Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Riverboats Part 6: The Sunrise

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Some time later a note was passed under the door. It had my name written in plain capitals. I ignored it for a few minutes, sheer stubbornness taking me over, saying to myself I wouldn’t hear any excuses, but I knew even then that I was going to read it. I had to know. I couldn’t torture myself with questions any longer.

 

Dear Edie,

I understand you may be shocked and concerned to discover only now that I’m alive, and a captain on a Cooper ship. I have known for some time that you were on one of Mrs Hunter’s boats, and it hurt me to think that you thought so little of me as to never even attempt communication. Now I see that you were deceived, and I’m relieved to know you still think well enough of me to trust me and come aboard this ship.

I know you will want to know why I left your family years ago, but there is so much about me that you never knew that I can’t help but take this opportunity to finally tell you everything. It will take some time to teach you the sign language that I have developed with Clark, so it is best I put it in writing for now.

I was abandoned as a baby and taken into the care of a minister and his wife, as I once tried to communicate to you. They were kind and the best of parents, always patient with my disability, and I only wish it could have stayed that way. Unfortunately, my father died and left the vicarage to his grown son, who couldn’t have been more his opposite. My mother tried her best but she was still grieving and couldn’t contradict the man of the house. He treated me very cruelly. (Here the full stop was thick and slightly smudged, as if he had dripped ink on it for some time.) I hate to think back on those times. His treatment of me was seen as just by nearly everyone, because I was such a burden. It was then that I grew so wary of others, a trait you always chided in me.

Eventually it seems he persuaded my mother that I couldn’t be housed any more – probably that the money would be better spent on his own children. I was not told this. I was told I was going to school, otherwise I would never have stepped on that train. But when my mother said goodbye once I stepped on the train, I realised the truth. She cried as if her heart was breaking and apologised for her weakness, before he dragged her away. I knew then that I had been abandoned.

I rode until the end of the line at Laneham station. I had nowhere to go so I stayed there, afraid to venture beyond the station, hiding from the unsavoury characters that visited the place at night. I can’t remember how I stayed alive, for I don’t remember eating or sleeping at all – it is all dream-like to me now. But one day, as I loitered around a train, a young well-dressed woman saw me and asked how I came to be there. I shied away but she was persistent, and the more distressed I became trying to explain to her that I could not answer, the more piteous and pleased she seemed, deciding I was a poor, delightful pet and that I should come with her. I tried to refuse but she was so kind and offered food and a coat, and in my state I couldn’t resist.

When we returned to her home – I vaguely remember a stately townhouse – she argued with a man there for a very long time – her husband, of course. He insisted I couldn’t stay and she argued and argued until eventually she called her aunt round to discuss the matter. This was Mrs Hunter, of course. It took a great deal to convince her that I was not deaf but merely couldn’t speak, and she scolded her niece for what seemed like a very long time, until eventually saying she had a place for me. Then this lovely lady, that I had grown attached to in only a few days, explained that I had to go away, and nothing but fear of Mrs Hunter made me leave. That is how I came to your family: scared and sure I was only going to be abandoned yet again.

But as the years went by I began to feel secure with your family, and I hoped for my future for the first time. Then, as you know, something happened – and that is why I am here right now and not with you, on our own boat on the river, as I always imagined.

When we were playing that day I ran too far, and became lost. I wandered around the docks as it became dark, and though I was scared, petrified even, and running from every noise I heard, I still managed to find my way to the scene of an argument between two men. I turned the corner and had barely seen their faces when one pulled out his pistol and shot the other.

I was so stunned that I could not move, so the killer saw me. I ran, but he caught me, and surely planned to kill me as well, but luckily when he saw my face he realised who I was, and that I literally could not tell anyone what had happened. He laughed as if it was a joke, and pointed his gun to my head, and I was certain I was going to die, but he threatened that if I ever, by any way, told anyone what had happened, he would kill me – and not just me, but all of you as well, since he knew Mrs Hunter and he knew us, and he knew Mrs Hunter favoured him over us, so your lives depended on me. He said many other cruel things, and eventually let me go. I ran back to you, unable to be comforted, certain that I was going to die, and that I would be the cause of your deaths as well.

That is why I left. I worried he would be at the next port – and if not, it was still possible he would see us next time we were in town, and what if the police questioned us, knowing we were in that area that night? I stewed for days, and realised I was putting you in too much danger, and that I had to leave.

I forced myself to walk away without saying goodbye, because I knew that the moment I saw your mournful face, my resolve would break.

I spent a day wandering around the dock, too afraid to venture into town, when finally a dockworker recognised me and asked what I was doing. I ran, now even more afraid of strangers than I had been, but that evening, as I was dreading my first night alone in years, a well-dressed man found me and insisted I come back with him. I refused again and again, but he finally convinced me. I thought I would certainly be hurt, but he took me back to his home, fed me and let me sleep, and the next day asked me to write how I came to be away from the Heinleins, as everyone knew I had been with them. I refused but he was so kind and considerate to me, and finally – after considering what our route might have been – he guessed the truth: I had seen a man murdered in Chesham. I wrote down what had happened – how he deciphered my awful scrawl I do not know – and he promised that I would be safe with him, because he was Mr Cooper, and even if this man carried great favour with Mrs Hunter, he was nothing to Mr Cooper for he was as powerful, if not more, than Mrs Hunter. I drew and described the man as best as I could, and after some discussion with his family they agreed it must have been Archibald Hunter. He then told me that the man I had seen killed was Mr Grey, Mr Cooper’s brother-in-law, and he thanked me for letting them know who the culprit was. Because of that, he said, we were allies against him, and because of that, and because he knew I was a good worker, he would take care of me, and make sure I came to no harm.

I became the companion of his nephew Clark, who is my first mate on this boat, and that is how we developed more of the signs that we created. We learnt everything about commanding a ship, and when the time came he put us in charge of the Sunrise. During this time I tried to write to your parents numerous times, and I even tried to find them in port, but they never replied. Instead I was told by one of Mrs Hunter’s associates to stop bothering her people, and that the Heinleins expressly did not want to see me. I assumed you must hate me for abandoning you, since you would never care whether I was a Cooper or not. I wish I had tried harder, for it never occurred to me that you may have been deceived.

So now you see what happened, and how I came to be here. Only one other question remains: why did I board the Endeavour? I’m afraid the truth may be hateful for you. Ever since we learnt of each others’ existence, Miss Eynham and I have been at odds. We each have what the other wants. As a relative of Mrs Hunter, she knows Archibald Hunter’s whereabouts, since he has been carefully hidden for years since the murder, and Mr Cooper still seeks justice. I, meanwhile, am one of the few people who know of the whereabouts of a close friend of the Bainbridge family: a man named Alexander Strong. I am sure you will have heard of him. Thus, Miss Eynham and I each have the information that the other desires, and I boarded the Endeavour with the plan to take her and force the information out of her. I did not expect to see you again, though in hindsight I should have known that hers was the ship you would most likely be working on.

I’m sorry if this seems sudden; I could not resist the opportunity to tell you everything, and explain myself after years of guilt and sadness. Rest assured I do not mean to use you as leverage against Miss Eynham; you are worth more to me than her. I can find out Archibald Hunter in other ways, but I may never get this opportunity again. Please, I’m begging you, stay here with me.

I will come through an hour after posting this under your door. Ask me anything. I will teach you the language. There are many things you may not know, if my existence has been kept from you. If you cannot stand the thought of remaining on this ship, you are free to leave at the next port, but I beg you not to.

I missed you.

                             Yours faithfully,

                                                Laneham.

 

I can’t describe what I felt reading this. All I know is that when he opened the door a few minutes later, I ran to him and embraced him, as I should have done at first. He was my Laneham, and finally – after years of deception and shame and heartache for us both – I had him again! Despite the pity for his past, the anger, and the rumbling fear in my gut when I thought of Isabel and what this all meant – despite that, I was joyous and my heart glowed to have him back. We beamed at each other to know that we were together again.

 

‘I’m…so sorry.’

Why?

‘For…not trying to find you, for everything you’ve been through, for…’ I plucked at a thread on the cover of his bed, where we were sitting again.

‘For not helping you that night.’

He shook his head and gave my shoulders a little shake, before sitting back and signing. I had to ask him to write it down.

It was impossible. You tried your best but I couldn’t be helped.

He explained each sign to me for each word and flourish I didn’t know. I smiled and sighed at how much I had forgotten and he was patient.

‘…Is Mr Cooper a good man, then?’

Very good.

I thought of all the gunshots and shouts I had heard while hiding under deck, and all the sneers I had heard said about the Coopers, and the wild Bainbridge boys, and Marlows and Greys, and most of all about the the stiff and formal and heartless Mr Cooper himself. I couldn’t reconcile that with my Laneham. And there was one part of his letter that I especially could not square with my heart.

‘H…have you ever met Isabel?’

A stern look cast itself over his previously boyish face and it frightened me how adult he was now.

Not until yesterday. I told you what our relations are.

‘But Laneham…she’s a good person. She…‘ I blushed as I heard the words come out of my mouth. ‘She’s a wonderful person.’

His eyes narrowed and he didn’t sign anything in reply.

‘She – she told me why she has the ship, why she’s after Alexander Strong, and I believe she’s right. So…why shouldn’t you tell her where he is? Especially if it will help you.’

He signed so fast and furiously that again I had to tell him to slow down and write what I didn’t know. It didn’t help greatly though – in such fervour his writing was little more than a scrawl.

She will kill him if she finds him and I can’t let it happen. He is my friend.

‘He killed her twin brother!’

He blinked in surprise, then shook his head.

I don’t know what happened, but he would not have done it without reason. He’s a good man.

I had to look away. My mind was too full to consider this on top of everything else. Luckily my stomach rumbled and the topic changed. He raised himself from the bed and walked to stand in front of where I was sitting.

Food?

I nodded and he left. All I remember after that is hearing talk outside the door, of crewmen and the familiar voice of the second in command, still petulant from earlier. Eventually Laneham opened the door again and beckoned me out of the room. I didn’t want to go. It wasn’t until I walked out of the room that I realised how afraid I was of all the other men. They stared at me and winked at each other and I felt both shamed for no reason and terrified for good reason.

Laneham turned, saw my look, and grabbed my hand, leading me to the dining area. I had never felt so grateful for a gesture in my life.

Once there he signed a little to the second in command about introducing me. He looked at me with contempt and said ‘I don’t think she needs introducing,’ but Laneham made some sign I hadn’t seen before – a threat, it seemed – and he shifted and cleared his throat.

‘Everyone, this is Miss Heinlein, one of the captain’s “friends”.’

They tittered. With two steps Laneham strode to him and boxed his ears so he nearly fell into the table, cutting every laugh short. The first mate looked up at me and, in a mechanical manner, introduced every member of the crew – I didn’t even try to remember their names – ending with himself.

‘And my name is Clark Bainbridge. Call me what you like.’

Laneham nodded and at last we sat down. Eating was a strangled affair. Laneham’s violence had shocked me right through and the contempt of Mr Bainbridge bore into me, along with the sense that all the rest were watching me – sizing me up – leering at the woman. I nudged Laneham.

Please me eat in your place.

He understood. After dinner I went back to his room and remained there the rest of the night, the many thoughts and worries and considerations stifling me. Isabel, Laneham, Clark, Mrs Hunter, Alexander Strong, Archibald Hunter, Mr Cooper, Laneham’s father’s son, my parents, Jane, Harriet, back to Isabel. It was too much. I eventually escaped into an uneasy sleep, only vaguely noting that Laneham did not return to his room that night.

 

Where you sleep?

I was trying to improve at signing. A lot was coming back to me, but the new developments he had made meant I had to learn more than I had to remember.

With C.

I assumed he meant Clark Bainbridge. I disliked how similar it was to both Laneham’s name and my own.

You can come out onto the deck today.

I shook my head. He gently tilted my chin up to look at him.

If they touch you, I kill them.

I wanted to laugh but he was so serious that it died in my throat. He put down my breakfast, smiled to cheer me up, and left. As I ate, I pondered how strange it was to have him comforting me, instead of the other way around.

 

It was boredom that drove me out of the room: I couldn’t stand to be alone with my thoughts any longer so I ventured out. The crew pretended not to notice as I walked by, though I could feel their covert glances. They didn’t say a word to me and I was glad. Eventually I found the cargo hold and walked down to it. Clark was there.

‘Is there anything I can do?’

He ignored me and continued writing. I traced my fingers across one crate and delighted in seeing him eye them down with apprehension.

‘I normally do this work on my ship. Or laundry.’

‘Laundry is fine,’ he said curtly. ‘Good woman’s work.’

I didn’t rise to his jibe.

‘Then I might do that. Also, thank you for letting the captain sleep in your bed last night.’

‘Don’t thank me. I was surprised he didn’t sleep in yours.’

He strained so much to sound civil – it would have amused me in any other situation.

‘You really do think I’m a whore, don’t you?’

He started from my unexpected bluntness.

‘Well – I wouldn’t say – the captain – ‘

‘We’re merely friends who have not seen each other for years. Are you so shocked by that?’

I had given him enough time to compose himself during my reply.

‘You are too naive, Miss Heinlein. Please, you’re on a boat full of men. Be wise.’

‘Laneham has behaved like a perfect gentleman to me. I trust he won’t let me come to harm.’

‘You’re in no danger from me, I assure you.’

This topic was making me sick.

‘And what if Miss Eynham had come on board instead of me?’

He snorted and turned back to the crates.

‘Oh please, no man would touch that witch.’

The next thing I knew I was being pulled off him by two pairs of strong arms as I shouted obscenities at Mr Bainbridge. My blows had nearly knocked him to the floor. He straightened and felt the back of his head, before speaking to one of the people who had come in behind me.

‘Some heifer you have there, captain. I couldn’t even get the beast off of me.’

Laneham walked up to him, but I could barely translate what he said, the rage blinded me so.

What did you do?

Nothing.

Laneham stared him down and Clark got redder and redder in the face.

‘Some brotherly loyalty, this!’ he finally exclaimed. ‘Immediately choosing her side over mine! Have you forgotten me already?’

I know you. You said something against her. He stepped closer, his back to me, and signed so quickly in Clark’s face that I couldn’t catch anything. Clark looked at the ground and I rejoiced that Laneham had once again taken my side; but when he turned to me, I saw the same scolding look directed at me as well.

Go, was all he signed, and I shook off the arms holding me, glaring at the man who had restrained me, and walked away holding my head high, though inwardly I felt as if I had been punched as well.

I spent the rest of the afternoon doing laundry. Wringing the water and the ache it gave my arms were both satisfying. I hated everything. I wished I was back with Isabel. I wanted her embrace and her kiss more than anything else.

 

I skipped dinner so Laneham brought it to me instead. Before he left, he sat next to me and told me not to let Clark annoy me, and again not to worry about the men on board.

‘I want to go home,’ I said quietly.

He squeezed my hand and repeated that I could leave at the next port, which we would reach the day after tomorrow, but added that he wished I would stay.

‘Do you really? I’m just causing trouble for you!’

But I want you here yet.

‘Why?’

He didn’t say anything. I couldn’t resist questioning him more – he brought out the child in me, the honest, open, petulant child I had been with him.

‘Why were you so angry at me earlier?’

His brow clouded as I had seen it do only once before, the previous night. I guessed the reason before he pointed to the name on his letter.

Isabel Eynham.

 

The next day was more laundry. I only saw a few of the crew as they came in to take some and give some more. Some tried to thank me but I ignored them all. I sang songs to myself to occupy my thoughts. I didn’t see Clark at all and was grateful for it.

 

When Laneham came to his room that evening, I was sitting in my bloomers and one of his shirts while my dress was drying. I remembered when he had first come to my family and had seemed just as ridiculous, with the sleeves past my hands and collar sloping to one side of my neck and making the entire piece off-centre. He hesitated when he saw me like that, and I was aware that I should cover myself up and tell him to leave but I was lonely and – compared to how naked Isabel and Harriet had seen me! – I was covered enough, so I beckoned him in to talk. He sat down on the bed and kept his eyes resolutely on my face.

Talk at me, he said. Tell me what has happened since then.

We sat on the bed together, eventually moving to lying down, and I talked and talked and grew more confident and animated with time, telling him first quietly about my parents and our ship sinking, then describing each of the girls on the Endeavour, and their lives, and relations, and when I stole Jane’s underwear I laughed at the memory and he smiled and gripped my hand, and finally how Jane left and everything up until I was taken on board. I trailed off. He signed something.

You are very loyal to Miss Eynham?

He added in the sign which indicated a question at the end.

‘Wh-what do you mean?’

Clark insulted you but you only attacked when he insulted her.

I was embarrassed that I had been so obvious, too embarrassed to reply at first.

‘She’s very good to me. We’re…we are close.’

I avoided his gaze, and only looked at him again when he touched my shoulder gently with his hand. He locked his eyes on mine as he signed.

I’ll be good to you. I want us to be close again. Please, stay.

His expression was so earnest. I felt – for the first time since I followed him – that my head was clear enough to finally stand back, and look at him, take all of him in. He had changed, but not too much. He smelled of work and sweat, and he was so grown, so muscled and strong, compared to that skinny frightened boy. Underneath his commanding attitude, his contempt for Isabel, and that burst of violence I had seen, there was still the gentle boy I’d loved, I knew it, but years of men and river feuding had buried him. I wanted him back – I had always wanted him back, and now he was here I would cry if I could not get him back. How could I leave him, after all this time apart, without finding him again?

I relented. I agreed to stay on the Sunrise after port the next day.

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Written by G.J.

05/08/2012 at 6:29 pm

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