Here’s another excerpt from my historical novel, A Weaver’s Web. This excerpt was ranked no. 1 of about 60-70 excerpts at Helium writing site (now gone) under the title of Novel excerpts: Historical fiction. Albert Wakefield had been in jail for some time after being accused of stealing two shillings and a court case was coming up …
Nobody had told Albert about a court case. He was bundled into a cart with several other prisoners before he could say anything. The lid was bolted down. He had never been to Lancaster before, though he knew it was somewhere up north and a long way. As the cart left the gaol and bounced along the road, he saw in the gloom one of the other prisoners was Flanders. They locked eyes for an uncomfortable moment.
‘You confounded boy,’ Flanders said angrily but quietly, so the driver wouldn’t hear. Talking was forbidden.
The other two prisoners laughed. But Flanders didn’t and neither did Albert. Tension grew when spit meant for Albert missed its mark and landed on the arm of the man next to him.
‘Why, you filthy scab,’ the victim said to Flanders.
‘No talking,’ the driver called out.
‘I ought to …’ the victim continued. He went to raise his arm to strike Flanders but remembered he was shackled, as were all four of them, to the sides of the cart.
Their only weapons were their mouths and Albert was relieved by this. Words couldn’t hurt him, and he had come into contact with worse things in gaol than another man’s spit. What was hurting him was the way the manacles cut into his wrists every time the cart rode over a bump.
A problem for Flanders was his height. He kept hitting his head on the lid. His cries of pain were met with mirth from the other prisoners, including Albert. Flanders would then swear and spit at them, but this only caused more amusement, and finally he stopped his attacks on them.
The cart hurtled along at what seemed a dangerous speed. Albert hoped Henry was able to keep up. He was sure his father would overpower the driver and rescue him when they had left the city. But the cart kept going. He had no idea for how long. With only a small opening at the front, the air inside got tighter and he found it hard to breathe. It smelt as if one of them had soiled their trousers. He inhaled through his mouth rather than his nose. Just when he wasn’t sure he could take the bumps and the lack of air any longer, the cart stopped. Were they there? he wondered. If not, where? He strained to see out the front, and listened for signs of a town – other horses and carts, voices, factory or workshop noises. But he couldn’t see anything and heard only birds and cows. Suddenly the lid was raised, and again he tried to adjust his eyes to the light.
‘Out. All of you,’ the driver said. He took their handcuffs off but left their leg-irons in place.
They struggled to get to their feet and clambered over the cart’s sides to the ground. They were in the middle of the country and it appeared to be late afternoon.
‘We’ll stop here for the night and complete the journey tomorrow. Water over there,’ he said, pointing with his gun to a stream just off the road, ‘bodily functions over there.’ He gestured to the opposite side.
Albert couldn’t see his father or their carriage. Perhaps Henry knew the prison carts stopped here, and had pulled up a little way back ready to rescue him, he thought. The prisoners had a good, long drink and a wash. Soon they were herded into the cart again and given bread. They devoured it like it was their last meal. At dusk they were fastened to the cart by their irons and barely had room to lie down. The lid was left open so they had some air.
As he watched the stars, shivering and in some discomfort, Albert prayed his father would ride up and ambush the camp and free him. Without Henry’s help, escape seemed impossible, or was it? In the darkness, he saw the outline of the driver stretched along the seat, out of his reach, but not beyond that of Flanders who was snoring loudly at the front of the cart. Albert thought if he could wake him and get him to lean over the rail and ease the keys from the driver’s pocket, where they no doubt were, the four could unlock themselves and abscond into the night. He nudged him on the leg, but didn’t speak in case the driver woke up and caned him. Flanders stopped snoring but stayed asleep. Albert tapped him a bit harder and he woke.
(the front cover of A Weaver’s Web showing the Peterloo Massacre)
‘How dare you,’ Flanders said.
‘The key,’ Albert whispered, gesturing in the direction of the driver, but Flanders wasn’t listening.
‘Driver, driver!’ he called.
The driver awoke. ‘What’s going on?’
‘This beastly boy whacked me in the shin.’
‘It was an accident.’
‘No it wasn’t.’
‘Shut up and go back to sleep. You know there’s no talking. I’ll deal with you both in the morning.’
Soon they were all snoring except Albert who couldn’t sleep and was in more and more pain as the hours went slowly by. He wanted to turn over but his leg-irons wouldn’t let him. What had he done to deserve this fate? he asked himself. It was true he had taken two shillings, but why couldn’t he have worked a month of Sundays without pay for Mr Sinclair as punishment? He wished it would get light. Instead, it started drizzling. Rain hit his face and ran down his cheeks and neck. He opened his mouth and let the water moisten it, though he didn’t drink any as his bladder was already bursting. He then turned slightly onto one side, shut his eyes and prayed.
Next thing he knew, birds were singing and he saw the first glimmer of dawn. He didn’t know if he had slept. If so, it was light and disrupted sleep. A few minutes later the driver got up and released their irons from the cart.
‘Rise and shine, you lot,’ he said.
They were so stiff and sore, they had trouble moving. He had to assist each one off the cart and onto the ground. Leg-irons still attached, they hobbled to the ‘bodily functions’ area and then to the stream where they guzzled and splashed. After a breakfast of dry bread, they were warned by the driver: ‘If there’s any more trouble, I’ll flog all four of you,’ and they were on their way.
They rode for hours, bumping up and down, hitting their heads, bruising their limbs, and bloodying their wrists and ankles. None dared speak. They stared at one another though, as if laying blame for their predicament. Flanders fixed his eyes, unblinkingly, on Albert for long periods. Albert returned the stare and couldn’t help smirking whenever Flanders knocked his head on the lid, causing him to wince and roll his eyes in pain as more blood trickled down his face. The journey was so long they gave up trying to hold their bladders. Albert hoped they would stop, not so much to get away from the stench that filled the cart but because his whole body hurt from the constant pounding. When the cart finally stopped, the driver unlocked their arms and helped them get out.
‘Go and wash down there at the stream,’ the driver said. ‘We’re nearly there, and we can’t have you looking like this.’
They waded into the stream, yelping as the cold water hit their wounded ankles, still shackled, and then their wrists as they tried to drink. Flanders dived right under and the water turned pinky brown. Just upstream from this, the driver filled his water bottle several times and poured it over the tray of the cart to clean it. He then loaded the prisoners, secured the lid and off they went again.
Soon they heard people talking, other vehicles, machinery, and the hammering of metal, and they knew they had got to Lancaster. The prisoner now at the front of the cart could see the driver climb down and talk to someone before disappearing through a large doorway into a building.
‘It’s John of Gaunt’s,’ the prisoner said.
‘What’s that?’ Flanders said.
‘A castle. It’s got gaols and a court and a lunatic asylum.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I lived near here as a boy.’
‘Can you escape easily?’
‘The walls are ten feet thick and made of stone.’
Flanders frowned at Albert. ‘You’re the cause of this. I hope they hang you, in front of thousands cheering the nooseman on.’
‘I only took a florin,’ Albert said.
The driver got back at that moment and raised the lid. ‘Boy,’ he yelled, ‘I heard you talking.’
Albert saw Flanders grinning, but looking the other way as if innocent. ‘I …’
‘That’s enough. I’ll have to include this incident in my report to the magistrates.’
With that, they were taken inside the castle and led to the men’s gaol, where they were unshackled and given a blanket and a tin pot for water. Each one was sent to a different cell so they couldn’t fight or collude. Albert’s cell was dark and dank and so full of other wrongdoers he had no room to lie down. He sat on the floor and wrapped his blanket around himself. He was glad to be free of the irons. A gaoler came with bread and water. Albert held the bread to his chest, bent his head forward and ate it. Despite hurting all over, he leant against the bars at the front of the cell and went to sleep sitting up.
(end of excerpt)
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