Thursday, March 6, 2008


The Windsong set sail soon after Annie Cobb came aboard. Hollee had been correct in predicting his crew would be pleased at the thought of an additional week aboard, but there was some muttering when he announced the addition of a female passengers. “’s bad luck, it is,” Pritchard had said under his breath when he thought Hollee couldn’t hear him. If there had ever been a woman more accommodating than Mrs. Cobb, however, Hollee couldn’t think of one. She arrived at the dock in her husband’s coach and immediately pronounced herself pleased with the entire outfit, from the crew (well-scrubbed in her honor) to the tidy ship. Hollee had volunteered to give up his cabin for the duration of the cruise, and she was even impressed with the tiny space, exclaiming over the charming bunk and the bright windows. Her maid, Sally, was less impressed, as she would be forced to sleep in a hammock, but the two women soon made themselves comfortable. Hollee was gratified that Annie had taken his advice to pack lightly to heart, and her reticule was compact enough to fit into the space allotted without too much trouble.

“A painted floor!” Annie was saying as he came to check on their progress. “How clever. I do like this white and black pattern, perhaps I shall do your room the same, Sally, what do you think?”

“I think it’d be the devil to keep clean, ma’am.”

“Not at all,” Hollee said, inclining his head. “The floor is covered in old sailcloth. If it ever becomes irretrievably dirty, we simply tear it up and lay new cloth.”

“How clever!”

“Mist’ Cobb ain’ gon’ let you cover up his nice parkay floors, not two months after he got them laid.”

“This is very true. But something to keep in mind for the future, perhaps.”

“If you’ll allow me, Mrs. Cobb, I merely came down here to inform you that we are about to leave Charleston, and I wondered if you wished to say farewell.”

“Of course, Captain, how thoughtful.”

The Windies had loosed the massive ropes holding the ‘Song to the dock and were now being taken in tow by a harbor barge. Their movements were fluid and practiced, as they scurried about the deck, securing the odd rope or crate, or going aloft in preparation for the moment when the sails would fly. Hollee, as he came out of the dark cabin, watched them with a practiced eye, and thought perhaps it might be time to conduct refresher drills on the proper sequence of events for leaving a harbor. Annie, on the other hand, was delighted. She stood watching the men from under the parasol Sally handed her, as gulls swooped around the ship, looking for fish stirred up in their wake. The day was bright, but muggy, and a low haze was settling on the water, making the sun hotter than it seemed.

“But why aren’t you setting sail?” Annie turned to Hollee, her eyes keen.

“There’s not enough wind to carry us forward,” Hollee explained. “The wind here is not strong enough for us within the harbor, and it is dangerous to be under our own power when the harbor is so narrow and there are so many ships about. We will be towed past that point there, and then we’ll make sail and you shall see some speed.”

“They’re very good, aren’t they?” Annie said brightly, as above her head young Tom missed his grip on the platform, and fell from the futtock shrouds into the ratlines. He grabbed on to the ropes, his eyes wide, and Campbell reached down and hauled him back up onto the mainyard by the back of his shirt. Hollee blinked. Twice. Less sewing and more time aloft, he made a mental note. Even Annie could not fail to notice Pritchard’s frown as the seaman went by them, carrying a coil of rope. She looked back up to Hollee. “Captain,” she said, loud enough so that her voice carried. “I’ve heard that it is bad luck for women to travel on board ships, is this true?”

“That is a legend, madam, but I assure you, my sailors have no such truck with such blatantly untruths.”

Annie moved over to the side of the ship, seemingly oblivious to the dozens of ears (and eyes) that were trained on her. “That seems hard to believe—after all, the ocean is full of mysteries, and to discredit one would be to discredit them all. I think,” she continued slowly, “the problem is not so much with women as it is with the fact that certain people do not respect the ocean as much as they ought. And, naturally,” she turned back to face Hollee, “since women generally do not go to sea, they are less familiar with the respect required of all her passengers and so they appear to bring bad luck. But if a woman understands the ocean—rather, understands she must respect the sea and it’s traditions, why, then perhaps her presence would not be so disruptive. I have a deep respect for the sea. The sea touches us all, Captain Hollee, whether we ride upon her back or merely gain from those who do. I do not pretend to be an expert upon the currents of the ocean, but in my ignorance I try to be respectful and understanding and do all I can to learn what I ought.” And she blushed prettily, as though embarrassed by her speech and tucked a stray curl behind her shoulder. Hollee felt rather than saw Sally rolling her eyes behind him at her mistress’ speech, but later that day he overheard a conversation between Pritchard and Waggs where the sailor allowed as how “Missus Cobb wasn’t as stuck on herself as most women generally were.”

By this point the Windsong had reached the narrow opening to the harbor. The wind was freshening, and if the ship was a horse, she would be perking her ears up, eager for a gallop. Hollee called all hands to prepare to cast off and sent the rest of the men into the shrouds. The wind was east by north east, and they would have to tack once they got back the furthest point of the land, but in the beginning they could run ahead of the wind without a second look back. Hollee saluted the captain of the barge as it pushed off and headed back for Charleston.

“Now, Mrs. Cobb, you will see some real speed.”

At a call from Hollee, the hands released the sails, and they came down in a smooth cascade of white. The haze which stood in the harbor was lifting past the point, and the sun beat down hotter. The ship began to pick up speed, her hull rising and falling over each crest, creating a wake that drew a straight line behind them. Hartleby steered the great vessel directly eastward, the sun a few points starboard of his shoulder, squinting into the brightness. Hollee’s feet, long accustomed to walking on the rollicking deck, paced back and forth, eyeing the speed and efficiency of his crew. They were capable men, but they needed to work more closely in tandem. He knew that they understood the necessity of working together so that the ship might go forward, but they did not understand what kind of speed and efficiency could be got by precision. Perhaps if he drilled them. What I need, he mused, are a few ex-Navy men, then we would see some quality. Hansen had neglected one of his knots and a corner of the mainsail was flapping in the wind, causing John Waggs to shout at him until the man had hurriedly tied it. Hollee turned to Annie to see what she thought of the ride so far, but there was no longer anyone standing beside him. He frowned for a moment, but could not look for her for long, as the moment was fast approaching when they would tack onto a north-northeast path.

Once the crew had completed this maneuver, however, Hollee could look more earnestly for his passenger. The men were still aloft, preparing for the moment when they would tack onto a more easterly route (this would continue until the wind shifted), and the decks were relatively clear. She must have gone below, Hollee thought, or gone overboard—and this thought was so momentarily paralyzing to him that he actually took a step toward the rail before he realized that someone would have spotted her. Then he saw Sally exiting from the cabin, carrying a vessel which she emptied over the side.

“Miz Cobbs feelin’ poorly,” she explained succinctly. Sally did not look well herself, her face was slightly yellow under her dark complexion, but unlike her mistress she did not have the luxury of laying down. “She in your cabin.”

“I will have John make up some soda water, that will help calm her stomach,” Hollee said, nervously. That the flamboyant Annie Cobbs would—or indeed could—be brought low by seasickness was something he had not contemplated. “And some for yourself as well, perhaps.”

“Oh, don’ be worryin’ ‘bout me, now. I ain’ got nothing wrong with me. Just don’t like ships, is all.” Hollee noticed how Sally had backed away from the railing and was eyeing the water suspiciously. “I tol’ Miz Cobbs she shouldn’t be leavin’ Charleston at all, but she ain’ gon’ listen to me, nossir, and then Mist’ Cobbs said, ‘Well, if you got to go, then take a ship, it won’t be so bouncy,’ thinking maybe it’d be better for her and the baby. We’ll see.” Sally shrugged, oblivious to the tumult she had thrown Hollee into. Oblivious of the fact that not everyone could spot an expectant mother as easily as she could, she took it for granted that Hollee was aware of Annie’s condition. Up until that moment, however, Hollee had not the faintest clue. He reeled from this information, a thousand worries crowding in on him on top of the ones he had already considered. Baby! God! Did she need any extra care? Did she require special foods? What if something would happen? What that something might be Hollee did not dare contemplate, and he forced himself to stop picturing the scene in his head where a thunderous Cobb called him out for losing his wife and child.

“You have me at a disadvantage, Sally, I did not realize that Mrs. Cobb was…” Hollee could not bring himself to say something so indelicate.

Sally seemed to realize his difficulties, and her face softened into a smile. “Oh, she real early yet,” she said soothingly. “Don’t you worry—Miz Cobb is as strong as a horse. She ain’ gonna have no problems, no sir. You just leave her to me. And get yer man to bring me some of that soda water. I’ll have her up and about in no time.”

“Perhaps she should remain in her cabin? Lying down?” Hollee called after Sally as she went back into the cabin, but she just smiled and kept walking.

Matrimony and now children, Hollee mused as he went to find John Waggs and tell him to break into his surgeon’s chest. Everything was changing so suddenly—only he himself remained the same, endlessly sailing his ship on a changing ocean.

And John. John who was currently shouting at some of the new hands, exhorting them to work faster as they struggled to splice a fraying rope. But even John looked older, his voice not quite so booming as Hollee remembered from his youth. Everything changes, even here.

John seemed relieved to be removed from the vicinity of such obviously obtuse sailors and he quickly hurried away to fetch his medicines, leaving Hollee to take the fraying rope into his own long hands and demonstrate the proper way to splice it. The rope seemed to fly back together by magic under his thin fingers, and the sailors meekly fed it into the pulleys without a word. The sun was hotter now, even though the movement of the ship was creating a strong breeze, and Hollee rubbed the back of his neck with his kerchief where the sweat had gathered. His queue seemed especially long and heavy today, laying between his shoulders like a dead weight.

When John came back on deck, Hollee hurried over to him. “Did you speak to Mrs. Cobb?” he said quietly, mindful of the ears around him.

“I did. She said she’s expecting, did y’ know that?”

“Good God, do you honestly think I would have agreed to take her to Philadelphia if I’d known she was with child? What do I know about children?”

“Unless you plan on sailing around in circles for the next seven months, you’ve nothing to worry about,” John said calmly.

“What if something should happen?”

“I think you do not give Annie enough credit. She’ll be fine.”

After a few days, John’s prediction proved to be the true one, and Hollee’s worries began to fade. Annie had reappeared the next morning, refreshed, she said by a long sleep and John’s ministrations. Her old sparkle returned soon after. Hollee and Sally nearly had to physically restrain her from following Pritchard up the rigging onto the platform two days out from Charleston, and soon her favourite spot on the ship was near the bow, spray splashing in her face. The voyage was dogged by poor weather—although the wind continued to blow strongly, it was never as northerly as it might have been, and the sun shone hotly without relent. The ship plowed through water thick as molasses, rolling up and down, side to side with a constant, heady rocking motion. Biased as he was, Hollee thought privately that Cobb was a wise man to send his wife by ship: the jolts of a coach journey would shatter bones, but on the ocean the rocking motion was hardly noticeable once the voyager grew accustomed to it. Sally never got over her distrust of the endless sea, and stayed mostly in the cabin or seated on a crate just outside the door, her sewing in her hand.

The journey took a few days longer than expected. The wind dried up a day out of Philadelphia until the Windsong was barely making two knots, agonizingly slow for a crew accustomed to a good five or six or even seven. Annie by that point had completely won the crew over, so much so that she had begun to solicit them for advice.

“Now Mr. Pritchard. What is your opinion on colors? For myself, I should prefer a vibrant yellow in my dining room, however I am told that the fashion of today is blue and I dearly hate to be out of fashion.”

“Now, Missus Cobb, well, if it was my dining room, I’d paint it anything I wanted, and if anyone said otherwise, I’d say ‘I’m starting a new fashion!’”

“Why—that is a brilliant idea! What a ingenious solution you’ve hit upon!”

Before Pritchard could follow up his brilliant idea with another equally amazing he was sent aloft by Hollee to spy for land. Soon after the shout came down, and the crew grew busy again, preparing to enter Delaware Bay.

All harbors are different, and the one at Philadelphia was particularly tricky. The city was located far up the Delware River, which was a narrowing of Delaware Bay that connected to the Atlantic. Even at their low speed, the Windsong found it necessary to winch in their sails and reduce speed so they would avoid hitting any of the numerous vessels going in and out of the city. Even Charleston could not compare to the sheer amount of traffic that plied up and down the Delaware. Philadelphia had taken on an air of importance after surviving an attack by the British to become the de facto capital of the new country. The Windsong was joined by countless other merchant ships, small fishing boats and mail packets. The smaller vessels zipped around the larger ones which moved sedately through the water, French and Spanish ships of the line, their hatches opened in the spring sunshine, glimmers of cannon peeking out. Diplomatic ships from a half-dozen other countries (Hollee spotted the Dutch, Portuguese and Russian flags among them) were anchored further up the bay, their exotic crews performing familiar tasks as they waited for ambassadors to be received or denied. There was even a cluster of British ships, slightly segregated from the others as though they were gathered defensively, their ensigns waving proudly nonetheless.

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