The light of the fire again sparkling from the stranger’s
eyes, leaning across the table with a motion so fast it was no
more then a blur, the stranger slapped Johnson’s hand.
The knife sailed through the air… and stuck, quivering,
into the far wall.
His eyes following the knife’s flight, Johnson’s mouth
opened in amazement
Climbing Boy 25: Flesh and Blood
December 24, 1843
“Flesh and Blood?” Poking his finger into Johnson’s chest,
shoving it in and out for emphasis, the man roared, “Like
your own flesh and blood?”
Johnson attempted to back away, but couldn’t, and
bumped into the chair, knocking it over, then, tripping on
it, he toppled over backward falling on his back with his
legs straddling the fallen chair.
Leaning over the table, the stranger pointed at Johnson.
Johnson tried to scuttle backwards, but there was no place
to go but the fireplace.
“The boy is not like your flesh and blood, is he?” Reaching
to him, entwining his hand in Johnson’s shirt, the stranger
dragged him upward. “Is he?”
Jerked to his feet, pulled over the table, his face scant
inches from the stranger’s, frightened when the stranger
was silent, now beyond terror, Johnson flinched with each
“You took the boy to be your slave for a pound!” Pulling
Johnson even closer. “For one pound owing on back rent
when his poor mother died.” His voice rising, “When his
mother died!” He shook Johnson. “No , the boy is not like
your own flesh and blood at all!”
“You’re the devil!” His uneven voice rising in hysteria, “I
knew it!” Pulling back, “Ain’t’j’ya?” Using whatever strength
he had, Johnson attempted to back out of the stranger’s
grasp, and away from the again faceless face. “‘ow’d ya know
that?” Pressing his hands against the edge of the table,
straining backwards. “‘ow’j’ya know ‘e sold him to me for a
quid?” Pulling, straining backwards, his shirt was yanked
from the stranger’s gloved hand and the reverse momentum
propelled him into the fireplace where a…? coincidental,
spurt of flame instantly goaded him forward again,
confirming Johnson’s fear that the stranger was, indeed,
“No,” the stranger said softly. “I am not the devil.”
“Yeah, ya gotta be, ‘cause even if Archie or the lady or
Marcos did send ya, ‘ow’d they know I got ‘im for a quid?”
“When you drink, you talk.”
Yeah, Johnson thought a moment. That’s the truth. He
wanted to believe—at that moment more than anything—
that the dark figure standing in front of him was nothing
more then flesh and blood, and, yes, maybe he did say
something to someone at sometime about the bargain he’d
made for the boy.
Pulling the chair to the table, the stranger sat down.
Seeing this… this humanistic gesture, and also, being
able to somewhat see the stranger’s somewhat familiar face
again, breathing a sigh of relief, reaching backward, righting
his chair, Johnson sat also.
Sitting on opposite sides of the table, the stranger and
Johnson silently regarded each other.
Speaking softly, “Tell me, Johnson,” the stranger asked,
“how much longer will it be, do you think, until the boy is
too big to fit into a flue?”
Johnson shrugged his shoulders because this thought had
often occurred to him, too.
“How much longer, do you think, until the amendment
passes, making the likes of you, and what you force onto
“More’the’likely,” Johnson answerd, “they’ll never do
such a thing ‘cause them’s in Parliament got chimneys, too,
an’ they know’s sometimes the only way to clean ‘em’s to
send the likes of ‘im…” jerking his thumb towards
Zachariah’s dark pallet, “into ‘em.”
“Yes, Johnson,” conceding the point, “that may very well
be true .” the stranger said sadly.
Johnson calmed because, admitting to be wrong, the
stranger did appear to be human after all, and sitting as
they were, across from each other as though in a bargaining
session, did, indeed, appear to be humanistic.
“How much longer will it be, do you think,” the stranger
asked bluntly, “till the lad has sooty wart?”
Swallowing loudly, Johnson looked down at his hands.
This above all else—sooty wart, cancer of the scrotum,
mankind’s first known cancer—was the predominant horror
among the chimney sweep trade, and was something often
thought of, but rarely spoken of.
“Well,” Johnson said softly, searching for an answer, “‘e
ain’t caught it yet, an’ I ain’t caught it yet. Not all’s get the
wart.” If he were religious he’d cross himself, and even
though he wasn’t religious he was tempted to do so.
Looking at him intently, as though able to see into the
working of Johnson’s body, “Yes,” the stranger gave in again,
“that is true .”
Relieved at changing the subject, and yet another
concession from the stranger, smiling smugly, Johnson
rocked back in the chair.
“Johnson, tell me: how long till the boy has consumption
and is dying?” Hesitating a moment, the stranger added
kindly, “…as you.”
Never admitting it to himself, now, his eyes widening,
swallowing again, Johnson stopped rocking. “Yeah, I caught
me the cough,” he said defensively, “an’ sometimes I lose
me breath, but I ain’t got the consumption!” Rarely needing
an excuse, rationalizing the pain, when his coughing become
bad he drank and the gin seemingly eased the cough and
the pain, but being told he was dying by this… To Johnson
the stranger might still be more than just a man, and as the
fact of his predestined death sank through his besotted brain,
as though on cue, he begin to cough. Hacking, his eyes
bulged, his face became red, his knuckles, griping the edge
of the table, turned white… He coughed until, with a
supreme effort, he willed himself to stop.
The stranger slid the bottle across the table.
Nodding thanks, Johnson brought it to his mouth.
“I will be taking him, you know.”
Lowering the bottle, putting it on the table, Johnson
looked at the stranger quizzically.
“Zachariah,” the stranger said, as though a foregone
conclusion, “will go with me!”
“No! ‘e’s mine! I paid for ‘im an’ I owns ‘im!” Adding
quietly, “I needs ‘im!”
“Oh, yes, I do know that you need him for your living,
but no man can own another,” the stranger said softly. “A
contract need not be more than the word of two people,
and I’ll not just be taking the boy; I’ll buy it out.”
“Yes.” Sitting back in the chair, the stranger watched
Johnson. “I will buy the boy’s contract.”
Yes! His forehead furled in thought, Parliament, damn
‘em, may well pass the damned amendment. Yes! The boy may
well get the wart, an’ maybe even… forcing his mind to the
thought of consumption, that he must now admit to… If I
‘ave, well, what ‘e says I ‘ave… glancing at the stranger…
maybe, I’ll get enough from ‘im, to keep me in booze till I, I,
uh… Dying is something that Johnson could not admit to,
yet… An’ the boy is gettin’ bigger, an’ it’s only a matter’a time
till ‘e’s useless—leastwise for working in a flue. Tis the truth;
soon ‘e’ll be of no good to me for doin’ the climbin’.
Deep down, though, thinking about loosing Zachariah,
Thinking about Zachariah there was…? There was an
unknown warmth, an obscure reflection, a strange nagging,
a pinpoint of thought for the boy—and it was other than
that of his apprentice, the one who did the work for him…
It was something else, but…
Waiting, the stranger watched Johnson closely.
But his shallow ego would not allow it and Johnson forced
the warmth, the reflection, and the thought down and, “You
plans on workin’ the boy, do ya?”
“Not in a way that you know.” Speaking in a kindly tone,
“Not in any way that the boy will know.”
Maybe, if he were sober, maybe even Johnson would
question this vague answer, but, “Pay me for the boy?” he
questioned. “‘ow much ya be willin’ to pay?”
The stranger looked at Johnson for a long moment, then,
almost sadly, as though disappointed in the other’s response,
removing both gloves, reaching into the pockets of his coat
the stranger brought out two hands full of coins and, “Here!”
His tone hardening again, he angrily slapped the coins onto
Having followed the movement of the man’s hands in
and out of his pockets, Johnson stared at the jumble of coins
in front of him. Never, in his entire life had he seen this
much at one time. Moving the coins about with one finger,
starting to count, he realized that this was more money then
he’d make in…? This was possibly more money than he’d
make in three years. Trying to contain himself, thinking,
Maybe’he’s got more. “Why,” he said, “even if I ‘ires me
another boy, it’ll cost me this much till I get’s ‘im trained,”
he lied. “No, Sir,” holding his hand forward, “tain’t enough!”
Once again the fire had withered and shrunken to a dull,
wavering glow that barely lit the two men sitting on opposite
sides of the table.
Putting his gloves onto his hands as a sign that there
would be no more money, once again the stranger’s face
was hidden in deep shadow, and, once again…
All within the shack was silent…
The words, though softly spoken, came from beyond the
sphere of gloomy light and so startled Johnson that he
Rising from his pallet, Zachariah walked silently across
the room and, standing alongside the stranger, his fist
clenched, the boy held one hand straightforward.
“‘ere, Sir.The lady in the ‘ouse give it to me, an’ I want’s
ya to ‘ave it.”