For the next three days Whitcrowe marinated in terror and confusion. As more cotters fell ill—the vicar’s wife, Hana Fairdam, another Cobbler child, and two old widow women—rumors spun themselves in dark corners and rolled from doorstep to doorstep, spreading pain and distrust. Had someone poisoned the well? Was God judging the sinful members of the community? Was this a plot to ruin Lord Geoffrey and Lady Mallkyn, or were they the ones who were trying to ruin the cotters? Why?
The surgeon gave no answers to their questions, only a few self-important nods and brief platitudes. It would all be quite all right, he assured them. He wanted to take one of the patients to Camberton to treat them in his own surgery, but no one would hear of that. They would all stay in the chapel where they could be watched by friends and family. Pale faces watched the sufferers by day and night. No service was held that Sculpsday; the vicar was too exhausted to perform the service, even if the chapel hadn’t not been occupied by writhing, screaming people and the smell of herb concoctions.
|Graves, a photo by Lennart Tange on Flickr.|
At noon on the second day, Widow Dincrawe died. She was a frail old thing, with cloudy blue eyes and skin worn thin like a well-loved doll. Everyone knew her, everyone shuddered with grief when they pulled a sheet over her face. If Alis had known, she would have wept. They buried the widow among the faithful.
The surgeon was obviously helpless. No one knew the ways of holy fire. Theda Spichfat told everyone who would listen that this was the work of witches. Why witches would choose to afflict a few weak women and children she couldn’t explain, but it sounded right to her frazzled brain. The vicar feared that it was God’s judgment for some hidden sin, Gracia made it clear that she blamed the old grain that everyone had been eating for months.
On her third night of duty Cecily sat beside a boy with a shrunken white face, quietly telling him the tale of the three sailors and the pearl. Gracia passed by with a basket of ointments. “Here, Cessy, won’t you put this balm on her chest? Hana’s doing a little better with it.”
Cecily’s muscles felt like very heavy gelatin, but she reached up to take the bottle. Something rustled over her shoulder as she bent to apply the ointment and she felt Bess’s hand on her arm.
“Don’t do it, Cessy. You need to rest. Go on outside and taste some fresh air.”
“But I’ve slept all day…”
“A few hours of napping in the corner is hardly sleeping all day. Now, give me that and I’ll finish the story. You go.”
There was nothing more to be said when Bess got that look on her face. Cecily handed over the bottle with guilty gratitude, glanced back at Alis to make certain she was sleeping, and slipped out a side door into the chapel garden.
A wall of cool evening air struck her face and she drank it in. The stars were already out, though the sunset was not quite gone. One rattling cart and some distant conversations were the sounds, and Cecily breathed in the quiet with the air.
She went to her swing and swayed back and forth until she was too tired to move her legs. For the first time in so long she had leisure to think, to consider what had been happening. This was the same plague that had seized Whitcrowe twelve years before. That sickness had passed, leaving many families broken, bodies weakened, hearts torn. No one knew why it had claimed the lives it did, or why it had disappeared within a couple of weeks. Cecily could barely remember her father now, and what memories she had were confused with the stories her mother had told her. Hearing him spin his tales in the dark, bouncing on his knee, looking way, way up to see his face. Snatched away before I could show him my garden or ask him any questions.
“Cessy, it’s your mum.”