ONE (Cherwell St. Mary, 1660-1664)
“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes…” The words of the vicar sounded cold and emotionless. He went through the service as if it wasnot his sole child that was buried today – this sole daughter, who had given herself to avagabond and whose soul would now eternally burn in hell.He signalled Amos to come forward and throw some earth over the coffin. The innkeeperwent through the motions, followed by his children Sarah, Robert and Elizabeth.Family and friends then surrounded the family members to say their condolences.
“She was a good wife, your Rebecca” said Harvey the blacksmith.
“That she was” Amos confirmed.
A good wife and mother, he thought, even if she had shown a slight preference for her eldestdaughter. Who would have guessed that this marriage could have been successful? Rebecca Flint was an educated woman, the daughter of the vicar. He was only a simple countryman,hard working and loyal, who had never had any hopes of courting the shy but pretty lass withher big violet eyes. But when her father had discovered that she was expecting a child and had thrown her out, penniless, she had been grateful for his support and had agreed to marry him. Although she worked hard and had given him two children, he knew however that she hadnever loved him. Her heart belonged to this vagrant Cavalier, who had arrived one night to capture her love.
“Come on, children. Let’s go home” he finally said.
“Please, father? I want to stay a bit longer” thirteen-year-old Sarah requested. She looked sofragile in the sombre black dress with white collar that Amos took pity on her.
“Alright then. But remember that Sally has the meal ready by noon.”
Sally Jones was the young widow he had hired on to serve in the taproom when Rebecca had been taken ill. She was always good-natured and , in fact, suited the inn far better than the vicar’s daughter had ever done.
“I won’t be late” Sarah promised.
She remained by the grave, watching the mourners leave the churchyard and slowly return home, headed by Amos. He was dressed in his best black suit for the occasion. The Roman church of St. Mary’s stood somewhat apart from the core of the village, at the most eastern end of High Street. The group of mourners first passed some single houses, some of them one story high, owned by the better-off inhabitants. Then they passed the workshops of carpenter, shoemaker and smith; crossed the village green where on Sundays the young men played ball and held their wrestling competitions, to reach the White Raven. Westward, the low cottages of the field workers and journeymen, surrounded by small gardens and uncut hedges, ran down to the river, after which the village had received its name. Sarah could well imagine how, after some time, the conversations would result in the one question that kept everyone busy those days: how long it would take before England was a kingdom again. The death, less than two years ago, of Oliver Cromwell, who had brought military rule and wealth to a country torn by civil war, had once again started off instability and fear. His heir, Richard, had not been able to fill his father’s shoes and had been disposed off by the army within eight months. To many an Englishman, this state of confusion and anarchy made inevitable the restoration of King Charles II, who had long been awaiting his opportunity across the Channel.
Looking back, Sarah had always realized that she took a special place in the household. Her mother had openly shown her preference, and while the younger children could do without education, Sarah had learned to read and write and even spoke a mouthful of French. Her brother and sister had flaxen hair just like their father, the same stout figure, blue eyes and ever blushing cheeks. She, on the other hand, was tall and slender, had auburn hair and Rebecca’s violet eyes. Amos had compensated the lack of motherly love by spoiling Rob and Liz excessively, although he had not neglected Sarah deliberately. However there remained a distance between them and the little girl had soon learned to turn to her mother in case of distress. If she had ever wondered why such differences existed between members of a same family, she had not been able to find a suitable answer and had soon forgotten all about it. She had played games with the village youth and had been happy enough. Now the truth had come out: Amos was not her father at all. She was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, or in other words a bastard. Rebecca had been pregnant before she married. The sole thing that Sarah knew of her true father was that he had seduced her mother on a stormy night during the civil war. These past days, she had often tried to picture him by way of the descriptions her mother had given her: a man who was tall of stature, who had a dark face and brown eyes, a moustache,… But he had not become real, he remained only a shadow lingering in the past.
He had called himself Charles Davenport. When he had driven off, he had presented a small memento to Rebecca; a fine golden crucifix on a thin chain – the same that was now dangling around her neck. Would he still be alive? And if so, would he realize that he had a daughter who was now feeling desperately lonely? The first drops of rain did not bother her. But soon the sky turned threateningly black and not long afterwards the rain poured down with such violence that it looked as if an iron curtain had been hung. Instinctively Sarah ran for shelter. Linfield Grange wasn’t far off. She held up her long skirts and started running. She reached the decaying manor house only a couple of minutes later, but it was enough to have her soaking wet. Linfield Grange had belonged to a noble family before the war; had been confiscated and left to ruin. It had already exercised a strong attraction on Sarah when she was a still a young child, and she had chosen it as her secret hideaway when she had wanted to be alone. On one of her early explorations she had discovered that one of the windows of the porter’s lodge had opened to the pressure of her hand, and she had transformed the empty room into a cosy place with curtains she had sewn herself and cushions she had smuggled out of the inn. She climbed into the lodge and wrung most of the wetness out of her skirts. Then she made herself comfortable in the embrasure of the window and watched the rain come down. When she pressed her face against the glass, she spotted the horseman at once. Without any hesitation she widely opened the window.
“In here, sir!” she called out. “Take some shelter from the rain!”
© 2005 Nickie Fleming/Jansan