Halfway through the afternoon, while the prophesiers took a break, Deaconess Clare Hastings signaled the women of the auxiliary to gather at the back of the church. Mary and Dee joined the small group, who eagerly greeted one another and bustled to their seats, where long rays of sunlight crept across the floorboards as the sun neared the horizon. This weekly planning meeting and the impromptu teas they attended on weekdays were the only opportunity they had to speak aloud on matters involving their community. Because church custom and law barred women from speaking on the Sabbath, they often spoke among themselves as outsiders do, from a critical distance. However, Reverend Sherman and the congregation did sanction the Deaconess with the charge of undertaking community charity. Her ladies were her soldiers.
Mary was shocked to see a newcomer, Gail Thompson, the mother of the girl who had repeated the witch rumor to her sister Rebecca. Dressed in her Sunday best, the slight blond woman, wearing a most fashionable sleeve, radiated an almost aristocratic elegance. The last time Mary had seen her, she wore a smeared apron, her hair in disarray under a work cap. Why didn’t I see her this morning? she wondered. Where have they got her sitting?
Clare Hastings turned to Gail Thompson, who sat at the edge of the gathering. “I want everyone to meet a new member, who has recently come from England. Let us all welcome Missus Gail Thompson.”
The women nodded in greeting, murmuring their welcomes. Mary thought, Missus Gail Thompson. The Deaconess had used an honorific reserved only for the educated classes. Mary smiled widely in recognition, and Gail smiled warmly in return, waving surreptitiously without lifting her hand from her lap to acknowledge their previous acquaintance.
“I’m happy to see that everyone is here today,” Clare Hastings announced, “even our sister Mary, who is so near the end of her term. When do you expect?” Clare, a stout woman of fifty, removed her bonnet, and fanned a red face with it. Wispy damp hair clinging to sweat on her forehead signaled her time of life.
Mary smiled, smoothing over the large globe of her stomach. “In two weeks, I believe.”
“God be with you.” Faith Grant, a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman past her prime, smile lines tracing her mouth, reached over to squeeze her hand. “Will Joanna Morton be your midwife?”
“Yes, of course. My mother wouldn’t forgive me if I sought anyone else.”
“Your mother only has your welfare in mind. Joanna is the best,” Martha Godfrey said.
“She delivered my first two babies,” Mary said, “and while I have no comparison, I have no complaints either. Joanna saved my mother’s life last month.”
“You mean that God spared her, surely?” Lydia Brown, a woman of that generation who had crossed the Atlantic from old England, reproved her daughter-in-law, shaking her head. “It is God who performs miracles, not midwives.” The white-haired matriarch frowned, spine stiffening. “We mustn’t forget it, lest the Lord punish us.”
“I can testify for Joanna,” Martha challenged. “I was there. The baby breached, and it took four of us to turn him.”
Dee interrupted, trying to sooth her mother-in-law who bristled at this challenge from the young Martha Godfrey and, worse, her own daughter-in-law Mary. “Mother, of course they thank God; that is given. They mean only to praise Joanna for her skill.”
“Praise God, and God alone,” the dowager insisted.
Clare Hastings, who cared for elderly parents, had become an expert in dealing with crochety elders. She changed the subject.
“Your son has recovered?” Deaconess Hastings turned to Mary and Dee’s mother-in-law.
“He has! Thank you for asking. We weren’t sure that his leg would heal, but Dr. Allen assured us it was only a sprain. Praise God, Robert walks now, but with a cane.”
“We’re glad to hear it.” Clare put down her bonnet, patting her face dry with a sleeve. “I suppose I shouldn’t mention it, after Reverend Sherman’s long sermon about giving false witness.” The Deaconess waited for the effect, which was immediate tittering. Most knew that women conducted all their business through word of mouth, falsely called ‘gossip.’ “Just between us,” she continued, laying her finger aside her nose, “I have heard that Molly Page has entertained advances from Richard Whitney. Do we have a wedding to announce?”
The women in the group had heard tell of the young couple, and many had witnessed the secretive looks between the girl and her beau at church or felt the tension they emanated. The women were bound by their agreement to ferret out immoral behavior, this most intimate sin: unlicensed lovemaking. Though the girl’s mother wasn’t a member of the women’s auxiliary, their policy was to intercede before condemned acts presented evidence, such as pregnancies. They righteously wanted to save the young as well as their families from public shaming or worse. Their intervention for Whitney and Page was timely enough to prevent a baby born too soon. The pair would have to couple many times before they could conceive; everyone knew women didn’t get pregnant before experiencing coitus, which took some practice to achieve. They’d nip it in the bud, so to speak.
“I’ll talk with Molly’s mother,” Missus Bond said. “Goody Page is our neighbor.”
“Good. We have an emergency to discuss. Joanna Morton attended to Widow Taylor, who has been ill. She has asked that we check on the widow’s needs before winter begins; the almanack says it’ll be hard this year.”
“She must be in her nineties by now,” said Lydia Brown.
“Ninety-two she says. I’d like two or three to visit her tomorrow.”
“I can go,” Dee said.
Wanting to show Dee that she was a charitable Christian, whether she had second sight or not, Mary spoke up. “I can go, too.”
Dee looked at her sharply. “Are you sure? You mustn’t stress yourself now.”
“I’m here today.”
“In great discomfort. That’s obvious. I won’t hear of it.”
In the end, Mary gave way. Martha and Clare would join Dee. In addition, Dee would continue to provide meals for old Goodman Baily, a widowed soldier in his eighties who’d married late in life and was childless. He lived across the road from Dee on the outskirts, and thus isolated, he suffered. She collected a sum from the Watertown Council for her service, at least enough to cover the food; she willingly gave her labor.
“I have another matter before we go.” Clare Hasting’s face color had cooled with the end of the hot flash, and her manner had relaxed. She turned to Mary. “In keeping with today’s sermon, we’d all like to avoid the charge of gossip. We are hearing many versions of John Sherborn’s accusations. The Phillips’ trial is all the talk. Could you enlighten us?”
Mary blushed. “I can tell you what I’ve heard from John, but that’s report, too.”
“He wasn’t a witness?”
“No. John works with Richard Ong, who said he’d seen Mister Phillips with Mary Daniel. John didn’t say what Goodman Ong saw, just ‘uncivil behavior.’”
The women in the group murmured and nodded. From Jonathan Phillip’s reputation, they could imagine any number of trespasses; the scandal intrigued them even more knowing the perpetrator.
“And John believed Goodman Ong, plainly, because he repeated the story to Reverend Willard. Did he say why?”
“He never said so to me; but I know John had cause to believe Goodman Ong.”
“What cause?” Clare Hastings continued her drill, which the women followed avidly.
“Jonathan Phillips bullied John when he was in Master Norcross’s school. We didn’t act because we weren’t aware until we could get John to tell us what was wrong.”
“So, John judged Richard Ong’s story on his own experience...?”
Lydia Brown, still annoyed with Mary, interrupted. “Or he was taking revenge.”
Clare Hastings took charge again, peering into the eyes of each woman in the group, addressing her impromptu jury. “What do you make of it?”
Martha Godfrey spoke up first. “I believe John thought he was doing what he needed to do. Maybe Goodman Ong was afraid to speak out against a minister’s son, but John has courage.”
Faith Grant nodded. “I side with John, too. I wouldn’t blame him if he wanted revenge. We know what Phillips is like.” She had grown children who’d attended school with John.
Lydia Brown shrugged her shoulders and added, “Well, I wouldn’t know about that.” Her manner implied that even the knowledge of evil was an admission of guilt, of which she was free.
Missus Bond, who had remained silent until now, acknowledged Faith. “We do know, but he’s a grown man who's gotten away with it his whole life. You think the courts will stop him now?” She readjusted her shawl, wrapping and tucking it at her waist.
“Isn’t there a difference between bullying and molesting a girl?” Martha Godfrey was unsure of the charge, and Mary hadn’t been able to clarify it.
“Molesting a girl is a crime.” Faith Grant had strong opinions.
Missus Bond choked. “‘Fornication’ is a crime, but it’s one that women pay for, not men. When have you seen a man sit in stocks for it?”
“What do you think the court will do?” Faith was put off by the rough manners of Representative Bond’s wife.
“Nothing,” Missus Bond said. “Just wait and see. They’ll do nothing.”
“I hope you’re wrong,” Mary said. “But I can see a world of trouble if they accuse John of bearing false witness.”
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