Chapter X

Ned Makes his Escape

Ned’s life on board the canal-boat had grown to be dreary and monotonous, and even worse. It was dreary and monotonous because of the absence of companionship, and it was worse than being dreary and monotonous because of the rough usage of Mattie. It must not be supposed that the boat simply went to a place and then came back again, or that it took a boat-load the whole journey from London and never stopped on the way. Between Northampton and the metropolis it had unloaded and reloaded once, and this process took up a good deal of time. Ned would not have cared much for this had it not been that Coney and Mattie, having nothing to do in the evening, generally spent their time in the little beer-houses on the canal banks, where they drank such deep draughts of the weak washy beer that one would have supposed they were hollow right down to their boots.

On these occasions Mattie’s ill temper always increased, and he was ready to quarrel on the least provocation, and especially ready to vent his ill humour on Ned. As a rule, Coney was sufficiently sober to protect the boy, but once or twice it happened​—​owing to the fact that by chance the beer was stronger than usual​—​that he was too tipsy to do anything but sleep. The consequence was, that Mr. Mattie, working himself into a passion for no reason that anybody could see unless he wanted to get rid of his over-abundant brutality, flung a pint pot at Ned, which caught him by the side of the head, knocked him down, and inflicted a deep cut.

Mattie was rather frightened when he saw Ned lying on the ground, pale, half unconscious, and with the blood streaming from his forehead. He ran to the canal, filled his cap with water, and dashed it in the boy’s face.

“Get oop,” he exclaimed roughly.

Ned struggled to his feet, feeling rather dizzy and sick. He scarcely knew what had happened, the assault was so sudden and so unexpected. There was Coney lying on the grass, with his face upturned to the sky, and covered with his cap, snoring heavily. It was of no use, he knew from previous experience, to appeal to him, for when Coney was in his cups you might fire off a cannon close to his ears and not wake him. The three were by themselves, too, for after coming out of the beer-house they had wandered a quarter of a mile or so down the towing-path, and at seven o’clock in the evening, in an out-of-the-way country place, the towing-path of a canal is not a spot where people are likely to be found. But, in spite of there not being much likelihood of help, Ned was determined to show that he was not afraid.

“What did you hit me for?” he asked, when he had recovered himself a little.

“Because I chose to,” said Mattie, slouching up to a gate in a low fence which separated the path from a meadow, and perching himself on the top rail. “Because I chose to,” he repeated, “and I’ll do it again if you gives me any of your sauce. And look ’ere, don’t you say a word to Coney ’bout this, d’ye hear? or I’ll break every bone in your body.”

And as he sat there, with his body half doubled up, and his scowling, ugly face, he looked quite capable of it.

“If I was a man do you know what I’d do?” returned Ned, his fists clenched and his teeth set.

“No, I don’t, and what’s more, I don’t care.”

“I wouldn’t ask Coney or anybody to fight for me, but I’d just fling you as far as I could into the canal, and I’d take good care you didn’t come out again in a hurry.”

“What! you murderous young scamp, if you say much more I’ll​—​”

But what Mr. Mattie had in his mind he was not allowed to say, for at that moment the top rail of the gate, which was a slight one, gave way, and precipitated him all of a heap into a damp ditch at the side where there was a plentiful growth of stinging nettles.

In Mattie’s half tipsy condition it was no easy task for him to rise to his feet again, and as Ned did not choose to help him, when he did struggle up his face and wrists were amply supplied with stings, which did not add to his good temper.

This was only one instance of his brutality, and as Ned found by experience that it simply made matters worse to complain to Coney, who, to do him justice, was ready most times, though not always, to take his part, he gradually came to say nothing but to take the blows as part of his canal training.

Perhaps the men suspected that he might try to escape, for one day Coney read him a long lecture about what they could do if he ran away.

“You’re ’prenticed to us, that’s what you are.”

“But who’s ’prenticed me, I should like to know?” replied Ned. “I wasn’t asked.”

“In course you wasn’t. We don’t ask boys whether they likes it or not when they’re ’prenticed, do we, mate?”​—​this was to Mattie.

“I should just think we didn’t,” growled that worthy. “A pretty state things would be in.”

“It’s your uncle as has ’prenticed you to us, Ned.”

“What! Bob Locket?”

“Ay. That’s him.”

“It’s a falsehood if he told you he was my uncle,” declared the lad indignantly. “He’s no more my uncle than you are. He’s my cousin, that’s what he is, and I wish he wasn’t.”

“I don’t know nothing about that. He’s paid us some money to bring you up to the biz-ness, and we’re a-going to do our dooty, eh, Mattie. What does the law say about it? The law says if you runs away or don’t do as we tells you, you can be clapped in gaol for a week or so.”

“That’s so. And you’d better look out, young shaver,” snarled Coney’s partner.

Ned did not reply, but he thought if the law did say so the law was very cruel. He didn’t know much about apprentices, but he believed that Bob Locket was quite capable of telling an untruth, and maybe he had imposed upon Coney.

But what could he do? Here he was, away from everybody who knew him​—​indeed, what friends had he save those at Gibraltar Cottage?​—​and who would believe him even if he had a chance of telling anybody his story. It was hopeless the more he thought of it. Yet Mattie’s tyranny was making his life intolerable, and get away he must​—​a resolution which became very much firmer after a certain conversation he had overheard between the two men.

The boat had nearly completed her loading, and on the following day they expected to leave Northampton and proceed on their seemingly endless journey. Rugby, in Warwickshire, so Ned found out, was the next town of importance they would pass, their destination being Birmingham, which they expected to reach in a week or two’s time.

Coney and Mattie had been drinking as usual, and had finished up the day by bringing some beer on board the boat. Mattie’s first instruction to the boy was to tell him in his usual rough way to go to bed, which he accordingly did, going to bed on board the Betsy Jane meaning throwing one’s self down on a hard mattress placed on the top of one of the lockers. But rough as the bed was, Ned soon went to sleep, and might have slept soundly till the morning, after his customary fashion, had he not been awakened by the angry voices of the men.

“I tell you I hate him, and I don’t see as we’re bound to keep him,” he heard Mattie say. “Can’t you and me work the boat, Coney? Of course we can. What’s the use of keeping this youngster as is eating his head off? And then he’ll be wanting wages soon, and who’s to pay him? Are you a-going to do it?”

“I ain’t got no money as you know,” answered Coney. “But I’d like to do the right thing by the lad if I could.”

“If you could,” replied Mattie in a contemptuous tone. “You know you can’t, so what’s the use of talking about it. I tell you what’s in my mind. When we gets to Birmingham let’s ship him on the Staffordshire canal. They wants boys there, they do.”

“The Staffordshire canal,” thought Ned; “why, that’s the canal Buttons was telling me about, where the boats are leaky old tubs and full of rats.”

“He won’t do bad if he gets aboard a ‘flyman,’” said Coney reflectively.

The “flyman” on the Staffordshire canal, it may be observed, is the best class of boat. It is worked by a crew of three men, and is by no means in the wretched condition which the boats that carry coal and ironstone are.

“Ah, ‘if.’ But I ain’t a-going to wait till a ‘flyman’ turns up just to please this young shaver. No, no. The first boat as’ll take him must have him. That’s what I say.”

“Some o’ them Staffordshire’s are cautions and no mistake. D’ye mind the one as we saw the last time we was at Birmingham? A bit of a cupboard to sleep in, and the water a-coming in through the leaks. Why, Tom Scrowby as worked in one o’ them boats was laid up in the hospital for a month with ager and roomatics. I ain’t over particular, but I wouldn’t go in one of them ironstone boats, not if you was to pay me double.”

“Well, you ain’t been asked, so you needn’t fret about it,” growled Mattie. “They’re good enough for that there Ned of ourn.”

The boy at this moment shifting his position attracted Mattie’s attention, and he looked up. Ned. however, remained perfectly still, and his regular breathing deceived the man, who, thinking him to be asleep, went on to persuade Coney to agree to send him away when they reached Birmingham.

Coney, Ned could plainly see, was reluctant; but the idea of saving money was a strong argument in favour of Mattie’s proposition. Ned knew that to some extent Coney was in the other’s debt. The boatmen sometimes amused themselves with playing cards, pitch and toss, and occasionally a dog fight, and Coney had been unlucky of late, and forced to borrow money from his companion who was too cautious himself to play or bet. This, then, was the reason why Coney seemed inclined to give way though much against his will.

But he held out for a little longer, and Ned could hear Mattie, in his gruff voice, persuading him. Then all at once the voices grew low and indistinct; Ned, through his half closed eyelids, saw them shaking hands as if concluding a bargain, and the talking ceased. Though he did not actually hear the words spoken, the boy was certain they had settled the matter, and that as soon as they arrived at Birmingham he was to be transferred to another boat.

“But they won’t see me at Birmingham,” muttered Ned to himself. “I know I can get away now whenever I like, because they’ve got tired of watching me. It won’t be long before I’m off and working my way back to London. It isn’t the first time I’ve had to look after myself.”

Full of this idea he lay awake the remainder of the night endeavouring to form some plan of escape. Remembering what Coney had said about the law, and he had no reason to doubt that it was quite truth, he thought it would be safer if he made the attempt when the boat was near some obscure country place. In a big town like Northampton where could he hide himself? His former experience told him that the police would be sure to harry him out of corners and doorways, whereas in the country he could take refuge in barns, or, if the worst came to the worst, he could sleep in the woods or behind a hedge. No, he would wait until the boat had gone a day or two on its journey.

The loading of the boat was finished about eleven in the morning, and the old horse, which had become quite lively from its long rest, was brought out and once more the Betsy Jane proceeded on its monotonous way. Perhaps it was the expectation that he was about to get rid of Ned that made Mattie positively amiable to the boy. Not a single cuff did this worthy individual bestow upon him the whole of that day, which was really a wonderful thing, for as a rule it was nothing but hard knocks with Mr. Mattie.

But Mattie’s alteration of behaviour made no difference in Ned’s resolution. He had made up his mind to go, and go he would. After thinking well over the matter, he determined that the most favourable time to escape would be in the early morning when he was supposed to be guiding the horse. One of the men would then be asleep, and as for the other at the tiller, why the darkness would prevent him seeing anything. There was no fear of Jack coming to grief through being left to himself. Indeed, save when he came to a lock or met another barge. Jack scarcely needed a driver, for he had had so many years of canal life he could walk along the canal bank blindfolded and never come to grief The only thing Ned feared was that the barge might come to a lock before he had time to get clear away; but there was no way of deciding this, and he must take his chance.

According to the usual arrangements he had to turn out of his bed about two in the morning and take his place on the towing-path. Accordingly when Coney woke him​—​or thought he woke him, for as a matter of fact Ned had not slept a wink since he laid down​—​he rose rubbing his eyes and yawning to make believe he had been fast asleep and jumped on shore. He had no valuables or property which he cared to take with him, so he had no trouble on that score. All his worldly possessions were the clothes he had on, an old knife which a brother bargee, a good-natured fellow, had given him, a penny, the present of a lady whose little girl had dropped a toy in the water which Ned had picked up, and a piece of bread that he had saved from his last night’s supper.

And with these he had resolved to find his way to London.

He walked up to the horse and patted his neck. He was sorry to part from old Jack, for it was the only thing connected with the canal he really cared for.

“I’m off, old fellow,” he whispered. “If you want to do me a good turn jog along for a mile or two without stopping, and that will allow me to get nicely away.”

He could almost imagine the horse knew what he said, for Jack turned his head half round and picked up his ears sympathizingly.

It was quite dark, and standing where he did, he could only hear the gentle ripple of the water caused by the barge, and the splash every now and then of the tow rope as it slackened and fell in the water, but he could not see the barge itself. Nothing could be more favourable for his purpose, it seemed to him.

A second or two of hesitation, and then he ran to the fence at the side of the towing-path. He put his hand up and found he could reach the top. The next moment he had pulled himself, scrambled over and dropped without invitation. He alighted on his feet, and on grass he could feel by its softness, and then set off running.

He dared not go at the top of his speed for fear there should be streams of drainage water into which he might fall with no possible chance of being rescued. Where the land lies low, as it does in parts of Northamptonshire, and in Lincoln and Cambridgeshire, very deep cuttings are made into which the water drains. These cuttings, or dykes as they are called, are often as wide as rivers, and hence Ned had good reason for fear.

He ran for about half a mile as it seemed to him, and just when he thought he might walk slower with safety, he heard the sound of a shout. He knew its tones too well to mistake them. It was Mattie’s voice, and very close it seemed to be, for he could hear his own name called out, accompanied by some of Mattie’s own choice language. He stopped and listened. Yes, Mattie was certainly not far off, for the next thing he heard was the scrunching of gravel underneath a heavy foot, which he knew meant that some one had leaped on to the towing-path.

Yet how could this be? Surely he had run sufficiently far to make it impossible? Then it occurred to him all at once that though he had started right in the darkness, he had gradually described a half circle without knowing it, and so had brought himself back to the canal again.

He scarcely knew what to do. He was sure his footsteps could not be heard on the soft grass, but if he moved he might as easily walk in the wrong direction as in the right. He heard some one with a heavy tread running up to the horse, which most likely had stopped, and so had warned the man at the helm that something was wrong. Then came more shouts for that “rascal Ned,” then more polite language, and then a shout for Coney.

By-and-by the latter, very sleepy and disagreeable, Ned could tell from his voice, joined Mattie, and they held a consultation.

“He ain’t drowned, that I’ll swear,” said Mattie. “D’ye think I shouldn’t ha’ heard his splash? Rather. No, he ain’t drowned. He’s made off, that’s what he’s done.”

“Then he can’t be far away,” rejoined Coney. “He hasn’t been out more than a quarter of an hour.”

“Of course he hasn’t. Get out the lantern. Quick.”

During this conversation Ned felt his heart beat quickly. Still be did not think he ran much risk owing to the friendly darkness. The men, he knew, dared not leave their barge for very long, and if they fetched a lantern its light would rather assist him than them, since it would show him their position and enable him to avoid them.

And so he determined to wait.

In a very short time he saw the light of the barge lantern. It was at least a couple of a hundred yards away, and as it moved Ned moved too, crouching almost close to the ground, so that his figure should not be seen, for he did not know how far the light of the lantern extended. Both Mattie’s and Coney’s eyes, he knew from past experience, were good and able to peer a long distance, and this made him doubly careful.

The lantern moved here and there like a will-o’-the-wisp, for the figures of both men were invisible, and it seemed as if its motion were given to it by ghostly hands. He heard them growling out their disgust and disappointment, and then the light began to grow dim and the voices to die away. Were they going to give up the search, he asked himself?

Yes, it must be so. Gradually he had, as the light approached him, gone farther and farther away from the canal, and he was now so far distant that, although he could see the glimmer of the lantern, he could not hear the sounds of the men’s voices. Next the light itself disappeared, and then he knew the search was over.