I rise, too, gray skirts swaying. “Brother Winfield would be glad to get rid of her. We could use Sachi’s arrest to explain her sudden religious devotion. The two of them have always been inseparable.”
Cora purses her lips thoughtfully. Behind her, three former headmistresses stare at me accusingly from their gilt-edged frames. “You’re certain this is what you want?”
I nod. “If we turn away the girls who need us most out of a desire to save our own skins, what good are we?”
Cora smiles. “Your affinity for healing—your decision on this matter—how swiftly you sent for your sisters, despite the potential danger to yourself—it all speaks very well of you.”
I stop Cora as she hobbles toward the door, wanting to correct her on one point. “It wasn’t a sacrifice, you know, sending for Maura and Tess. They would never hurt me.”
Sister Cora’s mouth twists in pity. “For your sake, I hope that’s so, Catherine. I truly do.”
• • •
The carriage jolts forward as it turns off the well-traveled road from New London and begins to wind up the hill toward Harwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane. It’s begun to sleet; tiny drops of ice ping off the windows. I shove the curtain aside and press my face to the clouded glass, watching as the frozen countryside rattles past. Cows lie in the muddy pasture near a half-frozen pond. A moment later, Robert stops the carriage to let a farmer lead a herd of shaggy brown goats across the road. It’s nice to be out of the city—or it would be, if I could forget our destination.
There are five of us crowded into the carriage: five wide black bombazine skirts, five pairs of hands shoved into identical black fur muffs, five pairs of black buttoned boots hovering over the hot water bottles on the carriage’s chilly wooden floor. Our disguise is more important here than ever.
Sister Sophia pulls her hood up over her black curls, and the rest of us follow suit. We must be getting close now. Anxiety twists my stomach.
“Good Lord, I’m nervous,” I blurt, then immediately blush. What kind of leader admits she’s frightened?
But the other girls are nodding. Mei squeezes my arm, her dark eyes sympathetic. “First time I came here, I was scared half to death. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
“It gets easier.” Addie pushes her spectacles up her long nose. “At first I was furious at the way these girls are treated. But that doesn’t help anything. Now I just try to do whatever I can to make it a little better for them.”
Even shy Pearl, who hardly ever says a thing, smiles at me encouragingly. She has enormous buckteeth that she’s very self-conscious of, and no wonder; Alice is forever making fun of them.
The three of them come here every week with Sister Sophia. I marvel at their quiet bravery. Don’t they worry that someday they might not be allowed to leave?
When it comes right down to it, that’s what frightens me most about this visit. Not the fear that Zara won’t speak to me, or seeing the suffering of girls who, but for the Sisterhood’s interference and Tess’s mind-magic, could be me. No, I’m afraid that the moment we roll through the gates looming ahead of us, an alarm will peal, announcing the presence of a witch, and I will be stuck here forever.
It’s mad, going to this place on purpose. I can’t help the nameless, superstitious terror that sweeps through my veins, turning my entire body to ice.
Sister Sophia puts her warm hand over mine, and my nausea subsides. “Calm yourself, Cate,” she murmurs. “You won’t be able to help anyone if you’re in such a state before you walk through the doors.”
I feel such a coward. If Cora hadn’t suggested that I talk to Zara, would I have volunteered to come on a nursing mission? Or would I have hidden behind being the prophesied witch, the one who mustn’t be endangered, and let others go in my stead, even though my gift for healing has surpassed everyone else’s? I’ve been practicing, and though healing leaves me weak and sick, it gives me satisfaction that no other magic ever has.
The carriage rolls to a halt before an enormous wrought-iron gate with HARWOOD ASYLUM spelled out on top. The high fence stretches away on both sides, topped with barbed wire.
Robert exchanges a few words with the guard. Peering out the window, I catch my first glimpse of the monster that lurks on the barren hillside. It’s a menacing three-story building of weathered gray stone. Two wings stretch out to either side, and at either end, huge chimneys puff charcoal smoke into the pale sky. Iron bars cross most of the windows; some are bricked over entirely.
The carriage rolls to a halt. Robert hands us down one by one onto the icy carriageway. Inside my fur muff, my fingers are clenched into fists. The four of us trail Sister Sophia like frightened ducklings.
Before we can ring the bell, a white-aproned matron opens the door. She has gray hair that waves back from her wrinkled forehead, a bulbous nose, and flushed cheeks. “Sisters, bless you for coming.”
“It is our duty to tend to the less fortunate,” Sister Sophia says.
“Thanks be,” the matron murmurs, ushering us in. “Come in, come in, get out of the cold. The uncooperative ward first, as usual?”
We troop up two flights of stairs, hesitating outside a large door that shuts off the whole south wing. The matron takes a brass key from a chain around her neck and fits it into the lock. As she pushes the door open, I clasp my hands behind my back to still their trembling.
I don’t know what I expect—a bedlam of voices, girls shouting and cursing? angry rants and desperate pleas for help?—but it’s silent as a cemetery. The faces that swivel to stare at us are blank, their eyes devoid of emotion. It’s positively chilling.
The room is cloaked in gloom, without benefit of candles or gas lamps. I wrinkle my nose at the unpleasant smell—a combination of chamber pot and harsh lye soap. Two long rows of beds march down to the far end of the room, where an unlit fireplace takes up most of the wall. I suppose fire would be too great a hazard here. I shiver into my cloak, grateful for its warmth.
The women here must be freezing. They wear thin white blouses and coarse brown skirts like the burlap sacks of flour at the general store. Some of them have rough woolen blankets wrapped around their shoulders. The girls themselves are thin and hollow-eyed, as though they don’t get enough to eat, and unkempt, with snarled hair and dirty faces and stains on their blouses.
Two nurses sit just inside the door. They rise as we come in; the plump one groans as her knees creak. “Look, girls, the Sisters are here to pray with you before tea!”
The girls look at us, then they go back about their business without a shard of interest. Our arrival barely penetrates their fog.
Sister Sophia warned me that the patients are kept drugged with laudanum in their tea. It prevents the real witches from focusing enough to do any magic and keeps the others quiet and obedient.
I am used to seeing women quiet and obedient. But I’ve come to understand that more often than not, it’s a facade. This is a different thing entirely. Fury cuts through me, rooting me in place. It’s not enough that the Brothers have taken these women away from their families and their homes, condemned them to live out the rest of their lives in this miserable prison. They’ve also taken away their abilities to think and choose, their ability to fight.