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The Witchfinder’s Sister By Beth Underdown

When society is in trouble, it finds a woman to blame. It's a truth so universal that it goes back as far as the 17th century (and undoubtedly far further), when, in the midst of the English Civil War, and after a long period without witchcraft trials, England was stricken with a bloodlust for them. Over 200 women were trialled during this time, many of whom by  the self-appointed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. In Beth Underdown's impressive debut, Matthew's fictional sister Alice returns to her native Essex after her husband is killed. Her only surviving relative, her brother, is distant and zealous. As the story progresses, Alice is faced with horrifying reality that her brother is plotting to exterminate the women of the village that he deems guilty of witchcraft. It's a slow-burning horror, rich in historical detail and is shockingly relevant for the times we live in. COD

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THE WITCHFINDER'S SISTER

Beth Underdown

£14.99, Viking

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When society is in trouble, it finds a woman to blame. It's a truth so universal that it goes back as far as the 17th century (and undoubtedly far further), when, in the midst of the English Civil War, and after a long period without witchcraft trials, England was stricken with a bloodlust for them. Over 200 women were trialled during this time, many of whom by  the self-appointed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. In Beth Underdown's impressive debut, Matthew's fictional sister Alice returns to her native Essex after her husband is killed. Her only surviving relative, her brother, is distant and zealous. As the story progresses, Alice is faced with horrifying reality that her brother is plotting to exterminate the women of the village that he deems guilty of witchcraft. It's a slow-burning horror, rich in historical detail and is shockingly relevant for the times we live in. COD

Chapter:

One

The fifth day of Christmas, this year of our Lord 1645 

Once, I scarcely believed in the devil. I scorned the kind of folk who earnestly think he can put on physical form, like a coat, whether that form be like a cat or a dog or some warped combining of the two; those who have it that the devil can enter a person in such a manner that he can be deftly taken out again, like a stone from a plum. I scorned those who believe such things. I lived in London once: I can remember how to sneer. 

But I am not in London any more. Nine months ago I had cause to come back to my own strange corner of Essex; and since I did, things have happened that make it harder to say what I do and do not believe. 

My coming home at the end of March, those first few days are still sharp in my mind. Each day, each of those first hours, is preserved like an etching, separate and clear. But the later days, those later weeks as matters progressed, they are already starting to become somewhat bleached, somewhat blurred, like faces seen from a cart as it gathers up downhill speed. 

Now it is Christmastide: I know it is, for I have been notching a floorboard each day, as prisoners do in tales. I have kept my count faithfully, showed myself methodical for once, like my brother. While I have been counting, the weather has changed and changed again: the pricking heat of late summer, and then the autumn chill. Today I can see my breath, and as I finish each line I have to break off from writing to curl my cold fingers into the neck of my gown. Soon I will have to lay aside my pen, and walk up and down to keep warm. 

This chamber measures six of my paces along, though I must change direction slightly at one end to avoid my small bed and the things next to it – my chamber pot, a pitcher for water and a flimsy bowl for washing. Up and down I pace, back and forth in front of the chamber’s sturdy door. I try to avoid the sight of the keyhole, to resist the urge to stop and look through it. I never see anything, only the patch of wall across the passage as some slow movement of air dries my eye, but I cannot stop myself looking. I cannot shake the feeling, when I put my eye to the gap, that what I will see is another eye, looking back. 

So, you see, I am glad to have the distraction of writing. I need distraction, not least from my stomach, for this now is my third day without food. Though perhaps it is apt that I should be hungry: since the King fled his palace, Christmas is a time for fasting, rather than feasting. But I am resolved to mark the season in the old way, by making a Christmas gift, and my gift will be to myself. It will be the chance to tell the truth. I will set it down now, while my memory holds. There is nothing to prevent me, for though I am imprisoned, I am not forbidden writing materials: ink, and pens, and paper have been brought to me without complaint. I fear it means they do not intend to let me go. 

But I will not think of that. I will not flinch. I will set it down, the full history of my brother, what he has done. I will lay it out in black and white, and my tale will contain more truth than the great dead histories on my father’s bookshelves. For they say what happened, but not what it was like. They say what happened, but they do not say why. 

In these middle days of Christmas, when I was a child, everything would stop. The whole world would grow still. You would venture out for an hour to take the air, and coming in again you would stamp your feet, knock yourself free of snow. Then later, because it was a holiday, someone would tell a story: some tale, invented wholly or in part, but always full of dread and death and strangeness. This tale of mine, for certain it contains its share of those things, but though I wish to God it was invented, my tale is true. 

For nine months ago, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women. He took women from houses never quiet from the sound of waves, from inland places by damp tidal creeks where the salt on the wind is a reminder of their men – husbands, sons – who never came back from the sea or the war; who didn’t want to come back, or could not. Matthew took those women and he killed them, but without once breaking the law. He took women who did not want their own children, women who wanted other people’s, and, at least at first, there was hardly a murmur to prevent him. For a woman is brought up to believe that children are her life’s work – to make them and feed them and kiss their hurts. But what happens if you cannot have children? If you have too many? If you have them, and they cannot protect you? If you have them, and they die? If you weep for your loss too much, or not enough – that is when folk begin to wonder if it is your fault, your misfortune. They begin to wonder how you can have offended God, and their wonderings turn ripe for a man like my brother to exploit. 

I will write the whole sad business down, for no one living knows as much of Matthew’s reasons as I. Though they do not excuse him, Matthew has his reasons, and they are there for the finding, in his past; in our past. You might wonder why I did not prevent him from what he embarked upon. Well, I will set that down, too. These last months, I have learned that the acknowledged history that belongs to the daylight, that is not the only history. Turn over the stone and you will find another history, wriggling to escape. 

***

The twentieth day of March, year of our Lord 1645 

Once I had finished talking down the price of the journey home, it struck me how I had never thought to see Manningtree again. Or not in such circumstances. I think I had expected to go back to visit Mother, with my husband and my several children. But not to go back like this: empty-handed and alone. 

I did not bargain too hard with the carter: it had taken me all morning to find someone carrying cloth and wine all the way to Colchester, with a break in the journey at a reputable inn. I was glad for a moment when he nodded, and let me climb up among the bales of cloth, but all I felt was numbness as we left the walls of London behind. Numbness, and weariness. It seemed beyond me to find the correct words and the correct way to speak them, to do all the small pieces of work of arranging my cap and standing up straight and offering a sad smile as I would need to do to meet my brother again. 

The dark days of the new year had taken first Mother and then my husband, Joseph, into death, and I had not been sleeping, and nor had I yet cried. I lay in the cart, hardly seeing the houses and fields as they went by until, lulled by the cart’s rocking, I had to dismiss the strange fancy that I was a girl again, going home to nothing more demanding than a scolding and a hot meal. As if my marriage had been some holiday lark that I was sorry for now: some jest, which had got slightly out of hand. I forced myself to sit up straight; reminded myself that I was coming back to a brother I had not seen in five long years, who, when last we spoke, had called me a word I had never thought to hear him say. 

Matthew knew I was coming home, though I had not told him why. I had not had the strength to tell him that my husband was dead. After Joseph’s burial I had started a letter to Matthew, beginning with a greeting; I had counted on my fingers, and written down a date in March. But then I had paused. We had always sworn when we were little, Matthew and I, that when we were grown up and living apart, we would write every week. But as matters had turned out, I had heard nothing from him in all those five years. The pen dried in my hand, and when I sent him the note it contained only my formal good wishes, and the date I would return. 

Cramped in the cart, I tried to comfort myself by taking out the one letter my brother had ever written me: at the turn of the year, a most civil letter, to tell me that Mother was dead. He had written, The minister will want to bury her as soon as this cold eases. He had written, You would be welcome with me at the Thorn. The words after that were darker, as if he had sat thinking for long enough to need to dip his pen again, before adding, Your husband will be welcome, too. The letter had arrived only days after Joseph’s death. Though it was indeed a civil letter, I could not help noticing that my brother still would not make Joseph any greeting, or even write his name. 

As the cart came down into Chelmsford a pair of vagabonds were sitting on the wall outside the gate, shouting, ‘Parliament or King?’ at anyone passing. Soon we pulled up, and as I climbed painfully down, I heard the carter give a subdued greeting, and turned to see five or six men idling outside the inn. They looked hard, sharp-eyed, equipped for cold and for disaster alike, as if those twin things had grown ordinary – as indeed they have. For this now is the fourth year there has been trouble in England. 

It is the common kind of war, about who should govern and how; but it is worse than any war that came before it. For since this war, there are villages missing half their men, gone pressed or – almost worse – gone willingly. This war, it is being fought not only with swords, or even with the guns they have now. This is also a war of thoughts, of words printed or hurled in anger between father and son, between brothers. Arguments that start about King Charles’s Catholic wife and finish with whether there should be bishops or no. This war will not end, and it has divided families, and it has taught a generation of women to endure the lurches of fighting and waiting as they do the weather. 

That night at the Chelmsford inn, I had the money for only a shared bed, and by the time I had eaten and got myself upstairs the other woman was already under the covers, lying very still, embracing her bundled possessions. I took her to be asleep, until I saw that her eyes were open, and she was watching me. I greeted her, and asked her where she was bound. 

‘London,’ she said.

‘Do you have kin there?’

‘No.’ She shifted beneath the blankets. 

She did not seem to wish to share more, so I fell to getting my things stowed for the night. But while I was undressing, her stomach growled, breaking the quiet. I thought to ignore it, not wanting to shame her, but as I was about to get in beside her, the growling came again. 

‘Would you take some bread?’ I said. I found what I had bought for the next day’s journey, broke off part of it and held it out. She looked at me, mistrustful, but then she pushed herself up in the bed, the blanket bunched over her legs, and reached out to take the food. She did not thank me. 

‘It’s either eat or sleep safely,’ she said, when she had swallowed her first bite. ‘Can’t do both.’ 

I let her eat in peace as I closed my bag and laid it away. When I lifted my side of the covers she was chewing her last mouthful, and when at last I had settled myself, she turned her head on the pillow and said, ‘I can tell fortunes, you know.’ 

I shook my head, thinking she was offering it as some foolish payment for the bread. But she said, ‘Indeed, you should believe me. I learned it off my grandmother, and though I can see but little, what I do see, it always comes true.’ She spoke softly. ‘I will tell yours, mistress, for three-pence.’ Her voice was warmer, more confiding than before. 

I knew she had taken me for someone who could soon be parted from what belonged to her. But then I thought of the noise the woman’s stomach had made. I did not have much, but if I judged right, she had next to nothing. I was on my way home, to safety. God knew where she was on her way to. And, in truth, I was curious. Though it was a small risk, it was still a risk, offering such a thing to a stranger. 

‘Very well,’ I said awkwardly, and she took my hand. Surprised at her sudden grip, I pulled back, but she kept hold of it, and spread it at. 

‘It is a foreign way of doing it,’ she said, settling herself. ‘Very ancient, though.’ 

She said that first I must tell her my name; when I spoke one, she shook her head. ‘No, your true name,’ she repeated. I told it to her, but I did not like it, her having hold of me like that. Her own hands were cold and not clean. Yet I did not pull away again; for a moment later she began to speak. 

‘You are troubled, Alice,’ she said. ‘You are mourning your husband.’ 

So much I could have guessed myself, about a woman travelling alone in a black dress. But then she peered more closely. ‘But there will be a man soon to keep you finer than your husband did. Tall, dark,’ she said. I felt a fool, and almost shook my hand out of her grip, but then she added, ‘Five children you’ll have had, by the time you’re done.’ She looked up to see if I was pleased. 

‘Go on,’ I said. I did not feel pleased, but I was listening now. 

She rubbed with her thumb at my palm, as though she were trying to clean a smear from it. ‘You’ll make a journey this summer, June, July, and then August you will be confined.’ My heart quickened. She was right. That would be my time. She was seeing the darkness of the birthing chamber. 

‘What about September?’ I could not stop myself asking her. ‘Will I have a child in my arms?’ 

She pressed the fleshy part of my thumb, and blinked. Suddenly she seemed uncertain. ‘I cannot see,’ she said. She studied my hand a moment longer, and then she sat up. ‘I cannot tell you,’ she said. Her face was closed. She bit her lip, then murmured something about how it often came and then went again. But she seemed troubled after that. For an hour or more, she kept me awake, turning over and over in the dark. 

Two

I felt uneasy, the next morning, as I climbed back up into the cart. It did not help that as we moved o one of the horses startled and the cart jerked forward, throwing me hard against its wooden side. Shaking, I braced myself more firmly between the bales of cloth, the better to protect my belly and what it contained. 

Through the morning the way grew more familiar, but the familiarity was comfortless: each church or gate I recognized only sharpened the memory of myself as a hopeful bride, going the other way. 

It was March, remember, and rain had followed the winter’s hard freeze, which of late had come back again. The road was mud under thin ice, bad for the horses. At Colchester I had to wait two hours in the rain to change to another cart, this one carrying grain, and from it I gazed out over fields where anything that could feel the cold was dead, or looked it. The grass in the verge, the willow and hazel in the hedge, all were sodden brown and silent. Great oaks waited, their branches black with wet, but only the ivy and mistletoe that twined them seemed awake. A holly standing by the wayside hurt my eyes with unaccustomed green. 

Manningtree is on the Essex side, where the Stour divides that county from Suffolk, then spreads itself to the sea. You smell the place before you reach it: rank tidal mud, and people, the muck that comes with people. It is a scant seven miles from Wenham, where Matthew and I were born, but it feels leagues distant. Where Wenham is only a church, a vicarage, some scattered farms, Manningtree is a town. It has a square and a market to occupy it; it has docks, from which sailors come and go, speaking their own saltier version of English. There are hovels and low dwellings out along the road before the town proper, and there were more of these than I remembered, the day I came back. Folk stooped out of them to regard the cart as we went by, their stares hungry, and the carter clicked his tongue that the horses should quicken their pace. 

When we reached the docks, he did not move to help me down: I was grubby from the road, and not yet showing. I shifted for myself and paid him carefully, counting the coins into his hand, with one more for him to leave my box where I could send someone to collect it. As the cart moved off behind the warehouses, I put away my empty purse. My tongue felt dry. I stayed a minute, across the road from the Thorn, and tried to be calm, brushing myself down, picking off the lint that had coated my dress. Underfoot the paving was slick with wet, and the docks quiet. I pulled my cloak tighter and paused. 

When Matthew had written to me of Mother’s death, he had told me that he had taken the lease on the Thorn, and was living there for a time. I had wondered what my brother could want with an inn, but now I saw the place through his eyes: the small windows and the riveted door, the great height of the gate that led into the stableyard. How it would be warm inside; how you could defend it, with four men, or five. 

It was a solid building, just as I remembered; a staid and respectable building, though a decade past its glory. The sign wanted retouching, where the dark tree and the letters were flaking into the air. I had thought it might be easier, reacquainting ourselves somewhere less familiar than the house we had lived in with Mother. Now, though, something about the place felt wrong. Yet it might have been only the quiet that discomforted me, for while the inn was well lit, it had what seemed a purposeful quiet, like a child’s when you have told it to fasten its lips. 

I was aware of my dirty face and neck, as if the yellow light in the Thorn’s windows could reach across the road to expose them. I stood still a minute, and spoke severely to myself. He’s your little brother. You got married, it’s not a crime: and what if you did dismay him? It has been years. Looking at the lit windows of the public room, I thought, Well, I can at least avoid greeting him in front of strangers. 

I crossed the road, and went through the yard at the side of the inn. A man leaned in the stable entry and stared at me, but offered no greeting. I walked straight past him, avoiding his gaze, and knocked at the back door. The light inside made a bright straight gap underneath. I felt sick and jolted; all I wanted was to rest, but I prepared a smile. I heard no feet approaching, so I knocked again, and had scarce lowered my arm when the door was yanked open. 

It was a servant, plain-faced. She was broad, and when she placed her hand on the doorframe I saw that her nails were bitten down to nothing. She had dark brows, and she looked at me from under them. I watched her take me in: my dress, my lack of baggage, the state of my gloveless hands before I could draw them out of sight. Her mouth tightened. 

‘We’ve no jobs,’ she said.

‘I’m looking for Master Hopkins.’

‘He’s out.’ The woman made to shut the door, but I placed my foot discreetly in its path.

‘I am his sister,’ I said. I looked the woman in the eye. ‘You may show me a room, if you please, and send a boy for my box over the road.’ I took in her hard eyes, the cap crammed on her head. I knew she would think politeness weak. ‘I’ll have hot water in half an hour,’ I said, and stepped forward. ‘Did you not expect me?’ 

Grudging, she stood back to let me pass. I did not know what it meant, that Matthew was not there; I had braced myself to face him. The servant was making a business of fastening the latch behind us, mumbling something about expecting me at the front door, which I permitted myself not to hear. 

I glanced about me. To my right was what I guessed, from the steam and heat, to be the kitchens; then two more doors before the stairs turned up left into darkness, away from the uncertain rush light. I could hear no voices within, until the woman finished with the door, and called out, not taking her eyes from me. I wondered what portion she had heard of the gossip that must have got about when I had gone away. 

‘You are not much like your brother, mistress,’ she said, ‘he being so dark.’ 

I smiled, the even smile with which Father had always met any rudeness. ‘People remark upon it,’ I said. 

A girl came out from the kitchen, wiping her hands, which were plump like a child’s and red from hot water. Her name was Grace, she told me, climbing ahead up the stairs. I took them slowly, found myself swaying, suddenly, with tiredness. She showed me the upper floor, leading me along the passage; these were for guests, this the room the servants shared, that way the attic. At last she led me back towards the stairs, and into another chamber, but not before she had pointed to the door beside my own and said, ‘That one is the master’s.’ 

The room Grace showed me had a bed with blue hangings, a chest, a cupboard and a chair. A fire was laid ready in the cold grate. Grace went downstairs to fetch a taper, and I sat on the bed, just as I was. I felt unsteady, from facing the woman below, from the ordeals of the journey, and from the meeting with my brother, for which I had readied myself but been spared. I could hear no voices, only a distant clanking that might have been from the kitchen, and the wind, sighing in the chimney. 

I dug with my fingers into the soft blue quilt. How long had I been wanting a quilt like that, a quilt to lie under, and not think, a bed with the right balance of firmness and give? 

Money had been spent, I saw, on the heavy fabric of the bed drapes, which hung straight down to brush the floor; the glazing in the windows, unfoxed and clear; the quantity of logs on the fire, and the gleam of the pitcher and bowl on the corner washing stand. Everything had been thought of; the room contained all that a guest could need. But nothing in the room was familiar – there was nothing from Mother’s house that I could recognize, and that was a relief, too. 

It was odd to think that all this was my brother’s; if he allowed me to stay, it would be mine. You must understand that, after my years in London, it felt appealing, the possibility of comfort, and someone to provide it. The mere thought of not needing to worry about eating, about rent. 

I barely heard the sound of feet on the stairs, and then Grace was back in the room. She knelt to touch her taper to the kindling, and began to add small coals with her fingers. The rustlings and scrapings she made were comforting. Then there was noise on the stairs, and a little lad dragged my box into the room. After he had laid it down he stared a moment, so that Grace had cause to give him a look, ask him if there were anything else. When he had gone, she shut the door behind him and came nearer. ‘Shall I, mistress?’ she said, pointing to my boots. 

I thanked her, and she knelt to pick at the lacings, which were swollen with wet. I saw she had pretty hair, the light red that was almost gold. I guessed, from the simple way she took each boot into her lap, that she seldom helped ladies. That the last time she had done this task it had been for someone old, or else for a little brother or sister, some child too young to learn their knots. It touched me, the rough way about her. 

‘I’m afraid the room will take some warming through, mistress,’ Grace said. Though her accent made me smile, her deference perturbed me. I was not used to servants any more; we had never had more than a scullery maid since moving to Manningtree after Father’s death, and I had done most of the work of the house. In London, the training turned useful, for once I married Joseph, I had not been able to afford a servant. So it felt peculiar, sitting still to let Grace unlace my boots. Despite my weariness, a portion of my mind was occupied in how I could prevent her from looking through my box, seeing the state of my clothes. 

I wondered if she knew who I was, like the one downstairs. Whether she knew that I was a minister’s daughter who had married a servant’s son. I swallowed, and tried to think that it did not matter now. That the gossip would be stale, though in truth I knew that the child I was carrying would refresh it. I was not yet used to the thought of the child, growing in the dark: it had been only a few weeks that I had been certain. 

I watched Grace, as she worked at my laces. Thick with weariness, I could think of nothing to ask her, but I felt the need to say something; to make an ally, after the coldness of the woman downstairs. The first knot finally gave to Grace’s picking, and I felt the right boot loosen. I said, ‘My husband’s mother told us in her letter how at Christmas the river froze.’ 

Grace nodded, tugging at the boot. ‘Not here, but as far down as Flatford. And it didn’t thaw for a good fortnight. Not until the frost broke in January.’ She looked at me, but then dipped her head, as though she would bite her tongue. 

I knew how Matthew had been forced to wait for that same frost’s breaking to be able to bury Mother: she must have lain at least a week before the ground had softened itself to receive her. Now Grace was thinking she had misspoken, had grieved me. 

I cleared my throat, casting for another subject. ‘And do you know when my brother is coming home?’ 

‘He said tomorrow night, mistress. He’s only gone to Ipswich. But he does come back early, in the night sometimes. Mary Phillips, who let you in, she says he does it to catch us idling,’ she finished, her little face solemn. 

I smiled. ‘Does she?’ I said. 

Grace stood up, the paired boots in her hand. ‘Mary says therefore we should never be idle,’ she added, and then she turned to settling the fire. 

It was too strange to think of my brother managing servants, managing women servants; this peculiar small girl. What could she be? Seventeen? I wondered what her history was. 

Adding the larger coals, Grace seemed to grow less wary. She talked about my brother’s trips to see the man who weighed the grain onto his boats; how he did all manner of writing and reading, but only for folk of the good sort, and she named some, names I knew as the men who ran the town. She said how they came to the Thorn to wait on him while he scribed for them. Her voice turned so reverent when she spoke of Matthew’s reading and writing that I interrupted her. ‘You make it sound as though folk have set up worshipping my brother, Grace, since I have been away. The men you mention, they can read and write well enough themselves.’ 

She stood up, dusting her hands. ‘Mary says the master has greater learning than any round here. She says he has as much knowledge of religion as the minister and of the Bible also. He has a book as well that has the names of all the witches written down in it. Mary says.’ 

Seeing my face, she faltered. I was thinking that the older servant had been amusing herself at the girl’s expense. In the silence, a log moved as it burned. 

‘Indeed,’ I said lightly. ‘I wonder where he acquired it?’ I smiled, and cleared my throat, tried to make my voice brisk. ‘I should get washed,’ I said, and began to shed layers of clothing – cloak, and a shawl underneath, onto the bed. Grace stepped nearer to pick them up, and then she halted.

‘He has talked of you more often, mistress. The master. Since your mother died,’ she said.

‘Has he?’ I wondered if it showed, how hungry I was to hear of his goodwill.

Dropping her eyes, she carefully folded my damp and dirty cloak. ‘It seems fitting,’ she said, ‘that there should be a woman in the house again. For men do not manage well, do they? Alone.’ 

It almost made me smile again, to hear that pronouncement from her, at her young age. I made my voice jesting: ‘Well, but he has Mary Phillips,’ I said. ‘He has you.’ 

Before Grace turned away for the door, I caught her blush. As I continued undressing myself, I thought, surely she cannot be soft for him – for my brother, who had always looked at a girl as at some strange item brought in by the tide. Like poor Thomas Witham’s daughter. But then I wondered if I had been mistaken, for a minute later, when Grace came back in with a bath sheet, she was more formal with me again, her face betraying no sign of the colour it had shown before. 

When she had gone, I slipped off my gown, longing for the steaming water. As I laid it aside, I saw a dark mark on my belly. At first I thought it was dirt, but when I licked my thumb and rubbed it lightly, it hurt, and I remembered how I had fallen in the cart. It was a bruise. As I stepped into the bath I tried not to think that it boded badly. For certain, it would not help to worry. 

Later, as I rubbed my hair dry, I noticed there was no mirror in the room. But, of course, there would not be: Matthew had always disliked them, and had even learned to shave himself with only his dark reflection swimming in a bowl of water. I knew then that I was even more afraid to see him than I had been before my arrival, and not only because of our bad parting. Growing up, I had ceased to notice how he looked different from other people. I was afraid that, with our long separation, I would notice his scars afresh, and that he would see it in my face, and be angry, and ashamed. 

After the lights were put out I lay dry-eyed, staring at the ceiling. I could not help but listen for the hoofs that might mean my brother; could not help but wonder whether Grace was in her own bed, somewhere nearby, her ears trained towards the same sound. I fell asleep thinking how peculiar it was, to hear my brother called ‘master’. 

Three

When Matthew was an infant he was burned in the kitchen fire. He must have gone in hands and head first, for even once it had healed all it ever would the scars still extended up the delicate flesh of his left forearm to his neck, and from his neck the red puckered rawness crept up about his chin to touch the left side of his face. 

Being less than two years older than him, I do not remember the burns when they were fresh. Though I do remember, as a girl standing thoughtful by the kitchen hearth, watching the blaze, wondering whether there was a moment when the warmth, the licking, felt almost pleasant, before the pain. But my brother could not enlighten me: he had no memory either of what had passed, the day he was burned. Yet I often suspected that his flesh remembered, for he would inch almost before touching anything hot, and when we all sat together in the evening he always kept well back from the fire, in the colder and darker portions of the room. 

My brother had other peculiarities, apart from his scars. His heart, for instance, did never beat steadily as yours or mine, but with an odd beat that was heavier, like a limp. The physician put it down to a shock received so early in life: the shock of the fire, he meant. Matthew would let me lay my head on his chest, when we were little, to hear the strange ticking. That wounded beat marked him from the beginning, for he was not able to run as fast as the other children. 

Matthew had dreams that made him shout out, and he was sensitive to all smells, could not go near the privy without retching. Mother indulged him, let him use his chamber pot day as well as night, until Father stopped her. After that my brother had to govern himself and go outside, but I still knew Matthew to hold it in for hours together, when we went with Father on some rare visit to another house, rather than relieve himself where it might not be clean. 

His strangenesses made other children laugh and stare. But if his scars were bad, I hardly saw them, and I never made fun of him, or pitied him either: that would have been like making fun of my own right hand, or pitying my left. It is no more than the truth to say that I was my brother’s only friend. 

Yet still I was aware that Matthew was different, especially when I had cause to see him through the eyes of any new person, such as that acquaintance from Father’s Cambridge days who came to dine, the one indelicate enough to ask about the burns. I was perhaps eight, and Matthew six – those ages when childless men think you scarce understand four words strung together. The man was on his way south, to take up his ministry somewhere, and Father had invited him to dine with us in the vicarage at Wenham. 

They talked for a while about a vicious mousing cat from their old college, before the man said, ‘What happened to your boy, Hopkins?’ 

Father put down his napkin. ‘He got into the fire,’ he said. ‘When he was still away with his wet nurse. The woman and her servant between them were supposed to have an eye on him, but they were not watching. If you want the truth, I have never trusted a servant since.’ 

Mother cleared her throat. ‘But, husband,’ she said, ‘do you remember also that Matthew, he was always a great crawler?’ She smiled at the visitor, but as she did her voice trembled. ‘Believe me, sir, at that age, show him some bookshelves, and he would climb them. Show him something bright, and he would try to touch it.’ I looked at Mother: I had never heard her say so much in company. 

‘Hm,’ said the man, chewing. ‘And this your only boy, is it?’ 

‘No, I have three older. And Alice here, my daughter. All from my late wife.’ 

‘The Lord rest her soul,’ the man replied. 

Mother had stopped eating. I still remember my confusion at hearing her speak thus of Matthew. For he always kept his hands to himself, never fidgeted as I did. I had never seen him climb anything in his life. 

If he had done, I would have known of it, for we were always together. Our physician once gave us something to rub into his scarred skin, that it might not itch or peel, and it was only me he would suffer to do it; that is the kind of thing folk want to hear about, when they find out who I am. They take it as a measure of how close we were. 

We used to say, the two of us, that, though he was so dark and I was fair, inside we were just alike. We grew together, twined like young trees, our plight the same; for from very early on, Matthew and I knew that we were spare children. Father had his heirs, three strong ones, already out in the world; what remained were Matthew with his strangenesses, and myself, the only girl. 

For certain, Father encouraged Matthew in his collecting of birds’ eggs, old coins. He showed him how to tell if a penny was bad, or if it was from King Henry’s time. But also Father watched Matthew, as though he were a puzzle he might solve. That struck me, even from a young age, for little else seemed to perplex Father. When my elder brothers visited he was easy and jesting, and as a minister he was warm and firm, beloved of his congregation. 

Mother, though, was not so well liked. Her afflictions had not taken on their later proportion, but still she did not do the sick-visiting and lending and handing out of preserves that was expected of a minister’s wife. Father had met her when he was seeking someone to see after my three elder brothers and myself, just weaned. In town searching for a nurse, he had looked in on his friend Thomas Witham of Manningtree, in whose house Mother was staying. He had gone in search of a nurse, and he came away with a wife who in truth needed nursing herself. 

Father always insisted that hers was only an imbalance of the humours, curable with tinctures and purges. But she did not get better; rather, she got worse. By the time I was old enough to know something was amiss, she had a hundred strange habits that dominated all her hours between waking and sleeping. She was changing her linen twice a day, and she would put it on damp if the servant or I failed to get it dry in time. 

She clung overmuch to Matthew, fretted about his dress and diet, and even as he grew older held him to her longer than most mothers would when he said goodnight. She was not the same with me, but I thought it was simply because Matthew was her true child. I do not remember being jealous: I took it as natural, with him being her own, that she would prefer him. And Father took more than enough trouble over me, teaching me equally with Matthew, even the Latin and history that are not thought needful for girls. We would read together in the afternoons, and when Father got ill, he would often ask me to sing for him instead. 

His death, when it came, was not sudden. Father had the same bad lungs as his father before him, and he declined first, the flesh stripped from him. I hoped he would get better. I hoped and hoped, until the morning I went in to him and he did not look like himself. His face was all sunk in. That morning he looked like something that belonged under the ground, and it was the worst pain I had known. 

Grief did not quieten the world’s demands, and I was thankful to be kept busy. There were claims to sort out, Mother being Father’s second wife, and Matthew lent a hand. The vicarage was wanted for the next man; I undertook the cleaning out and packing. Mother did not weep much. Rather, she wandered about the house – picking things up, putting them down. She was quiet, stunned. 

Father’s burial was perhaps only the third or fourth time I had seen my elder brothers. When we were little, my aunt had brought them at Christmas or at Easter, bigger boys from Cambridge. They felt more like my half-relatives than Matthew did, however closely I resembled them. But when they came for the burial they were polite to Mother and to Matthew, took my hands warmly. They all of them seemed to be trying to grow beards. The two younger were taking their inheritance and going to Father’s friends in America; James, the eldest, said that as soon as he had taken his master’s degree he would be following them, in fulfilment of Father’s wishes. 

With my brothers gone, I knew our aunt’s large house in Cambridge would have many empty rooms. As folk ate and drank after the burial, I tried to linger near Mother and my aunt to hear whether they were speaking of us going to her household. I knew Matthew was already excited at the thought of being near the colleges, and that he hoped Mother might be brought to find him a tutor, now that such things would fall to her to decide. I hoped it, too: that some good thing for my brother might come out of the calamity of Father’s death. For though Father had delayed in sending him away to school, Matthew had long made it plain that he wished to follow him and my three elder brothers into the ministry. Matthew was still but fifteen, and it would not have been too late for him to be sent away to a tutor. 

But Mother spoke with my aunt very little that afternoon, and when they did speak it was only to comment on the turnout, or the state of the roads. When it was over, and those in attendance had been fed and watered and had gone, I helped Mother to fold the tablecloths away. I was amazed that she had lasted the day without a headache, but she seemed calm enough. We were folding in the dark, nearly, for we were running short of candles; so it was that I could not see the look on her face when she said, ‘I have heard of a house in Manningtree.’ And then, ‘Take this.’ She held out the squared corners of a cloth to me, and obediently I pinched them together. 

I said, ‘We thought –’ I stopped. ‘I thought we would go to Cambridge.’ 

But Mother’s voice was brisk, as she finished folding the cloth. ‘Cambridge is expensive, Alice. You know that.’ And then she said defiantly, ‘And it will do me good to be near Bridget again.’ 

‘Who is Bridget?’ 

‘She was my servant, before I married your father,’ Mother replied. ‘She came with me from London. She came here, though she left – she left when you were a baby. Do you not remember her?’ She stacked the folded cloths together. ‘I suppose you would not. She looked after you. But she moved, just after Matthew was born, back to Manningtree and took in a little boy, I think, and lives there still. That is why she came to my mind.’ 

When Mother said this, I remember thinking, servants have never had names before. Servants, in our parents’ stories, had always been ‘that ungainly girl’ or ‘that girl with the red hair, the one from Colchester’. Mother had most usually recalled them only when she came across a bad piece of mending, or a burn mark on the table, and had occasion to remember the culprit. And beneath each instance of dismissiveness, each complaint, was the unspoken name of the wet nurse who had let Matthew crawl too near the fire, who, though I could not have known it then, would one day cross into our lives again. 

But that day, that funeral day, I remember only my surprise, and Mother’s worried look as she handed me the folded stack of linen. ‘You’ll tell your brother?’ she said. She was aware, I think, that it would be a blow. 

Matthew took the news quietly enough. No Cambridge after all: instead, only Manningtree, its little docks, its bustle not of scholars but of farmers and small merchants. I remember Matthew on our last day in Wenham, how he went out into the garden while Mother and I did the packing. He said he wanted to leave things in good order: stayed out past dark, pulling weeds viciously from the vegetable beds, and burning them in a heap. I watched him for a while out of the kitchen window, kicking loose pieces of brush into the fire, not even moving out of the way of the upward billowing sparks. 

My brother buried his resentment that day. But resentment buried is not gone. It is like burying a seed: for a season it may stay hidden in the dark, but in the end, it will always grow. I did not see it, though we were still close, even at that age. I think now that to be close to someone can be to underestimate them. Grow too close, and you do not see what they are capable of; or you do not see it in time. 

Four

Here listed the old ways of finding them out, so far as I can discover. See fuller notes on each method elsewhere. 

    1.    The tradition of the witches not weeping.

    2.    The witches making ill‐favoured faces and mumbling.

    3.    To burn the thing bewitched, & c.

    4.    The burning of the thatch of the witch’s house, & c.

    5.    The heating of the horseshoe, & c.

    6.    The scalding water, & c.

    7.    The sticking of knives across, & c.

    8.    The putting of such and such things under the threshold, and in the bedstraw, & c.

    9.    The sieve and the shears, & c.

10. The casting the witch into the water with thumbs and toes tied across, & c. 

11. The tying of knots, & c. 

***

When I woke, my first morning at the Thorn, it took me a moment to come to where I was. The inn was quiet. I changed my shift and found a cap and apron in my box, fresh but creased. There was dirt in the fine cracks of my palms. I would need to soak my hands later: like Mother, Matthew had always been particular about such things. 

My only black dress had been taken out for brushing: it would have to be the brown. Brown was easier, anyway, on my pale winter nubbin of a face, my cracked lips, my red hands. I walked about the chamber plenty, in getting myself ready; then I waited for some minutes, but Grace did not come. 

The stairs and passage were quiet. I knocked on the door beside my own, but there was no sound within: Matthew was not back, then. I stuck my head into the kitchen, and saw only a scullery maid. I asked her for something hot to drink. I knew it was time to go to Bridget. 

I felt shaky, skittish, as I took the familiar field path along the edge of the woods. The wind was cold and dry from the east, and from the heath you could see the small grey shapes of waiting ships out in the channel. The walk to Bridget’s house took longer than I remembered, for there were fences on the common land where there had been no fences before. 

The strangeness of the fields made me think of the first time I had walked them, the day after we moved to Manningtree. Mother had prevailed upon us to take a basket of something to her old servant Bridget’s house; we took apples, I think, from the orchard at Wenham, though it was not the season, and the small yellow fruits were soft from their long winter storage. I remember knocking, the way the suspicion had dispersed from Bridget’s face as I said our names: like watching the sun come out. Her house was larger than I expected, for one who had once been a servant: two hearths, hives, chickens, and plenty of space for growing things. 

Bridget fed us that day on cheese and radishes, and she answered my questions about her books – she had Mother to thank, she told us, for being able to read – and likewise about the various places she had lived throughout the Tendring Hundred since leaving our parents’ service, and about how she made money now with her bees, and by the dosing of horses and pigs. 

Most folk, receiving scant answer from my brother, would begin after a time to talk only to me, but Bridget talked to both of us. She met Matthew’s eyes, and told him that he had been that tiny when she left, and what hair he had been possessed of, even at that tender age. She had included him in each of her stories, and not only did she keep from staring at his scars, but she never even glanced at them. Even that first day I was drawn to Bridget: though it was impossible, it was as if I remembered her face. 

The next day, she returned the visit, and this time, as Matthew let her in, I saw she had a boy with her. We all sat in the front parlour, which was still full of crates, Bridget in what I would come to know as her one good dress; she made sure to ask Mother about her health, before introducing her Joseph, who I knew must be the boy she had taken in, awkward in his Sunday clothes. 

While Bridget talked with Mother of the journey from Wenham, what things had been broken in the course of the unloading, I stole looks at Joseph. I had not met many boys with whom I had not grown up, and as Bridget and Mother talked about nothing very much, I noticed him: his thin, boyish height, his strong hands, his yellow hair, which wanted cutting. And though I did not catch him doing it, I knew he was glancing back at me. 

At length, Mother finished lamenting how the fire did smoke, and smiled at Joseph, and said, ‘You are a tall lad, Joseph. What age are you?’ 

Here was an excuse to look at him properly: at once I noticed his gentle eyes, as he replied, ‘Mistress Hopkins, I believe I am nineteen.’ 

Matthew said, ‘Cannot you remember?’ 

Joseph paused, looked at Bridget: his face turned a faint pink, and he did not seem to know what to say. 

It was left to Bridget to explain that his precise age was not certain, for he had not come to her as a baby, but as a child five years old, or seven: the son of a woman who had died in Colchester gaol and a man who had gone away to sea. 

As Bridget spoke, Matthew sat kicking his heels on the rung of his chair, and I did not look at him. I had not imagined a tale so bad, when Mother had spoken of Bridget taking in a child. I knew that my brother would be shocked that Bridget was so plain about Joseph’s low birth. 

As Mother said how fortunate Joseph had been, Bridget replied, ‘But your boy here. What would he be now? Fifteen? And so handsome. I think he has just his father’s forehead.’ 

Mother smiled, made some uncertain agreement. What with the scars, it was not common for folk to call my brother handsome. An awkward silence fell, and again I studied the floor. I was grateful when Joseph cleared his throat, shifted in his chair, and told Mother that he knew some lads who would be glad to come and sweep the chimneys. As Mother thanked him, I looked up in relief, and at last I caught him resting his gentle eyes on me. 

I do not know what Matthew saw or knew, but when he wished our guests good day it was stiffly, and only once they were at a safe distance from the front door did I see him grow calm. 

‘Did you not like them?’ I said.

He turned to me. ‘You saw the state of her fingernails?’

I let it go, on that occasion. I thought he was still sore about Cambridge; I thought that Father’s caution about servants had found its mark in Matthew, that he had perhaps picked it up like an affectation, a thing of no consequence. 

But it soon became clear that Mother trusted Bridget, and I grew close with her, also. I was not well placed to make friends among the other girls in Manningtree – at nearly seventeen I had arrived somewhat late for it, and Mother did not go visiting much. But I found my refuge in Bridget’s house. She had a whole shelf of books, and unlike Father’s, Bridget’s books were not only about God. I remember looking along their spines, turning to her, saying, ‘You have three books on the keeping of hounds.’ I turned back to the titles. ‘Two on the proper arrangement of troops in battle.’ 

Bridget stopped stirring what she was stirring, wiped her hands, and placed them on her hips. ‘I do,’ she said. ‘Though if women would write more books, I live in hope that they’ll find some other topics.’ 

But while my liking for Bridget grew, while I found more and more reasons to look in on her – and, of course, on Joseph, too – Matthew’s first dislike persisted. Bridget became brittle about him in return, saying plainly once that he was spoiled. When she said it, I knew that it was true, that part of why Matthew disliked her was because she did not put down her sewing whenever he began to speak, as Mother did. But Matthew’s disapproval did not prevent me seeking to become Bridget’s kin. 

I believe I thought that in marrying Joseph I would be getting a new mother. But as soon as he told her of our plans, she changed with me, withdrew, and I turned sulky: told myself she was jealous, that she was like those mothers who want to keep their sons always babies. Her affection for Joseph remained undiminished, and once we were married and moved to London, she wrote to him most weeks – she greeted both of us at the start of each letter, but I knew they were written for him. When he died, I read and reread the thick pile of her letters he kept on our bedchamber sill, pored afresh over their detailed complaints and small news. 

Bridget’s letters were like a pattern for the life that I had failed to make for Joseph in London; a life with gossip, little disputes, neighbours’ births and their marriages. The thought tasted bitter: even among so many people, I had not made enough friends. For where we took our rooms, there were only the Dutch women who would watch me pass with their amused dark eyes, and the French ones who would clatter by me, laughing together, the tips of their noses red with cold. In our part of London each kept with their own kind, except there were none of my kind, or else I did not find them, and Joseph and I were alone, with Bridget’s letters the only link to our old life in Manningtree. 

Her letters kept arriving after Joseph was dead, after a fortnight and after three weeks, the second hoping, more pointedly than the first, that he was in good health. I did not know what else to do but read them, then let them lie unanswered, sitting at the kitchen table in order to have something solid to lean on, eating what my landlady brought me, trying not to think. 

Though I had failed to tell Matthew of my husband’s death in my letter to him, I made myself do it when I wrote to Bridget, finishing the note quickly so that I would not have to think long on what the words meant. Now, on my first day back in Manningtree, as I walked towards her house, I was glad that I had told her. That I would not have to see her first shock and pain. 

The path led downhill in sight of the church from the top of the heath to Bridget’s place, but when I reached the cottage, from the gate I could see the thick, dead grass all around and the damp rising up the brickwork. An aging cow lay against the wall, chewing. I knew that something was wrong for certain when I saw Bridget’s little patch, likewise choked with grass, and beyond it the old wooden hives, one blown or kicked over, the other upended and filled with dung. It was impossible that Bridget could have let it get to this. 

Then a dog came from around the side and towards me, barking and crouching low to the ground. Keeping my eyes on it I called out: a woman, not Bridget, replied from the back of the cottage, and the dog disappeared. I gathered my courage and followed it. The woman was standing on the back step, wringing out clothes for a child, little shirts and breeches. She had dark hair, and I noticed the thickness of her arms. The dog stood at her feet. Close up, I saw it was half blind, with one milky eye. 

‘I’m looking for Bridget,’ I said. 

‘Aye. Moved on.’ She was Irish. I smiled, but I could feel the dog watching me. 

‘Do you know where to?’

‘Friend of hers, is it?’ The woman shaded her eyes. 

‘Family,’ I said. ‘I’m her son’s wife.’

She nodded. ‘She’s in one of them cottages now, on the road up from the dairy. Decent woman, she is. We’re still burning the wood she left us.’ She pulled a damp hand across her nose. ‘Never spoke of a son.’ 

The back of the cottage was like the front, scrubby wildness now running down to the stream and what was left of the hen coop, which had been stripped for usable wood. Mint still grew by the door, a dead winter thicket at the woman’s feet. I had stood just there and watched Joseph build that hen coop. Seen him measuring the pieces of it with his forearm and his hand span. I had held Joseph at bay, all the road from London to Manningtree, all the way from the Thorn to that doorstep, but now he was coming back to me, whether I willed it or no. I touched the wall, to steady myself. 

I saw the Irish woman was waiting, and I tried to judge what might win her, what she would best understand. ‘We went to London, for work,’ I said. ‘But he got himself killed.’ 

She did not trouble to ask how, but made a sort of noise in her throat, not without sympathy.

‘Well, I thank you,’ I said. And then, ‘It’s good ground this, at the front especially. You won’t find stones. You can get carrots to come up with no work at all. They’ll grow like weeds,’ I finished quickly: her face had changed, and I thought she was losing patience. But when I fell quiet, she was regarding me, the damp clothes over her arm. 

‘Will you wait?’ she said then, and disappeared inside. The dog lay down, and I waited, thinking she would offer me something to eat, wondering how to refuse. 

But the woman came back without the washing, and held out to me some folded paper. As her rough hand grazed mine, I felt my face tremble. It was my letter: the one from me to Bridget, in which I had told her that Joseph was dead. And another, a little older; the direction written in Joseph’s hand. I thought, She does not know. How can she not know? 

‘Your pardon,’ the woman said. ‘But while you’re going, would you mind? They gave these to my husband. That was their mistake. I only found them last week, I was going to step over with them –’ 

I thanked her, said I would pass on her regards, and I would see them into Bridget’s hands. The dog tailed me back round the side of the house, making low sounds in its throat, and came as far as the gate before it turned back again. I did not stop till I was out of sight, clutching Joseph’s letter, and my own. 

Five

As I followed the directions the woman had given, I tried to think what words I could use, how to make Bridget sit down for me to say them. I had not spoken of Joseph since his death, did not know whether I could speak of him now without crying out or falling down. Before I was ready, my feet brought me to where the cottages were and I halted, realizing as I looked down the row that I did not even know which one was hers. 

They were much poorer than her old house. You could see from the chimneys that there would be only one hearth apiece; the windows were unglazed and the roofs needed work doing. There was a child playing in the dirt of the road, but when I beckoned, it ran away indoors. I stood for a moment, at a loss. Then I saw the bench outside the house at the end. I began to walk towards it, and when I reached it, I touched the pool of wax on the seat. 

We had spilled that the night we had agreed to marry. We had been sitting outside Bridget’s back door, her old back door. Joseph had brought out the stub of a candle. True, I had prompted him a little, but that was forgotten as soon as I felt his lips’ softness, the heat of falling wax on my fingertips where he had knocked the candle in its dish, the sudden hardness and shrinking as the wax cooled where it fell on my fingers and on the bench between us. 

Soon, Joseph had gone in, to give Bridget the news. I was raw that night, for I had just fought with Matthew, and I wanted and expected to overhear an exclamation of joy, of surprise. But, though I could not catch what she said, when Bridget’s voice came it sounded doubtful. 

I wrote to my brother in Ipswich, telling him the date of the wedding, but I received no reply. Mother, for her part, did not object. She scarcely said anything at all. I remember she frowned, and asked, ‘Do you think he can take care of you?’ 

‘We can take care of each other,’ I replied. And I confess it, I did feel some relief in that moment, at the thought that my youth might now be more than caring for her. After a minute I added, ‘I love him,’ and she said only, ‘Well, then.’ Wearily, regretfully, as if over a pail of milk that was already spilled. 

Father’s executor, Thomas Witham, gave up my portion gladly enough. But though he was minister at the main Manningtree church, he was reluctant to marry us without Matthew’s blessing, so I went to the other church, up on the heath, and the minister there who did not know us. I was careful to look coy, and let my hand creep to my stomach, when he asked what the hurry was. I am ashamed to own to that, now, though God knows how I was paid out for it in the end. 

Pulling my eyes from the bench, I raised one hand to knock at Bridget’s doorframe, the unopened letters tucked tight in my sleeve. The knock sounded faint, and far away. I still did not know what I would say; I felt as though I was drowning in the past. Inside, I heard Bridget moving about, saying, ‘God rot this door.’ Then it jerked open, and she saw me. She reached out her arms. ‘Get yourself inside!’ she said. ‘You’ll be perished.’ 

She looked the same, but she felt lighter, smaller, and I embraced her carefully. When she let me go I stepped in at her urging, and I saw her glance up and down the street before she shut the door. She began to talk straight away as she tidied, fumbling in her pockets, whisking things out of sight. She retreated to the far corner of the room, where a few pans hung from hooks on the wall, and began to move things about, chattering. 

I saw she was bent now, and went more slowly. I recognized her hearth brush and the bucket for taking out ashes; many of her possessions were the same, though there seemed to be fewer. On the table there was a round of coarse cheat bread a quarter gone, and the ordinariness of it made my throat catch with what I had to say. 

‘Sit by the fire,’ Bridget insisted. ‘But tell me, where is Joe? Is he coming on with the baggage? I don’t know. If you’d said you were coming, I’d have got something better for dinner.’ She was smiling, had lifted a jug of something to pour, but when I remained standing and silent, the table between us, she put the jug down. I felt queasiness wash over me, worse than it had been in recent mornings. 

‘Will you sit down?’ I said. 

But she did not move. She put her hands in her apron pocket, and stood waiting. For a moment I was certain that if I tried to open my mouth, I would be sick. But at my silence, Bridget’s face changed. 

‘What?’ she said, at last. 

‘I did write, but it went to your old place.’ I put my letter on the table, and we both looked at it. It seemed crumpled and small. 

I said it quickly, about him being dead. 

I did not meet her eyes. After a moment she picked up the jug again, and poured from it into a pan. She gathered two cups, set the pan over the fire and sat down in one of the chairs; slowly, I took the other. 

‘It was in December,’ I said, but she raised her hand to silence me. I had forgotten how her face was never still; how openly pain moved over it. I bit my lip, surprised that I felt almost angry. That I wanted her to tell me how my loss was greater. I fought the feeling down. 

The wine steaming, Bridget picked up a cloth, neatly lifted the pan from the fire, and divided the wine equally between the cups. She handed me one, and only then did she look at me. ‘How, then?’ 

‘They were testing some new guns,’ I said, but Bridget shifted in her chair, and then the tears came. I had never seen her cry before. For a time, neither of us spoke. Bridget sniffed, not delicately, and picked up her cup. I watched her drain it, the steady movement of the skin folds at her throat. When she had done, she shook her head bleakly. ‘My own baby boy,’ she said. She touched the letter, but did not move to open it. I looked down at my hands. 

‘I did try to make him keep clear of it,’ I said. ‘Do not think I did not try.’ 

We fell quiet. When I looked up, she was regarding me. ‘You’re fatter in the face,’ she said. I nodded, and her eyes started to soften, but then she swallowed, and said, ‘Well. I can always take it, if you want. When it comes.’ 

I was amazed. ‘You think I’d part from it?’ 

‘I only meant, you’ll marry again, won’t you?’ She spread her hands, spoke more gently. ‘Not every man would want another’s infant in his household.’ 

‘Bridget. I’d never let this child go.’ I paused. ‘We lost four.’ 

‘You what?’ She stopped still at that, covered her mouth a moment. ‘He never said.’ 

She reached for my hand, but I pulled it away from her, trying to push back the thought of my last child, how I had lost it at three months in the privy; of the one before that, on the kitchen floor. Bridget had never been a proper midwife, but for small coins she would do simple physic, help with birthing for folk too poor to pay a surgeon; also, with bringing unwanted babies away. Clutching my cup of wine, I was trying to push back the memory of a day not long after we first came to Manningtree, when at my knock she had opened her front door slightly, and through the gap said, ‘What?’ She had let the door fall wider when she saw who it was. There was blood all down her apron, and one hand slick, the rust of it bedded in her nails. ‘You can’t come in just now,’ she had said, ‘I have company.’ The look on her face was impatient, matter-of-fact, as if I had surprised her in an act no more harrowing than the plucking and jointing of a bird. 

I bit my lip, and said to myself that none of what had happened to me, none of it was her doing. She was watching me; frowning. I cleared my throat. ‘You moved,’ I began, and tried a smile. 

‘In the autumn. Your brother’s friend Grimston put the rent up on the old house,’ she replied, her voice dry. 

‘You should have told us. We could have helped,’ I said. And then, ‘But what do you mean, his friend?’ 

‘Matthew has found his way into favour with the great men hereabouts.’ 

‘Grace said something about him scribing for people,’ I said. ‘It surprised me, for before, he was never –’ I stopped, for I could see she knew what I meant. He was never one for making friends. 

‘I’ve heard the same,’ she said. I could see her discomfort. She had unsealed my letter, and glanced at it; now she shut her eyes, and laid it aside. When she opened them, she said, ‘There was a reason I didn’t tell you, Alice, when I moved. I’m not a fool. There was more in Joseph’s letters than he wrote. I know you were in trouble.’ 

‘I took in washing,’ I said. It was true: to tide us over, I had started to take sheets from our landlady. She being a midwife herself, there was always plenty. She favoured me, and paid more than she had to, but even so, there had been no room for mistakes in my housekeeping. Spoiled milk had mattered. A dropped egg. My labours were never enough to keep away the cramping fear of relentless thrift; so when Joseph had found work through a man at his church who was a gunsmith, God forgive me, I had been glad. 

We lapsed into quiet. Bridget and I had talked so easily together, once: but now every possible subject was loaded with sadness. But I thought, At least I can try to help her from thinking about Joseph. 

‘I was sorry not to come back and see Mother buried,’ I said. 

‘I do not think she had much pain, at the end.’ ‘Were you with her?’ 

‘I saw her the day before,’ she said. ‘Your brother preferred her not to have visitors, but as chance would have it I went over that day. Grace let me in. Your mother was fretful, I’ll not deny. But not in too much pain.’ She folded her hands. ‘Will you stay here?’ 

‘With Matthew.’

She nodded. ‘You’ll need some new gowns, with who’s visiting at the Thorn these days,’ she said. I saw that she did not mean to be abrupt: it was only that she was speaking to me as she would another woman. As though I was not a child any more. 

She looked at me, and her voice turned troubled. ‘Alice, there’s been talk,’ she said. ‘In town.’ 

She had left the wine-pan near the heat, and just then I caught the fumes, of hedges and old cellars. ‘What do you mean?’ 

Bridget shook her head. ‘Richard Edwards has decided that someone looked funny at his youngest, and the child died after.’ I recognized Richard Edwards’s name. He had the most land in Manningtree, next to Sir Harbottle Grimston. ‘And there have been other infants –’ She broke off, lowered her voice despite the thick walls. ‘Certain women are stirrers, on top of being bone idle. But men have been crediting it who are learned enough to know better.’ 

‘What do you mean? Are they saying someone is to blame?’ I remembered what Grace had told me the night before, about the book with the names in it. 

‘You’d know Bess Clarke?’ 

Elizabeth Clarke. Bess. For certain I remembered her. She had one leg that buckled under her so she used a rough crutch, which made sores in her armpit, which in turn stank. 

Bridget spread her hands. ‘Elizabeth Clarke is a sharp-tongued woman, she keeps a dirty house. But what would she want with killing a child?’ 

‘Richard Edwards’s child? They accuse Bess? But how –’ 

‘Then there’s Ned Parsley’s baby –’

‘What about it?’ I asked, fearful suddenly.

She sat down again, and passed a hand over her face. ‘Christ,’ she said, and I did not admonish her. ‘I’m telling you this because I know your brother won’t. They’re saying it was done with witchcraft.’ 

I bit my lip. ‘Surely Matthew could not give currency to such foolishness.’ 

Bridget stood up slowly. ‘It is not only Bess Clarke. There are others. For every sudden death, every accident – Prudence Hart fell down and lost her child, and was took numb all down one side, and they’ve decided that’s someone’s fault. Robert Taylor’s out for blood, too, something about a dead horse. I’ve heard others accused besides Bess Clarke.’ 

She was shaken, that was clear enough. I waited, but then she said, ‘No, what I think is, I will not say who. It is women jawing that help damn them, along with meddling men who think they know the law.’ She turned away to take the pan back to the sink. ‘Matthew’s been scribing for them,’ she said. ‘You ask him what he’s been scribing.’ 

I drank the last of my wine: I felt aggrieved that she would not confide in me. Despite what Grace had said, I did not believe that Matthew could be involved in such proceedings. I felt the dregs of the wine fur my mouth. ‘I must go,’ I said. ‘I will ask him about it, of course I will. But I am certain it is not what you think. I am sure it will be nothing.’ I stood up, and she moved ahead of me to unlatch the door. 

As I shrugged on my cloak, I felt Joseph’s letter in my sleeve, and the thought of him slid across me, his cheerfulness, his cold-weather cough. But I could not bring myself to give it to her, to part with it yet. 

‘Take care of yourself, then,’ Bridget said, standing by to let me out. In the daylight, her eyes were red, and she clutched her elbows against the cold. I put a hand on her shoulder, and before I could move she had folded me into her arms again. I felt tears start in my eyes. For a long minute, she did not let me go. When she did, she smiled a tight, brave smile as I stepped away. 

I had assured her that I would come again soon, had already turned, when she blurted, ‘There was a boy tampering with my thatch. Last Friday night. He ran off before I could raise a light.’ She stepped forward. ‘Do you think that will be nothing, too?’ 

Her face looked brittle, all bone, and she seemed suddenly on the verge of tears. I thought of how any noise after dark would seem, if the town was on edge as she had described. I put my hand on her arm, and softened my voice. ‘Just boys,’ I said. 

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Beth Underdown
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Historical fiction

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