Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for the ‘Riverboats’ Category

Riverboats Part 14: Sail Away

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Christian thanked me for what I had done. He was the one who was officially recognised for stopping the boat feud, and as such he was promoted and received a large bonus, but everyone at the station and round the docks knew that it was the two of us who had done it, and knew that it would never have happened at all if not for me. I didn’t mind. He offered to always help me if I was in need, but he needn’t have even thanked me, let alone offered that. I already had what I wanted, after all.

My return to the Endeavour was full of joy, in comparison to how I had left. Helena and Mary swamped me, and Frances nearly bowled me over once they were done hugging me. Isabel hung back, and merely smiled at me; I knew I would feel her happiness later. It was good to see her smile like that. It reaffirmed that I had done the right thing by her.

‘Ooh, we missed you, chick!’ Mary said. ‘With you gone, then Harriet gone, it’s been a lonely old boat, this.’

‘How is Harriet?’ I asked.

‘Good,’ Helena said. ‘She’s happy to be home.’

I knew how she felt.

‘Not long now, and we’ll be a full boat again,’ Isabel said.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, and everyone’s smiles grew even wider. Mary quickly disappeared to another room, then reappeared with a sheet of paper in her hand: a letter. She held it out to me with a triumphant grin:

FAMILY SAFE. I’M COMING BACK – JANE

Jane! It felt like an age since I had seen her. How she would laugh at me and all I had done! And how good it would be to have her back. We would be complete again.

‘I’m so happy,’ I said to them all, as I relished having them around me again. ‘I’m so happy.’

*

That night, Isabel said she had had a letter from her aunt, which was also signed by Mr Cooper. All hostilities between the families were to cease, and they were to operate as friendly rivals. If anything more happened, they would be taken to the police at once. I smiled and let her tell me, though I had received a similar letter myself while still at my parent’s house. Mrs Hunter and Mr Cooper, it said, thanked me for my role in stopping the feud between the families. They had discussed the matter between themselves, and both assured me that such a situation would never come round again. Mr Cooper had also sent me a sum of money; I left it with my parents, in recompense for the constant worry I gave them.

‘You hurt all of us, Edie,’ she said. ‘But it was necessary. It is like…like setting a bone. It needed to be righted.’

‘I only did it for myself,’ I said. She denied it, but it was true. I couldn’t have lived if Isabel or Laneham had died, and it pained me how much the feud had hurt everyone around me. I did it to heal myself, but apparently everyone told me it was selfless. I let them say that, since they wouldn’t listen otherwise.

*

The next day we had a surprise visit from Harriet. She came with her son, a boy of four with her blue eyes and angelic blonde hair. He ran around the boat and tried to pull everything apart until Mary took him in hand and sat him down with some knitting needles and a half-finished scarf she was making for her own children, back up north.

‘I forgot how tiring he is,’ Harriet laughed. I don’t think I had ever heard her laugh like that. ‘Sometimes I think how much easier it was back here, and want to run away again! But, he misses me too much – don’t you, James?’

The boy nodded at his name and returned to the puzzle of tearing apart the knitted wool.

‘Aye, and you’d miss him too, as you always did,’ Mary said. ‘Maybe I should head home one of these days, and see my own. But you girls feel more like home to me than any old man-filled hovel up in Barnsley.’

I showed James how to make one knit in the scarf, and he was fascinated and insisted I do it again, and again, and I said I would teach him and everyone else objected, though he demanded it. I laughed. I laughed a lot in those first few days.

Harriet promised she would come visit us when we came by, and we set sail once she was gone. I sat on deck, watching the docks retreat as I had done thousands of times, so glad to feel the rock under my feet once more. I had thought I was free on land, but I had realised that the place was too big for me, too wild, too open. Back on a boat, constantly shuffling along a familiar path: that was what felt right to me.

Isabel came and stood by me. She had been rather quiet since my return: no touch, no kiss.

‘You seemed to like Harriet’s son being here,’ she said, as we looked out together. I knew instantly what she meant. She turned to me: no searing gaze, just the gentle, melancholic look of heartbreak. I could barely stand to see it, but I knew I must.

‘You’ll go back to him, won’t you? You won’t stay with me. You’ll always go back to him.’

I couldn’t reply to her, couldn’t bring myself to break her further. I could end a feud. I could wrestle a loaded gun out of someone’s hand. I could walk through the streets at night and throw myself into a fray, without hesitation. But I could not make the world see our love as correct, and I could not have a family with her. I wanted them both, but I was pushed one way: I had always been pushed one way.

She knew what my silence meant. I struggled with myself, to say something to make it better – if I possibly could.

‘You should forget about me,’ I finally said. ‘There are hundreds of people out there who would adore you, and who would stay with you forever. Anyone else would treat you better than me.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ll never marry, and I’ll never love anyone in a hundred years as much as I love you.’

I hoped she would change her mind, for her own sake. I had made her change her mind before. But truthfully, selfishly, I didn’t want to lose her yet. I slipped my arm around her side, and rested my head against her arm.

‘I feel so empty now,’ she said, softening at my touch. ‘I don’t have revenge to hold me up any more, and I don’t have ending the feud either. When you go…I’ll have nothing left to live on.’

‘I’m not going yet,’ I said. ‘I’ll stay by you as long as I can.’

She met my gaze, and smiled to herself, bolstered by my words. She found my hand, and brought it to her lips, kissing it as if she was my prince.

‘I will fight for you, you know,’ she said. ‘I won’t give in to him so easily.’

‘As long as you don’t have guns pointed at each other, I don’t mind,’ I said, ruefully.

‘When are you planning to leave me?’ she asked.

I kissed her. I was seventeen. I had years left to give, and to do more; I was in no rush.

‘Not any time soon,’ I replied.

***

Written by G.J.

08/11/2012 at 9:53 pm

Posted in Riverboats

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Riverboats Part 13: Satisfaction

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The carriages were gone when I returned to the police station. I imagined they had left in a flurry as soon as Mrs Hunter was gone, men shouting and horses snorting. The image of arrest and triumphant return soothed me as I waited for them, but as the hours dragged by and the light through the window turned to gold and then to darker blue, my thoughts turned anxious. By nightfal they had still not returned.

Laneham came to the station, alone, and found me sitting in the hallway, head in my hands, far more worried than I had the right to be.

‘Is quiet, he signed. Are they not back?

No.

He picked up my hands from where they had fallen onto my lap, and gently tugged at me to stand.

‘I need to wait,’ I said, snatching them back. ‘I need to be here, if something’s gone wrong, I need to answer to it, I need to help…’

On that last word, I looked at him. He was a grown man, and he looked as solemn and concerned as a grown man would upon hearing bad news, but in that moment what I saw was a skinny young boy with ill-fitting clothes and perpetual trembling from fear. I had to answer to him, didn’t I?

‘I don’t understand,’ I said, to him and myself. I spoke softly, but still my voice sounded like a wailing child. ‘Mrs Hunter said she would tell them the right place – she looked as if she was really going to help us…and she wouldn’t have betrayed her word. Why would they still be out is she told them the right place?’

Laneham knelt in front of me.

If he had any warning, he would run.

‘It can’t all have been for nothing!’ I whispered. ‘And if they couldn’t find him, they would be back by now…’

Unless there was a huge fight. Unless shots were fired and officers were killed.

He can’t run far, Laneham signed, his gestures a welcome interruption to such morbid thoughts. They must be searching still.

I breathed. It was possible. My shoulders dropped.

But –

No, my hands were shaking too much to sign. I returned to speech.

‘It’s a long time they’ve been searching.’

He frowned, and looked out the window. The same darkly determined look he used to wear whenever Archibald Hunter, or anyone involved with the feud was mentioned, the same look he had when Clark used to insult me. I would never have thought him capable of it, once, but I knew now: that was the look of impending violence.

It is late and you should go home, he signed, turning back to me. I shook my head. I couldn’t bear the thought of what might happen if I left.

Edie, he insisted with a condescending expression, you’re no use here. You should rest. I’ll walk you home.

He held out a hand to me and I realised he was right: my eyes hurt, my back was sore, all my muscles were worn out from the stress of the day. I was not fit for help, even if I was needed. I took his hand and I was glad to lean on him as we left the station. We said nothing during the walk to my home; I had nothing to say, and I was only happy to feel his arm pressed close to me, and the comfort it gave after a hard day. We reached my parent’s tiny house, and I was reluctant to let go of him.

Thank you, I signed. He stroked my cheek.

It’s nothing, he signed.

Weeks away from being close with Isabel; even longer without him. I was so tired and worried that, if not for that look back in the station, I would have said I’d marry him if he had asked at that moment.

‘Are you going away tomorrow?’

Yes, unless something more important rises.

‘Then I’ll visit in the morning, once I’ve found out what’s happened. If–’

I was going to tell him that if I didn’t show, then he could assume that something important had happened and should come to the station – but at that moment, the door beside us opened, and my mother stood there. Her eyes widened when she saw Laneham.

‘Oh!’

She blinked and cleared her throat before speaking more.

‘I – I was wondering who Edie could be talking to…’

My father asked what was going on, and appeared beside her. His face fell, and he nodded at Laneham. No-one spoke; my parents stared at this handsome young man who had once been the hope of their family, a man whom they had said was dead, rather than admit that he had gone to their enemy. Laneham stood, and took their stares without any look of reproach. Only I could see the sorrow in his eyes as he looked at his former parents – not his only former caregivers, I remembered now. The dapper and mournful man I had met earlier that day had done far more for Laneham than we ever had.

‘Thank you for walking me home,’ I said. I wanted him away from them, away from that painful recollection.

Laneham turned away from my parents, kissed my cheek, and left without another sign or look. I wanted to watch him walk away, but my mother hustled me inside.

‘My,’ she said once she shut the door. ‘He’s turned out fine, hasn’t he?’

‘Turned out cheeky, more like,’ my father said, ‘doing that at my doorstep. Do you never get tired of being trouble, girl?’

I left them without acknowledging their words. It would never be right, what had happened. We could never return to how things were, how we had planned them, how we thought they ought to be. But I knew that in time, and with work, we could move forward. My parents would accept Laneham again; he and Isabel would acknowledge each other beyond being enemies; the boats would sail on through the ports, with only teasing shouts between those passing, in place of gunshots. It would happen…but only after the end, and the end had not come yet. I laid in bed, knowing that the police were still rummaging through the dens in town, and knowing that the one man who could unravel everything was still hidden away in the darkness, safe.

*

I knew the banging at the door must be meant for me, so I rushed to answer it before my parents could rise. I was still half-asleep when I opened the door, my bleary eyes working hard to recognise the man with the lamp at his face.

‘Miss Heinlein,’ he said, ‘it’s urgent.’

Finally, the name of the face came to me: Edward, Edward Miller – Helena’s old flame. I was utterly confused as to why he’d be there.

‘What? What’s wrong?’

‘Laneham and Clark, they’re going after Archibald Hunter – they’ve gone off just now.’

‘What? That’s not possible – they don’t know where he is.’ They hadn’t heard what Mrs Hunter had told the police, so they couldn’t have any idea.

‘There’s policemen all over East Dulwich today, and no-one knew why. The pair of them came to talk to us in the pub and seemed interested – I thought they looked like they knew something. Then Clark asked me if one of the Baileys’ old men still owned a pub there, and I said yes so he asked which one and how to get there. I’m sorry, I didn’t realise what they meant until I saw them talking to each other with their hands, and they made that sign for “Hunter” a lot…’

‘You don’t know that sign,’ I said, more peeved than I should have been at such an idea.

‘I do, it’s the one they use all the time–’

He touched his two index fingers and thumbs together in the shape of an arrowhead. Hunter.

‘Anyway, they left and then Marc McBain came in and said the police were looking for Archibald Hunter and I realised what I’d done – they think he’s in the Palmerston and have gone after him. I don’t want this to blow up again, and I know you don’t – and Laneham won’t listen to someone like me, but he’ll listen to you, Miss Heinlein. Please, you have to stop them!’

I nodded, though I could barely believe what I was hearing.

‘Thank you for telling me – I’ll go as fast as I can, if you can tell me how.’

I rushed to put on my boots and coat as he told me the way to go. I ignored a call from my mother as I ran out, slammed the door behind me and followed Edward to the church street, which would lean on to the road to Dulwich.

‘I can make it from here,’ I said. ‘You need to go to the station and see if there’s anyone there who can help, or who can send a message to Christian McNeil.’

‘I can’t let you walk through town by yourself at night!’ he said, appalled.

‘I need more help than you!’ I said, rather unkindly because of my panic. ‘Please, Edward, be quick and you’ll find me again before I get there – I promise I won’t get lost!’

He did not look as if he would do what I said, so I started running and the next time I looked back at him, he was running the other way, to the station.

The shock kept me running for a while, barely seeing where I was going except to check the street names. Archibald Hunter had run from his old hiding hole – fine. He had hidden in a place which was owned by a family related to the Hunters – fine. Laneham and Clark had realised this – fine. But to go after him themselves? To not tell anyone their intentions? It only meant one thing: they still wanted his blood. After all this time, they were still determined to have vengeance, despite everything they had done to help me, help everyone. After the shock, came the fury: how dare they? How dare they think that revenge was for them and not for anyone else? How dare they betray me and everything I had done to stop these murders? All my hard work, all the heartbreak of Isabel and Harriet and even Mr Hunter himself – how DARE they?

And, I thought as the rage subsided and the despair swept into its stead, how dare Laneham throw his life away like this, after everything he had said to me? How could he risk himself on something so stupid, when I was still here?

I slowed down, out of breath and out of power, and I realised I was alone, in a dark and unfamiliar street, in a dark and unfamiliar part of town. I wanted to cry, I wanted to stop, I wanted to turn back, but that would be giving up, and even if I gave up, I would still not be home for a long time yet.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid as I walked down those alien streets. Every rattle and shout and slam made me jump, afraid for my life. I kept my head down and tried to keep to the shadows whenever I passed a person, wary of what they were doing. I tried to keep hidden from the drunken men outside the rowdy public houses. I saw women of the night on the corners for the first time in my life, who eyed me with scorn as I passed them as mousily as I could. A dog jumped out from behind a gate a scared me, and soon afterwards a beggar tried to speak to me, tried to grab my arm – I didn’t even hear what he was asking me for – and that’s when I ran again. Once I turned down the next street, and the empty one after that, I felt slightly safer, but I was still on edge and it took a long time for my breathing to return to normal. Mostly, though, despite this, the night was cold and the roads quiet, and until I came into East Dulwich, I had little to occupy me but my heated, unquiet thoughts.

There were lights in the distance, shaking slightly – hand-held lamps. I sped up my walking, knowing that the Palmerston was a little ahead and round the next corner – and that’s when the shot ran out. I sprinted round the corner, and saw five carriages surrounding the hotel, men spread outside the doors, all looking at the front door in anticipation, guns drawn. Huddled next to a carriage were an old man and two women – the man complaining bitterly. I ran up to the nearest man.

‘What’s happened? Who fired?’

‘Young lady, this is a police matter – you should be at home,’ the man said, not looking at me. I recognised him.

‘Morris, is Mr McNeil here?’

‘Wha – Miss Heinlein? Get down!’ He motioned to behind him. ‘Mr McNeil’s inside, the shot came from there. Mr Hunter’s armed – what are you doing here, anyway? Get back or you’ll get hurt!’

‘But Laneham and Clark–!’

‘They’re inside too,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry we won’t let any–HEY!’

I jumped out from behind him and he had to push me back.

‘Stay where you are or I’ll put you in cuffs! It’s dangerous in there!’

‘But…’

I couldn’t voice my objections. If the police tried to stop them, then they could all end up dead: Chrisian, Clark and Laneham. Another shot rang out, piercing my already-shot nerves, and dread flooded my stomach. Shouts were coming from the building. Yells. Someone sounded as if they were in pain. I sank into a crouch behind Morris, and I hugged my legs. The yelling continued. Oh God, it was over! They were dead – they were all dead!

The shouting increased until I could tell they were out the house. Morris shouted:

‘Hands down!’

I opened my eyes again. Morris moved, and brushed his leg against me behind him.

‘Miss Heinlein – you can look now, it’s safe. They’ve got him.’

I jumped up and looked: in front of the pub doors, there was a large imposing man, with the same dark hair as Mrs Hunter, and he was shouting obscenities at the top of his voice. Clasped around him, pinning his arms and with one arm around his neck, were Laneham and Clark. Behind them, wiping his brow and smiling, came Christian McNeil.

‘Right, boys, let’s get him in.’

Two policemen joined Clark and Laneham, and with their help, Christian wrestled the struggling man’s arms to behind him, and put his wrists in shackles.

‘Hey Chris, look what I found!’ Morris called out, as the men tried to move the prisoner towards a carriage. Laneham, Clark, and Christian all looked at me with surprise; Christian recovered from his shock first.

‘Miss Heinlein! We did it! Look at what your fine work has brought us – Mr Archibald Hunter himself!’

The prisoner looked at me as well, and scowled. He seemed perplexed as to how this girl could have possibly helped to capture him, and for that, the rest of the policemen laughed. They threw him in a carriage, and the owner and his family as well – the old man glared at me and muttered as he went past. Christian came over to me.

‘I’ll be taking him in myself, and it’ll probably take a long time to sort everything out. Wooh, it’s been a strange day! You should go to bed, Edie. There’s nothing else you can do for us.’

I didn’t know what to say. I was still confused as to what had happened.

‘Feel free to take a lift home though – Perry got word of what was happening, so he sent extra carriages. There should be space enough for you all.’

He beamed at me.

‘Don’t look so shocked, Miss Heinlein! We did it! It’s all over!’

I managed to give him a shaky smile.

‘Thanks.’

He told me to take care, and that he would see me tomorrow at the station, and then he got in the carriage with Archibald Hunter. I walked over to Laneham and Clark, and we watched until the carriage drove away and out of sight.

‘It’s a good thing we told the police,’ Clark said, once it was gone. ‘He put up one hell of a struggle – shot the wall twice as well. We couldn’t have done it without them.’

Laneham looked at me, grey questioning eyes, still surprised to see me.

‘I thought you were going to kill him,’ I confessed. ‘Edward told me you’d come here, and realised why – and I thought you wanted to kill him, before the police could get him.’

‘And get ourselves arrested, after all that we’ve done?’ Clark snorted. ‘Of course not.’

‘You didn’t tell anyone why you were going here.’

‘We didn’t trust anyone else to come here, for the same reason you didn’t trust us,’ he continued.

Why are you here, Edie? Laneham said, eyes still on me.

I…I came to stop you. I thought you would listen to me.

Clark turned away and smirked to himself, but Laneham looked worried.

You would have run into a fight? And how did you get here?

I…

I dropped my hands for a moment before telling him, because I suddenly felt foolish – all my fear, in the face of the truth, looked stupid.

I ran here from home.

He stared at me, dumfounded, for a moment, before pulling me into his embrace, holding me tight, as if to make up for the dangers I had faced before.

‘I’m sorry,’ I muttered into his shoulder. ‘But he’s the one that ruined everything for us, as well as hurting your family…I thought that, even after all this, you still wanted the satisfaction of killing him.’

Laneham pulled away and signed:

Catching him is all the satisfaction I need.

I burst out laughing; I had to wipe away the tears, but I laughed nonetheless. I had never felt such a keen relief as I felt at that moment. Laneham took me in his arms again, and only a pointed word from Clark – that we should get in a carriage and go home – was enough to separate us. As we travelled back to the docks, I leant against the back of the box and thought over what had just occurred, and everything else that had happened since the day I left the Endeavour.

‘It’s over,’ I said. Laneham squeezed my hand and smiled, but I had to say it again:

‘It’s all over.’

I couldn’t believe it. I had done it. I had faced two warring sides, and the two people I loved the most had sworn to kill each other, and I had stopped it.

I had won.

 

Written by G.J.

08/11/2012 at 9:48 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

Riverboats Part 12: Mrs Hunter

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When I stepped onto the Sunrise for the first time since I had left, it was as if I boarded a different boat. The crew were quieter, more solemn; there was barely any laughter and song as there had been weeks before. And not a single sailor would look at me except to glare. Of course they should hate me: I was the one who had asked for their captain to be taken in by the police, who had stolen Alexander Strong away to be hung, and for all that had I helped them even once?

That was why I was there, of course. To apologise…and to see if I could find one last scrap of courage before the most difficult task.

Laneham beamed as he led me through to the dining area. The rest of the crew stayed outside, avoiding us, so I was surprised when I saw Clark sitting at the table, as if he had been waiting.

‘Well?’ he asked as soon as he saw me. Laneham sat down and asked the same question with his expression. Two expectant gazes, one happy and one stern. I quailed.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘They still don’t know where he is.’

Laneham’s face darkened and he looked at the table, fingers tapping on the surface. I expected an outburst from Clark – a rant about how I had betrayed their trust and played them – but instead he merely said:

‘Then what do they know?’

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Next to nothing. The Hunters who have been brought in don’t know a thing or they’ve refused to talk – Isabel knew the most, but he left the hideout she knew of over a year ago. I’m sorry.’

Clark looked disgusted with my apologies. That was more like what I had expected.

‘So that’s it? You’re giving up?’

‘No,’ I started ‘we–’

‘You know all this is his fault?’ Clark said. ‘You do know that, don’t you? When he killed Mr Grey, everything went out of control – that’s when Uncle and Father and David and everyone became involved. He’s the one who started the murders, he fired the first shot – you can’t just let him go!’

I had heard something similar from Christian: there had been resentment and rivalry between the two families, but it never gone further than drunken fighting until Archibald Hunter killed Mr Grey during a petty argument. I looked to Laneham, who was watching Clark with dead eyes.

There is one thing we can do, I signed.

‘You should just take Mrs Hunter in and make her spend a night in the cell,’ Clark sneered.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s something like that.’

Both men turned to me in surprise.

She’ll never talk, Laneham signed, bursting into a flurry of hands. If other Hunters have not talked, she will never talk.

‘And that’s if you can convince her to come to the station,’ Clark added. ‘No matter how many policemen you have, she still has her friends and relatives to protect her.’

‘They won’t even consider bringing her in,’ I said. My heart had sunk as they voiced all my own objections. ‘She’s too powerful. They would have too many complaints – they’re getting complaints as it is, from interrupting the boat services.’

They can’t make her do anything. Surely you know this and always have?

I sat down, weary when I had barely started.

‘The police can’t make her to come in for an interview. So…I have to convince her instead.’

A pause, and then Clark burst out laughing.

‘As if! She’ll eat you alive!’

Laneham made a cutting motion across his mouth: the sign to shut up. He leant across to me, his eyes sparkling with intrigue.

Do you think you can?

‘Please, as if Mrs Hunter would ever listen to Edie.’

Another motion to be quiet. Laneham waited for my reply, grey eyes lit up.

‘He’s right,’ I said, finally ready to pour out the feeling that had bubbling in me all day. ‘I don’t think she’ll listen to me. Christian has said this is our only chance – but I can’t do it. Mrs Hunter thinks I’m a nuisance, at best. She probably hates me after everything that’s happened. If even Isabel can’t convince her to do anything, then what chance do I have?’

But after starting this, she has to pay attention to you, he said.

‘But I can’t convince her to do anything!’ I said. ‘What reason could she have for talking to the police? Everyone who has harmed her family is either dead or taken in. Mr Hunter’s the only one left – and she won’t give up her only son.’

Clark gave a sardonic smile.

‘It seems we agree on something for once, Miss Heinlein.’

Laneham had his hand at his mouth, full of thought.

There must be a way, he signed. She must have been hurt by her family fighting and dying. You need to show her that it’s better if this feud ends.

‘Tell her that the sooner she talks, the sooner her business can return to normal,’ Clark added. ‘That will appeal to her interest.’

I tried to laugh. Though I had received no answers, visiting the two of them had still improved my mood considerably.

‘I’ll see her tomorrow morning,’ I said. ‘With luck, she’ll agree. I’ll let you know.’

‘If you go to the station, spit in John Cooper’s cage for me,’ Clark said as I rose from the table. I smiled but agreed to nothing (Christian didn’t let me in to that part of the station). Laneham rose and walked with me until I was on the dock again.

Edie, he signed, hands hard to see in the dim light. I know you can do it.

You’re kind, I replied.

I mean it. Mrs Hunter is what brought us together, and her son is what tore us apart. You have done so much, and convinced so many people to do what’s right. I’m sure that if you put your heart into it, she’ll know what’s best.

His words touched me, and gave the courage I needed. I kissed him in thanks, and had to break away to stop myself from kissing him more. With a hard-beating heart, I said goodbye and turned away home. Back to work: my biggest challenge yet.

*

My hands were shaking as I was led into Mrs Hunter’s house. She lived away from the river, in a well-to-do townhouse in an area where my lack of fashionable clothing marked me out to all the residents. I was more akin to the servant girl who showed me in – in another life, I could have been her. And yet here I was, intending to talk to the owner of half of the fleet as if I was her equal. I stood in the hallway for a few, long minutes – staring at the paintings on the walls and attempting to see up the stairs – until the maid told me that Mrs Hunter would see me in the drawing room.

As nervous as I was, I was surprised at the opulence of the room. I say “opulence”, of course, because I had grown up on boats, and around the tiny houses by the docks; as far as townhouses were concerned, I learned later, Mrs Hunter’s was minimally furnished. Still, I was not used to sofas, and bookcases, and paintings, and a desk with an inkwell and a modest piano in the corner: it struck me as very fancy. And Mrs Hunter, in her rich brown dress with black embroidery, seemed the most opulent of the lot. She barely glanced up from her book as I was brought into the doorway, but called across to me:

‘Come in and sit opposite me, Miss Heinlein.’

I did as she said, and the maid shut the door on us both. I wished she could have stayed. I said nothing, waiting for her to begin, and after a moment she put a slip of paper into her book and laid it beside her.

‘I’m surprised to see you in this part of town, though I cannot say I am surprised at your temerity in coming here. Ten of my relatives have been taken into that dreadful station, and four have been told that they will never return. My boats have been delayed, my customers are outraged, and my family is in uproar. And you, Miss Heinlein, bear the blame for all of this.’ She fixed a steely gaze on me. ‘And, no doubt, you have come to me today to beg my forgiveness, or ask an even greater inconvenience of me. Am I right?’

I felt that I should be intimidated, but her words were exactly what I had expected, and her glare failed to faze me. My nerves faded away. All I could think of was how strange she looked without her hat – I had always seen her with her wide-brimmed hat covering her head, and without it she seemed much smaller.

‘If not for me, Isabel would be dead,’ I said. ‘And Laneham, and who knows who else. I don’t regret what I have done.’

Her look turned into a withering stare.

‘Have you come here to preach to me?’

My sudden lack of fear unsettled me, but she could not see that.

‘I want you to come to the station, and talk to the police about what you know.’

‘You have no right to tell me what you want of me,’ she said. ‘I made you, Edith. I gave your family a living when their boat fell apart, and I gave their only daughter safety with my kin. I have protected you and helped you your entire life, and yet you repay me with disobedience and wide-spread strife. I should have put you in a house in town, instead of with Isabel – then you would have learnt your place.’

‘This isn’t about me,’ I said, struggling not to show how her words struck me. ‘It’s about what’s right. I will always be grateful to you for what you’ve done for me, but this isn’t about my problems – it’s about helping others. The police are stuck, and you’re the only one who can help them.’

‘I have no obligation to help them to do their work,’ she sniffed.

‘You have no obligation to help anyone,’ I said. ‘But I’m asking you to help.’

‘And what good would it do me?’ she said, eyebrows pinching together. ‘I have nothing to gain by talking to them – and they have even less to gain from me, since I have no desire to speak to them.’

Lie, Edie, lie.

‘Anything you say will be helpful,’ I said. ‘So many people involved are related to you in some way. You can strengthen the case for them or against them, since you know everyone and you know all that happens at the docks. And,’ I added, seeing how unconvinced she looked, ‘as for what you gain – you’ve already gained from this.’

‘Have I?’ she said, full of scorn. ‘Pray tell me what advantage having my family interrogated and my business interrupted gives me?’

‘The man who killed your cousin’s son is caught,’ I said. ‘The man who killed the May family is caught. All these people who harmed your workers and your family are being brought in. You won’t have to mourn anymore; you won’t have to worry whether you will see your younger relatives again, or whether they’ll be shot dead the next night. Once this feud has been stopped, then you won’t have to lose work over grieving families, or patching boats, or sailors choosing different routes so they don’t run into rival boats – you’ll have a normal, working fleet. This fighting doesn’t come without cost to you, so it’s best for you if it stops. A few weeks of interruption is worth years of peace, is it not?’

She considered what I had said. I tried to imagine her being upset at John Eynham’s death, or at the May brothers’ deaths, or at anyone’s death, but I could not see it.

‘I think you assume too much about me,’ she finally said.

My shoulders dropped as the despair set in.

‘You won’t help, not even for that?’

‘I have no obligation to help the police do their work,’ she repeated. ‘This will all clear up in time, and poor fools those relatives of mine who are caught. I shall carry on without them, and this peace you speak of will come naturally – with or without me.’

It wouldn’t. I wanted to cry it at her: without your son behind bars, that resentment will keep festering, and blow up all over again. What would Laneham and Clark say? I wouldn’t have smiles from either of them ever again; I would lose Laneham forever. The Coopers would keep looking for Archibald Hunter until they found him, and I knew Mrs Hunter would think little of peace if her son was killed. Then what? It would all have been for nothing – all my worry and heartbreak for nothing!

I couldn’t help it. She turned her back on me, took up her book and said that I should leave, and the tears sprang into my eyes.

‘I always thought you were a good person, Mrs Hunter,’ I said, not disguising the hurt in my voice. ‘You brought Laneham to us when you could have put him out on the street, and you put me with Isabel when you could have put me in town. But if you don’t care that people have died because of this, and that people will keep dying if we don’t stop it – then what can I say to you? You might live away from the boats, in a fancy house, but you’re not apart from it all…’

She turned and looked at me as if I was worth less than the mud on her boots.

‘I think you should leave now, Miss Heinlein,’ she repeated. I didn’t say another word to her. I left the room, walked past the servant girl and out onto the street, and I barely noticed the distasteful looks I received from the people nearby, as I was too busy wiping away my tears, and choking back the bitterness of my failure.

*

I took the long way back to Scotland Yard. I tried to think of how to tell Christian what had happened. Once I calmed down a little, I realised that Christian would merely shrug and say bad words about Mrs Hunter, before deciding what to do next. No, it wasn’t the thought of telling him that upset me: it was admitting that I may have ruined everything to myself. And telling Laneham and Clark was unthinkable; had I let myself dwell on that thought, I would have kept walking and never reached the station. Eventually, I regained the scraps of my courage and entered the station.

‘Where’s Mr McNeil?’ I asked Mr Perry at the front desk. He nodded to a side room – the same where Isabel had talked to Alexander Strong.

‘Someone’s in with them, arguing about that man you brought in the other week. You’d best go in – McNeil will probably want your help.’

I thanked him and walked to the door, wondering who it could be. Would there have been enough time for Mrs Hunter to come here? Surely she could have taken a carriage in the time it took me to walk…

I opened the door and the two men inside turned to me. One was Christian, and the other I didn’t recognise, but looked vaguely familiar. He was an older man – somewhere in his fifties, I guessed – slim, and in a well-made grey suit.

‘Miss Heinlein,’ Christian said, looking relieved to see me. ‘Good to see you. Perhaps you can convince Mr Cooper that he cannot see his nephew.’

Mr Cooper. A man who I had long heard of, but never seen with my own eyes. I was too bewildered to speak at first, as I imagined him taking in Laneham, and becoming his surrogate father when all else had failed for him. He looked a little like Clark, I realised: same thin face and dark eyes.

‘It is my right to see the man who killed my son,’ he said, paying me no attention.

‘And it is our right not to risk another person killing him!’ Christian snapped. ‘No-one from the Hunters or the Coopers is to see John S. Cooper. Understand?’

‘I merely want to talk to him,’ Mr Cooper said.

‘I’m sorry, Mr Cooper, this is my fault,’ I said, stepping forward and interjecting. ‘When he was brought in, my friend Harriet was with me, and Christian let her talk to him – and she nearly shot him.’

Mr Cooper examined me as if he had only just noticed me, and I did not like the feeling of his eyes after the meeting I had just had.

‘What is your name, sorry?’ he asked.

‘Edith Heinlein,’ I said. Mr Cooper looked faintly amused.

‘So you’re Miss Heinlein. I’ve had no rest of complaints because of you – even before you had the police involved.’

I said nothing. I had no more apologies to give that day.

‘Tell me, did John S. Cooper say anything of David, before you took him in?’

His words were fresh, as if they had been scored into my brain – it must have been my panic that did that.

‘He said he killed David at his own wish, because he didn’t want to live with his injuries.’

Mr Cooper’s face twitched.

‘Is that so? If that is true, then I dearly wish he had refused. Please, then, Miss Heinlein – since you started this, and know so much – tell me if you are any closer to catching the killer of Mr Grey, my brother-in-law? I know it was that death that separated you and Laneham, and I know he has always wanted to bring that villain to justice at least as much as I. Please tell me you are close to finding him.’

My mouth was dry. Christian looked at me expectantly, knowing the outcome of my interview with Mrs Hunter would come out now – and I did not know what to say. I opened my mouth, said ‘I…’, and then the door burst open behind me.

‘Madam, you cannot go in there!’ Mr Perry was shouting from the hallway. Mrs Hunter paid him no attention. She took two strides into the room, mouth open to say something, before her eyes caught Mr Cooper. She froze. She seemed twice as large as she had done earlier – she had her hat on again – but at the sight of her business rival, she seemed to shrink again, while Mr Cooper looked even paler and thinner at the sight of her.

‘Mr Cooper,’ she said in stiff acknowledgement.

‘Mrs Hunter,’ he said. ‘I did not expect to see you here.’

‘Edie petitioned me for help,’ she said, without looking at me. ‘And I decided to oblige her, as I do consider her a ward of sorts.’

‘Indeed,’ Mr Cooper said. ‘That is unexpectedly kind of you.’

His cool words only added to the friction in the air. Christian coughed and moved.

‘Mr Cooper, I believe we’re done speaking. Mrs Hunter, if you wish to give information then would you please–’

‘Why don’t you both talk to each other?’ I said, before I considered what I was saying. Everyone stared at me and my confidence faltered again. What was I saying? Did I think they could work out a happy agreement between them, when they clearly couldn’t stand seeing each other? Yet I continued, as if my mouth knew what to do when my brain had the opposite idea.

‘I mean, I doubt you’ve had the chance to talk about this feud between your people. And it’s hurt you both, so…’

Mr Cooper gave a wan smile.

‘It has been a long time since we spoke properly, has it not?’

‘I came here to protect my people,’ Mrs Hunter said, with a glare at me as if I had planned this all along. ‘Not for idle chatter.’

‘Please, if–’

A knock came at the door. Christian looked at our strange situation, clearly eager to answer the knock and get away.

‘Neither of you are armed, are you?’

Mr Cooper shook his head and Mrs Hunter said, ‘Do I look like a marksman, sir?’

‘Good, because I’ll be back in a moment,’ he said, with a look that told me to keep things under control. I wanted to object, but he was gone before I knew it. Mrs Hunter and Mr Cooper still stared at each other in stand-off. After a moment, Mr Cooper moved to the end of the table and sat down, and after a longer pause, Mrs Hunter sat opposite.

‘I have little to say to you,’ she said, once she was comfortable. ‘I am only here at Edie’s wish.’

‘Are you going to tell the police what you know?’ Mr Cooper said.

Mrs Hunter’s cheeks coloured.

‘I will say what I choose to say, and that is none of your business.’

‘It is my business,’ Mr Cooper said, strangely calm, strangely earnest compared to her. ‘This needless fight has killed my nephews, my friends, even one of my sons. And your business is my business, because while those murderers have been found, we still don’t have the man who killed my brother-in-law.’

‘I don’t know what you are talking about,’ Mrs Hunter said, cheeks red now.

‘Don’t act ignorant, Marianne, it doesn’t suit you,’ Mr Cooper said. The use of her first name brought an unexpected level of intimacy to the conversation (it was strange enough that Mrs Hunter had called me “Edie”). I stepped back and tried to blend into the wall. Mrs Hunter locked her gaze on him.

‘Do not be so presumptuous as to use my Christian name, John, when you have not spoken to me directly in years. I do not have to tell you anything if I do not want to, and speaking to me is worthless. We cannot stop this idiotic fight between our people by discussing it at a table.’

‘Truly, you must not have lost anyone important to you, if you can call it “idiotic”,’ Mr Cooper said, with such dignified pain in his voice that I saw how Laneham could be so devoted to him.

‘I have lost those I love,’ Mrs Hunter replied acerbically. ‘I merely know how to handle myself.’

‘But the one closest to you, whom you have lost, is still alive.’

‘I do not need to speak to you about that.’

‘Your son killed my brother-in-law,’ Mr Cooper said, every word slow and emphatic. ‘And that is why my nephews set on your family, and that is why this all came to be. Please, Marianne, I’ve lost more than you – I’ve lost more than enough. If we can find the original culprit, we can put all this behind us, and return to mere competition.’

‘I have nothing more to say to you,’ Mrs Hunter said, scraping her chair back and standing up. ‘I came here to speak to the police, and I cannot see why I’m wasting my time with you.’

‘Do you think Miss Heinlein asked you here for anything other than your son’s whereabouts?’ Mr Cooper said. ‘He is the only one you chose to hide, so he is the only one they cannot find. Really, they were able to find my nephew John hidden away in town – of course Archie’s the only reason they need you.’

Mrs Hunter gave me a glare so powerful I thought I might die under it.

‘Is this true?’ she said.

I nodded.

‘And I came here because I was touched by your tears,’ she said. ‘I should have known better.’

Her words felt like a kick to the heart, but I couldn’t let her feel she was the superior one. That was what she thought, but she was wrong. She was wrong.

‘It’ll all be for nothing unless we find him,’ I said. ‘Please. You want peace, don’t you? This is the only way.’

‘You want me to give up my only son?’ she asked, and a shadow off sorrow crossed her features.

‘Your son is a murderer,’ Mr Cooper said. ‘He has ruined lives, and he needs to be taken in. My family deserves justice as well as yours, Mrs Hunter.’

She turned to him.

‘How much pain did you feel when David died?’ she asked.

‘I felt as if my world had collapsed,’ he said, ‘and I would never be happy again.’

‘You have three other sons,’ she said, and that statement held the accusing tone of a wounded child.

‘I will have less than that, unless we stop this fight,’ Mr Cooper said. ‘Please, Marianne. You’ve said yourself that you’ve already lost Archie by hiding him. Do the right thing. Tell the police where he is.’

At that moment, Christian came back into the room. I half suspect he had been listening outside and chose this as the opportune moment to return.

‘Sorry about that,’ he said. ‘Now, Mrs Hunter – what is it you wished to tell me?’

She looked at me, and at Mr Cooper and his pleading eyes, and I had never seen her look so immeasurably sad.

‘I will tell you where my son is,’ she said slowly. ‘I am sick of death.’

Christian’s eyes lit up, but he merely nodded and looked to me. I asked Mr Cooper to come outside with me, and as he passed Mrs Hunter, he touched her arm and said:

‘Thank you.’

She did not reply; she looked away to another corner, as resigned as if she had decided to face her own death. I gladly shut the door on her and Christian, said goodbye to a disgruntled Mr Perry, and walked outside, aware Mr Cooper was still at my side.

‘Miss Heinlein,’ he said, turning to face me. ‘Thank you for everything you have done. I know that I would like Archie Hunter to suffer, and John, and Matthew May, and everyone else you have caught; I know that imprisonment and even hanging does not feel as just as revenge from my family’s hands. But, if I never have to suffer hearing that awful news again, then it is far preferable to me to go this way. Thank you.’

I was flattered, and a little at loss to respond, but knew I had one important thing to say to him, that had been in my heart for a while.

‘Thank you, sir, for taking Laneham in that time.’

Mr Cooper laughed and put on his hat.

‘I think I have benefitted from that kindness far more than you, my dear.’

He bowed, and stepped into his waiting carriage. I watched him leave, before turning and running down the street, eager to catch the Sunrise before it sailed, and to tell Laneham of my unexpected success.

Written by G.J.

28/10/2012 at 12:51 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

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.

Written by G.J.

14/10/2012 at 8:17 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

Riverboats Part 10: Change Tack

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I can’t remember those few days until we came to London. I cried and cried as if I would never stop, spending hours sprawled on the bed or curled on the floor, unable to move. I was near useless. I could do laundry, and Mary let me help her prepare dinner, but I was a sorry sight and try as she did, she could not console me. I didn’t eat. I slept in the pantry as Christian had done, and I avoided Isabel as much as possible.

When I saw her, she didn’t look me in the eye.

Harriet seemed to despise me, giving me the stern look that was as close as she ever came to a glare. Helena and Frances were awful.

‘Please, Edie, don’t go,’ Frances said. ‘We like you here, we need you here. Please, just come with us!’

‘It’s all stupid, this Laneham thing,’ Helena said. ‘Stay with us, stay with the Captain. She’s always treated you right. It’s stupid to get so worked up over him.’

‘As if you have any say on the matter,’ I said. She went red and looked down, but they kept pleading and pleading. I would not hear any of it. They only ever left when I started sobbing again, saying how I couldn’t let them kill each other, I couldn’t, I couldn’t.

*

We arrived at port. My belongings were gathered. My eyes were red, but all the grief had been cried out of me, leaving only a fatal determination.

‘Edie,’ Isabel said softly to me as I went outside, ‘please, reconsider–’

‘I can’t.’

‘I love you, Edie!’ she said, and I looked at her and could not feel a single shred of sympathy for her angst.

‘I love you too,’ I said. ‘And that is why I have to leave. I won’t be a part in your death, Isabel.’

The others came out before she could reply. We said our muted goodbyes. I hugged no-one. I turned my back on them and walked away, and the cold air hit my warm cheeks like a slap, a slap that I needed to keep me going. I was done with it. I was done with sitting quietly and wringing my hands over people killing each other needlessly, with listening to tears and accounts of death, with splitting my loyalties in half. No more.

I did not walk to my parent’s home. I walked far away from port, far away into town, farther than I had ever been in my life. I walked and felt the chill on me and knew there was no turning back.

I walked to Scotland yard, home of the London Metropolitan Police.

*

Christian McNeil was shocked when he was called out of the office to see me.

‘Edie – Edie Heinlein? What on earth are you doing here?’

‘Could we speak in your office? I asked.

‘What for?’

‘I think you know what,’ I said. He gave me a worried glance, obviously unnerved by my change in demeanour, and took me into the back room.

‘Now,’ he said. It was the middle of the day and most of the police were out – I had been lucky to catch him indoors. ‘What on earth brings you so far into London? So far off the boat?’

‘I have been sacked from the Endeavour,’ I said, my head held high, ‘because I refused to participate in the killing that is going to happen. And I came here to warn you of it.’

‘Killing? What – who?’

I explained to him what was going to happen, how Isabel was going to storm the Sunrise. He listened to it all with a solemn look.

‘You tell me this,’ he said. ‘And if we can prevent death, then we should, but – what can we do? We work on land.’

‘Precisely,’ I said. ‘Catch them at port. Catch them all at port. Take them in.’

‘But Miss Heinlein, most of the crew have not even participated in any crime, we can’t take them in with no reason.’

‘Then I’ll give you reasons,’ I said. ‘Every single person on every single boat has information relating to a murder that has happened. Every single person will be able to give you information to solve a crime. Isn’t that a reason?’

‘With all due respect, we can’t take that many people in at once–’

‘Then only take three,’ I said. ‘Just three.’

‘Three? I assume you mean the captains, but who–’

‘There is a man on board the Sunrise who is believed to be a murderer. Mr Alexander Strong.’

He sighed and moved some of the papers that were sliding off the desk beside him.

‘Edie, please,’ he said. ‘Be honest with me. You’re acting out of personal interest.’

‘I don’t deny it,’ I said. ‘But shouldn’t protecting people be your first priority?’

‘Of course. But if we don’t have the resources? If we don’t have the backing? As awful as it sounds, in a few years one family will have been killed into submission, and an easy monopoly will form with the boats, and no more trouble. Why should we do this?’

I was appalled. I struggled, so astounded at the complete lack of humanity in what he said, when the other sentences came back to me. Resources. Backing.

‘My God,’ I whispered. ‘You’re cowards. You don’t want to anger Mrs Hunter of Mr Cooper.’

He reddened.

‘They are powerful, both of them. They control a great amount of trade – enough to have a huge influence with those who control the money in town. It is in our interests to gain the wrath of neither.’

‘My God,’ I said again. My legs seemed to lose feeling, and I backed into the wall. ‘You don’t care. You don’t care at all.’

I couldn’t think of anything more to say. We seemed to have come to a standstill, and I had no way to bargain with him. I struggled silently with what I should do, and he sighed again and stood up.

‘Miss Heinlein, go home. Go home to your parents and reconsider. You still have time to get on the tub again. We all have to choose our loyalties in life.’

His words hit me like a bolt of lightning, causing a flash of agony and bursting me into life. I stood up, and knew I could not allow myself to be beaten.

‘Christian,’ I said, and he blinked at the confidence in my voice. ‘What is worth more to you – remaining subordinate, a plain bobby forever, or being reknowned?’

He only frowned. ‘What-‘

‘What is more important,’ I continued. ‘The respect of the police, and their independence, or kowtowing to every magnate in town, no matter who they kill?’

‘Edie–’

‘Listen to me!’ I cried, walking towards him. ‘You help me. You take in Isabel, Laneham and Mr Strong. You question them all. And you find the people behind all they say. You find Archibald Hunter. You find the Bainbridges who dumped you in the river. You find all the Coopers and Hunters and associates who are involved in this mess. And you jail them. You get the witnesses, you trial them, and you jail them. Within two months, you will have the most respected police force in all the country.’

‘But this – this will go all the way to Mrs Hunter and Mr Cooper!’

‘Then you question them too! They are not above the law, are they? If they have committed any crimes and we can prove it, then you jail them too! Justice doesn’t bow to money, Mr McNeil!’

Silence rang out after I finished. Christian stared at me as if I had suddenly shone light and sprouted wings. He thought for a very long time, and I had spent all my energy and could think of nothing more to say to him.

‘You know how to capture a man’s heart, Miss Heinlein,’ he finally said. He sounded defeated. He sighed.

‘We will do it your way. I will send a few men to the next few ports along, and take in Isabel Eynham, the Mute Laneham, and Alexander Strong. Then, if we do not find anything that can help us, they will immediately be set free to kill each other at their leisure. Understand?’

My heart thumped.

‘And, if it is possible – could I speak to them all? Please?’

He sighed.

‘You’re lucky I like you, and that it’s none too busy around here lately. Fine, I’ll play your game. You get to help.’

For the first time in days, hope flooded my system – I breathed in, and out, and closed my eyes for the sheer relief of it. It had worked. I would have died had it not worked – and I came so close to failure.

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Thank you so much. I will never, never forget what you’ve done for me, Mr McNeil.’

He smiled, then stood up off the desk, and walked out into the foyer with me.

‘Tell the boss I’m going to meet Carter and Morris and their men,’ he said to the man at the desk. ‘We have a new job.’

*

I don’t need to recount what happened when I went home. My parents were very sore with me, and found the leaving money I had been given to be little recompense for my disgrace.

‘So who would you have had me support? Isabel or Laneham?’

My mother looked down but my father said:

‘We have to say Miss Eynham, Edie. She’s the one we owe you to.’

‘Not the boy you thought would take over your ship and marry your only daughter?’

He shook his head.

‘Times change, girl.’

Of course they did. I would make sure of it.

*

I was called in two days later. Christian looked glad to see me.

‘Both Miss Eynham and Laneham refuse to cooperate unless you are here,’ he said. ‘And that Bainbridge boy insisted on coming for translation.’

I grimaced. I did not want to be near Clark, but then I thought it over and realised it could be to my advantage.

‘Please,’ I said, ‘let me talk to both Laneham and Isabel at the same time, with Mr Bainbridge there to translate.’

His eyebrows lowered even further.

‘You know that is not wise.’

I nodded but did not bend from my plan. He sent a man to fetch them all and we started walking towards the meeting room.

‘Please sit in with me, for my protection,’ I said.

‘Of course. If you truly plan to take this further, for both the reputation of the police and your own safety, I will need to be in with you. For all official accounts, I am in control here and you are an involved bystander.’

I smiled.

‘You are too good, helping me with this.’

‘Don’t be fooled,’ he said. ‘If I get this done with, I’m looking at a promotion at least, if not something tastier.’

‘I don’t mind your motives. I just want the killing to stop.’

He smiled ruefully at me.

‘You’re too pure, miss.’

‘Exactly the opposite,’ I said, as we reached the door. He looked puzzled, but didn’t ask any more.

We opened the door and the first thing I saw was Isabel sitting at one end of the long table. She started up when she saw me but Christian barked, ‘Remain seated Miss Eynham,’ and she sunk back down. She looked awful: pale, worried – I realised with surprise that I had never seen her anxious before.

‘Oh Edie, please, please don’t say you’re behind this,’ she started. ‘I know I got rid of you, and it was wrong, but it was all I could do to keep you from interfering and–’

The door opened again and two men escorted Laneham and Clark to the other side of the table. She was silenced as she looked at them in shock, then both parties glared at the other. Laneham started to sign and Clark started to translate but I spoke over them.

‘Don’t talk,’ I said. ‘I’ve brought you all here so we can finally end this.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ Clark snorted. ‘You can’t end-‘

‘She said, be quiet,’ Christian said, and Clark shut his lips. I was relieved to see there was someone in my view that he would listen to.

‘I asked Christian to take you in. My first priority was making sure you didn’t kill each other. Now, my plan is to use you two – you three – as starting points for ending this needless feud.’

‘One question,’ Isabel said quietly. She did not look at me; her gaze was fixed at the opposite end of the table.

‘Yes?’

‘Why is he here?’

‘We need to come to a conclusion together.’

‘No,’ she said, that beloved quiet intensity coming back into her voice. It rattled me, feeling the animosity sparking between them all. ‘Why is Clark Bainbridge here?’

‘He is here for impartiality,’ I said. ‘He will translate for Laneham, but if he mistranslates or ignores him – as he has been known to do – then I can translate as well. I didn’t think you would trust a translation from me, knowing my bias.’

‘I trust you more than him,’ she said.

‘That is beyond the point. I want to remain as outside this as possible.’

‘That’s stupid,’ Clark said. ‘You’re not impartial at all.’

‘Shut up and let her proceed,’ Christian said. I swallowed, feeling the stress settling on my shoulders and seizing them up. All my nerves were steeled, but already I was failing inside.

‘Here is the deal,’ I said. ‘Alexander Strong is in our custody. Isabel, I know there are many questions you have about the nature of your brother’s death. That is why I am going to allow you to talk to him – supervised, and with no weapons, so you cannot harm him. However, I will only allow this on one condition: that you disclose all you know about the whereabouts of Archibald Hunter.’

Isabel started to speak and Laneham started to sign furiously while Clark spoke his own thoughts and Christian had to shout at them to regain control again.

‘Isabel, what do you say?’

‘I can’t,’ she said, and she finally looked at me, her eyes full of pain. ‘You know how much this means to me. I do want to talk to him – I need to know why he killed John – but I can’t tell you anything about Archie. My entire family would disown me!…or worse,’ she added, and my heart shivered at the thought.

‘You will not be implicated at all,’ I said. ‘We’ll go after him on our own terms, and after we have more information. He’s implicated in many crimes that the police know about, and likely more. Once we’ve interviewed more people, we’ll have enough information to bring him to court.’

‘This is hardly fair!’ Clark cried out. ‘To trade an innocent man for a guilty one! Taking Sandy in at all is criminal!’

‘So you deny he killed my brother?’ Isabel spat.

‘That’s completely different,’ Clark continued. ‘You have no idea what happened – how can you go around proclaiming others’ guilt when you’re so ignorant? Your brother was a scoundrel and –‘

Shut up, Laneham signed, hands in his face. Isabel’s cheeks were red and she looked ready to punch him.

‘We’re just here to find out the truth,’ I said, trying to disguise how shaken I was. ‘That’s all. Innocence and guilt will out. These are the terms of my deal, Isabel. Do you take them?’

She tore her eyes away from Clark to me.

‘You promise it won’t get to my family?’

‘I promise.’

‘No, no, you can’t promise that, they’ll know I’ve been taken in,’ she said, shaking her head to herself. ‘They’ll be wary. They’ll know. Aunt Hunter will know, she knows everything.’

‘You’ll be perfectly safe,’ Christian said. ‘There’ll be a time delay between today and when we find him, by the nature of gathering evidence. We’ll protect you.’

She bit her nails for a minute, considering it all, then looked to me.

‘You think I should do this?’

‘I know you should,’ I said gently.

‘But he’s my cousin.’

‘Even you admitted to me that he’s not a good man. This is in exchange for what you truly want – it’s just.’

Laneham silenced Clark as she nodded her head at the desk.

‘Right,’ she said. ‘Right. Then…I accept. I’ll tell you what I know of he is.’

‘Good,’ I said, exhaling. ‘Now, I have one more-‘

Wait.

I looked to Laneham. He was sitting back in his seat, hands resting lightly on the edge of the table, frowning at Isabel.

‘What is it?’

She hasn’t told us where he is.

I had hoped neither of them would notice, but of course that was in vain.

‘She will tell us after you two have been taken from the room.’

What? That is hardly fair. She has her man, and we don’t have ours?

‘She doesn’t “have her man”. We have him in custody. We are going to find Archibald Hunter and take him into custody as well.’

So you’re keeping his location a secret from me?

He looked at me as he signed, his grey eyes boring deep into me, and I had to look away and resist his will, his urge to control me.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘For good reason. I am not going to let you get at him. I won’t let you become a murderer, just as I won’t let Isabel become a murderer.’

‘It’s not murder, it’s justice.’

I shook my head at Clark as Laneham turned and gave him a stern look.

‘There, you did it again. He said “It is worth being a murderer for him.” Are you protecting him?’

‘No, I’m just saying the truth,’ he said, tone sulky that I had caught him out – that he could no longer have free rein over Laneham’s voice.

Please, Laneham signed, untranslated. Edie, do it for me.

‘What’s he saying?’ Isabel demanded, and my cheeks reddened. I forced myself to repeat him. He turned away from me, folding his arms, and Isabel looked ready to jump out her seat.

‘We don’t give police information to civilians,’ Christian stated, his stern voice so welcoming to my failing spirit. ‘Don’t ask it.’

‘We’re going to release you all after we’re done,’ I said, gathering my strength for the final hurdle. ‘But I have a request for the both of you. You don’t have to comply, but it will make my task easier, and help the people you love.’

They all looked to me and I relished the silence.

‘I want you to go back to your ships and ask your crew members to report anything they know, or anything they want us to solve. If they know anything about a murder, or someone close to them was murdered and they want us to find them, they can tell us. Please, use all your influence to convince them. With the right information, we will bring them to justice, I swear.’

‘And if we don’t do this?’ Clark said.

‘Then Christian will use what he can and request information from them formally,’ I said. ‘This just saves us time and men.’

‘You will find John S Cooper?’ Isabel said. I nodded.

‘Then I will help you,’ she said.

As will I, Laneham signed. My crew have seen too much death already.

‘Thank you,’ I said, from the bottom of my heart. Christian turned to the other men, ready to tell them to escort Laneham and Clark away, but I spoke quietly in his ear.

‘Can I speak to Clark and Laneham alone?’

He frowned.

‘Is that safe?’

‘Laneham won’t let him harm me. I need to speak to Clark. I need more information.’

‘Fine. Carter, escort Miss Eynham into my office, I’ll speak to her there. Weeks, stand outside for me.’

He gave me a concerned look as the other men nodded and moved.

‘Shout if you need me.’

‘I won’t need it,’ I said. I was confident that Laneham would protect me, but more than that, I had seen a hint of panic in Clark’s outrage; plus, I knew he must have decency underneath his contempt for me, and I knew that it would make him heed my request. Isabel looked back at me pleadingly as she left, but I didn’t respond. I would support her at another time, when it was needed. Right now I had something more important to see to.

I moved the chair and sat down closer to Laneham and Clark, on Clark’s side of the table. Laneham moved as if to touch me but I sat back away from him.

‘Clark,’ I said. ‘I know you must hate this, but I have another question for you.’

‘I have nothing to say to you,’ he said.

‘Please. What you say may help Alexander Strong.’

He frowned. ‘Like you care about what I say compared to her.’

‘Tell me the truth,’ I said, ignoring him. ‘You know a lot about his death. Please, tell me – tell me what you know about John Eynham.’

He glared at me, but he spoke, and kept speaking until he was nearly shouting. He spilled the truth, and sunk into himself afterwards. With it laid bare like that, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to do. Isabel…

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Thank you for trusting me. Even if Mr Strong doesn’t tell Isabel this when he sees her, I’ll tell her. I’ll make sure she knows.’

‘Stupid girl,’ he said. ‘She really doesn’t know anything, any of this, does she?’

‘I suppose sometimes we don’t know the most about those closest to us,’ was all I could say. I tried not to catch Laneham’s eyes. ‘You’re both free to go.’

*

Two hours later Isabel was once again sitting at the table. She fidgeted, biting her nails and then sitting on her hands, then pushing her hair back, then twisting it around her finger, then biting her nails and starting it all again. Neither I nor Christian said anything to her; she had forgotten we were there already. Her eyes were fixed on the door.

Carter and Morris came in, and with a man between them. Isabel instinctively jumped up but Christian barked at her to sit down. The man started and coloured at the sight of her.

‘Don’t worry,’ Christian said. ‘You’re safe. We’ll protect you.’

He nodded, but seemed unconvinced, glancing nervously at Isabel as he sat down, as if he had a tiger in front of him instead of a young woman. He kept his head down.

‘This,’ she said incredulously, ‘is Alexander Strong?’

He was small, and wiry, with large eyes set in a baby-like face. Nothing in him betrayed arrogance, let alone evil; instead, he looked a picture of sincere timidity. I could only imagine how he had been when taken from Laneham’s ship.

‘Why am I here?’ he said quickly, looking to the side. ‘I’ve already confessed. You’ve no reason to bring me in here.’

‘We struck a deal with Miss Eynham here,’ Christian said. ‘This is our part.’

Alexander’s eyes grew even larger and he started up, trying to get past the men behind him.

‘No, no, no, this isn’t fair, this isn’t right–’

‘Please, Mr Strong,’ I pleaded, and he started at my unfamiliar, female voice. ‘Isabel won’t hurt you. She merely wants to know the truth.’

He stopped and finally looked at her, met her eye. She was shaking just as much as he was.

‘Is that right?’ he said. She nodded. He sat down, suddenly full of composure.

‘Why? Why want anything that gets in the way of your revenge?’

She struggled to speak, and everyone was silent and watching her, waiting for her answer.

‘I…want revenge, I do, but…what’s more important…what’s been…plaguing me, these years…is why. Why.’ She looked up at him, the intensity back in her eyes.

‘Why did you kill him?’

‘It’s a long story,’ he said. ‘Not a pretty one. Not one for you.’

‘I don’t care!’ she cried. ‘I’ve been through hell. I am strong enough to know the truth. And we have all the time we need.’

‘We shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,’ he said. ‘That’s what I was always taught. He lies in his grave and you have moved on in life, and I…am for the noose.’ He gulped, and continued. ‘What more do you want?’

‘I just told you! I want to know why!’

‘It shouldn’t matter why.’

‘”Shouldn’t matter”?!’

Her face flushed scarlet and started to rise from her seat before seeing us and stopping.

‘How dare you?’ she said. ‘I’ve devoted my life to finding you and destroying you, and here, now that I’m deprived of all that, when I ask you the simple why – why you did it – you refuse to answer! How dare you?’

‘You don’t want to know! It doesn’t matter!’

‘You killed my brother!’

‘He killed my best friend! He nearly ruined the people I loved! He was a monster!’

Silence. The ringing aftermath in everyone’s ears. Alexander Strong caught his breath and all the blood drained from Isabel’s face.

‘I didn’t want to tell you,’ he said, looking again at the table. ‘No-one did. Anyone who knew of you knew what a sweet girl you were, and how you idolised your brother. We didn’t understand how you were so taken in. He was a cad. All the Bainbridges and Coopers knew it. He cheated everyone in his business, fiddling numbers and using all dirty tricks. He took up women and dumped them like coal bricks. And he went through money like it was water, borrowing more and more and laughing at anyone unfortunate enough to not have the power to force it back from him. I don’t know how many Cooper-Hunter relations he soured. He was an awful man.’

‘You’re lying,’ she said softly, her voice breaking.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I warned you. We tried to avoid him – me and Tom, Thomas Bainbridge, Clark’s brother, All the Bainbridges are like my family, and I loved Tom like my blood brother. John Eynham had borrowed some money from the Coopers a long time ago, but Mr Cooper said to leave it and treat it as lost, and said it wouldn’t do good to go anywhere near such a man. But he came into a bidding war with Tom over some work and, well, that was that. Tom’s reputation beat his and that lost Eynham a lot of money – and then it was war. It was petty, we laughed about how petty it was, but then one night your brother started firing rounds into the hull of Tom’s boat, drunk and saying he was going to sink it, and Tom saw red and confronted him…’

He swallowed and did not look at Isabel.

‘John shot him dead.’

‘No,’ she whispered, shaking her head. Tears threatened the corners of her eyes.

‘You moved off of port the next day, and the police said they could do nothing, and I – I was so angry! Clark and James and Fred, they were all raging, and decided to go after him – so we skipped work, bought horses and rode on to the next port. Then, when he docked and he went to the public house, we got a hold of him, and I couldn’t help it – when he insulted Tom after everything, I went mad. I shot him, and we ran.’

He rubbed his brow.

‘If you asked me if I meant to kill him, I suppose I would say yes. But any one of us would have done it. And others would have too: swindled merchants, fathers of broken daughters, irate lenders. No-one looked badly on me for it. But then Mrs Hunter absolved all his debts, and gave you your boat, and I heard she wanted you to kill me – so everyone rallied round me and kept me from you…until now.’

He looked up at her.

‘That’s the truth. You can ask Clark or Mr Cooper or anyone you like. Even Mrs Hunter knows all of it.’

‘Everyone knew?’ she whispered. Tears were streaming silently down her cheeks. He looked down.

‘It’s harsh to say how bad he was. No-one wanted you to know because of that. We always felt sorry for you, being so related to such a man, and so taken in by him.’

Isabel turned to me.

‘Edie,’ she said, her voice louder, sounding out all the shaking underneath it, the juddering of her chest as she tried to keep her emotions in. ‘Please, look surprised. Tell me he’s lying.’

How I pained for her! How I detested having to shake my head.

‘Clark Bainbridge told me this, this morning.’

She turned back to Alexander Strong. He was looking at her with admirable resolution.

‘It’s the truth?’

He nodded. Her face convulsed. Her hands scrabbled on the table as she tried to push herself up, her chair scraped back, and we all started.

‘I’m sorry!’ Alexander Strong said.

She stopped. Her body was turned to the door, ready to run away, but she had to turn back at such an unexpected phrase.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said again. ‘It seems every man has someone willing to avenge him. I mean, Clark and Laneham were prepared to kill for me earlier. I’m relieved they didn’t have to…I don’t want them to have that weight.’

She leant against the wall behind her, as if she could no longer support her own weight. Alexander Strong did not take his eyes away from her. It was as if he was sapping her strength; he grew in confidence as he kept his gaze on her, while she withered away.

‘I’m sorry, but I did warn you that it’s not pleasant. I don’t hold your anger against you – I understand it. I understand why you wanted revenge,’ he said, ‘if you didn’t know the truth.’

‘No,’ she choked out. ‘No you don’t.’

I could tell she was going to run out of the door before she moved. The last of her pride depended on leaving at that moment. The door shut itself behind her, and Christian raised his eyebrow at me, obviously expecting me to run after her. But I took one last look at the man who had ruined my lover’s life, as earnest as any man could be, and I had to say one last thing to him:

‘Thank you.’

I left before he could respond, the door closing just as I heard Christian tell the officers to take him away again. Isabel had collapsed into a chair just outside the door in the quiet corridor, and I dropped down next to her, not bothering to find my own seat. She had folded into herself, hands over her eyes, hair falling in front of her face, only the tip of her nose visible beyond those two shields

‘It’s not fair,’ she said, so softly and shakily that I barely understood. ‘It’s not fair. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t – he doesn’t–’

And she leant on her knees, gripped her hair with her hands, and finally let out the torrent of sobs that she had been repressing for so long. I watched her and wished I could do something to make her stop, but there was nothing that could have possibly made her better. I didn’t even dare touch her, in case that slip somehow stopped her from letting this all out. After the first burst, she calmed just enough to speak between sobs.

‘It’s not fair, not right, he doesn’t know, they all don’t know – John was a good man, he really was – they don’t understand, he looked after me, he always looked after me. We didn’t have any help from Aunt Hunter – that’s why he cheated sometimes, and whenever it seemed like we would sink, like we had no money, he would always make some, and I was so hungry and tired and worried I never asked where it came from. He spent it all on me, on the boat, on us, we needed it – we had nothing, no family, no parents, and he had me and I was useless, less than useless! If only I had done something, he wouldn’t have…oh God…’

She paused for breath and sniffed, not attempting to stop the fresh wave of tears. ‘I knew he liked to drink, of course I did, but I thought all men were like that, and I knew he was competitive but I never thought he did anything wrong, he said it was just some little pranks…oh God…oh God…to think that night…that night he had killed someone…to think I couldn’t even tell the difference! But he was a good man!’

She looked at me and shouted it out.

‘Edie, he WAS a good man! I…I swear he was…I…’

She broke anew, and I could resist no longer. I hugged her as tightly as I could, and she held onto me and cried for many minutes more before she stopped completely. I stayed by her side, glad that I did not know her pain.

‘Isabel,’ I finally said, after a few minutes of silence.

‘Don’t say anything,’ she said, breaking from my embrace. She breathed, in and out, in and out, and seemed to inflate to her normal size with each breath, until finally she was sitting up straight, her hair back, and looking forward. Even with her red eyes and discoloured face, she looked so regal that it caught my breath. I loved her – no, more than anything, I admired her to the deepest of my core in that moment.

‘Let’s go, Edie,’ she said. ‘We have to get the rest of the crew down here. We have to catch the others.’ She faced me and for the first time I felt that I met her eyes instead of cowering under them.

‘Let’s end it all.’

Written by G.J.

07/10/2012 at 10:00 am

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.’

Written by G.J.

23/09/2012 at 1:14 pm

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.

Written by G.J.

27/08/2012 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,