Samhain – 31st October 1665
Hepzibah Kemp woke with a gasp and a cry. Wild-eyed with fear, she shivered with relief when she realised that she was safe in her own bed, in her own cottage. She had dreamt, again, of the waters closing over her head, of screaming as she fought for air. Such a dream is a bad omen, she thought, unhappily, as she threw off the bed covers, and made her way down the steep narrow stairs to the single room below that served as her kitchen, living and workplace.
Her daughter, Misericordia, was already up, busying herself with the morning tasks. She knelt by the open fire blowing on the embers, until the fire glowed and she was able to feed it with larger and larger sticks of wood. Mother and daughter were very alike. They had the same red hair, the same green eyes the same pale skin, with a band of freckles across the nose.
Like many Cornish names theirs were ancient, but long-winded. To the villagers of Port Gwyneth, they were known simply as Hep and Mizzy.
Their cottage, unlike the majority of buildings in the village that were little more than huts, was a stone building. Rough hunks of stone, held together by coarsely smeared mortar, created thick walls, solid and dry. This was a sign that Hep was a woman of means. Also, unlike her neighbours, who worked land for the Squire, and paid him rent for their miserable homes, she owned her property. The pigs, chickens and ducks she kept fed her and her daughter. Those of the villagers were destined for the Squire’s table, as payment in lieu of rents owed.
Hep’s husband had been a fish merchant, before he had died in the plague of ’47. He had gone to St.Ives with a consignment of salted pilchards and never returned. His business had never thrived, and most of the villagers were sure that it would fail after his demise. But Hep had proved to be a canny businesswoman, and, under her leadership, it had prospered. It was whispered, jealously, in the taverns and inns of the harbour that this was due to Hephzibah’s skills at enchanting men. For, Hep had other interests apart from commerce.
The firelight flickered over the walls of the cottage, covered with magical designs. There were pentacles, spirals and strange arcane symbols. Plant cuttings hung in bunches from the roof beams.
Hep was a healer and an herbalist, and it was here that she sorted seeds and leaves, grinding, mixing and preparing herbs for medicine. People often came to see her for cures for their families and animals. But some had started calling her a cunning woman, a witch.
It was a bad time. There had been a Civil War. The law courts had been suspended. Although the Squire didn’t really have the authority no one dared stop him, and he had begun unofficial courts in the village. He claimed that it was better than anarchy, but, in truth, things were out of control.
Mizzy looked up from the hearth, with an anxious expression.
‘You were yelling, mother.’
‘I was…I had a bad dream. That’s all.’ replied Hep, then saw the look of fear in her daughter’s eyes as she stared at something on the floor behind her.
‘How mother? You are dry, yet you leave marks as if you are soaked?’
‘Tis, nothing Mizzy, just a night fever. I had the sweats. No need to worry your head.’
But as she warmed her hands by the fire, Hep thought again of her dream and muttered to herself ‘An omen – ay, an omen. Mayhap of trouble.’
There was a timid knock at the door.
‘They are early this morning, mother’ declared Mizzy.
Hep opened the door to find the usual queue of villagers waiting, with their complaints and ailments, to avail themselves of her services.
The farmers came to her because it was known that she could cure a sick cow or pig from whatever ailed it. The fisherman came to her for her knowledge of the weather. She could predict storms, and none would leave harbour without her blessing. She knew all the curing herbs in the fields, ditches, and woods and on the shore of Port Gwyneth. They overflowed with plants that could make and mend, and Hep knew where to find them. Knapweed for bruises or wounds. Feverfew for aches of the head.
People came from miles around to get her help, and when they were too ill, she went to them. Always, whether they could pay her or not. Most of her patients were poor, and she accepted their small gifts so that they would not feel indebted to her, for they were proud people reluctant to accept charity.
This morning Mistress Dray was waiting in line, holding her arm. No doubt, she would claim, again, to have fallen. But it was well known that her husband, the blacksmith, needed little reason to raise his fist. Something his wife had or had not done, or had said or not said.
Tom Geach, the baker, pushed his way to the front.
‘I have the stomach ache, Hep, you must help me. It is some poison I have eaten, again. Give me more of thy cure!’
Hap looked sceptically at the corpulent figure before her.
‘I fear that it is not what you have eaten, but how much you have eaten that ails you, old Tom. Begone, you have no need of the yarrow, if you keep guzzling the potions you will make yourself sicker – it must be taken in moderation. You just need to stop feasting whenever you see an opportunity!’
‘Please, Hep!’ cried Tom, clutching his belly ‘Just once more?’
‘Very well,’ said Hep, passing him a vial of brown liquid ‘But you must sip it! Do not guzzle it they way you do your ale!’
The needs of the local folk were varied – this morning, most wanted simple healing cures. However, there were always some with more mystic needs. They wanted charms, the lifting of curses or the exorcising of spirits. For them she turned the pages of a huge book, searching for anything that she thought might help. The book was her Grimoire, a collection of magical lore. It was full of spells for all situations: to heal the body and mind, to make people fall in and out of love, to make things grow or not grow. Some of the spells were so secret that even Hep was unsure of their purpose. It was all written in an ancient scrawling hand interspersed with strange geometric designs. Little drawings of birds, insects, flowers, herbs, fish and strange creatures filled the margins.
But, the important part of her work was what she called the ‘Talking Cure’.
She had explained to Mizzy, who was learning her mother’s ways, how this worked ‘They just need to have someone to tell their troubles to, someone who won’t judge them.’
Once the person had poured out their woes, Hep would nod approvingly over a page in the book and read out an incantation that she felt fitted the problem.
‘Does it work, Mother?’ Mizzy had asked.
‘Mayhap, mayhap not, but hopefully the advice I give does.’ Hep had replied.
This morning Hep had found her patients surly and ill mannered.
‘Them that came today just wanted to stand round and have a good gossip. With their petty jealousies and disputes – they can be a spiteful lot.’
‘Aye, mother, they know the power the Squire has now, and wish to use his favour to advance their grievances,’ said Mizzy ‘Tis not good that he has taken against you.’
Hep and her husband, Denzil, had always avoided dealings with the Squire. He was a violent and contentious man, and the whole village suffered for his temper.
For the Squire, Denzil’s death had provided what he saw as a business opportunity. He had wanted the fish merchant’s trade for himself, and had made an offer that he felt sure she would not be able to refuse. ‘My dear, you don’t want to be worrying your pretty little head with men’s work, do you? Don’t you worry, I’ll give you a little sum to buy into the trade, and you shall become a silent partner, you understand?’ he had declared to her, condescendingly, ‘I will always look after you.’ The lascivious way he eyed had her up, while saying this, suggested to Hep that it was not only her business assets he was interested in.
She had refused, bluntly, ‘I be quite capable of looking after my own matters, thank you, Sir, I need no meddlesome man.’
The Squire was furious at this rejection and Hep had made herself an enemy of the man. Not a wise thing to have done, considering the power he wielded in the village.
To make matters worse, Hep had felt unable to refuse when the Squire’s wife had begged Hep to attend the birth of her baby. After all, was it not her duty to aid all the women of the Parish with their childbirthing?
But, being a mean and tight fisted man, he had never paid Hep what she was owed for the birthing. He blamed her for the fact that that the child was a weak and sickly girl, rather than the strapping baby boy he had hoped for. She had reminded him of the debt the next time he rode through the village, but he had belittled her skills and thrown her a penny, saying ‘That’s all you be worth, hag!’
That spring, he and the church minister had raised the tithes, a compulsory tax that, as everyone suspected, went straight into their own pockets.
Hep had tried to persuade the villagers to petition Parliament, to ask them to consider the fact that that the economic burden fell unequally on the poor. This infuriated the Squire and he had accused Hep of being a troublemaker intent on trying to raise a mob against him.
‘I am afeared mother,’ cried Mizzy as they worked shredding and steeping the plants and roots they had collected the previous night, before they lost their efficacy. ‘You should never have involved yourself in the Squire’s affairs.’
‘How could I refuse the Squire’s wife? The magic arts be all about the life essences – so who better than I to bring new life into the world?’ replied Hep picking up one of the plants from the table ‘Coltsfoot, good for coughs and colds, picked at dusk, the proper time to gather. Remember that, child.’
‘Mother, you went against the Squire, are you in danger?’
Hep sighed ‘The thing about our kind is that it don’t matter how much we tries and help folks, they always turn on us, sooner or later. If that happens, you must carry on our work, but in secret, mind. You must deny me, if necessary. You must say that all that I have done is foolish and wrong. Above all you must hide the Grimoire, so that it cannot be used in evidence against you. Place it under the stairs in the hidden place.’
They came for Hep the next morning. There was a knock at the door, and then it flew open. She could see a raggle taggle crowd, and from their silence she sensed danger. They came in to get her. She tried to shut the door, but someone put a boot against it and they were inside the cottage.
‘What do you want with me?’ she yelled.
John Killick, the Squire’s bailiff, bound her hands and declared ‘Hepzibah Kemp, you’ve to come with us to the Manor. The Squire has issued a warrant for your arrest on charges of Witchcraft.’
Mizzy looked on in fear, but Hep locked eyes with her and then looked aside to the Grimoire on the table. Her message was clear.
By force they took her outside and dragged her down the track, and through the village to the Manor.
The Great Hall had been altered to represent a courthouse. The dining table had been pushed back and behind it sat the Squire, the minister, and the Squire’s secretary, writing carefully and slowly with a quill.
The room was packed with villagers, excited by the privilege of being invited into the Squire’s house and looking forward to the spectacle about to take place.
The Squire looked at Hep with contempt, and commanded ‘Begin the proceedings Minister Cotton.’
‘This land is full of witches, and you see here before you a cunning woman, one who practices the darkest arts, in league with the devil himself!’ declared the Minister, angrily.
‘I have the skill, of herbs and potions, in my hands,’ retorted Hep ‘but the power comes from me – not from the devil. These people trusted me, or did until now. They had wanted my presence. Birth or death, I was asked to be there to assist in the passage from one world to the next.’
‘You incriminate yourself by your own words!’ screamed 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 woman, such as I, worship the devil is put about by you men of the cloth, by your church, to try and turn people against the old pagan religions.’
‘Silence! You practice evil crafts! We shall call forth witnesses to prove it! Come forward Tom Geach, and speak.’
Tom did as he was told and looked at Hep with feigned terror.
‘She did poison me with some witch’s brew. My bowels would not stop their evacuations!’ he declared.
‘Nonsense, your pains are caused by over indulgence.’ Hep argued, ‘I warned you that if you took too much of the cure it would make you worse.’
Then, William Lever limped up to the table and claimed Hep had stuck pins in the leg of a doll she had made of him.
’T’wernt me that did for your leg!’ Hep shouted ‘You did for yourself when you fell dead drunk in’t ditch last Michaelmas!’
The whole courthouse erupted into laughter, but the Squire fixed them with a dark stare and they fell into silence. They knew exactly how they would suffer if they did not take the proceedings as seriously as he wished.
Villager after villager came up to the witness stand, making claims of the dark deeds Hep was supposed to have performed, but none of them could look her in the eye.
Hep turned to the room in desperation, ‘Y’all came for help, and I helped you! You who accuse me have all come to me, pleading for help with beasts and children, sick or injured, or wife nearing her time. Tell him the truth!’
But none spoke in her defence, not one of them.
‘Silence!’ demanded the Minister ‘I have evidence against you too. You have bewitched me, with your brazen ways, into having carnal thoughts.’
‘Aye, I seen you starin’ at my bosom,’ Hep retorted ‘that be because you is a dirty minded lecher. Just ‘cause I ain’t afraid to slap you down when you stick y’hand on my arse. You want rid of me!’
‘Be quiet, woman, how dare you make accusations against good men who God has declared that you should serve.’ the Squire shouted, ‘You have the slippery tongue, and are full of words: and therefore must be guilty of many wicked practices.’
Hep stared around the court at the faces of the villagers ‘He has you in his pocket, does he not?’ and, as her settled eyes on the witnesses who had defamed her, she asked ‘I bet you all have a silver coin in your pocket from our lord and master?’
They all had the decency to lower their own eyes to the floor, in tacit acknowledgment of the truth of what she said.
Turning to the Squire she cried ‘You ‘ave already decided I be guilty.’
‘See, she can read minds! By the power of Satan!’ declared the Squire in triumph.
‘If I really had such powers would I not undo the ties that bind me?’ cried 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!’ shouted the Minister thumping the table again, and again.
Next, John Killick was brought forward to bare witness.
‘You have searched the Kemp cottage?’ asked the Minister.
‘Yes, Sir, and we found allsorts in the place. Herbs, and plants and potions and strange markings on the wall!’
‘And books, no doubt, books of magic? Books that have evil in them?’
Hep looked across the courtroom to her daughter, questioningly. Mizzy gently nodded in answer.
‘No, Sir, no books found – we turned the place over but there were none to be found.’ This answer clearly perturbed the Minister, ‘Are you sure? No writings of any kind?’
With a flourish, John Killick produced a sheaf of old parchments covered with Hep’s spidery jottings, “Yes, sir, we found these – curses and incantations, spells of some kind!’
‘If you would be so kind,’ asked the Minister ‘read them out to the court, so we might hear her harmful intent!’
‘Should I sir? Might not reading them aloud be an invitation to the devil?’
‘Fear not!’ replied the Minister, holding his crucifix aloft, ‘I am a man of God and shall protect us all!’
Killick nodded and proceeded to read 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 the whole of a more uniform consistence. 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 looked up in triumph, pleased with his find, but the whole court burst out laughing, again.
‘Hah!’ laughed Hep, ‘as everyone here, but you Sir, knows ‘tis just a recipe for Posset!’
Killick turned puce with embarrassment, and the Minister, looking furious, shouted over the noise ‘Written proof is not needed. Clearly she has her practices committed to memory, and we have sufficient proof of her capabilities.’
The Minister briefly conferred with the Squire before turning to Hep. ‘Hepzibah Kemp,’ he said ‘You have been brought before this court and found guilty of treason against your betters, of use of malevolent magic, of using the glamour to entrance righteous and holy men. You did not only do these things by your witchcraft and devilry, but made it public that you had the skill to do these things. 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 you soul.’
The Squire’s men grabbed Hep, with the intention of dragging her away, but, suddenly, someone burst through the Courthouse doors. A tall man, dressed all in black, with a sharp pale face, a long nose and a thin, small mouth. His eyes were his most startling feature, though. The kind of piercing eyes that you felt sure could see deep into your soul.
‘I am the The Witchfinder General.’ he said with quiet menace.
‘I am officially commissioned by Parliament,’ he claimed, ‘to root out and prosecute all those that have made a covenant with the devil.’
‘Aye, good sir, that may be the case,’ answered the Squire, ‘but I am in charge here and thy work is already done. We have the witch and she is to burn. Your assistance is not needed.’
The Witchfinder scowled at the Squire, and barked orders to the two servants that accompanied him. One was tall and thin, and the other short and round. So different in looks, they appeared harmless, even comic. But the look on their faces, as they gazed around the courtroom with contempt, was one of pure malice.
‘Mr Wick, Mr Poppet, take the witch and lock her up in the Inn.’ he commanded, as he pointed at Hep.
He spoke to all what were in the Courtroom.
‘Whatever minor matters have afflicted your insignificant community, I have been empowered me with a much more important agenda. The witch must be brought before the Star Chamber in London, for a proper interrogation and for all the facts to be considered.’
‘That’s not right, she’s our witch. We want to burn her!’ argued the Squire.
‘Be quiet, Sir, or you shall be brought before the Star Chamber too, and answer for your discourtesy!’
The Squire was not happy with his authority being challenged but unsure of whether to risk going against the power of Parliament, decided to hold his peace.
Hep was dragged away by Mr Wick and Mr Poppet and locked in the cellar of the Inn.
That evening, Mizzy came to the Inn to try and persuade the two gentlemen to let her see her mother.
‘What do you want?’ said Mr Poppet.
‘I’ve nobody, nobody but my mother,’ she said tearfully, ‘If the Star Chamber burn her I’ll be all alone, without having had the chance to say goodbye, you would not want that on your conscience, surely?’
‘Do we have a conscience, Mr Poppet?’ asked Mr Wick. ‘Indubitably not!’ replied Mr Poppet.
‘Then be away, girl!’ declared Mr Wick ‘and stop blubbing!’
‘I have brought wine and fine foods, for I am sure that you are need of refreshment, having been vigilantly guarding all day?’ pleaded Mizzy.
‘Comestibles, you say?’ the rotund Mr Wick replied, looking hungrily at the basket the girl dangled in front of him.
‘That does put a different perspective of the matter, eh Mr Poppet?’
‘Unquestionably,’ replied the thin man, eyeing the flagon of wine ‘I think we both find our hearts softened in favour of this girl’s simple desire to bring her mother comfort.’
Grabbing the basket and flagon, they unlocked the door to the cellar.
‘Mother, how have things come to this?’ said Mizzy, at the sight of her mother chained to the wall.
‘It take liddle these days, my dear, there be witch-hunts throughout the land. Only takes ‘n accusation from a spiteful neighbour to be arrested. Knowing how to treat a cold be enough. But this be the Squire’s doing. Revenge ‘cause I spoke against him. You’m must continue my work, you’m have the same desire to find out. To uncover things covered, to explain the mysterious and to put these findings to help people ‘gainst the legion dangers of the world.’
Before she could continue, loud snoring from outside the door interrupted the peace and quiet of her dungeon.
Mizzy smiled conspiratorially, ‘I have drugged them mother, we can escape!’
Hep, nodded approvingly. ‘Clever girl! – But ‘tis a shame in some ways, for I have never been to our great capital city, and I’m sure proper judges would have seen that the charges ‘gainst me amounted to nought.’
‘Mayhap, mother, but let us be grateful not to have to take that chance, let us away!’
But, before they could make their escape, the door flew open. The Squire had not been prepared to lose face to some bigwig from the city. Seeing the guards disabled, he had seized his chance.
Leading a crowd of feverish looking men, he marched into the cellar shouting defiantly, ‘Nobody, tells us what to do with our witch!’
‘Aye, no time for a burnin’, we should float her!’ shouted John Killick.
‘Aye, the water will give its answer, that will be the proof of whether she be witch, or not!’ added Dray the Blacksmith.
‘It is the Lord’s way,’ intoned Minister Cotton ‘if she floats it is a sure sign of guilt.’
They dragged Hep down to the quay with much pushing and jostling, the Squire all the time whipping the crowd into fervour. Soon they were shouting with one voice, like some monstrous howling beast. A few looked abashed, for they knew what was about to happen be not right.
Mizzy looked on in horror as hands grabbed her mother’s ankles and wrists and lifted her into the air, where they began to swing her backwards and forwards.
The crowd suddenly parted as The Witchfinder General came riding through them on a white stallion, the poor animal ridden so hard it was in a sweat, and breathing so heavily it’s breath looked like smoke as it hit the cold air.
‘Release her at once, she is the property of the Crown!’ he shouted furiously.
But it was too late – Hep wailed as they let her fly.
The next moment she hit the cold water, the shock taking her breath away. Her woolen dress sucked in the sea and was soon waterlogged. She fought to stay afloat but disappeared beneath the waves.
She stared up at the shimmering world above, and could see her daughter crying as strong arms gripped her, to stop her from jumping in to rescue her mother.
There was a look of horror on the The Witchfinder’s face and he let out a strange cry, in Latin, “Vivat, ut ossa sua in tempore !”
The sky became filled with discharges of electricity. The water around the point where she had disappeared bubbled with effervescence and strange glimmering lights.
That was the last that she remembered. As the final bubbles of air escaped from her mouth and salt water rushed in to replace them, she died.