Authors: Sarah Naughton
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
He froze. His mouth dropped open. He looked around the church for the artist and saw him a few rows back, his dark eyes glinting with amusement as they gazed back at him.
After the service the deaf boy was waiting for him in the graveyard. As Barnaby stumbled over the hummocky graves, the boy’s back straightened and his eyes glittered.
‘What’s that supposed to mean, you bastard?’ Barnaby shouted as soon as he was close enough. There was a sudden silence from the congregation that milled around the porch
The deaf boy didn’t move or speak, but just watched his approach.
He twisted his ankle clambering over the final grave and righted himself, cursing. The deaf boy dropped onto his back foot and raised loose fists.
‘Really?’ Barnaby yelled. ‘You want to take me on?’
He was within a few feet of him when the boy finally spoke.
‘You are a dog.’
‘You act like a lord, but you are nothing.’
‘I’m better than you’ll ever be!’
But the boy didn’t say more. In fact he clamped his mouth shut, blushed furiously and raised his fists. As they circled one another there were shouts from the parishioners: his
father’s voice was becoming rapidly louder and closer. Realising that they didn’t have long the two boys launched themselves at one another.
Barnaby landed two good punches to the boy’s face and the boy got one in on Barnaby’s nose and a crippling knee to the groin before they were pulled apart. Barnaby struggled to be
released, though only half-heartedly, but the deaf boy allowed himself to be led away without a backward glance.
Barnaby stamped home cursing and threatening dire retribution, to Juliet and his father’s sympathetic murmurs and his mother’s tight-lipped disapproval, and they were almost at the
gate before they saw the diminutive figure hunched against the cold. It was Benjamin. His face was as white as the frost that covered the road.
‘Mister Nightingale!’ he cried when he saw them, running forwards. ‘Can you come straight away?’
‘What is it, child?’ Frances said gently. ‘Is Naomi sick?’
‘Not yet, though she will be if they carry on.’
‘Your son, Sir, and his friend Mister Aitkins.’
‘They say Naomi has been accused of witchery and they must find out if it’s true.’
Barnaby’s heart stopped.
He, Benjamin and Henry passed quickly through the village, grim-faced and silent. They had come at dawn, the boy said, with a letter from the mayor, which they claimed allowed
them to carry out all necessary investigations. They demanded to speak to Naomi alone and then afterwards Abel left to fetch the ‘searchers’. Benjamin did not know what this meant, only
that his sister had gone so pale he thought she might faint.
‘What are these searchers?’ Barnaby had asked his father, but Henry didn’t know.
The little cottage was partly shrouded in mist from the lake and the path up to it had been churned to mud by the feet of the excited crowd from the widow’s swimming. The place was in
darkness except for an upper window, which shone bright butter-yellow.
They hurried to the front door, wide open despite the bitter cold, and followed a trail of muddy footprints into the house.
Waters and his wife were huddled together by a dead fire, their faces turned to the ceiling. Benjamin ran over and pressed himself into his mother’s arms. Waters looked up at Barnaby and
his father. ‘The searchers have come. With ropes.’
Barnaby ran to the staircase and scrambled up, until he came to the door at the top. It was locked. Behind it he could hear a man’s voice.
‘Abel?’ he shouted, hammering on the wood. ‘Are you in there?’
The voice stopped abruptly. He thought he could hear whispering, then there was a tremulous cry, ‘Barnaby? Is that you?’
Swift footsteps approached the door.
It was a voice he did not recognise, soft and insidious.
‘Let me in!’
‘I’m afraid that’s not possible. I have been instructed by the authorities to interrogate Miss Waters on suspicion of witchcraft.’
‘Well, you may do so in the presence of her father and employers.’
The man, Hopkins, chuckled. ‘That is not the way it is done.’
Barnaby kicked the door and the hinges splintered. One more and the thing would come off. He swung back his foot.
‘If I am not allowed to continue my work unmolested,’ Hopkins said smoothly, ‘then the interrogation will have to take place in the county gaol.’
Downstairs Naomi’s mother mewed a pathetic
Barnaby leaned forward and pressed his lips to the gap between the door and the jamb. Warm air trickled from inside the room.
‘Abel, you piece of shit,’ he snarled. ‘Get out here, now.’
‘Yes, Abel.’ Barnaby was surprised to find his father beside him. ‘Come out here and explain your involvement in this wretched business.’
‘I will not!’ Abel said shrilly, but after some reassuring mumbles it was Hopkins who spoke again.
‘Mister Nightingale. Your son is assisting me in my endeavours and, as he is now an employee of the government, I’m afraid the calls of family must come second.’
He gave a breathy chuckle that made Barnaby gouge his fingernails into his palms.
‘We are all anxious to get this over and done with, and your interference only prolongs Miss Waters’ discomfort.’
‘Discomfort?’ Barnaby shouted. ‘What are you doing to her?’
He went to kick the door again but his father held him back and Farmer Waters came scrambling up the stairs to drag them back down.
They waited in silence in the cold, low room. The only sounds were the buzz of Hopkins’s voice followed by Naomi’s higher-pitched replies, hour after hour, until Barnaby’s feet
and hands were numb with cold. The room grew dark and Mistress Waters lit a single tallow candle.
The loud thud as the bolt was drawn back on the door above made them all start violently. Light spilled from the covered staircase onto the flagstones and they all sprang up, but then the bolt
scraped once more and the light on the flagstones went out.
A moment later Matthew Hopkins stepped into the room.
Barnaby had not paid him much attention at the lake the previous day but now he saw he was a young man, perhaps only in his twenties, with a short dark beard and elaborately curled hair. Hopkins
had attempted to make himself more imposing with a black satin doublet trimmed with gold and the bucket-topped black boots of a magistrate, but he was still thin and narrow-shouldered and his
yellow face ran with sweat.
Barnaby absorbed all of this in the split second it took to pull back his fist. But at Hopkins’ cry of surprise another man came barrelling down the stairs, launched himself across the
room and came crashing down on him. Barnaby’s head struck the wall and he dropped like a stone.
A moment later the polished black boots appeared in his wavering vision.
‘Any man,’ Hopkins said coldly, ‘who seeks to obstruct me in my duties will be dealt with most severely.’
Barnaby could do nothing but slump against the wall waiting for his sight to clear. His father was remonstrating with Hopkins, who placated him silkily. Then he heard his brother’s voice,
sharp and nasal, employing a tone he had never before used with their father.
‘Go home, Sir, and leave us to our business.’
‘Oh, and what
is it of yours, boy?’ his father snapped. ‘What qualifies you to torment these women?’
‘Experience of the world, Mister Nightingale,’ Hopkins interrupted. ‘Piety, purity of heart and the gift to see wickedness in all its forms.’
‘Nothing at all, then,’ Barnaby croaked.
But then Waters stepped forward, his head bowed. ‘Might I ask if you have finished with my daughter.’
‘Almost,’ Hopkins said kindly. ‘She has confessed to nothing but now there is just the matter of the searching.’
‘My women must now search her for the devil’s markings.’
‘She has none!’ Mistress Waters cried. ‘I have known her body from birth and it is pure and unblemished!’
‘Then that is in her favour,’ Hopkins smiled, bowing slightly. ‘We will be back later. In the meantime I leave you in the care of Master Leech, in case you are the subject of
any . . . attacks.’
The huge man who had knocked Barnaby to the floor stepped forward.
‘Attacks?’ Waters echoed.
‘Indeed. The villagers are afraid, and fear, I am sad to say, so often drives people to violence. I bid you good day.’
As they swept across the room to the open door Barnaby stuck out his foot to trip his brother, but his reactions were still dull from the blow to the head and Abel hopped deftly over him. His
brother’s high-pitched giggle trailed back to him as the two men walked away down the path and vanished into the mist.
Barnaby struggled up and staggered to the bottom of the staircase but Leech moved quicker, blocking his path.
‘I only wish to speak to her. I will not try to enter.’
Leech stared at him, dead-eyed. The man stank of sweat and a crust of yellow warts disfigured the right side of his face.
Barnaby tried to push past him. In a movement that was surprisingly swift for such a lump of a human, he was thrust back into the arms of his father.
‘Go home, gentlemen,’ Waters said. ‘Please.’
The look of desperation in the farmer’s face deflated Barnaby’s will to fight.
‘It will go better for Naomi if we let them do what they have to and make no trouble.’
A chill, grey dawn was breaking as they left the cottage and their breath billowed before them. The mist was slowly clearing now, coiling upwards in wisps like fingers stretching for the sky.
Barnaby walked across to the water’s edge, the grass crunching beneath his feet. The hole in the ice made by the widow had healed and the only sign that anything had happened was the ridged
mud on the shore. Embedded in it were hazelnut shells: remnants of the snacks of the crowd as they enjoyed her suffering.
‘What I should like to know,’ his father said quietly behind him, ‘is who accused her.’
Barnaby turned and stared at him. Above his father’s head a huge ribbon of starlings swirled across the white sky, contorting into mysterious shapes and patterns.
‘Barnaby?’ his father said. ‘What is it?’
But Barnaby ignored him and set off at a run down the path to the village.
The maid opened the door, patting her bonnet and smiling demurely when she saw who it was.
‘Is Flora there?’
‘Well, yes, certainly,’ the girl said. ‘But she is alone and I don’t think it would be seemly to—’
He barged past her into the cottage. It was only slightly larger than the Waters place but far more luxurious, with glass in all the windows and heavy tapestries to keep out the drafts. The
light cast by the wall sconces bounced off the silverware to make the room sparkle.
‘Flora!’ he bellowed.
The maid’s feet pattered up the stairs and he heard the surprised screech of a chair in a room above.
The maid reappeared and hurried down the stairs. ‘Miss Slabber will be down presently.’ She scuttled away through a door but her footsteps skidded to a halt on the other side and
there was a rustle of skirts pressed against wood.
A minute or so later Flora came out onto the landing and stepped daintily down the stairs. She had rouged her cheeks unnecessarily since an angry scarlet blush was creeping up from her neck.
‘Barnaby,’ she said.
She paused on the final step and seemed reluctant to come further.
‘Naomi Waters has been accused of witchcraft,’ he said.
Her pretty lips pursed. The maid’s bonnet whispered against the door.
‘That is . . .’ she began then stopped. Her fingers fluttered at her side. She must have dressed hurriedly because her bodice had not been buttoned properly and there was a small
gape at the side, like an open mouth.
‘Was it you?’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘What makes you say that?’
‘I saw you take money from my brother.’
The blush seeped away and her blue eyes turned to ice.
She stepped off the stair and brushed past him in a haze of scent. Going to stand in the centre of the room she folded her arms and tilted her chin up.
‘It is my belief that she is a witch.’
He breathed in slowly and out before speaking again.
‘She has performed maleficium against us because of the manner in which she was dismissed.’
‘And how has this
manifested itself?’ Barnaby said. ‘You look perfectly healthy to me.’
Flora lifted her chin defiantly. ‘She made Pockets sick.’
Bile surged into Barnaby’s throat. ‘Have you considered,’ he said evenly, ‘that perhaps it was not witchcraft but just a rotten mouse?’
‘It was not only the business with Pockets.’
‘There were other such calamities?’ He smiled icily.
She bit her lip. The flush remained only on her chest, which rose and fell in irregular stutters.
‘Look . . .’ she began, then stopped and took a deep breath. ‘Look at what she has done to you.’
He stared at her. ‘What?’
She winced, as if she was looking into the sun. ‘Even as ugly and drab and viperish as she is, she has bewitched you into liking her.’
‘What?’ he laughed. ‘She is my maid, of course I like her.
‘More than me?’
‘At this moment, yes: considerably more!’
They stared at each other and his laughter died. One of the candles must have gone out because the room had grown duller somehow. The pinkness of Flora’s cheek had greyed and her hair was
the colour of dry grass.
There was whispering behind the door followed by a muffled giggle: evidently the maid had been joined by others.
‘Perhaps,’ Flora said softly, ‘you should take more care of others’ feelings.’
He had gone too far. If he was not more careful she would never back down.
‘You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’