Lizzie slammed the cottage door behind her, causing Maggie to jump from her chair, throwing her mending to the floor.
‘What on earth is the matter child? You look half scared to death.’
Lizzie flew to her mother, flinging her arms about her, sobbing into the older woman’s shoulder, relief, fear and humiliation coursing through her body. Maggie let her weep for a while, than gently pushed her away, looking at the girl’s flushed face with concern.
‘Tell me, Lizzie, what is the matter? What has happened?’
And it all came tumbling out. Her meetings with Samuel, her feelings for him, and the assault she had suffered on her way home. By the time she had finished, dusk had fallen and the cottage had grown chilly. Maggie lit the fire and sat Lizzie beside it, then fetched her daughter a warm draught of chamomile to calm her. Lizzie drank the liquid gratefully, cupping her hands around the warmth of the liquid, her hands trembling. Maggie took the chair opposite, her face kind.
‘Well Lizzie, this is a bit of trouble we find ourselves in, isn’t it.’
‘I’m so sorry to be the cause of it. But I cannot help what I feel for Samuel. You know how kind he is. And I swear, nothing has happened.’
‘Be that as it may, you know as well as I do that people are not prevented from gossip by facts. I have nothing against Samuel, you know that. He is a fine young man and nothing would please me more than for the two of you to be together. But you were silly, Lizzie, to say the least, to meet him alone like that. You have put yourself, put us, in danger by doing so. Sometimes I wonder what goes on in that head of yours.’ Maggie sighed. ‘But it is my fault, I suppose. I should have taught you better.’
‘No, Mother, you are not to blame. I should have been honest, should have told you about Samuel from the start.’
‘Then why didn’t you? I thought we were close – that you could tell me anything.’
Lizzie hesitated, looking down at her hands. She could feel Maggie’s eyes on her, waiting for her to speak.
‘I didn’t want to upset you.’
‘Upset me? What do you mean?’
‘Well, you say that we are close, and we are. But you also say that you thought we could talk about anything together. If that is true, then why do you never mention my father?’ Maggie did not answer and Lizzie saw that her mother’s head was bowed, that she did not want to meet her daughter’s eyes.
Lizzie broke the silence. ‘I thought that you must have loved him. Otherwise I would not be here.’ She paused. ‘I suppose I thought that something dreadful must have happened for you to have lost him. And you never talk about him, I mean, I don’t even know who he is, or who he was for that matter, because you’ve never even told me if he is alive or dead. And I thought that if you had loved him, and lost him, Samuel and I, being happy, well, it might bring it back, might make you remember. And then I thought that what if it was something worse than that.’
When she lifted her head, Maggie’s face was hard. Lizzie turned away, ashamed to continue, but knowing that she must.
‘I thought then that perhaps, rather than loving him, you hated him, and that’s why you never told me about him. And that if you did hate him, then that meant you wouldn’t want me to be with anyone, wouldn’t want me to be with Samuel.’
Lizzie stared at the fireplace, not daring to look at her mother. She was relieved when Maggie stood and came to her, crouching in front of her, taking her hands into her own weathered, work-worn ones.
‘Oh Lizzie, I’m sorry. I should have told you, I know. But when you were little I didn’t want to upset you. And then time passed, too much time it seemed, and I didn’t want to bring it up – didn’t know how.’
Lizzie grasped her mother’s hands tightly.
‘Then tell me now. I’m seventeen, a grown woman, and I need to know. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering.’
Maggie nodded, returning to her chair. She gazed at her feet for a while then looked up, not looking at Lizzie but beyond her, her eyes on the wall behind her daughter’s head.
‘I was your age when I met your father. He was a lot like Samuel. Kind, clever and handsome.’ A small smile played on her lips. ‘I was living with your grandparents just outside a village called Brampton at the time, a long way from here.’ The smile vanished. ‘We hadn’t been there long, but we knew almost straight away that it was not a friendly place. We decided that we wouldn’t stay. Your father was the son of the local constable. We met because of his father, your grandfather I suppose,’ she paused, a look of contempt shadowing her face, then brushed at her forehead as if to chase an image away. ‘Anyway, this constable, well, he didn’t like us being in the village. Suspected us of all kinds of horrible things, simply because of our ways. You know how some people are like that, their minds so closed to anything they do not understand, to anyone who is different from them. But Adam,’ she smiled at the name, glanced at Lizzie almost shyly. ‘Yes, that’s the name of your father. Well, he was different. He was handsome, Lizzie. Beautiful eyes, he had. You have those eyes, you know. You look a lot like him.’ Lizzie caught her breath, trying to picture this man. Maggie smiled gently at her, then continued. ‘I fell in love. And I did something that I shouldn’t have done without a wedding band on my finger. And I fell pregnant, with you.’ She looked up again at Lizzie, who was touched to see that her mother’s cheeks were flushed. Lizzie smiled at her, wanting her mother to know that she understood. After all, when Samuel had kissed her that very day, her body had longed for him, just with that kiss. Her mother coughed, lowered her eyes, then began again.
‘Well, when his father found out he was so angry. Came banging and shouting on the door. Said that I had enchanted his son, that I had bewitched him! It sounds ridiculous, I know, but lots of the people there believed him. Or pretended to. He was the constable, he had power – they did not have the courage to go against him. And we were outsiders, after all. They owed us nothing. Adam was kept away from me. I kept thinking he would come, that we would run away together. But they were just silly dreams.’ Maggie’s voice hardened. ‘We were frightened, my parents and I, knew we would have to leave as soon as we could. It became so bad that we hardly ventured from the cottage. People would throw insults, and worse. But one day I had had enough of those four walls, I felt that they were closing in on me, that I would die if I didn’t get out, if I didn’t feel a breeze on my cheeks. So I sneaked away without telling my parents. And that was the day they came for us. I was not far from the house, had not dared to go far, when I saw them. Adam’s father on horseback with a horde of men. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran to find Adam. I searched the village, but no-one would tell me where he was. Then his friend took pity on me. I must have been in a terrible state, crying and begging. This man, he told me that Adam had been sent to Buckden on an errand by his father. To get him out of the way no doubt. I didn’t know what to do. I was frightened to go back home. I thought all I could do was fetch Adam, see if he could talk some sense into his father. So I ran all the way to Buckden. Three months pregnant and a bitterly cold day too. By the time I found him and we got back it was too late.’
Lizzie leaned forward, desperate to hear more. Her mother’s eyes were far away, tears spilling silently down her cheeks.
‘We saw the smoke from the road. The cottage was on fire. Flames billowing from the roof, out of the windows. I knew my mother and father were in there. I could hear them screaming – the noise carried on the wind towards us. Terrible it was. I’ve never forgotten it, the agony in those cries. I started screaming too, begging Adam to do something. I didn’t mean for him to go in there – didn’t realise what I was saying. But before I could stop him, he’d gone. He must have thought he could save them. He was swallowed up by the flames. And it was my fault, Lizzie. I begged him to help. And he burnt alive, with my mother and father. Everything I had, everything I loved, all eaten u
Lizzie went to speak, to try and comfort her mother, but Maggie placed a finger on her lips, gently shaking her head.
‘I have to finish it, now that I’ve started. After Adam went in, his father stood there, in the little yard. He stood there staring. I’ll never forget the look on his face. I don’t know if he cried, but I hope that he did. I hope that he cried every night for the rest of his life. I was glad for his pain, you see, he deserved every searing second of it. And then his mother came running. Someone must have told her. She was screaming. Everyone else was quiet by then, shocked I suppose. She ran towards her husband, screaming and wailing. Then she fell to the floor. I don’t know if she ever got up again. I hope she did. I hope death didn’t release her for many more years.’
Lizzie was shocked at the hatred on her mother’s face. Maggie was tough, but she was kind too and she rarely spoke ill of anyone. Lizzie had never seen her face like this before.
‘What happened then? To you?’ Lizzie’s voice was barely a whisper.
‘I slipped away Lizzie. Didn’t want them to see me. I was half mad with fear and grief. They were preoccupied with the fire, with trying to douse the flames now Adam was inside. And with fussing around his mother, trying to revive her. No-one was looking for me. For all they knew I was burning up with the rest of them.’ She swallowed. ‘So I left. I knew they were all dead. I walked for three days and nights, hardly eating or sleeping. I don’t remember much of it. I think I must have been in shock. When I think of then I can only remember putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually I collapsed. I was taken in by a cunning woman, not far from Colchester. She cared for me, helped me back to strength. She delivered you.’ Maggie smiled ‘She was a good woman, though no doubt she would have been condemned, had she been found sheltering me.’
‘Who was she? Is she still alive?’
‘Hannah was her name. And I don’t know. It has been so long. She was not much older than me though, so, as long as she has kept safe from trouble, then I hope she is.’
‘How have I never met her? Did you not think that I would like to know the woman who cared for you? Who cared for us?’
‘Lizzie, please try and understand how hard this was for me. After you were born, I knew I needed to find somewhere for us both, to make a home for us. I didn’t want to cause trouble for Hannah. When I was strong enough I left. And we travelled a lot in the years after that, moving from place to place, moving further and further away each time from Brampton. And then we came here, to this cottage. And the people here have been good to us, Lizzie. I know there are those that don’t like doing business with us, and I know that you have had a hard time of it growing up. But compared to the way our kind are treated in other places, we are lucky to have lived here safe this long.’
Lizzie looked into her mother’s eyes.
‘Why have you never told me of this?’ Her voice was shaking. Maggie sighed.
‘I just didn't know how to. When you were small, well, it was too horrible a tale. I didn’t want to frighten you, to upset you. And when you grew, as you learned from me and I could see that you were a natural in this work, then I didn’t want to say anything that would influence your choice in following the path. And the longer I kept quiet, the harder it was to tell you. And then, when you became the beautiful, gentle, intelligent woman that you are, the more you reminded me of your father, well, then I suppose I was frightened of you judging me.’
Lizzie stood then and went to her mother, wrapping her arms around her sinewy frame.
‘How could you think that I would judge you? You have only ever been good to me. I would never judge you. I love you.’
Maggie patted Lizzie on the shoulder.
‘Come now, look at the pair of us, crying like a pair of babies. Now then, first of all, where are the nettles I asked you to collect? I need them for poor John you know. He will be here soon.’
‘I dropped the basket, Mother, when Daniel grabbed me. It must be in the lane still. I’ll go out and fetch it. But are we just going to ignore what you have told me? Are we to just put it back into the past?’
‘Lizzie, please, this is too difficult.’
‘Then think how I feel. It is a shock, what you have said, even though I lay no blame at your door. For you have nothing to blame yourself for.’
‘But I told him to go in there. I begged him to do something to help. If I hadn’t, then he wouldn’t have died.’
‘It was not your fault. You did nothing wrong. It was they who set the fire. They murdered three innocent people. They murdered my family.’
As she said the words, Lizzie felt an enormous grief almost overwhelm her. These people that she knew nothing about – they had been dear to her mother. They were part of her, Lizzie, a part of who she was. And she had never had a chance to know them.
‘I want to know more, Mother. I need to know more. After all, those dreadful people that stole my grandparents from me, stole my father, well, they are my family too.’
Maggie stood, her eyes narrowed, her mouth set.
‘Those people are not your family, Lizzie Prentice. They were murderers, like you say, murderers pure and simple. They took my parents from me, took Adam from me,’ she paused. ‘And yes, from you too.’ Her tone softened. ‘We truly loved each other, you know. We would have married, would have stayed together. You would have had brothers and sisters. They deprived you of all of those things.’
What would it have been like to have had siblings to play with, Lizzie wondered. She would have had a companion to walk with her by the river, someone to help her care for the creatures that she took in, someone to play with, to walk arm-in-arm with. Yes, a brother or sister would have made her lonely life more tolerable. And to have known her father – how wonderful that would have been. They could have been a proper family. They would have had some protection too, from the suspicion, the gossip, the jealousy and lies. Instead, poor Maggie had had to struggle to bring up a child alone, and she, Lizzie, had endured a friendless, lonely childhood. Suddenly she was overwhelmed by anger, by the unfairness of it all. Her mother had only wanted love and companionship, just like everyone else. But no, because of what she did, because of what she knew, she was denied that. Denied it in the most horrible way imaginable. And Lizzie would no doubt be denied that too. There would be no happy future for her and Samuel. She was a fool to think it. Lizzie could not bear the pity in Maggie’s eyes. She ran from the cottage, slamming the door behind her. Darkness had fallen outside and she stumbled on the uneven ground. Two strong arms reached forward to catch her, and her heart lurched as she looked up into Samuel’s smiling blue eyes.
Dangling her bare feet in the cool of the river, Lizzie began to feel a little better. Although the night was chilly, the water had looked inviting, and, nestled close to Samuel, Lizzie did not feel cold at all. Their feet shimmered together, white and soft under the dark surface of the water. The night was still, the moon bright in a cloudless sky. In the quiet of the darkness, Lizzie had told Samuel Maggie’s story, her voice tight with bitterness. Samuel had taken her hand in his, running his thumb across her skin; not interrupting, just letting her talk.
When she had finished her tale, they sat for a while in silence, wiggling their toes in the green water. Samuel picked absently at the soft mossy grass beneath his fingers, then turned to Lizzie.
‘I won’t let them do that to us, Lizzie. I won’t let them stop us from being together.’
Her heart was beating so fast she could hear a rushing in her ears. She opened her mouth to reply, unsure whether the words would emerge. When they did, they were uttered so softly that Samuel bent his head closer to hear, so close that she could feel his breath on her cheek.
‘You meant it then, what you said earlier? You meant it when you said that you loved me?’
‘Of course I meant it. Why would I say it oth
‘I want to marry you and I don’t care what anyone thinks.’
She could hardly catch her breath. He loved her. He wanted to marry her. Her heart was pounding. She loved him too, knew that she did. But images of that burning cottage filled her mind. She could almost hear the screams. How terrible to die that way – to perish in flames with no hope of escape. She glanced again at Samuel’s earnest face.
‘Samuel, I don’t think you truly understand. Have you not listened to what I’ve been telling you about my mother? What if the same thing should happen?’
‘What do you mean? True, I’ll admit it, my family do not like Maggie. And I know that my mother is responsible for much of the gossip about her. But you cannot believe that she would hurt anyone, surely?’
Lizzie hesitated, not sure what to say. But she knew she must be honest – this was her future, and his.
‘You know, Maggie says that we are lucky to live here. We are tolerated, even liked by some. But your parents Samuel, well, your father employs many in the village – your farm may be small, but people rely on it for the roofs over their heads and the food on their table. If your mother and father took against us, then I know there are many who would not risk upsetting them.’
‘But they won’t take against us. Not when they see how I love you – not when they know you like I do.’
Lizzie looked down at their entwined hands.
‘We’re not the same, you and I. You have money, status in the village– that alone will be enough to set your parents against me. Your mother no doubt has her eyes on a much more suitable match for her only son. And that Maggie and I are cunning women, and your parents are ardent churchgoers who frown on our activities, to put it mildly, well, that will only make the prospect of me as a daughter even more repellent.’
Lizzie pulled her hand away and, taking her feet out of the water, stood, turning away from Samuel. She couldn’t look at him. After Maggie’s tale, this leap into the future was too scary. Too dangerous. She wouldn’t put Samuel at risk. She spoke quietly.
‘Samuel, you might not care what people think, but in reality you know that your parents would be horrified. You might not want to believe it, but I’m sure that they would do anything to stop you from marrying me. Just like my father’s parents.’
She still did not look round. There was silence, and when Samuel did eventually speak, the anger in his voice broke the stillness of the calm night air.
‘What are you saying Lizzie? Do you honestly think that they would resort to killing? How can you say such a thing – how can you think it? They are my parents, my blood.’ His voice broke off. Lizzie couldn’t bear to hear his distress, it wrenched her heart. But she couldn’t turn around. She heard the splash of the water behind her as he got to his feet, but she did not turn to look at him. His hand on her shoulder, though his touch was gentle, was like a knife. Closing her eyes against the tears that threatened she shrugged his hand away. Without turning she spoke, forcing coldness into her voice.
‘I’m sorry Samuel, but I can’t marry you.’
She began to walk then, keeping her pace steady, breathing deeply, not looking back into the gloom that had swallowed Samuel up. She had to get as far away as possible before she could think about what she had done. And only when she had walked out of the shelter of the trees and was on the path did she allow the sobs to wrack her, shaking her shoulders as she walked the lonely road home.
Blackwater by Alison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes