“Much better,” Jane joined the deceit, “I think the doctors were right about the country air.”
Caroline set the breakfast tray down on the bed and draped a woollen blanket from Brandwith’s Mill over her sister’s shoulders.
“Susanna will be in church. I expect she’ll call later to see how you are.”
“I doubt it,” Jane smiled, “you know how busy she is with all the parish work.”
“Matthew can spare her for an hour and she’ll be longing to see you.”
Jane raised her eyebrows.
“It’s true,” Caroline insisted, “when I spoke to her last week she said she was hoping to call.”
“You don’t have to pretend. She’s never been good with illness. She could hardly bear to look at mother when she was dying.”
Dying: Caroline hated that word and, turning away quickly, she pulled back the curtains but little light shone into the room.
Between the grey clouds that sagged from a blank autumn sky, a hazy sun glimmered in a faint yellow mist, its brightness diluted by the raindrops meandering down the pane. Caroline pressed her forehead to the glass and looked out at the ragged band of villagers trekking across the green towards the church: mothers clutching babies to their bosoms, bare-limbed children skipping ahead, and the men some yards behind; a straggling band of pilgrims gathering for the service.
“What’s the matter?” Jane said.
Caroline turned back to the room, “They’re putting up the first notice of enclosure today.”
“You mean Father’s going ahead with it?”
“He had a meeting with Matthew last night. They have the agreement of all the major landowners and they’re ready to present their petition to Parliament.”
“But why?” Jane shook her head in disbelief. “Father has no interest in farming. Why should he want the land?”
“According to his surveys the whole village is built on a coal seam. If he owns the fields, he owns the coal beneath them.”
“Do you think the tenants will be willing to move?”
“They’ll have no choice if Parliament accepts the petition, and I can’t see it being turned down, not with father’s contacts in high places.”
Jane’s face fell into the habitual frown formed by years of pain, “He will offer them a fair price, won’t he?”
“If he can prove he owns the land he won’t offer them anything at all. He’ll just tell them to go.”
“He wouldn’t do that. Even father wouldn’t do that.”
Caroline sat down on the edge of the bed, “Wouldn’t he?”
Jane pushed the tray to one side and reached for her hand. “Persuade him, ask him to be fair.”
“Me? You think he’ll listen to me? He can hardly bear to look at me now since I told him...” she broke off, blushing.
“Oh Caroline,” Jane sighed, “why on earth did you tell him? All these years and he’s never suspected. You should have left it that way.”
“How could I when we were coming to Lowkirk? I’d have spent every day terrified that he’d hear it from somebody else.”
“Who else could have told him? Since Aunt Julia died no one knows except Dr. Whitstone and he wouldn’t have said anything.”
Caroline shook her head, “I had to tell him for my conscience’s sake. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life hiding from the truth.”
“But you know what he’s like. He’ll never forgive you now, nor let you forget it.”
“He’ll treat me no worse than I deserve.”
“You deserve more than this! Tied to him like one of his mill hands. You deserve to be happy and I pray every day that, before I die, someone will come; a good husband to make you really happy.”
Caroline threw back her head and stared up at the ceiling, “How can you say that, Jane, knowing the truth?”
“The truth is that no matter what Father says, you still have a right to be happy.”
“Save your prayers, Jane, I don’t deserve them. Pray instead for the villagers, they’re the ones who need them now.”
In spite of the morning’s damp chill, the church door was held open by an iron boot-scraper and fastened securely with a latch. As they entered the porch, Caroline glanced at her father and saw the faintest conspiratorial smile as he nodded to Parson Matthew Williams.
Matthew tapped the door with his knuckles, “They won’t see it until you’re gone.”
“Good man,” Mr. Brandwith nodded and directed his daughters down the aisle.
As one, the villagers turned their heads with unconcealed curiosity, gaping at the feathers and ribbons that fluttered from Ursula’s new bonnet as she entered the family pew and greeted her sister with a kiss. Susanna rose in reply and, lifting the veil from her face, puckered her lips to Caroline’s cheek. Their father stood majestically in the aisle tugging at his lapels and clearly enjoying the attention.
“Matthew’s done what you asked,” Susanna whispered, proffering her cheek, “and I think you’ll be pleased with his sermon.”
“I won’t forget this, Susanna.”
“Of course you won’t, Father. I won’t let you!”
Replacing her veil, she spread out her skirts and sat down beside Caroline, “How’s Jane?”
“Much the same; still very weak. She was hoping you might call to see her this morning?”
“Not today, I’m afraid. I have several other engagements.”
“Please, Susanna. You know how lonely she is. Couldn’t you spare her an hour?”
Susanna stared at the altar, “It’s all very well for you, but being a clergyman’s wife brings many commitments. My first duty is to Matthew. I can’t just drop everything and saunter off whenever a whim takes me.”
“One hour! Is that too much to ask?”
Susanna flattened the creases in her skirts, “There’s little point in my coming anyway. I can never think of anything to say to her.”
“She likes to see you. She has so little company.”
“She has you. Isn’t that enough?”
Caroline stared at her but Susanna wouldn’t flinch, “You’re different, you can deal with this sort of thing. I can’t cope with illness. It upsets me.”
“Do you think it doesn’t upset me, seeing her so....”
Susanna raised a finger to her lips and nodded towards the altar as her husband ascended the pulpit. The villagers rose and, through guttural coughs and clearing of throats, croaked their way through a hymn. The church was cold and they huddled close: old people, young people, children, many children, and as Caroline’s eyes moved over their faces she couldn’t help wondering...
Across the aisle she caught sight of Mr. Harding, singing with such gusto that his voice echoed above those of his more ragged neighbours packed beside him into the pew. He seemed unperturbed by their proximity though they scratched and coughed, and the stench of their clothes seeped across the nave to the family pew where Ursula held a lace handkerchief to her nose in undisguised revulsion.
The coughing continued through the readings from Scripture and only diminished when Matthew, raising himself to full height in the pulpit, cast a critical glance over his motley congregation. Caroline’s eyes moved again across the aisle and caught Mr. Harding’s profile illuminated by the flickering candles. It was a kind face: his lips turned up slightly as though set in a permanent smile. Though his skin had the weather-beaten hue of the villagers, there was something noble about his features, something honest and unfeigned.
She turned to her father whose eyes were fixed on the preacher with an air of self-satisfaction. There was pride and authority in both faces as though both men were born to be leaders, yet whereas her father’s was unapproachable and intimidating, there was something about Mr. Harding’s that might draw people to him.
She looked at him again. His was a face that showed an innate determination and sense of his own worth. Her father’s iron confidence had been wrought through years of struggle, and his face showed the scars of the battles he had fought with his conscience. Mr. Harding, on the other hand, exuded a natural confidence, and his countenance was unmarked by the bitterness of envy or fear. It was pleasing to look upon; aesthetic like a statue or a sculptured work of art and the longer Caroline looked at him, the more pleasing his aspect became as every line, every angle seemed carved to perfection.
Suddenly, perhaps aware of her gaze, he glanced across the aisle and, in a flush of embarrassment, she turned away and looked up at Matthew, high in the pulpit, his voice growing ever louder.
“Does not the apostle say, ‘Obey your masters!’ and did you not but a minute since, hear from sacred Scripture of the punishment that God shall inflict on the rebels who rise up against those whom he has chosen as their masters? Everlasting fire! ‘Depart from me, ye cursed ones!’
“Imagine it, imagine that fire singeing the skin, corroding the flesh and biting into the bone. You think the furnace is hot? You think the forge can burn? How much fiercer is the fire that God has prepared for those who resist his order!”
Matthew’s lips curled dramatically and, closing his eyes, he clenched his hands in full view of his cowering congregation.
“Imagine it, imagine that fire, that agony, that torture. Imagine a pain far greater than the worst pain on earth. Your limbs roasting, your body ablaze until the flesh peels away from the bone like the wax of a melting candle. Blisters and boils bubble on your skin, your tongue swells until it chokes all the breath from your lungs and still you suffer and will go on suffering, burning, blazing in the flames that will never be extinguished!”
The coughing had stopped. The church was silent. Even the tiniest children dared not shuffle in their pews. All eyes were fixed on the pulpit where the parson grimaced and writhed in his well-rehearsed drama.
“And for whom has God reserved this punishment? For those who rebel against his order. There may be those who tell you to pay no attention to your masters. There may even be those who, with false promises, urge you to rise up against them! False prophets with false promises of a better world. Pay them no heed! They are blind men leading the blind to the pit of damnation. For the sake of your souls, close your ears to their arguments.”
Caroline looked at the children, crouching in the benches, so small and helpless, trembling at the thought of her brother-in-law’s terrible deity.
“Do you presume you can escape God’s anger by strong words and reason? Would you set yourself higher than the Creator who made you and placed you in your lowly state of life? Is your mind quicker than his? Your judgement more sound? Go on then, stand against him, let your rebellious hearts disobey those whom God has appointed to rule you, if...” he leaned forward and, extending his finger pointed at parishioners at random, “if you are prepared to suffer those unquenchable flames for all eternity.”
By the time he had finished his sermon, only one head in the congregation remained unbowed. Content in the certainty that the message had struck home, Mr. Brandwith gave a nod of approval as the parson descended the steps. In humility or fear the villagers lowered their foreheads onto their joined hands and with at least the outward aspect of submission, beseeched their pastor’s vindictive God to deliver them from eternal damnation.
“An excellent homily, Matthew. Excellent!” Mr. Brandwith said as he passed through the porch at the end of the service.
“Susanna,” Caroline pleaded, “will you at least think over what I said about Jane. She does so want to see you.”
Susanna, searching for any distraction, pretended not to have heard and, raising her veil from her face with the most affected of smiles, called brightly, “Ah, good morning, Mr. Harding! Allow me to introduce my sister.”
Caroline’s heart thudded so unexpectedly she wondered if she were blushing and would have stepped quickly away had his face not appeared before her.
“Mrs. Williams, Miss Brandwith, how lovely to see you again.”
“You have already met?” Susanna said.
He nodded, “I was at the Hall yesterday.”
“I see,” Susanna said, glancing carelessly beyond him, “Oh look, there’s Mr. Hubert. I shall speak to you later Caroline.”
She stepped quickly across the churchyard and Caroline would have walked on but Mr. Harding stood motionless on the path, “You see, our friend is fully recovered from yesterday’s ordeal?”
Caroline frowned uncomprehending until he signalled to Abe Throppe hovering and twitching by a headstone.
“Oh, good, good,” she nodded.
She stepped to one side to continue on her way but he seemed reluctant to let her go, “I’m sorry it’s such dull weather for your first Sunday in Lowkirk. I’m afraid you won’t have a true impression of how lovely the village can be on a fine autumn day.”
“I was here yesterday when the weather was beautiful,” Caroline smiled.
“Ah, yes, but Sundays are different. The villagers don’t work on Sundays. It would be an ideal time to meet your new neighbours.”
Caroline glanced at the church door, “I doubt they will want to meet me.”
“Oh that’s not true! They’re far more friendly for knowing and though they may not take kindly to strangers at first, the sooner they make your acquaintance the sooner you will not be a stranger.”
She looked up and saw the transparent sincerity of his smile.
“Perhaps, if the rain stops,” he said with a tentative confidence, “you might permit me to show you around this afternoon?”
Caroline swallowed, unsettled by the brightness of his face, “It’s very kind of you Mr. Harding but....”
“With your sister of course,” he nodded across the pathway to where Ursula stood, impatiently fingering the ribbons of her bonnet.
“Unfortunately Ursula has little interest in the village. She prefers the excitement of the town.”
Swift and heavy strides along the pathway distracted them. “Good day, Mr. Harding! Have you started work on my water supply?”
“I’ve begun the preliminary designs.”
“Good! The sooner the better. Come, girls, hurry now.”
Her father seized Caroline’s elbow ushering her quickly towards the gate. She looked back over her shoulder as Matthew unlatched the church door.
“Miss Brandwith,” Mr. Harding hurried to her side, and striding to keep pace with her father’s swift steps, whispered almost inaudibly, “I shall be taking a stroll through the village this afternoon. If you would care to join me I shall be on the green at two.”
Both shocked and flattered by his persistence she didn’t answer but her eyes were drawn against her will to his face. He smiled and, raising his hand in salute, said loudly, “Good day, Mr. Brandwith, ladies.”
“What did he say?” Ursula frowned as he turned and walked back towards the church.
“Nothing. He was merely commenting on the weather.”
“But Caroline, you’re blushing. I do believe you’re blushing!”
She drew her hand over her cheek, “No, I’m not.”
Ursula, smiling smugly looked back along the road, “Blushing,” she laughed, “for Mr. Harding.”
“Where did you get to last night, Becky? We searched everywhere. Even your father was asking after you.”
Becky paused in front of Will and wrapping a ringlet around her finger gaped at him, “Good morning, Mr. Harding.” she said in a tone full of suggestion.
“Good morning, Becky.”
They walked on, “You didn’t!” Sarah nudged Becky whose finger shot to her lips.
Kate turned and stared at Will who, confused, smiled innocently.
“You...with him?” he heard her say.
Becky laughed loudly and skipped along the road, the others hurrying behind with shrieks and giggles.
A sudden thud as the church door closed, brought louder voices echoing across the church-yard.
“What is it?”
“What does it mean?”
“Here, Mr. Harding, what’s this all about?”
A huddle of men crowded into the porch.
“What does it say, Mr. Harding?”
“Let him pass. Let him read it.”
They jostled him forwards and he edged between elbows and shoulders to the notice nailed to the door.
“Is it...” someone said.
He nodded and felt his heart sinking, “A notice of enclosure.”
A cry rang through the crowd and brought others scurrying back to the porch.
“They’ve done this between them, Brandwith and the parson. They knew it! They knew he’d be out of the way before we saw it.”
Angry oaths exploded and tempers flared. They hammered and rattled the door but the parson had already bolted it firmly from the inside.
Saddler saw his chance of taking command, “The Hall then! We’ll take this to the Hall and show Brandwith what we think of his plans!”
A cheer resounded as he reached to rip the notice from the door.
“Wait!” Will cried, stopping his hand. “At least let me read it first so we know what we’re up against!”
“We’ll not wait to let them walk all over us like they did in Beckford and Rowthorpe!” Saddler struggled but Will kept a grip of his hand.
“He’s right,” someone called, “let Mr. Harding tell us what it says.”
Saddler’s muscle relaxed and Will let him go but there was no need to read further, he knew exactly what the notice meant. He turned to the anxious and angry faces, pushing and jostling desperate to hear every word.
“This is the first of three. They have to warn us for three Sundays of what they’re planning to do.”
“We know damn well what they’re planning to do!” Saddler called, “I say we march on the Hall.”
The oaths rose again and they turned from the church like a mutinous army preparing to attack.
“No!” Will shouted. “Acting too hastily now won’t help anyone. The slightest hint of a riot and they’ll call in the troops!”
The anger cooled a little but Saddler stoked the flames, “Let them bring in the army, we’ll not go down without a fight.”
“For God’s sake, see sense!” Will said. “Think of your families. Who’ll care for them when you’ve been arrested or transported or worse? There were nineteen men hanged down south and where did that leave the rest? They still lost their land and their jobs just the same.”
His words stilled the fury of the crowd and they hovered between Will and Saddler waiting for a further command.
“If you want the best for yourselves and your families you’ll have to think this through properly and beat them on their own terms.”
“For a start, calm down. Don’t rush into anything. You need to think clearly and organise yourselves. There’s two more weeks before they can take their petition to Parliament and after that they’ll have to wait for the commissioners to come to see who owns what in the village.”
“You expect us to sit back and wait for it to happen?”
“In the meantime we make preparations.”
Saddler leaped forward, wild-eyed, “Aye! That’s right! Weapons, we need weapons. Down at your forge, you could make swords and guns.”
“We don’t need swords! We’ve got scythes and pitch forks.”
“I could run a man through with a spade.”
“No! No!” Will shook his head desperately, “Not weapons, you can’t fight an army with spades and shovels. Violence won’t work!”
Perplexed faces frowned.
“Go home,” Will said, “and go through your chests, your cupboards, everything you have. See if you can find any documents to prove you own the land.”
“Documents?” Saddler scoffed, “What would we want with documents?”
“Ask yourselves, do you own your land or do you rent it?”
Dan Throppe pushed his way to the front, “I rent the cottage but the strips are mine. My father ploughed them and his father before him. It’s always been Throppe’s land.”
“Fine,” Will nodded, “can you prove it?”
“Aye,” Dan’s fear made his tone aggressive, “ask anyone here, they’ll tell you. The whole village can prove it!”
A consensus of grunts and nods supported his claim.
“It’s the same for all of us,” Tom Fuller said, “we all know whose land is whose.”
“You need it in writing.”
“Our Joel can write. I’ll get him to write it for me.”
“It’s not like that, Dan,” Will sighed. “You need official documents written up by lawyers or magistrates.”
“There’s only one magistrate round here and that’s the squire.”
Saddler laughed loudly, “Squire Brandwith won’t be up to giving us documents when he’s the one claiming our land.”
“Alright,” Will said, “just make sure. You may have something you’d forgotten. A scroll, a scrap of paper, anything, however ancient that gives you the legal right to your land.”
“And if we haven’t?”
“Then...” Will spoke slowly, trying to think of a solution, “then we negotiate.”
“It’s not solely Mr. Brandwith’s decision. To present a petition of enclosure to Parliament they need the support of all the landowners whose land between them makes up at least two thirds of the village. Some of this may be Mr. Brandwith’s, but who else owns land around here?”
“That’s it then,” Saddler cried, “they’re all Brandwith’s cronies. They’ve been planning this for years. I say we take him on now before it goes any further.”
“It won’t get you anywhere. The best thing we can do is speak with him, get him to see what we stand to lose.”
Saddler moved closer, “What we stand to lose? I don’t recall seeing you work the land, Mr. Harding. I don’t know that you’ve any strips in the fields. You’ll be alright. You’ve got nothing to lose.”
“Oh come on, Saddler. It’s my village too.”
“But you’re working for him now. It’s clear which side you’re on.”
“No, Saddler, no,” Dan said, “that’s not fair. Mr. Harding’s a Lowkirk man through and through.”
“And when we’re thrown on the parish or sold to the mills where will he be? Making machines for the slave masters running the place!”
Will nodded, “Saddler’s right. I am working for him. So, given time, if I do a good job and you help me, we might show him he has more to gain by keeping things just as they are. Think about it. He runs a mill, a woollen mill; what does he need to keep it going?”
No one answered.
“Wool, of course!”
“So where does he get his raw materials? Supposing he had his own suppliers right here in the village? He told me himself he wants to see the whole thing through from beginning to end but he doesn’t know anything about farming. If we could supply him with wool at a reasonable price he might think again about enclosures.”
“You know nothing about farming either,” Saddler scoffed. “How many sheep do you reckon it takes to supply a factory?”
“I don’t know.”
“More than we’ve got between us.”
“Maybe so, but it’s a start. It’s at least worth a try. Once he sees you’re in earnest he might be willing to give you a chance.” Will glanced around the hopeless faces, none of them convinced. “Give me time,” he pleaded, “let me find out more about him. The better we know him, the better chance we have of dealing with him.”
The villagers looked at one another, each waiting for the next man to act.
“Go on home now,” Will said, “see if you have any documents and if you find any bring them to me and I’ll read them for you.”
One by one they turned away and drifted towards their cottages until only Saddler remained.
“Be careful, Saddler,” Will said. “Remember, men have been hanged for inciting a riot.”
“Aye, and you remember, Mr. Harding, men have been murdered for betraying them as trusted them.”