As I put my hand into my pocket I can feel the paper there. They must not see that. If they read the note all will be lost. My mistress will be given away before we can make it to the harbour. I must take my time.
Lord Hartley and his men are brutes.
"Come on girl," says Lord Hartley. "Empty your pockets and hold your hands in the air."
One of them, a fierce-looking man with a wicked scar across his face and an eye that remains permanently shut, is pointing a pistol at me.
I take out the three coins Lady Gwendoline has given me to pay the man who well take care of Frederick's fishing boat, the catapult that Jacob made me and the piece of string I always have with me. Just in case.
"Come on, wench. And turn out your pockets so that we can see. Then put your arms above your head."
Good that Jacob has taught me a few of his conjuring tricks. I manage to crumple the note and pull it into my sleeve while my hand is still in my pocket.
"Ain't got nothing worth having, see?" I say as I hand over my meagre possessions. I screw my nose up and shut one eye. That always annoys the gentry. "That does you? Sorry I ain't got no more."
Scar Face looks over to Lord Hartley who shrugs. "Tie her up, anyway, and put her in the cellar. We'll soon make her talk.”
That I'm not having.
I can remember the first day she asked me to take a note to Frederick. She was all atremble and her face was flushed.
"Louisa," she said, "I've got something really important for you to do. I need you to deliver this note to Frederick Bowers. He lives in the cottage at the top of the cliff by Hollings' Cove. Do you know him?"
Oh, I knew him all right. He was a fisherman. And he indulged in another trade on dark moonless nights, just like Pa and Jacob. I nodded.
"Good," said Lady Gwendoline. "You must make sure no one sees you. Go through the woods after it gets dark. And wait for his reply."
She held out the note to me. It was on yellow paper. That was normally only used for writing grocery lists. So, she was just ordering fish? What was so upsetting about that? And why all the secrecy?
She smiled. "Yes, that's so he'll know straight away that it's from me and it’s not a trick." Well of course he'd know it was from her. Yellow paper.
I took the note from her and tucked it into my bosom. I would be less likely to lose it that way. I haven't done that today. Hartley's men would find that quicker, knowing them. I don't know what made me put it in my pocket today. It's just a good job that I did.
That first time I set off for Frederick's as soon as it got dark. It didn't take me long to get to his cottage. I tapped at the door.
"Who is it?" he cried.
"Louisa Deakin," I replied.
A few seconds later he let me in.
"Have you got something for me?"
I handed him the note and he read it. I was astounded at how well he could read. And then he surprised me even more by writing back to her.
"Make sure nobody sees you," he said. "And give this only to your mistress."
For weeks I thought I was just sending fish orders to Frederick and all the secrecy was because my lady wanted to surprise Lord Hartley. He is, after all, rather fond of fish. And indeed, every time Frederick comes to the big house, he brings some fish with him.
Then one day I heard the most horrific cries coming from my lady's chamber. Someone was hurting her, I could tell. And I could hear a man crying out as well. She must be fighting back.
I rushed into the chamber and there was Frederick, lying on top of my lady. They were both naked. He was thrusting his body on to hers. He had his eyes closed, he was sweating and he was screaming. She was groaning and whispering "Oh come, my love. More, please, more." They looked as if they were doing something a bit like what the dogs do when the bitches are on heat. I was so naive back in those days that I didn't realise that humans do things like that as well.
Both at once, then, they cried out even louder and then stopped moving.
"Oh, my sweet," she said. "I love you so much."
He kissed her and muttered, "You are my life." Then he looked up and saw me. He jumped off the bed, grabbed his britches from the floor and pulled them on.
My lady pulled the coverlet over her naked body and blushed deep red.
"What is it Louisa? Has Lord Hartley returned?"
I shook my head. "I thought someone was hurting you, ma'am."
Frederick chuckled. "It's called making love, Louisa. You should try it some time." He carried on getting dressed.
"So now you know," said my lady, "how important all of those letters have been. We are so grateful for all that you do for us. Quickly, help me to get dressed again."
So it continued. I knew as soon as Lord Hartley was away my lady would send me with a note, always on the yellow paper. Sometimes she went to the cottage but more often than not Frederick came to the big house. I made a point of hovering near her chamber when they made love. I would watch out in case someone came by.
The noise they made and the thought of them making love quite excited me. I became curious and finally did what Frederick had suggested. I tried it with the stable lad and one of the gardener's boys. I even lay with Frederick himself one day. He was so sad. He had not been with my lady for over three weeks and I'd had to deliver another note that told him not to come anywhere near the big house yet.
"Oh, I miss her so much, Louisa," he said. "I think I'll die if I don't see here soon."
"Let me comfort you a little," I said. I embraced him and slid my hand over his crotch. He was soon aroused.
"Oh, Lousia," he said afterwards. "That was a comfort indeed. Thank you. But you do know don't you, that I am devoted to your lady and I will never leave her. We mustn't let this happen again."
Of course I knew it was unlikely that we would lie together often. And I too was grateful. He was such a competent lover compared with the stable boy and the gardener's lad. Even though he spilt his seed without entering me he so stimulated me that for the first time ever my cries were genuine.
It wasn't selfishness on his part. I was always careful never to let any of them into me. I knew enough now of how babies and diseases of the genitals came about.
I can't say that my lady has been so careful. Over the last few weeks she has vomited much in the mornings. She has complained when I have fastened her bodice that her breasts were sore. I expect Lord Hartley has noticed something as well and the rumour is that he is impotent.
So, here I am in the end cellar of the big house. It is dark and cold and smells of a damp earth and rotting vegetables. I know I have little time. Thank goodness Jacob has taught me how to free myself from ropes. That's why I always carry some string.
"You really do have to practise this a lot," Jacob said.
So, whenever I've had a few minutes I've practised.
Just as I am almost free someone comes in. They are carrying a lamp and I can see that it's Scar Face.
"Now then," he says. "His lordship thinks Lady Gwendoline has taken a lover and you -." He prods me in the chest. "You have been delivering notes to him. So who is it?" He fumbles in my breast.
I don't resist. Maybe I can use this to my advantage.
He sighs. "I'll give you one thing. Your breasts are as soft and sweet as Eider down. Lie with me and I'll set you free."
I don't say anything.
His hand finds its way down to my thigh. He lifts my skirt.
"All right then," I murmur.
His hand makes its way up my leg.
"Let me come into you," he whispers and starts pulling down his hose.
I open my thighs and then pull his head towards me as if I'm going to kiss him. Instead I bite him on the cheek.
He then realises that my hands are free and they shouldn't be. "You bitch." He tries to pull my arms back behind me.
The note falls from my sleeve.
He picks it up. "What's this? What does it say?"
At first I think it's because it's so crumpled that he can't read it. And then I realise he just can't read.
"It's an order for fish, you nitwit," I cry. I kick him in his private parts and grab the note back from him
He creases up in pain so I relieve him of his lantern and keys. And run.
"We have to be quick," I say. "She'll be waiting. And Lord Hartley suspects."
I am certain that I know most of what the note contains. She never tells me though.
"I can't ask you to take messages by mouth. It's better that you don't know all of the details. Or they'd be able to make you talk."
But I've seen her pack all of her jewels and hide some of the smaller valuable paintings from the hall. And in any case she has told me a little more this time.
"We'll be going on a long sea voyage, Louisa," she said. "And we'll need you with us. Please come. We'll look after you well."
Frederick reads the note. He goes quite pale and puts his hand over his mouth. "My poor love," he murmurs.
I wonder whether he is ready to become a father.
"We must hurry," I say.
He nods and starts grabbing some clothes and a few supplies from his pantry.
And then we're both running towards the harbour. She is there waiting for us on his fishing boat with Dan Foster. When I tell them that I have had to give up the coins Dan shrugs.
"I do this out of friendship, not for gain," he says.
"We must catch the tide," says my mistress, "if we are to escape my husband and his men and reach the Sarah-Anna in time.”
We have now been on the high seas for three months. We have found our sea-legs. The Sarah-Anna is a robust and comfortable vessel. My lady's belly continues to swell. They are as loving as ever. I think their love will last.
We are on our way to the New World where we will carve out a new life.
I sometimes wonder, though, what if she dies when this baby is born? Or when she has another? Might there then be a chance for Frederick and me? We're nearer in status to each other than they are.
It doesn't matter, though, either way. I know I'll be safe and cared for. All because an idiot couldn't read a crumpled piece of yellow paper.
I'm going to learn to read and write. And when I'm either their housekeeper or mistress of my own home I shall forever write my grocery lists on yellow paper. As a reminder of a great love story.
About the author
Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown. She edits CafeLit and writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing.
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