The Caroline

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New Orleans, 1873

New Orleans: once the center of regular slave sales, which attracted buyers from the entire region upriver. The war stopped all that as well as halted exports from farther up the river. Commerce plummeted at the same time, and the wealth of the area largely disappeared soon after.

Caroline was awoken by the sudden noise of activity from the deck above her and even from all around her, which she could no longer block out. It had been the most peaceful night she had spent on board that ship with it tied-up dockside in New Orleans for the entire night, but now, with a new day beginning to dawn, the activity began anew.

Cargo was to be offloaded and a new cargo taken on. There was no sleeping through the noise of that increasingly urgent activity, with the sound of raised voices—shouting orders or directions—and feet, bare or shod, padding or clattering on the bare planking somewhere above her and along the corridor passing by her cabin door and then up the six steps to gain the deck.

She was in her own little cocoon, fragile and too easily accessible by others to her mind. The corridor was central and sheltered and gave off to two cabins on each side of the ship for the few passengers they carried (she had been the only one that she had been aware of) and to steep stairs, next to the hold, that allowed access down to the sailors quarters below and to the holds. The crew bunked together below deck, somewhere midship—which was where she was but lower, close to the waterline—and where the motions of the vessel were likely to be less obvious and less disturbing to their rest in a rough sea.

The sounds of the crew’s continuous activity throughout the night, as they moved mostly along that corridor past her room, to get to the deck and to start their day’s work or to take on the duties of the night watch had startled her awake with some regularity, suddenly fearful for her safety. As the only young woman aboard the small ship, and alone, she inevitably attracted their curiosity and attention, and everyone knew where she slept.

It had been a fast and relatively calm crossing—or so she had been told—from Liverpool, though it had not seemed calm to her, nor fast; taking three weeks, though she had heard that five or even seven weeks might be expected. The wind had been strong, and mostly favorable, requiring few sudden heart-stopping changes of course, which might almost throw her out of her bunk, as would have been more often the case had the wind been in almost any other direction. She had tried to sleep, but the strange motions of the ship beneath her would not let her.

When she had ventured on deck after being able to rest no longer with all the creaking of the planks of the hull and of the straining rigging, she had seen that the ship—a modern Clipper Ship formerly in the tea trade from India, but with those ships now displaced by steam ships able to steam through the new Suez Canal, completed in 1869—had been laid over at an alarming angle (to her view of things, and undoubtedly for the cattle too), which she noticed had gradually lessened over the hours and days as the wind had changed to be more behind them than abreast of them.

She noticed that what looked like a fishing net had been arranged to stop her from accessing the sides of the ship and possibly tumbling overboard, or slipping on the deck and landing most indecorously in the scuppers, if not worse. Wyatt must have put that there. The crew had ropes to hang on to if they needed to maneuver on the deck, which they seemed to have no difficulty doing, choosing their moment carefully and then moving quickly. They were mostly aloft anyway, seeing to the sails. How they could stand to be so high off the ground she could not understand. If one of them fell, he would hit ropes and wood on the way down; and if he were not hanged in the rigging, he would land on the deck with broken bones. Alternatively, he would wind up in the sea and with little likelihood of anyone getting to him before he drowned.

For the first day or so, the hatches had been covered over. She could hear the cattle complaining in the relative dark of the hold as their handlers tried to calm them. She felt sorry for them, though they were well attended. They needed to see the sky just as she did.

She was proud of herself. She had not been seasick even once on the crossing as she had been, constantly, the first time she'd left for Europe, almost five years earlier. She wondered if cows, with so many stomachs to contend with, got seasick. She had even seen one of the sailors, deathly pale, leaning over the side being ill and had to turn her head away quickly lest thought of what was happening to him triggered a response in herself.

She realized that there would be no more sleep for her, and stretched as much as she could in the confined space that housed a lower and an upper bunk. She had been the only woman on board (apart from the captain’s wife, and feeling vulnerable because of it in the company of so many rough men). Their usual coarse language and shocking expressions were not moderated any by her presence as they took no notice of where she might be in their world, and they had a job to do.

Apart from the small narrow bunks, there was a single wooden chair and small desk below the one porthole, and there were shelves for bedding or clothes. It was all very Spartan and did not provide any comfort, but at least it was dry, and it was warm enough with the added blankets. The space was no more than eight feet by seven, with what seemed like paper-thin walls; and the beams, which went across above her head, came down to about five and half feet above the floor—close to her own height—and only two feet above the upper bunk.

She had slept fitfully in most of her clothes the first two nights. Every single noise had startled her awake, clutching the covers up to her chin, and there were many such noises. The most heart-stopping moment had been when the ship’s cat had somehow gained access to her cabin and had leapt upon her bunk. It had come in through a small flap that she had not noticed before, set into the bottom of the door. After her first moment of panic, she had welcomed it, and they had made friends. She had a pathological horror of rats, but with that cat close by, she knew she had nothing to fear from that direction now. Her cabin seemed to be its base of operation throughout the ship, though mice would be a safer target than a rat. Only now was she beginning to recognize that there was no threat to her aboard this ship and began not to regret having leapt at the offer of a berth.

The cubbyhole below the shelves and the narrow space below the bunk were where her own limited luggage sat. There were hooks for coats and other clothing. Her trunks, which she had seen brought aboard, had been stored somewhere else with more space. Fortunately, she hadn’t needed them.

She climbed out of the narrow bunk, mindful of the bunk above her, and of the limited headroom in the small cabin once she stood up, and washed in the cold water (tepid after that warm night tied up) from the jug on the desk. It had been brought in for her the night before by the cabin boy.

She dressed, tidied away her few things—leaving the copy of the newspaper that had been given her the night before to read, the Picayune—and packed her bag ready to leave. Some of the personal names and street names in the various news stories were familiar to her from previous visits, but the news was that of a foreign land to her now, including the reports of violent deaths which had never been reported, or had not occurred with the same shocking frequency, in France or England. For some reason she had checked the obituaries, seeing familiar names but no one she might know.

It would all soon come back to her and displace her difficult memories of France and England where she had taught for some years. It had taken her some time to adjust to the different views of society and what was expected of a woman in those places. She began to see how European humorists mischievously spoke of this upstart America as having been the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without a period of civilization in between. They had regarded her with suspicion at first, as they tended to view all foreigners.

She checked that her small pistol was still where she expected it to be and then put it back. She had packed it away after their second night out from Liverpool despite there being no lock on her door. There was just a small bolt to secure it from the inside, but a bolt that would not have resisted even the effort of a child to gain entry. She had realized that there was no threat here, at least not with Wyatt keeping an eye on her as he had—but without being too obvious about it—and went on deck. She thought Wyatt might have slept in one of the cabins opposite hers, but as she had neither heard nor seen him, she could not be sure. Like the rest of the crew, he seemed to be up and about at all hours. She really only saw him at the captain’s table, but she was aware that he watched her and kept an eye on her safety and comfort at other times. It had been an amusing, but comforting, recognition.

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