ripped so violently from underneath the pewter candlesticks. Had Constance done such a thing? Surely, it would have made sense, and I ought to have placed the question to my husband, for he would undoubtedly wish to know of any fiendish manifestations. But I had not yet found the time nor the manner in which to express it to him. Perhaps I never would….
Whether it did Constance any good to confess the evil, I did not know. Since the night of her great revelation she had not left her room, nor her bed, and I myself tended to her. Hannah only came back to the house at nights, for she spent her days performing at the inn for the crowds, showing them the supernatural wounds Mr. Chestnut had given her, the bite marks, the pinpricks, the scratches.
But Constance would not stir from her rest and Samuel took this as a sign of her still being in the grip of the Devil. And so he sent for the ministers to help bring his child, his only daughter, back to God.
I could not decide whether I ought to be terrified or disgusted. Fear mixed so eagerly with confusion in such times, as Constance’s prone state seemed to suggest. And who was I to choose between the two?
There were people still crowded about the parsonage yard. I watched them whenever I was not distracted looking for the ministers. Most seemed pray, silently, properly, heads bowed. But there were several others, several others that made my stomach lurch with their leers and laughter. There was some measure of excitement in this…a witch hunt.
“Ann?” Constance did not speak above a whisper.
I turned from the window, the thin spring light spilling over my shoulders and onto the bed coverlets. It had rained every day this week and our vegetable garden was flooded out. The work of witches, some said, but were it not God who made the rain?
“Can I fetch you some broth, child?” I asked.
Constance stared up at me and oh, her face were deadly pale. Her brown hair looked fairly black against her skin.
“No.” Her hands fluttered atop her quilt and I minded how thin they were. “I must fast.”
Concern tugged at my heart. “Let your father fast. You ought to recover some strength. If you don’t want the broth, I can find something else for you.”
She shook her head, causing little dimples to appear on her pillow. “Have the ministers come yet?”
I could have been wrong, but it seemed as though Constance had softened towards me of late. Perhaps she no longer possessed the will to do battle against me. Perhaps striving for her soul had left her senseless. And yet, although I was ashamed to admit it, I secretly enjoyed her newfound tenderness. If she recovered--and how I prayed that she might!--then perhaps we might still yet be friends. Not mother and daughter, but friends.
I knew I was vain to entertain such thoughts now. Selfish. God would surely count it against me.
“From what I can tell, yes,” I replied. Carefully, I settled myself on the edge of her bed, my hand pressed over my stomach.
The family did not yet know that I was with child. I had meant to tell them the evening of my parents’ visit, but had been otherwise distracted. Quite reasonably so, I thought. As it was, Samuel himself was so harried that I scarce had a quiet moment with him. But I had decided that I could wait no longer, for my mind would not be at peace until I had opened with my husband. And strangely, a small part of me sensed that Constance too might have some knowledge of my condition. The peculiar way in which she regarded me, even now, caused an unwelcome shiver to touch my spine.
But her strange look soon shifted into something akin to fear. I hated the expression of peril and terror that marked her face. “More ministers,” she rasped. “Why could Father not keep this business in our village alone?”
Unlike Hannah, she did not seem eager to spread the word of her bewitchment and suffering. A true martyr, I noted. Surely, she was more kind-hearted than most of us, but then again, Constance had always seemed sensitive to me. I was quite proud of her…although she was not my child by blood.
“It is hard to keep news of witchcraft from spreading,” I said. The bedclothes at the end of her bed had become rumpled and I stood, smoothing them nervously. Compulsively. In the hearth, the fire had turned fresh logs into embers and without Hannah’s help, I found myself quite busy in keeping the flames properly fed. My back ached as I brushed the ashes back from the stones and reached for another log.
“Ann?” I heard Constance sit up in bed behind me, her heavy quilt rustling subtly like leaves in the breeze.
I turned, dusting my hands on my apron. “Yes?”
She seemed about to say something, that strange stepdaughter of mine, but then we both heard her father on the stairs.
At once, Constance laid back down, pulling her quilt up to her chin.
The door opened and Samuel strode into the room. His face was uncommonly ruddy, his eyes sporting circles of red that made him look older than his forty years.
“I have just received Reverend Willers from Boston. He would see Constance at once. Child, do you have enough strength to come to the inn or should I bring the him to the house?”
Constance finally mumbled something indistinct and I noticed that she would not meet her father’s eyes.
Strange, for she had never been a disobedient child. Feeling compelled by something that could have been maternal protectiveness, I stepped in-between Samuel and his child.
“I would speak with you, husband,” I said, touching his arm, feeling the crease in the sleeve of his coat.
Samuel was more than a little besides himself. He peered over my shoulder at Constance. “I cannot keep Reverend Willers waiting.”
“A moment, please,” I begged him.
Reason seemed to return him, for he looked at me tenderly and tried to smile.
“Ann, you are too good to us, I’m afraid,” he said. “Of course, Hannah must be excused from her chores, but you have spoken not a word of complaint.”
And although I had been married to Samuel for nearly two months, the color still rose to my cheeks.
“Samuel, please do not think you ask too much of me,” I said. “But I must needs speak with you.” I hesitated, feeling Constance’s gaze on my back. “In private.”
“Ah!” He clapped his hands once and strode from the room with as much gusto as he had entered it.
Again, Constance made a quiet noise. I offered her a fleeting, sympathetic glance.
“Your father’s word is stone,” I said, reaching across the covers to touch her cold hand, “but I will speak for you well-being nonetheless. Take heart and try to sleep.”
She said nothing when I left and I began to wonder, in the most uncertain corner of my heart, if she knew that I was only trying to help her.
Samuel was pacing the length of the company room when I came down the stairs. How queer it was, I thought, that I had had such high hopes for my family’s visit a week ago. It had been a simple wish; an evening of communion and warmth, and, perhaps, rare understanding. But then Constance had fallen ill and the world had been turned upside down.
Still, I felt as though I were a walking absurdity, my feet attached to where my head should be. If Samuel felt the same way, he did not show it. He were a confident man. Undeterred…even when his congregation threatened to stop paying his salary due to their dislike of his preaching. But now he certainly wasn’t threatened with such discord, for the villagers had come to look to him in such a time of crisis. And I did look to him now, as his wife…and mother to his unborn child.
“Samuel, I would have you listen to me,” I said, my voice unsteady, “Constance is not well. I have never seen a child in such a way.”
“And nor should you,” he replied at once, stopping to stand restlessly before the mantle. “If the Devil has attempted to take hold of her, which I believe he has, then no wonder we have not seen the likes of it before.”
“But it is beyond that,” I said. I was trying to judge my words carefully, to make my case to a learned minister who had spent many years studying scripture. “You are her own father and know what is best for her, but I must ask it of you…do not make her stand before those ministers, at least not today. If she sleeps some tonight, then mayhap tomorrow she might have strength enough to contend with her trials.”
He was patient with me. Terribly patient. And yet, his composure seemed to unravel slightly, a thread coming unwound and loosening the otherwise strong fabric of his resolve.
Samuel folded his hands behind his back and regarded me gravely. “I cannot allow such a thing,” he said. “If my daughter’s very soul be in jeopardy, then we ought to seek out this evil and destroy it while we may. Did you not see how Hannah went forth this morning? She too is surely burdened with much suffering and yet she walks about in the world. Now, I said I would have Reverend Willers to the house--”
“But I do not think Hannah suffers as Constance does!” I interrupted him. His eyes widened and I quickly corrected myself. “Or at least, she has not suffered as long as Constance. The poor child is dreadfully weak.”
“Yet there be a strange power in her,” Samuel said. “Recall how she easily broke free from my arms during her convulsive fit. And mind, our work in this village is only beginning. Hannah promises to cry out against others…more witches. Constance must have the same knowledge. Do you not realize that these children might yet save us all?”
And that was what I feared, but did not dare say it aloud.
“I understand,” I replied.
He must have sensed some resistance in me yet, for he took several paces towards me, closing the space between us and resting his hand upon my shoulder. “My dear wife, you must have faith--”
“I trust God--”
“In me.” His eyes narrowed as he spoke, as though he were uncomfortable with the words.
And oh, I did not want to doubt his judgment. I never would have. But was there not something else at work here? Something that neither Samuel nor I nor even the visiting ministers could settle clearly in our minds.
Yet Constance, yes young, fragile, Constance, surely could.
The child knew what we did not and there was a secret in her heart that she kept locked away from the world.
And I feared it would soon destroy her.
The air in the company room was close and stuffy, bearing none of the breezy kindness I had come to expect from the spring season. My stomach squirmed and once more, I minded my own growing secret.
There must be someone in this house, I decided, who would court honesty.
“Samuel,” I said, finding a smile for him though I felt more like weeping, “I am with child.”
I think he would have said something, had not the Reverend Willers come to knock on our door.
Author’s Note: Thanks so very much for taking the time to read! If you have a free moment, please leave a review. I really do appreciate any and all feedback. The next chapter has already been written and should be posted soon. Have a great weekend and take care!
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