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Leah Fleming
Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker

‘I’d like to know more about your old house. I thought we’d be staying in part of it. I can see it’s got a history,’ Kay replied. There was no use in hiding her interest.

‘It’s got so many bits, added on and knocked off, you’ll have to ask my son about all that. It’s his interest. It’s been in my husband’s family since Queen Elizabeth’s day. Ask Nik to give you the tour, if you don’t mind the mess. We live back to back, so to speak. It suits us that way.’ Mrs Snowden smiled and, despite her forthright manner and stern visage, Kay liked the look of the woman. She must have been a beauty in her day with such high cheekbones and fine piercing blue eyes.

‘And your husband? Does he still farm?’ Kay asked.

‘Lord, no! Not unless he’s ploughing St Peter’s fields. He passed on years ago, before all this bother with the farming industry. He was a Maggie’s man and thought the good times would last for ever.’

‘I’m sorry. I can see the fields are empty. It must have been a terrible year up here,’ Kay nodded with sympathy hoping she hadn’t upset the widow.

‘Aye, lass, one I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. Tom had a good innings. I was younger than him and times were easier then. You could educate your children off the moor. He worked hard for his family – you can’t ask for more. I’m glad he wasn’t here to see his stock culled. Are you on your own by choice?’ Mrs Snowden paused, waiting for an answer.

‘My husband died suddenly last Christmas in a car accident. It’s not been easy.’ She always found it hard to spit out those words but it was better to be open. She wanted no misunderstandings.

The older woman looked her straight in the eye and something unspoken passed between them. ‘I’m sorry … You won’t be wanting much of a Christmas then, I reckon.’

‘That’s about the sum of it,’ she sighed. ‘But Evie is too young to understand this.’

‘I hope you don’t mind plain speaking,’ Mrs Snowden whispered. ‘Put her in the school. She’ll get a good Christmas there. Then you can step back and let it all wash over you. It might help. I hope you have a good stay though. A change is as good as a rest, but you never get over what you’ve been through.’ The farmer’s wife paused. ‘Get yourself down to Skipton market on the High Street. You’ll find your winter togs there at half the price. The weather here is unpredictable. Still, you know what they say about Yorkshire climate: it’s nine months winter and three months bad weather,’ Mrs Snowden laughed.

‘My granny Norton used to say that. She lived in Bankwell. It used to rain for England in my school holidays,’ Kay offered.

‘A Norton, indeed! Then we’re practically relatives, if that’s the case. There’s been plenty of them in this family way back … Should I know her?’

‘She was Betty Norton, married to Sam. My mother was Susan … she went to the High School at Settle.’

‘I’d be long gone by then … Fancy, it’s a small world. Was she in the WI?’

‘I expect so. She died many years ago though. Mum sold the cottage.’

‘Something small in Bankwell would suit me fine but that’s another story … I must shift myself. Just wait until I tell Nik you thought I was his wife!’ Mrs Snowden edged out of the room but not without pointing to Evie. ‘Mind that child and get her into school.’ She waddled back to the big house still etched in the mist shaking her head.

‘So what shall we do today, muppet?’ Kay perched on the edge of the sofa.

‘Get a video and a takeaway pizza,’ came the reply.

‘Dream on. This is the country so let’s go out for a walk and get an airing. I want to see the old house. There’s so much to explore. Let’s blow the cobwebs away and collect autumn bits for our windowledge. Come on, boots and anorak, it’ll do us good,’ Kay said briskly, trying to sound more positive than she felt. There was no harm in telling the old lady the bare bones of her circumstances but she hoped they would not be pestered. Perhaps the village school was not a bad idea.

Mistress Hepzibah watches over the tray bakes cooling on the kitchen table. The dog in the corner has his eye on the pepper cakes but dare not move for fear of her. It is the season for soul cakes but these are but a poor effort. Holy day cakes begin the little Lent at Martinmas, a time of prayer and fasting. Hepzibah sniffs for the scent of honey and milk, tokens of heaven and earth, for pepper, allspice and almonds. Where were her bakestone and griddle pan gone? The young know nothing of sacred culinary arts. How can the poor be fed and the sufferings of the dead be alleviated by such tokens?

She peeps from the window unseen as a dancing child skips across the courtyard like a puffed-up sunflower with tansy hose, jumping into a puddle. Oh, Mother, take heed! Hepzibah senses movement in the spinney that borders Wintergill Farm.

If only Cousin Blanche would but listen to reason and not come a-calling, but a child will draw her hither like a lode-stone. There will be no peace. Blanche is so careless with other people’s children. This season is ripe for mischief when darkness overcomes the light. Rise up, Wintergill, and keep watch. Danger is coming. Our prayer has been granted with the coming of a child but this time we must finish the business or be damned.

Why alone doth this season bring only sorrow to my heart? How can such a season of goodwill bring forth hatred and despair? It all begins again.

Hepzibah Snowden, 1653 (#ulink_96cda437-8ecf-5d9b-a17b-80e7f45c326b)

Her Soul Cakes

8 oz of honey

2 oz of butter

12 oz of ground oatmeal with a little milk to soften ginger, allspice and ground peppercorn

Melt the butter with the honey until soft and add all the rest of the ingredients. Shape to form a thick ring.

Soften the griddlestone or pan with butter, bake on one side very slowly for about an hour. The honey must not burn.

Butter the griddle or pan again. Cut into smaller pieces, turn and cook for 15 minutes until dry.

Better left for a few days to ripen.

‘Hurry up or we’ll be late and the parson will give us one of his stares.’ Hepzibah chivvied her servant girls to cover their heads and find their cloaks. It was always a rush on the Lord’s Day to get them down the fell to St Oswald’s in Wintergill. Nathaniel was struggling with his boots, not wanting to waste time when there were a hundred jobs to be doing, even on the Sabbath. The new incumbent was a stickler for attendance and would send his spies to see if the Snowdens were still abed or neglecting their spiritual health. Parson Bentley was not a man for compromise. He was a staunch supporter of Cromwell’s army and the Puritan ways.

Hepzibah clucked over her charges like a mother hen with a brood. No one went without clean linen collars and cuffs, warm boots and thick cloaks in her household, master or servants. The spinning wheel clacked by the hearth and the knitting sticks were never idle. In keeping with the times there was no fancy lacework round their necks, and sadly no baby cloths to sew, much to her despair. She must learn to wait on the Lord’s will but it was not for the want of trying to bring a bairn into the world, she blushed as she scurried down the hill.

It was freezing in the stone church, and the household sat huddled together. Hepzibah could see this parson wanted to stamp his authority on this motley congregation of papist miscreants and former Royalists as he strode up into the three-tiered pulpit, his face purple with zeal. The Snowdens were sitting in their appointed pew, their feet numb with the chill. The bareness of the stone walls, stripped of any offending artefacts, could offer no distractions from the coming storm. Nathaniel, her husband, was already half dosing and she could hear his stomach rumbling for its next meal.

‘The word of the Lord came to me like fire in my bosom. Now we approach the Advent season of fasting and penance, it has come to my knowledge that there be those in our midst who still practise heathen festivals with fire burnings, feasts and are already making preparations for yuletide.

‘Let it be known that for some years now the practice of Christmas-keeping has been outlawed by the government of this realm. It is an abomination of Scriptural truth. The birth of Our Lord is a solemn occasion of prayer and fasting but I hear that there are those among you who make it an occasion of sinful profanity, licentious liberty as make it more Satan’s mass than a service of penitence.’

There was a shuffle and stir among the pews and heads bent to spare blushes, recalling past gambling parties, mummery shows and drunken revels. Hepzibah listened intently. Bentley was going hammer and tongs this morning.

‘You might well hide your shame, you wantons, who dance and sing on a holy Sabbath; who play cards and spend this holy day in drunkenness and debauchery. The eye of the Lord seeth all, brethren! He is not mocked! It is written in the Book of Judgement that Mistress Palmer did consort with others in lewd and wanton apparel, flaunting her body in such cavortings as to fetch the constable. Did not Scholar Knowles be found in the bed of one Bess Fordall, having handfasted together like man and wife, making mockery of holy wedlock as Lord of Misrule? Some of you dishonour Our Lord more in the twelve days of Christmas than the whole twelve months besides.’ He paused to deliver his cannon balls of spit.

‘Be ye no more a Christmas keeper. Shame not His sufferings with your disobedience. For some years now it hath been the universal custom to omit the observation of this festal season in favour of prayer and fasting. Let it be just another working day in this district and nothing more, or else be punished. However lax hath been the overseeing of this season in times past, you have before you one that hath great zeal to uphold the law. The season is condemned and those who disobey shall be stripped and cast into outer darkness where no light perpetual shall shine on them!

‘I speak plain. Let your feast be as Lent, plain, meatless and meagre. Let no green boughs from the hedgerows be brought into your hall with no pagan berries. Let not your children hanker after sweetmeats and trinkets, singing and carolling. Dress them in soberness and humility. Our Lord is meat and drink enough to those who love Him. He will reward your abstinence. Hear and inwardly digest the word of the Lord on pain of your soul’s salvation. Amen.’

Since the parson’s arrival at Michaelmas, Hepzibah had never heard him so fired up; his spittle was shooting from his lips like a fountain. She looked across the pew to where her cousin, Blanche Norton, sat, her pale face looking ahead, white as ice set against her widow’s weeds, flaunting yet another lace collar for all to see, her ringlets dripping out of her fancy cap. Her only child, Anona, sat quietly unheeding the warnings in her own drift of thought.

Blanche’s hair turned white almost overnight on hearing news that her husband, Kit, was slain with the Royalists at Marston Moor in 1644. There were those in the congregation only too glad to reap a bitter harvest on her of fines, robbing her of stock and chattels for taking up the Royalist cause and not attending church services each Sunday. This late war had sliced the district into two camps. Nathaniel neither turned right nor left but paid his dues when asked, steering a careful course in the middle, causing none offence. He said he only awaited the judgement of the Lord, who in His wisdom came down hard on the King. Her cousin’s delinquency brought her in the path of the constables and she was made to pay dearly for her husband’s treachery with the loss of land.

We are strange relations, she thought; I being little and dark and she being tall and fair. Considered still comely of face, with lands still worthy of ploughing, the widow had many callers to woo her but she preferred to run her household as if Kit were still in residence. They were but distant cousins in truth. Since Hepzibah’s own father took the plainer path of worship and Blanche married into a once popish household, they had seldom met until her widowhood.

Nathaniel Snowden of Wintergill was considered a good enough catch for a plain daughter. Marriage suited them both well. But for the want of an heir she was well satisfied with her stone house on the hill. It was a great sadness that her babes did not thrive above a few breaths of air.

This parson’s edicts were mightily strict for a country district where folks did things in the old ways and paid little heed to the pulpit. He would have his spies in the two constables, Robert Stickley and Thomas Carr. If there was some profit to be made from spilling oats of information Stickley was your man. They were both doing well from this change in governance.

Hepzibah had no great quarrel with the idea of banning Christmas. It was a great expense and distraction to their servants who expected roast beef, mutton pies and plum porridge. She thought the season but a ploy to swell the coffers of all the costermongers in the town. Servants wanted play days, dances and fiddling. Everyone knew that dancing was devil’s mischief for more lasses got with child at Christmas than ever fell in Lent.

Let the candle-makers and grocers, spice merchants and pedlars feel the draught. All the money she saved could be spent wisely on a fine tup or breeding mare. There were still the pigs to be killed and the hog’s head to turn into brawn and pies.

Her work was never done. Christmas-keeping was an old popish practice after all, and now that Cromwell reigned in London it was time to call a halt to frivolity. She was a sober matron now, not a flibbertigibbet of seventeen, but she must admit her feet would tap when she heard a jig.

Nathaniel would have his own thoughts on such matters. If he saw fit to give alms and tokens of thanks to his cowmen, stable boys, shepherds and yard boys, strengthen their brew or let the house servants go for a day to visit with their kin folk, that was his affair. She would heed the parson’s words for her own purposes.
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