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Cécile took the flowers unwillingly and murmured a polite thank you. They were yet another present she hadn’t wanted. The young man, slouched against the door frame, looked irritated; it was evident her lack of enthusiasm annoyed him. These past few months Ralph Landiss had been assiduous in his attentions, bringing chickens for her coop, a side of pig for the larder, and now this enormous bunch of lilies and hibiscus from the hothouses of the Wycombe Hall estate. Why Ralph was so intent on gaining her favour she had no idea. She was passably good looking and had a comely figure, but she was no more attractive than many other of the village girls.
‘You could sound a little more pleased,’ he complained.
‘The flowers are beautiful. Thank you for bringing them.’ She had to remain polite.
‘We are friends, are we not? And you might offer me a kiss—it took me an age to wheedle those flowers out of Jeffers.’
She was surprised that he had persuaded the Head Gardener to relinquish his prize blooms, but his suggestion of a kiss shocked her. Ralph saw her expression and his smile turned sour. ‘You’re not pretending you’ve never been kissed!’
She didn’t have to pretend. She had never been kissed and never wanted to be. Although that wasn’t quite true, she admitted to herself. When Sam Lister had danced with her at the harvest supper, she’d half hoped he would kiss her. And he had very nearly, but at the last moment thought better of it. He’d whirled her round the straw-beaten floor for a final time, then left her to sit by her father.
‘I am a maid, Mr Landiss,’ she said primly.
‘Of course, you are,’ he sneered, ‘like all good country girls.’ He walked up to her and she could feel his breath warm on her face. ‘Let’s be honest with each other, Cécile. I like you and I think you like me.’
He couldn’t be more wrong, she thought, but aloud her words were mild. ‘I don’t like or dislike you. I hardly know you.’
‘If that’s the problem, there’s an excellent way of solving it.’ And quite suddenly he lunged towards her, his arms outstretched.
She stepped back instinctively and almost tripped over the blanket in which the family cat lay dreaming. Ginger screeched in annoyance and flew from his warm nest making straight for Ralph’s leg where he hung by his claws, swaying slightly, but determined not to let go. The young man turned a bright red and made a swipe at the cat, but Ginger was too quick for him and shot out of the open door to hide in the depths of the vegetable garden.
Despite her best intentions, the incident made Cécile smile. Landiss turned even redder and raised his hand at her. ‘You’re a little too fine for a village girl, with your French name and your finicky manners. You’ll pay for this, see if you don’t.’
She stood her ground, white-faced and silent. She dared not say what she really thought, that Ralph Landiss was a bully and a fool. Her father was a gardener at Wycombe Hall and their very livelihood was tied to the Landiss family.
‘Jed March is a skilful worker, when he’s not drunk,’ he said, ‘but there are plenty who can replace him. Don’t forget that. You could be on the streets very soon and glad to sell what you’re unwilling to give.’
‘Your threats do you no favour, sir.’
‘They’ll do you even less.’ His lips closed in a tight, thin line. ‘And you can be sure I mean them. I’ll be back.’
When he’d gone, she slumped into the kitchen chair, feeling sick and shaken. Ralph was known in the district as a louche young man who had been spoilt by his father and indulged by a foolish mother. Cécile knew that other girls had caught his eye in the past. They hadn’t seemed to mind his attentions, but the consequences had been dreadful. Sam said they’d brought their downfall on themselves, and now she was faced with the same dire situation. Would he consider her blameworthy, too?
Her only hope was to keep close to home and pray Landiss would not ride this way again. She had plenty to occupy her—a large vegetable patch to tend, a brood of chickens to care for, and at this time of the year as Christmas approached, children’s toys and decorative baubles to make and sell. Most market days she brought home sufficient money to feed herself and her father for several weeks—as long as he didn’t spend every penny of his wages on beer.
He would be home soon and she must put his dinner to cook. He was always ravenous from a day in the open air and at least if his stomach was full, the drink would not flow so plentifully at the Dog and Duck that evening.
Once Jed March had wiped his plate clean with a slice of homemade loaf, his daughter broached the subject tormenting her. ‘I met with some trouble today, Father.’
He looked up from the table, his expression blank. ‘Trouble? What are you talking about?’
‘Ralph Landiss called again. He brought me flowers this time.’
‘You’re a lucky girl then.’
‘No, I’m not. I hate his attentions and I don’t know how to stop them.’
‘You won’t stop ’em. The boy is bloated with arrogance. He can do no wrong—with his father, with the squire.’
‘But he has threatened me. Threatened us.’
Her father’s eyes darkened. ‘What have you been about, Cécile?’
‘I have done nothing wrong, Father. I cannot stop him pestering me.’
‘Then let him pester. He’ll soon lose interest. ‘
‘But can’t you—’ she began.
He leaned across the table and grabbed her arm. ‘Can’t I what? I’m a gardener and we survive because of the job.’
‘But surely you could say something?’
‘Oh, yes? Who to? To his father who happens to be the steward? Or to the squire, mebbe? What a joke that would be! “’Scuse me, your lordship, but my daughter is a mimsy girl who can’t look after herself. I’m sure you’ve nothing better to do than sort the matter out”.’
Her spirits drooped. There would be no help from her father. He was a weak man, she knew, pliable and interested only in a quiet life and a drink. He continued to glare at her, then pushed his chair back and walked across the room to gather his coat.
‘I’m off to the Dog and Duck. You’re too particular in your ways, Cécile. Don’t bother me with this nonsense again.’
Her father’s words were an echo of her tormentor’s and hurt her badly. She wondered, not for the first time, how her mother, a delicate Frenchwoman, had come to marry a man like Jed March. For security, perhaps. She had been an exile, fleeing the revolution that had torn her country apart. If only her mother were here now, but she was long in her grave. If only her brother were here instead of fighting in Spain. There was no point in regrets, though—she was the only one who could look after herself. For the next week, whenever possible, she would stay inside the cottage behind a locked door, but the following Tuesday she must visit the market and Landiss could be waiting.
She decided not to take her customary route to the market town of Friston. Instead of following the lane that ran behind the cottage, she would walk through the woods. Ralph would not be expecting that; if he had decided to intercept her, he would be waiting on the road. Cécile didn’t like the woods. She had occasionally gone for a picnic there with friends, but otherwise she tried to avoid the place. This time, though, there was no help for it, she would have to walk that way. At least, it was a shorter route and she would get to the market and back more quickly. She packed her baskets the evening before: eggs and freshly baked cakes in one and a new batch of toys and baubles in the other. She would rise early and be at the market before eight, she decided, blowing out her candle and hoping she would sleep despite her fears for the morning.
In the middle of the night she was woken abruptly by the sound of a high wind tearing through the cottage thatch, rattling the ill-fitting window frames and whining down the chimney. Torrents of rain followed, pounding the glass and pouring down the gutters. She gave up trying to sleep and lay motionless, dreading the day to come. By dawn, the storm had abated and she was soon dressed and downstairs. Her father’s porridge must be left ready to heat on the hob grate and last night’s dishes packed away, but within minutes she was out of the door and on her way.
It was fortunate she wore stout boots for the woods were as bad as she’d imagined during the night. Trickles of muddied water were everywhere and the path beneath the trees was sodden. Bushes on either side hung with fat droplets, glistening in the early morning light, and water dripped from overhanging trees. In no time, her woollen cape was soaked and sticking clammily to her slender figure. She picked a careful way around the broken branches strewn across the path. It was fortunate it was winter and the trees were without leaves, or several might have fallen in the night and barred her way completely.
She was halfway to her destination and crossing a small wooden bridge when Landiss appeared. ‘I knew you’d come this way.’ He smirked. ‘Clever, aren’t I?’
She went to walk past him, but he barred her path. ‘Let me through please. I must get to the market.’
‘Why do you bother to sell this stuff?’ He waved a dismissive hand at the two large baskets she carried. ‘I can give you money—for a consideration. Just say the word.’
He was offering to buy her and she had to still her rage. ‘I will never take money from you, Mr Landiss.’
‘Then I’ll get what I want for free.’
She pretended not to understand and tried once more to walk past him, but he caught her by the arm, sending her off balance and her baskets flying. ‘Not so fast, Miss March. While we’re talking money, I think after all it may be you that has a payment to make. All those presents I’ve brought you.’
‘I wanted none of them.’
‘But you took them. And what has been my reward for dancing attention on you all these weeks?’
‘I have not wanted your attention either.’ She stooped to recover the goods scattered across the wooden slats of the bridge.
‘I’m getting a little tired of hearing what you want. Let me show you what I want.’ And before she realised what he was about, he had scooped her up and pushed her hard against the low wooden railings of the bridge.
‘Now we’ll see how worth my time you’ve been.’ His hand lifted her skirt and began tugging at her petticoat. She kicked out at him hard and he yelled as her foot found his shin.
‘You whore! I might have been content with a little on account, but now I’ll have full payment.’
His hand went to his trousers and he began to unbutton them. He was still pressed tightly against her, the wooden railing digging into her back, and she was finding it difficult to breathe. As he fumbled with his buttons, she tried to push his body away, but he was too heavy and the action had her slipping down towards the floor of the bridge. As she did, her hand came into contact with a stray branch blown there by last night’s storm. Her fingers folded around it and with the most tremendous effort, she managed to swing it wide and bring it down with a thwack across his shoulders.
He lurched to one side, more from surprise than from any real hurt, but it gave her the space she needed. Without a second thought she swung the branch again, this time aiming for his head and hitting him squarely on the forehead. He staggered, tripping backwards over a smattering of twigs. She didn’t stop. She hit him again and again, possessed by a fierceness she had never before known. He was pushed back hard against the opposite railing until the rotten wood gave way beneath his weight—and suddenly he was no longer there.
She ran to the yawning gap and peered down into the river. It was in full flood and yards ahead she saw Ralph’s figure being carried swiftly downstream. Her legs went limp and she fell to her knees, her entire body shaking. How long she knelt there, she had no idea, but a whispering in her head grew louder until she heard it telling her she must get to market. She stumbled to her feet, picking up the baskets and starting to repack them. Several eggs were broken and a few Christmas baubles smashed, but there was enough left to sell. First, though, there was something she must do. She picked up the bloodied branch and walked back across the bridge.
Ralph Landiss was found that evening a half-mile downstream. Her father brought the news home and she had to press her nails into her palm to keep herself from crying out.
‘Is he dead?’
‘Of course, he’s dead. Drownded. Though it looks as though he were hit before he fell into the river. There’s a great wound on his head.’
‘His body may have struck rocks in the water,’ she suggested. It was difficult to keep her voice even.
‘Mebbe, but I reckon the man was attacked. The squire had us all searching—Sam Lister, Harry Farthing, half a dozen others as well. We walked upstream and saw the rail was broken on the bridge. A lot of muddy footprints, too. Looked like there’d been some kind of struggle, but no sign of a weapon. We looked around but there was nothin’. The funeral’s on Saturday, so you best find a black dress.’
Ten years later
It was hot again, one more day in a string of hot days, and the twins were restless. The family had been to church that morning—Sam was one of the servers—but when Cécile had put Sunday dinner on the table, no one had eaten very much. It was just too hot.
‘We should go to the river,’ Sam said, ‘and let the boys paddle.’
‘We never go to the river.’ It was the last place she wanted to visit.
‘I know we don’t, and we should. Specially on a day like today. The boys will be safe enough with both of us watching them. And it will cool them down—cool us all down. Come on, love, say yes.’
‘Say yes,’ the twins chorused.
Sam’s suggestion was sensible, but she still held back. She had never returned to the woods or the river since that terrible day ten years ago. Now she had everything she’d ever wanted: a husband she loved, two healthy sons, and a cottage that made her proud. Since her father’s death, Sam had worked tirelessly on the house to get it just as she wanted. Life was perfect—except for the fact that she could never blot that dreadful event from her mind.
It wasn’t that she grieved for Ralph. When he’d attacked her, she’d been swamped by hatred for him. But she still felt enormous guilt. His drowning had been an accident, she told herself continually. She’d had to defend herself, she’d had no other choice. But all the time, she was terrified that one day she would be found out. One day the squire’s men would discover the weapon she’d used and confront her with it. She hadn’t had time to hide the branch properly. She was being irrational, she knew; it was impossible they would discover her role in the tragedy. But in the quiet moments of her life, she was for ever worrying.
‘We’ll go then?’ Sam said. ‘That’s good. It will do us all good to go back.’
It was a strange thing to say, but the boys were clamouring around her skirts demanding to paddle, and she knew she would have to agree.
Her husband led the way deep into the woods, not stopping until they reached the bridge. A stone bridge now, the result of Ralph’s fall through the wooden rail. Otherwise the place looked exactly the same as it had years ago, and seeing it again for the first time, she felt queasy. Sam spread an old blanket on the grass and lodged a bottle of water to cool in the river. Then he handed each boy one of the small cakes he had packed. ‘I filched these from the larder, but don’t tell your mother.’
The twins giggled and stuffed their mouths full of cake. ‘Can we go in the river now?’
‘You certainly can. But one thing first. We need to celebrate – today is special.’
Cécile looked at him in surprise. It wasn’t usual for Sam to be cryptic. ‘See here,’ he said, and drew a small object from his pocket. ‘I know it’s nowhere near Christmas, but like I say, the day is special, and we should celebrate by hanging a bauble. On one of the trees, perhaps.’
She gave a small gasp and turned ashen. She hadn’t made decorations since the day Ralph had attacked her. But here was one, perfectly formed, sitting in the palm of her husband’s hand. It was a bauble from that day. Somehow Sam had found it and the only place he could have found it was here on this bridge. A bauble she had missed when she’d repacked her baskets.
He knew. He knew she had been here on that day, knew that she had been the one to struggle with Ralph and send the young man to his death. Was he going to accuse her? Reveal her as a murderess? If so, why had he never spoken of it before?
He got up from the blanket and sauntered towards a small tree that grew to one side of the bridge. ‘I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘but it never came. So in the end, I decided I’d have to give it a push myself.’
The tree was much smaller than the surrounding woodland, but its delicate leaves swayed softly in the slight breeze that had sprung up. No longer a weapon, it had become a beautiful part of nature.
‘It’s a fine specimen, don’t you think?’ he said.
She swallowed hard. Sam knew that, too. He held out his hand to her. ‘This is for you, Céci. This is your day,’ and dropped the bauble into her palm.
Somehow she got to her feet and traced a wavering path to the young tree. She hung the ornament on its topmost branch and stood back, arm in arm with Sam, looking at her handiwork. They stood in silence for a long while, then he bent and kissed her full on the lips.
‘I would say that was a job well done, my love.’
Find out more about author Merryn here.
Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.