On board HMS Resolution, Atlantic Ocean
We had been at sea for six weeks. Six long weeks of nothing to do and nothing to look at but endless water and endless skies. Sometime during week two, a pod of dolphins accompanied our ship, but they only stayed with us for a day or so; then they were gone, and with them, a much-needed distraction. Mother tried to make my brothers and I keep up with our studies, but she had misjudged our willingness to learn, and we had gone through everything she'd brought with us from London in only three weeks. After that, we were left to our own devices.
My father, previously an admiral in Her Majesty's Navy, had recently been appointed as the new governor of the British colony of Antigua. He'd accepted the position with alacrity, and for the past three months, my mother had been occupied by readying our house in London, organizing and packing away all of our belongings for the journey across the Atlantic, to the tiny island in the southern waters of the Caribbean Sea. Our family was used to long sea voyages, but the excitement of putting our entire house into crates and boxes was a novelty that only heightened the family's anticipation of the trip.
But now, as boredom set in, I could see the strain of occupying three teen-aged children eating away at the edges of my mother's seemingly limitless patience. Luckily, my father knew his children well. He had been teaching us about the water and the business of sailing since we were just toddlers. He farmed us out to the crew of the ship and gave us free reign to discover new areas of interest or spend more time perfecting skills we were already familiar with.
My eldest brother, Matthais, talked one of the sailors into teaching him how to tie knots, so his days were consumed with lark's heads, sheepshanks, and marlin hitches. Father was proud of him, of course, and made sure to tell everyone that Mattie would be an admiral some day.
My other brother, Gunnar, had gained access to the Captain's cabin and had been devouring everything printed or written down. He'd gone through most of the Captain's books, and was now digesting logs, ledgers, and schedules. Mother worried that he was underfoot, but the Captain reassured her that he appreciated a boy who could read. He told my parents that Gunnar would make a fine ship's captain when he was older.
Mother tried to get me interested in the galley, but the ship's cook wouldn’t have any of it. He said that having women on board was unlucky and while he would tolerate us elsewhere on the ship, he wouldn't allow us in his kitchen. “It's my ruddy kingdom, see, and I don't want you women messin' about in my kingdom,” he told us before promptly closing and locking the galley door. Even the Captain was unwilling to force the issue, so I rattled around the decks like a spoon in an empty drawer, aimless and restless. It wasn't until I talked the master's mate into showing me the navigational charts that I found something to occupy my time with. I had learned to navigate by the stars and read charts shortly after I learned to read and impressed both the master's mate and the ship's master himself with my extensive knowledge. Being a girl, I would never have a career in the Navy, but my father indulged me terribly and let me learn whatever I wanted, even if it would never lend itself to keeping a house or raising children.
I saw the storm approaching before anyone else. I was standing at the front of the ship, in the fo'c's'le, when I spotted an angry black, swirling maelstrom headed right for us. I scuttled down to the main deck, just like a monkey I'd seen in Gibraltar, and ran as fast as my skirts and bare feet could carry me.
“Captain Barnsley! There's a storm coming!” I shouted as I burst into the Captain's quarters. Barnsley, the quartermaster, my father, and Matthias were all there, all with serious looks on their faces. Barnsley, a tall, raw-boned man with deeply-etched lines in his ruddy cheeks, rose from where he was sitting behind his desk and squinted thoughtfully at me.
“A storm, you say?” he asked me. I nodded emphatically. “Coming from what direction?”
I panicked for a moment. Direction? There were no landmarks at sea. How could I... Then I remembered. We were sailing due west now, and anything in front of us was in the west, anything behind was in the east. To the right—starboard—was north, while port—the left side of the ship—was south. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. “I was up on the fo'c'sle, on the port side. The storm was directly in front of me. South and west. That's where the storm is.”
The Captain and the quartermaster exchanged looks and my father gasped softly. I frowned in confusion. What was so awful about a storm coming from the southwest? Barnsley gave me a shaky smile and patted me on my head. “Good work, girl. Go find your mother, please, and escort her down here.”
I went in search of Mother immediately and found her leaning against the gunwales on the main deck, looking out over the water. The storm was now visible in the distance and I could hear worried murmurs from the sailors around us. “Mother, the Captain would like to speak with you in his quarters,” I said. “Father's there and so is Mattie.”
“Oh, dear,” she said and I saw the worry on her face as she turned towards me. She followed me back to Barnsley's quarters, where the door was firmly shut in my face before I could enter. I tried listening, but the door was solid and the keyhole large enough that it would be obvious if I stood with eye or ear against it. I had to satisfy myself with sitting on the floor of the passage just outside the door and waiting until the grown-ups deigned to let me in on the secret.
Soon enough, everyone came pouring out, moving with speed to their jobs. Mother grabbed my arm and looked intently at me. “We're going straight away to our cabin. I want you to sit in your berth and not move at all.” Her voice was hard and tight with fear and I could feel my own panic mounting. “Do you understand me, Loreley?”
“Yes, Mother. Is it the storm? Will it be bad?” We'd reached our cabin, a small, cramped space with barely enough room for Mother and I to stand abreast.
“Captain Barnsley thinks so, yes. It's too late to go around it, so we must go through and ride it out. The Resolution is sturdy and well-built. Your father says so. We will be all right.” But she didn't sound as though she believed it.
The arcs of lightening through the tiny porthole were the dank room’s only illumination. Mother and I sat in our berths across from each other, listening to the thunder of feet pounding across the deck above our heads. The sound of the sailors' shouting was soon lost to the downpour that seemed to come from nowhere, hammering against both the decks and the sides of the ship.
Father, Mattie, and Gunner joined us only moments later, already soaked to the bone. All around us was chaos and noise. The ship tossed about like a leaf on a wind-blown pond as we sat shivering silently in the dark, utterly helpless. Mother hugged Gunner tightly while he cried and I leaned against Mattie, clutching his hand so tightly his bones must have been crushed against one another.
The ship bucked portside violently, heaving to and fro against the swells, and I felt as though I was going to lose what little was in my stomach. Then the ship pitched so far to starboard that water rushed in through our porthole. It righted itself quickly enough, but there was more than a foot of water on the floor of our little cabin, mix seawater and rain that brought with it the scent of salt, dead fish, and ozone.
A clap of thunder boomed with such force that I felt it in my chest. I screamed and clung fiercely to Mattie, who was now praying softly, his eyes clenched closed and an intense look of terror on his face. A loud cracking sound followed the thunder, and I felt a jarring crash and a teeth-rattling jolt on the main deck above our heads. The ship again listed to starboard, and the porthole banged open once more, drive by the force of the rushing sea.
There was a grating and shaking I felt in the tips of my fingers and toes, indeed in my very bones, as the ship dragged its hull across submerged rocks. When the ship shimmied to a standstill, I was yanked forcefully out of my brother's arms and hurled across the cabin. I fetched up hard against the wall, smacking the back of my head against it and sliding down into the water covering the floor. The cuts and scrapes left by the rough ride stung from the salt and more water poured in through the gaping porthole.
Our cabin flooded, filling quickly, and the door was stuck fast. No amount of Father's or Mattie's pulling would budge it. Mother gathered Gunnar and I to her and held us, comforting us, praying with us, even as tears streaked down her face.
Father spun away from the door and fixed me with a terrible look. He rushed to Mother and ripped me from her arms. “Go, Loreley!” he shouted as the water crept up to his hips. “Out the window!” He shoved me towards it but I didn't want to go. I fought against him, gripping his hands and forearms, shirtsleeves and wrists, knowing somehow that he was making the ultimate sacrifice in saving my life.
Mother's heavy skirts and petticoats were weighing her down, dragging her under the water and Gunnar was clinging to her, refusing to let go. Father shoved me again, pushing me underneath the surface and towards the porthole. I fought him still, but my strength was nothing compared to his and he forced me through the open window and out into the terrible sea.
I kicked and fought against the dark water, shedding my own heavy gown and petticoats as I tried to figure out up from down. Finally I breached the surface, gasping to fill my burning lungs. I clung to a drifting board and thrashed about, searching for my family who surely had followed me out the window.
Lightning and thunder split the skies and rain poured down, the drops sounding like gunfire during a fox hunt as they hit the surface of the storm-tossed waves around me. When the skies lit up, I could make out the outline of the ship. The main mast had been shattered into two pieces and there was a huge, gaping chasm down the center of the main deck. Sailors jumped overboard into the surging waves, which swept them under before they could find something to float on, or else they were tangled in the rigging, unable to escape, left hanging helpless as the water drown them in the air.
The rain gradually lessened and the waves calmed. Still, I waited, clinging to my board and calling out for my mother, for Mattie, for Gunnar. As I watched with horror, the ship sank quietly, slipping beneath the waves without a sound, taking my family and all the sailors with it. I was alone and adrift in the eye of a hurricane.
Time passed and I waited for my family or for anyone else from the ship to appear. Surely someone besides me had survived the wreck. The rain picked up again, and the waves followed suit. Soon my little board was rolling up and down waves that were as tall as our home in London. Debris from the ship—bodies, broken boards, casks, books, ropes, even part of the Captain's desk—floated around me. I abandoned my board in favor of the desk and used some of the ropes to lash myself to it. When I was secure, I collapsed, exhausted and heart-sick. I knew my family had drowned in our cabin. The door had been stuck fast and I was the only one small enough to squeeze out through the porthole. I was an orphan now. Everything I had ever known lay at the bottom of the ocean.
The storm eventually passed, hurrying off to some other land to wreak destruction and heart-ache, and I fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke, the sun was out and the seas calm. I untied myself from my make-shift boat and climbed to my knees atop it. I scoured the horizons, looking for any sign of other people and even shouted myself hoarse, but no one called back. I was truly alone, the only survivor of the wreck.
I spent three days on that desk. Three hot, miserable days with no food, no water, no shelter from the brutal sun. I spent most of that time drifting in a strange half-waking, half-sleeping state. I hallucinated—my family, a ship that was coming to rescue me, the pod of dolphins that had accompanied the ship. Just when I had given up and was ready to die, the winds shifted and brought with them the smell of people—dirt and animals, smoke and plants and roasting meat. My stomach, which had given up all hope of ever being full again, made a weak gurgling noise. But I could do nothing more than lie on my tiny raft and allow the waves to wash me ashore.
When I awoke, someone was poking me with the toe of their boot. I pushed weakly at them and was rewarded with a cuff to the side of my head. “Oi, ye wee bitch! That how you treat your rescuer?”
I looked up and saw a most fearsome man. He was sun-browned, and leathery skin covered his long, skinny body. A ragged piece of red cloth tied around his head partially hid a shock of greasy brown hair, and he wore filthy knee-length breeches, a wide black sash, and a tattered shirt with long billowing sleeves. A similarly dressed, though considerably shorter and rounder, man stood at his shoulder. They peered down at me with a look on their faces similar to one I'd seen on Father's when he was inspecting a horse he wanted to buy.
“'ow much you fink she's worth?” asked the fat man.
I drew myself up to my feet and stood tall and straight-backed, and called to mind an image of my father's brother, the Marquess Weymouth, when he gave others a dressing down. “I am not for sale,” I said in my most firm voice, proud that it was steady even if a bit scratchy. My throat was parched, my face hurt, but I could not show weakness now. “I am the niece of the Marquess Weymouth, and I demand to be returned to him. Immediately.”
The two men laughed and the first leaned down and grabbed a fistful of my hair, using it to drag me closer to him. He stank horribly, like alcohol, raw onions, and unwashed flesh. “A royal, eh?” He grinned and his mouth was filled with blackened stumps of broken teeth and a stench so awful roiled out of his maw that my stomach heaved with nausea. “Well, she'll fetch a pretty penny, won't she?” He shoved me hard at the fat one, who caught me up and slung me over his shoulder like an Isfahan rug.
I struggled and the man carrying me gave me a bone-rattling shake until I subsided and lay still. “We gonna ransom 'er back to this marquess?” he asked.
“I fink we sell 'er to Dupris. Men'll pay a dear bit for a chance to plow a royal's cunt, and Madame will thank us generously for the addition of a bit o' respectability to her house.”
The man carrying me reached up and grabbed a handful of my bottom and squeezed hard. His fingers felt like steel bars through the thin fabric of my shift. “A virgin, too, I'll wager,” he said. “A nice price indeed.”
I struggled and cried out, and the man shook me again, hard enough to make my eyes cross and my teeth crack together. I began sobbing and the other man hit me, harder than before. I was grateful for the oblivion that stole over me, spiraling me down into the waiting blackness of unconsciousness.