Susanna's Candlestick: First Chapter
Susanna Grant sat on the stool by the fireplace, slowly turning the spit on which the roast of mutton sizzled and sputtered. While Susanna watched the meat, Cousin Sarah stirred the great pots of vegetables and little Bessie, the dairy maid, set the pewter plates on the dinner table above the great salt and placed the wooden trenchers below the salt.
Cousin Sarah gave the kettle of peas a final stir and then leaned close to Susanna.
“Susanna child, can you keep a secret?” she whispered.
Susanna looked up. “Oh, Cousin Sarah, tell!” she cried, and forgot to turn the spit.
“Well, don’t neglect the joint, or we’ll have a burnt offering for dinner,” laughed Cousin Sarah. “This is the secret. The Whitsuntide fair is today. I thought you and I could go together to the village if so be your father would let you go.”
“Oh, Cousin Sarah! Do you think he would?” Susanna’s eyes were shining. “Oh, do you?”
“Well, we can but ask him,” said Cousin Sarah. “Come now. Blow the dinner horn. After your father has had a good dinner I’ll put the question before him.”
Soon the family gathered for dinner. Father sat at the head of the table with his family near him. Below the salt sat the farm helpers and little Bessie. On the door sill, between the great hall and scullery, crouched Ginger, the sheepdog, who knew perfectly well that he was not allowed in the room where the family was eating.
When grace had been said, there was a great clattering of knives and pewter plates and a great thumping of trenchers. But there was little conversation because Father seemed solemn and Mother, who usually was full of fun and chatter, was also quiet.
Susanna was so anxious and excited that she could hardly swallow her dinner. The only fair she had ever seen was a Christmas fair Grandfather had taken her to when she was a little girl. She had never forgotten that happy afternoon, and it seemed to her now that her heart would break if Father said, “No! No fairs for a Puritan lass.”
When dinner was finished, Father seated himself on the settle and looked worriedly into the dancing flames in the fireplace. Susanna picked up her workbag and sat near Mother on the window seat. But she was too nervous to start knitting.
“Nathaniel,” said Cousin Sarah when she had set the great salt on the dresser, “Nathaniel, I’ve been making a plan. It’s a beautiful spring day, and the Whitsuntide fair is in the village. I thought I’d go, and take Susanna with me.”
Susanna held her breath. She turned her ball of wool over and over in her hands as she looked anxiously at Father and then appealingly at Mother.
“Why, Sarah,” said Father. “Surely you know that Whitsuntide means naught to a Puritan maid.”
“But the fair has little to do with one’s religion,” said Cousin Sarah.
“That is true, Nathaniel,” added Mother. “And the child has few enough pleasures way off here in the country. Remember, she may have even fewer pleasures in the days to come. Why not let her have a happy afternoon?”
“I don’t think a Puritan lass should go to a fair,” said Father. “Although others may choose to spend their time thus.”
“But today,” argued Mother, “we are to go visit Cousin Ephraim, and we would have to carry Susanna with us, or else take her as far as Ruth’s house for the afternoon. And I think this is a harmless outing.”
Father relented. “All right, then. But be home in good time for supper, Sarah. Perhaps you could stop at Richardson’s and ask if Ruth may go with you, Susanna.”
With a light heart Susanna hurried upstairs to change her simple brown morning frock, with its white apron and collar, for the gown she was allowed to wear to meeting—a blue dimity with a pointed bodice. When she came downstairs she found Mother dressed to ride with Father to Cousin Ephraim’s house. Mother opened her hanging pocket and took out a halfpenny.
“Here’s some money for a bit of gingerbread,” she said with a smile and a kiss. “Have a happy time, Poppet.”
“And here’s another halfpenny for some marchpane,” added Father. “Mind you don’t come home with a toothache, though.”
“We’ll be home early,” promised Cousin Sarah.
“See that you are, Sarah,” said Father. “There will be a rough crowd in the village, I fear. I hear there are gypsies in the neighborhood. So take care.”
The spring sunshine was warm, and linnets sang in the hawthorn hedge as Susanna and Cousin Sarah crossed the fields to the Richardson farm. Ruth was also eager to see the fair. She changed her dress quickly, and the two girls and Cousin Sarah hurried down the lane together. What fun it was to chatter about the wonders they hoped to see in the village!
“I have two silver pennies to spend,” Ruth announced. “I’m going to buy gingerbread and maybe some beads and—oh, anything I see that I like very much.”
“I have only two halfpennies,” said Susanna. “I want some gingerbread, too. I’d like a hair ribbon, but I don’t suppose Father would let me wear it.”
The village was a gay place that afternoon. Booths had been built all around the common and each booth was trimmed with branches of birch trees. Chains of bright spring flowers were twined among the pale green leaves. The village girls in their new summer dresses, made with kirtles and slashed sleeves, looked as pretty as the spring flowers themselves.
Cousin Sarah soon left Susanna and Ruth to enjoy themselves together.
“I’m going to buy a poke of tea to carry to old Granny Andrews,” she said. “The poor dear is in bed with a misery. Meet me at the churchyard gate at five. Mind you’re there on time, now!”
Ruth and Susanna found it hard to decide just how they wanted to spend their money. The gingerbread smelled even better than it looked and the little marchpane pigs were more than tempting. There were booths where dried and candied fruits were sold, and others offered little cakes and pasties of mincemeat.
At some of the booths there were gay ribbons and laces, little combs and fancy pins, mirrors and sewing boxes and bright wools and threads. As the girls went from booth to booth they could hear in the distance the shouts of men who were watching the horse races across the common. The roll of a drum announced that it was time for the puppet show to begin. Susanna and Ruth hurried across the common and were soon standing spellbound before the curtained puppet show booth.
When the puppet show was over, the girls wandered back to the booths and each bought a slab of gilded gingerbread.
“I’m going to have a pig, too,” boasted Ruth.
In a booth where an old woman sold combs and lace, ribbons and pins, perfumes and pockets, Susanna looked longingly at a length of satin ribbon. She realized that it would be foolish to buy it, however, for no Puritan girl in England in that summer of 1663 would be allowed to wear such a vain trifle. She finally spent her second coin for a needle for her mother.
“Let’s go sit in the shade under the trees and eat our gingerbread,” Ruth suggested.
Across the common, under a great oak tree, the girls sat down to enjoy their gingerbread. Then Ruth began munching contentedly on her marchpane pig.
“Here! You finish it,” she finally said, as she stood up to shake the gingerbread crumbs from her lap. Then she gasped, “Oh! Look! Look! Gypsies! A gypsy camp!”
Susanna jumped to her feet. “Where?”
“Over there in the dingle,” said Ruth. “See their tents?”
Susanna gazed down on the gypsy camp in the wooded hollow. All her life she had been taught to have nothing to do with wandering gypsy tribes. Now she knew why. Several shockingly thin horses were gazing on the scanty grass in the gully where a collection of shabby, many-colored tents stood at crazy angles about a campfire. Over the fire a slovenly, unkempt old woman stirred something in a large iron pot. Filthy children in tattered clothing chased each other, screaming and yelling, in and out among the ragged shelters.
Susanna took one last hurried look, and then turned back toward the common.
“Ruth! Don’t let them see you. Aren’t you afraid?”
“Afraid?” Ruth laughed as she leaned closer to watch the dirty children who were playing near the fire. “Why should I be afraid? I’d like to have them tell my fortune, that’s what I’d like.”
“Oh, Ruth, you wouldn’t!” Susanna’s eyes were big with astonishment.
“I would, too,” said Ruth, turning from the shade of the oak tree. “But old Cousin Sarah might find out. She’d be sure to tell, I suppose.”
“Of course she’d tell your mother,” said Susanna. “She’d be shocked if she even knew you looked at gypsies.”
“Well, she won’t catch me looking,” said Ruth. “She’s probably waiting for us at the churchyard, so we’d better hurry.”
As the girls left the oak tree and started toward the meeting place, they met a young gypsy woman. Her full skirt was made of a bright red material and a yellow scarf covered her hair. Big gold rings hung from her ears and several chains of colorful beads were wound about her throat. She smiled at the girls.
“Good evening little missies. Did you want to have your fortunes told?”
“Oh, yes!” cried Ruth.
“Oh, no!” whispered Susanna.
The gypsy laughed. Then she turned to Ruth.
“Have you silver?” she asked. “You must cross my palm with silver if you want to know your future.”
Ruth opened her pocket and drew out her last halfpenny. “Susanna, don’t you dare to tell.”
The woman tucked the coin into the gay pocket that hung at her side.
“Now let me see your hand, missy,” she said. “Ah yes. You have a happy life before you—money, my dear. And a good marriage. Yes, a good-looking husband and several children. A long life and a happy one.”
Then, dropping Ruth’s hand, the gypsy woman turned to Susanna.
“Come, dearie, let me tell your fortune.”
“Oh, no.” Susanna clasped her hands behind her back. “Oh, no, mistress, thank you. I have no more money. I spent my last halfpenny for a needle for my mother.”
“Ah, you’re a good child,” murmured the gypsy woman. “You’re a good child and you’ve a good face.” She smiled. “I’d like to see your palm, my dear. I won’t charge you anything.”
The gypsy looked into Susanna’s eyes. Susanna brought her right hand slowly from behind her back, and the fortune teller seized it eagerly.
“Ah,” she said. “It’s just as I thought. Your hand is like your face, my dear. It’s different and it’s interesting. You’ve a long road to travel. Aye, a long road and a hard road across an angry sea. But the light will show you the way and there will be quiet waters by and by—quiet waters and shelter.”
“Th—thank you,” stammered Susanna. “I’m sorry I haven’t any silver to give you.”
“Never mind, my dear,” the gypsy said. “I want no money from you, lassie. ’Tis enough to have seen your hand. Remember me when you travel that long road.”