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The Climbing Boy 7: Lady
By Mark M Lichterman
Posted: Thursday, December 08, 2011
Last edited: Friday, August 17, 2012
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.

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

 Climbing Boy 7: Lady

London, England

December 24, 1843

The hollow sounds of approaching footsteps on bare

hardwood floors, “All right!” the voice said from

within. “All right, I’m coming!”

 

The door opened.

 

My, lord!

 

Having set the appointment herself she was expecting

them, yet, her eyes widening, the lady’s hand went to her

throat as, standing within her doorway looking from Johnson

to Zachariah, pity wrenched her heart and a sudden sense

of depression overtook her. Although Johnson was as she

remembered him when he came knocking at her back door—

poorly dressed and filthy—he was immaculate in

comparison to the boy at his side and, more than pity for

the boy, she was depressed at the thought that a child as

small and young as this could be and was forced into this

type of filthy, dangerous labor.

 

Intimated by clean, rich surroundings, feeling far beyond

simply dirty and certainly not worthy of entrance into a home

such as this, he’d been looking downward when the door

had opened, and now, his gaze moving upward from the

lady’s slippers, Zachariah’s head and eyes lifted slowly.

 

The lady was wearing a white, stanched apron over a

blue dress with thin red lines stitched throughout the soft,

wool material. Light completed, on the heavy side, standing

at about five feet, five inches, the lady had startling, green

flecked blue eyes and long, tightly curled blonde hair.

 

The look of this lady familiar, blinking his eyes, sensing a

quickening of his heart, looking at this lady’s face his mouth

dropped open because, to Zachariah, the lady was lovely.

More than lovely, she was beautiful.

 

Because…

 

Coming from afar in his past, imagined remembrance,

this lady’s face was the face that filled the void in his dreams,

remembering, thinking he remembered…

 

Mama! This lady, he thought, had the unseen face of the

mother of his dreams, and the boy smiled.

 

The smile caused his bright eyes to stand out from his

sweat-streaked, filthy face, and…

 

My Lord, taken back, literally taking a step back the lady noticed his eyes and the light-blonde stubble on Zachariah’s soot-caked head. My Lord, she thought, this child has the look of Albert! This child could be Albert’s brother, or the son of my sister if I had a sister.

 

Her mood changing, the frown lines on either side of her

mouth went up to become a forced smile as the lady’s sadness

changed to…? The lady’s sadness changed to a maternal

longing, a deep maternal longing, and she desperately

wanted to take this boy… to put this boy into a hot tub and

to scrub him clean… then to rock him, as she did her own

son, in her arms.

 

Standing, all but forgotten, Johnson looked from the lady

to Zachariah then back at the lady. “Er, Mum?”

 

Her eyes did not leave those of the boy.

 

“Mum!”

 

Forcing her gaze from the boy, she looked absently at

Johnson.

 

“We’re ‘ere to clean the chimney, Mum.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“The chimney, Mum! Me ‘n’ Zachariah ‘ere, we’re ‘ere to

clean the chimney.”

 

“Oh,” shaking her head, trying to clear it. “Yes. I’m sorry,

come in.”

 

Standing aside, allowing the two to enter, closing the door

behind them, knowing the appearance of the boy to be

nothing more than a coincidence, looking at Zachariah a

moment longer, the lady then walked through the hallway

with Johnson and the boy following.

 

Scattered rugs had been rolled and moved aside, and the

drapes, upholstered furniture, and a big, cone-like thing

in the corner were covered with sheets.

 

Anxious to be on his way from this house, going right to

work, Johnson moved two small tables from before the

fireplace as Zachariah spread drop cloths over the floor in

front of the hearth, then over the two tables.

 

Standing just inside the living room doorway, watching

Zachariah, The boy might be hungry, she thought. “Might I offer you and your son some food before you start in

to work?”

 

Hungry indeed, hearing the word “food,” Zachariah,

hopefully, turned towards her, but…

 

Having more a thirst than a hunger, “No, Mum, not for

us,” Johnson answered. “I’ll be takin’ me leave soon’s

‘im’n’me gets your flue swept an’ I get ‘im,” nodding his

head in Zachariah’s direction, “started on what’s to be done

‘ere,” jerking his thumb in the direction of the fireplace.

 

“You’ll not be staying with the boy? Your son can do all

this work himself, without help?”

 

“Mum, Zachariah ‘ere’s been doin’ this kind’a work for

more’in four years an’ ‘e’s real good at it ‘e is, an’ I’ll be

leavin’ ya in good ‘ands.”

 

Four years! Underestimating Zachariah’s age by almost a year, Certainly this child could not be more than eight years of age! Incredulously thinking, but not far off, Could he have possibly started in the cleaning of chimneys at the age of four?

 

Cleaning chimneys from the age of four?

 

Going onto roofs, climbing and cleaning chimneys at the

age of Albert—at the age of her own son?

 

A country girl brought to the City of London upon her

marriage to a wealthy barrister seven years earlier, though

things had been done quite differently in the country, the

lady was well aware that the apprentice system had been in

existence for many years.

 

Her husband and other barristers, as members of The

Society for Superseding the Necessity for Climbing Boys,

along with informed citizens, even then on that very day,

were arguing to have bills approved by Parliament outlawing

the forced use of young children in some of the more vile

trades that caused illness and death among children—and

the chimney sweep trade, with the use of climbing boys,

was foremost among those deadly trades.

 

Looking from the man to the boy, knowing that, other

than dirt, this man shared not one physical attribute with

the boy.

 

Also knowing that no parent, unless of the cruelest sort,

would force their child into this type of dangerous labor at

the age of four. But, horrible as it was to use one’s own son

for this type of drudgery, it was, the lady supposed, for the

betterment of the child and the child’s family.

 

But buying a child? A British child! Actually buying and

paying for a British child to use as a slave!

 

“I thought,” she said angrily, “—not that I approve of

using children as small and young as this—” glancing at

Zachariah, “that I’d contracted for a man and his son… his

older son!”

 

His mind elsewhere, actually wondering how fast he

might get to the closest pub, “No, Mum,” Johnson

accidentally admitted, “‘e ain’t me son… Uh…” attempting

to correct his lie, “When I saw ya by the back door I told ya

it be me’n’me ‘prentice that’d be doin’ the work.”

 

Though surmising, now hearing Johnson admit that the

boy wasn’t his son, further offended by the lie, “No, sir!”

The lady looked at Zachariah, who was standing in front of

the fireplace listening and watching the exchange between

herself and Johnson. “I’d not hire any sweep using an

apprentice! My husband and myself, we don’t hold with any

cruelty amounting to slavery!”

 

“Mum, it ain’t slave…”

 

“I am sure you said I would be hiring you and your son!

And at this boy’s age, even that would be bad enough!”

 

Lately—for the past two years, ever since “those busybody,

do-gooders” had been appealing to Parliament—it had

become harder to obtain employment if telling the work

were to be accomplished by himself and his apprentice.

 

“No, Mum!” lying, “I told ya t’would be me’n’me ‘prentice.”

He had done this before, lately more and more often, telling

perspective customers that Zachariah was his son rather

than his apprentice. “But if’n ya don’t want us we’ll be gone.”

Knowing the lady had an affinity for Zachariah, “But it’s to

be known by yourself that the lad’n’me I’ll be goin’ ‘ungry

on this, the night afore the Lord Jesus was born, ‘cause we

ain’t ‘ad but one other bit’a work this whole day.”

 

Her eyes ablaze with anger, she glared at Johnson, then

looked again at Zachariah. Although she then knew that

Johnson had lied about telling her that Zachariah was his

son, she had no doubt that the boy would be made to go

hungry, or worse, if she turned them away, tonight, of all

nights. “All right,” she relented, “you may have the work,

but at the least stay to help the boy finish!”

 

Becoming thirstier by the minute, “Mum, it breaks me

‘eart, ‘avin’ to be leavin’ the lad, but I’ve a ‘pointment that I

can’t be missin’, an’ I wouldn’t be leavin’ if I thought

Zachariah ‘ere couldn’t be doin’ the work right an’ proper

like.” Stopping, he appeared to be in deep thought. “Tell ya

what! If ya still be wantin’ to feed the lad, I’ll tell ‘im ‘e’s

able to take the time from ‘is work to be eatin’. Just a minute

or two mind ya.”

 

“You’re going to allow the boy to eat!” she said

sarcastically. “You’re going to allow him a few minutes to

eat! How ‘splendid’ of you, Mr. Johnson.”

 

“Yes, Mum, I know,” the sarcasm not registering with

Johnson. “An’ I guarantees ya ‘e’ll do the job good’n’proper

or ‘e’ll get what for.” Turning to Zachariah, “Come on,” he

said in a demanding tone, “get to work!”

 

The lady had no doubt that the boy could do the job

“good’n’proper.” She also had no doubt that Zachariah did

get plenty of “what for” from Johnson. Disgust showing on

her face, she looked at the man a moment longer then,

raising her arms in exasperation, she hurried from the room.

 

Looking after her, no less disgusted by her attitude, he

shrugged his shoulders, then, as soon as the floor cloth was

in place and the firebox properly screened with two

overlapping cloth screens, taking one last quick inspection

of the room to be sure it was ready for the sweeping, putting

the coil of rope around his shoulder, going outside, Johnson

climbed to the roof by means of wooden rungs affixed to the

rear of the house. Once on the roof, shinnying up the

chimney, dropping one end of the rope into the flue, he

called, “Com’in down!” through the long, hollow structure

as, waiting for the call from below, he fed the line through

the straight flue, till…

 

“Got it!”

 

Jumping off the chimney, scurrying down the wooden

rungs, Johnson waited as….

 

Kneeling inside the fireplace, fishing the line off the soot

shelf, pulling about twenty feet through, the boy attached

one of the green twig brushes to the center of the rope. Then

calling, “All’s ready!” up the chimney, Zachariah backed out

of the fireplace, re-set the two overlapping drop clothes and

tugged on the rope.

 

With the man outside, and with the boy inside, the rope

was pulled up and down, back and forth through the flue

as, dust billowing around the overlapping cloth screens, soot

and ash showered onto the fireplace floor.

 

Back and forth. Up and down. Back and forth and up

and down until ash and soot no longer fell, and…

 

“It’s done, Sir.” Zachariah stopped pulling.

Pulled up through the flue, the rope and brush fell to the

earth below.

 

Coiling the rope, becoming thirstier by the second,

coming into the house, “Aye, boy,” whispering, his hand

cupping Zachariah’s ear, “I be off to the pub.” He glanced

towards the doorway leading from the room. “An’ don’t ya

be tellin’ ‘er royal ‘ighness where I’m off to!” Then, speaking

in a louder tone so the lady might be able to hear, “Mind ya,

do the work proper an’ no mess or you’ll get what for! The

missis, she’s a mind ta be givin’ ya some food an’ I tol’ ‘er

it’ll be all right if ya takes some small bit’a time to eat. Do ya

work an’ pack up an’ get the ‘quipment down the stairs an’

wait for me there,” jerking his thumb in the direction of the

front door. Now whispering again. “An’ ya be sure she pays

ya! Understand?” Not waiting for an acknowledgment,

turning, his footsteps sounding hollow, Johnson walked from

the room.

 

Within a moment the outer door opened, then

slammed shut.

 

Sighing, Zachariah stood a moment looking in the

direction of the front door, then, going to the tool box, taking

the lantern, lighting it, he turned back to the fireplace, parted

the screen, crawled inside on his knees and, first tightening

the scarf over his mouth and nose, started into scraping the

upper portion of the rear wall with the scrapping tool, until…

Reaching the bottom, What? feeling a tug on his trouser leg, stopping, pulling the scarf from his face, turning he…

 

Squatting in front of the fireplace…

 

…poked his head through the two overlapping drop

cloths, and, Lordy!


Web Site: mmlichterman.com  


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Mark M Lichterman



For Better or Worse

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The Climbing Boy

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Becoming

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