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Running Against the Tide
By Joanna Barnden
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2013 Joanna Barnden
All rights reserved.
The River Thames, June 1800
'The new docks will make all the difference to trade,' Ginny Marcombe said earnestly, gesturing around the crowded Thames from her vantage point on a boat in the middle of the swirling water. 'It should cut our operating costs by at least twenty per cent shouldn't it, Father?'
'If you say so, Ginny.' Josiah looked down at her fondly before turning back to the two merchants at their side. 'My daughter is the brains of our business, you know.'
The older man looked a little startled at this and stared at Ginny, clearly trying to see what a slip of a girl was doing in the cut-throat world of shipping. Ginny smiled at him sweetly – she was used to this reaction – but Josiah wasn't going to let it go.
'Don't be deceived by her feminine charms, Mr Johnson. Under that pretty face my Ginny has the mind of a man. She's the son I never had and she's going to do Marcombe's Shipping proud, right, girl?'
Ginny drew herself up as tall as she could, wanting to be worthy of her father's high opinion of her. She knew that many people in the business thought Josiah was mad to put his trust in her, but she also knew that they were wrong. Ever since her mother's birthing-fever six years ago had made it clear that she would bear no sons, Ginny had worked harder than any boy to learn her father's trade.
Her two younger sisters had spent their time on music and art and embroidery, but Ginny was handier with a telescope than a needle, and more at home on a boat than sitting at a piano. Sometimes her mother would berate her father for 'spoiling her marriage prospects with all this education' but Josiah would just laugh.
'Ginny will have the finest marriage in the city, Eliza, my love. They'll be queuing up for her hand, won't they, lass?'
And Ginny was always forced to nod and smile for it was true – now she was eighteen there were plenty of young man keen to marry her. The younger Mr Johnson, looking round the little boat with strange eagerness, was one of them and she wasn't stupid enough to think he liked her soft, dark-blonde curls, or her deep brown eyes. He just wanted a place in her father's much-admired shipping business and Ginny had yet to meet a man who, in her eyes, merited a share in that.
'It's a new century!' Josiah proclaimed dramatically now. 'It's time to embrace change and move forward in a spirit of optimism and adventure.'
The two Mr Johnsons murmured approval of these worthy sentiments, wobbling a little as they shifted from foot to foot. For they were all on a lighter – a long, flat-bottomed boat normally designed to unload goods from the trading vessels moored in the Thames. This one had been unloading her father's latest import of coffee and sugar when Josiah had ambushed the young lighterman and insisted they were taken along too.
'Nothing like getting in with the workmen to really understand the business,' he'd beamed, helping Ginny aboard and waving the merchants to follow.
Ginny had almost laughed out loud at their surprise at actually being asked to step on board one of the boats that made them their money. At times like this she loved her enthusiastic, unconventional father more than ever.
Ginny looked out across the crowded river towards the new buildings of the West India Docks just starting to rise above the Stepney Marshes. Josiah – and with him, Ginny – had been intimately involved in much of the planning of this brave venture designed to take some of the shipping off the bulging Thames and, oh, how it needed it! Ginny considered the lines of trade ships at anchor in the middle of the big river; the 'roads' of barges, stacked perilously high with goods, and the hundreds of smaller vessels expertly steering their way between them, catching the tides and fighting the winds that made this part of the river a constant danger to the unwary.
Her eye was caught by the young lighterman battling with his long paddles to steer their own vessel. As she watched, he ran nimbly along the edge of the boat, treading along the narrow gunnel as if it were a rambling meadow pathway. To one side of him he faced a nasty fall into the cargo hold where her father's coffee lay in spiky casks, and to the other the dark, swirling waters of the river. By the look of his broad back and firm arms he would be a good swimmer, but few men could fight the malice of the vicious current known as the Thames tunnel which ran just below the surface, ready to snatch any souls it could.
Ginny shivered. How did he live with such danger day in day out? He looked barely older than she and yet he carried himself with a captivating assurance. As she watched, he turned to head back her way and their eyes met. Ginny felt her heart start to beat faster and forced herself to hold his gaze as he approached. To her left, Josiah was excitedly telling the Johnsons all about the new business opportunities the Docks would open up, but for once she wasn't sharing his enthusiasm. Summoning up all her courage, she took a couple of steps away from her father and spoke to the young man.
'Is this your boat?'
'It is, ma'am. I inherited it from my Grandfather.'
'It's very nice.' Nice? She sounded like a fool. Hastily she tried again. 'Are you looking forward to the new docks?'
He tipped his head on one side.
'I'm not so sure about that yet, miss. I can see how it'll be good for shipping, and it might make for less danger out here on the river, but I'll admit that I'm scared for the future of my own trade.'
Ginny stared at him in dismay. He was right: if more ships could dock up to the land there would be less call for boats like this to ferry their goods in.
'I'm so sorry. I never thought of that.'
The lighterman rushed to reassure her.
'I'm sure it'll be fine. There will still be plenty needing our services for many a year yet and, if not, I'll find something new. Can't stand in the way of progress, can you?'
'No, I ...'
It was exactly what Ginny felt herself but, unlike this man, this particular change could only bring her increased prosperity. She was about to ask him more, but a shout from a nearby boat called him to his duties and she returned to hers, newly thoughtful.
'We're looking to commission two new boats next year,' Josiah was saying. 'Ginny's secured very favourable terms with the boatyard and —'
'Sorry?' Josiah peered over at young Nathan Johnson who had spoken for the first time since they'd stepped on board the boat.
'What design are you planning to commission? It's just that I'm very interested in boats and there are some amazing new ideas coming through that could make all the difference to the speed and efficiency of the cargoes.'
'There are?' Josiah looked at the young man with new respect. 'Ginny. What do we know about these new designs?'
'I'll look into it, Father.'
'Perhaps Nathan could help.'
Nathan was nodding keenly and his father, sensing a way into Josiah's favour, began boasting loudly about his son's knowledge.
'Perhaps you'd like to come to dinner and talk further. This evening?'
The older Mr Johnson shoved his son in the back and Nathan gabbled a hasty acceptance.
'Excellent. I'm sure you young people will have lots to talk about.'
Ginny felt her heart sink. She knew exactly what her father was up to and now that his enthusiasm for innovation had been caught by Nathan's ideas, she could see him making plans for their future together already.
Nathan's father shoved him again so that he tottered on the boat and staggered against Ginny.
'Oh, I'm so sorry.'
The two older men laughed knowingly and Ginny flushed, but a glance at Nathan showed her that he was as embarrassed as she, so she softened her ready guard and allowed herself to assess him. Nathan was tall and thin, but his clothes fitted him well and he held himself firmly. His nose was a little long and his mouth a little small, but she was far from perfect herself. Was this, then, the man she would marry?
Her eyes slid back to the lighterman. They were approaching the docks now and he was concentrating hard on navigating them safely into shore. Oblivious of her attention, she was free to watch his lithe, strong body as he leaned on the paddles, guiding them safely through the swirling tides. Something about his sense of purpose was very arresting but he belonged to a different world from her. And yet, hadn't her own father risen from a lowly merchant himself? And wasn't he defying convention to teach his daughter the shipping business? Might he not, then, be prepared to consider an unusual marriage for her too?
Ginny's cheeks flushed at her presumptuous thoughts and she forced herself to take her father's arm as the boat bumped in towards the shore. Josiah looked down at her fondly and patted her hand.
'Steady there!' the lighterman called up. 'Docking now.' His voice was thick with the Wapping burr but had a lilting quality Ginny liked. 'That's us ashore now, sirs, miss.'
He tipped his cap at her and she inclined her head a little, longing to do more to acknowledge his skill.
'Good work, man,' Josiah boomed. The lighterman had leapt ashore and was throwing a gangplank against the grimy side of the boat. 'What's your name?'
'Edward, sir. Edward Allerdice.'
Ginny stored it away.
'Well, Edward, here's a shilling for your trouble and mind you get my passengers ashore safely. They're precious – my Ginny especially.'
He nodded at his daughter and Edward leapt to her side, offering his hand. She glanced at it, tempted to seize it in a most unladylike way. Seeing her hesitation he hastily wiped it on his trousers.
'I'm sorry, miss. It's a grubby business this one.'
'Oh that doesn't worry me in the slightest.'
Ginny quickly took his hand before she offended him. It was large and warm and rough with blisters. His fingers clasped hers and she moved slowly – very slowly – down the gangplank, feeling safe in his grip. All too soon she was on the dock and had to let go. As she pulled away, however, she saw something on her palm: blood.
'Oh!' She stared at it, then at the young man from whom it had come. 'Are you all right?'
'Oh miss, I'm so sorry.'
He looked round for a cloth but her concern was all for him.
'Ay.' Seeing her horror, he smiled. It lit up his face. 'Hey now, don't you go worrying about that. It's just a blister burst.'
'Will it heal?'
'Will it heal? Chance'd be a fine thing. I'd have to stop rowing for them to heal and I could hardly do that, could I?'
'No, I ...'
'It's all right you know. I'm used to it. Goes with the trade.'
'I suppose so.'
'Virginia!' her father called but she was mesmerized.
'I have herbs that could help,' she offered.
Ginny had discovered the healing properties of herbs from the skilled old lady hired to ease her mother through the fever that had gripped her body after giving birth to little Charlotte. Ginny's sharp brain had absorbed information fast and she'd carried on the lady's good work for some time after she'd gone. Her mother sometimes said it was Ginny who'd saved her life and Ginny had a feeling this was why she was so tolerant of her further education in the ways of business. Ginny remained fascinated by herbs and had a small room in their beautiful house to grow, dry and mix them. She was sure she could help this vibrant young man who took his pain so philosophically.
'Come to my house,' she suggested. '43 Paradise Street. Over there, in Southwark.'
'Oh I couldn't intrude, miss.'
'You wouldn't be,' Ginny said simply. 'Father welcomes all comers.'
'Virginia! Are you coming, girl?'
Ginny jumped and turned to see her father waiting for her. The sun was starting to dip down over the crowded horizon and it was time to get home and dress for dinner. She could already imagine the fuss her mother would make over her hair when she heard they had an eligible guest coming for dinner. Pushing it impatiently out of her eyes she took a deep breath and hastened to Josiah's side, not allowing herself so much as a glance back at the attractive young lighterman.
On the waterfront, Edward watched Ginny go, his heart racing faster than it would fighting a tricky tidal set. Although she was now being swept up by the riverside crowds, he could still see her pretty, oval face and her wide, compassionate eyes. He looked down at his calloused hands. Would he dare take her up on her offer of healing? She'd seemed very open about it but he wasn't so sure the rest of her family would be.
43 Paradise Street. The address sang round his brain however much he wanted to forget it. He'd find it tomorrow, he told himself, just to satisfy his curiosity. It wouldn't be that hard. He'd been to the waterman's school for several years and had done well. He could read his letters and his numbers and he knew his way around the river like the back of his own hand. Finding Paradise Street would be no problem at all – what he'd do when he got there, however, was much, much tougher.
'Oi! Ned. Move over there, lad, and let me in.'
Edward turned to see his father whipping his boat round on the current to come to rest beside his own. Jumping back onboard he guided his stern out to make space as his younger brother Ralph leapt from his father's boat and tied the heavy ropes up to the docking rings.
'Good day, Ned?'
It was out before Edward could stop it and he turned away as his father peered closely at him. Stephen Allerdice had been a lighterman for forty-odd years and knew as well as any man how hard a trade it was, especially when you were starting out. Unlike young Ralph, who had to work with his father at all times, Edward had his provisional licence and could operate his boat alone. He could not yet, however, command the higher fees of the freeman which meant that the canny merchants were always eager for his services. If he wasn't careful, a young lighterman could spend dawn till dusk on the river – and half the night too. Sure enough, even now a portly merchant was descending on him.
'You there, lighterman! Allerdice.' Edward set his face into a polite smile and tipped his hat to the man. 'I need twelve barrels of rum bringing ashore immediately.'
'Now, sir? But night is falling.' Edward cocked his head towards the horizon where the sun was bruising across the buildings of the city. 'It's dangerous to run the river at night.'
He gazed with studied innocence at the merchant who sighed and squirmed a purse out from beneath his bulging belly.
'I'll pay double.'
Stephen nodded proudly to his son as he lifted a barrel of his own cargo and headed for the warehouse beyond. Ralph followed with a similar load, but, as Edward negotiated terms, he saw his brother drop his load down to take a stone from the ground and send it spinning carelessly across the swirling river. Once the merchant was gone he seized his arm.
'You don't go playing like that when there's customers about, Ralph. We have to make a living here; we don't do this for fun.'
Stephen, returning for the next barrel, stepped up beside his older son and together they faced the miscreant. Ralph had always been a bit wild and Stephen had bound him to the trade a few months ago in the hope that it would steady him. So far, however, that didn't seem to have happened.
'You can unload the rest of the cargo, Ralph,' he said, his voice steely. 'Perhaps that way you'll learn to do it properly. I'm off home to your mother. Edward, you'll keep an eye on the lad, make sure he does his job properly?'
'I will, Father.'
'Good. We'll make a lighterman of you if it kills us, Ralph Allerdice.'
Ralph stood at Edward's side as their father strode down the rough side street towards home.
'You heard me. You think you're so clever with your big boat all of your own don't you? I saw you over there, making eyes at that young lady in all her finery. You want to watch it, our Ned. You're not as grand as you think.'
'No,' Edward snapped back, stung, 'but at least I earn money to keep this family in food, which is more than you do. Now get unloading and I'll be back in half an hour to check up on you.'
Excerpted from Running Against the Tide by Joanna Barnden. Copyright © 2013 Joanna Barnden. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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