By Sarah Levesque (Rated G)
Clip clop, clip clop. Helen Fletcher stared out of the moving wagon. The twelve-year-old farm girl was on her way to live with her cousins, the Carpenters. She had never been away from home before, and now she would never be able to go back. Helen thought sadly of the tearful goodbye of her mother, her older sister, Mary, and her younger siblings that morning. As her father and older brother, Henry, had to work in Lord Merton’s fields very early, she had not seen them this morning, and remembered their farewell of the night before.
Helen tightly clasped the little dog Henry had carved and given to her at their parting. She looked at it again and felt the tears well up as she stared at the rough yet faithful representation of their dog, William. She blinked fiercely, forcing the tears back. She would not cry. She would not cry! She made an effort to think of more cheerful things.
“Mother, Father, Mary, Henry, and the children are all safe and healthy,” she thought, counting her blessings. “And I am on my way to live with Aunt Lucy, who is kind, and Uncle Henry, who is a carpenter. I am lucky that Hugh, Lord Merton’s steward, is going to town, because otherwise I would not have been able to go – I couldn’t walk alone, and Father and Henry couldn’t be spared. Aunt Lucy wanted me because she has no girls, only boys. They are Frederick and Conrad, who are older than me, and Louis, who is younger, and baby Robert.”
Thus amused by her own thoughts, Helen was not bothered by the stoic silence of Hugh the steward, nor by the noise of the chickens and pigs he was taking to market. She started to feel less melancholy and instead started to get a bit excited.
“I wonder what town will be like?” she mused.
Eventually, due to the silence of Hugh, the lack of change in the scenery, and the steady motion of the wagon, Helen fell asleep. The driver never gave her a glance. He made no secret about the fact that he thought everyone should be as quiet as himself and, because this girl was silent, he had no occasion to think of her. He remembered her only when he stopped the horses at a stream near midday, and this only because the cease in the wagon’s motion woke Helen. She realized where she was with a startled “Oh!” which was quickly smothered in consideration of the old steward’s uncertain temper.
Looking around, Helen saw that the horses were drinking, and Hugh had taken out his lunch – a large hunk of bread and a roasted chicken leg. Helen’s stomach grumbled. Slowly, her hand crept to her pocket, where Mary had placed a small crust of bread. Helen thought of her sister, who had gone hungry the previous night so that Helen could have this bit of food on her journey. Their father had also gone without supper, to give his own meager share to his wife, so the baby could have his fill.
Now, summoning her courage, the peasant girl addressed the steward for the first time.
“Excuse me, Mister Hugh,” she said timidly.
The man started slightly at the disturbance, then slowly turned to face Helen. She took this to mean “What?” and continued.
“Please, how long have we left on our journey?”
“Long enough,” Hugh replied gruffly.
Helen was crestfallen. “I wish Father had known how long this journey would take,” she thought.
Hesitantly, the girl pulled her small piece of bread out of her pocket and carefully broke off an even smaller portion, catching the crumbs in her skirt. She replaced the bread and slowly ate the torn-off piece. When this was gone, she picked the fallen crumbs off her skirt and ate them too.
Thump. A piece of bread, larger than the one in Helen’s pocket, fell on the ground beside the girl. Wondering, Helen slowly picked it up and turned toward Hugh, the only person who could have tossed it. But his face was turned away, so she might not see that he was disgusted with himself for his pity. When this bread, too, was gone, Helen walked a few feet upstream of the horses, where she drank of the cool, sweet water, then washed her face and hands. A jingle of the horses’ harnesses told her that Hugh was waiting, and she climbed up onto the wagon seat. Hugh clucked to the horses, and they started moving again. This ride was much the same as before, with neither driver nor passenger talking, and not much change in the scenery. Once, Helen saw a castle in the distance, but she did not know who lived there, and she dared not bother Hugh, though he had already been nice to her today.
That night, Helen fell asleep in the wagon bed, the livestock helping to keep her warm in the cool May air.
The next day was much the same as the first. However, at breakfast, when Helen timidly brought out her piece of bread, now crumbled and stale, Hugh unexpectedly spoke.
“It’s only about a half day now,” he said, to Helen’s surprise.
“Thank you, sir,” Helen answered with relief.
As she slowly ate the remainder of her bread, she wondered if Hugh actually did have a man’s heart, as he had given her both bread and the information she sought. But her thoughts quickly turned away from the old steward. Though she could not help but miss her family, she was excited to be on the last leg of her journey. This excitement came out in the form of humming, though this was so natural to her she did not even realize she was doing it. Hugh sat like a stone. If Helen had realized she was humming, she would have wondered that he said nothing about it.
Helen caught her first glimpse of the city when they were still a couple of hours away. Amazed, she gaped as a dot on the horizon became a tower and, as they crested a small hill, an entire city, slowly unfolding before her. She had never seen so many buildings in one place! The towers of the walls and the church steeple rose high into the air, higher than the turrets of Lord Merton’s castle. Another girl might have babbled in amazement, pointing out things to the uninterested observer. But Helen beheld the city silently, amazed that there could be so many buildings, and enough people to fill them!
As they got closer to the city, the walls loomed up over them. Helen stared up at the people on the wall.
“They look so small!” she thought.
The wagon passed through the large gates, and they were in the city!
“How tall everything is!” she thought with awe, gazing at the two-story structures. “Henry would never believe there are so many buildings taller than he and Father put together!”
Had Hugh been another man, he would have laughed at her open-mouthed astonishment. They went on slowly. There were so many people! They went in and out of buildings and alleys. Some stopped to talk at a corner, or even in the middle of the street. Helen was bewildered, unable to grasp it all. She caught glimpses of other streets as they rumbled through the city. These others were as crowded with buildings and people as the one they were on!
Finally, Hugh stopped the wagon. They were at the center of the town, at the marketplace. Helen gasped. The market was even more full than the rest of the city. It was jam-packed with people: townsmen, farmers, stewards, lords, traveling tradesmen, slaves, and even entertainers. Helen had not known there were so many people in England, or even the whole world!
“I suppose I’ll have to find your aunt and deliver you to her,” Hugh grumbled.
Helen took no notice of him – there was too much to see! There were stalls and stalls and storefronts of merchants selling anything anyone could possibly imagine! She saw fruit, and meat, and livestock, and even cloth and jewelry like Lady Merton wore.
“Oh! There’s a man that can carve as well as Henry!” Helen thought, remembering her favorite brother in the midst of this wondrous chaos. And beyond the market, even more buildings rose up, too many to count; and beyond them the walls, with their high towers.
A passerby glanced at Helen’s astonished face and laughed merrily. Helen clapped her mouth shut, but her eyes stayed as large as the horses’ hooves, trying to take in the whole scene at once. Hugh had to ask her three times and even call her name before she realized he wanted to know what her uncle’s trade was.
“He is a carpenter,” she answered him breathlessly, not noticing his irritation at the delay.
“A carpenter. Hmph. I suppose he lives on Carver Street then?”
When the girl made no reply, the old man grumbled under his breath and turned the horses around. The jolt of the wagon brought Helen back to herself, and she cried out.
“Where are we going?!”
“To find your uncle. You don’t think he lives at the market, do you?” Hugh asked sarcastically.
The silence that followed proclaimed his sarcastic remark to be accurate. Under Hugh’s direction, the horses turned down a side street. Helen noticed that the street stank, and the houses leaned towards each other slightly. Signs hung over doorways, depicting the type of craftsmen inside. Different pieces of furniture, cabinets, and figurines were carved or painted on the signs. One had a chair on it, and it was at this door that Hugh stopped.
“Well, this is it. Probably,” he said unencouragingly.
Helen looked at him, then at the door of the shop. Slowly, she got down from the wagon and walked toward the door. It opened suddenly, and a young man walked out, almost bumping into her.
“Sorry, miss,” he apologized, and held the door for her.
She could not delay any longer. With a bob of her head in thanks to the young man, she walked through the door. Inside were two chairs at a desk, with two doors leading out of the room. The only other occupant room was a boy about thirteen years old, working at another desk at the back of the room. He looked up when she entered.
“May I help you?” he asked politely.
Helen blushed self-consciously as his hazel eyes took in her ragged, coarse dress, her unkempt hair, dirty face, and bare feet. “Is this the shop of Henry Carpenter?” she asked hesitantly.
“Yes, it is.” The boy looked at her questioningly, as if wondering what this poor, dirty girl could want with a fine carpenter.
“Is he here?” she asked.
“Yes,” the boy said again. He jumped off the stool he had been perched on and opened the left door. “Father, there’s a girl here to see you!” His voice carried his amusement.
Through the door came a large man with a dark beard, which Helen noticed was full of wood shavings. He looked at Helen.
“Well?” he said simply.
“Uncle Henry?” she said, cautiously. “I’m Helen Fletcher. My mother is Adelaide Fletcher.”
“Ah!” The big man responded instantly with a smile. “So you’re Frederick’s daughter, are you?” Turning towards the boy, he spoke again. “Conrad, go tell your mother Adelaide’s daughter is here.”
The boy scampered to the door on the right and disappeared. He returned in a minute. With him were a little boy and a stout, matronly woman who held a baby and bore a slight resemblance to Helen’s mother. The woman – Aunt Lucy, as Helen surmised – went right up to the girl and enveloped her in a hug.
“You must be Helen!” she enthused. “I had no idea you would come so quickly! How is your mother? I haven’t seen her in, it must be fifteen years!”
“She’s dirty!” the small boy announced, pointing a pudgy finger.
“Louis!” his mother scolded him. “Of course she is, with that long journey. But we’ll soon fix that.” Turning back to Helen, she introduced the cousins. “Frederick has just gone out, but this is Conrad and Louis and Robert. This is your cousin Helen.”
“So it must have been Frederick that opened the door for me,” Helen thought as Conrad stepped forward and shook hands.
Louis stayed where he was, but ventured a question. “Wha’cha got in your hand?” he asked Helen.
She looked down. She had forgotten that she still held Henry’s wooden dog. “This is my dog, William,” she said. “My brother Henry made him for me. We have a real dog at home that looks just like this. His name is William, too. Would you like to hold him?”
She offered the wooden dog to the boy, who took it and started to make it run up and down Conrad’s leg.
“William? As in, King William?” Conrad looked slightly confused.
“Yes. My father thinks the dog has more regard for us and the Church than the king does,” Helen answered, smiling.
Uncle Henry laughed. “Frederick always did have a mind of his own!”
Louis looked up. “Frederick?” he asked.
“Not our Frederick, Uncle Frederick,” Uncle Henry explained. He picked up his son and placed him on his shoulders. The boy ran the wooden dog through his father’s hair. “Hey! Be gentle up there!” Uncle Henry admonished Louis with a laugh.
“Well, I have work to do, and I’m sure Helen would like to clean up,” Aunt Lucy said briskly.
Helen nodded gratefully, then remembered something. “Oh! I must say goodbye to Hugh – he’s the man who brought me here,” she explained.
She ran outside. The old steward was still there, looking annoyed.
“They do live here!” Helen told him. “Thank you for bringing me. Please tell my father I got here all right.”
Impetuously, she climbed up onto the wagon seat and gave him a hug. She did not care that she had been wary of him before – she was not anymore. She climbed back down.
“Goodbye. Thank you again! Goodbye!” Helen called over her shoulder as she ran into the house.