Friday, February 12, 2010

The Last Night of the Emily Rose - Part 3

The Last Night of the Emily Rose


For Rolf ~ Happy Christmas darling {}

by Ranger

There seemed, in the darkness, to be nothing else in the world but that small circle of light that surround the Emily Rose as she sailed on down the narrow ribbon of water. They had reached the darkest part of night now: no lights shone from the banks and the Emily Rose's lanterns cast light out onto only a few feet of water in front and behind her. There was no knowing or seeing what they passed or what happened outside that circle of thin light, no connection to the outside world at all but the steady steps of the shire horse and his occasional whickers from the towpath. Jonah pulled out two blankets from the cabin, half sized and heavy knitted, and Daniel accepted the one he was passed and wrapped it around his shoulders as he sat on the cabin roof. Jonah hung the second around his own shoulders and leaned against the tiller, guiding the boat through the silent water.
The intense heat under Daniel's trousers remained- with no little soreness – but the sting was gone and with it appeared to have gone a far deeper and more bitter sting of a different kind. Daniel had no idea why. Only that as he sat on the cold and slippery wood of the cabin roof, sore enough to shift his weight every few minutes, he had talked – and talked – and talked in a way he didn't ever remember doing before. At home no one talked other than the few basic sentences needed to be exchanged on lock business; conversation wasn't usual at all. And Jonah with his fair hair nearly white in the lantern light listened without interruption, occasionally made soft and wordless sounds of comprehension that reminded Daniel of the occasional and comforting soft snorts and harrumphs of the horse.
"Did James never try to find your Mam?" he asked when Daniel finally trailed off, aware his voice was becoming hoarse from being put to such unusual use. "With the boats going through the lock day and night someone must have seen her."

"I don't know if he looked." Daniel said, wrapping his arms deeper around his knees to conserve warmth. The chill rising from the water went bone deep, and his very few and vague memories of those weeks were equally chilled.
"It was talked all over the village how she'd left him, and there was plenty of talk about how he'd taken her with a bastard kid by nobody knew who."

And James Pytchley hated gossip. He was a proud man and he'd been publicly shamed, his defence was to talk to and have as little to do with people as possible. And silently continuing to provide for the boy left abandoned on his hands.
"Most thought she'd gone with another man." Daniel added. He'd been in a few fights as a boy in the village, mostly those who called his mother names that while quite possibly true were not ones Daniel intended on listening to. "I used to wonder if they really were married, but the vicar showed me the book. I never knew why she married him."
 And James Pytchley, bewitched out of a lifetime of good sense, had in the cold light of desertion no intention of explaining to his wife's son.
"But where would she have gone?" Jonah said, just as quietly in his slow way. "Nether Heyford's a tiny village, nowhere she could have walked without being seen – no coaches, only farm carts and all driven by those who would have known her."

"She would have had to go to Weedon," Daniel shivered slightly as the wind blew a little stronger over the water. "That's the nearest stop for the coaches. Or else she went by the canal."

"That seems most likely to me." Jonah agreed. "Step down from the cottage, onto a boat and gone. But the boats go back and forth through Nether Heyford, whoever took her up on their boat came back through the village. Someone knows."
"She couldn't have paid them," Daniel said, thinking aloud. "James always said she had no more than sixpence with her and she took nothing but her clothes in a band box."
"Then it was people she knew." Jonah shifted against the tiller. "Or people willing to take a pretty girl where she wanted to go."
Daniel gave him a quick look and Jonah sighed, nodding. "Aye. You're not as innocent as you look. I don't suppose you could be being around the canal and the traffic for so long."
"There's ways she might have paid her way." Daniel said it shortly, but without the burst of rage behind it that he always felt if anyone else implied that to him. "She might well have done that. She weren't a lady."
That particular accusation had been thrown at him many times, and for the first time he saw James Pytchley's rigid standards at home in a new context – rarely allowed away from the lock cottage, never into an inn anywhere, the presence of any of the local girls would never have been allowed even if Daniel had been interested. A man shamed by a woman doing his best to keep a respectable façade to ensure acceptance amongst the strict principles of the village. Those of suspect morals had to prove a much higher standard than the others.
"James has been left ever since trying to keep us looking respectable." He said aloud and caught that strange look of Jonah's again.
"I reckon he thought it would protect you some. Lock ahead Dan."

Daniel slipped off the blanket and stood, waiting for the boat to glide close enough to the bank to step off, and in silence they worked the lock together. 

Dawn came as they were entering the villages around Linslade. In the early first light boats were stirring on the wharfs as the Emily Rose passed through, fires were being lit on the quayside by sleepy men from the loading depots and a few boats were taking aboard loads. And in the thin mist from the water as they came through another lock, Daniel saw in the distance on the towpath the woman again in the grey cloak. Still walking swiftly, her hands hidden in her sleeves, her footsteps silent on the grass. He said nothing – although he was not entirely sure why. Within a few seconds she was out of sight again, lost in the mist, and Jonah called to build the fire in the stove in the cabin and to go ashore at the next wharf for fresh water, and there were no shortage of locks on this stretch of the canal as it moved through hilly ground. Busy, Daniel quickly forgot he had seen her. They rested the horse again by Leighton Buzzard, fed him and Jonah let him into a meadow for a while where he rolled and then lay in the wet grass, his heavy hooves muddied from the towpath. Jonah cut bread and they ate and drank the strong tea that had kept them warm through the night, and Daniel was wandering on the quayside, half an eye on Jonah buckling the horse into his harness when he heard the voices further down the towpath, agitated and carrying in the still air. He walked towards them, hands in his pockets against the cold, ducking the hanging branches of the trees that dropped water against his face and hair and down his neck, and around the corner he saw a group of men gathered around the bank of the canal, several with boat poles, dragging towards them a figure in the water that floated with its hair spread out in a fan and its skirt billowing.
The shock went through Daniel in a jolt of ice. He stood where he was for a moment, heart pounding as the men tried to gather the body from the water, then turned and fled back up the towpath to Jonah where he was once more connecting the towrope to the horse.
"There's a body in the water down there! They've found a body!"

Jonah looked around, but didn't appear nearly as shocked as Daniel thought he ought to be, and he finished buckling first before he let Daniel pull him along.
"It happens, more often than you'd think – best not to look unless you have to, the wharf men will deal with it and bring the police-"

He stopped as Daniel stopped, dead in his tracks. The steep bank was there, with the few steps cut down into it, but there were no men. No body in the water. No sign that anyone had been there at all but for a solitary moorhen paddling at the foot of the steps. Daniel stared in disbelief, and a moment later felt Jonah's hands swallow up his shoulders in their long fingers, squeezing deeply and kindly.
"Was it there? A woman?"
Daniel nodded wordless. Jonah let go a breath and looked with him for a moment, then gently pulled him around to walk back to the boat.
"Either it's the time of night, or you've got a knack for seeing these things – those are the bloody steps, that's how they're known around here. They pulled Alice Cauliwell out there, have you heard of her?"
Who hadn't? It had been one of the most notorious murders of the Grand Union Canal , Daniel had heard it talked of plenty of times by the boatmen although he had only been a child when it happened.
"That's where she was found?"
"She was brought up those steps." Jonah clicked to the horse and Daniel followed him as he stepped down onto the Emily Rose. "The rumour goes that a blood stain appears there – comes and goes – but no matter how it's scrubbed it can't be cleaned away. Most likely only a rumour, I've never met anyone who says they've seen it, but there's that many people on the canal there's stories and ghost tales the length and breadth of it."

"I did see someone in the water and the men trying to pull her out." Daniel said bleakly, moving out of Jonah's way as he took the tiller to bring them away from the wharf.
"Maybe you're just someone who sees these things." Jonah said mildly. "My Grandad's the same. Supposed to run in our family but I've never seen a thing me."
Daniel had no idea what ran in his family. Perching once more on the cabin roof they rounded the bend and for an instant Daniel thought he saw a girl on the steps cut into the bank, her hair loose and her dark skirt scattered around her where she sat, her eyes meeting his – but there was nothing there but the moorhen still paddling in the water.
Cheddington, Marlesworth, Aylesbury, Aldbury, mile on mile on mile on mile. The sun rose, pale and orange, but never rose higher than the trees, shining directly through the bleakly leafless branches. Other boats passed them, horses walked by on the towpath with their ropes stretched behind them, boat crews with their scarves pulled up over their mouths nodded in silent acknowledgement as the boats went by. Lock after lock with freezing hands, was wound up, filled, released and opened to let the Emily Rose move on. In the daylight Jonah gave Daniel the tiller and they took turns in opening the locks, and the rest of the time as the Emily Rose glided on they sat together, Jonah on the gunwale at the tiller, Daniel on the cabin roof, and talked or simply sat in a silence that was as comfortable as it was companionable. It was one of the most peaceful days of Daniel's life. Berkhamsted, Hemel, Huntonbridge, Watford . It was growing dark as they came towards the lights of Watford and the church clock in the distance was striking four. Just past the shortest day of the year, the night would be nearly fifteen hours long.
"Will we make it in time?" Daniel asked when Jonah lit the lanterns that hung to the fore and aft of the boat. Jonah nodded, glancing at Watford slipping away into the distance.
"Aye. Rickmansworth is next, then Uxbridge, and into the Paddington Arm – after that it's only a few hours to the Regents Canal and Camden . We'll do it."
They ate apples from the cargo as it grew darker and the canal grew quieter until they were the only boat left moving past boat after boat moored on the banks. They were passing one barge with its lantern still burning where it was moored by the towpath when Daniel caught sight again of the woman. Still walking, cloaked, some yards ahead of the horse.
"Maybe you are someone who sees these things," Jonah had said.
Following an impulse, Daniel slid from the roof and made a leap for the bank, hearing Jonah's shout of surprise behind him. The woman didn't turn. Sliding on the wet and muddy grass Daniel sprinted up the towpath, seeing her walking swiftly and steadily in front of him, lit by the Emily Rose's lanterns. He reached the horse who shied slightly, whickering nervously as Daniel barrelled past – the woman turned very briefly to look at him, but didn't pause in her walking and a few steps later she was gone into the mist.
"DANIEL." Jonah's voice said again from the boat, still louder. Daniel paused with his heart thumping from more than the run, and the horse caught up with him. Daniel put an arm reflexively over its neck and walked with it a few yards, still trying to see into the grey gloom.
There had been the woman pulled from the canal at the wharf, but pulled years ago after her murder. There had been the girl sitting on the steps. There had been Daniel's mother who had most likely taken a canal barge from Nether Heyford lock and used her looks and her charms to pay a barge crew to carry her. And there was the woman walking on the towpath, the woman always staying just ahead of them.
"HEY." Jonah said sharply from the mist. Daniel waited, watching for the outline of the boat, and as the Emily Rose emerged he stepped onto her gunwale and walked back towards the rear deck where Jonah stood looking anxious and annoyed and with that strange look to his face once more. Daniel wished he knew what it was.
"What were you doing?" Jonah demanded as Daniel reached him, finding his way carefully over the slippery gunwale. "Don't ever just clear off like that again, you'll break your neck in the dark or fall in and drown and how do you think I'd find you? I'll take that tidy betty to you when there's somewhere safe to stop-"

It wasn't at all unkindly said but Daniel had no doubt at all that Jonah meant it and was entirely capable and despite himself he found both his hands had moved straight behind him and closed in anxious protection over the seat of his trousers.
"No – no don't, please, I just saw someone."

"Who?" Jonah demanded, not appeased. Daniel peered cautiously back into the mist.
"I'm not sure."
"You do that again and you won't sit until you get home." Jonah said in a tone that Daniel accepted as a promise rather than a threat. "You scared the daylights out of me, you've got no care at all for your own neck."
Daniel, mind already on other things, would have climbed back onto the cabin roof save for Jonah's palm connecting with his backside soundly enough to jerk him directly out of daydreams.
"Ow! I won't, I won't do that again!"

Jonah snorted, less derision than a clear warning that he had better mean it. Smarting, the soreness of last night re awoken, Daniel settled onto the cabin roof and gave him a pouting glare.
"You're too good at that."
"My dad always said that tidy betty was the quickest way he knew to straighten things out, whether sulking or temper or acting daft." Jonah gave him a boding look. "Or showing him a scowl like that. I'd have been straight over his knee."
There was enough in that statement to make Daniel change his expression, very swiftly. 
"What did you see?" Jonah asked more gently. Daniel hesitated, not at all keen to put the thought into words – although after these hours spent here with Jonah, a very different Jonah to the barely known one that had been privately haunting Daniel's dreams for months now, it seemed very natural to consider telling him. Or at least trying to tell him.
"My mother went onto a barge," he said at last. "Most likely. And likely she had no money with her."

She would have slipped out of the cottage with her bandbox, her note for James left in the kitchen, and gone down to the bank where a barge was winding its way towards the lock.
"So she asked a barge crew to take her, and maybe –"
He trailed off, not remembering his mother but having heard enough from the village, from Maria Pytchley to know that she was pretty, lively, and good at talking men into doing as she wanted.
"Maybe she persuaded them. And they took her up and the barge went on."

And this was where it got harder.
"I think," he said at last, with an effort, "Somewhere, she – they had a quarrel maybe. Or they took more than she bargained for. I think they killed her and they left her body in the canal. You said it happened often – no one would have known who she was this far away,"

"Why would you think that happened to your Mam?" Jonah asked gently, "You've got no reason to think –"

"I've been seeing her," Daniel interrupted. "I've been seeing her since yesterday evening, walking on the tow path, and we saw the Blisworth tunnel and I saw the girl in the canal – she's been showing me. She came on the canal and she died here, on her way to London . That's why she never came back and we never heard anything more of her."

Jonah didn't answer for a long time. Then he sighed and put out a hand, finding Daniel's knee in the dark and grasping it. There was a deep and heavy comfort in that strong grip.
"You know what you're seeing. I hope that isn't what happened to her, but if it is then I suppose it's better you know mate."
It was actually easier- Daniel was aware of a sharp relief that overlaid the anxiety with which he watched the bank for another glimpse of the woman in grey. It was easier by far to know she had gone without a trace because she had been murdered than it was to believe she had simply left him and not cared to come back. Jonah said nothing more, but he leaned against the cabin door and his hand, strong and heavy, kept its comforting grip on Daniel's knee.    
Continue on to Part 4 of The Last Night of the Emily Rose

Copyright Ranger 2010

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