The Widow of Duxbury
At first light the following morning Toby took Matthew with him to the stables in Market Street where the Reverend introduced them to Samson, a native converted to the ways of the ‘Puritan’ faith.
After saddling up three good mares, they bid the Minister farewell and set off for Duxbury.
The air that April morning was crisp and a late Spring frost lay on the ground which made conversation brief as they had to concentrate on keeping the horses from slipping. While it was clear that Samuel could speak the English language fluently and conversed freely with the Minister, he hardly spoke a word to them throughout the journey. This, to Toby, was a mixed blessing; while it may have taken Matthew’s mind off his fear of riding, Toby was in no mood to face a lecture on the advantages of living by the doctrines of the ‘Compact’ and how all men in the Community are treated equal. There had always seemed to him to be an element of hypocrisy in this. One had only to compare the comfortable homes of the elders of Plymouth and Boston to the pitiful homesteads that passed them on their journey to conclude that some folk in ‘the Community’ were more equal than others.
After they had left the small farms that clung to the perimeter of the town, they soon found themselves surrounded by heavily wooded countryside infused with the scent of cedar and maple. And while the fresh Spring leaves of beech and chestnut made a pleasing sight, the scene was soon to change as the track dipped into a vale bordered by marshes. This part of the trail was so overgrown with bindweed and brambles that in places it was difficult to distinguish where the track lay. As they descended further into the valley the scrub grew thinner. In one sense, this made their journey easier but they now encountered a mist which seemed to permanently hang over the marshland. The further they rode, the thicker the mist became until eventually the midday sun became nothing but a pale yellow globe above their heads. There was a chill in the air and Toby wished he had worn his doublet. The few trees that passed their way were stunted in their growth, their leaves so minute that it appeared they were clinging to their last breath.
The horses were unsure of their footing in the mud and Toby had to keep looking behind to confirm that Matthew, an inexperienced rider, had maintained his balance.
Eventually, after what seemed to be the best part of an hour, the track took an incline upwards and they arrived at a copse; a wooded island amidst the sea of marshes. However the rise was not enough to lead them clear of the grey mist which clung to the upper branches of the trees like a faded wedding veil. Their guide came to a sudden halt and announced that they had arrived.
Toby searched the trees ahead but could see nothing. He tried to urge his mare forward but she refused to move, dug in his heels but still the horse stood her ground. Toby looked to their guide and noticed the fear in his eyes as he nervously looked around. The Indian shrugged his shoulders. “He not go. Here is the place.” Samson pointed towards the thickest part of the wood, but still Toby saw nothing.
To Matthew’s relief their only option was to dismount, leave their guide with their horses and continue on foot. The ground was firm as they made their ascent; however, they had to keep their eyes down to avoid the deadwood and boulders in their path. As they neared the summit there was the scent of wood smoke in the air. They both stopped when a voice called from the rise above.
“What is your business here?”
Gripping an axe in her bony hands, the woman stood less than five feet tall. It seemed inconceivable that this frail figure wizened with age was the same Widow Hobbs they were assigned to investigate. Toby reassured her that they had come in peace and their mission was nothing more than to listen to her version of the disputes she had with her neighbours. This seemed to relieve her anxiety as she suggested that they continue their discourse at her home. They each loaded their arms with wood and followed the woman up the rise. Once they reached the top it became obvious that the path they had taken was not the usual approach. To the right was a well trodden bridle-path which followed the line of trees up from the marsh and continued to some arable land with further habitations beyond the woods.
The old woman led them down a clay-trodden path bordered by long forgotten fruit trees; gnarled and twisted branches now invaded by forest vine and bindweed. Evidence that this was once a plentiful orchard could be observed by the occasional withered fruit infused to a dead branch like a dried prune.
It was here that they had their first sight of the cottage, a simple structure much like the dwellings abandoned by the first settlers of the colony; walls of split logs bound together with clay, and a roof thatched with bundles of reed collected from the marshes. Against the left side of the building rested a crumbling chimney, fashioned from the same stone they had encountered on the hillside. From the top of the structure, where the stone became white with age, a gentle ribbon of smoke floated and twisted undisturbed, until it lost its way into the mist which clung to the branches high above their heads.
The widow dragged herself along the last few paces where dead fruit gave way to a well-tended plot outside her door. Here, the air was fused with the scent of numerous herbs which bordered the pathway, an endearing respite to the bitter wood-smoke which had followed them from the valley below.
Their arms laden with tinder, Toby and Matthew waited for the widow to remove the heavy plank which held her beaten door to its twisted frame. And it was then, for the first time, Toby noticed the silence of the place.
Inside was very dark. The only source of light, apart from the fire, were two small square openings in the wall; yet even these were covered with oiled linen cloth which obscured most of the daylight. The room was sparsely furnished; one chair placed near to the fireplace, a wooden bench fashioned from a plank and two tree stumps, a utility box with a hinged lid which stood stoically in the far corner of the room and some garden tools resting against the wall. A small collection of pots hung behind the door and a flintlock gun suspended above the fireplace. The gun was so rusted with age that, apart from its use as a cudgel, it was unlikely to be any defence against the bears which frequented these parts. It was even less likely the old hag could take down the weapon in an emergency.
Widow Hobbs tossed a couple of fresh logs onto the dying embers and eased her frail bones into the chair. Toby had previously briefed Matthew to undertake a discreet inspection of the property in search for any clue that may help them in their mission, so, while his apprentice kept to the shadows, the captain pulled the bench over to the fire and sat at a respectful distance from the woman. A wave of bright sparks flew up the chimney as the widow stabbed the fire with a metal rod; the new wood hissed in protest as the blue flames licked their flanks.
“This is a fair distance from Duxbury, do you live here alone?” Toby asked.
“How many years have passed since you buried your husband?”
“You seem to manage very well. I would perceive it a difficult task living away from the town. Do you have help from your neighbours?”
“I have no discourse with my neighbours.”
“Do you not see them at church?”
“I do not share the same beliefs.”
“But was not your husband of the same faith?”
“He was, but I am not. I was baptized a Roman Catholic.”
“But you worship the same God, do you not?”
The old woman did not reply. A log of burning embers escaped from the fire and rolled along the ground at their feet. Toby got up and moved to the doorway of the cottage.
Matthew gently closed the lid of the box next to him.
The mist had now cleared and, from where Toby stood, he had a view of the woman’s garden and surrounding countryside. “Does all this land belong to you?” he asked.
“The wood, the pond and the bridle path from the marsh.”
“Is that the extent of your property?”
There was a hesitation. The widow looked up from the fire. “Not all. There is a meadow beyond the wood which is rightfully mine”
Toby detected a distasteful note. “Do many people use the bridle path? That must be a nuisance for you.”
“How can I stop them? A wry smile crossed the widow’s face. “But the swine and horses have the sense not to pass.”
“How about the meadow, do others use that?”
“Ha!” The old woman spat on the floor. “The Watts wife tried to graze her cattle there once but the grass was disagreeable to them.” She gave a toothy grin and looked up. “They all died in the end.”
“Was that the end of it?” Toby asked.
“The woman tried to accuse me of poisoning them.” She spat again. “Then the Watts stole the meadow from me.” She looked into the fire. “But now they are paying for their deeds.”
“How are they doing that?” Toby asked.
The woman did not reply but stared silently into the dying embers of the fire.
Toby turned to inspect the plants in her garden. Some of which were difficult to identify.
“I notice there are many diverse herbs in your garden. For what purpose do they serve?”
“Some come to me for potions and other concerns.”
“Some say I have a gift.”
“There were some who respected my… but that was before they turned against me.”
“Do you mean the neighbours?”
The widow ignored his question and continued. “Now they just come to steal my chickens and hammer on my door at night.”
“That must be a great concern for you, living here alone.”
The widow turned back to face the fire. “Take your quest to the English Isle in the Carib Sea, there you will find solace.”
Toby was puzzled. The words seemed so out of context at the time that he thought he must have misheard them. The old woman was looking straight into his eyes. “You will understand in time,” she said.
The widow was beginning to make Toby somewhat uneasy and he deemed that they had been entertained by her long enough. It was time for them to depart. He thanked her for her hospitality and thought it only right to offer the old woman some advice.
“Before we go I feel I should tell you,” he said. “There are some who hold a grudge against you. It would be wise to move away from this isolated place. Do you have a family you can stay with?”
The widow spoke quite softly “I have no family who live this side of the ocean and I buried both of my children soon after they were born. I have my cats who keep me good company.”
“Very well. That is your choice.”
The widow touched his shirt as he followed Matthew through the door. “Who sent you here?” she asked.
“The Reverend Eastman of Plimouth.” Toby turned but the woman had already closed her door.
And that was the last time he saw Widow Hobbs alive. Little did Toby realise how much the words of this frail lonely woman would change his life.
Copyright © James Faro 2014
Set in New England in 1675, Tobias Hopkins sets out to investigate allegations of witchcraft made against the Widow Hobbs of Duxbury.