Elizabeth opened the door to the stranger letting her mouth hang upon in surprise, as the woman shouldered her way into the cottage, stooping so as not to damage her plumage on the lintel.
Once inside she looked about her. One room downstairs by the look of it and a ladder to another room above; a labourer’s cottage, plain to see, with its sparse, home-made furnishings. Earthenware pots littered a plank table along with the remains of a meal of cheese, plum bread, sliced apples and beakers of ale. Bill, her younger brother by a year, took a step towards her in surprise. His face looked grey and careworn. Was he only thirty-six?
‘Betsy, is it you? How did you know it was Mary’s funeral?’
‘I didn’t. I had business in Brigg so I thought to surprise you. I have been meaning to come for some time. I am sorry for your loss, brother. I wish now I had visited earlier.’ A polite mistruth as the fact of his recent loss made her plan easier to accomplish.
‘Sit down and take some refreshment. Elizabeth, this is your Aunt Betsy. You’re named after her. Fetch her some ale will you.’ Elizabeth dropped a quick curtsey and left to do as she was bid.
Betsy perched herself on a low, wooden bench and, after delivering further commiserations, she asked Bill the names of his children.
‘Well let’s see, there’s Elizabeth our eldest, then Tom, Hannah, William, John, we call him Joe, and our youngest Uriah. James, the baby died soon after his mother.’ Bill counted them out on his fingers. ‘That makes six, doesn’t it?’
‘If you don’t count James,’ Betsy concurred. ‘That’s the reason I came to visit. I have a proposal to take one off your hands. I have a very comfortable income and I need an heir. The doctor, I kept house for, left me a good-sized house in Grimsby and a respectable annual income.’
Bill did not know what to say. It did not feel right to give away one of his and Mary’s children. He thought for a moment and said. ‘Our Hannah will be a good mother to the youngest, we can just about manage. They don’t go hungry; Elizabeth is in service and brings in a little and Tom works on the farm with me. It’s better now than it was at the start of the war. At least there’s no shortage of bread now.’
‘That’s good. In these dismal times, I wondered how you’d been faring. I wrote to the vicar in Broughton and he told me where you were living.’
Bill looked baffled. To be honest it had been a few years since he had thought much of his sister. Times were hard and he had enough problems of his own to concern him, without thinking of his sister’s situation. It must be nigh on fourteen years since he had last seen her, the day of his wedding.
‘Just consider the advantage for the child. He will have an education and be able to choose any profession.’
Bill continued to look puzzled until he dragged his mind back to Betsy’s proposal. ‘One of my sons then; you want a boy?’ He studied the tamped down earthen floor for a long moment, turning the offer over in his mind. ‘I suppose Uriah will not remember us if you take him.’ Bill swallowed hard; perhaps it would be best for the child. He was barely two years old and it would free up Hannah for service in another year or two.
‘No I want one that’s old enough to be biddable and young enough to learn. What about that one?’ She pointed to William.
‘Not William. He’s his mother’s favourite.’ Her brother checked himself and said ‘was,’ in a way that caused Betsy to pat his hand.
‘He can be my favourite then.’ Betsy liked the look of William and she disliked the name Uriah, an unlucky name, for did not David have him killed to claim Bathsheba? She was indifferent to John. Had not Salome demanded his head on a plate? William, however, was a strong name, a lucky name, the name of their father, another William Holtby. Yes, she liked that. As she studied him, she began to see a likeness to his grandfather, maybe not in his colouring, but in his green eyes which were set wide apart and the long, thin nose and the square set to his chin. He would grow up to be handsome and she was not averse to handsome.
Betsy also noted the way William sat still on his aunt’s lap, not fidgeting like Joe, or picking his nose like Uriah. William appeared to be listening to the conversation going on around him. She could see him thinking. He would do very well and she made up her mind.
‘I’ll give you twenty pounds as a dowry for your daughters. The younger one has an eye that wanders; she will need money if she is to find a husband.’
Bill sighed. His sister had always been bossy but how could he turn down a fortune, more money than he earned in a year? It was true, Hannah’s squint was going to be a burden to her. He rubbed his head as though it would make his thinking clearer, but tiredness, grief and resentment muddied his mind. Why did Mary have to die and leave him with all these problems? He’d been content with his lot but within forty-eight hours his world had blown apart. Betsy tapped him on the arm, impatient for an answer.
He took the safest option. ‘Mary was never one to mollycoddle the children but she thought William special, said he would amount to something. Maybe it’s you who will make that happen, Betsy, because all I can see for the future is more poverty. If the fields are enclosed and we must work for a pittance, how will we cope? Then there’s all this talk of invasion. Tom and I have been called to train for the militia, although we only have pikes for weapons. I often worry what will happen to the children if I am killed fighting. Pray God it never comes to that.’ Bill swallowed hard again and shook his sister’s hand to seal the deal and she passed him a bag of sovereigns, not that suspicious paper money the government had introduced, but gold. More money than he had seen in his life. He would need to find a good hiding place for it.
‘Well if we are to reach Brigg by dark we ought to set off. You’d best make your goodbyes brother. We’ll not visit again; it will unsettle the child.’
"This is a story of three generations of good, ‘soft-hearted’ and compassionate people with a social conscience and an increasing sense of rebellion. This book roused the ghosts of my ancestors and took me to the heart of the world that they would have inhabited." Books in my Handbag Blog
"A family saga that spans generations and shifting emotional ties, between characters. Noble ably combines dramatic, psychological and historic interest." Lincolnshire Life. July 17
Imagine yourself England in the times of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell for this moving family saga of love, loss and betrayal.
One moment, William is running around barefoot, ragged and more often hungry than not. Then Aunt Betsy appears from nowhere on the day of his mother’s funeral. She