From the critically acclaimed and best-selling author of Smack comes a
middle-grade tale of adventure and cunning in the spirit of Treasure Island
Victorian London in the 1850's: Jamie, Ten Tons and Davies are young "mudlarks"scavengers who eke out a meager existence by reclaiming bits of coal, rope, and anything of value from the muddy banks of the River Thames. Anything they find might keep them from starving for one more day.
When they see a massive roll of copper fall off a ship, the trio comes up with a daring plan to retrieve it and make their fortunes. But can three small boys alone retrieve the impossibly heavy copper from the bottom of the Thames? They resolve to find a wayor die trying.
About the Author
Melvin Burgess is the author of many novels for young adult and middle-grade readers. Among them are The Baby and Fly Pie, and Smack (winner of Britain's Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize for Fiction, as well as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults). Mr. Burgess lives in Lancashire, England.
Richard Williams has been illustrating books and magazines for twenty years. His clients range from Mad Magazine to Reader's Digest. He is also a nationally known portrait painter . Richard Williams resides in Syracuse, New York with his wife and two daughters.
Read an Excerpt
The Copper Treasure
By Melvin Burgess, Richard Williams
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1998 Melvin Burgess
All rights reserved.
The Tall Ship
Ten Tons made it up first. He landed on the deck with a thump and started bawling and swaggering about like he does.
"Come on up, my little rats! I'll pickle yer livers and slice yer souls! This is the Admirable half-Nelson Ten Tons ..."
He never got any further because Patty landed and clouted him round the face with a wet sack. Ten Tons screamed, Patty lashed out again, hard. She was a mean old cow, Patty. She was old enough to be your grandmother, and as mean as a rat.
Davies slid over the rail and took her by the arm.
"Leave him," he said.
"Him and his great gob," she hissed. "He'll have the whole dock on us." Then she winced and pulled away where he had her arm. Davies was digging his fingers in hard so it hurt. He waited a few seconds, giving her a long look while she tugged at his stiff fingers. Then he let her shake herself free.
Davies was a stick of a boy. You'd have thought Patty was big enough not to take that from him, but he was hard. You only had to look at him to know he'd do anything.
"You deal with him then, Captain," she sneered, and she flounced off.
It was 1850-who-knows-what, and the whole of the Thames from one end of London to the other was hard at work. There were tugs thumping up and down, pumping out black smoke. There were sprities with their muddy red sails nipping in and out. There were men shouting and whistling, and the rattle of rope and the flap of the sails, and the whole dock was swaying with masts. We were on board a tall ship. She'd have sailed to America and back, that ship ... she'd have gone round the world and thought nothing of it. She was as big as a cathedral, as high as Heaven, and we were on board thieving.
Ten Tons had his courage back with Davies next to him. He was strutting up and down flicking his suspenders like he owned the whole river. "Give that woman a taste of the lash, Mr. Davies!" he yelled. "I'll have no duck-bummed Paddy-woman poisoning the air on my ship!"
Patty ignored it and went below decks. Tens was always going on like that. If he hadn't been friends with me and Davies I reckon he'd've been killed years ago.
Mind you, she was right. The last thing you wanted was Tens raving away on a job like this. But he was one of us ... us three. We were in it together. If Patty wanted to come thieving with me and Davies, she had to go thieving with Ten Tons, too. That's just how it was.
He was strutting up and down saluting and grinning. The deck was so high we didn't have to hide, no one could see us. A tug paddled past. I heard its whistle go and a thick clot of black smoke drifted over us. I sniffed the air ... I love the smell of coal smoke. Then a cloud moved in the sky and the sun shone. Along the deck there was a glorious flash of soft red light.
That's when we first saw it. The treasure, I mean.
It was a huge gleaming roll of brand-new copper. I never saw so much copper ... it was enough to cover the whole hull! It was all rolled up there on deck right by us. It blazed at us. It was beautiful.
Copper! Ten Tons recovered first. "My love," he cried. He flung himself at it and started kissing it.
It was something, that copper. Like a huge roll of new money. Copper's the best thing you can find on the river. We go to the shipyards every day to see if any's been dropped over the side, but we don't get it very often.
Ten Tons was heaving at it as if he could put it in his pocket. We laughed! Ten men couldn't have budged it. It was worth a fortune! He shouted with pleasure. Then he started dancing about and leering at his reflection in it. He never stayed still for a second.
"Your Highness," he crooned. "Your Copperiness. The Duchess Ten Tons, at your pleasure."
Davies licked his lips and looked at the copper greedily. It was there for the taking ... except how did you pick up half a ton of copper? If it was pure gold we'd have had to leave it there.
"Come on, Tens," he said. "Let's get going."
* * *
We started picking our way across the decks looking for bits and pieces but there wasn't much so we followed Patty below and started going through the cabins for spoons and knives and stuff.
Ten Tons was going on the whole time. I could hear him two cabins away. "A fine collection of cutlery here, boys, we'll eat like kings tonight, o ho," he cackled in a Scots accent. He was always putting on voices. He only had to listen for a second and he got it just right. Oh, he was a treasure all his own, Ten Tons was ... there was a whole crowd of 'em in that one!
"Come on, Tens," called Davies from the corridor.
"Aye, General," shouted Ten Tons, and he marched out of the cabin like a clockwork toy, going, "Chicky chocky chicky chocky chicky chocky chock chick chick!"
Patty appeared at the end of the corridor. She was doing well enough, you could hear things rattling away under her skirts. She rolled her eyes at me, but I didn't roll mine back. Ten Tons was a madman, but he was our madman.
I was mad myself, thieving like this. It wasn't worth my while. Davies and Ten Tons were orphans, they had to get by how ever they could. But I'd got a mother and father and a proper home. I didn't need to do this. The others were all teasing me because I kept popping up and down above decks to check that it was all clear, but it was just as well I did.
I poked my head up and ... and there was the dock floating past.
I thought ... what? Someone was herding cows on the bank ... we'd drifted right across the river. He pointed at us and shouted. The ship dipped and began to circle and I realized ... Damn!
She was adrift. The anchor had come loose and we were away downstream like a battering ram. "Davies, Tens!" I screamed. "She's away!"
Ten Tons was up on deck like a cork.
"By God, I've stolen a whole ship this time!" he yelled. He stuck his chest out and started marching up and down the decks giving orders to no one. It was so funny! He's only about a yard tall and he was going up and down the deck like a mad little engine. Davies was up as well, leaning over the side by the rope we'd used to swarm up on board.
"We better get ..." began Davies.
Then the whole thing lurched.
We'd hit. We'd floated sideways across the river straight into a tug. The ship shuddered. Everyone was flung to the deck. Davies only just stopped himself from going overboard. I saw Ten Tons sliding along on his bum going, "Whhhhhooooah!" I managed to grab hold of the rail. And then the air was filled with a strange, wobbling music. I'd never heard anything like it. I looked along the deck and saw ...
The copper! What a sight! The bands had broken and it was rolling along the deck, opening itself up into a sheet of shining red. It was like watching a magician spread open his cloak. The ship lurched again and the deck tilted. The copper picked up speed, slid sideways ... and crashed violently into the rail. The rails cracked and splintered under the weight, and the whole thing hung for a moment, right on the edge of the deck. Then there was another jolt. It caught the sun. It flashed red-golden light at me, tilted over the edge ... and dropped.
I watched it go down. It hummed as it fell. It flashed in the setting sun and sent a beam of red light across the river. Then it hit the water. It was so bright it looked red hot, I almost expected it to hiss. There was the most almighty splash and a deep gulp as the water swallowed it ... and it was gone. Half a ton or more of brand-new copper, gone down below and lost forever.
The ship was sluicing sideways.
"They're coming!" yelled Davies. He'd climbed a bit of the way up the rigging, and he could see boatloads of men rowing out to secure the ship. "Run, boys!"
But Ten Tons was staring down at the river where the copper had gone. The water was still and calm. He had a look of ecstasy on his face.
"Sunken treasure," he groaned.
"Come on!" screamed Davies angrily. You can see the danger ... we'd get the blame for cutting the ship adrift. We ran like rats to the broken mooring rope.
By the time we got there Patty was already on her way down. She let go halfway and hit the water with a huge splash and sank like a stone. The old witch had been to the kitchens and had half a ton of saucepans tied up under her skirts. Davies didn't bother with the rope; the men were coming up the sides already. He jumped. Ten Tons jumped after him. I didn't have the nerve and started down the rope, but the men were leaning over the side by now. There was no choice. I screamed and let go and fell ...
And fell and fell and fell and fell and fell and fell and fell ...
I hit the water like a brick. I was under for ages. I came up gasping and spluttering and struck out for the shore. I was ten strokes on when Patty rose up next to me. She must have been under for a minute. She was desperate ... gasping and thrashing for air. She struck out to grab hold of me, but I kicked her off ... she was twice as big as me, she'd have pulled me under. I looked back a minute later and she'd got her breath back. She was furious because she'd had to cut the saucepans loose. She wriggled out of her dress, spitting and hissing like a horrible old cat and screaming at me for leaving her. I swam like fury and she wasn't far behind.CHAPTER 2
Don't get me wrong. I don't live by stealing. I'm a worker. I have responsibilities. If my father or mother found out I'd been on that boat they'd skin my back with the belt.
One day, they'll skin my back once too often and I won't come back and then they'll be sorry. Davies and Ten Tons are always on at me to go and live with them and let my family look after themselves. They say, "They take your money and spend it on milk for the baby and a new dress for your sister." To tell the truth, I'd like to be my own man, but ... they're my parents! They brought me up.
There are good things in a family, anyway. That day we got aboard the tall ship, Davies and Ten Tons went back dripping wet to sleep in an old barge half sunk in the mud by Bow Creek. My mother had dry clothes for me and there was a fire even though it was April. When Davies broke his jaw, he lay in that wet barge for three weeks on his own with only Ten Tons to look out for him. If I get ill my mother buys medicine for me, and I get thick broth to eat every day.
When I tell them that, Tens' eyes go as round as hoops. He can never hear enough about having a family. But Davies is harder.
"A man has to make his own life. You'll come and live with us one day, won't you, Jamie? And we'll get ourselves a berth on a boat and see the world."
"Yes, yes!" cries Ten Tons.
"One day," I say.
Oh ... I'd leave home tomorrow if I could do that. The thought of sailing away down the river and out to sea ... it makes me ache to think about it, I want it so much. It's all we three ever dream about.
We don't want to be a coalwhipper like my dad, unloading coal from the brigs that come down from the north. We're going to sail round the world and see all the places and people we rule over, and the savages, who have to do whatever a British boy tells them. Even the poorest lad can see the world if he lives on the river ... except someone like Ten Tons, who's not good for much. But we'll look after him, me and Davies. He says he's going to dress up in feathers and pass himself off as a parrot. He's clever, Ten Tons, but what good's brains if you're small and weak? He's lucky he's got us!
Us three! Right round the world and back! Except ...
Except it's not so easy. If you're a man it's one thing, but us boys ... we'd have to buy our way on board ship to learn a trade. I don't want to wait until I'm a man, but I had as much chance of saving up to buy my passage as Ten Tons did of being a parrot. If I ever do make any spare money, my family just gobbles it all up.
It's not fair. It's not my fault my father and mother have more children than pennies. But even if I did leave home I still couldn't get a berth. If it was so easy to earn all that, do you think Tens and Davies would still be here? I once spoke to a cabin boy and his father paid five pounds. Five pounds! I thought you could buy a whole ship for that money.
Come to think about it ... maybe Ten Tons' idea of disguising himself as a parrot is better after all.
* * *
There's eight of us in our family. We live in a couple of rooms on Burcham Street. There's my mother and father and me and Ellen, who's six, and David, who's eight, and Joan, who's ... well, I forget how old Joan is, except she's not so big as me. Then there's Sally, who's only very little, and the oldest, Mary. Mother and Father are always on at her to move out. That's not counting the baby. Mother said she didn't know where it came from, since she thinks she's too old for them now. But he's sickly and no one expects him to live. Mother says it'll be a relief when he dies. The poor little thing suffers too much and anyway, he cries all night and it makes our lives harder.
I'm eleven years old and I'm four and a half feet high. Davies and Ten Tons don't even know how tall they are, but I'm taller than either of them even though I'm the youngest of us three. I went to school for three years, and I know my alphabet. I can read, but I'm not much good at writing. I used to go to school with Mrs. Prenderghast. My dad paid her with a little bag of coal every week. Davies don't know a from b but Ten Tons can read and write and count up to a hundred. He taught himself. He's the cleverest person I know.
I love my mother and father and I'm proud to be a working man and help keep us all fed, but the trouble with honesty is, you have to work hard and get nowhere. As they say ... light fingers make light work. It's nice to feel proud, but I often think I'd rather be a bit more ashamed of myself and have a life living with Ten Tons and Davies.CHAPTER 3
Low tide was early next morning.
I'm a mudlark. I make my money by picking up the coal that falls out when they're unloading the brigs. I have a little basket strapped to my back. Sometimes I fill it twice in a day. Not that often, though.
I'm a good worker. I go out mudlarking even in the winter when most of the others can't stand the cold. It was only me and Davies and Ten Tons and maybe Patty and a couple of others by Blackwall pier this winter. Ten Tons and me are fine with it, but Davies turns blue with cold. I'm tougher than Davies, even though he's stronger than me. I can work all day even in the winter, when you have to crack the ice to lever the coals out of the mud. It's all Davies can do to sit on the bank and shiver and cry because his hands and feet hurt so much.
Sometimes the coal lies on the surface of the mud, but often it sinks under. Then you have to feel in the thick mud with your toes and hands. It's exciting when you find a big piece, but it's usually little nibs. When the basket's full I take it and sell my coal to the old women up and down Cotton Street or around All Saint's.
We don't just pick up coals, we pick up anything that gets dropped, just about. You get a farthing a pound for old iron. You get ha'pence for bits of rope. If you find fat the cooks have dropped overboard you can get three farthings for that. For good new copper, you can get up to four pence a pound.
Most things can be sold in this world. Once I made a shilling in a day. Mostly it's more like seven or eight pence.
The boat we'd been on yesterday was back at her mooring. She was a merchant ship in for re-rigging. That tug had holed her above the water line, so they'd have to tow her down to a yard to fix it. They use copper to line the hull to keep out the worms in the hot South Seas. Every now and then they drop some into the water, and the workmen don't bother going down to fetch little bits ... so maybe we'd get some copper off her after all.
There was no sign of that big roll, though. They had men by the dozen floating around trying to spot it, but the water was muddy and deep. They had no chance. Only the fish knew where that was ... and what good was it to them?
Me and Davies and Ten Tons were treading in the mud around the brigs but I tell you, that copper was driving the three of us mad. The thought of it just lying there glorious and shiny in the ooze ... there for the taking!
If you could sell that to the marine-store dealer you'd be rich. Even Ten Tons could buy a berth aboard ship with that. All you had to do was pick it up and walk away with it....
I think all three of us'd been thinking about it the whole time, ever since it went down. It was so near! But of course it was just a dream. That copper was sunk too deep to ever fish up again. It was down there along with all the other precious things that have been swallowed up by Old Father Thames over the hundreds and hundreds of years. Even the rich people couldn't have it back now.
Ten Tons stared across the choppy brown water. "It's out there waiting," he groaned.
"It'll have a long wait," I said.
Ten Tons looked up at me and winked. "Waiting for me to get some sense into my head," he said. Then he started doing a stupid dance in the mud. It was too early for jokes. I turned away, treading for coals. The mud sucked at my feet. It was cold deep down there.
"I swam down to it this morning," said Ten Tons suddenly. "It took me thirty dives."
"Did you?" That was something! See? People think Ten Tons is just a madman. But he can stick with things like no one once he gets going. I told you he taught himself to read and write. The trouble is, most of the time he sticks with stupid things ... well, what does he need to read for? Come to that, what did he need to know where the copper was for? No one was ever going to lift THAT out of the mud, that was for sure.
Excerpted from The Copper Treasure by Melvin Burgess, Richard Williams. Copyright © 1998 Melvin Burgess. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
One The Tall Ship,
Two The Dreams,
Three The Plan,
Four The Rope,
Five The Timber,
Six The Lift,
Seven The Accident,
Eight Ten Tons Marks the Spot,
Nine The Copper Treasure,
Ten The Alice May,
About the Authors,