Bill was in a particularly enquiring mood that evening.
We were travelling gently along the Oxford Canal just at twilight, looking for somewhere to stop for the night.
“What's that?” he asked suddenly, pointing ahead of the boat at an old iron bridge that spanned the narrow cutting we were passing through.
“What, the bridge?” I asked. “Come on! You've seen bridges before.....”
“It looks different to the others, one side seems curved.....”
I looked again. “Oh yes, it's a crossover bridge” I said.
Bill looked puzzled at this explanation. “Well isn't that what all bridges do?” he asked. “Cross over?”
I laughed. “Well yes, but this goes back to the old horse boats. You've noticed that sometimes the towpath is on one side of the canal and sometimes on the other? Well a crossover bridge is designed so that the horse can cross over onto the other side without having to be unhitched from the boat.”
Bill nodded. “Clever!”
“Anything that saved time was important to the old boatmen. They made their living carrying cargo around the system. Coal to the factories in the Midlands, fine China from the potteries in Stoke on Trent down to London, then they'd pick up another cargo to take back. Their boats were their living, they were born on them, lived on them, brought up their families on them and died on them. A whole travelling community of their own.”
“I guess they didn't give them sentimental names either?” asked Bill sceptically, eyeing a passing boat called 'Moonlight Serenade'.
“No, probably not!” I laughed.
“Why 'Lady Eleanor'?” he asked thoughtfully. “Does that mean something?”
I smiled. “Well, actually it comes from an old story I was told when I first started travelling on the canals. Let's find somewhere to tie up and I'll tell you......”
She rounded the corner at a run. The towpath was narrow and damp, slippery with surface mud from the previous night's rain. Branches from the hawthorn bushes lining the path seemed to reach out and catch at her clothing as if even Sir Gerald's land was conspiring to prevent her from leaving. If only she could reach the bridge.
The canal marked the boundary of his property and the towpath crossed there to the other side. She had walked along here many times in the past few months gazing wistfully across the canal and somehow the old bridge had become a symbol of freedom to her. She knew in her heart that it would make no difference to him, he would continue to pursue her anyway, but somehow it was vitally important to her that she should leave his property. Especially now that she no longer considered herself to be his property.
She remembered the first time she had seen the old iron bridge, from the fine carriage which had brought her here on her wedding day. Her uncle had pointed it out to her, explaining that it crossed the canal which marked the edge of her prospective husband's estate.
“Sir Gerald was adamant that the canal would not cross his land” he explained. “He has investments in the new railway companies who are in competition to carry cargo, so the canal company had to go around the edge. I know a few men who are on the board and they were furious with him I can tell you!”
Perhaps, on reflection, that was the first indication that her new husband was not universally admired in the area. He was rich, yes and very handsome, but she did wonder why, although he had been contracted to marry twice before, the arrangements had apparently fallen through. She recalled that the servants, who had been lined up outside the hall that day to meet their new mistress, had all appeared cowed and wouldn't meet his eye.......but of course, by then, it was too late for her.
There was the bridge, a few hundred yards ahead but she would never reach it before he and his friends rounded the corner and saw her.
It was then that she saw the boat. A wooden hulled work boat about seventy feet long but only about seven feet wide across the beam. The small rear cabin covered with the typical brightly painted patterns and the forward cargo hold covered with black tarpaulin. It was moving slowly away from her in midstream, the long tow rope taut in front of it to where it was hitched to the horse. A man was walking alongside the horse, his back to her, but there was a woman on the boat leaning on the tiller. She ran along the towpath until she was level with the stern of the boat and called out.
“Help me! Please! Don't let them catch me!” Her long skirt was muddied and torn from her desperate flight. Sweat ran down her back and stung the raw wounds on her back and she was panting so hard she was not sure that the woman had even heard her, never mind understood. Then she turned her head and looked across towards the bank. She glanced backwards and Eleanor realised that she could hear the pounding hooves of the horses coming along the hard packed dirt path. She leaned on the long curved wooden tiller and the stern of the boat swung gently in towards the towpath.
“Quickly love! Jump!” she said, holding out her hand. Eleanor glanced back behind her, but what did she have to lose after all? She took a flying leap and landed on the stern of the boat, the steerswoman gripping her arm to steady her. She pulled open a small door in front of her and pushed Eleanor towards it.
“Quick lovey, in there before they see you!”
Eleanor practically tumbled down the three steps into the tiny boatman's cabin and looked around her. The cabin was dim, lit only by a lantern hanging from a hook beside the door which the woman was blocking with her body. An iron stove stood on one side of the steps making the small space comfortably warm. She climbed up on to the narrow bench which filled one side of the cabin and knelt on the thin padding, her ear pressed against the wooden hull, listening.
In just a few moments she heard the sound of the horses coming up the towpath and then Sir Gerald's harsh tones.
“You! Woman!” he cried. “Bring that boat in here!”
“Can't do that sir!” She called back. “We've a schedule to keep! Cargo of coal from Lord Bridgwater's mines to the factories in Manchester!”
Sir Gerald's normally pale face was red with exertion and anger. “I don't care where you're going! You bring that boat in now or it'll be the worse for you!”
Eleanor peeked through a gap in the wooden cabin and looked forward across the long cargo hold of the boat to where the man, presumably her husband, was looking back curiously although he hadn't stopped the horse. Suddenly she noticed one of the tarpaulins covering the cargo move and a hand appeared. As she watched the tarpaulin was pushed aside and a younger man climbed out. He was dressed in a pair of patched leather breeches and nothing else. His skin was smeared with streaks of coal dust and, as he climbed out onto the side of the boat, she saw that his body was taut with hard muscle from years of manual work.
“Now you shouldn't speak to my Ma like that Sorr” he said mildly. “That ain't very polite now is it?”
Sir Gerald looked down at him with a scowl. He was perfectly at home bossing around his servants and his womenfolk but this young man had arms the size of Gerald's thighs and held himself on the narrow edge of the cargo hold with the perfect balance of an athlete. She could see that he wanted to yell at him. His two friends had pulled up their horses behind him and were watching him with interest. He wouldn't want to appear weak in front of them, but he wasn't entirely sure that the young man wouldn't leap off the boat and drag him from his horse. He wisely elected to remain silent.
“Now what was it you was wanting?” asked the young man politely.
“A young woman came along this path. You must have seen her? Where did she go?” demanded Sir Gerald.
The young man looked puzzled. “I've not seen any young woman” he said.
He turned and called to the man with the horse. “Da! Have you seen a young woman along the towpath?”
The man shook his head and turned back to the horse who had stopped and was looking back curiously at the three fine horses stamping and puffing on the towpath.
“She can't have disappeared into thin air man!” shouted Sir Gerald angrily. “You must have seen her!”
The young man scratched his head and looked back along the towpath. “P'raps she slipped through the hedge and went back t'other way?” he suggested. “Gave you the slip like?”
Sir Gerald jerked his horse's head around and glared down at the young boatman. Did he think this was funny? The horsewhip twitched in his hand but the young man was out of his reach. His horse, however, flinched as the end of the whip touched its flank and almost unseated him. Furious, he slashed the whip across the animal's haunches causing it to cry out and back into the other two horses who had crowded up behind him.
“Careful you fool!” shouted one of the other riders who Eleanor recognised as Lord Stamford one of her husband's gambling associates. “You'll have us all in the canal!”
The young man on the boat looked distinctly unimpressed by this as well. “You should take better care of such a fine animal Sir!” he said in a disapproving tone.
“Don't be foolish man!” snarled Sir Gerald. “You need to teach these creatures who's in charge! You should know that!” He glanced up the towpath towards the boat horse who had taken the opportunity to snatch a mouthful of grass and was looking back at them with a lazy interest.
The young man saw where he was looking and laughed. “Gawd no!” he said. “If I tried that with ol' Taff he'd kick me into the middle o' next week!”
The boatman suddenly seemed to realise that his horse had taken time out and the boat was adrift in midstream. He urged him on along the last few yards of towpath and up the slope onto the bridge. The boat slowed as the horse crossed to the other side of the canal, turned under the bridge and began to follow the path on the other side, then began to move again as the rope tightened, drifting naturally towards the opposite bank.
One of the horsemen stood up in the stirrups and looked back along the way they had come.
“We must have missed her somehow Gerald!” he said. “We'd better go back.”
His friend agreed with him and they began to turn their horses on the narrow towpath. Both were, in truth, relieved as they were not entirely sure what Sir Gerald would have done had he actually caught the girl. They had heard stories of his violent rages, even seen some themselves and did not wish to witness what might happen.
The young man stood on the edge of the boat watching until they were out of sight and then made his way up to the stern where his mother was steering.
“No-one asked you if you'd seen her Ma?” he said quietly.
She nodded towards the cabin door. “In there” she said.
Eleanor sat stiffly on the seat until she was certain that the boat had moved well beyond the boundaries of her husband's property before she felt able to relax sufficiently to examine her surroundings. She looked around her and wondered what on earth she was to do next. She had fled in desperation from the Hall but had not really thought of anything but escape. She felt her stomach clench in panic recalling the moment that she heard her husband's voice shouting for his horse. She had assumed that he would have remained playing cards in the drawing room with his friends for hours. Someone must have seen her leave the Hall and told him. She couldn't find it in herself to blame them for their betrayal though, she couldn't imagine how he would have punished the servants if he thought they had helped her to get away.
But what should she do now? She couldn't impose on these people, they clearly had barely enough for themselves.
The cabin was about ten feet long and scarcely high enough to stand up in. The built in furniture was of wood and each cupboard door had a recessed centre panel. Brightly coloured roses and castles were painted on the door panels and the walls. Two round portholes surrounded by brass frames let in light from either side of the boat and each was hung with an intricately made lace cover. Highly polished horse brasses hung on the wall beside the stove and everything appeared spotlessly clean and bright. As she sat observing her surroundings the hatch above the steps opened and the young man came down the three steps into the cabin.
Tom peered into the dim cabin and saw the girl crouched in the corner of the bench seat. She looked terrified and yet somehow despondent at the same time as though she were resigned to her fate. He opened up the top of the bottom step and brought out a small shovel with which he scooped up some of the coal stored inside and added it to the stove to keep the fire going. Then he picked up a kettle from a nearby shelf and placed it on top of the stove.
“Well hello!” he said, turning to her. “I'm Tom, Tom Harding.”
He came over and sat on the bench beside her. “So who was the mad horseman then? And, more to the point, what did he want with you?”
Eleanor sighed. She was so tired of lying, of concealing the truth from everyone. The time for lies was long past. “His name is Sir Gerald Beaumont” she said wearily. “His estate lies to the east of here.”
“So why does he want you then lass? You've stolen from him have you?” he asked curiously.
He didn't sound as though he considered this a terrible crime but Eleanor was outraged and straightened up indignantly. “Certainly not! I'm no thief!” she snapped.
“Then what is he hunting you for?”
Her shoulders slumped and she sat down on the hard bench, defeated. “I'm his wife” she said quietly. “My name is Lady Eleanor Beaumont.”
Tom reached over slowly and brushed his fingers over the fine silk of her bodice. “Aye Miss, I didn't think you was a housemaid......not in cloth this fine.”
Eleanor pulled away from him and the torn fabric of her bodice slipped from her shoulders revealing an expanse of smooth creamy flesh. Tom's eyes narrowed as they fastened on her but his attention had been caught, not by the curve of her pale breasts pushed up by the tightly laced corset, but by the vicious red weal across her shoulder.
“Whatever have you done to yourself there?” he asked.
Eleanor backed away hurriedly and then flinched as her back hit the wooden wall of the tiny cabin.
“You're hurt aren't you?” he asked, kneeling on the floor in front of her. “What happened? Did you fall? Will you let me take a look?”
She shrank back again. “Please don't! I don't want you to see......”
Tom ignored her, reaching forward and taking her by the shoulders, gently turning her around and unlacing the fastenings of the corset. As always, when she felt threatened, she froze, unresisting. Struggling had always made the beatings worse. She wanted to stop him but resistance had long ago been beaten out of her and she submitted in a humiliated silence.
Through the thin fabric of her linen shift Tom could see that the skin of her back was uneven. The cloth lay in ridges and furrows and, as he gently tried to ease it down it stuck to her in several places. He leaned over her turning her body slightly to allow the light from the single lantern to fall on her back. His dark curly hair brushed against her cheek carrying his scent, a combination of sweat, woodsmoke, leather and horses.
He gave a soft gasp of shock as he saw the lash marks on her skin. They covered her back from the shoulder blades down as far as he could see. Some were clearly old, the scars turned to pale silver stripes overlaid by more recent red lines and several fresh ones which were still bleeding, the healing stripes opened up again by the exertion of her flight.
She felt his fingertips move over her skin, gently tracing the scars.
“He did this to you?” he whispered, his tone nauseous with disgust and anger. “But why?”
Eleanor sighed softly. “Any reason or none” she said. “I wasn't sufficiently pleasant to his friends, he lost money at the gambling tables, one of his tenants couldn't pay their rent, I didn't please him in bed........” her voice dropped to a whisper “......but mostly because he enjoyed it.”
Tom sat back on his heels and looked up at her. In the dim light of the tiny cabin her pale skin seemed to glow and her soft brown eyes, filled with unshed tears, tore at his heart. He thought she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen in his life. How anyone could possibly beat a woman like her with a horsewhip was quite beyond his imagination, never mind enjoy it!
“What will you do now?” he asked. “We're on our way up towards Manchester with a load of coal. Do you want us to take you somewhere? Where will you go? Do you have family? Friends maybe who could care for you?”
She lowered her head but not before Tom saw a tear drop onto her hand. “I've no family” she whispered. “My mother died when I was born and my father soon after. I was brought up by my Uncle but he was relieved to get me married off. He has three daughters of his own to worry about. No, you don't understand Tom. I can't go back....ever. They would simply take me back to my husband, I belong to him now.”
Tom was unable to hide his shock. “Take you back!” he said. “To a man who beat you so badly? Why would anyone do that?”
“He's my husband” she said simply. “He has a right to punish me if I displease him.”
“Well I can see that you don't believe that or you wouldn't have run away!” said Tom firmly. “No man has the right to treat a woman like that!”
She sat up a little straighter. “I can never go back” she said again. “I was desperate.....I knew that I couldn't take another beating like the last. I was afraid that he would kill me! But I have nowhere else to go. I wasn't thinking straight and besides, if he finds me here he'll punish you too.”
Tom gave a snort. “I'd really like to see him try!” he said. “He'd find me a tougher proposition I can tell you! Besides.....he isn't going to find you. We'll take you to Manchester with us. We can decide what to do then.”
He stood up and looked down at her as she pulled the torn bodice back around her shoulders. “Stay here and rest until we stop for the night. I need to go and help Da with the horse.”
She realised that the gentle movement of the boat had stopped and, looking up the steps through the hatch she saw that Tom's mother had gone from the rear deck.
She sat up and was just wondering what she should do next when she felt the boat shift and sway and the woman appeared in the hatchway and came down the steps into the cabin. It was warm inside and she shrugged off the woollen shawl that was wrapped around her shoulders and put it down on the bench. Then she stood back and looked down at Eleanor.
“Hello dear” she said, a kindly smile on her broad tanned face. “I'm Peggy, Tom's mum.
“Hello Peggy, my name's Eleanor” she answered.
Peggy put her head on one side and regarded her with interest. “I know dear, Tom told me.” She paused for a moment. “He said that you're running away from your husband, the man on the horse back there.......that he beat you? Is that right?”
Eleanor looked down at her hands which were lying folded in her lap. “I'll leave as soon as I can. I don't want to cause you any trouble.”
She felt rough fingers under her chin as Peggy raised her head up. “Now don't you worry about that my dear. You'd better let me take a look at your back though.”
She leaned back and called up through the hatch. “Tom! Get me some water will you?”
She reached over to one of the small cupboard doors and opened it, pulling out a few clean cotton cloths. She held one up, judging the size and tore it in half folding one half carefully and putting it back on the small shelf. As she turned back the boat rocked again and Tom's face appeared in the hatch.
“Here you go Ma!” he said passing down a large metal can which she recalled seeing on the roof of the boat, covered with the distinctive roses and castles paintings. Peggy reached for another small door and pulled down a tiny folding table. Taking a small enamel basin from the cupboard that was revealed inside it she put it on the table and filled it with water from the can. She took a cloth from beside the stove and picked up the kettle, adding some hot water to the bowl as well. Then she took a small brown glass bottle from a shelf and poured a few drops into the water.
“Iodine” she explained. “It'll sting a bit but Tom says those cuts are quite nasty and they've been rubbed open by that corset you're wearing.”
She looked at Eleanor with a quizzical expression. “Why on earth did you put that on dear? It must have made your back much more painful?”
“Gerald always insisted that I dress like a lady” she explained. “I'd never have made it outside the Hall without it and if I disobeyed him I knew I'd only get another beating.”
Peggy sniffed derisively, making it clear what she thought of that notion, as she eased the corset off and gently removed the linen shift underneath.
“Don't worry dear” she said, feeling Eleanor stiffen and instinctively understanding the reason. “Tom's helping Josh settle the horse for the night. They won't be back for a while yet.”
She soaked the cloth in the water and began to gently clean the cuts on Eleanor's back. She gave a small hiss of pain through her teeth as the iodine stung her raw flesh and Peggy looked down at her with a sympathetic smile. “I knew a woman once, worked the boats on the Grand Union, whose husband beat her regular, with a horsewhip” she said conversationally.
Eleanor looked back over her shoulder. “What happened to her?” she asked.
“Oh, she still works the Grand Union......with her two sons” answered Peggy, dipping the cloth into the bowl and continuing to clean the cuts.
Eleanor thought for a moment. There was clearly more to Peggy's comment than casual conversation. “What happened to her husband?” she asked.
Peggy leaned down and carefully wiped away a smear of blood from her lower back. “He drowned” she said softly. She looked up at Eleanor and her eyes were hard and bright. “It were an accident like o' course!”
Eleanor was suddenly quite certain that the man's death was anything but an accident.
“Of course!” she agreed quietly.
Peggy continued to clean the cuts on her back for a few more minutes and then straightened up and dropped the bloodstained cloth back into the bowl of water.
“There! That's much better” she rummaged in a cupboard and pulled out a cotton shirt. “Here, put this on for now and we'll wash your shift tomorrow.”
Eleanor eased her stiff arms and shoulders into the shirt and fastened the front, tucking the excess material into the waistband of her skirt. She picked up the heavily boned corset from the bench and examined the faint bloodstains with distaste.
“Hmm......” Peggy eyed the corset with a thoughtful expression. “I guess we could wash that too if you want to keep it?”
“I think I should, don't you?” said Eleanor doubtfully. “I might need it after all.......”
Peggy put out a hand and patted her on the arm in a friendly fashion. “We'll worry about that tomorrow shall we? Just now we need to get some dinner organised. The men will be hungry.”
She went over to the stove and reached for the thick cloth hanging on a hook beside it. Lifting the lid off a heavy iron pot she peered inside for a moment and then opened the vent at the bottom of the stove, letting in more air to allow the fire within to burn hotter. In a remarkably short time the tiny cabin was filled with the scent of a rich stew.
Eleanor suddenly realised that she was extremely hungry and came over to breathe in the delicious, aromatic scent. The stew was swimming in a thick gravy spiced with onions and what Eleanor thought was probably rosemary.
Peggy gave the pot a stir. “Tom's a great one for catching rabbits you know” she explained “and woodpigeons too, they make a fine stew. Hop outside would you dear and see what's keeping them?”
Eleanor climbed up the steps onto the rear deck and looked down the towpath to where Tom and his father had led the horse into a small lean to shed build up against the side of a bridge. Tom was on his way back to the boat, a set of leather harness draped over his shoulders and he gave her a wave. The light was going fast now, the darkness pooling under the trees and spreading out like oil down the towpath and over the water.
Tom jumped up onto the boat beside her and carefully laid the harness on the cabin roof. “You're looking a lot better” he said with a smile. “That ol' shirt looks much better on you that it ever did on Da!”
Eleanor found herself smiling. A genuine smile, the first she could remember for a long time. “I feel much more comfortable now thank you” she said shyly.
“Glad to hear it lass” came a voice from the towpath. “But let's get inside shall we?”
Eleanor slipped down the steps into the cabin and climbed up onto the bench to make room for the family whose home this was. Peggy looked around and saw the older man coming in, a small clay pipe clenched between his teeth.
“Well Josh? What do you have to add to dinner tonight?” she asked with a broad smile.
It was only then that Eleanor noticed the leather bag Tom's father carried slung over one shoulder.
“Not too much around today” he muttered around the pipe stem. “Some early apples that I managed to get to before Taff and a handful or two of hazelnuts. The plums'll be out soon though” he held out the bag to her. “But I found a lot of mushrooms, they'll go in the stew won't they?”
Peggy peered into the bag. “Ooo lovely!” she said. “There's enough there for breakfast too!”
After a bowl of delicious, warming stew Eleanor found herself becoming drowsy in the cosy warmth of the cabin. She was curled up in the corner of the bench listening to the soft murmur of voices talking about their day.
After a while Josh got up and stretched. “Well, I guess it's time to get some sleep. We've an early start in the mornin'” he said.
He reached for a handle on the wall and pulled down a bed platform which filled the whole of the rear half of the cabin. A curtain pulled across to separate this area from the rest and, after a few minutes of rustling and murmuring Peggy's voice asked Tom to put out the lantern. He reached up into a cupboard and pulled out a couple of blankets.
“Here” he said, passing one to Eleanor. “You take my bed, you'll be warm enough with the stove still on. I can sleep in the cargo hold.”
He made to leave the cabin but Eleanor stopped him. “No! It'll be freezing in there won't it?” she asked.
“I'll be fine, don't worry” he patted her hand gently.
“No really Tom. Couldn't you sleep on the floor in here? I wouldn't mind......”
He looked doubtful but she was determined and eventually he gave in and curled up in a blanket on the floor. She wrapped herself in the thin blanket and relaxed on the wide bench which was normally Tom's bed. Despite the unusual surroundings she felt safe and to her surprise, fell quickly into a peaceful sleep.
She was running again. She knew she was dreaming, she had this dream regularly but this time it was slightly different. Usually she was running blindly, nowhere in particular, but this time she was back on the towpath. She could hear the pounding of hooves behind her getting closer and closer.....
Eleanor woke with a start and found herself looking up at a low wooden ceiling. For a moment she had no idea where she was. She turned her head to find a male figure in the bed with her.......Gerald? No, this wasn't her room at the Hall. She shook her head trying to clear away the remnants of the dream and realised that, at some point during the night, Tom must have given up on the hard floor and slipped quietly into the bed beside her. He lay with his back to her, snoring gently and she gradually became aware of the fact that, although she should have felt trapped between the wooden hull of the boat on one side and Tom's broad back on the other, instead she felt secure, protected, as though anything that wished to harm her would have to go through Tom first. Comforted by this thought she drifted back off to sleep.
When she woke again she was alone in the bed. She lay with her eyes closed for a moment listening to the soft murmur of voices. She could hear birds in the hedgerow outside, the loud clamour of a Jay in the chestnut tree whose branches reached over the boat and the splashing of ducks in the water.
Then her sense of smell began to function, reporting the smell of eggs and cheese and........was that frying mushrooms? She opened her eyes and looked up to see Peggy, busy at the stove with a pan.
“Mornin' love!” she said with a smile. “Ready for some breakfast are you?”
Eleanor sat up with the blanket still wrapped around her and Peggy handed her a plate with a fresh mushroom and cheese omelette on it.
“There you go love! Get that inside you and you'll feel much better I'll warrant!” She said holding out a fork.
Eleanor took it and dug it into the omelette, realising that she was very hungry even after last night's stew.
“Mmm.....this is delicious!” she muttered, her voice slightly muffled. “I don't know why I'm still so hungry though.”
Peggy watched her eat with a satisfied smile. “You need the energy to heal properly love.....eat up now!”
She bustled out and Eleanor finished her breakfast and pulled on the old shirt with her skirt. Pushing her unruly hair back and tying it up with a piece of ribbon, she climbed up out of the cabin to find that Tom and his father had already gone to get the horse his breakfast. He was standing on the towpath, a rough canvas nosebag half full of oats strapped around his long head, while Tom and Josh fixed on the harness and attached the towrope.
Tom gave his mother a wave and she pulled out a stake which had been hammered into the bank and coiled up the rope on the stern, pushing the boat off as she jumped back on board.
“Come on then Taff! Put your back into it!” called Josh, giving the horse a slap on the rump.
Taff gave a snort and leaned forward tightening the towrope and taking the strain. For a moment nothing happened and then the boat slowly began to move. Peggy leaned on the tiller pushing it towards the bank and the bow of the boat turned out into the canal and they were off.
After Eleanor had given herself a quick wash in the cabin she came up and stood alongside Peggy, observing how she managed the boat and watching the scenery pass by at Taff's slow but steady pace. She noticed several items on the roof of the cabin, the brightly painted water can she had seen the previous day but resting on it were a couple of mops and alongside it was a long pole and what she assumed was a boathook. Beside the can was a long painted flower box which Peggy was evidently using to grow a variety of herbs for cooking.
The final item she spotted was a long whip. It had a short handle and a long lash made of plaited cotton towline with what appeared to be a strip of silk at the tip.
As she was wondering about this Tom walked back along the towpath and waved to his mother. She pulled the boat in closer to the bank and he jumped on board and hopped up to sit on the edge of the cabin roof.
“Well you look a little happier today” he said to Eleanor. “Did you sleep well?”
“Fine thank you” she said with a tiny smile. “Even when I woke to find a strange man beside me.....”
A deep red flush crept up Tom's neck. “Oh......I'm sorry! I hoped I'd got up early enough so's you wouldn't notice. Did I wake ye?”
“It wasn't you that woke me.....It was a bad dream” she replied quietly.
“Look......I didn't mean.......I mean I'd never.......”
She listened to him floundering for a moment and then decided to rescue him from his embarrassment.
“It's okay Tom. I didn't mind......I trust you” she said, putting gentle hand on his arm.
He heaved a great sigh. “Oh good. Thanks.....”
“Well it is your bed after all!” she said with a shy smile.
Tom didn't seem to know where to look so she quickly changed the subject.
“What are all these things on the roof for?” She asked.
“Ah well.....you've probably noticed that there's not much room in the cabin?” he asked. “'Cos we need as much room as possible on the boat for cargo. So we store some stuff on the roof. This is a water can, boathook, pole for pushing the boat off if we go aground. The mops are leaned up on the can so that if we pass another boat going the other way, then their towrope will slide over the roof without catching......well, that's the theory anyway.”
“What about this?” she asked, pointing to the whip. “I thought you told Gerald......”
Tom realised what she meant and began to laugh heartily. “No! No, it's not for the horse! Let me explain” he said, patting the edge of the cabin roof beside him. He held out his hands and Eleanor allowed him to lift her up onto the roof beside him. His hands were large and warm on her narrow waist and he kept one arm around her to steady her.
It's called a smacking whip” he explained. “When the boat is fully loaded with coal or limestone she can weigh anything between thirty and sixty tons. You saw the effort it took ol' Taff to get her moving? Well once she's moving it don't take so much effort, he just needs to keep leanin' into the collar. Now a Lady like yourself, you'll be used to ridin' in a carriage, right?”
Eleanor nodded. “Well if he were pullin' a carriage and got to where he was going, the coachman has a brake that he can press against one o' the wheels to stop it. But the boat now, she don't 'ave no brakes. If Taff were to stop, she'd keep on going. Now it might seem like we're moving pretty slow but if there was something in the way, a lock gate say, or even another boat comin' the other way it'd seem a lot faster believe me and it takes just as much effort to stop 'er as it did to get 'er goin' in the first place.”
Eleanor frowned. “So how do you stop her? And where does the whip come in?”
“Well” Tom looked around and pointed to a worn wooden post on the towpath. “See that post? It's called a Strapping Post, We're coming up to a bridge and they put 'em where you might have to slow the boat. If I want to slow 'er down I sling a rope around that and heave on it.”
He reached over and picked up the whip. Flicking the long lash behind him he gave a flick of his wrist and cracked the whip with a sound like a gunshot.
“On a quiet day you can hear that from about 'alf a mile away” he said. “Three cracks will tell another boat under a bridge or around a blind bend that we're comin' and give 'em plenty of time to slow see?”
Eleanor nodded. It was a simple and clever idea.
Peggy leaned on the big curved wooden tiller to bring the boat around under the narrow bridge hole. “Never mind all that Tom!” she said. “There's a flight of locks comin' up, you need to get off yer arse and go and help your Da!”
Tom jumped down and lifted Eleanor back down on the deck beside his mother. He picked up the windlass from where he'd left it on the cabin roof and shoved it into the holster on his belt then, as the stern of the boat passed through the narrow bridge hole, he jumped off onto the towpath and set off after his father.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” asked Eleanor tentatively.
Peggy eyed her slender figure dubiously. “Well.......I don't think so lass. Not just now anyway. I can teach to you help me steer the boat later if you'd like? I could do with some help. I was going to ask Tom to take a turn this afternoon as I've a pile of mending to do.”
Eleanor looked up, startled. “Oh! I can help you with that!” she said eagerly. “I'm good at needlework!”
Peggy gave her a broad smile. “Well that would be very good of you love. I must admit that my eyes are not what they were for close work. My days of making lace are long gone I'm afraid!”
Eleanor recalled looking out of the porthole that morning and holding aside the white lace cover. “Did you make those beautiful lace covers for the portholes?” she asked.
Peggy looked pleased. “Why yes, I did. But that was years ago. We like to have the cabin looking nice.....”
“I've never seen anything quite so intricate” said Eleanor, impressed. “I'm afraid my needlework isn't up to that standard!”
Peggy laughed. “Well I only need to mend a few shirts these days, although I do have some lengths of quite fine material that I've always meant to use to make a good shirt for young Tom, but somehow I've never had the time. Take a look in my work basket once we've gone down through the locks.”
Eleanor nodded happily, immensely pleased to be of some use to the woman who had been so kind to her. Then she looked around and watched, fascinated, as the boat approached the first of the locks.
Tom heaved the top gate open by pushing on the long beam and the boat slid neatly into the narrow space. As they passed the gate Peggy flicked a rope tied to the stern around a post on the end of the gate which had the dual effect of slowing and stopping the boat and pulling the gate closed behind it.
By this time both Tom and Josh were waiting on either side of the gates on the far end of the lock and Taff was grazing peacefully alongside them. From where Eleanor stood she could see that the canal had dropped about seven or eight feet down beyond the bottom gates and noticed that there were two gates there not just one as there was at the top. She had observed that both men wore tough leather belts with various loops and hooks attached and that they each had a metal bar bent into a right angle with a socket on the end tucked into his belt. She had heard Tom refer to it as a windlass but hadn't liked to ask what it was for since she thought she had done nothing that morning except ask questions.
Now she watched as they slipped the sockets over a metal spindle on the gates and began to wind up the sluice paddles letting the water flow out of the lock and into the canal below. Peggy managed the rope around the gatepost to hold the boat in place although it was, in fact, almost the same length as the lock itself.
Once the water level was the same as the lower level of the canal both men pushed on the beams to open the two gates and then used the windlasses to wind the sluices back down.
Tom took hold of the towrope and heaved on it, getting the boat moving slowly out of the lock and then helped his father close the gates behind them. Then, pulling his knitted woollen cap down over his ears to keep out the cold, he ran back along the towpath and hitched Taff up to the boat again, clipping the end of the rope to the harness. As soon as Josh arrived to manage the horse, he set off to the next lock a few hundred yards ahead to set it and open the gate.
This carried on down the flight of a dozen locks, Peggy managing the boat and the men working as a well organised team to hitch and unhitch the horse and work the sluices.
At the bottom of the lock flight Tom jumped back on board and fetched out a couple of large bread rolls filled with cheese and pickles which Peggy had evidently prepared that morning and passed one to his father and one to Peggy. He looked up from the cabin at Eleanor, holding up a roll.
“There's one here for you lass. It's only cheese and rough bread.....is that okay?”
He looked rather doubtful and Eleanor had to smile. “That's fine. I'm very grateful, thank you.” They sat together on the roof of the cabin eating their lunch in a companionable silence.
Eventually Tom brushed the crumbs off his shirt and sat up straighter.
“Well......I'd better get off and help Da” he said with a slight reluctance.
“Oh yes!” said Eleanor. “I said I'd help your mother with some mending.”
“That's very kind of you” said Tom.
“Why Tom! After all you've done for me it's the least I can do!” she said with a warm smile.
Tom blushed, reached over and took her hand gently. “It's lovely to have you with us” he whispered and then jumped off the boat and headed off up the towpath at a run.
Eleanor watched him go for a moment and then slipped down into the cabin and set to work on the mending.
Several days passed in the same peaceful manner and Eleanor became accustomed to the gentle motion of the boat, watching the countryside pass by at a slow and steady pace. Peggy taught her to steer the boat and, although she couldn't manage to do it for hours at a time, she could feel herself getting used to the motion and the almost instinctive movements of the tiller necessary to keep her gently in the centre of the channel.
With a little determination she had managed to persuade a reluctant Tom that he could sleep beside her wrapped in his own blanket without too much impropriety. After all, she pointed out, his parents were sleeping only feet away! It took several nights before it occurred to her that perhaps Tom's reluctance to lie beside her had a different cause.
She had been walking along the towpath alongside the boat, picking sloes from the hedgerow for Peggy to make sloe gin when she noticed Tom watching her. She had seen the occasional sidelong glance before but this time he was staring unashamedly. Evidently he hadn't noticed that she had spotted him and the look of frank admiration in his eyes made her knees turn to water and a tiny spark of warmth flare up inside. Her husband had never looked at her like that, she thought. He considered her a possession. Tom looked at her as though she was something unattainable, a delicate porcelain figure that might break if he touched her. Or perhaps some dream goddess who would disappear if he spoke the wrong word.
Like every lady of her class Eleanor had been a virgin on her marriage and, since she lacked a mother to explain her marital duties, her wedding night had come as a shock. Owing to her husband's impatient nature it had been an unpleasant shock but she was no longer the innocent child who had arrived at the Hall in that carriage with her uncle. She was aware that Tom liked her.....more than liked her in fact and suddenly it dawned on her that she was probably putting him through a bit of an ordeal by asking him to lie beside her.
But what else could she do she wondered. It wasn't as if there was any more room in the cabin.....and besides.....
She felt a hot flush creep up her neck as she realised that, much as she had hated the things that her husband did to her in the privacy of their bedroom when he eventually returned from drinking and gambling with his friends, the thought of Tom doing those same things to her was far more appealing.
She gave herself a little shake and reached for another couple of sloes.
The next day the lush green countryside began to give way to more industrial areas as the canal wound its way through the outskirts of Manchester and halfway through the morning Peggy brought the boat down through the last lock and came to a neat stop at the wharf of the biggest of the coal merchants.
Josh unhitched Taff and led him over to the small brick built stable at the end of the wharf and settled him down with feed and water before going into the manager's office to arrange for the unloading of their cargo.
Eleanor stayed well out of the way looking around with interest at the red brick buildings, darkened with a thin layer of coal dust and watched as several workmen in heavy leather aprons arrived and began to help Tom and Josh unload the sacks of coal from the cargo hold. This took several hours of backbreaking effort leaving both Tom and his father sweating and exhausted.
Josh sat down on the bow of the boat and wiped the sweat from his face with a grubby handkerchief. “You go and collect the money son” he said. “The papers are in the ticket drawer.”
Tom leaned down the cabin steps and opened a small drawer beside the door, pulling out an order for the coal and then headed across the wharf towards the office. Eleanor followed him at a discreet distance, curious to see the outcome of their efforts.
Just as Tom arrived a man came out of the office and smiled broadly at him.
“Right! You'll be.....” he peered across at the bow of the boat where the name was painted “.....Vulcan, right.”
He consulted a handful of paperwork. “Thirty tons of coal from Lord Bridgewater's mine, correct?”
“That's right sir” said Tom, handing him the order they had been given at the mine when the coal was loaded on.
“Weight okay is it?” he called to one of the workmen who had helped with the unloading.
The man raised a hand and gave him a wave which he evidently took as an affirmative.
The coal merchant carefully counted out a handful of coins and handed them to Tom. “There you go lad!” he said cheerfully. “Forty pounds!”
Tom looked down at the coins in his hand and his dark brows drew together in a frown. “No..........no, it should be fifty” he said firmly.
“Says forty here lad!” he insisted, passing back the order that Tom had given him a moment ago.
“But....we agreed fifty!” muttered Tom staring at the paper.
Watching his confused expression it suddenly dawned on Eleanor that Tom couldn't read. She stepped up beside him and took the paper from his hand.
“I believe you must have misread it sir” she said quietly. “It definitely says fifty pounds” and she proceeded to read out the order.
The coal merchant's face went from astonished, through angry to apologetic when he saw Tom's narrowed eyes and clenched fists.
He hurriedly snatched the order back from her hand. “Oh! Why yes, you're right Miss! My eyesight must be getting bad......” He gave a weak smile and hastily passed over another handful of coins. “Here you are lad!”
Tom stared at him for a moment as if debating whether or not to make a fuss about the “error”. Eleanor put a hand on his arm, aware that if he lost his temper and punched the man it would only cause serious trouble for the whole family.
“Thank you sir” she said brightly, leading Tom back towards the boat.
He handed the money over to Josh without comment and he counted out a portion and put it in a leather bag which was stored in one of the cupboards. He weighed the rest in his hand and sighed.
“Well......we'd better see if we can pick up another cargo here. This won't last us all the way back to the mines for another load of coal.”
That afternoon Eleanor and Tom were left to watch the boat while Josh and Peggy went to try and negotiate for a load of wood to take back to the mines for pit props. Eleanor was sitting in the cabin doing some mending when Tom came in.
“May I ask you something?” she asked, looking up.
“Of course!” he said, sounding surprised. “Anything you like.”
“What happens to the rest of the money? Your Da put some in a bag and shut it away in that cupboard. Is that some kind of savings account?” she asked with a smile.
“Well.......no, not exactly.” Tom looked embarrassed. “See.....we have to pay a portion of our profits to one of the moneylenders in Manchester. Last year, well......it were a bad year. The winter were colder than usual and the canal froze so we couldn't move for some weeks. Then ol' Taff went lame, stepped on a nail or summat, and we missed a couple of loads....” he heaved a sigh “what with the interest an' all, it'll be some time before we can pay off the debt.”
The mending sat unheeded in Eleanor's lap. “Oh! I see” she said. She hadn't realised that their living was quite so precarious. Eating mushrooms picked from the fields and fruit from the hedgerows had seemed like fun to her. Now she saw it as a necessary method of supplementing their meagre food supplies. Suddenly she felt guilty for imposing herself on them.
“I suppose.....” she ventured quietly “.......I should think about leaving now. You did say that you'd bring me as far as Manchester.”
Tom looked up at this, his expression unreadable. “Oh......yes I suppose we did.”
He was silent for a moment. “Where will you go?” he asked.
“I've no idea!” said Eleanor. “But I can't impose on you forever can I?”
Tom stared at her, his expression now that of a man trying to screw up his nerve to say something outrageous.
“Why not?” he said suddenly, reaching out to take her hand in his. “Why not stay with us a little longer?”
“Oh Tom, I couldn't really. Look around you. Everything you have is functional. Everyone works for their living, I'm not used to that, there's nothing I can do to earn my living with you is there?”
Tom looked around the tiny cabin and his fingers traced the bright colours of the painted roses on the cabin doors and the hatch. “These don't serve no purpose do they?” he said. “But we like 'em 'cos they're pretty.”
She smiled. “You want me to stay because I'm pretty?” she asked.
A wide grin appeared on Tom's face. “Well aye.....there is that! But don't put yourself down now. You have an education that we don't. That coal merchant would have got away wi' paying us less than our due simply 'cos I can't read!”
“Perhaps he just made a mistake?” she suggested.
“That weren't no mistake!” replied Tom with a scowl. “He meant to cheat us.......and he would've done but for you Ellie.”
He looked down at his broad hands, fingers roughened from a life of hard work. Her slim pale hand looked like a child's in his. His expression hardened as he came to a decision.
“No.......you're right, you should go. You must understand that other folk look down on us Ellie. That's why he thought he could cheat me. They need us to bring 'em their goods but to them we're nothing........ just water gypsies. You're a real lady, you can do better'n that.”
She sighed gently and squeezed his hand.
“I supposed that depends on your definition of 'better'” she said.
“I've already done what most people would consider to be 'better'. A lot better. I had all the material possessions I could possibly want. I was married to a Baronet. A nobleman who beat me, raped me and humiliated me. He treated me worse than he treated his horses.”
She put a hand on his arm, it was warm and strong, the muscle hard as iron. “You're a better man by far than he will ever be Tom, I would much rather be here with you even if I have no possessions at all!”
Tom looked down into her wide brown eyes. The thought that he might never see her again made his chest tighten so he could hardly breathe. It was unbearable. He couldn't let her go.......without even thinking about it he leaned down and kissed her.
Eleanor froze for a moment, then relaxed. Tom's lips were warm and surprisingly soft. Gerald had rarely bothered to kiss her and when he had it had felt nothing like this.
Tom slid an arm around her and pulled her against him. Her arms slipped around his shoulders and she slid her fingers up into his curly hair. Suddenly she felt that she wanted more.....much more. She parted her lips, encouraging him to deepen the kiss and Tom responded readily, his tongue curling hungrily around hers. His hands moved to slide the blouse down off her shoulders and grasped her upper arms pressing her back against the cushions.
Tom felt his self-control beginning to slip and forced himself to pull back from her. “No. Ellie, we mustn't!” he murmured unconvincingly.
He looked down at her and saw that there were red marks on her arms where he had held her. The marks her husband had left on her body showed clearly too, black and purple, blue and yellow like flower petals trapped beneath the whiteness of her skin.
They stared at each other for a moment, stunned by the strength of their passion for each other.
It was Tom who heard the footsteps outside and sat up suddenly, pulling Eleanor's blouse closed.
“Well we have a load of wood to take back at least” came Josh's voice cheerfully as he came backwards down the steps and turned to them.
“Ahh.....” He noted Eleanor's flushed face and slightly swollen lips and turned to Tom with a frown.
“It's okay Da! Everything's fine....” said Tom hurriedly.
Josh gave him a patient smile. “Aye......well, ye'd best get your pants back on lad before your Ma gets back and catches ye!”
Tom glared at him indignantly. “I haven't.......”
Josh laughed. “I know lad, I know!” He glanced at Eleanor, her face pink with unaccustomed excitement. “But I reckon it were a near thing........”
The next morning several carts arrived at the wharf loaded with wood destined for pit props at Lord Bridgewater's mines and Tom and Josh went out to help with the loading while Peggy and Eleanor remained on board finishing off some mending and preparing food for that evening's meal.
“You help with the loading lad and I'll supervise” said Josh with a grin. “I'm getting too old for this lark!”
Tom laughed. “Nonsense! You're tougher than I am Da!” he replied.
Nevertheless he jumped down from the prow of 'Vulcan' and went to help haul the first load over to the boat.
Josh sat on the gunwale and directed the loading while watching Tom closely.
“So, you're getting quite fond of Lady Beaumont then are ye?” he asked.
Tom stopped working and wiped the sweat from his face with a grubby handkerchief. “Aye! I am!” he looked up at his father “what of it?”
Josh sighed. “Well, ye mean apart from the fact that she's marrit to another man?” he asked patiently.
Tom's expression went from challenging to resigned in seconds. “Aye! I know. But does it really matter?” he asked. “She could never go back to him now could she?”
Josh raised an eyebrow. “Ye'd better not let your Ma hear you talking like that son!”
Tom sat down on the gunwale next to his father and heaved a sigh of his own. “What should I do Da?” he asked. “I don't want her to leave, I can't bear the thought of losing her. I love her.......but how can I possibly be with her? Even if it was safe for her to contact her husband, which it isn't, he'd never let her go anyway.”
Josh put a hand on his arm and squeezed gently, a look of sympathy on his weather lined face. “Come on lad! You know how we live. It's a hard life on the boats. Can you see her steering in the freezing cold and rain? When the boat's cuttin' through the ice and there's a foot of snow on the towpath? That's no life for a lady like her.”
“So what should she do?” asked Tom turning to him, his blue eyes hard with anger. “Her old life is gone for good. D'ye think she should go back to a society that'd insist she returns to the animal that beat her black and blue?”
He turned away and looked down at his hands. “And what would I do if she did?”
“Yer Ma'd find you a good wife” answered Josh, without hesitation. “A suitable wife!”
Tom's eyes widened and he looked up at his father. “What?” he asked, a worried look appearing in his eyes. “D'ye mean she has someone in mind?”
Josh assumed a thoughtful expression. “Well......she's spoken of Maggie Browning......”
Tom frowned, evidently trying to bring Miss Browning to mind. Then he sat up looking shocked. “Ye mean her off 'Saturn'?” he asked.
“She's a pleasant enough lass, a good cook!”
“Da! She's got a squint! And her hair's coarser'n Taff's!”
“She can handle a boat” said Josh severely. “You need to keep your priorities straight lad! Good looks aren't everything ye know!”
Tom sighed again. “Aye, I know! She's a nice enough lass, but......”
Josh put a hand on his son's shoulder. “Yon Ellie's a lovely girl son, charming, pretty, everything a young man would want. But you need a wife that can work with you on the boat and I doubt she's strong enough for our life.”
Tom stared at his hands for a moment and then turned to his father with a determined look on his face. “Do ye really think that?” he asked. “She was strong enough to survive a husband who thrashed her regularly with a horsewhip!”
He looked up. “Did ye not know that?” he asked, seeing Josh's horrified expression. “Ask Ma to tell ye what her back looks like. I think you'll find she's a lot tougher than she looks!”
He straightened up a little. “Besides, we'd be ten pounds worse off now if it weren't for her!”
He hadn't originally intended to tell his father about the coal merchant's attempt to cheat him but after some thought he had realised that he needed to know so he could take greater care in his dealings with the man in future. He explained how Ellie's assistance had prevented the man from withholding part of their payment.
“Who knows?” he said thoughtfully “perhaps she could teach me to read?”
“She might find that a more difficult proposition son!” answered Josh with a smile. He regarded Tom's bowed head for a moment. “Does she want to stay?” he asked. "More to the point, does she want to stay because of you, or because she has no alternative?”
“She said that she should leave” muttered Tom quietly. “But I told her I wanted her to stay.” He put his head in his hands and sighed. “Oh Da! I know that she's a real Lady and she's too good for me! I told her that she could do better but she said that she wants to stay with me. That I'm a much better man than her husband!”
“Well I wouldn't be too proud of that lad!” said Josh cynically. “That wouldn't be hard after all now would it?”
Tom looked up at his father for a moment and then burst out laughing. “Well no! I guess not!”
Josh stood up and looked over at the workmen who had begun to unload the next wagon.
“Well, I reckon she could come with us down to Stoke on Trent at least. We'll see how you get on eh?”
It took Taff a week to tow 'Vulcan' down to Stoke on Trent, stopping the night to unload the load of pit props they had picked up in Manchester. Eleanor spent as much time as she could on on the counter at the rear with Peggy, learning all she could about the boat and absorbing as much as she could of Peggy's long experience.
She and Tom were becoming closer every day and, although Tom regaled her with tales of the terrible conditions on the canals in the winter, she was not discouraged in the slightest.
“I never really fitted into the Society circles anyway” she whispered to him as they curled up together one night. “Gerald's group of friends was composed entirely of young bucks who spent their time hunting, drinking and gambling. I was never permitted to have any friends of my own. Even as a child I felt like an interloper in my Uncle's house. Oh, he was kind to me, but somehow I always felt that his own children were more important to him and that looking after his dead brother's child was just an nuisance.”
She sighed and leaned her head on Tom's shoulder. “I suppose I can't blame him really. It's only natural that he should favour his own children.”
Tom put a strong arm around her shoulders and held her to him. “So you really have no-one then?” he asked softly.
Eleanor shook her head, leaning against him, his hard muscular body felt warm against hers and for the first time in her life, she felt safe. Secure in his arms and rocked by the gentle motion of the boat moving slightly at her moorings she dropped off to sleep.
The next morning they arrived at Stoke on Trent where Josh planned to investigate the new factories which had recently been built there. He explained to Eleanor that the well known pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood had recently moved his pottery from Burslem to a suburb of Stoke which he had named Etruria after the region of Italy famous for the artistic products of the Etruscans. He knew that they would need coal to fire the kilns and they were, after all, experienced at carrying coal.
“You'd better come with us Tom. It's about time you learned what bargaining for cargo is all about” he said. “Put a decent pair of breeches on boy! You need to look as though you know what you're doin' at least!”
Eleanor reached into the small cupboard where she kept her few belongings and pulled out the linen shirt she had been working on for the last week or so.
“Here Tom, try this on.” she said, offering it to him.
Tom held it up and examined it carefully. “Why, when did you do this Ellie?” he asked.
“Oh.....I've been working on it in the evenings” she said casually. “Your mother had the material but hadn't the time to make it.”
Tom pulled his grubby cotton shirt off over his head and put on the new one. Eleanor was delighted to see that it fitted him perfectly.
He turned to her with a broad smile on his face. “It's beautiful Ellie, but it's far too fine for the likes o' me! This is the kind of shirt a gentleman would wear.”
Ellie reached up and straightened the collar, easing Tom's unruly curls out and spreading them over his shoulders. “First impressions matter Tom” she said gently.
“People tend to take you at face value. If you go to negotiate a load with smears of coal dust across your face and dressed like a labourer then you will be assumed to be worth no more than that. But if you look like a gentleman then people will treat you better, take you more seriously.....you'll see!”
She reached up to comb back his hair with her fingers. “Here.....let me tie this back for you.”
He turned his back patiently and she plaited his wavy hair into a neat queue which she tied with a leather thong.
“There! You look like a proper young gentleman!” she held out an arm. “Would you care to join me for a walk sir?”
He smiled down at her. “Why of course m'lady!”
He held out a hand to help her down off the boat and they joined Josh and Peggy and set off up the dusty road towards the new china factory.
The factory had been built close to the Trent and Mersey canal to facilitate the delivery of supplies of china clay and so a short walk took them to the factory gates where they strolled into a large open courtyard. Several large heaps of fine white china clay were visible to one side of the yard and on the other was a row of stables with four horses looking out over the half doors.
Peggy tapped Eleanor on the arm and pointed to a bench along one wall. “Come on lass, we'll have a sit down over there and leave the men to talk shall we?”
They sat down in the sun and Josh and Tom went into the factory to ask for an interview with the manager.
As Peggy took the opportunity to doze in the sun Eleanor watched a workman haul a wagon out of one of the carriage houses and then began to carry crates carefully out of a storeroom and stack them in the bed of the wagon. While he was busy with this a groom brought a fine grey horse out of the stables and harnessed him between the shafts.
The wagon was almost fully loaded when Josh and Tom emerged from the factory and Eleanor could tell by Tom's face that their attempt to obtain a contract for carrying coal for the pottery had been unsuccessful.
Josh held out a hand and helped Peggy up from the bench. “No luck I'm afraid. Other carriers have the trade sewn up already.”
Peggy sighed. “Ah well, we tried.” She took Josh's arm. “Let's get back to the boat and I'll get the dinner started.
Tom sat down in the vacated space beside Eleanor. “We'll be there in a minute Ma” he said.
Josh raised an eyebrow at this, but seemed to accept that his son wanted some time alone with her and headed back towards the canal with Peggy. Eleanor took Tom's hand and they sat in silence for a moment.
“It was worth trying” she said quietly. “There'll be other jobs, you know that.”
“Aye!” Tom stood up with a sigh. “We'd best be getting back.”
He tucked Eleanor's hand under his arm and they set off across the courtyard. Just then there was a loud bang and a group of crows in a nearby field flew up in a screeching cloud of feathers as a farmer fired a shotgun to scare them off his crops. Ellie jumped, startled and Tom put a hand on her shoulder, but she wasn't the only one to have been frightened by the unexpected noise.
Suddenly there was a tremendous crash and they looked around to see that several of the crates had slid sideways off the wagon smashing the delicate china inside to pieces. The grey horse had shied at the bang and jolted the wagon, dislodging the crates.
An angry shout came from the courtyard. “Damn it! I've told him not to do that when we're loading!”
The man who had come running out of the archway was red in the face and clearly furious, his wig slightly askew. His expensive leather boots were covered with the white dust of the china clay but his clothes were clearly of high quality.
“And how many times have I told you not to use that horse on the wagons? The bay mare is much calmer. How much do you think you've just cost me you fool?”
One of the crates had burst open and a single, miraculously unbroken, dinner plate in fine bone china, hand painted with beautiful pink roses and edged with gold leaf rolled gently to Ellie's feet, spun in a slow circle and fell over in the dust. She picked it up and examined it thoughtfully.
The red faced man walked over to her and held out his hand. “May I have that my dear?” he asked politely.
She handed it back to him and he stood looking down at it for a moment. “One plate! Out of a complete dinner service!” he sighed heavily and looked up at her.
“Please forgive me for that outburst you witnessed just now Miss” he said to her apologetically “but that service would have been worth fifty pounds to me in the London salons, if only I could get the damn things there in one piece!”
“You send them by road on wagons?” she asked curiously, seeing Tom's eyes widen in shock. Fifty pounds was more than he would earn in a month. From hard, heavy work too, loading and unloading coal and limestone.
“Well not all the way” he explained. “Only as far as the port at Ellesmere, then they go by coaster to the Thames, but a skittish horse or a sudden storm can easily cost me a fortune......as you see!”
Eleanor smiled up at him. “You must be Mr Wedgwood..... Josiah Wedgwood?” she asked. “The pottery owner?”
The man looked highly embarrassed. “How impolite of me my dear. I should have introduced myself shouldn't I? Please accept my further apologies. You are quite correct.” He took Ellie's proffered hand and brushed it gently with his lips.
“My name is Eleanor” she said. “Eleanor Harding. Tell me Mr Wedgwood, have you ever thought of transporting your wares on the canal?”
She turned to Tom. “I believe a horse can pull more than ten times the weight on the canal as it can with a wagon on the roads since there is minimal energy wasted through friction on the water? There are also no problems with an uneven surface so there is far less probability of breakages.”
“That's right” said Tom cautiously, clearly wondering where she was going with this.
“Might I ask how much you pay the carters to take the crates to Ellesmere Sir?” asked Eleanor.
Wedgwood was regarding her thoughtfully. “I pay them two pounds per crate and six pounds per crate to the shipping company to take them round to London” he answered.
Eleanor thought for a moment. “What if we could take your fine bone china to London for five pounds a crate? Would you be interested in such an arrangement? It would be considerably cheaper for you and you would have far more unbroken wares to sell in London.”
“If you can do such a thing then I would be foolish indeed to refuse such an offer would I not?” he asked. “How many crates could you carry?”
Eleanor gave Tom a questioning look. “What do you think Tom?” she asked.
Tom rubbed at his chin, thinking carefully. “Well the cargo hold is about sixty feet by six feet. Packed in straw the weight would be a lot less than coal or limestone. Crates that size, we could fit in about three layers.....I'd say we could probably take about three hundred crates at a time.”
He struggled to keep his expression blank as he realised that a load like this would pay him fifteen hundred pounds! This was an unimaginable amount of money! Admittedly, the trip to London would take several weeks as it was nearly two hundred miles. They would need to pay tolls to several different canal companies as they crossed from the Trent and Mersey to the Birmingham and then to the Grand Union but, even if they couldn't find a cargo to bring back, the trip would still pay enough to clear their debts to the moneylender with plenty to spare! And if Wedgwood was satisfied and it became a regular arrangement......
It took several days for a contract to be agreed, drawn up and signed between the Hardings and Mr Wedgwood for the carriage of his fine bone china to London.
Josh and Peggy had sat, open-mouthed, as Tom explained Ellie’s offer and Mr Wedgwood’s response. Josh’s jaw had dropped still further when Tom told him how much Wedgwood was prepared to pay for their services.
“Five pounds?” he asked. “For each crate? How big are they?”
“Not so big at all” answered Tom. “We could get three hundred on board with no trouble I reckon.”
“Three hundred?” Josh’s eyes widened in shock. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times as he calculated the total fee for the journey.
“What are these plates of his made of?” he asked in amazement. “Solid gold?”
Tom laughed. “Well, Ellie tells me they have gold leaf on ‘em so you’re not far off. Apparently they’re very sought after by London folk.”
Tom had been a little surprised when Eleanor had introduced herself as “Eleanor Harding” but he supposed that, since Josiah Wedgwood likely moved in the same society circles as her husband, he might recognise her real name. In fact he found that he enjoyed the fact that she was assumed to be his wife. He was proud of her initiative and had to admit that it would never have occurred to him to propose such an arrangement himself.
Josiah Wedgwood, knowing the amount of damage that his wares usually suffered in transit, suggested that he would pay them only for the number of undamaged crates that were unloaded at his wharf in London. Ellie frowned slightly on hearing this but, somewhat to her surprise, Tom readily agreed as he was quite confident that, barring accidents, there would be no danger of breakages during the journey. The only time breakages would be likely to occur would be during the loading or unloading and he therefore insisted on a clause in the contract to say that this would be undertaken, both at Etruria and in London, by Wedgwood’s own men and that they would be responsible for any damage.
This proved to be a wise move as several crates were, in fact, damaged during the loading. Wedgwood was understandably annoyed, but Josh assured him that the men were simply inexperienced with boats and would likely improve with practice. The process of loading up the boat was supervised by Josh and Tom to ensure that the cargo was balanced and that the steering of the boat would not be affected. When all the crates were on board Wedgwood’s men helped Tom and Josh cover the cargo with tarpaulins supported on planks over the cargo hold.
Tom negotiated for a part payment of the fee up front, explaining to Mr Wedgwood the necessity to pay the tolls to pass from one canal company’s system to another and after handing the advance over to Peggy, they were soon on their way. The exhilaration he had felt at the thought of so much money, more than he had thought he would ever earn, began to fade a little as he fell easily back into the steady pace of the boat horse moving along the towpath, a rhythm that had been familiar to him all his life.
This time, however, he had Eleanor walking alongside him. They walked half a mile or so in silence before Tom decided he would broach the subject that had been niggling at him for a while.
“Ellie?” he said quietly.
Eleanor turned to him, a bunch of wildflowers she had gathered from the hedgerow in her hands and he felt that his heart had missed a beat.
“When you introduced yourself to Mr Wedgwood you called yourself Eleanor Harding.”
Eleanor put a hand on his arm. “Oh! I’m sorry Tom, it’s just that I was afraid that he might recognise my real name…...” she looked down, embarrassed. “My husband’s name.”
Tom hastened to reassure her. “Yes! I guessed that was why, but…..” he paused, plucking up his courage. “I liked it” he admitted. “I was proud that he thought you were my wife.”
He took a deep breath and spoke quickly before he could change his mind. “I’d be honoured to have you as my wife.”
Eleanor stopped walking and looked up at him, eyes wide. “But Tom, you know I could never marry you!” she said.
Tom’s heart sank but his lifetime of work on the canals kicked in and he took her arm, encouraging her to continue walking behind the horse.
“Aye!” he sighed. “I know a lady like you is far above me Ellie. It was just, what with the extra money an’ all…...”
She grasped his hand and looked up at him. “No, no, that’s not what I meant at all Tom!”
She bent her head and Tom felt a tear drop onto his hand. He gently put a hand under her chin and tilted her face up towards his.
“Believe me Tom, there is nothing I would like more than to be your wife” she said softly. “I know that you are a kind and gentle soul and…...I truly have grown to love you over these few weeks. But I am already married! I know that Gerald would never grant me a divorce even if I could ever pluck up the courage to ask him for one!”
Tom gaped at her for a moment. “I don’t care about that!” he said. “The fact that the law says we can’t marry means nowt to me!”
The words were out before it occurred to him that it might mean something to her! He looked down at her with a slightly panicked expression. “Well…..I didn’t mean…..”
“Do you mean that…...”
They both paused gazing at each other until Taff nudged Tom in the shoulder and they began to walk again.
“Did you mean that?” asked Eleanor, after they had walked for a while in a slightly uncomfortable silence. “Would it not matter to you that I’m married to another man?”
Tom put a hand on her shoulder. “I know you don’t love him” he said. “Seems to me that you never loved him. If you’d had a husband that you loved who had died, I’d still love you. Why should I be jealous of a man you never loved?”
He shifted his hand and pulled her closer. He wondered if she could feel his heart pounding as he asked the question that had been tormenting him since the very first moment he saw her huddled in the cabin of the Vulcan, her back striped with the marks of her husband’s horsewhip. “Are you saying that you would live with me as my wife?” he asked softly.
Eleanor looked up at him and smiled. “Of course I would! Didn’t I just say that I’d be happy to be your wife Tom? If the fact that I’m already married doesn’t matter to you then it doesn’t matter to me either.”
She took his hand “After all, who would even care?” Then a thought struck her. “What about your parents?” she asked.
Tom sighed, his excitement at her answer diminishing somewhat. “Ah! Yes!…….well Ma won’t be pleased that’s for sure!”
“Oh!” Eleanor whispered. “I thought she liked me?”
“Oh she does!” Tom hastened to reassure her. “It’s just that…...well, I think she has other plans…..”
Eleanor suddenly realised that it had never occurred to her to wonder if Tom had a girl of his own. Or if his parents had any plans for his marriage. How foolish she had been to think that they would approve of such an unconventional liaison with such an unsuitable woman!
Tom was still holding her hand and appeared to be thinking hard. “Da mentioned to me that she had a girl in mind for me. Someone off one of the other boats. I know that Ma is only thinking of me, of my future. She wants me to marry someone who understands our way of life, someone who will work the boat with me, but……..”
He took her hand between both of his. “I would probably have been happy to go along with her wishes if I had never met you, I know she only wants what’s best for me. But it’s too late now! I love you Ellie! I know now I could never be happy with anyone else!”
A deep red flush began to creep up Eleanor’s pale neck. “You understand that…..I’m not…...a virgin?”
Tom put his arm around her shoulders and leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Just as well! I figure one of us should know what they’re doing!”
Eleanor stopped walking and looked up at him in surprise. “You mean…...”
Tom gave her a look.
Eleanor giggled and then put a hand to her mouth in embarrassment. “I’m sorry Tom!” she laughed again. “It’s just…….surely there are women in the towns you pass through…..”
Now it was Tom’s turn to laugh.
“You have met my Ma, right? She keeps a tight 'old of all our money! Can you just imagine her reaction? ‘Oh by the way Ma, I’d like to spend some of our hard earned cash on a whore’ she’d go nuts!”
Eleanor could quite imagine Peggy’s response to such a request!
“Hmm, yes I see” she said with a smile.
She felt Tom's arm tighten around her shoulders as he looked down at her with a slightly concerned expression on his open, honest face.
“You have to be sure about this Ellie” he said hesitantly.
She leaned her head on his strong shoulder. “Oh Tom!” she whispered. “Don't you know that I love you too?”
She felt his lips brush her hair. “Yes, I know that. But this life.....it's not easy Ellie, you must realise that by now.”
His father's words came back to him. “Can you see yourself steering in the freezing cold and rain? When the boat's cuttin' through the ice and there's a foot of snow on the towpath?” he asked.
Eleanor looked up at him, her wide brown eyes full of trust. “Yes, I can. As long as you're with me I can do anything.”
Tom heaved a sigh. He was delighted by her answer but he was sure she didn't truly appreciate the harshness of life on the canals in the depth of winter. Then another thought struck him.
“Mind you.....” he said thoughtfully. “If this trip goes well and Mr Wedgwood decides to give us a regular contract then maybe we wouldn't need to work all through the worst of the winter months......”
He gave Eleanor a hug. “And we have you to thank for that as well!”
Over the next few weeks Eleanor determined that she would learn all she could from Peggy in order to become the woman Tom needed as a wife and partner.
As they travelled down the Trent and Mersey Canal she spent as much time as she could steering the Vulcan. At first Peggy stayed with her and supervised but Eleanor proved to be a determined pupil and Peggy was soon satisfied that she could handle most things on her own.
The first time she successfully took Vulcan through a narrow bridge hole just a foot wider than the boat without any assistance she felt like cheering! Peggy saw her face and laughed.
“You're doing really well luv!” she said with a smile. “If you can learn to deal with this canal you'll be fine. Once we get onto the Grand Union you'll find it much easier!”
“Why's that?” she asked curiously without taking her eyes off the bow of the boat.
“Well the Grand Union is a broad canal, this is narrow. The bridges and locks there are twice the width to accommodate bigger barges. They can carry more cargo but they can't get everywhere on the system like we can with a narrowboat see?”
Eleanor was puzzled. “Why didn't they make them all broad?” she asked.
“Money I guess” answered Peggy. “It was cheaper to build narrow bridges and locks.”
“So when will we reach it?” asked Eleanor.
“We go down the Trent and Mersey to Great Hayward Junction then onto the Stafford and Worcester down to Wolverhampton. There's a flight of twenty one locks there, that'll be a hard day! Then down the old main line to Birmingham. The Grand Union goes from Birmingham to London. Getting through Birmingham is hard work though, we need to go down the Farmers Bridge flight of thirteen locks onto the Birmingham and Fazeley, that'll be another toll to pay, and then down through Small Heath to the Grand Union. There's a good Pub there that Josh likes, The Garrison.”
Peggy was silent for a moment and then shook herself slightly. “Aye well, that's all to come. First we 'ave to get through the tunnel at Harecastle tomorrow.”
The subject came up again that night after supper as they sat in the tiny cabin.
“We’ll have an easier time of it through the Tunnel at Harecastle if Ellie can look after Taff” suggested Josh tentatively. “Could you manage that d’you think lass?”
Eleanor was honestly puzzled. “Well why not?” she asked. “I’ve walked him along the towpath several times with no trouble. Is a tunnel very much different? He’s never seemed to be worried by the dark before?”
Josh looked at Tom and raised an eyebrow questioningly.
“Aye, well…..” Tom rubbed at the side of his nose with a finger. “You see, the tunnel don’t have a towpath. It was cut right through the rock and it’s just over a mile long. That’s a lot of work for the tunnel builders and so they only make them just wide enough for a boat.”
Eleanor’s pretty forehead creased in confusion. “But then…...how do you get the boat through?”
Josh reached out through the cabin door and tapped the old burned tobacco out of his long clay pipe. “Well, we’ll have to leg it lass!” he said with a smile.
Eleanor turned to Tom for an explanation but he just grinned back at her. “You’ll see!” he said.
It was just before lunchtime that the boat rounded a corner and the entrance to the tunnel came into sight. At first Eleanor thought it was another bridge as the arched brick entrance looked very similar, but then she realised that the archway was, in fact, in the side of a broad hill which rose above the canal on either side. Tom was walking with Taff and he stopped and waved back to Peggy who leaned on the long tiller pole, bringing the bow of the boat gently in to the bank.
“We’ll stop here for some lunch!” she called.
While Tom and Peggy tied up the boat, Eleanor walked up the towpath towards the tunnel entrance. The path turned away from the canal and headed up the slope and she stepped carefully down the bank and looked into the arched entrance.
She saw nothing. She could just make out the stone sides and roof of the tunnel for a few yards in and then the bright sunlight failed and there was only darkness.
“Any sign of the ghost?”
The voice was right behind her and Eleanor jumped, her foot slipping on the damp grass and to her horror she felt herself falling. She gave a panicked little cry and then, suddenly, strong arms caught her around the waist and lifted her back up the bank.
She turned to see Tom looking down at her with an embarrassed expression. “Sorry Ellie! I really didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“Then don’t talk that old nonsense about ghosts!” called Peggy. “You know it ain’t true!”
“It’s not?” asked Eleanor walking back to the boat hand in hand with Tom.
“It’s just one of those tales people tell to frighten each other around the stove on winter evenings” said Peggy briskly. “They say that a young woman was murdered and her body thrown into the canal inside the tunnel and that she haunts the place. We’ve been through it no end ’o times and never seen anything. I asked a local copper once and he said there’s no record of any such murder.”
Josh was sitting on the bow of the boat filling his pipe. “Well…….you know there are people who believe it Peg” he murmured tamping down the tobacco with his thumb. “I know many old boatmen who’ll take long diversions to avoid going through ’ere…...”
Peggy snorted impatiently. “More fool them for believin' such superstitious nonsense!” she said. “Here…..” she handed Eleanor a basket containing some fresh bread and cheese.
Eleanor shivered slightly then smiled. “Then perhaps it’s just as well I won’t be going in. And I’ll have Taff with me!”
After they had eaten and drunk a mug of Josh’s black tea Tom and his father hauled out a long, narrow plank and laid it carefully across the bows of the boat, fastening it down firmly with ropes. Eleanor watched, fascinated, as Peggy brought out a small sack of grain and placed it in the middle of the plank. She then fetched the two hurricane lanterns from the cabin, lit them and placed one in the bows and the other on the roof of the cabin, their flickering light incongruous in the bright sunshine.
“Right then” Tom came over to Eleanor and put a hand on her arm. “You’ll be fine now…...you just follow the old boathorse road over the top and we’ll meet you at the other side. No need for you to hurry as it’ll take us about three hours to leg it through so you’ll have a bit of a wait! I’m sure Taff’ll appreciate the rest though.”
He leaned down and planted a quick kiss on her cheek before turning back to the boat, pushing the bow off the bank and jumping back on board with his father. Eleanor watched as Peggy heaved the long barge pole off the roof of the cabin and pushed the stern off the bank, lining the boat up with the tunnel entrance. She admired the play of muscles in the older woman’s arms as she sank the barge pole into the bottom of the canal and heaved on it, pushing the heavily loaded boat slowly towards the tunnel.
As the bows approached the entrance Tom and Josh lay down on their backs on the plank with their heads together on the makeshift pillow and, as the bow of the boat entered the tunnel, began to push against the tunnel walls with their feet, effectively “walking” along the tunnel walls and hauling the boat in.
Eleanor watched as the faint light from the lanterns moved slowly into the darkness of the tunnel until she could barely make out the outline of the old boat.
Suddenly she felt a tug on her arm and turned to see Taff reaching for a particularly succulent patch of grass. The halter rope she had looped around her wrist was hampering him and he shook his head, trying to pull it loose.
“Hey! Stop that!” she cried crossly. She stood up and brushed a few bits of grass from her skirt.
“We should be making a move ourselves Taff” she said walking over to the horse who gazed back at her, chewing peacefully.
She smiled and scratched him gently behind the ear. “C'mon then!”
She looped the end of the long halter rope around the handle of the wicker basket she had taken to carrying while walking along the towpath and set off up the slight slope at the side of the tunnel. At least there's no chance I'll get lost, she thought as she walked along the clearly defined track marked with faint hoofmarks from the passage of previous boathorses.
Nearing the hilltop the lane became more potholed and bounded by rough pasture grazed by groups of scruffy ponies. Every so often Eleanor passed curious brick chimney-like structures which, after some consideration, she decided must be air shafts for the canal tunnel below her. Looking back, the view encompassed the many small villages and the five towns which formed the Potteries from which Mr Wedgwood's workers originated, all lying under a haze of smoke from the kilns which fired the pottery for which the area was named.
Eleanor strolled slowly over the hilltop, stopping frequently to fill her basket with the blackberries which grew in profusion on the brambles bordering one side of the path. She found that Taff was quite amenable to frequent pauses during which he would stroll off and crop the short dry grass, scaring off the green woodpeckers that she had heard Josh call “Yaffles” who prowled the short grass looking for anthills. She had filled her basket by the time she reached the slope down the side of the hill and saw the late afternoon sunlight reflected off the water of the canal on the far side.
“Come along Taff! We’d better get down to the towpath to wait” she said picking up the loose halter rope and giving it a gentle tug.
Taff gave a snort and shook his head, but followed her readily enough down the slope. Further along the towpath she saw a group of stone buildings which Tom had told her included a stable for the boathorses and she wondered if she should take him down there. However he seemed perfectly happy to stay with her, simply nudging her shoulder occasionally to move her away from any patches of grass that he fancied.
She decided that they would both wait here and, looping the long halter rope around a branch, she walked up to the tunnel and peered cautiously inside but saw nothing. Climbing back up to the towpath she spotted a couple of dry logs beside the path which would do as extra fuel for the stove. She knew that Peggy had prepared a hearty stew for Tom and Josh when they finished working the boat and free fuel was always welcome. Smiling to herself at the thought that she was beginning to think like a true boatwoman she hauled the logs forward and sat down on one of them to wait.
Her thoughts turned, inevitably, back to the day that she and Tom had agreed to live as man and wife. She still wasn’t sure if Tom had said anything to his parents or if they had simply understood the change in their son’s relationship with the subtle instinct developed over years of living in such close proximity to each other. She knew that they had wanted a more conventional marriage for him but also, like any parents, they wanted him to be happy.
She found herself thinking of the elaborate ceremony of her marriage to Sir Gerald Beaumont. She had only met him once prior to their wedding and he had been at his most attentive and charming, and Gerald could be extremely charming in order to get what he wanted! The church had been decorated with huge bouquets of flowers reflecting the sprays of flowers embroidered on her ivory lace dress. For the first time in her life she had been the centre of attention and as she had walked down the aisle past the local gentry, holding her Uncle’s arm towards her wealthy, handsome fiancée she had thought it was the best day of her life.
That feeling had lasted until all the guests had left and she was alone in her room with her new husband.
The contrast could not have been more marked. The little family had gone about their usual tasks that night, tying up the boat, settling the horse, cooking their evening meal. Eleanor was almost sure she had seen Josh give his son a wink as he leaned out of the cabin to knock the remains of the tobacco out of his long stemmed pipe before he and Peggy retired to their bed behind the thick curtain at the back of the cabin.
Tom had always previously slept, rolled in a blanket, on the cabin floor, only slipping occasionally onto the narrow bed beside her when he was sure she was sleeping. This night was different. Once she was curled up on the narrow bed he came and sat boldly beside her.
He had reached out a hand to her. “Do you truly wish to be my wife Ellie?” he had whispered.
She took his hand and pulled him down beside her. “Yes Tom, you know I do” she replied.
He reached out and gently stroked her face with his fingers. “I want you so much Ellie…...”
“I’m right here….” she leaned forward and kissed him gently. His arm slid around her shoulders and the kiss became deeper, more passionate, but as Tom’s hand moved down to the hem of her slip she stiffened involuntarily and he stopped immediately.
“Are you sure about this?” he whispered.
She looked up into his eyes and gave a weak smile. “Yes, I’m sure!”
“It’s him, isn’t it? Your husband? You’re remembering him?”
She looked down, embarrassed.
“Did he hurt you?” he asked gently.
Ellie sighed. “Well, no. Not after the first time. It was just that…...he didn’t want me, for myself. He just wanted sex and that was what I was there for. He treated me as one of his possessions, like his horses and his hunting dogs. It would no more have occurred to him to ask me if I wanted it as it would to ask his horse if it wanted to be ridden. In his eyes, I simply had no say in the matter. I was his wife and it was my duty.”
Tom sighed. “Ellie, I meant what I said. I want you more than anything in the world right at this moment, but you know I’d never try to force you into anything you don’t want.”
She looked at him and she could see the truth in his earnest expression. He truly meant it. She held out her arms to him.
“Come here Tom…...”
Eleanor was sitting on the grass beside the canal, lost in her own thoughts when she felt something nudge her shoulder. She looked up to see Taff, his head up and his ears pricked forward, listening.
Putting away memories of Tom enthusiastically following her whispered instructions in the darkness, his hard muscular body entwined with hers in the narrow bed, she stood up and listened. Yes, she could hear a rhythmic scraping sound. Leaning forward she peered into the mouth of the tunnel and saw a light moving slowly towards her.
She stepped back and leaned on the horse’s flank to move him out of the way.
“It’s them Taff! They’re here!” she said excitedly.
Taff didn’t appear to share her enthusiasm. Doubtless he had done this many times before and associated the reappearance of the boat with more work for him. She gave him a gentle slap on the flank to encourage him to move a little way up the towpath to make room for the boat to tie up when it emerged from the tunnel and as she tied the halter rope to a tree further down the towpath she saw the Vulcan’s bow emerge from the darkness.
Tom and Josh were lying on their backs with their eyes closed, presumably blinded by the sunlight after so long in the darkness of the tunnel, but in a moment Tom stirred and put a hand over his eyes, looking along the towpath. She waved to him and was rewarded with a weak wave back. He heaved himself up to his knees and picked up a coil of rope which was fastened to a bollard on the bow.
“Hi Ellie!” He called. “Catch this and try and haul the bow in would you?”
He swung his arm back and threw the rope which uncoiled as it came until the last six feet or so landed across the towpath at Ellie’s feet. She pulled the woollen scarf from her shoulders and wrapped the ends around her hands, as Peggy had shown her, to protect her delicate hands from the coarse rope, then began to pull. She had to brace her feet firmly and lean back with all her weight before the bow of the Vulcan began to slowly turn in to the bank but, once it had begun to turn, she found that she could haul it in without too much trouble.
As soon as it was close enough Tom jumped ashore and took the rope from her, hauling it in and tying it off to one of the wooden bollards placed at intervals up to the tunnel mouth. In a few moments Peggy had brought the stern in and tied that off too. Eleanor was somewhat concerned to see that Josh hadn’t moved but Tom didn’t appear to be worried.
“Okay Da! It’s safe to get up now! We’ve done all the work!” he called with a grin.
Josh rolled onto his side and opened an eye. “Oh good!” he said weakly and began to struggle up onto his feet. “Damn! I’m gettin’ too old an’ stiff for this lark” he muttered as he climbed down from the bow and sat down heavily on one of the bollards. Eleanor could see that, despite Tom’s light-hearted banter, both the men were exhausted and she headed back to the cabin to help Peggy.
She climbed down the steep steps into the cabin and saw Peggy ladling hot beef broth from a pot into two earthenware mugs.
“Here you go lass” she said, handing Eleanor the mugs. “Give those to the lads, it’ll warm ‘em up after the chill of the tunnel. Then you can give me a hand with this stew.”
Eleanor took the mugs and began to carefully climb back up the steps. “Oh Peggy!” she said turning back. “I found a lot of mushrooms beside the track, they’re in my basket. Josh likes them in the stew doesn’t he?”
Peggy smiled up at her. “Aye, he does that! Bring ‘em down and we’ll put ‘em in.”
When Eleanor climbed out onto the towpath she saw both men sitting on bollards in identical postures, heads down with their arms on their knees obviously worn out with the effort of legging the heavy boat through the tunnel. They took the mugs of hot broth gratefully and sipped at them, their hands around the mugs to warm them.
Eleanor picked up her basket and took it into the cabin. She fished out the mushrooms and cleaned them for Peggy before heading outside again to see how the men were doing. Looking up she noticed dark clouds building up over the hill.
“Do you want me to take Taff down to the stable and settle him in?” she asked hesitantly. “It looks like rain.”
Tom looked up at her and frowned. “Can you manage that do you think?” he asked.
She put her hands on her hips in a posture she had seen Peggy take and glared at him.
“You don’t have to treat me as though I was made of Mr Wedgwood’s bone china you know Tom!” she said sharply. “Lady Beaumont may have had grooms to look after her horses but I can manage Taff, he’s very placid compared to Gerald’s hunters.”
Tom managed a weak grin. “Okay! Off you go then.”
Ten minutes later she was struggling back down the towpath with the heavy leather and brass harness. In truth it had taken considerable effort to unfasten the stiff buckles but she was determined to do it herself. Tom saw her coming and took the harness from her to stow it on board the boat then they both headed down into the cabin where Peggy had added the mushrooms to the delicious smelling stew that she was ladling into bowls.
As they ate they heard the rain start to hammer on the cabin roof and, as soon as they had finished eating, Tom and Josh both lay down and fell into an exhausted sleep. Peggy cleared up the bowls and sat down on the edge of her bed by Josh’s feet.
“He’s right you know” she said quietly. “He’s getting too old for this.”
“What else can you do?” asked Eleanor. “You need two men to get the boat through don’t you?”
“Aye, well…..you can hire men to do the legging for you for a fee” explained Peggy. “They tend to hang around near the tunnels, in the nearest Pub usually, but we’ve never really been able to afford ‘em.”
A thought struck her and she looked up. “Mind you, if this trip goes well and we get a longer contract from Mr Wedgwood maybe we’ll be able to afford it in future.”
Despite the heavy rain during the night the next day dawned bright and clear and Tom appeared to have recovered completely from his efforts of the previous day although Eleanor thought Josh still appeared a little stiff. She stirred up the stove, quickly heated up a kettle of water and produced mugs of tea for everyone as Tom grabbed a chunk of bread spread with Peggy’s blackberry jam and set off up the towpath to fetch Taff, leaving his father sat on the cabin step with a mug of tea.
Josh spotted Eleanor watching him and winked. “He’s a good lad. Does all he can to help out his ol’ Da!”
Eleanor smiled to herself, realising that old Josh was actually a lot tougher than he looked!
In a few moments Tom was back with Taff and Eleanor held the old horse’s halter while he fitted the harness on and hitched him up to the boat.
Eleanor volunteered to take the helm while Peggy tidied the tiny cabin and sorted out provisions for the days meals. Now that they had left the outskirts of the Pottery towns they were travelling through the countryside and she found that she enjoyed steering the boat through the open fields and deep woods, past banks of deep pink rosebay willowherb and purple loosestrife, only occasionally passing through villages such as Stone and Sandon down to Great Hayward and the junction of the Trent and Mersey and the Stafford and Worcester canals.
She pulled Vulcan in towards the bank as Tom had told her that they needed to stop at the busy canal junction to get water and supplies for themselves and Taff. While Tom and Peggy were dealing with this, Josh shook out a few coins from his pouch and paid the canal company representative at the Toll house, putting the receipt in the small ticket drawer to the right of the cabin door. When they had all completed these tasks Tom hitched up the horse again and they turned under the old bridge onto the Stafford and Worcester.
The Canal passed Cannock Chase and skirted the boundary of the Shugborough estate. Through the woods Eleanor could just glimpse the tall chimneys and pillared portico of the Hall belonging to the Anson family. She recalled visiting once with her uncle and her cousins for a dance back in what she now considered her old life. Her uncle had told her that the estate was originally owned by the Bishops of Litchfield until Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. It had been purchased in the 1620s by the Anson family and was now owned by George Anson, the Member of Parliament for Litchfield.
The sun was just setting as they came to a spot where the canal widened into a broad lake bordered by thick reedbeds alive with a variety of wildfowl. Eleanor was enchanted by the beauty of the place and questioned Tom about it as they settled Taff for the night.
“That village you can see just on the hill? That's Tixall, and this is known as Tixall Wide” he explained.
Eleanor laughed. “Very appropriate! By why is it here at all?”
Tom shrugged. “No one's quite sure. Some say it was widened to placate the owner of Tixall Hall when the canal was built across his land. Some say that it was here already and it was just incorporated into the canal.....all I know is that Ma and Da have always liked to stop here as it's so peaceful.”
She told Tom about her visit to Shugborough Hall as they sat together on the roof of the cabin watching the sun go down behind the banks of reeds and yellow flag irises.
“A place that big for just one family? Imagine that!” he said softly.
As they watched a grey heron stalking silently through the shallows in search of unwary fish and frogs she realised that she would much rather be here with him eating Peggy’s rabbit stew with rough bread than dining in luxury with the nobility in the plush banqueting room of Shugborough Hall just a mile or so away.
The next morning the headed off down the Stafford and Worcester. It took Taff, at his steady pace, nearly a week to get via Acton Trussell, Penkridge and Gailey to the stop lock at Aldersley junction where they paid another toll and turned off towards Wolverhampton. Here they had to get up the ‘Wolverhampton 21’ a steep flight of locks set close together up to the city. Although Peggy had told her about the ‘hoblers’ who would help single handed captains through the locks for a small fee, she was still shocked when she heard rapid hoofbeats and looked up to see a small child come flying down the towpath riding bareback on an elderly boathorse.
As she watched, open-mouthed, the horse was pulled up sharply alongside the boat in a shower of gravel.
“Need any ‘elp luv?” shouted the child.
On closer inspection Eleanor decided that, despite the dirty, shoulder length hair, it was a small boy of about ten years old.
Josh turned, leaving Taff to plod steadily on at his own pace for a moment.
“No thanks son!” he called.
The boy turned the horse to see who had answered him.
“Oh it’s you Mr ‘Arding” he said, sounding slightly disappointed. “Didn’t recognise the girl on yer boat.”
Tom, who was heading up the towpath to work the first lock, heard this and stopped.
“Oy! You show some respect lad! That’s my wife yer talkin’ about!” he called.
The boy looked back at Eleanor with a renewed interest.
“Oh aye? We’d heard….”
Tom sighed. “You can’t keep anything quiet…..” he muttered to himself as he strode up to the lock.
The lad seemed about to comment further when his horse pricked up its ears and looked back up the flight. Faint hoofbeats could be heard coming down the flight.
“Damn! ‘Ere, Mr ‘Arding? Is there anyone be’ind yer? He asked.
“Aye, there’s another boat comin’ down from the junction” said Josh.
The boy turned the horse and dug his heels into its flanks. “Ta!” he called.
“An’ you watch your language son!” Josh called after him as he flew off down the slope and round the corner towards the junction.
Seconds after he had disappeared another horse came racing down the slope with a small child clinging to his back like a jockey. Taff had wandered across the towpath in search of some juicy grass and jumped back out of the way with a startled snort as the other horse flew past.
Tom had opened the bottom gates and Eleanor steered the boat into the lock and then handed over to Peggy. She climbed carefully onto the cabin roof and stepped up onto the side of the lock as Tom and Josh closed the gates and opened the sluices. As they waited for the lock to fill she walked over to Tom.
“Shouldn’t those children be in school?” she asked.
“Well, I guess there’s nowhere around here’ll take ‘em.” answered Tom. “The kids on the boats get a couple of days schooling where they can and then move on…..” he smiled sheepishly. “Why d’you think I never learnt to read? Besides, they’re needed to recruit boats for the hoblers. They’ll find someone who needs help through the locks and come haring back up to fetch their father or older brothers to help ‘em for a couple of pennies.”
“How do they afford to pay for help?” she asked curiously.
“They don’t always pay in cash” admitted Tom. “The boats carry all sorts of cargo. Grain, flour, sugar…..sometimes they’ll pay in supplies.”
Eleanor looked shocked. “But…..that’s stealing surely?”
Tom had the grace to look a little embarrassed. “Aye, technically yes…..but we get paid very little….and you saw yourself how that coal merchant was prepared to cheat us! Most boatmen take it as their due to help themselves to a little of the cargo as won’t be missed. Besides, sometimes you have no choice. In the winter when the canal freezes you can be frozen in. They say there was a boat in the big freeze a couple of years ago was frozen in the ice, far out in the countryside with a cargo of flour and currants. The story goes that they spent three weeks livin’ on spotted dick!”
Eleanor burst out laughing. “You’re joking!”
Tom grinned at her. “It’s true, I promise you! Just ask Da!”
It took most of the rest of the day to work their way up the locks but Eleanor was still smiling to herself when they reached the top.