22. Beloved

London, England
June, 1667

The cock’s crow awoke William before sunrise on the morning of the hanging day, and he swung himself out of bed despite the early hour.

Were there ever a day to be awake and fresh, this was it.

Kneeling on the cold floor, he carefully pushed the trundle back beneath his bed. Again, it was perfectly made up, the old quilt taut across the bedding.

His son had not slept here again last night.

The boy had all but disappeared after his outburst; coming home only the following morning to plead the woman’s case. When William hadn’t budged, the boy disappeared. To Thomas’s, William supposed, though he hadn’t been down to the smithy to check.

But he pulled out the trundle each night, just in case his son chose to come home.

The boy hadn’t known, he rationalized. And that he didn’t back away just yet, well—if anything, it was a sign of how bewitching the woman’s power was. Once she was gone, the spell she had over his son would break, and he would return to the good Christian man he was.

He was not in possession of the devil himself.

William’s shoes were on the other side of the room, and he padded across in his hose. Next to his shoes, leaning against the wall, were the two pieces of the cross from the kitchen. There were no other adornments in the house besides this one; William had carved it himself just upon starting seminary.

He winced as he recalled the look of furor on his son’s face as he brought the hulking cross down on the floor, the way the wood had groaned as it splintered. The way his own child had renounced not the devil but their God. The tears of anger that had streamed down the boy’s face as he stormed out of their home.

Without thinking, William found himself kneeling before the pieces of the cross.

Broken.

Like everything.

“It all happened so quickly,” he whispered, running his fingers across the wood. “I was happy for him, Lord. He was righteous and true. Turned to thee. His strength shone in all that he did.” He recalled the joy which had flooded him that afternoon that his entire world had exploded; when he learned that his son was courting a woman. That he would go to seminary, serve the Lord, and raise the family William himself had been unable to. He had even felt healthier—he almost could have guessed that Young William’s strides were healing him as well. Perhaps this was what the Lord had intended for them both; for William, healing; for his child, a family.

And then it had all shattered.

This was a test, if ever there were one. A test of his own commitment. Could he stand by and watch his child break so that others might be spared the presence of evil among them?

What would Sarah have thought, he wondered. To be wrenched so completely from joy to pain; knowing their child was to marry, to be a seminarian, to become a father—only to learn that in truth, he’d been seduced by evil?

She would not have stood by, came the answer from deep within him. For while a father could sit idly at a table while his child screamed and sobbed, no mother would be able to bear that sight.

Did that mean he was stronger, or just more foolish?

“It hurts,” he continued his prayer. “It hurts, my Lord, to see this. I pray for thy strength. I pray thou to give Young William strength. For he shall need it this day and in the days to come. Please give him strength, and bless his soul to keep it from corruption. Forgive him his errors when he asks your forgiveness.”

He placed a trembling hand on what had once been the bar of the cross, which now leaned vertically against the cold stone wall. Did it tremble because of his sickness? Did it tremble as a sign that he was close to death?

Or did it tremble because of his own sorrow?

“Protect my child, Lord,” he whispered. “Protect my child.”

Then he stood, straightened his collar, and made his way toward the stairs.

~||x||~

“You. Vagrant. Awake.”

Carlisle barely managed to force his eyes open through the thick crust of his own tears. Between these, and the fact that for several days, one of his eyes remained swollen, opening his eyes to awaken in the morning had become difficult.

His breath left him so abruptly that he felt the effect before he registered its cause: the guard’s boot as it landed a kick square to the middle of his chest.

He growled, but staggered to his feet.

“You should not even be here,” snapped the guard.

“Then stop holding my wife,” Carlisle snapped back.

At this the guard only laughed. “Your wife? What, is she held for cuckolding you?”

The blood from the man’s lip spurted several satisfying feet when Carlisle’s fist slammed into his jaw. Unfortunately for Carlisle, the guard was a bit sturdier a fighter, and the fist which answered was powerful. A throbbing pain ripped through Carlisle’s head and little white pinheads appeared at the edge of his vision. As the world began to swim, Carlisle dropped to his knees.

The guard spat on him.

“Try that again and you will find that it is you locked here instead of your woman,” he snarled.

Carlisle fought his way to his feet, staggering slightly. He did appear a mess, he realized at once. His shirt was stained with grass and mud from his multiple nights of sleeping outdoors. His breeches were ripped at the knee. He knew that if he lifted his hand, he would feel several days’ beard on his cheeks.

He’d been in Southwark for a week. They kept Elizabeth and the others in a tiny debtor’s prison here, which before the Great Fire had been used for only the pettiest of criminals. There was word of making Newgate into an even more formidable prison on its rebuild, but that would be years away.

So the prisoners were held in a tiny building here, across the river where the buildings were untouched by the Fire. Thomas had tried to convince Carlisle to stay safely in Aldgate, but he would have nothing of it. The prison had a small yard, and it was here he made camp, sleeping outside like a dog. He hadn’t eaten in days. Like all the prisons, the guards here were easily bribed, and while he hadn’t been able to negotiate a visit, Carlisle had spent his money sending Elizabeth blankets and baked goods and paying for her to have a bed.

He would be the one who shivered and starved. That seemed more than fair.

“When will they bring them out?” he managed to ask when his vision stopped swimming.

The guard laughed, his grin spreading wide and showing a set of very crooked teeth. “Wanting to see your woman one last time, eh? I would go home, boy. Lovesickness is not cured by twisting your own heart.”

Lovesickness? Was that what the guard thought this was?

Nevertheless, he pulled himself to his full height, squaring his shoulders as he regarded the other man.

“She is accused falsely,” he answered. “And not by me.”

The guard laughed again. “Then you had better take that one up with the judge. Sleeping out here like a lost dog will not undo the judge’s orders.” Gesturing to the gate, he added, “And it’s too late for that.”

And Carlisle heard it. The jangling of tack as it was hooked to the mules which would pull the cart to Tyburn. The creak of the wheels as the cart maneuvered into place. The whistling of a minstrel tune.

Someone was whistling?

They were readying the cart to pull people to their deaths, and someone was whistling?

His stomach clenched so violently he doubled over and was sick. Only bile, as he’d not eaten in three days.

The guard shot him a look of disgust.

“Get out of here,” he snarled. “Go. Meet the cart and your woman later.” He shoved Carlisle with such force that he stumbled.

But he did go, at least a little ways. He walked across the street to a small bakery, from which wafted the scents of freshly-baked bread. Readying for the crowds, no doubt. It was a hanging day, and people would gather as far as this to take part in the spectacle. He leaned against the doorpost and closed his eyes again, allowing the scents to bathe him.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed; perhaps it was possible that as tired as he was, he’d fallen asleep standing up. But he became aware of his surroundings again when a voice asked, “You all right, Boy?”

It was the second time in an hour Carlisle had been called “Boy.” How odd.

In the doorway of the bakery stood a woman, shaking down a small mat, which she beat with the palm of one hand. With each strike, particles of dirt and dust fell to the ground like snow.

He stared.

Was he all right? He was ripping apart. He was becoming a madman. He was starving. He was afraid.

“Boy? Are you all right?”

He shrugged. But then, as though the mere act of being asked was too much, he fell to his knees and started to cry.

~||x||~

Dawn’s light still crept across the Tyburn field, the sky still shone a purplish blue. Yet Mother Proctor’s Pews were already beginning to fill. On some days, the stands would be packed with people, but today William expected the crowd to be modest. There would be no extraordinary criminals hanged today; not the kinds of people which drew large crowds. A thief, a wife who had cuckolded her husband, a man who murdered his mistress.

And Elizabeth.

His son’s betrothed.

The witch.

Would the boy cause a scene? Would he even show?

William walked the length of the gallows, thinking. The “tree,” as they called it, was in three parts, a triangle, so that the weight from the hulking beams was distributed evenly. Eight could be hanged on each side, but the most William had ever seen was a total of fifteen, and that was after a stretch when a series of saints’ days interrupted normal legal proceedings.

Above him, short bits of leftover rope swayed in the wind.

“Reverend,” a man said, and William turned. It was the judge, Jonathan Porter. They were long-acquainted, brought together by William’s work.

“Mr. Porter.” William nodded.

The other man stood, his hands crossed behind his back as he stared out into the place where the crowd would sit.

“I am surprised to see a crowd this early. They will have barely begun to bring the prisoners.”

William nodded. “I am surprised to see them, also.”

For a long moment, neither of them spoke.

“I understand that one of the accused is your son’s betrothed,” the Judge said finally, his voice quiet, as though somehow they would be heard over the hundreds of yards between them and the spectators.

Some said London was the largest city in all of the countries. It was certainly the largest in England by a long shot. Yet news and rumors moved as quickly as they did in any tiny hamlet.

Was my son’s betrothed,” William answered, his lip curling. “He has denounced her, of course.”

The judge nodded. “Of course.”

But the look on his face was odd.

“Do you not believe me?”

The judge winced, but continued staring to the gathering crowd. “I received word that a young man with golden hair has slept outside the prison for the past half week.”

Slept outside the prison. So he was not spending his nights with Thomas, after all.

“And you suspect this to be Young William.”

“I know it not for certain,” the judge said. He turned, and like William, paced the length of the gallows, gazing up occasionally at the beam with its scraps of dangling leftover rope, saying nothing.

William watched him.

“Plan you to purify the girl?” he asked finally.

This was the final step in dealing with women accused of witchcraft. They were hanged first, of course, as with all criminals. But the devil could be exorcised from the body posthaste, through burning.

He nodded.

“The body must not play host to the Devil after today.”

Again the judge took a long time to speak. When he did, he spoke not to William but to the hanging pieces of rope.

“Perhaps you ought to pardon her, Reverend.”

At once, William’s face grew hot. “Pardon her? Her superior confessed! She is a practicing witch, Judge. I will not have her host the Devil among us. And I will not have her near my son.”

“And your son? He agrees with this course of action?”

“Of course he does.”

Judge Porter rocked on his heels once more, pursing his lips so tightly they turned white.

“Then may God’s blessings be upon you to be rid of this scourge.” He began to walk away, toward the place where he would sit, along with the other judges in attendance, and William and the two other clergy who’d brought the charges.

Young William had sat there, too, once, William thought, as he eyed the empty chairs. When he thought his child would follow in his path. He’d imagined the day when he would stand to the side and instead it would be his son listening to the final confessions, blessing those who carried out the noble duty of execution, bidding the souls which were worthy toward Heaven, and damning the others to Hell.

He stared from the Tree to the dias. This was the vantage point the guilty had; viewing those who had accused him.

What would the girl see, he wondered? Would she think of him as the man who might have become her father-in-law?

Or only the man who condemned her to die?

He folded his hands and bowed his head. Was the judge right? Pardoning the girl would heal his child. It would bring back the joyous man who’d inhabited William’s house these short months. It would bring them back together. Turn them back into a family.

But he was already a weakened man, and it would make him seem weaker…

He bowed his head. “Strength, Lord,” he whispered. “I pray thee to give me strength.”

In the distance he heard the jeers of the crowd, the jangling of the tack.

~||x||~

She was as beautiful as she had ever been. Resolute, her shoulders squared as she sat. Even though he had attended the Tyburn processions since he had been a child, Carlisle had never before thought of how grotesque their form of transport truly was—each prisoner sat shackled to his own coffin, so that the return trip would be easily coordinated.

It was disgusting.

The roads which led west to Tyburn were crowded, though not as much as usual. Part of him was relieved; the other part wanted to scream from the rooftops that more people should care. Unless he could do something, this morning they would take the life of an innocent.

The lies. All the lies. If his father had told him of his sickness, of the treatment he was receiving, perhaps Carlisle might have talked it over with his beloved. She would have known where William Cullen saw his barber-surgeon, and she might have avoided the area entirely.

He had always been taught that lying was the very root of evil. He’d disagreed at the time, but here, now, he understood the truth in that.

Lying had gotten them here, with the woman he loved, sitting atop her own coffin, jerking and rattling her way toward her death.

So he ran alongside the cart quietly, ducking between the people so as not to be seen.

Over the years he had seen men in his exact position—distraught, running alongside the cart, grabbing for their loved ones’ hands. Inevitably they were arrested, or beaten by the crowd. In the worst scenario, one woman who ran sobbing after her husband at the end of the journey was found guilty of colluding with him and they’d put her on the cart and strung her up right next to him.

Carlisle ducked and dodged the crowd as he jogged to keep up with the guards and the cart. Occasionally, he lost sight of it in the jeering people. Small crowds stood on the streets, little children flung rotted vegetables and fruit so that the streets reeked. Most of them were unsuccessful, but one little boy had particularly good aim, lobbing a rotten turnip which smashed on the cart’s wall next to Elizabeth.

He grabbed the boy’s wrist so firmly he worried a brief second that he might accidentally break it.

The boy screamed.

“Would thou prefer it that people threw rotting food at thee?” Carlisle growled.

Wide-eyed, the boy shook his head.

“Then thou ought not do it either,” he snapped. He threw down the small arm with such force it nearly knocked its owner to the ground. But the boy regained his balance and ran into a nearby house for safety.

“Imbeciles,” Carlisle muttered.

The cart jingled and squeaked its way through the streets as Carlisle alternately lost himself in the crowds and appeared alongside the cart. He was a good runner; he and his father ate well and he had grown up strong. He kept up with the cart easily, at times even slowing to a walk.

It was during one of these walking times that he heard a low voice say, “Cullen.”

Carlisle looked over his shoulder.

There Thomas stood, his arms crossed over his chest, his feet planted wide. At once a look of sorrowful pity crossed his face.

“Thomas.”

“You look awful, Carlisle,” he said quietly. “Why did you not come stay with me?”

Carlisle shook his head. “I needed to be near her,” he answered, as though this were a foregone conclusion.

His friend blinked. “And were you?”

“I have been outside the prison these nights.”

Thomas eyed his clothing, looking over Carlisle from head to toe. “Aye, that you have.”

The cart jerked its way ahead of them, the jeers of the crowd moving with it. Carlisle stared longingly for a moment, but then realized he could catch up.

“I’m sorry, Friend. Truly, I am.” Thomas laid a hand on Carlisle’s shoulder.

Carlisle looked down at the street. He wouldn’t cry again. He’d already cried today, and that was enough—if Elizabeth saw him, she needed to see the strength of the man who loved her, not a sniveling child. So instead he bit his lip so hard he drew blood, its salty taste rolling back into his mouth.

This did not escape Thomas’s notice, either.

“Do you wish that we should walk together?”

Carlisle stared. “Needn’t you stay here?” Now that he’d stopped, Carlisle recognized his surroundings at last. He was near the smithy, not far from his own home, which the procession did not pass.

Thomas shook his head. “My father will understand.” He squeezed Carlisle’s shoulder. “I am so sorry, my friend.”

“It is my father’s fault,” he said. “She is innocent.”

“Did you plead her case with him?”

Carlisle nodded. The morning after he collapsed in the forest, he came back to the vicarage just at daybreak to find his father asleep in the kitchen chair. He’d nearly cleaned the kitchen, but thought better of it upon seeing the cross, the last thing he’d broken, lying still in pieces on the floor.

His father had no idea what it meant to be a Christian.

He had thrown nothing. He had, however, attempted to make food for himself, and it was as he was lighting the fire that his father awoke. At first, William recoiled from Carlisle, flattening himself against the far wall, waiting to be bombarded with anything else his son could throw at him. But the rage that had so consumed Carlisle was gone, snuffed out by his ineffectual tantrum in the forest and the night of sleep.

When he realized he was safe, William approached his son. “I only wish to do what is best for thee,” he said quietly, and Carlisle whirled.

“What is best for me? What is best for me, Father, is to have the woman I love.” He snapped a few twigs they kept by the hearth and threw them in as kindling. They went up at once, causing the fire to blaze briefly. Like his temper, he thought. You could throw kindling or even oil onto it and it would flare, as it had the previous evening. But usually he was like the logs, burning steadily, glowing more intensely at times, but keeping the heat locked in deep.

“William—”

“Carlisle, Father. At least, if you plan to take away all that I care for, call me by my name.”

His father seemed to ignore this, moving across the room and leaning against the wall. “She and her superior were found guilty. Her superior admitted to training her.”

“She is innocent.”

“William—”

“She is innocent!” Unbelievably, his voice choked. He thought certainly he had cried himself dry the previous evening; whatever water was in his body was long since depleted. But no, here the tears were again, stinging at his eyes like some kind of menacing insect. He stood there a moment as the fire crackled to life behind him, clenching his fists.

“You have no evidence beyond the word of a woman you tortured,” he said. “You keep her awake all night, make it impossible for her to think, tell her you’ll send her to the gallows anyway, and then you assume what she tells you is the truth? What sense is there in that?”

It was hard to make out in the dim light, but Carlisle could’ve sworn he saw his father’s cheeks redden.

“The law, William.”

“To hell with the law!” He saw his father cringe. “Father, you are the law! What do you want of me? To run the church at Aldgate? To kill innocents as you do?”

By this time he was shrieking.

“Just tell me! Tell me what to do, and I will do it! Pardon her, and I will do what you want.”

An odd look had crossed William’s face then, as though he were considering. But then the stony expression returned.

“She has you bewitched, Son,” he said quietly, when he’d reached the other side of the room and clearly considered himself safe. “When we remove her; when we exorcise the Devil from your life, you will awaken to yourself and understand.”

A hot rage flushed through Carlisle’s entire body, seeming to start at his head and shoot straight through to the soles of his feet. For a moment he said nothing, only stood there, trembling.

“Just because you are incapable of love does not mean that I must be bewitched, Father,” he said at last.

Carlisle walked straight out the front door, slamming it behind him.

He hadn’t returned to the house since.

“He believes me spellbound,” he told his friend now, as the crowd of people surged down the street toward Tyburn. “He thinks that once she has been hanged, I will come back to myself, and follow the path I offered.” He laughed ruefully. “He of all people should understand that the things which drove me are all related to her. I have no reason to live once she is gone.”

For a moment Thomas said nothing.

“Carlisle,” his friend said finally, “think you not that this solution is a bit extreme?”

He blinked, then gestured toward the cart, which had now rattled its way to several hundred yards ahead of them.

“Were it Anne?”

Thomas did not answer. But after a moment, he replaced the hand on Carlisle’s shoulder.

“Come. Let us go there together.”

It took them another three-quarters hour to walk to Tyburn, and when they reached the place, it was already packed. Mother Proctor’s Pews were filled, and scores of people milled about. The usual entrepreneurs were here; boys selling meat pies, women selling crosses to ward off any demonic forces which might escape the wicked as they died.

And, of course, the pamphlets of last words.

Carlisle fished into his pocket and removed the handful of coins he had, and purchased a little pamphlet from the young boy selling them. They were fake, he believed, yet his curiosity had gotten the better of him. What would even a person who did not know the story, or knew it only as hearsay, think that Elizabeth might say in her final hours?

But when he flipped through the small pamphlet, he saw only her name, and her crime: witchcraft, treason against the sovereign.

He pressed his eyes closed and dropped the pamphlet into the dirt.

“Carlisle?”

Thomas’s voice again. He nudged his friend forward toward the javelin masters who kept the crowed of people who could not afford a seat in the gallery away.

“Get back, ye,” shouted the javelin master, as he shoved at them both.

“This is Reverend Cullen’s son,” Thomas shouted in answer, as he pointed to the dais on which sat the accusers and the judges. Carlisle could see his father there, sitting with his legs outstretched languidly before him, in his finest hose and shoes.

Sick.

The javelin master looked from Carlisle, in his torn and dirtied clothes, to the man sitting so near the gallows. His brow furrowed as he tried to figure out whether what Thomas said was indeed true.

But then William stood and beckoned.

The guard nodded, allowing Carlisle and Thomas to pass.

“I was not certain I would see thee, Child,” William said when Carlisle was a few feet from him.

“You think me a coward,” Carlisle shot back. “And I am not.” He spat for emphasis, only to find his spittle had turned pink from bleeding from his lip.

William gestured to the chair next to his own. “Come. We need to speak.”
Carlisle’s throat went dry. They needed to speak? Was it possible that his father had experienced a change of heart? The confessions still had not been taken.

The words barely squeaked: “Have you changed your mind?”

There was no answer. His father seemed to stare past him, to the approaching wagons, the javelin masters, the crowd.

Carlisle’s heart pounded.

“Will you pardon her?” he repeated.

“I care for you,” his father said quietly. “And I wish you to understand. If you are to take up doing God’s work, you must understand that at times, to do it breaks your own heart.”

He gestured to the chair next to him. “Sit with me.”

His father might as well have punched him in the chest. Carlisle’s breath came short, his eyes

As quickly as the hope came, it disappeared. Carlisle shook his head. “I will not be at your side, Father. I will be at the side of someone I love.”

A surging roar from the crowd announced the arrival of the wagons. Carlisle searched out the crowd for the one he needed, the one where the woman with the chestnut hair sat, looking every bit as regal as she always had. At once, he hopped from his father’s side, using his weight and height to press his way through the crowd toward the Tree.

“William!” his father’s voice called after him, but he did not turn.

One by one, the prisoners were helped down from the wagons and onto the short, horse-drawn cart which would serve as their foothold until the last minute. Ropes which had been wrapped around bodies were unfurled and thrown into the air like sinister snakes, uncoiling as they reached the hangman’s assistants who precariously rode the beams overhead. Several of the prisoners joked about their own fates, encouraging the spectators to wager on how long they would hang.

Sickening. Carlisle stepped away.

And then she was before him, as though he’d divined the spot to stand. Someone had brought her a beautiful dress to wear. Tendrils of her hair fell forward over her face, swaying in the light breeze.

She should have looked this beautiful on the day of our wedding, Carlisle thought.

“Elizabeth,” he called softly. “Elizabeth, I am here.”

And for the first time all morning she met his gaze.

He reached a hand up to her as the world became blurred by his tears. As it often did, again his height worked to his advantage, for he was able to reach her—not her whole hand, for it was bound to its mate, but at least her fingers.

As their skin made contact, her fingers closed around his.

That was all it took for the dam to break. He started to sob, his hand shaking so badly it was all he could do to keep it in Elizabeth’s. She stayed resolute, but even through his tears, he could see that she cried, also.

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “Elizabeth…”

Still, she said nothing. His arm began to ache, for even as tall as he was, the floor of the cart was at his shoulder and their tenuous handhold was awkward. But Carlisle held on.

He didn’t hear the other carts drawn up. Somewhere, an ordinary must have appeared, perhaps it was even his father, to take the death day confessions. The crowd must have roared. Boys must have hollered to sell meat pies and pamphlets. Men must have taken wagers.

But he didn’t see any of it. The only thing he saw was Elizabeth, her pale skin against his, her fingers interlaced with his own. The only thing he heard were the soft sighs of both their tears.

And when Thomas came, he didn’t hear his friend’s voice shushing him. He did not feel his friend’s arms grasping his shoulders and pulling him gently backwards.

All he felt was his hand slide from hers, her fingertips raking across his palm.

And then the words; her only words the whole day through. Carried over the roaring crowd; or perhaps it was that Carlisle’s ears could hear only those words.

“I love you.”

Thomas pulled him.

“I love you,” he called in answer. “I love you.”

Somewhere, a whip cracked against the flank of a horse. Somewhere, a cart creaked its way forward. Somewhere, slackened ropes went taut, men fell.

But where Carlisle stood there was silence. Where he stood, there was only the whisper of wind as it blew chestnut hair across a pale face. Where he stood, there were only three words still on both their lips. And only his outstretched, empty hand, reaching out and finding no hand in return.

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