The man was talking to the river.
Hester eyed him with piqued curiosity. Talking to the river was her job.
He was tall, and hatless under a hot summer sun. The same breeze which bent the grass of the field behind Hester, wove strands of his black hair in the air above his head. He wore a long black coat which was shiny at the elbows. The coat made her suspect he was, or once was, a gentleman, because she had seen gentlemen on a rare trip to Shiphaven and they had worn long black coats. Hats too, so this gentleman must have fallen on bad times. Hester’s mother had said this about a merchant family in the town whose boat failed to return from its annual pilgrimage and, fallen on bad times, they had to move from their townhouse and sell the fancy carriage.
The man spun about, as if suddenly aware of being watched. When he clasped his hands behind him, he displayed a yellow brocade waistcoat. A fine material, so it was a shame the buttonholes were frayed. Perhaps her mother could mend them, for money, as she did more and more these days. The farm was not enough, despite the long hours Father and her brothers worked.
‘Hello.’ The man touched his fingers to his head as if he had forgotten he was hatless. His hair glistened like raven feathers in the bright sun, and gold flecks glinted warmly in his dark eyes.
Hester needed to put her thumb in her mouth, but Mother had beaten the habit out of her, declaring that at eight years old Hester should have long outgrown thumb sucking. She agreed with Mother, so she folded her arms over her pinafore before the thumb could sneak its own way between her lips.
‘You come here often, don’t you?’ the man said. ‘I’ve seen you here, talking to Sabrina.’
Who, where, was this Sabrina? Hester turned her head so quickly her untidy curls slapped her cheek.
‘Sabrina is the name of the river.’ He gestured at the placid wide stream flowing at this moment down to the sea.
‘That’s not the name of the river.’ She screwed up her nose. ‘It’s got another name …’
‘You mean the name ordinary folk call it?’
‘You and I are not ordinary folk, little mistress. We are wise. We call the river by her goddess name, Sabrina.’
‘No, goddess.’ He brushed strands of hair from his face. ‘Did you know you were talking to a goddess?’
Hester’s thumb twitched. She held it steady, pinned into her armpit. If she were honest, it wasn’t so much that she talked to the river, as it talked to her. When the river was low it whispered, shushing its way over the sandbanks as the silks Mother sewed shushed over Hester’s hands. When the tide came in, the waters swooshed and swirled while the swans hitched fast rides alongside shallow-bottomed trows.
The river told Hester she was a good girl, which was what Father told her when she found the eggs the hens hid or picked blackberries for Mother to make into jam.
She listened for the river’s words. Today, it was silent, hurrying to the sea in a long smooth rush to collect the big ships and bring them up with the turning of the tide.
The man came nearer, his shadow falling over Hester’s bonnetless head. ‘May I walk with you?’ He offered his hand for her to take, if she wished.
The hand was long-fingered and smooth, with pale lines across the palm. A gentleman’s hand. When it didn’t go away, Hester took it and the man led her alongside the hedgerows, away from the river, away from Sabrina. As they walked he told her the names of the flowers growing at the edge of the fields and sprouting from the hedges.
‘Here is yarrow.’ His fingers caressed the froth of fading lilac flowers. ‘Cures colds,’ he said. ‘And toothache.’
He held a feathery cluster the colour of fresh cream to Hester’s nose. Her eyes crinkled. ‘Ah! Meadowsweet. Mother says I’ll carry meadowsweet when I marry.’
‘Marry?’ The man raised a dark eyebrow. ‘Does she now?’
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