The Secret Of The Sealed Room
What signifies your patience, if you can’t find it
when you want it?
—Poor Richard’s Almanac
My name is Patience, but I have little of that with all those in Boston who keep telling me what a bad girl I am. When I learned my letters, the very first sentence I could read proved a harsh and scolding one: In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.
In church of a Sunday when the parson preaches about the sins and failings of women, I would swear he gazes straight at me with a stern, disapproving look. And of course Mrs. Worth, to whom my father bound me as a servant when my mother died, always assured me that I am a lazy, sullen, disobedient, and wicked wretch, destined to come to an evil end.
But let me begin at the beginning, on a September day in the year of our Lord 1721. Mrs. Worth had rung her bell for me early, before the
sun had risen, and I found her groaning in her bed. “Child,” she said, “run and fetch Moll Bacon, and hurry!”
“I must dress—,” I began, only to be cut short by her angry words: “Go, I tell you! Go, and hurry!”
Still I dressed hastily, then set out running from the Worth house, on its low hill overlooking the Roxbury Road, right down Orange Street and so to Newbury Street and then into the still-sleeping heart of Boston. Mists crept through the streets like silent cats, gray in the dimness before dawn. Hardly any faint yellow lights showed, but I knew the way right well: along Marlborough and Cornhill streets south of the Common, then a sharp turn onto Water Street, with its narrow shops and dark, looming warehouses. A lonely rooster crowed somewhere, and then another answered him, and another. Dogs barked as I hurried through the damp and the dark, feeling the wet cobbles slippery beneath the thin soles of my worn-out shoes, shivering in the coolness of the early-September morning.
The fishermen were up already, of course. Far ahead, down toward the Long Wharf, I could see the reddish glows of their lanterns on the face of the night. I even heard a distant fisherman’s gruff, growling voice singing the words of a doleful old ballad:
“As I walked forth one summer’s day
To view the meadows green and gay,
A pleasant bower I espied
Standing fast by the riverside,
And in’t a maiden I heard cry: Alas! Alas! There’s none e’er loved as I.
Having no time to listen, I hurried on until I came to a great warehouse that smelled strongly of fish, and I began to count the buildings beyond it, two, three, four, and there I turned into the pitch-dark, narrow alley that leads back around the corner to Moll Bacon’s cottage. Though small, it nestles in a neat and clean yard blooming with little herb and flower gardens, and the white paint on the house and its picket fence is smart and fresh-looking, or at least it is in sunlight. In the darkness both seemed to glow a pearly gray.
Early though it was, as I approached Moll Bacon’s cottage, I glimpsed candlelight through a window, and when I rapped at the door, the old midwife opened it at once. She was already dressed, as if she really had the second sight that some in Boston whispered fearfully about. “What is it, girl?” she asked gruffly.
I did not flinch from her, though she had a dark face sharp as an Indian tomahawk,
all sharp angles and cutting edges, and beneath her heavy black brows her scowl made her look as fierce as the old Abenaki warrior she claimed as her grandfather. “My mistress wants you,” I said.
She grunted and tilted her head. “You are the Martin girl. You belong to Abedela Worth.”
“I belong to myself,” I said with as much spirit as I could, meeting her dark-eyed gaze. “But I work for Mrs. Worth.”
She laughed then, one sharp, gruff bark, and she turned half away from me as she reached for something—a large basket, I saw. “Come, then, Patience Martin, and let’s see to the woman you work for.”
Moll did not lock the door, and answering my glance rather than my words she said, “None in Boston would dare come in without my permission. Fast walking will warm us, girl. Carry this.”
I took the basket, which was covered with a calico cloth and as heavy as a load of stone, but no answer did I make. Only a month or so earlier, when Mrs. Worth first suspected that she was with child, had I met this strange woman. That very first time she had curtly told me not to call her Mistress Bacon, or even Goody Bacon, as some of the older people did. “Moll’s my name, and that’s what you shall call me,” she had said. Since that first time, Moll Bacon had come to the house often, sometimes two or three times each
week, for Mrs. Worth was having a hard time of it. I should have felt sorry for her, a poor widow woman whose husband was three months drowned and herself four months gone in pregnancy. I could not feel much sympathy for her, though, with my own father dead in the same ship as her husband, and my future so clouded, and her hand so hard and so ready to slap me for any small failing on my part. Perhaps my lack of compassion was another measure of my badness.
We trotted along side by side in the slowly growing light of dawn. Moll spoke little, but once she suddenly asked, for no reason that I could see, “How old are you, girl?”
“Fourteen last month,” I replied, panting. I understood that Moll Bacon herself was no more than forty-five, though I thought she looked a good twenty years older, and she made a good pace of it, so that I had to scurry to keep up, never getting a chance to catch my breath. We reached the house, and I saw lights in the downstairs windows. The chickens were awake now, murmuring and scratching about the backyard. I started toward them, for Mrs. Worth was very strict about my never coming in through the front door, but that opened as Moll and I stepped into the yard. A tall, thin, gray man beckoned impatiently for us to come in that way: Mr. Richard Worth, Mrs. Worth’s brother-in-law. He was past fifty—Mrs. Worth’s husband, Jared, his older brother,
had been sixty when he drowned—and he had a sharp, waspish manner. He and his son, David, were Mrs. Worth’s nearest neighbors. “She’s very ill,” snapped Mr. Richard. “You’d best hurry.” He turned his gaze on me. “Don’t stand there with your basket! Go with her. Make yourself useful!”
I gave him a barely polite nod of my head, and together with Moll I hurried up the stair to the second-floor bedroom, where my mistress lay moaning dolefully.
Mrs. Worth, her already thin cheeks sunken, lay back on her feather pillow, her brown hair hidden beneath her nightcap. Her red-rimmed eyes glittered in anger as we came into the gloomy room. “Why did you take so long?” she demanded in an unnaturally hoarse voice.
“I came as quickly as I could,” replied Moll. “Are you in pain?”
“My head is splitting, and my stomach is cramping terribly. I am afraid I might lose the baby.”
Moll took the basket from me, then pointed to the fine beeswax candle that Mrs. Worth used to read by at night. “Child, light that for me.”
“No,” grumbled Mrs. Worth. “It’s too expensive to burn idly while there is daylight. Open the curtains instead.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. It did not do to cross her in anything, however small. I drew and tied back the curtains
from the room’s two windows, and the milky light of early day spilled into the dim bedroom. I could not help thinking that the candle would have given Moll considerably more illumination.
“I need you to take this,” Moll said, handing me a small, nearly weightless cloth bag that felt as if it contained dried herbs, “and boil it in a pint of water. When the pot begins to bubble, drop this in, and boil it until you can count to a hundred, slowly—you can count, can’t you?”
“Of course I can count!”
“She is a tetchy, forward child,” said Mrs. Worth, adding a dismal groan.
Moll ignored her: “Count to a hundred, slowly, and then take the pot off the stove and allow it to steep for a quarter of an hour. Then pour off the tea that is brewed, put it in a mug, and bring it to me. Throw away the bag, for the medicine will have no virtue for a second boiling.”
Downstairs Mr. Richard was standing beside a fire he had just lit in the parlor grate, his gray hair untidy as though he had been sweeping his hands through it. “How is my sister-in-law?”
“Moll Bacon is nursing her now, sir. I’m to make a medicinal tea from this.” I held up the little cloth bag.
“Don’t show it to me! Be about it, then.”
I bowed my head, grinding my teeth at his snappish tone. “Yes, sir.”
The kitchen stove was dark and cold, of course. I was used to attending to it, though, because Mrs. Worth was so near with a shilling that she refused to hire anyone to help me around the house—though I had heard gossips in the street say that her husband had left her very well set, with not only the house and land but a steady income from his investments in ships and trade. As quickly as I could, I raked out the white and gray ashes from the wood-box into the ash scuttle, then piled in some brown and sharp-scented pine shavings as tinder. Atop that I built a small pyramid of kindling—splints of more pine, which would catch easy and burn fast—and then, to weigh that down, a few hickory logs. I got the tinderbox and struck fire with it, then set a splinter alight and touched it to the wood shavings until they were burning. The kindling began to crackle, and the fragrant pine sap started to ooze and flow. I put in two more lengths of hickory and closed the wood-box door. The stove top would be hot in a matter of minutes.
While it heated, I went out to the well and drew a pail of fresh water. The hens came clustering around me, wanting to be fed, and the rooster perched on top of the
coop, flapped his wings, and crowed piercingly, and I imagined him proclaiming, Day, it’s day, it’s day, it’s da-a-a-y!
Filled, the water pail was heavy, and I had to use two hands to carry it back to the kitchen, taking care not to splash it out as I waded through the impatient chickens. I used the late Mr. Worth’s pint beer mug to measure the water into the cast-iron teapot and then put the pot on to boil. Mr. Richard had come to the doorway. “Child, don’t be idle! Make me a bit of breakfast while I wait.”
I scrambled two eggs in butter and fried a nice slice of bread. By then the teapot was bubbling, so I dropped in the little cloth bag. Mr. Richard sat at the table and ate the bread and eggs, drinking only water that he dipped from the pail. His brother, Mrs. Worth’s husband, had been a sailor and a sea captain, used to drinking pale ale with breakfast and a glass of rum mixed with water with dinner, but Mr. Richard abstained from all alcohol except a little glass of wine now and then. He served as a deacon in the Congregational Church, and I knew full well that he had never approved of his older brother’s ways or habits. I stood by the stove with my chin down, murmuring under my breath.
“What are you doing?” he growled at me. “Praying?”
“Counting,” I said, skipping from fifty to fifty-two because I had paused to speak.
“Better for you to pray,” he muttered. “Where is that son of mine?”
He did not expect me to answer, and so I didn’t, simply going on in my count until I whispered “one hundred” to myself and took the kettle off the stove. I went to the parlor to look at the clock. The minute hand stood at six minutes before the hour.
I had time to eat. Back in the kitchen I fried a little piece of bread for myself and cut a small wedge of cheese from the hoop in the pantry. Mr. Richard pushed away from the table and left me alone as he returned restlessly to the parlor. I finished the bread and cheese, then put our dishes and the frying pan into the wash basin.
In the front parlor, where Mr. Richard stood moodily in front of the fire he had built, staring down into it with his hands clasped behind him, I checked the clock again. The minute hand now touched eight minutes after the hour. I waited until it nicked off another minute, and then I went back to the kitchen. As Moll had directed, I poured the tea into the mug—it was a dark greenish-brown liquid, smelling faintly of licorice—and threw the sodden bag of herbs into the slop pail.
Mrs. Worth looked a little calmer when I brought the tea into the bedroom. “Here we are,” said Moll. “Drink this down. It will do you good.”
“Where is Richard?” asked Mrs. Worth querulously as she struggled to sit up in bed, propped against both of her pillows.
“He is down in the parlor,” I told her. “I made breakfast for him.”
“You gave him my food?” she demanded with a cross glance. “What did he eat, and how much?”
“Just two eggs and a slice of bread.”
“Remember that,” she said, shaking a bony finger at me. “He will have to repay me!” She took a little, cautious sip of the tea and made a sour face at the taste of it.
“I should attend to my chores,” I said to Moll, in a small voice.
Mrs. Worth drank the rest of the liquid from the mug, making “Gahh!” sounds after each noisy swallow. “Go,” Moll said to me. “I don’t need you here right now. But boil more water.”
I put more water on the stove, went out and fed the chickens, and then came back inside. With part of the heated water I washed and rinsed the dishes. Then I dried and put them away and threw the dishpan of still-steaming
water out into the side yard. The sun was well up now, the day breezy, with scudding raggedy gray and white clouds now and then dimming the light. I went on to my other daily chores, dusting and sweeping, scouring the front steps, and so on. Just before noon Mr. Richard told me to go next door to see if his son, David, was home and to tell him to come over if he was.
“Next door,” he said, but it was a little walk away, for here the houses were not close-packed, as they were in the heart of town. I tapped on the back door of Mr. Richard’s two-story home—a small house only when compared to his brother’s three-story one; Mr. Richard said that an earthly mansion was nothing but a sinful vanity that the Lord would punish in due time—and Mr. David answered on my second knock.
He was twenty-two years old, not very tall but thin, like his father, with a head of thick, curly, auburn-brown hair and quick, darting brown eyes. “Patience,” he said. “How is my aunt?”
“Sick and in bed, sir,” I replied. “Your father asks that you come over.”
A pained expression crossed his face. “I’m sorry that she’s ill,” he told me. Mr. David’s voice always sounded strange in my ear. His father had sent him across the
Atlantic Ocean to Cambridge in England to be schooled, and during his four years there he had lost the Boston accent and had picked up a kind of drawling English one. He had returned home only the previous September, and if street gossip were true, he cut quite a figure among the young ladies of Boston—and among those rakish young men who gamble and live riotously in secret—though I try never to listen to such tattling tales. “Is she suffering much?” he asked me.
“I cannot tell,” I said. “She said some while ago that her stomach and head were troubling her. Moll Bacon is giving her medicines, though, and now she seems to be resting more easily. Please, sir, your father told me to come and fetch you.”
“I’ll come with you. Let me change from my slippers.”
He went back inside, not asking me in, of course, and a few minutes later he reappeared, wearing thigh-high riding boots, though we were walking only back to the next house. He kept asking me questions on the way, but I had few answers for him. We heard raised voices as we came to the house, Mr. Richard’s and Moll’s, and Mr. David gave me an appalled glance. We came in through the back door. In the kitchen Moll stood pouring hot water into a basin, and Mr. Richard was loudly saying, “But a real doctor —!”
“I don’t think a doctor could do more than I have done,” Moll said shortly.
Mr. Richard snorted. “Potions! Tricks!”
“A warm compress for her belly will ease her pain, sir. It is no trick.”
“Brews steeped from herbs! Witch’s tricks! I tell you, woman, such things are blasphemy!” roared Mr. Richard.
Mr. David stepped forward and said, “Father, please. Mistress Bacon is only trying to help.”
Mr. Richard spun where he stood and focused his anger on his son. “There you are at last!”
“I came as soon as—”
“I want none of your idle chatter! You stay here and help if you can. I need to get back home. There are papers and letters I must deal with, and I cannot spend all day here while that woman is giving Abedela physic.”
“How is my aunt, Father?”
Moll Bacon said, “Some better, sir. Let me by, please.” She pushed passed him, carrying the basin of steaming water and folded towels. A moment later I heard her steps upon the stair.
“May the Lord protect Abedela in the hands of that—that witch!” said Mr. Richard grimly. He sniffed disdainfully
and added, “God’s will be done, but I pray the Lord might be merciful to my sister-in-law in her illness.”
“Amen,” said Mr. David softly.
I said nothing at all, stung by Mr. Richard’s choice of words. It seemed to me that if Moll Bacon could ease Mrs. Worth’s pain and take away her fears, it was just possible that the Lord had chosen Moll to be his healing instrument. It would never have done to put that thought into spoken words, though, not to Mr. Richard, who firmly believed that all women were wicked and that female children such as I were even more so. Instead I went ahead with my chores, certainly not wishing any harm on my mistress, and yet in all truth hoping that she improved for Moll’s sake more than for her own.
For I confess I hated the ugly word that Mr. Richard had put to her name. Whatever else Moll Bacon might be, I surely did not think she was a witch.