Skip to main content

Coals of Fire

All my life I've lived on a barge. My father, he worked a barge from London to Tonbridge, and 'twas on a barge I first see the light when my mother's time come. I used to wish sometimes as I could 'ave lived in a cottage with a few bits of flowers in the front, but I think if I'd been put to it I should have chose the barge rather than the finest cottage ever I see. When I come to be grown up and took a husband of my own it was a bargeman I took, of course. He was a good sort always, was my Tom, though not particular about Sundays and churchgoings and such like, as my father always was. It used to be a sorrow to me in my young married days to think as Tom was so far from the Lord, and I used to pray that 'is eyes might be opened and that 'e might be led to know the truth like me, which was vanity on my part, for I've come to see since that like as not 'e was nearer the Lord nor ever I was.

We worked the William and Mary, did Tom and me, and I used to think no one could be 'appier than we was them first two years. Tom was as kind as kind, and never said a hard word to me except when he was in liquor; and as to liftin' his 'and to me, no, never in his life. But after two years we got a little baby of our own, and then I knew as I hadn't known what 'appiness was before. She was such a pretty little thing, with yellow hair, soft and fluffy all over her head, the colour of a new-hatched duck, and blue eyes and dear little hands that I used to kiss a thousand times a day.

My mother had married beneath her, they said, for she'd been to school and been in service in a good family, and she taught me to read and write and cipher in the old days, when I was a little kid along of 'er in the barge. So we named our little kid Mary to be like our boat, and as soon as she was big enough, I taught 'er all my mother had taught me, and when she was about eight year old my Tom's great-uncle James, who was a tinsmith by trade, left us a bit of money--over L 200 it were.

'Not a penny of it shall I spend,' says my Tom when he heard of it; 'we'll send our Mary to school with that, we will; and happen she'll be a lady's-maid and get on in the world.'

So we put her to boarding-school in Maidstone, and it was like tearing the heart out of my body. And she'd been away from us a fortnight, and the barge was like hell without her, Tom said, and I felt it too though I couldn't say it, being a Christian woman; and one night we'd got the barge fast till morning in Stoneham Lock, and we were a-settin' talking about her.

'Don't you fret, old woman,' says Tom, with the tears standin' in his eyes, 'she's better off where she is, and she'll thank us for it some day. She's 'appier where she is,' says 'e, 'nor she would be in this dirty old barge along of us.'

And just as he said it, I says, ''Ark! what's that?' And we both listened, and if it wasn't that precious child standing on the bank callin' 'Daddy,' and she'd run all the way from Maidstone in 'er little nightgown, and a waterproof over it.

P'raps if we'd been sensible parents, we should 'ave smacked 'er and put 'er back next day; but as it was we hugged 'er, and we hugged each other till we was all out o' breath, and then she set up on 'er daddy's knee, and 'ad a bit o' cold pork and a glass of ale for 'er supper along of us, and there was no more talk of sendin' 'er back to school. But we put by the bit of money to set 'er up if she should marry or want to go into business some day.

And she lived with us on the barge, and though I ses it there wasn't a sweeter girl nor a better girl atwixt London and Tonbridge.

When she was risin' seventeen, I looked for the young men to be comin' after 'er; and come after 'er they did, and more than one and more than two, but there was only one as she ever give so much as a kind look to, and that was Bill Jarvis, the blacksmith's son at Farleigh. Whenever our barge was lyin' in the river of a Sunday, he would walk down in 'is best in the afternoon to pass the time of day with us, and presently it got to our Mary walking out with 'im regular.

'Blest if it ain't going to be "William and Mary" after all,' says my old man.

'He was pleased, I could see, for Bill Jarvis, he'd been put to his father's trade, and 'e might look to come into his father's business in good time, and barrin' a bit of poaching, which is neither here nor there, in my opinion there wasn't a word to be said against 'im.

And so things went along, and they was all jolly except me, but I had it tugging at my heart day and night, that the little gell as 'ad been my very own these seventeen years wouldn't be mine no longer soon, and, God forgive me, I hated Bill Jarvis, and I wouldn't 'ave been sorry if I'd 'eard as 'arm 'ad come to him.

The wedding was fixed for the Saturday; we was to 'ave a nice little spread at the Rose and Crown, and the young folks was to go 'ome and stay at old Jarvis's at Farleigh, and I was to lose my Pretty. And on the Friday night, my old man, 'e went up to the Rose and Crown to see about things and to get a drink along of 'is mates, and when 'e come back I looked to see 'im a little bit on maybe, as was only natural, the night before the weddin' and all. But 'e come back early, and 'e come back sober, but with a face as white as my apron.

'Bess,' says 'e to me, 'where's the girl?'

'She's in 'er bunk asleep,' says I, 'lookin' as pretty as a picture. She's been out with 'er sweet'eart,' says I. 'O Tom, this is the last night she'll lay in that little bunk as she's laid in every night of 'er life, except that wicked fortnight we sent 'er to school.'

'Look 'ere,' says 'e, speaking in a whisper, 'I've 'eard summat up at the Rose and Crown: Bank's broke, and all our money's gone. I see it in the paper, so it must be true.'

'You don't mean it, Tom,' says I; 'it can't be true.'

''Tis true, though, by God,' says 'e, ''ere, don't take on so, old girl,' for I'd begun to cry. 'More's been lost on market-days, as they say: our little girl's well provided for, for old Jarvis, 'e's a warm man.'

'She won't 'ave a day's peace all 'er life,' says I, 'goin' empty-'anded into that 'ouse. I know old Mother Jarvis--a cat: we'd best tell the child, p'raps she won't marry 'im if she knows she's nothing to take to 'im,' and, God forgive me, my 'eart jumped up at the thought.

'No, best leave it be,' says my old man, 'they're fair sweet on each other.'

And so the next morning we all went up to the church, me cryin' all the way as if it was 'er buryin' we was a-goin' to and not 'er marryin'. The parson was at the church and a lot of folks as knew us, us 'avin' bin in those parts so long; but none of the bridegroom's people was there, nor yet the bridegroom.

And we waited and we waited, my Pretty as pale as a snowdrop in her white bonnet. And when it was a hour past the time, Tom, 'e ups and says out loud in the church, for all the parson and me said ''Ush!' 'I'm goin' back 'ome,' says 'e; 'there won't be no weddin' to-day; 'e shan't 'ave 'er now,' says my old man, 'not if 'e comes to fetch 'er in a coach and six cram full of bank-notes,' says 'e.

And with that 'e catches 'old of Mary in one and and me in the other, and turns to go out of church, and at the door, who should we meet but old Mother Jarvis, 'er that I'd called a cat in my wicked spite only the day before. The tears was runnin' down her fat cheeks, and as soon as she saw my Pretty, she caught 'er in 'er arms and 'ugged 'er like as if she'd been 'er own. 'God forgive 'im,' says she, 'I never could, for all he's my own son. He's gone off for a soldier, and 'e left a letter sayin' you wasn't to think any more of 'im, for 'e wasn't a marryin' man.'

'It's that dam money,' says my goodman, forgettin' 'e was in church; 'that was all 'e wanted, but it ain't what he'll get,' says 'e. 'You keep 'im out of my way, for it 'ull be the worse for 'im if 'e comes within the reach of my fisties.'

And with that we went along 'ome, the three of us. And the sun kept a-shinin' just as if there was nothin' wrong, and the skylarks a-singin' up in the blue sky till I would a-liked to wring their necks for them.

And we 'ad to go on up and down the river as usual, for it was our livin', you see, and we couldn't get away from the place where everybody knew the slight that had been put upon my Pretty. You'd think p'raps that was as bad as might be, but it wasn't the worst.

We was beginnin' June then, and by the end of August I knew that what my Pretty 'ad gone through at the church was nothin' to what she'd got to go through. Her face got pale and thin, and she didn't fancy 'er food.

I suppose I ought to 'ave bin angry with her, for we'd always kept ourselves respectable; and I know if you spare the rod you spoil the child, and I felt I ought to tell her I didn't 'old with such wickedness; so one night when 'er father, 'e was up at the Rose and Crown, and she, a-settin' on the bank with 'er elbows on 'er knees and 'er chin in 'er 'ands, I says to 'er, 'You can't 'ide it no longer, my girl: I know all about it, you wicked, bad girl, you.'

And then she turned and looked at me like a dog does when you 'it it. 'O mother,' says she, 'O mother!' And with that I forgot everything about bein' angry with 'er, and I 'ad 'er in my arms in a minute, and we was 'oldin' each other as hard as hard.

'It was the night before the weddin',' says she, in a whisper. 'O mother, I didn't think there was any harm in it, and us so nearly man and wife.'

'My Pretty,' says I, for she was cryin' pitiful, 'don't 'e take on so, don't: there'll be the little baby by-and-by, and us 'ull love it as dear as if you'd been married in church twenty times over.'

'Ah, but father,' says she; 'he'll kill me when 'e knows.'

Well, I put 'er to bed and I made 'er a cup of strong tea, and I kissed 'er and covered 'er up with my heart like lead, and nobody as ain't a mother can know what a merry-go-round of misery I'd got in my head that night. And when my old man come 'ome I told 'im, and 'Don't be 'ard on the girl, for God's sake,' says I, 'for she's our own child and our only child, and it was the night before the weddin' as should 'ave bin.'

''Ard on 'er?' says 'e, and I'd never 'eard 'is voice so soft, not even when 'e was courtin' me, or when my Pretty was a little un, and 'e hushin' her to sleep. ''Ard on 'er? 'Ard on my precious lamb? It ain't us men who is 'ard on them things, it's you wimmen-folk; the day before 'er weddin', too!'

Then 'e was quiet for a bit--then 'e takes 'is shoes off so as not to make a clatter on the steps near where she slept, and 'e comes out in a minute with my Bible in 'is 'and.

'Now,' says 'e, very quiet, 'you needn't be afraid of my bein' 'ard on 'er, but if ever I meet 'im, I'll 'ave 'is blood, if I swing for it, and I'm goin' to swear it on this 'ere Bible--so help me God!'

He looked like a mad thing; his eyes was a-shinin' like lanterns, and 'is face all pulled out of its proper shape; and 'e plumps down on 'is knees there, on the deck, with the Bible in 'is 'ands. And before I knew what I was doin', I'd caught the book out of 'is 'ands, and chucked it into the river, my own Bible, that my own mother had given me when I was a little kid, and I threw my arms round his neck, and held his head against my bosom, so that his mouth was shut, and 'e couldn't speak.

'No, no, no, Tom,' says I, 'you mustn't swear it, and you shan't. Think of the girl, think of your poor old woman, think of the poor little kid that's comin', what ud us all do without you? And you hanged for the sake of such trash as that! Why, 'e ain't worth it,' says I, tryin' to laugh.

Then 'e got 'is 'ead out of my arms and stood lookin' about 'im, like a man that's 'ad a bad dream and 'as just waked up. Then 'e smacks me on the back, 'All right, old woman,' says 'e, 'we won't swear nothin', but it'll be a bad day for him when 'e comes a-nigh the William and Mary.'

So no more was said. And we got through the winter somehow, and the baby was born, as fine a gell as ever you see; and what I said come true, for we couldn't none of us 'ave loved the baby more if its father and mother 'ad been married by an archbishop in Westminster Abbey. And the folks we knew along the banks would have been kind to my Pretty, but she wouldn't never show her face to any of them. 'I've got you, mother, and I've got father and the baby, and I don't want no one else,' says she.

My Tom, he wasn't never the same man after that night 'e 'd got out the Bible to swear. He give up the drink, but it didn't make 'im no cheerfuller, and 'e went to church now and then, a thing I'd never known 'im do since we was married. And time went on, and it was August again, with a big yellow moon in the sky.

My Pretty and the baby was in bed, and the old man and me, we was just a-turnin' in, when we 'eard some one a-runnin' along the tow-path. My old man puts 'is 'ead out to see who's there, and as 'e looked a man come runnin' along close by where we was moored, and 'e jumped on to our barge, not stoppin' to look at the name, and, 'For God's sake, hide me!' says 'e, and it was a soldier in a red coat with a scared face, as I see by the light of the moon. And it was Bill Jarvis what 'ad brought our girl to shame and run away and left 'er on 'er weddin' morn; and I looked to see my old man take 'im by the shoulder and chuck 'im into the water. And Jarvis didn't see whose barge he'd come aboard of.

'I've got in a row,' says 'e; 'I knocked a man down and he's dead. Oh, for God's sake, hide me! I've run all the way from Chatham.'

Then my old man, he steps out on the deck, and Jarvis, 'e see who it was, and--'O my God!' says 'e, and 'e almost fell back in the water in 'is fright.

Then my old man, 'e took that soldier by the arm, and 'e open the door of the little cabin where my Pretty and 'er baby were. Then 'e slammed it to again. 'No, I can't,' says 'e, 'by God, I can't.' And before the soldier could speak, he'd dragged him down our cabin stairs, and shoved 'im into 'is own bunk and chucked the covers over 'im. Then 'e come up to where I was standin' in the moonlight.

'What ever you done that for?' says I. 'Why not 'a give 'im up to serve 'im out for what 'e done to our Pretty?'

He looked at me stupid-like. 'I don't know why,' says 'e, 'but I can't'; and we stood there in the quiet night, me a-holding on to 'is arm, for I was shivering, so I could hardly stand.

And presently half a dozen soldiers come by with a sergeant.

'Hullo!' cries the sergeant, 'see any redcoat go this way?'

'He's gone up over the bridge,' says Tom, not turnin' a 'air, 'im that I'd never 'eard tell a lie in his life before,--'You'll catch 'im if you look slippy; what's 'e done?'

'Only murder and desertion,' says the sergeant, as cheerful as you please.

'Oh, is that all?' says my old man; 'good-night to you.'

'Good-night,' says the sergeant, and off they went.

They didn't come back our way. We was a-goin' down stream, and we passed Chatham next mornin'.

Bill Jarvis, 'e lay close in the bunk, and my Pretty, she wouldn't come out of 'er cabin; and at Chatham, my old man, 'e says, 'I'm goin' ashore for a bit, old woman; you lay-to and wait for me.' And he went.

Then I went in to my Pretty and I told her all about it, for she knew nothin' but that Jarvis was aboard; and when I'd told 'er, she said, 'I couldn't 'a' done it, no, not for a kingdom.'

'No more couldn't I,' ses I. 'Father's a better chap nor you and me, my Pretty.'

Presently my old man come back from the town, and he goes down to the bunk where Bill Jarvis is lying, and 'e says, 'Look 'ere, Bill,' says 'e, 'you didn't kill your man last night, and after all, it was in a fair rough-and-tumble. The man's doing well. You take my tip and go back and give yourself up; they won't be 'ard on you.'

And Bill 'e looked at 'im all of a tremble. 'By God,' says 'e, 'you're a good man!'

'It's more than you are, then, you devil,' says Tom. 'Get along, out of my sight,' says 'e, 'before I think better of it.'

And that soldier was off that barge before you could say 'knife,' and we didn't see no more of 'im.

But we was up at Hamsted Lock the next summer. The baby was beginnin' to toddle about now; we'd called her Bessie for me. She and her mother was a-settin' in the meadow pickin' the daisies, when I see a soldier a-comin' along the meadow-path, and if it wasn't that Bill Jarvis again. He stopped short when he saw my Pretty.

'Well, Mary?' says 'e.

'Well, Bill?' says she.

'Is that my kid?' says 'e.

'Whose else's would it be?' says she, flashing up at him; 'ain't it enough to deceive a girl, and desert her, without throwing mud in her face on the top of it all? Whose else's should the child be but yours?'

'Go easy,' says Bill, 'I didn't mean that, my girl. Look 'ere, says 'e, 'I got out of that scrape, thanks to your father, and I want to let bygones be bygones, and I'll marry you to-morrow, if you like, and be a father to the kid.'

Then Mary, she stood up on her feet, with the little one in 'er arms.

'Marry you!' says she, 'I wouldn't marry you if you was the only man in the world. Me marry a man as could serve a girl as you served me? Not if it was to save me from hanging? Me give the kid a father like you? Thank God, the child's my own, and you can't touch it. I tell you,' says she, 'shame and all, I'd rather have things as they are, than have married you in church and 'ave found out afterwards what a cowardly beast you are.'

And with that she walks past 'im, looking like a queen, and down into her cabin; and 'e was left a-standin' there sucking the end of his stick and looking like a fool.

'I think, perhaps,' says I afterwards, 'you ought to 'ave let 'im make an honest woman of you.'

'I'm as honest as I want to be,' says she, 'and the child is all my own now.' So no more was said.

And things went on the same old sleepy way, like they always do on the river, and we forgot the shame almost, in the pleasure of having the little thing about us. And so the time went on, till one day at Maidstone a Sister of Charity with one of those white caps and a big cross round her neck, come down to the water's side inquiring for Tom Allbutt.

'That's me,' says my old man.

'There's a young man ill in hospital,' says she. 'He's dying, I'm afraid, and he wants to see you before he goes. It's typhoid fever, but that's over now; he's dying of weakness, they say.'

And when we asked the young man's name, of course it was Bill Jarvis. So we left my Pretty in charge of the barge, and my old man and me, we went up to the hospital.

Bill was so changed you wouldn't 'ardly 'ave known 'im. From being a fleshy, red-cheeked young fellow, he'd come to be as thin as a skeleton, and 'is eyes seemed to fill half 'is face.

'I want to marry Mary,' says 'e. 'I'm dying, I can't do her and the kid no 'arm now, and I should die easier if she'd marry me here; the chaplain would do it--he said so.'

My old man didn't say nothin', but says I, 'I would dearly like her to be made an honest woman of.'

'It's me that wants to be made an honest man of,' says Bill. And with that my old man, he took his hand and shook it. Then says Bill with the tears runnin' down his cheeks,--partly from weakness, I suppose, for 'e wasn't the crying sort--'So help me God, I never knew what a beast I was till that day I come to you in your barge and you showed me what a man was, Tom Allbutt; you did, so, and I've been trying to be a man ever since, and I've given up the drink, and I've lived steady, and I've never so much as looked at another girl since that night. Oh, get her to be my wife,' says 'e, 'and let me die easy.'

And I went and fetched 'er, and she came along with me with the child in her arms; and the chaplain married them then and there. I don't know how it was the banns didn't have to be put up, but it was managed somehow.

'And you'll stay with me till I die,' says 'e, 'won't you, Mary, you and the kid?'

But he didn't die, he got better, and there isn't a couple happier than him and Mary, for all they've gone through.

And the doctor says it was Mary saved his life, for it was after he had had a little talk with her that he took a turn for the better.

'Mary,' says 'e, 'I've been a bad lot, and you was in the right when you called me a coward and a beast; but your father showed me what a man was, and I've tried to be a man. You was fond of me once, Mary; you'll love me a little when I'm gone, and don't let the kid think unkind of her daddy.'

'Love you when you're gone?' says she, cryin' all over 'er face, and kissin' 'im as if it was for a wager; 'you ain't a-goin' to die, you're goin' to live along of me and baby. Love you when you're gone?' says she, 'why, I've loved you all the time!' she says.

A noted author of over 100 sports-themed novels for young readers, capturing the spirit of athleticism and camaraderie.