In the darkness of night, two men on horseback entered the small village of Waltham. No one heard their arrival. It is doubtful anyone would have taken notice of them if they had. It was a time of great unrest in England. The Parliamentarians were pitted against the Royalists in the first of the English civil wars. People's loyalties were being put to the test--not only their loyalty to the Crown but also to the Protestant religion since the Anglican Church was in constant threat from its papist enemies.
Under such unsettling circumstances, it is little wonder that a form of paranoia spread through some of the country's weaker minded citizens. Their misfortunes, whether an accidental death of a loved one, a sudden illness or a run of foul weather, were not seen as acts of God but of the devil. Witches, believed to be the handmaidens of Satan, were blamed for the death of a cow, the failure of a crop, the premature birth of a baby or the inability of a woman to conceive a child.
Some men, out of ignorance or religious fanaticism, sought to wipe out Satan's servants. In Europe tens of thousands of witches--predominantly women--were tortured and burned at the stake by the Catholic Church. Such executions were deemed the will of God, for hadn't the Bible said that thou shalt not suffer a witch to live?
Other men, however, were not guided by a belief in Satan or witchcraft. These men sought to hunt down and execute innocent victims for their own twisted reasons. Such a man was Jonathan Marlowe. Accompanied by his associate, Warwick Allen, Marlowe traveled through the eastern counties of England, hunting witches on behalf of the British Parliament. The self-proclaimed Witch-finder General persecuted his innocent victims for pay. Accordingly, when he and Allen rode into Waltham late one night, they were not there to fight the devil to save the souls of the townspeople; they were there because witch-hunting was their job.
* * *
Word spread quickly through the village: the witch-hunter had arrived. Few people were glad at the news; most were fearful, for Jonathan Marlowe's ruthless reputation had preceded him.
"What do you make of this Witch-finder General?" asked Wilmot Dodson, who owned Waltham's only inn and tavern.
"I understand he's not a man of God," replied Gabriel Seton, one of the wealthiest landowners in all of England. "I heard he worked in a law office."
"Man of God or not, for two years he's been hunting witches. He's even written a book called The Discovery of Witches."
Gabriel chuckled, indicating his contempt for both the man and his work.
"A guide to determining who is a witch and who isn't. I'd like to know how he learned of the criteria to judge a person's guilt. Did God himself whisper the secret in his ear?"
Wilmot joined in his friend's laughter, but he kept a wary eye on the doorway. Such comments could be dangerous should they fall on the wrong ears.
"Why does the Parliament waste its time worrying about witches?" Gabriel asked as he signaled the innkeeper to refill his mug. "I should think those Roundheads had their hands full fighting the Cavaliers."
"Perhaps they believe witches are likely to fight on the side of the king," Wilmot joked.
The door to the tavern suddenly opened, and the two men fell silent as Jonathan Marlowe walked in, sat down and ordered a pint of ale.
"What brings you to Waltham, Master Marlowe?" Gabriel inquired.
"I've come to rid your village of those who serve the powers of evil."
"And how can you tell these people apart from those who are good?"
The innkeeper, hoping to avoid a confrontation with the witch-finder, disappeared into the kitchen.
"There are several methods I use," Marlowe replied. "There is the swimming test, for instance."
"Ah, yes, isn't that where you throw some poor soul into the water to see if she sinks?"
"A witch can hardly be viewed as a poor soul. She has promised her soul to Satan, remember."
"Sorry, I forgot."
There was something about Seton's attitude that Marlowe didn't like, a condescending manner that offended the witch-hunter. Gabriel's finely tailored suit of clothes was indicative of great wealth. No doubt he came by his superior airs naturally.
"The swimming test is a good indication of a suspected witch's guilt. By signing the devil's book, a witch renounces her baptism, and all water will reject her. Hence, a witch will not sink; she will float to the top."
"After which she is plucked from the water and hanged."
"Would you have us let the witch live to carry out her dark master's wishess?"
"God forbid!" Gabriel answered, his eyes twinkling with amusement. "But what of the innocent women who sink to the bottom?"
"Every attempt is made to save them. It is unfortunate that some have drowned, but such is the nature of the trial."
"So, even to be suspected of witchcraft is a death sentence in many cases."
"There are other tests," Marlowe declared in his own defense.
"Ones in which the innocent actually survive?"
Marlowe glared at the other man, but given Gabriel's obvious social standing, the witch-finder ignored the implied criticism.
"We search the body for a devil's mark or, as some call it, a witch's mark."
"What does such a mark look like?"
"Devil's marks come in many shapes and sizes."
"Like that mark on your hand, for instance?"
"That is a scar," the witch-finder said indignantly. "A witch mark is quite different. If you take a needle and prick such a mark, the witch will feel no pain, nor will the wound bleed."
"Interesting. So if you suspect someone of trafficking with Lucifer, you would strip her down and prick every scar, birthmark and mole on her body?"
"And if she's innocent, she would feel pain and bleed? Again, it doesn't seem very fair to those who are falsely accused."
Marlowe didn't bother to further explain his methods to Gabriel Seton, who, after all, was not in the position to demand answers despite his wealth.
The landlord, having grown bored with baiting the witch-finder, finished his ale and left the tavern.
* * *
As Jonathan Marlowe and Warwick Allen walked about the village, few people spoke to them. Most villagers avoided contact with the men, fearing for their own safety. Only Chastity Withers, the pretty young daughter of the village blacksmith, dared cross their path.
When Marlowe saw the girl's long red hair, he was painfully reminded of his youth. As the son of the town vicar, Jonathan grew up with comforts many of the other children lacked. He was never in want of food, clothing or shelter. He also had the advantage of an education, whereas most people in the town were illiterate. It was quite natural then that the boy believed himself to be a step up from others his own age--all except one, that is. Rebecca Fenwick, whose father owned an apothecary shop, was as intelligent as she was beautiful. She could read and write as well as, if not better than, Jonathan. She had also been gifted with a talent for mathematics, a subject that always plagued the vicar's son.
Although he never spoke his feelings, Marlowe loved Rebecca with all the passion of youth. Sadly, the young lady did not return his affections. A lively, fun-loving girl, Rebecca found Jonathan far too dull and serious for her taste. Still, as long as Rebecca lived in the village, he cherished the hope that she would grow to care for him. But when Mr. Fenwick died, Rebecca and her mother left England to live with relatives in Wales. The pathetic, unrequited love Jonathan harbored turned to hatred. Bitter and frustrated, he sought to escape the town of his birth and everyone he knew there, including his parents. Wherever he journeyed, however, his loneliness and melancholy accompanied him. Nowhere could he find peace of mind. Every pretty woman he saw reopened his wound.
Then one day he traveled to a town just outside of London where the mayor was suffering from a debilitative disease of which the doctor had no knowledge. It was an old wise woman who was finally able to help the sick man with a mixture of herbs from her garden. The mayor, who had been slowly wasting away for several weeks, was soon glowing with good health. The doctor's professional pride was dealt a mortal blow. How could an ignorant peasant woman succeed where he with all his medical knowledge had failed? Marlowe provided him with an answer.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the old crone was a witch," the sullen young man commented one night at the tavern.
"Do you really think so?" the doctor asked.
"Yes, I do," Jonathan replied. "Women are weak creatures with inferior brains. That is why they are easy prey for the dark forces at work in the world."
"I share your opinion," the doctor said, his ego preferring to attribute the mayor's recovery to witchcraft rather than to a mortal woman's superior knowledge of the healing power of herbs. "But how can we prove she's a witch?"
It was a question to which Jonathan had no answer--yet.
The following morning he went to London where he spent several days pouring over theology books. When he returned to the town he had an answer for the doctor. Thus it was that the old wise woman, whose only crime had been to heal a sick man, became the first witch put to death on evidence obtained by the witch-finder. By the time he arrived at the village of Waltham, his unfortunate victims numbered more than a hundred.
* * *
Chastity Withers didn't understand why the villagers had been acting peculiar since the arrival of the two strangers. Her simple world did not include witches or men that fought their inner demons by inventing demonic spirits they could battle on earth. Chastity was an innocent, a young woman with the mind of a child. Her mental state mattered little to Jonathan Marlowe, however. His thirst for blood needed to be slaked. As the Witch-finder General, he was a man both respected and feared. He had reached a level of importance he could never have dreamed of had he remained in the village where he was born. He had power over the lives of people, and he had no intention of relinquishing it.
Only men like Gabriel Seton, men of wealth and social standing, failed to treat him with the esteem due his important position. The young landowner looked upon the witch-finder with contempt and took pleasure in ridiculing him. That would soon change, Jonathan vowed. Gabriel and all those in Waltham would soon witness his power. Yet when the Witch-finder General accused Chastity Withers of the murder of the village's former minister, Gabriel was enraged, not impressed.
"That girl wouldn't harm a fly," he protested.
"Nevertheless," Marlowe insisted, "she sent her familiar out to smother the man in his sleep. How else can we account for his mysterious death?"
"The reverend was ninety-two years old. It's no mystery he was found dead in his bed."
"The charge of witchcraft has been made," Marlowe proclaimed. "It is now up to the court to decide her guilt or innocence."
"Either way, the poor girl will have to suffer needlessly."
Gabriel walked away in anger, and Jonathan smiled smugly at his triumph.
* * *
When Chastity was brought before the magistrate in chains, Marlowe stepped toward her and ripped the shift from her body. Even with her limited intelligence, the girl blushed with shame and tried to cover her nakedness.
Warwick Allen's eyes were ablaze with religious zeal as well as with an animalistic lust as he examined her firm, young body.
"Here's a mark," he announced upon the discovery of a purplish birthmark on the girl's lower abdomen.
"Is it the mark of the devil?" the magistrate asked.
"We will know soon," Allen replied as he took a large needle from a case he carried.
As two men held the girl firmly by the arms, Allen drove the needle through the birthmark and two inches into the girl's body. Chastity let out a scream of pain and fear. When Allen withdrew the needle, the wound bled.
The magistrate sighed with relief.
"The girl is not a witch."
But Marlowe was not to be denied his prize.
"It means only that this mark is a natural one. The girl might still be a one of Satan's handmaidens."
"That girl is no witch," a female voice called from the door of the meeting hall.
A tremor went through Marlowe's body as he recognized the voice. When he turned to see Rebecca Fenwick standing there, his jaw dropped with shock. Yet Rebecca--more beautiful than ever--showed no sign of surprise.
"Who are you to decide her innocence?" Jonathan asked, his quivering voice betraying his dismay.
Rebecca looked at him as though he were an insect--a dangerous one, but an insect nonetheless.
"And you, Jonathan Marlowe? Who are you to decide her guilt?"
Rebecca's voice was filled with such loathing that the witch-finder cringed. Meanwhile, the beautiful redhead covered the sobbing young woman with her own cloak.
"I am the Witch-finder General," Jonathan announced, summoning what little pride he could in the presence of the only woman he had ever loved.
"So my husband told me. He also told me of the deplorable methods you use."
When Jonathan saw Gabriel Seton walk through the door and stand at his wife's side, it was as though Warwick Allen's witch-pricking needle had been thrust through his heart.
"This girl--this child--is innocent," Gabriel shouted with certainty. "I dare any man to produce legal proof that she is a witch."
Marlowe couldn't speak. He was still reeling from the news that Rebecca was Gabriel Seton's wife.
Chastity Withers was set free, in part due to the cowardice of the magistrate who had no desire to anger Master Seton. Marlowe, however, was not about to vanish into the night simply because his plans had been thwarted. He would not waste his time on a half-witted child. He had another, more deserving target for his wrath.
* * *
"Rebecca Seton a witch?"
The magistrate clearly did not believe the witch-finder's accusation.
"I know it for a fact," Marlowe claimed. "How else do you think a poor country girl could snag a wealthy husband if not by the devil's magic?"
The magistrate raised his eyebrows.
"She's a beautiful woman. I don't know of any man, rich or poor, who wouldn't court her favor if she weren't already married."
"Naturally. The vixen has bewitched you all."
"Bewitched or not, her husband will be furious if we arrest her."
"For now, but once he is free of her spell, he'll no doubt thank us for saving his soul."
The magistrate was skeptical. If Rebecca were his wife, he would sooner lose his soul than give her up.
"I don't think it's wise to accuse the wife of so powerful a man. Seton has a good many important friends in Parliament."
"My work is commissioned by Parliament," Marlowe cried. "I am the Witch-finder General, and it is my sworn duty to hunt down these whores of Satan! You are bound by law to assist me."
The magistrate was torn between his obligation and his heart.
"Could it be that you, too, are in league with the devil?" the witch-finder asked.
The magistrate paled. God forbid suspicion should fall on him. Reluctantly, he capitulated.
"I will send the sheriff to Seton Manor to arrest Rebecca."
* * *
If Marlowe hoped to cause fear in Gabriel's and Rebecca's hearts--and he did--he failed. When the accused woman was removed from her jail cell and presented to the witch-finder for examination, she stared at him in defiance.
Jonathan had already determined there would be no search for a devil's mark since he couldn't bear to have Warwick Allen touching the woman he loved. Instead, it would be the swimming test.
Rebecca was escorted to the edge of the lake where her husband, the magistrate, the witch-finder and other interested people gathered around her. Neither she nor Gabriel protested when Jonathan ordered her bound hand to foot. The accused woman obediently sat on the ground, crossed her arms and put them between her legs. Not even when the witch-finder's assistant tied her thumbs to her toes did she show signs of fear. Jonathan was disappointed; he had imagined her crying out for mercy or swearing her innocence. When at last he ordered her thrown into the lake, she looked him in the eye and smiled.
There was the sound of the splash followed by silence. Marlowe held his breath as he watched Rebecca's long red hair float briefly on the surface of the water before she sank.
* * *
"She's gone!" the sheriff cried after rowing a small boat out onto the lake to search for the body.
"That's impossible," Jonathan declared.
"That water is clear, and I can see right to the bottom. I tell you there's no one there."
Marlowe looked at Gabriel Seton. The wealthy landowner, now a widower, was not at all fazed by his wife's death.
"Well, gentlemen," Gabriel said to the assembled villagers, "it's time for me to return home." Then he turned to Marlowe and added in a hushed voice, "I'm quite sure I won't be seeing you again."
The witch-finder remained at the side of the lake long after the others had departed. He stared at the water, wondering what could have happened to Rebecca. Finally, when the sun set, he went back to the inn. Although he'd had a long, trying day, he couldn't sleep. He tossed and turned for several hours before falling into a fitful slumber. A sudden noise woke him.
"That sounds like her," he said.
He got up from his bed and called to Warwick Allen. But Marlowe was unable to wake his assistant.
"He sleeps like the dead."
Marlowe walked out into the night. The full moon cast a lustrous shine on the courtyard. He saw a movement in the shadows and heard the swish of a woman's dress.
"Who goes there?" he cried.
"Have you forgotten me so soon?"
Rebecca was absolutely stunning in the moonlight, with her red hair glowing like the dying embers of a fire.
Jonathan shook with fear.
"You're dead. You couldn't have stayed underwater all that time."
She laughed, a soft, throaty laugh that aroused Jonathan as much as it frightened him.
"Your swimming test is only effective against mortals. True witches don't float or sink, for they can transport themselves out of the water to a place of safety."
"So now you admit to being a witch?"
"I don't remember ever denying it."
"What a fool you are," Jonathan said. "I am the Witch-finder General. You've confessed to me, and tomorrow you will hang."
Rebecca laughed long and hard.
"Which of us is the fool, Master Marlowe?"
"You think no one will believe me?"
"No one will even hear you. Your days of power and eminence are over. You will live among your fellow man unseen and unheard for the remainder of your miserable life. A suitable ending for a man so full of self-importance, don't you agree?"
Jonathan ran back inside the inn, hoping to disprove Rebecca's words. He walked up to Wilmot Dodson, the publican, and shouted in his ear, but Dodson neither saw nor heard the witch-finder. When Marlowe tried to grab the innkeeper by the arm, his hand passed right through the man's body.
"What has that evil woman done to me?" the witch-finder screamed.
The only reply was the mocking sound of Rebecca Seton's laughter.
I was not trying to determine if Salem was a witch; I was giving him a flea bath.