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Authors: Yelena Kopylova

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BOOK: THE CINDER PATH
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"Yes, Arnold."

"I'll be there."

As he crossed the yard towards the barn Ginger

Slater came out from the horse-room. The boy

stopped and looked at him. His expression was no

longer a frightened one, his hangdog air had gone; in

fact there was a cockiness about him. But Charlie did

not notice the change in the boy, and he said to him,

"Find Arthur and come to the barn, I ... I want

to have a word with you."

Ginger didn't say, "Yes, master", or

"Yes, Mister Charlie", but he turned away and went through the passage that led to the cinder path. . , .

It was a quarter of an hour later when the two men

and the two boys assembled in the

barn. They stood in a rough half-circle and

looked at their mistress's son, for in each of their

minds it was the mistress who was the boss now. And

Charlie, vitally aware of this, asked himself how he was to begin? The idea born of the unusual outburst of

anger his mother had evoked had seemed good, easy.

He would talk to the hands, to tell them that he was now master and ask for their help. But here they were standing staring at him, two men older than his father had been, and

Arthur and Ginger only a year younger than himself yet

years older in experience He'd have to say something,

start somewhere. But how?

"You wanted to have a word with us, Mister Charlie?"

Fred Ryton's voice was kindly.

"Yes. Yes, Fred." Thankfully he turned

to the shepherd and, his tongue loosened now, he went

on hastily, almost gabbling, "I . . I just want

to say that I'm not returning to school, I ... I

intend to work the farm myself, that is"-his eyes swept the four of them now-"with your help." He gave a shaky laugh. "I know I'll need help for ... as

I said to you, Fred, during the last holiday, at

calfmg, you remember? I said I didn't think

I

was cut out for a farmer. And you agreed with me then. But now-was He straightened his slumped shoulders, rubbed

his hand tightly over his chin on which the bristles were few and far between, then ended, "Well, I mean to have a shot at it."

There was what seemed to Charlie an endless silence

before the cowman spoke.

"You'll find it different from booklearning, lad."

Charlie brought his eyes to those of Arnold

Dawson and his reply was surprisingly curt now.

"I'm aware of that, Arnold, but my education, what little I've had, won't, I hope, be a

drawback to me managing my own affairs."

They all stared at him blankly now. This

wasn't the gangling young lad they all knew, the

lad who couldn't bear to see a cow heaving in labour

and didn't appreciate that she would be well

recompensed with the first lick of her calf; the lad who had been known to release a rabbit from a trap when it

was caught only by the foot; the lad who stood

mooning on the hills looking into the distance like some loony, or walked out before dawn to see the sun

rise, and came back sodden wet with dew, which landed

him in bed for a

week. At different times over the years they had had

cause to think he was a bit funny in the head the

things he did, but the young fellow talking to them now didn't sound like someone funny in the head. It could have been his father speaking, that is if ever his father had spoken civilly to a human being,

Arnold and Fred almost spoke together; then Fred,

giving way to the older man, waited while Arnold

Dawson said his piece. It was short and to the point.

"Speaking for meself," he said; "I'll work as I have always done, fair's fair, I'll earn me

wage; apart from that if I can help you you've only

got to ask, lad."

"The same goes for me," Fred Ryton

was nodding at him now. "But all I can say is you

can't learn farmin' from books."

He should have been satisfied with their response but

he felt they still saw him as the boy, the master's

son who was destined to be a country gentleman. He

now turned his eyes towards Arthur, and Arthur

gulped in his throat, jerked his head to the side and

what he said was, "You know me."

Next, he looked at Ginger Slater and the

boy's answer surprised them all, for what he said

was, "Well, me, I never had much choice, had

I?"

His answer was understandable yet puzzling, because Ginger had never been known to stand up to anybody in all the years he had been on the farm.

The other three were still looking at him when Charlie

said, "Well, that's settled then. We'll go on from here ... a day at a time."

"Aye, a day at a time, you can't take it much

slower." This came from Arnold Dawson as he

made for the barn doorway, and the rest followed, leaving him standing alone, and feeling alone, more alone than he had ever been in his life. They weren't for him, not

really; they didn't want him as boss.

It was odd-he shook his head and gave a

small rueful smile-they would sooner have continued

to work under his father, who had paid them barely a living wage, and who, had they asked him for a penny rise,

would have thrown them out.

He felt tired, weary, sort of sick in the

pit of his stomach. He went to lower himself down on

to a bale of hay. His back bent, his buttocks

almost touching the hay, he stopped and straightening himself abruptly, muttered aloud, "I'll have to show them, won't I? I'll just have to show them that I'm me

father's son, that they're not going to get away with

anything, and that they've got to recognize me as

master." Not one of them had given him the title.

Well then, he'd have to earn it, wouldn't he? He'd

have to be firm, harden himself; if only outwardly,

to make himself a replica of his father. The thought instead of stiffening his fibre, brought his shoulders hunched and his head hanging forward as he walked slowly from the barn.

. . .

Yet it was less than an hour later when he

knew to his great relief that there would be no need

to alter himself for the men's attitude towards him

changed completely. Both, within a short time of each

other, addressed him as sir, and there was in their manner the acceptance of him as their master. It was

Fred Ryton who came to him first, "Can 1 have a

word with you, sir? It's about the sale over at

Bellingham come next week. It would be educational

like, in a different sort of way"- he gave a hie

of a laugh-"if you come along of me, showed yoursel' like an' got to know the ropes."

Charlie smiled at the man as he answered,

"Thank you, Fred; I'd be glad to," And when

Fred put his forefinger to his eyebrow just showed beneath the peak of his cap it

was, Charlie recognized, a definite sign of

acceptance.

Arnold Dawson approached him next, saying,

"About Hodgson's bull, sir. I don't know

if your father clinched the deal or not, but if it's to your likin' I'd go over along of you when you're ready

an' look at the beast. Hodgson's a tight man

"cos he needs the money so he'll take you for every penny he can get out of you."

"Good. . . . Good enough, Arnold." He

blinked, gulped in his throat, then added, "I'll

try to make it one day this week." His shoulders were back again, his head up; his manner was matching theirs.

"Right, sir. Right." Arnold, too, put his

finger to his eyebrow.

Then there was Arthur. They came face to face as

Arthur was leading a horse across the yard. His

approach was different: he stared at him for a moment

before muttering, "It'll take us all to die afore we get out of your debt."

So that was it. The change in their manner, it was because he had stopped his mother from evicting the Bentons. They had he surmised, considered he must have guts of some

sort to stand up to his mother, whose

silence all these years had been formidable in its own

way.

He gave no response whatever to Arthur's

words, there was no need to: their lives were bound together by the secret they shared.

He walked on now towards the space between the

brick walls that formed the entrance to the farm proper thinking as he did so that there was only Ginger who

hadn't approached him. But then in a way Ginger

didn't matter, his opinion would carry no weight.

Yet he had always been sorry for the workhouse boy,

and had shown it. There was, he decided, one thing he

could do for him now, he could give him books to read.

As to his attitude towards himself, well, that was of

no account. What did matter was the attitude of the

men, and it seemed that they had accepted him

wholeheartedly.

Many years later when he was to recall that morning

and his summing up of the response of his few workers

towards him and of how utterly wrong he had been in his evaluation of Ginger Slater, he was to tell himself he

couldn't have known that before noon of that particular day as recognized master of the farm he was to be given

evidence of things to come; but even then he wouldn't

realize the

full consequences of the power that lay in the hands of the undersized ginger-headed lad.

He stood now between the walls and looked over the

rough road to where the cows were grazing in the long meadow that sloped towards the burn. What should he do?

What had his father done at this time of the day?

He had walked his land . . . with a walkingstick in

his hand.

Well, that's what he would do now, he'd walk his

land. Tomorrow he'd have the aid of a walking-stick too, but today he'd just walk. . . .

He set off, his arms swinging in unison with his

long thin legs and his chin was high as he turned his

head from one side to the other and looked over the

landscape; and as he walked he told himself that this was his farm, his land, and he was master of it.

Yet before he had covered half the perimeter his step

had slowed, his shoulders were slumped, his chin was in its usual position, and he was asking himself why it was he could love the hills and the countryside so much, yet

could not, even mildly, be stirred by the knowledge that he was walking on his own ground.

He stopped and looked away towards the

hills and he had the childish desire to take to his

heels and run, run to them, over them, then all the

way to Carter Bar and into Scotland. No, not

into Scotland. He swung round and faced the other

way. If he was going to run he'd run

to Newcastle and there board a boat that would take him to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and on to Germany and

Poland, on, on, on. . . .

But he couldn't run, he couldn't sail away,

for, to use the old phrase, he had burnt his

boats. Because of the Bentons he had lost the chance

to see the world and, what was more important at the

moment, the chance of further education. And further

education to him meant literature, reading,

travelling, seeing.

Well-he began to walk again-he could still read

literature, couldn't he? There was nothing to stop him

reading. Only the atmosphere of the house;

the farm house wasn't conducive to reading, never had

been, there was no re/l corner in it.

The sun went in, the sky from being high above the

hills seemed now to be settling on them; the mist

came from nowhere suddenly. A pale grey curtain,

it seemed to rise and fall like a mighty kite. As

it enveloped him he

shivered and, turning quickly as if he were being pursued, he made his way back to the farm.

It was as he neared the gateway that he caught

sight of Polly standing talking to Ginger. He could

discern their mist-wreathed faces turned towards him,

but before he reached them Ginger Slater had gone through the opening into the yard.

As he came abreast of Polly, he thought that the

paleness of her face was caused by the drifting mist,

until he saw the look in her eyes. It was the

same look that had been there when she had stood

speechless in the empty house a little over a week

ago.

"Are you all right?"

Polly looked back into his face and, her

voice thick as if the very mist were clogging her

throat, she said, "No; no, I'm not, Charlie.

Not at this minute I'm not. Do ... do you

know what he's just said?"

"Ginger?"

"Aye, Ginger. He ... he came on me as

I passed, an" he said I've . . . I've

got to tell our Arthur to go easy on him. He

knows ... he knows, Charlie."

"Knows what?"

"What Arthur did with the rope."

"No! No! Oh, no!"

"Aye. Aye, he saw it all; you help*in

caret . . everything. He said he's not out to cause

trouble but our Arthur's got to stop bully*in him."

They were standing within a foot of each other; he was

looking down at her and she up at him; their breaths

were mingling with the mist; then simultaneously, as if both seeking protection, they stepped to the side and

close to the wall, and there was no vestige of the young master about him now, for his tone was rather that of a frightened lad as he said, "Do you think he'll say anything?"

"I don't know." Her voice was a thin whisper.

"He says he won't. And anyway I can't see

what good it'd do him if he did. But you never know with workhouse lads, you don't know where they come from; 1

BOOK: THE CINDER PATH
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