Bone-tingling slaps of thunder shake the sky. Blinding bursts of lightning inflame the clouds. Fists of rain pummel the pine-shingled roof of a large clapboard house and sizzle down its brick chimney. Inside, in a snug, square room warmed by a fireplace, two women sit in comfortable companionship. One is small, delicate and silver-haired, the other tall and full-figured, with smooth, black hair and the calm, impassive face of a Venus in marble. The elder is bordering a length of muslin with reflected flame as her needle flickers in and out along its edge, the younger nurses an infant at her breast.
The dark-haired woman looked up. "Didst thou hear something, Aunt?"
"Nay, Bathsheba, nothing but the storm." The old womans needle paused as she cocked her head to listen. "Nothing."
Bathsheba Hale rose and crossed to the door. "There was something, Winifred, I tell thee I heard it."
"Thou hast younger ears than I," Winifred said. She lost interest, concentrating again on her sewing.
Bathsheba unbolted the door and swung it open. "Solomon!"
A cat, looking nothing like a cat, shivered on the doorstep, his fur slicked to his skin with rain, his body seemingly inverted, naked bones to the outside. He did not face Bathsheba but stared outward into the night.
"What art thou doing, imp?" Bathsheba sheltered the baby from the cold rain whipping across the threshold with a turn of her shoulder. "Get thee inside, let me shut the door."
Solomon ignored her, continuing to tremble and stare.
"No cat behaves thus naturally, Aunt. Tis a sign from the Master. . . ."
At that, the soaking cat twisted its head to look up at her over his shoulder. His eyes were huge and round in his rain-shriveled skull. The tip of his tongue, a pink crescent, protruded from his mouth.
"Be thou not so insolent, Solomon, Satanic messenger or no! Get thee in or out, cat!"
With a hiss, Solomon streaked past her skirts and disappeared into the shadows at the back of the room. Bathsheba pushed the door shut against the wind and rain.
"Hold Jemima, please, Aunt." She knelt by the fire, stirring the ashy white-and-red logs in the grate and watching the sparks dance upward. "Tis as I thought, the pattern is clear." She stood up. "Something wicked comes hither this night!"
Winifred looked up from blowing kisses at the baby. "Now what does that put me in mind of? Something I have heard before oh, yes. 'By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes!'"
Bathsheba smiled in spite of herself as she took back Jemima and resumed her seat. "A hard line to forget, Ill grant thee. If the elders knew how often wed been to the playhouse back in England, they would be shocked. But this is frivolous talk. There is peril abroad this night."
"There is no danger thou cannot protect us from." Winifred dismissed the subject and took up her sewing again. "I miss going to the theater. These Massachusetts Puritans irritate the life out of me, they are worse than the ones back home! A pox upon them all! Im sorry, child, I know thy own father was one. At least he honored my sisters dying wish and sent thee to us in England to be raised."
"Aunt Winifred." Bathsheba stared at her wonderingly. "No danger? How canst thou say such a thing? Thou knowest how I am envied and mistrusted in this village. Returning after so many years, I am a stranger here. Add to that a widow and wealthy, and my offensiveness is complete. When my father left me his estate, he little realized the burden it would be."
"Pish!" Winifred wet the end of a thread with her tongue. "Should he have left his property to those two cows, his sisters, and their whey-faced husbands? Thou art worth twenty such brothers-in-law combined!"
"Oh, Aunt, thou art a little prejudiced, methinks!" Bathsheba laughed, but her merriment was brief. "Sometimes, I think I would trade all my land and cattle and public respect for an honest friendly word from one of my neighbors."
"Pish again and bother thy neighbors. So long as thy grandfather Zebulon Grindal flourishes, who in Grindalsfield shall dare raise a tongue or a hand against thee? Did not he and his deceased brothers found this village? Besides, I have taught thee the ways of our people well. Nothing ill shall befall us so long as thou"
The womens eyes flew wide, flicking to the source of the low, angry wail. Solomon crouched atop a wooden cupboard against the far wall, his head dark, slick and tiny against the tongue-dried mass of his orange body. His eyes were yellow balls of fire.
"Solomon!" A chill sliced through Bathsheba. Jemima squirmed as her mothers grip tightened. "Thou art right, my friend. We chatter when we should be considering."
The cat collapsed into a coil, tucked a foreleg over his eyes and slept.
"Poor Solomon, sometimes we make his job too hard." Winifred jumped and pricked her finger with her needle. "Oh! A snake crawled up my spine! Truly, Bathsheba, thou wert right! Something evil comes this way this very night."
"I know. But what can it be?" Bathshebas green eyes darkened with worry. "What kind of mad creature goes abroad on such a storm-swept night, for good or ill?"
"Mistress Hale." Judge Abraham Bibber stopped in the middle of the muddy street. He was a handsome, gray-bearded man of fifty years with a hawks-beak nose and a gravely self-important air. "Allow me to present our new minister, the Reverend Ephraim Hedge."
Bathsheba smiled, bowed to the tiny, white-haired man standing next to the Judge and introduced Winifred in turn. "Welcome to our village, Reverend. I hope your journey hither was not too unbearable."
Reverend Hedge reared back. He shut his eyes, then opened them distressingly wide. "Why do you ask that?"
Bathshebas eyebrows inched upward. "The storm last night was frightful, was it not? Were you not travelling in it?"
The old man shook his head violently, but said, "Aye, Mistress, my wife and I were abroad, to my regret." His lips drew back in a grimace. He gaped, his lips working. "Nay, Ill say no more now!" His jaws snapped shut.
Tom Tinkham, the village constable, stirred behind the Judge. "Sir, should we not be getting on? There are many matters to settle in the Reverends domestic arrangements yet."
"Aye. No doubt, Reverend, you shall want all things fixed and ready, so that you may concentrate on what sermon you shall give us come Sunday. The entire village looks forward to it."
With a word of farewell, the Judge sailed up the street, sweeping the reverend with him, Tinkham trailing in his wake.
"Well!" Winifreds face glowed pink. "What dost thou make of that?"
Bathsheba stared after the minister and his escorts. "I think the judges shadow clings to him more closely than ever," she said dryly.
"Oh, Tom Toady!" Winifred dismissed the constable with a snort. "But what makest thou of that minister, Bush or whatever his name is?"
"Humph. I knew it was something botanical. Someones been dancing with the wee folk. If ever I saw anyone pixie-haunted, tis he."
"Most peculiar." Bathsheba pursed her lips. "He seemed about to tell us something, methought."
"Something dotty, mark me. Ah, well, at least a booby of a minister will make for some entertainment. I, for one, shall not miss his first sermon! He is the first stranger we have seen in this wilderness in the three months since that Boston merchant was here."
"Twould be interesting to know what is pinching the fairy-chased fellow. Let us hope we shall learn it when he preaches six days hence." Bathshebas tone was light but her eyes looked worried as she took Winifreds arm and urged her forward. "Let us away home."
"This bench is cold and hard," Winifred grumbled, sitting next to Bathsheba in the front row of the meetinghouse the following Sunday. It was a place of honor reserved for those of the highest rank and status in the village, but it was no more comfortable for that.
"Thou neednt have come, dear."
"I would not forego the pleasure of hearing Reverend Pixie-brain, however this infernal seat gripes my bones."
Ephraim Hedges ascent to the pulpit at the front of the room cut off any reply from Bathsheba. The black robe of his office added a minimal dignity to his slight form. He goggled with prominent, rather watery eyes at his congregation and his mouth twisted sourly, as if he saw something he did not approve of.
A mouse with cold feet scampered up Bathshebas spine. She shuddered what she had suspected on the street six days ago was true the evil that was coming had arrived, in the form of this turkey-necked septuagenarian clergyman. She flicked a glance at Winifred and saw her realization mirrored in her aunts face.
Reverend Hedge wheezed, cleared his throat and aimed a trembling finger at his audience. "Brothers and sisters, I came to Grindalsfield in the expectation of discovering a community of Christian saints. But to my shock and dismay, I find instead that Satan holds sway here and all your virtues are undone! There are witches amongst you!"
Winifred writhed in her seat, but Bathsheba stilled her with a firm grip on her arm.
"I saw them at their foul work with my own eyes!" Reverend Hedge's voice quivered with outrage. "The very night I came here, I saw a fire burning in the driving rain where no natural fire could be. Stopping my carriage, I made my way through mud and slime to the woods. And there I saw hideous black demons leaping and cavorting in an obscene dance! I heard their frenzied shrieks, their words spoken in no human tongue! And worst of all, I saw a hell-covenanted woman disporting herself arm-in-arm with her ghastly comrades at last, I saw the witch fly into the air!"
A woman in the congregation shrieked and swooned.
"Firebrands of Hell!" The ministers face was purple and roped with veins. "Handmaidens of Satan! Beware! I shall root thee out whoever and whatever thou be. Thou shall know no peace in this village whilst I am here to expose thy wickedness!"
Bathsheba glanced at the ministers young bride, Alice Hedge, sitting next to the pulpit. The girl was squirming with embarrassment, not daring to look up at her neighbors. "That poor child," Bathsheba whispered to Winifred.
"I know. Would that that palsied pixie-led fool would leave off prattling!" Whomever Winifreds prayer, if it was one, may have been addressed to, it was swiftly answered.
"Beware, brethren, of the witchs brew of evil"
Ephraim Hedge choked and clutched his chest. With an agonized groan, he dropped like a stone down the pulpit steps.
"Mary Birdsall, thou art to be examined under the strong suspicion that thou didst maliciously and feloniously by the practice and exercise of detestable and wicked arts on the person of Reverend Ephraim Hedge, late of this town, cause his death."
Judge Bibber pealed the words like the tolling of a bell, wringing all the drama from them that he could. He was sitting at a table covered with a Turkish rug in the warm, wallpapered parlor of his house. On one side of him sat Doctor William Poole and on the other, Constable Tinkham.
Goodwife Birdsall cowered on a low bench facing the men, her shoulders hunched over and her head bent. She was old and thin, but sinewed like one who labored hard.
"Art thou guilty?"
Goody Birdsall raised her head. Her eyes were pale and milky with cataracts. "Before Jesus Christ, I am innocent."
"What didst thou do to the minister?"
"Who then didst you employ to do it?"
"No creature at all, Your Worship."
"How far hast thou complied with Satan, whereby he takes this advantage of you?"
"Though I be now but a humble washerwoman, there was a time when I was respected in this village." Tears spilled from the old woman's eyes. "I tell you, I have never complied with Satan, but have prayed against him all my days. What would you have me do?"
"Confess, if thou be guilty!"
"If it were my last breath, I would say I am clear of this sin."
"Goody Birdsall." Judge Bibber laid a hand on a stack of papers on his desk. "I have the sworn testimony of five of thy neighbors, charging thee with various wicked and unholy acts, including the bewitching of cattle and the casting of spells on children. Do you deny what these good people say?"
"I do, if they say I had aught to do with the Devil."
"Come, Goody Birdsall, we are not getting any forrader! Tell me, art thou a pious woman?"
"Aye, Your Worship."
"Then canst thou say the Lord's Prayer from thy memory?"
"I...I think so, Your Worship."
"Then say it."
Goody Birdsall screwed up her half-blind eyes in concentration. "Our Father...avoon deveshmaya," she mumbled at last, "Nithkadash smakh...Thy name...." She stared around her in confusion. "Taithai malkoothakh--"
"What devilry is this?"
Goody Birdsall shook her head. "'Tis no devilry, Your Worship. 'Tis aromatic...."
"I'm all mixed up, Your Worship, and my poor old head aches. Give me a chance to think. Tis arithmetic...no, that's not right, either, is it? But that's what he told me. How does it go? Avoon deveshmaya...."
"The witch is casting a spell," Constable Tinkham exclaimed. "Make her stop!"
"Think you she is insane?" Bathsheba asked.
Doctor Poole rubbed the back of his neck with a thick, square hand. Brawny and barrel-chested, he had the clumsy air of a bear trained to walk upright. "Aye, I think she is non compos mentis."
"How can you say so?" Dr. Poole was the closest thing she had to a friend in Grindalsfield, a man whose acuity, common sense and kind heart she had relied on for support more than once in the past.
"I examined her thoroughly, Mistress Hale. And I heard her during the judge's examination, babbling in no language known to man and calling it arithmetic."
Bathsheba clucked in irritation. "Doctor. You are an educated man. You know that the best authorities, even Increase Mather himself, have said that the Lord's Prayer test cannot be used to prove a witch. It is a superstition for the ignorant and the childish."
"I know, Mistress. And I dislike riding against your opinions. You know I respect and admire you, but I have my duty as a man and a physician. I can only say what I believe to be true."
She sighed. "Very well, Doctor. What of your examination of the corpse?"
"It looks as if he had had an apoplectic fit."
"Why do you say it with such hesitancy? You have something else in mind!"
"Aye. I'm reluctant to say it, but my instincts tell me he was poisoned, probably by some herb or other plant. I have no means to confirm the suspicion, but there it is."
"Poison. It does not take a witch to use that!"
Doctor Poole's honest blue eyes were dark with misery. "But if Goody Birdsall is insane, she might believe herself to be a witch. She might have believed that Reverend Hedge was a threat to her. And she might have killed him without making a distinction between a curse and a poison."
"What can I tell you, Mistress Hale?" Alice Hedges large gray eyes were red, her eyelids swollen.
"Was your husband in good health?" Bathsheba made no apologies for her visit. She sensed that Alice was relieved to have someone in this village of strangers to talk to, especially a sympathetic older woman. "Was he taking any medicines or...?"
Alice shook her head. "He was very old, but he was robust enough. He had trouble with his teeth -- they were false -- and he used a tincture of opium to relieve the pain. It was prescribed by our doctor back in England." She choked up at the mention of her home country.
"What of relations between the two of you? You needn't blush, child. I am a widow with five children. There is nothing you cannot say to me. Didst thee and thy husband enjoy normal connubial relations?"
"At first, we did. But of late...he was a very old man."
"I understand. Didst thee love thy husband, child?"
"He was worthy of love. I would have come to love him in time."
"A rational answer." Bathsheba's face softened with compassion. She could imagine the kind of arguments used by the girls parents to persuade her to marry a man who could have been her grandfather. No doubt Reverend Hedges respectability, income and piety seemed to them to outweigh the inequalities of appearance, temperament and age. "What shall thou do now, child?"
"G-go home!" Alices childlike face crumpled with shame. "I want to go home! 'Tis horrible of me to say it! I did not want him to die, I swear I did not! He was a good, kindly man, snatched away from me out of season -- but I am happy to go home! Oh, I am wicked!"
"Thou shalt feel wholesome again once thy husband's slayer is punished."
"Aye, when the witch be hanged."
"Then thou believest that Goody Birdsall killed thy husband?"
"Of c-course! Says not the magistrate so?"
"No. He does but investigate now."
"But I thought...." Alice's soft mouth worked. "I know the witch slew him with her curse!"
"How dost thou know such a thing?"
Alice stood up, went to a large wooden chest against the wall, knelt and lifted the lid. "Here." She rose and turned. "Reverend Hedge found this horrid thing amongst the linens the witch washed for us!"
She thrust her arm out childishly straight to show Bathsheba the crude rag doll in her hand. Around the part where its neck would have been if it had had one, a strip of white linen formed a clumsy minister's cravat. Two tiny knots and a loop of yarn two-thirds of the way down the doll seemed to indicate its gender.
Bathsheba stared at the thing. "A poppet," she said at last. "How can this be?"
"But why didst thou keep this thing? And having kept it, why hast thou not given it to the magistrate as evidence?"
"I...I don't know. Reverend Hedge said not to destroy it, so I kept it in the chest. After...he was gone...I did not know...what shall I do with it?"
"Give it to me," Bathsheba commanded.
"Didst thee like thyr new master, Walter?" Bathsheba asked.
Walter Walley, Reverend Hedge's spotty-faced fourteen-year-old servant, snorted. "Not much, I did not! He was a cantankerous old fusspot! And you should have seen him at table, the old slobberchops! Disgusting, it was!"
Bathsheba forbore to point out that if Walter were lucky enough to live as long as the minister himself, he too might find eating with wooden teeth a challenge. "He had only been here a short while."
"Too long for me!"
Bathsheba believed it. Walter was lazy, disrespectful and full of mischief, not at all the kind of boy to have gotten on well with a man like Reverend Hedge.
"Tell me, Walter, didst thy master ever ask thee to recommend a wise woman to him?"
Walter's close-set eyes shifted away from her. "Maybe. He was new here and knew nobody to help him."
"He had trouble with his teeth and needed medicine," she prompted.
"Teeth, was it?" Walter giggled nastily. "He'd have gone to the regular leech for that, wouldn't he? Wasn't his teeth that weren't working, lady."
"So he came to you for help. What didst thee tell him?"
"Told him folks what are having trouble thataway usually goes to see Mistress Tinkham, the constable's wife."
"And did he?"
"Reckon he did," the boy said with a snaggle-toothed smirk, "him having such a pretty young lady wife and all."
"Constable Tinkham," Bathsheba asked, "what do you think? Could the figures Reverend Hedge saw have been from some place outside our village?"
"Aye, from Hell."
"I mean, someplace else in the mortal world. For example, another town? Could they have been travelers?"
The constable drew a thoughtful puff on his pipe. He was sitting outside his house on a rough wooden bench, enjoying the evening air and a bottle of scuppernong wine. "Could have been, I suppose," he said. "Although we are scarcely on a main route to anywhere. 'Twas three months and more since the last traveler came our way."
"Aye, I mind him. Gershom Cobb, the Boston merchant. He did not tarry long. He was on his way to...."
"To Andover, to trade for furs."
"That's right." But she knew it wasnt. Cobb had distinctly said his business lay further south, in Tewksbury. Either he had lied, or Tinkham was lying now. Or perhaps the wine was fuddling his memory. He had almost finished the bottle next to him, and a second one lay empty under his bench. "I wonder that he has never come back this way again."
Tinkham shrugged and blew out smoke. "Maybe he was scalped by Red Indians. Those beasts are up for any sort of mischief!" He eyed Bathsheba with dislike, as if thinking that Grindalsfield could do with a scalping or two itself. "They've massacred half the Christians in Maine already, and I hear they're coming this way. And not just with their arrows and tomahawks, either." His rough, wine-reddened face turned foxy and he squinted at her expectantly.
Bathsheba obliged him by opening her eyes wide and asking, "But surely, you dont mean that they have--"
"Oh, dont I? That Cobb said they've got their filthy hands on guns, too, and not only matchlocks. Snaphaunces, they've got. Let a man snap shoot without a mile o' match rope."
"The law prohibits any man to trade guns to the Indians, Constable."
"Bless me, that's true, Mistress Hale!" He chortled until he choked. "So if those devils did separate old Cobb from his scalp, he had it coming to him!"
Bathsheba's eyes narrowed. What was the man saying? She quickly resumed a casual expression and told him good night. As she walked home, she turned the conversation over in her mind. It sounded as if Gershom Cobb had been trading muskets to the Indians. But why did Tom Tinkham seem to know so much about it?
The meeting hall was hushed and peaceful. The windows and doors were open, letting in the fresh spring air and the scent of wild roses and violets. The sound of distant voices and the nearer rumble of bees added to the tranquility. Those villagers who had the time to attend the public hearing found themselves drifting into sleep by the time Constable Tinkham appeared with his evidence. Even Judge Bibber and Goody Birdsall seemed to be dozing.
"Your worship!" barked Tinkham.
Judge Bibber opened his eyes with a start. "Yes?"
"I have here the items found as a result of searching the premises of the accused." He dropped the objects he was holding onto the judge's table. The audience was wide-awake now.
"What are these things?"
Constable Tinkham held up a knife, its blade freckled with dirt. "I found this buried in the ground behind Goody Birdsall's house. This ball of wax with pins thrust into it was inside a small cupboard in the kitchen of the accused. And this paper -- look for yourself, Your Honor!"
"I cannot read this," Judge Bibber complained. "'Tis nothing save heathenish scrawls, like the scratching of a crow's claw dipped in ink!" His face went white. "Or not heathenish, but hellish! Goody Birdsall! Canst thou explain how these devilish items came to be in thy home? What mean they? To what wicked end dost thou apply them?"
She shook her head slowly. "I apply nothing to any wicked end, your worship. The knife is not mine. The wax pin ball is mine, I use the pins in my sewing."
The judge held out the paper for her to see. "And this? What signifies this fiendish lettering?"
She shrugged helplessly. "I cannot read it."
"Cannot read thy master's hand? What lying foolishness is this?"
Goody Birdsall whimpered. "The paper was given me by my sweet, sweet son, dead these thirty years. He said it was arithmetic, and he taught me to say it by memory. I cannot read it nor can I tell you the meaning of the words."
The judge's eyes bulged. "Arithmetic again? Doctor!"
Doctor Poole stepped forward and put one of his large hands on the old woman's shoulder. "I told you, Judge, the poor creature is mad. She doesn't know what she's saying. If she killed the minister, she knows it not."
Constable Tinkham cleared his throat. "Your Worship, is not madness another name for possession by demons?"
"Aye, so it is. I think we have enough evidence to bind the accused over to the General Court for trial."
Bathsheba rose swiftly. She had not intended to speak yet, but things had moved too fast for her to wait any longer. "If Your Worship will permit me to speak, I believe I may be able to shed light on some of these dark matters." She looked at the magistrate with what she hoped was convincing deference.
"This hearing is open to everyone, Mistress." She could read in his face how it grated on him to have to yield the floor, but he bore the blow manfully. He was a vain man, but a fair one. "What would you say?"
"I would ask some questions of our neighbors who may have light to shed on this mysterious death."
Bathsheba faced the minister's widow. "Alice, your heart yearned for the family and home you had left behind in England."
The girl nodded.
"You cannot help rejoicing now in your freedom to return home."
Alice looked startled. "No--"
Bathsheba raised a hand and patted the air in front of her. "Be calm, child. The doctor says that your husband may have been poisoned. Who more likely to have fed him a deadly concoction than you?"
"But I did not! I did not!" The blood drained from the girl's face and she swayed in her seat.
"Somebody catch her," Bathsheba advised. She felt a little guilty for buying time at Alices expense. There were others it would be less unkind to bait.
"Walter Walley! You hated your new master. You had as many opportunities to tamper with his food and drink as your mistress did. Didst thee slip some poison in one day in order to free thyelf from the 'old slobberchops?'"
Walter opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He swallowed hard and tried again. "No, I swear I did not!"
"Very well, but thou didst play tricks on him, didst thou not?" She reached into her pocket and pulled out the crude rag doll she had taken from Alice Hedge. There were gasps of horror from the audience.
"Give me that, Mistress," Judge Bibber ordered, holding out his hand. "A poppet! Surely, Goody Birdsall, you will not deny that this is a tool of the Devil!"
"I know nothing of poppets," the old woman moaned.
"That poppet is from no woman's hand, your honor," Bathsheba said. "Even Goody Birdsall, half-blind as she is, with her years of experience could make a better doll than that."
She turned to stare at Walter, who flushed. "No, that poppet is a boy's clumsy attempt to play at witchery. It even has an anatomical detail such as only a boy would think of! Thou madest that poppet and hid it in thy master's linen to frighten him, did thee not?"
Walter chewed his lower lip. "I meant no harm by it! It was not black magic, but only a prank! I never harmed no one!"
"No? Thou camest close to harming Goody Birdsall this day with thy idiotic tricks." She laid a hand on the accused womans head. "Mary, fear not. Thy ordeal is close to an end."
Goody Birdsall looked at Bathsheba wonderingly.
"Thou wast once a woman of property and standing in this village. There was a time when everyone knew thy kindness and charity, before the death of thy husband set thee on the road to poverty."
"Thou hadst one son."
The old woman's face crumpled with grief. "Aye. My sweet Jonathon. Such a pretty, cheerful, clever boy, he was."
"He went to study for the ministry at Harvard. Thou must have been proud of him, when he came back an educated and godly man."
"Aye." A tear slid down Goody Birdsall's cheek. "But then he died. Drowned he was, when his boat capsized in a storm."
"Was it he who wrote the arithmetic on the paper for thee?"
"Aye, it was."
"And taught thee to say the Lord's Prayer, in arithmetic?"
"Mary. Could he not have called it Aramaic?"
The old woman wrinkled her forehead in concentration. Her jaw worked as she mumbled the word over and over to herself, testing it. At last, her face brightened. "Aye! That was it! My sweet Jon said 'twas Jesus own language! He learnt it at Harvard University!"
Judge Bibber, a generation too old to have benefited from that institution, sat back in his chair, looking nonplussed by this shift in the tide of his investigation. "Can this be true?"
"Your Worship," Bathsheba said, "I have seen some scraps of this tongue before. One of my uncles in England was a clergyman and a scholar."
This ministerial relative was a tactful fiction. She herself was acquainted with Aramaic and several other antique languages, thanks to a maternal grandfather who believed in education for girls as well as boys.
The judge pursed his lips. "Let us accept for now that this explanation is the correct one." He lifted his eyebrows at Bathsheba. "Are we any forrader in discovering the truth behind this crime?"
It was a fair question. Bathsheba had no choice but to move on, despite the absence of the evidence she had expected to have in her hands by this time. "Mistress Tinkham!"
"Y-yes?" Zarah Tinkham stammered in surprise.
"You have a reputation in the village as a wise woman."
"No, Mistress, not I."
"Yes, you do. You are said to be shrewd with herbs and plants when curing an illness. Some people prefer your remedies to the doctor's. What was the ailment that Reverend Hedge sought your help with?"
"Nothing! He sought nothing from me!"
The boy nodded. "'Tis true, my master had some potion from the lady."
Zarah choked back a sob. "It was nothing, just an herbal brew to help him...."
"Help him what?"
"Have you no pity? His poor wife sits there!"
"What did he need help to do?"
"He wanted something to restore his...vitality, so that he might enjoy connubial relations with his wife as a whole man." Zarah's voice was almost inaudible by the end.
"What didst thee prescribe to restore his vitality?"
"Nothing harmful, just the liquid boiled from the starwort's blossoms!"
"Starwort? Also called false unicorn's horn...." The tall plant with its greenish-white, star-shaped flowers grew abundantly in the woods outside the village. "Doctor?"
"Yes," Doctor Poole said emphatically. "In sufficient quantity or sufficient concentration, the essence from the starwort could stop a man's heart."
Bathsheba leveled a hard gaze at Zarah. "The preparation you made for him must have been many times the usual concentration."
Zarah sank to the floor, tears streaming from her eyes. "It was not my fault! He made me do it! He made me!" She pointed a finger at her husband, the constable.
"Stop thy tongue, stupid woman!" he bellowed. "Say nothing more!"
"Indeed, she need say nothing more!" Bathsheba hesitated no longer. The person she was waiting for had just slipped into the back of the meeting hall, carrying what looked like the evidence she needed to prove her theory.
"You betrayed yourself when you told me that Gershom Cobb, the Boston merchant, was trading muskets to the Indians! That was not what he told the rest of the village. You were the only one who knew what he was doing because you were his go-between with the Indians!"
"Constable!" Judge Bibber's face went scarlet with rage. "In this time of perilous danger to the Christian community--you gave Christian weapons to our savage enemies?"
"That is not all he did," Bathsheba snapped. "He murdered Reverend Hedge to cover his crime. He saw the Reverend watching them in the woods that night."
The judge shook his head like a dog drenched with water. "But, Mistress, the minister saw witches dancing in the woods!"
"No, Your Worship, he did not." The look on Tinkhams face gave Bathsheba all the confirmation she needed to contradict the magistrate. "He saw Indians in the clearing that night, celebrating their transaction with their friend, Constable Tinkham."
"But he saw black demons leaping in the air!"
"The Indians did but dance. He saw demons because he expected to see demons. Had he expected to see Noah and all his beasts two-by-two, that is what he would have seen."
A low laugh, as much of relief as of amusement, rippled through the on-lookers. A common killer in their midst was far less frightening than a witch and her demon horde.
"Murderess!" Constable Tinkham shrieked at his wife. "Whatever that evil woman did, she did by herself! You have no proof that I was involved!"
"Do I not, Constable Tinkham?" She gestured to someone at the back of the audience. "Bring it here to me, Deliverance."
A lank-haired, pasty-faced young woman walked up the aisle between the rows of gaping villagers, carrying before her a long, black-barreled gun. She held it awkwardly, like one to whom weapons were strangers, but with pride.
"Whilst we were all occupied here, I sent my maidservant to fetch this weapon from Constable Tinkham's home." She did not mention that Tinkhams manservant, James, was strangely enamored of the unprepossessing Deliverance and would do anything for her, including letting her search his masters house.
"Where was the gun, Deliverance?"
"Hidden, Mistress, as you said it would be. Wrapped in an old cloth and shoved up into the rafters." Her prominent pale eyes were shiny with triumph.
Constable Tinkham moved his lips as if to speak but made no sound.
Bathsheba took the gun from Deliverance and held it up for all to see. "This is a new kind of musket called a snaphaunce. No other man around here possesses one, and Constable Tinkham has not traveled outside the village. The only way he could have gotten such a gun would have been for Gershom Cobb, who was selling snaphaunces to the Indians, to have given it to him. It was payment for his assistance in negotiating the sale."
Constable Tinkham found his voice. "Not true! The bitch lies! She placed the gun there herself, or had her servant--"
"Silence!" Judge Bibber's scowl was as black as the barrel of the gun. "Goodman Smith, Goodman Baker, take Tinkham and his wife into custody. Conduct them to the jail and confine them there at once! I shall prepare the warrant forthwith!"
Bathsheba took one of Goody Birdsall's hands and drew her to her feet. With an arm around the old woman's shoulders, she gave the townspeople in the hall a cold, scornful look. "Perhaps thy Christian neighbors will remember better henceforth what thou once wast and what thou deserveth of them."
The fire on the brick hearth blazed cheerfully. Winifred sat comfortably close to its light, hemming a length of muslin. Solomon, asleep by her feet, purred loudly in contentment.
Bathsheba stood up from her chair and stretched. "So there, darling," she said to the wide-eyed girl sitting on the settle, "now you have heard all there is to hear about the unfortunate death of the pixie-haunted minister."
"Oh, Mother, what a wonderful tale!" The girl sprang to her feet. At thirteen, Mehitabel was a smaller and slimmer copy of her mother, with the same pale face and raven-black hair. "Im so glad you saved Goody Birdsall and discovered the real murderer! I love you."
Bathsheba hugged her oldest daughter to her with a smile. "I love you, too, sweetness. Now its time you were asleep like your sisters."
"But there are still some things I do not understand. How could a fire burn like that during a storm? And who was the woman the minister saw flying through the air?"
"Go to bed, child," Winifred said softly without looking up from her sewing. "Some questions are better left unasked."
Copyright © 1999 by Ray Wonderly