Author's Notes: Written for QuinFirefrorefiddle for Yuletide, who requested something centred on John Proctor from The Crucible.
John knew that he needed to go into Salem.
He would have given everything he had in his possession and more to be able to avoid it. No thought was so hateful to his mind as riding into the village and going to Reverend Parris's home – the house where she resided – and having to stare boldly into the face of the most terrible mistake of his life. How could he enter her home and act as though nothing had ever passed between them?
He lay in bed and stared listlessly at the ceiling above, trying to remind himself why he could not stay away from Salem.
It had been Giles Corey who brought the news last night of Betty Parris's mysterious illness. Giles, who had come back from Salem with eyes alight with gossip and who had pulled John aside in the field to tell him of what was happening in the village.
"They say," he said, leaning over his scythe so that he could speak more confidentially to John, though there was no one present who might have overheard them, "that the Reverend Parris's daughter has fallen ill."
Mention of Reverend Parris stiffened John's spine. He glanced over his shoulder reflexively (looking for who, John? For the Reverend? For your wife?) and then looked back at Giles, urging him with his eyes to tell him more.
"How ill is she?" he asked, when Giles did not immediately elaborate. "Is it a deathly illness?" And if it is, why are you telling me about it?
"Not a deathly illness, as I have heard, but not one that anyone seems able to fully explain." Giles's eyes glinted with the wild and slightly predatory pleasure so often taken in telling other people's secrets. "The Reverend seems to wish for it to be kept rather quiet, but I have heard that he has sent for a Reverend from another county to inspect her. You must know that when Reverend Parris decides that he needs the council of another man…" He trailed off, shaking his head.
"When Reverend Parris decides that he needs the council of another man, the matter must be urgent," John finished, his lip twisting into a sneer. Parris was too proud to ask for any manner of help when it was not fully necessary. Parris liked little enough to speak to the residents of Salem about matters of the church's business – John could only imagine the anger it would inspire in him to be forced to admit needing help in so private a matter as his family's health.
"People in the village are whispering of witchcraft," Giles said, and he lowered his voice to a whisper too and cupped his hand around his mouth, as if there was anyone near who might read his lips. "People in the village are saying that Betty Parris is bewitched."
All thoughts of Reverend Parris's pride slipped from John's mind. He felt his jaw slacken but could not gather the will to close it, for the thought of witchcraft in relation to the Parris family was one that brought immediate and specific thoughts to his mind.
Thoughts of Abigail, with her wicked smile, her wicked touch, her wicked words…
"Bewitched, you say?" It was all that John could do to maintain an unconcerned tone – he must appear merely intrigued by the possibility and nothing more. Not even worried about the possibility of witches, for John had always made it so clear that he was not the sort of man who fell fool to nonsense without reason. Certainly not worried about Abigail Williams, no, not at all.
"Bewitched." Giles nodded. "That is what they are saying, but I have not seen little Betty, so I could not know. What think you, John – do you think she could be bewitched?"
"I find it… unlikely." John shook his head firmly. "Bewitchment would surely manifest itself so clearly that their would be no doubt…"
"Aye, but would it? Would it be so clear that even Parris could see the signs? Perhaps a man with more real knowledge of the church…" Giles' lip curled. "Perhaps a man who had spent years learning of God instead of learning in universities would be able to see signs that Parris misses."
"Perhaps," John said shortly. He wished to discuss it no further – not with Giles, and with no one else either. No one save for the person who he was quite sure knew something about the bewitchment, if it could be called that.
John had been convinced when he heard Giles tell of Betty Parris, and he remained convinced as he lay in bed at dawn, unready even to rise and pray, that Abigail Williams knew something of this.
John would never have gone so far as to call Abigail a witch. That was an accusation that he could not make – that no good or moral person could make without absolute certainty – but if there was anyone in Salem who could know of witching, it would be Abigail. And if there was anyone who could render Betty Parris to a state of illness such that others might believe that she had been put under a spell, it was Abigail.
And if Abigail was involved – if, through some method either divine or mundane, she had put her cousin to bed with sickness – John would not wish for Reverend Parris to extract it from her. For he felt sure that, in the confession that Abigail might give as to how she put Betty to that state, another confession might be brought out, and it was one that John found far more frightening than any thoughts of real witchcraft.
If Abigail confessed to what had happened between herself and him…
John sat up, clutching his head in his hands. His head throbbed terribly. What sins he had committed, what mistakes he had made… he would have given everything he had and more to wind time back and stop himself from lying with Abigail…
The bedroom door opened but a crack and Elizabeth peered in. John looked at her and fresh guilt seized him – Elizabeth, so concerned, so blameless…
"I'm going into the village today," he told her shortly, bluntly. He could let there be no opportunity for her to argue – and argue she would, for to her mind, going into the village was taken to mean going to Abigail.
"Into the village?" Elizabeth's voice trembled. "What business do you have in the village, John?"
"Business with Parris," he said – as close to the truth as he was willing. "Betty Parris is fallen ill, Giles has said, and there is talk of witchcraft."
"Witchcraft?" Elizabeth's eyes widened and she looked quite horrified. "Oh, John, what witchcraft?"
"It's madness, Elizabeth," he said, rising from bed and reaching for her hand to soothe her. "There are no witches in Salem. But people may believe that there is, and so there may be danger about…" He trailed off, shaking his head. "I thought it wiser to go into the village and hear what is being said myself rather than let Giles continue to relay it to me."
"I… I suppose," Elizabeth said. Tears shone in her eyes but did not fall – and that was so often the way, for Elizabeth did not allow herself to cry. "There… there is bread, just made – take some into the village, won't you?"
"I will," he said, and gave her a swift kiss. "Thank you."
"It is only my duty, John," she murmured, not meeting his eye. She stepped back, out of the room, and he heard her retreating footsteps.
Her duty – it was not her duty to serve him after what he had done…
John was sickened by his wife's compliance. She was a good woman – such a good woman – and yet, he would have wished for a bit of the spark that existed in Abigail to warm Elizabeth. He could not see what Elizabeth thought of him anymore – did she hate him for his mistake? Had she forgiven him? Was she wary? Could she ever truly forget what had happened?
No, she could not.
But perhaps, with time, she could forgive – forgiveness was a virtue, after all, and Elizabeth exemplified virtue. John could pray for her forgiveness more easily than he could pray for God's, in any case.
He dressed with that sombre thought in his mind – and wondered whether Elizabeth was really more likely to grant him forgiveness than God was, or whether she was only easier to pray for because she felt so much closer to him – and when he made his way to the kitchen, Elizabeth was seated at the table with her head bowed and hands folded before her. Whether she was lost in prayer, in thought, or in neither, John could not have said.
"I'm going, Elizabeth."
She looked up at him and he saw that a single tear had spilled down her cheek, but she brushed it away with haste.
"So soon, John?" Elizabeth stood and moved to him, resting her hand upon his. Her fingers were cold – gentle, but cold. "Have you been feeling ill?"
"Not ill," he said, more sharply than he had intended to. It was not Elizabeth's fault that he was in such a state, of course it was not, but he could not speak so harshly to Abigail – who was the cause of the anger – as he could to his wife. Abigail would react with anger – violence, even? He would not put it past her – but Elizabeth bowed her head and said nothing.
"I don't like that you're going into the village, John," she said softly, turning away from him and leaning over the fire to stir the soup.
"And why don't you like it? I have not been into Salem for weeks–"
"You know why I don't like it!" Elizabeth's voice rose a note and she drew back from him. "Why do you ask me such questions, John – surely you know…"
"Do you not trust me, Elizabeth?"
No. She did not. She never would, never again – had she ever?
"It is not that, John…"
"If it is not that, then I will go into the village now."
"Take…" She grasped up a loaf of bread from the table and thrust it into his hands. "You need to eat, John – I worry…" Her voice trailed off.
John set the bread down and took Elizabeth's hands in his. Her fingers felt ice cold and she shivered as he tightened his grasp on them.
"Elizabeth," he said, voice low, firm and earnest. "I love you. I love you so dearly, Elizabeth, you must know that I do…"
"I know." But her voice indicated no warmth. She did not even meet his eyes, but looked at the loaf of bread instead, as though she was speaking to it instead of to him. "I know that you love me, but I cannot… I do not…" Her hands shook in his.
"If I could take back what I had done, Elizabeth…"
"But you cannot." She pulled her hands away from him, but then reached up and touched his cheek. "John, I cannot forgive so quickly as I wish that I could, but please – please know that I do love you, much though I believe you think I do not. Forgiveness will come with time, John…"
"I love you," he said one more time, then he kissed her hands. She managed to smile at him and John prayed to God that her forgiveness would come soon.
He could not believe that anything good would come if Elizabeth did not forgive him. He knew that she had good – excellent – reason to be unwilling to absolve his crimes – severe as they were – but still he wished that she would do it quickly, for until she did, he would certainly not forgive himself.
And until he forgave himself, how could he bring himself to focus his attentions upon the turmoil he could already sense brewing in Salem?