“Let us hope that Fable may, in what shall follow, so submit to the purifying processes of Reason as to take the character of exact history. In any case, however, where it shall be found contumaciously slighting credibility and refusing to be reduced to anything like probable fact, we shall beg that we may meet with candid readers, and such as will receive with indulgence the stories of antiquity.”
Plutarch’s Lives: Theseus
Maude came running out into the dooryard to catch up with Papa. The day was warm and Tom wore his old cap with the visor pushed back at a perky angle, not down over his eyes as he always did when he went to the quarry. A shock of thick hair escaped, making a proud announcement of his still boyish confidence. Maude liked papa’s hair. She thought it was the color of the old skeleton key that Grandpa Knight let her open the church door with one Sunday when they went early to sweep and dust. He told her it was brass, like the candlesticks on the altar. She remembered because the breeze caused her own hair to tangle in the key as she bent forward to match it to the keyhole, although it was nearly at her eye level. The color was the same. The key was big in her small hand and sparks of sunlight bounced off it as she slid it into the lock; it seemed so precious, like gold. She felt so grownup helping to open the big heavy church door that day.
Tom headed across the dusty lane towards the gate in the thick hedgerow, its lush greenery alive with bird chatter as they wove their new twig cradles. Maude held his rough, scratchy hand, tiny needles pricking her soft fingers. The old weathered gate opened reluctantly, the hinge crying out in a high thin wail like trees rubbing together in the dark woods of the fairy tales her mother read to her at bedtime. The trees came alive as Mama read ---“sque-e-e-e-eak.” The path through the meadow was well worn by the local quarrymen on their daily pilgrimage to the pits, and by the children who played hide and seek behind the hedge. The children were warned not to venture too far from the lane where their narrow stone cottages huddled together; they weren’t allowed to follow their fathers and brothers up the hill. But today was to be different. Papa promised to take Maude to the top of Box Hill to see the stone workings. Tomorrow would be his last day in the quarry so this was the only chance Maude would have to see the stone yard and tramways, the pit opening, and the stones stairs carved out of the quarry sidewall, disappearing into the darkness below. Tom hoped that even though she was not yet five she might recall the sight in years to come; that she might hold on to the memory of what a quarry was, of the kind of place where her father, his father and her great, great grandfather before him had broken their backs and clogged their lungs for a pittance. Tom had no intention of explaining all this to his little girl, his first-born and beloved daughter, a female child whose facial features so closely matched his own, but he knew that she sensed the brutality and danger of the quarries even now with a keen insight beyond her years. Her green eyes bore through him when he tried to evade some question that made him uncomfortable, either because she was too young to hear the truth or often enough because he didn’t know the answer to a question she’d conceived.
Maude kept up a lilting chatter as they climbed the hill to another hedgerow near the summit.
“Tell me again about the ship, Papa. How big is it? Where will you sleep? Can you see England from the ocean?”
Tom’s old tweed jacket billowed out as he swung his arm to encompass the meadow from hedge to hedge. He too is excited by the prospect of boarding the huge ship for his journey to America in a few days.
“The ship is as long as the distance between where we are now and the hedgerow up ahead, Maudy. It has beds for all the passengers. You’ll like them because they have curtains you can pull across for privacy, a kind of hide-out. As far as seeing England - - - you’ll see it for a while and then in a few days there will be America, and I’ll be right there on the dock waiting for you and Mama and Henry.”
Reaching down he swung Maude up off the path, twirling her around as she squealed in delight.
“I’ll be dying to grab you all up in a big bear hug by then; I’ll be missing you so much!”
Maude skipped ahead, Tom trotting behind her. She stopped and turned to wait for him before approaching the gate near the crest of Box Hill. A faded red sign, its paint peeling in little curls, spelled out the word D A N G E R in large black letters.
“What does it say, Papa?”
“It says ‘danger’, Maudy. What does that mean, honey?”
“It means ‘watch out, you might get hurt’ ”.
“Yes, the quarry caves can be very dangerous places, where a person can be lost. Only the stone cutters, the quarrymen, should go in. There are always many men together during the work day and they know the tunnels like the backs of their hands, so they don’t get lost.”
Tom didn’t mention the many other treacherous aspects of his job, the demons lying in wait around every corner to crush fingers or limbs, to cut, or to slither into nostrils disguised as dust and damp to rot a man’s lungs; he didn’t speak to her of that occasional terror of being trapped that had to be forced out of mind lest madness get a foothold; nor could he describe the dark that had, of late, begun to seep into his soul.
Closing the gate behind them, Tom squatted down to pull Maudy up on his back. She hugged his neck, peeking around his cap to take in the better view. A high stone cliff loomed up ahead; a large opening had been cut into its’ perfectly smooth side wall, and a tall gate of iron bars blocked entry into what reminded Maude of the tombs in the churchyard, only much bigger. Vines even tumbled down from the slope above. Someone had trimmed them back to allow clear passage through the gate. A big iron padlock hung over another sign.
“What does that sign say, Papa?”
“The sign says, ‘Cathedral, Keep Out’ ”.
“Is it a church Papa?”
“No - - - it’s a stone quarry. There is a long tunnel cut into that rock and there are many other tunnels that branch off that just like a tree’s branches. That’s how we get the stone to build the cottages we live in and the big buildings in the Town.”
Maude was insistent.
“Why is it called a cathedral then? Is God down there?”
“Well, Maudy, that’s a big question for a little girl like you --- and for me. Let’s peek in so you can see where I go to work everyday. I’ll tell you how the quarry came to be called ‘Cathedral’ when we climb up to the very top of the hill in a few minutes.”
Peering through the gate they could see part way into the tunnel, where the setting sun cast its rays far enough to make out the long set of stone stairs descending into a black hole at the bottom. There was a red hue to the walls that turned them into the inside of the gaping open mouth of a monster. Maude tightened her grip on Tom’s neck, only half hearing as he explained that the stone cutters entered the quarry through the gate every day, climbing down the two hundred or so steps required to reach the bottom of the sloped shaft. He thought about how it took all he had to drag himself back to the top at the end of each day. The steps made Maude think of giant teeth.
“What are you thinking, Maudy?”
“I can count to a hundred, Papa. I would count every step all the way down.”
“Well, Maudy, you’ll never have to go in there, it’s not a job for women.”
“But I don’t like doing laundry with Mama. I think it would be fun to go into the cave to slay the fiery dragon when I grow up.”
Tom shivered at the damp breeze that seemed to waft up from the mouth of the quarry. Can he tell her that there are many kinds of dragons that need slaying? No, of course not. He delights in her cheerfulness and bubbly spirit; the time for dragons comes soon enough as it is. He stepped away from the gate and bent to set the child down.
“Hop off now, we’ll hike up top to take a look at the cathedral dome and over the other side of the hill to see the stone yards; then home for supper.”
“Will’s coming for supper with Aunt Lucy. Mama said she’ll let us pick out a story from the fairy tale books Aunt Lucy is going to bring home.”
“Oh? I wonder how she’ll be able to bring books home.”
“She said the children are all grown up at the Green’s place now so Mrs. Green is giving some old books away. Aunt Lucy said there are two bookcases full!”
“Ah, well, that’s good for us then, Maudy. Maybe there are some of those dragons in there. Speaking of that, here we are.”
Tom picked her up so she could see the opening that was well fenced for safety these days but not blocked up because it allowed the air below to circulate to some degree. No dust floated up now that the men had quit for the day.
Cathedral Quarry at Box had been hollowed out of the stone hill. It took its name from the massive chamber, one hundred ninety feet long, twenty five feet wide and one hundred feet high with a six foot round opening in its dome, through which a hazy beam of sunlight shone down upon the toiling quarrymen. A golden dust floated up and out when the men worked the cream colored stone. Between 1830 and 1850 the slabs of cut stone had been hauled out through this opening on pulleys, loaded on to carts and carried off to the train yard by horses. Nowadays a tramway exited the mine at the base of the hill and connected to the railway for quick shipping.
Tom explained this to Maude as simply as he could, crossing the field on the hilltop to look down at the working yard, questioning his own judgment in bringing her to see all this. On the other hand she is his first-born and should have some idea of her heritage, no matter how foggy, once she has left her native country to become an American. Besides, it’s pretty clear that she senses the message here, else why would she bring up dragons. Children are fed these stories in nursery rhymes and fairy tales right in the cradle. It occurs to him, though, that Susannah will probably not see it that way when Maude tells her mother that he took her up here.
“Don’t say anything to your mother about dragons, now Maudy. You know she’ll get after me for bringing you up here and scaring you. Be sure to tell her that I gave you strict orders never to come near here alone.”
“But Papa, I’ll be five in December; Frank is ten and Will’s going to turn nine. All the children play hide and seek on the hill, but we never go through the gate with the danger sign. We know not to go near the pit.”
The setting sun cast lengthening shadows over patchwork fields stitched by hedgerows and embroidered with creamy stone cottages as Tom and Maude wound their way home for supper. From here it was impossible to tell that they walked over a hidden hollow, a two mile long labyrinth of tunnels spread over a mile wide swath, a stone quarry larger than any other in England and possibly in the world. For Maud it was only a figment of the imagination except for the gaping jaws and the dome.
The Knight cottage was at the end of a row of identical stone dwellings, all built with Bath Stone from the local quarry. The light tan color of the stone was more cheerful and welcoming than the stark gray of many of England’s stone buildings. Susannah helped Tom’s mother keep the front garden tended and a profusion of lavender and thyme spilled over the same cream colored stone slabs leading to the open plank door. The bees had already taken up their season’s work and that constant humming as they flit from bloom to bloom. In the single window by the door a plain muslin curtain momentarily framed the face of a little boy before he ran to greet them.
“Henry! Here you are, let’s have a hug! Has Mama got supper ready, we’re so hungry we could eat a horse, couldn’t we Maudy?”
It occurred to Tom that some days he might consider eating horse meat if it were put in front of him. As it is they were lucky to have a few chickens for meat and eggs, although the chicken went into soup or stew that fed their extended family of six for days instead of making one savory meal of roast chicken. With bread and some beans and carrots from their back garden Susannah and Ellen managed to feed them all, perhaps better than those who were less industrious about tending a vegetable patch and keeping chickens. Still, it was only a rare feast when his stomach felt full and he couldn’t have eaten another mouthful.
Stepping into the cottage, a flood of fear suddenly washed over Tom, a wave of reality. The soft light of the oil lamps, the smell of a good supper waiting and family voices in the kitchen made him question his decision to leave this haven of safety to strike out into the unknown, thousands of miles across the ocean to a country he only knew through hearsay --- a so-called land of opportunity
Maude had made a beeline for the kitchen and was already in John’s lap before Tom pushed open the door.
“Dragons is it?”
Tom’s father laughed as Susannah shot a sharp look at Tom from the stove before addressing the little girl.
“There are no such things as dragons, Maudy! You know those are just stories from the fairy tales.”
Sitting down, Tom stared across the table at Maude, his chin nearly touching his chest and eyes raised as if peering over the top of half spectacles. He knew she understood his silent reproach but cast it off with a mischievous grin and quick change of subject.
As Susannah and his mother served the meal, Tom winced at the sight of their raw, red hands, deep cracks at the corners of their fingernails in spite of the lanolin they applied every day when the laundry was finished. With the long hours of scrubbing in hot water and strong soap, his wife’s hands were nearly as rough as his own. He slid his fingers over slightly to touch hers as she set his bowl down, but she didn’t look at him. Her only reaction was a slight tightening of her lips and a raised eyebrow, which was more than he needed to confirm her displeasure at his having taken Maude to the pits.
As he nodded a greeting to his father across the table, his confidence in the decision to leave England for America returned to him, pushing away the doubts that had unsettled him just moments ago. He had been over all the reasons for making this change in their lives a hundred times. They all made sense. Although it had been difficult to convince Susannah at first, after she lost the baby her attitude changed and she began to consider the idea seriously. She seemed more willing to extend her vision far enough into the future to realize that Maude would likely end up in service and Henry in the quarries, not to mention other children that would come along to increase the size of their family. As they talked she had begun to consider alternatives to the future Tom painted if they remained in England. She couldn’t deny his logic. With the number of people moving to Box growing so fast, where would they be able to find a place of their own to live? He knew that it was all too much for her some days and she had relented, telling him one evening, in a mood he seldom experienced in his wife, that she was thankful for his courage and was beginning to feel his enthusiasm for the move to America. Others they knew had left England and by all reports were doing much better in America. On the contrary, families that had moved to the factory cities in England did not seem better off. Relatives here tried to put a good face on it but talk in the pub was often about the newspaper articles that spoke of the filthy conditions in places like Manchester and Leeds. He stiffened at the thought of moving his wife and children there. He would never make the mistake others are making by moving to the bulging cities in England, choked with smoke from the factories and people crammed into dirty flats with stinking privies in the back garden. He wouldn’t subject his wife and children to that.
The kitchen door swung open again as Tom’s sister Lucy came in. This would be her only day off from work at one of the big houses outside the village, where she had gone into service a year ago on her fourteenth birthday. That was her home now, since bed and board came with the job. The tall, thin girl greeted the family quietly and kissed her mother. Her lovely, long, black hair was gathered up with pins, only a few stray strands framing her plain face and the nearly black eyes that were so like her mother’s. She would be a woman soon enough. Only Ellen would detect that her daughter’s calm exterior masked a sadness and loneliness she hadn’t overcome even after a year away from home.
Will Say followed on her heels carrying what looked like a basket of books, a frayed red leather corner peeking out from the blue wool shawl wrapped around them. These must be the fairy tales Maudy was excited about earlier. Although Will would never admit to an interest in fairy tales, especially in front of Tom’s ten year old brother Frank, Tom thought Maudy was right that he’d be anxious to hear Susannah read them a story after supper. He’d probably pretend playing jacks with Frank while having one ear on the tall tale. Tom knew too that Maude would not tease Will. She sensed that he was different than a lot of the boys who thought of nothing but playing ball games and chasing each other around, as he himself no doubt did at that age. Will was a serious boy, seemed lost in thought much of the time. His hazel eyes held those of any person speaking to him, not in insolence, but intensely as though he could see something others could not, perhaps right through a person. Even as an eight year old, nearly nine as Maude reminded him, people responded to this characteristic even if they couldn’t really say what it was about the boy that unsettled them a bit.
“Hey, Will. What’ve you got there?”
“Just helping Lucy. Mrs. Green had lots of old books she was giving away. Lucy picked out these three.”
“A story tonight then, Susannah.”
Will lived about a mile up the lane on the way to the Green estate. When he came to the village on errands for his mother, who was often ill, he stopped to play with Frank and the other children in the village for a while. Maude tagged along when Susannah and Ellen were busy doing laundry, since she was too young to care for her younger brother, Henry, who was only two, and still willing to be confined to a corner of the washroom with his toys. Susannah always sent extra eggs or a loaf of bread home with Will to help out as much as she could with the four boys and two girls still at home in the Say household. The family was no more prosperous than hers on their father’s wages as a quarryman.
With supper finished the men and boys gathered in the sitting room while the women cleaned up the kitchen. Even Maude was given a towel to dry a few unbreakable pots.
The men’s conversation turned to America and all the good reasons for Tom’s decision to abandon the life of a quarryman. As Will and Frank played a game of jacks with small round stones in a corner of the room, John reminisced with some bitterness about his life over the past 40 plus years; he was born in 1834. He recalls vividly the year 1841 when the Great Western Railroad opened the Box Tunnel.
“That fella Isambard Kingdom Brunel was quite a character. A great engineer they told us. He surely thought so himself, parading around in that top hat all the time with a big cigar in his mouth. Just his name made heads turn. Did you ever here such a grand name boys? And he was only twenty seven years old when he drew up plans for that tunnel! Can you imagine such a thing? People said it couldn’t be done but they were wrong. It got built all right---killed plenty of men doing it, though.”
The boys had put down their jacks and hung on John’s words, even though they had heard versions of this story in the past. It was somehow different this time, as though it might be the last time they’d hear it told in this way. They sensed some kind of finality about it, as though John was going to tell something he had kept back before.
“Sometimes I feel like my whole life’s been lived in a tunnel. I was two years old in 1836 when they started to build the Box Tunnel. I don’t remember it of course, but it seems my mother and father talked of nothing else for years, even after it opened. The work started with blasting eight shafts, twenty eight feet in diameter so men could get down into the hill to start hollowing it out. One shaft was three hundred feet deep. They had to use a ton of gunpowder every week. They say that it’s all written in a history of the tunnel. They burned through a ton of candles each week too. Water had to be pumped out of the shafts as they worked, but they couldn’t always keep up with it and once the water rose up fifty six feet. If any man needed convincing that there is a hell, he had no doubts once he’d been into the Box Tunnel works. The Devil himself danced around with glee down there---had a baton in his hoof directing it all just like an orchestra: the blasting, the pumping, the noise, the darkness and damp, swirling smoke and men swinging their picks in the sputtering candlelight---him cackling with delight the whole time.”
“The tunnel works grew more frantic near the end, if you can imagine it, when it looked like Brunel wouldn’t meet his deadline of August 1840. He put four thousand men and three hundred horses to work round the clock. He missed the deadline but the tunnel opened in June, 1841. I was seven years old then and I do remember being there when the whole town walked up the hill to see the first train come through. They had it all decorated. The crowd cheered when it shot out of the tunnel. That train went from London to Bristol in the record time of four hours; we all knew we were watching history being made. But the Devil got his due; one hundred men died on that project. I didn’t think of it then but I wonder whether the families of the men who died down there ever went to watch? Of course there were plenty of navvies brought in to work. I suppose they didn’t all have family here. That’s what caused most of the trouble in the village too. Things got so crowded people didn’t know which way to turn, was what my father said. Families couldn’t come into town any more with all the public drunkenness and carousing.”
“That tunnel left us quite a legacy. When the men blasted for the tunnel they discovered that the whole hill was made of beautiful Bath Stone. The new supply was so important that it changed the Town forever. A stone fever broke out you might say. Hundreds of those temporary navvies decided to stay on and take the new jobs that were offered to get the stone out to market. They needed houses to live in too so plenty of jerry-rigged buildings went up in a hurry.”
Winking at the boys Tom asked his father if he’d forgotten to tell about the light in the tunnel on Brunel’s birthday.
“No --- I’m saving it for the end of the tunnel story. Most people believe that Brunel built that tunnel so perfectly straight that the sun actually shines all the way through it at sunrise on April ninth every year, the date of his birthday --- that is, when the sun rises of course. I’ve never gone out to see for myself but how would you boys like to come along to find out if that’s a true tale. Maybe I’ll get a top hat and a cigar too, to celebrate our move to America next year. It’ll be a fitting tribute to the end of my life in a tunnel.”
A stunned silence fell on the room. Ellen, who had anticipated this announcement, chose the moment to enter the sitting room from the kitchen. Susannah and Lucy had heard and followed her. Smiling, she crossed the room to stand beside John’s chair.
“Well, somebody say something. Is it that much of a shock? So many of our children are considering a move to America that we have decided we don’t want to be left behind. We want to see our grandchildren grow up. Our plan is to ask Tom to let us know how things are there, whether there might be work for John, and a place for us to live. If all goes well, we’ll settle things here and book passage.”
Maude, who had kept silent until now, ran to jump into John’s lap.
They all started talking at once then. Only Will was quiet. He wouldn’t be going to America of course, and not until this moment had he really felt how much the Knight family’s move would affect him. He put his head down and counted the stones in the game of jacks so tears wouldn’t form in his eyes.