‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ ~ Exodus 22:18
Auvergne, France 1635
Bishop Symes, attired in his red vestment, faced the accused and proclaimed, “Giselle Burnett, you have been convicted of practicing witchcraft and sacrificing your child to the devil. The word of God commands, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ Only with fire can your soul be truly cleansed.”
He nodded to the executioner who stepped forward and lit the pyre. As flames licked up the young girl’s legs, her pleading screams ‘Have mercy! I am not a witch’ soon spread into one long, wordless cry.
Bernard Herriott looked away as the latest victim of the church’s witch hunt was executed. There was something ominous in the way the smoke rose and curled against the courtyard buildings which sent a shiver down his spine. It was as if long gray fingers were clawing at the second story shutters, searching. Repulsed by the stench of burnt hair and flesh, Bernard shuddered and pressed the kerchief tighter over his nose. He did not particularly believe in witches and sorcery, nor did he condone the practice of burning these so-called devil worshipers. But it was in his best interest to go along with the sentences handed out by the church and act accordingly. He prayed this irrational hysteria and resulting atrocities had not befallen life back home in Aquitaine.
Bernard, aspiring artist, had traveled with his wife Ann to Auvergne after being commissioned by Count Pierre Scoville of Chateau de Beaumont to render portraits of Pierre and of his wife and children. Ann had urged him to accept this opportunity in hopes the exposure would bring him closer to his dream of one day becoming King Louis’ exclusive royal-court painter. So, at Scoville’s invitation, Bernard and Ann agreed to spend their summer at the chateau.
Though sickened by the scene unfolding in the square, Bernard felt honored to be standing next to Count Scoville. Dressed in elaborate lace, knee-high boots and wide brimmed Cavalier with ostrich plume, Pierre looked out of place in this crowd of villagers. The pudgy Bernard fit in rather well, however, garbed in drab shirt, gray-brown breeches and flatcap; his kind face did not. As the outraged crowd flung accusations at the victim, Scoville nodded his head in approval. Bernard was curious about the slight smile visible beneath Pierre’s mustache which, along with his Van Dyke beard, was even more fiery than the red on his head.
Leaning to Bernard, the count shook his head with disgust and in a low voice said, “I am appalled to discover I have been harboring this witch in my home!”
The young victim had been a chambermaid in Scoville’s chateau. Having encountered this young girl many times at the chateau, Bernard was skeptical about the charges. Witch hunts had been on the rise since the king had set up royal commissions to hunt them down. It seemed to Bernard it was all too political. Perhaps they were simply scapegoats to remove the burden of sin.
“I have seen enough,” Pierre said, putting a hand on Bernard’s shoulder. “Let us take our leave.”
Bernard followed the count through the throng, past the stalls in the square where merchants displayed their wares. Cobblestone soon gave way to dirt a short distance out of town. The magnificent Chateau de Beaumont loomed straight ahead. Its turrets shone in sunlight, but down below all was shadowed by the towering, white-stoned building.
“My Lord, might I have a word with you while we walk?”
“Ann has confided to me that she is with child and I promised to take her home to Aquitaine before winter falls. We are thankful for your hospitality but I feel we should depart soon.”
Scoville looked surprised at first but quickly regained composure. “But you are not yet finished with your work here.”
“I know. I thought I would complete your portrait over the winter and deliver it to you in the spring, if that would be acceptable.”
Pierre twirled one side of his mustache, “Of course. Tell me, Bernard, how long have you and Ann been married?”
“Sixteen years, my Lord.”
“In all those years have you never been blessed with children before now?”
“No, my Lord. This is a miracle from God. We are both overjoyed . . . and concerned of course for Ann is not so young anymore.”
“Yes, I understand. If you will excuse me, Bernard, I have an appointment to keep with Bishop Symes this afternoon. We will talk more later,” he said then turned toward the cathedral.
Pierre paced back and forth. With each footfall, his agitation could be heard echoing off the cathedral’s stone walls. All the while Bishop Symes pierced him with a chilling blue stare from a face so pale it could have been chiseled from ice.
“Are you telling me you have been with Ann Herriott?” Symes asked with an exasperated sigh.
“Who I choose to have relations with is none of your concern!” Scoville snapped back. “What I am telling you is we cannot risk yet another child being born with the likes of my red hair. This must be dealt with before a child makes an appearance.”
“My Lord, could it be Bernard has sired his own child?”
“After sixteen years childless? I doubt it.”
“Why not let the two of them leave Auvergne . . . return to Aquitaine? Who would be the wiser?” Symes pressed.
“Herriott is not a stupid man, he would figure things out when the child is born with red hair. I fear there would be repercussions. I would be grateful if you take care of this matter in the same manner as before.”
Bishop Symes raised his eyebrows. “I will take care of it, My Lord. Of course I . . . the church will be expecting to rejoice in your generosity once again.”
Count Scoville threw his hands in the air as he turned to leave. “Of course!”
The next morning Bernard lay next to Ann studying her face while she slept. Silky black waves framed her fair skin and delicate features. Ann had been sixteen when the plague took her entire family and left her homeless. Bernard, fifteen years her senior, had given her room and board in exchange for household work. Ann became his inspiration, capturing his heart. He lived and breathed for her and loved her deeply. He could not understand what she saw in him, but cherished her all the more for loving him back. It broke his heart that his beautiful wife had been so unhappy lately. Ann had always been the emotionally strong one. She had explained to him her weepiness was simply due to her condition.
He was startled out of thought by a rapping at the chamber room door. Ann awoke as Bernard, putting on his robe, went to the door. He was surprised when Bishop Symes pushed past him into the room with several guards following.
Bernard bowed. “Your Excellency . . .”
“Ann Herriott,” he announced, “you have been accused of being a witch!”
Now sitting, Ann struggled to pull the bedcovers around her neck. Her wide eyes darted between Bernard and Bishop Symes. Her mouth fell open but no words would come.
“Wha . . . what is the meaning of this?” Bernard stammered.
Looking directly at Ann, the Bishop stated, “I am told Ann carries the devil’s spawn within her!”
Ann’s face whitened. “No . . . I carry Bernard’s child!”
“Childless for sixteen years and only now with child?”
“It is God’s miracle,” Bernard explained humbly.
Bishop Symes hissed through thin, pinched lips “This is no miracle! ’Tis witchcraft!”
He nodded to the guards. Two seized Bernard while the other pulled Ann out of bed.
“I carry the devil’s child alright,” she screamed. “His name is Pierre Scoville!”
Bernard turned unbelieving eyes on Ann.
“I am sorry Bernard,” she sobbed uncontrollably. “He forced himself on me. I was powerless against his strength.”
“Seems I have my confession,” Bishop Symes said, satisfied.
Bernard was struck over the head and left unconscious as Ann was dragged away screaming.
Bernard awoke on the floor. Memories of what had transpired with Ann and Bishop Symes began to materialize and swirl through his mind. As he rose, the room moved dizzily around him. He tried to focus by holding his head in both hands. It felt as if it might come apart. Slowly, he made his way to the door only to find it locked. Bernard pounded and yelled until the pain shooting through his hands ached worse than that in his head. Three stories up, he knew the window would offer no escape. Realizing his failure, he slid to the floor and wept.
The girl entered the room quietly, placing the tray of food and drink on the bedside table next to where Bernard lay. It had been more than a day since Ann had been taken away. He sat up quickly looking toward the door.
“A guard stands outside,” she warned, following his gaze.
“What has become of my Ann?” he asked.
Marie, the chambermaid, bowed her head in respect. “Monsieur, I am saddened to be the one to tell you,” she began, “your wife was put to death today in the square . . . burned.”
Burying his head in his arms, Bernard let out a low agonized moan. “I could not save her,” he cried weakly.
“Count Scoville is an evil man,” she whispered. “I know a woman . . . in the market. She has poisons . . . for a price. I would poison him if I had money.”
Through tear-stained eyes, Bernard studied the girl. “You would risk your life? Why?”
“Revenge.” Her voice developed a pitiless tone. “He took liberties with my sister and fathered her child. When the countess noticed the toddler’s fiery hair, she grew suspicious and confronted her husband. Soon the child disappeared and my sister was accused of causing harm to her child. Giselle was burned at the stake. I know the count was to blame.”
“I will give you money for the poison dear girl. But you must purchase enough for myself as well. I would rather be dead than live without Ann.”
He pulled a bag of coins from a drawer and handed it to her. Marie curtsied a thank you and turned to hide the bag in her undergarments.
Count Scoville arrived at Bernard’s door two days after the news of Ann’s death, followed by Marie who carried a tray with a bottle of wine and two goblets. He nodded to her to pour the wine and she did so obediently. She caught Bernard’s questioning eyes and lowered her gaze.
Pierre gave Bernard a sympathetic look and started to speak. “Bernard . . .”
“Why do you hold me prisoner?” Bernard interrupted.
“Bernard, I assure you it was for your safety. That angry mob would have strung you up simply for being Ann’s husband. There is no longer a guard at your door. You are free to come and go, but be warned . . . be discreet.”
The count lifted his goblet to Bernard then drank. “I do hope you will stay and complete your last painting before returning to Aquitaine.”
Bernard shook his head. “I cannot — will not — paint another stroke without my Ann!”
Suddenly Count Scoville dropped his goblet. Pain and shock filled his expression and he fell to the floor, writhing in agony.
“Ann was not a witch!” Bernard spat at him.
“Nor was my sister, Giselle,” Marie declared.
The count lay dead-still now, eyes wide open.
Bernard looked at the goblet in his hand and back at Marie. Without a word she set a small bottle on the table.
“Thank you, Mademoiselle,” he said. “Surely, accusing eyes will not look upon you for it seems apparent enough that I poisoned Scoville and myself with a potion left here by my wife, the witch.”
As Marie walked out of the room something foreboding fluttered deep in her womb.