Pleasant and Delightful
Listen. When he was just a young lad, my grandfather had this story from an old man. It was bright as an old man’s youth. I’m going to write it down and just as he told it, because people don’t have the time to listen so much now, and it might get lost. That would be a pity because while these stories beguile the time, by the chimney corner, or in the barn before the rain stops, we can all learn a bit from such stuff. About what we’ve lost as time’s gone on, and what we’ve gained as well, about the people that begat us, and the places too. I think we shouldn’t forget these things because you’ll know they make us what we are. Well, that’s my bit of philosophy, and I’ll not detain you long with it. You’ll want the story.
So this tale of young William Parker begins, as such tales mostly do, early one fine summer’s morning. It starts in Dorsetshire, where his family began. The story doesn’t name the place, but there’s several villages much alike, in that gentle country between the pastures of the Stour and the swell of Cranborne Chase. The cottage – to call it a farmhouse might be too grand – the cottage of William’s parents stood on the edge of the fields, and it being June, those fields and the meadows about were green with the new corn, and the banks white with cow parsley and Queen Anne’s lace. William was nineteen then, blue-eyed, not tall, not short, sturdy as one raised for work. He was standing beside his mother’s bean rows while the shadows grew shorter yard by yard and the new sun set the country glistening. He was thinking about what he was leaving.
I expect, said the old man to my grandfather, I expect you have seen those dew-filled mornings, when every shoot and bramble is linked by a net of silken webs. It was just that way, a gleaming haze made from the night’s work of ten thousand spiders. William loved to find this treasury – that’s the word – produced by each unregarded creature to earn its keep, but with a patience that seems more than craft. There must be, he thought, some joy in making at its heart, because each strand is spun from its own being and this in a pattern which only the spider could see. But then the dew and the sunshine turn the work to silver, so you can come along and admire it. There’s a fine one, you think, and then another and another, so much fine work by these nameless artisans it seems like God has ordered this richness just as he puts a song in your heart sometimes, for no reason, because he can. Songs often came to William and ran in his head unbidden. The spiders’ artwork decked the morning, but strangely and this time he could not think what song he was supposed to sing.
In the end he took a last breath of the dawn air, and turned back to the sleeping house. He raised the latch with slow care so it did not clack and the sun crept into the little kitchen with him. You’ll know what was there, the homely fitments of these houses, the deal table on the stone flags, the rag rug before the chimney place, the end of last night’s supper in the pot over last night’s ashes. His father’s fowling piece stood in the nook behind his father’s chair. Then there’s the slow tock of the upright clock in the silent room, the clock that had been his grandfather’s, and now was his father’s pride to wind each night to see the family through another day.
One special thing to add. Above the chimney hung a portrait in oil paint by some journeyman sign painter. It was a portrait of a pig. It was known in the family as Fat George. The pig stood proudly in a dun field, with a sky of cheerful but unlikely blue. There were daisies, or at least some dabs of flowers, at its feet, and behind in the distance, a house that may have been this very cottage, or maybe not, for they’re all of a sort. Outside the house a man looked on, too distant for the features to be made out, but William knew it to be his father’s father, in his smart bag coat and wideawake hat. He was the proud owner of this hog, which had fetched the best price at a Michaelmas market. The rustic picture must have taken the price of the pig, but there it was, the family’s great achievement, William always thought. But it was raised from the land they kept and which still kept them. It seemed to him that they had never wanted more, even had it been in reach. But you see, he himself had made a resolution now – he would not be confined.
So then there was that familiar creak on the stair, and its door opened. His brother stood there at the foot, tucking his shirt in his breeches. Not gone then, young William? he said.
-A last look about me. And keep your voice down, you’ll wake Ma and Pa.
-They’ll be down soon enough. And you in your best scarlet coat, and the yellow breeches too. You might be courting, dressed just so.
William thought that too close to the mark, but he said: It’s all I have for travelling. You know the rest is mostly rags, Robert. My very last two shirts are in the knapsack.
-And the fiddle, I daresay.
-It’s snug in a bit of blanket there. I’ve taken an end of yesterday’s loaf. Ma’ll not mind. Today’s a baking day.
Robert sat himself down in his father’s chair, warmed in the sunlight through the door. Your mind’s still fixed then, he said.
-This long time. You know. I said I’d stay till the first haymaking was done, and now it is. Uncle Tom is expecting me. I don’t doubt he’s got a boat in mind for me already.
Robert laughed. A ship you’ll have to call it, once you call yourself a sailor. But I still can’t see you, up in the rigging in a living gale. The plough and the hurdle, that’s your life – like the rest of us.
William had seen the sea once, when his mother’s brother married a girl whose family worked on a Bewley estate. The journey across the Chase and through the New Forest took the best part of three days. He never knew England was so large. His mother took him to stand beside the sea, he couldn’t remember where, but the water stretched out to a distance you couldn’t measure, and gleamed dully like an iron spade. He remembered boats drawn up on a beach of rounded stones, amid strange black weed. Way out beyond the waves that sighed and sucked at his feet, some ship was passing, and it had brown sails that strained above it. When he got home, life in the village seemed small. But he said to Robert:
-This farm won’t keep us all, now we three boys are grown. Jenny and Betsy too, what will Ma and Pa do? And its hard times in Dorset now, England too, as far as I can make out.
- The Lord provides, William.
-Aye, and it’s says he helps those as help themselves somewhere. Pa says he‘s sorry to see me go, and Ma will miss me, but you don’t need my pair of hands here. Better one less mouth to feed till times are easier. William balanced himself on the edge of the table, stared down at his feet. We’ve been through all this, he said. There was a silence, then Robert said:
-I told you of our marketing last week?
-Pa said it was a poor day. Hardly enough for tea and the sugar to go in it.
-Yes, but the streets are pitiful now. We met Job Harris’s boy, John, outside the Boar’s Head. Outside mind, for there was little enough money for beer, or gin come to that.
-He’s back from up country, likely to stay he says. No work for waggon-builders there, but not much here either. He’s living back with his father, and just picking up small bits of repairing when he can. Mostly he idles about with his hands in his pockets, like some parish-rigged bum. Make do and mend, John told me, that’s all people can do.
-Well that’s true enough.
- And there’s these old faces, men I’ve not seen for years, all these soldiers and sailors back from the wars, like Johnny Rose, with his right hand shot away. Come home to be starved half of them. Better have stayed where they were in Flanders or America, as you like.
-Well, this is cheerful stuff to be sending me on my way. And there I was thinking what a glorious day it will be for a walk.
-And so it is, said his brother, brightening. He rose, went to the door and stood looking out. At least the land is in heart, good enough anyways, and Pa says our bit of rent will be paid this quarter.
-And there’ll be beans and bacon for the winter, I don’t doubt. William looked rueful for a minute. He said: You know I wouldn’t go if things were desperate.
Robert looked around. Yes, he said, if you stayed you could help out it is true, by robbing on the highway.
-What! exclaimed William, you’d put your choir boy brother to that? He drew an imaginary pistol. Hold fast your horses, sir. The two were children again. Robert made to shoot him dead.
-What times we had, we boys, said William. When Pa wasn’t tanning our hides.
-Yes, in between the bird scaring and the stone-picking.
-We got our learning. Ma saw to that. William picked up his knapsack. Come on Robert, see me down to the gate. He glanced around the kitchen finally and quickly stepped outside. His eyes were prickling, he thought it was the sudden bright sunshine. He clapped his hat on his head. Robert followed through the door, and they started together down the path, between the beanrows on one side and the hollyhocks on the other.
-Jenny’s cabbage is going to bolt, said William. She needs to see to them.
-I expect Ma will tend to them again, said Robert. Leastways, you needn’t worry. It’s going to be biscuit and rum for you, so it seems.
-I’m surprised Jenny’s taken to service. Ma was always chasing after her at home.
-Well, said Robert, there you are. She might as well run about the parlour at the Hall with the fine china as scrub the flags at home. And sixpence in her own pocket at the end of the week. She’s lucky to have the position, and it’s lucky for Ma and Pa too.
It seemed to William that the sun had gone for a moment. The morning air was briefly chill. That little bugger Barclay Foxton, he thought himself such a brisk young lad, now he’s down from his college London way at last, with his top boots and his hunter. Nothing more to do than ride round his father’s tenants complaining about the state of the ditches and talking of improvement. William felt angry again, his sister skivvying round Mr and Mrs Foxton from six in the morning till she fell on her pallet at night, but coming home on Sunday full of airs and what Mr Pitt-Rivers had said to the Archdeacon over the sherry wine, as if she owned the Hall herself. No doubt she’d weary of it and meanwhile it was another reason to be gone.
The two brothers stood at the little garden gate that gave out into the yard. At the sight of them a few fowls came running, only to be disappointed, but then stayed to peck hopefully around the foot of the fence. The thatch on the shippon badly needed attention: it was far worse than the house for the liggers had loosened and the sparrows and the rain were doing their worst. Robert had never taken to thatching, and William felt he should have helped Pa himself. Then Henry was old enough to be up the ladder with his father now. There weren’t many jobs undone, William felt he’d seen to that and squared his conscience as best he could.
-Ma’s still moaning that the midden is too close by the house, he said.
-It’s always been there, said Robert. Not worth moving round the whole yard just to suit.
-Jenny eggs her on now.
The sun was climbing above the chestnut trees that bordered the Shaftesbury road. There was not the slightest stirring of breeze, as if the whole country was holding its breath. Rooks marched about the distant stubble.
-You’ll be turning right out of the yard? Robert asked.
- I haven’t said my goodbyes yet, not properly.
-To say truly, yes, of course. William continued to look across the fields. He said: I proposed to visit last night, but Ma was too upset.
-You’ll have to creep round old Blackshaw now.
-I’m in hopes her father’s gone to the Chapel when I get there. He’s pretty regular. William turned to look his brother in the face. So, here’s my hand, Robert.
They shook, and William wondered if his brother felt any envy for him, whether he ever felt the call of the new or the freedom in uncertainty. Today Robert would be toiling in the Great Field with Pa and Betsy, and again tomorrow, more than likely. That was what you knew and what you did, what most everybody you knew did, what the family needed to get by. Some music on Saturday night, and church on Sunday (twice if you were Pa) and then begin again from hoeing to reaping, ploughing to sowing, and a few pence saved from harvest home for an extra pint of beer. Robert was the eldest son.
William turned away across the yard and onto the track towards the village. He walked with firmness, swinging his stick, and his knapsack bobbing. He knew his mother was behind the upstairs casement, and she would watch till he was gone from her sight.
This story starts, you’ll know, in the last years before all the county was enclosed. Measured in revelling or hardships it seems a while, but in lives it’s not so many. So William was walking along a baulk of the Great Field, and as he went a lark rose up from its edge. The bird’s song danced overhead, rising and falling, and with it a trickle of notes becoming a cascade, subsiding into silence that only intensified the melody when it burst out again. William sighted it at last, only a speck really, and higher, much higher, than he could have thought. Although he had gone only a few hundred yards, he could not forbear from pausing to listen to the sound that had accompanied all his summers. There was joy and yearning in it, like young love. He laughed that he could think of such a notion. It was how his mind was running this morning, but he doubted he would find singers like that in the Indies, or wherever he might be bound. He needed to store up the memory to refresh himself till he returned.
He passed along the wheat that his father had sown in the Spring, on the land that he himself had helped to plough last Autumn. It takes strength and a good touch to be a ploughman, and William knew he would never match his brother in that. It had been a wet month, the loam heavy and the oxen struggling as he turned the plough about at the headlands, and then coming home in the dark to steam near the fire: of course, he got chilblains again and they burned and pricked all winter.
But now the wheat was tall and it would soon begin to ripen. Here and there corncockle gleamed amongst it, but really the crop was clean. The sun had already dried off the morning dew and was penetrating its ranks. The earth was warming quickly, and he needed to be on his way before the village arrived to complete the turning of the hay in the long meadow. You see, William had no wish to meet with his neighbours again today. He had had more than enough of wherefores, and sideways looks which might be bewildered or knowing. They could say what they liked when he had gone. He had had enough of goodbyes too, all save one. He turned away at the end of the field and onto the road that passed the village. It would lead straight to where she lived.
He became aware that in fact some tune had come into his head after all. You could often be halfway through the first section, or even reach the refrain before you knew it was there. Strange that. And while these notes ran undeliberated through his head, he struggled to recall the name they took or where he had heard them last. Oh, it was Sweetness of Mary, with that little kick in the rhythm as he’d once heard a Scotchman play it at a fair. Best in G, where your fingers fell around it neatly. Sweetness of Nancy, William had wanted to call it, when he played it for her, but he thought back then that she might laugh. It was the first time they had sat down together. When he put the fiddle aside, she continued looking at him. His hand brushed her cheek in the shade of her bonnet. She did not demur. The blue fustian dress still had a smudge of flour across the breast. She was never completely free of it. At their feet, he remembered, the river sparkled, eddied, moved gently on.
William found that he was at the bend in the track, beside the huge hawthorn that last month had been brilliant white and now was deepest green. A familiar creaking and rumbling was inching along beyond it. Damn it, someone said. William came up behind a moving haycock till it became clear that the hay was piled to the point of overwhelming a four wheeled wagon beneath it.
-Get on, said the voice and then, Ow! Buggery.
Two weeks drought had turned the rutted track to iron. The cart’s wheels laboured up the steep sides of potholes, one wheel and then another crashing down into the next where the cart came to rest again, requiring a huge effort by its labouring team to set it moving each time. Every jolt of the wheels drew out another oath from the unseen waggoner. Small parcels of hay lay in the wake of the waggon, and wisps mounted in the air. Another crash.
William stepped around the stationary cart.
-Morning Mr Spencer, he said. Pleasant, ain’t it?
-Delightful, replied the waggoner from his high perch behind the pair of horses. His face suggested that he had no care about the weather. Despite the early hour there were trickles of sweat under his billycock hat, and his skin was grey. William said:
-Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but that looks like what my Pa would call a lazyman’s load you’ve got there.
-That would be impertinence, young William. This here’s the last load from down yonder and it weren’t worth a-going back. Mr Foxton wants all in his yard by tonight, ‘cause he’s afeared the weather’s going to change. Could be right too – us’ve had barely a drop this last month.
-Still, sounds like you’re labouring a tad.
-Well, yes. I’m sorry for the language. See my old back’s not what it was.
This old gafter had a nasty accident once, a fall from a rick he was thatching – for old Foxton, funnily enough. Much younger then, as he was, William could still recall it, as the man had to be carried home on a hurdle. They thought his back was broken, but all he could talk about was his pipe, snapped in his pocket. He’d been in bed for six weeks and there had been a collection. Even Mrs Foxton went to visit him, which must have been a trial for them both.
-Banging along this road won’t be much good for a back, said William.
-The road’s no worse than it’s ever been, ‘cause they won’t put a farthing on the rate to pay for ‘em all. Young Mr Foxton, he tried to persuade his father, but the parish wouldn’t have it. They thought the turnpike was quite enough. So us crash along like this in the summer, and can’t move for stogging to they axletrees in the winter.
-I’m surprised they didn’t send someone with you.
-We loaded this last night, but I ‘spect as I’ll manage now.
William felt the morning pressing. He knew he ought to get on. But old Philip Spencer himself, he would always be ready to turn to and help.
-You need someone at the head. Why don’t you let me take the traces up there, and you can walk in front? I’ll have to leave you to it once we get to the church though.
-The road’s better from there, said old Spencer, though they both knew it wasn’t, much. That’ll be a Christian kindness of ‘ee, if ‘ee can manage it.
William thought he recognised the two horses as a pair of the oldest in Mr Foxton’s stable. They were both flecked with sweat, like the waggoner himself. The left hand of the pair looked spavined. It shifted uneasily on its legs as it leaned over to crop the verge.
-Your gelding’s seen better days, said William as Mr Spencer climbed uncomfortably down from the waggon. He realised as he said this that there was fun to made if he chose, but the old gafter was ahead of him. Ain’t we all, he said.
They set off up the road. It was some time since William had driven a horse, but these two knew where they were going and only needed some encouragement. Mr Spencer swore with persuasion at their heads when they stalled in the deepest chasms. The crashing and rumbling resumed, but at a slightly faster pace. Although the time was nagging him, William found he was enjoying a last look at his home country, despite the bouncing and swaying that sometimes had him grabbing for his seat. From up here he could just see the river winding by willows through the water meadows. Well, his thought went, I’ve had some sport down there, with father’s old gun. Now along a step the tower of St Martin’s was in sight, above the beeches that edged the church yard. New Hall with its yard was a little beyond, you could see the barley sugar twists of the chimneys. And after, the valley broadened further, in a prospect that was already losing its clarity to a haze of blue that might be hills or woods, or even smoke at the little market town. Farewell and adieu to you all for a while.
Mr Spencer turned his head to glance back at William.
-And where are ‘ee going, buye, all dressed up like Sunday in the middle of the week, if I can ask?
William sighed to himself. There was no escaping it, but then the whole village must know by now. I’m off away, he said. My cousin’s already at sea. His father thinks he can find a place for me.
-I’d heard something of it.
There was another crashing jolt.
- Get on you buggers. Think you’ll be back?
-Someday. When I’ve made my fortune.
-Her might not wait till then.
William felt a little stab, a scratching of a sore that he didn’t care to notice. But quickly he said:
-So who’s that then?
-Ah, there’s always a maid for a good looking young fellow like you.
William wondered if the old man was guessing, or if he knew but wasn’t telling. Once off in the wide world no-one would know if he loved old Blackshaw’s daughter – or care either. You could be your own man then. There’s that picture again that kept coming to his head: ten years hence, mounted on a good cob in his own yard, Nancy, no older, at the door, two children at his stirrup. A good slate roof, and friends at his table. Ale and music before bed. Absurd. He thought he might be dreaming young Foxton’s future for him. He said:
-There’s nothing here for me, Mr Spencer, save scrooging and scraping on the land for a living that’s not there. William surprised himself with his bitter tone.
-Aye, that’s the way of it, young William. I ‘spect I been lucky really, me being a single chap, been able to turn to and keep myself, and I s’pose I got by. Well, here I am to prove it. But the land’s wore out. Us had to kill my old milker last Michaelmas, couldn’t afford to keep her another winter. But there’s always something comes along. I’ve not sought relief yet, in fifty years.
William thought of the February queue at the vestry. That’s what haunts them all, ragged feet shuffling in the snow and their eyes unable to meet. He said:
-Us too, the Parkers, we’ve always worked for ourselves.
-Hm, pride, young man, sounds like to me, pride. God’s not always so precious, and I don’t know how he chooses to dole out his blessings.
-It’s a mystery, said William.
The waggon juddered again, paused, heaved on.
-Then of course, Mr Spencer went on, in your grandfather’s day I think it were easier. Still hard work, but plenty of it, and you could count on your bit of ground to keep you going. Good summers…
-They were always good summers, Mr Spencer, if you hark to them old gafters in Mother Spivey’s.
-Well, true enough, but there was so much corn on the Great Field then it took near twice as long to clear. Us ‘ud be carting for a week or more, and no bugger grudged the Rector his tithe. The barns ‘ud be full to bust.
-In Good King Charles’s Golden Days…
-Here, you’ve a tongue on ‘ee, William. It’s good for you I know ‘ee well, or that ‘ud be worth a flick. I’m not so old as that, but I do remember your granfer. If you don’t mind me saying, the Parkers was a proud family even then. Your granddad always had airs about him. But then, he were a proper husbandman. He knowed a thing or two. And he married the right woman and all. By Christ, old Bess could work. And then us ‘ud see her Sunday, bits of silk and muslin, looking like she could swap the churchwarden’s seat for the squire’s box pew.
A blackbird was singing from an elder along the road. It was almost at the top, where the notes carried furthest and the sun glossed its plumage, shiny as new mourning. It chattered swiftly away as they drew near.
-So many of the buggers this year, said Mr Spencer.
-Seem to be on every bit of green spray once you start listening out. Still, as my old dad used to say, us country folk won’t go hungry when there’s enough blackies to fill a net. Long time since I had a bit of blackbird pie though.
-Ma won’t cook them.
-Well, lot of trouble, it’s true. But it fills your belly. Shame really. Your mother bakes a good pastry.
William thought to himself, I know it. Biscuit and rum.
They rumbled on for a few minutes. The potholes came less frequently, and the waggon made better progress. William had his grandfather in mind. He said:
-I never truly got to the root of it, my family and what went wrong.
-Not my place to say, buye. William knew he would say it anyway, and so indeed the old man went on. But if ‘ee really wants to know, he weren’t too popular. Unfair maybe, ‘cause he and his missus were kindness itself, never too much trouble for Bess if ‘ee had a bit of bad luck in the family. I s’pose people thought they’m a bit too pleased with theirselves. And then when times got harder – there were four years when it never stopped raining – the neighbours all thought the Parkers were fit to get by.
-They was near washed out.
-Aye, that’s the truth of it. All of us. And the war ended, the one before this last, and the King weren’t buying corn no more, or not much. The countryside had a hard time, bad as now, for all it’s a grand day. And then your Pa and your uncle.
-It wasn’t a secret, said William. They couldn’t get on.
-No more they could. Scrapped like rats in a sack. But I’ll not say ought more.
The old man turned back to the collars of the horses, and took a fresh grip on the bridles. Walk on, you old buggers.
The waggon, the men and their horses were almost under the shade of the trees that leaned across the churchyard wall. The grass about the graves was long and rank. It was the last to be cut, if the churchwardens found the time or the pence. A few headstones leaned among the growth, but none for the Parkers. When his grandfather died the money had gone. He thought he could remember standing beside the grave, clutching his mother’s hand, while Robert clambered about the pile of earth nearby.
Now then, his mother’s family lay on the other side of the churchyard, a little line of low mounds. Ma went round there, the cold North side, on occasional Sundays. She said she needed to see if they were snug still. And indeed they were, William thought. His mother sometimes left flowers, poppies, daffodils, a rose, whatever came to hand. She set off with the children for communion sometime later than Pa, who thought he needed to attend early to see the church made ready. It was always ready, but now, after three hundred years you might not think it was truly fit. His father’s first task in the winter was often to mop up the pools of water that appeared in the nave under the leaking roof. He stopped up the broken panes of the windows, where the birds made illicit entry: they had often entertained William by flitting about in the sermon. Pa, half joking, suggested the parish maintain a barn owl. Despite frequent distemper, brown patches would soon appear amongst the memorials on the walls. Some said they liked the church this way – it heightened the religious feeling, to be reminded of the grave. If memory serves, the Foxtons had the right to appoint to this living. The upkeep of the church was not in the front of their thoughts.
-I’m for the toll road now, said William. I’ll have to leave you here.
-Well I’m obliged to ‘ee, buye.
William jumped down from the seat and handed the reins to Mr Spencer. The two men stood in the sunshine while doves flapped and cooed in the beeches above their heads. Away in the village, at the other end of the church, a door banged. Someone called their dog. William pulled his knapsack from the waggon.
-I can guess what ‘ee got there, said the old man.
-I can’t be without some music, said William.
-Them buyes in the gallery will miss ‘ee come Sunday.
-They can rattle through Old Hundreth well enough without me, I dare say, William said. But he thought, The New Rigg’d Ship is the tune for me now.
They shook hands. Mr Spencer wished him luck, and turned back to his horses.
William’s track to the mill lay through a spinney of alder and birch. The flat ground as it approached the mill pond was still moist in the shade despite the dry weather. There were dapples of sunlight above his head but the ground under the trees was dark and green. The smell of damp and garlic was rich, but sour you might call it. No birds sang in here, though the corner of the eye might catch a darting in the stillness. Like something brooding moved away. It was always tempting to glance quickly behind as if to catch what was no longer there. William’s boots sank in the soft earth, which pulled at his feet. Occasionally people from the village stole in here to pick up dead wood, or to cut a few faggots. Their houses close by, you would think more might come, but something deterred them, this ancient decay. William thought his sweetheart well-guarded.
The mill pond gleamed at the end of the chancel of overhanging boughs. He stopped at the wood’s edge, with the mill screened by the trees around him, then moved cautiously forward till the building came in sight beyond the stand of rushes that marked the edge of the pond. Across the water there was a low quay shored by timber, and a patch of grass bright in the sunlight before the grey stone of the mill itself. The great wheel was stopped under its lean-to roof of tiles. A moorhen sent a wake shimmering across the water, but everything else was still.
Nancy was at the door on a sudden. The sight and the joy of it arrived together. She had a basket under her arm, and he watched her spread out washing from it. She wore the same gown of linsey–woolsey that he knew. She put the basket down, and as she moved along the line strung over the grass, the sun played on her face and shone in her dark hair, tied sternly back from the centre of her forehead. Her lips, pursed around a couple of clothes-pegs, gave her face this wry intensity which made him smile. He felt a sort of pride. He could have called out, but he wanted to take pleasure in the moment. It would soon be gone, and besides, he needed to be sure her father was elsewhere. In a minute, her task was finished. William tried to catch her eye with a hesitant wave, but she was already at the door. She picked up the cat from the threshold and was gone.
He followed the track around the pond, keeping close to the hedge till he came up to the end wall of the mill and under the lifting beam, where he could look through the storeroom window. There was no sign of Mr Blackshaw, and emboldened, William stepped around to the grass amongst the washing. He could see through the little window into the kitchen. Nancy was standing at the table, her back to him. He tapped lightly on the glass and she turned. He knew that expression, her lips drawn between surprise and pleasure, the eyebrows arched between disapproval and delight. He loved her. She drew the door open.
-It’s my handsome dark-eyed sailor! was what she said.
-He’s not returned yet? asked William. I had intended to be here before this.
-Ten minutes, I should think.
William reached across the door and drew her to him. He felt her hips against his and their lips brushed before she leaned away.
-You’d best not come in.
-I know. I thought we could walk out by the river. I really thought I could be here last night. Were you angry?
He looked downcast.
-No, silly, I thought there must be something in the way.
-Mother. It’s hard on her.
-I guessed. I felt so sad though, but I knew you wouldn’t go without goodbye. Nancy eyed him up and down. You’re all dressed up.
So I’m told. It’s all I have that isn’t fit only for the field. But he had wanted her to remember him at his best. He felt rather foolish. Nancy wouldn’t care.
She reached behind the door for her hat, and then pulled the latch behind her. They stood looking out across the pond towards the spinney, and beyond, the church tower. She slipped her hand into his. They walked around the mill and followed the course of the leat, ducking under branches overhanging from the hedge. He pressed down the summer brambles for her with his boots, though they still caught at her hem. The leat was dry, only a few puddles among the sticks and leaves on its bed, waiting for the miller to open the sluices when the next grist arrived.
-Has he ever missed a morning with your mother? asked William. He thought of the grave at the new chapel beyond the toll road where Mrs Blackshaw had been the first laid to rest ten years before. The gloomy thought rose up: the dead are still amongst us.
-Only the winter days when his chest is worst and I have to help him from his bed, said Nancy. Then it’s all he can do to sit before the fire.
Millers and pitmen, they have that racking cough in common. It’s a badge of their trade. The cough preceded old Blackshaw like the leper’s bell of old, but it had this benefit: it was a warning to the unwary, such as when William and Nancy thought themselves alone. And then it foretold confusion.
This young maid Nancy was an only child, for a younger brother had died within days of birth. Her mother was not long in following. Her father clung to Nancy in his grief. William thought that Mr Blackshaw should take more comfort from his faith. Instead he carried the burden of his loss around on his shoulders like a sack of his own flour. William had never seen him smile, and the resentment the miller directed at the world seemed to have a particular heat for William’s family. Pa, when he could, took his little trade further down the valley. Some people you just can’t get on with, he told his sons. Bill Blackshaw, he hated your granfer and all, anyone who tries a bit, he calls them worldly. Fine for him, Pa would say, for millers are like butchers, they can always find a penny somewhere.
Nancy’s duty divided these two lovers like the wall of a deer park, as we’ll see.
The two of them passed by the sluice and stood on the river’s bank. This far up the valley it was little more than a stream, and within nary a mile or two it fed the Stour. Here it was a few feet wide and barely that deep. They could have splashed across if they chose, as William had many times as a child, sometimes even with Nancy. The water moved lazily through long fronds of weed where you could creep to the edge and lying in the grass often surprise a small trout. Downstream between baulks and hedges lay the village. In between, a line of distant heads were bent over scythes which flashed now and then as they moved slowly across the field.
The two turned without a word to work upstream to the place they shared only with each other, through long grass among thistles and cowslips to where the bank rose a few feet above the river under a line of straggling willow. He pulled off his knapsack and they sat in the shade above the water. His arms were round her small middle as they sat, their foreheads touching. He kissed her.
-Sweet, lovely Nancy.
All she could say was: yes. But when his hand strayed she pulled away and sat up.
-Oh William, I can’t bear it.
He felt ashamed, as so often. I’m sorry, he whispered.
-No, no, I mean the thought of you going. I want, well, all the things you want and we waited as God intends till we could make it right. And now it’s too late.
He found he was struggling to say whatever needed to be said, something that might have meaning for them. Words all felt so empty, so his voice tailed away: I must go…
-and leave me, she said.
-Please don’t let us quarrel now. You’re the girl that I adore, but it has to be done. There’s nothing here for me, nothing that I can promise you, nothing that would satisfy your father, and you wouldn’t leave him if you could. So William told her while he thought: and I can’t fight myself anymore.
Nancy was looking away, but her hand still gripped his. She said: But where will you go?
-That’s no matter. Wherever my uncle can find me a place on a ship that will go to foreign parts, where there’s a fortune to be grown, like the East Indies or Jamaica. Wherever the winds will blow me, as you know I’m resolved. It’s a sort of vow, to trust, and take whatever the Lord may throw in my way.
-I prayed last night that He’d protect you, and He will. But as for fortunes, she said sadly, sailors are just labouring men, I think, but on the sea with cannon and shipwrecks. Don’t come back here shipwrecked.
He laughed, and said: I’m a man of desperate fortune indeed, just like Crusoe.
Nancy poked his chest with a finger. You’ve spent too long with Robinson Crusoe.
And it was true, the book had been a companion of his youth. She jabbed at him once more.
-Ow! You’re too provoking, my girl.
They wrestled a moment, and it resolved in kisses. For a few seconds they had both forgotten how the morning must end. Then Nancy said:
-You might swim off with a mermaid.
-And you might marry Barclay Foxton.
That was the wrong thing to say. Damn. She didn’t need to be reminded of what happened, especially not now. William had been a fool to tell her in the first place, how Foxton had come to the alehouse one night last year. The harvest was just in, William had money in his pocket. He was surprised to find Foxton there, but the man was treating his father’s tenants. The punch went round and the evening grew boisterous. William had played a couple of jigs. They drank old Mr Foxton’s health and his son had to respond. William thought the son had had a few glasses. He probably wasn’t used to it.
-Gentlemen! began Foxton, nay, friends!
There was a roar of tipsy approval. Foxton stood on a bench. You’ve kindly given me the Founder of the Feast, and indeed, I hope as you say that one day his soul in heaven do rest, though of course, not just yet. There was a burst of laughter, which William thought freighted. Foxton continued, waving a pot in his hand.
-But there are others in this village of ours who make our lives a little better, who brighten the dull winters for us and charm the summer evenings too. Whose heart would not be lifted, for example, by the sight of our miller’s lovely daughter on her way to market? A sight to cheer the weariest breast. Good sirs, I give you the Maidens of the Village!
In the hubbub of raised tankards and laughter, none had looked at William, though he coloured with anger and shame. Even now, after many months, the thought of the evening put a knot in his stomach of rage and impotence, that the Foxtons could say and do as they pleased. That was their due, it was how things were written. But while the likes of Foxton might like to make sport of a tradesman’s daughter, in the end he would marry land, some woman from across the county, and that was written too.
The leaves of the willows stirred slightly around the couple, but there was silence. William felt Nancy was on the edge of tears and he hated himself. Eventually she said:
-I never gave him cause.
-I know it.
-When you are gone, I don’t want you to think…
Then in a little, she said: Perhaps I’ll dress as a boy, and come looking for you. That’s what they do in songs.
William looked her up and down, a mocking survey. He said: Your waist is too slender and your features are too fine. No shipman would be gulled for a minute. They would throw you overboard and then what would I do?
Nancy drew her hand away. William thought she was about to stand, but she bent over where she sat and wrestled the ring from her finger. She held it up and he could see the sky through its thin gold circle.
-Take this, William.
He was shocked. It was your mother’s, he said.
Nancy said: my heart goes with it.
He couldn’t bear to look at her, something between desire and loss consumed him quite. This was worse than he had imagined even when he had hesitated to come last night. He felt her push the ring into his hand.
-Your father will miss it.
-He won’t, and if he does, I’ll have to fib.
-You won’t find that easy.
She shrugged. He struggled to put the ring on his little finger, but it wouldn’t pass the knuckle. Nancy grinned at his efforts. That’s what pockets are for, she said, and he put it carefully inside his coat.
-I could hang it around my neck, he suggested.
-Next to your heart. She was being playful.
-Of course, he said. Nancy, I have nothing to give you.
-Then I’ll just take your love. She was trying hard to be teasing, but he understood she meant it. She stood up quickly and turned away, as if to survey the river, but he knew she was crying now. He felt powerless, the best he could do was to stand beside her, while their hands met again. He found the empty space on her finger where the ring had sat.
-Father will be looking for me, she said. The morning was advancing now, the sun bright above their heads as they followed the river bank back to the sluice gate. The edge of the mill pond was just in sight, and there was a splashing. Old Spencer had driven the hay waggon, emptied now, into the pond, where it sat while he watered the horses.
-I’d best not come further, William said. Then quite abruptly added: when I come back we’ll meet under the willows again.
-Is that a promise?
-Oh yes. And then we’ll never more be parted.
Their lips touched quickly. William was too frightened to hold her close again. He turned away to the path across the fields that lead to the toll road. After he had gone a few steps he thought he heard:
-My very heart is aching for the love of you.
When William reached the turnpike, there was a cloud of dust about it, hanging in the still air where a flock of sheep had lately been driven by. Droppings manured the road beside the open gate. He thought to slip through unnoticed, but he had hardly taken a pace onto the road when a voice called: Hold up!
The keeper came out of the low toll house across the road and squinted at him.
-It’s only me, Harry Parker’s boy William.
-I didn’t know you, William, looking so smart.
The man had come right up to William, until he was only two feet away, and stared him up and down. It was notorious, the toll-man’s short sight. William always thought the keeper must have counted his blessings the day he got this place from the turnpike company. He peered forward till William felt the man’s projecting teeth might take a bite from his coat. The keeper was not a happy object.
-Well young man, it will be a penny if you wants to walk on from here.
-But I’ve no stock or horse, William objected, and I ‘m only going on the road a mile or so.
-Don’t signify. That’s the rate the Trust has set, ‘cause you’ll want to use the new bridge too, I’ll warrant.
-Oh, the Trust, said William. What’s a man afoot more or less to them; they’ve got waggon-loads of money. And you know what the times are, for me and you alike no doubt. Pa says these roads are just leeching money from country folk who only want to get about their business.
The keeper was obstinate. I’ve got a lot of respect for your people William – but ‘twill be a penny still.
-Then, said William, I’ll race you to the next turning for it.
He sprinted away until the keeper, the toll gate and his old life were all behind him.
Pleasant and Delightful.
My favourite version of this song is by Show of Hands at https://youtu.be/1lZtcL-h21o, but you can also find on You-Tube the great Louis Killen at the end of his career.
Sweetness of Mary.
Though in the traditional idiom I confess this is a modern strathspey (by Joan McDonald Boes), but I'm very partial to it. See Eliza Carthy's set at https://youtu.be/SJn4mysmOa4
Good King Charles's Golden Days.
This is actually the opening line of The Vicar of Bray, a folk-song in only the widest sense, but see https://youtu.be/qNbn7dH1uVE for a fairly authentic Eighteenth Century approach.
The New Rigged Ship.
There is a good fiddle version at https://youtu.be/QghhFlt7vjM by Ali Bain, although a tune of this name was found in Dorset.