The Red Woman of Cheapside

Mrs Emma Jane Simpson

The talk with Eliza about the summer of my twelfth year hath been bringing back sweet memories to me all week. I’m right glad Eliza pleaded tiredness with her scratching last Sunday. (she hath just raised an eyebrow at me for that. Right proud she is of her penmanship, which I tell her is just what my fowls do in the sand of the courtyard: scratching their patterns all over it.) For I had forgotten completely my meeting with the Red Woman of Cheapside.
The Red Woman of Cheapside be not, of course, red herself.  But square in her face was a large, red part got at birth. I thought it like a beautiful rose on her cheek. But she laughed and told me I saw with the eyes of a child.  Yet, to be sure if I were to meet that wondrous woman again, I would still remark her beauty.
The reason she was known by all and sundry as the Red Woman were nothing to do with her rose, but because, from her hat down to her tiny pointed shoes, she dressed in naught but red.  And ‘twas she who gave me my first pair of red stockings.
Oh those stockings! I’ve had reason before to call myself a little savage and 'tis true I had been a young hoyden.  But in that summer, I first got my courses and things began to change. Grandam laughed and told me now I was a marriageable lass and she would pass me off to the first boss-eyed carter we passed on the road if I did defy her. My mother did shrug and say it was soon enough I learnt what it was to be a woman. But I?  I hated it.
It seemed I was poised somewhere in between childhood and adults estate. One minute I was too young to do something, the very next deemed too old for childish pursuits. I no longer had the freedom to run around in my shift with the woodland creatures. And one evening, when the light was dying, a drunken traveller did put his hand on my body in a lascivious way – until my Grandam pulled a piece of wood from the fire and burnt the back of his hand to brand him a lecher.
But the Red Woman of Cheapside, who travelled with us on our journey for a full ten days, did put her arm about me; and wipe my tears with her own ‘kerchief and pull, from out the depths of her pocket, a pair of bright scarlet stocking to give me when, on the arrival of my second monthly course, I did fly to her in tears and beg that I be left alone to be as I always had been.
I had never gone cold in winter for both my mother and my Grandam would spent evenings by the fire fashioning sturdy woollen leggings for all three of us. All year round they gathered the wool from hedgerow and hawthorn; and would work it on an old wooden spindle my Grandam swore had been in the family since families e'er began. They were warm and sturdy, those woollen stockings, and right thankful I had always been of them.
But the stockings the Red Lady gave me were thin and fine. And red. And they helped me step into womanhood. 
'Twas not often I took them from the little cotton bag in which I kept them – and even less often that I did adorn myself in them.  But when I did – oh, I felt like a Queen!
One night I put them on merely on a whim as we sat, sated with rabbit stew, in front of the fire at our camp-site, and l suddenly longed to show them off.  So up I got and began to dance. Slowly at first, then faster and faster. Grandam put more wood on the fire and it blazed upon us all; while my feet flashed in  the dust and those red stockings did rival the colour of the very fire itself. I thought them bewitched, my precious red stockings, and I felt myself the equal of the finest lady in the land while I wore them.
Full well do I remember that lovely woman and those stockings: - though no doubt now she be long under the turf. And glad I am of the remembering. For now it strikes me clearly: had it not been for the red stockings I would never have won the heart of my sweet George.  And without my George the story of my life would be dull indeed
Fitting it be indeed to bring back the memory of the dear Red Woman of Cheapside.