I was returned to my cell, though I was barely able to walk across the courtyard and down the slippery steps. It was the same gaoler who escorted me, the one who had fetched me to the questioning. He said nothing as we made our stumbling, weaving way back to the prison, but he went slowly and supported me with a strong arm under my elbow.
When we reached the cell, I saw that a straw palliasse had been laid on the floor and there was a pisspot in the corner.
‘I will bring you food,’ he said.
I sank down on the palliasse and laid my head on my folded arms, trying to think. Why this sudden small measure of kindness? Perhaps it was to satisfy the magistrates, who might be suspicious if the accused witch was brought before them in too terrible a state of body. Any fearsome state of mind would be understood as normal for a witch. But now my thoughts could shy away no longer from what they had told me.
Hannah had betrayed me.
I could not shake those words from my mind. Perhaps they lied? But no. I thought that whatever Hopkins’s fanaticism drove him to, he had his own strict code. Had he not chided Stearne, saying that the proof they had was not enough? No, Hannah had indeed betrayed me. Declared me for a witch.
I began to sob then. All that I had endured was for nothing. And tomorrow they would swim me. It was well known that when suspects were swum, they almost always floated, which meant that the water rejected them as vile witches. I could not swim. I could not dive under the water, as Tom or Jack or any of their friends could do. If I floated, there was nothing I could do to save myself. I would hang.
How could Hannah betray me? All my life she had been one of my dearest friends, a comfort, a solace, a rock on which I depended. If of late I had looked after her more than she had looked after me, it was through her increasing old age. And that gave me pause for thought. Her body was weaker than mine. She was fragile. Her bones would break easily if they had tied her as they had tied me. And her mind had grown more frail of late. In her firm refusal to believe any harm could come to us, there was a kind of shrinking from the truth. When the truth and the agony of the torture had been visited upon her, it had proved too much. How could I, in my young strength, condemn her? And now she was dead.
I heard the gaoler returning and wiped my eyes on my dirty apron. He came in bearing a tray on top of a stool, which he set down beside me. There was a jug of ale and a basin of water, as well as a plate of cold meats and an early apple. I looked up at him in surprise.
He gave me a tentative smile. ‘Eat,’ he said, ‘and wash yourself. And then sleep. Sleep all you can. You must gain strength for the swimming.’
Was he mocking me? ‘Thank you for the food,’ I said.
He glanced behind him at the open door, then crossed the cell and softly closed it. I wrapped my arms around myself in fear. What did he intend?
He came back and squatted on the floor beside me.
‘Listen,’ he whispered. ‘You know that if you float, they will take it as proof you are a witch, and hang you?’
‘But you see, you women with your long skirts, they fill with air and hold you up. Like a bubble floating on the surface, see?’
I stared at him. Why was he telling me this?
‘That means innocent women are declared guilty. But if you sink, you are proved innocent. Can you swim?’
I shook my head.
‘Then there is only one way. You must fill your pockets with stones. They will drag you down and all will see that you are no witch.’
‘I shall drown instead.’
He shook his head impatiently and glanced over his shoulder. ‘You must stay under the water for the count of thirty, then empty the stones from your pockets. You will rise then, but it will be enough.’
‘The river will sweep me away.’
‘No. They tie a rope around your waist to pull you out. They don’t want you to drown, witch or not.’
I gave him a wan smile. ‘It is a clever notion. But where will I find stones?’ I glanced around the cell. ‘There are none here.’
‘I will bring them when I fetch you tomorrow for the swimming.’
‘Why are you doing this? If they discovered you, surely they will accuse you of colluding with a witch.’
He sat back on his heels. ‘My cousin Will lives in your village.’
‘Will the blacksmith?’
‘Aye. He has told me everything, how your people pretended the rector was dead, to get him safe away. How you and Hannah Green were no more witches than he was. Besides . . .’ He passed a hand over his face. ‘The girl I was to marry, a girl here in Lincoln. These witchfinders took her for a witch and hanged her. She was no witch!’
His voice cracked on a sob and I reached out a hand and touched his arm. ‘They are devils, these witchfinders,’ I said.
‘Aye. And think they do God’s work.’ His voice was grim.
He got easily to his feet and I realised he was younger than I had thought. Not much older than Gideon. His troubles had aged him.
‘Eat now, and sleep. You must be strong for tomorrow.’ And with that he left.
I washed first, cleaning my face and hands in the basin, then drying them on my apron. There was nothing I could do about the state of my urine-soaked clothes, but I reflected wryly that the river would wash them clean tomorrow. At least the cleansing water on my face seemed also to wash away some of the confusion brought on by my lack of sleep. The walk in the open air through the courtyard and the conversation with the gaoler had helped to clear my mind a little, though I was exhausted, all my joints shrieking with pain and my head pounding. Despite all this, I realised I was hungry and looked now to see what he had brought me.
The food was simple but fresh and hearty. A beef pie, packed with meat and onions and dripping with gravy that ran down my chin. Three cold sausages. A boiled onion. A slab of pease pudding. I wolfed it down like a beggar child who fears the food may be snatched away. The ale was decent stuff, not as good as my home brew, but passable. The flagon filled the cup three times. As I bit into the apple, a ginnet, sharp and a little under ripe, I wondered whether the gaoler had given me his own dinner. The food was surely too good to be wasted on a prisoner.
Could I trust him? He seemed honest enough and what was there to lose in trusting him? It was too great a problem for me to solve in my present fuddled state. I lay down upon the palliasse with the half-eaten apple still in my hand and fell at once into a sleep as deep and dark as a well.
I do not know how long I slept, but when I woke the light filtering in from the corridor was dim and flickering, so I supposed it must be night and the light was that of a candle lantern. With a groan I sat up. All my limbs had stiffened while I slept, so that I could hardly move. I had lain on the remains of the apple. I could just make out that it had turned brown, but I ate it anyway. Then I discovered that the gaoler must have been in the cell while I slept, for the first tray had been taken away and a new one was now on the stool.
With difficulty I managed to get to my feet and walk about the cell. I knew that if I was to survive tomorrow’s ordeal I must get some movement back into my arms and legs, so I forced myself to walk round the perimeter of the cell ten times. Then I used the pisspot and sat down again on my bed.
This time the man had brought me bread and cheese. The bread was fresh and I tore lumps off it with my teeth. It was a rough, coarse loaf, but the finest white manchet bread could not have tasted better for me then. There was a good sized piece of cheese, a local cheese, white and crumbling, with a strong tang. It was wonderful. There was more ale and another of the apples.
I devoured everything, then walked around the cell again and again. Although I still ached all over, I was beginning to move more normally. As I walked, I went over in my mind the plan the gaoler had suggested. He would bring the stones to the cell and I would put them in my pockets. Walking to the river, I must be careful not to let the unnatural swing of my skirts show. If I could keep my hands down by my sides, I could perhaps hide that.
Then something struck me. Did they not tie a witch before throwing her into the water? Right thumb to left foot, left thumb to right foot. A kind of parody of a crucifix. Even if they did not notice the stones when they were tying me, I could not possibly pull the stones from my pockets when I was trussed like a bird on the spit. The stones would drag me down, well and good. I would be judged innocent. But I would drown before they pulled me out.
In despair I threw myself down on my bed again and wept. I could refuse to take the stones, but then I would most certainly float and be condemned as a witch. That meant hanging, and hanging was not always swift. Better to drown, adjudged innocent, than hang and cast shame on my family.
These thoughts kept me awake, until at last I slid into a troubled sleep, in which I fought some force which closed about my throat. Afterwards, I did not know whether, in my dreams, I had been drowned or hanged.
I woke early the next morning, but I could tell it was already day by the quality of the light coming through the grill. No longer a lantern but a stray beam of daylight which found its way down the prison steps. The door at the top must be open. A few minutes later, the gaoler entered. He was wearing a heavy coat, unseasonable for August, and carried a bowl of porridge, which steamed slightly.
He left the door ajar and whispered as he bent to pass me the bowl, ‘Turnkey out there.’
I took the bowl, but he motioned to me to put it on the stool. Then he drew out of the deep pockets of his coat two large, flat stones, each about twice the size of my palm and about two fingers thick. I slid them into the pockets on each side of my skirt and they lay flat and heavy against my thighs. He had chosen well. Large round stones like cannonballs, which was what I had expected, would have pulled my skirts out of shape.
As I stood up, the stones swung a little back and forth. I tried walking across the cell. If I took fairly small steps and kept my arms down at my sides, I could prevent them swinging too much.
He nodded and smiled, then laid his finger to his lips and turned to go. Urgently I needed to tell him what I had realised in the night, that I would not be able to remove the stones once I was tied. I tried to mime this for him, so that the turnkey would not hear, bending over and crossing my arms so that my hands touched the opposite feet. Then I made a gesture of despair. He nodded and smiled. Could he not understand?
I was about to risk saying something, when the turnkey came to the door.
‘Hurry the witch along,’ he said. ‘She’s wanted in half an hour.’
‘Eat up, can’t you?’ the gaoler said roughly. ‘There’s no time for your tricks.’ And he winked at me.
They left me to eat my porridge, but I barely tasted it as I spooned it down, feeling sick at the prospect of what lay ahead. The same gaoler came back with another and with the turnkey to unlock the outer door. The gaoler tied a rope around my waist, which must be the line they would use to pull me out of the river, alive or dead, innocent or guilty. As we came out into the courtyard I was dazzled by the bright sunlight of full day. It was the height of summer and there were birds singing from nooks and crannies around the battlements of the castle. A male blackbird flew across my path as we approached the outer gateway, with a beak full of food. It must be rearing a second brood, I thought, for the first would be fledged by now. Somehow, that gave me hope. It seemed a positive sign, a good omen.
The two witchfinders were waiting for us just outside the gate, surrounded by their liveried guards, including those who had arrested Hannah and me. Beyond them a crowd of curious citizens peered in our direction, come for the fun of watching a witch swum. And behind them the cathedral raised its tower heavenwards, indifferent to these devilish doings. Enclosed by the crowd, we walked down to the river in a chorus of jeers and curses. I kept my hands at my sides, though the street was so precipitous I wanted to spread my arms to keep my balance.. With the two gaolers walking on either side of me, I hoped no one would notice the stones, and wondered whether the second gaoler was privy to the plan.
Until we reached the river Witham, my mind was occupied with walking normally and concealing the stones, but now suddenly faced with the fast-flowing river, I was terrified. The whole plan, the stones, the contrived sinking into the water, seemed like madness. I was going to drown. I would die in that river, and in the next few minutes. I turned aside, gagging. The porridge I had eaten was there in my throat, a horrible lump.
The gaolers guessed what was amiss with me, for I suppose I was not the first. Swiftly they shoved me to the side of the path, keeping well back as I vomited into the verge. Several people in the crowd laughed. As I lifted my apron to wipe my face, I saw Matthew Hopkins’s look of disgust, and I wondered whether he fancied he had seen imps jumping out of my mouth.
We reached the river bank. Now was the moment when they would tie me crossways.
‘Bend over,’ said the gaoler. ‘Put your left hand to your right foot.’
He slipped a loop over my thumb, tightened it, then passed the rope round my ankle twice.
‘Now the other hand.’
He brought the rope back to my left ankle, passed it round twice, then caught up my right thumb. Doubled up like this, I could see nothing but my own soiled skirt hem. I prayed then, prayed that the end would come quickly.
Though I could see nothing, I could feel heavy bodies bumping around me. Muffled by my skirts, Hopkins’s voice said, ‘Are you sure she is securely tied?’
‘Aye, sir. This isn’t the first witch I’ve trussed for the swimming.’ He sounded surly but confident.
Then someone lifts me and hurls me into the air. I strain my head back, free of my skirts. I seem to float there, time suspended. Perhaps I really am a witch and I can fly. There is the castle, where I have been held, I know not how many days. There is the cathedral, reaching up to the summer sky. There are the busy streets which I know only from tales told by Nehemiah and Tom. There are the crowds of grinning strangers. To them I am not a woman like themselves. I am a source of entertainment, a brief diversion from their hard lives. I am no more than a bear, set upon by dogs, or a cockerel, fighting desperately to the death. I am nothing. There is the gibbet, with two bodies swinging from it. Is one of them Hannah? Like Hannah, I am going to die. I know now that the gaoler’s plan is a foolish device.
Sweet Jesu, I gabble, take me into Heaven. I have not done what they say I have done, but I am going to die anyway.
And as though in answer to my prayer, time moves on. I am falling towards the river, brown and filthy with the towns ordure.
As I hit the river hard, I draw in a deep lungful of air.
And the waters close over my head.
I am sinking down and down into the thick waters, my clothes are sodden and clinging. No chance that I will float like a bubble on the surface. The stones are doing their work. He said to count to thirty, but I cannot think how to count. What use is it anyway? I spin at the end of the rope, like a fish on a fishing line. My lungs are burning, bursting. I will have to draw breath soon and I will draw in water and then I will die.
An end of rope slaps me hard against the face and I twist away. The river is pressing against my head, my ears are full of its sound. Then my right arm floats up in front of me. I am dreaming. My right hand is tied to my left foot. It cannot be there. I try to see my hand through the murky water.
My hand is free! I realise that the rope which hit me was the rope that fastened my right thumb. The gaoler had not tied it securely. Frantically I grope for my right pocket. The wet cloth fights me and I must breath, I must breath. At last the stone comes free and I feel it tumble past my leg. Desperately I try to reach my left pocket, twisting my body until my back shrieks with pain. If I can just free the stone . . .
It comes away at last and slips from my fingers, catches in my skirt and is gone, but I cannot last out any longer. My body is out of control. My mouth opens and I gasp. Not air, but water. And the darkness takes me.