Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Riverboat Part 11: The Three Ladies of The Endeavour

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Helena was the easiest to resolve. Clark’s cousin Margaret was the woman in question who had “stolen” her man. One look at Margaret told us all that she could never steal anything. She was petite, brunette and pale, and when I told her of what was happening she fretted and wrung her hands very prettily.

‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘My poor Edward. He’s been so afraid of her, with you all shooting at him each time he passed. What an awful woman.’

Laneham raised his eyebrows at me and I ignored him.

‘We want to stop all this fighting,’ I said. ‘Would you two please talk with her, and come to peace?’

Her eyes grew very large.

‘Oh, no, that would be far too dangerous!’

I looked at Laneham and consulted with him. Christian and his men were interviewing more people that day, related to the deaths of John Eynham and Thomas Bainbridge – ‘But golly, we’re going to press them for every piece they can give us about all the rest’ – and had requested I do something else helpful, such as end a matter that was of no concern to the police. Another crime not yet committed.

‘What if we made sure it was safe? Would you do it then?’

‘Well…I suppose it would be for the best, but–’

‘Then it’s decided.’

We arranged a meeting. Laneham kept close to me on the way out.

Why are you smiling? I signed.

I like everyone to see us together.

He was happy that I was not on the Endeavour, and relished taking me to Margaret without anyone else between us, including Clark. Clark had told Laneham where Margaret was, not me; he was silent towards me now. Both he and Laneham waited impatiently for Archibald Hunter’s capture and until that happened he would not even attempt to be civil, especially because of what I had done to Alexander Strong. I understood. It did not make me happy – none of it made me happy – but I understood.

Both the Sunrise and the Endeavour were still working, so such meetings with Laneham or Isabel were rare and had to be well-prepared. Both their captains had cut back the scale of travel, never going more than a few days away, but still it made some things difficult. Laneham left that night, and I had to wait two days for Isabel and her crew to return. I let her know the arrangements and she brought the full force of her position down on Helena. When I saw Helena the next morning, red in the face and sulking, I was glad I was no longer on that ship. I missed their chatter, and I missed Isabel’s arms, and her soft lips – but here on land, walking by myself, and thinking how to make things better, I felt free, truly free, for the first time in my life.

We sat them all down in my house. My parents were, as always, unimpressed, but Isabel gave them some money – ‘for looking after one of my crew’ – and they let us be. She had regained all her strength and authority as if she had never faltered, or never heard of a man named Alexander Strong. No, her passion was directed elsewhere now, and we were finally no longer at odds – though I refused to return to her boat until this was all over.

Helena coloured when Margaret and Edward came in, and I knew it was only Isabel’s presence, looming behind her, that stopped her from moving. Margaret squeaked and scurried away from her. Edward put his arm around her and stepped forward to begin.

‘Helena,’ he said, voice full of solemnity. Helena looked away and folded her arms awkwardly over her chest.

‘I have nothing to say to you.’

‘You seem to have plenty to say when my ship passes you.’

‘That’s no matter here.’

‘Your friend Edie obviously thought it was a matter,’ he said, glancing at me. ‘Please, Nelly. Don’t you think this has gone on long enough?’

‘Don’t you dare care me “Nelly” in front of that whore!’ Helena snapped, turning the full force of her glare onto him. Margaret shivered beside him, but Edward only dropped his chin and looked at her sadly.

‘Helena,’ he said. ‘We had fun. You know it was fun. But I never thought it was more than that, and I never lied to you or gave you any wrong impressions. You knew I could never marry you.’

‘You’re a lying scoundrel,’ Helena said, turning away from him, her face flaring red.

‘I told you, and you knew it,’ he said, voice firm but bushy eyebrows twitching. ‘And I don’t hold with all this Hunter-Cooper nonsense, but you’ve made us part of it and now Maggie fears for her life and mine. It has to stop. You have to stop your grudge against us.’

‘“Not part of it”?’ Helena spat. ‘You made yourself part of it when you pushed me away for a Bainbridge, and traded all your Hunter contacts for Coopers. Do you know how much that cost my parents? Do you have any idea what they thought of me?’

I could feel Isabel’s shock – everyone’s shock – as we noticed the tears gleaming in her eyes.

‘They thought they were going to have a daughter on a ship and well looked after, firm business, and instead they lost it all and got a fallen woman instead. I can’t look them in the eye any more, because of you – and you ask me to forgive you?’

Edward didn’t say anything. I was transfixed. I’d never seen Helena show any weakness before, and I had never truly known about her situation – I’d just thought she was a spurned lover.

‘Miss Bailey,’ came a nervous voice, and Margaret stepped out from behind her beau. She was visibly trembling.

‘I don’t ask you to forgive me,’ she said. ‘But please understand – we couldn’t help falling in love. I didn’t know about your parents expectations – and having business with my family was, was easier – but whatever went wrong for you, please understand…it’s hard for us as well. We’re frightened. I – I’m frightened – of you! We haven’t married yet because of this – our lives are paused because of you!’

Helena had fixed her stare on Margaret, but the girl didn’t quail under it. She kept speaking to the end, even though I felt I would have faltered under such a penetrating, tear-filled look.

‘Please,’ she finally said, meeting Helena’s eyes. ‘Please.’

Helena looked at the ground. She didn’t speak for a very long time, and I was sure that Edward or Margaret or even Isabel would say something else, but no-one spoke. Finally, we heard her voice again: quiet, stilted, her breathing uneven.

‘I keep telling myself that I don’t care,’ she said. ‘I don’t care what pain it causes you because it can’t be anything like what I feel. But look at you – you’re a mouse. You’re not like the other Bainbridge scum. How did that happen?’

She swallowed and breathed in.

‘I don’t care. I don’t. You’re both scum.’

But even as she whispered it, she closed her eyes and shook. Edward must have sensed her weakness.

‘Will you please leave us be?’ he said. ‘I’m sorry if you thought we were more than we were, but we both have new lives now. We need to move on.’

Helena opened her eyes and glared at him. Her pride was high, but the fight was over.

‘I’ll let you move, then,’ she said. ‘You’re not worth it, anyway.’

She stood up and left the room. Edward and Margaret thanked me from their hearts – Margaret looked like she was going to cry – and said that if I ever needed anything, I should ask.

‘You can’t repay goodness,’ Isabel said, her voice stern.

‘I’d disagree,’ Edward said, ‘and I’ll prove it in future.’

‘Helena’s safety is all I want,’ I said, and I let them think what they would about my wishes for their own safety.

Helena had walked through to my bedroom. She was sitting on the bed, head in her hands, cursing and cursing like a true sailor.

‘Bastard,’ she said as Isabel sat down next to her. ‘Claiming he never said anything – claiming not to realise. What kind of fool sleeps with a girl and thinks she’s not in love with him? I would still kill him. In a heartbeat, I’d still kill him, but the girl…’

She sighed and sat up, brushing her hair behind her ears.

‘She’s welcome to him. I feel sorry for her. She’ll realise what she’s done in a few years. My time is better spent than on her.’

‘And we need you more,’ Isabel said, putting her arm round her and kissing her head. Helena gave a weak smile.

‘I don’t feel glad, Edie,’ she said, looking up at me, ‘and I still hate you for making me see them both together – but maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow. Maybe it will feel better in time.’

I squeezed Isabel’s hand as I saw them back to the boat, and she nodded to me. It wasn’t a clear resolution, but I hadn’t hoped for such. Emotions took time to calm and grudges weren’t easily forgiven. Isabel had been quieter than normal since it began; Laneham more grim. I understood. A web of resentment was hard to untangle, and some knots just needed to be left to unfurl over time.

*

            It was all interconnected, it seemed. One spark had set the kindling of competition and resentment in the docks into five simultaneous fires, and picking those fires apart, with their crossing motives of vengeance, was hard. The police had found information on deaths beyond my knowledge – Robert Cooper, Thomas McBain, a nameless man dropped in the Thames – and I was little help in such depths.

‘What about Archibald Hunter?’ I asked. Christian snorted.

‘Miss Eynham’s information was a year out of date, and the other Hunters we’ve had in very tight-lipped about it. We’ve next to nothing to go on.’

My heart sank. If I didn’t keep my part of the bargain with Laneham and Clark, I would lose their help forever, love or no love. I had counted on Isabel’s information being helpful – but then, as she herself had said, she was not a favourite Mrs Hunter’s by a long way. How long would it take before the men on the Sunrise grew too impatient to wait for the police? I wasn’t playing favourites, but in such a situation it would look no other way to them.

‘Well…’ I said, struggling for something else to hold to, ‘what about John S. Cooper?’

‘Ah,’ Christian said, ‘we know he’s holed up somewhere near Clapham, but beyond that we’ve no clue.’

‘None?’

He gave me a keen look.

‘Unless our young street detective can help us.’

‘I’ll try,’ I said, even though I had no idea what I was doing. When I reached home I sat with my head in my hands for a long time, wondering what to do. Those two men were the only ones I cared about now; I was happy to leave the rest to Christian. I didn’t know Clapham. Laneham had assured me that no-one on Clark’s side of the family knew where John S. Cooper was. Even Mr Cooper himself didn’t know, he said, and – though the whole matter was kept quiet – he said everyone knew that Mr Cooper had a good reason to want to find the fugitive himself. Wherever he was hiding, no-one in the two families knew. On the other hand, appealing to Mrs Hunter, who was likely the only person that knew where her son was, was unthinkable. If I couldn’t do anything to find them, then what was the point of my being on land? What was the point in any of it? I would have failed in my resolve to help both the Endeavour and the Sunrise.

My ship came in the next day, and I decided to ask Harriet what she knew, as painful as I knew it would be. However, when I saw the crew on the dock, my eyes fell on Frances, and I remembered where we had picked her up: near Battersea, not far from Clapham. Isabel welcomed me and asked me how everyone was with the police; I ignored her in favour of asking questions.

‘How do you know Frances, captain?’

She looked surprised, glancing back at her.

‘She was a friend growing up – her family worked on the shore, and she stayed doing that. Her husband was one of the few business owners left who dealt with both Hunters and Coopers, before he fell to gambling.’

I nodded, an idea spreading in my mind. She took me on board, and everyone sat by the table and asked how it was going.

‘Not well,’ I admitted, trying to avoid Harriet’s eyes. She looked as if she had been living on a knife edge since her cousin had been taken in for Robert Cooper’s murder. ‘Well, the police are doing well, but they’re struggling to find some people.’

‘Like who?’ Mary asked, though everyone else knew who.

‘I gave you all I knew,’ Isabel said. ‘Surely they have –’

‘No,’ I said. ‘They’ve no idea where Archibald Hunter is. Or John S. Cooper,’ I added. Harriet stood up.

‘I should have known it’d all be useless,’ she muttered, before leaving the room. I glanced at Frances, and saw her eyes down, pale-faced, biting her nails. Some of them looked as if they had bled, since she had been bitten so far down.

‘But surely there must be way,’ Isabel said. ‘There must be some way to find information. I’ll – I’ll ask Uncle Charles. If I do, he’ll tell Mrs Hunter, but I can take her wrath.’

‘No, don’t do that yet,’ I said, shuddering inside. If Mrs Hunter knew that Isabel wanted the police to find her son, she would take the boat – and that would ruin everyone, including me. ‘Wait a little longer. I’ll find a way.’

I stayed for dinner, and then I searched out Frances when everyone split up, making an excuse to Isabel as to why I couldn’t stay with her. She must have suspected something – her eyes were very searching, knowing she was being deceived – but it couldn’t be helped. This was for everyone’s good.

‘Fran,’ I said casually, sitting beside her as she scrubbed the washing. ‘Do you need help?’

‘I’m fine,’ she said, but I helped her in silence for a minute or so.

‘I wish I could do something more for the police, but I can’t.  I don’t know enough to help anyone.’

She said nothing. I considered mentioning her wrecked fingers, but that would have been too obvious. Instead I let the silence sit a little longer before saying:

‘How has Harriet been?’

Her shoulders tensed.

‘Since Mr Armitage was taken in, I mean. Must be awful for her to lose more of her family.’

‘She’s had a bad time of it,’ Frances said quietly.

‘I imagine so. And now there’s no sign of John Cooper…’

Frances scrubbed the clothes harder, and I looked at her, wondering which way was the best to tackle this. She was quiet, and meek, and secretive – and as I remembered how she had admitted to knowing about Alexander Strong’s whereabouts, without telling Isabel, I realised how I should go.

‘Well, actually, there is. I lied.’

‘What?!’

She dropped the clothes in her hand and turned on me.

‘They’ve an idea of where he is.’

‘Then why didn’t you say that?’ she cried. ‘You don’t know how upset Harriet’s been – the only thing keeping her going is the idea that he’ll be caught!’

‘If you care so much about her,’ I said, ‘then why don’t you help the police to find him?’

She started back, bewilderment mixing with the anger on her face.

‘What do you mean? I en’t going near the police.’

‘He’s somewhere in Clapham. I don’t know the place, but you do – don’t you?’

The fear in her expression intensified and she shook her head.

‘He wouldn’t be…he wouldn’t be…’

‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Have you ever met him? Did your husband ever work for him?’

The mention of her husband set her standing and I knew I must stop her from running away.

‘If you know anything, Harriet’ll never forgive you. No-one on this boat will ever forgive you!’

She stopped, turned, and sat down again, and I quietly sighed with relief. She picked up the washing, and after a few minutes she started speaking in a choked voice.

‘I want to help her, Edie, I do, but I can’t.’

‘Why can’t you?’ I asked, careful that I was gentler this time.

‘Because,’ she said, and sniffed. I waited, but she said no more.

‘But she’s your friend, Fanny. You said yourself how much this means to her–’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘But I can’t. I – I don’t want to go near that place again.’

‘What place?’ I asked, suddenly alarmed. ‘You mean you actually know where he is?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I mean prison.’

I didn’t understand. I looked at her for a few seconds as she wiped her face on her elbow. I had never seen her look so thoroughly miserable since the day we took her on board. It took me longer than I like to admit to realise what she meant.

‘You husband might know where he is?’

She nodded. ‘When Wat was hiding from the debtors, he found places all round town for us to hide, and said he knew more. The prison’s in Brixton, just near Clapham. And John liked Wat, even if he never forgave him for never giving his money back…’

‘So this whole time, you’ve known you could ask your husband, and he might know where he is?’

I didn’t mean to hurt her – just to state what she had done – but being faced with it seemed too much for her.

‘I hate prison!’ she sobbed. ‘And I hate my husband! I want him to rot behind bars and never see him again! I can’t go back there, Edie, I can’t…’

This was the best chance I had of helping the crew, and it relied on my ability to convince Frances. I did not trust myself to be that persuasive. But in the end, she only needed one thing:

‘Please,’ I said, ‘just once. I’ll come with you.’

She jerked her head towards me, shocked.

‘You would?’

I instantly regretted my offer, but what else could I do?

‘Yes. If you don’t want any police involved, I’ll come along and then afterwards I’ll tell them everything – and you can come back here and forget about him. Will you do it then?’

She sniffed, gathered her courage, and said yes. We made plans to meet the next morning, and travel to Brixton prison.

Isabel caught me on my way out.

‘What are you up to?’ she demanded.

‘I’m taking Fanny to see her husband tomorrow,’ I said. ‘Don’t tell anyone else.’

She frowned.

‘Why would you do that?’

‘Just a favour for a friend,’ I said. She narrowed her eyes, clearly thinking I meant one of the men she disliked so much. It was a shame I could not tell her the truth, but I knew even her forgiveness might not stretch if she knew how far Frances’s secrecy had gone this time.

*

I very quickly understood why Frances hated prison so much. It was a large, imposing building, surrounded by guards. As soon as we stepped in the front door we could hear the clamour of hundreds of people talking and complaining and shouting, and louder voices shouting over the top to keep quiet. The very walls seemed colder here than any other building, and the gaolers glared at us every moment we were in their eye range. The entire place stank of sweat and metal.

Frances’s husband had not begun work yet – we arrived early, just after breakfast. We were taken to a small room, where the wall had small, barred windows into the adjoining room. I had held her arm until this point, but as soon as she saw that adjoining room, she stopped shaking.

‘Edie,’ she said. ‘I think you’ll need to wait outside.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘I came here to support you. If he knows where John S. Cooper is, then I need to hear it so I can tell–’

‘I don’t think he’ll tell me anything if you’re here,’ she said, biting her nails again. ‘Wat’s not…he won’t talk if he thinks you’ll squeal. Thanks for taking me this far, but – please, go outside.’

I frowned, unwilling to trust her.

‘If he knows something…you will tell me. If you say he knows nothing, I’ll tell everyone why we really came here.’

Her eyes widened, and we heard footsteps nearing.

‘That’s not fair! Please, I will tell you – you’ve brought me this far, please! Just leave!’

I left as I heard the door in the adjoining room clang open. There were no seats outside that room, so I had to stand there for a long time, and had to repeatedly justify my reason for being there to every bull-faced guard that passed, including a few that thought I might be smuggling something in. All in all, by the time Frances came back out, I was red-faced and incredibly angry – but my anger had to fade when I saw how shot she looked. I asked her what had happened, but she walked past me and said nothing until we left the prison, and the grounds, and were safely out on the street again.

‘He is in Clapham,’ she said. ‘God help me. He visited long ago and Wat told him where was safe. Can you believe it, I’ve hid there myself!’

I grabbed her hand again, and took her by the arm as we walked towards the docks. She told me the address of John S. Cooper’s hiding place.

‘How was your husband?’ I asked, trying to be kind. She shook her head.

‘I had to lie to him to get him to tell me. Said I needed help. He actually looked upset at the thought! As if he has no idea what it was like for me to be beside him the whole time…’

‘You’re safe now,’ I said.

‘I know,’ she said, voice cracking again. ‘Everyone on the boat is my family. How could I have been so bad to them all this time?’

I tried to placate her, and tell her that her fear had merely overcome her, but I could give her no real solace. We reached the docks and I let her go, knowing the Endeavour was within sight. I double-checked the name of the hiding place, and ran to Scotland Yard.

‘You’re a star, Miss Heinlein,’ Christian McNeil said, as he scribbled down the address and grabbed his jacket. ‘I knew I could count on you.’

I had thought he had been sarcastic. He grabbed the men and rushed out, and I sat in the station and waited for their return. But before long, the door opened and an entirely different troop walked in.

‘Isabel!’ I said, jumping from my seat. ‘What are you all doing here?’

‘Fanny told us the truth,’ she said. Frances was at the back, red-eyed and looking virtuous. The idiot.

‘Where is he?’ Harriet asked, voice hoarse. ‘Where is he?’

‘Get out, you can’t be here,’ I said, glancing at Isabel and hoping she would back me.

‘I have every damn right to see that man,’ Harriet said.

‘They’re not back with him yet – please, leave, you’re not calm enough for this Ha–’

‘Don’t you tell me what I’m calm enough for! You think I can sit by happily while you all have your closure, without a single look at the man who ruined my life?’

She didn’t want just a look.

‘Isabel, please, she’ll cause trouble–’

‘I’m doing what’s best for my crew, Edie,’ Isabel said. ‘After this, we’re all free. We need to be here to support her.’

I opened my mouth to argue more, when the door opened again, and four men came in, with another in cuffs between them. John S. Cooper looked as if he had been hiding under a bush for months. His hair and beard were straggly, his clothes torn and patched, his eyes bloodshot. Christian saw me.

‘Hey, halt a minute boys,’ he said with a smile. ‘Miss Heinlein, have you brought friends to see your spoils?’

I was about to tell him to keep walking, that for heaven’s sake he should take his prisoner away from that hall, but Harriet stepped forward, her beautiful face a white rictus of hate, so filled with rage that I thought it must destroy her.

‘Is this John S. Cooper?’ she said. The prisoner laughed and straightened.

‘Pretty lady, are you the May girl that’s they say is out to get me?’

‘Christian, please–’ I started.

‘You killed my husband,’ Harriet said, icy voice cutting through everything – even the footsteps in the other halls of the station seemed to stop at her words.

‘Indeed I did,’ John S. Cooper said, with a grim smile.

‘Why?’ she demanded. ‘He never did anything to you!’

Why would the policemen not keep moving? They, and the crew of the Endeavour, seemed entranced by this conversation.

‘Lemme tell you something, pretty lady,’ the prisoner said, because everyone let him keep talking to her. He seemed glad to speaking about his crime to an audience. ‘When David Cooper lost all feeling in his legs, and faced being crippled the rest of his life, he asked me who it was that shot him. I told him it was one of the May family. And then he – the dearest cousin anyone ever had – asked me two things: to end his life, because it wasn’t worth living no more, and to avenge him against the May family.  And I did both those things, his last wishes on earth. And for doing that, I have had no thanks but being hounded by both sides.’

Harriet took another step forward and I tried to pull her back by the arm.

‘It was Elijah did that!’ she said, shaking me off. ‘He’s the one that shot David Cooper – we had nothing to do with that! How can justify killing an innocent man for no reason?’

John S. Cooper gave her another grimly satisfied, lop-sided smirk.

‘Family’s family. You had everything to do with it. Sins of the father, and such like.’

Harriet’s eyes flared wide. In one quick motion she pulled up her skirt, drew out her pistol, raised her arm – and I jumped on her, grabbing her wrist and wrapping my arm around her neck even though she was taller than me. She stumbled back, and I jerked her hand upwards as she tried to fire the shot. Her fingers slipped, and she cried out as I tore the pistol away from her grasp, and threw it onto the floor. Isabel swiftly picked it up as one of the officers and Mary grabbed the struggling woman and restrained her better than I could.

John S. Cooper started laughing.

‘Get him through!’ Christian shouted, before turning to me, red-faced. ‘And get her out of here!’

He and the policemen took the murderer down the hall, and the cackling laughter echoed down the hall long after they were out of sight. Harriet cried to be let go, but Mary, with help from Isabel and I, dragged her outside before releasing her. Harriet did not look at us. She stumbled away from us, and looked at the ground, breathing heavily. Then she put her face in her hands – and screamed.

I can’t imagine that I could have felt any more pity than I did for Harriet at that moment, so frustrated beyond anyone else on earth. She screamed into her palms and trembled, and we surrounded her and hugged her and tried to shield her from the stares of passers-by. She shook silently for a while afterwards, face still hidden in her hands, before she took two deep breaths and straightened, pushing us all away from her.

‘Captain,’ she said, turning to Isabel. Sorrowful and defeated, she still retained a shadow of the quiet strength she had shown us for so long.

‘I think it’s time I went home.’

Isabel nodded.

‘We will always be here if you need us,’ she said. Harriet shook her head.

‘There are people who need me more,’ she said, and with that she walked away. Mary and Helena and Frances trailed after her. Isabel tried to push something into my hand, and I instinctively pushed it away: I did not like guns.

‘Thank God you stopped her,’ she said, looking at the pistol in her hand. She looked shaken, as if she couldn’t understand such violence.

My heart was still beating too quickly. No-one else could have done it; no-one else, not even the officers, were waiting for her to act as I was. I didn’t reply to Isabel’s comment, because I knew I would only have scolded her stupidity. After all, the police officers could easily assume that Harriet had no weapons, but Isabel and everyone else from the Endeavour knew the truth.

‘Go after her,’ I said at last. ‘She needs you.’

She found my hand and squeezed it.

‘Please come by soon,’ she said, and left. I sighed, gathered myself, and walked into the station.

‘What the hell was that?!’ Christian said as soon as he found me. ‘You said you’d have people come in unarmed! Jesus, she could have killed any of us, Edie!’

I had to explain what had happened, and added plenty of angry remarks of my own about his men and his assumptions and inability to recognise when someone is trying to talk to him. It took a long time for us both to calm down. Finally, once everything was explained, he sighed and gave me thanks for helping to find such a wanted man.

‘It’s all coming together,’ he said. ‘We should be done with arrests soon. Most of the murderers in this mess are dead from revenge killing, so we can only grab those at the end of the line. There’s still the big one left, though – and we’ve reason to believe he’s the very one that started this whole mess.’

I nodded. One left. The man that started everything:

Archibald Hunter.

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Written by G.J.

14/10/2012 at 8:17 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

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