Connie smiled at him, the nervous grimace of an animal fending off an attacker. "I am not sure, Professor Chilton," she answered. He was toying with her now. Connie silently begged for time to accelerate past Chilton's teasing, to catapult her instantly to Abner's Pub, where Liz and Thomas would be waiting, and where she could finally stop talking for the day. When she was tired, Connie's words sometimes ran together, tumbling out in an order not fully under her control. As she watched Chilton's crafty smile she worried that she was reaching that level of fatigue. Her stupid blunder over maleficium was a hint. If only he would just let her pass….
Chilton leaned forward. "Have you not considered the distinct possibility that the accused were simply guilty of witchcraft?" he asked. He arched his eyebrows at her, fingers pointed in a small temple on the tabletop.
She watched him for a moment. A rush of irritation, even anger, sped through her. What a preposterous question! Certainly, the participants in colonial witch trials believed that witches were real. But no contemporary scholars had ever entertained that possibility. Connie could not understand why Chilton would tease her like this. Was this just his way of reinforcing how lowly she ranked in the hierarchy of academia? No matter how ludicrous it was, she had to answer because it was Chilton doing the asking. Clearly he was too far away from his own graduate student experience to remember how dreadful this exam is. If he could remember, he would never joke with her today.
She cleared her throat, tamping down her aggravation. Connie did not yet rank high enough in the scholarly universe to be permitted to voice her exasperation. She read sympathy and commiseration in Janine's narrowed eyes, but also registered her almost imperceptible nod that Connie should continue. Jump through the hoop, the nod said. You and I both know that's what it is, but you have to do it anyway.
"Well, Professor Chilton," she began. "None of the recent secondary source literature that I have read considered that to be a real possibility. The only exception that I can think of is Cotton Mather. In 1705 he wrote a famous defense of the judgments and executions at Salem, firmly believing that the courts had acted rightly to rid the town of actual, practicing witches. This was about the time that one of the judges, Samuel Sewall, published a public apology for his part in the trials. Of course, Cotton Mather, a renowned theologian, had himself officiated at the trials. Against the wishes of his equally famous theologian father, Increase Mather, I might add, who publicly condemned the Salem trials as being based on unreliable evidence. So Cotton Mather may have argued that the witchcraft at Salem was real, and that the killing of nineteen people was completely justified, but he had rather a lot invested in not being wrong. Sir."
As Connie concluded her treatise she observed Chilton grinning mischievously at her across the table. In that moment she knew that the exam was over. Through the hoop she had gone, and now it was behind her. Of course she would have to go outside to await their official verdict. But at least she had come up with an answer. Now there was nothing more that she could do. She felt helpless, exhausted. What little color remained in her face ebbed, her lips fading to white.