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Authors: Ann Turnbull

Alice in Love and War

BOOK: Alice in Love and War
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About the Author

To the memory of Faye, with love


In the name of God, Amen. I, WILLIAM NEWCOMBE of Bideford in the County of Devon, being sick in body but well in mind, make this my last Will and Testament the eighteenth day of August 1639. I give all my goods and chattels to my brother HUMPHREY NEWCOMBE of Tor Farm near Tavistock in the County of Devon, and desire that he will take in my daughter, ALICE NEWCOMBE, and care for her as his own

In the dispensing room, men were packing the oils and potions into boxes, cramming in bottles carelessly, wherever there was space

“No!” Alice exclaimed. “They must be stored like with like.”

Her father’s work, her home, her life – all were in disarray. She ran and tried to intervene, but the men only put her gently to one side and continued their activity

A dried turtle hung from the ceiling on strings. They cut it down, and dust flew about and glinted in the thin shaft of light from the window. Hanging bunches of dried herbs scented the air with a warm, sweet aroma. These were not dusty; her father would renew them and always kept fresh supplies. She remembered going out with him to gather them in the meadows and woodland: heart’s-ease, lovage, comfrey, rue. Now the neighbours would take the herbs away; but the medicines would be sold and the money given to her uncle towards her keep

Tossed aside on a stool was her father’s book: the one in which he had kept his lists of medicines and herbs, and their uses – all in the small, neat handwriting that he had made sure also to teach her. “Always write clearly,” he’d said. “Mistakes can be dangerous.” Alice picked up the book and pushed it quickly down the front of her gown, between her bodice and stays. This was hers now, she thought; no one else should have it

Behind the half-closed door of the kitchen she heard women gossiping. They were neighbours, come to help clear the rooms. Their voices were hushed, reproachful

“…should have made better provision…”

“…too kind to poor folk; never earned much…”

“…child to go to strangers…”

“He’s her uncle!”

“But a stranger to
And she doesn’t come with money. Why would he want her?”

Alice’s grief and fear rose up, overwhelming. She burst into the room and threw herself at Goody Chammings, clinging to her. “Take me in, please! Don’t let them send me away. Please take me! I’ll be good, I promise.”

The woman held her close; her bodice smelt comfortingly of sweat and lavender. “I wish I could, my pigeon. But it’s a family matter. Not for neighbours to decide.”

“This is the child,” the Reverend Master Morton told the man and his wife. “Alice. Eleven years of age.” His glance down at her was kind and regretful. “A virtuous child, tenderly reared.”

Humphrey Newcombe, yeoman farmer of Tavistock, had a look of her father, Alice thought, but with a face set in discontented lines. She curtseyed, and he acknowledged her with a nod. He took a step forward, awkwardly, as if to embrace or kiss her, then seemed to change his mind. His wife remained still. She looked Alice up and down with a cold eye

Master Morton withdrew, leaving the three of them together

Humphrey Newcombe turned to his wife. “It is our duty to take the child in.” He was the master, but he sounded almost apologetic

The woman was full of suppressed resentment. Alice could see it in the rigid set of her head and body. She knew she would not be welcome at Tor Farm



was upstairs stripping beds, the windows flung open to sweeten the air, when she heard the drums.

Soldiers! The king’s army, it must be, hotfoot from their victory at Lostwithiel. News of that battle had been all around the village yesterday. She ran to the window and looked out at the valley below. They came through steadily falling rain along the road from Tavistock; she saw the glint of metal, the colours raised aloft, the cavalry; and behind them a ripple of movement, countless men marching.

Alice felt a charge of excitement. It was a brave sight, joyous, no matter which side you favoured. Like many people, her aunt and uncle cared for neither. Their two sons, Tom and Ned, who had always been rivals, had joined up with opposing sides. Ned, who had fought for the king, had been killed in a skirmish last year. Tom was off somewhere with General Waller’s army – the further away the better, to Alice’s mind. She only wished his father had gone too.

Her aunt came into the room behind her and pulled her back from the window. Her fingers dug into Alice’s upper arms. “Don’t stand gaping!” Yet she stared out herself. “Jenefer said a quartermaster was going around the village yesterday. Pray God they leave us be.”

Alice knew that her aunt, prudent as always, had begun to store what she could against the coming winter. It was early September, and followed such a cold, wet August as no one could recall: the roads awash with water, the crops rotting in the fields. There was hunger in the country, for last summer’s harvest had also been bad. Her aunt believed that the succession of ruined harvests was a punishment from God for the civil war that had begun two years ago. The armies lived off the land, demanding food, bedding, stabling, even livestock; people went in dread of them. Humphrey Newcombe had been lucky so far; Tor Farm was up a steep track, a mile and a half from the village.

Let them come, thought Alice. She wanted them to come, even though it would mean more work for her. She longed for change. And why should she care if her aunt was distressed? Alice had no interest in the king’s war with Parliament, but she had been conducting her own war with Mary Newcombe for the last five years: a war of small disobediences and unwilling submission that had recently taken on a new intensity.

She was not disappointed. An hour later a detachment of soldiers could be seen tramping up towards the farm. Alice ran outside as they marched into the yard. They looked tired: wet hair hanging lank on their shoulders, their boots and breeches spattered with mire. One of their leaders – young, dark, a band of powder charges slung across his body – caught her eye and winked. She looked away, feeling her face grow hot – then flicked a glance back. He was still watching her. Her heartbeat quickened.

Mary Newcombe was in dispute with the sergeant. “Twenty men! We have not the beds!”

“You have barns? Outhouses?”

She nodded. Alice knew she would have to let them in. If she didn’t, they would take what they wanted by force.

The servants had gathered in the yard: the maids, Jenefer and Sarah; the cowman, Jacob. Young Matt had already set off at a run for the high moor to fetch the master. Her aunt gave orders.

“Sarah! Off to the kitchen! Help Jenefer with beer and meat. Alice, come with me.”

Alice stole a quick glance backwards at the soldier who had winked at her, before following her aunt upstairs. She saw that he had caught her name.

The rooms on the upper floor led one off another. Alice slept in a small chamber of her own, but her aunt and uncle had to pass through it on their way to their bedroom. These days Alice kept her bed curtains tied tightly closed and her knife near at hand.

“We’ll put one of them here,” her aunt said. “You can sleep in our room – and don’t give me that face!” Her own complexion had darkened. “I’ll hear no more of your lies. We’ll all share the one chamber – the maids too. Better that way. I can keep an eye on you and Sarah. Can’t trust you girls around men.”

Alice seethed inwardly, furious at being linked with the kitchen maid, whom she despised, and even more at the accusation that she’d lied about her uncle.

He had begun pestering her two years ago, but lately it had got worse. He would waylay her in the barn, the sheep sheds, even the kitchen. Last week it had taken all her strength to fight him off; she had bitten his hand and kneed him where it hurt and cursed him for trying to commit a sin against nature. She had run, trembling, into the house, found her aunt alone upstairs, and shouted and sobbed out the truth to her.

Foolishly, she had expected her aunt to take her side; after all, there seemed little love lost between husband and wife. But Mary Newcombe had screeched at her, calling her a lying slut. She slapped Alice’s face so hard that her head rang; then she seized a broom and beat her across her back, shoulders and ribs till she begged for mercy. Alice hadn’t dared speak out again.

Now, her aunt lifted the lid of the linen chest and the scent of lavender wafted into the room. She began pulling out sheets, her mouth set tight in resignation. From below came a crash of breaking crockery, a shriek from Sarah, and male laughter. Mary Newcombe stiffened, and Alice felt a brief moment of kinship, almost of sympathy. A liking for order – for a clean dairy, herbscented linen, jars and bottles all in their right places – was the one thing the two of them had in common.

Her aunt thrust a pile of linen into Alice’s arms. “Take those and make up beds in the stair room. And when you’ve done that you can go down and help in the kitchen. But keep away from the soldiers.” She glanced out of the window. “Here’s your uncle at last.” She spoke of him, as always, with mild contempt.

She went downstairs, and Alice heard a clamour of men’s voices, over which her aunt’s was raised in complaint.

Left alone, she took her father’s book from the shelf in her chamber and hid it for safe-keeping above the lintel in the room she was now to share. Then she made up beds, smoothing the sheets, her mind on the soldier who had caught her eye. She met few young men. Two years ago she had formed a shy friendship with a boy in the village: the baker’s apprentice, a lad of fifteen. That summer they had exchanged smiles and glances, a few words. She had liked him, but it had come to nothing, for that winter he fell ill with a fever and died. There had been no one since. Her aunt kept her hard at work, close to home and farmyard; it was only on market days at Tavistock that she had a chance to look around. Of course, it was expected that one day she would marry. Her aunt complained from time to time of the inevitable loss of labour this would cause and of the cost of a dowry – pointing out that Alice was ill-tempered and without beauty, and that it was unlikely any man would choose her unless the dowry was worth having.

And yet, thought Alice, it was not Sarah the soldier had winked at.

When she went downstairs the sergeant was sprawled in her uncle’s chair, leaning back – his feet, in dirty boots, on the table. Three others sat on the stools, and all were drinking beer. There were pies, meat, bread and cheese on the table: everything Jenefer had been able to find. The master and mistress were not in sight. Alice knew they would have gone to hide away their money and good clothes and any other valuables. Jenefer, red-faced from the flames, was roasting beef on a spit; a cauldron of water for washing was heating to one side. Sarah was red-faced too. Blonde curls had escaped from her cap and now hung on her rosy forehead. She stood close to the sergeant, and Alice saw that he had his hand up her skirt. Quickly she looked away, at the other men.

Close to, she became aware of how dirty they were. They smelt bad, almost rotten; and she thought of the waterlogged roads and the boots no doubt in need of repair. Their linen, where it showed, was grimy and torn, their blue coats stained, their hair matted and moustaches untrimmed. And yet they excited her. They brought with them an air of danger and freedom. They moved in the greater world. They were passing through – not trapped, as she was, in this cold-hearted house on the edge of the moor.

Her gaze settled on the one who had winked at her. She began to rearrange some plates on the table, drawing gradually closer to him.

“Alice, isn’t it?” He spoke softly, with an accent she didn’t know. “Are you chambermaid or daughter?”

“Neither. I am Master Newcombe’s niece.”

“And how old are you, Alice?”


She knew she must be blushing. He looked older than she was – twenty or more – and she thought him handsome, despite the dirt: a “proper man”, as folk would say. He was tall and lithe, his hair and eyes dark and his face tanned from being out in all weathers. She wanted to ask
name, but did not dare.

BOOK: Alice in Love and War
13.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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