by Celia Rees
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A fragment from the unpublished Further True and Remarkable Adventures of Minerva Sharpe and Nancy Kington, Female Pirates…
I had not thought to write on these matters again, for what adventures do I have now? I am the wife of a captain in the King’s Navy, but duty takes my own dear William away from me all too often and without his company my life here in New York is dull. My housekeeper, Mrs Chandler, is of the opinion that I do not have enough to occupy myself, that there should be a child in the house. It is not for want of trying, but so far we have not been blessed.
From the upstairs window of our house on Pearl Street, I can see the docks where the masts cluster, thick as a forest. I have made that room my own and sit by the open window, despite Mrs Chandler’s warnings about dangerous miasmas. I grew up not a stone’s cast from Bristol Docks. The creaking of the ropes, the mud and seaweed smell from the harbour remind me of home. Salt on the wind reminds me of Minerva. It is seven long years since I last saw or spoke to her, but I think about her every hour of every day.
I was sitting at my window musing on these things, when there was a knock at the door.
‘Madam, there is a,’ Mrs Chandler stopped, lost for the correct term, her narrow lips compressed in a thin, disapproving line. ‘There is a – person – to see you.’
‘A sailor by the looks of him.’
‘Here to see William?’
‘No, Madam. Here to see you.’
‘Well, send him up to me.’
‘I have bade him wait in the hall. It is not…,’ she looked about my chamber, ‘it would not be seemly. I think that you had better come down.’
I followed her to the stairs, wondering about the identity of this person who could not be allowed up to the private regions of the house. The young man in question was standing with his back to us, neatly turned out in clean white trowsers and a short blue jacket. He wore buckled shoes and his hair tied back neatly in a cue. He held a cap behind his back which he turned through his hands as he paced back and forth, as though he was apprehensive, nervous about the interview.
He was tall and slender. There was something about his stance, the way he held his shoulders… Was it possible? Some part of me was always on the look out, on the bustling thoroughfares of London, on the choked and busy streets of New York. I had often stood, rapt, caught by the glimpse of a face, a certain walk, the turn of a head, but it was never her. How could it be? I was here and she was far away in Madagascar.
‘Sir, you wished to…’
The young man turned at the sound of my voice and the words of greeting died in my mouth. It was her, looking just the same, younger if anything, her dark eyes alive with the joy of her surprise, her mouth curving up into a wide smile, the ruby earring she was wearing, glowing against the coppery sheen of her skin. I flew down the rest of the stairs, my arms open wide.
Minerva was wearing her old disguise but she was the dearest friend I’d ever had in all world. I cared little for how scandalised Mrs Chandler would be to see me swept into the embrace of a young man of colour.
‘This is Mr Jupiter Jones,’ I said, remembering the name Minerva went by when she was a sailor. ‘An old friend from long ago.’
The good woman was clutching the banister as if she would faint. She held a handkerchief to her mouth as if to stifle a cry of horror. She did not see two dear friends united. All she saw was her mistress in the arms of a mulatto tar.
‘Pleased, I’m sure,’ she said nothing more, but watched us from her place on the stairs. It was clear that she did not intend to leave us alone together and I could not risk more scandal by ordering her away.
‘We must talk,’ I said to Minerva, ‘but not here. Where are you staying?’
‘The Triton. On Duke Street.’
‘I know it. I’ll come to you there.’
‘It’s a rough kind of place, Nancy. I don’t think…’
‘I’ve been in worse.’ I waved her objections away. ‘Remember that place in Nassau? I’ll meet you tonight at 8 o’clock.’
What was she doing here in New York? What had happened to her since we parted? I longed to know everything. The time passed so slowly, that I checked the clocks to see if they were wound, but at last the hour drew near and I got ready to go to our meeting. To venture as a woman into those streets by the docks would be asking for trouble, so I went to my old sea trunk. It had not been open these seven years and I caught the salt sea smell and the faint tang of tar. Deep down, hidden right at the bottom, I found my sailor’s rig.
The Triton Tavern was loud with the sound of squeeze box and fiddle and roaring with sailors, fresh from the sea with their pockets full of money, and tinkling with the laughter of those eager to part them from their pay. I shouldered my way into the throng, no longer Mrs William Davies, wife of Captain in His Majesty’s Navy; I was Davey Gordon looking for an old ship mate.
There was no sign of Minerva, but I was not alone for long. A thin faced girl sidled over to me.
‘Hello, dearie. Wanting some company?’
I shook my head. ‘I’m looking for a friend. Jupiter Jones. He’s lodging here.’
Her painted smile slipped and her shoulders sagged.
‘Best ask the landlord. That’s him, over there. Black Sam they call him.’
I looked over at the man leaning on the bar. The landlord of Triton’s was a big fellow. He wore his hair long, in a thick mane held back by red bandana and the glossy growth on his face started just below his gleaming black eyes.
‘Thank you.’ I reached in my pocket and found a shilling for her trouble.
‘Much obliged.’ She tucked the coin away in her skirts. ‘A word of warning, since you’ve been so generous. Find your friend and get out of here. There’s going to be trouble later, mark my word. He ain’t called Black Sam just on account of the ‘air.’
The innkeeper turned as I called his name.
‘I’m looking for Jupiter Jones,’ I said by way of introduction. ‘I was told he was staying here.’
‘Maybe,’ Black Sam looked down at me. ‘Who wants to know?’
‘An old ship mate, Davey Gordon.’
‘Ship mate, you say?’ He caught hold of my hands, turning them to show the soft palms. ‘Long time since them grabbed hold of any rigging. Well, young Davey. He ain’t here, see? Now why don’t you have a drink a long a’ me? Let me help you to a noggin of our finest Jamaicy rum.’
I waved away the evil black liquid he was pouring. Rot gut cane spirit heavily cut with molasses.
‘No, thank you.’
‘I insist. It’s on the house. We’d take it amiss if you didn’t partake.’ He winked at the weasel faced fellow sitting next to him. ‘Wouldn’t we, Jake?
‘Certainly, we would.’ His friend pushed the horn beaker towards me. ‘Drink up, young sir.’
What sailor ever refused a drink? I did not want to stand out as different so I took a gulp. The liquor left me gasping and tasted as vile as it looked but I forced it down, only to find my beaker re-filled.
‘That’s more like it!’ Black Sam grinned. ‘And again. Put some roses in them lilywhite cheeks. This is a place of merriment. No one leaves Triton’s less than reeling. Ain’t that so, Jakey boy?’
Their eyes were on me, greedy and curious. I could not risk them guessing at my disguise, so I took another drink. Then another.
‘That’s enough!’ A thin, brown hand covered the top of the cup. ‘He ain’t one of your marks, Sam Gentry. He’s no snotty lubber for you to bamboozle. He’s a friend of mine.’ Minerva turned me away from them. ‘I meant to be here to meet you,’ she whispered, ‘but I was delayed at the docks. I was so desperate to see you but it was a mistake to let you come here. I have a room upstairs. It is quieter there. Let’s leave these tow rags.’
The drink was stronger than I thought. I made to stand but found my legs giving way.
‘God knows what they’ve put in there.’ Minerva nodded to the cup on the bar. ‘We need to get you out of here.’ She put her arm around me. ‘It won’t be long before they are fighting.’
She was right. The tavern was getting ever more crowded and Black Sam’s poisonous rum was taking his customers from merriment to falling down drunk. It was not clear who threw the first punch, or why, but soon fists were flailing. Chairs and stools were flying, tables tipped over, sailors and whores alike slipping and sliding in pools of beer, rum and blood.
The door slammed shut. The bar across it brought down. The music stopped with a wheeze and a screech. The mêlée quietened and all eyes turned to one man, tall and square, filling the door frame. He was dressed in a long blue coat, his wiry red hair pulled back in a pig’s tail. In one hand he held a black staff which he slapped into his other palm. Along side him stood a line of sailors, all dressed alike in striped trowsers and short blue jackets.
I knew the man. Andrew Daly, Bosun’s Mate on William’s ship. Which meant that William’s ship was in port. This was an impressment gang, sent out to collect men for the next voyage. I tried to gather my fuddled and scattered wits. I couldn’t be caught like this. The consequences were unthinkable.
‘What have we here?’ Daly’s voice rang out into the silence. The only other sound was the slap of his staff. ‘Something of a disturbance and so near to His Majesty’s Docks ‘an all. I’m surprised at you, Sam Gentry, for keeping such an unruly house. It’s clear to me that these here are in need of a stint in His Majesty’s Navy to make ‘em sober and God fearin’. Clear the place, lads!’’
With that, the slap in the palm became a crack to the head of the man nearest to him. This blow was followed by another and another until the blood was flowing freely. Each felled sailor was hauled away by the men accompanying Daly. Those who were capable began to fight back, using whatever came to hand to beat off the press gang. Black Sam and Jake and others of his cronies joined in on the Navy’s side, laying about them with staves, delivering blows left and right, knocking down one man after another to be dragged off by the press gang men.
I had to get out of there.
Minerva was pulling me by the arm, trying to guide me through the general mayhem, when suddenly she was dragged away from me. I couldn’t see her through the surging mass of struggling bodies. The front door was barred and blocked, guarded by two burly sailors. There was no escape from there. Someone knocked over a lamp, igniting the filthy straw strewn on the floor.
Blue flames flared and ran along the floor as the fire found the pools and streams of spilt rum. Smoke added to the general panic. It obscured my view still further, making my eyes water, so that I lost all sense of direction. I began blindly fighting my way towards the place where I thought I’d seen a door. I hoped it might lead to the outside but I found myself at the top of steep steps leading down to the cellar. I heard a voice in my ear announce, ‘One more brave lad for His Majesty’s Service’, and found myself falling down into darkness…
Guest post created for ...and a bottle o'rum event by Celia Rees, author of Pirates!
© 2011. All rights reserved.
by Celia Rees
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* image source from the french cover