Читать онлайн «Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker»
‘I saw a white lady in your wood with silver hair. Do you think she is an angel too? She waved to me,’ she added, but the old lady wasn’t listening, just scowling.
‘It’s about time you went to school, young lady. You’ll like it at Wintergill. I’m sure they dress up as angels for the Christmas play. You’ll make lots of friends in the village, not imaginary ones. I think your mother reads you too many fairy stories,’ Mrs Snowden replied. ‘And don’t go wandering off on your own in the wood. I don’t want you messing up Nik’s hard work. This isn’t a play park. It’s not for kiddies, do you hear?’
Evie made her grumpy face. She didn’t want to think about school.
‘If you stay here I’ll show you how to make angel cakes with wings. They have to be as light as feathers, and you can make the butter cream,’ said Mrs Snowden looking at her watch. ‘I thought your mother might be coming for coffee. You go and rescue her from my son’s witterings and I’ll put the kettle on. You can tell Mistress Snowden to go and haunt him!’
When Evie had gone Nora sat down suddenly drained. That poor bairn was old before her time. Angels and ghosts indeed! Oh, to be a child again when her own world was full of such dreams. For all she was a town-bred kid, sophisticated beyond her years, there was something reassuring about her daydreams, but Nora was uneasy about a child around the place.
How strange she could see old Hepzibah with such clarity, as Shirley did all those years ago. Nora felt the old ache in her heart. It was coming to that season when Shirley was always uppermost in her mind. She didn’t want another girl in the house to remind her of what she had lost, especially a little girl of the same age.
Nik was a good lad in many ways but he was no substitute for Shirley … What a dreadful thing to admit to yourself, she thought. He’d never replaced her firstborn in her heart and he’d always been Tom’s favourite.
This child was different, reddy fair like her mother, bright-eyed, sharp-faced, and it was hard to ignore her. They shouldn’t have let a barn to a family with a child. It had so many secret memories, that barn at the end of the yard. Changing its name, reshaping it would never change what had gone on there all those years ago. No point in going back over it, old girl.
Everyone who mattered then was long gone and she must think only of better times: Shirley riding Bess, her plaits hanging under her riding hat, her plump thighs, black wellies and gaberdine school mac. Now she was frozen for ever in black and white photographs. You never get over the death of a child, not ever. Nothing could compensate for her loss, not even Nik. He was always shielded from the truth of those post-war years, the tragedy was never mentioned in his hearing. No one spoke to children in those days about such events. You got on with life and made no show of grief. And no amount of flowers laid around her grave would bring her back to them. Now, she chose to live at the front of the house away from the back yard memories. It was the only way. She was glad she had no pious belief to fight this lifelong bitterness.
Yet stone by stone she’d built a wall between herself and her son. She feared to love what might be snatched away. Life was no longer safe. The worst had happened and it could happen again. Nik was always Tom’s ally against her. Two couples living in one house was never easy and warring factions made everyone jumpy. Nik’s wife had sensed these tensions and rivalries, and she herself had done nothing to help the girl cope with this new life. No wonder Mandy left them to get on with it all. She’d seen Nik’s pain and done nothing to soothe it, knowing better than anyone the loss of hopes and dreams. If only she could make a bridge between them, but it was too late now.
She wondered if Evie could also see Shirley playing in the Far Meadow, throwing her ball against the west wall, chasing the chickens? It would be such a comfort to know her daughter’s spirit was roaming free in the fresh air, not cooped up in a little box in Wintergill churchyard.
Nora slumped down, her heart beating wildly. This won’t do! She blew her nose and wiped her eyes. Thinking only made things worse.
Anona Norton, 1653 (#ulink_72dbad49-d9c0-5438-8aea-f217f473a3ca)
Half a pig’s head, cleaned out
Water and vinegar, salt and pepper
A bunch of herbs: sage, bay leaves, marjoram, 12 peppercorns, 4 cloves
Teaspoon of allspice, mace, parsley
Soak head in water and vinegar for an hour. Re-soak in clean salted water for another half-hour.
Put in fresh cold water, cover and bring to the boil. Simmer, skim well.
Change water again, add all the seasonings and simmer until tender. Lift from the pan and cut off all meat into diced pieces.
Strain the liquor, boil until reduced by half and to a jelly when cold.
Add the meat and season to taste. Pour into moulds and chill. Turn out and garnish.
Recipe for a Dish of Frumenty
Take the crushed grains of new season’s wheat still in the husk with equal parts of milk and water and soak overnight in a stone bowl.
Cook slowly with some sugar in oven until the frumenty be as thick as jelly.
Flavour as pleases you with cinnamon, nutmeg or honey. Dried fruits may be added.
To be served on Christmas Eve, piping hot with cream or top of milk.
‘Where are those dozy wenches?’ Hepzibah muttered, seeing a maid running through the yard with no cap on. There were strangers tramping everywhere and the noise of the stuck pig rang in her ears. She scurried with her feather brush from her busyness in the little parlour that was her pride and joy. ‘Why did the girl vanish like morning mist when there was so much to be done?’ The screams were ringing in her ears, echoing from the yard where the men were at the kill. She scuttled through her chores, flicking over her ark chest and carved bedposts, her fine table and stool, and the wall-hung rack of her best pewter plates. Only Blanche had more finery than she, and much of that was disappearing fast from Bankwell House.
The pig had been lured, stuck in the throat, and even now its blood dripped into the pail. Soon she must heat the water for the scalding of its skin to scrape off the bristles. So much to do: larder to be scrubbed ready for salting down the joints before the Advent fast, the hog’s head to be set boiling in the cauldron for broth and brawn. It was a pity to waste even the trotters; they would be shared out among the helpers, for they would not keep for long.
Hepzibah was in no mood for celebration for a flood of monthly blood had woken her with such bellyache, and hopes of a summer bairn were dashed again. She was still fretting about Blanche’s boldness in church against the parson and wondered if she should bring them both under her watchful eye over this Christmastide.
She hurried back through the kitchen to chivvy up the butchery. She had great plans for their modest dwelling. Already she’d made a private parlour and a hearth for her spinning. Nathaniel bred fine sheep for market. She must keep on pestering him for a proper upstairs befitting their standing, a carved oak staircase and private chambers. The thatched roof at the back of the house was in need of repair. Sturdy stone slates would look better but Nate grumbled that it hath seen his father and grandfather through terrible winters, it could wait one more. But what was the point of fancifying their quarters if there was no heir?
She must visit the healing goodwife down in the village who sold her berry-leaf tea and prayers to the Virgin for a blessing. She hesitated many a night over that one, for it was a popish practice to make supplications in that direction. Why am I barren and Blanche is not? Hepzi paused. Perhaps if she gave alms to the poor, prayed three times a day, curtailed any frivolity of dress, the Lord would be merciful. Obedience and vigilance in worship might bend His ear in her direction too.
There must be no Christmas in this house, however much Nate complained, and perhaps there might be another way to secure His holy favour too … Oh, where was that dozy wench?
Two days later Hepzibah and her maid wrapped the brawn in its pot with a muslin cloth. Their hands were raw with rubbing saltpetre into the hams but the pig was cured, hanging safe for the winter. She had prepared the brawn especially for the parson as a goodwill offering behind Nate’s back. He was on Blanche’s side when it came to sermons.
‘Mark my words, if that old skinflint doesn’t come and prod us in the belly to see if we’ve eaten a Christmas pie,’ he sneered. ‘What does he need with our sustenance when he’s already as puffed up with air as a pig’s bladder?’
Hepzi took no notice, for she knew the holy man lived frugally in his cottage by the churchyard. It was her duty to share the Lord’s providence as a token of respect. Parson Bentley kept no servants and welcomed them to his hearth with a grey gaunt face, looking as if he were half starved, his eyes sunk deep in their sockets burning with such zeal. His house was more like a monk’s cell than a kitchen, and smelled of neglect. The rushes on the floor were stale and in need of refreshment. It lacked a woman about the place to soften the edges of its bareness and sweep out the cobwebs, brightening the shelf with trinkets rather than books. There was a bare table in need of a scrub, a stool and hard bench, nothing more but the scriptures set in a plain box.
Hepzibah presented the wrapped gift with a hesitant smile but he jumped back in alarm when he opened the wrapper.
‘I hope this be not some yuletide offering, Mistress Snowden. I cannot accept any such thing,’ he rasped.
‘No, no. It’s time for the pig kill, yuletide or no. There is more than enough for our needs, being as yet a small household. You have taught us many a time to share God’s blessings, and Nathaniel and I would deem it an honour to offer this gift for your enjoyment,’ she replied.
‘Enjoyment? Nay, lass,’ said Bentley. ‘Rich food in the belly excites the carnal urges that disobey the higher mind. There must be no pleasures of the flesh while I am God’s shepherd in your midst. Pleasure leads only to gluttony and lust.’
‘Sadly then I must take it home with me. I would not want to lead you into temptation. It was well meaning but I fear I have done wrong,’ she said, making to withdraw the parcel, but the parson stayed her hand.
‘Be not hasty, mistress. I’m sure the Lord in His wisdom prompted you to such a gesture of mercy. I see it was offered in honesty of spirit, which is more than can be said of some of your kin.’ The parson snatched the parcel and ushered her to the bench while the maid stood in the shadows. ‘I heard your cousin Norton disclaiming the word of the Lord, Sunday last. She comes weekly in my sight with her haughty manner and brings up the child in the dress of popery and idolatry. Is that not so?’ He was questioning her, his eyes burning into hers.
‘My sister in Christ hath had many troubles of late, sir. She is a widow, unused to straitened circumstances. She finds it hard to hold silence in her opinions,’ she answered with a frankness that surprised her heart.
‘Opinions, indeed! What doth a widow woman need with opinions?’ Bentley spat out his words. ‘It is forbidden in scripture for women to speak in worship. How dare she cast doubt on the Holy Writ? Is she or is she not a Christmas keeper: that is the question here?’
Her face flushed even though the fire at the hearth was meagre. All of Blanche’s conversation had been overheard, the walls of any church had ears eager to pass on mischief, the righteous spies who were only too willing to see another Norton brought down low.
‘You know, in times past the Nortons kept a great house with many celebrations but all that is long gone since the Commonwealth now rules,’ Hepzibah said. It was the best she could muster in Blanche’s defence.
‘I am pleased to hear it but what of worship? Does she intend to defy me and hold a Christ’s Mass in the chapel?’
The parson asked such direct questions that she was too flummoxed to proceed without untruths.
How would the Lord answer her longings if she spoke lies to His minister?
‘I’m not sure, sir, but she does not visit us often,’ she lied. ‘We do not meddle in each other’s affairs. She attends church as is prescribed, that I do know.’
‘But I fear such a wayward spirit within her. Was she not of the Royalist cause? I fear for her everlasting soul. A little chastening in that direction would be to her eternal interest,’ he smiled, and his breath smelled of rancid milk for his teeth were but few.
What did he mean, ‘a little chastening'? Did he mean to punish Blanche? A shiver of fear went through her.
‘If you would like me to speak to her myself …’ she offered.
‘No, but you must be my eyes and ears. The Lord will come unannounced in the night. We must prepare daily for the Judgement. I have my own plans for Mistress Norton. If ever a soul was in dire need of a humbling …’
His words trailed away as Hepzibah rose, feeling faint and nauseous by the stench of smoke and stale body odour, and the knowledge that this man would pursue her cousin further.
I must warn her and soon, she thought, warn her to be vigilant against his spies. There was a crazed hungry look in his eyes, which frightened her. She wished she had not brought meat to his door and stirred up his wrath against her cousin.
Next morning they woke to a blanket of snow: December snow that would stick, blocking all tracks, but she took heart from this as a good sign that at least the drifting would keep Parson Bentley at his hearth. He would not find it easy to go snooping. This gave her spirit some consolation.
Blanche was still her own flesh, and there was the child to consider too. She resolved to send a servant to Bankwell, to the hall down by the river, to warn her cousin not to provoke the parson into some idiocy this Christmastide. Better still, the two of them must come up to the farmhouse where no harm would befall them both. He would not dare to call on them unannounced, not with the stains of her fresh brawn on his jacket. That night it snowed hard again, blocking them fast in with drifts. The message to Blanche would have to wait. No one would be going anywhere now.
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