The Charred Tree

Bound By Silence: Bygones In The Street

Dust rose from the cobbles along with the day’s heat. The casks on the tilting cart were dangerously close to falling. A gang of workers struggled to lift the cart and repair it while the teamster calmed the horse harnessed at the front. The frightened animal had sidestepped when the left wheel had failed and slewed the rig to the right blocking the whole street. It wasn’t long before a crowd gathered to watch and tempers began to flare.

Arthur Canfield moved to the shaded side of the street and watched the activity. He had been walking to his sister’s home for dinner when he happened upon the spectacle. He might arrive later than expected but what of it? He had no urge to spend more time than necessary with his brother. He loved his sister and her family, but the prospect of spending time, much less sharing a meal, with his brother almost made Arthur ill. He felt the heat rising in his face with the thought. Perhaps the on-street drama with the horse and cart would give him time to calm down again.

The teamster managing the horse nearly lost control of the animal at one point and the axle had dropped unexpectedly to the paving. The workers lifted the frame of the small wagon with some long levers and one of them slid the new wheel into place. No one was hurt and Arthur applauded with the other onlookers when the workers completed the repair. He turned to continue his walk to the Fitzsimmons house.

“‘Scuse me, sir.” The small voice called from the doorway a few feet down the alley on his right. “Would you ‘ave any washin’ me mother could do for you?” Arthur stopped and turned toward the child’s voice. He could not be sure if it was a boy or girl, but it was definitely belonged to a child. Huddled in the shelter of a doorway sat two children. The boy looked be eight or nine and the girl might have seen half as many summers. They were both dressed in worn and dirty clothing. Dirt and ashes smudged their faces. The boy looked up at Arthur as he approached. “A fine job she does and don’t charge a lot.”

“Where’s your mother now, boy?” Arthur asked. “Why are you and your sister here alone?” The girl edged behind her brother and hid her face in the boy’s shirt.

“She tol’ me and Molly to wait ‘ere while she looks for work in the taverns. We got no place to stay unless she comes back wit’ some money.” The lad held his chin up and looked Arthur directly in the eye. His gaze did not waver despite his low position and smaller stature. Arthur was sure the boy believed the story his mother had provided but he was equally convinced that washing was not the primary reason for her absence.

Arthur smiled reassurance to the children and knelt in front of them. “Molly, is it? That’s a pretty name, Molly.” He looked to the boy. “And what’s your name, lad?”

“Charles, sir, but Mum calls me Charlie.” The boy shuffled his feed without looking away.

“Well, Charles, I am afraid that I already have a wash woman who does a good job.” Arthur said.

“Oh.” His eyes went to his feet.

“Tell me. Are you hungry?” Arthur looked at the crestfallen boy and his sister.

Charles said, “No, sir.”

“Yes. I am very hungry.” Molly’s voice was little more than a whisper but Arthur heard her.

Charles turned to his sister and put his arm around her shoulders, “Molly, no. We can’t do that. Mother said so.”

The boy’s dignity and protectiveness touched Arthur. “It’s all right, Charles. I’m sure your mother told you not to beg and you haven’t. Miss Molly was only answering me truthfully. Wait here.” He stood and walked back to the street. There was a public house around the corner where he bought a loaf of oat bread and some ale which he brought back to the children.

“Here, child.” He knelt and gave the food to the boy.

“Please, sir, we can’t. Mum will be angry.” His objection was only half-hearted.

“Nonsense! You may say that you aren’t hungry but I can see right through that. Now, you and your sister eat.”

“Thank you, sir.” Charles tore the loaf of bread and gave one half to Molly who bit into it greedily before tearing off pieces and dipping them into the ale. Her brother was soon doing the same.

Arthur stood and watched the children eat for a few moments before turning back to the street. The children behind him could easily have been him and Faithe some twenty years before—except it had been she who had watched out for him. The similarity made him shiver despite the heat. It had been just the two of them when his mother had been working. They had been alone and did their best to go unnoticed by the older children who might beat them and take what little they had for the joy of it.

Predatory adults who roamed the district would do far worse.

Faithe had kept them safe through those years. Work did not come steadily for their mother and she often drank more of her pay than she brought home. They had spent many nights on the street because of their mother’s thirst. Faithe always seemed to know where the safer places for them to stay might be but no place was truly home; their father’s death and their mother’s lack of work saw to that. Arthur’s brow furrowed at the unbidden memories.

That was after Thomas had left. Thomas had also been their protector, fighting for them or hiding them depending on the threat. He had taken jobs when he could get them to help with food and shelter. He had been a substitute parent while their mother wasn’t present. Arthur had looked up to his brother and had practically worshiped him. Thomas could do no wrong in Arthur’s eyes. Thomas was his hero and he loved him for it.

When Thomas left Arthur had cried for days while Faithe did her best to fill the role left to her in the family. Without Thomas bringing in money, their mother turned to the only avenue left to her—prostitution. She tried to hide it from her children but Faithe, then Arthur, realized the nature of the work she did at night. That knowledge formed a painful core around which Arthur wrapped his anger and hatred for both his mother and his brother—she because of the shame he felt and Thomas because his betrayal had pushed her to it by abandoning them.

Arthur stopped and looked around the street. He had been so preoccupied with his thoughts that he had lost track of where he was. Realizing he had missed turning into Court Square, he turned and retraced his steps to the proper intersection. He was late for the dinner at the home of Robert and Faithe Fitzsimmons so he walked faster to arrive at the reunion with his betraying brother.

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