Maggie had asked no questions when Lizzie had returned home, had simply gone about the evening chores as usual. But she had held Lizzie tight on the pallet that night, holding her close as the two fell into a troubled sleep. The next morning, Lizzie crept away, not wishing to wake her mother. She would go out into the yard and feed the chickens, she decided. Their contented clucking at her arrival always made her feel better.
Outside, the chickens fussed around her feet, their feathers soft against her skirts, pecking happily at the grain that she threw for them. The sunlight was bright in the little yard, the sky above smattered with only a scant few clouds. Lizzie paused for a moment, contemplating the chickens. How she envied them today; all they had to worry about was eating, bathing in the dust and laying eggs. They didn’t worry about what people thought, didn’t live their lives according to some rules made by others about who could do what, when and with whom. She smiled to herself– those were dangerous thoughts, she knew. That could get her into all sorts of trouble.
‘What you smiling at, Lizzie?’
Lizzie jumped, startled by the low voice, and turned. Daniel Hitching, hands clasped behind his scrawny neck, was leaning against the wall of the yard, his cold eyes regarding her. Finally, she found her voice.
‘What are you doing here? How did you get in our yard?’
‘You didn’t bolt your gate last night. You must have been preoccupied.’
This last was said with a hint of sarcasm, and Lizzie searched Daniel’s face. Had he been watching her again? Following her? Daniel was sauntering forward.
‘Those are healthy looking chickens you’ve got there. Must be feeding them plenty.’
Lizzie didn’t answer. He drew nearer to her, and instinctively she backed away from him, until she was pressed against the cottage wall and he was stood between her and the birds.
‘I hear you sometimes, talking to them. The chickens that is. That’s a bit weird, Lizzie. Bit odd. You should be careful you know. Some people, and I’m not saying me, just some people, well, they might take that the wrong way.’
Lizzie frowned. What did he mean? Yes, she did talk to the chickens when she came out here to tend to them. In fact, she often told the chickens things she would not have dreamed of telling anyone else. The thought that Daniel had been watching her, listening to her, filled her with disgust. Had he heard her talking about Samuel? Had he stood on the other side of the gate, laughing at her? He was laughing now.
‘Like I say – you want to be careful, pouring your heart out to these birds. Some might think they were more than birds. Especially if they heard what you’d been telling them.’
Lizzie froze, sick realisation making her want to heave. Daniel was looking down at the chickens now. They were circling, pecking at the ground around his feet. One got too close, and he kicked at it, sending it fluttering away, squawking in protest. Lizzie leapt forward.
‘Be careful. Don’t hurt them.’
Daniel looked up at her, a small smile on his face.
‘You really love these chickens don’t you Lizzie? Almost as much as you love that Samuel Pendle. I’ve heard you tell them.’
Lizzie froze, felt her skin burning. The morning air was still, there was silence between them. Daniel did not take his eyes from her face. Snapping her eyes from his, she turned away, to find sanctuary in the cottage.
‘No, don’t go. You might want to hear what I’ve got to say. It might be in your interests, if you see what I mean.’
Pausing, he lent down and carefully picked up a chicken, cradling the bird gently in his arms.
‘I’ve been hearing some things, Lizzie. You should know that I’m not the only one that’s been interested in your friendship with Samuel. His mother’s heard about it. And she’s not happy.’ He ran a hand over the chicken’s feathers. ‘You want to be careful, you know. Gossip spreads quickly around here. You might want to reconsider being so unfriendly to me, like you were yesterday. ‘Cos at the moment it’s just gossip, Lizzie. But what I know, what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen,’ he looked at her, one hand still stroking the chicken. It nuzzled into him, enjoying the attention. ‘Well, that’s more than gossip isn’t it?’
Lizzie’s mouth was dry, her tongue stuck to its roof. She tried to swallow, fear pounding in her chest. But she thought suddenly of Maggie, bullied and cowed all those years ago, her life ruined by others who had not known her, not understood. She drew herself up, her face hard, her voice cold.
‘You can do and say as you like, Daniel Hitching. You don’t scare me.’
To her surprise, Daniel smiled. He held her glance for a moment, then looked down.
‘That’s a real shame, Lizzie,’ his voice was soft, almost caressing. ‘Because now things might have to get nasty.’
Before she could stop him, before she had even taken in what he had said, the chicken was hanging from his fist by its neck. One quick twist with the other hand and it was lifeless, with not even a squawk of protestation. Daniel looked up.
‘Lovely fat chicken this. Don’t know what you’ve been feeding it. Make me a good few dinners though.’ He tucked the limp bird under one arm.
‘Thanks.’ And he was gone, leaving Lizzie distraught, too shocked to cry, pressed against the cottage wall.
She was still there ten minutes later when Maggie came searching for her.
‘Lizzie, what on earth are you doing dithering out here?’
Lizzie looked at her mother, then forced a smile to her face. It had been hard on Maggie telling her story yesterday. Lizzie did not want to burden her with more. She would not mention what had just happened. And if she noticed that one of the chickens was missing, then Lizzie would say that a fox or a dog must have got it. It sometimes happened after all, though not that often with her chickens, she was always careful with them.
‘Sorry, Mother. I’m fine, just daydreaming. You know how I am.’
Maggie looked at her, chewing her bottom lip.
‘Well, stop your dreaming now. We have a visitor.’
‘A visitor, at this hour?’
Maggie pursed her lips.
‘Yes, Lizzie,’ she snapped, taking Lizzie aback. ‘At this hour. Now come in will you.’ And she turned back into the cottage. Lizzie hurried after her, unease welling. The unease turned to joy when she entered the dark cottage and saw Samuel sitting by the fireplace. Then, with a jolt, she recalled the harsh words she had left him with when they had parted the previous night. Samuel stood as she walked towards him, his face so unsure that it almost broke her heart.
‘Lizzie, I’m so sorry to intrude so early, but I had to come. Couldn’t wait any longer.’
‘So you said. So what is it then? What is so important?’
Samuel hesitated. He glanced again at Lizzie and she could not help but smile at him.
‘I’ve told them. About us.’
Lizzie drew in a sharp breath. Maggie was standing still, her face hard.
‘What exactly about you and my Lizzie?’
‘I told them that I love her, Maggie, and that she loves me, and that I want to marry her. That I’m going to marry her.’
He moved towards Lizzie, taking her hands in his.
‘I know what you said yesterday, Lizzie, but I love you, I do. And I know you feel the same. And I don’t care what they say, I am going to marry you.’
Lizzie hesitated, her head whirling. Then she threw herself into his arms.
‘Stop that nonsense, now.’ Maggie snapped. Lizzie jumped, saw her mother’s face and pulled herself from Samuel’s embrace.
Maggie was scowling.
‘What on earth have you done, Samuel? You say you love Lizzie, then you put her in danger. Why have you done it? You’re a fool. And you can take that look off your face, Lizzie Prentice. You have no idea of the trouble you are in, of the trouble the pair of you are bringing down on our heads. Samuel, what did they say, your parents, what
‘It is not stupidity, Maggie. I know what I am doing.’
‘Do you now?’ The words were spat, and Samuel flinched. ‘Do you really have any idea at all? Do you want to see us ridiculed, ostracised, cast out? And that’s if we’re lucky. More than ten years we have lived here. We have been safe. We have had a home. And now, now we will have to leave. Because of you. This is not the life I wanted for Lizzie. Not a life like mine.’
‘But, Maggie, that is not what I want either. I want to keep Lizzie safe. I want to protect her, to give her all those things that you don’t have. Don’t you see? She will be safe with me, with a husband. And so will you. If we marry, we can settle down. We can be a normal family.’
‘Normal?’ Maggie shook her head. ‘Do you really believe that? Tell me then Samuel, tell me exactly what your mother and father said to this happy news.’
Lizzie had been watching the two of them, listening intently. She had been shocked by the force of her mother’s anger. Now she waited to hear what Samuel would say – surely his parents had been fine, if he was here to see her?
Samuel looked down at the floor and Lizzie began to feel a sense of foreboding. She spoke gently, resting a hand on his shoulder.
‘Samuel, please, tell us what they said.’
He looked up hesitantly.
‘At first they thought that I couldn’t be serious. They had heard rumours. There are already rumours about us, Lizzie, but who could know anything?’
Lizzie paled, thinking back to her conversation with Daniel, but she remained silent.
‘Then Mother got upset, crying and tearing at her hair. I’ve never seen her behave in such a way before. I tried to reason with them, but they wouldn’t listen. Father told me to leave the house for a while, to go and think things through. That’s when I came here. Because I don’t need to think it through. I know how I feel. I want to be with you. And they’ll come round. I know they will. When they see I am in earnest, when they see how much I love you, well, they’re my parents, they’ll want me to be happy, won’t they?’
Maggie sighed and walked slowly towards the window. She stood looking out for a moment, so quiet that Lizzie was afraid.
‘You see, Lizzie, I was right.’ Maggie sounded exhausted. ‘Of course that is how they would react. Why would you think they would be any other way?’ She turned to Samuel. ‘I’ve been here before, Samuel. I’ve lived through this.’
‘I know. But it won’t be like that this time. I promise.’
‘How can you promise? You’re just a boy – you know nothing of the world.’
‘I know that I love Lizzie. I know that I have always protected her, since you first came here. And I will carry on doing so.’
Maggie stared at Samuel, scorn marring her face.
‘You have no idea what you are talking about. Yes, you have protected her. From children and their taunts. From rocks and sticks and name-calling. But how will you protect her from lies? From superstition? How will you protect her when your father comes calling, with threats and accusations? When a mob comes to our door? You have no idea, Samuel. No idea what your parents will do.’
Samuel walked over to Maggie, took her hands in his.
‘They will not do anything to hurt me, Maggie. I am sure of it. They just need time, time to accept it. They have no other child, no other son to take over the farm. And Father can’t do without me. No, they’ll come round. You’ll see.’
Maggie looked up at him wearily, then gave a tight-lipped smile. It was not much of a smile, but Lizzie was glad to see it.
‘I hope you are right, Samuel Pendle. I really do.’ She turned to Lizzie. ‘I hope it for your sake Lizzie. But I am older than you, wiser than you. We must be prepared, just in case.’
‘Prepared for what?'
Maggie was looking at her, and Lizzie was hurt to see frustration replace the tight smile.
‘We must be ready to leave. Did you not listen to anything I told you? We must be ready to go if they come for us.’
Lizzie shook her head.
‘Surely you don’t believe that will happen? I know that what you went through was terrible. But it doesn’t mean that the same thing will happen to us. Not everyone is like that, not everyone is the same as Adam’s parents.’
Silence hung in the air. Lizzie stared at Maggie, could see she was struggling to remain calm. There was not the slightest hint of a smile now, just anger blazing from her mother’s dark eyes.
‘You silly girl. You silly, silly girl. And you,’ she turned to Samuel. ‘You are just a child. An irresponsible child. You think any of this compares to when you were children? Get out of my house. Go on, get out! You have caused us enough trouble.’
‘Mother, don’t speak so.’ Lizzie was on the verge of tears. She hated to see her mother so angry, and she hated to see the hurt in Samuel’s eyes. ‘Don’t make Samuel leave. I love him.’ She stepped forward, looked straight in her mother’s eyes. ‘If he goes, I will go with him.’
Maggie sank to the floor. She rested her face on her knees, wrapping her arms over them as if to protect herself. Then, to Lizzie’s horror, she began to sob. Lizzie stood for a moment, wondering desperately what to do, her stomach in knots. Maggie was always so strong; she had never seen her like this, never.
‘Don’t cry, Mother, please don’t cry like this. It will all be fine, you’ll see.’
Maggie looked up, her eyes red, her lips trembling.
‘It will not be fine, Lizzie. It cannot be fine now. It is partly my fault, I know. I have protected you too much. I should have been tougher. But you have always been so delicate, so loving and trusting.’ She smiled briefly, a sad, small smile. ‘The way that you care for things, even the chickens, talking to them as if they were human.’ Lizzie swallowed as she saw again Daniel’s cruel hands wringing the chicken’s neck that morning. It was true, what her mother said. She was soft. She did care too much about things. It almost broke her heart each time a chicken stopped laying, for she knew that then Maggie would have to slaughter it. And if she saw any injured creature she would have to bring it home. But she hadn’t thought that a weakness - had never been made to see it as one. Until now.
Maggie was sniffing.
‘Oh Lizzie, I have allowed you to be weak. In protecting you I have only put you in danger. You cannot trust people, Lizzie, you cannot trust anyone.’
‘You can trust me.’ Samuel’s words were soft, but there was determination in them.
‘But what good will that do us, Samuel? Even if we can trust you, what could you possibly do to help us?’
Slowly Samuel shook his head and Lizzie’s heart sank. Before she could say anything, to persuade Maggie, to console Samuel, there was a loud knocking on the door. Lizzie glanced at Maggie; her mother’s face was white.
‘It is starting already. I told you it would be so.’
‘Hush now. We do not know who it is or what they want. It is probably only John Redfern or someone else from the village come to buy a remedy. You collect yourself, calm yourself down and I’ll see who it is.’
Maggie looked up at her, tension making her face drawn. She paused for a moment, then nodded briskly, seeming to pull herself together.
‘You’re right, Lizzie. Go on, answer the door.’
Before Lizzie could move, however, there was another sharp rap.
‘Open up, open up this instant.’
Samuel groaned. ‘That’s Father’s voice. Wait here, Lizzie. I had better let him in.’
She watched, anxiety rising, as Samuel squared his shoulders. With his back straight, he marched towards the door. Lizzie wondered if he was quaking on the inside, despite this show of bravery. For as long as she had known Samuel, he had been in awe of his father. James Pendle was an imposing man. Opinionated, arrogant some might say, con
Samuel swung the door wide and spoke with a confidence that Lizzie knew he wasn’t feeling.
‘Father. I am glad you have come. Oh, and Mother too.’
Lizzie’s stomach clenched in alarm. His mother was here? She had not been expecting that. Now they strode into the cottage, James Pendle, tall and broad, his figure almost filling the cramped room, followed by his tiny wife, Bridget. She looked around her disdainfully and Lizzie bridled at the sight of her upturned nose and downturned mouth. Maggie was matching her look for look. Lizzie saw the anger in both pairs of eyes and hoped that her mother would keep quiet.
‘We knew we’d find you here, Samuel.’ James’ voice was gruff. ‘Now then, stop all this nonsense and come home with us before it’s too late.’
‘Too late?’ Bridget’s voice was high, strained. ‘It’s already too late. There is gossip spreading through the village, you can be sure of it. How I’ll hold my head up in church again I don’t know. How could you do this, Samuel?’
Samuel looked at his mother. Then he reached out and drew Lizzie to his side. She trembled there, terrified of what would happen.
‘I told you this morning, Mother. I love Lizzie, I always have, and I don’t care what anyone in Eversley thinks or says.’
James, lips pursed, held up a warning finger.
‘Now then, Samuel, watch your tongue, talking to your mother like that. It will get you nowhere. She is wrong anyway. It is not too late. We have a good name here, why, we employ half the village. They won’t talk, not if you come home now, I’ll see to it.’
‘I will come home, but only if you’ll accept Lizzie. I'm going to marry her.’
At this Bridget set up such a wailing that Lizzie covered her ears. James sighed.
‘Look how upset you’re making your mother with this nonsense. Come on now boy, stop it.’
Maggie had remind silent, but now she stepped forward.
‘Master Pendle, you are welcome in my home. I hope that we can reach an agreement about this.. this unfortunate situation. Believe me, it worries me as much as it worries you.’
Bridget stopped wailing and turned on Maggie.
‘How dare you? How dare you presume to worry about my son. You and your little harlot of a daughter. I expect you planned all this between you, didn’t you? Living here in this hovel, with nothing. Scraping a living with your wicked potions and powders.’ She paused, her face a vision of disgust. When she spoke again her voice was quieter, but it was dripping with hatred.
‘Is that what you did?’ She stepped closer to Maggie, staring up into the taller woman’s face. ‘Did you slip him one of your charms? You bewitched him, didn’t you? To trap him for your daughter?’
Maggie said nothing, merely stared at Bridget with disdain. The woman stood on her toes, her nose level with Maggie’s.
‘Or did she use her other charms? The more obvious ones? Though she has scant few of those.’
Lizzie gasped, then jumped as a loud crack filled the air. Bridget screamed and slumped to the floor, holding her face. James was across the room in a second, grabbing Maggie by the shoulders and pushing her back against the wall.
‘Strike my wife? How dare you? How dare you place your filthy, dirty hands on her.’ He let go, and Maggie sprang from the wall, her face hard.
‘How dare your wife say such things about my daughter?’
‘How dare she? Because, Maggie Prentice, your daughter is a whore.’
It was Samuel who moved now, and Lizzie thought that he was going to aid his mother, who lay weeping on the floor, her cheek bright red, already swelling. But instead he went to his father, and squared up to the man.
‘Do not call Lizzie a whore, Father. I swear I will never forgive you if you do not take that word back.’
Lizzie looked at James as he struggled to control his emotions. There was anger still on his face, but also sadness. He reached out a hand and gently placed it on his son’s arm.
‘What has happened to you Samuel? You have never raised your voice to me. Not once in your life. And you stand there and let this wretch strike your own mother, and you do nothing about it? Perhaps your mother is right after all. Oh God, Samuel, tell me? Have you been bewitched?’
Samuel shook off his father’s arm roughly, shaking his head and backing away. Then he turned to Lizzie and once again placed his arm about her, drawing her close, his head high.
‘You think what you want to think. Say what you want. But I love Lizzie. You accept her or you lose me. It is up to you.’
There was silence in the cottage for a few seconds, then James spoke.
‘You’ll regret this Samuel, mark my words.’
He turned to his wife, helped her from the floor.
‘I won’t forget today. Won’t forget that you stood by while my wife was insulted, while she was beaten by this piece of rubbish. And you,’ he turned to Maggie, who held his gaze, her eyes icy. ‘Be warned. Raising your hands to my wife was the biggest mistake of your life. You’ll not know a moment’s peace from now on. You and that little whore have destroyed my family.’
Lizzie stared at the man in horror, then turned to his son. Her heart twisted at Samuel’s expression as he watched his father help his mother to the door. They stood at the threshold looking back at the three silent inhabitants. Bridget opened her mouth to speak, then shook her head, her shoulders drooping. They turned then and left, the door slamming hollowly behind them.
Blackwater by Alison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes