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...

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.

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