Chapter 9 : Chapter Nine
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I had never seen the common room of Matthew Bridges’ inn so impossibly crowded. Perhaps it was because I was not one to ever frequent the place, for it would hardly be respectable for a young girl to go about with the farmers drinking their ale and playing at the shovelboard. Or perhaps it was because never before had our small village been the site of such heightened terror--of hysteria.
Although I had not left my bed since the day I had cried out against Mr. Chestnut, it seemed as though most of the country knew of me. And Hannah, of course. They knew of Hannah.
She were always at the inn now, and strange though it might have been, my father never spoke a harsh word of reproach to her. And indeed, he was the first to see me out of bed and onto the streets to the inn itself. I knew him to be acting on the advice of Reverend Willers, who had come to me not two days ago and looked me over so thoroughly I felt as though I were a mare up for auction.
It were well, he told my father, (and Ann, who only stood in the corner of my room and tried to hide her disapproving looks by lowering her eyes) that I should be brought before the reverend brothers, who had of late come to the village, and be questioned right along with Hannah. For that wretched girl, that mad creature, had made promises to the ministers already, had sworn up and down that there were more witches in our village and she would cry out against every one of them until the great work was done.
The work that I had started…the lies to distract from my own guilt. And as my father led me out of the house and to the inn, we passed by Mr. Chestnut’s house. And God help me if I did not stop to weep.
But I hid my tears for shame now. The common room of the inn had be changed into a sort of court, I fancied. A court of the clergy, all of whom were sitting in the mismatched chairs that were good enough only for the farmers who came to drink and maybe sin at gambling.
Yet it were not only the clergy that came to Matthew Bridges’ inn, but a whole bevy of people from the village. Town elders. Goodwives in their white caps and lace collars. Children, even, who peered at me with the undisguised frankness their parents so sorely lacked.
Were I not seated next to Ann, who was thoughtful enough to hold my hand, I should have fainted dead away.
Hannah, for her part, thrilled to the attention she received. As I sat and trembled, she paced about like a rooster in a barnyard, happy for the fussing of the women who thought her tormented and the dignified concern of the ministers.
“These last few nights,” she said eagerly, standing before the clergymen with her arms outstretched so that they could see the bite marks on her wrists, “Mr. Chestnut’s familiar have been accompanied by others…more spirits sent out from witches living in this very village. They pressed me to sign a book--”
“The Devil’s book,” my father said.
The crowd murmured solemnly. I clutched Ann’s fingers tighter.
“Can you name these other witches?” Reverend Willers asked. He were a short, square man. Young, but not handsome. The pox had marred his face.
“It were dark,” Hannah replied promptly. “I could see naught.”
I let go of the breath I had been holding. She would not name anyone today, I supposed, not without first collaborating her stories with me so that we might speak out in one voice. But I had absolutely no intention of going along with such playacting…even if it meant the end of me.
My father and the rest of the ministers seemed disappointed that Hannah was so reticent. They conversed quietly sometime and the close, stuffy air of the inn was filled with a dreadful humming that rose and broiled just beneath the surface of a false calm. The place stunk of sweat and ale and tallow, all unholy smells that reminded me of sin and things that were unsavory.
My palm was slick against Ann’s and hesitantly, I twisted my fingers free from hers to wipe it on my skirt. If I had not been so terrified, I might have wondered why I took solace in her company. Only a week ago I thought she would be the one to cry out against me, and yet now, she seemed more eager to defend me. I knew she had begged my father to let me stay in bed, to keep me away from the prying eyes and wagging tongues of the villagers and the cold authority of the clergymen. Perhaps she was afraid that her good name would be destroyed if it was discovered that I was lying.
Or perhaps she only wished to help me….
Whatever the reason, I took some strength from what comfort she offered me.
But even Ann’s steadying presence could not have bolstered me for what happened next. I had never seen anything like it, had never dreamed that an otherwise sensible girl such as Hannah could go utterly mad so quickly…so very quickly….
The ministers were still talking amongst themselves when Hannah shrieked and clutched her head, as though firebrands had been pressed to her temples. She cast her eyes up to the low ceiling and pointed at each of the dusty rafters as though they were ablaze and she trapped beneath the flames…just as her parents had been trapped in their farmstead and burned to death.
“I see them!” she screamed. “I see them now!”
She threw herself upon the floor. Her body was caught in a violent fit.
“The Devil has set upon her!” a woman cried with rising hysteria.
And then all was chaos. The people who had crowded in the tight room, who had cluttered up the corners and huddled by the paned windows, now pressed forward, surging like an eager wave upon the rocks in Boston harbor. For a moment, I feared that Hannah might be trampled.
But then my father was on his feet, restoring order.
“Silence!” he shouted. “Silence!”
Both he and Reverend Willers tried to raise Hannah , but she was as stiff as a board. I recoiled in horror as I saw the foam coming from her mouth and the way the whites of her eyes showed when they rolled back into her head.
“They would tear me apart,” Hannah said. When she spoke now, her voice was constricted and low, as though it belonged to another and not herself. “They would have my blood to drink. I see them.”
“Constance.” Panting, my father rounded on me. “Constance, do you see them, child? Do you see them that would do harm to Hannah?”
But I was struck mute and dumb. I tried to shake my head, even as the ministers crowded around Hannah to pray, even as my father gripped my shoulder tightly and peered down into my face.
“Will you not speak?” he demanded.
And yet all I could think of was Mr. Chestnut, curled up in his jail cell that was so cold…cold enough to gnaw away at his remaining fingers.
Bile rose in my throat.
My God, my God, I had done this. I had done all this.
“Constance!” My father’s voice was louder this time. He had to yell to be heard over Hannah’s renewed screams. ‘Constance!”
I felt Ann’s fingers slip from mine once more. She was on her feet, standing between my father and I, one hand pressed to his chest.
“Samuel,” she said and she spoke in a whisper, so that only her husband might overhear her and no one else. “Samuel, it is enough. Enough.”
Her intervention gave me the space I needed. Rising, I bolted from my rickety chair and that horrible room and the smell and the people and the ministers and all that was sin and falsehood. Lies and darkness.
The shock of cool spring air on my burning flesh was enough to bring my breakfast up from my stomach. When I was just outside the inn, across the road by the village common where the fresh spring grass showed so green, I doubled over and vomited.
As I clutched at my stomach and wept and spit, I felt a gentle hand touch my back. Ann looked into my eyes. And in her face, I saw such a profound sadness that it threatened to break me.
But then she smiled weakly and wiped my mouth with a handkerchief and embraced me…as if I were her own child. Her own beloved daughter.
And for a moment, a brief, mad moment, I allowed myself to pretend that she was my mother, risen for the dead and whole once more.
It was not long before my father and the other ministers concluded that our village was besieged by witchcraft. On the wide roads and meandering lanes and old Indian footpaths people went about their business with new suspicion. I saw them pass under my window, guarded, watchful, with eyes that were both perilous and frightened, their mouths set into lines jagged with worry.
Gossip abounded. Ann, who was perhaps my only unprejudiced source of news, told me that neighbors were turning against each other, unearthing old grudges and blaming crop failures and sour milk and diseased livestock on witches. And where there were witches, the Devil was sure to be afoot. Mr. Compton swore he had seen a man dressed all in black in the woods one night and that this very man had presented him with a book and an iron pen and bade him sign with his own blood. But Mr. Compton had fled back into the village before the fiend could get a hold of him and his story had now become nearly as popular as the those that Hannah told at the inn.
But I myself had no stories to tell. I who had seen a man turn himself into a bird and had performed like wonders myself.
My father, I knew, was dreadfully perplexed at my sudden silence. Ever since I had cried out against Mr. Chestnut he could not bring me to name more of Satan’s servants. He pleaded with me and threatened me and prayed by my bedside, but despite my growing fear, I refused to give way. I told him that I was blind to spirits, that I wasn’t certain I had seen Mr. Chestnut’s familiar in the first place. He then became convinced that my “goodly nature” had forced me to protect the guilty. Nightly, he organized prayer meetings and brought the other ministers to my room to read Psalms.
But I stayed silent. Silent as the dead.
And every day, Hannah dug my grave deeper, spinning her tales on my original falsehood until I could scarce remember the truth myself.
I had to speak with her.
Strangely enough, there was little chance for me to find a private moment with her. In days past, her presence in our house was unavoidable. Many an afternoon we had spent in the kitchen, chatting like sisters while she shirked her duties and I secretly envied her confidence, her bravado. If only I had the makings of such character and wit, if only I had possessed the strength to not fear the shadows and all things unknown. Hannah had such talents and I knew she would use them now to destroy us all.
Often, my father excused her from her duties so that she might rest and recover from the horrible repression and assault of her spirit. Hannah, however, rarely stayed abed. Instead, she walked about in the village, earning admiring glances and whispered blessings and the admiration of all who crossed her path. For my part, I could not see anything holy about her demeanor and the way she carried herself in a world that was so open to superstition. Daily, I kept a vigil by my window, hoping that I might see her enter the house alone and catch her unawares. But oh, she was wily and despite my best efforts, it was she who found me one evening, upon the stairs just outside the company room.
I had turned into quite the nocturnal wandered, finding freedom only in the hours when my father and Ann and most of the village were abed. And Hannah, having guessed my nighttime habits, awaited me at the foot of the stairs.
She smiled when she saw me, a candle burning brightly in her hand.
“Constance, there you are!”
“Hannah.” My bare feet pattered on the smooth wooden steps. I pressed my right hand to the paneled wall to keep my balance. “We must talk.”
“Indeed we must.” She was looking bright and pretty in the dim light, her auburn hair not pinned up beneath her cap but lying loose around her shoulders. “Too much time has passed since we last cried out against Mr. Chestnut. The ministers are beginning to wonder.”
At once, I knew that she would not be open to reason and yet, so desperate was I that I was resolved to try.
There was a new gleam in her eyes, something I did not trust. Something wild and wicked. Something powerful.
Her fingers closed around the pewter candlestick, seemingly indifferent to the wax that dripped freely upon her knuckles.
“Is it not a wondrous thing?” she breathed.
I felt my heartbeat quicken as I reached the last step. “It is a lie, Hannah and you know it.”
Oh, such indignity! Such wretched, righteous indignity she showed. I thought she had half a mind to strike me and her free hand did twitch threateningly, but I still held my ground.
“Has the Devil taken you as well, Constance?” she asked shrewdly. “Have your father’s prayers and entreaties meant nothing?”
“You mock his piety yet,” I replied.
“Your father has done a fine job in making a mockery out of himself already,” she said, and for the first time, I heard insecurity in her voice. It was there, just barely. A thin sheet of ice above a troubled river. Despite her convincing playacting that had fooled most of the village and many supposedly learned ministers, Hannah was frightened.
The power she had won for herself was tenuous, an impermanent thing, and she needed my help to maintain it. I realized suddenly, with a surge of wild joy, that I had the upper hand.
“The things you have said, the things you have done…are they not but lies?” I asked, watching as her stoicism cracked and came undone.
“Our village is the greatest lie,” she told me. Her breath threatening to extinguish the candle as she spoke.
I felt my mother’s eyes upon us. Her portrait in the company room was under shadows. In the dark, she watched and judged us.
“Can you not see what we might do, Constance?” Hannah demanded. “It is in our hands to pull down their hypocrisy.”
My fingers dropped from the wall, clenching into a fist. “And condemn the innocent,” I countered.
“Have you learned nothing from your father’s sermons? There is not one amongst us that can claim to be sinless.”
“Then why should it be our place to judge?” I replied evenly, ignoring her attempts to rouse my temper.
But Hannah’s patience had run its course. She lashed out, grabbing my wrist with a strength I had never imagined she might possess.
“Will you denounce me as a liar?” she asked. “Take care, Constance, for you shall not be believed. Even your own father thinks that you are still in Satan’s grasp, deferring the great work of the virtuous.”
My anger came then, and I could not deny it. Throwing my weight back, I freed myself from her hold, falling against the steps as I did so. For a moment, the resounding clatter brought us both into silence. Nervously, I looked to the ceiling overhead, hoping that I had waked neither Ann nor my father.
Hannah, for her part, did not reach for me again.
“Your lies are not safe with me,” I told her as I moved back up the stairs.
When she laughed, her candle guttered, plunging us into the black.
“You will see the true way of things yet,” she said. “I will make you.”
As she spoke, I could almost hear the wicked smile in her voice. “I intend to cry out against Ann, Constance. Will you not thank me for my consideration? How long have you wished her dead?”
I froze on the top step. God, oh God.
Here was the heart of Hannah’s madness, I realized. And oh, it was a dreadful thing. Not misguided, but direct. Purposeful. A plot of revenge.
Anger bloomed in my bones and soon slipped into my veins, making my blood boil. So this was the cause of her mischief and it had little to do with righteousness or condemning sinners or the work of God.
Hannah hated Ann, disliked her because she was a strict mistress. Of a time, I myself might have shared in her disdain. But not now. No, never now.
My heart was in my throat. And yet, courage found me still, rare, blessed courage.
“If you cry out against my stepmother, it will be the end of you,” I said and left her to stand there alone in the dark, with naught but deceit and guile for company.
Author’s Note: We have about two chapters left in this story and an epilogue. Thank you all so much for sticking by this fic! I’m eternally grateful for your continued support and kind feedback.
The next chapter has already been written and should be posted soon. Until then, take care and be well!
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