In a colony struggling for survival, in a mysterious new world where infant mortality is high and sin is to blame, Samuel Sewall is committed to being a loving family man, a good citizen, and a fair-minded judge. Like any believing Puritan, he agonizes over what others think of him, while striving to act morally correct, keep the peace, and, when possible, enjoy a hefty slice of pie. His one regret is that months earlier, he didn’t sentence a group of pirates to death.
What begins as a touching story of a bumbling man tasked with making judgments in a society where reason is often ephemeral quickly becomes the chilling narrative we know too well. And when public opinion wavers, Sewall learns that what has been done cannot be undone.
Crane Pond explores the inner life of a well-meaning man who compromised with evil and went on to regret it. At once a searing view of the Trials, an empathetic portrait of one of the period’s most tragic figures, and an indictment of the malevolent power of idealism, it is a thrilling new telling of one of America’s founding stories.
“[Crane Pond] goes straight on to my (small) list of historical novels that draw out the capacities of the form and allow readers to brush against the pleasures and terrors of the past.” —Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall
“Deftly crafted . . . perfectly balances issues of religion, faith, and law.” —Library Journal
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About the Author
nonfiction, including a number of books on American history and thought. His award-winning novels and books of nonfiction have been published by leading houses in London and New York, including Fourth Estate, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, W.W. Norton, Faber & Faber, and Pantheon. He and his wife live in Bath.
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Here comes Samuel Sewall, making his way to breakfast on a cold January morning in 1690, the windows filled with snow-light.
'My dear,' wife Hannah says. 'You've brought the bed with you.'
He pats the coverlet that is spread over his ample nightshirt like a shawl and smiles. The fire is burning brightly in the grate but their hall is large, and Boston is cold in the winter. 'First prayer,' he says, 'then pie.'
'Pie?' Hannah asks.
'Ha, pie,' says young Sam.
'Pie!' Betty exclaims, as if it's a war cry.
Daughter Hannah gives her shy smile, not sure whether to be for pie or against.
Two-year-old Joseph, sitting on a heap of cushions to raise him up in his chair, waves his spoon.
Sewall's own smile has faded. 'The venison pie, from yesterday,' he explains.
'I know the pie,' Hannah tells him. 'I made the pie. Well, Sarah made it while I talked to her. But I just wondered if it elbowed out the prayer a little. You put the two so close together.'
'Father is full of pie-ety,' cries Sam suddenly.
Sam is eleven, unable to do the simplest sum. He'll bend over his book for hours, trying to figure out, if one apple costs such and such, then how much for seven? Or rather look out of the window or scribble drawings on the page while he should be doing the calculation. But then he will fire off some quip as if being young is itself a trigger of wit.
'It's Hannah's turn to read the lesson,' Sewall says, taking his chair at the head of the table. Hannah blushes and squirms. She's ten, but youth doesn't spark her. In fact her long and bony awkwardness already has a spinsterish quality to it. Her spectacles look anxiously across at him, two pale discs. Her mother looks anxiously across at him too, hand grasping young Hannah's forearm. Sewall, abashed, suddenly chilled, raises his arms to pull the coverlet tighter.
'Father,' Betty tells him, 'you look just like an angel flapping his wings.'
She is nine, but hardly needs her youth to generate wit, having plenty of that on her own account. Sewall knows too well how daughter Hannah will read the lesson, bumping into word after word like obstacles in a fog. 'Perhaps Betty needs to read the lesson instead, to stop her being so foolish,' he says.
'Oh yes, father,' whispers Hannah. She looks nervously at Betty to see her reaction but Betty is pleased. She loves to read.
Both his daughters are happy at this outcome. Is that a good thing? Perhaps it would be better for Hannah if she were forced. She might learn to improve. And perhaps Betty wants to read for the wrong reason or in the wrong way, to show off. Every action is weighed, each and every one, however small, and sometimes you can't tell which way the scales have moved.
'Pay attention to the meaning,' he tells Betty. She nods vigorously. 'You, too,' he tells Hannah, who also nods. Their mother, head bowed towards the table top, gives one nod, grown-up currency being more valuable. Her nod is one of agreement, of parental alliance, to encourage the children. He turns to Sam. 'We must all pay attention to the meaning.' Sam doesn't nod. He has put a horrible grimace on his face, picked up the knife from beside his plate, and is trying to see himself reflected in the blade. Sewall gives him a long look but Sam is impervious to looks.
The reading is Isaiah, Chapter 24, one of the most dismal passages in the whole Bible. Betty makes the most of its gloom, so much so that Sewall's uneasiness increases. It's one thing being expressive, quite another to sound like an actress. Play-acting is banned in New England for good reason, because it's a sort of lying.
'"Behold",' Betty says. She looks up from the Bible and screws up her eyes as if the breakfast table is a vast wilderness. '"The Lord maketh the earth empty, and turneth it upside down"' — her voice sinks to a whisper — 'and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof."'
Suddenly she stops dead. For a moment Sewall thinks it's a pause for effect and this time he decides he must intervene. These are not her words, they belong to God. Then he looks up and sees her raspberry face, eyes brimming with tears. Before he can speak she has left the room.
Suddenly all is quiet. The three remaining children, Sam, Hannah, and little Joseph, stare at her empty chair as if in amazement that she has suddenly become invisible. Wife Hannah looks at the door through which Betty has passed. The unspoken words of today's text hang in the air. God's people have broken the everlasting covenant.
'I'll go to her,' wife Hannah says. As she leaves the room she almost collides with Sarah coming in with the remains of the pie on a large platter. Pieces of venison have tumbled out of the pastry following yesterday's dissection at dinnertime and the gravy has jellied a little so it gleams pleasantly. Sarah poises her body as one might hold a finger to the wind to gauge its direction. Then she puts the pie down on the table, gives everyone a long-suffering look as if whatever difficulty that has arisen has been aimed at her personally, and leaves without a word.
'Hannah,' Sewall tells his daughter, 'you may serve the pie.'
Hannah gives a sigh of pleasure. This she can do. But his pie is compromised. He can't enjoy it with Betty so full of woe. He remembers, fourteen months before, standing on the deck of the ship America on his way to England and eating the pasty his wife had prepared — without assistance on that occasion from Sarah, talking to no one as she baked except (silently) to him, as if composing an intimate message out of pastry and mutton. Pie is meant to be a happy dish. He sighs.
Wife Hannah comes back in. 'She's in the cupboard again,' she tells Sewall. He nods, dabs his mouth, and rises to his feet. The cupboard is in fact a little cloakroom off the vestibule. Betty has turned it into an occasional chapel for her most despairing devotions. Sewall knocks on the door. 'Can I come in?' he asks, and is answered by a little snuffle. He enters anyway. He's still wearing his coverlet and is almost too wide for the doorway.
Betty is crouched in the corner, sobbing. Sewall closes the door on the two of them. 'Is it as before?' he whispers. The room is now completely dark. Perhaps Betty hopes God can't find her here. He gropes for her himself, locates her thin shoulder, lowers himself beside her. 'Dearest child,' he says, 'tell me.'
As she tries to speak, her sobs turn into hiccups like a baby's do. 'I'm so frightened —,' she says.
'What are you frightened of?'
'It's good to say it aloud.'
'That I am not saved,' Betty says.
'The passage concerned the people of God. It wasn't about you in particular.'
'But we are the people of God. Perhaps we have broken the cov — covenant.'
These words send a chill down Sewall's spine. Everywhere you look, in Boston, in Massachusetts Bay, you can find examples of backsliding, of loss of faith. Of course you can find examples of piety and virtue too, but who knows how good and evil balance out? And Indians allied with the French attack the settlements at regular intervals, as if they wish to reclaim the land for their pagan deities, turning the earth upside down and scattering the inhabitants thereof. 'What I mean is, we each have a separate soul,' Sewall says. 'You can only be responsible for your own.'
'But that's what frightens me, my own. I'm so afraid.' She hiccups again then suddenly she is crying loudly, and Sewall feels a sympathetic sob rise up in his own chest. 'I am afraid that you, and mother,' she finally manages to gasp out, 'and my brothers and sister will go to heaven, and I will go to hell all alone. I will never see any of you again, and the torments will torment so much I won't be able to bear them.'
'If that should happen, do you know what I would do? I would ask God if very kindly He would let me go to hell myself, so that I could be with you again.'
'That's silly, father.'
'In heaven you can have what you wish. And that would be what I would wish, so that you would never be alone. For all eternity.' His voice wobbles at the solemnity of the thought.
Her hand, like a small animal, seeks his out. 'Shall we pray together?' he asks. Her knees thud softly on to the planks as she kneels, and he manoeuvres himself into prayer beside her.
On go his breeches, his shirt, his waistcoat, his cravat. Then his coat and finally a special bonnet of his own design.
He's not yet forty but his hair is thinning (even though he frequently washes it with rum). He fears a cold in the head but abominates wigs, which nowadays are everywhere.
Sewall's bonnet is black, with flaps to go over his ears, and it fastens under his chin to prevent it from being blown off in a high wind. He cut out the cloth and stitched it himself, peering at the work by candlelight through a succession of winter evenings. Hannah asked him why he didn't commission their neighbour John Hurd, who is a tailor, to make him one and Sewall told her that the man's eyesight had deteriorated with age and his expertise could no longer be relied on, which was true enough but not the complete reason. He felt strangely obstinate about completing his own design but at the same time was nervous that a craftsman would laugh at it.
He first wore his home-made bonnet two weeks before to the meeting house. He was uneasy about his reception not simply because of possible imperfections but also because he was well-known amongst the congregation of the South Church for his stance on the topic of wigs. Perhaps the wig-wearers would have their revenge?
In fact no one said a word (though he did hear some muttering behind his back as he went to his pew). And the bonnet has been a boon in the severe cold of this winter. Sewall tried to write an aide-mémoire to himself in his bedchamber this morning but despite a good fire in the room the ink was frozen in his inkwell. It was because of this that he decided to wear his coverlet (on top of his nightshirt) to breakfast.
The note was to have been about this morning's proceedings at the Court of Assistants, the body charged with administering governance and justice to the colony of Massachusetts Bay. He is one of the Assistants and therefore, ex officio, a part-time judge.
His wife comes to the door with him to bid farewell.
'Betty is calmer now,' she tells him. She wants him not to worry.
'See if you can persuade her to eat something,' he suggests. 'She could have my pie. Or a portion of it.'
Hannah smiles up at him. He can read her smile. Or rather he knows that her smile means she can read him: he thinks (she thinks) that appetite is an index of spiritual recovery. Well, so it is, so he does. The body will be resurrected so it makes sense to build it up, like a squirrel preparing for winter. Also he thinks (she thinks) that though he wants Betty to be fed, he would nevertheless like some small piece of his pie, some insignificant morsel that would not deprive his daughter, to be reserved until he comes back. Well, so he does.
Hannah fastens his cloak for him then raises her hand and slides her finger and thumb under one of the flaps of his hat, clasps the lobe of his ear and gently tugs it, rather as you might tug the tongue of your shoe to straighten it. Since he started wearing his bonnet this has become a habit of hers. She smiles, then gives him a serious look. 'Be careful,' she tells him
'The pirates will be in shackles,' he points out. 'They are no threat now.'
She nods. 'Be careful anyhow,' she says.CHAPTER 2
The court chamber is in the Town House, down near the harbour. Sewall plods along a cart track through the snow, one foot placed exactly in front of the other to keep within the groove. The sky is low and dirty and a cold wind blows; from time to time a snowflake stings his cheek, hard like grit.
A good fire has been lit in the chamber, and he warms his backside at it while waiting for his fellow judges (selected for their experience from the roster of Assistants) to assemble. Jackson, the serving man, brings him a tankard of ale which has had a red-hot poker applied. Finally, he is one of seven judges to take their places on the bench and to be faced by an equal number of pirates, who shuffle into the room with shackles on their arms and legs. The court clerk reads out the names.
Thomas Pound, a dark-haired fellow, small but with an air of authority even now, even here. He inspects the judges one by one, not with impertinence but as to the manner born, as if he is the judge.
Next, Thomas Hawkins, bigger, almost shambling, with long pale hair in a pigtail, nautical fashion. These two Thomases are the ringleaders. Then yet another Thomas, one Johnson, the only one of the pirates to look the part, with an expression both scowling and hangdog at once. The others are rank and file, ordinary seadogs who will follow a captain wherever he takes them, spitting their tobacco juice on the polished floor of the council chamber.
Thomas Pound is, or was, pilot of the frigate Rose, a vessel assigned to Massachusetts Bay three years previously. Since then, his ship has sailed upon strange and uncharted waters, as has the whole of Massachusetts Bay colony, ever since King James ll cancelled the charter which gave its laws and government their legitimacy. Samuel Pepys, his secretary to the navy, commissioned the Rose to patrol the Massachusetts coast after the king installed the roundly hated Governor Andros to take charge of the colony's affairs while the constitutional niceties were sorted out.
Sewall tried to play his part. Furnished with Hannah's pasty, a barrel of beer, and many other necessities, though none of them as necessary as that pasty, he took ship to England to assist in negotiating a solution, though was soon elbowed aside by Increase Mather, one of the leading ministers of Massachusetts Bay, who became the colony's official delegate and is in London still, negotiating the new charter. (Thwarted in his hopes of courtly intrigue, Sewall filled his year in England by attending to family affairs and seeing the sights.)
Then King James was ousted in the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary, great news for New England (at least as was at first supposed, since King William was committed to the Puritan cause). The people of Boston rose up and put Governor Andros into prison.
But it was the task of the ship Rose, pilot Mr. Pound, to uphold the king's authority. Since Andros was the appointed representative of that authority, the vessel duly entered Boston harbour bent on securing his release. The populace were perplexed as to what to do. It was the king's vessel and they didn't wish to be disloyal; only, of course, there was now a different king. A party from the harbour boarded the ship. Its captain suggested that to avoid the embarrassment (for both sides) of clear-cut capture, they should simply remove the sails.
Now, nine months later, it's clear that King William wishes to exert a tighter control over his colony's affairs than even his predecessor did. Precisely because he is sympathetic to their Puritanism he wants to ensure they continue to toe the line.
In the interval Thomas Pound, his ship not pilotable for want of sails, joined forces with a friend by the name of Thomas Hawkins, who happened to own a fishing boat. The two decided to go off in search of French vessels and try their luck at a little privateering (King William had gone to war with the French, who were therefore fair game). But instead of the enemy they came across a ketch out of Salem, the Mary, and captured that.
Wait Still Winthrop, a fellow judge, leans over to speak into Sewall's ear. 'It could have been a simple mistake,' he suggests. 'And then they were in too deep. In such an eventuality you can hardly say sorry and go on your way.' Mr. Winthrop's breath is a little sour. Sewall recoils as far as he dares. Too deep, yes: that's the whole tendency of the sea.
The pirates, as they now were (having missed the profession of privateering altogether), captured more ships. Soon there was a hue and cry. A Captain Pease was commissioned to go after them. As it happened he set sail in that same ketch Mary, by now relinquished by the pirates who had taken over a bigger vessel. There was a desperate battle. Captain Pease was killed, as were many of his men, and many of the pirates too. But seven were captured, the seven here in court today.
'It's a muddle,' whispers Judge Winthrop.
Indeed it is. A king is deposed. His sailing ship becomes another king's sailing ship, and then is made into a sailing ship that doesn't sail. A naval officer and a fisherman are privateers, then pirates. The ship Mary is a commercial vessel, a pirate ship, an instrument of the law.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Crane Pond"
Copyright © 2016 Richard Francis.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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