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Mark M Lichterman

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The ClimbingBoy3: Chimney Sweeps
By Mark M Lichterman
Posted: Saturday, December 03, 2011
Last edited: Thursday, August 16, 2012
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.

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           >> View all 957
As predicted, “Watch ya’self, ya lout!” As expected, taking his anger at Archibald out on the boy, roughly picking him up by the seat of his coat and pants, Johnson set him on the
next step.

The Climbing Boy can now be purchased as a Kindle eBook @ $3.00

 Climbing Boy 3:

 

December 24, 1843

London, England

 

 The Chimney Sweeps

 

Dawn

 

Two figures trudged up the dirt road.

 

The man taking long, purposeful strides.

 

Weighed down by the load he carried, his harsh breath

coming in white plumes, panting, struggling to keep up with

Johnson, Zachariah didn’t notice as a single coil of rope

slipped off his shoulder, trailed behind, then tangled in his

feet. Tripping, he fell at the place the dirt road ended and

the cobblestone street began.

 

Paces ahead, looking over his shoulder, stopping with a

sound of disgust, going back to the fallen boy, Johnson lifted

him bodily onto his feet and with a slap to the back of his

head, sent him stumbling forward once again.

 

Through shame, anger, the cold, or all three, continuing

on, struggling under the weight he carried on his shoulders

and in his arms, Zachariah hunched his head even deeper

into the collar of his coat.

 

Finally, ahead a half mile or so, the glow of the factory’s

furnaces could be seen through the diminishing pre-morning

darkness.

 

Soon, the noise of men at work came softly, then, as they

walked closer, the sounds became louder, the voices

pronounced.

 

As the boy and man entered the massive brick and block

barn of a factory, sounds assailed their ears: the irritating

noise of grinding, the tortured whine of cutting steel, the

nerve-jarring din of steel hammering onto steel. Thick, black

greasy smoke hung beneath the three-story rafters. Dozens

of workers could be seen moving, milling, hauling, straining.

Men wearing gloves and aprons made of leather were

removing strips of white-hot metal with steel tongs from

three of four huge, coal-fed furnaces. The fourth, its stack

having already been cleaned two-thirds of the way, was shut

down waiting to be finished.

 

John Archibald was standing behind his tall, battered

foreman’s desk. The desk, on a raised platform, gave the

plant foreman a commanding view of the entire factory.

As the two entered, he saw Johnson first, then, paces

behind, the boy. Putting the quill down, watching as they

made their way around boxes, barrels, machinery and

workbenches, Lord ‘elp ‘im! Archibald thought as he saw

the boy struggle beneath the weight he carried.

                                           ****

John “Archie” Archibald was a short but powerfully built

man in his late thirties. He had thinning brown hair, a ruddy

complexion, and a kind face. When smiling, his entire face

would take on a crinkly, affable appearance, but when angry,

the crinkles would smooth out and his skin became crimson

in color. A fair-minded, just man, Archie was held in high

esteem by both the men that worked under him and the

factory’s owners.

 

Married, John Archibald had two adored children. One,

a boy, was about the same age as Zachariah. Whenever he

would see Zachariah he’d think of his son and, sadly, make

a mental comparison between the lives of these two children.

An orphan himself, Archie was also a product of the

apprentice system.

 

Taken from the orphan’s asylum at the age of five, he’d worked and learned from a master whom, although not as rigid and wretched as Johnson, was stern, unbending, and fast with a birch switch. But, of course, this training, as hard as it was, was what in time led him to this very worthy position.

 

Having gone through it himself, completely detesting this

system that allowed young children to be exploited and

forced into unbelievably squalid conditions—the chimney

sweep trade being the very worst—Archibald was among a

small army of London citizens who were partitioning

Parliament to set forth guidelines governing the treatment

and mistreatment of all apprenticed children, particularly

climbing boys.

                                             ****

 

Holding back a cough, but not his anger, Johnson arrived

at the platform with Zachariah still trailing behind.

 

“Mornin’, William,” Archibald said, looking down from his

heightened platform. Then, smiling as the boy came closer,

“Mornin’, Za…”

 

“Archie! I wanna…”

 

Holding his hand up, silencing Johnson, Archibald waited

for Zachariah to arrive at the platform.

 

“A bloody damn sod on ya ‘good mornin’,’” Johnson

muttered low enough to be sure not to be heard.

 

Paying scant attention to Johnson because, intent on the

boy, watching for his inevitable, infectious smile, “Mornin’,

Zachariah.”

 

The smile came, “Mornin’, Mister Archibald,” a little late,

and noticeably forced.

 

Seeing the set of Johnson’s face and the downcast look

of the boy, sensing a tension between the two, wondering if

his offer of the kitten yesterday was the reason, “Ya wanted

to say somethin’ to me, William?” Archibald asked.

 

“Yeah, Archie, I’ve a mind to.” Pointing at Zachariah,

“You, boy, get there an’ wait for me!” Motioning over his

shoulder with his thumb, “I be wantin’ to ‘ave a few words

with ya friend ‘ere.”

 

Looking at Johnson’s face, Zachariah saw the anger that

he’d so often seen in the past, usually during bouts of

intoxication.

 

“‘ow can I ‘elp ya?”

 

“‘ow can ya ‘elp me? ‘ow can ya ‘elp me! Ya can ‘elp me

by not be talkin’ to me ‘prentice!”

 

Looking at some point behind and to the left of him,

Johnson’s demeanor confused Archibald because he knew

the other man was speaking to him, but wasn’t looking at

him, and so he glanced over his shoulder to see what he

was looking at, but other than the factory there was nothing.

 

Speaking softly, “Go on with ya, lad,” Archibald said.

“Wait for…” “Master” not being a word he liked using, other

than possibly in prayer, he said, “Wait for Mister Johnson

by the stairs. ‘e’ll be there shortly.”

 

“Aye.” Turning, walking the length of the factory, going

to the darkness behind the staircase, Zachariah looked into

the black shadow until his eyes adjusted and he was able to

see the light’s reflection on nine pair of feline eyes. Stooping,

the boy reached into the wooden crate containing eight

mewing kittens and their mother. Gently lifting a kitten by

the scruff of its neck, he snuggled it under his chin while

stroking its warm underside. The softly purring kitten

brought the trace of a smile to Zachariah’s face, but the

smile disappeared when he turned back and looked at the

two men.

 

Still gazing behind and over the other man, gesticulating

with both hands, “Archie, ya got no call to be tellin’ me

‘prentice…” jerking his thumb over his shoulder in

Zachariah’s direction, “that ‘e can be ‘avin’ a kitten a’fore

ya be askin’ me on it first!”

 

“William, for the sake’a Christ, it’s Chris…”

 

“An’ also…” his eyes flickered to the older man’s for a

moment, then quickly away as he started into a hard fit

of coughing.

 

Doubling over, Johnson turned his body from Archibald,

who waited patiently for him to catch his breath.

 

Gaining control, he swiped the back of his hands across

his eyes then, looking at Archibald’s chin, finding some small

degree of courage, poking his forefinger to within an inch

of the other’s chest, “An’ furthermore, don’t ya be tellin’ ‘im

‘e’s a good worker! If I wants ‘im to be knowin’ ‘e’s a good

worker I’ll be tellin’ ‘im! I don’t want ya turnin’ ‘is ‘ead!”

 

For a moment Archibald thought that Johnson might

possibly be right, then, No, he thought, ‘e ain’t right at all!

His face becoming red, straightening his body, pulling his

shoulders back, the hidden muscles flexed beneath his coat.

Sensing the older man’s change, Johnson slowed the

motion of his near-poking finger.

 

Taking hold of his hand, moving it from before his chest,

squeezing the thin, bony fingers, taking some delight at the

look of pain and fear that came to other’s face, speaking

softly through clenched teeth, “You…” Bringing his anger

under control, “William, that little boy works ‘ard as any

grown man I got ‘ere…” Making a sweeping, back-handed

motion with his other hand, “an’ better’n most, an’ I’d be

glad to ‘ave the likes a ‘im workin’ ‘ere for me! But not as

you work ‘im—not as a blinkin’ slave…” Knowing the other

may very well vent his frustrated anger on Zachariah, his

face softening, releasing Johnson’s hand, Archibald smiled.

“Bill, ‘e’s but a little boy. ‘e’s not got parents. ‘e’s got but you

an’ what you gives ‘im, an’ Lord knows that’s precious little.

Tomorrow’s Christmas. For Christ’s sake, Bill, let the lad

‘ave somethin’ for ‘imself. It’ll cost ya nothin’, an’ for the

boy it’ll be a blessin’—a blessin’ an’ a kindness.”

 

‘e’s right, Johnson thought, ‘e’s right! But, his voice tinged

with anger, “It ain’t for ya to say ‘ow I treats ‘im, an’ what I

gives ‘im!” Turning his head, he looked at Zachariah, who

was standing by the stairs holding a kitten in his arms, and

felt a pang of guilt at the life he’d forced on the boy… But

still, I’m the Master! Zachariah belongs to me! His inferior

ego demanding that he have authority over something, over

someone, at the very least this boy. “No! ‘e’ll have what I

give ‘im and nothin’ else! An’ I’ll not allow ‘avin’ your praise

make ‘im lazy!” Now, for the first time, Johnson looked into

Archibald’s eyes. “No, ‘e won’t be ‘avin’ the cat, thank ya!”

Turning from Archibald, he walked towards Zachariah.

 

“Bill!”

 

Johnson stopped, but didn’t look back.

 

“Think on it, Bill! Ya gotta pass by ‘ere on the way ‘ome!

Ya can come in an’ let the lad pick whichever kitten ‘e wants.

Think on it, Bill. For the boy!”

 

Muttering, “To ‘ell with ya, Archie.” Taking long, angry

strides, Johnson walked to the staircase that led to the roof

and, “Come on!” snarled at the boy, “Come on, can’t’ch’ya!”

and waited impatiently as he went beneath the stairs to place

the kitten back into its box.

 

Zachariah had put the rope, drop clothes, and brushes

on the bottom step when he’d gone for the kitten. Only

needing the rope for this job, putting the heavy coil back

about his neck and shoulder, dreading the climb up the

narrow, steep staircase, he started up with Johnson—who

was carrying the toolbox only—at his heels.

 

Breathing heavily, silently grunting with each step, the

long climb upstairs with the weight of better than a hundred

feet of rope about his neck and shoulder caused Zachariah

to perspire. Momentarily hesitating as he wiped sweat from

his eyes with the sleeve of his coat, Johnson purposely hit

him on the backside with the edge of the tool box causing

the boy to trip on the next step and fall, painfully, onto

his knees.

 

As predicted, “Watch ya’self, ya lout!” As expected, taking

his anger at Archibald out on the boy, roughly picking him

up by the seat of his coat and pants, Johnson set him on the

next step.

 

Sleet mixed with rain was falling when, three stories up,

glad to be done with the stairs but apprehensive about what

he knew he would very soon face, Zachariah, the sheen of

perspiration on his face and the dampness beneath his

clothing instantly changing to the feel of ice, pushed through

the door onto the roof.

 

On the roof, out of the lee of other buildings, the wind

blew rain and sleet with a near-stinging velocity.

 

The darkness had given way to a streaky grayness as the

early morning light attempted to break through thick,

moisture-laden clouds, and the City of London lay sprawled

below in the dull, overcast light.

 

Jutting from the roofs of thousands upon thousands of

houses, tenements and factories, for as far as the eye could

see, a jungle of chimneys of all sizes and heights emitted

broken spirals of dissipating gray-black smoke.

 

Sounds of the city could now be heard: children shrieking,

women yelling, the clanging of bells from peddler’s carts,

the whinny of a horse, the wake-up call of a rooster. Sounds

of boat horns and ships’ bells came from the direction of

the unseen Thames River.

 

Thick plumes of dense smoke roiling upward further

blackening their exposed skin, the three working chimneys

rained particles of black soot mixed with sleet and rain upon

the boy and man. Hunching their bodies forward into the

wind, they made their way to the fourth—currently

inoperable—chimney that, as the other three ran from the

floor of the factory, three stories below, to the roof, and

twenty feet higher.

 

Huddling as best they could out of the weather alongside

the leeward side of the chimney, “Com’er, boy. Let’s make

ya ready.”


Web Site: mmlichterman.com  

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Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 12/3/2011
Great story, Mark; perfect in every way! Well done!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in Texas, Karen Lynn. :D


Books by
Mark M Lichterman



For Better or Worse

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The Climbing Boy

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Becoming

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