Living By The Land – Episode 20

THE dance was being held on the farm of Mrs Frances Clarke, Ambrose’s lady friend, and on the walk down the big blacksmith spoke of the work she’d put into making the barn nice. Louisa listened to him chattering away with an indulgent smile, but when they arrived, she had to admit that it looked wonderful. A long run of lanterns led across the dusky field to the barn and there were more inside, every second one fitted with coloured glass so that the place sparkled with a rainbow of light. The floor had been swept clean and all around the edges were hay-bale benches for people to rest should they wish. The band – three fiddles, a flute and a lively singer – were at the far end on a raised platform and, to their right, a big bar had been constructed, from behind which a team was serving ale, cider and barley wine to an eager and ever-growing crowd.

Louisa stopped just inside the doorway, taking it all in. Then someone clapped her on the shoulder and she turned, surprised to see Farmer Robert.

“A drink, little Louisa?” He smiled at her hesitation. “First drink is on me. I’ve had my formal invitation to Court, so we should celebrate.”

This drew cheers as word went round the farm workers.

“But the tupping?” Louisa asked nervously.

Robert clapped her shoulder again.

“I commend your concern, Louisa, but it’s not as bad as we feared. Very few of the sheep have taken, so we shall get a second chance.”

“Oh, that’s a relief.”

“It is. So, a cider for you? I believe Mrs Clarke brews it herself, does she not, Ambrose?”

Ambrose nodded proudly.

“Finest cider this side of Somerset. Come and meet her, Louisa.”

Louisa was aware of Callum to her left, but didn’t want to let down the eager blacksmith. With the briefest of glances behind her she allowed herself to be led up to a handsome older lady presiding over the bar.

“Ambrose!” Frances Clarke came out as soon as she saw him, smiling up into his eyes as he took her hand and kissed it formally.

“Who is this?”

“Louisa Harris. New dairymaid at Lower Meadow, under Martha here.”

Louisa looked round for her boss and blinked in surprise. Martha and Silas had walked down to the village earlier to join some friends for the dance, so Louisa had not yet seen her in her evening finery. She was stunned. Gone were the heavy dress, big apron and puffed cap that Louisa had grown so used to seeing her boss in. Tonight Martha was wearing a beautiful full gown of forest green with an almost golden over-bodice. Her silvering hair was caught back in an elegant bun from which an ostrich-feather fancy protruded.

She saw Louisa taking in her outfit and smoothed it self-consciously.

“Our daughter was married last year,” she confided shyly. “She did well for herself – a lawyer in the town, no less – and he bought us both new outfits. Seemed a shame not to wear them again, didn’t it, Silas?”

She turned to the man at her side and Louisa realised with some shock that it was her husband, Silas. The head cropsman at Lower Meadow was normally to be found in mucky breeches and worn shirts, with his hair wild. Even on a Sunday he seemed to consider adding an old waistcoat to this ensemble sufficient adornment for church. But this evening he was in a blue woollen frock coat and matching embroidered waistcoat. His hair was slicked back and his scrubbed face was surprisingly handsome.

He was standing with his arm around his wife and Louisa had a fleeting glimpse of their life together. They lived in their own cottage on the edge of Lower Meadow land and she realised now how different their evenings must be from her own in the packed farm kitchen and communal dorm. They seemed very content with their lot.

“You both look wonderful,” she said. “Don’t they, Ambrose?”

“Like peacocks in a hen coop.”

He grinned at Martha, who batted him away.

“Nonsense. I’m not pretty enough for a peacock, not like young Louisa here. She’s hard working, too,” she went on, leaning in confidentially to Frances. “Got quite an eye for dairy work.”

Louisa flushed.

“My mother let me work with her when I was little,” she mumbled, feeling the usual pang of loss, though only for a moment.

“Louisa is Sam Harris’s daughter,” Ambrose put in. “Remember him, Frances?”

Alison Cook