Story of the Month

The ‘Puffing Devil’

Extract from ‘Going Up Camborne Hill’ by Selwyn Berryman Morgan.

James, from the footplate, turned to Almond and spoke to him so only they could hear.

‘Be careful! If the boiler shows signs of breaking apart, or I abandon the footplate, you get well away, too.’ Almond, excited at the prospect of the ride and full of youthful optimism, shouted back,

‘I’ll be alright, don’t you worry.’

‘You make sure to do what I say.’

Trevithick’s engine-driver cracked open the valve that allowed steam to expand into one of the two pistons. Its vertical movement, via piston rods, was transmitted to the cross beam above their heads. Almond, stationed on the fire-plate, watched the beam rock on a central pivot. At each end of the beam, connecting rods transmitted the motion to the wheels. Valves were actuated at the full extent of the piston’s travel, and that allowed steam into the opposite piston. The second piston was forced upwards, and the beam rocked back to its original position, whilst the first piston exhausted its steam. One full rotation of the wheels had been achieved and the engine started to move. The process was repeated and the forward motion of the boiler on wheels continued. The crowd gasped. It was as if a wild beast had come to life and was about to pounce.

‘Stay calm!’ shouted Trevithick, ‘We have it under control… You at the front there, make room!’

The crowd parted as requested, as no one was fool enough to stand in the machine’s, way.

At first, the wheels kept contact with the road’s cobbled surface, but, as more steam was applied to the pistons, friction with the road was lost and the wheels spun out of control. A shower of sparks caught a group of onlookers by surprise.

‘What in God’s name?’ shouted Edward Sugrue, as he leapt to one side, bowling over two children and their grandmother before crashing on top of them all.

‘Sorry Mrs. Harvey,’ spluttered Edward as he helped her up.

The two kids were already on their feet chasing after the monster, for it had gained a grip on the cobbles and had lurched forward in fits and starts.

Space had been left by the crowd at the front of the engine, but those at the sides stepped back. The movement caused collisions that rippled out to the back edge. Those spectators who were unsupported fell over.

It was then, too, a prospective passenger, Ted Turner, lost his hold on the tender and toppled backwards. The same two children were hit by another tumbling mass of an adult out of control. They got up, but they had been bashed by Ted’s elbows, his knees, and his ‘Sunday best’ boots. They began to cry. No one cared, apart from their Gran, for everyone else ran after the machine as it trailed steam and black smoke.

In uneven bursts of speed, it screeched and chuffed its way towards Camborne Hill. Of Trevithick, James was later to observe,

‘It was as if he was Moses parting the waves.’

Children described what they had seen as best they could.

‘It was like a milkmaid jiggling her yolk up and down,’ said an urchin, who could not have described it better.

‘Yes, it’s a milkmaid jiggling her buckets,’ joked another.

‘Though I’ve never seen a milkmaid that puffed as much black smoke,’ he admitted,

‘Nor one with that had iron wheels, instead of legs.’ said a third.’

Trevithick laughed a wild laugh, an uproar of a laugh. Almond watched and was amazed at the passion of the man as he waved his top hat at the crowd. Almond thought he had never heard such a laugh. Not even the laughter that echoed through the village when Evan was caught providing ‘a helping hand’ to Molly the barmaid; it didn’t come close.

Trevithick shouted yet more commands.

‘Move aside, we have no time to stop.’ And to his driver,

‘Gradual steam now… Keep the acceleration constant… Not too fast! Not yet.’

Fifty more yards were covered before he turned back to the crowd and roared,

‘It works. Glory be, it works!’

Christiana and her younger daughters, Imogene and Mary, arrived in the village square to be confronted by a strange machine puffing and steaming towards them with crowds in its wake. They made way for it. As it passed, they could see Almond was being carried along. The two sisters were startled by the sight and sound of the machine… and why should Almond be upon it? The girls waved and jumped up and down to draw Almond’s attention. They shouted as hard as they could,

‘Almond, Almond,’ and although he shouted back, they couldn’t hear what he said.

He was away in what seemed an instant.

‘What a start to the fair,’ said mother, as she hugged her daughters to her. She thought they would be unsettled by the noise and swell of the crowd, but Mary was having none of it. She wriggled free and weaved her way, ducking and dodging, through the mass of people who were going in the other direction, up the hill after the engine. Her thoughts were on the stalls and rides of the fair, not on some silly puffing machine. She had often been called ‘a little devil’ for her antics and high spirits and she liked it, and before running on to the fair she turned back and shook her fist at the receding engine and shouted what came into her head, ‘Go away. You Puffing Devil.’ She may have been the first to call it that; in any case, ‘The Puffing Devil’ is what it was to be called down the ages.

Almond had seen Christiana, amongst the crowd, with her daughters in tow. He looked hard but couldn’t see Maggie. ‘Hello, Christiana… Where’s Maggie?’ he shouted, but his words were lost in the commotion surrounding them. Christiana looked surprised and alarmed to see him aboard such a contraption. What a tale he would be able to tell them, and his Maggie, once he’d found her.

The engine began to climb the hill, and most of those following fell behind.

Camborne Hill was the main road leading up from the village and was fronted on either side by various small business premises: the baker’s, the blacksmith’s behind it, an ironmonger’s and ‘Protheroe’s’ the butcher with the knacker’s yard to one side. Each seemed to jostle for dominance, one upon the other. The street smells alternated and intermingled. The aroma of freshly baked bread competed with the stench of the sulphurous smoke from the blacksmith’s forge and the ever-present ammonia from rivulets and puddles of horse piss. Horse shit, softened by the piss and the previous day’s winter’s rain, spread out on the road as a slippery coating that in the sunlight reflected rainbow colours. The slimy horse droppings and the hill were the greatest tests of the ability of the engine to maintain a grip of the road. In the event, the engine coped well enough and it continued its climb. The cast iron wheels bit through to the cobbles and scoured an abrasive contact, occasionally slipping, but soon regaining purchase on the road beneath. The engine proved to have more than enough power to climb even the steepest part of the hill, and it soon reached the fields above the town. There the countryside flattened out and wound across the windswept moorland. The road followed the stunted hedgerows and low stone walls offered some protection to the livestock kept on the land. The cheering crowds had been left behind, and two and a half miles ahead lay the village of Beacon. Beacon was Trevithick’s destination… and it was the village where Maggie lived.

Even though Almond marvelled at the carriage that was propelled without horses, his thoughts turned to Maggie. The power of the piston’s thrusts enflamed him, as did the heat given off from the boiler and his nervous sweat. It all brought to mind thoughts of the previous night. He longed to once again be with her.

The control Trevithick had shown encouraged Almond to take control of his own life. The fumbling intimacies of the previous night ended with the shock of his premature release, and it was because he hadn’t taken control. Maggie had seized control; and control of his manhood, so she could explore him without fear of penetration, and possible pregnancy. But she was ready for him, he was sure, and the strength of his need for her would overcome her caution. He knew what he wanted to do, and he was emboldened and energised by the extraordinary events of the day.

***

Ahead of them, a shepherd, Cedric Thompson, was in the process of moving his flock of a dozen sheep in search of fresh pasture. He could hear a commotion ahead of him. There were sounds he couldn’t put an image to, not a cart – too loud, and not a carriage, at least no carriage he knew of – too clangy. Above the hedgerows, he saw snorts of black smoke and clouds of steam moving towards him. He didn’t know what to make of it. All he knew was it was coming his way, straight at his sheep. There was nothing he could do about it; the sheep would have to look after themselves. They were already uneasy with the strange sounds of the steam engine, and as it turned the corner into their path, their otherwise obstinate nature was replaced by a group panic. They turned and fled back along the road, knocking Cedric Thompson over, and they continued past the gate to their previous, grass shorn field. Some jumped walls, whilst others squeezed through hedgerows where they shouldn’t have been able. Four kept going until they reached Beacon where they were gathered into the community pen; the villagers knowing they were Cedric’s sheep and he would soon be following behind in a huff at their escape.

Cedric had got to his feet and cursed down the road at the machine and its passengers,

‘What the devil? Bloody stupid thing to be riding on this road.’

He shook his fist at the top-hatted gentleman who was on board, waiting until he was sure he wouldn’t be heard and pretending not to care if the traveller was gentry, he shouted with mock bravado,

‘Come back here and I will beat you to within an inch of your life, you black-hatted bastard.’

Trevithick scoffed as he looked back at the mayhem he had caused and saw Cedric waving his fist.

‘He looks a mite upset. Is it something we did?’ He roared with laughter once again.

Twenty minutes later the engine steamed to the outskirts of Beacon Village where Trevithick called for the engine to stop. The nearby Inn would be a good place to take on water and re-steam. He would leave the process to his labourers. By way of celebration, he invited the rest of his passengers to join him in a glass or two of ale; after all, the engine worked, and it was Christmas Eve.

‘It will be an hour at least before we can get back, so we have time for some refreshment.’

Everyone, except the labourers and Almond, made for the Inn’s guest room where they knew drink would be provided.

‘Are you not joining us Almond?’ James asked, sensing Almond had other things on his mind.

‘You go on James, and I’ll go and see if Maggie is still at home. I’ll ask if she wants to ride back with us.’ James replied,

‘No doubt that will be alright with Mr. Trevithick, and some will be worse for wear from the drink and will want to stay.’

James watched as Almond hurried on into the village. He wouldn’t have admitted to the feeling of jealousy that swept over him.

James had avoided intimate relationships for the sake of the family. Being the eldest son left at home, a mother who had died and a father whose health was failing, he took it upon himself to look after the family’s needs rather than his own. In truth, it suited his nature, but the fact Almond was carefree caused James to begrudge the time he had lost where he could have looked for his own pleasure. He murmured,

‘You’ll learn soon enough that life gets tough, dear brother.’