Authors: Mary Hooper
At the House of the
For Kevin and Stephen with love
I found myself a tidy selling space at the edge of the common, almost upon the hawthorn hedge. On the other side was a shorn field which the geese had been let into to go a-stubbling and begin fattening themselves for Christmas, and as I unpacked my lavender wands I could hear them calling to each other, pecking and scratching on the dry earth, occasionally flapping their wings to try and keep themselves cool.
I shook out a clean linen cloth and spread it over the grass, flattening the daisies and goldcups as I did so, humming a ballad to myself. It was the beginning of September and, being Michelmas Fair in our village, a day of merry-making, I was happy as I set out my wares. I knew I was sure to sell all the lavender wands I’d made and I intended to buy myself something very fine to wear with the money.
Next to me was Harriet Simon, who had a bench on
the grass holding a selection of her biscuits. ‘Crispy sugar jumbales!’ I could hear her calling under her breath, practising in readiness for the customers. ‘Oh, sweet jumbales!’ Beside her was Old Mistress Roberts, selling lucky charms made of seashells, and next along a housewife selling eggs and flummeries, then a quack doctor with a table bearing a selection of differently coloured bottles: cordials, tinctures, lotions and potions. I couldn’t read the banner which flew above his head, but Harriet could and told me that he claimed to cure any illness known to man, and some which were not known.
There were countless other stalls and peddlers about the field, but it was only me who was selling lavender wands. Seventeen of these I’d made, each containing twenty-one long stalks of lavender bent backwards over their flowers and woven around with lengths of emerald, scarlet or white ribbon and tied in a bow. I’d have liked more to sell, but had only enough space for six small lavender bushes, and these I’d had to hide away in odd places around our cottage: at the centre of a towering column of beans, at the back of the shed or in the shade of a monstrous cabbage. This was because my father wouldn’t have anything in the garden which didn’t pay its way and he, being merry with ale one night, had found and uprooted three of my precious young plants and thrown them to the pig to eat. (I pause and ponder here why they always say that a man is merry with ale when it seems to me that
Father is never merry when he’s been drinking, but only more ill-tempered than usual.)
The lavender did pay its way, of course, but Father didn’t know that. He didn’t know that every year since I’d been a small child I’d been tending my lavender bushes, picking the stems at just the right moment before the flowers opened and drying them by hanging them in bunches in the sunshine. The money I made by selling my wands I always divided into three: with the first I bought something pretty to wear, the next part went to Ma to spend as she saw fit, the last was kept to buy ribbons for the wands I’d make the following year.
Lady Ashe, who is high-born and speaks very grand, opened the day’s festivities. Lady Ashe is the wife of Sir Reginald Ashe, the Lord of the Manor, and had, in times past, been lady-in-waiting to our good Queen Elizabeth. I oft thought of how exciting her life must have been then, for Milady was at court when the queen and she were girls, and she must have many tales to tell of the intrigues of courtly life, of conspiracies, unrequited love, dancing and minstrels. And imagine attending on the queen! Surely no other position and no other way of life could be more pleasing or more delightful? As I thought
, I felt for the little token I always wear round my neck. My family oft tease me about this trinket, for ’tis but a groat with a hole bored in it (and not even a real groat, for it’s been falsely coined and makes my neck black in the hot weather). It
bears a profile of our queen, however, stamped on to the metal, and such is my devotion to Her Grace that I wear it constantly.
Lady Ashe still dresses very fine and on the day of the Fair was wearing a red silk dress with jewelled bodice and great collar of lace, and so amazing was this latter garment that I felt compelled to draw close to where she was standing in order to admire it the better. The collar stood out at each side of her neck much like wings, or the eaves of a house, each wing being covered in delicate embroidery and edged into wired points, and each point having on it a droplet of gold which shivered and swung as she moved. Her hair was piled high and twisted around with pearls, roped together, and her face was very white, as if polished with the same pearl lustre.
She was a plain woman, but her glittering jewels and decorations gave her a kind of beauty and every other woman there looked dowdy by comparison. I felt especially drab, for my bodice and skirt, although made of fine lawn in a pretty shade of apple green, had been handed on to me by my sister and was horridly out of fashion. I gazed at Lady Ashe in admiration and envy. If only, I thought, one of those gold teardrops could fall from her collar and drop to the floor! With just one of these (for I well knew the worth of such a thing) I’d be able to release my youngest brother from his bonded apprenticeship as a coffin-maker, relieve our ma of the burden of her work (for her eyes ached dreadfully now)
and buy us a little plot of land of our own. How strange, I thought, that all those things might be purchased by something so small! But I knew that men fought wars and killed their fellows for gold and had heard, too, that great sums were being laid out in order that alchemists might find the subtle powder which was said to change ordinary metals into it.
Lady Ashe exhorted everyone to enjoy the jugglers and the rope-walkers and spend wisely at the stalls, and added that she herself would be attending the hiring fair on Brownlow’s Field in order to obtain two or three maids for her household. There was some gasping at this, some preening and patting of hair and some smoothing down of skirts, for many a girl there would have given anything to be taken into service at Hazelgrove Manor. Here, it was said, every one of the servants – even the kitchen maids – slept on mattresses freshly stuffed with lady’s bedstraw and had red meat to eat each day. I thought of something else, too, which set my heart pitter-pattering: there was a rumour that the queen herself had come a-visiting Hazelgrove Manor in order to see her old friend Lady Ashe.