Authors: Marie Jakober
“Yes. That’s rather what I think, too.”
Sylvie leaned back against the bench. She felt impossibly content, warm and well fed as a sunning cat. She would have purred if she had known how. This, she thought, must be how slaves felt when they escaped from their masters, or prisoners when they fled from their dungeons—when they had actually made it. When the past was too far away to ever catch up with them, and everything ahead was only possibility.
She wondered what Halifax would be like. A well-ordered, prosperous city, Miss Susan’s letter had promised them, with plenty of work for anyone who wanted it. A sailor town, Frances had added wryly, garrison to half an empire, and sitting right next door to that nasty American war. Prosperous it might well be, Fran said, but she was taking “well-ordered” with a grain of salt.
For her part, Sylvie did not care; whatever it was like, she would have a future there. Sylvie Bowen, clerk. Or chambermaid, or scullion, or God knew what. Something. Something that would not kill her, as the mill would have done. As the mill had begun to do, fibre by deadly cotton fibre. She had watched it kill others, a few of them every year—six or seven, maybe; not enough for anyone to notice, down there in London where they made the laws. It was only a matter of time until she became another. And she had known as much, the days she looked into Fran’s little mirror and saw her face as dead as lime, only the eyes alive, red and always watering, half blind with pain; the nights she had choked in her bed, coughing and coughing into the blankets, trying to muffle it, trying not to keep Fran awake …
Now she was free. The great rattle of the spindles was silent, and the sea air was as wild and as clean as the sky.
Until the morning she climbed aboard the
, Sylvie Bowen had never been among what they called “the better people.” Oh, she had seen them from time to time, when some owner came to the mill to give orders, or when the church ladies came to their tenements with bits of food and old clothing, and endless talk of cleanliness and God. Now, on the
, the fine folk were in sudden, disturbing closeness, elbow to elbow at the dining table, and out on the deck, walking past her almost close enough to touch, smiling, perhaps—even bowing a little, if they were men.
Good morning, ladies. A fine day for sailing, ladies …
They were polite, of course. Even the horrid Draytons were polite now, but she knew what they thought of her.
The ship had been three days out of Liverpool when she and Fran first came out of their cabin for a proper meal. She walked into the grand saloon and saw the whole pack of them gathered as at a king’s feasting table: the captain in his trim uniform looking for all the world like a hero out of a book, the others practically shimmering in the lamplight, dressed to the very nines.
She had not expected this. She had expected … oh, she was not sure what, a room like the eateries in Rochdale, perhaps, through whose windows she had seen scattered tables with small groups of men. She thought she and Fran would sit off by themselves in a corner—not here, at this long, sparkling table. Not with all the others. She could feel their eyes on her, taking due note of the unbound hair, the pathetically cheap dress. But there was no possibility of flight; Captain Foxe himself stepped toward her and pulled out her chair: “Good evening, Miss Bowen, please be seated.”
She sat obediently, and found herself face to face with the most insufferable snobs on the vessel, quite possibly the most insufferable snobs in the whole British Empire: a certain Mrs. Drayton, made entirely of silk and lace and baubles; and beside her, her husband, who stared at the mill-town women as if they were livestock who had wandered up from the hold.
At first, all Sylvie wanted was to flee, yet by the evening’s end
she was glad they had come. Divine odours drifted out from the galley, and her humiliation gave way to a sheer longing for food. It came at last, enticing beyond all her expectations, a roast of beef with turnips and yams and thick slabs of bread. She watched in wonderment as the steward loaded her plate. Surely this couldn’t all be for her? But it was, and it was achingly good. Bit by bit she felt better. Bit by bit the company mellowed too. Captain Foxe was friendly and polite, treating them as if they were perfect ladies, and in his presence no one seemed ready to do otherwise.
But when the passengers were alone among themselves, it was different. The very next day, Sylvie came upon a gathering in the saloon, the proud English couple in their midst. None of them noticed her come in, engrossed as they were in their own conversation. She caught only the last of Mrs. Drayton’s words:
“—never allow my
to wear clothes like that.”
“It’s appalling, really,” her husband said. “We understood the
to be a fine, respectable vessel. I for one did not expect to be sitting at the table with factory women, or whatever the deuce they are. I can’t imagine how it was allowed.”
“Well, it is an
“Quite beside the point.” This was Mr. Paige, who was from the States himself. “I know hundreds of Americans who’d never lower their standards like this. I fear the war has made our captain desperate. He’ll take anyone who can pay.”
“Yes, and how were they able to pay, I wonder? A decent servant girl is doing well if she’s got a shilling to spare for a pair of shoes.”
, Sylvie thought bitterly,
m’appen you should pay them better, then!
She stood irresolute, curious to hear what else they might say, yet desperate to escape unseen. She looked at each in turn: the English Draytons, Mr. Paige, Miss Caroline, the other young American, Mr. Canfrey. Rich, every blighting one of them. Well-tended bodies that never dreamt of hunger. Hair fashioned just so. Nails all trimmed and clean. Rings that sparkled even in the
lamplight. Clothing so fine and precious you could stroke it like a cat.
And they were wondering where
got her money?
“Maybe an inheritance?” Miss Caroline suggested hopefully.
“Good heavens, no. People like that don’t know anyone with money to leave them.”
“Well, however they came by it,” Mr. Drayton said, “I’ll wager it wasn’t honest labour, or they’d value it more. Really, I ask you: creatures like that, travelling first class? A pair of honest immigrants would stay with their own kind, and hang on to their money so they don’t end up in the workhouse!”
It wasn’t honest labour?
Day after day, she and Fran had tramped to the cotton mill before the sun rose, and stumbled home again in the dark. They worked in air no human could safely breathe, in noise to shatter the nerves of a stone. They did it from the year she turned eleven until the day the mill shut down, and they had not earned their passage out?
She stared at Drayton, unable to find words to answer an accusation so monstrously unjust. While she floundered, Miss Caroline stepped into the breach.
“Really, Mr. Drayton, I dare say you’ve gone too far. I’m sure these women worked and saved for their passage, as most of the immigrants do. We do the lower orders a great injustice, you know, if we assume that just because they are poor they are also criminals.”
“Oh, come now, I didn’t say that—”
“With respect, sir, I fear you did.” This was Mr. Canfrey, the youngest of the group, who until now had said nothing. He got to his feet; perhaps he had had enough of the conversation. “I’m going topside, Paige. Are you coming?”
Mr. Paige lifted a glass still half filled with wine. “When I’ve finished.”
“I’ll see you later, then. Ladies. Mr. Drayton.” He turned and saw Sylvie. He had the decency to seem embarrassed, but before
he could say anything, she shook her head faintly. They both retreated, very quietly, in opposite directions.
She cried over it for most of an hour. It had seemed a miracle, getting onto this ship. They did not choose it so they could travel first class. They chose it because the war had made it cheap, because her lungs were bad, because they wanted to get to America alive. So she cried, bitterly, but in time she cried herself out, and there was nothing she could do in the cabin except sit on her bed and read a battered dime novel she had already read twice. After another hour she found herself both hungry and bored. It would be lunchtime soon. Her mouth watered, remembering yesterday’s dinner. She would go and see the steward, she decided, and ask him to bring her plate to the cabin. Then the bloody Draytons could eat and strut in peace.
But there was Fran. She knew what Fran would say to this: “Then they’ve won, Sylvie.” That was exactly what Fran would say, with a little brush of Sylvie’s hair across her forehead. “You can’t do it, love. Because then they’ve won.”
No, she had to face the buggers down, so she might as well just do it. Besides, she had not been on deck since they left the Mersey and everyone got seasick; she wanted desperately to get out in the sun, to walk, to look at the sea.
And there Mr. Canfrey found her and apologized for his companions. The English upper classes, he said, were such intolerable snobs. He did not mention that his countryman Paige had been cheerfully agreeing with them. Nor did he ever look directly at her face. But he did apologize, and day by day things got better. It was a long voyage and a small group of passengers; simply getting through the days required a measure of civility. But more than anything, it was Captain Foxe who set the standards of their social world. His passengers were his guests, and he treated them all
with unfailing courtesy; it was hard for them to do less. Moreover, he
these Lancashire ragpickers, and whatever the others may have thought of his taste, or of his morals, Sylvie doubted that any of them were willing to make him mad.
Now he had invited the ragpickers to dine in his cabin.
Oh my, Sylvie thought, this was going to cause a stir. Mr. Drayton would say democracy had corrupted the whole American race and here was the proof of it. Mrs. Drayton would fan herself and ask for smelling salts. And tomorrow, when Fran and Sylvie turned up on deck, everyone would look at them and wonder what they had been up to, besides devouring chicken and port.
I suppose if we were terribly proper and respectable ladies, we’d have to think twice about going. This way … well, there be advantages to everything, even to being factory trash.
She was licking the last bit of orange juice from her fingers when a shout of “Sail ho!” brought everyone to the railing. The sea in all directions seemed clear and empty. Sylvie glanced up, where a lookout clung to the rigging with one hand, holding a glass to his eye with the other.
Between one breath and another the deck had gone silent. Conversations died in mid-sentence; even the work sounds stopped. A sailor stood with a bucket in his hand, the water from his mop draining over his feet. In the sudden quiet they could hear every slap of the sea, and every squawk and cluck of the chickens. Any strange ship could be a Confederate raider. According to Mr. Canfrey, the
under Captain Raphael Semmes had burned and sunk seventeen American ships—merchants, whalers, fishing vessels, anything that crossed her path. Seventeen already, he told them, as of the day they left Liverpool.
On the quarterdeck Captain Foxe, silent like the others, scanned the horizon with his own glass, and then shouted to the lookout:
“Can you make her out, Watson?”
“No, sir, not yet. But she looks like a merchant brig.”
“D’you see any smoke?”
“Not yet, sir.”
Sylvie and Fran exchanged uneasy glances, but said nothing. They had passed seven or eight ships since leaving England, and every time it was the same. Every time, the deck of the
went tense and still. Every time, she remembered the tenement in Rochdale, and the night Frances came home with a newspaper and showed her a small notice under the shipping head.
out of Baltimore, Captain Foxe, accepting cabin passengers to sail May 15, or shortly thereafter, for Bermuda £8.6s. For Halifax and Baltimore £10. Inquire Drake & Sons, Liverpool.