Sunday 29 October 2023

Sunday Serial: The Story Weaver and Other Tales, by Sally Zigmond, spolit wine, The Wreck of the Victoria Anne


The moon’s silver path beckons me across the water but I am not so addled by misery that I wish to follow it nor am I so short of wit not to know that, were I to do so, I would sink beneath the ocean and there join my John in his cold, watery grave. Besides, the moon will soon be gone, swallowed by the rising sun and another day will roll in with the rising tide, whether I wish it or not.

A ragged skein of geese cross the lightening sky, gossiping like Whitby fishwives, their wing tips snatching the first bite of the rising sun.

The man is here again, too, hugging the shadows. He watches and he waits as I watch and wait. But when I rise to leave, he will be gone as he has done for the past week. Time means nothing to me now. All I can think of is my old life before it was wrecked.

John and I locked our cottage door and gave the key to Minister Sheldon. He then helped us up into his carriage for the journey across the moor. He had raised the money for our passage on the Victoria Anne bound for Canada. I should write to him to say that his good wishes have come to naught and his money wasted. But I have neither the wit nor the want to do anything now. A new world goes on around me now.  I do not belong to it.  All I do now is rise betimes and sit on the far rim of the ocean and wait for the day to begin and when it does I go back to my lodging and wait for night to fall.

Mr Sheldon stopped the carriage when we came in sight of the sea. Although not thirty miles from where I had spent my two and twenty years, I had never seen it. It gleamed softly blue like Mrs Winthrop’s best sateen sheets beneath my flat-iron. The wind sang gently and sweetly. The scent of heather, the murmuring diligence of the bees filled our hearts. He led us in prayer and we added our amens.

‘The Victoria Anne,’ he said when we had reached the wharf at Whitby and gazed upon the vessel sitting proud as a nesting swan in its berth.

‘We are most obliged,’ said John stepping back to avoid the throng of people pushing past us. There were more carts, carriages and wagons clattering across the cobbles than I had ever seen in one place. It struck me then that there would have been plenty of work for us in such a bustling place so close to where we were born and I nearly said to Mr Sheldon that we would try our luck there.

But I dared not. He had been so good to us. His eyes were fixed on the horizon that drew us towards a new life. Maybe he yearned for a new start himself, sick to death of his moorland parish and his flock of desperate faces, hungry eyes and broken spirits. But duty kept him bound there so he laid his dreams on our shoulders and sent us forth to a new land weighed down with his burden.

I could see that my husband had filled his basket brimful with the minister’s dream. He gazed on the ship’s bulk in awe. ‘And a grand name, too,’ he said, taking my hand but avoiding my eye lest my apprehension should find a home in his. ‘It bears your name, my love. It is a portent that our luck is about to change.’

A curse more like.

Was it my fault then that our married life started with misfortune and never recovered: indeed dipped further? Was his death because he married his Victoria Anne? We had not been wed a week when John shattered his leg. A prop collapsed in Sheriff’s Pit. It did not heal straight and then fever set in, after which he hadn’t the strength to dig or load the railway wagons with ironstone and send them on their way clanging and screeching down to the furnaces in Middleborough.

People were good to us. Mrs Winthrop, for whom I still worked, bought me six fat Swaledales from Malton Market, even though we did not worship at her church. She also fetched us a loom and I remember how proud John was when he sold our first length of fine wool in Kirkby Market.

Our first and our last.

The winter was wet and raw when our flock caught the black tongue and perished, one by one, as did my benefactress herself of the coughing disease the following spring. Her daughter-in-law then brought her own maid with her from Guisborough who had learned fancy ways in Newcastle. I was no longer needed.

‘Indeed, God smiles on you,’ said Mr Sheldon, brushing off talk of luck and portents like dust from his collar. But I ask myself. Does the Lord not punish us for turning our back on the church and following, instead, the teaching of John Wesley? The church was dedicated to St Lawrence and it is the Saint Lawrence River on whose black depths I now gaze that swallowed John so very near our journey’s end? Did my husband smile because we so nearly—oh so nearly—reached land that we could taste its sweetness in the air and smell the grass of that vast new land awaiting us.

Every day, I sit here to wait for the dawn on the edge of a creek that turns its back on the open river, the haunt of the lost and discarded, where the washed-up flotsam of the tide slaps against the rotten piers. I savour the sun’s rising because it makes sense to me. Sunrise is the same everywhere; the demons of strange darkness falling back and reshaping into familiarity. 

We were not headed for this city of Quebec. We were only to disembark briefly here to a wait another vessel to carry us farther upstream where we had letters of introduction for a dissenters’ community of farmers and loggers. It wasn’t that I hadn’t expected to feel strange at the beginning of our new life in the New World. We had talked about it, John and I, as we walked the stone track above the cottage we rented from the Winthrops but we had always thought we would have each other and our fellows in God to help guide us through the strangeness towards the light.

Now I am cut adrift, the thread is broken. The river is wider than any I have ever seen and the moon above it is a big as a cartwheel spilling its path of silver medallions. If I did ever reach the moon and walk across its mountains it would feel no less alien than what surrounds me now.

The man has stepped out of the shadows and leans against a fence, his face splashed with the dawn’s light. He smokes a cigar as if it were a religion. I will stay my departure until he goes. But it would seem that he wishes to speak to me. I do not wish it. I turn from him and watch the stain of night above the deep river being rinsed clean by the eastern sky. Will my heart ever be rid of its stain of loss however hard the rubbing?

One of the Victoria Anne’s boilers exploded. We were all crowded on one side of the deck as the land rose towards us. Sheets of fire rose and showered the water. I was lucky, they said. A bulwark shielded me from the full force of the blast. God was smiling on me, they said. I was flung clear of the carnage and then hauled from the river, water streaming from my sodden skirts and hair. I was taken I know not where, sobbing for John and all I knew. The people who care for me say I am lucky but despise me because I have failed to acknowledge my good fortune. They would send me into the wilderness alone if they knew how much I would curse God had I the strength or will to do so.

Once I was dried, rested and fed, I was taken to make a deposition to the authorities and then to a lodging house where I was told my rent would be paid for two weeks. I now have one day left to me with no thought in my head of where to go or what to do after that. John was my anchor, my loom, my stave. The warp and weft of existence has unravelled for me.  I am deaf to its rhythms. They dance to a different melody here from the one I once knew.

The man approaches me at last. Had I been sitting with my spinning-wheel outside my cottage in Rosedale I would have bade him good day and no more. I knew who I was there and my place in it. Here I am as blank as the night sky, as a book with no words printed within its pages. Yet there is something about his bearing that reminds me of John when he asked me to walk home with him from haymaking; the bold, yet shy, stance of a young stag, the eye wary, the sudden backwards leap at the snap of a twig. But as he nears I see he is nothing like John. He is taller but narrower in the shoulder. He stops in front of me and removes his hat.

‘Ma’am?’ He is an English-speaker; no trace of the French gabble that surrounds me here although his way of talking is still strange to me. He offers me a cigarette from a silver case although he still holds his cigar between his thumb and forefinger. This is a land of fancy cigarettes in silver cases, of vast skies and expectations. Perhaps there are cigarettes in York or London or other cities that I have never seen but they were unknown in our dale. The only man I ever saw smoke a cigarette before was a pedlar who arrived one day with a scarlet cloth about his neck, leading a dappled horse got up in ribbons which he sold for a penny each. We chased him from our midst when chickens began to go missing from the coops and Mrs Sheldon lost a pie from her larder and my mistress a ring from her dressing-table.  

But we suspected him before that. He did not belong to us as I do not belong to this place where people smoke cigarettes from silver cases. This is a new land where the emptiness I wear like a scarlet cloth about my neck is not welcome. They do not like people who sit and mourn. This is a land of doing and getting.

God helps those who help themselves, they say. So I no longer care for God. And yet I live. The sun rises and the sun sets and I am here and John is gone.

The man cocks his head towards the tethered boat in the shimmering moonlight’s path heaped with wreaths that marks the place where the Victoria Anne foundered. ‘You were on it.’

It is not a question. He hands me his card. So he’s a newspaper man. But that’s not what catches my eye. It is the name. Anthony Peirson. Its spelling: the ‘e’ before the ‘i’.

I grasp a tenuous thread that links my life now to my life before, tie it to my heart. ‘There are Peirsons where I come from. Many more lie in the graveyard.’

I look at him more closely and see nothing else that reminds me of what I have left behind; only his sun-cracked face, his clear eyes, his embroidered waistcoat, his shiny shoes and his city suit with its velvet buttons.

‘My father was a Rosedale man, an iron miner, until an accident prevented him from working underground. He made his way here fifty years before.’

‘It was the same for my John,’ I say.

Together we follow another slack rope of geese squabbling overhead until they are pulled over the horizon into the golden arc of the sun.

‘I read your deposition,’ he said. ‘It was very brief and said little. If you tell me the full story I will pay you handsomely.’

‘I don’t want your money,’ I say. ‘I would not wish to profit from my husband’s death.’

He flings the spent butt of his cigar into a corner of oily water where it bobs like a cork in the scum.

‘Fair enough,’ he says. ‘They serve a fine breakfast at Duckett’s. As much as you can eat for a dollar. That’s where I’m bound.’

‘That would be fine if I had a dollar to my name,’ I say, testing the unfamiliar word beneath my tongue.

He thrusts his hands in his pockets and begins to walk away. ‘I have two dollars and plenty more where that came from,’ he calls over his shoulder.

His steps are long and the gap between us widens. He is something I do not know and yet he has our dale within him. Nothing remains of John, where we came from and what we came for. Gone like the moon, outshone by the sun climbing strongly above the river. The rules have been rewritten, the loom rethreaded, the rhythms re-set. What have I to lose when I have lost everything that was of me and is me?

I stand up and hasten after him. I quicken my English steps to match his New World strides. Then and now. Warp and weft. Two singular threads making one cloth.


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