Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
Anna recalls a terrible accident that Sam once had while mining—he dropped a great stone on his foot, crushing his ankle. Mem Gowdie had to remove many bone splinters from Sam’s ankle, so she gave him steeped poppy to ease his pain. Sam later said that the dreams he had after having drunk the poppy were the best he ever had in his life. Anna means to return the vial of poppy that she stole from Mrs. Mompellion’s whisket; however, given such bad times, Anna wishes for a small respite. When she takes the poppy, she dreams of her children cloaked in gold, and Anna holds their hands as they drift through brightly lit streets. But the sound of the church bell draws her from her sleep, and Anna must once again face the dark reality of the time.
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Outside, Anna meets Sally Maston standing in front of her cottage clutching her bloody groin, where a Plague sore has burst. Sally’s mother lies inside dead, her father and a baby sibling not far behind. Anna prepares the mother’s body and sets to comforting the children. When the sexton Jon Millstone arrives to take away the body, Anna stops him to have a drink, and by the time they are done, Mr. Maston has also expired.
Mrs. Mompellion arrives to watch the children, informing Anna that her old friend Lib Hancock has fallen ill. By the time Anna reaches her cottage, Lib is too far gone for talk, so Anna cannot make amends. Anna returns to see after the Maston children, and later that night, the baby dies; Sally dies the following afternoon. At home, Anna resorts to taking the rest of the poppy, and her dreams are once again sweet.
The next day, Anna is going about her errands when she notices something amiss—there is no smoke coming from the smithy. She discovers that Richard Talbot has come down with Plague, and he has forced his pregnant wife, Kate, to brand his groin sore in an attempt to burn out the disease. Kate has purchased a spell written on a piece of parchment to affix to the sore, but Anna tells her to be strong and not accept such devilish tricks. Kate tells her that the ghost of Anys Gowdie sold her the spell.
Although she does not believe that Anys’s ghost is present, Anna is nevertheless curious about the root magic that the Gowdies’ cottage must still contain, so she goes there, finding Elinor Mompellion already inside searching for plants to concoct a nourishing tonic. Mrs. Mompellion shows Anna a map that she has drawn of the path of the contagion; she reckons that they can do nothing to cure the disease but that they can try to keep the people who are alive healthy to fight off the disease.
Sitting in front of the fire, Anna admits to Mrs. Mompellion that she took the poppy to ease her suffering. Mrs. Mompellion, who asks to be called Elinor, then offers Anna the story of her past. As a young woman, Elinor had eloped with a man named Charles who satisfied his lust with her and two weeks later never returned home. Elinor went back to her family, but she was with child. In a fit of rage, she tore at herself with a fire iron, destroying her womb. Meanwhile, Michael Mompellion became a ward of her father, and at seeing how intelligent Michael was, her father sent him off for schooling. When Michael returned, he comforted Elinor and eventually he offered her his friendship and his love. Anna and Elinor make a pact to work together to do what they can for the villagers, and they gather what plants, herbs, and roots they can to take back to the rectory. Before they leave, Anna throws a bunch of poppy into the fire and resolves to try to do her best without it.