The weather grew steadily worse as the three travelled towards Halstead. Their road would take them to the outskirts of London where they would pick up the road to Colchester. Halstead was to the north west of Colchester and Maggie had been sure that she would know which road to take when she saw it.
As the cart trundled onwards, Lizzie spent most of her time trying to keep warm. She had a spare petticoat so had been able to replace the one that had burnt in the fire, but still the biting wind chilled her. Sometimes she walked a little way next to the horse, just to keep warm, but for the most part she huddled under the few blankets Maggie had had the presence of mind to throw onto the cart on that last morning. Maggie huddled with her, still quiet after the shock of the burning of the cottage, but each day becoming more like herself. Samuel too was quiet, driving the horse, a faraway look in his eye. Lizzie knew he grieved for his mother, but she could not bring herself to offer him any comfort on that score; all she felt was relief at the woman’s death. But at night, when the three of them took shelter under the cart, the damp cold earth seeping through the blanket they lay on, Samuel would hold her tightly, and she was glad not only of the warmth of his body but for the closeness she felt to him again, a closeness that had seemed to be lost in the last few weeks they had spent in Eversley.
They made slow progress. The road was rutted in places and the weather made the surface precarious. The mornings would often see a thick frost, the branches of the trees laced with white; the fields stretching into the distance cold and ghostly in the wavering sun, the warm tones of autumn muted by the gradual descent into winter. The road then would be slippery and Samuel would be careful to drive slowly, mindful of Lizzie shivering behind him.
It took four days to reach the outskirts of London. The road widened out, the villages became denser, closer together. Then, late on the afternoon of the third day, the outline of the city became visible on the horizon. Samuel stopped the cart and the three sat for a while, staring ahead.
In front of them stretched what looked like a wasteland. There were marshy fields dotted with makeshift shelters here and there, increasing in number the closer to the city they got, smoke rising from small fires. Beyond these the silhouettes of tall buildings stretched dark against the leadening sky. Samuel turned to Lizzie.
‘It is getting dark now, perhaps we should stop for the day. Find somewhere to shelter for the night.’
‘Not anywhere near here though.’ Lizzie was eyeing the fields. She did not relish the thought of spending the dark hours of the night amongst them.
‘No,’ Samuel agreed. ‘We should not go any closer. And we don’t want to be in the city itself, not at night. Only those who are looking for trouble or worse will venture out after the sun sets. Besides, how do we explain to the nightwatch what our business is if we are stopped?’
Lizzie stared at the city, trying to imagine what it would be like there, with all those other people. Among all those noises, all those smells. What would it be like to wake up in the morning and not hear the birds singing? For surely no birds ventured into that dark and gloomy place, rising like some hell on the horizon.
‘Will we have to go there, tomorrow?’
‘It is the quickest way to pick up the road to Colchester. Otherwise we will have to travel round it. That will add at least another day to our journey. And I don’t think any of us want that.’
Lizzie shook her head. The city looked terrifying, but she was so weary. She wanted to get to Halstead, needed to sleep under a roof, warm and safe for a change.
But as she tried to sleep that night, the knots in the wood of the underside of the cart as familiar to her now as those of the roof of the cottage in Eversley, she couldn’t help feel scared of the London that would greet her in the morning.
They passed by the last of the fields before the sun had risen fully. Lizzie had looked aghast on the poor souls living in those makeshift homes. Whole families sat around tiny fires, looking frozen and hungry. Not much was cooking over those flames either for there were scant few aromas of food permeating the air, and those that did were mostly so foul that Lizzie shuddered to think what was in the cooking pots. As they approached the city the sun rose, golden light illuminating those dark shadows that had seemed so forbidding yesterday. Lizzie drew in her breath as she took in the vastness of it. Samuel had visited London once before, on business with his father, and now he pointed out the landmarks that studded the horizon, breathtaking in their enormity.
‘See those four round towers there, making a square? That’s the Tower of London. That’s where they tortured Fawkes and executed all those queens of King Henry. There’s a zoo there too, with lions and bears.’
Lizzie looked at the white towers with a shudder. The stone gleamed in the morning light – they were beautiful. But what horrors had happened there. Samuel was pointing to a church tower rising high above the other buildings.
‘That there is St Paul’s Church. It’s spire was struck by lightning. Caused a terrible fire. They haven’t got round to sorting it yet, by the looks of things.’
Lizzie had never seen a church so big. The church in Eversley, though the biggest building in the village apart from the tavern, would be dwarfed by this. It looked more like a castle than a place of worship.
Every now and then the strengthening sun would glint on something amidst the buildings, and, as they drew nearer, Lizzie realised that this was a great river.
‘That’s the Thames,’ Samuel told her. ‘It runs right through London. People travel on it in boats if they have far to go.’
This new world seemed stranger and stranger to Lizzie.
‘Those buildings there on the side of the Thames, that’s Westminster, where parliament is. That’s what Fawkes was trying to blow up before they took him to the tower.’
Lizzie looked about her, trying to take it all in. They had entered the city itself now and the streets were becoming narrower the further they ventured. It was still early but the inhabitants seemed to have been awake for hours. The road beneath them gave way to cobbles and the cart bumped horrendously. Holding on to her stomach, Lizzie thought she might be sick. But she waved the thought away, and concentrated instead on the sights and sounds that were enveloping her as their small cart was swallowed up by the business of the city.
They were surrounded on both sides by buildings crammed together with hardly any space between. When there was a narrow space, Lizzie peered through and was rewarded by small glimpses of the river, that she now realised was brown, nor silver as the glints of sun had promised. In fact it was so unlike the Blackwater that she had trouble believing it was a river at all. The waters of the Blackwater sparkled, they ran clear and fresh. This river was sluggish, a fetid stench rising from its dank depths. They seemed to be travelling adjacent to its filthy waters down a road so narrow that the houses on opposite sides almost touched each other, their top windows leaning precariously overhead as if they would meet in the middle.
The streets were filling with people, so many people that Lizzie was breathless. They hurried here and there, for the most part with their heads down, faces muffled against the cold. Stalls were set up on the road, making the passing of the cart even more difficult in some places, and it took all Samuel’s skill to manoeuvre through. Lizzie could understand now why most people used the river to get from place to place, however disgusting a trip on its murky waters might be. She turned to look at the buildings they passed. Many were dilapidated though obviously still in use. Some had signs hanging at the front displaying the trade or the goods available inside, from clock makers to seamstresses to bakers and butchers. These last two displayed their wares outside as well as in; indeed whole pigs were strung outside the butchers’ as well as a variety of dead fowl. The smell of these animals made Lizzie heave and she dreaded to think what the stench must be like in the height of summer. They continued up the narrow street for a few minutes
‘We can’t go forwards, Samuel. And I’m not staying here to witness this. We need to try and go back. Find another way.’
Samuel looked behind him and shook his head.
‘We can’t. Look, the road behind is full of people now.’
Lizzie felt panic rise in her throat. She could not witness this.
‘I can’t stay here. I can’t watch it.’
She knew she sounded almost hysterical, knew that she was attracting the attention of those around her, but she couldn’t help herself. Samuel was looking at her desperately. Then Maggie was at her shoulder, a reassuring hand on her arm.
‘Lizzie, come back to the cart. We cannot go forwards, you can see that. We will just sit in the back of the cart and wait. Wait until it is over.’
Lizzie nodded, and let herself be guided back. She sat with Maggie, ignoring the suspicious stares of the spectators. As she sat there, she tried to fill her head with happy memories of walking on the banks of the Blackwater, of dangling her toes in the cold water. She thought of feeding the chickens at home, of their gentle clucking at her approach. She wondered what was happening to them now – whether they had managed to escape. But however much she tried to fill her mind with other things, she still heard the crowd roaring, the whistling, the jeering, the snap of the noose that accompanied the creaking of the cart’s wheels as it was pushed from under the gallows. How she wished she were at home now. She chided herself - she had no home. She belonged nowhere. Then Samuel smacked the whip, and the cart began to move slowly through the dispersing crowds that were all chattering excitedly, laughing and smiling in the cold air. They slowly trundled on, past the crossroads and Lizzie felt her heart drop at the sight of the poor man, still hanging there, his lifeless body swaying, alone.
They made good progress for the rest of that day, Samuel seemingly keen to leave the city behind. Soon the hustle and bustle and the claustrophobic closeness of the buildings gave way to green fields again, and Lizzie was relieved to be breathing fresh, sweet air. They picked up the Colchester Road and by early afternoon were well on their way to Halstead.
The countryside here was much flatter than Lizzie was used to. The fields seemed to stretch for miles, without a hill in sight, dotted with clusters of villages and sprinkled with forests and copses. The flatness made the ride much easier and Maggie declared that they need only spend one more night under the stars before they reached Hannah Woodbury’s home.
The night was not as cold as past nights had been, but there was a dampness in the air that seemed to burrow right into Lizzie’s bones. In the early hours of the morning it began to drizzle, and by the time they were on their way once more the rain was pouring. Lizzie and Maggie huddled together, taking shelter under one of the blankets, the others covering their scant few belongings, protecting them from the worst of the rain. Lizzie began to feel rather light-headed as the day wore on and to suffer fits of shivering that made her whole body shake. When these overcame her, Maggie would take her in her arms, trying fruitlessly to warm her. As the rain continued relentlessly, lashing the flat countryside, Lizzie was sorry for admiring the landscape earlier for it afforded very little in the way of shelter. The road quickly became muddy beneath them, slowing them considerably. As dusk drew in, Maggie surveyed the darkening skies and then looked at Lizzie.
‘You are soaked through. We all are. And these blankets are not much use now either. I don’t think we can stop. It will just get colder.’ She leaned over and tapped Samuel’s shoulder. He brought the horse to a halt and glanced back.
‘Samuel, I don’t think we should make a stop this night. I do not want Lizzie sleeping on the wet ground. I fear she is developing a fever as it is. She is better off in the cart if we can keep moving.’
Samuel nodded and Lizzie felt relief wash over her. She did not like the thought of travelling on through the dark fields, but she liked the thought of the damp ground for a bed even less. Samuel clicked at the horse to start moving again and they made their way through the rain, onwards towards Halstead.
As the night wore on, the rain stopped and the sky cleared. The moon was bright in the sky and Lizzie was sure Samuel was glad of it for it helped him to ensure that he choose a safe path. But the ground was still bumpy beneath them and Lizzie was beginning to feel each individual lump, stone and ridge as the wooden wheels travelled onwards. Her head was pounding and each jolt seemed to jerk through her. Her very bones ached with cold and the damp blanket offered no relief. She was vaguely aware that Maggie was eyeing her with concern and this frightened her a little, though she was too cold and in too much discomfort to pay it much thought. Besides, there was not much her mother could do; they simply had to travel on through the arduous night and hope that the morning would bring them quickly to Hannah’s door.
Lizzie must have managed to get at least some rest for she opened her eyes onto daylight. Her head was still thumping, her mouth dry, and, though the blanket was no longer quite so wet, she was still aching.. Her legs were stiff, curled as they had been around her all night, rigid in response to the raw air. Tentatively, she stretched them out, could almost feel them creaking beneath her. The movement woke Maggie, who stretched out too, her face confused for a second, and then clearing.
Lizzie looked over to where Samuel was still driving the cart and saw that his shoulders were slumped with weariness. How he had managed to keep going through those long hours, Lizzie had no idea.
‘Samuel.’ Her voice was a mere croak.
Samuel glanced behind him at the sound of her voice, his face exhausted. His eyes were red, smudged with dark circles, but he managed to smile at her.
‘Not long now, Lizzie. We took the Halstead road just as the sun was rising, so we should be there shortly.’
Lizzie nodded and sank back down into the cart. The pain in her head was becoming almost unbearable. There was a pressure behind her eyes and she rested her hand over them now, caressing the bridge of her nose with her forefingers, trying desperately to find some relief. Maggie placed a cool hand on her forehead.
‘Lizzie, you’re burning up, my love.’ Lizzie looked at her mother, confused. How could she be burning when she felt so cold?
‘I’ll get Samuel to stop for a while, get you something to drink.’
Lizzie started to shake her head in protest, but the effort was too much, and sent stars dancing in front of her closed eyelids. A wave of nausea swept over her. She made to sit up, then was thrown backwards by the sudden stopping of the cart. She could hear Samuel cursing.
‘We’ve hit a rock. Can’t believe I didn’t see it.’
Lizzie opened her eyes against the weak sunlight. She could feel the movement of Samuel jumping down form the cart, could feel him kicking the wheel to the front right, then heard him curse again.
‘Whole thing’s buckled. I don’t think I can fix it.’
Maggie scrambled awkwardly down to stand at his side.
‘That looks beyond help, Samuel.’
Lizzie strained to look down at her husband and mother. Maggie had a hand shielding her eyes, looking out over the horizon.
‘I don’t think it is far from here. From what I remember the village is just the other side of those trees – the ones there on the right. Can
‘And Hannah lived in a little clearing just by those trees. She liked to be away from the village. I think we can walk it.’
She turned, looked at Lizzie, white-faced in the cart.
‘Although, I’m not sure Lizzie can. She’ll have to go on the horse. Lizzie, can you mange that?’
Lizzie looked up at her mother. Maggie seemed to waver from side to side and Lizzie had trouble focussing on her face. But she forced herself to nod.
Samuel was shaking his head.
‘I don’t know, Lizzie. You look dreadful. Perhaps I should go on ahead. Bring back some help.’
‘No.’ said Maggie firmly. ‘We don’t want to attract any attention. We need to just get to Hannah’s and rest for a while. Then we can deal with other people.’
‘I’ll be fine, Samuel, honestly,’ Lizzie words were hardly more than a whisper. The thought of sitting here in the cold, waiting for Samuel to come back, was horrible. She just had to get to Hannah’s. Had to be somewhere warm and dry.
She pulled herself to her feet, trying to ignore the shooting pains in her arms and legs, the shivering in her limbs, the pounding of her head. She was grateful to step into Samuel’s strong arms, and she rested there a while, leaning on him for support.
‘Lizzie, are you really sure about this?’
‘Yes.’ She wished he would stop asking her. She didn’t want to speak. She just wanted to be on the horse, be on her way to shelter.
Samuel lifted her onto the smooth broad back of the horse, and secured her there with a length of coarse rope. She leaned forward, resting her head on the beast’s soft mane. Behind her, Maggie and Samuel loaded blankets and clothes; they would come back later to collect the rest of their poor possessions. Samuel took the bridle and they began to move forward.
The horse seemed to sense the importance of her cargo, for her tread was gentle. Even so, each step shuddered through Lizzie’s exhausted body. Her bones clashed against each other, her flesh felt bruised and tender. She closed her eyes against the light that sent small daggers of pain into her head. She rested her head against the horse’s neck, red and purple dots dancing in front of her. Every now and then she felt small moments of peace, as her body surrendered consciousness. She must have been in this state when they eventually arrived at Hannah’s humble home, for she was only vaguely aware of being lifted form the horse and carried into a room full of comforting aromas, kind voices and, most precious of all, warmth.
Blackwater by Alison Williams / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on30 votes