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Stranger than Fiction
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"They shall never get the marriage chain around my neck," boasted Frederick Augustus, 5th Earl of Berkeley. Novelised biography of Mary Cole.
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She was up before breakfast to scribble a letter to Ann on a sheet of Berkeley’s best notepaper. Further consideration prompted her to pen another to Billy, so that he should show no surprise at the length of her stay and remember he was obliged to keep their secret. After weeks of masquerading as Miss Tudor, she dared to sign herself Mary B to her brother. Both letters she addressed to Ann’s house rather than let his lordship’s frank fall under Parker’s eye.

What Mary did not foresee was that her eldest sister, who, when they were younger had asserted some authority over her siblings, would take it upon herself to open Billy’s correspondence.

She was no longer a jailbird’s widow. Will was restored to a modest way of trade around the corner in Westgate. He had taken on Jimmy Roberts again, a Sergeant in the North Gloucestershire Militia, who ran about delivering orders and fetching sheep out of the meadow.

Mary was apprehensive  as to how she would be received by her mother. Nowhere was the onus of silence more cumbersome than this. She stood on the doorstep between a ballast of presents and her excitement vanished before Ann’s apathetic stare. Another bout of breeding had caused her to run to fat and had defined the inchoate violence within her. According to the laws of nature, the opposite should have been true, but Ann saw little profit in procreation when her fine gowns must be laid aside and she was tied to the nursery.

Behind her, in the depths of the parlour, darkened by low beams, Mrs Cole walked the tiniest addition, a nameless girl, back and forth against her shoulder, the child blazing up in protest at the intrusion. Henry took fire and peered wrathfully from her skirts, trailing a ‘comfort rag’, while Billy strode in from the kitchen with a handful of bread and cheese and sporting the gun he’d been cleaning which he used for shooting snipe when he went out with Roberts of an evening. Though they didn’t live over the shop nowadays, the miasma of the shambles still lingered about the rooms.

“Well, mayn’t I enter? I’m no apparition.”

“I suppose we must curtsy to my fine lady now?”

“Curtsy? No, of course you must not.”

“You’d best come in.” Ann moved from the doorway and allowed Mary to step down into the rush-matted parlour. Mary glanced expectantly from one to the other and the hope of a welcome drained out of her. The exclamation of delight at her new niece died upon her lips. “Ma? Billy?” It was cold for May and a paltry fire spat peevish sparks into the thick uneasiness. They were tongue-tied, not knowing what to make of the situation.

Her mother spoke at last. “You’ve come a long way, Mary.”

“Aye,” Billy said, craning to see out of the tiny window. “Where’s your grand coach, Sis? When Susan comes, she drives down in a flash phaeton.”

“But I’ve no coach. I travelled by stage to The Bell as arranged. You might have looked for me there,” Mary added uncertainly.

“By yourself?” Ann mocked.

“Indeed by myself. I’m quite used to it now.”

“We may suppose a coach with servants in livery is too fine for the likes of the Coles and the Farrens.”

“But I have no coach,” Mary insisted, dismayed by such antagonism, “no means of transport at all.”
 
“Don’t gull us with that, Lady B. You’re ashamed of your inferior connections.”
 
The leaden drop of the wall-clock’s pendulum measured an eloquent silence. Billy had betrayed her! He shrugged helplessly.

“It’s not my fault, Sis. Ann opened your letter.”

“Lest it be urgent,” Ann interposed hastily. “Billy was out with Mr Parker at Chater’s Farm, bleeding the old man of his brass. He usually sleeps at Parker’s.”

“It bain’t a lie, Mary?” begged the Widow Cole. She settled the baby into the cradle and rocked it in time with the pendulum.

“Upon my oath, Ma, I cannot answer you. Depend upon it, I have done nothing wrong. You must have confidence in me as you used to do.”

The refts of tension across her mother’s brow relaxed. “You always was a good girl,” she affirmed in her special voice.

“Too good for this world,” observed Ann tartly.

Mrs Cole made some tea and brought out a drizzle cake. Soon the atmosphere changed and they were Coles together again, their differences forgotten. Billy had put down his gun and joined them but was at odds amongst a parcel of gossiping women and quickly made an excuse to be off. He slept at the apothecary’s house that night and Mary did not see him again until supper the following evening. The weather was cool, but fresh with a hint of lilac. Mary said that if he was going down to the meadows to look at the lambs, she’d go with him. He did not object, so she put on a shoulder cape and walking boots.

“Last time we did this, it was the day of your wedding,” Billy remarked.

There was an awkward pause. “Billy, have you told them?”

“I’d no cause to go telling them, had I, when Ann saw that letter?”

“How foolish of me to be so careless! Oh, you can’t imagine…! Deep down, I longed to reassure Ma.”

“It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking.”

“So they’re not aware of when it took place, or that you were a witness?”

Billy’s complexion turned the colour of naked osiers. “They pestered me and prised it out of me. You know what they’re like. There’s no mending it now, Sis.”

They stepped across a wooden footboard over a ditch, slippery and rotten with a bright orange fungus sprouting in the rough grain. Leaning against a stile, they watched the ewes crop buttercups and listened to the litany of bleating lambs. Mary did not know whether to feel gladness, or regret. Billy chewed on a stalk of rye grass and said nothing. He was only a boy who regarded it all as a game.

“That airing’s done you a power of good,” said Mrs Cole to her daughter when they returned. She was taking a pair of tongs to haul boiled muslin out of the copper. “You looked so pale and poorly when you came, I wondered if you was in the family way.”  

She got a firm negative for her answer.

“Praise be!” she muttered, glancing at Mary, her eyes hooded with a burden of wisdom.

“Wouldn’t you be pleased?”

“Well, Mary, youm wearing no ring. What’s a body to think?”

Why, Mary wondered, had her mother sought confirmation of her marriage when she had heard Billy’s account of it?

 

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Read preview excerpts of THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS, Book Two of the Berkeley Trilogy.