Chapter 1: Bound for America
Caution: This Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, NonConsensual,
Desc: Sex Story: Chapter 1: Bound for America - The story of two of the thousands of indentured servants who came to Maryland in the 18th century.
Even those who hated him, and there were many, acknowledged that Eben String was proficient at his unsavory business, a pursuit some oldtimers still called "trepanning," which, of course, meant entrapping. He had not actually kidnapped a child for a decade unless one counted a handful of stubborn, pre-pubescent boys he had used and then sold into sex slavery to keep them unheard. Some knew the small man with the scraggly fringe of graying hair and deeply pox-scared face as Strings or Stringer; others called him "scawbanker" and spat when they did. Almost no one called him Ebenezer; he had no friends.
String subsisted on the squalid, odoriferous, outer margin of London society as an ossifying remnant of the human-flesh trade, a once-profitable profession made nearly obsolete by changing times and African slavers. Like his father before him, he was in fact a "spirit" who, in his lengthy and curious career, had procured hundreds of men, quite a few score young women and a fair number of children for ambitious shipmasters to cram into their vessels' holds and take to America; white men, women and children were his stock in trade, white slaves as some called them. He had been doing it since the days when a Tidewater planter could buy four years of a full-grown farm laborer's life for a hogshead of inferior tobacco. He longed for those days.
In these uncertain times the fractious colonials wanted docile young males, free men with a useful skill, or sturdy field hands; the ones slave drivers called "breeders" with a knowing smirk. Hardy youngsters who could be apprenticed were still desirable in some city markets, but full-grown women, especially those over twenty years, were troublesome at best. Many shippers simply refused to take any females at all because they could seldom get a fair price for their bond unless the girls were uncommonly handsome or promiscuously talented. Eben String found few of those in prowling London's scrofulous cells and noisome waterfront precincts. He mentally categorized most of the vapid young women he saw as "poxy whores," unlikely to survive the voyage much less bring eight or ten quid on the other side where they would have to bear close inspection.
On this uncommonly soft, late-September evening in 1773, now that the chilling rain had blown past, Eben String was hard at work filling the hold of the Janet Lune, a Maryland-built-and-Annapolis-owned top-sail schooner whose oft-tested master was hoping to transport at least ten dozen "likely" servants to the Chesapeake region. He could land no other legal cargo so potentially lucrative.
Proprietary Maryland, more than all the other colonies from the Bermudas to Upper Canada, remained a ripe market for human cargo, black or white, slave or indentured, convict or free. Pennsylvania imported German and Swiss redemptioners by the overcrowded boatload, and General Oglethorpe's Georgia experiment struggled along on a much-reduced scale, but the Chesapeake market was ripe for English speakers and an occasional Welshman or domesticated Scot, if such existed, and if he denied being a Papist or Presbyterian. Those who claimed to be coopers, smiths, carpenters or some similarly skilled guildsman were, of course, always welcome. A few shiploads of the ever-troublesome Irish had been landed at Baltimore Town, but most of those were transported criminals of one kind or another who were sold still shackled and always well guarded. Even then, most of the Irishmen had proved more trouble than any farmer or mine owner needed when plenty of other, more tractable hands were readily available at a reasonable price.
Eben String had already completed his customary visits to the mouldering gaols and gathered up all those culls the magistrates would pardon to be transported for numerous years in lieu of their often-well-earned stripes, painful branding, or even public execution for petty theft, coining, housebreaking and the like. He avoided the screeching female convicts altogether no matter how young and lithesome they appeared. But he did accept numerous capital cases, including a few horse thieves, but for this prime vessel spurned the vicious types and avoided the madmen who would have to be chained down to be shipped. Occasionally he ran across an older criminal who swore he would rather face the headsman than be transported, but they were generally men who had already enjoyed one involuntary trip to the Atlantic colonies. It was not a voyage anyone was likely willingly to suffer twice.
Just the previous year the government, in its peculiar wisdom, had decided that it would no longer subsidize convict removal from London and the Home Counties with a £3 per head payment, so String had to be extra careful at the prisons, and his choices were limited. Most of those sentenced in the late summer assizes had already gone to the specialists in criminal transportation and many of those left had been in the cells too long to bother with. Jail fever was almost as sure a killer as the executioner's ax.
He had gathered up vagabonds from several street corners and gleaned a few vagrants from the hedges and by-ways. He welcomed wide-eyed volunteers from the various charitable hovels and alms houses, promising them limited indentures as servants and a chance to start a new life. He had easily convinced some two score out-of-work farm boys, impoverished by enclosure and softened by gin, that jobs aplenty could be found in America and that, in Maryland's fair and fruitful acres, they could easily become prosperous free-holders in a few years and find scores of eager maidens willing, nay, eager to bed them and wed them. As far as String knew, he was telling the truth.
Of course, he did not care whether or not his practiced spiel was gospel true, and he never considered that there might be numerous masters in the Chesapeake fens who treated their slaves much better than they did their short-term servants. The Janet Lune sailed on the tide, this brightening evening or the next for sure, and still had more than a score of unfilled spaces. That was String's concern; the push was on to catch the flood with a chock-a-block hold and the resultant heavy purse for both the greedy captain and the consumptive spirit.
Over the past twenty-five years in his inherited vocation, Eben String had been responsible for sending many hundreds of "freighters" to the New World, most of them what the genteel called the "meaner sort," if they ever thought of them at all. The captains calculated their ship's capacity and laid in their supply of food and water on the basis of so many bodies as full-freight, those over fourteen years of age, and counted the younger ones as half-freight. Water was usually loaded at about five gallons per person per week although some captains bragged that their freighters made it on but two pints a day without mentioning that many resorted to drinking their own urine after the first fortnight.
The diligent String received but two shillings for the apprentice-aged, but he pocketed four for each of the full-grown bondsmen and five if they had mastered one of the prized mysteries. These days the gruff ship masters did not pay him anything for ordinary females, including wives and daughters, although some were quite willing to take a comely girl as a shipboard mistress for the duration of the lengthy voyage. Letting the poor lass "work her way across," they called it and often dumping the pregnant girl into the Bay before they let go their anchor.
Once the would-be colonial had boarded the ship and signed or made his mark upon the bond, he was immediately forgotten by the "spirit" who procured him. String was only interested in satisfying his endless thirst for potent gin and his boundless appetite for plump-assed boys. He cared nothing for the people he led aboard various vessels any more than if they had been cattle or goats.
In his amourous youth Eben String had eagerly followed in his father's mercenary footsteps, and his unlamented Da, as he often said with bitter regret, had been working in a much happier time when the demand for labor in the colonies and the shortage of women on the western side of the Atlantic seemed endless and the competition from the Bite of Benin barely noticeable. Ship captains would take almost any bondsman or woman who could walk aboard and be happy to have all of them, as long as they were free of active smallpox, bloody flux or such obvious scourges.
Masters then had packed their ships to the gunnels, slept their freighters spoon fashion, stuffed them into narrow 'tween-deck spaces and crassly expected a quarter of their breathing, excreting cargo to perish before they were halfway to the promised land. In the last month of the often savage voyage against the Westerlies, when anyone downwind could have smelled them from miles away, they attempted to fatten up the survivors on peas and beans and forced them to exercise so they could at least stand to be sold off at what amounted to cattle auctions. Some of these bond-servant voyages, admitted the prospering captains, made the Liverpool slave traders' infamous Middle Passage look like a Sunday excursion to the Isle of Wight.
But now they shipped their white slaves in a much more enlightened era, under the beneficent rule of George III, of John Wilkes' gracious influence and of Lord North's restive Parliamentary edicts. Successful ship masters washed their holystoned decks and reeking holds with vinegar water. They dosed the puking servants-to-be with diluted lime juice and led their blinking passengers on deck almost every day in decent weather and had them jig or at least walk about and get some sun although many had to do this by shifts for lack of deck space. They forced their ambulatory cargo to use the heads and disposed of rapidly putrefying bodies as quickly as possible. They watched for signs of rot in the salt horse and dried fish that were diet staples and cut away putrid parts when they could.
They still crammed in as many freighters as possible, but they now had better ventilated spaces and seldom lost as much as ten percent unless they were unlucky enough to have an outbreak of dysentery, typhus, or the plague. However, when the winter winds turned contrary and the voyage stretched out beyond three months, they had to ration both water and food. Then only the strongest or meanest survived.
Over in the Atlantic colonies during the second half of the 18th century home-grown, chattel slaves had been replacing imported, indentured servants and the less-expensive but more-troublesome, transported criminals at an increasing rate. Some middle-colony planters now found more profit in breeding Negroes than in cultivating sot weed. The price had narrowed between the two herds of workers as slave children came on the market, many more brown than black, and the raffish reputation of some of the Irish and Scottish "redemptioners" harmed the white trade as did their fabled inability to survive the "hardening" process.
Even stoic Marylanders were getting picky about taking convicted felons these days while most were still willing to accept political prisoners or those jailed for their religious beliefs or lack of them. And, of course, the trade was no longer in tobacco, but in coin of the realm or its equivalent in the numerous hard monies circulating in the American colonies.
At his usual table as the smoky lamps were lit, bent over his seldom-empty mug of gin, Eben String impatiently watched the shuffling parade of early drinkers come and go. He kept his private bottle between his feet and clicked the few teeth he had left on the mug's thick rim in time to some interior melody. When he spied a likely young man finishing his pint or dram, he would invite him to his table and pour him a drink or two from the poteen jar while he extolled the merits of not-so-distant Mary-land. He could do this now by reflex and in what seemed a confidential and sincere manner, his claw-like hand on his new-found friend's forearm, testing for muscle.
On occasion when time and tide were pressing, he had resorted to drugs, but usually two or three strong drinks were enough for those accustomed to ale and grog. Much better than being pressed into the bleeding Navy, Eben Spring told many yeomen with a knowing grin as he shook their sweaty hands and led them into more-or-less voluntary servitude. Few knew they could bargain over bond terms and most simply made their scrawled mark where they were told and woke up on a heaving ship with a terrible headache, a pressing need to urinate and a vague memory of somehow deciding to go to North America.
At this vile tavern, The Bell and Bowl, String now worked with a fat Welsh trollop of sixteen or so whose broad hips and incredibly upright breasts attracted more young men than they repulsed. She was presently roistering with two brawny boys who would soon be safely tucked into the hold of the Janet Lune harboring a few more lice than they had brought to the big city. The first time the crewmen sluiced them down with sea water, they might discover some odd growths or small critters on their private parts, but that was small enough price for a trip to a better life in the New World, was it not? By then Eben String would have invested the shillings he earned from bartering their full grown bodies on much younger, but often willing flesh.
"No wimmen in here, laddyo," barked the prickly innkeeper to a obviously-tired but rugged-looking pair just off the filthy street.
"This 'ere's m'wife," said the young man, pulling off his dusty cap and knuckling his forehead as if he were addressing the titled lord of some towered manor.
"Don't care if she's the bleedin' princess of friggin' Dorchester, get 'er skinny ass out of 'ere."
"Wait, Tim," spoke Eben String quickly, raising a crooked forefinger. "They c'n perch at my table."
"Don't like no women in 'ere 'cept my own," said the scowling man. "Have enough trouble with them jades. Reminds me, Stringer, your Polly ain't paid this week."
String flipped the barkeep a shilling and ushered the tattered couple to his scarred table. He wiped two small glasses on his sleeve and poured each of them a generous portion of raw whiskey from his brown jug. "Drink hearty," he said. "Where about's you pilgrims from?"
"Cornwall, d'mines that was, Lord bless 'em," said the young man with pale blue eyes. His matted hair hung loose and his mended clothes looked too large on his lean, big-boned frame. He downed his drink in a gulp. The woman, equally pale and only a bit more robust, wore a dress of uncertain color with thorns replacing the missing buttons down its front, a soiled kerchief about her neck and a frayed, loosely-knit shawl. String refilled the man's empty glass, but the woman put her hand atop her half-full one and shook her head. She watched her husband with a patient, thin-lipped look, a scattering of tan freckles across her prominent cheekbones and pain in her grey eyes. The Cornishman shook as the alcohol cleared his mouth, fumed in his nose and burned down to his empty belly.
Behind them String saw his faux-amorous Polly stumbling down the stair case, coughing and pulling her lace-laden sleeve and dirty shift up to cover the dark nipple of one huge, jiggling pyramid. He caught her eye and nodded toward the bar and the tot he knew she needed. She slid in that direction with what passed for a smile on her pock-marked face. Almost two years in the trade and about finished, String decided, mostly from raw opium and cheap gin as well as a pair of crude abortions at a dock stanchion. Soon have to be on the lookout for another.
Behind her tumbled the two muscular rustics who had been doing their best to horse her. Must be like swiving a freight canal, thought the spirit with a slight shudder. The young men were hitching up their britches, stuffing in their loose shirts and grinning like the randy fools they were, and now the grey-headed predator was ready to pounce and profit.
"Be back in a wee minute, friends. Help yourself," String said to the travel-worn pair at his table, pushing the half-filled bottle between them. He scurried across the crowded room like some oversized hedgehog.
"Plenty more where she come from, m'boys, ripe and eager ones." He pulled out two of his printed cards and handed them to the dark-haired, broad-backed mechanics. "Just make your easy way to the docks, find number seventeen and g'this to the mate of the Janet Lune. Can either of y'read? 'Ere, I'll write it out. Be sure you get the right ship now less y'end up in Africa. Seventeen. Tell the mate Eben String sent y'along, Phil's his name, but mind now, y'call 'im 'sir.' Tell 'im you're to be signed aboard. A fine ship, it is. There's girls in America eager to bed giant cocksmen like you two whoremongers, there are that. They'll wear ya out, they will."
"Hah, not likely," said the larger of the two. "M'brother and me, well, jus' you lead us to 'em." He scratched his crotch and then put his hand to his mouth and looked as if he might vomit right there in the dank, narrow stairwell.
"Come, Benjy," said his slightly smaller brother, who might well have gone fifteen stone and whose shoulders barely fit through the door, "You'll feel better outside. G'day, Mr. String. We'll go find the ship, don' you worry none, seventeen it is, sir, seventeen."
They staggered through the door, and the younger man pounded his brother's throbbing back while he voided his stomach into the rain-washed gutter. When he finished shuddering and wiped his nose, they swayed on down toward the Thames, singing a bawdy ballad about foxes and hares. String returned to his table, mentally adding a couple of crowns to his take.
"Now," the small man said with what he thought of as a friendly if gap-toothed smile. "What c'n I do for you two travelers?"
"Looking t'work," said the man, banging his empty glass to the table.
"What sort?" asked String, lifting an eyebrow and filling the glass. "What kin ya do?"
"Farm, dig, split wood, mine, mill, most anything ye has."
"A 'ard worker, my Clem is," said the woman, speaking very softly and pulling her shawl together across her thin chest. "An' a good man."
"Peckish are ya?" asked String, looking at the man's sunken eyes.
"Ah, yes. 'Ad but water since yest'day, at a stableyard well over on d'South Bank. Wagon man put us off, 'e give us directions. Chewed grass n'nettles, wife and me did, like sheep."
"We've walked much a'the way," said his uneasy wife, her hand upon her husband's, her grey eyes wary, breathing unsteady.
"Le'me get ya some pasties. They's not too bad," String announced. He stepped to the bar and returned to the table with a greasy trencher holding three pale, fist-sized meat pies. The man grabbed one in a broad, dirt-blackened hand and devoured it in two or three bites. String saw that the young miner was missing a thumb and the upper joints from two fingers on his left hand. He hoped the purser on the ship would not notice.
"You'll need a beer," said String, beckoning. Polly set two pints on the table with a vacant smile and waddled away to her room with one of her regulars in tow, a fisherman by his smell.
The lean young woman ate more carefully but with equal hunger. When the plate was almost clean of crumbs, String asked. "Have you thought of America yet? You know London's full of country folk looking for work nowadays."
"We 'ave," said the man, licking his thumb, "but can't afford the passage. Not 'ardly."
"Have you not 'eard of bonding for it, indenture some calls it?" asked String warmly. "Many find it a good way to start over. Y'knows of the redemptioners, surely."
"Yes, we've 'eard," said the woman, pleased that she was aware of the wider world. "Work for passage, like. We c'do that."
"Well now, friend of mine is gettin' ready to sail to the Chesapeake shores, tonight perhaps. If you'd like, I could put in a word for you both. Good food on that ship, I'm sure, and they's bound for America." The weary spirit mumbled on, sniffing his gin fumes but attentive for signs of interest.
The young pair leaned forward to hear him and then looked at each other. The man nodded and clenched his jaw; the woman sighed and silently prayed as she often did of late.
"Come then. No time like now. I 'ope they'll take you both, 'ope they has room." String rose quickly and the couple followed him out of the noisy tavern and down to the docks, avoiding the filth and eyeing all the strange, half-lit alley sights they had never thought to see, a forest of shivering, bare masts tilting before them.
String led them up the busy quay and, with a nimble leap, onto the long, narrow ship with its huge main mast and only slightly smaller fore mast, both raked and carrying heavy fore-and-aft rigging and furled sails. He was happy to see that his hefty pair from Polly's recent swiving were in the process of being signed to bonds on the small quarterdeck. Oxen, thought the elderly spirit with a mix of awe and contempt as he glanced at their broad backs.
"This 'ere is Mister Philips, the first mate of the Janet Lune," said String with a slight bow to the man wearing a dark, tight-fitting jacket, small wig and cocked hat. His folded right sleeve hung empty, and he carried a tarred rope end in his left hand as if it were a riding crop. His smallpox-marked cheeks seemed somehow bent.
"How do?" said the mate, lifting the thick piece of rope toward his brow. "Welcome aboard. Are you for America?"
"Might be, aye," said the young man, a bit unsteady, his colorless hair falling into his eyes and his stomach in turmoil. "Jus' might be."
"She's a fine ship, sound and freshly caulked, barely three years old, sir. Some call her a brig, she's so commodious. We've an airy hold and often do the trip in six weeks or so." He smiled with the practiced lie, showing a smooth scar that ran from one corner of his misshapen mouth to his torn ear. Sailing this late in the season, he knew they would be lucky to make the crossing in two months.
"What about vittles?" asked the man as his wife looked about at the clean and orderly deck where the ropes were all coiled into neat circles and the brass fittings glowed.
"Oh, let's see now, last trip it was cod, really good hard cheese, beef, least they called it beef," he gave a chuckle to show he doubted the beef. "We have ship's biscuit, good peas I know, bread, raisins, various soups and, of course, citrus. Sour but it keeps y'healthy, it does."
"Where would we be sleeping?" the wife said, and the mate looked at her in a way that made her uneasy, wishing she had not asked about such a private thing. She felt her chin quivering, crimped her mouth and commanded it to stop.
"Below, just as the crew does," the mate gestured toward a large, square hatch with his heavy rope end. "It's crowded but dry."
The man walked to the hatch combing and looked down to see double rows of hammocks gently rocking with the ship's slight motion. They looked to be two or three feet apart.
"What would it cost then?" asked the young man, standing as tall as he could, his arm around his wife's thin shoulders, his belly rumbling.
"For the two of you?" asked the mate, pursing his lips.
"Fifteen pounds, on the barrelhead," said the mate, inventing a price. "As good a rate as y'll find on the river."
"M'lord in heaven," said the young man. "Never seen that much, m'whole life."
"Moit we work it off, sir?" asked his wife, who had known little but hard work since she was nine years old. She had never been so far from her home but harbored few regrets about leaving.
"Hardly think you're a sailor, ma'm, and we have a good cook. Have you sailed, m'boy?" he asked the young Cornishman, with a forced smile.
"Never. Fished a bit, a'course." He shook his head. "Twasn't there another way? This man 'ere said, well?"
"Yes, indeed yes, sign the bond and do the work in America. Many choose that. Those big lads you see over there by the rail, they just signed on."
"Did they now?" the man said. "C'n I go talk wi' them, then?"
The mate looked at Eben String who nodded. "I'll leave you to it," said String, clapping the young man on his broad but bony back. "Good luck and safe voyage. You too, mum."
"Thank you, sir," said the wife extending her hand to String. He touched it and turned on his heel, scrambling ashore, calculating his fortnight's earnings and wiping his hand on his faded lapel. He doubted the mate would accept the woman, but it was surely not his problem.
Meanwhile her husband had approached the pair of large, dark, young men, one of whom was heaving over the rail.
"Seasick already?" asked the Cornishman.
"Naw, he just drank too much. Bad stuff, that, rotgut swill," said the younger brother with a friendly smile on his broad features.
"You going to America?"
"Right, the Maryland colony's our destination."
"Working it off, are you then?"
"Yes, just signed bonds, we did," said the former farm hand and sometime mill worker, still patting his choking brother's broad back. In their first visit to the city, they had never been away from the smell of the river, but their three days made them experienced in Clemence's tired eyes.
"What might that mean?" asked the angular Cornishman, twirling his worn hat in his hands.
"Means, when we gets there, some rich man, planter most likely, mill owner per'aps, 'e pays for our passage, and we works four years to pay 'im back. I'm hoping we'll stay together, Ben an' me, but we might not."
"Right, we're young. At the end, then, we gets some clothes, a bit of silver and land, fifty acres they say. Ain't that right, Benjy?"
The older brother groaned and nodded his shaggy head.
"Fifty acres?" exclaimed Clemence, who had hoped some day to own two or three, as much as ten acres only in his wildest dreams. His father had never owned an acre and his rich uncle had only three and a bit with a crumbling stone wall about it.
"That's what we was told by that little man you was wi' just now. Come brother, let's get you some water." The hairy-armed pair walked carefully to a barrel and the lank young man returned to his waiting wife.
"Well," she asked anxiously.
"I think we should chance it," he said, almost whispering. "We've nought but a few pence an' nowhere to put our 'eads. We might start over, and in four years we'll still be young."
"Four years, oh, Clemence, four years." She put her hand over her heart.
The mate, with the flowing tide on his mind, pointed them toward steps that led to the purser's table as two more men and a boy stepped aboard his ship. The wizened purser looked up and gestured the young couple to his waiting stools.
"Want to sign a bond, do ye both?" he asked in a Highland burr.
"W'do," said Clemence, "the wife and me."
"Kin you read any now?" asked the purser.
"I do a bit. Bible verses," said the young woman modestly, pulling her brown shawl up over her mousey hair and knowing that most of what she called reading was reciting stories she had learned by heart. "And w'both can write our names."
"Good, good," the frail purser said, straightening his unkempt wig. "You'll understand, I hope, that women are not really welcome, ma'am."
"No," she said, frightened, "That old man that brung us here, he..."
"Ah, Mr. Stringfellow was it. Thought I saw him scurry off. He should've known better, the wag. T'would be easier if you stayed behind, m'am, until yer man could send f'ya, pay your passage like." He looked up at the lean pair before him and saw their determination and despair. "Well, then, here's the lay of it. Right now we have two fine girls, nieces of the captain's wife or some such, who'll be up here in the cabin. Ship owner's daughters, they be." He jerked his thumb to indicate the door behind him. "Down below, I believe, let me see," and he shuffled through a stack of paper, "yes, three other women, wives, have signed on. All a bit older than you, m'am, I believe, but with a skill. Weavers, they is, least two claim to be; t'other's man's a tinker. Hm." He shook his head and looked doubtful.
"Just three," the Cornishman asked, rubbing his stubbled chin.
"Aye, and that's three more than the cap'n would like."
"And how many men?" the wife asked as worry twisted her insides and grooved her forehead.
"A hundred and some includin' a few boys," said the purser, trying not to smile at the odds. "And there's almost no privacy, I'm afraid, if that's a concern. You see the heads there, we all use 'em. You kin try to put the married couples together if you wants, but it's packed at night I fear, no beds or soft mattresses, just hammocks and hardly room to stretch. Ah but no one sleeps right on the deck as they did in the old days or on nought bu' straw." He smiled at his own jibe. "Perhaps we can find a space forward for the women. We had none last trip, no women a'tall, not a one."
"W'can stand that for a month or so," the young miner said, ignoring the furrows creasing his wife's brow. "Where do w'sign? T'would 'elp if you'd say 'ow this d'work?"
"Well, here you sign this paper and I witnesses it. In Maryland someone will purchase your bond for ye to work off the time, and then he'll sign and pay, an' ye each gets half. That's how we gets paid for the voyage and the grub. You'll be agreeing to serve him faithfully and not run off. Your wife will also agree to have no bairn during her years of service. Men what's unmarried are forbid to wed during their time."
"What if she do? Has a baby?" asked the young man, obviously worried by this new condition and hopeful of becoming a father as soon as he possibly could. It had been his hope for some time.
"It will add a year to her time, for loss of service and care of the young one until it's weaned. It's only fair, now isn't it?"
The gaunt man and harried woman looked at each other, sharing concern and longing. They had been married less than a year with no sign of a child so far. Clemence had worked so hard and long at the mines that they seldom had achieved successful conjugal relations, morning or night, even on Sundays.
"Aw'right," said the Cornishman, taking the filthy quill held out to him.
"Wait," said his wife, her prayer swallowed in the fearful beating of her heart. "This says 'five' here, five years. I c'n read that."
"That's right, and it'll be five for each of you. Women, m'am, well, there's no market for 'em nowadays. Maryland has a'plenty, black and white, brown and yellow, so your man 'ere will have to take up the slack. Do an extra year for your passage. That's the way of it. Makes him more valuable. Doubt we'll get two pounds for your bond, ma'am, no offense intended. Won't pay for yer food."
"And five years for me," the woman asked, her lower lip trembling,, "an' no babies all that time?"
"Aye, you understand perfect-like. Sign here," the purser gestured with his thumb. "There's others waiting to come aboard, and we must catch the tide.
The young man laboriously wrote his name on the bond and his wife scrawled hers on another, holding back her light-brown hair as she bent to do so. The purser signed and sanded both and said, "Good luck to you. I'll do what I can about sleeping spaces." He put papers aside, the couple out of his mind and turned his attention to the gawky boy standing behind them.
"How old are yer, laddie?" he asked as the young pair vanished from his mind.
"Good water, at least," said Clemence, coughing into his hand. "We'll be all right. Don't y'start t'worry, girl."
His wife hugged him, feeling his ribs and backbone, half wishing they were still in her family's cottage in Cornwall. At the rail they stood next to the young men her husband had spoken with and exchanged greetings.
"This 'ere's Matthew and I'm Benjamin," said the larger and older brother, who reminded many of a friendly work horse, big feet and all. "Good t'meet you." He smiled down at Elizabeth as the Cornishman named his young wife to them. "You must be 'bout the only lady aboard. I hain't seen another."
"Man said t'were two girls in the cabin and three wives t'was passengers like me." Elizabeth said, wondering if they had been lied to and hoping they were making a good decision, silently praying they had.
"Hain't seen 'em," Benjamin said. "You Matt?"
His brother shook his shaggy head, and the four watched as dozens of young men in a wide variety of costumes, but mostly knee pants, loose shirts and long, brown coats or waistcoats, scrambled aboard following the repeated blowing of the large-belled horn. No skirts or bonnets broke the mold.
"Guess they went for a last wet and a farewell screw," said Benjamin. Then he gulped, embarrassed, "Oh, sorry, mistress, jus' my crude way."
Elizabeth looked down at the scummy debris bobbing atop the green-tinged Thames and forced herself not to smile. She bobbed her head toward Ben with narrowed eyes, accepting his quick apology.
The deck soon was filled with men, few of whom appeared to be over thirty. Some trooped below, often with a glance at Elizabeth, while others crowded the rail, smelling of tobacco, beer and sweat. On the dock a man and woman suddenly drew attention by their increasingly loud argument. The woman was thrashing about and yelling that she would not, and the man was cuffing her and saying she must. Finally the woman kicked at the man and with a flutter of petticoats, ran off into the darkness between the warehouses. The man rubbed his shin, spat and stumbled aboard.
The horn sounded again and a few more men and boys trotted toward the ship, giving their names to the first mate at the gangway who ticked them off his long list. Some ragged men in chains shambled aboard and were stuffed into the hold. Their uniformed guard soon emerged with the clinking chain wrapped about his arm. Barefoot sailors ran from a smaller, forward hatch and began raising the boom and unfurling a large, heavy sail. A door under the quarterdeck opened emitting a fan of light and the ship's captain, a tall, gaunt man with side whiskers. He looked about and called, "Mr. Philips, clear the deck, if you please, sir, and single up."
The first mate and one of his men began encouraging and then pushing the passengers on the long, narrow deck toward the ladders at two large hatches as still other men clambered over the low rail. Clemence now saw why one-armed Philips carried that tarred rope end. He used it as a prod and club to hurry along stragglers, shoving them in the back and striking at their shoulders. "Get below, get below there," the mate cried as he and his snarling quartermasters swept the deck. "Get down there, damn you, move along." The crowd of men, some wearing felt hats and reasonably stylish clothes but many more in homespun and rough Scotch or German cloth, moved quietly, unsurely, toward the dark hold.
Benjamin and his brother shuffled along in the mob, and Clemence and Elizabeth followed them, both looking for other women. In the dusky hold, fast-moving crew members hung more hammocks between those that had already been rigged. Now a space about eighteen inches wide would house and sleep passengers in two tiers of narrow, swinging canvas beds, an improvement over the noisome 'tween decks stowage on the bare wood shelves of earlier times. The long, windowless hold with its exposed ribs was about five feet high where the heavy deck-beams crossed. Many of the men had to walk stooped over or repeatedly crack their heads as they sought out an untaken hammock along the crowded aisles that narrowed at both ends. Elizabeth's hair barely brushed the adz-hewn timbers as she dodged the crew men and her fellow passengers, nerves atingle, senses alert.
A few lanterns hung from the beams and there was a scattering of trampled straw on the rough deck. The crowd milled about as the quartermaster tried to get every man next to a hammock. "Find a bleeding 'ammock now and take 'old of it. Be quick now. Note the number on the hook end; it's painted on the 'ammock too. You'll be bringing those 'ammocks up for airing, and I expect you to get them back in the right places. No disputes, none, y'hear. That's your place, your 'ome. Quiet down now." Suddenly a bald man in tattered clothing ran up the far ladder and those in the hold could hear his feet slapping on the deck and then the splash as he jumped into the murky harbor.
"Ignore that, you lot," yelled the quartermaster. "They'll fish him out and ship 'im back to jail w'a few more stripes on 'is stupid back. If 'e's lucky, 'e'll sink."
The crowd settled to a murmuring, coughing herd in the dank, low-ceilinged area. A few had rucksacks, small cases or cloth bags of goods which they stowed in the swaying beds. Clemence and Elizabeth squatted and took hold of two, lower-level hammocks and their new-found friends gathered in the rough, canvas beds on either side of them, Benjamin shouldering away a man who was about to install himself at one.
"Now," said the quartermaster. "You keep your 'ands off each other. We want no fights and no buggery. That's a 'anging offense, buggery is, and we'll find a yardarm to dangle y'from. Keep it in your britches down here. There's a woman or two in 'ere somewheres, more's the pity. You'll leave them alone, too. They's all married and w'their men. And no stealing, not that any of you lot's anything werf takin', but there's some transports among you, pardoned they is, like the one you saw try to escape a minute or two back. They caught 'im, if you wants to know.
"If we share, we'll do fine, 'ave plenty to eat and good water for all. Pigs an' bullies an' such will find themselves livin' up on deck, on 'ard bread and in 'eavy chains. Now, you're to stay down 'ere 'till morning while we gets this fine barky down this 'ere old river, catching the tide that's running. There's slop buckets for'ard at the bulkhead if you must. Save your shit for the heads you was showed on deck."
"What about food," somebody called.
"In the morning," said the quartermaster from the ladder. "Now quiet down." The hatch cover slammed closed.
Elizabeth trembled and wished she had never left home. She sighed, standing on tip toe, looking hard into the gloom and wondering if she was the only woman in the hold of the Janet Lune.
Canvas awnings at the scuttles helped bring cool, moist, night air along with the smell of fish and sewage down to the crowded hold where a hundred and fourteen restless bodies swung inches from each other. The ship had been moving for more than an hour and a few men had vomited into the buckets and a few more had relieved their ale-swollen bladders. The hold, despite the improved ventilation, smelled of sweat and urine.
Men snored and moaned, tossed and sighed, cursed and complained. Two noisy fights had briefly flared and then quickly faded into muttered oaths. Pale moonlight shifted through the latticework hatchcovers. The hiss of water flowing past the sides of the ship became a constant undertone along with creak of the huge masts and taut rigging. The occasional slap of the sailors' bare feet on the deck above and the staccato cries of the officers roused light sleepers.
To Elizabeth's right Benjamin, the large Kentish laborer, lay oblivious, one gnarled hand grazing the deck and the other at his thick breastbone, his broken-nosed snoring a deep and steady buzz. On her other side, her husband lay staring, unseeing, at the sagging hammock a foot or so above him. He held his wife's warm hand in his disfigured one. His body shivered from time to time although the hold was bakery warm. Dark-bearded Matthew lay on the other side of Clemence, having unbuttoned his waist and tried to curl into his usual sleeping position. He was having little success and flailed aimlessly. Unwanted images of the foul, young woman he and his brother had gleefully fondled flickered brightly and dissolved slowly as he rolled in and out of consciousness.
Clemence dropped his wife's fingers and fell more deeply asleep, eyes fluttering. Elizabeth crossed her hands atop her lean stomach and prayed that they had done the right thing as she let herself descend into the strangely- shivering, constantly-moving darkness in a sagging bed that steadily swayed. She had never been far from home nor on a ship, for that matter. Images of trotting sheep, waving gorse and rolling fields flitted behind her eyes. They were off to America and five years of work for someone they had yet to meet. Maybe we've made a terrible mistake. In five years, I'll be twenty-four, she thought, drawing a deep breath, still young enough, surely. She exhaled very slowly. We'll start our family then and have our own farm, our own cottage, our own babies. She shivered and fell asleep trying to imagine a mythic Maryland of shady woods, stone walls and green fields.
Elizabeth awoke and looked up through the now-open hatch at the huge, fluttering sail. She knew at once where she was and listened to the ship's sounds; creaks, thumps, and groans over the constant sluice of water down its sleekly straked sides; a seemingly distant bell sounded pairs of faint clangs. The sky was shedding its starry blackness although color had yet to return to the world. Small gray clouds scudded across the square of pale light above her.
She quickly began her usual morning prayer of thanksgiving and carefully rolled from her hammock, thanking God for another day and looking at her exhausted husband. He lay with his mouth open, soundlessly breathing, deep asleep, his bony face almost cadaverous. The lean woman glanced around the hold at the ranks of sleeping men, the tan or gray hammocks all sagging with their weight. She listened to the variety of nearby snores. Some men had their goods or coats stuffed between their feet and legs or under their heads. She stood and stretched, careful not to jostle her sleeping neighbors in the upper rank. She still had not spied another woman but pushed that worry aside to listen to her body's needs.
The young wife made her way through the meager straw toward the ladder, barely touching occupied hammocks as she wove across the slanting floor in the misty half light, hands outstretched to balance her. She could not help but see that some men's turbid members had escaped their clothes. Like toadstoods, she thought. Near the hatch, a man grasped his swollen root, milking it as if it were a cow's teat. She tore her eyes away, unable to avoid the gaping man's mottled face. His hooded eyes lay barely open. He grinned at her.
Elizabeth climbed the ladder holding her breath as the ship rolled and jounced. She stepped carefully out on the canted deck. The huge mainsail, source of the heavy popping and steady thrumming sound, filled her view forward, and she could see that a smaller, triangular sail had been raised at the ship's prow. Behind her on the higher part of the deck a man stood at the wheel with another pacing behind him crowlike. As her eyes adjusted to the pale pre-dawn light, she saw that it was the captain with the whiskers who walked back and forth from rail to rail, his hands clasped behind him, coat tails flapping. He seemed to be sniffing the breeze as his beard blew to and fro.
Two sailors stood by ropes connected to the long wooden boom that shivered beneath the mainsail. On the lower side of the ship several men, passengers from their dress, bent over the rail, rising and then bending again from time to time, coughing and spitting. She had heard of sea-sickness and assumed that was the cause of their discomfort although she guessed that the final activities Benjamin had mentioned might also have produced some uneasy stomachs.
The lean woman raked back her hair and made her way to one of the aft heads that jutted out over the side of the ship like privies without their sheltering walls. She carefully raised her skirt and shift and took care of her bodily needs, finding privacy by closing her eyes. No one seemed to notice her. She was grateful for that. She straightened her clothes, felt that one of the fastening thorns had fallen from the bodice of her threadbare dress, and walked across the deck to the two lounging sailors near the forecastle hatch, the damp planks cool to her bare feet.
"Mornin'," she said, essaying a smile. They nodded at her, impassive.
"Can ye tell me where we are?" she asked, shading her eyes in the growing glare.
"No'm, lease not per'zactly, miss," the older one said, taking his short-stemmed pipe from his mouth. "We passed Gren'ich and the Dogs back a while. We's making five knots easy. Thames estuary s'pose you'd call it. We's cleared from Grave's End, all neat an' proper."
"When's breakfast then?" she asked. Her stomach ached, and she remembered the scrawny man's stale pasty.
"Nex' time you hear's the bell ring. It'll be in twos, bing-bang. That'll be feedin' time. Galley fires 'as been lit, y'see there." He sniffed the air.
"Hour or so, I reckon," said the taller crewman, glancing at the blood-colored eastern skyline. The shorter one sucked his pipe and said nothing, staring at Elizabeth's feet after noting her sharp pelvis.
"Thank you," the young woman said, bobbing her head, and she began to approach the hatch with the intention of going back to her hammock, her wooden clogs and her sleeping husband. At the ladder, she changed her mind, not wishing the see the man who was abusing himself or the other horny young males in the hold. Her husband had awakened like that a few mornings. She decided she would rather watch the sun rise like a gob of molten gold emerging from a field of slate.
As she turned from the hatch, a half-dressed man vaulted up from below and ran toward the rail, violently throwing up, his bare bottom fully revealed. He stood there, wearing only his shirt, shaking and moaning and then vomited again into the gray-green sea, skinny legs shaking. The pipe-smoking sailor, still wordless, dropped a leather bucket on a rope over the side and then splashed sea water over the vomit on the deck, wetting the seasick passenger to his bare knees. The man turned, obviously angry, and the sailor hit him in the chest with the bucket and then handed him the rope.
"'Ere," he said with a growl. "Clean up ater y'sef, y'lubber." He strode back to his companion at the boom, puffing deeply on his short pipe and suppressing a smile.
Elizabeth walked to the bow of the ship, past the rope-wound capstan and smoking galley stack. She stood near the jib sail, listening to it flutter and snap in the shifting wind and wondering about the dangling tell-tales. She found she enjoyed the schooner's smooth motions and the smell of the fresh salt air, the occasional flecks of spray that stung her face. The clean deck felt good under her walked-out feet.
She watched birds wheeling and crying above and searched the horizon for land without seeing any. She pried a splinter from the railing and closed her bodice with it. Elizabeth wondered if they were in the Atlantic already and how long it would take to reach America. She also wondered where Maryland was. She gripped the rail, closed her eyes and tried to see it in her mind: turreted castles, red Indians, busy ports, rolling hills, tobacco fields, black slaves. She could not picture the tobacco fields and inwardly smiled at her failure.
Elizabeth jumped when Clemence touched her back. "I was that worried 'bout you," he said as she turned to face him. "Surprised t'see your bed, your 'ammock empty."
"Yes, of no moment, m'dear. Ye were sleeping. I needed t'use, you know, didn' want t'disturb you." She stood on tip-toe and kissed his stubbled cheek with her hand at his sharp-edged pelvis. "G'mornin'. We'll eat soon. Why don't y'go visit the 'eads before more men are about?"
"Good idea, lass. Wait 'ere," he said as he stumbled away, catching himself on one of the many ropes attached to ring bolts on the deck, tied to the rails or cleated to the thick main mast.
A long roller raised the ship, and Elizabeth had a brief glimpse of a stone lighthouse, chalky cliffs and the green fields rising behind them. Then the ship slowly fell and the land disappeared.