Lizzie scrubbed the pot vigorously. She was already late and the pottage had burned, making the task even more time consuming. Samuel would be waiting. At the thought of him, her heart contracted. Since that horrible day when he had rescued her in the tavern, the two of them had been meeting several times a week at the Blackwater. She always had errands to run, herbs to collect or fuel for the fire to fetch so she never wanted for an excuse to be out. But Maggie seemed to be finding more and more reasons for Lizzie to stay at home recently and Lizzie wondered if she suspected that the two were meeting. In fact, Maggie had kept Lizzie busy inside all day today. It wasn’t that Maggie disliked Samuel, in fact Lizzie knew she was fond of him. But Lizzie also knew that Maggie worried for her, did not want her to become the focus of suspicion and gossip in the village any more than she already was. Lizzie was worried too that her growing feelings for Samuel might change things between her and her mother. After all, it had always been the two of them, happy together in their little home. Maggie was the only family she had - for Lizzie had never known her father, Maggie would never speak of him. But Lizzie’s feelings for Samuel were growing deeper and she was almost sure that he felt the same way. She would talk with Samuel this evening, she decided, as she scraped at a particularly stubborn spot on the bottom of the pot, and see if he did indeed care for her as much as she cared for him. If he did, then it would be time to talk to Maggie.
Pot scrubbed and put away, Lizzie grabbed her basket and hurried through the village streets to the lane that led down to the river. The day was still pleasantly warm, the sun still bright in a cloudless sky. She needed to collect some nettle leaves; Maggie needed them to make an infusion to help cure their neighbour John Redfern’s stomach cramps. Maggie suspected John’s cramps were caused by his inability to pass water regularly. It was difficult for a proud man like John to admit to as much, and Lizzie knew it was a testament to Maggie’s skills, to her kindness and discretion, that he had felt able to confide in her. Although Lizzie was fond of John, she was secretly a little glad of the poor man’s distress, for his ailment had given her a useful excuse to go to the river, where nettles grew in abundance. Now she felt excitement rise in her as she followed the narrow path through the shade of the trees down to the bank. There, under the heavy branches of a willow, she saw Samuel. He had his back to her, and was looking out at the water; it was calm in the quiet of the early evening, dappled by the sunlight that shone through the trees. Lizzie slowed her step, making as little noise as she could – she wanted to savour this moment, to take in this view of him, relaxed, happy as he stood by the water. As she approached, she caught her breath at the sight of his broad shoulders, his straight back, his dark hair shining in the stippled light, curls falling on to his neck. She had a sudden urge to bury her hand in those curls, to feel their softness against her fingers. She could feel her cheeks reddening though there was no-one to witness her confusion. In her discomfiture, she stepped on a tree root that snaked across the path and stumbled, her footfall suddenly loud in the still air. Samuel turned, his face shocked at first, then his mouth widening into a broad smile.
‘Steady Lizzie, I don’t want you falling at my feet!’
Lizzie felt her cheeks grow even redder, but she could not help smiling at Samuel. His own smile was genuine, full of warmth and pleasure at the sight of her. He was at her side in a few steps, steadying her with a firm hand on her arm, taking her basket from her. They made their way to the water’s edge and sat down companionably close, the earth soft beneath them, cushioned with mossy grass. Lizzie could feel Samuel’s leg next to her own, could sense the pressure of it through her petticoats. She felt her heart beat faster, but she was not scared; she trusted Samuel, knew he would not hurt her. Indeed, he moved his leg away, staying close but not too close. And though she appreciated it, though his care for her made her heart swell, still she missed the warm presence, longed to feel it again. The thought again made her redden and she wished Samuel would speak, would alleviate the tension that was buzzing between them.
He seemed to sense her feelings because he began to chatter.
‘You’ve kept me waiting a long while. I was worried that you wouldn’t come. Is everything alright, or did something happen to keep you?’
‘Just chores. You know how it is. Mother seems to find more and more for me to do these days.’ She stopped and glanced sideways at Samuel, who was looking at her with concern.
‘Why would she do that, Lizzie? You look worried. Tell me what it is.’
Lizzie sighed. Should she tell Samuel that she knew her mother was worried about her, was worried about them? If she did tell him, then he would surely realise that she, Lizzie, had strong feelings for him. Though looking now at his earnest face, she allowed herself to hope that he felt the same. Taking a deep breath, she spoke.
‘She is worried, Samuel. She knows that we have been meeting here, I drop your name into conversation often enough.’ She flushed again, lowering her eyes at the smile that suffused his face at her words. ‘It scares her I think.’
‘But why? She knows me, she likes me, I hope. Why should she be scared of our meeting? Surely she doesn’t think I would do you any harm?’
‘No, of course she doesn’t. And of course she likes you, and trusts you. It is not you that frightens her. No, she worries what others may say. You know how people around here love to gossip. She does not want me to be subjected to that. I think,’ she hesitated, wondering whether to go on further. ‘I think she fears that I will suffer as she has. You know something of what people say about her, I am sure.’
Samuel nodded, brushing a dark curl away from his eye.
‘I know there is gossip. Well, I hear enough of it at home.’ He laughed humourlessly. ‘You know what my own mother is like, always happy to spread a tale. And I’ll be honest with you, she has plenty to say on the subject of your mother.’
Lizzie blanched. She knew Bridget Pendle was a gossip, but she hadn’t realised her own mother had been amongst her targets. What had she said in front of Samuel? He seemed to sense her thoughts, as he took her hand in his own, looking at her solemnly.
‘Don’t worry, Lizzie. You know I take no notice of what she says.’
‘But what is it that she does say?’
Lizzie could hear the curtness of her voice, and regretted it when Samuel’s face fell. He kept hold of her hand, however, and she was glad of that.
‘She is a spiteful woman, my mother. It may be a sin to say it, to think it even, but that is what she is. She speculates about your mother’s past. She wonders, to others especially, where your father is, wonders who he is.’
Lizzie considered this for a moment. Of course she knew that the villagers had always gossiped like this, indeed she herself wondered about her father. But she had learnt not to question Maggie. She could tell that it caused her mother pain. And, in truth, she had not missed him – she had never known him, so what was there to miss? And Maggie loved her enough to ensure that she didn’t want for affection. But now things were changing. Lizzie was falling for Samuel. And Samuel had a family, a family who cared about convention, about tradition, even if she and her mother did not. For the first time in her young life, Lizzie began to realise, as she looked at Samuel’s questioning face, that her mother’s past could affect her future with this man that she was growing to love.
‘I’m sorry, Lizzie. I really didn’t mean to upset you, or offend you. I wouldn’t do that for the world.’ He paused, his cheeks colouring now. Lizzie could see that he was trying to find the right words to say.
‘You know I’ve always liked you, at least I hope you know. Since we were little and the others used to tease you so much. I always hated it when that happened. You always seemed so gentle, so fragile almost, and you never retaliated, even when they were at their worst. Well, hardly ever.’
He reached a hand up to her face now, his fingers gently caressing the scar a
‘I’ll never forget that day, Lizzie.’
She nodded, for she had never forgotten it either. Not when the evidence of it was so plain on her face. She had been nine or ten, but was small for her age. A tiny little wisp of a thing, Maggie would say, likely to blow away if the breeze were too strong. She had been walking not far from here, alone as usual, in the trees on this side of the river. She had been going to check on a nest she had spotted a few days previously, worried for the baby blackbirds huddled inside, as she knew that Daniel Hitching was after them – he loved to try his aim with a stone, was hoping to bring the whole nest down in as few shots as possible. As she had approached the copse she had heard shouting and laughing and had been filled with dread. And there was Daniel, surrounded by a group of friends. He was gazing up at the tree, a huge rock in his hand. Lizzie had ducked behind a holly bush, peering from its leaves as the scene unfolded.
Daniel, it seemed, had been deciding how far back he needed to be in order to throw the rock high enough to reach the nest. This had caused a heated argument with the other boys. Evidently tiring of listening to their opinion, Daniel had started marching backwards, face tilted up towards the nest, moving closer to where Lizzie was hiding. She had held her breath, terrified that she would be spotted, but terrified too for the birds – their poor mother’s distressed cries powerless to help them. Finally Daniel had stopped inches from Lizzie. She had been sure he would be able to hear her, and had held her breath in case she should alert him to her presence. He had regarded the rock in his hand for a moment and then swung his arm back. Before she realised what she was doing, Lizzie had sprung from behind the bush, grabbing hold of a shocked Daniel’s arm. He had swung round, anger and frustration suffusing his face.
‘What do you think you’re doing? I was just about to have them birds.’ Daniel’s face had been bright red, his words spat out angrily at Lizzie. She had backed away from him, feeling blindly behind her, the skin of her hands coming into painful contact with the spiky leaves of the holly bush. He had stood where he was, seething, shouting curses at her. She had not known what to say, had been only aware of the fear racing through her. Before she could utter a single word in protest, his arm had been raised again, the sharp rock that had been meant for the birds racing through the short space between them. It had hit Lizzie above her left eye, the pain and shock of it causing her to stumble backwards further into the holly bush, the prickly leaves cutting into her bare arms. Then Daniel had begun to advance towards her, an ugly grin lighting up his face. Lizzie had closed her eyes, held her breath, waiting for the blows that would no doubt now reign down on her head. She had nowhere to go, no way of avoiding him. But the fists never came; instead Lizzie had heard a shout of surprise, of anger. She had opened her eyes to see Daniel lying on the floor, Samuel Pendle astride his prone body. That Samuel was punching Daniel in the face was obvious from Daniel’s cries for help, but Lizzie knew that it would only be a matter of time before Daniel would throw the smaller boy off, and then he would be after blood. Taking her chance, she had fled, running through the copse as fast as she could, back home to Maggie.
‘I left you that day,’ she smiled sheepishly at Samuel now. ‘I’ve often felt bad for it. And for that lovely black eye you were sporting for the next week.’
‘Daniel could certainly throw a punch, that’s true. In fact, he still can. But it was worth it – to know that you’d got away safe.’
‘And the birds.’
‘Yes, Lizzie. And the birds. Always getting into scrapes because of creatures like those.’
‘Well, that’s how I’ve been brought up. I can’t bear to see helpless creatures picked on, bullied by those bigger and more powerful. Maggie’s taught me that.’
‘Well, she’s taught you well. You’ve certainly not suffered for the lack of a father, whatever others round here may say.’
‘I know. It frustrates me sometimes. The people here, they judge, but they do not know. My mother, she is a better woman than any in this village – better than any I’ve ever known. But I know that people talk, I know that the way we live could make things hard for us, Samuel. Could make things hard for you. If you do care for me, that is.’
In answer, Samuel reached out his hand once more and stroked again the scar that Daniel Hitching’s rock had left all those years ago.
‘I don’t care about other people Lizzie, only about you. Just like I did when I took that beating from Daniel. They can say what they like, do what they like. I love you Lizzie. You know it.’
She smiled, her heart lifting at his words. She felt as though she had been waiting for him to utter them all her life – and she supposed that she had. He was looking at her now and she held his gaze, searching that familiar face. It looked different somehow, now that she knew he loved her. That floppy dark hair, curling at his temple and down over his collar. His blue eyes, so clear, yet warm when he looked at her. She could feel the light touch of his fingers on her forehead, gently stroking the skin. They moved upwards to touch her hair where it fell onto her face. The feel of his fingers in her hair was like nothing Lizzie had known before, and she could see from Samuel’s face that he felt the same way. Then his hand was behind her head, bringing her face towards his, and he was kissing her gently on the lips. She closed her eyes, all awareness of her surroundings gone, any thoughts vanished from her head, aware only that Samuel was kissing her, wishing for him to never stop. A thud on the soft grass next to her made her start. She pulled away from Samuel and opened her eyes. Samuel was quickly on his feet, looking around him wildly. Another thud, and Lizzie saw a rock on the ground close to her elbow. Samuel pulled at her arm.
‘Get up Lizzie, come on.’
A third rock flew past her face as she stood, Samuel pushing her to one side out of its path. Lizzie looked around, terrified. Who was here? The rock had come from behind them, from amongst the trees that edged the bank to their left. She thought she heard a rustle, thought she could detect a shadow amongst the foliage, but she could see no-one. Samuel’s face was red with anger and frustration. He was looking agitatedly around him, but then he shrugged his shoulders.
‘It’s probably just children. You know how they can be. Come on, we should probably head home.’
‘I need to get some nettles first. That was what I told Mother I would be doing – why I had to come to the river. She’ll be suspicious if I go home without them.’
Samuel frowned. Lizzie could see that he wanted to be away from here, that he was worried for her and his concern made her nervous, but she had to have the leaves, otherwise her mother would have to let poor John Redfern down, something that she hated to do. Samuel must have seen the determination on her face for his features relaxed into a smile.
‘Come on then, I’ll help you. I think whoever it was has gone now – probably tired of their game. But let’s go further along the river, just to be sure.’
Lizzie nodded and picked up her basket. She was glad Samuel was staying with her, not just because she wanted to be near to him, but because, although she would not have admitted it, she was scared. The rocks thrown at them had frightened her, not least because the incident had occurred when it did, just as the two of them had been talking about the same thing happening all those years ago. She looked around her again, and across once more to the trees, suppressing a shiver. Samuel placed a hand on her arm.
‘Don’t let it worry you, Lizzie. Like I said, I’m sure it’s just children playing games.’
Lizzie smiled up at him, trying to let his words reassure her. It must surely be coincidence, she thought, for who would be out here spying on them by the river? No, he was right, it was only children playing tricks.
‘Come on then,’ she slipped her hand into his. ‘Let’s get on with it. Mother will be cross if this basket isn’t
Leaves collected, Lizzie bade Samuel goodbye. They agreed to meet at the Blackwater the next day, despite what had happened; both of them, Lizzie suspected, wanting to reclaim the spot for their own. Now she walked briskly back towards home, her heart light, her mind full of thoughts of Samuel and of that kiss. She could feel his lips on hers, feel his hands in her hair. Daydreaming as she was, she did not hear the hissing until it grew louder. She looked around, thinking an insect, a bee perhaps, might be following, attracted by the contents of her basket. But no, there was nothing there. Only this insistent hissing sound. Her heart began to pound. The hissing grew louder and Lizzie realised with a jolt of fear that someone was close by. The path she followed was bordered on each side by an overgrown hedgerow, heavy with hypericum at this time of year. Stopping in her tracks, Lizzie placed the basket on the ground by her feet. The hissing stopped. Lizzie picked up the basket and took a few tentative steps; the hissing began again, accompanied by a rustling sound to her left: there was definitely someone there, she thought, someone hiding in the hedgerow. Panic began to rise. She wondered if she should stop and shout for help. There was no-one near and she was still some way from the village. There were labourers working in the distant fields, but they were too far away to hear her. Perhaps she should run. She began to walk faster, moving from a walk to a trot, then into a half run. The hissing continued, keeping up with her. Terrified, Lizzie dropped the basket of nettles and ran; her footfall loud in the quiet air, her breathing quick. A rush of air by her left ear caused her to stumble, the rock just missing her. She tumbled to the ground, grazing her hands painfully and twisting her ankle. She stayed where she was for a moment, stunned, afraid. Then a shadow fell over her and she lifted her head. A pair of dirty boots appeared in line with her nose. They were encrusted with mud, the stitching crude, the laces unruly, one length far shorter than the other, the rough leather lifting at the sole. Lizzie raised her head and squinted up to see Daniel Hitching extending his grubby hand to her. She hesitated, not sure whether to take the proffered hand, then deciding it was best to be friendly. She allowed Daniel to pull her to her feet.
‘You took a real tumble there, Lizzie. What’s wrong? What were you running from?’
Lizzie searched the young man’s face, confused at the kindness in his tone. He had only ever thrown insults before. Now he was smiling at her, he even looked concerned. Warily, she spoke.
‘I thought I heard something in the hedgerow.’
Daniel’s smile grew wider.
‘Did you? What was it do you think? An animal of some kind?’
‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t know.’
‘Well, what noise was it making?’
Lizzie hesitated, unsure how much she should say.
‘It was a sort of hissing sound.’
Daniel laughed then scratched his head.
‘Well, I don’t know what sort of animal would make that sound. Not around here anyway. So if it wasn’t an animal then what could it have been?’
His voice had taken on a teasing tone and Lizzie looked at him carefully. Was there malice in those eyes? Was he making fun of her? Or something more? She lowered her gaze and began to walk forward, thinking that she should say no more, that she should go home.
Before she had taken more than two steps, Daniel grabbed her arm, his fingers digging into her skin. He pulled her round to face him, no longer smiling. In fact, his eyes were cold, his mouth sneering.
‘Did it sound like this, Lizzie?’
And to her horror he began to hiss. His grip on her arm tightened as he hissed louder, spittle flying from his mouth into her face. She struggled to pull away, writhing in his grasp, twisting and turning to no avail. Then the hissing stopped, but Daniel did not release her; he gripped her other arm, holding her tightly.
‘I’ve been watching you, Lizzie Prentice. Watching you and Samuel by the river. And listening too. Talking about me were you? Well, I’ve not forgotten that day neither.’ He paused, releasing one arm and drew a dirty finger along the ridge of her scar. ‘Bloody Samuel Pendle spoilt my fun that day. And I spoilt his today.’
Lizzie’s mind was whirling. So Daniel had been spying on them! What had he seen? She had known what she risked by meeting Samuel alone. And if Daniel had seen them kiss – then who knew what would happen. Not only could he cause her real harm, and Samuel too, but he would also defile that precious moment, a moment she had thought she would hold dear for always.
Daniel was scowling. Again he gripped both arms, pinning them to Lizzie’s sides.
‘Oh yes. Lizzie, I saw you kissing.’ He paused, searching her face for a reaction. Lizzie tried to keep her features calm, tried not to show him how his words ripped through her, but she knew her humiliation must show in her eyes.
‘You’re just like your mother, aren’t you. A whore like her. A child out of wedlock – why she’s allowed to live here amongst decent folk I don’t know. She’s a disgrace. And you’re going the same way. The pair of you – nothing but whores.’ He paused, his eyes, his grip, softening. ‘So,’ he spoke in a whisper, ‘as I know what you are now, Lizzie, how about being nice to me, like you are with Samuel? If you’re nice enough then I might not tell what I saw.’
It took Lizzie a moment to understand exactly what Daniel was suggesting. By then he was leaning towards her, and his lips were on hers before she realised what was happening. A moan escaped her throat as his hands gripped her tighter, his mouth hard against hers. With horror she felt his tongue push against her lips, trying to force them open. An image of Samuel, his lips gentle and soft, filled her mind and she struggled harder against Daniel, managing to free one of her arms. This she brought up into his hair, greasy under her touch. Daniel moaned, then screamed as she grabbed a handful of hair and scalp and pulled as hard as she could. His hands flew up to his head and Lizzie ran, this time without stopping, down the lane back towards the village, Daniel’s oaths and curses fading into the distance that she quickly put between them.
Blackwater by Alison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes