Read Poppies at the Well Online

Authors: Catrin Collier

Poppies at the Well

POPPIES AT THE WELL

CATRIN COLLIER

Kitty had never thought she'd escape the shadow of the workhouse or her mother's shame until she met Ellis. He gave her more than she'd ever dreamed could be hers - a real home and more love than she'd imagined existed in the world. Until war came even to their quiet farm and blighted their lives.

Once again she knew loneliness – until the night Ellis returned. But was he Ellis? And who was the sick, whining stranger in the wheelchair, always moaning, never silent who threatened to destroy their lives . . . 

She heard the sound of water and was waylaid. Worm's Head and the sea were distant, and the afternoon languid. It would take only a moment, and she had until evening, a whole day free. Unimaginable luxury. She turned and climbed the downs, seeking the waterfall she sensed was near, but it eluded her. Perhaps in the next copse of trees …

‘You looking for someone, Miss?'

The man was tall, dark, rough-looking; neither young nor old. She looked no more. Instinctively, she lowered her eyes and backed away, for she was unused to people, only children, and afraid of men.

‘No. I beg your pardon, I heard the water …' Her voice trailed.

‘It's not a fall. Here, I'll show you.' He stepped back and moved some bushes. ‘I'll not hurt you,' he offered gruffly, sensing her fear.

Warily, she inched forward, then she saw it, a spring gushing out of an old pipe set into a low, dry stone wall.

‘They call it “The Well” – Talgarth's Well. It's not mine, though it's on my land. Everyone has the right to draw water here. Not that they do,' he murmured. ‘No one comes here any more.'

‘Your land?' she ventured shyly, looking around the wilderness that was the downs. ‘You live here?'

‘Where I'm standing, Miss.'

For the first time she looked past the greenery and saw the veranda. Stone-built, it blended with nature. Only the profusion of poppies betrayed man's artifice. They were everywhere, their full round heads hanging heavy as though their stalks could no longer bear their weight. Here and there a bloom had burst into full crimson. The heralds of summer.

‘It's beautiful,' she stammered. ‘It looks as though it was meant to be this way.'

‘My grandfather's grandfather built it. He carved his name and date over the door,' he said proudly.

She gazed at the cottage, long, low, straw-thatched, built of the same stone that littered Rhossili Down, marking the Norsemen's graves.

‘Would you like to see inside, Miss?' he pressed. ‘It's much the same as it was when the first Ellis brought his bride here.'

Suddenly she remembered where she was. And the Mistress. The stern, uncompromising voice rang through her mind.

‘Never speak to a man, Kitty, unless women are near. Men want only one thing, and once they have it, a woman is tarnished, used-up, despised by the world. Finished.'

Wasn't it true? Hadn't it happened to her own mother? Where would she be now if it wasn't for the charity of the Mistress? The London streets, a tawdry whore to be broken and dead before her time like the woman who had borne her.

Terrified, she shrank from him. ‘No. I must go. The Mistress will be waiting.'

‘Are you from the village?'

‘No, the big house. I help with the children. I must go.'

‘May I walk along with you?' His voice was gentle, as though he sensed her fear, and the reason behind it.

She ran. He followed. When she reached the carter's track he spoke again.

‘Forgive me, Miss, I know my manners are rough, but I see no one, living at the Well as I do. It's a good life, but a lonely one. I'm sorry I frightened you. Please, will you come again?'

‘I can't,' she whispered, her eyes downcast. ‘I have to work. There's no time.'

‘You're here now.'

‘You don't understand. The children were invited out; there wasn't room in the carriage for me.'

‘You must visit your people sometimes,' he persisted.

‘No. I have no one to visit. I'm from London. The Mistress took me from the Institution. She's been kind. I'd still be there if it wasn't for her.'

‘I've always wanted to see London. But I don't suppose I ever will. I can't leave the farm. Besides, there's no reason for me to travel. I went to Swansea once,' he continued. ‘With my father. My mother took care of the Well then. Life was good in those days. We were happy. I had my parents. Brothers and sisters too. They all died of the throat fever, five years back.'

‘I'm sorry.' She was, truly. She was familiar with loneliness. She knew what it was to have no one to care for, no one to love who did not already love others better.

‘You're pretty.'

She fell silent. The Mistress was right. Men wanted to use women, not talk or befriend them.

‘I mean it. Would your Mistress let me call on you?' he ventured tentatively. ‘I could walk to the hall of an evening. We could talk.'

‘I have to work.'

‘The children. They must go to bed early.' He was amazed at his own temerity.

‘The Mistress wouldn't agree.'

‘I wouldn't want to see you alone. The Well is my life, but it's not enough. I want it to be as it was, with a family living there again. Not one lonely man. Will you see me again?'

‘I'd like to,' she capitulated hesitantly, encouraged by his sincerity. ‘You're not like the others.'

‘What others?'

‘In London, men came in to the Institution. At night. They never talked, only wanted to …' She stood still for a moment, twisting her hands around the iron bars of the drive gates. ‘I was too young, they didn't bother me, but if the Mistress hadn't taken me, my turn would have come. I must go. Goodbye.' She turned and fled up the long drive to the hall.

‘Your name. I must know your name,' he shouted after her.

‘Kitty,' she called back breathlessly. ‘Just Kitty.'

Kitty Ellis would be a good name, he thought that night. And he, like Kitty, slept a little less lonely than he had done in years.

That Sunday he went to church in Reynoldston. He'd been to church before, but only the weather-beaten, clifftop church of Rhossili. The warm, comfortable, sheltered church in Reynoldston was alien to him. He crept in early and sat at the back, leaning against the grey stone wall.

People filed into the church. The curious glanced at him, not unkindly, but he saw only the stares, not the friendship proffered behind them. The vicar walked in slowly from the vestry, holy book in hand, altar men and choir trailing behind, all dressed in white surplices. This was a grand parish, not a windswept one where poverty whistled in on the winter storms.

The gentry from the Hall came in last. They could afford to. Wasn't God's servant also their own? They paid him more than his stipend in the Easter offering. Heads bowed, they glided to their pew, retainers following in their wake like ripples trailing behind fisher craft going out to sea.

Ellis saw Kitty. She looked different. Her long hair was tied in a stiff little knot, an ugly starched calico hat nailed to her head. She wore black, which accentuated all the corners the Institution had chiselled into her frame. When the service was done he followed the carriages back to the hall. He'd made up his mind. He would speak to her Mistress, and ask for Kitty's hand in marriage.

‘Kitty, come here.' The butler's voice was leaden with condemnation. ‘A young man had the audacity to knock the front door and enquire after you. I sent him packing, but the Mistress will want to see you after evening prayers.'

‘Oooh Kitty, you naughty girl. What have you done?' winked Nancy the scullery maid. ‘And there's me thinking you were quiet.'

‘That's enough, Nancy. The poor girl's in trouble. Kitty, how could you?' Cook's reproach was worse than the butler's harsh words. Kitty burst into tears.

‘I only met him once. He seemed nice, lonely like me.'

‘I bet he did, men always do. There, there, don't take on so. Listen girl, watch your manners and say nothing. I'll warrant they'll not be too hard on you.'

The Mistress's charity was as rigid as her tightly-corseted body.

‘Bad blood will out, Kitty. I regret now that I ever thought otherwise. You will be returned to the Institution tomorrow. The Master's decision is final. You may go and pack. That is all.'

Kitty went, with hot tears coursing down her pale cheeks. She had nothing to pack. The fine uniforms were to stay for the next girl. All she owned were two yellow winceyette frocks. Institution clothes. Hairbrush, flannel, soap, towel – even her underclothes, all belonged to the mistress. She lay on her bed and wept. The children whom she'd loved the most were kept from her goodbyes, and her fellow servants dared not comfort her, lest they too be tarred with her brush.

Then she thought of another. One as lonely as she. She would go to him. She made a bundle of her spare dress, lacking even a cloth to tie round it. There was harlot's blood in her veins; she would not give them cause to call her a thief too. She slipped out of the house into the night. The darkness held no terrors for her that could match those of the Institution. She found the Well, and rested by the flowing water. The sound soothed her, the first lullaby sung for her and for her alone.

He rose as the first fingers of dawn stretched out into the sky. She heard him stir, saw the casement opening, smelt his bacon frying on the fire. Timidly she crept to the door and knocked. He opened it, his dark eyes lighting at the sight of her in her bedraggled state.

‘If you still want me, I've come,' she murmured fearfully. ‘But I must warn you, I've bad blood in me. That's why the Mistress won't have me at the hall any longer.'

‘Want you?' His arms reached out to take her. ‘Oh yes, Kitty. I want you.'

They were married that morning. They walked from the Well to Rhossili Church and told the vicar that as they were already living under the same roof there was no time for banns, and he, taciturn, silent man that he was, asked no questions. Instead he read the service over their heads, motioning the verger and his wife to stand witness.

No one in Reynoldston knew the identity of the strange young man, and the vicar of Rhossili church was famed for his refusal to speak a word out of God's house.

The Mistress never discovered Kitty's fate.

‘Are you happy, my love?' It was autumn. The poppies had long since withered, but Kitty had not missed them.

‘Happier than I ever believed possible,' she smiled. ‘I expected nothing, and you have given me the world.'

Ellis lay back on the downs and gazed out to sea. He too was used to happiness now. The meal waiting on the table when work was finished for the day. Clean, darned clothes where once there had only been yesterday's dirt-encrusted cast-offs. Thoughts, work, walks over the downs … lives shared.

Kitty lay close to him, marvelling at her summer memories. Of the time that Ellis had left her alone at the Well, and how she, proud of the trust he placed in her, had worked as she'd never worked before. His glorious return from Swansea laden with presents. The first she'd been given. Clothes that would have graced the Mistress's wardrobe. Hairbrushes, not wooden and chipped, but silver and gleaming. Trinkets, jewels, ornaments for the mantelshelf, but most of all, his love. He had changed her. The lost ,hungry look had left her face, and sometimes when she looked in his glass she felt almost beautiful.

‘I never did walk over the causeway to Worm's Head,' she said as they watched the first of the winter breakers crash against the cliffs.

Ellis took her hand into his own. ‘October's not the time. We'll go together. In the summer when the poppies are in bloom, I promise.'

Winter came and went. Nothing disturbed their peace. Old animals died in winter storms, and young were born in the spring to replace them. Then, they had a visitor. The first of the poppies bloomed at his feet, but his news shattered their world.

‘They need more men for the war, Ellis.'

‘It's not my war, Iestyn, it won't touch the Well.'

‘This war will touch everyone, Ellis. If you don't go to fight, it will come. Even to your Well. You must go, boy.'

‘Why?' demanded Ellis. ‘Why must I fight? I don't hate enough to fight.'

‘You have to go, boy, come now, the sooner you do, the sooner you'll be back. We march to Swansea tonight. Kiss your pretty wife goodbye; you'll see her again before winter sets in. I promise.'

But Ellis wasn't back by winter. Kitty shivered alone in the old cupboard bed at night, and she lived and worked as Ellis had once done. In isolation, with only the wind and the animals to keep her company.

After winter – spring. The poppies bloomed and Ellis returned.

‘I'm back, my love. Just as Iestyn said. Have you been lonely?'

‘Not any more.' She moved over, making room for him in the bed.

‘The Well. How is my Well?'

‘We have new calves, more chickens. I put butter out with the milk churns, and there's extra money in the chest.'

‘Thank you, my love, for loving this land as I do.'

Kitty wasn't lonely any more. Ellis was with her. Wherever she went he was at her side, helping, talking, loving. Then the postman came with a telegram. She couldn't read. He had to tell her what it said.

‘Ellis is dead, Kitty,' he shouted clumsily, terrified of his own emotions. ‘He died for his country.'

‘Thank you.' She walked away. Ellis was at her side. He comforted her; she had no need of anyone else.

‘Poor girl. That's all she said? “Thank you”?'

‘Yes. Shook me up, I can tell you.' The postman took a nip of warming elderberry wine in an effort to steady his nerves.

‘All alone up there. She should move down here to the village. A body needs Christian company.'

‘The Ellises were mad to build on the downs. Our family always said so. But then she's a pretty little thing.' The postman put away his flask and picked up his sack. ‘Seems to me she must have known what she was doing when she married him.  Where did she come from, anyway? The whole Ellis clan were mad. Always were, and always will be, if you ask me.'

Kitty loved Ellis more every day. The nights were best, when she lay next to him in the old wooden bed, listening to the water trickling from the Well. It pleased her to think of the generations of Ellis women who had been lulled to sleep by that self-same sound. But the peace did not last. In the autumn the postman returned.

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