Read an Excerpt
Batchcombe, Wessex, 1627
That year the harvest was good. Rain early in the season had given way to a dry summer under a fruitful sun, and the last cut of hay from the top meadow was the finest Bess had seen. She pushed up her shirtsleeves, dark wisps of hair from beneath her cap coiling into the curve of her warm neck as she stooped. Her brown skirts skimmed the mowed grass, snatching up stray stems as she gathered armfuls of hay. Ahead of her, her father, John, worked in swift, practiced movements with his fork, digging deep before flicking the hay high onto the rick, apparently without effort. Atop the stack stood Thomas, at sixteen a whole year older than Bess and a head taller, deftly working the hay into the shape required to repel the weather and hold firm through autumn winds. He shared his sister’s coloring and angular body, both inherited from their mother, Anne, as was the seriousness that he wore like a cloak about his shoulders, but his practical way of being in the world, his measured habit of facing life, those were qualities handed down to him from his father.
Bess paused, rubbing the small of her back, straightening to stretch tired muscles. She enjoyed haymaking: enjoyed the sense of completion of another cycle of planting and growing, of a successful crop gathered in, of the security of fodder for the beasts and therefore food for the family for the coming winter months. Her enjoyment did not stop her body complaining about the hard work, however. The heat was fatiguing. Her sweat-wet skin was gritty with dust and itched from a thousand grass seeds. Her nose and throat were uncomfortably dry. She shielded her eyes with her hand, squinting toward the leeward hedge. Two figures approached. One tall and lean like herself, striding with purpose and containment; the other a small bundle of energy, dark, nimble, skipping over the ground as if it were too hot for her dainty feet. Bess smiled. It was a smile only her little sister could induce. The child was a constant source of joy for the whole family. This was due in part to her happy disposition, her prettiness, and her sweet laughter that no one could resist. But it had also to do with the painful years that had preceded her birth. Bess and Thomas had been born quickly and without difficulty, but later siblings had not been so fortunate. Twice Anne had miscarried a baby, and two who had survived to birth had dwindled in her arms. Another, a rosy-cheeked boy, Bess remembered, had lived to the age of two before succumbing to the measles. By the time Margaret arrived, the rest of the family were steeled for further loss and grief but soon saw that here was a child who would grasp life with both of her tiny hands and live every day of it, however many or few there might be.
“They’re come,” Bess told the men.
They dropped their forks without a second bidding, more than ready for their food after a long morning’s toil.
Margaret squealed and ran to greet her sister, leaping into her arms. Bess spun her round and round until they both collapsed dizzy and giggling onto the hay-strewn ground.
“Bess!” Her mother’s voice pretended to be stern. “Have a care.”
“Aye.” Her father dusted down his shirt front with roughened hands. “The mare won’t eat her feed if it’s had the flavor pressed out of it.” His attempt at rancor was even less successful.
Together, the family made their way over to the nearby oak and settled themselves in its friendly shade. Anne placed her basket on the ground and began to lift out the meal she had brought for the workers.
“We made oatcakes, Bess, look.” Margaret thrust a cloth bundle beneath her sister’s nose, tugging at the corners to reveal the treats.
Bess breathed in deeply, savoring the aroma of the warm cakes. “Mmmm! Margaret, these smell good.”
“Good?” John laughed as Anne passed him the stoneware jar of cider. “Why, Bess, doesn’t thou know the finest oatcakes in all of Batchcombe when they be under thy nose?”
Margaret jumped with delight, performing clumsy cartwheels of celebration. Bess watched the whirl of skirts and petticoats tumbling across the biscuit-dry ground. The oatcakes tasted of the day itself, of sunshine, and plenty, and loving hands. She wished that it could always be just this time of year, the lazy height of summer, the strong sun, the long bright days, the ease of warm weather and abundant food.
“Why can it not always be summer?” she asked of no one in particular.
“That makes no sense.” Thomas spoke through a mouthful of cheese. “If it were always summer, there would be no rain, no time to plant, no fallow seasons, no rest for the land, no gathering in. Farmers would be all in a caddle.”
“Oh, Thomas”—Bess lay flat, her hands behind her head, eyes closed, watching the sun’s brilliance dance on the back of her eyelids—“do you always have to show such good sense?”
“No person ever died of a surfeit of it,” he pointed out.
Bess laughed. “Nor did they ever truly live on such a diet.”
“I think you wish to spend all your life as a child, Bess,” Thomas said, more as a plain fact than a criticism.
Bess opened her eyes and watched Margaret dancing across the stubble. “Surely it is the summer of our lives. Why would I want to leave it? Such freedom. Life is all possibility. And then we grow up and find our choices to be so very few. Everything is set down for us. Who we must be. Where we must bide. How we must live our lives.”
Anne shook her head.
“Most would be thankful to have a place, a home, a position. To be sure of who they are.”
“Not our Bess.” John paused to take a slow swig of cider and then continued, “Our Bess would sooner go where the wind has a mind to take her.” He laughed. “Adventure lies o’er yonder hill or else across the ocean, not in Batchcombe. B’aint that so, Bess?”
“Is it so wrong to want to do something different?” Her eyes glowed with the idea of it. “To change something? To go beyond what is set down?”
“Have a care, Bess,” said her mother. “There are those would call such notions vanity. They would say ’tis ungodly to wish to be other than He has chosen for thee.”
Bess sighed, wishing that just for once her mother would allow her to voice her dream without trampling it into the hard earth of reality.
“Look!” Margaret had stopped dancing and was pointing excitedly at the far side of the pasture. “William! ’Tis Bess’s William!”
Color flooded Bess’s cheeks. “He most certainly is not ‘Bess’s William,’” she said, standing up to hide her discomfort.
“Oh, but he is,” Margaret insisted. “You know he be in love with you. Everyone knows it.” She laughed with delight.
Bess tried hard to remain stern, but a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“They know no such thing, Margaret.” Bess stole a glance in the direction indicated by her sister’s still pointing finger. Two riders were following the narrow path between the grassland and the woods. William, as befitted a young man of his wealth and family, was mounted on a fine animal the color of autumn bracken. The second man rode a simple nag, sturdy and plain. Although they were some distance away, Bess could clearly make out William’s youthful but earnest face. The son of Sir James Gould, local squire and owner of Batchcombe Woods, William could often be found about his father’s business, helping him manage the estate and lands that went with Batchcombe Hall, which had been in his family for more generations than anyone remembered. He was listening attentively to his companion now, nodding from time to time, his expression serious as ever. Bess’s gaze slid to the older man. She knew who he was; his dark clothes and inappropriately proud bearing were easily recognizable. He was nearer her father’s age than her brother’s yet did not have a similarly worn and rugged appearance, which was strange for someone who lived such a rural and basic life. Gideon Masters. Everyone knew who Gideon was, but Bess doubted that anyone actually knew the man himself. He rarely came into the village, did not attend church or go to the inn for ale, and when he was in company was not given to easy conversation. His life as a charcoal maker meant he would naturally spend most of his time in his cottage in the woods, and yet Bess believed he embraced his reclusive existence, more than likely having chosen his trade because of rather than in spite of it. After all, he had not seen the need for wife or family. He spoke without looking at his landlord, gesturing all the while at this piece of woodland and that. Then, abruptly, he turned and smiled at William. Even from her distant viewpoint, Bess could see the power in that smile, the way it transformed his stern features. As always, Bess found the man oddly fascinating. Watching him reminded her of how when they were small, she and Thomas would lie on their bellies in the grass, hands beneath their chins, bewitched by the sight of a cat chewing on a live mouse. Bess had wanted to look away but could not, finding herself horribly compelled to stare at the sharp teeth of the cat as they sank into the twitching rodent. So it was with Gideon. She would prefer not to see him in the same picture as gentle William, and yet of the two riders it was the man that drew her gaze, not the boy. At that moment, Gideon, as if sensing he was being observed, looked directly at Bess. Even with a broad stretch of pasture between them, Bess was certain he was staring straight into her eyes. She turned away quickly, helping herself to bread. She became aware of another pair of eyes upon her. Her mother was watching her closely.
“There is a man best left to himself.” Anne made the statement for all to hear, but she never once took her gaze off Bess.
“He is a solitary fellow,” John agreed.
“Mibben he is lonely.” As soon as Bess had spoken the words, she wished them unsaid. She could not think what had made her voice such an idea.
“He chooses to bide alone,” said her mother. “That is not the same thing.”
The afternoon’s work went well, the whole family concentrating their efforts on finishing the task. Even so, the sun was disappearing behind the trees as they gathered their implements and turned for home. Long shadows followed them across the enclosure, the last of the day’s heat dwindling into evening. As Bess walked she let her ears travel beyond the chattering finches and wheeling rooks so that she could discern the distant sighing of the sea. On a breezy day she could smell it from the open door of the cottage, but in such stillness and heat all that reached her was the exhalation of the harmless summer waves. She loved the fact that their home was so close to the shore. They could not see it from the smallholding, but it was only a short walk to the cliff top. Bess decided she would take Margaret down to the beach to look for cockles and whelks early the next morning.
By the time they reached the cottage, Margaret was dragging on Bess’s hand and yawning loudly. The house sat in a small indent in the landscape, its whitewashed stone pink in the afterglow of the sun, its straw thatch a snugly fitting hat pulled low over its windows. From behind the wooden barn came the sonorous lowing of the cows, impatient to be milked. Thomas and John fetched pails while the women went indoors.
The small house was a single storey with a main room, the hall, a parlor, which served as bedchamber for the family, and the dairy. Here the temperature was kept cool by the addition of heavy stone slabs on which the butter lay wrapped in muslin. A wooden rack of shelves held the maturing cheeses. By the window was the butter churn at which Bess had stood for so many hours, helping her mother produce gleaming blocks to sell at Batchcombe market on Fridays, along with the Blue Vinny cheese that was so popular. In these respects the dairy was the same as any other for twenty miles around. Only the far wall and its sturdy shelves were a departure from the commonplace. Here were bundles of herbs tied tight, hanging from the ceiling. Beneath them were baskets of pungent cloth parcels. And on the shelves, regimental rows of small clay pots and stoneware jars stood to attention. Inside each was a concoction of Anne’s invention, the recipes known only to her, and some latterly to Bess. There was lavender oil for treating scars and burns; rosemary and mint to fight coughs and fevers; comfrey to knit broken bones; fruit leaf teas to ease the pains of childbirth; garlic powder to purify the blood; and rose oil to restore the mind. Pots of honey from John’s bees sat fatly, waiting to treat wounds that were slow to heal or save the lives of infants following sickness. In this dark, quiet corner of this unremarkable room dwelled the secrets of healing and treatments for disease handed down from mother to daughter for generations.
“Leave the door open, Bess,” said her mother. “Let us have the sun’s company while we may. Your father will not begrudge us candles later.”
Bess and Margaret set to laying the table while their mother lit a fire beneath the pottage. They were fortunate in living so close to the woods and having their modest acreage bordered by sizable trees. This meant that with care they need not be short of fuel and could use the manure from the livestock for fertilizing the pasture, rather than having to gather it and dry it to burn in the winter months. Margaret fetched the pewter bowls while Bess took the pitcher to the dairy. She paused a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the gloom. How she loved this room. She stepped over to the wheels of cheese, sniffing their nutty fragrance, her mouth running at the memory of the creamy sourness of a piece of Blue Vinny eaten with warm bread. She wandered over to the corner of the room and ran a finger along the jars, repeating aloud the names of the contents, memorizing the order in which they were stored.
“Rosemary, thyme, garlic. Feverfew, no … comfrey, more comfrey, raspberry leaf tea…” Putting down the jug, she prized the stopper from a bottle and breathed in its fumes. “Ah, sweet dog rose.”
Her mother’s gift as a healer was a perpetual source of fascination for Bess. She had seen her prepare infusions and tinctures and unctions hundreds of times, and yet it never failed to enthrall her. Her mother’s wisdom had been passed down to her by her mother, and her mother before that had gathered herbs and plants to concoct remedies and tonics. Bess lacked her mother’s patience and wished she had more of her levelheadedness so that she might one day take up her work. She knew she had much to learn and at times heard exasperation in her mother’s voice when she forgot which tea softened the pains of childbirth or what oil should be given for ringworm.
“Bess?” Her mother called from the fireside. “Be quick with that cider.”
Bess hastily resealed the oil and did as she was told.
They ate their supper in familiar silence except for Margaret’s occasional commentary and the spitting of the fire. Light summer evenings were a blessing, but they brought long hours of work in the fields, and none of the family was inclined to energetic talk. With the table cleared, John sat by the last of the burning logs with his pipe. Thomas went outside to tend to the stock before night. Anne lit two candles and sat in her beloved rocking chair by the girls, who had already fetched their lacework and bobbins from the linen chest. Bess disliked the fiddly task and was never wholly satisfied with the results of her labors. Margaret, on the other hand, had a natural talent for the work, her nimble fingers speeding the bobbins this way and that with never a loose stitch or lazy finish. She put Bess in mind of a tiny garden spider spinning its web to catch the morning dew. Her sister became aware she was being watched and grinned at Bess. There passed between the two a silent communication, a tiny nod, a stifled laugh.
“Go on, Bess,” Margaret whispered, “please!”
Bess smiled but shook her head, using her eyes to remind her sibling of how close by their mother sat. She tried to focus on the lace. The low candlelight forced her to squint at the fine thread, and the effort was starting to make her brow ache. Irritation began to mount within her. Why should they have to ruin their eyesight and test their nerves with such bothersome work? Where was it written that she, Bess, must spend so many hours engaged in such vexing labor, just to put a few coins in the family purse? The thought of some well-to-do Lady, who no doubt spent her time on far more interesting pursuits, adorning herself with the results of Margaret’s handiwork brought a further knot of anger into Bess’s head. For a second she failed to keep a tight rein on her temper, and in that second it escaped, an invisible ball of pure energy. At once the candles on the table began to spit. Then, feeding on this rich new fuel, the flames grew, up and up, brighter and brighter. Anne gasped and jumped to her feet. Margaret squealed with delight.
“Yes, Bess!” she cried, clapping her hands. “Oh, yes!”
The room was filled with light, as if a hundred candles had been lit. The flames towered above the table, threatening to reach the ceiling. John sprang to his feet and was on the point of dousing them with his cider when, abruptly, the candles went out. In the darkness Bess could not see her mother’s face, but she was certain she had heard the snapping of her fingers just a second before the flames had been extinguished. The air was heavy with the fatty smell of smoldering wicks. John took a spill from the fire and relit the candles. Anne’s expression was stern.
“Press on with your work, girls,” she said.
An urgent knock at the door startled Bess so much she dropped the lace she had been clutching.
John let in a red-faced boy of about twelve. He all but fell into the room, panting heavily.
“Why, ’tis Bill Prosser’s nipper,” John said. “Sit thee down, lad. What devil chases thee?”
“Our Sarah,” he blurted out, “the baby…” He turned tear-filled eyes to Anne, “Will you come, Missus? Will you come?”
“Is not Old Mary attending your sister?”
“Was Old Mary sent me to find you, Missus. She told me to tell thee she must have your help.”
Bess stood up. She saw her parents exchange worried glances. Although Anne had assisted at many births and was well known for her care and skill, Old Mary had taught her most of what she knew. She was undoubtedly the best midwife Batchcombe could offer. If she needed help, things must be bad indeed.
Anne stepped quickly into the dairy and came back with her bag. She picked up her woolen shawl and handed another to Bess.
“Come with me,” she said, before all but shoving the boy back out the door and bundling him down the path. “Hurry, Bess!” she called back.
Bess shook herself from her state of shock and ran after them.
The Prossers’ home was a fine timber-framed house at the end of the high street. Bill Prosser was a merchant and, unlike John, owned his home. It was neither grand nor ostentatious but rather had about it an understated expense and quality that spoke of a man of money. Indeed, Batchcombe had recently come to boast several such men—merchants who had seen opportunity for wealth and betterment in changing times. So successful had many of them become, Prosser included, that they had acquired not only money but reputation. In the new order, they were not merely mercantile men, little better than market traders simply hawking their wares on a broader pitch; now they were seen as men of commerce and intelligence, men who would be important players in the modern world that was emerging from the dark ages. Mistress Prosser held herself entirely responsible for her own good fortune, having chosen her husband for his fine qualities and coolheadedness, she had been a good wife to him, borne him three sons and three daughters (miraculously all still living) and had been rewarded with financial security and social standing higher than she could have imagined. She had prided herself on furnishing her new home with all the very best and most fashionable items, whilst still, naturally, observing a godly modesty. It was a hard act to carry out successfully, particularly when her husband’s merchandise arrived from distant shores—the most exquisite embroideries, the finest linen, the most beautiful glassware from Venice and silverware from Spain. The results were striking, though a little at the expense of modesty. Bill Prosser was proud of what he had achieved and happy for his wife to dress the house with pointers to his success. He was happier still to see his daughters well married. Both he and Mistress Prosser knew very well that their new sons-in-law would have been beyond the reach of their girls only a few years earlier. But society can have its memory shortened by wealth. Nevertheless, disease and misfortune knew no social bounds. Nor did the immensely dangerous business of childbirth.
The scene that greeted Bess in young Sarah’s bedchamber was one of panic and pain. The young girl had not yet been a year married and she had returned to her father’s house for her confinement. The men sat with stern, pale faces in the kitchen, while the women attended the terrified girl. Her mother, her older sister, and at least two aunts crowded round the bed. Sarah looked no more than a child herself at that moment, her hair damp and tangled on the pillow, her skin flushed and shiny, her body dwarfed by her swollen stomach. The room was lit only by a small lamp and a candle, and in the summer heat the air was fetid and hot. Bess put her hand to her mouth as the door was closed behind her. Anne moved quickly to the window and threw it open.
“Oh!” cried Sarah’s mother. “My daughter will take a chill from the night air in her weakened state.”
“Your daughter will faint away, robbed of breath, if she is to share the rank air in this room with so many people.”
The older woman thought to protest further, but Anne silenced her.
“I am here to help, Mistress Prosser. Allow me to do so.”
Despite the best efforts of Old Mary, the labor had consisted thus far of hours of pain and effort and blood and yet produced no baby. Sarah lay wide-eyed, clutching at her mother’s hand, her sweaty face showing a mix of exhaustion and fear. Sarah’s sister dabbed at her ineffectually with a damp cloth.
Mary drew Anne to a corner and spoke to her with a muted voice, which she was forced to raise on occasion because of the girl’s pitiful cries.
“Bless thee for coming with such speed, Anne. This does not go well. The poor child is all but spent and still no sign of the infant coming forth.”
Anne nodded, listening closely to what the old woman had to say. Bess thought Mary herself looked near collapse. What did she think her mother could do for this wretched girl that she could not? Bess watched the two consulting for a moment longer before Anne stepped over to the bed and laid her hands on Sarah’s belly.
“Hush, child, do not fear.”
“Oh, Missus Hawksmith!” Sarah grabbed at her with a clammy hand. “The babe will surely die, and me besides!”
“No, no. It is just as Mary says. Your infant is lying awkward, ’tis all. We must bid him turn so that he can find his way out.”
She had barely finished her sentence when a powerful spasm gripped Sarah’s body. The girl let out a shout that grew into a shriek until it trailed off to a heartbreaking whimper. Anne placed her hands on Sarah’s belly once more, gently but firmly working to manipulate the baby, to change its position. For a moment it seemed she might succeed, but then, just when the child seemed ready to engage with the process of being born, it would spin upward and sideways again. Anne persisted. Three times she almost won, but on each occasion the infant swiveled at the last minute. Anne straightened up as Sarah endured another agonizing convulsion. Bess marveled at how her whole body was taken up as if by some unseen force. A force that should be aiding the unborn child’s delivery but instead seemed only to be hastening its death.
Anne spoke softly to Mary.
“Have you tried turning it from inside the girl?”
“I have”—Mary nodded—“but she is a lissome lass. There is no room for my crooked hands.”
The two women looked at her bent, arthritic fingers, and then at Anne’s own straight but broad palms. Anne turned to Bess.
“Show me your hands.”
“Quickly, Bess, show me.”
Bess did as her mother bade her. Anne and Mary examined her hands closely. They looked at each other and then back at Bess. Anne lifted her daughter’s hands up and squeezed them as she spoke.
“Bess, you must attend to my words. Do precisely what I tell you, no more nor less. Move with care but firmly.”
“You mean … but, I can’t, Mother. I cannot!”
“You must! Only you can do it. If you do not, both mother and babe will die this night. Do you hear me?”
Bess opened her mouth to protest further but could not find the words. She had delivered calves for her father, who had also seen the value of her small hands. She had assisted at lambing time. She had even been present in the room when Margaret was born, though she remembered little past her mother’s determined face. She saw that same fixed expression now and knew it was not in her power to change it. Before she could think further, her mother called for a bowl of hot water and had Bess wash her hands. Anne dried them on clean linen, then rubbed them with lavender oil. All the while Mistress Prosser and the attendant women looked on with disdain at such unfamiliar practices. Anne led Bess to the bed before positioning herself at Sarah’s side, placing her hands on her belly once more. She nodded at Bess.
Bess looked at the young girl who was lying before her. Her chest heaved with the effort of labor and of pain. Her cheeks had taken on an alarming pallor. She looked up at Bess, her eyes pleading. Bess leaned forward and slowly eased the fingers of her right hand into the girl.
“What do you feel, Bess?” Anne asked.
“I cannot be certain … not the head, nor any limbs.” She looked at her mother, brows creased, trying to picture in her mind how the baby could be arranged in its mother’s womb. “I think … yes, I feel the child’s back, and here, its shoulder.”
Old Mary cursed quietly, “’Tis as I feared—the babe lies crossways.”
Mistress Prosser began to weep.
Anne held Bess in her gaze. “Feel for the top of the shoulder. Work your fingers over the bone. I will aid you from outside, but you must turn that baby so that his head is drawn downward.”
“There is no room. I cannot take a hold…”
Bess searched with her fingertips, finding her way to the nape of the unborn child’s neck and then over its tiny shoulder. She pulled, gently at first, then with more force. “It will not move.”
Old Mary stepped forward to whisper in Anne’s ear, but her words were audible to all.
“Anne, I have the hooks…”
“No!” Anne was adamant. “Not while the infant still lives.” She turned to Bess again. “Keep trying,” she said.
Bess did as she was told but feared her efforts would prove fruitless. The slippery baby seemed stuck fast in its impossible position. A terrifying image came into Bess’s mind. She recalled with frightening clarity the time her father had failed to deliver a particularly large calf. After battling for hours, he had thrown up his hands and sent Bess to the dairy to fetch the cheese wire. He had used it, with slow and deliberate movements, to slice the calf into pieces so that they might take it out and save the cow. No one could be certain the creature had been dead before he started dissecting it. Bess could see now the pathetic limbs and hooves lying in a gory mess beside its mother. The cow herself had died the following day. Bess blinked the picture from her mind. She must stay calm. She must be steadfast. If she was not, Sarah would pay the price with her life. Bess redoubled her efforts, shutting from her thoughts the notion that she might harm the child—it had to come out. At last she began to detect some shifting in its position. Anne noticed it too.
“Do not let it slip back,” she said.
Bess prized the shoulder to one side and felt the head moving downward toward the birth canal. At that moment, a powerful contraction swept through Sarah’s body. The girl was now too weak to scream and instead emitted an eerie wail.
Old Mary stepped forward.
“Bear down, child! Do not falter now. Push!”
Now she screamed. With one last, gargantuan effort, with strength summoned from an unknowable place that exists hidden within every mother, Sarah screamed and pushed.
Bess gasped as her hand and the baby were driven out. Everything happened with such speed she barely had time to grab the infant as it slithered onto the blood-soaked linen.
“Look!” Bess cried. “He’s out! A boy!”
Anne examined the child who protested loudly, much to the relief of everyone in the room.
“The Lord be praised!” whispered Mistress Prosser, raising her daughter’s hand to her lips.
Old Mary smiled a toothless grin, “The Lord and young Bess here,” she said. “She surely be her mother’s daughter.”
Bess watched the baby wrapped in warm swaddling and handed to his mother. Sarah kissed the top of her newborn’s head, her face transformed, the cloud of death removed and replaced by the warm joy of life. She looked up at Bess.
“Thank you, Bess,” she said.
“I need no thanks beyond seeing you and the babe safe and well, Sarah.”
“I will never forget what you have done for us,” Sarah said, before closing her eyes.
Bess felt her mother’s hand on her arm.
“Come, Bess. Let us leave her to rest.”
“I feared I might fail,” she confessed.
Her mother smiled. It was a smile that from anyone else might have been said to betray pride. She shook her head. “You did well, child,” she told her daughter. “You did well.”
Copyright © 2010 by Paula Brackston