Samhain – 1634
The standing stones loom around Hepzibah Kemp and Jago Corney as they stand in the rough circle at their centre.
‘I’m always drawn here, I don’t know why,’ she says. ‘They soothe me. Help me make decisions. We should live together.’
Jago is taken aback. ‘’Tis normal for the man to ask for a lady’s hand in marriage, Hep.’
‘Who said anything about marriage?’
‘Have you lost your wits?’ he exclaims. ‘You have not been in your right mind since Joan and Clem died of the King’s Evil.’
‘Scrofula is the correct term, and yes, I have been sad because I could have done more to save them.’
‘Taken ‘em to London for the King’s Touch?’
‘The divine gift?’ exclaims Hep. ‘You think a touch from the Kings hand would have cured them? Don’t be ridiculous. Superstitious nonsense. No, pilewort might have cured them. I have since read that Nicholas Culpeper claims to have cured his daughter with the plant. I do not know if it would’ve worked, but if I had known I would have searched the county for it.’
They fall into silence, neither willing to argue further.
‘Do you love me?’ asks Hep, tentatively.
‘You know I do. But I often do not understand the things you talk of. Your ideas seem strange to me. I am not as educated as you.’
‘No man that I know has your skills. Who else in this village can tell when the shoals of pilchard are moving North as well as you? You are a steady and intelligent man.’
‘But not in the way you are. You could do anything, your knowledge surpasses that of the parson, the Squire, even of the men who write the books you pore over.’
‘And what would I do with all my learning? Become a great scholar? No, I could not. The fact is that I was born a woman, and they wouldn’t accept me in any place of learning. I shall stay here and use my studies to help folk. I love you too. You’re not the cleverest of men, but you’re kind-hearted and generous, unlike most of the men in this village. We should live together and make a family.’
‘We cannot, you know what’d be said. That we be sinful in the eyes of God. They would shun us.’
‘I was Mama and Papa’s only child, the cottage is mine, and I want it to remain so. Any daughter of mine, and any daughter of hers, will have a roof over their heads and not have to marry any Tom, Dick, or Harry to secure their future. If I marry you, that couldn’t be. I will entail the house in my will, so that Kemps alone shall inherit. It’s important that our daughter can pursue a life of investigation and discovery, and not one of drudgery and enslavement to a man.’
‘You don’t wish to care for me then?’
‘Of course I do. I will help you in your business, and you will become the wealthiest fisherman in Port Gwyneth. But you will not be my master.’
‘My parents will disown me if I do not marry you. They will call our children misbegotten, baseborn.’
‘Then we shall travel away, for a week or so, and when we return will say we wed in a far away parish, and none will be the wiser.’
‘Is it so important to you?’
‘Then, if it that is what you want, I agree. For you are the strangest and most beautiful woman I have ever met, and I want to spend my life with you.’
It is a bright morning. The sun streams into the courtroom. In contrast, the atmosphere within pervades with gloom. The judge peers at the two men in the dock. One tall, thin, pale and funereal; the other short, round, red-faced and owlish.
‘Nathaniel Poppet and Silas Wick,’ he declares, ‘you have both been charged with theft by false accounting, and of clipping his Majesty’s coinage. How do you plead?’
‘I not only declare innocence of the charge laid against me,’ cries Poppet, the tall thin one. ‘But also that I have, for a considerable time, been doing all in my power toward unveiling nefarious practices.’
‘As I understand it,’ replies the judge, ‘all the evidence leads to the conclusion that whilst claiming vast anomalous expenditure from the Royal Mint for investigating the crime of counterfeiting, you were all the time engaged in the practice yourself. In fact, they caught you red-handed in the very act of clipping guinea coins, whilst your associate, Mr. Wick, held a piece of paper to catch the clippings and then place them in a smelter. What say you, Mr. Wick?’
‘You Honour,’ wheedles Wick, ‘appearances can be deceptive. We merely wished to assert our credentials with the gang we were intent on exposing.’
‘I see. So how is it you then came also to have a casket full of forged coins?’
‘Gathering evidence, m’lud.’
‘Was it not, then, somewhat remiss of you to have invested so much of this evidence in Moll King’s establishment?’ asks the Judge, scrutinising the papers before him. ‘A place, I understand, renowned for the sale of alcoholic beverages and where men may procure the entertainment of girls of a certain class?’
‘Well,’ stutters a sheepish Poppet, desperately seeking a convincing argument, ‘we were… uh… establishing a network of potential spies?’
‘Spies? Do you take me for a fool?’
‘I would not expect, your lordship, to understand the complexities of the arts of espionage.’
In the courtyard, hands grab Wick and Poppet and hoist them onto a cart. The horse’s reins are yanked and their last journey begins.
‘Well, that didn’t go as well as we could’ve hoped did it?’ mutters Wick. ‘A network of spies? That the best you could come up with?’
‘At least, I tried. You just stood there with your mouth gaping open – as usual.’
‘Did you have to be so high-handed? As if dealing with an idiot?’
‘It’s worked in the past! When they think they are dealing with a higher echelon of the government they often bow to your imagined superiority.’
‘Well, he saw right through that. Did you hear the relish in his voice? When he said, “taken to a place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy upon your soul.’
‘Yes, he seemed to enjoy the sentencing, rather, didn’t he? At least I won’t have to listen to you moaning about the prison food anymore.’
Wick sighs, ‘I’m ravenous.’
‘You’re always hungry.’ Poppet replies.
‘Do you think they’ll give us a last meal?’
‘I rather think they are keen to get us over and done with, to be honest.’
As the cart turns onto grass, the gaolers manhandle the pair down.
Before them stands Tyburn Tree, a novel form of gallows, comprising a horizontal wooden triangle supported by three weathered legs.
They are bundled towards the structure and the awaiting hangman.
It all happens in great haste, as he puts a hood over their heads. No offer is made to say any last words, which particularly annoys the verbose Mr Poppet, and the nooses are placed over their heads. The floor they stand upon falls away. The ropes jerk and tighten. They die.
Poppet gasps with shock and draws a breath. He gasps and breathes again. His lungs pump, and his heart beats once more.
Opening his eyes he sees a figure standing above him. Tall, dressed all in black, with a sharp pale face, a long nose, and a thin, small mouth.
‘Who are you? Satan? Is this hell?’
‘No, I am the Witchfinder General, and you are at the place you died, by Tyburn Tree.’
Poppet stares around him, nonplussed. Wick, also alive again, dazedly munching on an apple, stands a few feet away.
‘Wick, are we truly alive again?’
‘I don’t know,’ replies Wick, smiling broadly, ‘all I know is that I never thought I would taste an apple, again. This is the sweetest, appliest apple in the world!’
‘So we did not die?’
‘Oh yes, you did,’ replies the Witchfinder, ‘but I brought you back.’
‘Are you a Necromancer? Have you used magic upon us?’
‘Of a kind, yes.’
‘You wish us to live again? Why?’
‘I have need of agents. Who, as far as the world are concerned, no longer exist.’
‘You want us to work for you?’
‘What sort of work?’ Wick asks.
‘Finding witches. Well, one specific witch, in fact. But I rather lost track of her exact whereabouts. She’s not in the North, there have been trials. She was not amongst those I dealt with. She will be somewhere in the South of this country, I believe.’
‘A witch?’ queries Poppet.
‘I am sure that is how she’ll be perceived by the superstitious inhabitants of… this land.’
‘If we work for you,’ interjects Wick, ‘what recompense could we expect, for our service? Will you teach us magic?’
The Witchfinder glares at him, ‘Is living, not recompense enough? Or would you rather be dead, again?’
‘Well, when you put it like that, your honour,’ replies Wick, submissively, ‘of course, it would be a pleasure to aid you in your endeavours. Would this work include board and lodgings?’
‘You will have sustenance, you will have modest wealth, and above all you will have a very, very, long life.’
Wick and Poppet smile and nod at each other, thinking of their good fortune.
‘One feels it would be foolish,’ smarms Poppet, ‘to decline such gainful employment.’
‘Good, a sensible choice, unless you wanted to end up six feet under,’ answers the Witchfinder, pulling a sheaf of papers, and a quill pen, from the pocket in his cloak. ‘Just sign on the dotted line.’