Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Riverboats Part 8: Rescue

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Apologies for the lateness. Went to a party for most of yesterday – am hungover as sin today. Blarg.

_

One night we were signing so late into the night that the inevitable happened. We were lying on his bed, and signing while lying on our backs became too much effort so we snuggled together instead.

‘Laneham, I think I’m falling asleep.’

He merely squeezed me tight. I tried to talk out loud to keep myself awake, but it didn’t work. I fell asleep in his arms.

He was gone the next morning, as I had expected, but when I went to breakfast I noticed the winks and nudges of the crew as I walked in.

‘What is it?’ I asked Petey, but he just shook his head and grinned.

Laneham walked in late, and when he did, they all cheered.

‘Good on ya, son!’

‘Nice to see you happy at last!’

‘Bainbridge told us all about it!’

Laneham looked stunned. Frowned. Realised. Blinked and gaped and went red and then frantically signed – but Clark was looking the other way nonchalantly. I realised it was my duty to set them right, but I was so horrendously embarrassed I could only stammer.

‘No – no – boys – um – it’s not th – that, we fell asleep and – and – ‘

I couldn’t continue. I was so mortified.

Laneham explained later that he had tried to leave early enough so no-one would notice, but Clark had ruined it by revealing how he hadn’t slept with him that night.

‘It’s not as if we even did anything!’ I cried.

I know. Don’t worry, it’ll die down.

It took a few days, but he was right. The upside was that he could spend his nights with me now, so we slept in each other’s arms. I still thought of Isabel, and missed her, but that was all. I fended off every dark thought about the feud, which was helped by the fact that we didn’t come across another Hunter boat until London. I felt helpless, so I avoided any thoughts about it all.

Just over two and a half weeks after I came aboard, we were in London.

*

The day started off badly. Clark said something – I don’t know what – about me and so when I first saw Laneham after getting dressed he was standing, red in the face, signing furiously at him.

…I’m sick of your complete lack of respect for her – of your complete disrespect of me and my wishes. I thought you were a bigger man than this.

‘If I was running this ship, we wouldn’t have brought a woman on board in the first place unless we got something from it – like, perhaps, the whereabouts of Archibald Hunter, that you gave up for her?

          He can wait.

‘You never see the urgency in anything, do you? It’s a wonder we get anything done!’

You are too impatient.

‘If I was running this ship –‘

You’re not, because you’re a child!

Clark stared, then tried to laugh in derision and failed. That’s when he looked over Laneham’s face and saw us – me, Petey, Harry and Phil, stood watching them. He stormed away and Laneham sighed, running his hands through his hair. It was a sign of things to come. At the docks some of the goods were damaged and Laneham and Clark argued with the person collecting them, while I found that a nail been uncovered in the bottom of the wash basin, tearing some of the clothes that swirled by it – which were mainly mine. They got less money than they wanted, and I had a skirt and knickers completely ruined.

We all sat around outside on the docks eating lunch, sighing, and I had barely grasped Laneham’s hand and he had only just kissed my forehead when Don jumped to his feet.

‘Captain – there’s someone coming.’

We all stood to see and my heart slowed. A lady was walking towards us, flanked by three men. A lady with a large bustle and hat and an even bigger air of importance. A lady glaring at the crew, at Laneham, and especially at me. Everyone straightened.

‘Good morning, men,’ she said as she approached us. Laneham nodded. The others didn’t reply. I cleared my throat.

‘G – good morning, Mrs Hunter.’

Her eyes swept around everyone in disdain.

‘My, what a sorry bunch you are. It’s a wonder Mr Cooper can’t keep you better.’

Clark and Laneham bristled. She turned to them.

‘You have some nerve, taking a girl from one of My ships onto your own.’

Clark said what Laneham signed slightly before the shapes were formed, as he sometimes did – it was a rare occurrence that proved to me that he truly was his closest friend.

‘Edie came of her own free will.’

‘It doesn’t matter what she did,’ Mrs Hunter said, each word dropping like hail on us all, contempt in every syllable. ‘Miss Heinlein is under My care, and obliged to work on one of My ships. You have no right to take her from that, and that is why I am here to collect her.’

I squeezed Laneham’s arm but he stared resolutely at Mrs Hunter. He shook his head.

‘I suggest you don’t disagree, Laneham,’ she said, relishing the lack of title she gave him. ‘You know who I am, and it is only out of the goodness of my heart that I don’t punish you for kidnapping. If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t even exist to defy me.’

Edie is not going with you and I don’t care what you say.

She raised her eyebrow.

‘I’m sorry, childish miming will have no effect on me.’

And he looked in panic at Clark to translate – and Clark looked lazily back.

Clark! What are you doing? Tell her what I’m saying!

‘Take her if you want, Ma’am,’ Clark said slowly, deliberately. ‘She’s nothing to us.’

We gaped at him, all the crew included. I didn’t have time to contemplate as Mrs Hunter replied.

‘Indeed. Come along then, Miss Heinlein. There are many people waiting for you.’

This moment was always going to come; I had known it was inevitable, and I had been prepared for it, even if he hadn’t. I turned to Laneham and touched his shoulder. He still looked too stunned to respond to anything.

‘Write,’ I said, and kissed him briefly on the lips; a paltry final kiss, but it was all I could do. I ran straight to Mrs Hunter, as if I would die if I disobeyed. She walked away and I turned and waved at them all, and they all waved back except Clark, who was looking at his feet, and Laneham, who stared as if his world was being torn away from him. It broke my heart utterly to see him like that, but I didn’t dare run back – Mrs Hunter had swept me away with her, and I could not swim against her tide.

We got into her carriage and she immediately began to speak.

‘Disgraceful. How Mr Cooper has such villains working for him is beyond my comprehension entirely. That I should have to come down here and speak to them – and you are not blameless, Miss Heinlein! Do not deceive yourself about your goodness. Isabel was beside herself when she came to me. I had never seen her in such a state since her brother died – you would think you had been killed, by the way she acted. She would not even think to do anything except get you back, and was willing to dump her cargo in the river and chase you. Stupid girl – I can’t think why she panicked so. Oh, and she cried very prettily and told me how brave you were to go in her place – but better it had been her! She would have killed the lot of them and come back a hero, whereas you, it seems, have been sunning yourself for the past two weeks! I’ve never known such insolence. To think you did not even try to leave – I know you went through at least two ports – it’s a disgrace. That note you sent her was inexcusable. What did you mean, telling her not to worry? You are some piece of work, girl.’

And so she went on and on and continuously insulted me and Laneham and his crew, with no small impatience at Isabel either, until eventually she said:

‘We are stopping to see your parents. They wish to speak to you.’

I lit up. I hadn’t seen my parents in months – only one short visit since I had gone on the Endeavour. When we stopped at the riverside inn where they worked, I ran out to meet them.

‘My dear!’ they both said, and we hugged, but as soon as I drew back and saw their expressions, I remembered what I had learnt since seeing them last.

‘Are you all right, dear?’ my mother asked.

‘Not harmed at all?’ my father added.

‘Of course,’ I replied, more stiffly than I should have done. ‘You didn’t think Laneham would let me come to harm, surely?’

My mother clasped her hands, and gave me the look she always wore when preparing to explain something tiringly obvious to her daughter. My father looked out at the buildings next to us, and the sky and the birds, as if everything else was suddenly uninteresting.

‘Edie, dear, anyone can change. Especially a boy who runs away to join the Coopers.’

‘He hasn’t changed. Why would you think he would change that way? And he had good reason to leave – didn’t he try to tell you that?’

No reply. Mammy was pressing her lips together as if she was trying to put a thread through a needle’s eye.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I continued, vainly trying to keep the childish pleading out of my voice. ‘You knew he was alive, and you let me think he was dead. Why?’

‘It was easier this way,’ she said. ‘He already broke your heart, girl. Why should we hurt you more by letting you know that he had betrayed us?’

The callousness of that belief – that knowing he was a Cooper was worse than thinking he was dead! – floored me, and I could not reply. My mother shook her head.

‘Oh dear,’ she said at my face. ‘You never change. We knew that if you knew the truth, you would become involved in some awful way like this.’

‘You’re a Hunter, Edie,’ father said, finally coming away from the clouds. ‘Remember that. We can’t have you involved with Coopers, even if it is Laneham.’

‘That’s – that’s stupid!’

‘No, dear, it’s only sense. There’s very bad blood here – try to stay out of it. Don’t get caught in it.’

‘Stay with the winning side,’ father said.

You want me to not become caught in it, and you sent me to a boat filled with vengeance-seekers, who would easily kill the boy you once thought of as a son. That’s what I wanted to say, but I was too sick to say it. A few lukewarm enquiries about Annie and other people I knew, and then we said goodbye. I got back in the carriage with Mrs Hunter, and she seemed pleased that I was sufficiently chastised. We rode in silence until we reached where The Endeavour was docked.

*

‘Edie!’

Isabel ran out and enveloped me, so I pressed against her shoulder and her hair fluttered all around my face and I melted into her.

‘Well, my work is done,’ Mrs Hunter said behind me. In her tone of voice, everything sounded like a disapproval. Perhaps everything she said was.

‘Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, Aunt Hunter!’

‘Don’t ask me again,’ she said, and left. I kept my head pressed to Isabel’s body. I didn’t want to look at her.

‘Oh Edie,’ she said, nuzzling my head. ‘I missed you so much. I was so worried, and I–‘

I jerked away from her. Like with my parents, the initial shock of delight was quickly replaced by remembrance. My look must have said everything to her, because she knew better than to follow me when I walked inside without a word to her.

‘Edie!’

Frances was the first one to see me as I went on board, and I barely heard her voice before she and Helena were on me, hugging me tight.

‘Come on, out the way – oh, it’s good to have you back, chick.’

Mary enveloped me. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed them all – the comfort in their touch and happiness and relief in their voices warmed me in my heart.

‘I missed you all,’ I said when she released me. ‘So much.’

‘You are all right?’ a soft voice came from behind me – Harriet, concerned as always. I nodded.

‘Captain was beside herself – she’s been worrying night and day about what they’ve been doing with you,’ Mary said, in a tone more solemn than I thought she could produce. I spluttered, cursing myself for my selfishness, shamed to think of Isabel worrying while I justified staying with Laneham through another port.

‘Ah, um, well, no, um, they treated me well – um, that is, well, I wasn’t sure at first – I was scared and Clark – um, the first mate, he didn’t like me, but Laneham convinced the other to leave me be and then it was fine, it was all fine.’

They all stared at me, blushing there, and finally Mary said one thing.

‘Oh yes. Laneham.’

With a few other muted words and pats and welcomes, they drifted away, back to their work. Frances stayed by me though, and looked at me sympathetically.

‘Don’t mention him,’ she said. ‘We all hate him.’

To have her say it in her usual simple way made me despair. ‘Why?’ Fanny rolled her eyes.

‘Because he attacked us, and took you away – and he’s the captain’s enemy. I asked Miss Eynham and she explained it all to me – how he knows where her brother’s murderer is, and he wants Archie Hunter and she won’t tell.’

I didn’t reply, too busy trying to fight off the stab of jealousy that had mixed in with all my other emotions. She leant in close.

‘But Edie…please…I’ve known Miss Eynham a long time and she’s always been so good to me. She does what’s best. Please forgive her.’

Isabel walked in and Frances scurried away with a supportive smile. We looked at each other. The dining area was empty except for us.

What an idiot Frances was. I knew I would forgive Isabel from the moment I saw her. But I was still hurting. Isabel, the crew, my parents even – why had they hidden it from me?

‘Were the others glad to see you?’

Her voice was low, neutral. I sat down.

‘Yes. They were worried about how I had been treated.’

She didn’t need to say anything to inform me of her own worry. The fact that she had asked a favour of her aunt was enough. She sat down opposite me and we looked at each other for a second, before she looked down. Beneath her shield of hair, a hand crept out upon the table, searching for another. I placed my hand upon hers.

‘Let’s go to the bedroom,’ she said softly. ‘I prefer talking there.’

So we walked there, ignoring the others we passed, and I felt as if I was in a dream – I was back on our ship, with my girls, and away from the masculine, frightening world of the Sunrise. Had it really happened? Had I really been with Laneham only hours before?

We sat on the bed and I looked at the familiar scratches on the floor.

‘Edie,’ Isabel said, grasping my hand again. ‘Edie…please…are you all right? They didn’t…did they…’

I had to hug her and laugh sadly for her anxiety.

‘I’m fine.’

‘But that ship–’

‘They were harmless, nothing more threatening than dockworkers and Hunter me. And besides, Laneham protected me.’

The name brought on more silence. Isabel couldn’t look me in the eye.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said finally. ‘I tried to tell you…I thought I would, so many times, I told myself I would before you would find out…but I never did…’

‘But why did you hide it?’ I insisted.

‘Because I knew this would happen,’ she whispered. ‘I knew you’d find him and he’d take you away from me.’

There was uncomfortable truth in what she said, but I had to comfort her. I had missed her so much, that I couldn’t bear to see her so despondent.

‘I still love you, Isabel.’

She looked up in surprise.

‘…you do?’

‘He’s not taking me away from you,’ I said. ‘I’m back here now, aren’t I?’

‘You wouldn’t have come back had I not asked Aunt Hunter-‘

‘I was going to come back,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t have stayed there forever.’

‘You were gone so long,’ she said. ‘I had no hope of you coming back. I thought you must have fallen in love with him.’

I was desperate to change the subject.

‘I saw my parents before I came here. They knew as well. Why did no-one tell me?’

‘You’re a Hunter, Edie,’ she said. I hated how calm, how lacking energy and fire, how damp she was. ‘And everyone knew that you were both inseparable when you were younger. I knew you would find out he was a Cooper, and run away with him. Your parents and Aunt Hunter thought the same.’

I wish I had been able to scoff at how everyone assumed I would love him. How horribly predictable I was.

‘I was going to come back,’ I said. ‘And soon. But what does it matter whether that he’s apparently a Cooper and I’m told I’m a Hunter? He used to be a Hunter as well. Why does it matter?’

She looked as if I had slapped her.

‘It matters because people are dying, Edie.’

I couldn’t speak. I tried, I tried many times, but the utter loathing of what I had just said stopped everything, even an apology. Thoughtless. Thoughtless. Why was I always so thoughtless?

‘Please,’ she said, and I heard tears in her voice. ‘Don’t say he convinced you that I shouldn’t find Alexander Strong – please-!’

I embraced her, threw myself into her arms and held as tight as I could.

‘No, no, no, nothing, he said nothing that convinced me – I tried, Isabel, I asked him but he always refused to tell me where he was or even why he believed in him – you’re still right, you’re still right and he’s still wrong and you deserve to find him – you deserve it.’

She kissed the top of my head.

‘Thank God.’

‘But…I know why he wants Archibald Hunter.’

I explained, I told her everything that Laneham had said in his letter. She was very quiet for a few moments afterwards.

‘We know…we all know…’ she finally said, slowly and deliberately, ‘…that Archie is not a good man, and that’s why he’s been hiding…but I didn’t know…he was a murderer…’

‘He’s the reason Laneham left us,’ I stressed. ‘He would have died if not for Mr Cooper.’

She shook her head.

‘I won’t tell him, Edie.’

‘Why not?’ I exclaimed.

‘I can’t betray my family. Mrs Hunter would never forgive me.’

‘What about an exchange? Surely I could convince you both to tell you each other and then you–’

‘Edie!’

I jumped at her shout. Her fire, her gaze was back and as frightening as always.

‘You…’ She seemed to struggle, then calmed herself enough to speak.

‘It’s not enough. I can’t give up a cousin for my own revenge. They wouldn’t forgive me. I would never agree to it – and Laneham would never agree to it. I know enough about him to know that. And Edie – please – don’t…I…’

She had to collect herself again.

‘You can’t reconcile us.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said, my spirit sinking.

‘We are enemies,’ she said, straightening up and regaining all her rightful dominance. ‘You can’t negotiate between us – you’re now one of the reasons we have to be enemies. You can’t reconcile us; please don’t try. You’re here now – stay with me, and forget about him.’

All my foolish little dreams were sunk in one speech. I could only speak with the pitiful tone of the little naive girl that I was.

‘But I love both of you.’

She stared into me, until I had to look away.

‘He let you go. He obviously doesn’t love you as much as I do.’

‘It wasn’t like that! Clark–’

‘Edie! It doesn’t matter! You’re here now! Please, am I not enough?’

I couldn’t reply. She pulled me close to her.

‘I won’t let him take you again,’ she said. ‘You’re staying with me, where you’re safe.’

I had to fight to keep my tears from falling, to blink them away so they wouldn’t drip on her shoulder and alert her. She sighed and kissed my head again.

‘I was so worried about you. I swore I would never let anyone get you again. I love you, Edie, I love you so much.’

I sat there, my dreams of having both worlds shattered, my hopes for some reconciliation dashed, and only one bitter thought going through my mind.

How can I be safe here?

*

Life settled down so quickly it was as if I had never left. We set sail the next morning and I thought of Laneham, further up the river, and his face as I walked away – and then I thought of Isabel and her fear for me, her relief that I was back with her and unharmed. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t have them both, as much as I wanted to. I couldn’t choose between them. My choice had been made for me: I was to stay on the Endeavour, with Isabel, as a Hunter. And as I had longed for Isabel when I was away from her, I found myself longing for Laneham, and his smile and muscular arms before the day was done. I thought: What a fool I am! To have two people love me, and tell them both I loved them back, and feel dissatisfied with one when with the other! Like a prince complaining that he did not know whether he wanted suckling pig or pheasant, while beggars were starving outside; that was the insanity of my greed. But knowing my insanity did not make me better; it did not cure or even ease my affliction.

Though I did want Laneham, I was still greatly happy to be back with Isabel. The first night I was back I turned from her and slept; the second she hugged me until I melted. Her warmth, her eyes, her body – I had missed her so much, even the little noises she made of happiness, the sighs of content after we kissed were ambrosia to me. And she was so chaste! Kissing and pressing our bodies against each other was enough. It was a relief after the impatience and unknowing pressure of Laneham. Still, now I could recognise those feelings that I had ignored before with Isabel, when we held each other and kissed deep into the night, as the same lust – no, not lust, but a desire – a desire to explore all of her body, feel it all in my hands, to do what Laneham had done to me, to see it on her beloved face.

I didn’t act on it for a week. I burned and breathed too heavily when we kissed.

‘The others don’t know,’ she said. ‘Still. I worried they might realise when I was so upset, but I don’t think it even occurred to them that we might be more than friends.’

‘It doesn’t occur to most people,’ I said. She must have caught the hint of sadness in my voice, because she gave me such a look that I had to answer.

‘…I told Laneham.’

‘What?’ she cried. ‘How could you?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘He didn’t believe me.’ Only when I looked at her did I see how betrayed she was, and once again hated myself for hurting her so much.

‘I’m sorry…but I had to explain to him, when…um…’

‘He advanced on you,’ she said, a flat statement, disapproving in a way so like her aunt. I nodded.

‘I knew it. Men can’t be trusted,’ she said. I wanted to both laugh and cry at such a statement. I kissed her instead and we left the topic. I was hiding it from her. Had she asked if I loved Laneham, I probably would have denied it. Fear of causing her more pain overcame all my intentions of honesty so quickly, and it was a weakness I could easily forgive whenever I saw her tense at the mention of him, or my time away.

A week passed and my hands started to wander from her hair to her face and neck, and from her back to her hip. She said nothing the first night I did it, but the second night my hand wandered further to her waist and she stopped and looked at me quizzically.

‘…what?’ I said.

She didn’t reply. I tried to kiss her again but she was unresponsive. She stroked my face and looked into me and I knew she had found me out. I knew it.

‘You kissed him, didn’t you? You’re more forceful now.’

I blushed but did not speak.

‘You said you loved me.’

‘I do love you!’

She shook her head and I pressed against her, holding myself tightly to her.

‘I love you, Isabel. I do. It’s only that I have these…new feelings. I…I don’t know what to do.’

It was true. It was the best way I could put it. I thought she might be disturbed, frightened even as I had been with Laneham, but when I looked up at her she merely nodded.

‘I understand.’

‘Really?’

She smiled softly in the way that I desired – the gentle, sisterly way that made her even more appealing.

‘Of course. I have those feelings too.’

I rejoiced and kissed her and she pushed me away firmly.

‘Calm down, Edie,’ she said. ‘Let’s not get carried away.’

‘But we’re both women!’ I said. ‘We can do whatever we like!’

She stroked my cheek and chuckled.

‘Let’s enjoy ourselves. Slowly.’

I sulked inside and hated trying to calm myself, but it was worth it. Isabel was as gentle as I knew she would be, and as loving as I knew she was. We watched each other for signs of what worked, and smiled, and talked, and giggled, and kissed and loved each other. That night I lay in her arms and thought I should be happy to be with her forever.

*

The next day the letter came from Laneham. I hadn’t forgotten that I had told him to write. The letter had been waiting at port for a few days, the messenger said. I grabbed it out of his hand and stuffed it behind my apron, hoping that no-one had seen him come since I was the only one outside at the time. Breakfast was another strained affair for me and Isabel – every day we had to remember not to show our love for each other in the company of the crew. Today I was slightly relieved for that sanction, because she would have noticed how distracted I was, wondering what the letter said. Later, when I was alone with the laundry, I sat down and read it.

My dearest Edie,

          I can hardly believe that you’re gone from me once more. When you last saw me I was so stunned at your being taken from me so suddenly that I could barely say farewell; I now regret that with all my heart. It was very like Mrs Hunter to take you in such a manner, and I should have foreseen that Clark would betray me in such a way. I hate to admit that I have not been able to sufficiently punish him. He dared me to bring it up with his uncle, which of course I could not do, and I had few other ways to punish him and not compromise his important position on board. He gained what he wanted, but he knows that I shall never believe in his decency again, and only time will let him realise how that damage is not worth his petty dislike of you.

I hope you are well. Life has returned to its dull routine without you. I hope Miss Eynham and her crew are treating you as you deserve to be treated, though I doubt she can give you all the love I would give in her stead.

We have returned to the S-route and are currently near Rainham. Please let me know if our paths are to cross once more. I will happily risk everyone’s wrath to be with you once again.

                   All my love,

                             Your Laneham.

 

How it annoyed me! What a disappointment of a first letter! To hear that he hadn’t had the courage to tell Mr Cooper that I had been on the ship – surely he would find out anyway! – and was letting Clark rejoice in being rid of me, and then to insult Isabel in such a way! I considered tearing it up, then settled for folding it roughly and throwing it into the corner, before picking it up again and stuffing it in my apron. I resolved that I wouldn’t reply, that I would never reply, and that I was done with Laneham and all his crew and all his feud and all his unreasonable hatred of Isabel. I kissed her with extra happiness that night and assured her forcefully that I loved her, and I thought I had made my choice.

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Written by G.J.

27/08/2012 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

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