Samhain – 1647
Hepzibah Kemp dreams, once more, of the waters closing over her head. She tosses and turns, and screams as she fights for air.
The years that Jago spent living with Hep were the happiest of his short life. Making a living as a fisherman is always dangerous, sudden storms a constant danger. The cause of his drowning, however, was not the vicissitudes of nature but that of man. The country mired in Civil War, his fishing boat mistakenly sunk by cannon fire during the blockade of Dartmouth.
Hep has not slept well, for many months. Grief-stricken, she fears the recurring nightmare is less a symptom of her husband’s fate and more of an ill omen, for the future. A future that should have been bright. Joan and Clem’s old wooden cottage replaced by a handsome new one. Stone-built and timber-lined. Rough chunks of granite, held together by coarsely smeared mortar. Here is wealth. Hepzibah Kemp is a woman of means. A fortune accumulated through business acumen. For Hep has turned her husband’s business into one that not only involved his catches, but those of most of the fishermen of the village. Consignments of salted pilchards to St. Ives, have made her a prosperous merchant.
Already a vulture is circling. Jago’s death provided the Squire, with what he saw as a business opportunity. Wanting the fish merchant’s trade for himself, he made an offer he felt sure Hep couldn’t refuse.
‘My dear, you don’t want to be worrying your pretty little head with men’s work, do you?’ he’d declared to her, condescendingly, ‘I’ll give you a sum to buy into your business. But, you’ll be a silent partner, you understand? Be assured, I will always look after you.’ The lascivious manner in which he’d eyed her suggested to Hep it was not only her business assets that interested him.
Refusing, bluntly, she had told him, ‘I’m quite capable of looking after my own affairs, thank you, Sir, I need no meddlesome man.’
Furious at this rejection, Hep had made herself an enemy. Not a wise thing to have done, considering the influence he has in the village. Being superstitious, suspicious, and wary of those who do not conform, the villagers are easy to manipulate.
The Squire has sown doubts in their minds, about her knowledge of plants, and her skills as a herbalist and chemist. Some now call her a cunning woman, a witch. If Clem were alive he would have defended her. Well liked in the village, for his gregarious nature, he had warded of accusations against his ‘wife’ with jests about the superstitious temperaments of the villagers.
Already, it’s jealously whispered, in the taverns and inns of the harbour, that the success of her business is due to her skills at enchanting men. Being different brings penalties. There is an old saying in Port Gwyneth; the nail that sticks up its head gets hammered down. Hep’s neighbours work the land for the Squire and pay him to live in their miserable homes. A violent and contentious man, most want to keep in his good books and are more than willing to act as his hammer.
In the kitchen of Hep’s cottage, the firelight flickers over walls covered with magical designs; pentacles, spirals and strange arcane symbols. Plant cuttings hang, in bunches, from the roof beams.
Hep’s daughter, Misercordia (Mizzy for short), is already up, busying herself with the morning tasks, kneeling by the open fire. She feeds it, with larger and larger sticks of wood, blowing on the embers until it glows. Mother and daughter are alike, the same red hair, green eyes, pale skin, and band of freckles across the nose.
As her mother comes down the stairs, Mizzy looks up, anxiously, from the hearth. ‘You were yelling, mother.’
‘I was… I had a bad dream. That is all.’ replies Hep. Mizzy stares, in puzzlement, at something behind her mother.
Small puddles on the floor.
‘How mother? You are dry, yet you leave marks as if you’re soaked?’
Hep, shocked, thinks of a rational explanation. ‘It must be a night fever. Just the sweats, no need to worry your head.’
She stares at the wet footprints, watching as they slowly disappear.
As she warms her hands by the fire, Hep thinks again of her dream and wonders if it’s an omen of more troubles ahead. She looks up and sees the sadness in her daughter’s eyes.
‘Missing your father?’ she asks.
‘Yes mother,’ replies Mizzy. ‘I still imagine his boat might come into harbour, again, and he’ll step off, hug me and throw me in the air. The way he used to when I was little. Or ruffle my hair, as I lie snuggled up with a book. Like mother, like daughter, with the reading, he would say, laughing to himself.’
‘Yes, it amused him, our thirst for knowledge, but he was the most good-hearted man I have ever known. I miss him, too.’
Hearing a timid knock at the door, Mizzy says, ‘They are early this morning, mother.’
Her mother opens the door to find a queue of villagers waiting, as usual, with complaints and ailments. Despite the Squire’s ill-founded rumours, the need to avail themselves of her services has prevailed.
She knows all the curing herbs in the fields, ditches, and woods and on the shore of Port Gwyneth. From miles around people come to her for help. When they are too ill she goes to them – always, whether or not they can pay her. Most of her patients are poor so she accepts small gifts, in order for them not to feel indebted to her. For they are proud, reluctant to accept charity.
The farmers come because they know she can cure a sick cow, or pig, from whatever ails it. The fishermen come for her knowledge of the weather. Her ability to predict storms mean none will leave harbour without her blessing.
This morning Mistress Dray is waiting in line holding her arm. She will claim, again, to have fallen. It’s well known, however, that her husband, the blacksmith, needs little reason to raise his fist. Something his wife has, or has not, done. Has, or has not, said.
Tom Geach, the baker, pushes his way to the front. They say the pasties he bakes are the best in the whole county. Sadness comes into his eyes with everyone he sells, being one less that he can consume himself.
‘I have the stomach ache, Hep, you must help me. It is some poison I have eaten, again. Give me more of thy cure!’
Looking, sceptically, at his corpulent figure, Hep says, ‘I fear it is not what you have eaten, but how much you have eaten that ails you, Tom. You have no need of yarrow. Keep guzzling the potions, and you will only make yourself sicker. Take it in moderation and stop feasting whenever you see an opportunity!’
‘Please, Hep!’ Tom cries, clutching his belly. ‘One more cure?’
‘Very well,’ says Hep, passing him a vial of brown liquid. ‘Sip it! Don’t guzzle it they way you do your ale!’
The needs of the local folk vary – this morning, most require simple healing cures. For them she turns the pages of the Grimoire. Full of potions for all situations; to heal the body and mind, to make things grow or not grow. Recipes and chemical formulae written in her scrawling hand, and interspersed with odd geometric designs and little drawings of birds, insects, flowers, herbs, and fish.
Some have mystic desires, demanding charms, the lifting of curses, or the exorcising of spirits. Others have more earthly desires. Wanting a spell to make a person fall in or out of love, or to find hidden gold. She scoffs at these requests. ‘Witchcraft? Even if I divined a way to achieve such dubious desires, I would not practice them. It would mess with nature.’
What she believes might help, is what she calls the “Talking Cure”.
Mizzy is learning her mother’s ways, and Hep has explained it to her. ‘They need someone to tell their troubles to,’ Hep had said. ‘Someone who won’t judge them. Her most important job, is to listen when they want to talk.
Once the person has poured out their woes, she suggests practical solutions to whatever concerns them. Then, nodding approvingly over a page in the book, she makes up an incantation she feels fits the problem.
‘Does it work, Mother?’ Mizzy asked.
‘The incantation?’ Hep had replied. ‘No, of course not, it’s an invention to ease their minds. But, hopefully, the advice I give helps.’
After the last of their patients has left, Hep and Mizzy sort seeds, leaves, and prepare herbs for medicine.
‘They were surly and ill-mannered this morning,’ Hep comments. ‘Only came to stand around and have a good gossip. With their petty jealousies and disputes – they can be a spiteful lot. The danger is that they will go to the Squire and try using his favour to advance their grievances.’
‘Yes mother, the power he has in these times,’ says Mizzy, ‘it’s not good that he has taken against you.’
For a strong-minded woman, this is a bad time. A world turned upside down by Civil War. While the has war raged on everything has gone out of control. The law courts suspended. With no authority to do so, the Squire has set up an unofficial court – claiming; it is better than anarchy. No one dared stop him. He uses it, as a means, to exact revenge. On whoever stands against his wishes.
To make matters worse, after Hep had turned down the Squire’s offer to take over her business, his wife had come begging for her attendance at the birth of the woman’s child. She could not refuse, feeling it her duty to aid all the women of the Parish in childbirth.
Being mean and tight-fisted, The Squire never paid the amount owed to Hep for the birthing. Blaming her for the child being a weak and sickly girl, rather than the strapping baby boy he’d hoped for. Reminding him of the debt the next time he rode through the village, he had scorned her. Belittling her skills, he’d thrown her a penny, saying ‘That’s all you be worth hag!’
That spring, he, along with the Church Minister, decided to raise the tithes. A compulsory tax that, everyone suspected, went straight into their own pockets.
Hep tried to persuade the villagers to petition Parliament. To consider the economic burden that falls unequally on the poor. Infuriated, the Squire accused her of being a troublemaker. Intent on raising a mob against him.
As they work, shredding, grinding and steeping the plants and roots, Hep tries to change the subject, away from the wrath of the Squire, ‘Coltsfoot, good for coughs and colds,’ she remarks. ‘Picked at dusk, the proper time to gather, and prepared quickly, before it loses its efficacy. Remember that, child.’
‘I am scared mother,’ sighs Mizzy. ‘You shouldn’t have involved yourself in the Squire’s affairs.’
Hep brings her pestle down with a thump into the mortar, mashing the herbs. ‘How could I refuse his wife?’ she replies. ‘The healing arts are all about saving life – who better than I to bring new life into the world?’
‘But mother, you went against the Squire over the tithes, too. Are you in danger?’
Hep sighs, ‘The thing about our kind is that it doesn’t matter how much we try to help the villagers. They may hope we can cure anything, but they also believe that we can cause misfortune. That we can lay curses. Nonsense, of course, but the fact is that they will always turn on us, eventually. If that happens, you must carry on our work – but in secret, mind. You must deny me if necessary. You must say that all I have done is foolish and wrong. Above all, you must hide the Grimoire – so they can’t use it in evidence. Place it under the stairs in the hiding place.’
They come for Hep the next morning. A raggle-taggle crowd stand outside, who push the door open. From their silence, Hep senses the danger. They are here to take her. She tries to shut the door, but someone puts a boot against it. They are soon inside the cottage.
‘What do you want with me?’ she yells.
John Killick, the Squire’s bailiff, binds her hands and declares, ‘Hepzibah Kemp, you’ve to come with us to the Manor. I have a warrant for your arrest, on charges of Witchcraft, issued by the Squire.’
In fear, Mizzy looks at Hep who, locking eyes with her, glances aside to the Grimoire on the table. Her message is clear.
By force, they take her outside and drag her down the track, through the village, to the Manor.
In the Great Hall, they have laid chairs out, and pushed the dining table back to represent a Courthouse. Behind it sits the Squire, the Minister, and the Squire’s secretary – writing carefully and slowly with a quill. Excited by the privilege of being invited into the Squire’s house, villagers pack the room. Looking forward to the spectacle about to take place.
Staring at Hep with contempt, the Squire commands, ‘Begin the proceedings Minister Cotton.’
‘This land is full of witches,’ declares the Minister, angrily. ‘You see here before you a cunning woman. One who practices the darkest arts, in league with the devil himself!’
‘I have the skill, of herbs and potions, in my hands,’ retorts Hep. ‘But the power comes from me – not from the devil. These people trusted me, or did, until now. They wanted my presence. Birth or death, they asked me there to assist in the passage from one world to the next.’
‘You incriminate yourself by your own words!’ screams the Minister. ‘You sought to usurp the role of an ordained man. Is it not my function, in the eyes of God, to lead the folk of this Parish between worlds? You, a mere woman, could only have the arrogance to do so – if Satan is your master!’
‘The idea, that women, such as I, worship the devil is put about by you men of the cloth, by your church. To turn people against the old pagan religions. The work I do has nothing to do with any religion. It’s concerned with the natural sciences.’
‘Silence! You practice evil crafts! We shall call forth witnesses to prove it! Come forward Tom Geach and speak.’
Doing as he has been told, Tom looks at Hep, with feigned terror, stumbling up to give his testimony.
‘She did poison me with some Witch’s brew. My bowels wouldn’t stop their evacuations!’ he declares.
‘Nonsense, you cause your pains by overindulgence,’ Hep argues. ‘I warned you if you took too much of the cure, it would make you worse.’
Limping up to the table, William Lever claims Hep has stuck pins in the leg of a doll made in his likeness.
‘It wasn’t I who caused injury to your leg!’ Hep shouts. ‘You did that yourself when you fell dead drunk into that ditch last Michaelmas!’
As the whole Courthouse erupts into laughter, the Squire fixes them with a dark stare. Knowing exactly how they’ll suffer by not taking proceedings as seriously as he wishes, the villagers fall silent.
Villager, after villager, comes to the witness stand. Making claims of supposed evil deeds, performed by Hep. None can look her in the eye. In desperation, Hep turns to the room, ‘You all came for help, and I helped you! You who accuse me have pleaded for cures before now. For aid with beasts and children, sick or injured, or wife nearing her time. Tell him the truth!’
But none speak in her defence, not one of them.
‘Silence!’ demands the Minister. ‘I have evidence against you too. You have bewitched me, with your brazen ways, into having carnal thoughts.’
‘I have seen you staring at my bosom,’ Hep retorts. ‘Because you are a dirty-minded lecher. I’m not afraid to slap you down when you stick your hand on my arse. That’s why you want rid of me!’
‘Be quiet, woman,’ the Squire shouts. ‘How dare you make accusations against good men, whom God has declared that you should serve. You have the slippery tongue and are full of words: and therefore must be guilty of many wicked practices.’
Hep stares around the court at the faces of the villagers. ‘He has you in his pocket, doesn’t he?’ Her eyes settle on the witnesses who have defamed her. ‘I bet you all have a silver coin from your Lord and Master?’ Tacitly acknowledging the truth of her words, they have the decency to lower their eyes to the floor.
Turning to the Squire, she cries ‘You have already decided I am guilty.’
‘See, she can read minds! By the power of Satan!’ declares the Squire, in triumph.
‘If I truly had such powers would I not undo the ties that bind me?’ cries Hep, ‘and fly through the air to safety? Would I not call up my Master, Satan, to blast and shrivel you to dust?’
‘You seek to threaten us, Witch! You foul creature!’ shouts the Minister, thumping the table again, and again.
Next, they bring John Killick forward to bear witness.
‘You have searched the Kemp cottage?’ asks the Minister.
‘Yes, Sir, and found all sorts in that place. Herbs, and plants and potions and strange markings on the wall!’
‘And books, no doubt, books of magic? Books with evil in them?’
Hep looks across the courtroom to her daughter, questioningly. Mizzy gently nods in answer.
‘No, Sir, no books found. We turned the place over, but there were none there.’ This, clearly, perturbs the Minister. ‘Are you sure? No writings of any kind?’
John Killick, with a flourish, produces a sheaf of old parchments, covered with Hep’s spidery jottings. ‘Yes, sir, we found these – curses, incantations, and spells!’
‘If you would be so good,’ asks the Minister, ‘read them out to the court, so we might hear her harmful intent!’
‘Should I, Sir? If I read them aloud, could that not be an invitation to the devil?’
‘Fear not!’ replies the Minister, holding his crucifix aloft. ‘I am a man of God and shall protect us all!’
Killick nods and proceeds reading in a sing-song voice. ‘Put a pint of good Milk to boil. As soon as it doth so, take it from the fire, to let the great heat of it cool a little. For doing so, the curd will be the tenderer and of more uniform consistency. When it is prettily cooled, pour it into your pot, wherein is about two spoonful of Sack, with Purslane and St. John’s Wort.’
Killick, pleased with his find, looks up in triumph. But the whole court bursts out laughing, again.
‘Hah!’ laughs Hep. ‘As everyone here, but you, Sir, knows, it’s just a recipe for Posset!’
Killick turns puce with embarrassment. The Minister, furious, shouts over the noise. ‘We do not need Written proof. She has her practices committed to memory. We have sufficient evidence of her capabilities.’
Briefly conferring with the Squire, The Minister turns to Hep. ‘Hepzibah Kemp, we have brought you before this court and found you guilty of treason against your betters. Of the use of malevolent magic and using the glamour to entrance righteous and holy men. You not only do these things by your witchcraft and devilry but made it public that you had the skill to do so. These facts, rank Witch, you cannot deny. You shall be taken from here and burned at the stake, in the hope that the fires may purify your soul.’
The Squire’s cronies grab Hep, intending to drag her away. Suddenly, three men burst through the Courthouse doors. One is tall and slim, and another short and round. So different in looks, they appear harmless, even comic. The look on their faces, however, as they gaze around the courtroom with contempt, is of pure malice.
Another tall man, leads them. Dressed all in black, with a sharp pale face, a long nose, and a thin, small mouth. His most startling feature, his eyes. Piercing, in a way that makes you feel sure he can see deep into your soul.
‘I am The Witchfinder General,’ he says with quiet menace. ‘These, gentlemen are my associates, Mr. Wick, and Mr. Poppet. I am officially commissioned by Parliament, to root out and prosecute all those that make a covenant with the devil.’
‘Aye, good sir, that may be the case,’ answers the Squire. ‘But I am in charge here, and thy work is already done. We have the Witch, and she is to burn. We do not need your assistance.’
‘Silence!’ shouts Wick, scowling at the Squire. The Witchfinder throws a piece of paper down on the desk. ‘Here are my credentials, the seal of Parliament itself. I have heard tales of your Witch and am here to investigate. It seems I have arrived just in time, before you commit a grave error. I could have anyone who stands in my way shot. Luckily, for you, I’ve an abhorrence of filling in the forms required – should such an event occur.’
Turning to Hep, he asks, ‘You. Which year were you born in?’
Confused, she replies, ‘In the year 1618. Although I do not see how that applies to the accusations made against me?’
Smiling malevolently, The Witchfinder, says, ‘I decide what is relevant. 1618 is very relevant to me. The year of the Angry Star.’
Grinning mischievously, the Squire retorts, ‘Further proof, if we needed any, that this woman is a Witch. Did not King James write of this event? Ye men of Britain wherefore gaze yee so, upon an Angry Star? When as yee know The Sun must turn to dark, the Moon to blood, and then t’will be too late to turn to good.’
‘You dare to quote the words of a King?’ asks the Witchfinder. ‘Are you a secret Royalist!’
Fearfully, the Squire replies, ‘Oh no, Sir, never! None cheered louder at Charlie’s defeat. But the old King, hateful despot that he was, knew a thing or two about Witches, did he not? I am only saying, he came to believe it was Satan’s star. Does not the fact she was born that year prove beyond doubt that she must be the spawn of the devil?’
‘Indeed, it does,’ laughs The Witchfinder. ‘And, therefore, places her under my jurisdiction.’
He barks orders to his two servants. ‘Mr. Wick, Mr. Poppet, take the Witch and lock her up in the Inn.’ Then turns to address the courtroom. ‘I do not care what minor matters have afflicted your insignificant community. I am empowered with a much more important agenda. The Witch comes under the jurisdiction of the Office of Resurrection. I am to be joined by another official, Mister Ticker, and we will undertake a proper interrogation of this woman.’
‘The Office of Resurrection?’ questions the Minister.
‘You will not have heard of it,’ replies the Witchfinder. ‘It is a secret government department.’
‘That’s not right,’ argues the Squire. ‘She’s our Witch. We want to burn her!’
His assistants raise their guns, and the Witchfinder sighs. ‘Be quiet, Sir. Or you shall be brought before the Office too. And answer for your discourtesy!’
Unsure of whether to risk going against the power of Parliament, the Squire holds his tongue; despite being unhappy with his authority being challenged. Wick and Poppet drag Hep away and lock her in the Inn’s cellar.
That evening, Mizzy comes to the Inn to persuade the two gentlemen to let her see her mother.
‘What do you want?’ says Poppet.
‘I have nobody, nobody but my mother,’ she says tearfully. ‘If you take her away I’ll be all alone. Without ever having had the chance to say goodbye. You would not want that on your conscience, surely?’
‘Do we have a conscience, Mr. Poppet?’ asks Wick.
‘Indubitably not!’ replies Poppet.
‘Then be away, girl!’ declares Wick, ‘and stop blubbing!’
‘I have brought wine and fine foods,’ pleads Mizzy. ‘For I am sure you’re in need of refreshment, having been guarding, with vigilance, all day?’
‘Comestibles, you say?’ the rotund Wick replies, as he looks hungrily at the basket the girl dangles before him. ‘That puts a different perspective on the matter, eh Mr. Poppet?’
‘Unquestionably,’ replies the thin man, eyeing the flagon of wine. ‘I think we find our hearts softened in favour of the girl’s simple desire to bring her mother comfort.’
Grabbing the basket and flagon, they unlock the door to the cellar.
‘Mother, how have things come to this?’ says Mizzy, at the sight of Hep chained to the wall.
‘It takes little these days, my dear. There are witch-hunts throughout the land. It only needs an accusation, from a spiteful neighbour, to be arrested. Knowing how to treat a cold can be enough. But this be the Squire’s doing. Revenge because I spoke against him. Whatever happens to me, you must continue my work. You have the same desire to uncover things covered, to explain the mysterious.’
Before she can say more, loud snoring from outside the door interrupts the peace and quiet of her dungeon.
Smiling conspiratorially, Mizzy says, ‘I have drugged them mother, we can escape!’
Hep nods approvingly. ‘Clever girl! But it’s a shame in some ways, for I have never been to our great capital city. I feel sure proper judges would see the charges against me amount to nothing.’
‘Perhaps mother, but be grateful not to have to take the risk. Let us away!’
Before they can make their escape, the door flies open. The Squire, unprepared to lose face to a bigwig from the city and seeing the guards disabled, has seized his chance.
Leading a crowd of feverish men he marches into the cellar, shouting defiantly. ‘Nobody, tells us what to do with our Witch!’
‘Aye, no time for a-burnin,’ we should float her!’ screams John Killick.
‘The water will give its answer, proof of whether or not she be a Witch!’ adds Dray, the blacksmith.
‘It is the Lord’s way,’ intones Minister Cotton. ‘If she floats it’s a sure sign of guilt.’
With much pushing and jostling, they drag Hep down to the quay. The Squire whipping the crowd, the whole time, into a fervour. They shout with one voice like some monstrous howling beast. A few looked abashed, knowing what is about to happen is not right.
Looking on in horror, Mizzy sees hands grab her mother’s ankles and wrists, lift her into the air, and swing her backwards and forwards.
Suddenly, the crowd parts as The Witchfinder General rides through them on a white stallion, the poor animal ridden so hard it is in a sweat. Panting, so heavily, its breath looks like smoke as it hits the cold air.
‘You fools, you do not know what powers you dabble with,’ he shouts with fury. ‘Release her at once, she is the property of Parliament!’
But it is too late – Hep wails as they let her fly.
Striking the cold water, the shock takes her breath away. The woollen dress she wears sucks in the sea and is soon waterlogged. She fights to stay afloat but soon disappearing beneath the waves.
Staring up at the shimmering world above, she sees her daughter crying. Strong arms grip her, to stop her from jumping in to rescue her mother.
A look of horror crosses The Witchfinder’s face. Waving an arm in the air, he lets out a peculiar cry, in Latin, “Vivat, ut ossa sua in tempore!”
The sky fills with discharges of electricity; the water becomes effervescent, and strange blue lights glimmer around Hep.
It is the last thing that she remembers. As a final bubble of air escapes from her mouth and salt water rushes in to replace it, she dies.