Blackwater

       Alison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love
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Lizzie placed the infusion of willow bark at Samuel’s elbow.
‘Here, drink this. It will ease your head.’
Samuel blinked up at her, groaning. She looked away, unable to meet his eye.
‘Lizzie,’ his voice was rasping. ‘Lizzie, sit here with me. Listen to me. I’m so sorry.’
‘Sorry are you?’ She couldn’t keep the accusing tone from her voice. ‘Well you should be. How could you do it? How could you gossip about me like that? And to Daniel Hitching too.’
‘I wasn’t gossiping. I was proud that’s all.’ Samuel spoke slowly, as if each word was torture, but Lizzie could feel no sympathy for him. Instead, she waited, arms folded, for him to make his excuses.
‘Well, actually I was angry at first, that’s why I went to The White Hart. But then I just wanted to tell everyone, I wanted to let everyone know how happy I am. I suppose it was the drink talking. And Daniel, well, that was a mistake. But he was friendly, Lizzie.’
‘I expect he was.’ She shook her head, exasperated. ‘Honestly Samuel, you’re like a child. And I’m going to have one of those to care for soon enough. I don’t need to be caring for you as well.’
He sat up, rubbing at his temple. Hs face was green and for a fleeting second Lizzie almost felt sorry for him.
‘You don’t need to care for me. I’m not a child.’ He face was hard despite his discomfort.
‘Then show me, Samuel. Show me you can be responsible.’
‘I have, haven’t I? I’ve taken that job, I’m trying to provide.’
‘I know that. And I’m grateful to you. But you must stop this talk of your family. When you married me you knew that you had made a choice. At least you said that you had made that choice. After yesterday, I’m beginning to wonder.’
He raised himself from the settle, swung his legs round so that he was sitting upright. Then he patted the space beside him.
‘Come sit here next to me.’ His voice was pleading. Lizzie hesitated a moment and then sat down. Samuel took her hand.
‘I have chosen you. And I am glad I made that choice. But now you are with child, well, it has made things more complicated. I want the best for you, for us, and for that baby. You deserve to have nice things, Lizzie. To have a secure home. I just think that if my parents knew about the baby, then they might change their minds. That’s all. Then we would have a secure future. The farm would be ours one day. And then it would belong to our child.’ He patted her stomach. ‘To this child.’
‘Samuel, we made our choice. Your parents made their choice too. They were wretched to me, and to Mother. I don’t want their home, I don’t want their farm and I don’t want it for this child either. It is up to us to provide for him or her. We need to do it ourselves. That is the only way, for I’ll not take a thing from a woman who called me a witch.’
Samuel looked at her for a long while, saying nothing. Lizzie watched him, wondering what he was thinking. This was Samuel, her best friend, her husband, her lover. What he said now, what he decided, would change her future. He squeezed her hand.
‘You’re right, Lizzie. We’ll make our own way. Without them.’ And he drew her into his arms. She rested there, her head against his chest, feeling the familiar beat of his heart. And she wanted only to weep, despite his embrace, for his eyes as he had drawn her to him had been full of despair. She could feel the ties between them grow taut, straining; if they grew any tighter, came under any more pressure, she was certain they would snap.


Chapter 7

Lizzie stood and rubbed the small of her back. Collecting herbs and berries was becoming much more difficult; the steady swelling of her belly hindering her more than she liked to admit. The chill of the days as winter drew nearer didn’t help. Lizzie’s hands were frozen as she worked beside Maggie in the pale late afternoon sunshine.
‘We should finish now, Lizzie.’ Maggie, too, sounded exhausted. ‘You should not be kneeling so long in the cold like this.’
Lizzie shook her head.
‘I’m fine. Though I must admit my hands are frozen. Do we have enough elderberries?’
Maggie nodded.
‘We do for now. Let’s get back home. At least we can stay in the warm while we dry the thyme and rosemary leaves.’
The thought of home did little to ease Lizzie’s discomfort, despite the promise of a good fire and some welcome warm ale. For the atmosphere would no doubt be anything but warm and welcoming. She and Samuel had circled around each other after their disagreement about his parents, neither willing to say too much in case arguments and accusations began again. Instead, they carried on with their daily routines, Samuel working in Finchampstead, Lizzie and Maggie preparing for winter. But the longer the silence was kept, the more difficult it became. The easy conversations they had shared seemed a thing of the past, and Lizzie missed them with all her heart. She knew Samuel still loved her, she only hoped that when the baby came things would return to how they had been.
Her back continued to ache as the two women trudged home, the heavy baskets swinging in their hands. Lizzie’s feet felt swollen in their winter boots, but she was grateful at least that the sickness had stopped. She had been plagued by it at first and Maggie had been unable to help, despite providing the best remedies that she knew. No, despite the physical aches and pains, she had to admit that she felt much better; she just wished that the aching in her heart would ease. Bridget Pendle stood between her and Samuel, despite neither of them having heard anything from her for months. In fact Lizzie was shocked by the woman’s silence. Her hatred of Maggie and Lizzie still showed itself though – they had hardly any work at all, in fact the rosemary they had collected today was, Lizzie knew, mainly for her own use should labour come on early. Though the baby was not due until early Spring, if something should happen in the depths of winter then there was little chance of finding any herbs or plants to help – Maggie was sensible enough to gather what they needed now, just in case. There would be plenty, for no-one else seemed to have need of their remedies or of them, and over the last weeks they had come to rely more and more on Samuel’s scant wages. They had even had to slaughter two of the chickens, though it had been a hard decision – after all, a live chicken provided eggs for many months whereas a dead one was only good for several meals. But Lizzie needed to eat well, so Maggie had made the decision. This was Bridget’s fault, they all three knew that, though no-one mentioned it. Lizzie could only hope that Samuel would remember all this; that he would not try to reconcile with his mother again, indeed, that he would have no wish to.
The sun was getting lower as they strolled down the track.
‘Beautiful isn’t it?’ Maggie had stopped and now stood still for a moment gazing upwards. Lizzie stood next to her mother, placing an arm through hers. The sky was indeed beautiful. It sent great red fingers to brush at the earth, setting fire to the last orange and yellow leaves of the oaks and birches.
As they stood there, they heard footsteps approaching. Squinting into the setting sun, Lizzie could make out a figure coming towards them. Small of stature, the figure was clutching a basket, cloak gathered around her to keep out the cold. She was walking so quickly that she was almost running. Lizzie nudged her mother.
‘We should get home. It’s getting colder by the second.’
Maggie looked up the path at the approaching figure and nodded. They began to walk, arm-in-arm towards home once more. As they drew nearer to the woman, however, Lizzie felt a small spark of apprehension. She thought she recognised that tiny frame. With a start she realised that it was Bridget Pendle. Maggie seemed to have reached the same conclusion for Lizzie felt her tense, gripping Lizzie’s arm tightly. As they watched, two men appeared on the path behind Bridget.
‘Bridget, Bridget, wait, please.’
Lizzie recognised James Pendle’s voice. Despite his pleas, his wife showed no sign of slowing down. The two men began to pick up speed, Minister Jarvis hurrying to keep up with Pendle, and all three were fast approaching Lizzie and Maggie. The two women clutched at each other; there was nowhere to go, only forwards towards Bridget, or backwards to where they had been gathering the elderberries. They hesitated, and Bridget drew level with them
Lizzie was shocked at the woman’s appearance. Her face, though she had always been thin, was now drawn so harshly that it resembled a skull. Her eyes were wild under a cap that was askew, her hair straggling from beneath it, matted and filthy. This was all Lizzie could take in at a glance, as Bridget scurried past them, without even a sideways look. Lizzie could hardly believe it – she had been certain that the woman was heading for them; that she meant to confront them, but Bridget had shown no recognition of them at all. As she stood there with Maggie, James Pendle and the minister finally caught up with Bridget. James grabbed hold of his wife’s arm and was greeted with a torrent of abuse for his troubles. Jarvis took hold of her other arm and Bridget was forced to a halt. She continued to scream insults at the two men, her eyes deranged, her head bobbing from side to side. Lizzie stood watching, her mouth open, her heart racing. How dreadful to see Bridget like this! True, she hated the woman, but to think that she was reduced to this – it was not what Lizzie would wish. Bridget was still screaming, and Lizzie winced as she heard the crack of James’ hand. The blow silenced his wife, but Lizzie found that silence far more disturbing than the shouting. Maggie was tugging at her arm.
‘Come now, Lizzie. We should not be seeing this. Let’s leave them in peace.’
Slowly the women made their way home, neither of them speaking, neither wanting to acknowledge what they had just seen. Darkness was falling quickly now, and as they approached their cottage, Lizzie’s heart sank to see Samuel hurrying down the street. His face was red from running, his eyes almost as wild as his mother’s had been. He stopped when he saw Lizzie, waited for her to come to him.
‘Jack Stringer came to see me at Taylor’s just now. Said that Mother had had a turn, that I should go home. But I wanted to talk to you first, Lizzie, wanted to make sure it was fine with you.’
Lizzie felt a mixture of emotions at his words – so he had come to her first; had cared enough about her feelings to see her before he went to his mother. But then there was that word ‘home’. When he had said it he had meant the farm, not the home that he shared with her, the home he would share with their baby.
She forced a tight smile to her lips, placed her arms around him and held him to her. How she loved the smell of him, the feel of him close to her; even through these difficult days when she had felt miles from him, she had still longed to hold him, to be held by him. She breathed in the scent of him, the earthy raw smell of the wood he had been working with, and the underlying scent of his body, familiar to her, dear to her. She was glad now that he responded to her embrace, that he held her tightly.
‘I am so sorry, Samuel.’ She breathed the words softly into his ear, her tears falling on to the strands of damp hair that curled there, sweat soaked form his dash from Finchampstead. He pulled away from her, holding her arms, gazing questioningly into her face.
‘Why, what’s happened? Have you heard anything about Mother?’
‘We saw her.’
‘Saw her? But Jack said she’d had a turn. Where did you see her? Did you go to the farm?’
‘We saw her on the lane, Samuel. She was practically running. Your father and the Minister were chasing her.’
Samuel’s skin turned grey. He dropped his eyes, looked at the floor, chewing his lip for a moment.
‘Running? Why? What was she running from?’
Lizzie shook her head, not wanting to tell him about the screaming, the curses, the slap.
‘Lizzie,’ his voice was harsh and he shook her gently. ‘Lizzie, you must tell me.’
Then Maggie was there, gently lifting his fingers from Lizzie’s arms, leading him away.
‘You must go to her, Samuel.’ Maggie’s voice was soft. ‘Go to your mother. I would think your father has taken her home.’
‘But why? What was wrong with her?’
‘She was very distressed, Samuel. I think it is best if you go there. Talk to your father. He is the best person to explain.’
Samuel heaved a great sigh, then turned to Lizzie.
‘Shall I go? I don’t want to upset you, but I really think I should see what is wrong.’
Over Samuel’s shoulder, Maggie cast Lizzie a warning look. Lizzie swallowed, forced the words from her mouth.
‘Of course. Of course you should go.’
The relief on his face cut her deeply. He returned to her, leaning forward and kissing her cheek, then running one finger along her scar. She softened under his gaze, bit her lip and managed to smile.
‘Thank you, Lizzie.’
She nodded.
‘Go on then.’

He didn’t return that night. It wasn’t until dawn was breaking that Lizzie heard the door creak open. She had waited up for him, dozing on the settle every now and then, and her limbs were sore and aching as she stood to greet him, Maggie’s gentle snoring from behind the curtain reminding her to whisper. Samuel looked drawn, as if he had aged in the hours he had been gone. There were dark smudges under his eyes, and his skin was pallid.
‘How was she, Samuel?’
Lizzie asked the question without really wanting to know the answer. Whatever change had come over Bridget, Lizzie knew that it would not be to their favour.
‘It was dreadful. She was locked in her room. I could hear her, ranting and raving. My god.’ He broke off, ran a hand over his face. Lizzie guided him to the settle, arranged the blanket over his knees then sat beside him, clutching his hand, running her fingers over the calloused skin. He was ice cold.
‘My father, I’ve never seen him look so terrible. He’s ill with worry. He, well, he wouldn’t speak to me at first. In face he refused to let me in. But the minister convinced him. It was awful. I felt like I was ten again and had done something dreadful, waiting there for him to come and speak to me. He left me for hours, until I thought he wouldn’t come. But when he did, well, he wasn’t angry, Lizzie, and that was the worst thing.’
‘What do you mean? Surely it was good that he wasn’t angry with you?’
‘He just looked through me. Didn’t look in my eyes or at my face. There was no emotion in his voice. It was as if I was a stranger.’
Lizzie gulped. Samuel was staring into the distance now, his eyes far away.
‘He said that Mother was ill. That she had been driven mad by grief. And that I was the one that had caused that grief so he would thank me for not coming back to the house, unless...’ He paused again. Lizzie squeezed his hand harder.
‘Tell me.’
‘He said that I could only come back, even just to visit her, if I swore that I would stay away from you.’
Lizzie dropped his hand, stood and went to the hearth. She busied herself with poking at the fire, though it was burning well and didn’t need the attention. She did not want to hear what Samuel would say. A movement on the other side of the room caught her eye and she turned. Maggie was standing there, shawl pulled over her shift, eyes wide with worry. She came over to the hearthside and took the poker from Lizzie.
‘Sit down girl. We must hear what he has to say.’
Lizzie did as her mother bid her. Maggie placed the poker on the hearth and took one of the stools opposite the settle.
‘Come now, Samuel. Let’s get it all out.’
He looked at her, then at Lizzie. She dropped her eyes, unable to hold his gaze, terrified of what he might say.
‘I told him you were having our child, that we were married. He said it didn’t matter. I got angry then and said that perhaps he should call Jarvis in and ask him what he thought of that. Well, he did, and Jarvis, well, he asked me if the baby were mine. Said that if I had any doubts then no-one would think badly of me abandoning you.’
Lizzie put her head in her hands. Was this to be it then? Was she to be left? Was she to be abandoned, as the minister advised?
Samuel continued. ‘I told him that there was no doubt about it, that of course the baby was mine and that he had a disgusting mind to be thinking otherwise. And I told him that I wouldn’t be leaving anyone. That I love you.’
Lizzie breathed a sigh of relief. Samuel gently moved her hands away and tilted her face towards him.
‘Because I do love you, Lizzie. But then,’ his eyes flashed anger,’ then they both started on at me. Said that perhaps I only thought I loved you. Perhaps I only thought the baby was mine. They said that it was well known what kind of woman you are.’ He looked at Maggie, ‘What kind of women you both are.’ Maggie nodded and Samuel continued. ‘The minister said that it was likely that I had been bewitched. That you had bewitched me. They both went on and on about it, about how women are full of sin and temptation, that most of them are whores. I couldn’t listen to it. I got angry then so they stopped.’
Lizzie regarded her husband. He was still angry, she could see, and she remembered then why she loved him, why she always had.
‘They said again that I could only see my mother if I promised to leave you. They said they could annul our marriage if I admitted you’d bewitched me. They said they could prosecute you for it, both of you, and that the constable had already agreed to investigate.’
Lizzie felt as though her stomach was falling away. The blood drained from her face as she stared at Maggie. Her mother had gone very still; her face was calm though and Lizzie wondered how she managed to do it. She took her shaking hands from Samuel. Maggie placed her own hands on her knees and Lizzie saw with a start that there was a small tremor there. This terrified her more than anything Samuel could say, but when her mother spoke her voice was steady.
‘And what did you say to this, Samuel?’
He looked at her.
‘I said that Lizzie is my wife, that I love her and I married her of my own free will. And that you are not witches. Either of you.’
Maggie nodded.
‘And you meant it? Because if you did not mean it, if you have any doubts at all, then I need to know. It will be safer for us if you leave, otherwise.’
Lizzie looked at her mother askance but Maggie shook her head slightly.
‘This will mean giving up your family for us, giving them up for good. I haven’t interfered, between you and Lizzie, but now I must. I know you have had your problems, but if you are with us, then you have to be with us.’
‘I am, Maggie.’
Lizzie was looking from her husband to her mother, not liking the flat tone of Samuel’s voice, the edge in her mother’s.
‘What is going on? Will one of you speak to me?’
Samuel looked at her.
‘Lizzie, my father meant it when he talked about prosecuting you. He really believes you are witches; that I am bewitched.’
‘So we are in danger then? Really in danger?’
Maggie was nodding.
‘Yes, Lizzie. We are in real danger. And we will have to leave here.’
‘Leave? But we can’t. Where will we go? Winter is coming. I’m pregnant. We have nowhere to go.’
‘Hush now, calm down.’ Maggie was stern. ‘You have the baby to think of. And we have a lot to do. We need to decide where we are going, and then we need to get as much together as we can. We have to leave today.’
‘Today? How, how can we leave today? We don’t even know where to go.’
‘Lizzie, Lizzie, look at me.’ Samuel’s voice was gentle. ‘Your mother is right. We have no time to lose. I have never seen my father like that. So cold. So determined. He will go to the constable and he will go today. We have to leave in the next few hours.’
Lizzie swallowed. She could not believe this was happening. That she was going to have to leave her home. That she would have to walk away from the cottage and go out into the unknown. But the alternative was even more terrifying than the thought of being homeless in the middle of the coming winter. She steadied herself, tried to keep her voice calm.
‘So, we have no choice then. But where will we go?’
Maggie scratched her nose, her face thoughtful.
‘We need to go as far as we can. Lizzie, we talked not long ago of Hannah, the woman who cared for me all those years ago. There is a chance that she still lives in the same place, not far from a village called Halstead. I am sure she would give us shelter until we found somewhere to settle. And there is a river there, I remember. When I came here it gave me a start.’
‘Why, Mother?’
‘It is called the Blackwater. Perhaps that is a sign.’ She smiled. ‘Well it’s as good a reason to choose a place as any.’
‘How far is it?’
‘It is to the east of London. Far enough away to be safe. But not too far for us to get there.’
Samuel stood.
‘Lizzie can’t walk all the way. I won’t let her. I have the cart. My father insisted that I take everything that belonged to me – said he didn’t want it in the house any longer. I’ve brought it back on the cart, with the old mare. We’ll take it with us.’
‘Samuel, we can’t do that!’ Lizzie stood too. ‘You’ll make things worse; we’ll be accused of stealing.’
‘Lizzie, you are not walking however many miles it is to this Halstead place. If we go quickly then they won’t know. And if they do know then they won’t catch us. Come on now, we’ve wasted too much time already.’
It didn’t take long to gather their belongings though Lizzie found it hard to decide what to take with her. In the end they packed the few clothes they had, some linen and sheets for the baby, and the herbs they might need on their journey and for Lizzie’s labour, including peppermint to make the trip more comfortable. That and a few bits of food were all they risked packing up –time was getting on, but it pained Lizzie to leave the jars of medicines and remedies that she and her mother had worked so hard on these last few weeks. Just as they were about to leave, Lizzie had a sudden thought.
‘What about the chickens? We can’t just leave them here.’
Maggie scratched her head and sighed.
‘We’ll have to; we can’t take them with us.’
Lizzie’s heart sank.
‘But if we leave them here then someone from the village will come and take them. They might even slaughter them.’
‘Lizzie, see sense. We can’t waste time on a few chickens, we have to leave.’
Lizzie felt shame at the tears welling up in her eyes, but she couldn’t bear to think of the chickens being treated so.
‘At least let me open the gate. They can take their chances then.’
‘Go on then, but hurry.’
Lizzie stepped out into the tiny yard for the last time. The sun was just rising, the sky streaked with slashes of red and orange against lead grey. The chickens immediately fluttered to her, pecking around her feet, waiting for some grain. She picked one up, held it gently in her arms, then, as her tears began to fall, she buried her head in the bird’s soft feathers. It clucked in response. Hearing Samuel calling from inside the cottage, Lizzie reluctantly placed the fowl gently down then turned to open the gate. Hand on the latch, she stiffened. She could hear horses, she was sure of it. She stood still and listened again. Yes, horses hooves, lots of them. Panic began to rise in her throat as she strained her eyes to the distance. Coming across the meadow from the Pendle’s farm she could make out several riders, moving quickly, drawing close. Flinging the gate open she ran back into the cottage.
‘Samuel, Mother, there are men coming, from the farm.’

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