Finding Shadows in the fire
John watches with increasing horror as the ordeal of Emma Dryden, a woman accused of blasphemy and slander, spirals disturbingly out of control. Historical horror by R.P. Serin…
He looked towards the group. Their faces gleamed with excitement as they piled wood, torn from surrounding market stalls, onto the rising pyre. John, the respected Apothecary, well-loved husband and father, then turned his gaze to Emma, the local healer and confidant whose public humiliation was rapidly spiralling out of control.
Generalised insults had turned into something more specific, more dangerous.
Her composure contrasted starkly with the baying crowd. Many were neighbours, some had been friends; none had helped when Thomas Cottrell accused her of blasphemy and slander.
A witness had described how, on the morning of the accusation, he had heard a man’s voice – raised in anger – thundering from Emma’s cottage. Cottrell had then come storming out ‘furious and red faced.’
Emma contested the charge of blasphemy but admitted calling Cottrell a despicable old coot. She said that he had visited her cottage, insisting she produce a charm that would conceal, from his wife, the unwanted advances he made towards his young housemaid. She had refused.
The magistrate yawned several times as he’d listened to Emma give her defence before taking mere minutes to find her guilty on both counts.
‘It would usually be the case,’ he’d said, suddenly appearing more alert, ‘that a woman such as yourself, who finds it fitting to use her vicious tongue against a man of good standing, would be plunged into the river’s icy water for a number of times determined by myself. This, however, is not what the fates have in store for you.’
Without further clarification, he’d then ordered Emma to be taken away until proceedings began the following day.
That night the ale-house had been teeming with patrons, most of whom had been toiling in the dry heat of the foundry, or in the dusty recesses of the mines. Now they were buzzing; intoxicated by the flowing beer and anticipation for the grim events to come.
John had been discussing Emma’s plight with a friend. The landlord had been standing nearby for much of the evening, clearly taking an interest in the conversation. As John’s friend began pondering the possible nature of Emma’s punishment, he had interjected suddenly, seemingly unable to contain himself any longer. ‘There’ll be no ducking tomorrow,’ he’d said, telling them what they already knew. ‘From what I ’eard the stool’s been decimated by a plague of woodworm that would’ve made old Moses squirm. Luckily,’ the landlord continued with grim enthusiasm, ‘a clergyman got this new thing when he been up to York: The Scold’s Bridle. I’ve seen it too an’ a fearsome looking thing it is. The wretch’s face is locked in an iron cage, an’ a gag goes right in ’er mouth, holding ’er tongue so she canna speak.’
John, who’d been feeing increasingly queasy, downed his ale, making some feeble excuse to leave.
The pungent smell of sweat and ale had given way to the stench of rotting food, animal dung, and human slurry but John had felt grateful for the quiet of the street outside.
It was a different place now, among this seething crowd; this senseless organism that could bark insults, throw rotten food and spit, but achieve little else.
Just a few moments before, Emma had been led down the gentle slope of Chapel Street, towards the busy square; towards the whipping-post that had been carefully assembled that very morning.
When she’d first come into view, the bridle straddling her face like the black claw of some unspeakable creature, the muttering crowd had fallen momentarily silent. Mouths gaped. Eyes widened. The curb-bit, holding Emma’s tongue in place, prevented any riposte to her persecutor’s debasements. Still, she’d moved her eyes about the crowd, holding the gaze of the minority who didn’t look away. Such resoluteness would come as no surprise to those who knew her.
Her husband, Philip Dryden, had died of Smallpox some eight-years prior, leaving Emma widowed at thirty-five. The owner of a modest plot of fertile land, he had been able to afford some of the best physicians in the county, though none had been able to halt the disease’s progression.
John had also been asked to help, more, he’d suspected, out of desperation than anything else. Emma was quite capable of providing any care that Philip needed. Not only did she have expertise in archaic folk-medicine, passed down through generations, she had also mastered the formal medicine of which John was a licenced practitioner. People from all levels of society sought her help, and often in preference to the more official channels.
Even John had sought her advice from time to time; she’d once cured his daughter of a fever that had been frighteningly similar to that which had taken the life of his young son just six months before.
The evening air was heavy and thick, and the July sun, which had shone brightly all day, showed no signs of relenting.
John looked over to the church, which loomed authoritatively above the crowd, another spectator to Emma’s ongoing ordeal. The scene glowed brightly as if on fire; stone and slate reflecting the dazzling sunlight. He turned towards the other side of the street, preferring to seek refuge in the shadows, where timber buildings tilted ominously over the street below.
‘She’s an abomination,’ a woman cried, plucking him from his sombre reflections. ‘No wonder she’s barren: it’s what you get for doing the Devil’s work’.
‘Familiars. I seen her talking to Familiars,’ shrieked an over-excited man, whom John could not locate within the pulsating crowd.
‘That disgusting mongrel of ’ers, that’s one, I know it,’ the woman replied.
Most of those shouting out had been more than happy to visit Emma when they were in need. Hypocrites. John’s stomach churned as he thought about them, these flawed individuals, plaguing Emma with ludicrous denunciations. Emma wasn’t perfect, but she was no worse than anybody here, and probably better than most.
Some viewed her as nothing more than an unsociable widow; whispering snide remarks as she’d walk past them in the street. Her intelligence, self-sufficiency only added to their disdain. Her knowledge of their most intimate secrets, which they had willingly shared, added to their fear.
Once at the square the bridle had been removed. Then she had been secured to the post.
If the crowd had wanted to hear her cries, they were to be disappointed. As each lash had connected with her exposed back, all that could be heard was the sound of leather meeting flesh, and a barely audible grunt; not the loud expressions of suffering which were apparently being hoped for.
It was at this point, as if unsatisfied with this subdued conclusion, that the cries of ‘gossiping whore’ and ‘pig’ had started to be replaced with something else.
Like a festering mould, these isolated mutterings began to spread. The crowd demanded more. Emma’s dignified defiance was not enough.
The pyre was nearly complete, and if Emma had thought that somebody might help, then such hope must have been creeping quickly away. She hadn’t been charged with the crime of which she was now being accused, and she had not been sentenced to this. Such legal technicalities were immaterial however, as those with the authority to stop the escalating violence looked passively on.
There must have been others who felt as he did, but none were speaking out. John raged silently against the crowd until he realised, with sickening clarity, that he wasn’t speaking out either.
He hadn’t thrown anything, and he hadn’t shouted vile taunts, he’d just been an observer, not considering himself a part of Emma’s torment. But in a way he was worse. As spontaneous as it had seemed, the building of the pyre had been a choice. Remaining silent, as the horror unfolded, had been a choice too.
As Emma was taken from the whipping post and trussed to the stake – which towered dismally over the timber heap like some murderous oppressor – John, thinking of innocence and guilt and shame, walked quietly away.
He could smell the wood as it began to burn. It entangled his spirit like a hideous mass of sweetly fragranced thorns, piercing his cowardly attempts at denial. Then, rising from the crackle of the flames, he heard Emma as she finally started to scream. He didn’t turn to look. Instead, he hung his head and continued home, to his wife, and to his daughter – whose life Emma had once saved.