They had tried to run away together at least twice before May. This time it was going to happen. She fumbled with the unaccustomed buttons of William’s shirt. She was going to dress as a young man so that no one from town could recognize her. William had taken her belongings, including the familiar dress, to the barn his family owned. There they would meet, and travel to Ipswich to be married.
He was a rough man and was known for his shady dealings, but he came from a good family and prosperous farm. She loved fine dresses, and didn’t want to end up with a poor man like her father.
It was only six weeks since she had returned to her father’s crowded cottage. She had been staying with a family member after she had become pregnant with William’s child. She stayed long enough to go through the last visible stages of pregnancy, and have the child.
William held it in his arms; he had called it theirs. Only two weeks after she came home, the child had died. They would have more.
William had taken their dead baby, wrapped in the blanket she had sewn. Sudbury was far enough away to avoid suspicious eyes; she was unmarried, and there were laws against having a child out of wedlock. William would have the child buried there, to avoid questions in their own parish. She wasn’t even able to see the child buried. She would ask William to show her the child’s tombstone when they were married.
She already had a child from another prosperous gentleman, who she had dreamed would marry her. He didn’t, but he had done right by her by providing an allowance to care for the child. Her step-mother Anne, was good enough to mind the boy for the last few months. In fact, her step-mother, Anne was only a few years older than she, and had a son just a bit older than her boy. She caught her son calling Anne ‘mother’. It was just as well; her father and Anne would probably care for the boy until she and William were settled.
Maria looked at her cloudy reflection in the mirror, careful not to smile. The face that looked back at her was resigned, not joyful. William’s green handkerchief tied around her neck brought out the green in her eyes. Her brown hair was tied back with three combs. The soft glint of gold on either ear was a gift from William; when they were first courting.
They had to run away now. William had heard that the constable was bringing her a letter; charging her with having a bastard child. She was going to be forced to go to the parish council and tell them who the father of her now dead- child was. They might see it as suspicious that she had the child buried in another parish. It was best to leave now, marry William, avoid these awkward questions. A woman was both made, and destroyed by am man.
She heard William’s voice downstairs, and quietly said her farewell to the room she had shared with her brothers and sisters, all of her life. In the kitchen she gave Anne a big hug, and asked if she would tell her son she would send for him shortly, and tell her father goodbye. As agreed she and William left by two different doors, if anyone from town was watching. They both were heading to the same place; the beautiful red barn owned by William’s family, and the location of their secret affair.
It was a few months of silence before Maria’s family became suspicious. William came back alone to his family farm. He was the only remaining son, and he had to help with the harvest. He told Maria’s family that she was on the Isle of Wight, or in the care of an acquaintance and joyfully had become his wife. She had hurt her hand; that was why she had not responded to their letters. They were married, and she would soon visit.
It was when Anne became haunted by nightmares that the tragedy of 1826, in the Red Barn, was uncovered.
To be continued.