Lizzie drew her cloak around her and yawned deeply as she scattered the grain for the chickens. The mornings were turning chilly now as the heat of the summer gave way to autumn. She loved this time of year – the fields around the village were beautiful in their warm shades of yellow, bordered by the fiery reds, oranges and vibrant greens of the trees. She and Samuel wandered down to the Blackwater whenever they could, the alders on the river banks still green and shady, their leaves not yet withering, giving them some much needed privacy.
She jumped as Samuel appeared behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist. She hoped he would not notice the slight thickening of her middle, for she had yet to tell him of her news, wanting to wait until any danger was past. She thought Maggie suspected, but her mother said nothing though Lizzie would sometimes catch her watching her, concern on her face. And Lizzie shared that concern. Since her marriage, the presence of Samuel meant that they were somewhat protected from some of the more violent persecutions – Daniel Hitching, for one, had kept well away from Lizzie. But something was happening in Eversley. Lizzie and Maggie were struggling to make any money; they had fewer customers than ever and were sure this was down to the vicious tongue of Bridget Pendle. Any of the women that came to Maggie now came in secret, for they were scared that Bridget would find out and put their husbands’ livelihood at risk. Many were the nights, like last night, that they sneaked from the cottage to some distressed woman’s side, women that had suffered for hours waiting until darkness could provide a cover for Lizzie and Maggie to come to them. At these times, scurrying through the darkness like criminals, Lizzie hated Bridget Pendle with all her heart. That she held such power in Eversley was terrifying. Last night, they had attended Temperance Collins, delivered her of a healthy baby boy, the first of hers to survive. The woman had been thrilled if exhausted, but her husband had been shifty when it came to paying, despite his wife’s beseeching looks.
‘If they know you’ve been here, if she finds out, well, I could lose my job, you see. It’s not that I’m not grateful, but I need my work.’
He’d looked over at his wife, feeding their child in the firelight.
Maggie had bristled.
‘We need to eat too. We cannot work for nothing.’
‘Please,’ the man had hissed, his eyes desperate. ‘You need to leave now. I’ll see if I can bring something to you. Tomorrow night, perhaps.’
So they had left empty handed, hoping that they may find a surreptitious gift left on their doorstep in the next few days, but with no power to insist on it. This was happening all too often, so money was scarce, and Lizzie was worried about providing for her child. They would need to be even more careful with what they did have, now that there would be another mouth to feed. She pushed Samuel gently away, placing her hands on her stomach.
‘Should you not be on your way? The sun is already up.’
‘I have time for a kiss from my wife. Besides, Edward knows I’ll work hard when I get there – I always do despite the pittance the old miser pays me.’
A shadow crossed his face at this, and Lizzie reached out and grasped his hand. Samuel had managed to find work with Edward Taylor, a carpenter in Finchampstead, happy to take on someone so naturally skilled. But he could not pay much in the way of wages. Samuel was staring out over the meadow, a frown furrowing his forehead.
‘It’s nowhere near what we would have if we were living at the farm with my parents.’
Lizzie placed her finger on his lips and shook her head.
‘It doesn’t matter, it’s your money, and you’ll earn it. By yourself.’
‘No Lizzie, not my money, our money.’
He walked to Finchampstead every day, often before sunrise, and came home at sunset, his hands sore and sometimes blistered and bleeding, but there was a contentment on his face as he pushed open the cottage door each night and swept Lizzie into his arms for a welcoming kiss, laughing as Maggie scurried out to the chickens or busied herself at the hearth. She still had her misgivings about their marriage, Lizzie knew, but she had softened in the last months, seeing how happy they were together. And Samuel was useful to have around the house; despite his long working day he was always happy to fetch water or chop wood, and would spend evenings whittling or carving by the fire. He had carved two beautiful stools for them already. They were covered in intricate designs of birds, flowers and butterflies, creatures so real that Lizzie thought they looked as if they could take wing and fly away.
‘Away with you now. I have to get these chickens seen to, then Maggie and I have work to do. You know how busy this time of year is.’
‘It’ll be busy up at the farm too.’ He hesitated. ‘I wonder how Father is coping without me.’
Lizzie sighed. The whole village was beginning its preparations for the harvest and Lizzie knew that this was the time of the year when Samuel would have spent the most time with his father. He ran a hand across his brow.
‘Mother will be rushed off her feet too – baking and brewing for the party. What a night that is, Lizzie. Everyone in the long barn, dancing and singing and drinking. Such a sight.’
‘Well I wouldn’t know, Samuel. Having never been invited.’
Samuel smiled ruefully.
‘Sorry. That was stupid of me.’
‘You know, I was so jealous of you all, when I was a girl. I used to stand here and listen to the music and laughter. It used to carry all the way here, across the meadow. I wished so hard to be a part of it.’
She moved to stand next to him, leaning against the cottage wall, looking out over the rolling fields. Samuel put his arm around her waist and she didn’t move away. Perhaps this was the time to tell him.
‘Well you won’t be listening all alone this year, Lizzie. We’ll listen together. And we’ll have our own feast. Just me and you. And Maggie of course.’ He squeezed her tightly, smiling down at her and her heart constricted. She gazed ahead of her, at the pale gold of the wheat and barley stretching ahead.
‘And next year, Samuel, there’ll be one more at our feast.’
She heard him catch his breath.
‘Why? What is it? What are you trying to say?’
His eyes were searching her face, but still she looked ahead. Then she nodded, and was suddenly swept up into his arms.
‘Really? A baby? Our baby?’
She nodded again, unable to speak for the emotion rising in her. He pulled her closer to him.
‘How long? When will it come?’
‘I’m about three months gone. It must be from our wedding night.’
Samuel smiled ruefully.
‘Well, there’s been precious little chance since.’
Lizzie felt her cheeks flush. Since their wedding, they had slept in the tiny loft space on the pallet that Lizzie had previously shared with Maggie. But they were both painfully aware of Maggie’s presence downstairs, on the straw mattress in the alcove by the fireplace that she had made private through the addition of some drapes fashioned from one of Samuel’s ruined shirts. Any chance of intimacy between Lizzie and Samuel was painfully awkward. Only on the rare occasions when Maggie needed to travel to another village for certain herbs or ingredients were Samuel and Lizzie were left alone. Lizzie treasured these times when she could be a wife to Samuel, though she enjoyed as much the evenings when they sat hand-in-hand companionably by the fire.
Samuel was smothering her face with kisses.
‘Samuel, stop now, you must get to work. And I need to wake Maggie. I’ve let her sleep long enough, but god knows she was exhausted last night.’
‘Well you should be resting too. Being out so late, it isn’t good for you. You need to take care of yourself. Especially now.’
Immediately the happy mood was gone.
‘Don’t look like that, plea
Lizzie looked at the hope on his face and her heart sank.
‘Samuel, please. You can’t tell her. Look at the trouble she has caused already.’
‘But we can’t keep it from her forever. Do you think you can hide it? What happens when you’re really showing and you see her in the street? Or someone else tells her? You can’t hide in the cottage forever. And then when the baby’s born – what will you do? Keep it indoors? Have some sense.’
Lizzie knew he was right. She shuddered to think what would happen when Bridget heard of the pregnancy. She had no hope, unlike Samuel, that she would suddenly turn into a loving grandmother.
‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it. But don’t tell her yet, please. Just give me some time.’
‘This could be the way back in, don’t you see? I know I said I was done with them, and I mean it. If they don’t accept you, that is. But if they do, if they want to know our baby, then we can be a family. We can live at the farm, even. You won’t be excluded, like you were as a child. You could even come to the dances, Lizzie, they would be our dances!’
She pulled away, glaring up at him.
‘How could you? How can you stand there and say such things.? You have no idea of the pain that woman is causing us, has caused us over the years. Do you know what it’s like to stand in the cold and the dark, alone, listening to everyone else, laughing and having fun, dancing and eating? Do you know what it’s like to walk through your own village and have everyone stare and whisper? No, you don’t because you’ve always had security, money, friends. You’ve been protected. Your mother called me a whore; she called me a witch, Samuel. She came into my home and insulted me and my mother. Do you really think I’d want to live with her, even if she offered it? And you’re a fool if you think she will. You’re a fool if you think she’ll want anything to do with this baby.’
‘Don’t say such things, please.’ Samuel’s face was ashen. ‘I love you, you know that. I have given all that up to be with you. To live here, in this tiny cottage with no room, no privacy. I work all day for a pittance when I could be running the farm. And I do it for you, Lizzie. I’ve given it up for you.’
As she stared at him, fear began to well deep within her. She should have known that it would all be too much for him, that it would be too hard. She stroked her belly, thinking of the child that grew there. Did it have arms and legs already, she wondered. Did it have a heart beating in its tiny chest? Did it have feelings? Could it hear them, shouting like this, hurting each other? How could such happy news have turned into this awful row?
‘I didn’t ask you to give it up. Remember that. It was you that wanted to marry me. You that walked away from your parents and their damned farm. And all it’s done is caused trouble for us. For Mother and me. All because of your bitch of a mother.’
Her hand flew to her mouth as soon as the words had been spoken, and looking at Samuel, she wished she could grab hold of them and take them back. His blue eyes were cold, his mouth a thin line.
‘She is still my mother, Lizzie.’
She held her hands out to him then, her frustration making her angry. Angry and afraid.
‘And I am your wife. And this is your child.’
He said nothing, just stared at her for what felt like minutes. Then he turned on his heel and was gone.
She managed to get through the day, though it dragged and she was exhausted. Maggie asked no questions about her red eyes, but Lizzie wondered whether she had heard their argument. They were busy enough for conversation to be minimal anyway, pickling vegetables for the coming winter months and drying and storing the herbs they would need to cope with the ailments that came along with the cold weather.
Darkness fell and Lizzie listened out for Samuel’s footsteps on the path outside. She busied herself with preparing the pottage; it was cooked and ready, the fire built up and the rushes lit but there was no sign of Samuel. Worry began to gnaw at Lizzie; this was unlike him. He always came straight home, was not one to stop at the tavern and take a drink. He always said he preferred to have his ale here, at home with Lizzie. She stirred at the pottage. It was beginning to stick. Maggie came and stood by her.
‘It’ll be ruined if we don’t eat now. Come on, we’ll put some aside. He can have it cold.’
Lizzie nodded and the two women ate in silence. Every now and then she would feel Maggie’s eyes on her, but she did not look up, did not want concern or pity. After their scant meal, Maggie announced that she was retiring to bed.
‘I’ll stay up a while longer. He must come home soon.’ Lizzie paused, then looked up at her mother, all her reticence dying away, her fear bubbling to the surface.
‘Where do you think he is? Do you think he will come home? What if he’s gone back? Back to them.’
‘Hush now.’ Maggie was at her side, brushing back her hair, soothing her.
‘He’ll be home. No doubt he’s gone to the tavern to cheer himself up after your argument this morning. But try not to worry. He loves you. Be patient. He’ll be home. I promise. Now I must go to bed, I am so weary after last night. You should make yourself a draught of chamomile. It will soothe you. And make sure you keep that fire well built up. You don’t want to be catching a chill. Not now.’
Lizzie looked at her mother, who smiled.
‘You must take care of yourself, Lizzie. We must take care of you.’
Lizzie sat by the fire as the night grew late, staring into the flames rather than at the pile of mending that she had hoped to finish. Her eyes became heavy as weariness set in and she felt herself begin to doze. She was startled awake by a crash from outside cutting through the silence, followed by a string of curses. Samuel. Lizzie stood, her heart thumping. He must be drunk, she thought, but at least he was home.
She opened the cottage door to find him slumped on the floor outside. He grinned up at her, his eyes shifting from side to side, unable to focus.
‘Lizzie, my lovely Lizzie. I’m home.’
The stench of ale was overpowering and Lizzie felt nausea rise in her as she leaned down to help Samuel up. The moon was bright in the clear sky ahead, and a shadow crossed her path, startling her.
‘Evening Lizzie. I brought Samuel home for you.’
It was Daniel. He leaned against the door frame, fixing Lizzie with a crooked smile.
‘Sorry he’s a bit drunk. He’s been in The White Hart all night. We’ve been having a bit of a celebration, haven’t we, Samuel.’
‘Indeed we have. Lizzie, Daniel here has been helping me to celebrate. He’s a fine man, is Daniel. He’s kept me company all night.’
‘Has he now?’
She turned to Daniel.
‘Well, thank you for making sure he got home. Come on in, Samuel. And good night to you Daniel.’
She reached down and took hold of Samuel’s shoulders, trying to pull him up. He was a dead weight under her arms.
‘Come on, Samuel. You need to get up.’
He laughed in response and tried to struggle to his feet, then swayed for a second before sitting down again. Lizzie sighed.
‘Please try. I can’t lift you into the house.’
Daniel moved forward and pulled Samuel to his feet, placing the grinning man’s arm around his shoulders.
‘Don’t worry Lizzie, I’ll fetch him in.’
Lizzie was flustered. She did not want Daniel Hitching in her home. Yet she had little choice. She couldn’t lift or move Samuel by herself.
‘Fine. But you’ll have to be quiet. Maggie is asleep.’
Daniel nodded, then shuffled into the cottage, bent under Samuel’s weight. ‘Where do you want him?’
‘Over on to the settle.’ She tried to keep her voice steady, polite.
Daniel laid S
‘Well, thank you then.’
‘You’re welcome. You couldn’t have lifted him after all.’ He paused, his eyes moving up and down her body. She flushed under his gaze, pulled her shawl tighter around her.
‘Would have been silly to leave you with him. In your condition.’
Lizzie felt the room spinning. She had to sit down. Had he said what she thought he had? Daniel was nodding.
‘Oh yes, I believe you have some happy news. Samuel was telling everyone in The White Hart about it. What’s up, Lizzie? You don’t look too pleased.’
She allowed him to lead her to the fireside, to sit her on the stool that was placed there. He hovered next to her.
‘I’m happy for you, really I am. Although I always thought you and me, you know, we might have had something.’ She looked up, confused. What was he talking about?
‘Not that I’d have married you though. No, wouldn’t have risked it. Wouldn’t have wanted to be associated with your type.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Oh you know exactly what I mean. Shame you married so young. We could have had some fun. I always thought your sort enjoyed that. Never mind.’
Lizzie stood, despite her dizziness.
‘Get out of my house.’
‘Oh, there’s no need to be rude. After all, I brought your drunken arse of a husband home for you.’ He turned to where Samuel was snoring on the settle, one arm flung over his head, one hanging at his side.
‘He’d never know, Lizzie. And as long as we’re quiet enough, your mother won’t hear either. We could still have some fun. And now you’re with child we wouldn’t even have to be careful.’
The words were still spinning around Lizzie’s head. Daniel knew. He knew. Samuel had told him, had told everyone. By tomorrow morning it would be all over the village. And Bridget would hear. Then she realised that Daniel was next to her, looking at her quizzically. He means it, she thought. He actually thinks that I would. He moved closer then, forcing her backwards against the wall. Suddenly he crumpled to the floor. Maggie was behind him, the laundry beater in her hands. Daniel was rubbing his shoulder, grimacing.
‘You old bitch! How dare you?’
Maggie advanced, waving the paddle.
‘Get out of here, go on.’
Daniel stood, still rubbing at his shoulder.
‘Don’t worry, I’m going.’ He looked at Lizzie. ‘Wouldn’t want to touch you anyway. Not really.’ He moved towards the door, avoiding moving any closer to Maggie. Once there, his fingers grasping the handle ready to leave, he smiled.
‘You know, it’ll be all round the village by the morning. Half of Eversley were in the tavern tonight. Sarah Howell and George Wharton are getting married, so we had a double celebration. Not many good wishes for you pair though. Anyway, it won’t take long to get back to Bridget Pendle will it? Especially once I’ve got home and told my lovely mother. You know how close she is to Bridget, especially since those hangings.’
Lizzie paled, an image of poor Jenny kicking at the air filling her head. Daniel was regarding her thoughtfully.
‘Still, don’t worry too much. I’m sure she’ll be delighted that you’re carrying the heir to her precious farm’
Blackwater by Alison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes