Chapter VII

On Board the “Betsy Jane.”

When Ned’s eyes had got used to the dimness of the little cabin he found it was even smaller and dirtier than he at first imagined it to be. It was, roughly speaking, about eight feet long, six feet wide, and five feet high. He was tall for his age, and could just stand upright in it; but the men, who were tall, strapping fellows, had to move about bent nearly double. There was a little stove not far from the door, or, to speak properly, the hatchway, and as it had not been long lighted, it sent forth clouds of stifling smoke. At the farther end of the cabin was a kind of box-bench or bunk, as it was called on the barge, and lying on a mattress, which was placed on the top of the bunk, was a third man, whose loud snores showed he was sleeping soundly.

For the first five or six minutes the two men had enough to do, the one to look after the horse on the tow-path and the other to hold the tiller and guide the boat. By-and-by, when they approached the lock, the man who had been with the horse jumped on board and came running into the cabin.

He took no notice of the boy, but going up to the sleeping man shook him roughly.

“What are ye doing of?” growled the sleeper.

“Coom get oop,” shouted the other, with a strong north country accent.

The fellow struggled into a sitting posture, rubbed his eyes, gaped, and finally slid from the mattress on to his feet. Then looking round he caught sight of Ned.

“Hallo! who be this youngster?”

Ned did not like the look of this third man at all. He was older, uglier, and rougher looking than the other two. His hair and beard, all ragged and uncombed, had become matted together where he had been lying. His nose was flattened in the centre, where in truth he had received a blow in a fight, which must have killed him had not his head been unusually hard; his teeth were broken from the same cause, and he had a dreadful squint.

“He be one of us, Mattie,” returned the younger man. “Bob Locket’s youngster.”

“Oh!” growled Mattie. “He’ll have to work. We don’t have no lazy boys on the Betsy Jane. D’ye year, boy?”

“Yes, I hear,” replied Ned, speaking up manfully. “I don’t mind work.”

Mattie looked at the lad as if be wasn’t quite sure he meant to be impudent, and therefore deserved a cuff of the head, but the voice of some one shouting from the lock was heard just at that moment, and caused him to alter his mind.

Muttering something which Ned did not catch​—​it was probably not worth hearing, being most likely bad language, of which the “bargee” had a large stock​—​he lurched out of the cabin and seized a boat-hook, with which to prevent the barge running against the lock gates as she went through. The other man in the meantime had gone back to the tow-path, where he had left the horse.

When the barge was between the two lock gates Ned put his head outside the hatchway and looked about him. How strange it all seemed! There was the barge imprisoned between two high walls; the moonlight, glancing on their sides, showed them covered with ooze and slime. There was a sound of rushing water mingled with the unmusical clank, clank of chains and cog-wheels opening the flood-gates. The sky seem far away, and only a small piece of it could he see, while below was the dark stream, looking more like ink than water.

Presently he felt a slight rocking in the boat, and then the wet, slippery walls appeared to be sliding into the water. The sensation was so peculiar that at first he felt frightened, but soon he understood the meaning of it: it was the barge rising as the water, pouring through the flood-gates, filled the space between the two locks.

And then once more he was able to see the towing-path. The locks opened and slowly the barge went through.

Fearing the man called Mattie might return and find some fault because he was outside the cabin and not inside, he crept back and coiled himself up on a locker at the side of the cabin, and not so large as the one at the end.

But Mattie did not make his appearance, for the reason that the canal was crowded with barges and great care was needed to avoid a collision. Ned could hear Mattie running along the side of the barge, and occasionally jumping on the top of the cabin, all the while keeping up, in his deep voice, a running fire of uncomplimentary observations respecting other bargees, who, in their turn, were not slow to reply in language equally forcible. And then now and again would come a tremendous bump, which nearly shot him off the locker, as the barge would knock against the bank or another barge. He thought at first when he lay down that he should go fast asleep, for, shut up as he had been for no reason that he could tell, and worried by thinking about what Bob Locket intended to do with him, he had since his imprisonment been kept in a state of continuous wakefulness. But now that nothing worse than being put on board a canal-boat had happened to him, he felt quieter and easier in his mind, and, as we have said, expected to have slept. But the bumps, just as he was dozing, prevented him for a long time so doing, and it was only when overcome with sheer fatigue and exhaustion that he dropped off.

When he awoke it was broad daylight. The barge was going along smoothly enough, and the sounds from the bunk at the end showed he had been joined by one of the men. Lifting up his head cautiously and looking across he saw to his comfort that his companion was not Mr. Mattie, who, as he afterwards discovered, was taking his turn at the tiller. During the night the fire had gone out, and he felt very cold. His clothes seemed to be filled with moisture from the damp air, and he ached in every limb. He got up shivering, and began to stamp and rub himself to get a little warmth.

Suddenly his occupation was interrupted by Mattie, who roared out to him to light the fire and get the breakfast.

This was rather an unreasonable request, seeing he had never been on board a barge before in his life and knew not where to find anything.

However, he did not stay long considering, and set about doing as he was told, as the best way out of the difficulty. Now that daylight had penetrated into the cabin he saw that every inch of space had been made use of. There were lockers of all shapes and sizes, pigeon-holes stuck here and there, odd contrivances for attaching things to, all occupied and all meant to be used.

And what wonder? This little cabin, but a few feet square, was kitchen, parlour, and bedroom, and no little amount of ingenuity had to be exercised in order to find room for everything. By dint of industrious searching he found wood, paper, and lucifers, and began to light the fire, an accomplishment in which he was tolerably expert, though the flat open stove was not one to which he was accustomed.

But the wood was green and filled the cabin with smoke, and sent him off into a fit of coughing, which had the effect of waking the man at the other end.

“Hallo!” he muttered. “Hold thee row.”

But this was easier said than done, for Ned’s eyes were smarting, his throat was parched, and his tongue seemed to stick to the roof of his mouth. He burst into a cough, which was all the worse for his trying to suppress it.

“Hold thee row, I say,” the man repeated.

And then came something whizzing through the air which glanced by the boy’s head, and going out at the hatchway caught Mr. Mattie, who was just crossing in front, tiller in hand, on the nose.

The result was a volley in Mattie’s usual style. But of this the man inside took no notice, excepting giving a chuckle at the shot not having been expended wholly in vain.

“Now, young shaver, let ’un see what sort o’ fist thee be at me-aking tea.”

“Oh, I can make tea right enough,” returned Ned confidently.

“Right y’are, my lad. There’s the kettle. Catch! There’s the teapot. Catch agen. There’s the tin box with the tea right behind.”

And lying on his back, Coney (as Ned afterwards found this young gentleman was called) seized the kettle and the teapot which were in his reach, flung them to Ned, and indicated the place where the tea was by throwing his other boot at a pigeon-hole near the hatchway.

Having boiled the water, which he procured by dipping the kettle into the canal, and made all in readiness for the tea, the next operation was the frying of the bacon. Bargees have tremendous appetites, and the great slices of fat bacon which Ned cut at Mr. Coney’s direction would have been sufficient for a dozen ordinary persons. Soon the bacon was hissing in the pan, and when declared to be done turned out into a tin dish, the tea was made, and breakfast declared to be ready. On the signal the barge was made fast to the bank, the horse​—​a half-starved miserable-looking quadruped​—​given a feed of corn, and the third man came aboard.

They had breakfast in a very rough and primitive fashion. There were no plates or forks, each man helping himself out of the tin dish as he felt inclined, using a great hunk of bread for a plate, and cutting huge mouthfuls with his jack-knife. At first Ned had an uncomfortable suspicion that they were not going to give him any breakfast, and as he had been kept so short of food at the “Jolly Waterman,” the savoury smell of the bacon had excited his appetite beyond endurance. But he was mistaken.

“Here, lad,” said Coney, who seemed the best-natured of the lot, “take hold, or thee won’t get a bit.”

And it seemed like it to see how all three were making the bread and bacon disappear. So he imitated the example of the others and helped himself, taking his share of the tea, which was handed round in a pewter pot, whenever he could get it.

“Dost thee know aught about horses, lad?” asked Coney when he had satisfied his hunger.

“I’ve held plenty of ’em,” said Ned.

“Held ’em!” repeated Mattie with a gruff laugh; “you ain’t got to hold ’em, you’ve got to drive ’em.”

“All right, I’ll drive ’em then,” said Ned readily.

He made up his mind from the first to do everything he was told with good humour, and he was rather disappointed at finding his efforts to please were not received with the favour he expected.

“You’re one of them clever young ’uns,” sneered Mattie. “Look at him, Buttons. He wants breakin’ in, don’t he?”

Buttons was the man who had hitherto been in charge of the horse. If his name was given him on account of his dress it was most appropriate, for his waistcoat had a perfect regiment of bone buttons marching by threes from his waist to his neck.

“Ah! and you’re the one to do it, Mattie,” rejoined Mr. Buttons, a coarse-featured young fellow with a disagreeably evil look in his eye.

“Look ye here, lads,” said Coney, bringing his fist down with a thump on the locker. “Don’t ye play any tricks with the youngster, or you and me’ll have to settle accounts.”

Mattie growled out something about Coney being a soft-hearted chap, but he didn’t openly defy him, while as for Buttons he said nothing. Coney evidently was feared, and no doubt the reason lay in his broad deep chest, his long muscular arms, and the daring look in his eye. A word and a blow, that was Coney’s way, as the bargees well knew, and they were mighty civil to him in consequence.

Breakfast over, Ned took his turn at the tow-path with Buttons. The horse was a wretched-looking broken-kneed animal, and at first the boy thought he must fall down at every step. But it was Jack’s way to look wretched. He had been ten years at canal work, and had acquired a peculiar shuffling angular gait arising from the strain of the tow-rope not being directly behind him but at one side. Jack (that was his name) could almost be left to himself when there was a good long uninterrupted stretch of path, but just now he wanted some attention, because the barge had scarcely got out of London, having, in fact, only entered the Paddington Canal, which joins the Regent’s Canal at the western end of the metropolis.

It was slow work, for there were many locks to go through and many wharfs, where barges lying alongside blocked up the way, to pass, and it was quite mid-day before they got into the open country. Then, indeed, it was pretty enough, and what with the bright sun, the pure air, the vivid green of the trees and grass, for the summer sun had not yet taken off their freshness, the blue sky and the joyous singing of the birds, the boy thought there might be many a worse occupation than that which the bargees had. But this was only the bright side of canal life; he had not yet seen the reverse of the picture.

And then he had not forgotten his friends at Stepney. He was shrewd enough to know that his cousin had not stolen him away without a purpose, and he had made up his mind to escape at the first opportunity, and find his way back to Mr. Grigsby’s home somehow. Not that there was the least chance of escaping at present There was, of course, always one man at the tiller, and generally a second at the bows, to say nothing of Buttons, who walked with him on the tow-path. But Buttons, so he heard him say, was to leave them after they got into the Grand Junction Canal, which they expected to do on the second day after leaving Paddington, and so there would be one the less to keep watch over him.

Nor was he sorry that Buttons was going. This gentleman had not the slightest disposition to do any more work than was absolutely required of him. Squatting lazily on the old horse he let Ned do all the work of lifting the tow-rope over obstacles and watching so that it ran clear, of helping the lock-keeper, and of detaching and attaching the horse whenever it was necessary.

Sometimes he deigned to be companionable, and would tell the boy a few things which made him think that after all life on shore was preferable to life on a canal.

“Got any brothers and sisters?” said he in answer to Ned’s inquiry. “I should think I had. There was eight of us, and we was all brought up on a barge. I was born on a barge, and so was my brother Tom. I’ve lived in a barge all my life, and I dare say I’ll die in one. These Grand Junction boats ain’t bad, mind you, but don’t you never get aboard a Staff’udshire boat. Some of them boats as bring up stone to Birming’am let in water like a sieve. Roomatics lays hold on you afore you know where you are, and rats​—​there, them Staff’udshire boats is regular nests.”

And then Mr. Buttons, filling a black pipe with the very strongest tobacco, puffed a huge cloud, greatly to his own enjoyment, but not much to the enjoyment of Jack, judging by the way in which he shook his head and laid back his ears.

Past Twyford, past Hanwell, where, as Buttons informed Ned, was a big asylum to put mad people into, the Betsy Jane at last reached the Grand Junction Canal, and leaving the county of Middlesex behind, entered Buckinghamshire. What struck Ned most was the number of bricks everywhere. They passed innumerable brickfields on either side, where both men and women and children were busily at work, the women wheeling barrows just like the men; the barges were all laden with bricks, and the air for miles was mixed with a disagreeably smelling vapour which came from the brick-kilns. The canal only skirted Buckinghamshire for a very short distance, in fact, as any one will see by the map, it just goes in and comes out again, not into Middlesex but into Hertfordshire. Ned, of course, knew nothing of this. To him one county was as good as another, and it was only some years afterward that he traced his journey in the canal-boats on the map.

But he well recollected this Hertfordshire portion of his voyage, because at one part the canal went through a beautiful place called Cassiobury Park, and coming as it did immediately after the ugliness of the brickfields it was the more impressed on his memory.

By the time Buttons had left he was able to look after the horse single-handed. Even Mattie, who seldom had a good word for him, deigned to say that something might be made of him though he was not born and bred on the canal.

But this praise did not in the least turn him from his purpose of running away. It seemed an easy thing to do, yet never once did he get the chance. There was always one or the other watching him, and at last he began to think that they suspected what was passing in his mind.

“I’ll be as artful as you,” he thought. “I’ll make you believe I want to stay with you and be a bargee, and then we’ll see whether you can keep me.”

And so on the barge went, following the canal in its never-ceasing turns and twists through Hertfordshire, again into Buckinghamshire, this time for many miles, and into Northamptonshire as far as Northampton, getting farther away from London every day, and making his chances of escape appear more and more hopeless.