* * *
In my mind time was pressing, and my task daily bore in on me, the memory of my father urging me to action. So I began to prepare my travels, and from then on voyaged almost without a break for the next few months, until all was resolved. I was on the move through one of the worst winters I can recall and out again into spring, driven by my duty and my desire for the truth. I traveled on my own, with little more than my cloak and a pack, walking for the most part, trudging up road and tracks, skirting the huge puddles that swamp all byways at that time of year, finding rest where I could in villages and towns or under trees and hedges when there was no alternative. It was a time of the greatest anxiety and fear; until the last I often doubted I could be successful and was concerned that my many enemies would prove impossible to defeat. And yet, I also remember that time fondly, although that is perhaps merely the rosy glow that age always puts on the memory of youth.
Before I set out, I had to honor my promise to help Thomas. Coming across Sarah Blundy was easy, although engaging her in conversation was more difficult. She would leave her lodging at six in the morning to go to the Woods’ in Merton Street, where she worked as a servant every day except Monday, which was devoted to Dr. Grove. Here she stayed until seven in the evening. She was given four hours off every Sunday, and one day every six weeks to herself. Most particularly, on Wednesdays she went to do the marketing for the family at Gloucester Green, a wasteland on the outskirts of town where farmers were allowed to sell their produce. She would buy whatever the family needed and (as Mrs. Wood was a notorious miser) had to carry it back herself as she was not given the money for a hired hand.
This, I decided, would be my best opportunity. I followed her at a discreet distance to the market, waited while she made her purchases, then made sure I encountered her at the very moment she was struggling past with two enormously heavy baskets of goods.
“Miss Blundy, is it not?” I said with a look of pleasure on my face. “You don’t remember me, no doubt. I had the good fortune to consult your mother some months ago.”
She tossed the hair out of her face and looked at me quizzically, then nodded slowly. “That’s right,” she said eventually. “You did. I trust you found the money well spent.”
“It was very helpful, thank you. Most helpful. I’m afraid I did not behave as well as I should have done. I was very concerned and upset at the time, and this no doubt came through in my lapse of manners.”
“That’s right,” she said. “It did.”
“Please,” I said. “Let me make some small amends. Allow me to carry your baskets. They are far too heavy for you.”
Without any pretense of protest, she instantly handed over both of them. “That is kind,” she said with a sigh of relief. “It is the part of the week I like the least. As long as I am not taking you out of your way.”
“Not at all.”
“How do you know where we are going?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said hastily to cover my mistake. “I have nothing at all to do, and I would willingly carry these all the way up Heddington Hill for the pleasure of your company.”
She tossed her head back and laughed. “Then you certainly don’t have much to do. Fortunately I will not impose on your good offices so much. I am heading only for Merton Street.”
They were formidably heavy, and I half-resented the girl for being so willing to hand them both over. One would have been more than sufficient. What was worse, she looked at me with scarcely concealed amusement as I struggled with what she carried as a matter of course.
“Are you treated well there?” I asked as we walked—I panting along, and she walking with a light and easy step.
“Mrs. Wood is a good mistress,” she replied. “I have nothing to complain about. Why? Were you about to offer me a position?”
“Oh, no. I cannot afford a servant.”
“You are a student, is that right?”
I nodded. Considering that my gown was flapping in the sharp wind, and my cap in constant danger of being blown into the gutter, it was not a greatly perceptive remark.
“You aim at the church?”
I laughed. “Dear me, no.”
“Do you disapprove of the church? Am I talking to a secret Catholic, perhaps?”
I flushed with anger at the remark, but remembered in time that I was not passing the morning for my own amusement.
“Far from it,” I said. “Sinner I may be, but not to that extent. My nonconformity comes from a different direction entirely. Although in action I am blameless.”
“I congratulate you.”
I heaved a sigh. “I do not congratulate myself. There is a group of God-fearing people I would like to associate with, but they wouldn’t even consider accepting me. And I cannot say that I blame them.”
“And who is that?”
“I had best not say,” I said.
“At least you could risk telling me why you are so unwelcome.”
“Someone like me?” I said. “Who would have such a person, so steeped in every monstrosity? I know it, I sincerely repent it, but I cannot erase what I have been.”
“I always thought that many groups of people welcomed sinners. There hardly seems much point in only welcoming the pure. They are already saved.”
“That’s the idea they put about, of course,” I said with a great show of bitterness. “In truth they turn from the people who really need them.”
“They told you this?”
“They didn’t need to. I certainly would not accept someone like myself. And if they did I have no doubt they would constantly fear I would disrupt them.”
“Has your life been so wicked? It is difficult to imagine, as you can be little older than myself.”
“You were no doubt brought up in a righteous and pious family, though,” I pointed out. “I, unfortunately, did not have such good fortune.”
“It is true I was blessed in my parents,” she said. “But you can be certain that any group which would turn you away would not be worth belonging to. Come, sir. Tell me whom you have in mind. I might be able to find out something for you. Ask whether you would be welcome, if you are too timid to approach them yourself.”
I looked at her with gratitude and delight. “Would you? I hardly dare ask. It is a man called Tidmarsh. I have heard he is a saintly preacher, and that he has gathered around him the few people left in Oxford who are not corrupted.”
She stopped and stared at me. “But he is a Quaker,” she said quietly. “Are you aware of what you are doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“God’s people they may be, but He is giving them sore trials. If you become associated with them, you will lose whatever protection your birth gives you. You will be jailed, and beaten, and spat on in the street. You may even have to give your life. Even if you are spared, your friends and family will shun you and you will be held in contempt by the world.”
“You will not help me.”
“You must be certain you know what you are doing.”
“Are you one?”
A momentary suspicion passed across her face, then she shook her head. “No,” she said. “I am not. I was not brought up to invite troubles. I think that as prideful as gaudy dress.”
I shook my head at the remark. “I do not pretend to understand you. But I am sorely in need of help.”
“Find it elsewhere,” she said. “If God commands it, you must obey. But make sure you know what He wants first. You are a young gentleman, with all the advantages that brings. Don’t throw them away on a whim. Think and pray hard first. Theirs is not the only route to salvation.”
We had been walking awhile down St. Aldates, then along Merton Street, and had paused outside the door of her mistress’s house while she delivered this last injunction. I imagine she was merely trying to shield herself, but even so, her advice struck me as wise. If I had been some impetuous youth on the brink of making a grave mistake, she would have given me pause for thought.
I walked away slightly discomfited, which now I understand. I was deceiving her, and she gave kindness in return. It made me very confused, until I later learned how much greater her trickery was than mine.