It grieved me greatly later on, but even now I do not see how I could have pieced together events in such a way that I might have prevented Sarah’s death. Had I known that Wallis and Thurloe were looking for those documents and would have given me anything I wanted for them, had I realized they were even involved at all in the machinations which put her on trial, had I understood the full significance of Cola’s presence in this country, I could have gone and said, stop this trial immediately, set the girl free. They would have obeyed me, and granted my every wish, I think.
But I did not know this, and did not realize it until I read the words of Wallis and Prestcott and understood for the first time that Sarah’s trial was no mere miscarriage of justice, but had instead an overarching inevitability to it that could not be avoided.
Many people have over the years talked greatly of the rewards and punishments God metes out to His servants to show His approval or disfavor. A battle lost, one won—both are signs from God. A loss of fortune when a ship sinks in heavy seas; a sudden illness, or a chance meeting with an old acquaintance who brings news, these too occasion prayers of lamentation or thanks. Perhaps it is so, but how much more is it when countless deeds and decisions, secretly taken and only half known, slowly accumulate over the years to produce the death of an innocent in such a way. For had King Charles not been duplicitous, had Prestcott not been a fanatic, had Thurloe not been concerned for his own safety, had Wallis not been vain and cruel, had Bristol not been ambitious, had Bennet not been cynical, had government, in sum, not been government and politicians not what they are, then Sarah Blundy would not have been led to the scaffold and the sacrifice would not have been made. And what can we say of such a victim, whose death is the culmination of so much sin but is accomplished so quietly that its true nature is never known?
As I say, I did not know this, and at that moment, sitting in my room surrounded by these bits of old paper, I upbraided myself instead for my cowardice, for taking refuge in a matter which then seemed of no importance to me at all—for I did not care at that moment whether King Charles of England kept his throne or not, nor did I care about his policies, or whether Catholics were persecuted or given complete toleration. All I cared about was Sarah in jail and the fact that I was running out of excuses, and would soon have to confess.
To prepare myself and work up my courage, I decided to talk to Anne Blundy, for I was sure she could give me the strength I needed. Cola mentioned that she had been placed in the care of John Locke during his absence, and this man performed his duties with the utmost punctiliousness, although with little enthusiasm.
“Frankly,” he said, “it is a waste of my time although, no doubt, good for my soul to act in a way which will bring no reward to either of us. She is dying, Wood, and nothing will change that. I perform my tasks because I promised Lower I would do so. But whether I give her herbals or metals, practice new or old medicine on her, bleed her or purge her, it will make no difference at all.”
This he said in a low voice in the street outside the cottage, where I met him. He had just been in to pay his daily visit which, as he said, was more for form than anything else. My mother came down every day with food, as Sarah had insisted that this be done, rather than the food coming to her in prison, and the old lady did not want for a blanket or sticks in the fire. More than that could not be done.
The stink of corruption inside was severe, and caught in my throat as I went in. All the doors and windows were fast shut to keep out the bad winds; which was necessary, but had the unfortunate consequence of allowing none of the foul air to escape from the chamber. And the old lady, who had always been perverse in having the shutters and doors wide open except in the most icy weather, complained bitterly of this. Locke had closed everything up the moment he arrived, and her inability to move from her bed made it impossible for her to open them again. She begged me to oblige her, and although reluctant to do so, I eventually agreed, on condition she permitted me to close them all again when I left. I did not want a fight with Locke about countering good medical practice on a whim.
Whatever the reasoning, I must say that I also was greatly relieved when the winds began to sweep the foulness out of the room and natural light replaced the darkness; Anne Blundy also seemed to benefit from the sweetness of the cold air. She breathed deeply, and sighed as though a great torture had come to an end.
I had not been able to see her in the gloom, and was shocked when I had opened the shutters and turned round to look properly at her. The wasting of her face and the deathly pallor were the most noticeable, of course, and I saw her for the first time without a covering to her head, so that the thinness and wispiness of her hair was most obvious. She looked twice the age of a few months previously, and my sadness bore in on me so much that my throat tightened and I could not speak.
“You are a strange young man, Mr. Wood,” she said after I had asked her how she was and said all the usual things that one says in these circumstances. “So kind and so cruel by turns. I pity you.”
It was strange to my ears to have this pathetic bag of bones pity me, and insulting to be called cruel, for I never was so with deliberation.
“Why do you say this to me?”
“Because of what you have done to Sarah,’’ she said. “Do not look at me like that, you know what I mean. For several years now, you have given her something which has been of the greatest value. You have talked to her, and listened to what she has to say. You have been her companion and as near to friend as man can be to a woman. What do you mean by that? Don’t you know that the world has changed, and that a girl of her sort must learn to remain silent, especially in the company of gentlemen?”
“This sounds strange from your mouth.”
“I see what is going on around me. Who cannot, when it is so obvious? But you are too blind to notice, it seems. So I thought, at least. I thought you were a simple scholar who was so enthusiastic about his learning that he would share it with anyone. But that is not the case. For having taught her that she can be listened to, and made it so this becomes the one day in the week she looks forward to, you then cast her off, and will have nothing to do with her anymore. Then take her back again. What will you think of to hurt her now, Mr. Wood? I should never have let you into my house.”
“I never intended her hurt. And as for the rest, I think that I have taught her nothing. She seems to be the teacher now, I think.”
She looked immeasurably sad, and reluctantly nodded. “I am very frightened for her. She is so strange now, I think she must come to harm.”
“When did she start speaking at meetings?”
She looked at me sharply. “You know of this? Did she tell you?”
“I found out on my own.”
“When Ned came back that last time, and then we heard he was dead, we talked time and again about him; it was our memorial for him as we could not bury his body. We talked of his parents and his life, and his battles and campaigns. I was grief-stricken, as I loved him very much; he was all the world to me and my greatest comfort. But my grief led me into indiscretion and Sarah never misses anything. I talked about the Edgehill campaign, when Ned commanded a platoon, and ended with a whole company of his own, and I told how he was away for more than a year, and how much I missed him.” I nodded, thinking there must be a point to this, for she was not a woman to ramble in speech, even when ill.
“Sarah looked at me very quietly and gently, and asked the simple question she had never asked before. ‘So who, then, is my father?”
She stopped until she was satisfied that my face did not register disgust.
“It was true, of course. Ned was away for a year, and Sarah was born three weeks before he returned. He never questioned or reproached me, and always treated Sarah as his own; the matter was never referred to again, but sometimes, when I saw them sitting together by the fire, with him teaching her to read, or telling her stories, or just holding her to him, I could see a sadness in his eyes, and I felt grief-stricken for him. He was the very best of men, Mr. Wood. He truly was.”
“And what was the answer to the question?”
She shook her head. “I will not lie, and cannot tell the truth. I spend my days and nights considering my sins to prepare for my death, and I need all the time I have left. I have never claimed to be a good woman in any way, and there is much to repent. But the Lord will not reproach me for fornication.”
Still not an answer to my question, but I hardly wanted to know in any case; I take little pleasure in such gossipy matters at the best of times, and Anne Blundy in any case was beginning to drift from me into her memories.
“I had a dream, the most wonderful dream of my life, that I was surrounded by doves, and one dove perched on my arm, and spoke to me. ‘Call her Sarah, and love her,’ it said. ‘And you will be blessed amongst women.”
I found myself shivering strangely as she said this, then smiled bravely at her. “You have done as you were told, at least.”
“Thank you, sir. I have. Shortly after I told her this, Sarah started traveling and talking.”
“Who was that man? The one I saw leaving the house a few months back?”
She thought for a moment, to decide how much to say.
“His name was Greatorex, and he calls himself an astrologer.”
“What did he want?”
“I don’t know. I was here when he knocked on the door. I opened it and he was standing there, white as a sheet and trembling with fear. I asked him who he was, but he was so frightened he could not say anything to me. Then Sarah called from inside that I was to let him in. And he came in, and he just went down on his knees in front of her and asked her blessing.”
The memory still alarmed the mother, and the telling of it alarmed me.
“Sarah took him by the hand, and told him to stand as if she was not at all surprised, then led him to the seat by the fire. They talked for more than an hour.”
“Sarah asked me to leave them alone, so I didn’t hear. Just the beginning. This man said he had signs of Sarah in the stars, and had crossed the sea and traveled here to see her, as they had directed him.”
“For we have seen the star, and are come to worship,” I said quietly, and Anne Blundy looked sharply at me.
“Do not say things like that, Mr. Wood,” she said. “Please do not. Or you will turn as mad as I am becoming.”
“I am well past the stage of madness,” I said. “And I am frightened beyond speech.”