Eliza’s Daughter

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First published by Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1984

This ebook published 2017

Copyright © The Estate of Joan Aiken, 1984

The moral right of the author has been asserted

ISBN: 978-1-448-12043-7

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Penguin Random House Children’s

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CONTENTS

Cover
About the Book
Title Page
Dedication
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Chapter XVI
About the Author
Also by Joan Aiken
Copyright

To Julius

ALSO BY JOAN AIKEN

Lady Catherine’s Necklace

Mansfield Revisited

The Wolves Chronicles:

The Whispering Mountain

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Black Hearts in Battersea

Night Birds on Nantucket

The Stolen Lake

Limbo Lodge

The Cuckoo Tree

Dido and Pa

Is

Cold Shoulder Road

Midwinter Nightingale

The Witch of Clatteringshaws

The Felix Trilogy:

Go Saddle the Sea

Bridle the Wind

The Teeth of the Gale

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For further details on these and other Joan Aiken books, go to:
www.joanaiken.com

I

I have a fancy to take pen in hand and tell my story, for now that I am arrived, so to speak, at a favourable hilltop, a safe situation above water level, I may look back on such mires, floods, tempests and raging tides as I have encountered with a tolerably tranquil eye; besides, my history should serve as a guide (or at least afford some diversion) to those who may be at present less favourably placed.

While, as to the dark that lies ahead, who can chart it?

In short – and without further preamble – I’ll begin.

I have no information as to the circumstances of my birth, or even in what county that event took place; indeed I doubt if there is any record of it.

My first memories are of the year 1797, when I must have been, I believe, about three or four years of age, and, from the circumstances of my life, already a shrewd and noticing child. As an infant I had been, I heard, somewhat frail and puny, and with the unlucky blemish that caused me to be scorned by some and feared by others. My foster-mother, Hannah Wellcome, having at that period several boys in her care greater in size than myself, and fearful that, among them, I might receive some fatal injury (thus depriving her of my foster-fee) daily dispatched me with a halfpenny, from the time that I could walk, to the vicarage and the decidedly questionable custody of the parson, Dr Moultrie. With the halfpenny I bought three cakes at the village baker’s for my dinner; and Dr Moultrie, to keep me from plaguing him with questions, for he was a slothful old party given to drowsing away many of the daylight hours in his chair, lost no time in teaching me to read, and turning me loose in his library. There, having run through such tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-Killer and Gold-Locks as remained from the days of his own children (long since grown and gone), I was obliged to munch on more solid fare, Goldsmith’s History of England, volumes of the Spectator, the plays of Shakespeare, and much poetry and theology, besides Berquin’s Ami des Enfants and some simple Italian tales (in consequence of which I acquired a readiness and taste for learning foreign tongues that has later stood me in good stead).

There was one volume that I read over and over, The Death of Arthur it was called, and I found the tales in it of knights and battles, Sir Beaumain, Sir Persaint, Merlin the enchanter and King Arthur himself, most haunting; they held sway over my mind for weeks together. But alas! one day, absorbed in the tale of the death of King Hermance, I dropped a great blob of jam from the tart I was eating on to the page of the book. When Dr Moultrie discovered this, he gave me a terrible beating, after which I could hardly crawl home, and he locked the book away; I never laid eyes on it again.

However, to his credit, it must be said that finding me an eager pupil Dr Moultrie was prepared to emerge from his torpor for an hour or two each day to instil in me the rudiments of Greek, Latin and Euclid, besides a thirst for wider knowledge.

But I run ahead of my tale.

Hannah Wellcome, my foster-mother, appeared good-natured and buxom: round red cheeks and untidy yellow ringlets escaping from her cap would predispose a stranger in her favour. I believe a certain native cunning had incited her to marry as she had done, thereby endowing herself with a propitious name and the status of a matron; Tom, her husband, kept in the background and was seldom seen; a narrow, dark, lantern-jawed ferret of a man, he scurried among the lanes on questionable pursuits of his own. But she, smiling and curtseying at the door of their thatched cottage, her ample bulk arrayed in clean apron, tucker and cap, might easily create an impression of kindly honesty, and had, at any one time, as many small clients as the house would hold.

The house, whitewashed and in its own garden, lay at the far end of a straggling hamlet sunk deep in a coombe. Our muddy street wound its way, like a crease through a green and crumpled counterpane, between steeply tilted meadows and dense patches of woodland, close to the border of Somerset and Devon. There were no more than twenty dwellings in all, besides the small ancient church presided over by Dr Moultrie. He had, as well, another village in his cure, perched high on the windy moor seven miles westwards. This was Over Othery. From long-established use and local custom, our hamlet, Nether Othery, was never thus referred to, but always, by the country folk round about, given the title of ‘Byblow Bottom’.

I write, now, of days long since passed away, when it was still the habit amongst all ladies of the gentle classes no matter how modest their degree, even the wives of attorneys, vicars, and well-to-do tradesmen, not to suckle their own infants, but always to put them out to wet-nurse. The bosoms of ladies, it seemed, were not for use, but strictly for show (and indeed, at the time I am recalling, bosoms were very much in evidence, bunched up over skimpy high-waisted dresses and concealed by little more than a twist of gauze and a scrap of cambric; what with that, and the fashion for wearing dampened petticoats and thin little kid slippers out of doors, very many young ladies must have gone to their ends untimely, thereby throwing even more business in the way of foster-mothers). Whatever the reason, it was held that the babies of the upper classes throve and grew faster when fed and tended by women of a lower order, and so the new-born infant would be directly dispatched, perhaps merely from one end of a village to the other, perhaps half across England to some baronial estate, to be reared in a cottage for two, three, or even four years, while its own mother, if so minded, need never lay eyes on it for that space of time. Of course I do not say this was the rule; many mothers, no doubt, visited their children very diligently, very constantly; but many others, I am equally sure, did not.

Be that as it may, our village had for many years past been distinguished for the number and excellence of its wet-nurses. Perhaps, too, the superiority of the West Country cattle, the abundance and richness of their cream and butter, bore some share in this good repute. Also, during the last twenty years, an additional fame had attached to Nether Othery: that of a retreat, remote and secure from gossip or corruption, possessed of a balmy climate and healthy, unspoiled surroundings, where those random, unsought, but often interesting and well-beloved accidentals – if I may so term them – the natural offspring of public persons (who may bear great affection towards such issue, yet wish to avoid the disclosure of their existence) could be reared in wholesome, bracing privacy.

Lord S—, for instance, who fathered fifteen children on his lovely and obliging mistress Mrs R—, dispatched them all, one after another, to be reared in Nether Othery. So did the Duke of C— and Mr G— H—, and many another that I could mention.

As a consequence of this custom, the village boasted at all times a floating population far greater than any rural census would have recorded, and by far the larger part of this population would be under the age of twelve years.

Those infants respectably born in wedlock were, as a general rule, removed by their parents at around the age of three or four; while the bastards were seldom reclaimed under eleven or twelve, when the boys would mostly be dispatched to public school, and the girls, depending on their station, might be apprenticed as milliners, or sent for a few years’ schooling in Bristol or Exeter, in order to fit them for a career as governesses in great households.

By the time that I was three or four – the period when I commence my history – I had seen many such migrants come and go. I was already, as children may be, tolerably aware of the hazards and hardships that, for most of us, lay ahead. Among the youthful population of Byblow Bottom there was a certain freemasonry; we compared our hopes and fears, such scanty knowledge of our own parentage as we might possess, and such information as might drift back to us regarding the subsequent fortunes of our mates.—And when I say mates, I do not deny that sexual congress, among the older members of our group, was not infrequent: feeling themselves to be, as it were, cuckoos in the nest of Nether Othery, they were not greatly trammelled by the rules of a society which as yet had afforded them no benefits.

The fifteen side-slips of Lord S—, who frequently overlapped in their periods of residence, corresponded regularly one with another, and the elder ones, departed to London, sent back to their cadets cheerful accounts of the unorthodox existence of S— House in Grosvenor Square. Here the owner’s wife and his mistress lived side by side in harmonious proximity and few distinctions were drawn between bastards and legitimate children, who all consorted together freely and gaily. But of course such good fortune was not to be expected by most of us.

As to my own progenitors, I held only the vaguest and scantiest notion. My mother, I was given to understand, had died in giving birth to me; and this (I was also given to understand) was the greatest piece of mercy that she might have hoped for, since she had run away from her friends at the age of sixteen, and had been heartlessly abandoned at seventeen by her seducer. And who might he have been? was the question over which I pondered for many, many hours of my childhood, watching the rain float by Dr Moultrie’s casement, until he summoned me to an hour’s Latin exercises; or as I walked alone in the mist over the Brendon Hills.

For, although there was always plenty of company in Byblow Bottom and, on the whole, a rude camaraderie and good-fellowship prevailed between the transient youthful population and that minority of children born in the place who had a right to be called natives – yet I felt in myself, at all times, a longing, a craving, if not for solitude, for a different kind of discourse from any that my mates could provide. And walking over the steep and blowy landscape by myself served, if only in small measure, to appease this craving.

My tale commences on a day in early autumn. The leaves, though they had not yet changed colour (and, in our salt-ridden, coastal country, would only fade to a rusty and tarnished brown), hung limp and melancholy on the trees, the sun gave out a mild warmth, the birds cheeped very softly to themselves and the sea lay hushed, as if autumn gales were a thing unheard-of.

Gross Dr Moultrie, suffering from a recurrence of the gout which every two or three months rendered him speechless and motionless with agony, had dismissed me with instructions not to return for three days. Of this edict I had not informed Mrs Wellcome who would, I knew, find copious occupation for me about the house. Small as I was, she already employed me to pick beans, feed the chickens, pull out weeds, chop suet for pie-crust and mend the boys’ stockings. There would be enough work to keep me busy until bedtime, which I regarded as wholly unfair, since the boys (Will, Rob, and Jonathan at the present time) were never put to such labour, but might fish in the brook, roam the moor, or go a-swimming at the shore, just as they chose. In fact they most often went off poaching with Tom Wellcome and were learning such arts as, probably, their families had never dreamed of. Intermittently, they attended the village school, since they had been rejected by Dr Moultrie as being too noisy and fidgety for his services.

Pleased with my liberty, I turned away from the village and struck off over the hill towards Ashett, the little fishing port which was our nearest town. There I planned to pass the rest of the day, idling on the narrow quay, watching the lobster-fishers mend their nets and the ships unlading. I had heard a tale that a Spanish vessel had been brought in, under suspicion of piracy or smuggling, and I was eager to see it.

Arrived at the quayside I prepared to take my station, perched on an upside-down fish-hamper but, to my disappointment, the Spanish ship had already been given its quittance and departed. The tide was low, and I observed Will, Rob, and Jonathan, with some fisher-boys, running and splashing naked on the muddy foreshore that lies eastwards from the harbour bar. Not wishful to join them, I wandered away westwards and loitered for many minutes on the high, humpbacked bridge that spans the rocky little river Ashe, at the point where it takes a steep plunge into the harbour, and its waters transmute from a clear topaz brown to a salt and cloudy green.

This bridge was always a favourite vantage point of mine; here I have spent hours together, gazing, sometimes upstream at the river threading its way through the quiet little town to the steep moor above, sometimes downstream at the tossing waves and lively harbour.

Today, as I stood tiptoe, so as to rest my elbows and chin on the stone parapet, I became aware, gradually, of two voices conversing above my head.

At first, single words began to filter into my notice – remarkable words, of a kind that I had never expected to hear spoken, but only to discover and pore over between the pages of Dr Moultrie’s books: glittering, blast, challenge, cataract, meditation, tyrannous, spectral, the star-dogged moon …

These words were to me like a spell, an extraordinary incantation. Indeed for some few minutes I entertained the mysterious impression that they had arrived from the depths of my own mind, as bubbles come sliding to the surface in a moorland marsh. But then I realized that two men were, like myself, standing at gaze upon the bridge, occupied partly by the scene before them, but more by the talk that ran between them even faster than the current of the little river below.

Both of the strangers were tall; so tall that I had to twist and crane my neck to study them. Who could they be? I was quite sure I had never seen them before; they certainly were not natives of these parts. Indeed one, the taller, conversed with a curious northern gruffness, which made it quite hard for me, at first, to comprehend some of his language.

The other man, the shorter (yet even he was by no means short) spoke with a more homely accent; his tones had the warm friendly burr of Devon or Somerset; but he was by far the more striking in appearance. In truth, I thought him wonderful! Not handsome, no; his complexion was pale, he had a wide mouth and fleshy lips; but his forehead was tremendous, and his eyes flashed with power. Long, rough, glossy black hair hung nearly to his shoulders. He and his friend were clad in the kind of jackets and trousers worn by the gentry; yet their garments were shabby and ill-fitting, decidedly so. Their neck-cloths were loosely tied, not over-white, their shoes were worn; both carried satchels of papers and their pockets bulged with books. The taller man, whom the other addressed as ‘Will’ or ‘Bill’, was gaunt and stringy and bony; he had a nose so enormously prominent that it seemed likely at any moment to over-balance him and topple him forwards on his face. There was also – these were my first impressions – something a touch self-satisfied about his air; his mouth was small and pursed above a receding chin; yet he too had a noble brow, and his eyes, though less dark and flashing than those of his friend, were bright with comprehension and intelligence. Like his companion he seemed filled with such fervent enthusiasm that, for a few moments, I wondered if both men were in liquor; but no; this, evidently, was their accustomed mode when together as I was soon to understand.

‘It is not from the metre, it is not from the order of words, but from the matter itself, that the essential difference must arise,’ the man called Bill was proclaiming in a loud assured tone. Indeed, he trumpeted through his large nose.

His friend laughed. ‘I put my hat upon my head, And walked into the Strand, And there I met another man, Whose hat was in his hand!’ he suggested.

‘Precisely so! Or, on the other hand, “And thou art long and lank and brown, As is the ribbed sea-sand.”’

Hey! Will, my dear fellow! That has it to a nicety! You singular genius – pearls flow continually from your lips! A moment, if you please, till I set that down.’

And he pulled a notebook from his satchel and wrote vigorously.

His friend, also laughing, observed, ‘Take care, my dear Sam! Our faithful Home Office follower is busy marking our actions from afar through his spy-glass; without the least question he now suspects you of making observations about coastal defences, so as to facilitate a French invasion.’

‘Oh, devil take the silly fellow. Pay no heed to him.—But, listen, Bill, now here is a point that has been troubling me; tell me, how in the wide world are we to get the ship home again? With all the crew perished and gone? This, I must confess, has me quite in a puzzle. What can we do? You are so much more ingenious than I at solving these practical problems.’

Bill said: ‘I have two thoughts about that. But let us proceed on our walk, or the day will be gone. Besides, my mind always operates more cannily when I am in physical motion.’

They left the bridge, strolling, and took their way westwards.

I could not help myself; I followed them as if drawn by a powerful magnet.

Up the steep cliff path I pursued them, and squatted nearby when they paused at the top to get their breath and admire the light on the calm blue autumnal sea. Far across the channel the mountains of Wales dangled like a gauzy frill bordering the skirts of the sky.

‘Hollo!’ said Sam, noticing me. ‘It seems we have a follower.’

‘A little cottage girl.’

‘Are you a Home Office agent, my little maid?’

‘No, please, sir. I don’t know what that is.’

‘Never mind it. How old are you, child?’

‘Please, sir, I don’t rightly know that either. I am an orphan.’

‘No parents?’ inquired Sam.

‘None, sir. I’m a bastard, do you see, from Byblow Bottom.’

‘And who provides for you, then?’ asked the man called Bill, bending on me a sad, solicitous look. ‘I, like you, was orphaned when young. It is a hard fate.’

‘Please, sir, a gentleman called Colonel Brandon provides, but he never comes to see me, only writes letters, not very often, telling me to be a good girl and read my prayer-book.’

‘And do you read it?’ put in Sam.

‘Oh, yes, sir, and a deal of other books besides.’

‘Such as what? Cinderella?

‘Oh no, sir, but Cicero and Sir Roger de Coverley.’

At that both men burst out laughing and gazed at me, I suppose, with astonishment.

‘And who gives thee such reading matter, thou little prodigy?’ inquired Will.

‘Dr Moultrie, sir, he teaches me, but he has the gout at present. So, please, sirs, may I come along of you?’

‘But we walk too fast, my child; besides, it is not well advised that a little maid of your tender years should roam at large all over the country with two great grown men.’

‘Oh, bless you, sir, I’ve always roamed; Mrs Wellcome don’t care a groat, so be as she don’t want me to feed the chicken. Please let me come, sirs; I won’t hinder or plague you, indeed I won’t.’

They looked at one another and shrugged. ‘She will soon fall behind after all,’ said Mr Sam.

But I knew I would not. Sometimes I joined the boys at hare-coursing. And although I always hoped that the hare would get away, it was the sport of theirs that most pleased me, because I could outrun nearly all of them. At a steady jog, over the moors, I could outlast all, even the biggest ones.

‘I won’t pester or ask questions, truly I won’t. Dr Moultrie won’t have that,’ I offered. ‘It’s just, sirs, that your talk do be so interesting to I. ’Tis better far than looking at pictures.’

‘Whose heart could remain unmelted at that?’ said Mr Sam, laughing. So they let me follow.

And indeed it was true that their talk – specially that of Mr Sam – was like nothing I had ever heard before, or have since, up to this very day. So many subjects were covered – Nightingales, Poetry, Metaphysics, Dreams, Nightmares, the Sense of Touch, the difference between Will and Volition, between Imagination and Fancy – on, on, flowed the talk of Mr Sam the black-haired stranger, in a scintillating torrent of only half-comprehensible words. Sometimes his companion, Mr Bill, would put in a rejoinder; his contributions were always very pithy and shrewd. And sometimes they would be tossing back and forth some project that they were hatching between them – a plan for a tale of a ship, it seemed to be, and a ghostly voyage.

Now and then, for a change, they asked me questions.

‘Is it true, child, that in these parts hares are thought to be witches?’

‘Oh yes, for sure, sir; why, everybody knows that. Only last August the boys coursed and caught a black hare over there on Wildersmouth Head; and that very same week they found old Granny Pollard stiff and dead in her cottage with her dog howling alongside of her; she’d been the hare, don’t you see?’

‘Hmn,’ said Mr Bill. ‘It seems odd that a woman who spent half her time as a hare would keep a dog; don’t you think so?’

‘I don’t see that, sir; every witch has her familiar. So why not a dog, just as well as a cat?’

Mr Sam asked me about changelings. ‘In a village where so many children lack parents, is it not supposed that one or another might be a fairy’s child – yourself, for example?’

I answered readily enough. ‘Nobody would take me for a fairy’s child, sir, because I am so ugly, my hair being so red, and because of my hands – you see.’ I spread them out, and both men nodded gravely. ‘But yes, Squire Vexford as lives in the Great House up on Growly Head – ’tis thought his granny was a changeling.’

And I told the tale, well known in Othery, of how the nurse, all those years ago, had been giving suck to the Squire’s new-born daughter, when a fine lady came into her cottage carrying a babe all wrapped and swaddled in green silk. ‘Give my pretty thing to suck also!’ says the lady, and when the nurse does so, she vanishes clean away leaving the child behind. And the two infants were brought up as twins, and when one of ’em pined and dwined away, no one knew whether ’twas the human baby or the elf-child that was left lonesome. But from that day to this in the Vexford family, each generation there’s allus been a girl-child that’s frail and pale, fair-haired and puny, unlike the rest of ’em that are dark-haired and high-complexioned, like the Squire his-self.

‘That is a bonny tale, my hinny,’ said Mr Bill. ‘And is there such a girl-child in the Squire’s family at present?’

‘No, sir, but Lady Hariot is increasing, and they do say, because she carries it low, that the child will be a girl.’

Mrs Wellcome’s daughter Biddy was also with child, and I knew it was hoped by both women that the honour of rearing the Squire’s baby would be theirs; and I hoped so too. The Squire’s great house, Kinn Hall, up on Growly Head, with its gardens and paddocks and yards and stables, was forbidden ground, but most dearly I wished to explore it, both inside and out. If Biddy Wellcome had charge of the Squire’s baby, I foresaw there might be comings and goings between the village and the Hall, there might be errands and messages to run and a chance to get past the great iron gates. This was my hope.

I cannot now remember for how many weeks or months I had the extraordinary joy and privilege of accompanying Mr Bill and Mr Sam on their rambles and explorations. I believe that the space of time might have extended over as much as a year. The memory of my first meeting with the two men remains sharp and clear, like a picture in my mind, but later events blend together in a gilded haze. I was not – by any means – invariably successful in my efforts to escape and join the two strangers on their walks. Nor could I always find them. Their houses lay some distance apart, and they did not go out together all the time. Mr Sam had a wife and babe, Mr Bill, a sister. Sometimes the weather proved my enemy and northerly gales lashed the coast and kept me house-bound. Sometimes Dr Moultrie was exigent. But, despite these hazards, it seems to me that I succeeded in accompanying the two men on at least seven or eight occasions, and these were long excursions – for both men were prodigious walkers – along the coast to Hurlhoe, or over the moor to Folworthy, or up the twisting Ashe Valley to Ottermill. Both friends doted upon rivers and brooks and cascades; they would at any time go substantially out of their way if beguiled by the sound of falling waters, and were always ready to sit or stand for hours together gazing at spouts or sheets or spirts of spray. Indeed our very first walk – which I do remember clearly because it was the first – took us along the steep wooded cliffs for several miles to a little lonely church, St Lucy’s of Godsend, where I would never have ventured to visit alone as it was reputed to be haunted. And such a tale was easy enough to credit, for the church stood at a most solitary spot, in a deep coign of precipitous and forest-covered hillside, with tall oaks all around it, and a stream which splashed down between high and fern-fringed banks to empty itself into a narrow cove, far, far down below. Because of the trees, the sea was not visible, and yet its restless presence could be felt; the sough of the tide like a heart-beat, and, from time to time, a deep and threatening boom or thud as a larger wave than usual cast its weight upon the rocks at the cliff foot.

‘A fearsome place,’ said Mr Sam, when the two men, removing their hats, had stepped inside the tiny church (I have heard said that it is the smallest in the whole kingdom) and come out again to admire the saw-toothed shadow which it flung, in the noonday sun, across its cramped little graveyard.

‘Here there would be no need to pray,’ said Mr Bill. ‘The sound of water would say it all.’

‘But at night’, I objected, ‘the sound of the brook would be drowned by the voice of Wailing Sal.’

‘And who, pray, is Wailing Sal?’

‘She was a girl that used to meet her sweetheart here in the graveyard. But her father forbade her. And why? Because, unbeknownst to her, her sweetheart were the Wicked One. But she met him none the less, and gave him three drops of blood from her finger, and that made her his for all time. But after she done that, he never came to see her no more and she pined and dwined away. So they buried her under gravel, and they buried her under sand, but still her ghost comes out, lonesome for her lover and bitter angry with her father because he forbade her. So, ’tis said, her ghost is moving slowly up the hill, back to her father’s farm, at the rate of one cock’s stride every year.’

‘Merciful creator!’ said Mr Sam, pulling out his notebook. ‘One cock’s stride every year? And what happens when she gets to the farm?’

‘I don’t know, sir. Maybe ’twill be doomsday by then.’

‘And what about Wailing Sal’s father?’

‘Oh, he died many years agone; when Good Queen Bess were queen. Since then they’ve had six parsons with Bibles to try and lay the ghost, but Wailing Sal won’t be laid; not one of them could do it.’

‘What a sad tale.’

Mr Sam wandered away from us and leaned on the churchyard wall, staring down at the white water racing below in its narrow gully.

‘Sam!’ called his friend after a while. ‘It is high time we were on our way back. The sun is westering. And we promised not to be late. And this little maid’s friends will be growing anxious about her.’

‘I know, I know,’ said Mr Sam.

But still he lingered.

Lady Hariot did bear a daughter in the spring, little Thérèse. And Biddy Wellcome, being brought to bed about the same time, was given charge of the child, which she reared along with her own Polly. Biddy, like her mother, was a lusty, well-fleshed, red-cheeked woman, and of the same hasty temper. Polly’s father had been a Danish sailor (or so it was said; he never came back to contradict the tale). Biddy, again like her mother Hannah, earned herself a sufficient living as a foster-mother and had in her keeping just now two lads from an attorney’s family in Exeter, besides the misbegotten daughter of the Dean of Wells. This poor lass, Charlotte Gaveston, was touched in her wits (believed to be a result of the desperate efforts her mother employed to be rid of her before she came to full term); so she could never be left to mind the babes if Biddy went a-marketing. Nor could the boys; they were far too heedless. Therefore it became Biddy’s habit to step next door (for she lived just up the lane from us) and deposit her two infants in their rush baskets with her mother for safe-keeping, while she went to the mill for flour, or down to the shore for fish, if the men had been out after pollock. In consequence of which, on most occasions, the care of the two children devolved on me, and many and many a time have I sat rocking and hushing them in Hannah Wellcome’s back kitchen, or out among the cabbages and gooseberry bushes, as the new year began to open out and the weather to grow warm again.

Both babies were girls. But whereas Polly Wellcome was pink-cheeked and yellow-haired, like her mother and grandma, with round china-blue eyes, Lady Hariot’s daughter Thérèse had lint-pale flaxen hair, fine as thistle-down; her cheeks were pale, her eyes had a glancing light in them, like the sea itself, so that you could never say if they were green or grey. She was a small-boned, slight little being; looking at her, it was easy to believe the bygone legend of the faerie visitor and her child from elf-land all wrapped in green silk. Yet though so small and frail in appearance she seldom cried (unlike fat Polly, who would bawl her lungs out on the least occasion); little Thérèse lay silent and thoughtful in her crib, with her great melancholy eyes apparently taking in every slightest thing that passed. From an early age she seemed to recognize me, and smiled her faint smile when I came to lift her, or wash her, or do what was needed. And I myself came to love her dearly.

Where was Lady Hariot, meanwhile? Why did she never come to visit her daughter? Poor woman, she had been brought down after the birth, as many are, by the womb-fever, and lay for weeks between life and death, but with death, so said old Dr Parracombe, much the likelier outcome. For weeks he rode daily to Kinn Hall, and would sometimes call at our cottage to see how the babe throve; and seemed no little astonished, given the difficulties of her birth, that she prospered as she did.

‘But indeed, Mrs Wellcome,’ he always pronounced, ‘you and your daughter are a pair of notable foster-nurses.’ And Hannah Wellcome would curtsey, and beam at him, and say, ‘Ah, ’tis the love we give them, sir.’

Even after she had escaped from the danger of death, Lady Hariot was confined to her bed for many months, and was so terribly weak that it was thought the most dangerous folly for her even to be permitted to see her child – conducive to over-excitation and strain upon the faculties. And after that she was taken abroad to some island, Madeira, I believe, where she stayed with her sister, for the warm sun there to bring back her health. So, for months we heard no more of her.

Once in a great while, Squire Vexford might stamp in to inquire after the child. He was a hasty, hard-featured man with thin lips and small angry eyes; it was known in the village that the Vexford property was entailed on a male heir, so he was sadly displeased that the outcome of all Lady Hariot’s trouble was a mere daughter, and even more so when told that his wife might be unable to bear further children. He consequently paid scant heed to the child’s progress or welfare, but would thrust his head in, cast a brief glance at the cradle, snap out a question or two and then stamp on his way, after the otter-hounds or along the track to the salmon pools in the upper windings of the Ashe river. More often it would be the Squire’s man, Willsworthy, who called; and he was a close, silent customer who at all times kept his thoughts to himself. Only, once in a way, when his eye lit on Biddy Wellcome, a queer sudden glow would come into it, like the glimmer on a piece of fish that has lain in the pantry too long.

My frequent duty in minding the two babies meant a decided curtailment of my liberty to roam out and hope for a meeting with Mr Sam and Mr Bill; but, with a child’s sober-minded realism, I believe I had long since understood that my outings with those two men were not to be looked for as something I might depend on; they were not for human nature’s daily food. I was lucky beyond all deserts and expectation to have had them at all. And – I later understood – they had fed my mind with such thoughts and pictures and imaginings as would stand me in good stead through many troubles to come.

There remains one more singular event that is connected in my mind with those happy rambles. It was after I had returned from one such outing – I think to the Cain and Abel stones, high up on Ashe Moor, which stones prompted Mr Sam to tell me a queer story about Cain and his little son Enos, a tale of the boy asking his father the reason why the squirrels would not play with him. Mr Sam’s stories all had some element of puzzle about them; I had to think and think, to ravel out their meaning.

I returned home late and, as was my habit on such occasions, crept in as quietly as a mouse through the kitchen door, for I knew that, on principle, if she heard me come in, Hannah Wellcome would give me a slippering. It was not that she greatly cared where I had been, but on account of all the tasks she had been obliged to undertake herself, lacking my services. Luckily I could hear that she and Tom and Biddy were in the parlour, fuddling themselves with green cider. I therefore crept up the narrow stair to the little crevice under the eaves which was my sleeping-place. It had no window, but plenty of fresh air came in through the thatch.

On the way, I passed the boys’ room where I could hear them tossing, thrashing and teasing one another, as they would continue to do for half the night.

‘Hollo? Is that you, Liza?’ whispered Rob, as I tiptoed by their door.

Rob was Rob Hobart, my chiefest friend among the boys. Hob, or Hoby, or Hobgoblin, I called him. His father, I believe, was the Post-Master General, his mother had sold cockles on the Strand in London. He was a lanky, freckled, yellow-headed fellow with a nimble tongue and bright wits; he was for ever leading the other boys into trouble, but then as often extricating them from their difficulties by some combination of bold inventiveness and shrewd sense. As a companion, if he was ever on his own, I liked him very well; but he seldom was on his own, being sociable and popular with the other boys. And in their company he descended to their level of teasing and abuse, would address me as ‘Liza Lugfamble’, or ‘Funny-fist’, or ‘Mistress Finger-post’.

However on this evening he seemed mild and friendly enough, slipping out to join me on a kind of landing-shelf at the top of the steep little stair below my closet.

‘A lady came driving through the village this afternoon in a chaise and pair,’ he whispered. ‘And she asked if you lived here.’

‘Oh, Hoby! And I not here!’ For the first and only time I regretted my wanderings with Mr Bill and Mr Sam. ‘Who in the world can she have been?’

‘She left no name, she would not stop, she was with a fine gentleman, and he was wild to get on, or they’d never reach Bristol before dark—’

‘Bristol? They were fair and far out of their way, then. But who can it have been?’

‘Blest if I know,’ said Hoby. ‘All I can say is, she was fine as fivepence, with feathers in her hat and rings on her fingers. She said she’d have liked a glimpse of you and sorry it was not to be. She said, from the look of me, she could see that I was a trustable lad’ – he chuckled at this, and so did I, thinking how wide of the mark the strange lady had been in her judgement, even farther than from the road to Bristol – ‘so she handed me a keepsake to give you and here it is.’

He passed me a smallish object, long and thin, swathed in a wrapping of what felt like coarse silk, tied all around with many threads.

‘What can it be? And who, who was she? Did she leave no name? What did she look like? Was she handsome?’

‘Umm …’ Hoby began, but I knew he was no hand at making a picture in words. And just at that moment, the passage door opened to the front parlour, letting out a shaft of lamplight.

‘What be all that mumbling and shuffling?’ bawled an angry voice.

‘Mizzle!’ hissed Hoby. He fled back to his own quarters and I scrambled off with haste to mine, as a heavy step started up the stair. I thrust the mysterious token, whatever it might be, into a cavity of the thatch where I was used to hide apples or cakes if ever I was given one.

Tom Wellcome stood breathing heavily at the top of the stairs for a moment, letting off sour fumes of cider, then clumped back down, but left the parlour door open so that I dared not stir.

Naturally, after this I lay wide awake on my pallet for at least an hour, tormented by curiosity as to the identity of the strange lady. Could she be the wife of Colonel Brandon who paid for my upkeep? Was the strange gentleman Colonel Brandon himself? But if so would he not have stopped and asked to speak to Hannah Wellcome? Often I had wondered why he never came to see me; other guardians and protectors did, once in a great while, visit Byblow Bottom, but he, never; nor did he ever write or send a gift. Only the money arrived regularly from some bank in Dorsetshire with a regular exhortation to me to be a good girl and mind my books. So this small object, whatever it might be – it was the size and shape, perhaps, of a comb or a pair of scissors – would be the very first gift I had received in the whole of my existence. Palpitating with excitement I fingered and felt it, over and over, but could not solve the problem of the many threads that bound it round. So my curiosity must wait, unassuaged, until first light.

Long before cockcrow I was awake, gnawing and nibbling at the threads with my sharp child’s teeth, until at last they gave way and the white silken wrappings unfolded to reveal an object which I had seen pictured in the Gentleman’s Magazine at Dr Moultrie’s, but never in actuality, for it was not the kind of article made use of by the women of Ashett and Othery. It was a fan made from delicate strips of ivory, rubbed fine as threads and jointed together, I knew not by what means. For some time its beauties and intricacies eluded me, since I was unable to solve the mystery of the opening clip.

Later, after breakfast, I was able to catch hold of Hob, behind the chicken shed, and ask for his help.

‘Here, Goosey! It works like this,’ he said, easily pushing back the catch with his thumb and flipping the fan expertly open. He then wafted it to and fro, giving me such languishing looks over the top, raising and lowering his brows, eyeing me sideways under his thick, sandy lashes, that I was soon reduced to helpless laughter.

‘Oh, Hoby, you are so funny! Where did you ever learn to do that?’

‘Never you mind, young lady.’ Deftly, he snapped the fan shut and restored it to me. ‘That is how the gay ladies of Bristol go on, and it is no business of yours, not for another ten years.’

Hoby’s father occasionally toured the western counties in the course of his duties, and would then carry away his son for a few days’ pleasuring.

‘But I say,’ he added, ‘you owe me a good turn, little one, for if Biddy Wellcome had been in the house you’d never have laid a finger on that fan. You had best keep it well hid.’

Since I dared not conceal the fan anywhere indoors, I stowed it in the hollow of an oak that grew in a little coppice where we used to gather firewood. Here – if nobody else was by – I would luxuriously fan myself, raising my brows, lowering my lashes and glancing sideways out of the corners of my eyes in faithful imitation of Hoby’s performance.

I did not show my treasure to Mr Bill or Mr Sam. Young as I was, instinct told me that such a toy as a fan would be of no interest to either man. They were absorbed by matters of the spirit, or of the wilderness, cataracts and tempests, rocks and rainbows; a fan, a trivial feminine trifle, would be to them an object of indifference, if not scorn.—Thus early, I taught myself to divide life into compartments, turning a different countenance to each person with whom I came into contact.

The next event worthy of record came at the season of Michaelmas when I had achieved, I suppose, my seventh or eighth year. Mr Bill and Mr Sam, deeply mourned by me, had quitted our neighbourhood and sailed to foreign lands; Germany, I believe. In my childish heart their absence was a continual ache; at each street corner, if I went into Ashett, I looked for Mr Sam’s floating black locks and flashing eyes, Mr Bill’s Roman nose and lofty height; I could not truly believe that they would never come back, and I made endless forlorn plans for the celebration of their return, tales that I would relate to them, secret wonderful places I would show them; I do not know how many years it took me to understand that none of these plans would come to fruition.

Meanwhile the two babes, Thérèse and Polly, had grown into small, fair, curly-headed children, wholly unalike in their natures, but resembling each other in one respect, in that both were unusually late in learning to talk. Biddy Wellcome, as she slopped about her careless housework, never troubled to address them except to bawl out a command or prohibition; that, I suppose, may have been one reason for their lack of linguistic facility. And Polly, like her mother, was naturally stupid, slow at learning anything, even when it was to her advantage to do so. Thérèse (whose awkward foreign name had long since, by everybody in Byblow Bottom, been abbreviated to Triz) was, conversely, very far from stupid, but she remained delicate and somewhat listless; would sooner forgo some treat than be obliged to take trouble for it. So she did not bestir herself to speak, seeing no advantage to be gained thereby. When I was with them, I defended and protected Triz a great deal of the time from the overbearing greed and selfishness of Polly, who could be quick indeed to grab any good thing for herself once she had become aware of it. And as a result of this, little Triz had become, in her quiet way, very attached to me.

She had a word for me: ‘Alize,’ she would murmur, smiling trustfully as I approached. ‘Alize.’

As I say, it was the festival of Michaelmas. Dr Moultrie had gone off, grumbling very much, to officiate at the funeral of an Over Othery parishioner who had been so inconsiderate as to die just then. So I had a holiday. Down at Ashett, a hiring fair, a three-day annual event, was in full swing. Shepherds, farmhands and dairymaids would come there from all over the country to offer themselves for employment, in hopes of bettering their condition. Also, I knew, there would be jugglers and peepshows, music and dancing, gypsy fortune-tellers, toys and fairings for sale. But I had no heart for Ashett; the streets where Mr Bill and Mr Sam were no longer to be expected made me feel too sad; and in any case I had no money to spend.

All the boys from Byblow Bottom, whether bastard or born in wedlock, planned to go junketing; they had saved money, mostly ill-gotten from poaching, and looked forward to a day of pleasure.

‘You can come along of us, little ’un, if you like,’ said Hoby to me good-naturedly. ‘I’ll give ye sixpence to spend.’

His mates growled very much at this offer. ‘Wha’d’we want with her? She’d be nought but a trouble.’

Regardless both of them and of Hoby, I shook my head, though I had a lump in my throat big as a Pershore plum.

‘No. I don’t want to come.’

‘Not want to see the fair? But Hannah and Tom are going down to buy tools and calico. Everybody’s going.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘Ah, she’s cracked. Bodged in the upper storey,’ said Jonathan disgustedly. ‘Besides being faddle-fisted. Who wants her? Come on, leave her.’

Hoby still tried to persuade me. ‘You’ll like it, Liza.

Indeed you will.’

But I shook and shook my head, more obstinate as he became more pressing, and at last simply ran away from the boys and hid myself in Farmer Dunleigh’s haymow until they were well out of sight. In truth I had some regret at missing the fair, but knew full well that, although Hoby meant kindly now, after they had drunk a fair quantity of cider, as they were bound to do, the boys would grow wild and silly and their company would be worse than none.

I wandered along the deserted village street. Tom and Hannah had left already, in hopes of picking up early bargains. Biddy also was gone; along with them, I supposed; at all events her door was locked; I felt faintly surprised that she had not left me in charge of Polly and Triz. Given this freedom, I took myself off in the direction of Growly Point, past the horsepond and the Squire’s orchards of gnarled, wind-twisted apple trees.

Growly Point was one of my favourite spots. The Squire’s house was perched on top of the headland, along with a chapel and a stable block; behind it huddled a stand of wind-slanted beeches, and before it the gardens rolled down the hillside in steps and ledges, with a small brook meandering among them, which lower down formed the boundary alongside the public footpath. This was a stone track that led through a wishing-gate and on, past meadow and plough-land, to a dip in a low cliff.