The Widow of Port Seaton
Copyright 2001 Hawkshadow Publishing Company, Inc.
SIGHS FROM THE DEPTHS
Chapter 1 - Crashing Upon the Rocks
“I’ll find you ashore!” Henning’s last words haunted Gael as she held on to the lifeboat in the pitch-black hurricane-tossed sea. She watched for other lifeboats from the Galatea, but, to her sorrow, none could be seen. Even though the violent storm had lost energy, it left a powerful gale in its wake. Far from her home port of Boston, the dependable, sturdy shiphad foundered in a hurricane off the Florida coast on the night of September fourteenth, 1847.
The Galatea’s second mate, Nils Ellingsen, captaining the little lifeboat, sighted land upon a stormy daybreak. Without a telescope, he could not find a safer landing place. There was no sign of a settlement, but he did not want to risk being at sea any longer with fouled water and food aboard. The hurricane’s tidal surge and destructive winds had left behind one ragged palm tree and a few clumps of beach grass. Nevertheless, this deserted spit of sand filled everyone aboard with renewed energy and the intense desire to feel earth under their feet. The weary sailors rowed on only to attack high, dangerous breakers that thumped upon the storm-ravaged beach.
Nils shouted encouragement: “These are puny wavelets compared to the beasts that we conquered last night! We’ll ride in atop the crests!”
Still, it was hard going through the breaking surf. The men were nearly spent. Their arms strained and shook with effort, and perspiration poured from their bodies.
Just two hundred yards from shore, a fast train of storm-driven breakers struck the battered vessel, and its planking separated and leaked. The violent surf pitchpoled the small boat high into the air and all nine aboard were flung into the roiling sea. The boat landed on the water and splintered as if the waves were made of stone.
Gael’s every muscle felt the punishing impact of the breakers, and her woolen coat and dress immediately dragged her under. Her heart thumped wildly. Her shoes and stockings slid off and floated away. She began struggling for the surface, kicking her legs and flailing her arms. With bursting lungs, she reached the surface. She gulped for air only to be assaulted by a mouthful of seawater. She coughed, sputtered, and fought to breathe. In desperation, she treaded water and reached under her skirt to remove her layered petticoat, but the bow was just a tangled, soaked knot. In panic, she ripped the stitching and the petticoat drifted away from her body.
Around her, men screamed and begged for help in the tumultuous surf. These sailors understood the sea, currents, winds, and storms, but, to her growing horror, most of them could not swim a stroke. Worse, their energies had been sapped by hours at the oars. Straightaway, many were overwhelmed by the power of the breakers.
Seawater burned a shallow cut to her left cheek and her right shoulder ached, both injuries sustained aboard the foundering Galatea. With her last reserves of strength she swam toward several men who clung desperately to lifeboat planking, but she could make no headway. Punishing breakers relentlessly propelled her toward shore. She saw Nils heroically attempting to save his men, but he, too, was driven away by the waves. In those nightmarish minutes, six men disappeared beneath the surface.
Gael had no choice but to surrender to the breakers that propelled her toward shore. Suddenly Nils and the Galatea’s carpenter Terence Applewood popped up beside her.
“Are you hurt?” Nils shouted over the thunderous waves.
“No!” she burbled through a mouthful of seawater.
Nils and Terence gripped her arms and swam with her between them. Despite the shallower water, steep waves broke with crushing force, stinging and burning the skin.
Twenty-five yards from safety, Nils and Terence lost their hold on her. They disappeared into the foamy breakers. Swallowed by a wave, Gael tumbled helplessly. Her hip struck the sea’s sandy bottom and the wave’s strong downward forces kept her submerged, but she struggled to her feet in chest-deep water. A wave, filled with pieces of boat wreckage, charged at her.
Moments later, she lay face down in mushy sand and retched up seawater. Numb with shock, she mindlessly tossed away a board that lay next to her left arm. It took many moments to feel the pain. Several nails that protruded from the board had penetrated her clothing and punctured her arm. Blood from the wounds turned the sand pink. She lay alone on the desolate beach blasted by the strong, salty winds left by the hurricane. Still half in and half out of the water, and hampered by the weight of her waterlogged clothes, she crawled away from the surf line and then struggled to her feet. She looked seaward. A short distance away, Nils and Terence were staggering ashore through shoulder-high breakers. Despite the loud protestations of both men, and against a strong undertow, she waded back into the surf to help them. They fell to the sand in exhaustion, shivering and gasping for breath.
Nils’s dark blue merchantman’s uniform jacket had been torn from his body and his white linen shirt clung to his torso. Terence’s shirt and trousers, worn out to begin with, were in tatters. Fortunately, both men still had on their boots, but Gael’s feet and legs were bare. She noted with wonder that her betrothal ring, wedding band, and necklace had not been claimed by the turbulent sea. She prayed for her husband, who was in another lifeboat.
Along with pieces of the lifeboat, the lifeless bodies of six sailors washed ashore. Although their movements were heavy and slow, Nils and Terence plucked their shipmates from the surf. Gael stood by helplessly as Nils and Terence tried to revive each man. They repeatedly and forcibly pressed on their chests to push the water from the lungs, but their frantic efforts met with failure. All six men were dead. The two men carried the bodies of the drowned sailors to the foot of a grassy dune well beyond the high tide mark. Without a thought of rest, Terence used a piece of boat wreckage as a shovel and began to dig a large, shallow grave.
Gael shambled to the water’s edge to watch for the three other lifeboats from the Galatea. Under the dishevelment was a chestnut-haired, slender, petite twenty-year-old of Scottish descent with dark green eyes, dark brows and lashes, an oval face, and slightly pointed chin. Freckles dotted her slightly upturned nose. Her small ears lay close to her head, and their pierced lobes were unadorned. Her gold filigree earrings had been lost to the sea.
High, choppy seas and a flat, gray dawn made it difficult to distinguish sea from sky. The cold sand benumbed her bare feet, but she took little notice. Her gaze traveled up and down the beach and out to sea. “Henning! Henning! Oh, my God! My God!” Fueled by panic, she continued to call for her husband and paced back and forth until Nils had endured enough.
He strode toward her. “Shut the hell up, woman!” he barked. Nils, in his early thirties, was a tall, rangy, handsome man, but his good looks did not compensate for his irascible temperament. His voice grated with annoyance. “It’s hard enough burying our friends without you falling apart. Get a grip on yourself!”
Lowering her head and rubbing her eyes with her palms, she endeavored to cry more quietly. She fixed her eyes intently upon the horizon.
After taking a long moment to calm down, Nils spoke of Salvatore Agnello, the Galatea’s first mate. “Salvatore is a fine navigator. It’s possible that his boat landed elsewhere on the coast. We have to find food and then get to Jacksonville.”
As the ship foundered, Henning had tossed Gael into the waiting arms of Nils as their lifeboat fell toward the sea. Henning had no choice but to get into another lifeboat, the one captained by Salvatore. “I won’t leave without Henning!” she said in a husky voice raw from swallowing salt water.
“If we linger here we will die.”
“We have to wait for them!” she cried. “What if they land nearby and are injured? Who will help them?”
“We can help no one unless we get food and fresh water. Captain Hoaglund ordered us to go to Jacksonville and find a way back to Boston. You’ll come if I have to carry you!” He exhaled a curse and tugged her arm to pull her away from the water’s edge, but froze as her blood trickled across his right hand. His anger was doused as quickly as it had flared. Without hesitation, he yanked off her coat and tore open the left sleeve of her dress. Blood trickled from several deep puncture wounds in her arm. “What did this?”
“Nails from the boat.” Resenting his attitude and treatment, she tried, unsuccessfully, to pull away from his grip. “It’s fine.”
Nils ripped off the dress sleeve and used it to bind her wounds. She was too worried and tired to protest.
“You could get lockjaw. We have to find you a doctor. Put on your coat to protect the wound from sandflies.” His gaze suddenly shifted to something bobbing in the surf. It was the ship’s logbook, which had been entrusted to him as the Galatea’s crew abandoned ship. Quickly, he waded into the sea and returned with the log. He opened the book to find mere shadows of ink left on the pages. “God damn the salt water!” he swore and stomped away to help Terence finish digging the grave.
The dead sailors were reverentially laid side by side and then covered by a mound of sand. Terence walked off a short distance and wiped away tears he wanted no one to see. In his late forties, Terence was a plain-spoken man and a lifelong carpenter and sailor. Tall and powerfully built, he had straight, close-cropped dark brown hair peppered with white, and deep-set blue eyes.
Nils was startled when Gael quietly appeared next to him beside the grave. Suddenly overcome with sadness, he said, “I’ll demand that someone at Wilmot Shipping and Cartage have the bodies moved inland and decently buried. Another storm could uncover the bodies and wash them out to sea.”
“Will their relatives know where they are?” she asked.
“Those who have relatives, yes.”
“What if the families want them buried at their hometowns?”
“They’ll have to pay the freight to bring them home,” Nils answered. “I’ve committed the order of the buried sailors to memory to be sure each family gets the correct remains. Once I get a pencil, I’ll enter it all in the log.”
A strong, chilly wind blew her coat against her body. Something heavy struck her thigh and she unbuttoned the pocket and fished around with her hand. Somehow, through torturous waves, her jackknife had remained safely in her pocket. She handed it to him. “Memories can fade.”
Puzzled to find that a young woman carried a knife, he took it, opened it, and examined the sharp, well-oiled, four-inch blade. He felt ashamed of his brusqueness toward her not only this day, but throughout the Galatea’s voyage. “Thanks,” he managed.
Terence joined Nils and watched him make a grave marker and then inscribe the names into pieces of boat wreckage. He pointed to the jackknife. “Where’d you get that?”
“It’s hers,” Nils flicked his head toward Gael.
Nils’s grave marker read: Six Sailors of the Galatea Wrecked September 14, 1847. Once done, he jammed it into the sand at the head of the mass grave. The three of them solemnly stood beside the grave.
“We must get moving,” Nils decided after a look at the barren, hurricane-ravaged landscape, “but there is one thing left to do. This isn’t a burial at sea, but these men deserve the prayer.” He handed the jackknife back to Gael.
Terence and Gael reverently bowed their heads as Nils recited the prayer.
“We therefore commit these bodies to the sea, looking for the general Resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord; at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in Him shall be changed, and made like unto His glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby He is able to subdue all things unto Himself.”
A heavy-hearted silence ensued. All pondered why they were spared while the brave but luckless men were committed to a sandy and anonymous grave.
Terence walked away and Nils picked up the logbook and the piece of wood inscribed with the sailor’s names. He motioned to Gael. “Come along.” She hesitated a moment. “Am I going to have a problem with you, Mrs. Somerled?”
Her voice dropped to a whisper. “No, Mr. Ellingsen.”
The doleful trek began. Only Gael glanced behind for a last look at the shallow grave on the barren beach.
Northward they tramped, desperate for signs of the Galatea’s crew or a town where they could beg for food and shelter. She became acutely aware of the passage of time. Every hour without her husband Henning was filled with tortured uncertainty.
“Do you know where we are?” she later asked Nils.
He looked skyward as a rain cloud nudged inland. “I’m guessing we’re somewhere on the Florida coast. Still, we’ll head north.”
“What if we’re north of Jacksonville?”
“Then we’ll find a town in Georgia,” he replied.
She asked after Terence, who had not spoken a word since leaving behind his crewmates. “Are you well, Mr. Applewood?”
“I have my life.”
Low, gray scudding clouds let go heavy rain that left pockmarks in the sand. The soaked trio trudged onward.
Two miles on, they spotted a long, narrow pier. It had been ripped to the posts; the damage looked recent. Fisher-folk had to be in the area, but no settlement was visible from the beach. Nils walked to the top of a large dune to scout the area. No town was visible, but he was certain one was near: The inhabitants had apparently known that a hurricane was imminent, so they had pulled the boats from the water and lashed them to the ground behind the dune. Road ruts worn through tall beach grass led west.
Hungry, fatigued, and cautiously optimistic, they turned inland. Out of courtesy, and because her dress was several inches longer without a petticoat, Terence helped Gael negotiate a series of large dunes left unstable by the storm. A quarter mile onwards they climbed another dune, then, dumbfounded, stopped and stared.
There had once been a small fishing village in the distance, but the hurricane had nearly wiped it off the sand. Buildings and homes had been razed and torn from their foundations. Wooden and stone steps ascended to nowhere. A few brick structures had withstood the ferocious storm, but most lacked roofs and the windows were shattered. What few shallow-rooted tropical trees remained were inclined to precipitous angles. Unrecognizable detritus lay scattered by a monstrous storm surge that had carved out huge depressions in the sand. The rain-filled depressions hid all manner of debris beneath the murky water. Barefoot, Gael stepped gingerly.
Valuing her safety more highly than propriety, Nils carried her over heaps of splintered wood, nails, and broken glass intertwined with dead seabirds, fish, dogs, cats, and small livestock. “I’d lend you my boots, but they’d be more of a hindrance than a help, madam.”
They detected movement as they came upon the remnants of the town. People picked through ruins for survivors, food, and possessions. Others wandered aimlessly, dazed and overwhelmed by the destruction.
More than two dozen bodies, covered with bed sheets and rugs, lay in a row along a lane. A young minister with stringy blond hair stood among the dead uttering prayers from his missal. He ignored the rain as did the clouds of flies defiantly swarming around the corpses. The storm surge had come far inland. With no high ground around for miles, the villagers had nowhere to go.
A tall, thin man, somewhere in his mid-forties, noticed their approach and came toward them with heavy, weary steps.
Nils stepped forward and extended his hand. “Second Mate Nils Ellingsen of the merchantman Galatea out of Boston.” He then introduced the man to Terence and Gael.
The man forced a lackluster smile, but he shook Nils’s hand a long time. “Joshua Noble, unofficial harbormaster of this place that used to be Catherine’s Bay. We sure could use some stores from your ship—fresh water, food, bandages, and medicine. Don’t know where we’ll get the money to pay for it, but maybe we can barter for dried fish.” He pointed out a large brick structure—a huge fish shed and the only building left intact, apart from a few broken windows. “The fish on the upper flakes weren’t damaged. How far offshore is she anchored?”
Nils hated to disappoint Joshua. “The Galatea went down in the storm.”
The news did not appear to faze Joshua. “How terrible. The afternoon tide might bring in survivors or corpses. After a hurricane that strong, who the hell knows?” He then remembered to speak more kindly in Gael’s presence. “There is no harm in hope, is there?”
Nils grimly regarded the destruction. “You took a hard hit.”
“We sure did,” Joshua replied with no notice of the rain shower. “We prepared as best we could, but this was the worst storm in my forty-six years.” Without embarrassment, he wiped away tears. “There are only a few hundred brave enough to live here. We lost twenty-seven, including my brother and his young son and daughter when their house fell in upon them. Others drowned when the water surged inland and swept them away. Are there others with you? Are they encamped on the beach?”
Nils responded in a quiet tone, “We lost six in our lifeboat and don’t know where the other boats landed, if they did. I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. Noble. My ship’s carpenter and I will help with the burials and anything else you need.”
“We’d appreciate the help.” Joshua wiped his face on his sleeve as the rain began to slacken. “What we have left we’ll share. Come along and I’ll find something for you to eat.”
While Joshua walked them around the ruins, the rain halted, the clouds parted, and a hazy, hot sun shone down. The air became still and sticky.
Gael shed her sopping wet coat. Her punctured arm throbbed.
As they walked, Nils asked Joshua, “Are we in Florida?” He nodded. “We’re heading to Jacksonville to rendezvous with any crew that survived.”
“Jacksonville is north fifty miles, if you stick to the beach. It’s the shortest route. I doubt the few roads around here are passable.” Joshua led them to a lean-to that had once been a section of a house’s roof. The jagged eight-by-ten foot remnant was propped up with poles salvaged from another structure and provided some shade from the sudden and oppressive heat.
Vicious winds, torrents of rain, and airborne debris cut the town’s wooden structures to matchsticks. Heartbreak shadowed the eyes of every resident, young and old alike, for few families had escaped the injury or death of loved ones. Puddles lay throughout town, many containing fish flapping and suffocating in water that was rapidly evaporating in the heat. Inhabitants plucked the fish from the pools, for little food was left unspoiled. The walls of the few standing buildings were marked by a slimy white salt line more than two feet high. The storm surge had come very far inshore—almost a half mile.
The panorama of devastation reminded Gael of three powerful storms that had struck the Massachusetts coast in the winter of 1839 when she was twelve. Loss of property had been heavy in her hometown of Cape Kildare, but loss of life mercifully light.
Joshua left to find food for them. Gael settled upon the damp sand. Her gaze upon the eastward dunes was long and intent. She still believed that, before long, Henning would climb over them to find her as promised.
Nils noticed Gael’s fixed gaze. He felt sure that the worst had happened, but uttered not a word to discourage her belief that Henning and the others survived. Terence lay down under the lean-to and immediately fell asleep.
Joshua promptly returned with a burlap sack containing hunks of stale bread. His wife Eve, ten years his junior, followed with tin cups and a pot of weak, cool coffee. Nils nudged Terence awake and he sat up quickly and shook his head. For a moment, he did not know where he was; then a stricken expression crept across his features. Gael ate the bread daintily and was glad that the coffee was not hot. She had bitten her tongue during the Galatea’s sinking and it was very sore. Sparse fare notwithstanding, they found the bread and coffee a fine meal.
Eve was slim and pretty with deep brown eyes and strawberry blond hair that fell to her shoulders. She sat beside Gael, noticed her rings, and asked, “Is either of these men your husband?”
“No.” Her tears flowed. “My husband had to get into another lifeboat.”
Eve placed a hand on Gael’s shoulder. “I’ll pray for his deliverance.”
“Thank you. I’m truly sorry for the losses of your brother-in-law and your niece and nephew.”
Shortly, Joshua, Nils, and Terence left to bury the dead in a cemetery next to the town’s small chapel. It had been beaten by the storm, but it was still standing even though every window had been broken and the bell torn from the belfry. Eve left Gael to feed her four children and those left injured and homeless. Gael sat alone under the lean-to wondering and worrying over Henning and the others from the Galatea.
Near dusk, despite initial opposition, Gael accompanied Nils and Terence back to the shore. The day’s heat was broken by cooling onshore breezes. The men had brought armfuls of salvaged lumber to build a signal fire on the sand. At the shoreline, they were disappointed. The afternoon tide’s turbulent waves brought in no survivors, but it was a relief of sorts that no bodies had washed ashore. Gael dared to hope the other lifeboats had made landfall elsewhere. As darkness fell, she looked to the horizon and prayed for a miracle.
After Nils lit the bonfire, with matches provided by Joshua, Gael came up beside him and Terence. “I hope they’re all out there and see it.”
Usually in total command of himself, Nils struggled to hold back tears. “So do I.” He huskily cleared his throat. “We’ll camp here overnight and leave for Jacksonville tomorrow.”
Terence lay down next to the fire and again fell fast asleep. With a pencil Joshua gave him, Nils noted the six dead sailor’s names and the approximate location of their grave in the rippled pages of the Galatea’s logbook. He then used the piece of boat planking with the names inscribed upon it to feed the bonfire.
Hollow-eyed with fatigue, Gael lay down under a night sky arrayed with bright stars.
Chapter 2 - Should the Sky Fall
In the small hours of Monday, October eleventh, the passenger liner Seaworthy docked wharf side at Boston Harbor. The drop of her forward anchors made little splash in the calm, steely gray waters. Even at this early hour, the pier was well-lit, busy, and noisy. Steam-powered cranes clanged, squealed, and belched black smoke into the atmosphere, accompanied by the shouts of the longshoreman who loaded and unloaded cargo. A black cloud hung over the coaling station for refueling steam ships. Sailors ambled along the wharf. Pickpockets wove through the area, scanning for the unwary. Prostitutes strolled and laughed lustily as men appraised their wares. Stray dogs and cats prowled every stack of edible cargo and pawed for a found meal.
For Gael, the harbor looked noticeably different than it had on the muggy, fog-shrouded August morning when she and Henning had left aboard the Galatea. The seasons had changed. The trees were tinted in autumnal hues and the hills were brown with dormant grasses. A bite of frost tinged the air.
A lucrative business opportunity awaited Henning in Panama City, Panama. Initially employed as a shipping clerk at the Boston-based Brisbane’s Warehouse, Henning had quickly risen to superintendent just before his marriage to Gael. The warehouse’s owner, Isaac Brisbane, had chosen Henning to manage his new warehouse in Panama City. The port of Panama City was becoming one of the busiest in the hemisphere, and a railroad would soon be constructed to span the isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Isaac wanted his fair share of the burgeoning trade of both oceans. The Galatea was the only ship reliable enough to sail that far. They were to dock in Aspinwall, Panama and travel overland to Panama City.
Except for the Galatea’s captain, Percy Hoaglund, who valiantly tried to save his ship, all aboard had been ordered to the lifeboats, abandoned ship, and taken their chances in the mountainous waves and fierce winds. It was in that desperate exodus that Gael and Henning had ended up in separate lifeboats.
Henning, Gael’s husband of only six months, perished at sea.
Gael stood with Nils and Terence at the end of a long line of passengers waiting to disembark along the starboard rail. The castaways had not paid for their passage aboard the Seaworthy but had been taken aboard out of the captain’s courtesy.
The trio’s clothes were dirty from weeks of continuous wear. Gael’s tattered garnet toile dress was several inches too long without the crinoline petticoat that had been sacrificed to the sea. Her peacock blue wool coat had been misshapen by salt water and bleached by the Florida sun. She wore no stockings. On her feet were down-at-the-heels shoes that had, of necessity, been taken from a dead woman. The shoes had given their all. Her toes poked through holes in the black leather, and the shredded insoles made her bare feet burn. Her fair skin was sunburned and her curly and abundant chestnut hair a mass of tangles. Terence and Nils were equally grubby. They, too, had suffered the effects of overexposure to the southern sun. Their skin was cracked and blotchy and both sported scraggly beards that had grown unchecked over many weeks. Nils had a bold, masculine presence whether on deck or on land, even though the sea had claimed his trim navy blue merchantman seaman’s jacket. All that remained of his uniform were dark blue trousers and a formerly white shirt nearly in shreds, but he held the Galatea’s black logbook protectively to his chest. Terence had the look of a vagabond in a limp shirt and stained trousers. The black leather and flapping soles laced to each man’s feet were now boots only in theory.
Gael had not imagined returning to Boston grieving and unwashed. Initially, the voyage to Panama with Henning had awakened her spirit of adventure. Sadly, there was no triumphant return, no tales to tell of life in Panama City. It struck her heart hard that she brought back only accounts of suffering and death. She realized how lucky she had been to survive against such incredible odds, but Henning was not at the rail beside her. That space was occupied by the two men who had striven to save her life and see her safely home. Fretfully twisting the two gold rings on her finger, she dreaded telling family and friends of her ordeals.
The Seaworthy’s captain strode to the head of the passenger line. In a blaring voice he announced, “It is customary that shipwreck survivors are first off.”
No passenger objected as a deck officer solemnly led Gael, Nils, and Terence to the head of the line. A narrow gangplank was lowered and they gingerly descended to the pier. Once on dry, stable land, they took some time to find their land legs. Each still felt the bobbing and rolling of the sea in their bodies and beneath their feet.
A deck officer followed them down the ramp with orders from the Seaworthy’s captain to advise the harbormaster that survivors of the Galatea had arrived and to summon the doomed ship’s Boston-based owners. He pressed his way across the crowded pier.
Castaways no more, Gael and her companions momentarily stood in a tight cluster. The Seaworthy’s passengers disembarked and immediately spread the story of the Galatea’s sinking to anyone who would listen. Press agents who haunted the docks heard snatches of the incredible story and resolutely moved toward Gael, Nils, and Terence.
Surprisingly, many Bostonians already knew something had happened to the Galatea and her crew. When the mail packet ship missed the port of Jacksonville, there was rampant speculation as to her fate. It was believed that she had either been damaged or foundered in a hurricane reported off the coast of Florida. The bewildered survivors quickly realized that their respective missions were all the more urgent.
In moments, a suffocating crowd of reporters and the curious closed in around them and called insistently, unashamedly, and provokingly to hear the tale.
A newsman shouted, “Are there any other survivors? Were all the mails lost? I’ll pay whoever wants to tell their story!”
Another asked mercilessly, “What was it like to watch people die? Were others entombed as she sank? Did you leave them behind to save yourselves?”
Nils sneered at the callous newsmen and told Gael, “Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know about the Galatea.”
“No worry there,” she agreed.
Some reporters loudly demanded an account of the sinking and the death toll. Press agents from The Boston Clarion, owned by Henning’s father Randulf, asked only whether or not Henning Somerled had survived.
The mention of Henning brought Gael to tears and she would have been mobbed if any of the press agents had known that she was Henning’s widow. Instead, they ignored the woman in rags and directed their questions at the two men beside her. Nils and Terence refused to answer questions. They closed ranks around her to keep away the aggressive newsmen.
Randulf Somerled, a formidable and wealthy man, was the sort who demanded thorough reports. Gael had to get to Henning’s family immediately. News that survivors of the Galatea had returned would certainly be taken to Randulf with all dispatch.
Nils spoke to Gael. “The shipping company will mount a search, and we’re obligated to report the wreck to the ship’s owners and the harbormaster. If you’re up to it now, you need to provide the harbormaster some information about your husband.”
Terence was wary of the crowd serrying in around them and said to Nils, “Let’s first take her to her friend’s home.” Then, of Gael, he asked, “What was her name?”
“Synnove Thorsen,” Gael replied, “but I must go to Henning’s family now. I must get word to them before they hear the news from someone else. Henning’s father owns The Boston Clarion.”
The crowd pressed in and flowed around them like water around a piling sunk into the sandy sea bottom. Nils took Gael’s right arm and Terence, as had become his habit, flanked her on the left to protect her injured arm from the bumps of passersby. Questions about the wreck were continually shouted at them, but they made no reply. Gael’s tears started again. She kept her head down as she picked up her skirt and shuffled between the men. Realizing that they would get nothing from the survivors, the press agents looked to the Seaworthy’s passengers and crew for the story. They would discover little, as the survivors had given other passengers the same very general tale. Detailing the horrors was entirely too painful.
“How far is the house?” Terence asked Gael.
“A couple of miles, I believe.”
“You’re not sure?” Nils inquired.
“It’s on Goldfinch Avenue. I’ve been told what the house and grounds look like.”
“You’ve never been there?” asked Nils impatiently.
She shook her head, unwilling to explain why.
“We’ll find it,” Terence said. “Let’s go.
On legs still rubbery on firm ground, they squeezed their way through the throng. Gael was determined not to look to her left at the huge Brisbane’s Warehouse sign that dominated the wharves. It seemed to beg a glance, but she was too unsettled. The men who had worked there with Henning would hear of his tragic fate soon enough. Her family, to the north in Cape Kildare; Synnove, her friend and mentor; and the Somerleds would be ripe with worry when they learned that unnamed survivors of the disaster had come ashore. She glanced at a large public clock upon an iron post. It was nearly four in the morning.
As word of the survivors spread, people craned their necks to gawk at the trio who had cheated death. Each face held various degrees of shock, sympathy, or mere curiosity. The news had also pulled many merchants, traders, accountants, and manufacturer representatives from their warm beds, and they spilled out into the street to head for the harbormaster’s office. Many, if not all, had some stake in the Galatea, whether for lost mail, goods shipped aboard her, or financial interest in the ship.
Nils hid his annoyance that Gael did not seem to know the exact location of the house that was so important to find. As they made their way west of the city center, he asked her, “Did your husband have insurance for his life?”
Gael nodded. “A thousand dollars’ worth. But the policy, Henning’s will, and our marriage license went down with the ship.”
“As soon as you can, go to the harbormaster’s to put your name on a list so you can file the claim after the insurance surveyors finish the investigation.”
Every moment of the calamity at sea and the arduous journey home was etched upon their faces and evident in their slumped postures as they walked into the fog-shrouded, predawn darkness.
It was now five in the morning. The air was crisp. The noticeably haggard and fatigued group trudged along a lane dotted with tall trees tinged with autumn’s brilliant colors. Nils and Terence watched Gael with mild impatience and some confusion as they passed several palatial homes on the outskirts of Boston.
Gael finally stopped at a vast property enclosed by a tall, black iron fence topped with shiny brass-tipped spikes. Past the imposing fence, a well-kept, one-hundred-yard-long cobblestone road led to a red-bricked, four-storied Georgian residence with a deep, colonnaded porch that spanned the length of the edifice. The large home was surrounded by neat, colorful gardens filled with fall flowers, carefully trimmed hedges, and sculpted rows of trees. Beyond were acres of lawn, knolls, and various species of trees planted to enhance the home’s stately appearance.
Nils failed to hide his irritability. “Is this the right place?”
“This is it.”
It was the first time that Gael had ever been to the Somerled estate. She had recognized the property from Henning’s description. Since her marriage to Henning Arvid Somerled, on March sixth, 1847, his parents had made it no secret that they considered her, the daughter of a fishmonger, an unacceptable wife for the family’s only son. Henning’s marriage to Gael was considered a breach of familial duty, and his parents and two elder sisters believed that Gael could never perform the necessary functions of a society wife. Henning had grown up with privilege and the trappings of luxury, yet he had chosen to marry her instead of his pick of pretty, rich Boston debutantes. It was a great source of embarrassment to Henning that his family did not welcome Gael into their home during their engagement or after the wedding. Even though Gael was a protégé of Synnove Thorsen, a couturier and owner of the city’s most exclusive custom attire shop, and had earned accreditation as a seamstress, Gael’s humble origins were enough to exclude her from the Somerleds’ society and friendship. Gael’s family, the Griffins, stood firmly upon the lower rungs of the middle classes.
Scarcely eager to be in the company of persons who despised her, she could not help but be impressed by the vast property. She knew there would be no warm welcome beyond the mansion’s tall, narrow doors. This day, however, the Somerleds would have no choice but to let her pass through those doors. She approached the twelve-foot-high iron gates.
“We should accompany you,” offered Nils.
“I have to do this alone, gentlemen.”
Both men sensed her apprehensiveness but acquiesced.
She slipped her hand through the gate to feel for the hidden latch release, just as Henning had so often described, which bypassed the lock. It had been his way into the estate when he had been out too late. Ringing the brass bell suspended from a wooden post near the gate would have announced his tardiness and summoned the porter—and the brass spikes made the fence too dangerous to climb. At last, she found the lever, heard the latch retract, and pushed the well-oiled gate. It swung open in silence. She slowly walked up the cobbled lane.
A huge fountain with oversized concrete urns marked where the road ended at a large courtyard at the home’s main entrance. The furious splash of the fountain sounded like heavy rainfall and evoked grim memories of the rains that had accompanied the hurricane. A wave of shivers rippled across her skin and she shuddered visibly. After a deep breath, she went up the brick steps and across the broad porch.
A footman answered her timid knocks upon the heavily lacquered oak doors. Barely out of his teens and very slim, the dark-haired footman was, despite this early hour, in full uniform: black double-breasted jacket, black trousers, white collared shirt, and shiny black shoes.
Without so much as a comb, Gael could not arrange her curly, greasy mop of hair. Upon her face and chest remained patches of flaky, bright pink sunburned skin. She hardly looked the sort to enter the estate by the main entrance.
The footman looked her up and down with the disdain of a much older, more cynical man, wrinkling his nose at the odors that emanated from her. He took her for a beggar.
Before she could say a word, he chastised, “How did you get onto the property? You’ll get no handout here! Go now, or I’ll set the dogs on you!”
Taken aback, she nonetheless spoke quickly before he could close the door. “I’m Mrs. Henning Somerled. I’d like to speak with Mr. and Mrs. Somerled.”
The footman’s face went slack. “Mrs., Mrs. H-Henning Somerled?” he stammered.
His haughty façade faltered and he looked uncertain. “It’s very early, madam. The family isn’t up yet.”
“Please convey my most profuse apologies for disturbing them,” she replied, nervously fingering the frayed cuff of her coat. “The matter is most urgent.”
“Wait here,” he indicated, half closing the twin doors and abandoning her on the porch.
Gael heard fast footfalls as he raced through the house. Moments later, she heard voices raised in angst. After a few agonizingly long moments, the footman reappeared at the doors and ushered her into a spacious entrance hall.
The coved ceiling, at least thirty feet high, vaulted high above her. An enormous velvety red, blue, and turquoise Turkish rug covered a portion of the white marble floor. Upon walls of soft turquoise were large pastoral paintings in ornate gilt frames. Wide, arched interior doorways flanked the hall, but the rooms were blocked by dark, imposing doors with oversized, bright brass hardware. Over one arch hung the contrived coat of arms of the Somerled family: lions, fish, and a four-masted ship carved in relief upon an oval brass shield. Reproductions of classical statues and urns were carefully arranged in a semicircle around the entrance hall. A broad, serpentine staircase of walnut with ornate spindle work swept up to a railed gallery. Overhead, a brass and crystal chandelier, lit with perhaps fifty candles, cast streaky shadows upon the walls and floor.
She was kept waiting more than fifteen minutes. Not having been invited to seat herself upon the entryway’s thickly upholstered chairs and sofa (most likely due to the state of her clothes), she swayed with fatigue and almost fell asleep on her feet. She suddenly became alert at the sound of creaking floorboards overhead.
At last, led by the footman, Henning’s parents Randulf and Phyllis descended the staircase to the foyer.
An overworked, ruffled ivory day dress did its job of disguising Phyllis’s tall, skeletal frame. She had taken the time to put on pale blue shoes with several buckles. Her long mane of hair was dyed with a mixture of indigo and henna and arranged in an Apollo knot. The front of the hair was parted in the middle, ringlets (somewhat flattened by sleep) fell along her temples, and the rest of the hair sat in a bun atop her head. This was a style more commonly worn by younger women, and her hair’s sooty tint emphasized her sharp features and deep-set brown eyes, making her appear older than fifty-three. Her dark gaze briefly flashed to Gael and her lips thinned in apprehension. Randulf wore tweed trousers, brown shoes, a wrinkled white shirt, and a burgundy brocade vest with buttons that strained across his potbelly. His thinning grayish red hair was uncombed and his plump face flushed.
Gael was very surprised to see Henning’s elder sisters Meredith and Nadine and their respective spouses, Thomas Whitman and Roger Clayton, coming down the stairs. She knew that they lived nearby and surmised that the family had been holding a vigil to await news of the missing Galatea. Meredith and Thomas had two young sons; Nadine and Roger, a girl of three. The children were absent, probably, Gael supposed, still asleep and in the care of a nursery maid elsewhere in the home.
Meredith resembled her mother and wore a high-necked olive-green dress. Her husband, Thomas, was tall and trim with a long face and dark eyes and hair. He wore a rumpled pin-striped shirt, wool trousers, and tan slippers. Nadine seemed a hybrid of both parents. She was tall and lithe with abundant reddish-blond hair, worn loose; hazel eyes; and dark brows. Her dress of deep blue set off her well-scrubbed complexion. Her tread was muffled by embroidered black velvet slippers. Roger, her husband, was somewhat stout and nearly the same height as his wife. His brown hair was shaggy and his blue eyes as lackluster as his brown shirt and trousers and black hiking boots.
Bringing up the rear were the fearsome dogs that the footman had earlier threatened to set upon her—two fat and lethargic Boston terriers whose untrimmed nails clicked upon the steps and floor.
Gael’s thoughts were a tangle but she curtsied humbly. Henning’s relatives passed her with nary a glance; however, each put an indiscreet hand to his or her nose.
“Light the drawing room,” Phyllis commanded of the footman who dashed away to Gael’s right and disappeared behind the massive door.
Without a word, Randulf led the family through the doorway. Though not invited to do so, Gael followed.
The drawing room was a lavishly decorated showplace with floral wallpaper in red, pink, and white flowers and gold tufted furniture. Over white marble hearths at both ends of the long room were identical convex mirrors with gilt frames of intertwined serpents. The snakes gave Gael the jitters. The furniture looked imported, for Gael had rarely seen the like even in Synnove’s fine townhome where she had boarded for two years during her apprenticeship as a seamstress. Judging from the liberal use of exotic wood and elaborate carving, she supposed that most of the pieces were either of French or Italian origin. Bucolic paintings hung on the walls and more replicas of Greek statues and urns occupied the corners. Every sofa, chair, and table upon the highly waxed parquet floor was arranged not for intimate conversation, but so that the sitter would appreciate the art. One nearly had to shout to the nearest seated person just to be heard. Three crystal chandeliers suspended from the domed ceiling held two dozen candles apiece.
Randulf and Phyllis sat upon a deep gold damask sofa while Meredith, Nadine, and their husbands pulled up chairs to cluster nearby. While the family settled themselves, the young footman’s hands shook with haste as he lit both fireplaces as well as the wall-mounted, sparkling-clean hurricane sconces festooned with ropes of crystal.
Gael possessed only limited acquaintance with Henning’s family members. Her lingering impression of Randulf was that he was a cold man of iron will who controlled everything and everyone around him. Phyllis was imperious and, in past encounters, disapproved of her daughter-in-law. To Gael, it was sadly clear that neither parent had bonded with the other or with their children, and that they expressed little genuine affection either privately or publicly. It must have been extremely difficult for Henning to assert himself within this conclave, yet somehow he had laid his own foundation, both morally and materially.
They offered Gael a straight-backed wooden chair more than twelve feet away from the family. She did not attempt to move it closer to them—not only to prevent the stench from her clothes from permeating their nostrils or delicate furniture, but its awkward placement further preserved the distance between her and Henning’s family. The footman was quickly dismissed with a small gesture of Phyllis’s hand.
Gael shifted uncomfortably and gripped the arms of the chair. The dual fireplaces warmed the room, but she did not remove her misshapen coat. It would have revealed her torn sleeve and the large bandage around her upper arm.
Randulf glanced at his pallid wife and then asked Gael, “Where is our son?”