by Robin Harrington
Hester did not know what started her laughing. She had felt light headed as she walked up the village on her way to Sunday worship. It was hot for June, the over full church was airless and the service seemed unending. She had chanted the psalms, stood for prayers, then sat as Pastor Coundon climbed into the pulpit to begin his sermon.
"From the Epistle of James, chapter one verses fourteen and fifteen."
The parson looked out over his flock with a sharp accusing eye, his thin voice rang off the newly whitewashed walls.
"But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin."
Hester felt a pressure start in her chest, a pressure she was struggling to contain. She would be nineteen next month, and knew nothing of drawing men away of their own lust. She looked across the aisle and caught Priscilla's eye. Priscilla, though not really a friend, was the only girl Hester knew who was about her age. They visited each other occasionally, and occasionally had spoken of marriage and babies and what it might mean for them. But they met few young men, let alone had the chance to tempt or entice them. The girls exchanged smiles across the stifling church. For Hester it made matters worse, the laughter she was trying to suppress pressed more urgently against her throat.
Coundon warmed to his theme. Women were the source of temptation, and it was they who led men into the ways of sin. He began to list the snares women used to lure men's souls to damnation: soft skin, coy looks, turning of the head, smiles, displays of the feminine figure. As she listened, Hester was finding it harder and harder to hold back the laugh churning inside her.
"For we read in Proverbs, chapter seven, verse twenty-one." The voice from the pulpit was becoming louder, the pitch a tone higher. "With her much fair speech she caused him to yield, with the flattering of her lips she forced him." Coundon paused, his eyes searching among the faithful as if he were trying to seek out those who had used fair speech and flattering lips to distract godly men.
"Now consider," he continued, "how the evil one does not appear among us as a ravening beast, but in a soft and beguiling form, which opens wide the path of luxury and pleasure that ends in lust: lust and debauchery."
By now Hester was rocking on her seat, her kerchief jammed firmly against her mouth, her cheeks blazing, her eyes streaming. She looked look at Priscilla again, who gave her a mischievous grin. The effect was to make Hester's whole body vibrate with the effort of keeping a measure of control. She tried holding her breath in the hopes she could push down the gurgling swell of mirth pounding through her.
Coundon's voice became even more emphatic. "Comeliness, the fair face, the lithe body, which seems so attractive, so diverting, but I tell you brethren, it is of the flesh, of Satan, and it will infect and pollute you until in the midst of your lust it will suck you down to the very pits of iniquity."
Hester lost the struggle to contain her laughter. It burst from her in an hysterical burbling gush which echoed throughout the building. The man in the pulpit stared at her for an instant, then raised an accusing finger,
"See now, how the wicked reveal themselves, how the streams of lust and lasciviousness are made manifest, even here in our midst." His voice was now almost a screech, spit flying, his eyes glowing with the zeal of his fury.
Hester was lost in a mixture of horror and shame, but she could not stop the flow of laughter which continued to spew from her. She turned and fled down the aisle, sensing, rather than seeing, the accusing stares of the whole village. She heard the voice of the pastor pursuing her as she half ran and half stumbled towards the back of the church.
"Hearken unto me now therefore, O ye children, and attend to the words of my mouth. Let not thine heart decline to her ways, go not astray in her paths."
Hester careered past the church warden, standing in his customary place in front of the font, and ran out though the south door. Once through the lychgate she turned into Church Street and ran on till she came to the pump on the green. Tears now, the laughter quite gone. She leant against a wall and tried to regain control of her breath. What was she to do? How did it happen? What was going to become of her?
By the time Hester finally made her way home dinner had been cleared, and her mother and aunt would have retired to their chambers. She chose not to go in through the front door but round by the dairy and into the kitchen. The great fire was lit, even in summer, and it was as if she had stepped into a pool of heat. Joan was by the trestle table which dominated the centre of the room.
"Well Miss Hester," she said shaking her head, "you made a fine show of yourself, and no mistake. I wondered what ever'd got into you?" Then her face broke into a smile. "Was funny though, I thought Coundon would take an apoplexy. The liveliest service we've had in a while, that's for sure. But I fear it won't go well with you. Parson's spoken to your mother and your Aunt Stoneleigh already... said he would be up to see them on the morrow. He's a harsh man to my way of thinking. Still 'twill all work itself out in the end, no doubt."
Joan moved across to Hester and looked from her tear-stained face to the dusty hem of her skirt. "Where did you get to? Dinner's been cleared a time back."
"I walked up to the woods past the pound. How am I to face anyone? Oh Joan, I don't know what happened. It just welled up in me. Perhaps I'm possessed."
"I doubt that. It's just being young and a bit, I don't know, too much shut up here. I remember all kinds of strange feelings and fancies when I were your age. Then I married Michael, may God rest him, and that steadied me a good bit. Best get to your room and change. It's your best skirt you've got all trailed in the muck there. It'll need seeing to afore next Sunday."
"Oh no! I can't go to church next week, I'd die of shame."
The old woman shrugged. "Well you know you must. There's no way round it. It'll be talked of and marvelled over no doubt. As if there ain't enough else to occupy folk, what with all that's happening everywhere. Get you to your chamber now. The mistress will no doubt want to have her say once she knows you're back. And get your skirt changed, girl!"
She had always used such a familiar tone with Hester who was the youngest child of the four that survived the mistress's nine confinements. Joan, a widow, with children grown and married away, had known Hester from birth and had been nearly half a mother to her; perhaps more than half.
Hester had hardly had time to change from her black skirt to the dove grey one when there came a tap at her door,
"Are you there Miss?" It was the maid Martha who, for some reason Hester did not know, was always known as Patty. She half opened the door but did not come in. She was a bit older than Hester, strikingly pretty, with sand coloured hair above a broad smooth face and surprisingly bright blue eyes, but with a hard gaze. She always carried a slight smile on her lips which suggested to Hester her maid knew some secret which was kept from her.
"The Mistress asks you go to her in her chamber, if you please Miss."
"Thank you Patty, tell my mother I shall be along directly."
Hester stood in the chamber, her head hung, not able to bear to look at her mother's scowling face. They had never been close. Mrs Reede, Hester's mother, had always felt she had married beneath her. She would tell anyone who would listen that her family, the Charlevals, came across with the first Norman King and had been of great importance in the county ever since. She was now fifty-two, and took less and less interest in the farm or the village.
"What's to be done with you, you impossible girl? You are grown completely out of hand what with your father dead, God rest his soul, and Bennett off with the army. I never had such trouble with your sisters. Well, you've missed your dinner, and can just go without till breakfast. Think of it as part of your punishment. Pastor Coundon is to come tomorrow to see what further measures are to be taken."
"I am truly sorry Mother," Hester said, "I know it was terrible, and I don't know why it happened. It just came on me. I did try not to laugh. Tried and tried, but I couldn't hold it back. I didn't mean to be disrespectful."
Mrs Reede gave her daughter a cold look which suggested she neither believed nor cared what Hester said. "Don't you waste breath trying to get round me. Take yourself off to your chamber, where I suggest you spend much of the night on your knees. It is to the Good Lord you must make your apologies. We will see what the Reverend Coundon has to say in the morning."
Next morning the maid had brought breakfast to Hester's chamber, and a message from Hester's mother saying that Hester should remain in her room until sent for.
Now she was standing in the great hall. Sitting opposite her on the far side of the long table were Pastor Coundon, the church warden and one other man Hester knew to be a wool merchant from Warwick who had built a house at the far end of the village. He was thought a most godly man, who made it his business to be seen to involve himself in parish business. Mrs Reede was sitting over by the window. Hester had never been in a court, but it felt to her as if she were before a panel of judges who were to decide her fate.
The pastor looked at her for a moment before speaking. When he did address her he used a quiet, almost sorrowful tone.
"Miss Hester Reede, you disported yourself yesterday in an extraordinary and disrespectful manner. You mocked the words of truth and goodness I was laying before the good Christian folk I am called to guide and keep in fear and obedience, in hopes they may attain everlasting glory. But never have I been confronted by such behaviour. Neither have those with whom I have consulted, and they are many, heard of such a thing, not in this county. We are all agreed what we witnessed was tantamount to blasphemy. You laughed in the very face of God's word. There are those who have questioned whether or not you might be possessed. Has Satan become your master? Have you turned your back on goodness and wholesomeness?"
Hester whispered, "No sir."
Pastor Coundon paused and the wool merchant gave Hester a long look before shaking his head.
"I am glad of that, Miss Reede," continued the reverent gentleman. "I was never convinced you were fallen quite that far, though your immortal soul is clearly at great peril. There is still the possibility, for which I earnestly hope and pray, you may turn from your wickedness and seek the Lord's forgiveness, then place your feet, fixedly, on the narrow path of righteousness."
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