“They will hang you in the Gallows for this, Theo.”
“Only if I get caught, Abitha.”
“Must you always be this stubborn?”
Not dignifying Abitha Mordough with a response, Theo continued counting the money she would need to publish her very first novel, The Wrongfully Accused. Perhaps her confidant was right; she was being stubborn. However, one simply could not expect her to sit around like a trussed-up turkey while women all over Salem were being accused of using the Devil’s Magic. Theodora Francis Priestley would have remained silent on the matter, but Theo had to speak up.
Theo was the part of her she wished she could show everyone - but alas, it remained a well-kept secret that only Abitha and Tommy were privy to. Thomas McAdams- or Tommy as they called him- was the third confidant. The three were as thick as thieves; familial connections had bloomed into true friendship over the years.
“No need to fret. You know it’ll publish under the name Theo- everyone will think it’s a man, and then they’ll be out hunting for someone who does not exist. Besides, Tommy’s taking the money and novel to the publishing house. He said he knows he can bribe someone there who will do it without asking questions.”
“I suppose it’s alright if Tommy’s handling it. He most likely went to the publishing house where his cousin works- that horrid Fletcher- never liked him, but at least he’s come of use for once.” Abitha snorted, reverting to her usual gossipy self.
To be frank, there was no real guarantee of Theo’s safety, even if Tommy was helping. After all, she was a lady publishing a non-fiction book that criticized society for wrongly accusing and murdering innocent women for the fictitious crime of witchcraft. Oh, and not to forget- all of this under the guise of a man and there was bribery involved.
Theo always pretended to be uneducated, for the sake of her mother. Her father had taught her to read and write when she was a child. He was a teacher with forward thinking. Her heart ached thinking of him. How she wished he were here to guide her. Instead, as life would have it, Theo was stuck with a mother who cared for nothing more than to marry her off like cattle. Her mother forced Theo to pretend as she thought it was ‘unbecoming’ of a young lady.
If Theo’s mother knew what was conspiring, she would surely faint from the horror.
Snickering under her breath, Theo finished counting the money. It was a hefty sum, but it had to be done. Tommy had said a small amount would not suffice, and she trusted Tommy.
The approaching noise of a coach could be heard through the window of Theo’s room.
“Oh, that must be Aunt Emmeline with the coach. Mamma’s assigned her as my chaperone after she came to live with us. She’s quite dull-witted, but that makes it easy for me to do as I please, so I shan’t complain. Well, I better be off then.” Abitha stood, dusting off her floor-length satin gown.
It was much too many layers and frills for Theo, but Abitha adored the style and made it look splendid with her soft beauty. Theo in comparison, was all sharp angles and suited much better to the waistcoat and men’s breeches she was wearing, courtesy of Tommy. However, Theo could only dress so freely in the privacy of her room; even her mother would not allow her to dress such a way at home.
“Oh, may I come with you as well? Tommy said I should meet him at Gallows Hill to give him the money and the book. We needn’t tell my mother; when she returns, she’ll presume we are having afternoon tea at your home.” Theo hurriedly said, rushing to tie her hair into a bun and wear the cap she had loaned from Tommy for such a rendezvous. Once she wore a large coat, she appeared to be a young boy if one did not look too closely. Theo then proceeded to secure the money and manuscript in the spacious inside pocket of the coat.
“Do I look like a Theo?” She asked Abitha, curtsying in a silly way.
Giggling, Abitha said, “If Theo is a grubby fifteen-year-old paper boy who’ll pickpocket you the second you look away, then yes, absolutely!”
“Perfect,” Theo winked, holding her arm out for Abitha.
Slapping her offered arm away, Abitha frowned all of a sudden.
“Why must you meet at Gallows Hill? That place is most definitely cursed- they’ve already hung ten women there!”
“Don’t be ridiculous Abitha, there’s no such thing as a curse- and the Gallows is the only place deserted at this hour! Every person is much too scared to go there, so what better place for a rendezvous?”
“Alright, alright. If you insist- I have come to accept neither of you shall ever listen to me.” Sighing in resignation, Abitha continued, “But you will have to hang off the coach if you come- my Aunt will surely faint if you try and sit inside.”
“Fetch the smelling salts!!” Theo screamed in a high-pitched voice, causing Abitha to burst into a fit of laughter.
“S-she… sounds… precisely… like… that!” Abitha wheezed out, trying to catch her breath.
“Indeed, she does!! Well, let us go then, my lady! The coach awaits!” Theo declared, switching to a deeper voice to immerse herself in the disguise.
Walking out of the house, Theo made sure to stay a few steps behind Abitha, trusting her to take the lead.
“Hello, Aunt Emmeline! It is such a pleasure to see you! I think it wonderful you are my chaperone, would you not agree?” Abitha simpered, batting her eyelashes in what appeared to be an adoring expression.
“Why, of course I agree, dear girl! I love the time we spend together!” Aunt Emmeline exclaimed in her high-pitched voice, and Theo tried her best to disguise a snort as a cough.
“My, who is that boy behind you?”
It seemed that Theo had been noticed.
“Oh, that child?? Why, he’s nothing more than a paper boy!! He had just delivered some newspapers to Theodora’s house when I heard him say he was due for another delivery and would lose his job if he somehow did not return to the publishing house immediately- and then he’d have no way to earn for his family! So, I thought I would allow him to hang off the coach for a ride halfway only if my Aunt allowed the mercy.” Abitha rushed to explain, all the while keeping an admiring look directed at her Aunt.
“I suppose- I mean, if you insist he will lose his job, then he may tag along halfway-”
“Why, you are so kind, Aunt Emmeline! An angel, showing such mercy to a poor child! He must be very grateful!” Abitha glanced back at her, and Theo smoothly doffed her cap in thanks, making sure to hide her face from scrutiny.
With that, Aunt Emmeline was pulled away into the coach by a persistent Abitha, who was doing her very best to divert her Aunts attention away from Theo.
Climbing on the coach with the wind on her face, Theo had never felt more alive.
When Theo approached Gallows Hill, a sense of unease gripped her, as though the rumors of curses and wandering dead souls held some truth.
She saw Tommy waving at her and ran the rest of the way to meet him. But as she drew closer, the sight of him shocked her into silence. His clothes and hair were in disarray, eyes puffed as though he had been crying.
“They took her, Theo-”
They both spoke simultaneously, and Theo gestured for him to continue, worried. She had never seen her friend in such a disheveled state.
“They took Amity to prison, Theo!! I must get her out before they hang her in this very wretched hill-”
“They took Amity?” Theo asked, aghast. Amity was Tommy's wife- they had only been married last winter. “For witchcraft, I presume! What accusations have they against her?”
“Amity went to the Reverends house with some herbs she thought would help their daughter- you know Elizabeth, as she had been afflicted with a fever. She gave the child a broth made from the herbs, and a few moments later the girl was having a fit!! The Reverend’s wife saw it and immediately declared it a sign of witchcraft- that my dear Amity had somehow used the Devil’s Magic to harm her child!! Before I was even told, the deputy came with the magistrates and they took her to jail! They did not even interrogate her- they just dragged Amity to prison!! I told her to stay away, seeing as what had been happening in Salem Village- but her heart was suffering for the child and so she could not keep away, and look where that kindness brought her!! ”
“’Tis not Amity’s fault- she was doing the family a kindness! She was always too kind a soul to recognize the monsters those people are! These Reverends and magistrates who preach about purity and the like- forcing innocents to their deaths based on their superstitions! What shall we do, Tommy?” Theo had not forgotten the reason for their rendezvous, but this was a far more pressing matter.
“We? No, you misunderstand, there is no we in this! Only I shall help her escape- I will not allow you to get involved for if it goes array then you too shall be taken to the Gallows. I have someone in the prisons whom I know, and I have devised a foolproof plan.”
“Theo! I told you because you are my dearest friend- so how could I let you risk yourself unnecessarily? Besides, you already are helping in your own way! I have not forgotten about your book. Once I shall help it become published and distributed over all of Salem, it will create an upheaval- no doubt! Now, hand over the money and book, then be off lest someone discover us!”
Theo reluctantly handed the money and book over to Tommy, unsure if she should be more insistent about helping. But then a thought struck her-
“What will you and Amity do afterwards? Will you go into hiding?”
“No, Theo. We are no longer safe in Salem. Amity’s hanging is on the morrow, so the escape shall take place tonight. I have secured travel by sea, to the furthest city we can settle in. I shall write to you when things get better. I would ask for you to come, but I know you too well. The least I can do before we depart is to help publish the book as I promised.” Tommy said, smiling sadly.
“But… but you cannot just leave! What about Abitha and me? We promised to grow old together- to help raise each other’s families! Why must you be so hasty? Let us help, perhaps we can find another way-” Theo begged desperately, her eyes watering as she refused the reality in which she would have to live without her best friend.
“Theo,” He cut her off, “There may be another way, but we have no time to spare. You must accept it, please. I’ll not be gone forever, and I shall write to you until we meet once more.”
Words failed Theo, so she simply nodded.
“You must tell Abitha- she shall never forgive you if you leave without so much as a goodbye.”
“Of course, I’ll tell her! After I handle the matter with your book, I shall immediately head to Abitha’s house. Do not think any less of me for this, Theo. I must do what I have to.”
“Don’t be foolish, Tommy! I would never think less of you, and neither would Abitha! You will always have our support- and besides, it will not be forever. We will meet again, in a better Salem.” Theo said, sniffing back her tears. She had to be strong for her friend, who was the bravest of the three.
“In a better Salem.” He repeated, smiling faintly, eyes watering as well.
They reluctantly said their goodbyes, hoping that everything would go well.
It had been two days since Tommy helped Amity break out of prison, and they successfully left Salem. The whole village was abuzz with the news. Newspapers were filled with their pictures; hefty sums being awarded to those who could provide information on their whereabouts. Her friends were wanted criminals, but then again, so was she.
The second matter which had the village in a state of disarray was her novel. A sense of pride filled her- Tommy had been correct. The whole of Salem was in an upheaval; the newspapers also filled with reports of finding a mysterious man named Theo who had written the blasphemous book. ‘Theo’ had been named the Devil’s Ally by the Reverend and magistrates. If he was found, he would most definitely be killed.
Sighing, Theo wondered when she would hear from Abitha. Her friend had not yet visited her, nor written a letter as to why she had been silent for the past few days. Theo had assumed it was because of Tommy, but it did not make much sense- her friend should be seeking her comfort. Both had suffered the same loss; the hole Tommy had left could not be filled in any way.
Now, with Abitha’s silence, Theo felt completely alone. Her mother had never provided any companionship.
Lost in her thoughts, Theo did not notice the banging and the door of her house open until she heard her mother scream.
Running out of her room, Theo almost tripped over the dress she had been forced to wear- the wretched thing. The sight that greeted drew a scream from her as well.
The deputy and magistrate stood at the entrance of her house. The deputy was gripping Abitha, her hands tied behind her back. She looked in a terrible state; her beautiful hair was a mess, her dress muddy and ripped in some places, and there was blood.
There. Was. Blood.
“LET HER GO YOU DISGUSTING-”
“Watch your tongue, witch!! We have a witness who confessed to your crimes,” the deputy nodded to Abitha, who had started sobbing as soon as she saw Theo. “We visited Lady Mordough’s house for an interrogation regarding Thomas McAdams, and we caught her reading that blasphemous book! So, we led her to the prison for a formal interrogation under suspicion of witchcraft.”
“You mean you took her to torture her into saying what you wanted to hear!!!” Theo yelled, raising her fists to charge and punch one or both of their smug faces, but her mother held her back.
“Mother, let me go-”
“Come forward and we will use force, witch!!” The deputy growled, baring his teeth in a show of aggression. It made him look like a deranged dog.
“There, Lady Mordough confessed that she was innocent, and it was Lady Theodora Francis Priestley who had published the blasphemous book under the guise of a man’s name- Theo. She also confessed that she had seen Lady Priestley practice the Devil’s Magic.” The magistrate said, practically spitting out the name Theo.
Looking at Abitha, Theo knew they had tortured her into saying the lies. Her heart ached, and her shoulders felt heavy with the knowledge that Abitha’s suffering was her fault. Drowning in guilt, Theo made her choice.
“Yes. I am Theo. I wrote and bribed someone into publishing my book. Abitha is innocent as she said, so you must let her go! I should be held accountable for the book.” She declared; head held high. Seeing their smug faces, she continued with force, “However, I shall never confess to being a witch, for that I am not! I am simply a woman just as the rest of the women you murdered were. I know you tortured her into saying that lie-”
Looking at her best friend since childhood, Theo smiled, willing her to see the love and loyalty she felt for her.
“I love you forever, my dear Abitha. Live your life without guilt and know that I shall remain with you in your heart.”
“Remain silent, Lady Mordough, or you shall make this more difficult for the witch.”
The deputy and magistrate exchanged a victorious glance, and untied Abitha, approaching Theo with the rope instead.
Theo was not surprised when her mother let her go, watching them tie her with a stricken face. She had always known her mother did not love her, but it still hurt.
Theo kept her head held high, walking out of the house with dignity. She only glanced back once to see Abitha screaming and crying at her mother to let her go after Theo.
And once again, Theo found herself at Gallows Hill. But this time, she would not be losing a friend, but rather, a friend would be losing her. Her only regret was leaving behind Abitha and Tommy, and the pain her death would cause them.
She would never regret writing her book.
And as the block was kicked from under her feet, and as she struggled with the noose around her neck, her life flashed before her eyes.
She knew her father would be proud of her, and she felt at peace with herself when she thought of seeing him again.
Theo’s last conscious thought was how she wished somehow, somewhere, someone would preserve a copy of her book, so that a part of her would continue to live on forever in Salem.
Salem. Her home. And maybe one day, someone would read her book in a better Salem.