Grace Dannings has lived her entire young life in the safe and idyllic Dartmoor village of Walkhampton, working as a maid at a farm within sight of her own humble family home. Her only wish is that nothing will ever change in her contented, happy existence. But it is May 1914 and the village is alive with talk of the situation in Europe. When war breaks out, its ugly tentacles reach everyone in the village, leaving no one untouched among Grace’s family, neighbors and friends.Grace sees it as her duty to step into the breach wherever she is needed, beginning with the wheelwrights’ at the heart of the village. Grappling with her own anguish and loss, she later discovers supreme fulfilment in a new vocation, but at what personal cost? A poignant, sensitive and intensely moving account of one village’s war, and the endurance of those who waited at home for news of their loved ones.
|Publisher:||Hale, Robert Limited|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Wheels of Grace
By Tania Crosse
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2013 Tania Crosse
All rights reserved.
'Call that a full can?' Martin Vencombe chided as he took the watering can from the young woman and handed her the empty one.
Grace Dannings bunched her mouth in mutinous indignation. She had been chatting with her neighbours as they waited in Vencombe's Yard. But as soon as Martin's father had called out to them to look sharp as the first wheel was coming, all conversation had at once ceased. As always, Grace felt the simmering excitement froth up inside her. She had spent her entire young life in the tiny Dartmoor village of Walkhampton which was famed for the wagons and particularly the wheels produced at the wheelwrights' mill. But no matter how often Grace took part in bonding day, she never ceased to be caught up in the fascination of watching the iron tyres being fixed about the wooden wheels.
Her heart fluttered with anticipation as the men from the wheelwrights' used special tyre irons to lift the white-hot iron rim from the bed of glowing coals and timber off-cuts. She watched as they then carried the metal tyre the few yards to the wheel fixed onto the bonding plate. The tyre was carefully dropped over it and then knocked and levered into place with tyre dogs, tampers and sledgehammers. It was a task that required both skill and strength, and the men's faces were serious with concentration. But when Grace had caught Martin's eye, he had winked mischievously at her across the noisy clamour of hammering and grunts of exertion.
'There we go, then!' Martin's father proclaimed with satisfaction when the sweating men had stood back for their boss to inspect their work. Now they would douse the rim of the wheel with cans of cold water while the village folk kept them refilled from the barrels in the yard. As the metal cooled and contracted, it pulled together the already rock-solid wooden joints under huge and permanent pressure. Hence a Vencombe wheel would see many decades of heavy service.
'All hands to the wheel!' Grace's neighbour, Martha Redlake, had chuckled at her own habitual pun, and they had both gone to plunge an empty can into one of the barrels.
Now, as Grace glared at Martin Vencombe, she saw the light dancing rakishly in his eyes. She realized he was teasing her and she was ready for the game.
'You get on with your own work!' she retorted playfully, nodding to where his elder brother and some other men were already lowering the next tyre onto the fire on the ground in the yard.
Martin threw up his head in laughter, his fashionable pencil moustache echoing the curve of his mouth before he indeed turned back to his work. As the men carefully emptied their watering cans along the outer curve of the wheel, a great whoosh of spitting, furious steam hissed into the warm morning air like a dragon breathing fire and smoke. The whole exciting event resembled a celebration, bringing the small community together, and happy jubilation radiated from every face. It might be hot, strenuous toil, especially on such a glorious, late spring day, but as everyone rushed to replenish the watering cans, jolly pleasantries were exchanged and spirits were high.
'Reckons as he'm sweet on you, I does,' Martha whispered in Grace's ear.
'Who, Martin?' Grace's cornflower blue eyes widened in surprise at the older woman's suggestion. 'No! He and Larry are more like brothers to me. Besides, they'm far too old, and Martin wouldn't be interested in the likes of me. Not in that sort of way.'
Grace had to hide a secret smile. Something of a matchmaker was Martha. She had successfully married off two of her three older sons and now she and her husband Barry only had their fourth and youngest lad living with them in the cottage adjacent to Grace's chaotic family home. Before Grace had taken up her live-in position with the Snells when she had left school, Martha's home had been an orderly haven for her. She would often take refuge there, basking in Martha's friendship despite the difference in their ages.
But as they jostled among the other villagers to refill their watering cans yet again, Grace looked across at Martin. She supposed he was rather attractive, but having known him all her life, she had never really thought about it. Besides, the Vencombe sons had been well educated before going into the family business and would surely seek their spouses among less humble folk than her kind.
Grace tossed the thought from her mind and turned her attention back to the wheel that was being bonded in the yard. Steam no longer spewed up from the bevelled iron rim, and very soon Mr Vencombe would pronounce it fully cooled. The heavy wheel would then be rolled away and stacked in the village square – which was actually more of a triangle in shape – on the far side of the little bridge over the stream that ran along the far side of the wheelwrights' workshop. The Black Brook cut right through the centre of the village, but much of its rushing water was directed into a wooden channel or launder and thus it drove the waterwheel that provided power for the machinery in the wheelwrights' mill.
'Mind your back, Grace!'
Grace glanced over her shoulder at Martin's elder brother, Larry. The jab of his head warned her that the blacksmith was approaching with a wheelbarrow full of white-hot coals to stoke up the circle of fire where the next tyre was being heated. Grace pulled Martha aside, and once the danger had trundled past, they made their way back to the barrels. The area around the bonding plate was awash with water, and Mr Vencombe indicated that the first wheel was fully bonded. Activity among the helpers would be less frenetic now, and Grace allowed her eyes to drift back to Martin's lithe, athletic form as he lounged against the wall, lighting a cigarette and chatting to Agatha Nonnacott. Grace had never liked the older girl particularly, but she was nearer the Vencombe's class and so would be far more suitable to be courted by Martin than she was.
'Always good of Mrs Snell to give you the morning off.'
Martha's comment distracted Grace from her ponderings as they set to work again. While everyone was waiting for the next tyre to reach the required temperature, the villagers took buckets to the stream so that they could top up the depleted barrels in the yard. It would take another twenty minutes or so for the tyre to be ready, and so they could work at a more leisurely pace now.
'Well, she knows how I love bonding day, and Farmer Snell says the wheelwrights' is good for the economy of the village,' Grace said wisely, remembering her employer's erudite words.
'It were certainly a good thing when old Mr Vencombe chose to set up his business here back along,' Martha concurred. 'Us is mainly farm labourers in the village, and a few workers on the Princetown railway, of course. But the wheelwrights' certainly helps to make us the thriving place us is now with two village stores and one of them a Sub-Post Office and all. And look at your Stephen, apprenticed to Mr Vencombe. Without that, he might've had to leave the village to find work, like my elder two did once they was married and had responsibilities. Or join the Navy down in Devonport like our Horace did.'
Grace nodded in agreement. Old Mr Vencombe, who had established the wheelwrights' about seventy years previously in the 1840s, had died when she was a small child and so she had no memory of him. But his son had helped him develop the business into a successful concern with a reputation that had spread far and wide, and his sons, Larry and Martin, had followed in his footsteps. Now the Vencombes employed several men: a couple of wheelwrights, a carpenter, two general labourers and the painter who decorated the farm wagon wheels in their traditional bright colours and patterns. And then, of course, Grace's brother, Stephen.
Here he was now, propelling the next wheel towards the bonding plate. At eighteen, and a year or so older than Grace, he had virtually completed his apprenticeship. Mr Vencombe had promised him full employment, but Grace had a suspicion that Stephen wanted to spread his wings. He had pretended to joke that there were no girls in Walkhampton who took his fancy, but Grace believed that in reality he was being serious and meant to go off in search of a young lady who did!
'Just a few more minutes,' Mr Vencombe announced, and Grace took the opportunity to look round at her companions.
Most of the village had turned out for bonding day, at least everyone who didn't have other employment they couldn't afford to neglect. Martha's Barry, for instance, was a tenant small-holder, and with only their 13- year-old son, Peter, to help him, he had no spare time on his hands. Then there was Grace's father who was a farm labourer and lucky to be in a permanent job. Ernest Dannings worked for Farmer Snell just outside the village on the road to Horrabridge. It was he who had procured Grace's position as general maid in the farmhouse. She assisted Mrs Snell in every way, sometimes helping to make butter in the dairy, but mainly carrying out duties of a domestic nature which kept her busy from early in the morning until she fell into bed at night.
'How do, Martha? And young Gracie?'
'Morning, Mr Brown.' Grace turned to the man who had come up behind them. 'Come to watch, have you?'
'Yes, but not for long. Got to make sure everything's shipshape in the tap room for this lot when they've finished. Thirsty work, this.'
'Good for business, in it?' Martha nodded her head vigorously. 'Us was just saying that the wheelwrights' be proper good for the village.'
'Certainly is. Take my inn, for instance. No good having a coaching inn with no coaches no more if you hasn't got local trade to rely on. Must've been grand back along seeing they fine coaches and their horses arriving all the time. Afore the new main road and then the railways changed everything. Still, there are worse things. God knows what the future holds for us all just now.'
'You means all this talk of war?' Martha scoffed. 'Aw, it'll never happen.'
'Wouldn't be so sure,' Mr Brown replied.
Grace saw his eyebrows arch, and a strange coldness shivered down her spine. War. Her young mind had little concept of what it meant, besides some vague image from learning about the Zulu War at school, of vast grasslands, blistering heat and frightening natives wielding spears. But British soldiers sweltering in their red uniform jackets seemed to have little to do with the festive atmosphere in Walkhampton on this fine May morning in 1914. Now Mr Vencombe declared the next tyre to be hot enough for fitting, and all was forgotten again in the wonderful excitement of bonding the next wheel.
It was in the interlude after its completion that Grace spied the young woman sidling into the yard. She was struggling to support a tiny babe on one arm, while her other hand gripped firmly onto a small child tottering about her knees. The poor woman looked ghastly, more as if she should be in bed than jostling among the crowd, and Grace flew across to her.
'Nan, let me take the baby! Surely you shouldn't be out and about yet? He's, what, barely two weeks old?'
Nan Sampson's pale face melted with relief as she gratefully relinquished the bundle into Grace's willing arms. 'Aw, that's master kind of you, Grace. I be mortal tired, like, but you knows how John insists I always comes to bonding day. Show my respects to the Vencombes, he says.'
'But not when you've only just had a baby!' Grace was appalled, but almost instantly, an enchanted smile crept onto her lips as she glanced down at the snuffling little creature in her arms. 'He'm adorable. So tiny,' she breathed, and watched the weary wonderment on Nan's face.
'Yes, but you wouldn't think such a tiny thing could keep you up all night. And then just as I gets him off to sleep, this one wakes up, full of the joys of spring for the new day. And I has to keep him quiet till John wakes up, and so it starts all over again.'
'What?' Horror flashed in Grace's eyes as she glanced across at John Sampson, one of the Vencombes' general labourers. 'You mean, John will sleep all night, and then won't get up a bit early so that you can get some sleep yourself? That's disgraceful! Well, we'll soon see —'
'No, Grace, please.' Nan caught her arm as she went to stride purposefully across the yard to where John was helping Larry and Stephen lower the next wheel onto the bonding plate. 'He gets, well, proper angered, like, if I doesn't do what he says.'
Grace stared at Nan's pleading expression, trying to control her own outrage. Poor Nan, browbeaten by her own husband – and when he had given her two children in such quick succession. Grace sighed in exasperation. Whenever the day came when she got married, it would be to someone who knew how to contain his ardour. Or at least would use those rubber things she had heard about. It was Martin she had learnt about them from, as he joked in some whispering attitude that had made her feel confused and uncomfortable – and Larry had told him in no uncertain terms to shut his mouth in front of her. At the time, Grace had felt grateful to Larry, but on the other hand, she was pleased to be armed with such knowledge. Not that it was of any help now, though.
'Well, come and stand at the front for a few minutes so as John can see you'm here,' she instructed, ushering Nan forward. 'And then go home and put your feet up. Sally still has an afternoon nap, doesn't she? So try and get the baby asleep at the same time.'
'But then John's supper won't be —'
'Let him wait for his supper. He'll eat well enough this dinnertime.'
'Yes, I supposes so,' Nan relented, although Grace was not at all sure she had convinced the poor girl. But there was little more Grace could do except chase Nan and her children out of the yard once John had acknowledged their presence. She watched them go back inside their cottage in one of the rows opposite the inn. At least they only had a few yards to go, but Grace shook her head. It baffled her why such a meek little mouse as Nan had agreed to marry such a man as John Sampson. But maybe she had been afraid to say no!
Life could be strange sometimes, Grace mused as she turned back into the yard. But as the morning continued, her enjoyment of the friendly village camaraderie was tempered by the vision of poor Nan huddling against the wall. Her thoughtful mood, though, was eventually diverted when the bell rang out from the roof of the school house, heralding the coming of midday. Children from the outlying farms stayed there to eat their meal, but the village children spilled out of the gate to go home for dinner.
Lady Modyford's School was but a stone's throw from Vencombe's Yard, and everyone knew it was bonding day. The draw was simply too irresistible even to stomachs rumbling with hunger and the yard was soon bristling with little people. Most found members of their family and stood watching, their eyes bright with expectation. Yet others were so infected by the sense of celebration that they darted and dodged about, playing tag or other games.
Grace looked round as Larry Vencombe caught two young boys each by the collar, his face stern as he glared at the other accomplices.
'Stop running around before someone gets hurt! How many times have I told you this is dangerous work? If you can't behave, I'll have to arrange for you to stay in school on bonding day.'
He released his captives with a little jerk to lend emphasis to his words, meeting Grace's eyes with an exasperated twist of his mouth. One of the boys he had been holding shrugged his tattered jacket back into place while the other sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
'Spoil sport,' he retorted rudely.
Larry lifted his arm as if he would cuff the child, but Grace knew it was only a warning. As soon as Larry had turned his back, however, the little scamps were making derogatory faces at him. Grace knew, though, that they would obey him now, even though they were trying to make fun of him. Poor Larry. He had learnt to be thick-skinned. He had needed to.
Excerpted from Wheels of Grace by Tania Crosse. Copyright © 2013 Tania Crosse. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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