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Authors: Marie Jakober

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BOOK: The Halifax Connection
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She had stared at Fran in astonishment. “Ten pounds for cabin passage to America? It must be a mistake.”

Maybe it was, Fran said. And maybe it wasn’t. She had been talking to people from the mill. They had friends in Liverpool, she said, and they told her that on the ships coming in from the States there was talk of pirates, Southerners who were burning and sinking Yankee merchantmen. There was near panic in the ports; insurance rates were going so high there was scarcely any profit in carrying a cargo. Fewer and fewer merchants were willing to risk their goods, so the Yankees were slashing their rates to the bone to fill their holds, or selling their ships off altogether; and the agents were telling passengers straight out not to sail with them, it was too dangerous.

The women made a pot of tea for their supper and talked about it. Supper was over quickly. The tea they made from used leaves they had begged from the church women the day before; supper was two wrinkled carrots and a piece of dry bread. There was nothing else in the house. Even the mice who used to live in the corner behind the stove had left.

Under the floor, in a cracked vase, were twenty-two pounds and six shillings. There were many things they would endure before they would spend it, but hunger could break anyone’s courage. Sylvie knew that one day soon they would take the vase from its hiding and bit by bit the money would go.

And then it would all be for nothing: all the years, all the bitter labour, all the going without—sometimes without coal or medicine or clothing, always without pleasure, without pretties, without even an apple from the market or a ribbon from the fair. All of it would be for nothing—the astonishing gift from a dying comrade, a small dirty bag with coins in it, thrust into Sylvie’s hands:
Take it. My brother will only drink it up. Take it, and get away from this place.
The foreman, Demerey, tossing names from the roll like rubbish from a wagon, smiling at her, opening his trousers:
You can stay, wickerface, if you’re nice to me.
And Fran, dear God, what had Fran done through the years, what had she sacrificed, salvaged, stolen? To whom had she sold herself, one way or another, for a cracked jar of coins and a dream? To lose it now was a prospect utterly beyond enduring.

Many others would have left years before, taken cheap passage on an emigrant ship, the kind that carried hundreds of the desperate to America in a single run, packed between decks like cattle. On this matter, too, Fran had talked with people, and she had read about it as well. Passengers in steerage lived in a nightmare of crowding and filth. They slept on rotting mattresses on floors soaked with vomit. If it stormed, the hatches were battened down and they were locked in, breathing the same rotten air for days, perhaps for weeks. The rolling of the sea flung their meagre belongings about, smashed their food, drenched their clothing in bilge and excrement. Now and then a tumbling trunk tore open someone’s leg or crushed the hand of a child. Typhus took them, cholera, dysentery, and they were slid from a plank into the grey Atlantic, one out of every fifteen or twenty; on the really bad ships, one out of eight.

No, Fran said. Not steerage; never. She was a worldly woman. She had six years of good schooling, acquired before the family sank into total poverty. If she had not taken on the care of an orphaned child, she might well have moved to Liverpool, or even to London, and made a little something of her life. She was smart,
and hard as iron when she had to be; she could probably have crossed the Atlantic on a raft and survived it. But on this point she would not yield. They would not travel steerage. Every time it was mentioned, her answer was the same:

“We didn’t go through all this so I could bury you at sea.”

They would save for something better, she said, something safer; they would get to America alive. But almost as fast as they could save their money, others took it away. Fran had two sisters still living. Both of them had children, and husbands who drank. One time it might be an accident, the next time an illness, and then a woman would come haggard and desperate, with tears in her eyes,
Oh please, Fran, do you have anything, anything at all?
Every time, almost till the end, Fran yielded. And so the years went by, bitter and exhausting years, two of them, seven, twelve, slipping their coins into that wretched piece of pottery. Sylvie never really accepted it. She hated the mill so badly sometimes, she would have risked anything to get away. She even considered taking half the coins and simply running off. She could find her own way to a ship, thank you very much.

But she loved Fran. That held her when she was younger and willing to be reckless. As she grew older, she began to understand that she had become the meaning of Fran’s life. Everything else, Fran’s hope of maybe leaving Lancashire, her hope of love or children of her own, even the small, simple pleasures of her working life—a glass of ale now and then, a pretty scarf, a Sunday trip across the county—everything had been surrendered for this damaged child, this child to whom she would give a decent life, no matter what the odds. She could not risk losing Sylvie. There was the beginning and the end of it: she simply could not. They would work longer and harder than anyone else, they would save more desperately, and they would book a decent berth on a good ship, and go to Canada, and life would begin again. Certainly it was possible; she even made it seem reasonable sometimes. Then Sylvie’s lungs began to go, and getting out of the mill was no longer a
dream; it was her only hope of living past her twenties. By that point a transatlantic voyage in the fouled guts of a steamer would have been truly hazardous. It had all turned into a trap, as perilous now to go as to stay. A war began in America, choking off the cotton. Finally the mill closed, and even the work that was killing her disappeared. There was nothing now, only a few shillings of relief money each week and the cold charity of strangers.

So they sat, their elbows on the rough wooden table, and read the newspaper Fran had cadged from one of her friends, mostly news about the Queen and Lord Palmerston and all the big shots in London. But there was a bit about the American war, even about the Southerners who burned American ships. The paper called them privateers, and seemed to think they were bold and daring and much to be admired. Sylvie and Fran read everything, and looked again at the small notice, at the magical numbers, ten pounds each for a cabin to Halifax. Not even a second-class berth, God help us, but a
cabin.

“Let’s go, Fran! Oh, please, let’s take it! We’ll never have a better chance.”

“No, probably we won’t. You’re not worried about the pirates?”

“Compared to what?” Sylvie said softly. Darkly.

Fran said nothing. She rubbed at a scar on her hand.

“Anyway, it’s a big ocean, ain’t it?” Sylvie went on. “They can’t possibly find every ship.”

“We’ll have to buy a few things, you know. And there be fare to Liverpool, too. We’ll be dead broke when we land.”

“We’ll be
there!
And your friend Miss Susan said it’s easy to get work.”

Fran rarely smiled anymore, not real smiles, the kind that used to sparkle in her eyes and brighten up the world. But she smiled now.

“We should get a decent night’s sleep. The coach to Liverpool goes by at six.”

“You want to do it, then?”

“More than anything in the world. I just wanted to be certain you did.”

They did not get a good night’s sleep; they hardly slept at all. Having made the decision, they were terrified of everything that might possibly go wrong, terrified especially of arriving in Liverpool and discovering that half the world had been there ahead of them, and all the precious cabins were taken.

As it happened, the
Osprey
sailed from England with three places still open, and from Bermuda with five. The destitute could still not afford her, and the sensible chose to pay more and go elsewhere.

Still, as Sylvie had said, it was a big ocean. All the ships they had passed so far were honest travellers like themselves.

And so it proved again, that last wonderful day. The
Osprey
changed course, giving the strange vessel a wide berth. The latter paid no attention, but swept on her way in grand, majestic indifference. Sylvie watched her for a time, wondering idly where she might be bound. The sea was full of ships—hundreds of them, one of the sailors had told her, just on the North Atlantic alone. Hundreds. And only one of them was the deadly
Alabama.

“We’ll be all right, Fran?” she murmured. “We’ll make it, won’t we?”

“Last time I checked, love, nobody ever promised us anything. But if I were making wagers, I’d say yes, likely as not we’ll make it.”

Sylvie smiled. “Likely as not” was fine. “Likely as not” was the best odds they had ever had.

Unlike the heroines in the storybooks they read, Frances Harris and Sylvie Bowen did not trouble themselves over what they might wear to Captain Foxe’s birthday supper. They owned but a single decent dress apiece. Nonetheless, Fran took her time getting
ready, brushing her hair until it shone, wrapping it into an elegant pompadour with nothing more elaborate than a scarf and a pair of street vendor’s combs. She had always been a striking woman; not beautiful, perhaps, not like the splendid creatures in the magazines, with the pale, perfect faces of angels, but nonetheless striking. She had a full, sensual body and dark, alluring eyes. Even the mill town had not robbed her of those gifts; it had merely altered them, wearing away every trace of youth and lightness, laying bare a depth of quiet, worldly intensity.

She looked especially splendid tonight, and she glided into the captain’s small cabin with astonishing grace. Watching her, Sylvie understood completely why her aunt could always attract men, why she never needed silks or jewels to do it. It was all in the body, in the way a woman moved, the way she listened, the way she laughed. Whatever came of Fran’s magnetic power in the end, whether it gained her something she wanted or something she did not want—or, most often, nothing much at all—it was part of her, as easy and as natural as breath.

Captain Foxe greeted them with a warm, almost boyish smile. “Miss Harris, Miss Bowen. How good to see you both. Please come in.”

Foxe was by no means the biggest man Sylvie had ever seen, but he seemed easily the most solid; if he ever collided with a brick wall, she thought, the wall would probably take the worse of it. He was gallant, however, bowing a little and kissing their hands, the way men did in books. Master Schofield, the first mate, did the same, but not with the same obvious delight. He was very young, probably younger than Sylvie herself, and he seemed ill at ease.

He’s only here because the captain wants him here, to be company for me, and to make it all proper. He’d rather be in the saloon, talking about the war.

For a while Sylvie almost felt the same way herself. Nathaniel Foxe’s birthday supper got off to a slow, clumsy start. The cabin was small; the steward could scarcely serve them without elbowing
someone’s face. The table was tiny, and when a lurch of the ship and a slip of the knife combined to send a piece of chicken flying off Sylvie’s plate, it landed splat in the captain’s glass of port.

That sort of thing happened in the saloon too; it was a hazard of dining on a rocking boat. But here, at this special birthday supper, it was painfully embarrassing, and she blushed scarlet to her toes. He simply stabbed the offending bit of fowl with his fork, smiled, and said, “Drunken chicken. There’s a fine place in Baltimore serves that. I always liked it.” And he popped it into his mouth.

The man certainly had style.

Master Schofield did not. He was terribly well bred and terribly shy, a lethal combination from Sylvie’s perspective. Shy herself, she had no idea what to say to him, and he seemed to have no idea what to say to her.

“Do you have relatives in Nova Scotia?” he asked at one point.

“No. Aunt Frances has a friend there.”

“Oh. That’s good.” After a moment of silence he asked, “Is that why you’re going? To see her friends?”

To see her friends?
It took a few seconds to understand.
God bleeding almighty, he thinks we’re just … travelling.

“No. We’re going to live there. To work.”

He looked quickly at his plate. Obviously he came from the sort whose women never had to work; the sort who looked on it, not as sinful perhaps, but as a sign of general, collective decay:
If your men were any damn good, you wouldn’t have to.

“What trade is your father in?” he asked.

“My father is dead,” she said. She didn’t add “Hanged,” although for the briefest moment she considered it, simply to put the nail in the coffin. “My mother too.”

“I’m very sorry,” he said.

She could see that he meant it. He was not cruel, and he probably was not stupid. If he had met her in a tavern, God knows he might have known how to talk to her. But here, at his captain’s courting party, he was completely at a loss. After a time, by gradual and
probably mutual agreement, they gave up trying to converse, and chose instead to enjoy the splendid food and listen to Nathaniel Foxe, who could talk enough for four people all by himself.

BOOK: The Halifax Connection
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