Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Riverboat Part 9: It Never Rains but it Pours.

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‘Bad news in town,’ Mary said.

We all looked up. She had come from her morning trip to the grocers and we were all sitting, checking documents, sewing up the holes in our clothes, and talking. We were due to set off later that day, once one of our orders came in. Beneath the table I would occasionally brush Isabel’s hand – part of our play at trying to touch each other without the others noticing. I had a physical ache to be near her during the day, and it made her embrace even sweeter at night.

‘What is it?’ she said, dropping her hand from mine. Mary shook her head.

‘Awful stuff. You know Annie?’

I straightened, the sudden worry snapping my back into place.

‘Of course.’

Everyone was facing Mary now, needles falling onto laps. She looked between us all, settling on me for a longer time before facing Isabel again.

‘You remember her beau, Alfie Gibb – talk was that they were gonna get married.’

‘He works on the Queen Mab,’ Isabel said softly.

‘The very same. Well, one of the Cooper boys has had an argument with him a long time – started over stealing work a year or two back, and got worse.’

 ‘Don’t say…’

Mary nodded and sighed.

‘It got out of hand the other night, and pistols were used. Alfie got shot.’

She sat down heavily and shook her head again.

‘That’s not even the worst. Her brother-in-law, you know, Bobby Shaw, saw red at this – at his little sister being so very upset, as you’d understand, and he takes it upon himself to find this Cooper lad-‘

‘Oh no,’ Frances said.

‘That’s right. Killed him stone dead. But he was careless and now the police have got to him. Mrs Long told me all this at the grocer’s, see, and she says how Annie’s been sitting at home crying her eyes out as if the world will end and she won’t leave the house for–’

I stood up suddenly and Mary stopped. Isabel didn’t look surprised when I turned to her and spoke.

‘Captain – I have to go see Annie.’

She nodded. ‘Be quick. We have to leave in a few hours.’

Mary reached out for me as I grabbed my coat and went to hurry by.

‘Wait, wait, child, there’s more–’

But I was too flustered, too haunted by the picture of Annie sitting crying alone, to hear her. I couldn’t stand still.

‘Annie’ll tell me,’ I said, pushing by. She called after me by I couldn’t make out what she said, as I ran out to the dock and to Annie’s home, walking as quickly as I could, ignoring the friendly greetings from the working men. I finally made it to her small lodgings next to her family’s warehouse, and knocked on the door. Nothing. I knocked again, and on second thoughts, called out.

‘Annie! Mrs Devon! It’s Edie! Please let me in!’

I waited.

‘Annie! It’s Edie, I just heard and I-‘

The door opened and it was Annie’s mother.

‘Hush your voice girl, do you want to attract every blasted policeman in the neighbourhood?’

‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but I only just heard and–’

‘Get in, get in,’ she said, ushering me inside. It was a dark, gloomy house, where the windows never let in enough light even in summer, and the silence and hushed atmosphere made the gloom more intense.

‘Annie’s in her room. I wouldn’t expect much from her, though, she’s inconsolable.’

I nodded and hurried away. I barely heard the response to my knock on the door; the voice was so faint I thought it might be a creak of floorboards. I opened it slowly, and there she was – sitting on a chair pulled away from her table, hands lying limp in her lap.

‘I thought I recognised your voice,’ she said hoarsely. I knelt beside her and held her cold little hands, gripping them in mine, willing warmth and love into them. She was white-pale, with dark purple circles under each eye, and multiple wisps of hair stuck to her damp face. Last time I had seen her, a few months ago, she had been beaming – and she had told me all about her new dresses that Alfie bought for her, and how good he was, and how happy she was. Now her eyes strained with the effort to look up at me, blotchy red. It broke my heart. I sat down on the bed next to her.

‘Oh Annie…I came here as soon as I heard. I am so truly, truly sorry.’

‘So now everyone knows,’ she said, without a trace of feeling. ‘I am an object of pity.’

‘Of course! Who that has heard of it can feel anything else?’

‘But it is nothing for me,’ she said. ‘Only Bobby…dear Bobby…’

The tears started to pour down her face, and she didn’t twitch or move to stop them, as if she was too accustomed to them to try.

‘It’s my fault,’ she said. ‘It is all my fault. Bobby was only trying to do his best…for me and Alfie…and now the police have him, and he is in jail, and they will put him on trial and he will b-be h-hanged…’

I squeezed her hand even harder.

‘It…it was his choice, Annie, to go after him, he knew the risks, surely…’

‘But he didn’t care, Cathy tried to stop him but he said he had to do it, it was his duty as the man of our family, since Alfie was like a brother to him. I…I cried too much.’

‘Oh Annie!’ I said, and went to hug her, but she jerked and pushed me away, suddenly animated.

‘Don’t! Don’t! It’s all my fault…all my fault…’ And the tears kept flowing and flowing, beads following beads down the wide path.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, you –‘

‘Edie! Please!’

She looked away and sobbed for a moment, before finally wiping her cheeks and gathering her breath. I felt painfully impotent.

‘I know you will understand,’ she said finally. ‘We have been friends for so long, and with Laneham you went through so much, I know you will understand. We used to serve both Coopers and Hunters here, and in truth we only stopped a few years ago. My parents said Hunters were the better option so I had to tell him that I’d chosen Alfie and he couldn’t see me any more…that’s why he hated him. That’s why he shot him.’

‘Who are you talking about?’

She wiped away more tears, not seeming to have heard me.

‘He said he loved me, Edie. When I told him I couldn’t see him again, he still kept coming at night until I told him to stop and told him that I loved Alfie. He was so angry with me, because I had loved him once, but I had to p-put it away and forget I did. He said he’d never forgive my family, and the Hunters and everyone around them for what they’d done. And Alfie kept saying that there was such bad blood there if his boat ever stopped where the Sunrise did –’

 ‘What?!’ I cried. She looked at me, surprised.

‘Didn’t you know? I thought you knew, because you were on Sunrise for so long. I knew him as a child, and he went onto Laneham’s ship.’

A cold wash took over me and I couldn’t speak. I knew every man on that ship, and I knew which ones were the sort to love Annie.

‘And after Robert Cooper was shot the other day, all those on the Cooper side were riled up, mama said, and Alfie said that it was their own fault for what happened to the May family–’

(Harriet’s surname was May.)

‘–and he was so sure about it…he would have said it to any Cooper’s face…they said he got in an argument with the crew of the Sunrise but we all knew who it was he argued with, because only one of them hated him enough to kill him…oh…’

And she sobbed again but I could barely register her pain.

‘It’s all my fault, Edie,’ she cried. ‘Alfie’s dead, and Petey’s dead, and Bobby will be too – and it’s all, all my fault!’

I shook my head, trying to muster my goodwill and love through the shock.

‘It’s not your fault, not your fault at all, Annie – they chose it – it’s – it’s not your fault that men kill each other.’

‘But maybe I could have said something, anything to Alfie to warn him, or even something to Petey and he wouldn’t have…oh God, I’m so miserable! I want to die! Why can’t it be me instead of Bobby? I want to die!’

I put my hand on her shoulder and shook her gently.

‘Don’t ever say that,’ I said. ‘Think of your sister, and Alfie’s family, and your parents – they love you.’

‘I don’t care! I’m so miserable! I want to be with them both!’

I sat back and could only sit and watch her cry for a few seconds, feeling utterly useless, until finally it burst out of me:

‘Please don’t die,’ I said. ‘Don’t even think it! It only makes everything worse. T-too many people have died already!’

And she looked down at me, stared at me, and I tried and failed to mask my upset, having to turn my head and sniff and gulp down the lump in my throat.

‘I won’t die,’ she said softly after a while. ‘As much as I want to. Bobby and Cathy and mama and papa wouldn’t want it.’

I nodded. Eventually I roused myself, after more silence, by remembering my own ship, and my own duties.

‘I have to go,’ I said. ‘We’re leaving today.’

‘Be safe,’ she said lifelessly, having sunk back into her stupor.

‘And you,’ I said, and saying those words brought the lump back into my throat. I kissed her hands and said goodbye, and was grateful to leave and be away from her. I hurried back to the boat as quickly as I had left it, and Harriet was waiting for me on deck.

‘How is–’

And I ran past her and straight past the others inside, and to my room, and pulled out ink and paper, and wrote without thinking, feeling almost feverish with emotion. As soon as I was finished, I rushed back outside and handed them to a messenger with money, and back on board. Harriet didn’t attempt to speak to me this time. She merely looked sadly at me as I walked past, as if she recognised the pain, and knew I couldn’t share my burden with anyone else, but must carry it as best I could.

That night, Isabel came to bed as I lay there, face buried in the pillow. She didn’t touch me or say anything for a very long time, and when she finally did speak, her voice was soft and neutral – exactly the balm I needed.

‘John S. Cooper’s brother was killed the other day. Harriet’s not happy, because she doesn’t think it’s just, but she hopes it may be easier to find him now. Mary said that’s what started it this time.’

I didn’t reply.

‘So the man who killed Annie’s man was from the Sunrise.’

I nodded.

‘You knew him.’

I nodded.

‘And so you’ve sent Laneham a letter, asking him to explain what happened.’

I hesitated, then nodded again. She lay down, and hugged into my back. I turned and buried my face in her instead. I couldn’t speak. All I wanted to do was ask: why? And still, after so many months of asking that same question about this feud, I had no answer, and feared I never would.

*

My dearest Edie,

I had been worried about the lack of reply from you, but seeing the state of your mind as betrayed by your letter, and having to respond to its content, is something I would rather forego.

I knew what had happened between Petey and Annie. We all knew, but I didn’t think it would concern you at all so I never mentioned it – I thought Annie might have told you, if you were still close to her.

We were all out at the public house to commiserate with Clark and the other Bainbridges, since Robert was shot. I didn’t know him – I didn’t care for that side of the Cooper family, having once met John S. Cooper – but Clark was upset so we all went, Petey among us. We were leaving when we ran into the Queen Mab’s crew, including Alfie Gibb. I don’t think you understand how the name “Bainbridge” is regarded among many of the Hunter boats; one look at Clark and they all wanted to fight with us. I wasn’t willing to let things escalate after such an awful day, so I told everyone to go back to the boat, and we had nearly all boarded it when I realised that Petey wasn’t there. Before I could go back and find him, we heard a shot, and moments later Petey was on the ship, begging us to untie and leave so he wouldn’t be caught by the police or, worse, by one of Alfie’s friends. But I couldn’t do it, Edie. I thought of what you’d said about Annie’s happiness, and so I couldn’t agree when everyone said he was right to do it. You are the only one I can tell the truth: I thought he deserved punishment, and that if he was a real man, he would face the consequences bravely. Business meant we had to stay in port anyway, so that was my excuse, though I barely gained the cooperation of the crew.

 I hoped that the police would find us first. We all promised that we would protect him and I made him promise not to leave the boat as well. But I failed him. He went out to the deck while we were all inside, without our knowledge, and it seems that man Shaw had been waiting for him. We heard a shot, and ran outside, and Petey was lying there bleeding, and we saw a man run off into the distance. None of us ran after him, but Jack saw who it was. We tried to stop Petey bleeding, but nothing worked and he died minutes later. We didn’t think of going to the police, but we weren’t the only ones who saw Bobby Shaw (one of the workers saw him run past after hearing the shot) and so the next day they came and talked to all of us, though they needn’t have bothered since the man confessed at the first questioning, and none of us were useful to them – we were all in a state of shock. We still are.

You knew Petey. He was a good man, and he wanted Annie hurt less than anything else. But we all have guns and killing is so easy if you’re in a passion, as we all were that night. I didn’t expect them to come to our doorstep, though. I feel sick to my stomach when I think of Petey as he was dying, and I hate to think that I could have prevented it – but there would always be Hunter people out for him, and I’m not sure I could have prevented his death completely. It’s awful to think that – honestly, it makes me want to run away from boats entirely – but I have to face what I’ve chosen, and where I am. I feel as if my entire life has been leading me to this resolve: I have to obey my conscience, and do what is right more than what makes me happy.

To that end I will be strengthening the search for Archibald Hunter. Warn Miss Eynham not to cross my path. For Petey’s sake, for Robert and David Cooper and Tom Bainbridge and all the others, and for myself, I will not hesitate to extract his whereabouts from whichever Hunter I find – and my dear Edie, I will not take you as a substitute this time. As much as it may pain me, I will not be swayed by any pleadings from you. I will find Archibald Hunter.

          Let us hope we do not meet before then.

                   Yours eternally,

                             Laneham.

I hugged Isabel close to me and told her Laneham’s reply as we sat on the bed together after dinner. She nodded grimly.

‘For your sake, I hope we do not meet. But for my own sake, I pray that we do. I want this ended, Edie. I want justice. I don’t want any more senseless killings.’

‘How can you say you want to stop killings when you’re resolved to make one?’ I cried.

She glared at me.

‘You know my story. I thought you would understand. My conscience won’t let me leave him alive.’

‘So it’s a duty, is it?’ I spat.

‘Yes, it is a duty! What’s wrong with following it?’

She was the one who didn’t understand. I spoke slowly and carefully, loading each word with all the emotion I was feeling.

‘Bobby Shaw said it was his duty to kill Petey, for his family.’

‘So it was!’ she said. ‘Death has to be repaid by death.’

‘But that just means everyone dies! If you kill Alexander Strong then someone’ll come after you, and if Laneham kills Archibald Hunter someone’ll come after him, and then on and on until everyone’s dead!’

‘Well – well – ‘ She struggled to find an appropriate response. ‘That’s just life Edie!’

‘I hate life!’ I shouted. ‘I hate it all! I won’t have it – I can’t stand it!’

She looked at me, stunned for a few seconds, before looking down and smiling. I hated that smile; the smile of an adult smirking at a child’s naiveté, at their obvious mistakes.

‘You’re lucky,’ she said. ‘Because you don’t know what it’s like. I will happily kill him, and bear whatever comes after. Once I’ve completed it, I have no more debts, and I can die happy and face my family in heaven.’

‘You’d rather die for your family than live with me?’ I said. She looked away and struggled for a few moments.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes.’

No. I knew her better than she knew herself. I knew it was a tale, a tale of righteous revenge that she wanted to make into her life, but that I knew she would find empty. She would hate killing. She was too kind to kill, I knew she was, and I knew her conscience would not let her live afterwards – the same conscience that would not let her live now. She would be horrified that her hands could end a life, and never trust her soul; she would welcome vengeance on her with open arms, hoping to absolve herself of all guilt in death. And when she got to heaven, her family would turn to her and shake their heads and cry for her and she would regret it then.

I could not let that happen.

Laneham was more realistic. His letter had spelled out everything for me. He knew he would hate it – he knew he would feel no happiness from it – but still, his own conscience would not allow him to let Archibald Hunter live. He would kill him, and take the burden of that murder upon his shoulders with a heave, for the honour of his fallen friends, and – I knew – for first separating him from me and changing his life completely. Laneham would look down at his feet calmly when the killing blow came, accepting his cursed lot in life.

I could not let that happen.

Stupid, stupid people! Why couldn’t they see? Why didn’t they understand that the dead didn’t care who fought for them? Why did they feel that they owed them companions in death? Their consciences lied to them. It was not “just”. It was not “duty”. It was murder.

A hideous fantasy that had been floating in my mind was given form. A fantasy where no-one else had to die. Where everyone could accept that they were different and had rivalries and loved the same person without any blood needing to be spilt. That was all I asked for. I let it sit in the back of my mind, and brooded over it at night, as if wishing it to be true would cause it to become reality. It didn’t work. The next thing we knew, Isabel and Laneham swore to kill each other, and I had to act.

*

The news came suddenly. Mary ran in, and asked to speak privately with the captain. I was with Frances, and she went pale.

‘What is it?’ I asked, and she bit her nails.

‘I’ve been bad to you, and captain, Edie.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You’ll find out soon enough,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t bring myself to bear the news. I hoped we wouldn’t hear it.’

I became quite angry at her evasions and was about to demand the truth when Isabel stormed past the room and into the dining room. We ran after her.

‘Everyone in here!’ she called. We all looked at her, uneasy, while Mary wrung her apron in her hands.

‘We’re going to put our goods down in London then turn north,’ Isabel said.

‘Why?’ Helena said. ‘We have people waiting and–’

‘I’ve found Alexander Strong.’

No-one spoke and all I could hear was Frances biting her nails.

‘Mary just heard the news. It seems that someone at the dock saw him get on a boat – a boat like ours. Frances! Would you know anything about this? Mary said she heard it from Miss Cunningham, who I generally thought was your friend.’

Frances hid behind me and Isabel narrowed her eyes.

‘I thought so. Edie! Do you have any idea where he is?’

‘Wh-why are you asking me?’ I spluttered, scared by her intensity, by the narrow beam of anger shooting out her eyes and onto me.

‘You received a letter from Laneham.’

‘I told you everything in it!’ I cried, growing even more flustered by all the eyes turned to me.

‘Did you really?’

‘Yes! Why…’

And I realised why. She nodded grimly.

‘Of course you realise. Of course. Anyone else hazard a guess, from what I’m saying? Dear Edie’s beau Laneham has taken Alexander Strong onto his ship, specifically to protect him from me.’

No-one said a word. They all kept looking at me, except Frances who was still hidden at my back.

‘That’s the real reason he told us to stay away,’ Isabel said. ‘Not because he doesn’t want to upset you by hurting me, but purely to keep me from that man! That man that I’ve been living to kill!’

She swung her eyes round us all and we glanced down. I was shaking. We’d never seen her so angry.

‘So the reason we’re turning, Helena, is so we can go after him and his damned crew and take out that bastard man and anyone who goes with him. I don’t care if I die trying, I don’t care if I kill fifty men – I am going to get him. And so you all have to decide – are you coming with me?’

‘Of course we are, hun!’ Mary cried. ‘Of course, after everything! We’re your crew!’

‘Yes,’ Harriet said, eyes sparkling with their usual quiet force. ‘We are your crew and we will back you up.’

Helena nodded though her usually pink cheeks had turned white.

‘Fanny…’ Isabel said. ‘I can forgive you. I know you just wanted to keep everyone happy. But I saved you, and you owe me. Please, come with me.’

Frances stepped out from behind me, ran up to her and grabbed her hand.

‘I’m scared, Miss Eynham.’

‘Don’t be,’ Isabel said. ‘We will succeed.’ And she looked up at me.

‘Edie?’

I couldn’t speak. I hoped I was dreaming.

‘Edie, you have to choose. I know you have high regards for that man. I have endured how you went away with them, and how highly you spoke of them all, and how shamefully upset you were at one of them getting rightfully killed–’

‘You’re putting words in my mouth! And you–’

‘EDIE!’ she shouted. Everyone jumped.

‘You have to choose.’

I couldn’t. I shook my head, my mouth gaping, and I couldn’t even think. All I could feel was the panic rising in my heart.

‘Look at me,’ she insisted.

I looked but had to turn away from her eyes. She was willing me, pushing me, daring me to answer, but I only shook my head, refusing to respond.

‘Edie, you have to choose! You’re a Hunter, aren’t you? Come with me! You know how much this means to me!’

‘I – I can’t! I…I..!’

And I looked around at everyone, stony and unhelpful, and my look ended on her her eyes, her eyes boring into me. I screwed my eyelids shut to get away from them.

‘I can’t! I can’t let you kill each other!’

She did not answer. When I hazarded to look at her again, I saw that her face was as pale and resolute as death, with an ugly wildness I had never seen before. I loved her. I loved her – and I loved Laneham. How could this happen? How could I let this happen?

‘No,’ I said, gaining determination, the panic morphing into reckless courage, ‘no, I can’t come with you. I – I can’t let you kill each other.’

‘You’re going to him, then?’ she said, her voice like nothing I had ever heard – so stern, so deadly.

‘No.’

‘It’s him or me, Edie.’

‘You can’t force me to make that choice,’ I said. I noticed my heart thumping, and realised it must be in fear, but I couldn’t feel anything in my swirl of emotions. ‘No, I won’t choose. I want both of you or neither of you.’

‘You can’t do that,’ she said, anger infusing every word, her nostrils flaring. ‘You’re too stuck in this to just walk away!’

‘I don’t care!’ I said. ‘I refuse. You will not make me decide between you. I will not let you two kill each other!’

I looked her in the eye and met her gaze directly, and I felt sure in my decision – my decision not to choose. It was my only option, and I made sure that she knew I would not reconsider. She looked at me for a long moment, her eyes pits of silent fury, before she turned her head to Mary.

‘Mary, recalculate the provisions we’ll need to buy next port and get me the accounts.’

‘Captain?’ she whispered. Isabel turned back to me and I realised what she meant by that. All my courage drained away. I tried to beg her, plead with her with my eyes, but she didn’t back down. Her fury left her face, replaced with an unspeakable sadness. Resignation. Betrayal.

‘We leave Miss Heinlein at London.’

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Written by G.J.

23/09/2012 at 1:14 pm

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