The Waggoner’s Boy
The sound that woke William next morning was Sunday’s bells, and the first sight that greeted him was the mason’s boots on his pillow. The soles were but an inch from the young man’s nose. Just beyond Kitt’s slumbering head, the sky was bright through the open casement. William eased himself from the bed and gingerly pulled on his breeches and shoes. Bending down still produced a sharp pain in his ribs, and his ankle hobbled him on the stairs. The inn seemed deserted, with that silence of a morning after, but the doors were open to the air and the day beckoned beyond them. As he passed the tap room door, there was a smell of lye soap mingling with stale beer. The benches and tables were pushed to the wall, and young Ellen was on her knees amongst them, scrubbing the flags. He bid her good morning. The maid looked up. Oh Sir, she said, you made me start. She pushed herself to her feet, and dropped her brush. He picked it up and handed it to her. She was blushing. He became aware that the church bells had just stopped. In the sudden hush, William said:
-Not going to the service then?
-Ma’s taken my cousin, and I must mind the inn, Sir. The pair looked at each other awkwardly. William discovered he could think of nothing more to say. He thought of himself, you’re a proper fool. Then she asked:
-Do you want to breakfast, Sir? She seemed glad to go off and bustle away. William sat in the sun outside the door. She brought him bread and cheese and a pint of small beer. He was aware that she was stood in the door behind him a while, and then she took a broom to the yard before him. The village being at church, the road lay deserted in each direction. For the sake of conversation, he thought to ask how far it was to Crewkerne, though he had already found out the night before.
-Eight miles, she replied, but hardly slowed her sweeping. Then she paused at last and leaning on her broom asked:
- And have you business there, Sir?
-I’m going down to Devon, to meet with my uncle.
-‘Tis a good old step there. I been Honiton once.
William didn’t think he had heard that name. What’s that like? he asked.
-No better than Yeovil, Ellen said.
After an hour or so of walking, William’s ankle eased but was still paining him. He had passed no one on the road, and of course the fields about were empty too. He reached the edge of a steep scarp shaded by woods, so sat on a bank to rest a bit and wondered how far he would be able to get that day. The sun was hot and he was grateful for the shade of the big ash spread above. He couldn’t help thinking of young Ellen, with what was curiosity or delight or both. What a lucky rogue was that dyer, perhaps. Then remembering sweet Nancy, his hand found her ring beneath his shirt and held it over his heart till his mind grew still. South Somerset lay stretched before him, low hills rolling in from Dorset like waves on a shore. The details of furrows, fields and common were bright in the morning sun that shone behind him. Larks were rising from the cornfield in front of him. He watched and listened for a while.
Two horses side by side were breasting the hill he had just climbed. They were drawing a heavy old four wheeled wagon. It was empty, so as they were big horses they ambled easily enough along. The driver perched behind them seemed in no hurry, for when they stopped to nose at the verges they were let to have their way for a few moments each time. They stopped again at the brow of the hill, just a few yards from where William was sat. The driver took a swig from a stone jar next the seat. It was then William realised the waggoner was a woman. She rested the crock on her knee and fixed him with a bold bright eye. He had to look away, rather flummoxed, caught staring. At length she said:
-I ‘spect you been admiring the girt prospect from thikky old hill. William politely scrabbled to his feet.
The woman was about thirty five, William guessed. Her hair was pulled back under a man’s three cornered hat. Heavy shod men’s boots projected from beneath her petticoats to rest on the footrail. But when she leaned forward to address him, she was revealing brown and ample bosoms, so once again William found it difficult to know where to place his eye.
-Indeed there are fine prospects here, madam, he replied, and so further confused himself. She appeared not to notice but said:
- I been coming over here twixt Yeovil and Crewkerne donkey’s years, and rain or sun, it never tires me. Chinnock Hill.
-I don’t know it.
- No, I knows ‘em all on this road and I thought you might not be from hereabouts. Can be a bastard of a climb with a full load, you’ll mind. It’s collarwork then. Where you from, my lover?
When William explained she was no wiser. She had no cause to go to East Dorset, and mostly not Devon either. She said there was plenty of work for her wagon near to home, though sometimes she’d been down to Lyme. She held out the jug. Here, she said, ’tis a thirsty old day for tramping the roads. The jug gave out a smell of cider and he duly refreshed himself. It was dry and tart. That’s how I takes it, she said at the sight of his wry face. The sweet’s for prissy maids. She grinned: this makes a man of you, she said.
The nearside horse was looking round at William. They were big horses, sixteen hands or more. The harness, like the wagon, looked old and worn, but the animals’ coats were glossy despite the dust of the road, and their eyes big and clear. William moved to the head and the horse snuffled at his hand. He said to it: I’ve nothing to give you except a friendly pat. Its ears twitched and it shook its head. He’s called Brasser, the woman said, and the mare is Copper. Don’t ask me why - my old man named ‘em afore he passed on - but they seem to answer. They’re usually my wheelers, but I didn’t need more for this bit o’ work.
-It’s a fair old drop down to the village from here, said William. We’re looking right down on top of the church tower.
-With a load on, the woman said, I’d have to put a pair at the back, but as you see, I’m bare wheeled. Going Crewkerne are you? Well, look, then you might like to follow on behind till we reach the level, like out of harm’s way. But meanwhile you might be there to stand by their heads if needed. I might ‘preciate that.
William thought this could be interesting, and as always a willing chap, he let the wagon by as she walked the horses on, and dropped in behind.
Almost immediately they entered a steep hollow-way, where years of rain and traffic had worn a chasm in the hill. The sides reared up thirty feet or more above the wagon, where trees arched over the top, so they descended in funereal gloom, as if it were no longer broad summer above their heads. For all the efforts of the local trust, winter’s rain had scoured the way to grit and rut. For nearly ten minutes or so the horses skidded their way down, and it took some skill on the part of their driver to manage them so, William saw. They never missed their step but, he thought, it was lucky that they met with no carriage coming up, or there would be a pickle. But then it was a Sunday. They came out into the sunshine in East Chinnock at last, where the woman let the horses stand beside the brook.
William felt in no hurry to pass on. Truth to tell, he was hoping the woman might be persuaded to let him ride with her. When she reached round behind her for a bucket, he filled it for her from the stream, and put it to the horses’ heads. The sun was hot on his back. He declined an offer of another swig from the cider jar, but the woman took a copious draught. She took an easy look round her at the bright valley, pulled off her hat and mopped at her brown brow with a big handkerchief. She said:
-You know, when first I went with the wagons, it filled my parents’ hearts with sorrow, grief and woe. She laughed to herself. Yes, she said, all those three. And now here we are, summer come on, my horses well fed, and the small birds singing, and I think, what did they know of pleasure?
William could see that once she had been a handsome maid. Perhaps she was a handsome woman still, but then William was looking with the eyes of a lad, when thirty five has a secret life that is beyond imagining.
-I ‘spect you might like to ride a while, she said to his relief and without a prompt. You strike me as footsore. He did not deny it. There’s a few miles of this old road yet, she added, and conversation will beguile the time. I’m Mrs Lucy.
They set off, with William sitting just behind this Mrs Lucy, swinging his legs over the side of the wagonbed, the better to take the view as they rolled slowly along. It wasn’t much faster than a walk but he was all too grateful for the rest. The wagon climbed to a low saddle among straggling heath but where new fields were encroaching on the gleaming furze. Some little cuddie wren was carolling unseen among the broom. There, said Mrs Lucy, he’s cheerful enough. I ‘spect he’s left his missus to mind the nest. And speaking o’ that, young man, what’s put you on the road?
They had not gone a mile or two before Mrs Lucy had wheedled his story out of him, as a woman will. And he found he was happy to tell her, as a man will be who has hoarded his sorrows and worries to himself for too long. The safest cache for such stuff often turns out to be a stranger’s ear, which hears without judgement what a man might not tell his closest friend. The tale welled out of him like a newly found spring, and for a moment brimmed his eyes. He was glad the woman was looking along the road before them. So with her back still turned Mrs Lucy said:
-You must do what you must. I own it’s no small thing to leave the hearth you know for a future you don’t. But your poor Nancy, what choice has she?
-She loves her father.
-So she does, I ‘spect. But that’s the misfortune of women.
- What’s that?
-To be prisoners of our hearts, I suppose I mean. Or maybe, of other folks’s.
William thought on that for a bit. He thought on Nancy, and his mother too. But already he saw that by opening his own heart he had laid down a little of his own burden. And Mrs Lucy added: No point in looking like you lost a shilling and found three ha’pence though.
She turned in the seat and looked hard at him, grinned in a sort of sympathy. He laughed.
The wagon ambled past cider orchards where the fruit was just appearing on the trees, and small fields with the hay freshly mown. Further off the country was purple with the flowers of the flax newly in bloom. This open road at last had some of the promise he had looked for. The toll house by the river was deserted and the gate left wide. The wagon rolled on through without stopping.
-You‘ve not been Crewkerne afore, then? asked Mrs Lucy. He said not. I was brung up here, she said. My Pa was a saddler. Where we lived down from the church, they’re building some girt new woollen mill today. We are all supposed to be pleased at the work it might bring. I don’t know. ‘Tis all change in Crewkerne now. Some folks got lots – you should see the flash houses they’m building round Church Street. The rest of ‘em muddle along like always.
One of the horses took a liking to some grass beside the road. Mrs Lucy let it stand a moment. No hurry, she said, my gals have got the care at home. I been stopping a night with my sister down Yeovil way, after I made a drop there. So ‘tis like a holiday for me today. After a bit she walked the horses on. She resumed:
-Yes, saddle trade. My father wanted a son, I reckon, to follow him in the trade. So having just us two gals was likely a disappointment to him. Ma too, I ‘spect. But Pa, he run me and Annie ragged. We could never do enough for the old bugger, minding my language, in the store, up the workshop, stirring the glue pots, pulling about the hides, and then Ma would drag us off to the kitchen, or shove a broom in our hand. I can tell ‘ee, a buye would never a’ been treated so. They get more respect. And learning too. A maid is only fit for marriage and babies, so it seems. What do you reckon?
William was on a spot. He could only think to say that maybe it was ordained so, but he soon realised this would not do, for Mrs Lucy laughed. Ordained! she said. Aye, so the world seems to have it, and once I believed it an’ all. Even when I was a chit and thought as I knew my own mind.
-But waggoning must be a hard and strange life?
-For a woman, I take it you mean?
-For anyone, he said, though as a farming lad, he secretly thought it free and easy.
-Well, I’m glad o’ the summer days like this ‘un, it’s true. But winter is a different story, as you’d guess. There’s many a cold and stormy night when my topcoat’s all soaked and I’m wet straight through to my shift.
William found he was picturing the woman in a wet shift and was disquieted, but happily unawares, Mrs Lucy went on: the Chard road’s the worst of it, when there’s sleet and snow on Windwhistle Hill. Now that’s well named ifn you like. The miles are long then. Hard on the animals too. But you bears it with contentment, ‘cause that’s what you have to do even as you’d have it otherwise. But you need to know where there’s a welcome on days like that. You soon find out, waggoning. I know all the inns from Ilminster down to Axminster, Yeovil across to Chard, Yarcombe too. Now Chard is a funny old place, it’s one girt hill – you can spend all your time in that town just climbing out of it, but the New Inn – I guess it was new once – now they know how to treat you. I’ve had many a night thawing out afore John Cuff’s fire, and he didn’t stint the brandy for me neither. The Barley Mow in West Coker, there’s another.
-I’ve just come from there, said William.
-Is that a fact? Well I ‘spect Joan looked after you proper. But when her husband had the place, now that was a good house. Did you meet young Ellen? Pretty maid. She has a cousin is sweet on her.
-I think I met him.
-Well, I suppose she can skivvy for him just as well as she might for her mother. The funny thing is, she thinks her mother don’t know.
-And does she?
-Joan’s not blind nor deaf. Oh, here’s Mr Proctor.
Riding towards them at a good trot on a fine grey mare was a young man in clerical dress. Mrs Lucy raised her hat to him, just as a man might. He acknowledged her by name, but his horse never broke step, and was gone with its rider in the dust behind them within the minute.
-Now what’s that young curate doing on this road of a Sunday? Mrs Lucy mused.
-But he’s some way from his parish then. You know, his mother has got the whadycall for West Coker. Now the old Rector has been there forever, Mr Jeremy, but he can’t last much longer. So you can guess who she might appoint next. Good luck to the young man though. He’ll serve as well as many. Better maybe. He might have the marrying of young Ellen and her dyer, if the maid’s not careful. Mrs Lucy gave a mirthful snort.
They rolled on a while, with just the rumble of the wheels and the calling of crows from the arrishes to break the silence, till Mrs Lucy said:
-You planning to stay at Crewkerne, or go on a bit? Not much on this road after, till you get to Chard.
-I have no plan, only Plymouth at the end. I thought to see a bit of the world on the way.
-That’s proper for a young ‘un, the woman said. There’s some would envy you the chance, though most never move from their patch. And I don’t doubt that your Nancy’ll wait, if she‘s true for you. If Chard is too many miles today, I should put up at the George, or the Swan at a pinch. No, I ‘spect your pockets ain’t that deep. Well, you can find good straw cheaper without looking too far in the town ifn you want.
-I played for my supper last night.
-On the old fiddle in my sack. They seemed to like it.
-In Joan Purchase’s? They’re a raucous crowd in there of a Saturday that’s true. Here, can you hold the reins awhile? There’s somewhere I have to go afore we get into the town and it won’t wait. William got up on the seat to oblige the woman while she disappeared behind a hawthorn bush. In two minutes she climbed back next to him. Hm, children, she said. Men don’t know the half of it. William was still tender enough to be puzzled over this, but Mrs Lucy did not enlarge and just gathered in the reins. Walk on. So what do you play?
William considered. It’s mostly the old Gallery music my granfer taught me, I suppose.
-I wouldn’t think Joan’s customers wanted that, said Mrs Lucy.
-I’ve picked up a bundle of other old tunes, songs too if needed
Mrs Lucy drove the wagon past some pack horses stopped with their drivers at the side of the road, and then they rolled on in silence for a bit. The seat, William realized, was a close fit for the two of them. He became rather aware that Mrs Lucy’s thigh jogging against his own and the jolting of the road was causing him a pleasant but awkward physical effect. He tried to edge away. Here young man, she said, you’m wriggling about like a maggot in salt.
-Oh, beg pardon, Ma’am, he said.
-Ain’t neither of us an arse so big we can’t share thikky old seat.
William looked away. He was blushing like a maid.
The wagon was coming into Crewkerne. They went by a few miserable old cottages and then some finer houses of faced stone with walled gardens and proper gates of wrought iron. There were a few people on the streets, easing down their Sunday victuals, or anticipating their supper. As they went by Mrs Lucy bantered with some she knew, and she seemed to know most of them. Her hat was barely on her head. They stopped at last before the arches of the market hall, where all the roads from all directions seemed to come together. Some loafers with their pipes were taking the afternoon sunshine outside the shambles. Mrs Lucy had words for them too. William began to climb down from the seat. I need to find the Chard road then? he asked.
Mrs Lucy looked thoughtful at him. Here, she said, we’m not home yet. You can walk on if you choose, but I’m going Clapton. And in the morning I’m to take a wagon along Forde Abbey. That’s Chard way, so you could ride along too. You’d have to sleep amongst the barley straw, but my gals will find something in the pot for ‘ee to eat, I ‘spect.
Clapton’s a straggly little place just down from Crewkerne, by the Ax. Not much there save the Blue Boy Inn, and the squire’s old manor, but it’s where the first bridge crosses the river, and there’s a bit of a mill and a sheepwash. Mrs Lucy’s home was a little cruck by the roadside, leaning against a girt old barn for support. The two buildings looked likely to totter down together in the next good gale. There was a weedy yard behind, where a cart was upended with its shafts poking at the sky. It was propped on logs, with its wheels laid on the ground beside it. As they entered the yard, a pig eyed them with interest from a little shippon by the jakes. At the rumble of wheels on the cobbles, a young maid came out of the barn. She had horse brushes and combs in her hands.
-Not got the grease on, then? Mrs Lucy said to her, with a nod to the cart.
-And good afternoon to you, Mother, said the girl, quite sharp. How is Aunt Annie?
-Beg pardon, my lover, but that cart’s been on my mind. But your aunt is faring better, I’d say. I’m to remember her to both of ‘ee, course.
Mrs Lucy introduced William to her daughter, who gave a sort of curtsy, not knowing what manner of man he was likely to be. This was the eldest daughter. She was a year or two younger than William, he guessed. She was called Bessie. The youngest, when she appeared in the house, was Jenny and was maybe fourteen. Mothers in this family can only seem to produce fillies, remarked Mrs Lucy later, encompassing herself and her own mother. Bessie was brown, big-boned but handsome, like to Mrs Lucy herself; Jenny was small and pale with yellow hair, and like to someone else entirely. When Bessie returned to the barn, Mrs Lucy confided in William:
-I shouldn’t be cross with the poor maid. She’s had a disappointment, you know. I warned her, but there, girls won’t be told, they want to follow their hearts. And much good it does ’em, when I think on it. William didn’t think he needed more, but Mrs Lucy continued anyway: our blacksmith it was. You can see it, can’t you, looks so clever with his hammer in his hand and can write a fair letter too, the maids come running. But ‘tis all deceit, and now the maid knows. Well, I’m grateful the man brought no lasting trouble on this house. We’ve got our hands full as it is. Help me unhitch the wagon and you‘ll earn your supper. I do run on; but you’m not abashed, I don’t think. She gave him a wink of the eye.
The big barn was stable to another three horses, and hung all about with their tack. Bessie was finishing the grooming of them, and William thought they looked fit to win prizes. He said so.
-Well, said Bessie, they’re all my care.
-Not to speak of our living, said her mother.
William ran his hands down the hocks of the nearest, like in admiration, but Bessie snapped: them’s not for sale, you know. William hastily stood back, and so caught the mother’s eye. She gave him a look and and a shrug of the eyebrows. She said:
-I don’t think Mr Parker is buying horses, maid. He’s just making his way Devon, and I’ve offered our roof for the night. Don’t cost to be civil.
-Well then, we are just going to stir up your sister, and if you can slap a spot o’ grease on that axle, while we’re making a bite, maybe Mr Parker will help ‘ee put the wheels back on. You look like you’ve a good back, young man, she said to him.
William turned to Bessie. She was glaring at him. He offered her a wry smile to apologise for causing trouble with her mother and saw that she softened. He asked for the grease pot and took the task on while Bessie stood by. Mrs Lucy went indoors. Bessie said: I should take that fine coat off before you touch the grease, it’s like to be ruined else. It seemed a good idea for the work in hand and in fact, he would have stripped off his shirt too, save that he was shy before this unknown girl. But the greasing was done in a trice, and while he was working, Bessie took up the first heavy cart wheel by herself and propped it beside him without drawing breath. As they presented it to the axle it seemed to William that his help was hardly needed. He imagined Bessie in the blacksmith’s shop. She hit home the axle pins without deferring to him. He said, to be pleasant:
-I can see you know what you’re about.
-Oh, I’m the waggoner’s lad here, she said. Raised to it. William could not tell whether this was said in pride or disgust. She looked at him with her mother’s big brown eyes, taking his measure. She was snub nosed, like her mother, but with the same full lips too. She leaned to the ground to lay down the hammer she had used, and without turning back to him said over her shoulder: You can help us take the timber out from under ‘ee, ifn you would. She meant the props beneath the cart. William applied his shoulder to its sides, while the maid scrabbled about beneath to pull the logs away. The weight was suddenly crushing. William made to look untroubled, but he was glad the cart was quickly back on its wheels. Bessie watched as he rubbed and dusted off his shoulders. ‘Tis a good old lift that, ain’t it? she said. Her eyes were full of mischief. Takes the three of us to put ‘ee up.
-But you did.
-Us always do.
She passed him his coat and he followed her inside. It was a mean little kitchen, one wall all fireplace, and low boards above that had been squashed in like an afterthought, as doubtless they were. A steep stair, more like to a ladder, led to whatever chamber was squeezed beneath the thatch. But from the fire came a rich smell of onion and herbs. Mrs Lucy was sat on a little stool in the chimney corner, frying lights, with her skirts drawn up above her knees. Her bare legs were still in her big man’s boots. Shame, Mother, scolded Bessie. Tush, said her mother, Mr Parker must take us as he finds us. But still she stood up and brushed down her hems. Now then Jenny, she called upstairs, time to leave they puppies be, and greet our visitor. The maid’s head, with a rick of tangled straw for hair, appeared above the stair. She came awkwardly down with a tiny brown puppy clutched to her chest. She was trying to feed the little dog with a dropper. He was all eyes and paws. She curtseyed as well as she could to William, but turned straightway to Mrs Lucy.
-The poor thing still won’t take the tit, Mother, she said, I don’t know what’s the matter with ‘ee. Like that since his eyes opened yester ‘een. The others are chewing away at Dido fit to drink her hollow.
-Well maid, said her mother, some creatures are just like that. They get born, decide they don’t like life here much, and off they go. Like your poor baby brother. And who’s to say they’re wrong, eh, Mr Parker?
-Indeed. The woman looked to him for more, but he could only say, knowing it was trite: The lord giveth…
-…And he taketh away, she finished. And us poor souls must be reconciled.
-But it’s a shilling from Mr Blackwell, said the girl, for each o ’they as whelped from Dido.
-There’s still five more, said Mrs Lucy. My daughter’s getting a name for these dogs, Mr Parker – can I be familiar? William? People seems to think they’re good to the gun, and Jenny has the knack of it, for sure. Now my lover, you take him back to his mother, for we’re about to sup down here. The maid went back, allowing Mrs Lucy to say confidingly: I ‘spect us should be grateful the maid prefers the puppies to the buyes. She winked at William. Leastways, so far, she added.
-There was Keeper Blackwell’s lad, Bessie put in. You should tell Mr Parker. It made me laugh anyways. The elder sister had that glint of mischief again.
-I won’t be gossiping ‘bout your sister, said Mrs Lucy. ‘Taint fair. The woman went back to her cooking, but then turned round from the pan. But I did see the older Blackwell brother in Crewkerne this very afternoon. George. He went by the shambles and no-one as knew him said a word to him. And there’s young Dolly gone workhouse with the baby, like nobody’s supposed to know. What’s the use of it?
-Loyalty? suggested Bessie.
-Well, said her mother, must be love. She’d be mazed else.
-Pooh, said Bessie, dismissive. Catch me.
-I’m glad we don’t have to.
Bessie’s face took on a hurt look. She glanced at William, who fell to a study of the fire.
-Enough o’ that, said Mrs Lucy, let’s eat. She called for Jenny and they all sat to their platters. In fact, there were only two chairs for the little deal table, so Jenny perched on a barrel end, and Bessie in the corner on the pallet that it seemed served for her bed. There was plenty to go round, with a drop of cider too. It was still tart for William’s taste, but he could not refuse.
-You’m not a tea drinker, are you William? asked Mrs Lucy. We never keep it in this house, though I’ll take it when it’s offered. My husband said it weakened the constitution. Cider and small never done us harm, so us never took to it.
-And your husband, Ma’m?
-The galloping fever carried him off, and took our little Bobby too. Five years gone now.
-I’m sorry to hear it.
Beyond the little lattice, evening shadows were just lengthening across the yard. There was family small talk: the goose laid away and the eggs not found, a glass broken, a leak in the hen coop, the price of forage. Us’ll not buy from Mr Spinks’s again, ifn we can buy from another, said Mrs Lucy. As much mould as oats in the last sack I opened. He said us must have stored it damp. Fie, I says. If you spent more time at your business, and less on your knees, then Crewkerne would be the happier.
-Mother! said Bessie.
-No I never. But wanted to. I shouldn’t think you are one o’ they enthusiasts, are ‘ee, William? No? I’ve no time for ‘em. God will look after us all, ifn we just mind our own trade. That’s his trade after all. As waggoning‘s mine.
-So how came you to waggoning, Ma’am? William asked at last.
-Mr Lucy was the waggoner’s buye. Jenny, ifn you’re done, you can tend them pups again if you must. The girl rose and rushed away up the stair. Her mother went on: So he’d call regular at my father’s shop. There was always some piece o’ harness as wanted mending, or tack to be improved, though his master I thought after could as well done it for himself. Well, after a bit, I twigged that it weren’t the saddlery that he was coming to the shop for. I wasn’t displeased. Joe was a well-made lad, with a wit about him, from always being on the road meeting all sorts, as you do. He was always full of where he’d been the week before, places as sounded more interesting than old Crewkerne, and folk he had met, who seemed more interesting than Crewkerne folk. Well, you’re off to see the world yourself now, so I ‘spect you must see the lure of it. And there was I, always at my parents’ beck and never been further than Merriott.
Mrs Lucy sipped from her cup, and looked William in the eye. Without glancing away, she said to Bessie: Maid, I think the fodder may need readying for tomorrow, but ifn you attend to that it may be that William here will help you with the watering of them horses in a bit. Jenny and I can clatter the vessels after.
Bessie sighed, but put aside her plate, and went out. Mrs Lucy went on: ‘Course, my parents didn’t approve. Father was a proper tradesman, with premises, almost as good as a freeholder, and Joe, Mr Lucy, shared the stable with his master’s horses and hardly had four farthings to make a penny. And if I went off, there’d be a hand less to the house and the workshop. My sister could see that ahead, so she give me a hard time too. But I thought Joe Lucy was a fine fellow. I liked the horses too. I took to ’em just like our Bessie has. I had this notion of a free life on the open road with Mr Lucy, away from my father and mother and the rest of it, all unconfined. I s’pose this went on near a year, with Mr Lucy paying his attentions and my father wroth, saying he would never be leading me to the altar with a waggoner’s lad. Mr Lucy couldn’t understand it. He’d say to me, I works for my living, and what little I have got is all my own. And I cried with him and us thought ourselves hard done by. And got closer by it.
This story was near to the mark for William, and the woman guessed it. Here, she said, don’t you take on. I do ramble. Have another drop. I ‘spect your sweetheart’s more sense than I had. I don’t s’pose she’s let you, has she? I’m sorry, shouldn’t pry. Well, I have to confess to ‘ee, I let Mr Lucy. Wrong of course, but it weren’t letting, it were natural to me, for I loved him surely. Men think us women always need persuading to it, but given a head of dark curls and a deep laugh, some just need persuading that no-one will know. It’s what the world wants of women that makes us prisoners, like any in the lock-up. As long as us cares what the world wants.
-Well, I got so’s I didn’t care, and worse, I s’pose I thought if the worst happened, it could be for the best, because my father would have no choice then and bad luck to him. And ‘course it did happen, and in twenty-four weeks I was showing with Bessie. Suddenly gowns don’t meet, nor apron-strings tie. It’s the oldest story, but you’re a man of the world. Or you soon will be. So I can tell ‘ee a woman’s story, since you obliged me with yourn. She pulled a little face, suggesting they were both in on this together. Occasionally there came the sound from above of Jenny romping with the puppies. Mrs Lucy went on:
-Oh Mother cried, and Father cursed and swore, but in the end they came round and saw us married in St Bart’s. But they wouldn’t have me home. Father found two pound and Mr Lucy took a cottage for us up Hewish. They two never spoke again. But I thought I’d had a little victory, and when Mr Lucy’s master died sudden I thought we was made, ‘cause his widow had only my Joe to turn to. Pshaw, I didn’t know the half. I had a little baby and a house to run, and then instead of saddlery there was the waggon trade, with horses to keep and tack to repair, and feed to fetch and all the rest of it, and soon there was another baby on the way too. But what people liked about Mr Lucy was, he was steady. They could depend on him being willing. But when he wasn’t there, someone else had to turn to, and that was me. And since I had always taken to horses, it weren’t long before I was fetching and carrying, taking a waggon down to collect a load of hay when someone was short, then always a load more, or a bit further. After I was confined with Jenny, I was taking a load of flax in the two wheeler down to Crewkerne before the week was gone. And the baby at the breast.
Mrs Lucy paused. She grinned at William, as he thought what he should make of this story. She said: It’s what women do, all this. I knew naught of it when I was feeling put on by my parents. Took me a while to learn.
-Don’t men work too? William ventured.
-Of course. But a man has toiled all day in the fields, or on a waggon come to that, he comes home, he’s tired, he falls to his supper and his bed. Work’s put away till the morrow. But for a woman, seems to me, there’s no bounds to it, her life’s not separated out that way. Minding the children, feeding the hens, washing the linen, yes and gossiping in the street on the way to market, it’s all one. Now Mr Lucy was a good man. I cried for a week without pause when he died, and the bed is big and empty since, can I tell ‘ee William. But who gains by wedlock? A widow’s life is at least her own. And by then, in waggoning I found a calling, like any churchman or lawyer. I thought, I wasn’t put here for the menial.
-And you took up Mr Lucy’s trade?
-When I’d done crying, there were mouths to feed, and the rent to pay. Folk had seen me behind the horses, from here to Chard. At first they maybe felt sorry for me, left alone, but then they found what I could do, and the work come in soon enough. And my little maids were old enough to turn to. Bessie has a gift for the horses – like to Jenny with her dogs – my gals won’t be some man’s slavey at the fireside.
-They seem to have some gumption, William offered.
-I should hope so, she said. Mrs Lucy leaned across the table and added: But I’d have them women too. She said this with pride: it was to be a mark of her success, William guessed. She fell silent. William watched her long brown finger tracing circles on the table top between them. Her fingernails were neatly shaped, her hand, though rough with work, still small, a woman’s hand. She wore no ring.
-So you will miss her, William, your Nancy? she asked suddenly. Her hand brushed the back of his across the board.
The hand squeezed his. That’s proper then, she said, and rose from her chair. She called up the stair for the youngest daughter. Let’s see our animals to bed, Jenny, she said.
Across the valley, the sun was still above the hill, but the fields and woods there were in shadow already, and darkening. There was no breath of wind, and the call of waterfowl reached them from the river. Two men were going by on the road, rakes and scythes on their shoulders. They said not a word, but touched their hats to Mrs Lucy and passed on.
-They’m Mr Perkins’ men, said Mrs Lucy. Cutting his Great Field tomorrow, I ‘spect.
-Ifn that rain’s not laid it flat, mother, said Bessie, coming from the barn. That were unlucky for ‘em. Bessie had two empty buckets in one hand, and a yoke in the other. There were two more buckets by the door. William picked them up and followed the maid towards the river. Little Jenny and her mother were left attending to the pig and the fowls. The path wound to the riverside among old fruit bushes. It was rank with cow parsley, ragwort, nettle. The river here was slow, lazy between its banks, but still brown from the storm of two days before. Girt stones had been laid to make a watering and washing place and the water was lapping near the top. They both put the buckets down to watch the sun dipping across the valley. The sky had taken on a pink flush. Insects clouded above the water.
-Shall be fine tomorrow Sir, said Bessie.
-Your mother’s kindly taking me on towards the next town.
-Her’s going Forde Abbey. ‘Tis a grand old house. No monks there now though – it’s Squire Gwyn and his family. ‘Tis only a step to Chard then though. How far can ‘ee walk?
-In a day? When I’m not so weary, twenty mile I guess, more if I had to. Depends if I have a good night’s sleep.
-We’ve good straw, she said, solemnly.
-So your mother promised.
-I might come ‘long as far as the Abbey, ifn I’m not needed home.
-That would be a pleasure, I’m sure. He smiled, pursed his lips.
Bessie looked at him, unsure if he was mocking her. Her mother’s big eyes, puzzled. William realized that perhaps he was flirting with her. She stooped to turn a bucket over and sat on it. He joined her on another. Her feet and ankles were bare below her gown, a girl’s feet, delicate. She splashed them gently in the stream, and then bent to give them a more thorough washing, so he pulled off his boots to do likewise. The water ran coolly through his toes, and he stayed there, allowing it to refresh him. Bessie pulled her knees up to her chin and regarded him. Her long hair was loose, framing her face. He thought of the Magdalene, the drying of the feet. Stupid thought. So he asked:
-What business has your mother at the Abbey?
-She’s to cart timber to the saw pit, do believe. Squire Gwyn’s missus loves her garden, and ‘tis true, ‘tis a picture. Makes a deal of work for the likes of us leastways.
A pair of martins had arrived above the water. They were feasting among the insect dance, darting, resting, darting again, so fast the eye could scarcely follow, surprising with sudden new directions. William saw Bessie was watching. It’s a miracle they never collide, he said.
-They’m too clever for that, she answered. They learns it early.
A few more of the birds appeared. They were doubtless nesting in the bank downstream, a little out of sight under the spray of grass and weed which crowded it. They buzzed among the little midges, making hay with them, but the insects seemed heedless.
-Do ‘ee enjoy travelling, Sir? Bessie asked.
William had to think of the last few days. He said with a laugh: I haven’t learned yet. And when her dark eyes questioned this, added: I mean, I’ve not left Dorset hardly. And he thought to himself: yet here I am setting to sail round the world. He said: It’s my adventure, I suppose.
-Yes, she said. I like being away with the waggon, out on the road. I love the horses. A horse won’t never let ‘ee down, ifn you look after her right. I couldn’t leave they. But the waggoning – ‘tis new places, new people, or can be just catching up with old ones, seeing how they change, or grow. Always something different.
-With a horse for company.
-Having the care of animals keeps you steady, she said. They get so they trust ‘ee, or so they should, and you can’t let them down. I ‘spect it’s the same with children.
-Would you like children?
-Ifn I married, I s’pose they’d come soon enough. Some man would have to take me first.
She was serious, not looking for some gallantry, but William was constrained to say: Oh, you’ve time enough, I’m sure.
-For marriage? Fie on it, ‘tis all dirty clouts and hearthbrushes. Ifn I cooks and cleans, it will be for myself and because I wills it, and not another.
She grinned at him, but she was in earnest. William could hear Mrs Lucy’s voice in her. The maid was tart, as her mother’s cider, and he thought he might have felt sympathy for her blacksmith.
-What of love, then? he asked her.
-What of it? she said, but fell silent, looking across the river, with her chin on her knees. He reflected and then said:
-It’s riches, perhaps.
-You’ve heard Ma’s story? ‘Twas how she thought when she married my father.
-But it turned out well for them?
-For him. I knows what I saw. But I ‘spect my mother loved him, the maid added ironically, so that was dandy. And then he died. And my baby brother too. Bessie looked at William. She pulled her hems about her bare feet. Then she said: Love, it’s a fire in the blood, that’s how I thinks. It can warm ‘ee when you sits afore it, but then you must set to and make a living.
-That sounds too sad for me.
-Oh, the blaze is hot enough for a while, I’ve found. Can make ‘ee draw your knees up. Her tongue was in her cheek. He thought she was taking her turn to flirt. It was like she had lain in wait for him, to catch him off his guard.
-I s’pose she’s pretty enough then, your sweetheart? Or is it that she is a worker?
-She’s a miller’s daughter.
-Ha, she won’t lack for bread then, Bessie said quickly, and then added: nor you for oats, maybe.
That was impish. He saw the maid had eaten of her mother’s sauce. He should be affronted – what she wanted perhaps - but to her charming face he could only say: She is not like that.
-That’s well then. But tonight, Sir, you’ve just our barley straw to curl up with. She put her finger alongside her nose. It’s all teasing, she said, and looking back at the river, was immediately solemn once again. She was really quite provoking. Her cheek looked soft. He could lean over from here and kiss her, he realised. That would be a mistake. He knew so little of women. And yet he had pledged himself, of course.
At length Bessie stood up slowly, and started to fill the buckets. William pulled his boots back on, and together the young man and maid returned to the barn. A second journey was necessary, and once the horses were watered and bedded, the light was dimpsy in the yard. A rushlight was already lit in the cottage window and entering the kitchen, William realised the evening air had grown chill behind him. He gave a shiver as he came to the warmth of the fire. Mrs Lucy said:
-Us’ll see you have a blanket shortly, William. Us must be up betimes tomorrow, but it’s not so late you can’t play some music ifn you would, us should all like that, and maybe there’s a dish of mulled cider for a night cap, in consideration.
William found his pack and drew out the fiddle. The two girls sat themselves down, Bessie with her legs curled beneath her on the bed, Jenny on a chair with her hands beneath her thighs, leaning forward, all readiness, while William coaxed the pegs of the instrument around. Mrs Lucy took up her place by the fire and thrust the poker into its depths, prodding flames to eager life. The red light flickered about the kitchen which was no longer mean, but homely for these few minutes. They were all four enfolded in shadows and warmth. When William reached the end of the first air, Mrs Lucy pulled out the poker and held it before her in a dramatic show. Its head was glowing red. She admired it a moment, then reached out and plunged it into a crock before the fire, which gave up a steam of apple and cinnamon. Here’s health to the road, she said, plying the ladle for each of them.
-And them as travels on it, too, said Bessie. And William thought her eyes were on him as she sipped from her cup.
-Something lively now, cried Jenny, so William played them The Irish Washerwoman, and set their feet tapping with its bright six–eight. Oh, I love to dance, Jenny said when it was done, and so does Bessie. Bessie shook her head. Oh, but Bessie, Jenny insisted, Christmas last, you were first to take the floor, each time.
-Now then, interrupted their mother, no doubt sensing meaning in the remark, tomorrow is a long day. Finish up thikky cider and let Mr Parker play us sweetly to bed.
He played them the old air that his mother loved, learned so long ago it had no title for him but Mother’s, and it hovered about in some antique key, while he swooped and slowed and decorated with the ease of long familiarity. And when it was done at last, the fire was just a flicker and the rush almost giving up its dull flame.
When the goodnights were said, he gathered up his pack and went to the kitchen door. Bessie was there and stood aside but so close his pack brushed against her. The two were compelled into a moment of awkward dance to let him through. Their eyes did not meet, but as he crossed the yard to the barn he knew she was standing in the doorway for a moment to watch him go. Then he heard the latch click shut behind him.
The long summer’s day had not yet died from the sky, so that a ribbon of blue still lay above the hilltops across the river, though touched now with stars. There was no moon. The little pleasures of hearth and family were gone again, leaving an undetermined longing which he could not name. The inside of the barn was black, but the animals heard him and briefly stirred and the air was heavy with the breath of horses. He found the little truckle bed that had been pulled inside the door and stretched himself out, nestled into the straw smell of summer past, covering himself as best he could with his coat. He sat up again to take off his boots. He stared round at the dark for a moment, his head on his knees. How Bessie had sat by the river, her hems beneath her feet. Nancy beside their own river. Her token about his neck. Good byes. He laid himself down.
The kitchen latch clicked again in the still night. He raised his eyes to the barn door and against the evening beyond there was a woman. She stepped to where he was lying, and knelt beside him as he raised himself on his side.
-No need to stir, she said, and her hand was touched on his brow.
-Madam? he said.
-I have the blanket promised ‘ee. She spread it over him. And that done she kissed his cheek in the darkness. He felt a lingering in it, but as his lips turned to find hers, and as his hand went to hold her head to his, she sighed and rose again. He watched her stand at the doorway, felt her hesitate.
-Goodnight, young man. The kitchen door latched behind her.
That night the burden of Onan lay heavily upon him, but of whom William was dreaming he could not be sure.
The Waggoner's Boy
Joan Baez gives an incomparable account of this at https://youtu.be/_Vuf25juzyI. I accept it is almost certainly American in origin and unrelated to the The Jolly Waggoner : but that last is good fun . I like Sam Kelly at https://youtu.be/5G1phO2lszk
The Irish Washerwoman
This tune has long been found all over the UK. I like the simplicity of this version: https://youtu.be/niTlgjSyQZw