Creating a more Harmonious World

For Nature to be in balance, it is surely necessary for humanity and animals to live in harmony. Numerous wonderful people and animals work together in mutual support and I should like to donate to countless groups.
Being unable to contribute to them all, I have decided to donate a novel - 'The Fields Laid Waste' - in the hope that if you enjoy reading it for free, you might consider making a donation of any amount how ever large or small to an animal charity of your choice. Several are listed in the links...
In time I hope to extend this to other novels as well as perhaps including photographs and pictures donated by artists. If you like the idea, please tell your friends and please visit regularly as the stories will be continued several times a week...

Friday, 30 November 2012

The Fields Laid Waste - Chapter 2

Chapter 2
                Will Harding whistled as he followed the maid along the oak panelled passage of Lowkirk Hall, and the notes resounded so sweetly he dawdled in the hope of finishing his tune before they reached the door. Though he had passed the Hall daily for most of his life, this was the first time he had ever been invited inside, and he smiled at the memory of the fear of the place that had possessed him when he was a boy. Rumours of the old squire’s insanity were rife around the village and it had become a game for the local lads to dare one another to sneak into the courtyard, tap on the nearest window and flee for their lives. He had boasted, along with the rest, of having seen Squire Rostley rolling across the floor with bulbous eyes and foaming jowls and had repeated the lie so often he had almost begun to believe it were true.
           When the maid neared the door at the end of the passage, the gruesome images that had haunted his childhood returned with sudden alacrity and his heart began to race. In a moment of panic he half-expected to discover the raving squire howling in front of his fire like a man possessed by a demon but as the girl pushed open the door all he saw was an elderly man sitting, calm and sane, at a library table and peering into a ledger.
            “Mr. Harding has arrived, Mr. Brandwith.”
            The man stood up and offered his hand in greeting, “Good of you to come, Mr. Harding.”       
            He directed Will to a chair and served him brandy, “You’re an engineer, they tell me?”
            “That’s right.”
            He handed him the glass, “Is business good?”
            “Not bad. I maintain a workshop in the village and a small forge just outside Lowkirk. Nothing elaborate as yet.”
            “But a growing reputation, I understand?”   
            Will smiled modestly as Mr. Brandwith shook his coat tails and sat down opposite him. His hair was white, very white like wool, softening the clearly etched features of his face: deep lines around his lips and crevices running from his nose to his chin.
          “Tell me,” he said with the look of a merchant examining new wares, “what are you working on at the moment?”
            Will hesitated; there were so many half-finished projects in his workshop and still more in his mind.
            “Farming implements mostly; seed drills, threshing machines, ploughs. It’s long been my hope that I might use my designs to make labour easier for the villagers. I have ideas which could help them to produce a wider variety of crops, make better use of their land and weave more cloth but...” he paused, unnerved by the intensity of the older man’s stare.
            “Materials are expensive and most of the villagers are simple tenant farmers and weavers. The harvest has been so poor the past couple of years that it’s taken all they have to feed their families.”
            “So your designs are wasted?”          
            Will shrugged, “ It might not have been so bad if...” 
           Mr. Brandwith raised his eyebrows.
            “...if the weavers hadn’t lost so much custom. With all the new factories opening in Leeds there isn’t the same trade for the villagers. They do their best but with simple looms they can’t compete with factory prices or output and customers aren’t prepared to wait.”
            Mr. Brandwith leaned back and pensively swirled his brandy around the glass, “And you would like to help them?”
            “They’re my people,” Will smiled, “and I’ve been fortunate. I had an education, and they say I have some talent so I believe it’s my duty to use what gifts I have to help my neighbours.”  
            “Quite right,” Mr. Brandwith agreed. “We must make use of all our resources to build a better world for ourselves and those who come after us. But as you say, machinery’s expensive, and what good are your designs if they all stay in your head?”
            “In a year or two, if the harvest improves...”
            “And if it doesn’t?” Mr. Brandwith shuffled to the edge of his seat.
            “Then I’ll trust in Providence.” 
            “If God gave me my gift, he must have done so for a reason. He won’t let it go to waste.”
            Mr. Brandwith shook his head and, slapping his hand against his thigh, stood up, “In my experience, Mr. Harding, the Lord helps those who help themselves and those who fail, do so by their own lack of foresight. Don’t you agree?”
            Will stared into his glass, “I don’t know. Sometimes circumstances go against people.”
            “Circumstances!” Mr. Brandwith moved to the window and looked out over his estate, “Look at me! I came from nowhere, had nothing. My father died when I was six years old and left my mother without a penny.  Look at me now: this house, this land, a thriving mill with eight hundred workers. Do you want to know how I did it?”
            Will nodded obligingly.
            “I made my own circumstances through sheer determination, hard work and using every opportunity that came my way. If I’d waited for good harvests or Providence, do you think I’d be who I am today?”   
            Will rolled his eyes, carefully weighing his answer, “Perhaps you were fortunate in the opportunities that came your way.” 
            “Fortune doesn’t enter into it. During the wars I made uniforms; in peace time I make blankets and clothes. A man must adapt to circumstances, not wait for them to arrive. Opportunities are always there for those alert enough to see them.”
            “In which case,” Will smiled, “I had better keep my eyes open.”
            “Ah ha!” Mr. Brandwith opened his arms in a gesture of sincerity, “I can see you have the right spirit. Supposing I were to offer you my support? With my money behind you, you could bring your designs to life.” 
            Will glanced at him cautiously, “What could I give in return?”
            The older man took a sip of brandy and swished it around his mouth for some seconds before sitting down again.
            “My mill in Leeds does well but there’s a good deal of competition. I want to expand: a complete integrated mill the whole lot from start to finish - scribbling, fulling, the best looms, the fastest shuttles. I want to produce the most and the finest cloth in Yorkshire. Now then, supposing I were to offer you a chance to be part of all of that?”
            “I can’t see how I could be of use.”
            “It’s simple. You bring your designs to me before anyone else.”   
            “What good are threshing machines in a mill?”
            “Forget your threshing machines and your farm tools, you’ll never make a penny out of them. Design my machinery and I’ll see you set up for the rest of your life.”
            Will exhaled loudly and raised his eyes to the ceiling, “I’m sorry, Mr. Brandwith, I’m a country man. Seed drills, planters, threshers; that’s my line.”
            “Nonsense! You said yourself you could design looms for the local weavers.”
            “Simple machines, yes, for their cottages, not the huge kind of things you’ll be wanting.”
            Mr. Brandwith shook his head, undeterred, “A man of your ability learns quickly. Besides, it’s merely a matter of scale: design small, build big!”
            Will frowned, “Why me? There must be dozens of engineers in Leeds who would be only too willing to work for you.”    
            “Oh yes, there are dozens of engineers all hoping for someone to back their designs. Several times a week they come to my door begging me to try out their inventions but I know very well that what they bring me today they took to my rivals yesterday. Which is why I want someone new, someone I can trust, with no contacts in the mills; an honourable man such as yourself who won’t be tempted to share his designs with any other bidders.”
            “I’m flattered by your offer, Mr. Brandwith,” Will said, moving to the edge of his chair, “but as I said, my duty is to the villagers.” He put the brandy glass on the table and stood up, “Forgive me for wasting your time.”
            Mr. Brandwith, remaining seated, looked into his own glass nodding and moving his lips in some internal monologue until Will reached the door. “A moment,” he said, suddenly looking up, “I invited you here on the recommendation of my son-in-law.”
            Will stopped.
            “You did some work for him in Beckford.”
            “That’s right. Sir Edmund wanted running water brought to the house.”   
            “Which you provided with excellent results?”
            “He seemed pleased with the outcome.”
            “I have seen it for myself. Very impressive. How did you manage it?”
            “It was my father’s idea originally. I simply designed the pump; a hydraulic pump bringing the water from the river at the end of his estate. Once that was in order the rest was straightforward.”
            “Could you do the same for me?”
            “Bring water here?”
            Mr. Brandwith nodded.
            “It would be expensive; equipment, labour.”
            “I’ll pay in advance. Name your price.” His chin was strong and determined, his lips narrow and straight as though drawn that way through years of self-control. Three vertical lines formed a frown on his forehead.  “And if we’re content with each other’s part of the bargain you might see your way to consider my previous offer. What do you say?”
            Will yielded with a nod, “I’ll sort out the water but as for the...”
            “Father!” The door burst open and a rush of skirts flew like a whirlwind into the study, “It’s awful, something awful has happened!”
            A girl, pink-faced and flushed, glanced in Will’s direction then turned to a taller young woman standing in the doorway, half-concealed by the shadows.
            “Tell him, Caroline,” said the girl, pulling her into the room, “tell father what happened.”     
            Mr. Brandwith twitched with a slight irritation and Caroline shook her head, “It’s nothing,” she said softly, “and father’s busy. We shouldn’t have disturbed him.”
            “Nothing!” The girl gasped with such vehemence that Will wanted to laugh.
            Caroline stepped back into the shadows but the girl seized her arm, refusing to let her go.
            Mr. Brandwith turned to Will and shook his head apologetically, “My daughter, Ursula. I’m afraid her life is so dull that she turns any event into a drama.”
            Undeterred, Ursula forced Caroline further into the room, “She was coming back from church and she encountered some horrible men.”       
            Mr. Brandwith turned away apathetically and Will couldn’t help but notice the pained expression on Caroline’s face.
            “Who were they?” he said.
            “Villagers, drunkards,” Ursula gushed. “They were all drinking at the inn. One was called Saddler, wasn’t he?”
            “I’m not sure,” Caroline turned back to the door, “but it really was nothing. They were quite harmless. There’s no need to bother father with it.”
            “Harmless? A boy was hurt and when Caroline stopped to help him this Saddler was very rude about the factory.”
            Mr. Brandwith turned sharply, “What about the factory?”  
            “Nothing,” Caroline said, “they don’t mean any harm. They’re just frightened that we’ve come to take over their land.”
            “It isn’t their land,” Ursula huffed. “Father bought it at a high price. They’re only his tenants.  How dare they speak to you like that, laughing at you as though you were no better than they are!”
            “It’s their home,” Caroline said gently. “We’re the strangers here.”
            “They’re animals, they should live in the barns with their cows. They’re dirty and unkempt with no manners at all. I hope you’ll turn them all out, Father.”
            Caroline stopped with her hand on the door and glanced at Will, “Excuse me, Mr.?”
            “Harding.” he bowed.
            “Please,” she said, “pay no attention to my sister. She doesn’t mean what she says.”
            “I do!” the younger girl gasped. “Susanna told me all about them. They come into church smelling of pigs and cattle and once a sheep came right down the aisle and wandered onto the altar during the service. Matthew had to delay his sermon  until they’d chased it out.”
            “The Lamb of God!” Caroline smiled.
            “Caroline,” Mr. Brandwith intervened, “I won’t have blasphemy spoken in my house.”
            “I’m sorry,” she said and as she opened the door, Will noticed how her feet made no sound but moved with such timid steps as though apologising for disturbing the earth.   
            “Wait!” her father called and she stopped at once. “What name did you say? Saddler?”                   
            Ursula nodded, “That’s right, isn’t it, Caroline?”
            Without waiting for her reply, Mr. Brandwith looked at Will, “Do you know him?”            
            “Martin Saddler?  He’s a weaver. He was doing well at one time but now he’s lost most of his custom to the towns.”    
            “Is it any wonder if he spends his days drinking in the inn?”          
            “Oh no,” Will said, “that’s just today. They’re preparing for the dance, the harvest feast tonight.”
            “Is he a tenant of mine?”
            “He lives in the cottages by the old barn.”
            “Saddler,” Mr. Brandwith repeated as though to memorise the name.
            Caroline paused by the door and, though her eyes remained fixed on the floor, it was clear that she was speaking to Will.
            “There was a boy,” she whispered, “I’m afraid he was hurt. They were taunting him and he was bleeding. I tried to help him but he was frightened.”
            “Tall, long legs, yellow hair?”          
            “Yes, that’s him.”
            “Abe,” Will smiled, “Abe Throppe. Don’t alarm yourself on his account, Miss Brandwith. He’s subject to fits. He falls two or three times a week but he never comes to any harm.”     
            She raised her head slightly, “Throppe? I met a boy named Throppe in church. He said he had come for a lesson.”
            Will nodded, “Abe’s younger brother, Joel, my apprentice at the forge. He’s a good lad, works hard and he’s eager to learn. The family have nothing but he tends the glebe and in return Parson Williams gives him lessons.”
            She frowned, “How old is...”
            Mr. Brandwith stepped between them, “I’m sorry, Mr. Harding. The girls are delaying you. I’m sure they have other business to attend to.” He nodded to Caroline and she retreated towards the door. 
            “Come, sir,” Mr. Brandwith said, “I’ll show you around and we can discuss terms.”
            Will had always loved the harvest feast; the dancing and singing, everyone drinking enough to drown their fears of the oncoming winter. Yet that evening as he stood, one foot raised on the bench, watching the dancers leap around the barn, something seemed lacking. For no reason he could discern, a sense of disappointment sagged his spirits and a kind of loneliness weighed on his heart. He shook his head to shrug away the feeling and swayed to the music, tapping his boot to the rhythm of the drum. To no avail. It was as though he missed someone, yet no one was missing. All the villagers were there and the barn was full. He counted and named them all in his head - no, nobody was missing but as tune followed tune the loneliness grew more intense.         
            He drained his tankard and refilled it from the barrel, as the barn grew sticky with the sweat and warm breath of the revellers. 
            “Alright, Mr. Harding,” someone called, “stopped dancing?”
            “For now.” he smiled, drifting towards the door.
            Outside, the drum beat echoed on the cottage walls and the back of Throppe’s yard where an old pig snuffled through the gullies.
            Will leaned over the gate, “Alright, Bertie?”
            The boar glanced at him through tiny eyes buried in a mass of wrinkles. Taking an egg from a box by the fence, Will pressed his boots through the slats of the gate and climbed into the yard.  He held out the egg and the pig trotted over, snorting through a snout like a giant limpet. Speckles of grain stuck to the sagging lips and a long slimy tongue slipped in and out between rows of jagged teeth. Will popped the egg into Bertie’s mouth and he guzzled it, shell and all, until long strands of clear and yellow slime stretched from his jowls - no finesse, no manners, no sense of his own ugliness.
            “And we’re supposed to be the wise ones!” Will smiled, slapping his palm against the bristly back. “We get the brains, the choices and decisions, and you get the freedom not to care. What do you reckon, Bertie? Who has the better deal?”
            The pig gulped the last of the egg and trotted back to the wall where he rubbed against the cottage, his only care in the world to rid himself of an itch.
            “Alright,” Will nodded, “so there’s pork and dripping, but you needn’t worry. They’ll not have you slaughtered.  You’ll just go on, wake up every morning,  stick out your snout to see what the weather’s like and if you don’t like it you can roll over and sleep for another hour. They’ll see that you’re fed and watered and all you have to do in return is make a good impression on the sows and sire your piglets.”  
            Will climbed backwards onto the gate and, dangling his legs into the yard, swigged from his tankard. “Now, we, on the other hand, we’re the clever ones. We travel and we study and we think that we’re wise, but what do we do? We spend our lives making ends meet, worrying about how we’ll last the winter, or do the right thing, or find a wife...”   
            “Sorry,” a deep voice grunted, “did you say sommat?”       
            Will coughed, pretending to clear his throat as he turned to see two weather beaten faces, brown and lined like autumn leaves.
            Dan Throppe smiled, raising a callused hand in a gesture of subservience, “It’s a poor do when the cleverest man in the village spends harvest night talking to pigs.  There’s up of a dozen lasses in there all waiting for a dance, Mr. Harding.”
            Martin Saddler stepped closer, “Happen there’s sommat else on his mind tonight.”
            Will smiled and looked down into the yard.
            “He’s a grand pig isn’t he?” Dan said.
            Will nodded, “Have you thought of mating him with Martha Green’s sow?”
            “You what!” Dan chortled, “She’s twice his size, is Bessie. She’d frighten him to death!”
            Will laughed.
            “He’d be better with Dot again. Eight piglets last time and even the runt were a strong little ’un.”
            “Is that right?”
            “Ask our Abe. It were his idea to start him with Dot. He might not be bright but he knows what’s what when it comes to pigs.” 
            “And people,” Will smiled.  
            “Aye, he has them measured too.”
            Saddler, who until now had been staring towards the barn, licking his lips in anticipation of a drink, turned, “You want to send him up to the Hall then and see what he makes of this Brandwith.” He paused as though waiting for a response but as the others continued to stare at the pig he sniffed and spat on the ground, “Heard you went up there today, Mr. Harding.”
            “I did.”
            “And did you tell him we don’t want him here?”
           “Ah, come on, Saddler, give the man a chance. He might not be as bad as you think.”
            Dan’s eyes widened with interest and, tugging nervously at his beard, he shuffled back from the gate, “Did he say owt about his plans for the village?”
            “No. His only concern was for his mill.”     
            “I’ll bet!” Saddler huffed. “I’ve heard what goes on in there. There’s bairns working twelve, fourteen hours a day, never seeing so much as a glimpse of the sunlight. One second late and the door’s locked and the slightest mistake and the foreman’s round with his whip.”
            “Rumours,” Will said, “and hearsay, that’s all.”
            “Were it a rumour that fifteen died of the factory fever last spring?”
            “Never mind the mills,” Dan said, “what’s going to happen here?  Did he make no mention at all of the village?”
            “Only that he wants water bringing to the Hall.”
            “And you’re going to do it?” Saddler said.
            Will drained his tankard, “It could work out well for everyone. I’ll be laying pipes through his estate and if I take them round the edge of the top field I could put in a drainage channel at the same time. The strips up there have been waterlogged so often they’re as good as useless.”
            Saddler shook his head cynically, “What’s the use in draining the land if it’s all going to be taken from us?”
            Dan’s face contorted with anxiety, “You think he’ll enclose us?”
            “This is just the start,” Saddler nodded, “water pipes today, fences and walls tomorrow and unless we stop him we’ll be out before you know it.”
            “It won’t happen, will it, Mr. Harding?” Dan said desperately, “I mean, a man’s got to keep his family. If I lose my land I’ll have nothing for them, nothing. Our Joel will be alright, he’s a scholar like you, and the other lads might find work, they’re bright and strong, but what about Abe, what will he do? God knows he’ll never make much of his life but at least while we’ve got the land there’s always a job for him.”           
            Will jumped from the gate and rested his hand on Dan’s shoulder, “Don’t worry, Dan. Why should he want your land? Like I said, his only concern is his factory.”
            Dan stared earnestly into his eyes and Will nodded reassuringly, “He might not be the devil everyone’s expecting. I mean a man with such beautiful daughters can’t be all bad.”  
            “Beautiful? That’s not what I’ve heard. Our Joel met one of them today. Sneaked up on him she did, like a witch.”           
            Will laughed, “Like a witch?”
            “Said she wanted someone to show her round the village.”
            Saddler sniffed, “Eyeing it up to see what she could get her hands on.”
            “Ugly as sin, she were, with evil red eyes, according to our Joel.”
            Will, still laughing, shook his head, “The ones I saw today weren’t ugly. Lady Beckford is beautiful and you must admit, Mrs. Williams isn’t bad.”        
            “How would you know,” Dan almost smiled, “with her face hidden under her veil!”
            Saddler stamped on the ground, “Ugly or not, it’s an ugly business they’re in. Let them try to take our village and I’ll show them what we’re made of.”       
            “Aye,” Dan nodded, “and every man of Lowkirk right behind you.”
            Saddler stretched himself to full height and flexed his muscles with pride, “But tonight,” he grinned, “it’s harvest! The lasses are waiting and it’s time we started drinking. You coming, Mr. Harding?”
            Will raised his tankard, “I’ll be along soon.”
            He watched them stride away but the sound of music and laughter weighed more heavily on his heart and, when they had disappeared, he walked past the door and along the side of the barn where he leaned against the wall and, sliding to the ground, sat down on the cobbles.
            He looked up at the stars that flashed and twinkled between the grey clouds and he thought of the town; the darkness of the nights and the airless streets through which he had so often wandered in his years away from the village. It had been exciting at first: the busyness, the smells and the sounds, the cries of the sellers from the markets, the strange accents of the immigrants and the stench of the fish and spice stalls. He wondered if he had been happy then - perhaps if he could go back...but even in those days something, something was missing.        
            A burst of giggling echoed from behind the barn; girls’ voices high pitched and slurred.           
            “Don’t take no more, you’ll get yourself drunk.”
            “I’m alright! I know what I’m doing.”          
            “Aye, you might do now, but if you drink anymore you’ll even think Abe Throppe’s handsome.”
            “Oh no, I won’t, there’s only one man for me.”
            “That’s what you said about the last one and the one before him!”
            “This time it’s real. This one’s special.”
            “And it doesn’t take a scholar to guess who he is.”
            Will leaned sideways around the barn. Three girls sat on the ground passing a jar of cider between them.
            “So,” Kate Green nudged Becky Saddler, “has he given you any sign?”                
            “He looks at me. I’ve seen him looking.”
            “Looking?” Sarah Fuller laughed, “You’re wasting your time. He’s not interested.”
           “He danced with me, didn’t he?”
            “And by the end of the night he’ll have danced with every girl in Lowkirk.” 
            “No,” Becky said, “it was different with me. I could tell by his eyes.”
            “It was you with the eyes, gawking at him and swinging your hips.”
            Sarah shook her head, “You want to be careful, Becky. A man like him won’t settle round here. He’ll not let all that learning go to waste.”
            Kate nodded, “That’s right. Don’t let him string you along. He’ll be off before you know it and then where will you be?”          
            “Perhaps he’ll take me with him,” Becky smiled dreamily. “I’d like that; pretty dresses, a fine house and carriage. I’d drive through the streets and have people calling, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Harding! What’s your husband invented today?’”
            Will laughed to himself and leaned back against the barn. 
            “I tell you, you’re wasting your time,” Sarah said. “He’s not going to want someone like you when there’s all them rich ladies to choose from.”         
          “I’m worth ten of them and he knows it,” Becky said, “and I know how to get round a man.”
            “Oh aye?” the others laughed.
            “Come on then, if you don’t believe me, I’ll show you!”    
            In the shuffling as they got to their feet, Will retreated into the shadows. Becky stood up and paused for a moment, running her fingers through her loose hair. She walked like a cat, one foot in front of the other in a perfectly straight line, shaking her hips until her skirt billowed like a tree in the wind. Will knew that walk well enough. The walk she adopted every time that she came by the workshop with a broken scythe, a spade or a cauldron - any excuse to call in.
            He shook his head and when they had passed he emerged from the shadows and sat down again on the ground. Their giggling grew louder and their voices more high pitched but he paid them little attention. He thought of the hundreds of years that this land had belonged to their families and it saddened him to think that Dan was probably right. A businessman like Mr. Brandwith wouldn’t let this opportunity pass by; it was only a matter of time before he claimed his rights and enclosed the fields and the common.      
            A scream shattered his thoughts. Will leaped to his feet and ran around the barn to find Becky and Kate shrieking in front of Throppe’s yard. Abe, his eyes wide and wild, towered above them with a mallet raised in his hand.
            “Abe!” Will yelled.
            “Get him away! Get him away!” Becky cried throwing herself into Will’s arms. “He’s going to kill us.”
            “You shouldn’t be in there. Tell ’em, Mr. Harding! Tell ’em to stay away.”
            “It was only a bit of fun,” Becky squealed. “He wants locking up. He’s a mad man!”            
            With the mallet still raised above his head, and his face as stern as a crag, Abe leaned over the gate and picked up a jar of cider, “Killing pigs i’n’t fun!”
            Will looked down at Becky who had pressed herself to his chest.  
            “It was nothing;” she said, “we thought the pig might like to join the feast. A drop of cider wouldn’t do any harm.”           
            “It’s alright, Abe,” Will said, releasing himself from Becky’s clutch, “no one’s going to hurt Bertie.”
            Slowly he lowered the mallet, “They’ve to stay away from him.”
            “They will, Abe, I promise,” Will nodded and the boy let the mallet fall.
            “He’s dangerous,” Becky said. “He’d have killed us if you hadn’t come when you did.”   
            “Go on,” Will said, pushing her gently towards the barn, “go back to the dancing.”
            She gazed at him through huge brown eyes, “Aren’t you coming in with us, Mr. Harding?”
            “Maybe later,” he nodded again towards the door. Abe stood by the gate, twitching one eye and jerking his head. As Will moved closer he climbed backwards into the yard where, cowering to the ground, he threw a gangly arm around the pig and huddled close to its belly until slowly the twitching eased.
            Will leaned over the gate, “No harm done, Abe?”
            “Daft lasses,” he said, “daft lasses.”
            “But Bertie’s alright, see?”
           “No thanks to them. Daft lasses.”
            “They’ve drunk too much, that’s all. They didn’t think what they were doing.”
            Abe rocked gently and, still clinging to the boar, raised his head to the sky, “She won’t be drunk not like them daft lasses.”
            “She’s not like them daft lasses.”
            His finger shot to his lips and he smiled like an infant, “Sh, it’s a secret.”
            Will smiled and climbed over the gate, “Will you share it?”
            Coyly, Abe drew his knees towards his chest curling in on himself like a flower in the night. His eyes darted around the yard searching out eavesdroppers, then he shuffled closer to Will and whispered, “There’s a lady.”
            “Which lady?” Will smiled, “Martha Coke? No? Sarah Foley?”
            “No, a lady,” Abe looked up, his clear eyes shining, “a beautiful lady.” He ran his fingertips over his cheek, “She touched me. She held my head in her arms and she touched my face. She’s beautiful.”
            “Miss Brandwith?” Will said.
            Abe put his finger on his lips.
            “Yes,” Will nodded, recalling her face, “you’re right, Abe. She is beautiful.”

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Fields Laid Waste - Chapter 1

The Fields Laid Waste

© Christina Croft 2006. All rights reserved.

In memory of all the forgotten children

of the factories, mills and mines.

Chapter 1

           In the summer of 1832 Silas Rostley, Squire of Lowkirk, fell to his death from the staircase of the Hall he had rarely left for the past forty years. An old and reclusive man, few of his tenants would have mourned his passing, had he not been the last in his line. The Rostleys had owned most of Lowkirk for so many centuries that their name had become synonymous with the unchanging pace of the village. Year after year, decade after decade, as generations of tenants inhabited the same cottages, tended their strips, courted, married, raised families and were finally laid to rest in Lowkirk churchyard, the villagers rested content to know that ‘the Squire’s in his Mansion, all’s well with the world.’
            The name of Rostley enfolded the village with a reassuring familiarity, and nowhere was the god-like influence of the family more apparent than in the ancient parish church. Babies were baptised in a worn stone font, engraved with  ornate lettering: In Loving Memory of Barnabas Rostley. A Rostley shone through the face of St. Michael in a stained-glass window behind the altar; Rostley crests and banners hung from the rafters and the rails of the choir stall; and the name Rostley was inscribed in every alcove, on  every monument, and on the rickety stone flags of the nave over which Caroline Brandwith stepped one morning in late September.
            Reaching the front pew, she knelt and raised her eyes to the altar where a glowing candelabrum shot flickers of light across the blue-green glass of the windows. The worst part was over; she had made her confession and weathered her father’s response. He hadn’t understood, of course; she had never hoped that he would; but his rage had subsided and only his silence and the bitterness in his eyes remained to condemn her. Perhaps, she thought, it was Providence that brought her to Lowkirk. Had they stayed in Leeds she might never have revealed her secret and would have died with that deceit upon her conscience; now the truth was out and her soul might be at peace.
            It was for peace that she joined her hands and prayed. There was little hope of regaining her father’s affection or of ever being allowed to forge a life of her own. She had destroyed her future long ago, but now, in her twenty-ninth year, she bowed with resignation, asking only for the grace to find some purpose to fill the years that lay ahead.
            The creak of the vestry door distracted her from her prayers as a small boy stepped from the shadows, carrying an unlit taper. He moved across the altar and on tip toes stretched to light its wick from the glowing candelabrum. The flame sparkled then burst into life and as he turned, the light illuminated his face so clearly that Caroline shuddered and immediately closed her eyes.
            “Is this how it’s to be now;” she prayed, “will I never be able to look at any of them without wondering?”
            The light through her closed lids grew brighter and the sound of approaching footsteps compelled her to look again at the child. Cupping his hand to protect the flame, he descended the sanctuary steps and moved down the centre aisle.
            Caroline slipped backwards onto the bench and viewed his face, trying to estimate his age - nine, perhaps ten years old. It was hard to tell with these rosy-cheeked country children. She had become so used to the waifs in the town, skinny and undernourished, appearing much younger than their years.
            “Good morning,” she whispered.
             He stopped at the end of the bench with the faintest glimmer of a smile.
            “What’s your name?”
            “Joel. Joel Throppe.”
            “Joel,” she smiled gently, “I wonder if you would help me. I’m new to the village and I was hoping someone might show me around.”           
            His brow furrowed indecisively.
            “I’ll pay for your trouble.”     
            “It’s not that, Miss. I’d gladly show you round but I’m on my way for my lesson. Parson Williams will be angry if I’m late.” He shifted awkwardly, moving the taper towards her face, and then, with a slight shrug added carelessly, “If you’re still here in an hour I’ll be back. I could show you then.”
            She nodded gratefully and he smiled, “Are you just up for the harvest feast or will you be stopping over?”
            “No, I’m not a visitor. I live here now.”
            He peered more closely, “You live here?”
            “We moved into the Hall last week.”
            His smile vanished instantly, “You’re Mr. Brandwith’s wife?”
            “His daughter.”          
            He turned away quickly and walked up the aisle, “I won’t have time to show you round. After my lesson I’ve to help my father.”
            “Please” she called after him, “I don’t mean any harm. I only want to meet the tenants.”           
            “It’s harvest and they’re busy in the fields. They haven’t time for meeting you.”
            It was the you that wounded her most; more than the abruptness in his voice or the sudden urgency in his footsteps as he hurried beyond the pillars and disappeared.
            Caroline sighed and the sigh echoed on the cold stone walls with the rustle of cotton as she moved from the bench and drifted slowly towards the door.
            From the porch she gazed beyond the graves to the orchard where dark red apples hung from swollen branches. The leaves had not yet faded but retained their summer freshness thanks to the heavy rains in Lowkirk that year. Squirrels hopped up and down the trees, spaced like sentries at regular intervals, forming an avenue to the Hall. Their branches merged above her head in a canopy of green and auburn, and Caroline wondered if in time she might grow to love this place. The prospect was so much brighter than the view from the Mill House in Leeds where all she could see were factory towers and the weary faces of the workers, lined with the grime of the town. There was beauty here: the smell of the earth, the touch of crisp autumnal air and the vast array of colour so much brighter than the black and white world in which she had been raised.
            Raising her skirts above the ridges of mud, she walked on, inhaling the scent of damp grass and wet leaves. An unexpected optimism raised her spirits. Perhaps now, breathing fresher air, there was even the hope that Jane might recover and, in time, the hostile villagers might warm to the strangers in their midst.     
            As the path wound around the edge of the village green, voices that had once sounded distant and remote grew clearer: loud male voices, so deep and raucous they seemed almost aggressive, as though rousing themselves for a fight. Caroline stopped to listen more intently then followed the sound until, from behind the broadest tree in the row, she had a clear view of the inn yard where a band of roughly-dressed men were shouting and cheering. Some sat on the ground, others bent double, clutching their sides and almost toppling over in paroxysms of mirth. Never in her life had she heard such laughter - the sheer uncontrolled hysteria that contorted the weather beaten faces not only of the young men but the older ones, too. Tears rolled down their cheeks and they rocked and they shook and they clung to one another for support as the exertion enfeebled their legs.
            Intrigued, Caroline edged closer until she was near enough to catch the words they called through breathless gasps.
            “Giddy-up! Giddy-up!”
            They clicked their tongues as though goading a reluctant mule and from the centre of the circle she saw, rising and falling, the outstretched arms of a man whose head bobbed up and down as if he were breaking in a new pony. In his hand was a stick with which he seemed to be lashing at the creature beneath him, and yet he was too low, far too low, to be on horseback and as Caroline watched the grin deepening on his face, her smile slowly faded.
            This wasn’t the innocent laughter of friends; it was the yelping of hounds tearing in for the kill, the inhuman thrill of the pack. The circle broke to make way for the rider and Caroline stepped back in horror to see beneath him a creature who seemed barely human. 
            On his hands and knees crawled a thin, ragged youth of about seventeen. His hair, sprouting unevenly over his head, had the colour and texture of straw and his clothes were so threadbare and torn she could trace every bone from his wrist to his neck.  His head was bowed and his cheeks were purple, straining under the weight of the man on his back.
            “Faster! Come on you bugger! Faster!” The rider dug his heels into the youth’s belly and thrashed at him with the stick.
            Without the slightest hint of insubordination, the boy crawled across the inn yard. A leather bridle was strapped over his shoulders and, when he raised his head with a gasp of pain, Caroline caught sight of a buckle cutting into his mouth until drops of blood dripped down his chin like red wine trickling from the lips of a drunkard.
            The cheering and laughter faded and the faces of the onlookers dimmed; all she could see was this creature in torment.  Without thought or hesitation, she sprang from her hiding place, ran across the green and, crouching before him, clutched his face in her hands. Gently she unbuckled his fetters but like a terrified animal he shrank from her touch and cowered until his chin reached the ground where he stayed as still as a statue.
            The cheering stopped and for a moment there was silence then a groan came from the crowd. The rider dismounted and towered above Caroline with his eyes fixed on her face. She looked down at the youth; the yard beneath his knees and his hands was stained crimson and a thin stream of blood dripped from his lips.
            “How could you! How could you treat him like this?”           
            The rider lunged forward and seized the boy’s hair, dragging his head from the ground, “He’s alright.  He enjoys it! I’n’t that right, Abe? Here, have a drink!” He laughed and slowly, deliberately poured the contents of a tankard over the boy’s head. 
            Still he didn’t move; he seemed not even to blink though the ale dripped into his translucent green eyes. Caroline mopped his face with the edge of her shawl and cradled his head in her lap.
            “He’s bleeding,” she said, “bring some water.”
            One of the bystanders moved to obey but the man with the stick held him back.
            “Saddler,” someone whispered, “don’t you know who she is?”
            “I don’t care who she is. She’ll not tell me what to do!”
            He turned his back on her and stood like a great tree blocking the light of the sun. Her heart pounding, Caroline looked down on the youth but the moment she opened her mouth to speak he leaped to his feet and with the sound of a whimpering dog darted across the green and disappeared beyond the trees.
            Straightening her skirts, she stood up and met Saddler’s stare.
            “He’s an imbecile,” he grinned, “he doesn’t feel like normal folk feel.”
            “Normal folk? You think it’s normal to beat and humiliate him!”
            “Begging your pardon m’lady,” Saddler bowed with mock courtesy, “I learned my manners from men like your father. Did I treat the lad any worse than he treats his workers?”
            “Leave it, Saddler,” someone said but the man curled his lip.
            “I know what goes on in Brandwith’s factory, so don’t come round here telling us how to behave.”
            “She was only trying to help, Saddler.” 
            “Aye,” he said, moving so close she could smell the ale on his breath, “and if she wants to help, the best she can do is get back to Leeds where she belongs.”
            He clenched his hand into a fist, raised it above his head and let out a cry so loud and ear-piercing it shook Caroline to the core.  
            “Brandwith!” he spat on the ground before leading the crowd back to the inn.
            As Caroline turned away trembling, the sound of his laughter echoed through her ears like the thunder of the looms in Brandwith’s mill.