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Authors: Val Wood

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She had expected this. She knew him to be parsimonious. ‘Mrs Jennings says there will be a
little money left after they have sold up, and Rosa is to have it.'

‘Ah!' His small blue eyes glittered. ‘Well, we must pray, Mrs Drew, and perhaps by 'morning we'll have the answer.'

Mrs Drew sat on by the fireside after her husband had gone upstairs to bed. She wanted to take the child, not only for her own sake but for her mother's.

She had always liked Mary Jennings. At seventeen she had been pretty and merry, always singing, always a word for everyone she saw, and Ellen Drew, already with six children and heavily pregnant with her seventh, watched her with a wistful admiration for her energy and enthusiasm for life, whilst she, not yet thirty, felt tired and old.

All the young men on Sunk Island were in love with Mary Jennings, but she would have none of them, she was waiting for someone special, she said, and would know him when he came. They all heard about him when he did come, for he swam across the channel from Patrington to Sunk Island, instead of waiting for a boat to take him across the narrow stretch of water. The men working on the embankment had watched him as he dived in fully clothed, and climbed out to ask them in a strong foreign accent what was this place that was cut off from the rest of the world.

Most of the labourers were Irish, and some of them had replied that it was the Devil's own country, for no-one else would want to live there, in the land that belonged below the waters of the Humber.

He had laughed and shaken himself dry like a dog, and set off walking across the vast treeless pastureland, where the first person he met was Mary. No-one knew what their first words were, they only knew that Mary had met her special person and was quite besotted by the handsome stranger. He appeared to feel the same way about her for they were often seen walking across the flat windswept landscape, where there were no hiding places, with their heads together and their arms entwined, and the older people tutted and said no good would come of it, and the younger ones, Ellen Drew included, gazed with envy at the romance of it.

Mary had brought him to the Drews' farm and whilst Mr Drew took him on a tour of the estate, Mary sat with Mrs Drew as she suckled the baby Matthew, and told her that they were to be married in the church on Sunk Island. The whole of the population turned out to watch Mary marry her foreign gentleman and wild were the rumours as to who he was. Some vowed that he was a gypsy, some that he was an escapee from the law, but others firmly believed what Mary had told them, that he was a prince, with a castle in Spain.

‘Come along up, Mrs Drew.' She heard her husband's voice call from the top of the stairs and she sighed. She had hoped that he had gone to sleep and would permit her to do the same, but it was Saturday night and tomorrow morning he would go to church and pray for forgiveness for the weakness of the flesh. She was now over childbearing years, at least she hoped she was, as
Delia, their last child, was now seven years old; her flux had dried up and her husband no longer had the excuse for his excesses, that he was procreating as the Lord intended.

She climbed into the feather bed and closed her eyes as she lay beneath his panting body and hoped that the children in the next room couldn't hear his moaning and mutterings, asking God to forgive him for his wicked tendencies. She too prayed. I can put up with this, dear Lord, but please don't let me be caught with child, and she knew that she was being wicked. Her husband had told her so, so many times, when she had begged him not to make her pregnant yet again. She had given birth to Jim when she was nineteen, then Henry two years later, Maggie was born when Henry was two, then Flo when Maggie was one. She had a respite until the twins Nellie and Lydia three years later, then miscarried the following year.

‘You have enough children, Mrs Drew,' the doctor had informed her. ‘What need do you have for more? You must speak to your husband and advise him it will not be good for your health to have another child.'

She had told him, but he said that it was the Lord's doing, that the act of marriage was designed for the procreation of children and that they must not go against His teachings. He was a churchwarden and a lay preacher and he addressed assemblies, bringing into the text that the Lord's word was to be obeyed. And so she became pregnant with Matthew and nearly died.

He left her alone for a time after that, and
made more frequent visits into the town of Hull, when sometimes he would stay overnight. He would dress in his best grey coat and his stovepipe hat and make the difficult journey from Sunk Island across the wide landscape of Holderness into the port of Hull. But when he returned he spent so much time on his knees praying to the Lord that his work was neglected, the embankment on which his men were supposed to be working was breached and he was called before the Lords of Holderness to explain himself. So she let him back into her bed, and Delia was conceived.

When she heard that Mary too was carrying a child, she wondered how it was that she could look so fresh and radiant. Even though Mary was overcome with grief at her husband's disappearance, when her dark-haired, dark-eyed child, Rosa, was born, the baby delighted everyone with her blithe and sunny presence, whilst her own pale-faced child, Delia, lay still, viewing everyone with sad grey eyes and petulant mouth.

‘Have you thought any more about the Jennings child, Mr Drew?' she asked after supper the next evening.

‘You mean 'Carlos child,' he remonstrated and she was surprised that he had remembered Rosa's proper name, for she was often referred to as the Jennings child. ‘Yes, I've been to talk to Mrs Jennings today. Mr Jennings is in a poor way. He'll not be much longer on this earth but will be joining our Heavenly Father.'

Mrs Drew caught sight of a look between
Maggie and Henry and saw a warning raise of Maggie's eyebrows at Henry's impudent grin.

‘The Lord be praised,' said Mrs Drew firmly. ‘And save us sinners.'

‘Amen,' said Maggie as she cleared the table, but Henry grinned again and went out of the room.

‘So are we to take her? What decision shall we make?' she asked, whilst knowing that the decision wouldn't be hers.

‘We are to take her under certain conditions,' Mr Drew replied. ‘The money Mrs Jennings will have left can't be ascertained until 'effects have been sold up, but I have asked Mrs Jennings to speak to 'Crown agents on behalf of Mr Jennings who can't speak for himself, to put forward our name to take over 'lease of Marsh Farm.'

His bottom lip protruded defiantly as if he expected his wife to object, and Mrs Drew glanced at Maggie as she heard her draw in a sharp breath.

‘But Jack Fowler wanted it! Mrs Jennings told me that he'd asked her to put his name forward!'

‘Aye, so she said, but that was 'stipulation I made. If we're to have 'child, we want 'tenancy.'

‘But we've more than enough land,' his wife demurred. ‘Why would we want that small acreage?'

‘It's prime land and near enough to 'river for further embanking. Our Jim is twenty-one, another couple o' years and he'll want his own farm. Marsh Farm will do very nicely.'

‘Whatever will Mrs Jennings say to Fowler?' Mrs Drew glanced again at her daughter who
had sat down on a chair near the wall and was clasping and unclasping her hands.

‘That's up to her, though she doesn't have to tell him owt, she just has to speak to 'agents, and if we don't get it then we don't take 'bairn.'

He pulled himself up in the chair, he was only a short man and he expanded his chest like a turkey cock. ‘The child's not our responsibility. Not our fault that her mother went off her head after he went away. We don't owe them owt.' He fired off these statements in rapid succession and his wife wondered at it.

‘No,' she said slowly. ‘Of course we don't.'

Maggie was on her knees blackleading the kitchen range when her mother came down the next morning. She muttered good morning.

‘You're up early, Maggie,' her mother said, getting oats out of the cupboard to make porridge. ‘Couldn't you sleep?'

Maggie shook her head. ‘No,' she said miserably. ‘I kept thinking of Jack Fowler and how disappointed he'll be if he doesn't get Marsh Farm.'

‘Were you walking out?' her mother asked gently.

‘Not exactly.' A faint blush came to Maggie's cheek. ‘But we were heading that way. I've seen him once or twice. Accidentally, like.'

‘I see.' Her mother stirred the porridge and added a pinch of salt. ‘Don't let your da see you. Not yet. Not until things are settled about Marsh Farm, anyway.'

Maggie gave a short laugh. ‘Well, he won't stop
on Sunk Island if he doesn't get it! He won't want to work for our Jim. They don't get on. So that'll be 'end of my chances.'

‘What nonsense, girl.' Her mother turned to smile at her and was surprised to see the look of misery on her face. ‘There's lots of young men that would fall over themselves for you.'

‘Where?' Maggie demanded. ‘Not on Sunk Island, there are not! And when do I get 'chance to go anywhere else? Fayther won't hear of me even going to 'village fairs without Jim or Henry go with me.'

Her mother nodded. Mr Drew was especially strict with Maggie and with Flo. The twins Nellie and Lydia had much more freedom, but then they were only just twelve and he didn't consider that they had yet joined the ranks and perils of womanhood.

‘I'm sorry, my dear,' she said softly. ‘But that's 'way that it is.'

Maggie picked up her brush and polishing cloth and got up from her knees. ‘To my way of thinking,' she muttered, ‘as I've observed with other families, firstborn daughter nearly allus stops at home and looks after 'parents in their old age, whilst other, younger daughters go off and get married and have families of their own.'

‘I'm sure you're right, Maggie. My older sister stayed at home with our parents, but she wanted to do that. She allus said that she didn't want to swap a familiar hearth for an unknown one.' Ellen Drew looked wistful. ‘She made 'right choice, I think. She was content.'

Maggie gazed at her mother for a moment, then said with a catch in her voice, ‘Fayther would say it's in hands of 'good Lord. I just hope and pray, Ma, 'good Lord doesn't tek you first and leave me with me fayther.'

CHAPTER FOUR

MR JENNINGS, ROSA'S
grandfather, lingered for another six months, and two months after his death, after consultation with the agents of the Crown, it was agreed that the tenancy of Marsh Farm should be given to Jim Drew and that Rosa should go to live with his family.

Jack Fowler packed his bag and prepared to move on. This spelt disaster to him, he said, happening when it did. ‘I'll have to get casual work till Martinmas,' he told Mrs Jennings. ‘Nobody'll tek me on contract until then. I'm that mad,' he said bitterly. ‘This would have been a right good chance for me. Drews have plenty o' land without this, enough for all their sons to work.'

‘Young men don't allus want to work for their fathers,' Mrs Jennings interrupted. ‘Maybe Jim Drew wanted his own place. This is a good size to start up on your own.'

‘But it won't be his own, will it?' Fowler said. ‘He'll have to farm it as his fayther says. He won't brook any arguments, won't Mr Drew.'

‘Well, I'm sorry, Jack. I'd have liked you to
have it, especially after all 'help you've given us over 'last couple o' years. But I had Rosa to think of. They wouldn't have taken her to live with them if I hadn't put his name forward.'

‘I'm not blaming thee, Mrs Jennings,' he said and shouldered his pack. ‘It's that scheming old hypocrite James Drew that I blame.'

‘Why dost call him that?' she asked curiously.

‘Just what I heard tell once, over in Kilnsea, afore I came to work on Sunk Island. I overheard some boatmen talking over their ale. They clammed up when they realized I was listening and said no more.' He gave a lopsided cynical grin. ‘But I'd heard enough to know that that God-fearing law-abiding preacher isn't all he seems to be.'

‘Be careful what you say, Jack Fowler,' Mrs Jennings warned. ‘It doesn't do to blacken somebody's name. Not without proof.'

He walked to the door. ‘I don't have that,' he said. ‘And I wouldn't even bother to try and get it. I onny know what I heard. Anyway, I'm off. Sunk Island won't see me again.'

‘No?' She lifted her eyebrows. ‘No pretty girl to tempt you back?'

‘No,' he replied. ‘Not now. Maybe once, but not any more.'

Rosa had overheard the conversation outside the kitchen door and as soon as she heard the outer door open and Jack Fowler's voice calling goodbye, she came into the kitchen. ‘When do we leave, Gran?' she asked. ‘Will it be soon?'

Mrs Jennings nodded. ‘Furniture's to be sold tomorrow, and we move out 'day after.'

‘Don't you want to take it with you to Aunt Bella's house?'

Mrs Jennings gazed around at the furniture, the wooden table, the old oak chairs which had belonged to her parents, the pendulum clock ticking on the wall. ‘There's no room at Bella's house; besides, she says that her furniture is better quality than mine.' She wrinkled her nose. ‘But it's not. This is good solid furniture, handmade by a craftsman, your great-grandfayther himself. Hers, why, you hardly dare sit on it in case it collapses.

‘But I'll tek my linen, my second best, and I'll pack up 'good quality for Mrs Drew to give to you when you grow up. And my best china that's hardly been used since I was a young bride. It would have gone to your ma, to Mary,' she said softly. ‘If she'd set up in her own home.' She gave a deep sigh. ‘But of course she never had 'chance.'

Next day after school Rosa helped to empty drawers and cupboards and lined a deep pine chest with clean brown paper. This was to be packed with the belongings she was taking to the Drews' house. ‘I'll put some of your ma's things in as well,' her grandmother said. ‘Some of her little treasures that she kept from when she was a bairn like you; and her wedding ring,' she carefully put the plain gold ring in a small box, ‘and a few trinkets and suchlike that maybe you'll tek a look at when you're grown. Just so's that she's not forgotten,' she added.

BOOK: Rosa's Island
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