Creeping over the straw covered floor, Lizzie gently shook Samuel’s shoulder. He always looked so young when he woke in the mornings, wincing as he stretched out his muscles, cramped from another night on the floor in front of the fire. For this was where he slept each night, without question, despite what wagging tongues in the village might presume.
Now he opened his eyes and smiled at her, reaching up to pull her face down towards him, kissing her gently. A cough made them jump apart, Lizzie reddening, feeling suddenly ashamed.
‘Lizzie, hurry up and get that pottage on. We have lots to do today.’
Maggie’s voice was sharp and it hurt Lizzie to hear it. It was a sore point between them that Samuel was staying at the cottage. But he had nowhere else to go. So Maggie bristled about it, and for the first few days she had kept insisting that they leave Eversley. But Samuel was determined to stay for a while, to give his parents time to come round. And Lizzie was inclined to agree with him, though it pained her to sense a rift opening between her and her mother. Samuel’s large presence in the already cramped cottage was a constant reminder of their differences.
Samuel raised his eyebrows at her now as he stood.
‘I’ll go feed the chickens then.’
Lizzie nodded, noting the defeated look in Samuel’s eyes as he left the cottage, closing the door quietly behind him.
‘Must you always be so sharp with us?’
‘What do you expect? I warned you both, but you have just carried on doing what you wanted to do, not thinking about the consequences.’
Lizzie sighed. She was tired of these endless conversations.
‘It’s just a bit of gossip, Mother. Besides, it will stop when Samuel and I are married.’
Maggie smiled thinly.
‘You think that will make things better? You think Bridget Pendle will stand for that?’
Lizzie quailed at the thought of Samuel’s mother. For the woman hadn’t let it rest, hadn’t accepted her son’s choice. Indeed she had made their lives miserable these past weeks. At first Samuel had tried reasoning with her; he had visited the family home every day for the first week since he had been told to leave, only to have the door slammed in his face on every occasion. He had passed his mother in the street on several occasions; usually she was accompanied by Sarah Hitching. He had come home wounded by her refusal to look at him. Once he had approached her, only to have her spit in his face. But he had carried on visiting the house. Then, just two days ago, his arrival had been greeted with a pile of his clothes on the front step. Each item had been shredded, as if someone had taken a knife to them. He had picked up the bundle and carried it back to the cottage. Lizzie could see the misery in his eyes, could see it hanging in a great weight on his shoulders. And she had been worried then, worried that she would not be enough for him, would not be enough to make up for the loss of his family. She had sat with him that night in front of the fire, sorting through the tattered garments, deciding which could be saved and which would have to be sewn into sheets, cloths or rags. She had looked at him, so desolate, his shoulders slumped, his eyes far away, though when he had felt her gaze on him, he had sat straighter, forced a smile to his face.
‘You don’t have to pretend with me, Samuel. I know it hurts you.’
He had shrugged.
‘Of course it does. But I am happy, trust me. I have the best thing in the world after all. And it is they who are missing out, they who will end up miserable.’
Lizzie had smiled at him but her heart was heavy. How could she be sure that he wouldn’t change his mind one day? That he wouldn’t go back to his family? But she could not see into the future, despite what some superstitious souls in the village might suppose. She could only trust him.
Now, seeing Maggie’s stern face, Lizzie felt something inside her snap. She was tired of everyone being angry with them, standing in their way. They only wanted to be together. Why was that so difficult? She pursed her lips and turned her back on her mother, following Samuel out into the yard. Perhaps some air would help her feel calmer.
Samuel was standing with his back to the cottage and Lizzie knew he was gazing over the meadow to the boundary of the farm. It must be a constant reminder she thought, every time he came out here. She went to him now, slipped an arm through his.
‘It will be alright, Samuel, you’ll see. They’ll all have to accept it in the end.’
Samuel turned to look at her, then frowned as Maggie rushed out into the yard, her face red, flustered, still carrying the paddle she had been using to turn the washing.
‘Your mother, Samuel, she’s bellowing at the door. I’m surprised you can’t hear her shouts from here.’
Samuel blanched, then hurried inside, leaving Maggie and Lizzie staring at each other.
‘I told you no good would come of this, Lizzie. They won’t give up without a fight you know.’
Lizzie frowned, biting her tongue, and pushed past her mother into the house; whatever Samuel was facing, she would face it with him.
He was standing at the door of the cottage, holding his mother in his arms. The woman was weeping and wailing, beating at him with her fists while he simply stood there. He turned when he heard Lizzie approach, his eyes searching her face helplessly.
‘She just won’t stop crying, Lizzie. I don’t know what to do.’
Lizzie stepped forward, reaching out to comfort Bridget. The woman quietened then, looking at Lizzie with hate-filled eyes.
‘Don’t you dare touch me, you whore.’ Lizzie flinched from the words. Then, before she could move, Bridget was upon her, pushing Lizzie to the ground. Lizzie fell hard, the stone floor taking the breath from her lungs, her head narrowly missing the sharp corner of the hearthstone. Bridget threw herself on top of the stunned girl, and though she was tiny, Lizzie was unable to push her off. The woman was like a dervish, clawing at Lizzie’s face with sharp fingers, pulling at Lizzie’s hair, all the while screeching insults into her face.
‘You filthy little whore! Bedding my son like a harlot! Wicked little bitch! I’ll kill you, you bitch!’
Lizzie struggled to free herself of the woman, trying not to strike back. Then Samuel reached down, sweeping his mother into his arms. Bridget clung to him, her screams subsiding into sobs, her voice muffled by his body.
‘I love you so much, Samuel. Just come home, please come home. You’re killing us; you’re killing your father through this.’
Samuel walked to the open door, his mother cradled like a child and placed her gently down onto the step.
'I’ll only come home if you accept Lizzie. I told you that before.’
Bridget’s face crumpled once more. She looked searchingly up at Samuel, her eyes red and puffy, her cap in disarray, hair dishevelled and sticking to her tear-soaked face. When she got no response from Samuel, she turned once again to Lizzie.
‘You wicked little whore. You’ll regret this. I swear I’ll see you and that mother of yours dead before I’ll let you ruin my son.’
The door slammed then, and Samuel stood silent for a moment, biting his lip, his eyes far away. Then he looked at Lizzie and rushed to her, holding her, kissing her scratched, bruised face.
‘I’m done with them, Lizzie. I mean it. We’ll be married as soon as we can. They’re dead to me now, you’re my family.’
Lizzie looked into his face and saw that he meant it. She leaned up to kiss him back, only to be interrupted by Maggie, slamming in from the yard. She stood regarding the pair of them, until Lizzie flushed and struggled to her feet. Maggie sniffed and turned away, clattering pots at the fireside, a hard look on her face.
That night they decided that they would wait no longer. They would have to go ahead and marry without Samuel’s parents’ blessing.
‘I’ll go to St Mary’s tomorrow, arrange for the banns to be heard.’
He lowered his head and whispered, ‘Don’t mention it to Maggie. We’ll deal with that once it’s settled.’
Lizzie nodded, though she felt a pang at the deceit. But Maggie was being so hostile, was so against them, that Lizzie couldn’t see another way.
That night she found it hard to sleep, the excitement of her forthcoming marriage playing on her mind. She and Samuel would be husband and wife; bound together. No-one would be able to part them then; no-one would be able to stand in their way. Even his mother. The thought of being his wife filled her with excitement and apprehension. She knew what happened in a marriage bed. She had helped Maggie with enough remedies for unwilling wives and disinterested husbands. She had also witnessed miscarriages and births of both live babies and poor lifeless souls who never stood a chance, so she had a clear idea of the intimacies of her own body. And Maggie was not one to be coy about the ways of men and women. She had explained things to Lizzie when her courses had begun. But thinking of Samuel in that way made Lizzie feel something she had never felt before. Her belly flipped as she considered their wedding night, her cheeks flushed with heat, and it wasn’t until the sun was beginning to send weak rays through the cottage windows, that Lizzie managed to fall into a fretful, uneasy sleep.
Lizzie waited all morning in anticipation, unable to concentrate on her chores, yawning and day-dreaming until Maggie lost her temper.
‘What is up with you, girl? You’re no help to me at all today. What is going on?’
Lizzie mumbled a reply, and then hurried to the door at the sound of Samuel’s approaching footsteps. He was smiling broadly as he stepped into the cottage.
‘Two days, Lizzie, that’s all. Just two more days.’
Maggie slammed down the pot she was scrubbing.
‘What are you talking about? What’s happening in two days?’
There was a frightening edge of panic in her voice, but Lizzie forgot that when she looked at Samuel’s beaming face.
‘Until we get married! In two days’ time you’ll be my wife, Lizzie! Can you believe it?’
Lizzie squealed and dashed into his arms, laughing. Maggie’s voice cut through the laughter.
‘If you go ahead without his family’s blessing then you just give them more to damn you with.’
Samuel let go of Lizzie and she turned to Maggie.
‘If we wait for that we’ll be waiting forever. The sooner we do this then the less chance there is for them to even hear about it. Because if they did then I dread to think what they will do - what if they disrupted the ceremony?’
Samuel nodded. ‘Lizzie’s right, Maggie. This way we can just go alone, no-one can stop us, hopefully no-one will know until it’s too late.’
Lizzie smiled. ‘And then people can say what they like. We will be married, so even if they don’t agree, there is nothing they can do about it.’
Maggie shook her head at this and sighed.
‘You have so much to learn, so much to learn. But you have made your choice. I can see there is nothing I can do about it.’ And she turned away, leaving Lizzie standing open-mouthed, her heart heavy, wanting only her mother’s good wishes.
Despite several attempts by Lizzie, Maggie refused to discuss the matter further. Instead, the two had continued with their chores; Samuel having gone to Finchampstead to find out about a job he had heard was available. Her mother seemed determined to remain quiet on the matter, so Lizzie and Samuel spent the evening walking by the Blackwater. When they arrived home, Maggie had already gone to bed. Lizzie had kissed Samuel goodnight, then had gone to the pallet. She was shocked to see, hanging behind it, her best petticoats. They were white and stiff, almost glowing in the moonlight. Maggie must have cleaned them while Lizzie and Samuel were out walking. Looking at her mother’s sleeping face, Lizzie felt a rush of love. She climbed in next to her and lay looking at the petticoats that she would wear on her wedding day. She could hardly believe she was going to be Samuel’s wife. Last night as they had sat by the fire discussing their marriage, Lizzie had been mending a ripped shirt of his that was made of fine linen; he would wear it for the ceremony. She had not been able to stop herself from thinking of him removing that same shirt on their wedding night. She had blushed then as he sat beside her, whittling at a piece of wood, his knee just inches from hers. He loved to carve. Lizzie had often seen him turn a piece of wood into the most beautiful of objects. He was planning to carve some furniture for the cottage. She had watched as he worked at the wood, his slim hands gripping his knife firmly. His hands were strong and calloused from his days on the farm, but they were well-shaped and slender too. For a second an image had flashed into her mind of those hands running over her body. Samuel had turned to her then and she had wondered if he had read her thoughts; there was a knowing smile playing on those lips, after all. She turned on her side on the narrow pallet. Two nights, that was all. Then she would not have to dream anymore.
The day of their marriage dawned bright and sunny and Lizzie felt that the heavens at least were pleased for them. Samuel had dressed and left the cottage hours before, not wanting to be in the way. She and Maggie had stood in silence as Maggie had brushed Lizzie’s long blonde curls, leaving them hanging freely down Lizzie’s back. The day before she had collected some myrtle and Maggie had weaved it into a crown. Lizzie would have precious little of the finery of a bride, but she had allowed herself this one small thing. Maggie placed it on Lizzie’s head, the lush green of the leaves succulent against the golden shine of Lizzie’s hair.
‘You look beautiful, just beautiful.’
Lizzie smiled. She was so glad to hear this from her mother. She wanted so much for her to be there today.
‘You’ll come to the church won’t you?’
Maggie sighed, and then wrapped Lizzie in her arms. Lizzie held her tight, breathing in the familiar scent of her, of the herbs they worked with daily, the familiar smells she had grown up with, warm and comforting, the scent of home. Finally Maggie released her.
‘Of course I’ll be there. Who else will be a witness for a start? And secondly, how could I not, Lizzie? I can’t let you do this alone.’
Lizzie soon regretted her earlier optimism about the weather - as the hour of their appointment drew nearer the sky grew overcast and a chill wind picked up, then heavy drops of rain began to fall, splashing on the dirt streets, quickly turning them muddy. She lifted her skirts as high as was decent as she walked with Maggie to the small church. At this hour, most of their neighbours were already out running their daily errands. They stopped now and stared as the two women passed by, and Lizzie struggled to hold her head high. A chill went through her as she spotted Daniel Hitching, that sly smile on his face. She gulped, raising her hand to her throat, thinking of his hands snaking around the fragile neck of the chicken. Maggie’s reassuring arm through hers helped to steady her nerves but she was relieved when the rain began to fall more heavily, sending most of the onlookers scurrying for shelter, leaving only Daniel, his cold eyes following their progress to the church. As they reached Samuel, waiting in the church porch, Lizzie saw that her skirts were splashed with mud, and her myrtle crown was sodden and bedraggled. As they stepped into the dry building she turned her face up to Samuel. He was laughing at her.
‘It isn’t funny, Samuel. Every girl wants to look beautiful on her wedding day. I must look such a mess.’
He wrapped his arms around her, squeezing her tightly to him.
‘You are beautiful, Elizabeth Prentice. A bit of rain won’t spoil that. Besides, it wouldn’t be you if you didn’t look like you’d run through twenty fields to get here.’
She smiled then, and kissed the tip of his nose. They were interrupted by a loud cough. Startled, they turned to see the minister staring at then disapprovingly, thin lips pursed, glasses at the end of his nose. Samuel muttered in embarrassment then removed his hat. The man raised his nostrils as if there was a bad smell under his nose.
‘Well, come this way then.’
They followed him into the tiny church; the room was dry at least but dark and musty. Lizzie shivered; her dress was wet and rain was dripping from her hair onto her face and shoulders. Samuel took her hand and squeezed it, smiling at her reassuringly. They took their places at the altar, Maggie slipping into the front pew, where she stood, head bowed and silent. The minister seemed in a great hurry; he dashed through the short ceremony, even telling Samuel to hurry when he placed the small band on Lizzie’s finger. As soon as the pronouncement that they were man and wife was made, he stepped down from his position in front of the altar.
‘That’s it now, come on then, you’re married, it’s done. Quickly make your marks in the register. Then you can go’
Lizzie felt her eyes fill with tears – this had not been the ceremony she had been hoping for. It was all over far too quickly. She looked up at Samuel; he was biting his lip and frowning.
‘What’s your hurry, Minister?’
The man stopped and stared at Samuel, his thin lips tight.
‘I do not approve of this marriage, Samuel Pendle. You are both consenting and of an age and you have a witness, so I cannot prevent it. But I don’t approve. You have broken you mother’s heart.’
Lizzie drew in a breath. So Bridget was to ruin her wedding. Maggie was moving from the pew behind them, no doubt about to give the minister a piece of her mind. But Lizzie was married now – a grown woman; she could speak for herself. She grasped Samuel’s hand tightly.
‘Well, we will sign the register and be on our way, then. We have no wish to keep you any longer than you have wish to be here.’
Register signed, they walked back down the aisle and out into bright sunlight. There were no welcoming crowds, no-one to shake their hands and wish them good luck. Just an empty churchyard. Still at least it had stopped raining. They began to walk down the path towards the church gate, avoiding the fat puddles, when Lizzie was startled by a black shape moving amongst the yew trees to her right. She stopped walking and tugged at Samuel’s arm.
‘What is that, Samuel?’
He looked to where she was pointing, then shook his head.
‘I can’t see a thing, Lizzie. You must be imagining it. Come on, let’s go to The White Hart – I don’t care what anyone else thinks, we’re going to celebrate our wedding.’
Lizzie smiled, then started as Maggie grabbed her arm.
‘I see something too. Wait, it’s coming closer.’
All three stood still, straining their eyes. As they looked, the trees rustled, a branch snapped loudly and Lizzie felt her heart jolt. Then a dark shadowy figure emerged, revealed by the bright sunlight as it made the edge of the path. Bridget.
She was dressed in black from head to foot as if at a funeral, her dark skirts and gloomy cap at odds with the brightness of the day. She did not move, just stood still and silent, her eyes on them. Lizzie made to move towards her, but Samuel held her back.
‘No. There is no point. Come on, let’s go and get that drink.’
They walked slowly past the desolate figure. Lizzie could feel the woman’s eyes at every step; they seemed to bore into her, searching and deadly, bringing coldness to her very soul. As they drew level, Lizzie’s heart began to thump in her chest, a sweat breaking out, cold on her skin. But Bridget did not move, did not speak. She simply stood, staring. It would have been better, more tolerable if she had screamed, ranted and wailed. Anything but this horrible dead silence. As they moved past, Lizzie heard the dusty skirts shift a little as Bridget turned to watch them go. And though she knew she shouldn’t, Lizzie could not help but look back. Bridget stood, face stark white under the dreary cap, eyes dark pools full of venom. She stared straight at Lizzie, expressionless save for the hatred in those eyes. Lizzie turned hurriedly away, desperately trying not to quicken her pace. The ivy covered lych gate arched ahead – a sanctuary, an escape from the malevolent form behind them. Lizzie was relieved to pass under its lush green canopy and onto the path outside.
Once outside the churchyard, Samuel squeezed her arm.
‘Do not think any more of it. It is her choice after all. She will not spoil today.’ He broke into a wide smile.
‘Come on then, Mistress Pendle,’ she blushed at the name. ‘And you Mother! Let’s toast our marriage with a tankard of The White Hart’s finest ale.’
Maggie smiled back, but shook her head. ‘I’ll leave you to it. I have chores to do back at the cottage.’ Lizzie opened her mouth to protest but the look on Maggie’s face warned her to silence. Her heart sank – she had hoped that Maggie would be happy for them, had thought her attendance at their wedding a sign that she was thawing, but if she was determined to disapprove then there was nothing more that Lizzie could do.
‘I will see you tomorrow, Lizzie, and you Samuel.’ And she turned away, leaving the two of them on the street. Rather subdued, they walked along the sodden lane to the inn where they would spend the night. Maggie had surprised them that morning by placing several coins in Samuel’s palm.
‘Stay at The White Hart tonight. Go on. My wedding gift to you. For you’ll not get much privacy afterwards.’
Samuel had had the grace to stutter a thanks to this, his face so red that Maggie had finally smiled, the first time she had smiled in a long time, it seemed to Lizzie. But he had pocketed the coins and as they stepped inside the tavern now, the landlord greeted them with a grin.
‘Ah, the newlyweds.’ He smirked at a row of men lounging, elbows on the bar.
‘Come on you lot, out of the way. Let’s get these two a space and some ale.’ He winked at Samuel as he placed two tankards on the wooden counter. ‘There you go, lad. And make sure she drinks hers right up.’
Samuel turned to Lizzie, handing her the ale. She smiled at him, not worried by the landlord’s crudeness or the remarks that she could hear from the group of men at the bar. All that mattered was that she was here, with Samuel, a married woman.
The two spent the afternoon wandering by the Blackwater before returning to the tavern for a plain but satisfying meal of bacon, bread and ale. Then Lizzie and Samuel made their way up to their room, ignoring the catcalls and whistles from the bar as they left. Lizzie had had several tankards of ale, yet she still felt nervous. She had imagined this moment but now that the time was approaching for her to be a wife to Samuel, she felt suddenly terrified. What if she did something wrong? What if he hated her body, found her revolting? After all, no-one had seen her without her clothes since she had been a child – and only her mother at that. She had enjoyed Samuel’s kisses, loved the touch of his hand on hers, but this was a whole new matter. She may know about the mechanics, but she had no experience. And though her work had meant she was more than familiar with the intimate parts of a woman, she had never seen a man naked, had only a rudimentary knowledge of their anatomy learned from Maggie, and only then for the needs of cures and remedies. Her heart began to thump, her mouth was dry and her palms were sweating. For a second all she wanted to do was to run home to Maggie, to climb into the pallet that had been her bed since childhood and to lie there alone.
The room was tiny, drab and grey in the dim light of the dull evening. The rain had returned and it pattered against the windows. There was a small fireplace in one corner though, and it was already lit, glowing weakly. Samuel hurried to it, building it up so that it began to burn more brightly. He lit the two rush candles too, and in a little while the room began to look cosier. In fact the candlelight casting shadows on the wall, the warmth of the fire and the drumming of the rain outside made the starkness soften a little. Samuel closed the door, pushing the bolt firmly across.
Lizzie shivered, despite the room becoming warmer, despite the heat that she could feel already rising in her. Samuel crossed the room and took her face in his hands. They were rough and work-worn but he caressed her face gently and looked deeply into her eyes.
‘I can’t believe we’re actually wed, Lizzie. Man and wife.’
She smiled up at him, rubbing the thin wedding band with her thumb, cold and solid, ridged against her finger. It was hard to believe, but she was indeed his wife. Samuel lent down and kissed her, his lips soft against hers. She tensed for a brief moment, then felt her stomach flip as his kiss grew deeper and despite her cheeks flaming, she kissed him back. His hands moved away from her face and into her hair, still hanging down her shoulders. He laced the fingers of one hand through the silky strands, his other hand at the base of her neck, warm and comforting somehow, his thumb tracing smooth circles on her skin. Then suddenly he pulled away, his eyes lowered, a small smile on his lips.
‘I suppose we’d best go to bed then.’
Lizzie nodded, unable to speak, her throat constricted. Her heart was beating so fast that she could hear it, pulsing in her ears. She was glad when Samuel turned away, moved to the other side of the room and began to remove his clothes. Quickly she slipped out of her petticoats, leaving them tumbled in a heap on the floor. Then she undid her stays and threw them onto the same pile. Leaning down to untie her garters she heard Samuel give a small cough. When she looked up he was staring at her, his face shadowed by the candlelight. She could not make out his expression, and quickly looked away, rolling her stockings down and off quickly until she was clad only in her thin shift. She hopped over to the pallet and jumped in, pulling the thin blankets up to her neck. Shyly she glanced over at Samuel who was standing by the fireplace, wearing only his shirt. She peeked at his legs, bare and white in the darkness of the room. She had known Samuel all her life yet had never seen any part of his body other than his hands, his feet and his face. His legs were muscular, and covered in dark hair. He walked towards her now, blowing out the candles as he did so, and she moved over on the pallet to make room for him.
The room was now lit only by the fire casting dancing shadows on the wall, and a sliver of moonlight slipping through the still open shutters. Outside the sky was dark, scudded with wispy clouds. Lizzie turned to Samuel, his face lit by the silver of the moon, his hair dark in the shadows, curling over the collar of his shirt. His face was so serious that despite her nerves, Lizzie giggled.
‘Are you laughing at me, Lizzie Pendle?’ Samuel grasped her wrists pinning them to the mattress on each side of her head, his body looming over hers. He was laughing too, his eyes twinkling. Lizzie grinned up at him.
‘What if I am, Samuel Pendle?’
‘Are you being disrespectful to your husband, now?’
‘I think that’s something you’re going to have to get used to, husband!’
Samuel regarded her, his eyes looking deep into hers, his mouth turned up in amusement. She could feel his warm breath on her face.
‘Well, I shouldn’t have expected anything less from you, Lizzie.’
He shifted his body then, bringing one leg across her so that he was astride her, not taking his eyes from hers. Suddenly she was all too aware of his body just touching hers, the hem of his shirt gently touching her thigh where her own shift had ridden up, the hard muscle of his leg against hers. He leaned down towards her, the neck of his shirt falling low, revealing the hard skin of his chest, dark and shadowy. He kissed her again, softly at first, and then more urgently as she responded, her heart beating faster. He pressed himself against her and she could feel his heart beating too, could feel his body trembling. He released her wrists and she twined her fingers in his hair, pulling his head closer so that she could kiss him more deeply. Then his hands were on her body, pulling her shift higher, and all thoughts of laughter were gone as she drew him to her, no longer afraid.
Blackwater by Alison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes