A Handfasting – 1638


The standing stones loom around Hepzibah Kemp and Jago Corney as they sit in the rough circle at their centre. Still believing herself to be the natural daughter of Joan and Clem, she is unaware this is where she was discovered as a baby. But she does feel drawn to the place.

‘I don’t know why, but I have always loved these stones,’ she says. ‘They soothe me. Help me make decisions.’

Swinging around to face her, he laughs. ‘And what momentous judgement have you come to?’

‘That we should live together.’

Jago is taken aback. ‘’Tis normal for the man to ask for a lady’s hand in marriage, Hep.’

‘Who said anything about marriage?’

‘Have you lost your wits?’ he exclaims. ‘You’ve not been in your right mind since Joan and Clem died of the King’s Evil.’

‘Scrofula is the correct term, and yes, I have been sad because I could have done more to save them.’

‘Taken ‘em to London for the King’s Touch?’

We now know that Scrofula, or the King’s Evil as it was historically called, is a tuberculosis bacterial infection. It was thought to be curable by a touch of the King’s hand, a power rested in him by God.

‘The divine gift?’ exclaims Hep. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Superstitious nonsense. Pilewort might have cured them. I have since read that Nicholas Culpeper claims to have cured his daughter with the plant.’

‘You should not blame yourself. You do not know whether it would have worked.’

‘No, but I would have searched the county for it, however faint the chance.’

They fall into silence, neither wishing to dwell on the sadness of Hep’s loss.

‘I love you. Do you love me?’ she asks, tentatively.

‘You know I do. But, often, the ideas you talk of seem strange to me. I am not as educated as you.’

‘Not educated? No man I know has your skills. Who else in this village can tell when the shoals of pilchard are moving north as well as you? You are a steady and intelligent man.’

‘But not in the way you are. You could do anything. Your knowledge surpasses that of the parson, the Squire, even of the men who write the books you pore over.’

‘It is true I have a thirst for knowledge. I do not understand it myself, or where it comes from. Sometimes I am fearful of the ideas that seem to occur in my mind, that somehow I don’t belong here or anywhere.’

It is not just her notions that concern Hep, though. It is the many strange occurrences that happen around her, ever since her thirteenth birthday, that she cannot explain. How is it that whenever she merely thinks of a tool she needs, it suddenly appears by her hand?

She dismisses these anxieties as being those of a fevered mind. ‘I believe I could make a life in this village with you. Continue my studies and help folk.’

‘You want to be with me? Even though I understand so little of that which is important to you?’

‘You may not be the cleverest of men, but you’re kind-hearted and generous, unlike most of the men in this village. We should live together and make a family.’

‘Without a marriage?’

‘A handfasting. A promise to each other.’

‘Not in a church? Not legal? We cannot, you know what’d be said, that we be sinful in the eyes of God. They would shun us. My parents will disown me if I do not marry you. They will call our children misbegotten, baseborn.’

‘Then we shall travel away for a week or so, and when we return will say we wed in a far away parish, and none will be the wiser.’

‘Is it so important to you?’

‘Yes. I was Mama and Papa’s only child, the cottage is mine, and I want it to remain that way. If I marry you, that couldn’t be. I will entail the house in my will so that Kemp girls alone shall inherit. It is important that any daughter of ours, and any daughter of hers, have a roof over their heads and do not have to marry any Tom, Dick or Harry to secure their future. I want them to be able to pursue a life of investigation and discovery, not one of drudgery and enslavement to a man.’

‘I would not seek to be you master. ’

‘I know, and that is why I love you. Ours will be a partnership of equals. I will help you in your business, and you will become the wealthiest fisherman in Port Gwyneth.‘

‘Then, if that is what you want, I agree. For you are the strangest and most beautiful woman I have ever met, and I want to spend my life with you.’