Edwin and the Climbing Boys By Benita Cullingford

April 1780, England

“Fire! Fire!”

“Where’s the blaze?”

“Bottom of the school field. Cottage chimney fire.”

“Out of the way, Richmorton!”
 Edwin and the Climbing Boys
 Edwin and the Climbing Boys 

Latin primers fell to the floor. Fellow scholars in vampire gowns shoved Edwin aside as they leapt over benches and dashed from the Abbey School hall.

He sat there unable to move, then his knees trembled as a dreadful fear returned. In his mind’s eye, he saw the burning cottage, smelt the smoke and heard flames roaring up the flue. And he imagined them spewing from the chimney pot. Edwin hugged himself and screwed up his eyes, but he couldn’t forget the burning sails and horror of the fire at sea. It still haunted him.

After his parents’ deaths, he’d been too grief-stricken to care when his uncle, Lord Robert Richmorton and aunt, Lady Elizabeth adopted him. They had no children of their own.

“It will take time. You’ll soon forget, dear. Time will heal,” said his aunt.

“I say send him to the Abbey School as a boarder,” bellowed his uncle, Admiral of the Fleet. “A little Homer and Greek will soon clear his head. What’s done is done. Life goes on, don’t y’ know.”

He knew all right. Edwin shuddered and opened his eyes; then he wished he hadn’t!

Two bully boys had returned for him. They ran grinning down the hall.

“Richmorton’s still here!”

“Hiding like a weak-livered sissy.”

Edwin jumped up, his fists clenched ready to defend himself. No fighter, he quivered when they reached him. They were mean-spirited brothers, new to the school with a reputation for terrorising weaker boys. Built like bulldogs and two years older than him.

They grabbed his arms and dragged him outside and across the quadrant to the school field. But Edwin told himself they were cowardly pack-hounds, and he could outrun either of them, given the chance. His brave words got him nowhere when he saw black smoke spiralling up from the cottage chimney. He’d let them take him unresisting, and they’d slackened their hold. With a sudden burst of energy, he surprised them and broke free.

Inside the hall again, Edwin collapsed onto a bench. Sweat dribbled down his face. He dragged a sleeve across his forehead and gradually controlled his breathing. The sun no longer sent coloured patterns across the floor and a chill descended from the rafters. Edwin looked around the ancient abbey hall, with its hanging flags of past chivalry and stained glass windows. And he lowered his gaze to the rows of empty benches and discarded books. Like him abandoned. He’d tried to make friends. But they’d said it often enough: He was an ‘oddball, not one of them.’

Things were different when he first joined the school, orphaned and a curiosity, the son of the British Ambassador in Turkey. They’d sat him on the dais; he turned to the platform now, at the top end of the hall. Such disappointment! He’d stared at them stony-eyed, reliving the terror of his night in the ocean; the sea aflame with burning debris and his mother’s hair, floating, as she drifted away.

Edwin gave himself a shake and stood up. They’d soon be back from the fire, full of excited chatter, while he remained the same. Well, he was sick of it:

“I’m sick of being myself!” Edwin yelled, glaring at a benevolent-looking friar in a stained glass window.

“Well, my son, do something about it!”

Was he going mad? Did the friar speak to him? “I can’t help what’s happened, and I can’t make myself be happy. But I can change, I can try,” he said. Was that a nod from the Friar? “I’ll be wealthy one day. I don’t want to be, but….” His shoulders slumped remembering a conversation he’d overheard.

“He’ll do his best, Robert! We must make allowances,” said his aunt, sounding unconvinced.

“All very well. He’s had long enough. If he doesn’t toughen up, things won’t bode well for the future.” And his elderly uncle had returned to a stint at sea.

Edwin sighed. And then he straightened his shoulders and brightened. No more heart searching. He expanded his chest and grinned at the friar. “I’ll make friends and toughen up.” Galvanised, Edwin ran down the length of the hall and saluted the chivalry flags, one by one. And then, having decided, he headed out to join in the excitement….

Too late.

They were back. Disappointed scholars surrounded him; their gowns and spirits dampened by rain. A downpour had put out the fire and saved the derelict cottage but it had spoiled their fun.

“Why didn’t you come?”

“Afraid to get wet?”

“Afraid the rain would spoil your curls!” He wore his hair to his shoulders.

High above the taunts, a shriller, more mocking voice. “He’s a coward. Richmorton is afraid of fire!”

Gideon, the canon’s son. That bespectacled little swot! How dare he! A loner like him, he’d confided in him once. Edwin glared at Gideon itching to hit him.

“Fire, fire, fire,” they chanted. “The Viscount’s afraid of fire!’ And they pointed, laughing.

Edwin turned away, his cheeks flaming. It wasn’t their jeers. They often made fun of him. They’d ribbed him before about his clumsy bed making. Not his fault, with an Embassy that was full of servants. And he’d balked at eating porridge. Six whacks of the Head boy’s cane taught him the folly of that. No, it was his title of Viscount. Mention of the future Dukedom and its responsibilities made him cringe. It was something to live up to. And the worse thing was – his uncle was right. He’d soon be thirteen, almost a man, and he knew nothing of the outside world.

He’d gone over all this, Edwin reminded himself. And he stiffened his shoulders. Several followed him as he left the hall. But he walked tall, and they dwindled away. Fun over.

Edwin flicked his hair back. Gideon had done him a favour; it was the spark he needed. Of course, he wanted to prove himself to his uncle. Bonitas, scientia et disciplina: Goodness, knowledge and discipline. He was good at discipline. Right, he’d set himself a challenge. Make a three-fold plan and tackle one task at a time. He’d told the friar he would change; toughen up and make friends. He’d begin with his fear of fire and not let it ruin his life. And he spun round and grinned at the friar.

The back of the cottage faced the school field, and the garden, long neglected, was overgrown with a tangle of nettles and wild rose. Several weeks had passed and this was his first chance to get away unobserved. Edwin stood back from the gate and lifted his gaze to the slate roof. He shaded his eyes against the sun. The chimney pot, blackened one side by the fire, was still intact.

He’d only seen the smoke. The flames had been pure imagination, how pathetic was that! He stamped the ground, mortified. What could he do about it? He stared at the chimney’s large buttress on the outside wall and an idea came to him. It was impressive enough to sketch. Architectural drawing was something he was really good at. His mother had encouraged him and even framed a pyramid he’d once drawn at the age of six. It was probably still in the Embassy library.

With the weather still bright, Edwin borrowed a stool from the Abbey kitchen and set off for the school field. He didn’t mind who saw him. Most scholars went home at the weekend. Of the few who boarded like he did none followed him, as far as he knew, and he managed a fair sketch of the cottage and chimney buttress.

Later, when alone in his dormitory, he put the drawing under clothes in his portmanteau and pushed it under his bed. As he did so, he wondered if he was trying to hide his fear. Drawing the outside of the chimney wasn’t much of a challenge; he should have gone inside the cottage and confronted it. Edwin sat on the edge of his bed and pondered.

Not for long. He grinned and jerked his legs in the air. He could study the chimney flue and note its construction. Perhaps even climb the chimney! Exciting. Dangerous. Whitsuntide holidays in two weeks, he could do it then.

A sudden noise made him look up. The smile left his face. Oh, no! The bully boys. They were thumping up the stairs. Edwin dived to the floor and squeezed under the bed with the fluff and his portmanteau.

The bully boys charged into the dormitory shouting:

“You can’t hide from us!”

“We’ll get you, rich boy.” Edwin pinched his nose to stop himself sneezing.

“Yeah, next term we’ll lock you up in that old cottage.”

“Leave you there to starve.”

“Hee, hee, hee.” They found that hilarious and screeched like marauding hyenas.

Then there was silence.

They’d gone. Edwin waited a few minutes then he crawled out from under the bed and stood upright. He wasn’t trembling, he told himself. They still hadn’t got him. So, they’d seen him go to the cottage and do his drawing. Well he didn’t care; he might have a few qualms but he’d decided to climb the cottage chimney. Edwin stared ahead unblinking. It would be the first task of his challenge and nothing would stop him.

Chapter 2

First Climb

Edwin stood inside the large kitchen fireplace. School term was over. He’d left his portmanteau at the Abbey gateway and raced down to the cottage. This was the start of his plan to change. He’d thought about it long enough. Time to get going.

Bits of charred rubble lay at his feet; relics of the fire – believed lit by vagrants. Edwin raised his chin and stared at the blackness above the hearth. His stomach tightened. He could do this. He’d climbed trees in the abbey orchard. They were old and stubby but good practice and better than nothing.

He removed his frockcoat, didn’t fold it, and dropped it to the dusty floor. His first act of rebellion. Within reach, high on the left side of the hearth there was a protruding iron ring. Edwin fingered the medallion he wore round his neck; a keepsake of his parents never worn at school, then he gripped the ring with both hands and hauled himself up. Using elbows and knees he scrambled over the stepped shoulder of the chimney breast and entered the flue.

It was dark, far darker than he’d imagined. He couldn’t see anything! His arms shot out and hit the sides of the flue. They were smooth with hardened tar. His nose wrinkled at the sickly smell. Bile rose from his stomach. He swallowed hard. It wasn’t the smell; it was fear, threatening to overpower him. He squeezed his legs together, wanting to pee. Where’s the sky! Why couldn’t he see the sky? Desperate for light, he straddled the flue with his arms and legs and climbed crab-like. The flue sloped backward and curved away. He shouted aloud, just to hear his own voice: ‘The bend, the bend! I must reach the bend!’ His stockings wrinkled down. His foot slipped, and a sharp pain pierced his knee. The flue narrowed and his bunched elbows and knees knocked the sides scraping his skin. Cold sweat ran down his face. ‘I can’t stop now,’ he wailed. He tried another tactic and bridged the gap with his body. With bent knees and feet flat against the side of the flue he pushed back and inched his way up. Somehow, he squeezed round the bend. Just a short stretch of flue. Then a puff of air, and above him – a circle of sky. He cried out in relief, ‘I can make it,’ he yelled.

A muffled peel of bells reached his ears. Evensong! He should be on his way home by now. Old Amos would be waiting at the Abbey gateway with the chaise, his aunt’s mare snorting and hoofing the cobbles.

Climbing upwards again, his fingers found the rim of the chimney pot. He scrunched his shoulders, squeezed through – and just made it as the pot, damaged by the fire, crumbled apart. He collapsed to the roof tiles, and the evening air hit his lungs sending him into a spasm of coughing. When he’d recovered, Edwin sat on the roof ridge hugging himself. He couldn’t stop grinning. It was unbelievable that he’d achieved something at last. He pummelled his knees in glee. He’d climbed the chimney; his first step in conquering his fear of fire. Everyone should know. Mary should know. His cousin Mary was the only one who’d care. He wanted to throw his arms in the air and yell across the miles, all the way to London,

“Mary, look at me now!”

The Abbey blocked his view. It dominated the top of the hill, his ancient school fortress-like beside it. Edwin’s chin dropped to his chest, and he stared at the rips in his breeches and blood on his knees. Had he really achieved anything? Painful and unpleasant, yes, but the chimney hadn’t been that difficult to climb. He wasn’t physically weak. Fast on his feet and a good swimmer, he’d even taught Mary, three years older, to swim. Edwin reminded himself that he’d climbed the chimney flue when he knew it had been on fire, and he straightened his shoulders. From his position, he spotted the abbey gateway. No sign of Amos. Edwin chuckled, guessing the old groom would be in the nearest tavern. He swung his legs over the roof ridge and turned around.

A breeze buffeted his face. There was a swoosh of wings and a jackdaw settled further along the ridge. He flapped his hand at the bird. The jackdaw lifted a foot and stepped sideways towards him. “I’m king here!” Edwin shouted. The jackdaw gave him a beaky glare, waltzed closer, then extended its wings and soared away.

No competition.

Edwin shaded his eyes and squinted into the distance. He could see the wheat-fields and dark wood curtaining his uncle’s estate, and he groaned. The lonely mansion was the last place on earth he wanted to spend his school holiday. With his uncle still at sea, and his aunt busy with her new house in London, apart from the servants he’d be the only one there.

Edwin pulled his stockings up. He couldn’t do anything about his torn clothes or his knee; they’d have to wait. After a long term at school his breeches had worn thin, anyway. He braced himself for the climb down. It might be difficult, he thought, lowering his legs into the pot. But in the empty mood he was in, he didn’t care what happened to him.

When he dropped to the hearth, steely fingers clamped his shoulders.

“Got you, you varmint!”

His feet left the ground as someone violently shook him. The voice was menacing “No-one climbs them chimneys, but us! We got the contract!”

He winced with pain. Before he could cry out, another voice intervened. The fingers relaxed, and he fell with a thump to the floor. He lay there, the room spinning, too stunned to move.

There was a brief silence, then an argument broke out. Through his blurred vision, he saw two boys, one tall and thin and older than the other. The smaller boy had a deep voice. He watched them yelling at each other. Were they arguing about him? Their strong London accents made their speech impossible to follow, and they were mismatched in every way.

While the older boy, who’d grabbed him, pranced about shrieking insults, the smaller boy stood legs apart in tattered knee-length breeches. He clutched a short-handled scraper and soot sack, and looked, Edwin thought, well able to defend himself. He was right. It was obvious who’d won when the older boy’s crippled left foot gave way and he stumbled back.

Edwin eased himself to a sitting position. He ached all over. Despite the boy’s assault, he felt sorry for him. Judging by the inward turn of his ankle and high arched boot, he guessed the boy had a clubbed foot. He’d seen one before, at the Embassy, when a boy aged about fifteen was regularly carried up and down the main staircase and he’d asked what was wrong with him. How molly-coddled!

The older boy, noticing him move, came and stood over him. “You ain’t going nowhere,” he said, raising his fist.

“No, I…” Edwin found his voice. “Where have you come from? I mean, how d…”

The younger boy answered for him. “We was jus' passin’, and we saw yer on the roof. Didn’t we, Jake?”

Jake seemed to lose interest. He slouched to the far wall and slid down; skinny legs outstretched, like a disjointed scarecrow.

The younger boy approached him. “What’s yer name?” he said.

The boy looked friendly enough in his black rags, and they could be about the same age. Edwin staggered to his feet. He was taller than the boy. He straightened his waistcoat and replied, “Edwin Richmorton from Richmorton H-all.” His voice cracked.

The boys shrieked with delight. The younger one dropped his scraper and slapped his thigh. Jake jerked his legs in the air and pointed a finger at him. Their merriment lasted sometime.

Jake, wiping tears from his face with his coat tails, asked, “What’s your Honour doing ‘ere then?”

“Oh, nothing much, just thought I’d have a climb of the chimney, that’s all.” He gave a half-shrug. He felt confident because he was standing while Jake sprawled on the floor.

“You dun right, choosing a short chimbley, ain’t no difficulties there,” the younger boy informed him. The boy stared beyond him. He’d noticed his frock coat. He grinned, then he let out a whoop and snatched it from the floor.

“See here, Jake. See what we got here. This here’s a young gent. A right posh ‘un. This’ll suit me regular, that it will.”

The boy paraded around the kitchen in the coat. The coat tails almost touched the floor, but he wore it with such pride, it made little difference.

“Mistress’ll soon have it off you.”

“Who says?”

“I says. Bad Bess will leather you proper.”

“Not if she don’t know, she won’t. Not when it’s in me sack. She won’t know nothink about it. This ’ere young gent won’t tell her, will you, mister?”

“Eddie, call me Eddie,” he said, the name popped in his head – a new identity. “I promise not to tell anyone. And you may keep the coat.”

The boy removed his woollen cap, and his soot-blackened hair stood up in tufts. “I take that as a right kindly gesture.” He shrugged off the coat and stuffed it in his sack.

Jake pulled a large handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and blew into it making a disgusting sound. “One brat begging from another brat,” he said, with a scornful look on his face. He looked at Edwin, then got to his feet and stood tall over him. “You treat me respeckful.” A bony finger prodded him in the chest. “Now, what you got for me?”

Edwin thought wildly. He bent down and pulled off his buckled shoes. “Here, you can have these.”

Jake took a shoe from him. He spat on it and wiped it clean with the edge of his coat tails. The smaller boy tugged at his arm, eager, looking up at him.

“You’d get a lot of rhino for that, Jake. That’s good leather there.” He whistled.

Jake shook him off and moved to the window. It held no glass, just two planks nailed across. Jake spat on the shoe again and polished the metal buckle to a high sheen. Edwin watched him cradle the shoe. He seemed entranced, turning it in his hand. A slant of evening light shone on the silver buckle making it twinkle. Like the eye of a small trapped bird, thought Edwin. It was an odd thought to have and he wondered if it had something to do with Jake’s expression.

Jake turned and flung the shoe at him. “I ain’t no softie,” he said, and he wrenched the door open, and limped outside.

“I’d best get after ’im.” The younger sweep seemed anxious to leave and collected his tools. “Quit moonin’,” he said, giving Edwin a nudge. “It don’t do no good.” He tucked the scraper in his belt and humped the soot sack over his shoulder.

Edwin’s chest tightened. He jerked forward. “Where are you going?”

“You don’t wanna know.”

“I might.” He did, he really did.

“London town.” The boy grinned. And he ran out, slamming the door behind him.

Edwin stared round the empty kitchen.

They’d gone.

The boys had gone! But they couldn’t go, not so soon. He paced the kitchen thumping his thighs with his fists. They were free spirits, companions, with places to go, things to do – achievement. This was his chance to make friends, and it was slipping away. He jammed on his shoes and ran from the kitchen.

He halted outside. To his left, a rough brick path, with foot high weeds between the cracks. It led to an alleyway at the side the cottage. The boys must have gone that way. In front of him, his route home lay across the school field and the Abbey Gateway where Amos was waiting.

Chapter 3

A New Acquaintance

Edwin turned his back on the school field and ignoring his painful knees ran stiffly down the alleyway out into the street. He had no idea what would befall him if he caught up with the boys and went to London, or even if they’d have him! But it would help his plan. He’d experience life beyond the Abbey. Anything was better than spending another holiday alone, in his uncle’s mansion.

The younger climbing boy was waiting.

Something clutched Edwin’s heart, and he walked towards him. “Mind if I come with you?” Edwin asked.

“You didn’t ought to run with those scrapes,” the boy said, pointing at Edwin’s knees. He bent down and eyed them critically. “You’ll ’ave t’ rub some brine in.”

Edwin blushed, ashamed of his soft white skin. Embarrassed by the boy’s concern he changed the subject. “What’s your name then?”

The boy straightened up grinning. “Smudge,” he said. “On account of me face.”

The evening was not yet dark enough for lamps to be lit, but Edwin still couldn’t see what he meant. A shapeless cap covered the boy’s head and soot disguised all other features.

Edwin held out his hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Smudge.”

“Likewise. Ed, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, Eddie Hall.” The new name was growing on him.

The sound of approaching hooves and the smell of hot horseflesh filled the air. Smudge left him and darted across the narrow cobbled street. He leapt onto the high pavement, just as the coach and four horses careered past. Edwin watched, astonished, as Smudge stood on one hand and stuck out his tongue. The boisterous party of well-dressed gentlefolk laughed and waved from the windows. The coach driver shouted, “Blackamoor monkey!” Several loose stones bounced past Edwin as the coach swayed out of sight down the street.

On the opposite side where the pavement was several feet higher, three steps had been inserted to assist coach passengers. Edwin crossed over and joined Smudge on the top step.

As they walked up the steep winding street, Edwin congratulated Smudge saying, “That was a neat trick.”

Smudge sniffed and adjusted his sack. “No rhino, though.”

“What’s rhino?”

“Blimey! Where you bin?”

“Do you mean money?”

“’Course, what else?”

They reached the last bend in the street, where the road divided. To the right it curved round the Abbey, passing the Gateway. In front of them, the street, crowded with coaching inns and taverns, continued upwards to the Clock Tower and market thoroughfare of St Albans.

As they headed towards the clock tower, with Smudge leading, Edwin suddenly remembered Amos. The Woolpack Inn – Amos’s favourite drinking house! If they continued on their present route, they would reach— As though reading his mind; Smudge grabbed his arm and pushed him into a side alley.

“Don’t let him catch a sniff of us,” he said.

There was an excited urgency in Smudge’s voice. He motioned to Edwin to stay well back and cautiously poked his head around the corner. He waited several seconds then beckoned.

“Who’s there?” Edwin whispered.

Smudge, grinning devilishly, told him to see for himself. Edwin, unused to cowering in alleyways, stepped out and looked up the street.

The lanky figure of Jake lounged against the Market Cross.

Edwin re-joined Smudge, who hopped about with excitement. “Don’t you want him to see you?” Edwin asked.

“Let’s trick him. He’s waiting fer me to come up the street. If we was to cut round the Abbey, we’d be into Holywell Hill sooner than he could turn round.”

“Where are we going, exactly?”

“Gaddwell Priory. We always spends the night there. Come on, look lively!”

They kept an eye on Jake and darted across the street. Out of sight, they ran towards the Abbey. Edwin forgot about his knees and outpaced Smudge as they raced down the outside of the Abbey’s long nave. They left the Abbey precincts and paused for breath in Holywell Hill.

Opposite them was The Bull Inn and through the archway posts, lay the entrance to Gaddwell Lane.

The hill was steep and hard work for packhorses with cumbersome loads. The boys waited some time before crossing. As they passed between the wooden posts at the side of the inn, Edwin glanced upwards. The painted bull on the Inn sign stared down at him. In the bull’s eye was a half-moon of white. Edwin turned away and almost collided with an elderly man emerging backwards through a side door.

“And next time bring your manners with you,” shrieked a woman from inside the Inn. She gave a final shove and out tumbled Amos, who fell, and lay spread-eagled on the ground.

Smudge helped him up. “You all right, Mister?”

“Don’t need no help from the likes of you,” grumbled Amos, flapping at Smudge with his riding crop. “You leave me be. I can get on me pins in me own way.”

Edwin had hidden behind a horse trough. He saw Smudge looking round for him and beckoned him over. The boys chuckled at the sight of Amos straightening his clothes. His wig was lop-sided and his whip had entangled itself in the back of his breeches. To Edwin’s relief the elderly groom eventually tottered back through the archway into Holywell Hill.

The boys quickly left the yard. The stench from horse manure, rotting vegetables and fouled straw, combined with that of outdoor privy, was overwhelming. Edwin couldn’t wait to get away.

As they walked at a more leisurely pace down Gaddwell Lane, Smudge asked Edwin about Amos; he wanted to know about the old groom and why he’d hidden from him. Edwin didn’t answer straight away; he wasn’t sure what to tell him.

Smudge persisted. “You might as well spit it out. You running away?”

It was no good. He’d have to know. “I suppose I am running away,” he said. “Or I will be, if I stay with you. That’s if you’ll have me,” he added.

They had reached the Goat Inn at the side of the track. Smudge dumped his sack and took a good look at him. Edwin knew his stockings were round his ankles, nothing new about that; his legs were so thin he was forever pulling them up. His shoes were scuffed, and his waistcoat minus a button. Both knees were bloodied and his hands, and probably his face streaked with soot. As Smudge circled around him, he remembered the tear in the back of his breeches.

“So, you reckon you’re fit to be a chummy then?” Smudge said, as though the very idea was ridiculous.

“I… I’m not sure. What’s a chummy?”

Smudge picked up his sack. As they continued down the lane, he explained. “A chummy is what you is. At least it’s what the likes of me and Jake, and the others, is. We was born to it. It’s like this, see.” As Smudge warmed to the subject, the words tumbled out. “First you got to have a master. You ain’t no chummy less’n you got a master. Though master ain’t much, not ours ain’t – mistress now, she took over from him. Bad Bess be a tough ‘un. Tougher than a whole lot of masters.”

Edwin wasn’t sure what to make of this. He liked the idea of being a chummy, though. It sounded like some kind of friendship gang. Just what he needed.

Evening dew began to fall, and it got chilly. The large sack on Smudge’s back was bouncing about as he talked, and Edwin couldn’t stop thinking about his coat. Smudge didn’t appear to be cold, though, and his legs and feet were bare.

“We has to climb chimbleys and scrape ‘em down,” Smudge was saying. “Jake now, he don’t climb no more on account of he’s a journeyman, an’ it were always worse fer ’im, wiv his foot. Jake be out of his time now, and he thinks we got to toady to him.” Smudge chuckled. “That’s a laugh, that is.”

A rabbit shot across their path. It reached the safety of a small copse, then stopped and turned. It stood upright on its hind legs waffling its nose in their direction.

“Jake’s proper daft about them creatures,” Smudge remarked. “He’d sooner pet ‘em than eat them.”

Edwin felt the same. An abundance of rabbit, guinea fowl and pheasant was eaten on the estate and he hated having to accompany his uncle on shooting parties to kill them.

The track they were following led to a fast-running stream and wooden bridge. As they stopped on the bridge, Edwin wanted to know more about Jake, and he asked if Jake had completed his apprenticeship.

Smudge removed his cap and scratched his head. “Well now,” he said slowly, as though puzzling it out. ‘Suppose that might be the case, suppose he might have. Might well be.” He seemed bemused by the idea.

“What about you? Are you an apprentice?”

“Never was. I ain’t never been ’prenticed. On account of I ain’t been with more than one master fer long. I had three masters afore this one. And I been with Bad Bess now near two years.”

“Will you stay?”


“On what?”

“Whether I gets the urge to move on.”

Edwin picked up a stone and hurled it into the water. Nothing seemed to bother Smudge and he could do as he pleased. “Have you never been to school?” he asked as they left the bridge.

“What for?”

Edwin didn’t reply. They walked in silence until they reached Gaddwell Farm at the side of the Priory.

“That’s our doss house for the night.” Smudge pointed to a tall barn on their left. “I’m going for vittels. You stay here.” He thrust his sack at Edwin and headed down a path.

Edwin watched him go then he hoisted the sack on his shoulder and followed. The sack was unexpectedly heavy. It must hold more than his coat! He conjured up a few possibilities; silver plate, a snuff box perhaps, or jewels! His Aunt Elizabeth twinkled with priceless jewels; he’d never seen her unadorned. Climbing boys like Smudge would have easy access to homes of the wealthy. What an intriguing thought!

The path led between sheep pens and a low wooden fence. It was getting dark but he could tell that there were rows of leaf vegetables beyond the fence by their shape, and the smell of cabbage. He could see the Priory on the far side of a stretch of lawn and walked towards it.

Smudge was standing in front of a small purpose-built aperture in the Priory stonework. Above his head was a row of narrow arched windows and to his right a recessed doorway. As Edwin approached, a lantern light flickered in the aperture and a face appeared; a crinkled face framed by a white bonnet. Edwin froze. His hands flew to his face. Sister Ignatius. His aunt knew her. She might even recognize him! He crept across the lawn and hid in the shadow of the doorway.

Smudge’s gravelly voice cut through the night air. “I thank your Holiness Missus for these vittels, and Heaven and all. An’ I promise to return the platter.”

Edwin couldn’t help grinning. He allowed a few minutes to pass then he sneaked up on Smudge. The boy leapt forward and almost dropped the platter of food.

“Lummy, Ed! I thought you was a blooming gentleman outer.”

“A what?”

“A footpad, Booby.”

Edwin laughed. “You don’t get me there! I know all there is to know about Jack Hall.”

“Who’s he?”

“Have you never heard of Jack Hall?” Smudge shook his head.

“He was a chimney sweep like you, then he turned highwayman and was hanged at Tyburn.”

“When was that?”

“December, 1707.” Edwin did a quick calculation, “Seventy-three years ago.”

“One of your family, was he?”

“No. I’m borrowing his name, though.” He gave Smudge a grin, “For as long as it suits.”

Smudge seemed satisfied and Edwin decided he liked the young sweep. He asked few questions and seemed content with simple answers.

When they entered the barn, the interior smelt dry and musty, and to Edwin’s unaccustomed eyes appeared empty. Smudge, however, knew better. He nodded to some dried up wheat sheaves stacked in a corner. Still holding the platter, he swept an arm across his chest in a mock bow, and announced, “Upper berth or lower, your Highness?”

A tall shadow stepped forward and snatched the platter. “What you got there, you mangy nipper?” It was Jake.

Edwin swung the sack he still carried, and he and Smudge wrestled Jake to the ground. As they rolled about in the wheat sheaves, the tough straw spiked his face and one of his ears got crushed. The rough combat was something he’d never experienced. He felt charged with new excitement. No one won. It wasn’t that sort of fight – just a jumble of arms and legs; squeals, cusses, and straw. Edwin got to his feet, pink in the face, thrilled.

It was all over. Jake took charge. A draught of ale in The Goat Inn had put him in a good mood. He retrieved the scattered food, broke the rye bread in half, did the same to the cheese, and then handed a portion of each to Smudge. He kept the rest for himself.

“You brought him along,” Jake said, jerking his head at Edwin. “So you’ll have to share.” He added a warning, “Don’t forget we’ve got a foggy hole tomorrow.”

Edwin protested but Smudge generously crumbled his portions on the surface of the platter and divided the pile into two. They ate in silence. High in the rafters, a barn owl pretended to sleep. When Jake had finished eating, he dragged a bale of straw some distance away and settled down. Smudge joined him.

Left on his own Edwin re-arranged the straw. He used his folded waistcoat as a pillow and fell into a fitful sleep. As he dreamed, images of his aunt and Jake hovered above him. His aunt’s handsome features interchanged with those of Jake. Jake’s long fingers jabbed at him. His aunt’s soft voice whispered first in one ear then the other. A flutter swished past his face. Jake’s lanky hair trailed away…

Edwin jerked awake. Once again, the inquisitive owl circled the barn then returned to the rafters. Edwin settled back with a sigh. This time he slept well.

When he woke in the morning, both Jake and Smudge had gone.

Chapter 4

London Connections

Mary leapt from the chaise too fast for Amos’s help and shouted for the groom. As the lad approached, she instructed him to see to the horse and direct Amos to her aunt’s kitchen. She then gathered up her skirts and ran towards the mansion. Her long legs soon covered the distance.

Lady Elizabeth Richmorton’s new London residence was finished at last. No scaffolding remained, stonemasons, bricklayers and carpenters all departed. Years in the planning, the imposing mansion designed and built to her aunt’s specifications occupied one corner of Portman Square. At the front of the house, a large area laid to lawn. Outwardly, all was ready.

Within minutes, Mary was through the servants’ quarters, up the back stairs and into the front parlour, her light blonde hair streaming behind her.

Her aunt stood in the centre of a sunlit room. Surrounded by exquisite furnishings and delicate figurines she looked elegant and composed. Mary could hear her mother’s words ringing in her head.

‘My dear sister-in-law will entertain there, bestowed with the best that money can buy. In time, all London Society will dine at her table.’

The sun’s rays picked out auburn tints in her hair, and her beauty made Mary despair of her own appearance. She bobbed a greeting to her aunt and hastily re-arranged her skirts.

Elizabeth glided forward. “Mary, dearest child, my favourite niece,” she cried, planting a feathery kiss on both her cheeks. “Why, how hot you are! And so early in the day. Whatever ails you? I, myself, might come over all of a flutter, if I so much as dared to think of the upper apartments and the decoration still be done.” She lifted a hand to her brow.

“Aunt Elizabeth…”

“Now come to the window and let the breeze cool you.”

“Please listen…”

“Dearest, calm yourself. I can’t have agitation in my beautiful new room – it upsets the ambience so.”

Mary squeezed her hands together to control herself, and appealed again. “In that case, Aunt, please may we talk in the garden?”

“Good gracious, child, by all means.” Elizabeth’s flawless brow creased in alarm. “Is it poor dear Charlotte?” She pushed open the glass doors and stepped out onto the balcony. “How very fortunate she is to have such a daughter.” Her for-get-me-not blue eyes misted over.

“No, Aunt,” Mary said, firmly, “I assure you Mama is well enough. But I’ve come here in haste with Amos…”

“Amos?” Elizabeth interrupted her.

“He’s waiting to take me back.” Her voice rose in urgency. “I’ve come to tell you about Edwin.”

“Edwin?” Her aunt couldn’t have looked more surprised. “Why, what can possibly be wrong with Edwin?”

“He’s missing. He must have gone off somewhere and no-one seems to know where he is!”

Elizabeth gasped. Her natural colour drained away and two blobs of red stood out on either cheek. “Continue, if you please,” she whispered.

“It appears, that when Amos took the chaise to the school yesterday, he found Edwin’s portmanteau by the Abbey gateway but Edwin nowhere to be seen. Later, when Amos went back to Richmorton Hall, the servants reported that Edwin wasn’t there. He’d still not returned this morning,” she added.

Elizabeth sank down on the balustrade. “Then surely, he must have stayed the night with a friend.” A stray ringlet uncoiled from the pile on her head.

Mary frowned. As far as she knew, Edwin had no friends.

“That’s where he’ll be,” Elizabeth cried, capturing the curl and tucking it back. “Edwin will have gone to the house of that boy… What was his name? Giddy something or other, the canon’s son.” She patted Mary’s arm. “He’ll be there.”

“But, Aunt,” Mary persisted, “Shouldn’t Edwin be here with you, now that you’ve moved to London?”

“Let me recollect,” Elizabeth said, looking vague. “Of course, plans have advanced considerably. Edwin may not be fully aware… Dear me, how inconsiderate I am! Tell me, dear, when did Edwin’s school term end?”

Mary turned away, shaking her head. Her aunt knew so little about Edwin. It was kind of her aunt and uncle to adopt him after his parents’ death. They had no children of their own and it must be difficult for them. She remembered how much she’d enjoyed Edwin’s visits from Turkey, and how sad that the friendly child had changed since then into a lonely secretive boy… Even so…

Elizabeth interrupted her thoughts. “It was good of you to come and let me know, dear. I’m sure you are worrying unduly, and we’ll hear from him soon.”

Her aunt brightened. A small figure stood in the doorway; a black child dressed as a flunky. He wore blue satin shirt and breeches, and the whiteness of his stockings matched his grin. On his woolly head was a powdered periwig.

Elizabeth smiled and beckoned. The little boy approached carrying a bowl of fruit. He offered his mistress an orange. Then turning to Mary, he said with a saucy look, “Pretty Missy want orange?”

Mary scowled. Her aunt laughed and pulled the boy to her. She whispered in his ear making his brown eyes roll.

Mary swung away. If her aunt hadn’t been there, she would have stuck her tongue out. She hated the way her aunt favoured him. As it was, before saying something she’d regret, she blurted out, “Perhaps if you’ll excuse me, Aunt, I should be going.”

“You’re leaving, my dear? Why, you have barely arrived! And I’ve so much to show you…”

Her voice trailed away.

Back in the chaise, heading north to Islington, Mary remembered Edwin’s portmanteau. She questioned Amos further. At first, the old groom seemed reluctant to say anything. Finally, he told her that:

“Being worried and with no instructions what to do,” he’d had some discussion about it with cook. “And they’d got a gardener to prise it open.”

“Very sensible. Edwin may have left a message,” Mary assured him.

“No Miss Mary, we only found his clothes and a drawing of a cottage chimney. Cook thought it were the old cottage where chimney caught fire.”

“Where is this cottage?”

“Edge of school field, Miss Mary.”

That would make sense, Mary thought. Scholars weren’t allowed out of school grounds during term time. By the time they reached her parents’ country house in Islington she’d formed a plan.

While Amos waited outside the drive gates she quietly collected her pony, Rats, from the stable. The idea was to tether Rats behind the chaise and continue with Amos to St Albans. Then she’d visit the cottage. If it was the last thing Edwin had sketched there may be a clue to his whereabouts. She wasn’t bothered about the time she’d be away. Her mother, confined to her bedroom, wouldn’t be expecting her back from London until late. And she’d achieve much more if she brought news of Edwin.

With Rats finally tethered, they set out north again. Rats, furious, had set up such a clattering of hooves it took Mary a while to console him. She’d explained that a return journey with her on his back would be too tiring. An apple persuaded him.

On arrival at the Abbey gates, Mary left firm instructions. She told Amos to hurry to Richmorton Hall. If Edwin was there, then a servant should depart post-haste to Islington with a message for her parents. Amos himself had done enough that day. The elderly groom agreed.

Anxious thoughts flashed through her mind as she galloped Rats across the school field. What if Edwin was still in the cottage? Had fallen. Become ill. Kidnapped! Townsfolk used the field during school holidays.

Mary left Rats to graze and made her way through the neglected garden at the back of the cottage. She glanced up at the roof. Broken chimney pot and blackened one side. It must the one Amos mentioned, and the cottage was the only cottage bordering the field. A boarded up window, door unlocked and off its hinges: obviously derelict. No harm looking inside, she decided.

Her heartbeat quickened. She daren’t think about what she was doing. It was enough being out unaccompanied without her parents’ knowledge, let alone following a whim and entering –

Her shoulders slumped in disappointment. A dim, dusty room. Nobody there.

She’d been buoyed with anticipation and the cottage was empty. What she’d expected to find she didn’t know; more than a hearth full of rubble and burnt ashes. All this way for nothing. Mary scowled and kicked the rubble with her riding boot. How could she have been so foolish?

Then she spotted something.

A glint of silver. She stooped and picked it up. It was Edwin’s medallion and chain. The one he wore round his neck. Mary clutched the medallion to her chest. She recognised the engraved profile of Edwin’s mother and father. Her mother, Charlotte, had given Edwin the medallion when all his parents’ belongings were lost at sea, and the little boy had nothing tangible to remember them by. Mary wiped away a tear. She knew how much it was treasured.

“At least I’ve found it. And I’ll keep it safe,” she told Rats, stroking his velvet nose. She leaned her cheek against his flank. The chain wasn’t broken, just unclasped. But what was it doing there? She wondered. And where was Edwin? A frightening thought. Perhaps he had been kidnapped. The wealthy heir of an Admiral would fetch a high ransom.

Rats gave a neigh. Mary swung herself up in the sidesaddle. Enough time lost. She had to hurry back to Islington. She urged her pony into a fast gallop.

By the time they reached Hagbush Lane Rats had had enough. Mary slowed him to trot. She leaned forward and patted his damp neck.

“Forgive me, Rats,” she murmured, “I shouldn’t take my worries out on you.”

Rats snorted and flicked his ears; whether in agreement or not, she couldn’t be sure. She and her pony were often at odds. Rats lowered his neck and whinnied. Taken unawares by the sudden movement, she fell forward against the pommel.

“Steady boy!” She patted his neck, and then sat back, righting herself. A gunshot sound from the hedgerow, and a rabbit shot across their path. Rats reared and stumbled forward, tripping on hard ruts in the lane. The extra movement threw Mary sideways off the pony. She cried out, half prone on the ground, her foot still trapped in the stirrup.

As though from nowhere, two children appeared.

“Help the lady, Pete.” A slim, softly spoken boy held Rats by the reins, quietening him.

Mary kept still, while Pete’s little fingers unbuttoned her boot and eased her foot free.

“I’ve made your stocking all dirty,” the child said, kneeling beside her. “Joe and me,” he said, “We try and keep clean but we’ve no soap. We used to—”

“Pete, don’t bother the lady. If she’s not hurt we’ll be on our way.”

Mary looked from one to the other. They were alike. Both had sandy hair cut to a ragged bob and were poorly dressed. Brothers, she decided. Pete had outrageous ears. She guessed he was about six years old and his face didn’t seem strong enough to support them.

Pete sat beside her on the path and whispered, “Can I rest here with you? Joe will let me.”

Mary looked at the older boy, who shrugged, resigned, but remained apart. She called out, asking if they had been on the road long.

“Since four this morning, and we’ve still some distance to go.” Joe’s voice had no discernible accent. “Its best he doesn’t sleep now. We promised mistress we wouldn’t be late.”

“Late for what?”

“We’ve two more chimneys to core.”

Pete’s eyes were closing, “I’ve been up and down, Joe,” he mumbled. “One was werry clean, no…” His head slumped forward.

Mary reached for her boot. “If you’re going to Islington, he could ride with me. Rats won’t mind.”

Mary tried to make conversation, but it was difficult perched sidesaddle, with little Pete asleep in front of her, his head between the pony’s ears. Joe walked ahead, slim and upright in threadbare clothes. Joe’s thin shoes slapped the dust. There’d been no rain for weeks and the sun was sinking. Her mother would be anxious by now. More to herself than Joe she unburdened her thoughts.

“Mother’s such a responsibility. She’s never well. We have a nurse, but mother likes me to look after her… She usually gets up when the Quarterly Review arrives. She likes to read of the war, and the shipping news. She helps father that way. Mother has plenty of time lying in bed, and father has the bank to attend to.”

Joe turned around, “What bank is that?”

“Wilde’s Bank.”

“Close by the Fleet?”

“Yes, I’m Mary Wilde. Do you know of it?”

“We wash there, in the river.”

Mary’s cheeks burned; she wished she’d said nothing.

The first of several houses came into view. Rats stopped and his ears twitched.

“Your pony wants to canter,” Joe said matter-of-factly. “And we’re near enough now.”

Pete sat up looking perky. “That was fun,” he said, stroking Rat’s ears. “What’s he called?”


Pete grinned. “That’s a funny name.”

“I call him that because he likes kicking the stable rats when they annoy him.” Mary said.

“Can we have a donkey, Joe, please?”

Joe smiled, “If you save your pennies.” Pete slid to the ground. “Thank the lady, Pete.”

“When we get a donkey, you can ride it,” he promised her. And he ran to catch up with Joe. Then they were gone.

Mary moved Rats slowly along. Her ankle still ached. The children intrigued her, especially Joe, and she wished she knew more about them. She understood what they meant by ‘coring.’ Her aunt Elizabeth had talked of having the new chimneys in Richmorton House, cored. She explained they had to be cleared of masonry and rubble before fires were lit.

As Rats trotted passed the grand houses of the new Packington estate, Mary found herself looking up at the chimneystacks. She’d never noticed them before. Joe and Pete, or just Pete? She wondered. Which chimneys would they be climbing?

Poor little Pete, while he’d been sleeping she’d had time to study his ears. Compared to her pony’s velvet coverings the little boy’s calloused ears looked thin and vulnerable, though the coating of soot may have offered some protection.

The boys had taken her mind off Edwin. She sat up straight and gave the reins a jerk. As they dashed passed Islington Green her fears for him returned. She was fond of her cousin. “I must find out what’s has happened to him,” she muttered. Perhaps her father would help.

Chapter 5

What to Do?

Edwin had left the Priory barn. But not got far.

When he woke that morning and discovered he was on his own he couldn’t believe the boys weren’t there. He’d scattered the wheat sheaves, desperately searching for some sign of them. Even crumbs from their supper would’ve been something! Nothing but mouse droppings; no Smudge, no Jake, no sack, no empty platter from the Priory kitchen. No proof that the climbing boys had ever been there. He even wondered if the events the night before had ever happened. Had he been dreaming? Was he kidnapped? Even as he thought it, Edwin knew he was being fanciful. In his wildest imaginings, when he’d longed for a friend, he could never have invented a boy like Smudge.

Daylight filtered under the barn doors. Edwin re-stacked the wheat sheaves in recompense, in case anyone found him. How would he explain his presence? He needed a wash and his coat was missing. Should he say someone had robbed him? He bent down and peered through a knothole in the door. The barn faced sideways to the path and the bridge and stream were within running distance. He could escape!

Edwin pushed the doors apart and – ran straight into three nuns, patiently waiting. They marched him to the priory garden, a determined sister holding each arm. A much younger nun followed behind. She had news.

“He warned us,” she said. The older boy, the one in charge.” Her voice rose in excitement. “He said a gentry’s runaway was hiding in the barn.” Edwin stiffened. The nuns halted, waiting for him to say something. He pressed his lips tight. The young nun continued.

“He wanted no responsibility for him.” That’s what he said.

Edwin sat on the garden bench offering no resistance. He bent forward, his hands clasped between his knees wondering what to say. He’d not uttered a word since his capture. The nuns fluttered their hands and raised their eyebrows at each other. “Who is he?” He heard them whisper. “What shall we do?”

“I’ll fetch Sister Ignatius,” one of them said, and she hurried away. The younger nun, who wore the clothes of a novice, sat down beside him. She kept peering at him and he sensed she didn’t know what to make of him. The blood rushed to his face. He turned away from her and stared around. Where could he go? Sister Ignatius was coming. She might recognise him! He furtively studied the garden. Rows of neat carrot tops ahead; cabbages to the right, to the left, onions, and next to the onions – soot, he smelt it – a pile of fresh soot!

He was off…

“Oh, NO!” squealed the young nun.

Edwin darted towards the soot heap. He heedlessly trampled a path of onion tops and dived into the pile head first. When he emerged, choking and coughing, his nostrils flaring with soot, three nuns were staring at him aghast. He shook himself and sneezed. Powdery soot flew everywhere. The nuns screamed and backed away. To them no doubt he resembled a fiend from hell.

Edwin sprang from the heap. He snatched up a two-pronged fork and charged towards them. The young nun fell to her knees in prayer. The others turned and fled.

Edwin threw down the fork. He felt sorry for the young nun who was trembling. He bent over her. “Sister,” he whispered, “You have nothing to fear from me.” She looked at him, startled. He held her gaze, half-smiling trying to reassure her.

“Where are you from?” she asked, getting to her feet.

“I’d rather not say, at present. But I need your help, Sister.” He picked up the fork. “I’ll help you with the gardening.”

“Why should you do that?”

“In payment for food and information. I need to find the boys who spoke to you this morning. What time did they leave?”

“Before seven. But…” she hesitated, “They have no need of you.”

“Did they say that?”

“The older one did.”

* * *


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