Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Is, Page 2

Joan Aiken

  ‘Arun, Arun!’ pleaded the sick man again, imploringly.

  ‘There bain’t no Arran here, mister; there’s only me. Here, swig a mouthful of mint tea.’

  She tilted the cup to his lips. This time his eyes focused, and he seemed to take in the fact of her existence.

  ‘No more!’ he said faintly. ‘That’s enough. Who are you? Where am I? There were wolves – they mauled me badly – I ran for hours, it seemed . . .’

  He stared about the place, puzzled.

  ‘You’re on Blackheath Edge, mister.’

  ‘I was looking for Arun.’

  ‘There’s no one of that name in these parts. There’s no one but me and my sister Penny.’

  ‘He ran away. My boy Arun. He ran away a year ago.’

  ‘Why look for him on Blackheath Edge?’

  ‘It was London. He had spoken of – threatened to run to London. Where godless songs are sung. I have walked to London over thirty times – every second week – since he ran away; I have stood by Charing Cross, asking all the passers-by if they have beheld him.’

  Is stared at the stranger with scorn and pity. She had spent the first nine years of her life in London, scurrying about its crowded streets, and could imagine the total unconcern that such an enquiry would receive from the hustling, jostling mob around Charing Cross.

  ‘Why ask there, mister?’

  ‘Charing Cross is the centre of London, I have heard. Is it not so? Sooner or later, somebody there must have seen my son.’

  ‘Humph.’ Is did not argue this, but asked, ‘Did he have a trade, your boy?’

  ‘He – that is – we had apprenticed him to a wigmaker. An honest, useful trade. But he was not grateful!’ declared the sick man in trembling, bewildered tones. ‘In ten years he would have become a journeyman, in fifteen a master wigmaker . . . Who knows, he could have made wigs for the Duke of Kent – even for His Majesty, perhaps.’

  ‘Wigs?’ said Is doubtfully. ‘Does the king wear a wig?’

  ‘The boy left a note. He wished for songs. My pouch – ’ The man looked about him anxiously.

  Among his tattered clothes had been a small leather satchel. Is passed it to him and he fumbled with the strap. After rummaging through its contents he pulled out a scrap of grey paper – damp, now, and stained with blood.

  Is, who had been taught reading by Penny, slowly made out the unevenly printed words on it.

  ‘Breath is

  for speech

  to teach


  is death


  are for pigs.’

  ‘Did your boy write that?’ asked Is, much struck.

  ‘Ay. Our silence, it seems, distressed him. We belong, you must understand, my wife and I, to the Silent Sect. But Arun always wished to ask questions.’

  ‘Can’t blame him,’ muttered Is. ‘You gotta find out. Don’t you?’

  ‘All our acquaintances, in Folkestone, are of the Silent Sect. Amos Furze, the wig-maker, is one, of course – Chief Elder. They are devout, good folk,’ said the stranger chidingly, and coughed. Is passed him the mug of mint tea.

  ‘So your boy run off to the Smoke, to get the answers to his questions? He wanted songs, you said?’

  ‘His mother has wept her eyes out, every night since. When he was at home he could not be prevented from singing in his bedrooom – singing! – though we told him, over and over, that song is an offence against the Holy Quiet. Now, Ruth wishes that she had not reprimanded him.’

  ‘Eh, me,’ said Is. ‘Reckon you’d best give up hunting for that boy, mister. He’ll not be back.’

  ‘Child! Do not say so! Ruth would never lift up her head again. She had – has – a fondness for the lad. Of course she would never, never show it.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘That is not our way.’

  Is made no comment but, getting up, put more wood on the fire. Then she said, ‘Could you take a bite, mister? Soup? Mouthful o’ bread?’

  He shook his head weakly.

  ‘No victuals. I could not swallow bread . . .’

  ‘What fetched you up on Blackheath Edge, then?’ asked Is, after a pause, in which, far far away, they heard the faint, triumphant cry of a cock, on some outlying farm where woods gave way to ploughland.

  ‘I fancy my younger brother once dwelt hereabouts. Long ago when he first married. In truth I do not know if he is still living – it is many years since we communicated. Our minds were not in tune. But – having failed yet again in my quest – I bethought me to seek him out and take counsel of him. He was a man shrewd in the ways of the city. And he knew many songs. My boy might – ’

  ‘What’s his name, your brother?’ Is inquired, yawning as she dribbled more tea into the mug.

  ‘Abednego Twite.’

  Is let fall the pan from which she had been pouring. A puddle of green tea spread over the bricks.

  At this moment a sharp rap on the door made itself heard. Penelope’s voice called: ‘Hey, in there! Open up!’

  Is ran to unbar the door and let in her sister. Ice-cold air came in as well, like a wrapping round Penny. The frost on the ground lay thicker than ever.

  ‘Deliver us! That’s sharp!’

  Penny knelt by the hearth to warm her blue hands. ‘Lucky you kept a good fire up, Is.’

  ‘Where’s the doc, then?’

  ‘Had a lying-in at Hilly Fields. Said he’ll be along by and by. In his own good time,’ said Penny, with a lift of the lip. ‘But he gave me this flask of tincture for the cove.’ She got up and walked towards the bed. ‘How’s he been? How are you, mister?’

  ‘Pen,’ hissed Is, pulling her back, ‘that chap’s our uncle!’

  Pen slowly turned round.

  ‘How d’you figure that?’

  ‘He said he was looking for his brother, Abednego Twite. There couldn’t be two.’

  ‘ – He’s a mite late,’ remarked Penny drily, after a moment or two.

  She approached the stranger.

  ‘Mister? Here’s some jossop for you, from the sawbones.’ She uncorked the little flask and obliged the stranger to swallow a mouthful. When he had done so, and laid down again, not visibly benefited by it: ‘You say your brother was Abednego Twite?’ she demanded, in a voice that entirely lacked any warmth.

  ‘Ay, that’s him. Abednego Twite the hoboy player. He makes up sinful songs as well. Sometimes I believe he calls himself Desmond. But music is the devil’s voice,’ muttered the sick man. ‘Only in total silence may we hear the Word of Truth. Why, daughter, are you acquainted with the man Twite, my brother?’

  ‘Only since I was born. He was my father,’ said Penny shortly. ‘But he’s dead. Some years past. The wolves got him. And it was a fitting end for him,’ she added in an undertone.

  The stranger did not seem surprised, or much moved, by this news. He sighed.

  ‘Dead; doubtless with his sins upon him. He was not a right-thinking man. So you are my niece then. Dido, is it?’

  ‘Penelope,’ she snapped. ‘And this here’s another – so far’s we know, that is. Is.’

  ‘Is,’ he murmured. ‘That would be from her great-grandmother – Isabett. From Brittany, she was. My boy Arun will therefore be your cousin.’

  ‘He lost his boy,’ Is muttered to Penny. ‘Ran off to Lunnon. Liked songs, the boy did. Been a-searching for ’im ever since.’

  ‘A lot more runs off than ever comes back,’ commented Penny. ‘Why the pize did you get the notion my dad might help you, mister – Uncle? My dad never helped anybody in his whole life unless it was by mistake.’

  ‘Abednego was a musician,’ weakly explained the injured man. ‘My boy Arun liked to make up songs – ungodly songs.’

  ‘So you thought he – I see. Then you must be our Uncle Hosiah from Dover.’

  ‘Folkestone,’ he fretfully corrected her. ‘Can you – will you find my boy Arun for me? His mother is so – is so grievously distressed. Much more than is reasonable, I
fear. And what can I do? Thirty times I have walked to Charing Cross and back – asking – asking – ’

  He began to cough, and did not stop until Penny had given him some more of the doctor’s mixture.

  ‘Perhaps – ’ he gasped, ‘perhaps the boy went in search of his other uncle – the one in the north country, up in Blastburn.’

  ‘We got another uncle up north? I never knew; Dad wasn’t a one for family connections. But why would the boy do so?’ snapped Penny. ‘Boy runs off from home, he don’t run to his uncle. ’Sides, the north country is all foreign land these days – cut off. You can’t get up that way no more. The boundary’s closed. Didn’t you know that?’

  Hosiah Twite did not seem to follow her. He repeated weakly,

  ‘Will you find my boy Arun? For his poor mother? Who is brought so low?’

  His eye fell on Is, who was offering him another mug of mint tea. He said, with a faint flicker of hope, ‘You would be able to seek him out for me, I feel sure, my child. For – now I come to observe you in the dawn light – you have quite a look of my boy Arun, indeed you do – ’

  He stopped speaking, and a look of queer concentration came over his face.

  He said, once again, ‘Find him! I beg you, I beg you to find him!’ then coughed a little blood, lay back, and died.

  ‘There! Now I’ve bin and fetched the doctor here all for nothing,’ said Penny crossly, as a horse’s hoofbeats began to be heard in the wood outside.

  Journal of Is

  Me an Penny as bin R guing 4 days sins we berried Uncle Hose. (That was a hard old job count o the ground bein so friz.) We R guing about me findin the boy. I sez you gotta pay heed to sum wun when they dyin. Pen sez No one ever dun her a Good turn why should she oblije a Cove she never saw in her hole life? Well I sez Ill go, you helped me Pen and tort me ritin and readin, now Ill find Unk Hoses Boy. Pen aint best pleezed. Spose I baint here wen U gets bak she sez. Spose I dont get bak at al I sez. So we R gues 4 days an days. In the end I sez well Ill go for a munth. Pen sez oh very well N she rrites to Misiis Hose Twite in Folks Town a tellin her Unk Hoze took an dyed in R house an Im alookin for his boy Arn in Lunnon.


  As I was going by Charing Cross

  I saw a black man upon a black horse . . .

  When Is first set out for London, it was with a heavy heart.

  First, there was the parting from Figgin. He had been used to accompanying Is wherever she went in the woods and, because of his quick hearing and sharp eyes, had often warned her about distant dangers. Now he could not understand why he was forbidden to come with her, and started off with her several times, in his regular way, until at last he had to be shut up in the house with Penny; the sound of his indignant caterwaulings followed Is down the track. This was hard enough; but Penny, too, had been in a bad mood at being left. She did not consider this a sensible errand.

  ‘You’ll never find that boy,’ she had said harshly, over and over. ‘And if you do, what then? He won’t agree to go back. And his da’s dead – his ma, too, like enough, by now. Folk don’t go back – not once they’ve left.’

  Thinking of Mr van Doon, who had stayed with them in the forest for a couple of years, had then set off to look for his lost family in Leyden and had never returned, Is could see that this was probably true in most cases. But she repeated stubbornly,

  ‘I promised, Pen. You make a promise to a cove what’s dying, you gotta keep it.’

  ‘Well go. Go, then, and see if I care.’ And Penny, pinching her lips together, had rapidly stitched a doll’s wig on to a bald pink crown.

  Walking down the north-facing slope of Blackheath Edge, Is looked at the distant smoky skyline without pleasure. London seemed like an immense grey shroud, lying over the land ahead of her.

  Is had spent her first nine years in the city and had been totally wretched: poor, overworked, abused, always hungry, dressed in greasy rags. Her life there now seemed like a bad dream, compared to her present freedom in the woods and Penny’s sharp, but not ill-natured, company. Still, she had made one or two friends in London, and hoped to find them again.

  Having crossed the river Thames by Tower Bridge, she turned eastwards towards Wapping and Shadwell, threaded a network of narrow alleys near Shadwell Dock, going past roperies, tanyards, breweries and wharves, until she reached a large warehouse. Here, tapping on a small hatch-door set into a great gate, she was asked her business.

  By now, dusk was falling.

  ‘I’m a-looking for Dido Twite!’

  At once the door was thrown open. The big, cheerful, cross-eyed boy who let her in studied Is carefully, and then, grinning, said, ‘I know who you are! You’re the liddle ’un who used to live with Dido’s da near Farthing Fields. But you’ve growed plenty since them days. Is – that was your name.’

  ‘Still Is.’

  His, she remembered, was Wally Greenaway, and he had kept a coffee-stall in Wapping High Street. He also had grown, was now the size of a man, but still cross-eyed.

  He nodded at her in a friendly fashion and said, ‘But you’re out of luck, young ’un. Dido’s gone out o’ the country.’

  ‘Out o’ the country? Where to?’

  ‘Oh, not for good,’ he said soothingly, observing her disappointment. ‘Went to see friends in Nantucket. She’ll be back by spring. But come in, anyways. We can find ye a bed – my dad’ll put you up. He’ll be right glad to hear your voice.’

  Is considered.

  ‘Thanks, cully, I’d be right pleased. For a night, anyway. I’m looking for a boy.’

  Wally’s face clouded with a queer, troubled look. He said:

  ‘Best ye come inside and talk to my dad about whatever it is. No sense telling your business to the whole of Shadwell.’ And he glanced about the muddy docks, which seemed empty and quiet enough at this hour of the evening.

  Drawing Is inside, he shut the door, and led her through warm, spice-scented darkness.

  ‘Go carefully, there’s a deal of barrels and crates everywhere. Just you follow me.’

  His hand drew her on. Sometimes she stubbed her toe on a chest, or tripped over a rope. Ahead, she began to see the glow of a fire, and then a very large silent man sitting by it on a massive seat, fashioned to fit him out of a huge cask.

  ‘Guess who’s here, Dad,’ said Wally. ‘’Tis young Is, what used to live with Dido and Mr Twite.’

  Wally’s dad could not see, Is remembered; he was blind. But he put out a hand the size of a saddle – and hard as one – saying kindly, ‘Any kin of Dido’s is welcome as daffs in spring. Come and sit ye down, my dearie, and Wally’ll fetch ye a bite and sup.’

  After providing bread, ham and apples, Wally said, ‘The liddle ’un’s looking for a boy, Dad.’

  At these words, Is noticed the same doubtful, grave expression settle for a moment on the large calm countenance of Mr Greenaway.

  ‘A boy, ye say, daughter? What boy would that be?’

  Is explained her errand. Father and son were silent for a moment or two.

  Then Mr Greenaway said: ‘The Baron’ll be here in a brace of shakes, Wal. I wonder now . . .’

  Wally frowned. ‘Dad! You can’t think – ’

  A tap was heard on the outer door.

  Mr Greenaway cocked his head.

  ‘That’s him now. I reckon this is a Sending, Wally. Without any question at all. A Sending. Go let him in, boy. And take a torch along.’

  Shaking his head, Wally obeyed. While he was threading his way through the contents of the great dark storage-place, Mr Greenaway said to Is:

  ‘Let me have your hand again for a moment, my dearie.’

  Puzzled, Is laid her small paw once again in his great leathery palm. With fingers the size of balusters he carefully and delicately traced the lines on her hand, then touched the tips of her fingers in turn. Finally he said:

  ‘’Tis just as I thought. You were Sent here, my liddle ’un.’

  ‘I was?’ said Is.

��Ay. Where did ye come from? Today?’

  ‘Blackheath Edge.’

  ‘There be a line, straight from there to here, my maid. Ah, and another one, going on northward – ’


  ‘Now Wally came back, carefully leading a slight, spare, white-headed gentleman who was all dressed in black velvet. He looked, Is thought, inexpressibly sad. Wally and his father both treated the visitor with signs of the greatest respect, settling him in a comfortable seat, padding it with hanks of cotton, arranging a footstool for his feet (in silver-buckled shoes) and supplying him with a mug of apple punch which had been warmed by having a red-hot poker thrust into it.

  ‘Who’s the wee lassie?’ he inquired, but without any great interest.

  He spoke, Is noticed, with a Scottish accent.

  ‘She’s come to us out of Kent. We’ll speak of her later.’ And Mr Greenaway began putting slow, careful questions to the visitor about his health and state of mind. His voice was so kind, so deep, wise, and concerned, that Is thought, ‘I wisht Penny had a cove like that to talk to. That’s what she needs . . .’

  Then, being extremely tired from her long day’s walk, Is, without at all meaning to do so, dropped off to sleep, curled up on the warm hearthstones with her head pillowed on a bale of sacking.

  Mr Greenaway smiled, looking down at her.

  ‘The young ’un’s all tuckered out. We’ll let her rest a while. Now tell me, sir, have ye heard any news from the boy Simon – his grace the Dook?’

  ‘He reached Bremen in safety and began to make his inquiries – I have heard no more since then.’

  ‘And ye are doing the breathing exercises as I bade ye – fifty times in front of an open window facing south – ?’

  ‘Och, aye – but my heart’s no’ in it . . .’

  The quiet voices above her head, talking about things that did not seem to concern her, wove into her dreams like the pattern on a bed-hanging, and finally woke Is, when Mr Greenaway remarked, in a grave, sad tone,

  ‘Ay; dear knows, a lost child is the hardest care of all.’

  At that, Is started up, still half under the spell of a dream in which she had been searching through a pitch-dark forest.