“Jane?” Caroline whispered but there was no answer.
She closed the book and turned to the window, half-hoping he’d be there, half-hoping he wouldn’t. Outside, a faded sun hung lazily in the white sky where fine streaks of silver streaked through the few bloated clouds. Children laughed across the green, diving and falling, rolling together like young animals, while scrawny dogs yapped playfully around their knees and ankles. And there, on the bench sat Mr. Harding, winding his pocket watch and turning now and then to the Hall.
She stepped back from the window and glanced at her sister. She wished she had told her of his invitation; Jane would know what to do. She’d been meaning to tell her all afternoon but somehow, each time she had tried to begin, the words eluded her.
She tiptoed to the bed and looked down at Jane’s face. She was so still and so pallid that had it not been for the rattle of breath through congested lungs, Caroline might have thought her dead. Death seemed so close that its aspect was already printed on her features. Caroline reached for her hand and stroked the warm skin, longing for her to wake but, as she murmured in sleep, it seemed too cruel to deny her these moments’ respite from pain.
Softly wiping her sister’s hair from her forehead, Caroline stooped to kiss her brow, “I shall come back soon,” she whispered and crept from the room.
Unseen, she hurried down the stairs and, wrapping her cloak around her, slipped out of the Hall.
The moment he saw her, Mr. Harding stood up, “Miss Brandwith, I’m honoured that you decided to come.”
It sounded rehearsed and contrived and, afraid of appearing too eager, she stopped some distance from him.
“I had to come,” she said, “it’s my duty to learn something of my father’s tenants.”
“Your duty,” he nodded seriously. “Then we had better make sure we take no pleasure in our walk.”
He seemed to be trying not to smile and his flippancy unnerved her.
“Are you mocking me, Mr. Harding?”
“Heaven forbid!” He laughed and offered her his arm, “May I?”
“No, sir. You may not. I am quite capable of walking unaided.”
He laughed all the more, “Very well. Where would you like to begin?”
Already doubting the wisdom of having come, she shook her head, “Wherever you think fit.”
He mused for some seconds, turning in each direction then nodded decisively, “You’ll be familiar with the glebe I suppose, so if we walk back around the Hall and along the north field we’ll reach the common and the river.”
Suddenly he was serious and this time when he looked at her, there was something more pensive in his smile. “It’s quite a trek but it would give me time to describe village life.”
They followed the avenue of trees that bordered the perimeter of the Hall, and he talked of the changing seasons and the festivals that marked the high points of the year. She was fascinated by the harvest feast and tried to imagine the villagers dancing and singing. He spoke of the Lowkirk characters: the fiddler, the drummer and the brewer. His descriptions were laced with anecdotes and stories of the former squire, and by the time they had passed beyond the demesne her fear had given way to amusement.
The wooded groves led to a stretch of barren scrub land bordered with yellow weeds and spiky purple thistles beyond which a winding track was marked with a hand painted sign: ‘NORTH FIELD’.
Deep ruts ran along either side of the track, huge waterlogged furrows left by hooves and ploughs. The field stretched before them onto the horizon, the brown earth speckled and banked with balks.
“When I bring the water to the Hall,” he said, pointing along the track, “I’m hoping to lay a series of clay pipes along this stretch to drain the strips. You see how muddy the earth is? Even in summer the water collects here. We’ve tried laying stones and ditches but they didn’t really help so the land is useless for crops.”
Caroline stepped onto a ridge of drier ground and stared across the field. Everything was silent and still; no movement, no life just the still brown earth and the white open sky as far as the eye could see.
“Of course,” he said, squelching through the muddy gullies, “if the enclosure goes ahead, I could be wasting my time.”
She had wondered how long it would be before he mentioned the enclosure and, as the hint of criticism in his voice disturbed her, she dared not look at him.
“How did the villagers react to the notice?”
“How do you think?”
She clenched her hands together inside her cloak, “It may not affect them too badly. If they have documents to prove they own their land there’s nothing for them to worry about.”
“Documents! Most of them can’t read, Miss Brandwith. All they know are their crops and their animals. If they ever had any documents, they’ll probably have used them to light their fires or block a draughty doorway! One or two of the freeholders may have kept them but even then, they won’t be much use.”
“Oh no,” she turned to him quickly, “it’s very important. You must tell them that if they can prove the land is theirs no one can take it from them.”
“Is that right?” he said cynically.
He leaped onto the ridge beside her and stood so close she could feel the warmth of his skin. “Look along here. All of these strips belong to a freeholder, Tom Fuller. He may or may not have documents to prove it, but take my word for it, these are his. You see all the pools and the puddles? Without drainage these strips are more or less useless, but Tom does alright because he owns other strips way over there where the field rises. The soil is fertile and the sun shines so he gets a good return. It’s the way it works, good land, bad land, it’s shared out more or less evenly. A fair system wouldn’t you say?”
“Now, supposing that when your father brings in his commissioners he discovers that he owns the land in between, a bit here, a bit there. What good would that be to him if he wanted to enclose a farm? He’s not going to settle for patches all over the place, is he? He’ll want all his share in one place so he can build fences and mark it as his. Then what will happen to Tom?”
“I suppose they would come to an agreement.”
He shook his head, “I’ll tell you what will happen - it happened in Beckford, it happened in Rowthorpe, it’s happened in every other village in the country. Your father’s lawyers will discuss it with the commissioners to ensure a good deal. They’ll measure how much land he actually owns and give him that many acres in the place where he wants it. He won’t choose this part, will he? He’ll choose the good land over there and poor Tom and others like him will end up with some muddy plot that’s no use for crops or grazing.”
He waited expectantly as she struggled to respond, “The freeholders have their rights too. The commissioners will listen to all sides.”
“And what chance do you think an uneducated man like Tom would have arguing against a trained lawyer?”
“Then he must find a lawyer to speak for him.”
He laughed, “Have you any idea of the cost of a lawyer? Thirty pounds in legal fees for enclosure! Where would Tom find thirty pounds? And even if he did, and was granted reasonable land, what would happen to his animals? Now they can graze where they like, but if the enclosure were enforced, he couldn’t let them wander onto someone else’s land. He’d have to build fences - more expense. He won’t be allowed to pasture them on the common anymore because someone else will have claimed that for his own. No more fishing, nowhere to gather fire wood or berries; the whole village, the whole way of life will just vanish overnight.”
He stared across the field, biting his lip and so lost in his own thoughts he scarcely seemed aware of her presence.
“It means nothing to men like your father,” he said at last. “He has his mill and investments. This is just another venture for him. But for the villagers,” he waved his arms dramatically over the field, “this is all they have, the only life they know. It’s not only the land that they stand to lose, it’s everything: their livelihood, their friends, their dignity!”
Caroline stepped down from the balk, wishing she could find some way to appease him.
“It’s all very well your brother-in-law spouting from his pulpit and threatening eternal damnation! When it comes to judgement, he’d do better looking closer to home to see where the real sin lies.”
The attack was too sudden and Caroline, unprepared and lost for an answer, felt a rising indignation. She had no doubt he had cause to be bitter but his charge seemed calculated and cruel. She had accepted his invitation in good faith and now sensed that she had been duped; he hadn’t wanted her company but to use her to vent the anger he dared not direct at her father.
She turned back to the path, “You’ve made your point, Mr. Harding. I can find my own way home.”
“No, please wait,” he leaped from the bank, “there’s so much more to see.”
“I’ve seen enough to know why you brought me here. You’ve made that very plain.”
“Please,” he opened his hands, “forgive me. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“I’m not offended,” she said with determined composure, “but I am surprised. I had taken you for a gentleman and now I see I was mistaken.”
“Would you have thought me more of a gentleman if I hadn’t spoken my mind?”
“A gentleman would have had the courage to say these things to my father not to me, and I doubt that a gentleman would have agreed to work for a man he believes so wicked.”
“I made that agreement with your father before I knew of his plans. I signed a contract with him then and it’s too late to break it. I have not seen him since the notice appeared on the church door. Nor, come to that, had I seen it when I offered to show you the village. That wasn’t the reason I asked you.”
Her irritation eased a little, “Had you known would it have made a difference?”
“You mean, would I still have offered to show you round?”
He blinked and his eyes moved thoughtfully over her face, “Yes,” he said, “it would have given me an even greater incentive to speak with you. I’m sorry if I’ve spoken harshly. I didn’t intend this at all but these are my people. I care about them. You must understand that?”
His face was so open and so artless; she couldn’t doubt his word. “Yes,” she said, “I do understand. But you must also understand, Mr. Harding, that my father’s business is not my affair. I have no say in what he does.”
“In that case,” he raised his eyebrows hopefully, “please don’t go. Walk a little further, at least as far as the common?”
She paused indecisively, aware all the while that his eyes were fixed on her, drawing her with the same magnetism that had drawn her to his face in church.
“If you go now I shall be angry with myself for having driven you away. It will be on my mind all evening and...” again the half-repressed smile flickered on his lips, “I’m afraid I’ll manage no work at all. It will delay my plans for your water supply and...” he shook his head and his smile escaped, disarming her completely.
“To the common, then,” she yielded.
“And the river. You must see the river.”
The track followed the edge of the field for some distance before veering away to a makeshift bridge over a swollen beck. The bridge led to a steady incline across the common, dotted with a few shabby huts and grazing sheep. From the highest point, clear of trees and shrubs, he pointed out landmarks of the neighbouring hamlets: the tower of Rowthorpe church, the ruins of Hernewood Abbey and the crenellated turrets of Beckford House shaded in clouds in the distance.
“But of course,” he said, “you’d know that. Isn’t Lady Beckford your sister?”
“Antonia,” she nodded, “the eldest.”
“How many more of you are there?”
“Five altogether. You know Susanna, who married Parson Williams. Then there’s me and Jane, whom you won’t have seen as she’s often unwell. And the youngest, Ursula.”
“Much to my father’s disappointment.”
He smiled, “Five beautiful daughters can’t be such a disappointment.”
She blushed at his compliment and turned away, searching for a change of subject.
“Do you know Dr. Whitstone?” she asked.
“Everyone knows Dr. Whitstone. That’s his house, the tall gabled building. You can just about make it out through the trees.”
“Not far from here?”
“A good two miles, I’d say, through the woods and over the old bridge.”
“I must call on him some time.”
“He’s a friend of yours?”
“He’s been very good to us, attended us all our lives.”
“Ah ha,” he laughed, “his wealthy patients in town!”
“He looks after all the villagers and hardly takes a penny. If you ask how he manages to live he taps his nose and says ‘wealthy patients in town.’”
“So some good comes of our ills?” she smiled and he held her gaze for some moments until she turned and walked on.
All along the route he pointed out cottages and reeled out the villagers’ names like a litany.
“Do you know everyone in Lowkirk?” she said.
“I should do. I’ve lived her most of my life. I was born here. My father built the forge further up stream to make plough shares and tools for the labourers.”
“So all your family are here?”
“I have no family now. I was an only child. My mother died when I was born.”
He shrugged carelessly, “My father didn’t hold it against me. He said it was all the more reason to do some good with my life. If someone dies bringing you into the world the least you can do is make their death worthwhile. I suppose that’s why he went out of his way to ensure I had an education. He could see the way things were going and he thought I would do better in town, so I was packed off for higher things!”
He laughed and Caroline smiled as, with slower steps, they sauntered down the slope towards a thickly wooded copse rustling with falling leaves and the echo of a river beyond.
“I stayed away for nine years,” he said, “travelling around the country and even to France and Holland.”
“What made you come back?”
“My father was ill. When he died he left me the forge, the workshop and a lot of unfinished projects. That was two years ago and I’ve been here ever since.”
“With no plans to travel again?”
He stopped in his tracks and looked thoughtfully up at the sky, “I don’t know. Sometimes I wish I’d never been away. When I came home I thought I would just slip back in as though I’d never left, but something has changed - maybe I changed. It’s as though I lost something somewhere along the way.”
He kicked at the ground, scraping his boot over the earth like a tethered horse itching for freedom.
“It isn’t that I don’t love the village, because I do. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be. This is home, I belong here and yet...”
He glanced at her and she prompted him with a smile.
“There’s a gap now,” he said, “something missing. I don’t know why. Maybe it was always there but I never noticed it before I went away.”
“Perhaps you still miss your father,”
“No,” he frowned and raised one shoulder awkwardly, “it’s not that. It’s just this... emptiness.” He raised his hand to his heart, frowning, as though in physical pain. “A hollow inside me. I’ve tried to fill it with work, spending longer and longer on every design, thinking if I fill my head with something else it might go away, but it doesn’t. It would be the same if I travelled again; I know it would come with me.”
He stared, still frowning, beyond her and Caroline, disconcerted by his frankness, wondered if he realised she was listening. He seemed to be speaking his thoughts aloud unaware that anyone might hear, and she, feeling like an eavesdropper, turned towards the river.
Above the rustling of falling leaves and the gurgle of the water, came the sound of voices, young voices, laughing in the distance.
“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly, “I didn’t mean to bore you.”
“No,” she shook her head, “no you didn’t.”
“Most people are too busy trying to survive to allow themselves the luxury of self-pity.”
“It isn’t self-pity,” she said tentatively, turning to face him, “and it isn’t that most people are too busy, but rather that they are too frightened.”
The troubled expression lightened a little and he looked at her quizzically.
“It isn’t easy to admit to loneliness.”
“Loneliness? Is that what it is? Am I lonely?” He repeated the word several times and each time he said it the lines on his forehead faded until the frown had vanished.
She said, “I think it’s something most people would feel if they dared to feel anything at all.”
“You, Miss Brandwith, do you feel it too?” She tucked her hands deeper into her cloak and gripped her wrists, “Whatever you may think of him,” she said, “my father didn’t set out to be cruel but he has suffered a great deal in his life. Many men would have been broken by what he has endured but he has forced himself to go on by refusing to allow himself to feel. If he appears hard or unkind, it’s only because he knows no other way of surviving that loneliness.”
“Is that what we have to do? Make ourselves hard until we feel no pain?”
She shrugged, “I didn’t say it was the best way. I said it was his way.”
“But not yours?”
When she didn’t answer, his smile returned and he nodded along the path indicating the way they should go. The woods opened to a bank where the river cut through the grassland.
“One thing that changed when I came back,” he said brightly, “was my name! When I left I was just ‘Will’ but now it’s all ‘Mr. Harding.’ I grew up with these people and we were all equal then, but now because I’ve been educated and lost some of my accent, they insist on giving me a title. Is it any wonder I feel lonely when no one ever calls me by my name?”
Caroline smiled and he coughed, “I wonder, Miss Brandwith, would you....”
“I couldn’t, for then you should be obliged to call me Caroline.”
“And that would never do?”
“Not in polite society.”
“No,” he nodded with feigned propriety, “but perhaps here, outdoors with only the trees and river to hear?”
She laughed and tried to think of an answer when a shriek of excitement distracted him. His eyes darted to the river where five or six boys splashed knee deep through the water. They leaped like young salmon, plunging their arms into the waves until fish sprang into the air and with open hands they struggled to catch them.
Will jumped down the bank to a rocky bay and, balancing on a stone, called, “Keep tight hold, Joel! Don’t let him get away.”
A fish wriggled and writhed in the boy’s fingers but he didn’t let go and soon he had the creature gripped by its tail, “It’s a big ’un, Mr. Harding! That’s six now!”
From higher upstream came a howl of pleasure as a taller youth came hurtling through the water. Drenched and bouncing up and down like an infant, Abe Throppe cried with glee, “Joel got the fish! Joel got the fish. Look, Mr. Harding, Joel got the fish!”
Will laughed and the others laughed too as they waded to the bank and stood barefoot among their haul of five fat trout spread out on a jerkin on the stones. Caroline looked down at the boys: dark-haired, sandy-haired, blonde and brown. Two were small with narrow pinched faces, the others rounder with apple-red cheeks and wide smiles. They were so engrossed in their catch and displaying their success to Will that not one of them noticed her slowly moving closer to the edge. She studied them in turn and the sharp pang of fear shot through her chest. She wanted to turn and run away and would have done if Abe’s sudden gasp hadn’t startled her. She looked at him and he, still in the water, gazed at her, his eyes and mouth wide open.
“What’s up, Abe?” Joel said and followed his brother’s eyes. All the boys looked up and their smiles instantly vanished.
Will looked up too, “Come down,” he called.
Their chatter had stopped and there was silence; a hostile, unwelcoming silence.
“Come,” Will reached out, “let me help you.”
She took his hand. His skin was warm and his grip strong, taking her weight on the uneven stones.
“This is Joel, my apprentice, and Gilbert and Thomas, and you have met Abe already, and here’s....”
The names ran together in her head; she saw only their faces one after another and in each she searched for the resemblance...
“Lads,” Will said, “this is Miss Brandwith. She’d like to meet you.”
Joel’s nose wrinkled. “Why?”
“Well she’d like to get to know you since she’s part of the village now.”
“I’ve got to go,” one boy said and another quickly nodded.
“Here,” Joel said, “take a fish.”
“They’re yours. You caught them.”
Joel shrugged, “There’s enough for one each. There you go.” He crouched to the jerkin and handed round his catch like an apostle feeding the five thousand.
The two smaller boys, clutching their prize and calling goodbyes, hurried away and the rest soon followed until only Joel and his brother remained. Abe, still ankle deep in the river, stood as still as a statue with his eyes wide open and fixed on Caroline. Bewildered by his stare, she smiled but when his cheeks flushed and his eye began to twitch, she turned to Joel, “You’ve done well. Were they difficult to catch?”
He stared at the fish, “They’re in the river; you get them out. That’s all there is to it.”
She tried again, “Mr. Harding tells me you’re his apprentice?”
“Is it interesting?”
He nodded and began slipping his feet into a pair of worn boots. His toes were blue and his legs blotched with red patches from the icy water.
“It must be cold in the river at this time of year?”
“I’ve got to go, Mr. Harding. I’ll see you in the morning. Come on, Abe.”
Still the straw-haired youth stood twitching in the water.
“Abe, come on!”
He scrambled to the bank where, jerking uncontrollably, he pulled on his boots.
“Goodbye,” Caroline said but neither of them answered. Joel led the way towards the copse with Abe scurrying behind. Then suddenly he took hold of Joel’s jerkin and pulled out a fish. Joel struggled and complained but Abe was stronger and within a second he returned to the bank.
He held the trout in front of Caroline’s face. A blank beady eye stared at her and water dripped around her feet. He held it closer, shaking it desperately.
“It’s a present,” Will said.
“Abe wants you to have it. Isn’t that right, Abe?”
He nodded, twitching more frantically than ever. She glanced at Will and he smiled and still the fish swung in front of her face. There was nothing else for it; she couldn’t refuse. She opened her hands and the slimy scales slapped on her palms.
“Thank you,” she tried not to grimace.
For a second Abe stopped twitching then he seemed to shudder from head to foot before darting away to the copse.
The dead fish, fat and shining, lay on her hands, its silvery scales shimmering like jewels.
“You’re honoured,” Will laughed, “Abe wouldn’t have given it to just anyone.”
She wanted to smile but she couldn’t - the hostility of the younger boys weighed too heavily.
“They hate me, don’t they?” she said.
“No, they don’t hate you. They’re frightened that’s all.”
“Fear’s worse than hatred it makes people do terrible things.”
He moved closer, “Then alleviate their fears. Speak to your father. Tell him...”
“You’ve seen them,” he shook his head desperately, “there in the water, rosy and healthy and happy. Do you know what they’ll look like this time next year when they’ve lost their land and been forced to look for work in the town? You must have seen the children coming out of the factories: skinny and pale, coughing and exhausted. Think of their families! Think of their mothers! How do you think they’ll feel seeing their children virtually sold into slavery? Could you bear it if it were your child?”
Her eyes flooded with unexpected tears and she frowned to prevent them from falling.
“You want to help them, I know that you do, and I know you care what will happen to them. Please, Caroline, speak to your father.”
“You don’t know me at all, Mr. Harding,” she gasped. “Don’t presume to say you know what I want.”
He stepped back, clearly shocked and wounded.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I have to go.”
“Caroline, I...I didn’t mean...I’ll walk back with you.”
“ I can find my own way.”
She hurried to the shelter of the copse and there, hidden from his view let the tears fall.