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Read an extract from The Age of Witches by Louisa Morgan

Age of Witches Extract

Dive into a magical tale of family, ambition and love, set in Gilded age New York and London.

In 1692, Bridget Bishop was hanged as a witch. Two hundred years later, her legacy lives on in the scions of two very different lines: one dedicated to using their powers to heal and help women in need; the other, determined to grasp power for themselves.

This clash will play out in the fate of Annis, a young woman in Gilded Age New York who finds herself a pawn in the family struggle for supremacy. She’ll need to claim her own power to save herself – and resist succumbing to the darkness that threatens to overcome them all.

 

THE AGE OF WITCHES

 

1692

It was a cruel day to leave the world.

The sun shone with all the gaiety and promise of early summer. The new green leaves glistened with it, and the apple and pear blossoms, just past their prime, drifted in the warm air like white butterflies, powdering the orchard floor with their bruised petals.

Bridget paced in her cell, angry and getting angrier. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. Those girls, those accusers, knew nothing of what it was like to grow old, to bear children and see them abandon you, to bury husbands you could not keep alive no matter how many potions you brewed or charms you concocted. Those girls— Abigail, Mercy, Elizabeth, Ann, and Mary— they were still young and fresh. They suffered no drooping of private flesh from having borne babies. No one mocked them for preferring a red bodice over a dull black one, or for enjoying a laugh with a traveler, or for keeping a pet goat to fuss over.

And the traitorous John Hathorne! He had visited her often and often after Thomas died. John liked the cider she made from her apples, and he liked even more the softness of her bed and the fragrance of her dark hair. Then, when her hair had gone gray and her once- sweet flesh had withered, he turned judge. He for-got those hours in the warm, secret darkness, forgot the special charm she’d made for him so his wife wouldn’t know, forgot the words of passion he had whispered in her ear. He turned judge, and he allowed those silly girls, hysterical chits no better than they should be, to accuse her of all manner of evil doings.

She was innocent of the things they accused her of doing. She had not entered Herrick’s bedchamber in spirit form and seduced him, though she knew he wanted her, even now. She had not laid curses upon her neighbors, only scolded them for stealing her apples. She had made a poppet or two, but they had done no real harm. She had never consorted with the devil.

She was, as she had told them, clear of offenses, but they would not hearken. They had taken the word of five girls and many more men, most of whom had tried for her favors at one time or another. They had judged her a witch and sentenced her to a dark death on this bright day.

Even now the cart waited outside her cell to take her to the gallows. She had listened, these two days past, to the sawing and hammering and the jests of the carpenters as they built her instrument of death. She had trembled in the darkness, then buried her terror under waves of fury at the unjustness of her fate.

The church bell clanged from the center of Salem Village. It was time. The clump of men’s boots pounded across the cobblestones, coming toward her. Their voices rang through the sweet summer air, the voices of men taking pleasure in her punishment, of men who cared nothing for her now that she was old and alone. There was no one to speak for her. No one to defend her. She was lost.

John Hathorne appeared in the doorway, his weedy clothes dull and rusty in the summer sun, his hair sticking out like old gray straw from beneath his hat. He was stooped now, as aged as she was, but his voice still rang with thunder. “Bridget Byshop, your time has come!”

Her knees trembled, and she sagged against the wall, over-whelmed in the moment by terror. She pulled at her hair to regain control, to reignite her fury.

Her daughters were her only hope. Mary was a gentle sort of girl, loath to harm even the smallest creature. Christian was different in her inclinations, as angry as Bridget herself. Neither could save their mother now, but they would be her legacy, both of them. Freed of this tired flesh, inspired by her fury, she would watch over her descendants and see that each received inspiration in her turn. She would leave them the maleficia.

She might not be a witch— indeed, she was not sure precisely what a witch was— but she was not nothing. She was only a woman, but she was a woman with abilities. Woe to the ignorant men who thought they could silence her with a noose! They would learn that her power, whatever its source, was stronger than their cruelty. That would be her revenge.

When the door of her cell opened, Bridget Byshop stood tall, straightened her frail shoulders, and walked out to accept her fate.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Harriet

1890

 

Harriet preferred foraging in Central Park just after sunrise, before the cyclists and equestrians poured into the Mall and while noisy young families were still breakfasting at home. On the nights before her excursions, she slept with her curtains open so the first light of dawn could tease her awake, and she could be out in the fields before anyone else.

On a cold, clear morning in May she woke as soon as the light began to rise. She dressed in sturdy boots, a much-worn skirt, and a man’s heavy jacket she had bought from a secondhand store in the Bowery. She took up her basket and slipped quietly out of the apartment so as not to wake her housekeeper. Grace worked hard, and she needed her sleep.

There were no other residents about as Harriet made her way down the corner stairs and out through the central courtyard of the Dakota. In front of the entrance arch she skirted the milk delivery van, its aging horse blinking sleepily beneath its harness. The milkman lifted a hand to Harriet in greeting. The ice cart rattled by as she crossed the road to the Women’s Gate, and the driver, teeth clenched around a pipe, tipped his cap to her. She smiled at him, relishing the communal feeling of their fraternity of early risers.

The first rays of the sun charmed curls of mist from the grass of Sheep Meadow, fairy clouds that sparkled silver against the green backdrop of the pasture. Harriet slowed her steps to take in the sight, savoring the slant of spring light and the emerald glow of new leaves before she crossed the meadow into the chilly shadows of the woods.

Here was near darkness that made her draw the collar of her jacket higher around her throat. Thick boughs of white oak shaded the ground, sheltering riches of sage, red clover, sometimes mush-rooms. Harriet breathed in the scents of the fecund earth as she crouched beside a patch of nettles to begin her morning’s work.

It was a good day for her labors. She found a lovely bit of mug-wort beside the nettles, and deeper in the woods she spotted burdock, which could be elusive. There was amaranth, too, the herb the shepherds called pigweed. She took care to harvest just what she could use and left the rest to propagate.

When she emerged from the shade of the trees into the bright-ness of the midmorning sun, she discovered dandelions growing among the Paris daisies, more than she had expected in mid- May. Their greens would make a nice salad. As she picked handfuls to toss into her basket, she noticed with a grimace how stained her fingers were.

She could have worn gloves, but she liked to feel the texture of growing things and sense the richness of the soil that nurtured them. She had inherited her grandmother’s long, slender fingers, adept at threading the herb she wanted out of the tangle of vegetation protecting it. It gave her pleasure to select a stem of leaves, pinch it between her fingernails, and wriggle it free. If she wanted the root itself, as with burdock, she dusted the soil from it and replanted any part she didn’t need. The process often gave her dirty fingers and grimy nails.

She breathed a rueful sigh. Grace was going to scold.

A herd of sheep had spread through the meadow to crop grass in the sunshine. Their shepherd, leaning on a stick as he watched his flock, doffed his cap as Harriet walked through the pasture. “Good mornin’ to you, Miss Bishop,” he called. “Bit nippy out today, ain’t it?”

“Good morning, Tom. Yes, it does feel chilly now, but it will soon warm.”

“That it will,” he said. The sun was at her back, and he squinted against the light to see her. “My missus is grateful for that stuff you made. She wanted me to say.”

“Is she feeling better, then?” Tom’s wife had received a simple tincture, one that needed no magic to strengthen it.

“Right as rain, Miss Bishop. Right as rain. You did her a wonder.” The testimonial brightened an already fine day. It was hardly the first time Harriet had received such praise in her practice, but each instance lifted her spirit. Each moment diminished, ever so slightly, the burden of guilt she carried always.

With her basket brimful of her harvest, she set off across the pasture, pulling off her dilapidated straw hat to feel the balm of sunshine on her hair and her cheeks. At her age a few new freckles wouldn’t matter. In any case, who was there to complain? Well, Grace, of course, but no one else.

Alexander had been fond of the faint freckles that dusted her nose and darkened in the sunshine. She remembered the feel of his hand cupping her cheek and the glow in his eyes as he teased her about them.

She sighed again, sadly this time. Alexander had been gone twenty- five years, but the passing of the decades had not diminished her grief. There was nothing like the pain of loss to teach a person that time was an illusion.

She put her hat on again as she reached the far edge of the meadow. The sheep had wandered on, Tom trailing behind them. Voices carried now across the morning air, the cries of children riding the carousel, the remonstrations of their nurses, the calls of the vendors selling ices and twisted papers of taffy. Harriet pressed on toward the drive.

Just as she reached it, a rider approached at a steady trot, a young lady mounted on a tall black horse. Harriet stopped. Her basket grew heavy on her arm, but she stood still to watch the striking pair pass by her.

The girl rode astride, which must cause comment, as would the divided skirt that made it possible. Strands of dark hair escaped from her straw hat and trailed over her shoulders. Her gloved hands rested low and easy on the reins, and she kept her chin tucked, her back straight as a spear. When she glanced up, Harriet caught a glimpse of light-blue eyes and thick dark lashes. She sat in the saddle as if she had been born to it, and Harriet felt a swell of pride.

The girl was Annis Allington, granddaughter of Harriet’s sister. She didn’t know it, but she and Harriet were the only ones left of their branch of the Bishop family.

She noticed Harriet standing beside the drive and acknowledged her with a courteous nod. Harriet nodded back, as one stranger does to another.

Annis Allington had no idea who Harriet was, of course. Her stepmother had seen to that. Harriet passed over the dry moat and through the entrance of the Dakota with barely a glance at the building’s facade. She preferred not to meet the glare of its gargoyles, and she found its wrought iron balustrades excessively baroque. She had moved there with Grace when it first opened, attracted by the open fields and farms that surrounded it, delighted by its nearness to her beloved park. She loathed the mansions being thrown up by New York’s nouveau riche, ostentatious palaces that squatted along Fifth Avenue like the overdressed, overfed matrons who inhabited them.

Not that the Dakota wasn’t ostentatious. It was designed to be. Still, Harriet loved the bright, airy rooms with their high ceilings and tall windows. She had space for her herbarium, and Grace had her own bedroom in the apartment, instead of on the cramped upper floor with the other staff. Grace had been thrilled to discover that the entire building was electrified, its own generator providing power for lights and heating and cooking. The Dakota was ideal for the two of them, and they owed their life there to Alexander’s legacy.

As Harriet passed by the courtyard fountain and on toward the stairs, the fragrance of herbs from her basket made her raise it closer to her face to take an appreciative breath.

At just that moment, Lucille Corning, whose apartment was on Harriet’s floor, appeared at the top of the staircase. She was dressed for shopping, a short cape over a full-sleeved shirtwaist. Her day skirt, fashionably long at the back, trailed behind her as she descended.

Harriet lowered her basket and stepped aside to make room, murmuring, “Good morning, Mrs. Corning.”

Without pausing, Mrs. Corning picked up the train of her skirt with her hand and pointedly pulled it aside. She drew a long, noisy sniff as she reached the last tread, and she swept on into the courtyard without speaking a word.

It was the cut indirect. And it was not the first time.

Harriet watched the woman flutter away across the court-yard. A carriage was waiting for her, with a liveried driver who touched his cap as he helped her up the step. Her maid came scurrying down the stairs to clamber into the carriage while the driver stepped up onto the box.

Harriet chuckled and shook her head as she climbed the stairs to her floor. Mrs. Corning’s disdain didn’t matter, really. She had accepted long ago that she was meant for a lonely life.

She let herself into the apartment and set her basket down in the hall. Grace came bustling out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her long apron. “Miss Harriet! Your skirt is wet to the knees!”

Harriet looked down at her bedraggled skirt and the bits of meadow grass that clung to its muddy hem. She pulled off her hat, dislodging the few pins she had stuck in her hair, and found that it, too, was littered with pine needles and the odd wet leaf. She tried to push her hair back into place with one hand, but to no effect.

She gave it up and bent to begin untying her boots. “Do you know, Grace, I saw Mrs. Corning going into the courtyard. She wouldn’t speak to me, but she gave the most impressive sniff I’ve ever heard. I doubt if Queen Victoria could have outdone it.”

Grace, whose own red hair was pinned into a tight knot at the back of her skull, tossed her head. “Mrs. Corning! Never you mind her, Miss Harriet. That woman is no better than she should be, I can tell you.” She came to help Harriet out of her heavy jacket. “Her Patsy, the one that does for her three times a week, tells me all kinds of men go through that place when Mr. Corn-ing ain’t there. Their cook lives in, and she says the same. And the parties she gives! Why, you wouldn’t believe the caviar and ices and champagne and . . .”

Grace rattled on with enthusiasm. Harriet nodded now and then, her usual way of dealing with Grace’s chatter. Free of her jacket and having wriggled her wet boots off her feet, she started down the hall to her bedroom.

Grace pattered behind her. “Now, Miss Harriet, you get out of that wet skirt and into something dry and warm. It’s only May, you know, not summer yet. We don’t want you catching cold or something.”

Harriet pursed her lips to prevent a smile of amusement. She had never, not once in their long relationship, caught a cold. Grace knew that.

She did as she was told just the same. As Grace went off with the wet skirt draped over her arm, Harriet settled into a comfort-able shirtwaist and light woolen skirt. She tied an apron over it, a long one with deep pockets for the scissors and string she used for tying up swatches of herbs. Only then did she go to the mirror to try to do something about her disordered hair.

As she was trying to drag a brush through it, Grace tapped on her door and came in. “Your breakfast is almost ready,” she said. “Oh, Miss Harriet, look at that hair! Give me the brush, now. Let me do it.”

Harriet surrendered the hairbrush and settled onto the dressing table stool so Grace, a good head shorter than she, could reach. As Grace worked, Harriet mused, “I suppose Mrs. Corning has a point, Grace. I did look a sight. But then, I so often do. You would think she’d be used to it.”

“I expect she wishes she could look like you do,” Grace said. “She must have a devil of a time fitting herself into that corset, and here’s you not even needing one.”

“I have a corset,” Harriet said, amused.

“Do you, now?” Grace eyed her in the mirror. “You don’t never wear it, as far as I know. But never mind. Here’s your hair all better.”

“I’m going gray,” Harriet observed.

“Perfectly natural. That Mrs. Corning gets her color out of a bottle, believe you me, Miss Harriet. A little bird told me all about it. Besides, this nice touch of silver in your hair looks dignified, if you ask me.”

“You can say that, with not a single gray hair on your head.” Harriet gave Grace an affectionate glance in the mirror. Grace, as she well knew, was vain about her hair.

Grace’s naturally ruddy cheeks grew redder. “But you, Miss Harriet, don’t suffer from this flock of freckles!”

“No,” Harriet admitted. “It’s true, my flock is considerably smaller, despite my being so careless about my hat.”

“Yes, and you should do better,” Grace said. She began insert-ing pins into the loose chignon she had created on Harriet’s head. “You still have a lovely complexion, Miss Harriet, despite you not being so young anymore.”

Harriet chuckled over this bluntness. “Yes, I think I bid youth farewell some time ago, Grace. Fifty! Hard to believe. But thanks for repairing my hair. It looks quite respectable now.”

“Come on, then,” Grace said, leading the way out of the bed-room. “I’ve got your coffee made, and I have eggs and ham, a good breakfast, since you’ve been out in the cold with your herbs and things. Do you want marmalade? I think there’s some in the pantry. Or you could have honey, since I bought some down on Mulberry Street the other day. It looks good, and I think . . .”

Harriet let the flow of talk run over and around her, as com-forting as a warm bath. And why, she wondered, as she sat down with her coffee, should she need comfort? A silly woman like Lucille Corning didn’t have the power to hurt her. She didn’t care about any of the things that sort of woman put store in, not clothes, or society, or a fancy carriage to take her shopping, or champagne parties. She had never cared about such things, but still— except for Grace, she had no real friends.

There was the woman who ran the herb shop down on Elizabeth Street. The proprietress was an aging Italian woman, Signora Carcano, a strega in her own language. She was a cranky old thing, and her shop smelled strongly of garlic and onions, but she and Harriet held each other in mutual respect. Harriet had never asked about the woman’s practice. It was better not to know. They had much in common, and they respected each other, but they were friendly without being actual friends.

There were her patients, of course, but it would be unprofessional to think of them as friends.

She couldn’t help wishing that once in a while someone would ask her to tea or to a quiet supper party. She lived in a fashionable building, paid her lease like anyone else, but she didn’t fit in. She was, as she had been since girlhood, an outsider. All the Bishops on her side were, she supposed. Why should she be any different?

She sighed, sipped her coffee, and told herself to push the whole nonsense out of her mind. Deliberately she recalled the pleasure of seeing her great- niece riding past on her beautiful horse. It had been lovely to see her. She needed to find a way to meet her. She could not trust Frances when it came time for Annis’s instruction.

The time for that was coming very soon. She knew it.