Alice finished brushing her hair, and after placing her tortoiseshell hairbrush on the kitchen table, laid a cool, white hand upon her mother’s arm.
“Have faith, Mother. I shall not perish.”
Yet her voice trembled, and Hannah, seeing the naked fear in her daughter’s eyes, grasped both hands, tried to rub some warmth into them. Soon, she feared, these hands would lie cold and still.
There was the sound of footsteps on the cobbles outside their cottage and then the door was flung open.
“Come, Alice Greenhalgh,” said the rough voice of the village blacksmith, “’tis the hour of your trial.”
Hannah screamed as her daughter was torn from her embrace and dragged roughly outside, towards the lake. She stumbled hurriedly after them into the cold grey dawn.
“For God’s sake, have you no mercy?” she cried, as her daughter’s dress was ripped from her body, and her slender form was wrestled to the ground.
Hannah’s wild eyes met those of the priest, before he hastily averted his gaze.
“Be still, Mistress Greenhalgh,” he said quietly, “and pray.”
Her daughter, shivering in her pitiful chemise, was now on the ground, bent double, her right thumb tied to her left big toe and vice versa. A coarser rope was tied round her waist, with several yards extending on either side of her, and the men began to drag her screaming towards the lake.
Hannah staggered after them, but another woman caught her arm.
“You’ll do no good, Mistress Greenhalgh, they will have their way. Pray God she sinks.”
“Of course she’ll sink,” cried Hannah, “she’s innocent. In the name of God what can you all be thinking of?”
“Then they will pull her out, and this nonsense will be over,” came the stern voice of the priest from behind her.
She glared at him, sensing his disapproval, but knowing also that he would not lift a hand to save her daughter.
Alice’s screams suddenly stopped, and the crowd lining the banks of the lake fell silent. All that remained above the greasy black surface of the water were gently undulating locks of her silver blonde hair, and the crowd sighed as even these disappeared from view.
Hannah, frozen in horror, whimpered as the seconds ticked away.
Then came the cry, “Pull her out, the girl’s innocent,” and the men, grimacing, began to haul on the ropes they were still clutching.
“She must be caught on something,” cried one of the men in panic, straining at his rope. “Pull men, for God’s sake, pull.”
Cursing loudly, the men pitched their weight into the struggle. Then, after what seemed like a lifetime, the line of heaving bodies teetered backwards, and men sprawled on top of each other as the end of the rope snaked wildly out of the water.
But no sign of Alice.
The night was pierced by the howl of a wolf deep in the forest, a plaintive banshee-like wail that echoed when another voice, that of Alice’s mother, joined the dreadful lament.
A sudden wind whipped up the autumn leaves into a towering column and the bare branches of the oak trees thrashed wildly as the leaves spiralled away across the village.
The priest crossed himself, and hurried away from the scene, whilst the men gathered in groups, shocked and shamefaced.
Two of the women took Hannah by the arm and led her back to her cottage. At the door she pushed them away.
“Leave me be,” she said. “I’ll have no truck with those who falsely denounced and murdered my girl.”
The women drifted back to their menfolk, shoulders drooping with the burden of guilt, sha
Hannah closed the door behind her, and stood for a moment, tears streaming down her face.
“May God forgive them,” she moaned “for I never shall.”
A movement, caught in the firelight, drew her gaze.
And Hannah slumped to her knees, as her daughter’s tortoiseshell hairbrush began to spin wildly on the table.