The start of Sarah’s trial began the most ANguishing, wonderful two days of my life, in which I felt with full force both the power of God’s punishment, and the sweet grace of His forgiveness. Again, Cola has described the proceedings, and does so with perspicacity. I will not repeat his account, but rather must add to it, for he has quite naturally omitted certain events which he could not know.
Sarah had commanded me not to interfere, and I had already done so, but could not bring myself to disobey in her presence. This will seem weakness on my part, but I do not care if it does—I speak the truth and say that no man who knew her as I did would have acted differently. I was hoping someone else would speak for her, or present evidence of her innocence, yet they did not. Sarah herself said nothing except to admit her guilt so that her body could go to Lower and her mother receive treatment, and when she uttered that word, “guilty,” so quietly and with such resignation, my heart broke, and I determined that I would try for the third time to persuade people of the truth. Then I heard the judge say those words, “Does anyone have anything to add? For if there is one who will speak for the defendant, then he must do so now.”
“My Lord,” I said. I was going to cry out to the whole room that this poor girl was as innocent as Christ himself, that she had no hand in Grove’s death, and that I was responsible for his end. I was going to demonstrate the truth of my assertions with every scrap of evidence and eloquence I had, and was confident that while the latter might let me down, the former would carry conviction. I was going to save her.
And I hesitated, tongue-tied in my anguish and my indecision, and in that moment, the opportunity was lost. I know many in the town, even in the university, hold me in contempt, and ridicule me behind my back, and I have always taken care not to allow the opportunities for humiliation to be created. This time I disregarded all thought of my dignity, and in my brief pause, some fellow made a ribald remark, and others laughed, and this encouraged still more. For the court as a sentence of death is to be passed becomes a solemn place full of apprehension and dread; men leap eagerly at anything which will break that atmosphere, and render it less awful. Within seconds, the court erupted in jeers and, even had I shouted at the top of my voice, I would not have been heard. Red-faced with embarrassment, and consumed by shame at my failure, I felt Locke pull me down, hoping as I resumed my plea the judge would restore order, and call on me once more to say my piece.
He did not. Rather, with a supercilious smirk on his face, he thanked me for my eloquent words, and deliberately encouraged more laughter. Then he sentenced Sarah Blundy to die.
When I heard those words, I ran out of the courtroom to avoid further misery, and took myself to my room where I locked myself in and prayed for guidance. I had no idea what I should do, and I stayed, in mute immobility, until my mother put her head around the door and told me there was a visitor who would not take no for an answer. She had told him to go away, and he had refused absolutely to budge until he had seen me.
And, a few moments later, in marched Jack Prestcott, as cheerful as he was insane. He frightened me greatly, for his deterioration since I had last seen him was very great indeed, and the look in his eyes, to my mind, suggested a man who could fall into violence at any moment should he be crossed or contradicted.
“Ho there, my friend,” he said as he walked in, for all the world like a seigneur condescending to pay a call on one below his social rank. “I hope I find you well.”
I neither know nor care what reply I made; I could have recited an extract from the Bodleian catalogue, I think, for all the difference it would have made. Jack Prestcott was not interested in anything but the sound of his own delusions, which poured from his mouth in a thick torrent. He kept me there for half an hour, as he recited to me all his ills, and how he had overcome them. Every detail was put in, much as he later put it down in his manuscript. Indeed, some of the words and phrases and sentences, some of the little asides and comments, were precisely the same and I believe that in all the years that have passed between that visit and his putting pen to paper, he has done nothing except go over in his mind the self-same account, repeating endlessly in his delirium the same events. When he dies he may go to hell; it would be no more than deserved. But in my opinion he is in it already, for Tully says true, a diis quidem immortalibus-quae potest homini major esse poena furore atque dementia, what greater punishment can the gods inflict upon a man than madness?
I was at a loss to understand his purpose in coming, for I knew he hardly recognized me as a friend, and I had certainly done nothing to encourage any intimacy. I thought perhaps he wanted to consult me on matters of historical fact, and did my best to indicate I would not assist him in any way. But instead he held up his hand to silence me in a gesture of the most perfect condescension.
“I have come to provide you with material, not to ask your opinion,” he said with a sly smile. “I wish you to keep these papers, if you will. I will certainly reclaim them some day, perhaps if my suit still has to go formally to law, but I shall be on the move in the next few months, and am in no position to guard them carefully. If you keep them, you will be doing me as much a favor as I am doing you, for Dr. Walk’s would surely want them back if he knew where they were.”
“I do not want them and have no desire to help you in any way,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, nodding his head with the gravest satisfaction. “When your life of my father comes out, and people see through your pen the great man he truly was, then your career will be made. And let me assure you that I will not abandon you. All the expenses of publication I will bear. A thousand copies at least, I think, in the finest bindings, and on the best paper.”
“Mr. Prestcott,” I said more loudly, “you are a liar and a murderer and the foulest person I have ever encountered. You are killing the dearest person I know, the best person in the world, for no reason. I beg you to consider what you are doing; it is not too late to change, and undo the damage. If you go to the magistrate now…”
“And to do the job perfectly,” he said as if I had merely muttered some conventional appreciation of his kindness, “you must have these. But on condition that you say nothing to anyone about them until the book is ready for press.”
More paper. I took the proffered sheets and looked at them. Complete nonsense written on them.
“I leave it to you to detect their importance,” he said. “It can serve as a puzzle for you.”
Then he laughed outright at the look of consternation on my face. “I must explain,” he said, “for I see your perplexity. These all come from the drawer of Dr. Wallis. I stole them a few weeks back.” Prestcott leaned forward on his chair and said in a conspiratorial whisper—“They are in a most cunning code, and have all defeated the good doctor. He is properly mad about it.”
“Please,” I said, “Stop talking like this. Can you not hear me? Can’t you understand?”
Mr. Boyle conducted his experiments with his vacuum pump, Cola mentions some of them, and noted that as the air was sucked out, the sound of the animal inside it becomes fainter and fainter, until it can be discerned no more. As Prestcott stood before me, conducting the conversation he wished to have, hearing answers which were in his mind alone and oblivious to my words, I felt like some poor experimental beast, banging my hand against an invisible wall and shouting out at the top of my lungs, but receiving no response or understanding for my efforts.
“Yes. He prides himself on his skill, and yet these letters elude his mind completely.” He chuckled. “But he told me the key, even though he thought me too stupid to notice. Apparently, you need a book of Livy. And with it, all will be revealed, he thinks. I must say I do not mind him reading his own, but I no longer want him reading my father’s letters. Which is why you must have them. He will not think of looking here.”
And with this remark, Prestcott bade me farewell and went off to amuse himself before his fateful interview with John Wallis the next day. Both of them have given their accounts, and Wall'is’s is obviously the correct one, for Prestcott’s assault on him caused something of a stir, and there was a great crowd in the High Street a few weeks later to see the young man escorted from Bocardo jail by his uncle, and carried off so wrapped in chains he could scarcely move. It was a kindness to all, especially for him, that he should be so confined. He was too murderous to be free, and too mad to be punished. I hope it will be understood that I thought he received more consideration than he deserved.
But he left me those letters, and in particular that one crucial letter which Wallis intercepted on its way to Cola in the Low Countries; the only copy indeed, and the only proof of that Italian’s purpose here. I put it aside with scarcely a glance, even though I now knew something of how to read it; I cared nothing at that moment for intellectual puzzles. Instead, I tidied up my room with methodical precision, added the papers to my collection under the floorboards, and thus occupied my body in useless tasks while my mind resumed its melancholic reverie. Then I left the house to visit Sarah one last time.
She would not see me; the jailer instead told me that she was on her own for her last evening and wished to see nobody. I insisted, and offered him a bribe, and begged, and finally persuaded him to go back and ask again.
“She will not see you,” he said, with a look of sympathy. “She said you will see her tomorrow well enough.”
Her rejection saddened me more than anything, and I am so selfish that all I could think of was my own sorrow at being deprived of an opportunity to give consolation. I confess I drank more than I should have done that night, and also that it soothed me not at all. Tavern after tavern and inn after inn I went to, but could scarcely abide the company of all those happy and cheerful faces. I drank in solitude, and turned my back when even people I counted as friends approached me. Everywhere I went, people who knew who I was came up to me, and asked me about Sarah and what I thought of her. And every time I was too miserable to speak the truth. In the Fleur-de-Lys, then in the Feathers and finally in the Mitre, I shrugged, and said I did not know, that it was none of my concern, she might have done it for all I knew—all I wanted to do was forget it all, so self-pitying had the drink made me.
Eventually I was thrown out for having drunk too much, and slipped over and fell into the gutter once more; this time I stayed there until I found myself being bodily picked up.
“Do you know, Mr. Wood,” said a soft sing-song voice in my ear, “I do believe I just heard a cock crow. Is that not strange for this time of night?”
“Leave me alone.”
“I think perhaps I would like to talk to you, sir.”
So this stranger, this Valentine Greatorex, led me to his room and sat me down by the fire and dried me, then sat opposite and regarded me seriously but with great calm until I spoke myself.
“I went to the magistrate, and told him she was innocent,” I said. “I told him that I had killed Dr. Grove, not Sarah. He did not believe me.”
“Is that so?”
“Then I went to Dr. Wallis, and told him, and he would not believe me either.”
“I expect not.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because otherwise she might not die tomorrow. You know her well, I think?”
“Better than anyone.”
“Tell me, please. I want to know everything about her.”
Jack Prestcott talks of this man, and how his voice fascinated and soothed, so that those he spoke to almost fell into a dream of tranquillity and obeyed his every command. So it was with me, and I told him everything I knew about Sarah, everything I have put in this manuscript and very much more, for he was fascinated by her conversation and wished to hear every word she had ever uttered. As I spoke of her words at the meeting I had attended, he gave an enormous sigh, and nodded with satisfaction.
“And I must save her,” I concluded. “I must. There must be something I can do.”
“Ah, Mr. Wood, you have read too many chivalrous romances,” he said kindly. “Do you see yourself as Launcelot du Lac, perhaps, sweeping down on your charger and rescuing your Guinevere from the pyre, fighting off your enemies and taking her to safety?”
“No. I thought if I went to the Lord Lieutenant, or the judge…”
“They would not hear you,” he said. “Any more than the magistrate, or this man Wallis, or even the entire court could hear you. They hear ye, indeed, but understand not; see ye indeed, but perceive not. It says so in Isaiah, and so it is.”
“But why do so many people want her dead?”
“You know full well already, but will not accept it in your heart. You know what you have seen, you know your Scripture and you have heard her own words. There is nothing you can do, and nothing you should do.”
“I cannot live without her.”
“That is your punishment for your part in this.”
I had no spirit or energy to say any more, and the drink had so fuddled my brain I could barely have spoken even had I wanted to. It was Greatorex who eventually pulled me out of the chair, and took me into the cold air outside, which revived me enough to walk steadily.
“It is a purgatory, my friend, but not of long duration, you will see. Go and sleep if you can; pray if you cannot. It will soon be over.”