Aphra had not expected Robert’s offer. When they were playing with their nieces and nephew, or pulling up carrots in his lordship’s fields, she never dreamed he was thinking of marrying her. Now she turns the idea over and in her mind, trying to find an angle that will make everything click into place, and show her what answer she should give.
Robert is a sweet boy, a touch meek, but kind and careful. He is a hard worker too; she knows he will tend his little patch of land with love, and make it flourish. Though it is one of the smallest in the village, and though the cottage that sits upon it has fallen into disrepair, the copyhold will be securely his, and his son’s after him. An inheritance like that, however meager, means everything in Plumville.
Aphra sees how much her own brothers are struggling, thanks to the eldest’s wastefulness. She thinks they might be glad to have her off their hands. And Robert would expect less of a dowry from them than would a wealthier man. Not that any other man has made an offer to her. No, Robert’s is the best that she and her family are likely to receive.
But, for all this, the truth is that Aphra has no wish to marry. She likes her life as it is. Each day, she feeds and brushes the horses, animals she has adored since she was a girl. She talks to her brothers as often as she likes and can be there for Richard’s children when they need her. When she wants to be alone, she can usually find a little corner somewhere in the house’s three rooms and ample portion of land.
It would be quite a different story in Robert’s one-room cottage. She does not want to trade everything she has for a life with him there; or her nieces and nephew, known and loved, for the nameless, faceless children she might bear him.
Aphra nevertheless feels she should tell her brother Mark about Robert’s proposal. Though he is the youngest of them, save for her, he is also the most level-headed. She knows he will give her honest advice. She could never rest easy with herself if there was a way to help her family that she did not take.
She waits until their eldest brother Richard is busy with his friend Gilbert. Richard never says no to anything. He would give her away as freely as a bottle of Farmer’s Gold.
Then she sits down with Mark to tell him what has happened.
He is not happy to hear the news. The timing is not good, he says. They need her here, at least until Richard takes another wife or the children are grown. Still, if marriage with Robert is really what she wants, perhaps they could work something out, especially if he were willing to wait for her.
But Aphra is already breathing a sigh of relief. She assures her brother that she is quite happy where she is.
The next day in the demesne, she breaks the news to Robert.
He is deeply disappointed.
Unsure of how to comfort him, she leaves him and carries quietly on with her work. Some of the other villagers chatter noisily as they bring in the harvest, but Aphra prefers to keep to herself.
They all have their own fields to harvest too. Every morning they are up before the sun to begin for the day.
James and Sabina, Richard’s two eldest, are strong enough to join in now.
After a long stretch in the fields, all Aphra ever wants is a peaceful evening with the horses.
The children are good about helping her with them.
At last the harvest is all in, and the villagers celebrate the Feast of the Angels together in the tavern. Among them are the Brewers’ extended family: Aphra’s middle brother Ralf and his wife Tephna; Hugh and Rikilde Cotter with their baby boy Tom; and of course Robert too.
The children bob for apples.
Sabina looks set to win until their game is interrupted by a sudden downpour.
Everyone hurries back inside to dry off.
Francis, Richard’s youngest, is delighted to have so many people about. She was nursed in Lockville for a while after her mother’s death, and it took her a long time to settle back in to her father’s household; but now she is a happy, friendly little girl. She chatters excitedly to old Widow Yates.
After the festival, the other villagers can enjoy a relatively restful period, but for the Brewers the season’s work is not nearly over. Now begins the mixing and crushing and pressing and sorting of the year’s nectar. It is a whole family effort.
Mark teaches James how to work the press safely. This will be his livelihood one day.
The season, although full of hard work, is not unbearably difficult. Food is at its most plentiful, and the worst of the cold weather has yet to set in. The Brewers have also been hit less hard by Lord Snordwich’s extended trip to Burdley than the other village families. Though there are fewer travellers on the roads with his lordship absent, those who do pass through, finding the great house almost empty, tend to purchase bread and board from them instead.
None of them like to see their neighbours suffer, though, and they miss the great feasts up at Plumbob Hall. They are all relieved, therefore, when the parson announces before his Sunday sermon that the baron and his household will return in time for the Feast of the Children, in just four days.