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Chapter 10 : Chapter Ten
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“Constance, will you tend to the soup?”
Ann’s voice, the smooth vibrato of it, stirred me from my apathy. I was sitting at the kitchen table, running a dull knife over a stalk of celery while my stepmother kneaded the bread for our evening meal. The sleeves of her black gown were rolled up past her elbows and a smudge of flour besmirched her bodice. The heat from the hearth nearby had brought beads of sweat to her brow and she sighed as she worked the tough dough. Sighed because she was tired. Weary. Sighed because Hannah had run off to the inn again and left her, the mistress of the house, to work in the kitchen like a scullery maid.
And oh, it made me angry.
I put my knife to the side, cleaning my hands on my apron as I crossed to the hearth to stir the soup boiling in the cast iron pot that hung over the flames. From my place by the fire, I could just see out the open kitchen door and into the yard. It was late morning and a prettier spring day I could not have imagined. The wild forsythia bushes that clustered about the back of our house were in the bloom, the pretty yellow of their flowers standing out so vividly in a world of grey. A word that I despised. A world I no longer wished to be a part of since Hannah had cornered me on the stairs the night before and spilled such treachery from her cursed, putrid lips.
As I stirred the soup, I felt my own rage match the heat coming from the flames, felt it build inside me and push against my ribs as though my heart and lungs were fit to burst from my body.
Wretched girl. Deceitful girl. How could she think to do such a thing, how could she…
“Constance?” Once more, Ann’s soothing voice called me back.
My spine straightened, going rigid, and I removed the wooden spoon from the pot. “I think I ought to put the carrots in now,” I said numbly.
My stepmother stopped working the dough and leaned on the table, exhausted. A strand of her fair hair had escaped her cap and despite her weariness, I though she looked almost girlish.
Kind and calm and in the bloom of youth. Innocent.
But Hannah would take that innocence from her if she could. Take what was good and make it evil.
And she would do such a thing, she would hurt Ann if I did not stop her…
“Are you well, child?” Ann observed me, her expression frank.
She had been most surprised when, upon bringing me my breakfast at first light, I had insisted on quitting my bed and joining her in her daily chores. Ann had resisted at first, had tried to convince me to remain in my chamber so that I might rest. After all, according to her, I was perilously pale.
But I could not be swayed. Sleep would not come to me and to remain in bed, to lie prostrate on my back like a corpse while Hannah was out spinning her false tales seemed like a sin in and of itself.
And so I had joined Ann in the kitchen, had helped her clean the breakfast dishes and boil water for washing and bring firewood in from the stockpile outside. The work was hard, but satisfying. And as I distracted myself by using my hands and moving about the house, my mind settled. Cleared.
My path was laid open to me now. I had made my decision.
“I am fine,” I said, finding a smile for Ann even though my heart was heavy and grey as the storm clouds that come so often on summer afternoons. I crossed back over to the table and tried to turn my attention back to the carrots. My hands trembled when I gripped the knife though, the smooth handle slipping against my palm.
Would this be the last time I stood in this kitchen? Would this be the last time I did something as simple as prepare supper for my family and stirred soup and experienced the keen joy of catching the scent of bread baking on the hearthstones?
Yes, it would be, for my life was no longer mine to live. It had fallen away from me, running through my fingers like water and no matter how tightly I clenched my hand, I could not hold onto what remained.
I knew my road. I had made my choice. My final choice.
The moment Hannah cried out against Ann, I would confess myself guilty to a witch. I would stand up before my father and the court of clergymen and the whole village to profess my darkest, most damning sins. I would tell them that I had bewitched Hannah into crying out against both Mr. Chestnut and Ann and that I alone was in league with the Devil. And should they not believe me, should they not heed the ravings of a sickly, fragile young girl, then I would perform wonders before their very eyes.
I would do magic.
It was impossible to hold the knife now, for my hands betrayed my emotion, shaking so violently that I thought Ann would notice my hysteria and send me straight back to bed. To mask my disquiet, I scooped up what carrots I had already cut and carried them over to the pot in my apron.
It could be happening now and I would not even know it. Hannah might very well be standing in the inn, doing one of her mad dances, feigning a fit as she accused my stepmother of witchery. As she screamed her name over and over and over again…
I saw Mistress Palmer with the Devil!
The carrots dropped into the soup, causing the broth to bubble. I stepped back from the pot and the flames and tried to take a deep breath, but my stays pinched my sides.
Let Hannah say what she would. She did not know that I had already devised a way to stop her.
It was a sure death sentence and I knew it. But perhaps I had at last reached that stage of selfless martyrdom where I would condemn my own flesh for the sake of an innocent. As it was, I dreaded more my father’s utter devastation than my own death. His reputation, which he had worked so hard to build, to win from the stiff-necked members of his congregation, would be in tatters. Surely, he would have no way of recovering what little trust he had earned from his parishioners. A veritable pariah, both he and Ann would be driven from the village, forced to resign themselves to the wild frontier or the familiarity of England, where no one knew of my crimes.
But then again, perhaps he would denounce me so fervently that the villagers would be forgiving. And yet, I sometimes hoped that he might love me enough to intervene on my behalf.
And God help me, in my darkest hours, I doubted even that mercy.
My father was locked in his study even now, pouring over his books. Praying. Wondering, perhaps, where he had gone wrong, why evil had invaded his house, which he had always believed to be pious and goodly.
I wanted to run to him, to fall upon my knees before him and beg for forgiveness, to explain just why I could not relieve his fears and name more witches.
As it was, the whole world was waiting upon Hannah or myself to cry out against those in league with the Devil. Frustrated and fretful, my father and the other ministers had taken to questioning poor Mr. Chestnut. If he confessed to witching me, or Hannah, for that matter, he should be spared the noose.
But Mr. Chestnut was stubborn, as he had been his first winter in New England when the cold took three of his fingers from him.
He maintained his innocence.
I thought I could save him. I thought I could save Ann and the entire village end even Hannah if only given the chance.
If only given the chance….
A shrill sizzling, accompanied by much frothing and bubbling, turned my attention back to the world around me once more. The soup had boiled over and was streaming down the sides of the pot, spilling onto the hearthstones and flooding the flickering flames.
Blindly, I reached for a rag on the table, but Ann was quicker. Darting over to the hearth, she used her apron to lift the pot off the flames. In a moment, the boiling ceased and although half the soup was on the floor, at least some of the broth had been saved.
And there I stood, benumbed, bewildered, awaiting the shame that Ann’s scolding would bring, or my own tears, which threatened to spill past my eyes.
But my goodly stepmother only smiled. Smiled at me.
“A small accident,” she said cheerfully and touched my shoulder. “Do not be upset, child.”
Oh! I turned away from her, drying my eyes on the corner of my apron. Such words of wisdom from a kind woman. If only, dear God, I could heed her.
I should like to think that I would have gone through with my selfless intentions of martyrdom, but I was spared the effort by the arrival of Mr. Rockwood. He came to me that very night, alighting upon my window casement as the tawny-feathered owl.
After the evening meal I had repaired to my room and spent a few hours in darkness gazing out my window. Mr. Chestnut’s house sat across the road and it seemed sinister now as it stood in the shadows, surrounded by invisible phantoms.
As far as I could tell, Hannah had not yet denounced Ann. The girl had returned home after our meal, spoken a few words to my father and retired to her own chamber. Watching her trip so gaily up the stairs, I had half a mind to throttle her.
But what would it matter in the end? Either way, I was the one set to be throttled…by a noose.
It was with a desperate heart and morbid mind that I kept vigil by my window, only startled out of my dismal malaise when Mr. Rockwood came to call. He sat on the sill very genteelly and tapped his beak against the pane.
Long ago, I remembered my father telling me that a person had to invite the evil into one’s house or it should never sink its roots into the hearts of men.
But there was evil in my home already. It crept up the stairs and through the rooms and huddled beneath the mantle in the company room where my mother’s portrait hung. Inviting Mr. Rockwood inside my chamber, I decided, could do little harm.
I drew back the latch. Oh, how elegantly Mr. Rockwood winged into my room, settling upon the floorboards as his form shifted and he became man once more.
He smiled at me as he removed his hat. “Good evening, Constance. How do you fare?”
I stared into his dark eyes and found no menace there. And thinking back to the day in the forest and the afternoon he had come to visit Ann, I realized that there had never been any threat of wickedness about him.
Had I only imagined it, perhaps?
“Do not mock me, sir,” I replied. There was nary a pair of ears in all the countryside that had not been poisoned with suspicions of witchcraft and the plight of my own tiny village.
Mr. Rockwood, I guessed, surely must know a good part of my sorry tale.
And indeed, he did smile. “Forgive me, child. I should never mock you. But mind, I did give you fair warning.”
“You came upon me in the woods and frightened the life out of me,” I said, my voice more accusing than I intended it to be. But then I fell silent, realizing that my father and Ann might easily overhear our conversation from their chamber. What would they say if they found me entertaining a strange gentleman in the middle of the night? And what would they think if I told them he had not come through the front door, but rather had flown in through my window?
Mr. Rockwood seemed to sense my sudden trepidation. He looked once towards my closed door and then back to me. “You needn’t worry,” he said. “Your parents cannot hear us…I have made sure of it.”
I fell about to wringing my hands. “How, pray tell?”
His smile widened, showing a hint of white teeth. “Magic. Before I came a knocking on your window I cast a spell. Now do not look so terrified, child! It is not dangerous in the least. I only meant to mute our voices so that your parents might sleep on undisturbed. Ha! My wife uses the same spell when she wishes to gossip with her women friends and does not want me listening in from the next room.”
I tried to mask my astonishment. Since I had become aware of my powers, I had never felt the pull of curiosity direct my attention to the possibilities of magic. And dear God, it did seem wondrous now, even in this dark hour.
I sank weak-kneed onto the edge of my bed. “Such things I could have never imagined.”
“Oh, they are simple enough, once you’ve had some learning.” Mr. Rockwood dropped his hat onto my washstand and placed his hands on his hips. “Forgive me for being so inquisitive, but you do not seem terribly opposed to me anymore. Has your fear of discovery done the impossible and summoned your bravery?”
“It is not my fear of discovery,” I said thickly. “I’ve already made up my mind. I have no choice.”
The moonlight coming in through my window made his dark hair silvery. Shadows were etched into the rough planes of his face and I saw benevolence hiding amidst his otherwise cheerful nature. But now he turned serious.
“What have you decided?” Mr. Rockwood asked.
“Our serving girl, Hannah, has promised to cry out against my stepmother. If I confess myself guilty to a witch and claim that I have bewitched Hannah to act so, then innocent lives might be saved.”
Mr. Rockwood nodded. “That is very noble of you.”
“It is a penance,” I replied. “One that I deserve.”
“Ah.” He drew his lips together. “I am sorry, but I’m afraid I cannot let you have your penance, Constance.”
There was no threat in his voice, but still my limbs went stiff with worry. “What mean you?”
Mr. Rockwood shook his head, looking oddly amused. “Oh, would I had an entire month to explain this to you, Constance, and not but an hour. If you had not taken so unkindly to me in the forest, then we might have avoided this haste now. As it is, I will tell you what I can, although you must rely upon me for some things…in plain speaking, you must trust me.”
Without my leave, he sat next to me on the edge of my bed, his tone conspiring. “You have no doubt recognized the fear through which Muggles--non-magic folk--view witchcraft. They do not understand that our powers are not harmful, that they are not sent from Hell or used for mischief. Due to these unlucky misconceptions, there has been much trouble for both factions…too much trouble. You see what has become of your village these past weeks. Innocents will be hurt all because of a misunderstanding.”
“No,” I replied, feeling the bitterness of my falsehood taint my tongue, “because of a lie.”
Mr. Rockwood held up a broad hand. “Let us not diverge. The hour is late already. I will speak with you frankly and bid you listen. I have in my power to save both your life and that of your friends. Please, I beg of you, be open to what I will tell you.”
I was attentive now, though rightly suspicious. What man could claim such powers belonged to him? Certainly, they were not wholesome, although I decided to stay my judgment until he had finished speaking.
Mr. Rockwood looked at me with sympathy. “There have been occasions, such as this one, when Muggle parents produce children gifted with magic. Since coming to New England, my wife and I have taken it upon ourselves to seek out such children and explain their talents to both them and their parents. Sometimes, the family is accepting, however, as with you, Constance, I think it would be a danger for you to remain in your father’s house.”
Inexplicably, tears pricked the corners of my eyes.
Mr. Rockwood hurried on. “That is not to say that your father does not love you. I know he does. But he cannot understand your gifts for what they are and in the current climate, I think he might unknowingly lead you to harm. The whole of the countryside is eager to root out witches and whether you confess yourself or not, you will be discovered. You see, Constance, I’ve come to take you away. It is not safe for you here.”
“Away?” My voice cracked and convulsively, my fingers gripped my mother’s quilt. “You wish me to leave my home? But where could I go? And what of Ann? I simply cannot abandon her to Hannah’s revenge.”
Again, Mr. Rockwood held up his hand. “This is a very hard thing, but rest assured, you will be given a happy home with my wife and family. We have a fine house in the countryside of Rhode Island and with us live many magical children who have also been forced to quit their families. My wife and I instruct them in magic and how to disguise themselves from Muggles. We all live in perfect contentment, though I know this is no balm for you who will sorely miss your family.”
I could not think of his proposal now. My throat was tight and when I spoke, my trembling voice betrayed unsteady emotion. “And what of Ann?”
“I promised you that I could help her…and Hannah,” he said softly. “There are spells which will make Hannah forget her purpose and admit that she is blind to spirits. If she cries out no more, then the fever will die down in the village. And with you gone, there will be no suspicious happenings to arouse it once more.”
“And so her salvation relies on my departure,” I replied. Although I did not wish to conceive of such a thing, I realized the terrible danger that my family was in. But oh, how hard it should be for me to leave them and step into the unknown! I did not think I had the strength for such a thing.
“May I never see them again?” I asked Mr. Rockwood.
He did not answer at once. “If you learn to control your magic,” he said at length, “and disguise it around Muggles, then yes, you may return. Not to stay, that would be too dangerous, but to visit.”
I looked away from him, unable to disguise the self-loathing that had, at once, risen up within me. The fault of such misfortune laid in my own deficiencies. Was it not enough to live in danger of my life, but to now be separated from the only comfort I had ever known within the protection of my family?
“I must consider this first,” I told him.
But Mr. Rockwood only stood and shook his head fiercely. “I cannot give you time. You must come with me tonight, Constance. Now. Do you not see the terrible danger in all this?”
Mistrust, born from my own hatred and denial made my eyes harden as I stared at him. “And how is it that I may walk blindly with you into the night? Could you not be leading me into greater peril? I know you not, sir and yet you ask me now to forsake safety for the unknown?”
I expected him to become angry with me, as he seemed impatient enough with my dawdling. But to my surprise, he looked at me tenderly and with the same affection my father rarely expressed. “I can give you no proof of my intentions,” Mr. Rockwood said, “but take heed, my child. You face certain discovery and death here if your remain. Would it not be wiser to flee?”
I hesitated. His argument, though hard to bear, seemed to be the only source of reason left in my world. Shivering, I clasped my hands together. “You must give me some token of your good character,” I insisted.
Outside my window, the eastern sky had been drained of its ebony and replaced by a dark blue.
Time, ah time!
“Then you must do something else for me,” I said, standing with my hands clenched into determined fists. “You must first cast the spell on Hannah to make her forget her desire to harm my stepmother. If you are true to your word and the spell works, then and only then will I accompany you.”
Author’s Note: Well, there you have it. Another chapter finished. We have one more chapter left and then the epilogue.
As always, I would like to thank everyone who has taken to read/review/add this story to their favorites so far. I cannot possibly express how much I appreciate your kind comments and encouragement.
The next installment has already been written and should be posted soon. Have a great week, all!
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