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Authors: Joan Aiken

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BOOK: Midnight is a Place
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"Nay, it's many a long year since Sir Quincy died. Tha cannot put back the clock," Smallside said. "—Let alone Sir Quincy himself was a bad enough master, by the end.—The men are in a flaysome mood; mere sight of a child's face will not change them." His manner, for once, was neither hectoring nor obsequious, but merely weary and practical, and his accent was much broader than it had been. "This is no place for childer, my young master and miss; you must joost gang off, the best road you can. That's all there is to it."

He made shooing movements with his hands, urging them out of his little office, across the yard.

Lucas noticed that a great many of the workers, both men and women, seemed to have left their tasks and gathered at one side of the big yard, where they formed a restless muttering group, which swayed to and fro as some people joined it and others left. A man was standing on a bale of wool, addressing such of the crowd as were nearest him. Lucas recognized Scatcherd but could not catch much of what he said.

A few of the workers turned to glance with curiosity or hostility at Lucas and Anna-Marie as Smallside urged them toward the gate.

Annoyed at being hustled in this manner, Lucas hung back, and caught a few sentences of Scatcherd's harangue: "Well, friends, there we are: Sir Randolph has chosen to cut our wages by half. What are we to do about it, eh? Are we to take it lying down?"

There was a growling mutter of response from the crowd.

Anna-Marie and Lucas walked out through the big gate, with Smallside behind them.

"What had we better do?" Lucas said, half to himself.

"Do? Why, make the best of your way home," Smallside said shortly. "You've got legs, haven't you? Think yourselves lucky you've got whole skins—"

Not a trace of his fawning servility was left; he turned back into the yard, evidently dismissing them at once from his mind.

Lucas felt rather aggrieved; he had not intended his question for Air. Smallside.

"It must be nearly five kilometers home and almost all uphill," he said to Anna-Marie. "Can you walk as far as that?"

"Not in these shoes," she said positively. "They are grown too small for me and they are not comfortable at all—
du tout, du tout!
"

"Then we had best inquire our way to the tax office and find Mr. Oakapple. He will be there for quite a while yet. Besides, I think it may rain."

All memory of the bright morning had vanished. The day was dark and lowering. The town of Blastburn, not a cheerful place at the best of times, in this murky light seemed suitable only as a dwelling place for trolls or hobgoblins. Gas flares had been lit in the cobbled streets, and the foot passengers came and went out of a thick obscurity half smoke, half dark.

"Can you tell me the way to the tax office?" Lucas asked one man.

"Nay, it's noan a place I'd be fain to visit," he said unhelpfully, and walked on.

But another said he thought it was near the Town Hall—"Down along t'Micklegate, past t'prison, go left when ye see t'workus, ower along by t'insane asylum, alongside t'stocks and t'ducking stool, cross t'Market Square into Brass Gate and ye canna miss it."

He gestured down the wide busy road on which they stood.

However it was plain that, after going some distance in the deepening fog, they must have taken a wrong turn, for instead of arriving at the Market Square, they found themselves among narrow, mean streets where a carriage could not possibly have passed; even on foot it was hard enough not to slip into the filthy gutter than ran down the middle of the way.

"I do not like the air here," said Anna-Marie, wrinkling her nose. "This place smells of cheese that has gone bad."

It smelled worse than that among the decaying little houses with squalid heaps of rubbish outside each door, and Lucas began to be anxious for Anna-Marie; he hoped that she might not pick up some noxious disease in this slum. He would have liked to ask the way again, but hesitated; they were receiving unfriendly glances from the shawled women on doorsteps, the men in clogs who stood lounging at corners.

But they were certainly lost; each turning seemed only to plunge them deeper into the heart of the maze.

At last Lucas perceived someone whose face seemed vaguely familiar—for a moment he could not think why, but he knew he had seen her recently—at all events she looked kindly enough, though sad. He started toward her, firmly gripping the hand of Anna-Marie, who showed a disposition to loiter and gaze about her.

Before he reached the woman he was approaching, however, she had been accosted by a friend. They stood deep in talk while Lucas hesitated, feeling it would be impolite to interrupt, yet impatient to learn his direction before it should be too late, before Mr. Oakapple had finished his business at the tax office and started for home.

The two women were talking in low voices.

"Eh, I'm reel sorry not to oblige thee, Bess, I'd take in the liddle 'un, and gladly, wi'out a thought, if it were only me. But it's my owd man, he's a tippler, as tha knaws, and when he's a drop taken, he says there are ower many mouths to feed a'ready—he'd break ivery bone in my body if I took on another—"

"Never fret, Annie lass. I knaw tha would if tha could. I'd take the bairn wi' me on the ship, but they tells as how bairns dies quick as windflowers on those transports. I'm afeared even for Sue, that she'll never see Van Diemen's Land."

"Eh, Bess, woman, 'tis a long way—"the second woman sighed. Then, plainly glad to change the subject, she gave her friend a nudge and said, "Reckon the lad yonder wishes to speak to thee."

The first woman turned, pushing back her shawl with a familiar gesture, and now that he was close enough to recognize her, Lucas would have liked to back away. He felt ashamed to trouble her. For she was Mrs. Braithwaite, the woman he had seen mourning by the roadside on the previous evening. Her face was still pale as death, but it was resolute and firm; she gave Anna-Marie and Lucas a kind glance and said simply, "Well, my lad, how can I serve thee?"

"I—I'm sorry, I didn't wish to interrupt—" he stammered. "I only wanted to ask the way to the tax office—"

"
Oh, oh, U joli bébé, tout en riant!
" exclaimed Anna-Marie at his elbow.

For Mrs. Braithwaite held a baby in her shawled arms, and it was giving Anna-Marie a broad grin.

"
Comment est-ce qu'il s'appelle, madame?
" Anna-Marie inquired politely.

"English, English, Anna-Marie! And it's not polite to interrupt. She is asking about your baby—what he is called," Lucas apologized to Mrs. Braithwaite.

"It's Betsy, my little lady—she's a girl, bless her."

Then the woman looked fully into Anna-Marie's face and started. She said, hesitantly, "You'll excuse a poor woman asking, my little lady—I can see you're quality—but what might your name be? I wouldn't take a liberty, mostly, but it's a hard time for me, joost now—if you'll not think it amiss—"

"
Je m'appelle Anna-Marie Murgatroyd, madame.
"

"Murgatroyd! Why didn't I think on it mysel'?" Mrs. Braithwaite murmured. Then, unexpectedly, she dropped a slight curtsey and kissed Anna-Marie's cheek. "Bless your bonny face, lassie. You came by in time to put a good notion into my head, and maybe the saints sent you.... May you have a long life and a happy one, happier than poor Bess Braithwaite's. Murgatroyd," she murmured to herself again. "I'll go see the old lady directly. If ony can give me good counsel, she can." Then, remembering she had been asked a question, she gave Lucas clear and explicit directions for reaching the tax office, nodded kindly to them, hastily kissed her friend, and hurried off in the opposite direction.

"I'll see thee again, Bess, afore tha takes ship—" the other woman called anxiously.

"Happen—if there's time—"her brief answer came back before she vanished round a corner.

Lucas and Anna-Marie turned the other way. Anna-Marie had not understood Mrs. Braithwaite's remarks, but Lucas had, and he wondered if there were still some relative of Anna-Marie's living in the neighborhood—who could "the old lady" be? Who would know?

However this question was banished from his mind almost at once by the situation in which they now found themselves. It had been plain, from the unfriendly stares they had been receiving as they walked along, that strangers were not welcome in this part of the town. They caught muttered remarks: "Jack Puddings! Fancy boots! High nebs! What do they think they're faring t'do here? Let 'em goo back where they coom from while they'm still got their boots on!"

The angry looks and hostile murmurs increased; they were jostled several times and Anna-Marie who had shown a tendency, earlier, to tug away from Lucas's protective clasp, now seemed glad enough to keep close by and clutch his hand.

At one corner a fairly large group of boys had been playing a kind of football game, using a lump of wool tied with string for their ball. As Lucas and Anna-Marie approached, the ball, whether by design or accident, struck Lucas on the side of the head. The boys gave over their game and moved, half mocking, half threatening, into a solid phalanx in the middle of the path, so that it was impossible to get by. Some of them were big and heavy—nearer men than boys

One of them—a large, lumping fellow of eighteen or nineteen, with a shock of fair, frizzy hair, thick lips, and pale blue eyes—called out, "Look a' the dainty bonnets. Eh, what a lace-edged pair! Knaw who they are, mates? Tak' a good peer at the high-belted mimsy scratlings!"

"Nay, who are they, then?"

"Divven't tha knaw? Old Randy Grimsby's foundlings from oop at t'Court all fatched oop i' hog's leather an' silk velvet!"

In fact the clothes of Anna-Marie and Lucas were by no means luxurious, but they certainly seemed so in comparison with the rags worn by most of the boys.

"Gan on home to where tha belongs, whey face!" one of them shouted.

"Glad to, if you'll let us by," Lucas replied curtly, doing his best to conceal his anxiety for Anna-Marie; and, indeed, for himself: most of the boys were twice his size.

"A' reet, gan on, we aren't stoppin' thee," replied some of the boys, while others cried, "Let's run 'em t'gantlet, eh, lads?"

The group broke up to form an irregular pair of lines, between which Anna-Marie and Lucas would have to pass.

"
Ne t'inquiète
pad; red
le tranquille,
" he whispered to her, though far from tranquil himself.

Hand in hand, Lucas leading, they began to thread their way between the staring, jeering boys. They were jostled, pushed; Lucas received a couple of kicks; he could only hope that Anna-Marie did not understand the language that rained down on them. Insulting allusions to Sir Randolph were numerous; it seemed plain that he was about the most unpopular man in Blastburn.

Lucas longed to speak up and say, "We don't like him any better than you do!" But instinct told him that this would be no help, might only further antagonize their attackers.

Anna-Marie suddenly let out a sharp cry; a stone, thrown from the rear, had struck her on the cheek.

Up to now she had remained subdued, wary, but uncertain how to behave in this hostile, unfamiliar situation. Now, suddenly, her temper blazed out.

She snatched up the stone, which had fallen ahead of her, and hurled it, with astonishing strength and unerring aim, back at the boy who had thrown it—a big red-faced, red-headed lout who stood sniggering well to the rear of the crowd. It struck him full on the ear and made him stagger. Anna-Marie, meanwhile, screamed out a startling flood of insults, which lost nothing in force and ferocity from being all in French.

"
Ah, cochons, canaille,
pigs, trash, idiots, rats, garbage, offal, vermin! Just because you are many and we only two, you think to bully us!"

Utterly disconcerted by the vigor and unexpectedness of this defiance, most of the group fell back. Lucas caught muttered exclamations: "Nay, what a little spitfire! Who'd a thowt it? Yon lass is a reet hullum-skullum—"

Only one boy still seriously opposed them, a big but somewhat stupid-looking lad, better dressed than the rest, in leathers and a velveteen waistcoat with brass buttons. This boy squared up to Lucas, who, now that open battle had been declared, had no hesitation in making use of a wrestling throw that Bob the groom had once taught him; momentarily letting go of Anna-Marie's grasp, he flung an arm around the other boy's neck, kicked his legs from under him, and laid him full-length in the gutter.

"Aha! That has taught you a lesson, pig-face!" screamed Anna-Marie triumphantly, and, to Lucas, "Bravo! Well done, very good! I did not think that you were so
habile!
"

"Come on, quick, let's get out of here," grunted Lucas, grabbing her arm again, and he hurried her down the alley to the next corner, which, luckily, proved to be an opening into a much wider street, which in its turn led to the Market Square. They crossed it into Brass Gate and then saw, directly fronting them, a building with a door bearing a painted legend:

TAX AND REVENUE DEPARTMENT
OFFICE OF HIS MAJESTY'S CUSTOMS AND EXCISE

Outside the building, to the immense relief of Lucas, they also observed Mr. Oakapple, standing by the governess cart and still deep in discussion with a man in a dark-blue uniform and brass buttons.

Lucas hurried across the road with Anna-Marie panting and expostulating behind him. As they reached the cart they heard a snatch of the two men's conversation.

"Well, there it is, Mester Oakapple. I'm afeared I can't do any more. If Sir Randolph cares to coom down in person, I'll tell him the same. The taxes are long overdue, and if he cannot pay, there'll be noothing for it but to lay a distraint. As an official of the Crown, that is my last word. Nowt against you, persoonally, Mester Oakapple, you onderstand—"

"Yes, yes, I quite understand, thank you, Mr. Gobthorpe. I'll tell Sir Randolph exactly what you have said. But I fear he's in a very difficult mood at the moment. I doubt if he'll listen to reason—" Then, seeing Lucas, Mr. Oakapple broke off to exclaim in surprise, "Hey! What are you two doing here? I told you to wait at the Mill—"

BOOK: Midnight is a Place
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