As part of the pre-release phase for The Gisburn Witch I thought I would share the first three chapters over the next couple of weeks. Today, therefore I am happy to release chapter one to the world. The formatting isn’t perfect due to the limitations of the blog but hopefully it shouldn’t put any of you off!
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Westby Hall, Gisburn
Jennet gazed out of the window. Outside, the light was dim and she reflected that it was so dull it barely seemed possible that it was approaching midday. Winter’s days in Gisburn were short and mostly shrouded in dark clouds which seemed to hide the sun for months on end. It was a pity it was so dark, she thought, as it made it difficult to appreciate the picturesque character of the Westby estate: gently yielding curves interspersed with occasional clusters of trees, dwellings for the pigs or sporadic patches of fluffy white sheep. The air outside was damp but mild, preventing the arrival of snow. At the mere thought of snow, Jennet shivered. Beautiful as it was, blanketing the surrounding countryside in a shimmering sea of glistening white, nevertheless it made the business of work, of travel, not to mention keeping warm while sleeping, that bit more difficult. At this thought Jennet smiled, perhaps for the first time that day. At least she was warm now, one of the advantages of working in the kitchen at Westby next to the glowing open fire.
“Are you quite finished with those eggs?” a snappy voice interrupted Jennet’s thoughts. “If you beat them any slower they will get up out of that bowl and walk away from you, girl.”
“Sorry Goody Robinson,” Jennet replied.
Goodwife Robinson gave the young girl a harsh stare, which then melted away to an affectionate smile. She couldn’t help it; Jennet spent much of her day in a dream and more often than not worked at a pace all of her very own, but she was a delicate little thing and the work always got done.
“It’s alright, lass. Though I would like to know what’s going on in that head of yours sometimes, because I doubt very much that you are occupying your mind with thoughts of game pies and stews.” Goody Robinson smiled. She had been joking, but the girl continued to stand seriously in front of her. She sighed. “Come on then, back to work lass. We’re fortunate to have the luxury of time today anyway. No visitors again, only the family to cook for this afternoon; the Master, the Mistress and the children, and the younger ones don’t eat much. Young Master Thomas is out on the estate, he’s already taken some bread and meats out with him and won’t require anything else until supper. We’ve the servants too, of course, but they’ll be content with pottage this time of the year.”
Goodwife Robinson’s sentence trailed off as she realised she’d already lost Jennet’s attention. The young girl had already returned to staring out of the window, gently caressing the eggs in the bowl, instead of giving them the vigorous beating required to bring them to the correct form. Goodwife Robinson sighed again. Jennet was so quiet, so reserved. The cook had never been able to relate easily to a person of Jennet’s disposition; being somewhat of a brash and vocal character herself, she was forthcoming in letting someone know what she thought and how she was feeling. Jennet, on the other hand, could sometimes spend a full day in the kitchen with her and barely speak a word, other than to acknowledge her tasks or apologise in response to a scolding, and today was one such day. Goody Robinson had initially assumed that Jennet’s reticence was due to the generational difference between the two of them, that Jennet felt uneasy and therefore assumed a demeanour of quiet deference. But then, having discussed the matter with her daughter Anne who also worked in the Lister household, it seemed that Jennet was much the same with those of a similar age to herself, the only exception being the young master, Thomas Lister.
This was hardly surprising, Goodwife Robinson reflected. Despite the social difference which existed between them, there had been a long history of good relations between the Listers and the Balderstons. For almost one hundred years the Balderstons had had the tenure of a portion of the Lister estate and over the decades the Balderston family had come to be well-regarded by their landlords for their hard work and timely payment of rents. For generations, the children of the two families had grown up together, and young Master Thomas and Jennet were no exception. Goodwife Robinson pondered momentarily on how freely all the Lister children were allowed to mix with the village boys and girls, only to grow up and be separated from them by position for the rest of their lives. Position was exactly what separated young Master Thomas and Jennet now, not that either of them seemed to notice it much. The number of times that Goodwife Robinson could recall catching her young kitchen maid and Thomas Lister sharing a private joke or a whispered conversation! Each time the cook had been forced to gently remind Jennet of her position in the house, a position which in itself was something of a long tradition. Countless Balderston women before her had been sent to work at Westby; service in a large household acted as a convenient way to fill a girl’s time between childhood and marriage, not to mention provide a useful wage. It was also a way to further a girl’s skills in readiness for becoming a wife. Whilst their mothers had already taught them much, large country houses could teach them to cook, cure, pickle and bake on a far larger and grander scale, and those were just the skills learned in the kitchen. Although, Goodwife Robinson lamented, in many cases once married these young women would not have the fortune to cook in such a manner again, reduced instead to repetitions of the same pottages and stews or worse, trying to avert starvation in the winter. Goodwife Robinson sighed. She could only do her best to teach this girl everything she knew; the rest would be up to Jennet, and God’s will of course.
“Goody Robinson, I’ve finished the eggs. What would you like me to do next?” said a voice from across the kitchen.
The cook suspended her thoughts to examine the girl’s work.
“We will need to instil more vigour into your egg-beating, lass,” she said kindly, “but it’ll do for now. Tell you what, you can make the servant’s dinner, just a plain pottage and bread, it is January and after all those feasts at Christmas…well, we don’t want to run short of anything before the spring comes. I’ll finish the dinner for the family. I think it’ll be far more than they will eat anyway so there should be ample leftovers for all of us to go along with the pottage.”
“Yes, Goodwife,” replied Jennet, obediently.
Later that afternoon, after dinner had been served and the pots had been scrubbed, Jennet took a walk in the grounds immediately surrounding Westby Hall. The dark clouds which had disappointed Jennet earlier in the day had relented and given way to a hint of winter sunlight, brightening the day and Jennet’s mood with it. The improved weather and the early completion of her duties in the kitchen meant that Jennet had leapt at the opportunity for a walk when Goodwife Robinson had suggested it. In truth, for all the cook’s pretensions that her young assistant may need to take some air, Jennet could sense that she would be happy to be left for an hour. Her daughter Anne had arrived in the kitchen to assist, as she often did in the afternoon, and Jennet sensed they preferred to be left alone together. Jennet knew that Goodwife Robinson, for all her kindly ways, found working with Jennet difficult. In return Jennet tried determinedly to be less reticent; however, it was in her nature and she had always found it difficult to evade her natural disposition.
Jennet had another reason for her eagerness to take a walk that afternoon. She knew that young Master Thomas, or Tom as she better knew him, was out on the estate and that there was every possibility of encountering him along the way. Tom had been her friend for as long as she could remember, indeed her whole life, and for Jennet, who did not feel naturally comfortable with most people, Tom was someone with whom she could feel at ease. Jennet was almost sixteen now, and with the prospect of many years of toil, marriage and probably child-bearing in front of her, Tom Lister was a reminder of childhood, of happy carefree hours spent hiding in the woods or catching small fish in the nearby river. Jennet reflected that those times were not so many years behind her, yet they had seemed to disappear so very quickly. This wasn’t surprising really: Tom was the heir to his father’s estate and as manhood loomed his formal training for the role he would assume one day had begun, leaving him with little time for recreation, certainly not with the village boys and girls anyway. Equally, as Jennet’s years advanced, the skills which would carry her into womanhood had to be honed, and the practice of these skills, mostly at her mother’s side, gradually took over most of her time. However, in a stroke of good fortune, since Jennet’s arrival at Westby Hall about six months earlier, both she and Tom had renewed their childhood friendship. Although their relative social positions of master and maid now prohibited them from meeting at length, snatched meetings in the house and sometimes longer encounters on the estate were possible, and at least on Jennet’s part, fully intended.
That afternoon Jennet took her usual route around Westby. Goodwife Robinson had said that she should not linger in the grounds in the immediate vicinity of the hall, since the Mistress had made it clear on more than one occasion that she did not appreciate looking out of her window to a view of her kitchen maid enjoying an hour’s respite in the fresh air. Instead Jennet took the small track which led immediately from the door at the back of the kitchen and dairy, through the first set of trees and into a clearing. From there she roamed, darting between areas of field and foliage, enjoying the calm, gentle undulations of the surrounding countryside against the backdrop of Pendle Hill and the long westward valley beyond which lay Clitheroe and the outlying villages. January was a month of relative serenity at Westby: there was little activity on the estate except for absolutely necessary duties. Many of the beasts were slaughtered just after Martinmas leaving mostly sheep grazing peacefully on the low pastures, and the pigs, though present, often hid in their shelters to keep out of the cold. In the hall itself there was little entertaining to be done as most of the Listers’ family, friends and associates kept to their own houses in the bleak winter weeks between Christmas and Candlemas, meaning that most days it was just Jennet and Goodwife Robinson in the kitchen cooking for the family and servants. However, Jennet realised, in a matter of weeks it would be spring, the season of lambing and planting and sowing and growing, and hopefully more benevolent weather, bringing with it Easter and visitors and banquets and more hands in the kitchen and regrettably, less time for walks.
Jennet’s thoughts were interrupted by a figure approaching, just beyond the trees. Her face brightened as she realised it was Tom. Jennet had dared to hope that she might see him today and had begun to admit to herself just how much of a highlight her chance meetings with him were, how much she had come to depend upon them as a cheering interlude in her otherwise quite hard and monotonous days. She tried to force her legs not to run towards him but in the end she couldn’t help it and once again in the presence of the young Master, Jennet completely forgot herself.
“Tom!” she shouted. “Are you on your way back to the house?”
Tom increased his pace to meet her at the edge of the small woodland area from which he had come.
“I thought it was you,” Tom said, quickening his step as he walked towards her. “I had hoped I might see you today.”
Jennet smiled, catching her breath and feeling embarrassed for running like a child. “You see me every day,” she answered, without thinking.
Tom glanced down at his feet, feeling self-conscious. Jennet always had a way of making him feel like a silly boy again. He cleared his throat and looked up at her through his dark eyelashes.
“Well, yes, that’s true. I meant I was hoping to see you out, alone, so that we can talk properly. It’s not possible to talk at length in the house…” Tom’s voice trailed off as he looked intently at Jennet. They both stood there dumbly for a moment, just looking at one another. In the end it was Jennet who broke the silence.
“I suppose we should be talking while we have the chance. As you say, it’s difficult to talk in the house, we are both so busy and there are always others around. Goodwife Robinson certainly always has a watchful eye on me.”
They both laughed at the thought of the old cook, then Jennet’s face reddened as she reflected that her comment may have seemed insolent. She chastised herself for once again, being too comfortable with Tom. After all, he was Master-in-training of Westby now, not that boy by the river any more.
“I’m…sorry,” she stammered. “It was rude of me to laugh about Goodwife Robinson.”
“I laughed too,” Tom protested.
“Yes, but you’re…well, it’s your house, you will one day be master of it and can speak as you please about anyone employed at Westby. I, on the other hand…”
“You can speak as you wish, in front of me,” Tom interrupted her, speaking firmly.
Jennet smiled as Tom reached out a hand and patted her shoulder reassuringly. Jennet looked up at him. He had grown taller these past months, his shoulders had broadened and his beard was beginning to grow, dark like his hair. The only features of him which had remained unchanged were his eyes; bright blue, honest and intense. As Jennet looked at those eyes, Tom’s hand reached to touch her cheek, though just as his fingers brushed delicately against her pale skin he snatched them back, as though thinking better of his actions. Tom cleared his throat again.
“May I walk you back to the hall?” he asked. “Goody Robinson will begin to wonder where you are.”
“That would be nice,” Jennet replied.
The pair walked silently for a few moments, seemingly trying to decipher the best words to spend on their last few minutes together. Finally, after clearing his throat several times, Tom spoke.
“Do you know I am to marry soon?” he asked.
Jennet nodded. The news came as no surprise to her. Tom had been betrothed to Jane Greenacres of Worston since he was a small boy and she was an infant. Tom was now approaching sixteen, and Jane Greenacres would be turning thirteen or fourteen, meaning that she was now of marriageable age. Jennet had always thought that the great families of the area had their children marry so young. She remembered the first time Tom had mentioned his betrothal, several years ago when they were still children. He had told her that he would probably be married before he was seventeen. Jennet had gone home that day and asked her mother about it, and her mother had remarked that it was normal, as the great families had to ensure that they had heirs to secure the family name, wealth and property for the next generation. When Jennet asked why people like her did not marry so young, her mother had told her that there was no need. In fact, she said, for people like them to marry young would mean to marry before they had established themselves. Men had to start to earn a secure and proper living and women had to learn the skills they needed to support a family. If they married too young, they married unprepared and risked poverty, made worse by the arrival of a baby every year or so. Jennet recalled the conversation clearly. She remembered that it was the first time it had struck her how different her life and Tom’s life would be.
“When will you marry?” Jennet asked, returning her mind to the conversation with Tom.
“It is being discussed at the moment, between our fathers,” Tom replied, “but it is likely to be in June or July.”
Jennet nodded again, unsure how to reply. She doubted that the wedding would take place in June, as this was such a busy month for the local people who were occupied with sheep-shearing and haymaking, activities requiring a lot of time and community effort. Although these agricultural activities did not involve the Listers directly, Jennet believed that they would want the people of Gisburn to hold customary celebrations in the village whilst relatively free from other major duties. July, she felt, was the preferable month, albeit still very busy, being just before the harvest. Jennet did not express any of her thoughts to Tom; although he had told her to speak freely with him, she nonetheless felt it was insolent to convey an opinion to which he was likely to be indifferent anyway.
“I don’t feel ready to marry,” Tom blurted suddenly, “but I must, it is my duty. I am sure I will grow to love her; indeed I am fortunate that I have always known she will be my wife and have had the opportunity to get to know her a little. It would be easier if I could look upon her and feel love for her, but I do not. I find it hard to imagine that she should be my wife soon, that we should have children one day.”
Tom looked down at Jennet, who was listening, silently and intently, to everything he said. Kind, quiet Jennet, who had always remained his devoted friend, even after the childhood adventures had given way to the stark contrasts between their lives. How beautiful she had grown over this past year; she too was nearing her sixteenth birthday and the delicate marks of womanhood were beginning to show on her. Her face, which had always been pretty in childhood, now bore features which, he longed to tell her, ladies at the royal court might be jealous of: a pale complexion, contrasted with big green eyes and, he knew from spying her once without her coif on, tumbling dark brown hair. As he looked at her now, Tom had the sudden urge to grab hold of Jennet, to hold her tight and to never let her go, not for Jane Greenacres, not for anyone. Instead, he took hold of her hand and clasped it tightly but gently for a few moments as they continued their walk back towards Westby.
“I am sorry, Jennet.”
His apology was met by silence and a guarded smile from Jennet. She did not enquire as to what the apology was for. She imagined he was sorry for his outburst, so unbecoming of the future Master of Westby, and for exposing Jennet to it, dampening spirits on an otherwise happy meeting of two friends. She imagined that he might also be sorry for being so melancholy, realising whilst he was speaking that he was not the first young man to have to marry a girl chosen by his parents, and that it may turn out well, she may grow beautiful, and bear many sons, and he may grow to love her. What Jennet did not imagine, however, was that Tom Lister was truly sorry that he had not taken her in his arms and kissed her as they looked at one another on that beautiful winter’s day, that he had let the opportunity slip away in a mist of hesitation, and that he may never have a similar moment with her again.