Hearts and Minds is the second historical novel in Jay Taverner’s ‘Brynsquilver’ series and is set in the 1730s. In this extract, Lucy, daughter of a washerwoman and an enslaved manservant, has run away to Shrewsbury, where the woman she loves has been imprisoned. Destitute, Lucy finds work selling ‘Mountain’s Elixir’ in the market.
This morning she was working alone, the now-familiar patter coming almost without thought.
‘Step up now, ladies and gentlemen! ’Tis time for a spring tonic - Mountain’s Elixir will put the bounce back in your step, ladies, and the sparkle in your eyes. ’Tis good for a sweet breath and a strong grip, my lads - you’d not have your sweetheart disappointed, now, would you?’
A passing trio of apprentices giggled and pushed each other, but did not stop.
Lucy paused to listen to a shy girl in a new pink hood, blushing and whispering her question. She was new-married, and wanted to know if the Elixir would help to get her with child. Mrs Mountain’s rule was to say yes to everything. But the girl was so young – about Lucy’s own age – and so full of longing, that Lucy’s heart softened towards her. Whatever else it might do, the Elixir was some kind of purge – that, too, made people believe in it, according to its inventor – and Lucy had a strong feeling that it was likely to put a swift end to pregnancy, rather than encourage it. She said as much to the girl, who looked disappointed.
Lucy put on a wise face. ‘Better to take green tea fasting of a morning, and elderberry syrup before bed,’ she improvised wildly. ‘Then I’d not be surprised if you had good news before the month is out.’
The girl thanked her earnestly, but could not be stopped from buying a bottle of the Elixir for her husband. Lucy dropped the money into the purse she had set on the table, and cast an eye over her stock. It was well down; she would soon need to bring out some more bottles. She raised her voice again.
‘Mountain’s Elixir! Renowned throughout the Marches for its wonderful properties! Proven good for all ills - sovereign remedy for the gout, the quinsy, for apoplexies and agues. Good for falling hair, flat feet and stinking breath. Mrs Mountain’s secret ingredients have been brought from the far Indies, here to you! Mountain’s Elixir cures the gripes, the toothache, the bellyache and the screws! Taken on a fasting stomach daily, it protects against the wandering mother, blackening of the skin, hardening of the veins and mortification of the tripes!’
The crowd was thick, but not very interested in her wares. She needed to stir them up to the point of buying. She took a deep breath but, before she could start again, she became aware of music coming up the hill. The crowd heard it too, and Lucy cursed under her breath. A gaggle of boys pushed into the cramped space, and behind them came a troupe of pipes and tabors, making for the steps of the Butter Cross. Lucy’s crowd wavered and started to drift that way; she hurried to serve the three or four who were ready to buy. As she dropped their money into her purse she wondered if it was time to finish for the day. But the music might bring a fresh crowd that she could share: she would stay a little longer. She ducked down behind the draped table to stock up while there was a lull.
She was on her knees behind the table when she heard a bloodcurdling yell. Flinging the cloth aside, she snapped her head up. As her eyes came level with the edge of the table, she saw two hands poised over her open purse. A grubby paw was plunged into coins and held there; its owner had clearly been about to lift her takings. But his wrist was clamped in the grip of a larger, stronger set of fingers, a hand that had caught him in the very act. The hand was black. As dark as - no, darker than Lucy’s own.
Her eyes travelled slowly from the hand to the snowy ruffles at its wrist; from the ruffles to a deep, buttoned cuff, a cuff of canary yellow that extended almost to the elbow of an elegant yellow silk coat. And on up, to a black face smiling at her over more snowy linen. Lucy felt a surge of excitement, followed by shyness that made her face hot.
‘Now, miss,’ said her saviour, ‘what would you have me do with this wretch? Shall I call the watch?’
The would-be thief began to whine and struggle.
‘Oh, no, sir! Please - please to let him go,’ Lucy stammered.
The thief’s head snapped round to goggle at her. He began to babble thanks and apologies.
‘Stop your noise, codshead,’ said the young black man scornfully. He shook the limp hand he still held, like someone flicking water from a cloth, to make sure there was no money in it, before he thrust the man away.
Lucy hardly spared the fellow a glance. She could not take her eyes from her rescuer. ‘Thank you, sir. It was my whole morning’s take,’ she said.
His smile widened. ‘Faith, little sister, you need not call me sir! Benjamin will answer nicely - or even Ben, when we are better acquainted. Your servant, ma’am!’ With a flourish of his hat, he made her an elaborate, courtly bow. Several people in the crowd laughed and clapped.
As he straightened up, Lucy saw the gleam of the silver collar nestling in the lace at his throat. But his eyes shone with fun. ‘And now, ma’am, if your la’ship pleases, I shall convey you to dine at the best eating-house in this town.’
Dazzled, Lucy let herself be swept along, her mind whirling, confused. He was a slave, like her father, but he dressed like a lord. And behaved like one, too, with his airs and graces and his confident smile: the poulterer on the corner of Butcher Row had agreed at once to Ben’s suggestion that he keep Lucy’s stock safe for an hour or two. She followed her new friend through the maze of streets until the bustle of shops and markets was left behind. Ben stopped in front of a tall and beautiful brick house.
He waved an arm at it and grinned. ‘My humble abode, ma’am,’ he said. ‘Welcome.’
He led her through the carriage entrance at the side of the house, and down some steps to a basement door. They hurried along a flagged passage with many doors, some standing open. Lucy caught glimpses of huge painted cupboards, of a girl sewing, of two men in yellow suits like Ben’s, playing cards. It was like a dream. They came at last to a kitchen that would have swallowed her mother’s cottage whole. A long, warm room, lined with shelves where bright brown pans were ranged, each larger than the one before. Ham and poultry hung from the ceiling; there were bowls of eggs and China oranges, buckets of fish and baskets of vegetables. A small girl in a large mob-cap was working at one end of the long kitchen table; she looked up as they came in, but did not speak. At the fire a great joint of meat, half an ox at least, twirled solemnly to and fro by itself amid a forest of gleaming metal hooks and bars. The dripping pan swam with fat juices whose smell made Lucy feel faint with hunger.
The queen of this paradise, she found, was called Mistress Rundle. She was a fierce, stringy woman with a red face and a sharp tongue for anyone who came into her kitchen – except for Benjamin, who had clearly charmed her as Lucy suspected he charmed everyone. It seemed he had been at the market on an errand for Mistress Rundle, and now flicked three little papers from his huge yellow cuff. She was pleased, tapping the ground spices out at once into the bowl where the kitchen-maid was pounding something with a heavy blunt stick. The girl still stared at Lucy, but did not stop working.
‘Little sister, indeed!’ said Mrs Rundle scornfully. ‘Black she may be, but green I am not. You’re a shameful young rascal, Benjamin, and I hope the girl knows it.’
‘What she knows, Mistress Peg my darling, because I told her, is that you make the best mutton-pies in England. Look how thin she is! You’d not turn her away, now, would you, and you a good Christian woman as you are?’
For answer the cook slapped Benjamin’s behind as if he were a small boy, and showed Lucy a seat at the corner of her huge table.
‘There’s no guest goes hungry from this kitchen, lassie,’ she said, putting a large plate of broken meats on the scrubbed white wood in front of her. ‘Though the Lord knows ’tis not what I call a kitchen! Nasty mean, low place – miles of stairs to the dining room and a day’s walk to the pump. And will you look at this poor wee fireplace with its nasty iron contrivances? Modern improvements, indeed! You’ll wait all day for the meat to warm through merely, and there’s no room at all for a dog to turn the spit or a boy to do the basting. Bet, what are you at? Put some go into it, lassie, you’re not stroking your bairn’s bottom there!’
She pushed the little maid aside and stirred the stuff in the bowl about, sniffing at it. Ben caught Lucy’s eye and winked. Lucy went on eating the wonderful food.