Friday 18 October 2019

The South Wood

By Shera Hill

Yorkshire Gold tea with a dollop of cream 

 Their families didn’t want Sara and Robbie to marry.
Sara’s father had promised her to fat, old Harvey Jones, the village butcher, whose barren wife had died the year before.
“Why would we waste your daintiness on that green lad, when for a mouthful of vows you’ll bring the family into the fold of one of the village’s richest man?”
“But I don’t fancy him, Da!” she pleaded. “His breath stinks and he always tries to lay hands on me.”
Her father hooted at that.
“Best get used to it lass—there’ll be a lot more than hands once you’re wed. Just give him a strong son or two and you can push him away. You’ll outlive him, be a well off widow, and soon enough have your pick of suitors.”
Robbie’s breath smelled like fresh grass.
His family had apprenticed him to the shoemaker. He wasn’t to marry for at least another five years.
They’d met at the marketplace, where Sara sold the eggs he bought for his master’s table.
Shy around each other at first, barely able to meet eyes, they fell to talking, and Sara had never felt talk come so easy.
Some weeks after their first chat, he said, “I’ll be at the fair Saturday. Comes midday, our master lets us off.” His eyes searched hers. “Will you be there?”
She nodded. “Aye, with my family.”
“Perhaps you can get away a bit.”
He said, “I’ll find you.”
How easily she slipped away.
Da got drunk with Aldous Reynolds and his son Ollie. Ma cackled and gossiped with the other village matrons, while the younger brothers and sisters ran and chased and played.
She and Robbie stole away from the stalls, the peddlers, and the dancing bear.
They stole into the deep, shaded green of the South Wood—the soft, moss-covered ground.
After the fair they contrived ways to be together, though if Robbie’s master or her father found out, a whipping awaited them both.
“I’ll not abandon you,” Robbie proclaimed, once she told him, once she was sure, her menses stopped for over two months. “I love you Sara, and I’m not meant for a cobbler. I hate the stench, the treating of the leather. I hate my master,” and his face changed, suddenly much older than a lad of seventeen, hardening like flint.
“We’ll go to London,” he said, “my cousin works the docks. He makes a good penny loading and unloading the barges. His wife does stitchery for fine ladies—your being with child won’t matter to the needlework. They’ll know a curate to marry us. My master can find another boy to work his stinking shop, fetching and carrying. I’ll be out in the open air, by the river, close to the sea. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even become a sailor—see the world! What say you Sara? Would you fancy me bringing you a silk scarf from India?”
“No!” she cried. “I’d not have you gone so long. I want you with me.”
He’d laughed and whirled her in his arms.
“Then perhaps we’ll go together…save our coins and take ourselves and our baby to the New World, America. What say you to that? The war’s over and they welcome those from the old country again. They say any man can make his way there. No lords or masters!”
“I go where you go,” said Sara.
That night she was to meet Robbie by the light of the waning moon. They would run away together, follow the road to London.
She bundled her few things in her shawl and eased out of the bed she shared with her two sisters. They slept still as bags of grain. She crept past her mother and father in the four poster, the newest baby between them, and down the basement stairs to the window that didn’t creak.
The moon hung low, gleaming golden like God’s lantern held to earth. The night felt cool, but not bitter, as if the moon itself shed a certain warmth. As she scurried from shadow to shadow it seemed almost bright as the sun, much too bright. The road would be illuminated, but how easily they could be seen!
Robbie was to wait for her by the church in the shadow of the South Wood. They’d walk through the night—be far away by the time they were discovered gone. Robbie’s master would try to get the law after them, but so many boys ran away from the villages that the Sheriff wouldn’t bother. Her father would curse her, make her mother swear to never mention her name, and marry one of her younger sisters to Harvey Jones.
Someone moved on the cobbles ahead of her—old Desmond Dower, the town drunk. He clutched a bottle of spirits whose pungent fumes reeked from twenty paces distant. Sara cowered in the shadows, and once he staggered away, ran toward the church, not caring for her echoing footfalls, the night and the glaring moon suddenly terrifying, like an omen she would never see Robbie again.
He emerged from dark of the recessed church doors and caught her up while she still ran. She stifled sobs against his shoulder.
“I was so afraid you wouldn’t be here!” she breathed.
 “Silly love,” he whispered, pushing back her hair, kissing her tears. “The devil himself couldn’t have kept me away.” He pulled her toward the road.
It was then they heard the shouts.
 Robbie’s face whitened like the bleached stones of an old statue.
“Run,” he cried, dragging her by the arm, racing them toward the South Wood.
But they weren’t fast enough.
Mounted, one of the men rode them down. He wielded a whip, and its crackling tendrils encircled her lover’s neck, jerking him back, yanking them apart.
She was screaming, and trying to break him free, but the sheriff leaped from his horse and slapped her away. He pummelled Robbie’s head and shoulders, puffing between the blows, “You’re indentured lad! Can’t take away what your master paid for.”
The other men caught up. Sara saw Robbie’s master, her own father, and Harvey Jones.
Harvey Jones spat on the ground. “She’s yours, Josiah. I’ll not have her now.”
Her father grabbed her by the hair. “Slut! I’ll teach you to go whoring.”
Laughing, the sheriff and cobbler bound Robbie like a pig to the slaughter, and then gagged him when he cursed their promises of the pillory and goal.
The cobbler pulled out a flask. The sheriff stepped over to partake.
Sara twisted free of her father, and snatched the pistol from the Sheriff’s belt.
In later years she said it was her first-born, David, growing strong and fine inside her, who gave her that courage, because as she held the pistol, her hands didn’t shake.
The men stared, then laughed until the cobbler spit up spirit. The sheriff started toward her.
“Give it me, lass, you’ve had your fun.”
She aimed for his head and put her finger on the trigger.
“Untie him,” she said, her voice firm and strong like a woman’s voice, a mother’s voice.
“Sara—you stupid sow—put that down, or it’ll go much the worse for you at home.”
“Shut your mouth, Da.”
Her father gasped.
“There’s but one ball in the chamber girl,” said the Sheriff. “You can’t shoot us all.”
“But I can shoot you,” she said.
“Is the lad worth hanging for?”
“Aye, and more.”
And they saw something in her moonlit face that made them know she would shoot, that made them know she wasn’t afraid of the gallows.
The sheriff cut Robbie’s bonds. He sprang to her side and took the gun.
“Over to the Andersons’ shed,” he croaked, still spitting out the taste of the Sheriff’s dirty rag. When they hesitated, he touched the pistol’s barrel to the shoe maker’s head. “I’d be hanged happy, knowing I sent him to hell.”
The ancient outbuilding stood a few paces away, at the village’s edge. Robbie pushed the men inside, slammed the door, and wedged a thick stick in the clasp.
The men pounded and threw their weight against the timbers, howling to alert the town.
She and Robbie doubled-up on the Sheriff’s horse, riding it hard, turning it loose at dawn to water and graze and eventually find its way back to the village. From there they disappeared into the South wood, and kept to it, two days paralleling the road.
Their first hour in London, they pawned the pistol, and used part of the money to bribe a drunken priest to marry them.
Robbie worked the docks for a year. Sara did needlework with the cousin’s wife, even after David was born, a fine, hulking baby.
The cousin and his wife saw them off as they took the ship to America.
They landed in Boston, and Robbie was right. In this land there were no Lords and Masters, each person could make of themselves what they would. Robbie never went to sea, but took the knowledge he’d gleaned at London’s docks and slowly built a business, until on David’s tenth birthday (and by then their son had a brother and two sisters), he owned his own ship.
Sometimes at night, in front of the fire, when one of their children asked how they met, Sara would smile and say, “I was selling eggs at the marketplace, in our village by the South Wood.”

About the author:  

Shera Hill was born in Wichita, Kansas, but now lives in California. She’s always been an avid reader, with most of her working life in the book world. Although recently retired as a library branch manager, she's written poetry, short stories, and novels, since she was a child.

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