Voyager

Author: P Hana

Page 137

   

“No sore ear,” I said, in explanation, and Annekje nodded in approval.

Then the goatling was free, and went plunging back into the herd, to butt its head against its mother’s side in a frantic search for milky reassurance. Annekje looked about for the discarded tick and found it lying on the deck, tiny legs helpless to move its swollen body. She smashed it casually under the heel of her shoe, leaving a tiny dark blotch on the board.

“We come to land?” I asked, and she nodded, with a wide, happy smile. She waved expansively upward, where sunlight fell through the grating overhead.

“Ja. Smell?” she said, sniffing vigorously in illustration. She beamed. “Land, ja! Water, grass. Is goot, goot!”

“I need to go to land,” I said, watching her carefully. “Go quiet. Secret. Not tell.”

“Ah?” Annekje’s eyes widened, and she looked at me speculatively. “Not tell Captain, ja?”

“Not tell anyone,” I said, nodding hard. “You can help?”

She was quiet for a moment, thinking. A big, placid woman, she reminded me of her own goats, adapting cheerfully to the queer life of shipboard, enjoying the pleasures of hay and warm company, thriving despite the lurching deck and stuffy shadows of the hold.

With that same air of capable adaptation, she looked up at me and nodded calmly.

“Ja, I help.”

It was past midday when we anchored off what one of the midshipmen told me was Watlings Island.

I looked over the rail with considerable curiosity. This flat island, with its wide white beaches and lines of low palms, had once been called San Salvador. Renamed for the present in honor of a notorious buccaneer of the last century, this dot of land was presumably Christopher Columbus’s first sight of the New World.

I had the substantial advantage over Columbus of having known for a fact that the land was here, but still I felt a faint echo of the joy and relief that the sailors of those tiny wooden caravels had felt at that first landfall.

Long enough on a rolling ship, and you forget what it is to walk on land. Getting sea legs, they call it. It’s a metamorphosis, this leg-getting, like the change from tadpole to frog, a painless shift from one element to another. But the smell and sight of land makes you remember that you were born to the earth, and your feet ache suddenly for the touch of solid ground.

The problem at the moment was actually getting my feet on solid ground. Watlings Island was no more than a pause, to replenish our severely depleted water supply before the run through the Windward Isles down to Jamaica. It would be at least another week’s sail, and the presence of so many invalids aboard requiring vast infusions of liquid had run the great water casks in the hold nearly dry.

San Salvador was a small island, but I had learned from careful questioning of my patients that there was a fair amount of shipping traffic through its main port in Cockburn Town. It might not be the ideal place to escape, but it looked as though there would be little other choice; I had no intention of enjoying the navy’s “hospitality” on Jamaica, serving as the bait that would lure Jamie to arrest.

Starved as the crew was for the sight and feel of land, no one was allowed to go ashore save the watering party, now busy with their casks and sledges up Pigeon Creek, at whose foot we were anchored. One of the marines stood at the head of the gangway, blocking any attempt at leaving.

Such members of the crew as were not involved in watering or on watch stood by the rail, talking and joking or merely gazing at the island, the dream of hope fulfilled. Some way down the deck, I caught sight of a long, blond tail of hair, flying in the shore breeze. The Governor too had emerged from seclusion, pale face upturned to the tropic sun.

I would have gone to speak to him, but there was no time. Annekje had already gone below for the goat. I wiped my hands on my skirt, making my final estimations. It was no more than two hundred yards to the thick growth of palms and underbrush. If I could get down the gangway and into the jungle, I thought I had a good chance of getting away.

Anxious as he was to be on his way to Jamaica, Captain Leonard was unlikely to waste much time in trying to catch me. And if they did catch me—well, the Captain could hardly punish me for trying to leave the ship; I was neither a seaman nor a formal captive, after all.

The sun shone on Annekje’s blond head as she made her way carefully up the ladder, a young goat cozily nestled against her wide bosom. A quick glance, to see that I was in place, and she headed for the gangway.

Annekje spoke to the sentry in her queer mixture of English and Swedish, pointing to the goat and then ashore, insisting that it must have fresh grass. The marine appeared to understand her, but stood firm.

“No, ma’am,” he said, respectfully enough, “no one is to go ashore save the watering party; captain’s orders.”

Standing just out of sight, I watched as she went on arguing, thrusting her goatling urgently in his face, forcing him a step back, a step to the side, maneuvering him artfully just far enough that I could slip past behind him. No more than a moment, now; he was almost in place. When she had drawn him away from the head of the gangplank, she would drop the goat and cause sufficient confusion in the catching of it that I would have a minute or two to make my escape.

I shifted nervously from foot to foot. My feet were bare; it would be easier to run on the sandy beach. The sentry moved, his red-coated back fully turned to me. A foot more, I thought, just a foot more.

“Such a fine day, is it not, Mrs. Malcolm?”

I bit my tongue.

“Very fine, Captain Leonard,” I said, with some difficulty. My heart seemed to have stopped dead when he spoke. It now resumed beating much faster than usual, to make up for lost time.

The Captain stepped up beside me and looked over the rail, his young face shining with Columbus’s joy. Despite my strong desire to push him overboard, I felt myself smile grudgingly at the sight of him.

“This landfall is as much your victory as mine, Mrs. Malcolm,” he said. “Without you, I doubt we should ever have brought the Porpoise to land.” He very shyly touched my hand, and I smiled again, a little less grudgingly.

“I’m sure you would have managed, Captain,” I said. “You seem to be a most competent sailor.”

He laughed, and blushed. He had shaved in honor of the land, and his smooth cheeks glowed pink and raw.

“Well, it is mostly the hands, ma’am; I may say they have done nobly. And their efforts, of course, are due in turn to your skill as a physician.” He looked at me, brown eyes shining earnestly.

“Indeed, Mrs. Malcolm—I cannot say what your skill and kindness have meant to us. I—I mean to say so, too, to the Governor and to Sir Greville—you know, the King’s Commissioner on Antigua. I shall write a letter, a most sincere testimonial to you and to your efforts on our behalf. Perhaps—perhaps it will help.” He dropped his eyes.

“Help with what, Captain?” My heart was still beating fast.

Captain Leonard bit his lip, then looked up.

“I had not meant to say anything to you, ma’am. But I—really I cannot in honor keep silence. Mrs. Fraser, I know your name, and I know what your husband is.”

“Really?” I said, trying to keep control of my own emotions. “What is he?”

The boy looked surprised at that. “Why, ma’am, he is a criminal.” He paled a little. “You mean—you did not know?”

“Yes, I knew that,” I said dryly. “Why are you telling me, though?”

He licked his lips, but met my eyes bravely enough. “When I discovered your husband’s identity, I wrote it in the ship’s log. I regret that action now, but it is too late; the information is official. Once I reach Jamaica, I must report his name and destination to the authorities there, and likewise to the commander at the naval barracks on Antigua. He will be taken when the Artemis docks.” He swallowed. “And if he is taken—”

“He’ll be hanged,” I said, finishing what he could not. The boy nodded, wordless. His mouth opened and closed, seeking words.

“I have seen men hanged,” he said at last. “Mrs. Fraser, I just—I—” He stopped then, fighting for control, and found it. He drew himself up straight and looked at me straight on, the joy of his landing drowned in sudden misery.

“I am sorry,” he said softly. “I cannot ask you to forgive me; I can only say that I am most terribly sorry.”

He turned on his heel and walked away. Directly before him stood Annekje Johansen and her goat, still in heated conversation with the sentry.

“What is this?” Captain Leonard demanded angrily. “Remove this animal from the deck at once! Mr. Holford, what are you thinking of?”

Annekje’s eyes flicked from the captain to my face, instantly divining what had gone wrong. She stood still, head bowed to the captain’s scolding, then marched away toward the hatchway to the goats’ hold, clutching her yearling. As she passed, one big blue eye winked solemnly. We would try again. But how?

Racked by guilt and bedeviled by contrary winds, Captain Leonard avoided me, seeking refuge on his quarterdeck as we made our cautious way past Acklin Island and Samana Cay. The weather aided him in this evasion; it stayed bright, but with odd, light breezes alternating with sudden gusts, so that constant adjustment of the sails was required—no easy task, in a ship so shorthanded.

It was four days later, as we shifted course to enter the Caicos Passage, that a sudden booming gust of wind struck the ship out of nowhere, catching her ill-rigged and unprepared.

I was on deck when the gust struck. There was a sudden whoosh that sent my skirts billowing and propelled me flying down the deck, followed by a sharp, loud crack! somewhere overhead. I crashed head-on into Ramsdell Hodges, one of the forecastle crew, and we whirled together in a mad pirouette before falling entangled to the deck.

There was confusion all around, with hands running and orders shouted. I sat up, trying to collect my scattered wits.

“What is it?” I demanded of Hodges, who staggered to his feet and reached down to lift me up. “What’s happened?”

“The f**king mainmast’s split,” he said succinctly. “Saving your presence, ma’am, but it has. And now there’ll be hell to pay.”

The Porpoise limped slowly south, not daring to risk the banks and shoals of the passage without a mainmast. Instead, Captain Leonard put in for repairs at the nearest convenient anchorage, Bottle Creek, on the shore of North Caicos Island.

This time, we were allowed ashore, but no great good did it do me. Tiny and dry, with few sources of fresh water, the Turks and Caicos provided little more than numerous tiny bays that might shelter passing ships caught in storms. And the idea of hiding on a foodless, waterless island, waiting for a convenient hurricane to blow me a ship, did not appeal.

To Annekje, though, our change of course suggested a new plan.

“I know these island,” she said, nodding wisely. “We go round now, Grand Turk, Mouchoir. Not Caicos.”

I looked askance, and she squatted, drawing with a blunt forefinger in the yellow sand of the beach.

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