Earlier chapters pertaining to the journey of Ellen Fisher can be found here. Hope you enjoy the journey too!
THE GIRL FROM THE PAPER-MILL
Somehow light filters through the ache. I press my eyes shut to hide from it, but even that minor action sends a shooting pain circling around the inside of my skull. A low feminine voice sounds from somewhere nearby.
“Tom? She’s waking up Tom!”
Through the haze of pain and sluggishness, I recognize that voice as belonging to Beth Bradshaw. Before I can ascertain where I am or why she is near, her husband coughs. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do Mr Fisher! Or rather Miss Fisher is it?!”
I force my eyes open and sit up. I’m back in my room, lying on my bed and my clothes are gone. Tom Bradshaw is standing in the corner of the room conferring with two rain-drenched sailors and blue uniformed ship’s office. The ship lurches the men grab at the bulkheads for support. Beth is sitting on my bunk, her expression, a mix of concern and curiosity. My vision swirls and her hands gently push me back into bed. “You took a nasty knock on the head” she says. “Try not to move.”
My mouth is dry and sea-salt lies thick on my tongue. “How-?”
“We’ve been asking ourselves that same question!” Bradshaw snaps. Beth turns and glares at her husband. “Be gentle, Tom!”
“Why should I?” Bradshaw retorts. “We’ve got an imposter and quite possibly a stowaway aboard! God only knows what else she’s been hiding! Darling, she might have slit our throats while we slept for all we know.”
“I’ll be the judge of that Mr Bradshaw, not you” the uniformed officer says. His voice is deep and hard like dry leather. As he approaches the bunk I feel a surge of panic. He’s tall, mid-fifties, clean shaven. Deep-set blue eyes peer out from a face tanned by sun and lashed by sea-water. Behind him a contrite Bradshaw clears his throat. “I’m sorry Captain Webster, I meant no disrespect.”
“Of course not” Webster grunts. For a moment Webster stares at me and I can sense he has many questions. However the ship rolls sharply and he grips the bunk to steady himself.
“We’ll get to the bottom of this later” he says. “Crandall?”
One of the rain drenched sailors steps forward. “Sir?”
“Get to the wheel-house and tell Mr Forbes to change course for Reykjavik.”
“This Sou’easter’s pushing us north anyway” Webster replies. “Tacking against these wind’s is only going to delay us and we’ve no idea how long this storm’s going to last. We’ll make for harbour then cut down through the Grand Banks on the way to Baltimore.”
“Yes sir!” Crandall salutes and hurries from the room. When he opens the door, I can hear the full fury of the storm outside. Lightning flashes outside the porthole. Webster looks on with grim determination then turns back to me.
“Sir?” the other sailor asks.
“This woman is berth-bound until we reach port.”
“Captain, if I may ask permission?” Beth says.
“You may ask madame but be quick! This storm waits for no one even someone as fair as you!”
“Thank you captain! I’d be happy to attend Miss Fisher until we reach port.”
“Beth you can’t be serious!” Tom Bradshaw shouts.
“I’m perfectly serious Tom! And you won’t stop me either!”
“As you wish Mrs Bradshaw” Captain Webster says. “I’ll have Mr Crandall make arrangements with the galley so that food will be brought here.”
“Captain, I don’t think-“
“Then please refrain from doing so!” Webster interrupts. “Now excuse me, but I must attend to my ship. Good evening Miss Bradshaw.”
“I suppose I have no say in any of this!” I croak.
Webster frowns. “In the olden days, woman you would have been thrown overboard. Think of this as a mercy!”
The storm lasts for five days. For most of the time I’m left alone in my room, with little to do but watch the rolling seas outside the porthole. Beth Bradshaw brings me meals every day and tends to my injured head. There’s a large cut there from where my head struck the ship’s mast. She doesn’t speak much and most of the time I prefer her silence. What I don’t appreciate is her silent judgement.
I don’t feel much like eating. It’s not just my imprisonment or the toss and roll of the ship as it battles the waves. It’s the sense of powerlessness and regression. I might as well be back in the paper-mill once more looking out a tiny window towards a wider world.
We reach Reykjavik a day after the storm passes. The harbour is cold grey and snow white. The surrounding hills are bright green. There is a chill on the air that has made its way through the ship and into my heart. Somewhere in a building in that cold harbour lies an equally cold prison cell.
That morning there is a knock at my door. Its Beth Bradshaw, only this time she isn’t bringing food, only questions.
“You need to tell me everything!” she whispers.
“Why? So you can tell the captain to throw me in jail?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Beth snaps. “I’ve seen the bruises on your body. You’re running away from someone or something. My question is why and who?”
“Isn’t that two questions?”
“Don’t be sarcastic with me madame!” Beth exclaims. “There are men out there, including my husband who think you should be sent back to England on the next ship. Do you want that?”
My heart skips a beat. “No! Of course not!”
“Then tell me everything!”
I do. Slowly and in fits and starts. I don’t trust Beth. It’s difficult to trust anyone in this world. My words come slowly, eventually falling out in a torrent. Three times or more, Beth touches my shoulder and tells me to keep my voice down. Discretion is needed here she says. We don’t know who might be listening outside.
I tell her about the factory and the foreman and the way he looked at me, how he touched me and how I escaped. As she listens her eyes become wide and frightened. Then when have run out of words she nods slowly and stands up. Then without a word she leaves and closes the door tightly behind her, leaving me with unanswered questions.
Around midnight there’s a thump outside my door followed moments later by the sound of keys rasping in the lock. I sit bolt upright in bed, my heart pounding and sweat forming on my scalp. A dark clad figure slips into my room and tosses me the foreman’s bag of money.
“Hurry!” Beth Bradshaw exclaims. “We don’t have much time.”
Before I can question her, she approaches and thrusts a men’s three piece suit and bowler hat into my arms. “Put these on and hurry!” she insists. “They’ll be changing the watch soon and you can’t be here!”
“But nothing! Let’s go!” She moves to the door and takes up watch there.
I pull on the suit before asking my next question. “Why the suit?”
“Its Tom’s, he won’t miss it” Beth says absently. Together we leave the suite. Outside, one of the sailors assigned to guard my door is passed out on the floor, his mouth open and snoring gently.
“Laudanum” Beth smirks. “A doctor in Philly gave it to me for my “hysteria.” I give it to Tom sometimes to shut him up!”
“What’s laudanum?” I frown.
“Never mind that! We’ve got to get you ashore. Quick link your arm in mine!”
We make our way up on deck, past duty sailors who nod at us with only passing glances. We walk down the gangplank and for the first time in many days there is dry ground under my feet.
“Why are you doing this Beth?” I whisper. She says nothing until we are two blocks away from the ship and in the shadow of a building. Only then does she reply. “Because no one ever did the same for me.”
Then to my surprise she gives me a quick kiss on the lips. I feel a spreading warmth run through my body.
“Go!” Beth whispers. “Take a taxi to the next village and find a room for the night. By the time, anyone on the ship knows you are gone, we’ll be leaving. Be careful and good luck!”
Then with that she turns and hurries away leaving me elated and terrified in equal measures.
Copyright Chris O’Connell 2017. The right of the author has been asserted.