BlackwaterAlison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love
Copyright 2010 by Alison Williams
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Lizzie could feel the scar under her fingers. It began just below her hairline and stretched in a puckered ridge to the edge of her left eyebrow, the flesh uneven beneath her touch. Although she had rarely seen the scar herself, she knew from the averted eyes of others that it had not much faded; that, even after seven years it still marred her young face, whatever her mother might say. She pulled at a lock of yellow hair now, arranging it over the ruined skin. Her mother was watching from the hearth.
‘Leave it now, Lizzie. We need to go. I know it’s not a long walk to Finchampstead, but I do want to get there early.’
Lizzie turned and tried to smile, though her mother’s words made her heart heavy.
‘I’m ready, Mother.’ She paused, pursing her lips. ‘Although, must we go? It will be so busy. You know how it will be. All those people pushing and shoving at each other to get the best view. It’s horrible.’
Maggie sighed. Walking over to Lizzie, she tucked some loose strands of hair behind the girl’s ear.
‘Lizzie, I know you hate it but we have talked about this. You need to think of those women. Think how afraid they must be today. Stepping out into that jeering and shouting to meet their deaths. And not one look of kindness to fall on their poor heads. Not one bit of comfort. Would you deny them that? We must be there.’
Lizzie nodded, ashamed of her selfishness.
‘I’m sorry. It’s just that I hate the staring. The whispers behind our backs. And I hate to see their suffering.’
‘I know you do, but you know, it’s something you will get used to. If you are to follow me in my work. Don’t be ashamed of what we do. There are many women in these parts grateful to me for their very lives. You know that from the gifts left on the doorstep! Now stop fiddling with your hair. The scar is not as bad as you think it. And besides, if it was twice as big and twice as red, you’d still be the most beautiful girl in Eversley!’
The women stepped out of the cottage into the bright sunlight. It was unseasonably warm and the weather had encouraged plenty of spectators who now thronged the narrow lane despite the early hour, all making their way to the scene of the executions. Lizzie could never understand the fascination of these people for the spectacle of death. Her mother had made her attend executions as soon as she had been old enough, although what age was suitable to witness that horrible sight, Lizzie didn’t know. But Maggie’s reasons for attending were far removed from those of these other early travellers. Lizzie had witnessed it far more often than she cared to remember. The villagers treated these occasions as holidays. They wore their best clothes and thought nothing of bringing their children along, some mere babes in arms. They happily bought refreshments from vendors who did a brisk trade both before and after the executions. There seemed to be no compassion for the poor souls who would be the focus of the spectacle. Lizzie scowled as she was jostled by a large woman, striding along the lane with her children in tow.
‘I can’t understand how they bring their children with them. Or why they come at all for that matter.’
‘Their lives are dull, Lizzie, and this is a bit of excitement.’
‘The deaths of their neighbours? Of those they have known all their lives? It is bad enough they have accused their friends, without enjoying their murders.’
Maggie gave Lizzie a warning look.
‘Be careful, keep your voice down. You know how it is, we have discussed it often enough. These people are poor, their lives are hard. When things go wrong, as they do so often, they look for someone to blame.’
‘But why blame those who have helped them in the past? The people who have given them cures, helped them when they were desperate?’
Her mother shook her head, her eyes sad. Lizzie knew that Maggie herself had suffered suspicion and persecution all her life.
‘Because they are scared. Because it is easy to turn on those who don’t fit in, who are different.’
Lizzie felt a shiver of fear.
‘Those like us?’
‘You know Lizzie, I have spent my life working with the plants of the earth, using those things that nature has been kind enough to give us, to help us if we only open our eyes and know where to look. And, yes, I have been shunned by some; have even been accused by others of terrible things.’ She paused, a shadow darkening her face. ‘You know it has not been easy. Moving around from place to place.’
Lizzie nodded. They had indeed moved at least five or six times before coming to Eversley when Lizzie was seven. They were lucky to have been able to stay here for as long as they had. In those years, Lizzie had seen the good that Maggie did, witnessed the gratitude of those helped in their most desperate times, and when she had been allowed to assist Maggie in that most wonderful feat of nature, aiding at the births of so many babies, she had known that, despite the danger, the work they did, the work that she would continue, was worthwhile and right. Even when they heard horrible tales of women like them, accused, frightened, tortured and eventually led to their deaths at the noose, she knew that she would carry on Maggie’s work – it was what she was born to do. So now, in the midst of these excited crowds, who would soon cheer as those poor women swung from the ropes, she tried to be brave, tried to ready herself to bring some small comfort to them in their hour of need. For in the back of her mind was the knowledge that one day she might have need of that same fellow feeling, that same small comfort, if suspicion and fear ever came knocking at her door.
Lizzie and Maggie were amongst the first arrivals at the scaffold. It had been set up at the foot of the small hill on top of which stood the old church of St James, at a safe enough distance from the venerable building to ensure that the rotten souls of the condemned caused no offence, but close enough to the tavern to allow for a brisk trade. Lizzie wondered if the location had been chosen on purpose; after all the stretch of road down which the women would soon travel was known as the Devil’s Highway. Pilgrims had been travelling here for years, or so the locals said, though not the type of worshippers that the current church would have approved of, for it was rumoured to have been the site of a pagan temple. How dreadful that a place of peace should now witness the destruction of life. The gallows loomed, out of place in the bright sunshine of the morning. The platform was built high, so those arriving later would still be afforded a good view. Three nooses swung there already, waiting for their doomed burdens, the ladder they would ascend to their deaths waiting. Lizzie felt a tremor in her stomach as she looked at the ropes. Even now their victims would be on the cart. She could not imagine the fear that must be in their hearts, although many whose demise she had witnessed had seemed almost dead already, their faces blank, their limbs compliant as they were hoisted, some even carried, up onto the scaffold. She supposed this was a blessing. Indeed, those executions were much easier to witness than those where the victims had been all too aware of what was about to befall them. She had seen women kicking, screaming, fighting and wailing. These were the scenes that the crowds enjoyed most – laughing, spitting, raising their own voices as the screams of the women grew louder. Lizzie hoped those who would hang today had already accepted their fate – after all they could not change it. They were powerless.
As the day grew warmer so the number of spectators increased. Maggie and Lizzie were close to the scaffold with no-one in front of them and as the crowd grew they found themselves pressed from all sides. Lizzie began to feel claustrophobic; she could smell the bodies that surrounded her, the stench of sweat, of food, their very breath. She looked at Maggie, saw her mother was also suffering. Their eyes met and Maggie smiled, her eyes warm, encouraging and Lizzie felt her mother’s fingers grasp her hand. Suddenly, the crowd surged forward and Lizzie felt as though her breath had been pushed from her lungs.
‘Keep calm, Lizzie.’ Maggie’s voice was low. ‘They will be here soon.’
At that moment the rattle of the cart’s wheels could be heard amongst the hubbub of the crowd. Lizzie strained her neck to one side and saw its arrival form the corner of her eye, passing the new clay brick tower of the church, that glowed red in the sunshine. The crowd surged forward once more, and voices began, jeering, shouting, and catcalling. Then there was a sudden silence. Lizzie looked to the scaffold. The minister, a man called Jarvis, was climbing up the wooden steps, a bible under his arm. He was a small, neatly-dressed man, thin-faced and bearded, his collar bright in the sunshine. Despite his size, he seemed to command authority, peering down at the crowd with a sneering countenance as if daring them to murmur. Lizzie could hardly draw her eyes from him - there was something terrifying about the way he surveyed them all with his dark eyes. He stood silent as the three women were brought up to join him.
Two of these women were mother and daughter, both cunning women. In these small villages and towns the people were poor. They could not afford the care of a doctor and many would not trust one anyway, preferring to use the same remedies that their families had trusted for generations before. These cunning folk could also be relied upon to help with those particular circumstances that were not spoken about; not only helping with births but also preventing them. Lizzie knew that Maggie had sometimes helped women over the years that had come to her, finding themselves with child, terrified of the prospect of another mouth to feed. And Maggie knew, as surely as these accused women did, of the herbs needed to prevent a pregnancy continuing. Many would shudder at this, would call it evil – but what was the greater evil? To let some poor woman go through another dangerous birth from her already ravaged body? To bring a child into the world to go hungry, unwanted, unloved? But this work was dangerous; it left these women open to suspicion. Many were blamed for another woman’s barrenness. Indeed, Lizzie knew that these women were accused of that very crime.
Jenny Wainwright stood shaking on the scaffold, her face terrified. She was no more than twenty, her pretty face sunken now, her eyes huge in her face. Beside her stood her mother, Agnes and next to her Susan Templeton, Jenny’s best friend, indeed her only friend in Finchampstead. Maggie had told Lizzie of the case against them.
‘It began with that spiteful Sarah Hitching’’ Maggie had surprised Lizzie with the vehemence in her voice. ‘She was desperate for a child after her marriage, terrified that if she didn’t fall pregnant then her husband would look elsewhere’.
Lizzie had thought of Bill Hitching with a shudder. He was known in the public houses and taverns around Finchampstead and Eversley as a man to avoid. Widowed, with a son, Daniel, who was almost the same age as Sarah, he was a bitter man and had taken to drink after his poor wife had died giving birth early to their second child – a boy that had survived only a few minutes more than his mother. Lizzie did not understand why Sarah had married him, although at thirty she was considered almost an old woman. He was probably her last chance. Lizzie herself would rather be a spinster than have that man touch her, but Sarah was anxious to be wed.
‘Well,’ Maggie had continued. ‘Sarah didn’t fall pregnant so she went to Jenny for help. Jenny gave her a tea of nettles and a tincture of rosemary leaves to help, but as you know, there are no guarantees. Anyway, Sarah claims the herbs made her sick; she developed a fever and was kept to her bed for some days. And she still did not conceive. She blames Jenny, although that might have less to do with the herbs and more to do with the fact that Bill tried to court Jenny before he married Sarah. Agnes gave him short shrift, no doubt.’
Sarah had some influence in Finchampstead, many feared being at the end of her spiteful tongue. Once she accused Jenny, it did not take long for others to do the same. Jenny had then implicated both her mother and her friend, though under what terrible duress Lizzie could only imagine. In the end, all three had admitted to causing Sarah‘s barrenness, and also to being responsible for the series of late miscarriages suffered by Sarah’s sister. They had claimed to be jealous of the family, had admitted that Jenny had wanted to marry Bill Hitching, that she had been torn apart by bitterness and hate when he had chosen Sarah rather than her. While Lizzie understood that Jenny, Agnes and Susan may have told these lies in order to make any sufferings stop, she could not understand how the others in the village, indeed how Sarah and Bill Hitching themselves, could go along with this travesty. But glancing around her, at the expectant faces, she knew that they did believe it; that these lies had somehow become the accepted truth.
Now all three stood on the scaffold, trembling as the minister began to pray. The crowd around them joined in, murmuring along. Maggie and Lizzie moved their lips too, though neither uttered a sound. Lizzie could not invoke God and she knew Maggie would not, could not, either. What God, after all, would allow this injustice to happen? Looking at Jenny and Susan, Lizzie suddenly remembered a day many years before when she had been wandering by the Blackwater River. The river was her favourite spot to play; she could be alone there with her day dreams and games, away from the taunts, from the pinches and shoves she often received at the hands of the other village children. On this day she had been looking for tadpoles in the shallow water at the river’s edge. Engrossed in her search she had been disturbed by laughter, and had turned her head to see Jenny and Susan. They were running along the bank on the other side of the river, hand in hand, giggling. Lizzie felt a lump in her throat now as she recalled those joyful faces, as she remembered her own heavy heart at the sight of them, her jealousy and loneliness as she longed to join them, to know that feeling of friendship, of pure, childish happiness.
Now she looked up at those once carefree girls. Straining her neck backwards she kept her gaze steady on Jenny’s face. The girl was looking around her, petrified, as the prayer finished. Rumblings began in the crowd, now desperate for the deaths to begin. Lizzie shuddered. She could see the executioner now with the dread black hood in his hand, approaching Jenny. Placing a meaty hand on her shoulder, he guided her up the rungs of the ladder, her legs trembling as she tried to negotiate them, her stumbles drawing jeers from the crowd. She stood at the top, shivering. Lizzie willed the girl to look at her, to see a friendly face at this terrible last moment. Jenny looked around, her eyes huge in that sunken face. Then her eyes met Lizzie’s and Lizzie smiled at the poor girl, trying to convey some small comfort, some humanity. Jenny’s eyes, full of fear, of panic, held Lizzie’s look. She kept those eyes on Lizzie until the black hood covered that once lovely face. Then all too soon the ladder was pulled away and Jenny fell, the rope tightening around her slender neck, her legs twitching horribly. The crowd cheered, pressing forward, until Lizzie felt her feet actually being lifted from the ground, so keen were these people to get as close as they could. Lizzie held her breath as the twitching of Jenny’s legs slowed, but it took an age until they were finally still. By this time the executioner had already moved on to Susan, who, her face suffused with dread, had watched her friend dying in front of her. Lizzie grasped Maggie’s hand tighter as the same horrible dance was repeated. When the executioner came to Agnes, Lizzie could bear it no more. Ashamed of her weakness, of her selfishness, but unable to watch, she closed her eyes as the noose was placed around the poor woman’s neck. Waited until the rope stopped creaking under the weight of the old woman’s body. Then slowly she opened her eyes. The three bodies hung there, all life gone, swaying gently from the ropes. The crowd stood quiet for a moment then seemed, as one, to withdraw from the scene, leaving Maggie and Lizzie standing hand in hand, heads bowed, hearts heavy as the hangman cut the bodies down.
The people soon moved on to more entertainment- the men to the tavern, the women to the green to feed their children and to gossip. Maggie and Lizzie picked their way through the crowds. The day was dreadfully hot and Lizzie could feel sweat running down her back. She glanced at Maggie. Her mother looked pale, Lizzie thought. Indeed, she looked quite ill.
‘Are you alright, Mother?’
Maggie hesitated, then shook her head.
‘I’ll be truthful, Lizzie, I feel terrible. My head aches and I’m dizzy.’
Lizzie sighed, concerned for Maggie but also wishing to be away from these awful crowds.
Maggie placed a hand on her shoulder.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll be fine once we are away from here.’
They began to walk, but had only gone a few steps when Maggie stumbled. Lizzie looked at her mother.
‘You are so white; you barely have any colour at all. Come on now; sit down a while in the shade of this tree. I’ll go into the tavern and get us some ale.’
‘You’re right, though I have no wish to be here longer than I need to. But I don’t think I can walk home until I have had something to drink.’
‘That’s settled then. Sit here and rest. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.’
Leaving Maggie to settle herself in the shade, Lizzie made her way towards The Queen’s Oak. The heavy wooden door was open, jammed in place with a stub of wood to let fresh air into the gloomy interior. The place was packed, mainly with men, and Lizzie was nervous as she tried to push her way to the bar. She kept her head down, ignoring the comments that she heard, dark whisperings along with more lewd murmurings, aware more than ever of the scar on her forehead. Finally she reached the bar and squeezed into a space, resting her elbows on the sticky wooden counter. The landlord was busy, dashing from customer to customer, shouting instructions and insults at the two skinny girls helping him, their eyes downcast. Lizzie tried to attract their attention, worrying about Maggie, and wanting to get away from this place and return to the sanctuary of their cottage. She was relieved when one of the girls noticed her and made her way over.
‘Two tankards of ale, please,’ Lizzie stammered, trying to make her voice heard above the din of the tavern. The barmaid nodded and began to turn away when the man next to Lizzie flashed out a hand and grabbed the girl’s arm.
‘Hey, I was here first. I’ve been waiting ages.’
The girl flinched and Lizzie could see that the man’s fingers were pressing into her flesh. She looked at Lizzie, her eyes full of fear. Lizzie nodded.
‘It’s fine. Take this gentleman’s order first.’
The man snorted.
‘Gentleman? Did you call me a gentleman? What do you mean by that?’
Lizzie looked the other way, determined to ignore him, then a sharp finger poked her in the ribs.
‘I’m talking to you.’ The man was obviously drunk. Lizzie still did not turn. She did not want trouble. The finger jabbed her ribs again. The barmaid scurried away to serve another customer. Lizzie, heart beating wildly, tried to shift her body away from her tormentor, but her way was blocked by the bulk of another man. This man turned his head now, his dark eyes small in his large face. He drew those eyes up and down Lizzie’s face; she could almost feel the scar burning under his scrutiny. Then he peered over her head at the other man.
‘What’s up George? Is this girl giving you trouble?’
‘Well, she is a bit unfriendly. Turning away like I’m not good enough to talk to.’
The large man smiled, looking at Lizzie again. He reached out a fleshy hand and touched Lizzie’s forehead, running a stubby finger over the line of the scar. Lizzie shuddered, terrified. She pulled her head back and the man laughed, revealing a row of blackened teeth.
‘What’s the matter, girl? You’re right, George, she is unfriendly.’ He leaned closer, his smile vanishing, replaced by a look of scorn, of disgust. ‘Don’t know why you’re so unfriendly, girl. You should be glad anyone would even want to talk to you. Have you seen her face, George? She’s an ugly bitch to be sure.’
Lizzie blanched. The drunk man on her other side was laughing.
‘Well then, I suppose I won’t bother with her after all. Although she looks alright from where I’m standing.’
He pushed against her, slamming her hip into the wooden bar. Lizzie looked around her, panicking. She had to get out of here, drink or no drink. The big man’s face leered at her. He reached his hand out again and Lizzie ducked her head, closing her eyes, waiting for a blow. When it didn’t fall she opened her eyes, surprised to see the man’s hand still raised, but stopped in its path by another hand, gripping the thick wrist. Then she heard a gentle voice, one she recognised.
‘Come on now lads, leave the girl alone. She’s just trying to buy a drink, like the rest of us.’
The bigger man scowled.
‘You mind your own business, Samuel Pendle. It’s nothing to do with you.’
Lizzie looked up at Samuel’s face, relief washing over her at the sight of him. He had rescued her from more scrapes than she cared to remember. And here he was again, just when she needed him. His blue eyes were laughing, whether at her or at the two men, she did not know. And what he had to laugh about she was at a loss to understand. Both these men were bigger than him, and they didn’t look happy.
Samuel released the wrist and clapped the man on the shoulder.
‘Let it go now, Tom, and you George. And don’t drink too much either. You don’t want to miss work tomorrow.’
The men grumbled, but Lizzie sensed the danger was passed, for now. Samuel had grabbed her hand and was pulling her away. He managed to force his way through the crowded bar and before she knew it they were stepping out into the sunlight.
‘Well, Elizabeth Prentice, I am surprised to have found you in a tavern.’
Lizzie felt herself blush, aware of the scar tingling with heat. She raised her hand to brush her hair over the raised skin. Samuel reached up and moved her hand away, his eyes kind. Lizzie held his gaze.
‘Mother was feeling faint. The day has been too much, I think; the heat and the crowds. We needed a drink before we began the walk home.’
‘And you had the misfortune to run into Tom and George. I can’t believe they’ve managed to get drunk already. Father won’t be pleased if they turn up for work with bad heads tomorrow. They’re lazy enough as it is. No doubt they made sure they were first in line at the tavern once that dreadful show was over.’ A shadow crossed his face. He shook his shoulders slightly and then smiled again. ‘Anyway, you say Maggie is feeling unwell?’
‘She’s waiting for me under that tree. She felt faint. It takes it out of her, out of both of us to witness these things.’ She paused, worried she had said too much, but Samuel was nodding in agreement.
‘Yes, it’s certainly not a pretty sight to see. I wonder how these people manage to enjoy it so much.’ He looked around, at the women laughing and gossiping, at the children playing chase. ‘Still, come on, I have some ale in the cart. I’ll give you and Maggie a ride back to your cottage.’
Lizzie hesitated. ‘Are you sure, Samuel? What about your mother and father? Will they not be needing you to drive them home?’
Samuel shook his head.
‘They are staying here a while longer. Father has a meeting later with the constable and the parson. It gives Mother an excuse to pay some visits and catch up with the gossip. No, it’s fine. I’ll come back later to collect them. Now, let’s see to Maggie. She’ll have half-died of thirst if we don’t hurry up.’
He took her hand to lead her back over to her mother and Lizzie felt her skin tingle with pleasure. Then she reminded herself that it was just Samuel. He had held her hand countless times over the years, dragging her away from crowds of bullies, pulling her to her feet when she had been pushed into a ditch or, on one horrible occasion, rescuing her from the dung heap at his father’s farm. Though they hadn’t really been close friends, not like Jenny and Susan, Samuel seemed to always be there to rescue her, much to the annoyance of his mother. Thinking of the woman, Lizzie glanced around uneasily. She knew that Bridget Pendle hated her, hated Samuel defending her. If she saw them holding hands now what would she think? And sure enough, there was Bridget, striding towards them, arm in arm with Sarah Hitching, both women laughing, Daniel Hitching skulking behind them, his eyes narrowing at the sight of Lizzie. When Bridget spotted Lizzie, the older woman’s expression changed to a mixture of suspicion and something that was almost hatred, Lizzie thought. Flushing, confused, Lizzie pulled her hand from Samuel’s, aware suddenly that Bridget wasn’t the only one looking at them. They were drawing stares from many of the other women gossiping on the green. She couldn’t afford to be the centre of that gossip. She and Maggie had enough of it to put up with already. No, she had to remember that she wasn’t seven anymore; she was seventeen, a woman. She couldn’t run about holding hands with a boy. She glanced up at Samuel; he was looking down at her, puzzled. She looked at him properly then. When had he become so broad-shouldered? So tall? He even had the beginnings of a beard. He smiled now, a dimple appearing in one cheek, his eyes lively and such a bright blue. Lizzie had never really noticed before. She flushed and dropped her eyes to the ground, confused as her belly twisted and flipped. What was wrong with her? Keeping her eyes on the ground, she walked towards her mother, trying her best to seem normal, but inside her stomach was fluttering with excitement as she realised, with a shock, how much she was looking forward to the short drive home.