The Street Orphans
‘Eeh, Ruth, will you hurry yourself? It’s nigh on nightfall and we’ve to find shelter.’
‘Ma, I can’t. You go on. I’ll rest awhile and catch up later. Leave a message at the inn when you find somewhere to bed down, so that I know where to find you.’ Shouting her answer to her ma sapped more of her strength than Ruth could spare, as she battled against the strong, bitter January wind that whistled around the mountainous hills of Bowland Ruth’s one good leg wobbled. Thinking she was going to topple over, she leaned heavily on her crutch. Her underarm burned as the crutch rasped against her armpit.
Despair threatened to engulf her. The weight of her club foot seemed to become heavier with every mile they walked – and they had trundled many miles these last days.
Turned out of their tied cottage on a remote farm within days of their da taking his last breath, Ruth, her ma and her four siblings had now reached the narrow high-peak road of Lythe Fell on their way to Blackburn. It had been an accident that had taken her da. A strong man, he’d been to market in the nearby small town of Pradley, which lay topside of Slaidburn, north of the Forest of Bowland. He’d stopped at an old well on the edge of the town to haul up a bucket of water for the old horse pulling his cart. The sides of the well had collapsed, taking him thirty feet into the ground. He’d been in freezing-cold water up to his neck for two days before the rescue workers brought him to the surface. With many bones broken and pneumonia setting in, he’d stood little chance.
Their da’s boss, a rich landowner, hadn’t considered the grief that her ma and Ruth and her siblings were suffering, or the plight the family would now be in. Within an hour of Da dying, the agent for the estate had served notice on them to quit their cottage and had ordered them to leave within twenty-four hours of the funeral. They had no money and had been left with just the clothes they stood up in, plus an old pram. The undertaker had taken everything they owned, in payment for their da’s burial.
Ma had a cousin in Blackburn who she thought might help them. When she’d last heard from him, two years since, he’d told her how the town was flourishing with the rise of the cotton-mill industry. This held the hope that Ma and the lads and Amy could get taken on at one of the mills. Ruth’s task would be to care for them all and look after Elsie. It all sounded good, if very different from the life they had led so far, and Ruth wasn’t without her worries as to how it would all work out. But she knew they would never be able to find the kind of work on the land that they were used to. Farm work paid little to the menfolk, and nothing for the labour of women and young ’uns, who were expected to work as part of the deal to gain a cottage with the job.
They had taken few rests as they walked during the daylight hours in the unforgiving weather conditions, and had had to keep to the highway, because of Ruth’s difficulties. The road was little more than a track, and it stretched their journey by many more miles than going over the top would have done. At night they had huddled together and bedded down amongst the bracken. By nightfall this day they hoped to reach Clitheroe, as Ma thought it was within ten miles now. There, they planned to beg some shelter and food, as the last of the bread and preserves that Ma had packed for their trip had run out the night before.
Hunger and cold slowed their progress – Ruth’s more than that of the others, as her affliction, already a hindrance to her, worsened with the effort of walking such a long distance. Looking up, she saw that her ma was three hundred yards ahead of her. Behind her ma trailed her sister, Amy, her curly hair frizzed even more than usual with the way the wind had played with it. Amy hated it and thought Ruth lucky to have long, dark hair. Amy’s wouldn’t grow long; it became too tangled and Ma had to cut it. It reminded Ruth of a bowl of soapsuds all bubbled up, and though Amy wouldn’t have it, it set off her pretty face and huge dark eyes. At fifteen years of age, Amy was younger than Ruth by three years. No one would take her and Amy as sisters, if they didn’t know them to be. There was nothing about them that resembled the other.
Amy held the hand of four-year-old Elsie, a delicate child, who was slow to learn new skills. Seth, fourteen and a bit, and ten months younger than Amy, and George, just nine months younger than Seth, were up in front. Seth pushed the pram that had carried them all as bairns, and which was still needed for Elsie as she tired easily. Two handsome lads, Seth and George looked very much alike and had the same appearance as Ruth, with their dark complexions, black hair and shining blue eyes. They were different in character, though.
Seth had a gentle nature and preferred to reason problems out rather than argue his point. He tended to be shy and rarely put himself forward. George, though quick to lose his temper with people, had a wonderful way with animals; in contrast to his short fuse, he also had a good sense of humour and at times was so funny with his antics that he’d have you wetting yourself.
The five of them were the only survivors of the ten children Ma had birthed; one of these children, and two miscarriages, accounted for the gap in age between Ruth and her first three siblings. Twin boys and another two girls had died between George’s birth and Elsie’s. Ruth had helped at the delivery of all of them, from Amy down, and still felt the pain of their loss.
‘By, lass, I can’t go on without you. I—’ The howl of the wind took away Ma’s words as she stepped off the grass verge to walk back towards Ruth. Ruth opened her mouth to urge her ma to go on once more, but fear changed what she was about to say.
‘Ma! Look out, Ma!’ The coach had come from nowhere. The horses reared. Ma cowered. Her body fell to the ground. The hooves of the startled animals pounded down on her. The screams of terrified children and the whinnying of the stallions filled the space around Ruth. Her own scream strangled in her throat. Horror held her as if she’d been turned to stone, but then desperation moved her body and urged her forward. ‘Ma . . . Naw, Ma!’ A
All around her went into slow motion, and it seemed she had to claw her way through invisible barriers as she tried to hasten. When at last she neared them, the horses swayed. Their hooves lost their grip on the muddied road and the carriage went onto its left wheel, before banging down onto its right. The violent motion catapulted the driver from his seat and over the cliff. His holler held the knowledge of his own imminent death.
The carriage didn’t right itself, and the crashing and splintering of its wooden structure drowned out the sound of the desperate driver. A face appeared at the window of what was left of the carriage: a lad, his hair curled tightly to his head, his eyes holding a look of terror. Mud splattered Ruth as one of the horses tried to keep its grip, but the animal lost the battle and slid over the edge, pulling the coach almost upside down. The face disappeared. The three horses remaining on sturdy ground reared against the weight of the one dangling below. Steam rushed from their nostrils. The whites of their eyes glared their own terror and compounded Ruth’s horror. Finding her voice, she shouted orders. ‘Amy, come and help me. Seth, George, get Ma away.’
Leaning her weight onto her crutch, Ruth stretched her body to enable her to reach the handle of the door. It resisted her pulling it open. ‘Amy, climb up. See if anyone is alive.’ ‘But, our ma? Eeh, Ruth, Ma’s—’ ‘Leave Ma to the lads. They’ll take care of her. We must help those in the carriage afore it goes over the edge. Hurry, lass.’ Ruth’s heart didn’t encourage her to take these actions – it wanted her to go to her ma – but something in her knew it was already too late and, if she didn’t help the occupants of the carriage, it would be so for them, too. ‘Get up, Amy, lass, go on. That’s reet. Can you see if anyone’s alive?’
‘Aye, there is, Ruth. A young man, but I’m not sure about the lady. She looks dead. She – she’s bleeding from a cut on her head.’
‘Tell the lad to climb out. Tell him!’
Turning, Ruth saw Seth and George standing over the tangled, unmoving body of her ma. Her heart clamoured with despair at what she knew to be the truth, but she had to save the lad in the carriage. She couldn’t let him die.
‘Seth, George – here, quick! Amy, come down and let me lean on you. Seth, take me crutch, and you and George climb up with it to the window. Get the young man to take hold of the crutch, then pull him out. Go on, me lads, let sommat good come out of today.’
It didn’t take long to get the young man out, but he’d not let them think they couldn’t save his mother. ‘Please try. Mama is breathing. She is alive!’ ‘
We can’t. I’m sorry – there’s nowt we can do, as she ain’t able to help us. She’s unconscious. We wouldn’t manage. It’s impossible.’
‘Do it, or I’ll have you all up for murder, you scum! What were you doing on the highway anyway? You caused this. You should keep yourselves to the bridle paths.’
Ruth felt her anger rising, but common sense stopped her from giving full rein to her temper. What she’d thought of as a lad, because of how small he was, she could now see was a man of around twenty-five years of age. He was in shock and was reacting as all toffs would. Though she needed to take heed of what he said, as he could have them all sent down if he wished – hanged even. But how could she get the woman out of the swaying cab, with the horses still pulling in all directions, and the whole lot likely to go over the edge of the cliff at any moment?
‘I’ll unleash the horses, Ruth. I knows how to do it. I learned that time when our da’s boss made me work with his stablehand for a while.’
‘But they’ll kick you to death, Seth.’
George chipping in with this comment offered Ruth some relief from her fear for Seth. George would be able to calm the animals. His confidence helped, as he instructed, ‘Come on, Seth, get between the back of the horses and the carriage. I’ll try to soothe them.’
Before the lads could act, the toff spoke. ‘Unleash the one hanging over the side first. It cannot be saved, and its weight is a danger.’
‘Aye, Sir, that is me plan.’ Seth touched the brim of his cap in a mock-salute.
‘“My Lord” – not “Sir”! You are addressing the Earl of Harrogate.’
Ruth clenched her fist. The ungrateful devil! And them with their ma lying dead, not ten feet away. He showed no compassion. Her glance over to her ma’s body showed her the pitiful scene of Amy sobbing and Elsie looking bewildered and afraid, her wide eyes staring at the raging horses. Their plight undid Ruth. Hatred for this man, and all he stood for, trembled through her and spat from her before she could stop it: ‘You’re nowt to us. Us “scum” don’t recognize the likes of you toffs. We should have left you to rot in hell!’
His hand sliced her face. His foot kicked her crutch away from her. The mud, though wet and squelchy, didn’t cushion her fall, but slapped hard against her, knocking the breath from her.
‘You’ll pay for that, cripple. You’ll pay dearly.’
Rage puffed his face, making him appear ugly and evil. As he turned from her, his hand went inside his jacket. Ruth’s fear intensified at the sight of the pistol that he now brandished towards her brothers, as they made as if to charge at him.
The click of the gun as he cocked it, ready to fire, resounded around Ruth. The Earl’s voice shook with anger and fear. ‘Get back! Get those horses under control – now.’
Ruth knew the threat from the Earl was real. Though she hadn’t seen him load his pistol, he could have done so before starting his journey, as these toffs were always afraid of coming across robbers. T
Terrified of what the impetuous George might do, and of the consequences for him, she drew in a painful breath. ‘Naw! George, leave it. Go with Seth, see to the horses.’
George did as she bade him, and within moments his uncanny knack with animals showed in the way they became calm. Seth freed the dangling horse, but despite the shouted commands of the young man, he didn’t unleash the others; instead he listened to George, who was telling him to leave them, as he wanted to try and drive them forward, to pull the remains of the carriage gradually from the edge and out of danger.
Ruth closed her eyes, praying that he would succeed. The scraping noise told her something was happening. When she dared to look, she saw with relief that George had accomplished what he set out to do. But her relief was short lived, as the searing tragedy of her ma’s plight came to her. Dragging herself along the ground, Ruth reached the grass verge where her ma lay and looked into the unseeing, once-beautiful eyes. ‘Oh, Ma . . . Ma!’
Elsie’s wails penetrated Ruth’s grief. Reaching for her and Amy, she held them close, but the Earl’s voice brought her attention back to what was happening behind her.
‘You there, get over here and help my mother!’ Picking up her crutch, the Earl threw it towards her. Ruth crouched over her sisters, afraid the hurtling crutch would hit them, but it sailed right over them.
Gathering her wits, she spoke as calmly as she could. ‘Amy, lass, pass me crutch to me and help me up. Don’t be afraid. We’ve to do as he bids. We’ll see to Ma later.’
‘Is – is she . . . ?’
‘Aye, lass. Ma’s gone.’ She’d said this as though she were talking about something else, as neither her ma’s death, nor the crying of her sisters, touched her in the way it should have done. It was as if she’d been taken out of her own body and put inside one that shielded her from all that could hurt her. But then it had to be so. Somehow she had to be strong for them all.
With Amy’s help, Ruth managed to get up and hobble over to where the Earl’s mother lay on a rug on the ground. It surprised Ruth to see that the lady wasn’t as old as she’d first assumed, and she realized that she must have been very young when she birthed the Earl.
Ruth stared down the barrel of the gun, saw the Earl’s finger on the trigger. Sweat dripped off his face.
‘Stay back, George, lad, it’s all right.’ On George’s movement towards her, the Earl turned swiftly and aimed his gun.
‘Do as she says, urchin.’
Ruth held her breath. George froze. The Earl turned, his gun once more pointing at Ruth. ‘I’ve heard it said that cripples like you have powers. Well, use them now. The likes of you were hanged for being witches in the past, and still should be, in my opinion.’
‘I’m naw witch, M’Lord.’
‘Oh? And you’ll be telling me next that your brother there is not a sorcerer, when only such a one could have calmed those horses. I would be within my rights to shoot you all, and have a mind to do so.’ The weak sun, which gave no warmth, reflected on the barrel of the Earl’s gun as he trained it on George. ‘And us within spitting distance of Pendle Hill, where they hanged a whole bunch of your kind a couple of centuries ago.’
His words filled Ruth with the fear of the time when people in Pradley had whispered about her having evil powers, and that she should be sent away. It had been after one lad had been teasing her. Losing her temper, she’d turned on him, telling him no good would come to him. The lad had fallen ill just afterwards and, in his delirium, had screamed her name in terror. The atmosphere had darkened from that day, as many gave her a wide berth. Some even spat in her path. What this man had just said about Pendle Hill deepened her fear. Please, God, save us; save me brothers and our Amy and me little Elsie. Don’t let this devil of a man kill them.
‘Get on with it or they will all die.’
Ruth’s fear turned to terror, as she saw the gun was now pointed at Elsie. The child had no concept of the danger she was in, as she ran over to Seth. The movement spooked the Earl. A crack resounded through the valley, echoing off the hills. Amy screamed. Ruth’s heart banged against her ribs. But then relief flooded through her as she saw that no one was hurt.
The Earl smiled as he reloaded his gun. ‘Just to show you that I mean what I say.’
Bending over as best she could, Ruth touched lady’s forehead. She stirred.
‘See! It is as I said – you are a witch! You only had to touch her and—’
Pushing back her hair, which had come loose from the ribbon Ma had tied in it, Ruth looked up at him and saw him properly for the first time. ‘Puny’ was how she’d label him. His bones jutted from hollow cheeks, his lips were feminine in their fullness, and she could see that his hair hung in false curls held with pins, some of which had escaped and now looked hideous. The depths of his black eyes held terror for her and, in that moment, she knew she was damned if his mother lived, and yet damned if she didn’t. The thought came to her that this would be the fate of her sisters and brothers as well. With this, her anger – fuelled by fear for herself and her siblings – caused her to grab her crutch and swing it with all her might. Catching the back of the Earl’s knees, her blow floored him. Lunging towards him on all fours, Ruth scrambled across him, holding his body down with her weight. Her eyes glimpsed his pistol, now loosened from his grip. Grabbing it, she mustered all her strength and smashed it across his head. The gaping, bloodied gash on his forehead shocked her back to reality. Gasping for breath, she stared in horror as the Earl’s head rolled to one side, as if independent of his neck. His breath gasped from him in a rasping, gurgling sound. He didn’t draw it back in. Oh God! No. No . . . I’ve killed him!
‘Ruth! God, Ruth, lass, what have you done?’
‘I didn’t mean to kill him, Seth. I didn’t. I just wanted to knock him out, so we could get away.’ A moan caught their attention. The lady moved her head, but didn’t open her eyes.
‘What’re we going to do?’ Seth’s whisper held tears. His fear spurred Ruth into action. Pulling her crutch towards her and grabbing the piece of ribbon she’d lost from her hair – a precious memento now, as her ma had won it when the fair had visited – she put her hand out to Seth, who helped her up. A flash of memory came to her, as she held onto the ribbon – her ma’s words: ‘I’m choosing you over Amy or Elsie for the ribbon, lass, as it will help to keep you cool, to have your hair tied back. Never cut your hair, our lass. It is your crowning glory. Look at it: it reaches your waist. It suits your beautiful oval face and complements your blue eyes. You need it to distract people from your affliction, and to let folk see as you’re a bonny lass, despite that foot of yours.’
Shaking the tear-jerking recollection from her, Ruth brought her attention back to their current situation. ‘Seth, you and George get the Earl’s body back into the coach. Hurry, afore his ma comes round proper. Put him in a position that he would likely be in if he’d been killed in the accident. Go on, me lads.’
Hobbling over to the lady, Ruth placed herself between her and the carriage, because although the lady had sunk back into deep unconsciousness once more, Ruth felt afraid that she might still open her eyes and see what they were doing. ‘Amy, lass, bring Elsie to me, and then get sommat to
disturb the mud to hide the trail of the lads dragging the body. A stick or something will do.’
'But, our Ruth, anyone’ll know as he were out of the carriage afore he died. He’ll be covered in mud, and there’s mud on his boots.’
Fear of the truth of what Amy said stopped Ruth in her tracks for a moment. When a solution came to her, she knew George wouldn’t be in favour of it, but their situation was desperate – hers above all, as now the noose would be her certain fate.
‘We have to attach the horses again and drive them over the cliff to take the—’
George’s horrified gasp showed Ruth the enormity of what she’d proposed, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to achieve it.
‘We have to do sommat to cover up what really happened, George. We have to.’
‘I think I knaw what we could do, our Ruth.’
Ruth didn’t dismiss Amy. The lass had a clever brain. She could even read and write, and she’d only had the miller’s lad to teach her what he’d learned in school.
'We could just push the seating area of the carriage over the edge, with the Earl inside. Then, when he’s found, the state of him will give no clue to him having left the carriage before he died. And it won’t be too heavy for us to shift, now that it is detached from where the trunks are stored. We could say as we’d managed to get the lady out, but then had to unleash the horses as they were in danger of shoving the rest over the cliff. But just as we did so, the lightest part of the carriage went over, with the unconscious man still in it.’
‘Yes, that could have happened. You’re reet, lass. By, Ma allus said as you were the brains of the family, our Amy. Reet, me lads, that’s what we’ll do – just as Amy says – and I can help, if I get me back against it.’
‘Naw, you shield the lady’s view, Ruth, just in case. And mind our Elsie an’ all. Me and the lads’ll manage. We’re strong.’
Ruth did as Amy suggested. She knew her own strength was limited and would more than likely be a hindrance. It wasn’t just her foot that was crippled, as the bottom of her spine also had a curve in it. Though it wasn’t not much of one and it didn’t bend her over, unless she was tired, like now, the curvature did cause her pain her almost beyond endurance at times. She held Elsie to her, and the crashing sound of the carriage against the rocks undid her. Her body trembled. The dry sockets of her eyes filled with tears as the full impact of their plight hit her.
She looked in fear at the lady, but she hadn’t moved. The thought came to her: God, what now? What now? There was no doubt in Ruth’s mind that they had to take the lady down to Clitheroe and get help for her, but what trouble would that bring down upon them? The fear this caused increased the shaking in her body.