With a heavy heart, sixteen-year old Alice Davison boards a transatlantic steamship heading toward an unknown life in post-Civil War America. This dread soon blossoms into terror when she senses that there is someone, or something, lurking in the dark crevices of the ship. When a new friend mysteriously dies, Alice finds that her worst fears have come true: she and the other passengers are trapped on board with a creature straight out of a Gothic novel. Vampires, it seems, are all too real.
Unfortunately, danger doesn't only prowl in the dark bowels of the ship. It also thrives in the sparkling rooms of first class and even hides in the murky waters of the Atlantic. And when she finds herself ensnared by a first-class passenger, enchanting Sir Henry Falkner, she can't even be sure whether he is her suitor or her enemy.
"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board." --Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Liverpool, May 12, 1865
It was early morning at the port of Liverpool, and my family and I stood waiting to board the SS Martinus. The sun had risen thirty minutes before, but the heavy clouds diffused the light and a fog had rolled in from the sea, so it seemed as if the world was wrapped in a gray mist and that my ears had been stuffed with cotton. The subdued cries of laboring sailors, mournful seagulls, and crying families saying their goodbyes wafted around me, lending the morning not a sense of adventure, but of dread and uncertainty.
Reflecting this mood, my father looked grim as he presided over our steamer trunks,Gladstone bags, and less importantly, his wife and three daughters. His suit was as gray as the day, and while his face was unreadable, his fingers were white as they grasped his walking cane, and I was well aware that he concealed an impatience that threatened to boil over into rage. My sisters and I knew to stay far away from those angry hands and the cane.
Many times, I watched my father remove his pocket watch to check the time. Its gold casing flashed dully in the muted light. My mother's face was taut and drawn, as if she thought that if she kept her face still, she could repress the tears I'd heard her cry for many nights. We were to reside in steerage, which from all accounts, was a miserable place to be, even in modern steamships. If my father could save money, however, the misery was nothing but a trifling matter.
When at last the call for boarding was made, we had to wait for the saloon passengers to board first, and then secondly, the intermediate ones. We were, of course, the last ones. I assumed the livestock were even loaded before us. My sisters Mary and Lucy were unusually subdued. They had talked of nothing but this trip for months now--I'm sure their friends were right sick of hearing of the glories of America. I knew I was. But, I had to admit I felt a little thrill when I saw the Leviathan of a ship and the variety of passengers with whom, for near a fortnight--twelve days--we would make this tremendous journey.
When at last we steerage passengers were allowed to board, my father gave his orders.
"Alice, Mary, Lucy. Take your kits and be quick about it. Helen," he indicated to my mother as he bent to lift the steamer trunk, "take the other end."
I was mortified that he would have my mother carry the trunk, but there seemed no help for it. Just then, though, my attentions were distracted when I caught sight of a figure leaning over the edge of deck's rail. His skin was so black that it shone with its own light, and when considered with his scarlet red cravat and fine clothes, he was like a handsome peacock among a flock of dull peahens. Unlike the many Africans I had seen around Liverpool, his clothes did not look like those of a laborer, servant, or even a sailor. Instead, his top coat, velvet collar, and top hat gave the impression of some wealth. He was certainly better dressed than my staunchly middle class father with his shirt collars and felt hat. As I craned my neck to get a better look at him, he winked at me--winked!--then turned and lost himself into the crowd. I was relieved that he had not stayed long enough to see the usual blotchy blush spread across my face.
The slow march of the steerage passengers as we were herded on to the lower deck was reminiscent of the progress of a herd of goats, since each of us carried our jangling mess kits with us. All we lacked were bells around our necks. The day before departure, we had visited the ship's outfitting shop, where, for two shillings and two pence per kit, we were each given a washbasin, a water can, mug, plate, knife, fork and spoon, all made of tin. Not to mention a basin for seasickness. I tried to reject this last item, confident that it would not be necessary. After all, I was a hearty lass of sixteen. But the man assured me that it was better to have in case "o' the seasickness." We also purchased thin, rolled-up mattresses with attached pillows, all stuffed, we were told, with hay. I would spend too many unhappy nights on this sad, uncomfortable bedding.
“Pardon me, Ma'am, could I ease your burden a bit?” We all turned to discover a burly, young sailor with a lopsided grin.
“There's a good lad,” my father said with a loud, hearty voice, while puffing out his chest and acting the lord with the poor sailor who had made the mistake of singling himself out.
“It's my pleasure, sir,” he replied, giving my mother a wink. I saw her smile in relief.
The sailor, whose name was Jamie, hoisted a good portion of our luggage on both shoulders and led the way. He was a tall, barrel of a man, and he carried our luggage like it was a stack of pillows. As we slowly made our way onto the ship, he narrated the highlights of his life in east London and how he came to be a sailor. All the while, he lithely carried the luggage without smacking other passengers in the head. At last we arrived in one room in steerage, a room filled with narrow, double berths. The young man claimed an empty section of berths, and slid the trunk under one berth with a few quick movements. When father wasn't looking, I saw mother pass him a threepenny.
“You are very kind,” she added, looking relieved that this part of the journey was over.
“Ta very much. I hope you'll have a pleasant journey,” he said, tipping his hat, giving her a friendly grin, then moving on in hope of more tips.
Although she was my mother, and thus frightfully old, I saw for myself in that moment that she still had some of the beauty for which she was once known. And the excitement and effort of boarding the vessel had brought a girlish color to her cheeks.
Father folded himself onto an empty lower berth and immediately opened his cigar case. My mother closed the sail cloth curtain that surrounded our double-decker bunk beds that lined each side of the rough, wooden-planked walls. The curtain hung from the low ceiling and hugged against the ends of the bunks, giving us a false sense of privacy. My sisters and I began spreading out the new mattresses and pillows on the narrow bunks. When I began to lay my bedding on a bottom bunk, Mary elbowed me away.
"I want the bottom bunk, Alice," she said to me. "Beauty before age."
"In that case, Mary, this must be Lucy's" I answered. Mary was fifteen and fancied herself the beauty of the family. She certainly spent long enough staring into the glass.
"You both will sleep on the deck if you don't stop this instant," Father said. His voice was clipped and quick to end any arguments.
"You have it, Mary. I'm not bothered one way or the other," I answered.
"Humph." Mary said, smoothing out her rough mattress as if it were made of silk instead of rough canvas. A ladder was nailed to the end of the bunk, and I climbed mid-way up, my narrow boots and their tiny heels wobbling on the rungs. I tossed my mattress and pillow on the bed and attempted to sort them out with one hand whilst holding onto the ladder with the other. Lucy was happy with her own bottom bunk, leaving the top one empty. While Lucy, my mother, and I settled our new “room,” father, having planted a stubby, brown cigar in his mouth, unfolded a newspaper. Mary had also settled on her bunk and was reading her friends' letters with much dramatic sniffling. I thought, not for the first time, that Mary took after father in more ways than one.
And who am I like? I try in every way to NOT be like father. But, secretly, I know that I have a touch of his temper and work devilishly hard to repress it. I try to be more like my aunt Lavinia, who like me, has auburn hair but has somehow managed to avoid the family affliction. Perhaps this is why my father has made me the target of his temper: my red hair reminds father of this least favorite sister, whom he calls an “insufferable, dried up spinster.” He always wishes her to the devil before each Sunday dinner, but he never sends her away. She is, it goes without saying, my favorite aunt, and I adore her outrageous politics and the fact that she fights for women's suffrage. I had had vague notions of joining her in her efforts one day, but now I am sailing away on this giant tugboat toward the wilderness, starvation, and who knows what other degradations.
As the milling about steerage seemed to slow, my father walked over to one of the portholes.
“The crowd has lessened. Let's go on deck to say our goodbyes to Liverpool, girls.”
“Maybe I will see Lizzie and Rebecca!” Mary exclaimed, leaping from her bed. She pulled open the curtain and rushed for the exit.
“Slow down, Mary,” my mother said. “You can try to see your friends, but there's sure to be a crowd at the dock.”
“Hmph,” father grunted, “hundreds at the least.”
Mary pouted, but still led the way through the thinning crowd toward the exit, a steep, ladder-like stairway to the upper deck.
“Perhaps Aunt Lavinia will be there as well,” Lucy added with a quiet voice. My heart leaped at the thought—she did say she would try to be there, waving a lavender scarf.
“Look for the lavender scarf, Lucy,” I reminded her, giving her hand a squeeze. It felt as cold as ice.
Already I couldn't stand being holed up in the dark, musty steerage and longed for the upper deck. Our immediate neighbor was a white-haired old lady wrapped in a pink shawl who was already ensconced in her bunk like a penny in a piggy bank. As my sisters and I passed her by, she nodded at us politely, as if she were seeing callers in her parlor instead of lying on a bunk bed. As we went by, she pointed in my direction with a knobbly finger.
"You'll be glad for the top bunk." she said. "When the ship begins to lurch, so will your sister's stomach, and you'll be glad not to lie underneath!"
I nodded and smiled at her and kept walking. But I wondered: How did she know it was I who had lost the bottom bunk? We had been hidden by our curtain, and I had hardly said a word. Perhaps she had judged my sister's character by her appearance and smug posture.
Before I could ruminate any more on her insight, we joined the line of other passengers who were making their way to the deck to wave goodbye to loved ones. And to England. In the rush of getting ready for the journey, I realized that I had not allowed myself to remember all of the little things I would miss. The rattle of the glass milk bottles when Harry, our milkman, left them on the front steps. Roasted chestnuts in the winter. Our little patch of garden where I had played my entire childhood. Even worse, I was made to leave my ginger cat, Tom, with my Aunt Lavinia. When I had delivered him two days before our journey, I had had to trick him into a wicker basket with a piece of cod. Tucked into the basket, he had howled the whole journey to her flat. When Aunt Lavinia opened her door, I bawled, too, and I don't know who cried the loudest, me or Tom. She gave me tea and biscuits and stroked my hair, promising me that she would care for him until the day she brought him for a visit. When Tom emerged from his basket, his tail stood straight up like a flag, and he curiously inspected the flat and then lapped milk from a bowl. When I left, he was curled up on a cushion, as if he had always lived there. His contentedness was a comfort to me then, but now the separation was fresh again, sudden and sharp, like a kick to the shin. I willed the sadness away. It would do me no good.
The muted light on deck seemed bright compared to the dimness of the inner bowels of the ship. The voices that were once so despondent were now punctuated with shouts of excitement as they located the tiny figures of loved ones on the dock below. Some still cried, but many waved their handkerchiefs to old friends and old lives. I put my arms around my mother's thin shoulders and felt her tremble. I kissed her soft cheek and whispered. "All will be well, Mama," and she nodded without looking at me. I knew she didn't believe it for a minute. I wasn't sure I did, either.
Lucy leaned in to me. At thirteen, she was almost as tall as I was and as thin as a sapling.
"Are you sad, Alice?" Her voice trembled a little as she looked at me with her large, blue eyes. As the oldest, I was the self-appointed "brave one," and Lucy, as the youngest, was the fearful one, but only I knew that much of my bravery was bravado. Lucy had always inspired in me an impulse to protect.
But, Lucy deserved the truth.
"I am, but I'm thrilled, too." I squeezed her hand and pointed to the ship around us. "Just imagine all of the new people we'll meet and the adventures we will have! Nothing exciting ever happened to us in boring old Liverpool." Oh, how good boring sounded, though!
"I didn't find it boring. I liked our drafty house and being in the middle of a city. I liked it just fine."
What to say to that? Instead, I hugged her close to me, her shoulders feeling as delicate as a bird's. One tight squeeze and it seemed her bones would snap in two.
We all scanned the crowd lining the port. Every speck of color caught my eye, until at last I saw a strip of lavender cloth, fluttering in the middle of a crowd.
“Look!” I shouted, “It's Aunt Lavinia!”
“Goodbye!” Lucy shouted, jumping up and down, the red ribbons on each braid bouncing. When Lavinia's scarf seemed to wave more energetically, I thought perhaps she had seen us. But I couldn't know for sure.
When the ship fired its parting gun, we all jumped, and most laughed at themselves while they wiped away tears and then looked around the deck, as if trying to figure out what to do next. Luncheon, I suppose. Meals work to fill the emptiness.
“I'll take a stroll around the deck for a little while,” father said. “I'll see you girls down below,” and he began to squeeze against the movement of the crowd toward the emptier part of the deck. I had heard a sailor call it starboard. Soon, I presumed, I would learn all of the nautical terms and talk like a sailor. I've already heard some words brand new to me, as we brushed past a pair of sailors, whose faces were as grimy as their clothes. I had to wonder--what in the world was a "Dollymop?" I blushed after I realized that given the context, it probably meant a cheap woman. I hoped Lucy hadn't overheard.
Mary, Lucy and I lingered by the rail, watching the departing scene.
"See how far away Liverpool is now?" Lucy pointed to the slowly diminishing horizon of docks, low buildings, and ships in port. We could hear the deep moan of other ships' horns, the workings of the ship’s engine, and the caw of seagulls that were determined to follow us out to sea. The water was choppy, but so far, I hadn’t found it to be unsettling. I spared a glance at Lucy. She was beginning to look a bit green. Mary was still pouting. She had not seen any of her friends. Had they even showed up, I wondered?
"Let's go back down to our quarters, Luce," I said. "Would a cup of tea make you feel better?"
Lucy nodded "I believe I could manage one."
“I could use one as well,” Mother said, giving us a brave smile. “Maybe a bit o' tea will give me some sea legs.”
Taking Lucy's arm, I pushed through the crowd.
We made our way to the narrow stairway that led to steerage where we once again ran into our friendly sailor, Jamie.
"Ah, there you are ma'am and young misses. I was just about to show you the kitchen and dining room and the like. Is this a good time?" His cap was set on the back of his massive head, which was covered in thick, dark hair. I noticed his eyes dart toward Mary. She had noticed this too and had cast her eyes down, acting the demure maiden. When his back was turned, she saw me looking and stuck out her tongue at me.
"That would be lovely, Jamie," my mother said with a tired voice.
With an outstretched hand, he encouraged us to precede him, and we continued to descend the narrow steps, and then walked down the same passage we had already visited. We halted when we came to a door on our left.
"Here you are now. This here is the dining saloon. When mealtime is called, bring your kit and take a seat. The ladies should always 'ave a seat, but if no gentleman gives you 'is, then you will 'ave to partake standing up, I'm afraid."
We were all silent as we took in the long narrow room. The table had been hoisted to the ceiling by a configuration of ropes and pulleys, and long benches made of dark wood were shoved up against opposite walls. It wasn't a large room, and it was hard to imagine it holding any number of people. The trio of round windows, high on the wall, admitted a little light, and the room had a sad, overused odor of stale food, salt water, and lacquered wood.
"Over here," Jamie led us through a connecting room where a large tub sat upon a table. "’ere is where you'll wash your kit. Just be sure to get here first--the water gets a bit mangy after the twentieth wash." He looked again at Mary, who wrinkled her tiny nose at the thought of washing her own dishes, let alone sharing a tub of greasy water.
At her look of distaste, Jamie quickly interjected, talking to my mother, but looking at Mary.
"Oh, but Ma'am, the galley master, for just a token, will let you use a small tub of hot water in the galley." He smiled at Mary as if he were her champion. "Just don't let the word get out, or that water'll be as greasy as this one 'ere."
"Thank you, Jamie," said Mother. "That's very kind of you. I'm sure we'll come to appreciate this advice greatly."
After the dining room, he showed us the galley, a clever room that seemed much too small for the making of so many meals. I pictured the galley master as a compact man, perhaps an elf, that might work in such a space. As it was, it felt crowded with us and giant Jamie to boot.
It turns out I was wrong about the galley master.
As we turned to leave the space, taking turns to fit through the door, the man himself arrived. How he alone fit through the door was a wonder. He was a foot higher than father and almost twice as wide. His hands were meaty and his fingers were like thick, hairy sausages, but seemingly neat enough. His head was as bald as a baby's, and the mustache under his nose was abundant and shaped with care. The curls on either upturned end gave him a look of menacing cheer, as if the mustache smiled against his will.
"Watta you women want?" he said, cracking his stiff fingers. "Jamie, take them back where they belong."
"I'm so sorry, sir," my mother answered with her soft voice and smile. "Jamie was so kind to give us a tour of your rooms and now, after his compliments of your cooking, our fears of ship cookery has been allayed."
She curtsied a little, which made his bushy eyebrows rise a fraction.
"Umph, umph, pretty words, me dear," he blustered, and my mother's face reddened. Just when we thought he'd been offended, he blustered under his breath,
"Even brutes like me like a pretty word now and then."
"And what about such pretty faces in your galley?" Jamie interjected. "Would you allow them a quick wash-up of their kits after meals, Mr. Curry? I'm sure they would be much appreciative."
I felt like this song had been played before.
"Oh, just a little thanks would be just fine, just fine. I'll put me basin on this table 'ere," he pointed to a small table that unfolded from the wall. "And a bit o' 'ot water. That should do ye just fine."
Mother reached into her purse and withdrew a shilling. I hoped that there would be enough coins remaining when we arrived in America. She slipped it into his paw-like hand and smiled again. We girls all curtsied, and followed Jamie away from the cramped space.
"'e's not so bad, really," Jamie whispered, "looks more frightening than 'e is."
We all just nodded and made agreeable sounds.
"And 'eres the washrooms, clearly marked. Earlier you visit, the better. Almost always a wait, there is. 'Specially when there's sickness about."
He rubbed his hands together and gave us a grin that was difficult to resist.
"That concludes our tour of the great SS Martinus. Do as the sailors tell you, never travel about the ship alone, and you'll be right as rain. I best be about my duties. Good day, ladies," he struck his heels together smartly and disappeared down the dark corridor toward spaces unexplored by us.
"Well, girls, we've been mighty lucky to meet Jamie and be set up with the washing. Let's go get tidied up for luncheon. I'm sure it won't be long now." I glimpsed over at Lucy, who looked quite droopy, and I hoped that there would be tea at lunch.
I'm afraid to report that the 'luncheon' was a sad affair. Indifferent sailors, lacking Jamie's charm and care, slopped watery soup into our shallow tin bowls. I guessed it was beef, and on its surface floated a sheen of oil. This was followed by hard bread and mutton, which required great effort to cut. But there was, at least, tea. When the meal was done, a crowd immediately circled around the wash bin. Some finished their meals as they waited for their turns. It was sure to get worse. But, we didn't rush through our food, and father cut each piece of mutton with great care, as if he were dining at home instead of steerage class. And when he finished, he wiped his face clean, lay his napkin on his plate, and departed. Mother collected his tin ware, and we all followed her to the kitchen where the chef had fulfilled his promise. Except, that the old woman who had spoken to me earlier, had already preceded us.
She winked at me.
"I'm an experienced traveler, but I see that you young things are learning," she said as she removed her last dish. Already, the basin's water was a little greasy. As we left, though, and saw the state of the main basin, virtually afloat with soggy islands of gray mutton and stringy carrots, we counted our blessings.
Supper passed in much the same way. At least they gave us something to do once the ship was underway and there were no other distractions.
Our first night aboard ship was a rough one. We were in the open waters now, and even though the sky was clear, the waves were choppy and irritable. When I rose the next morning, ready for the day since I had slept in my now-wrinkled clothes, many of the residents of steerage were still abed, even though it was eight in the morning. My sisters and father were among these numbers, and I for one, was indeed glad that I had chosen the top bunk after all. Poor Mary would have been sick all over my bed otherwise. As it was, it was an uncomfortable night on that hard mattress, and I even found that I had sand in my ears and hair. My pillow, it seemed, was stuffed with sand.
Between the rocking of the ship, the pitiful sounds of my family's illness, and the poor bed, it had been a bad night indeed. And we still had eleven days to go. One benefit to this ship-wide illness was that the dining room was only half full, and this seemed to cheer up the staff. One young man, a small, scrawny one, with a tired, red scarf tied at his neck, grinned at me, his mouth bereft of a number of teeth. As he poured my weak tea, I pretended not to notice him, but my disinterest only seemed to make him merrier.
Mother and I took a nice walk along the deck. It was the first time in many a month that I'd had her to myself. As soon as we emerged onto the deck, I hooked my arm through hers, and we talked about all of the things we'd miss about England.
"I'll even miss scouse," she said to my surprise.
"Scouse?" I asked, studying her face to see if she was serious. "Stew? What about English summer days or daffodils, or, I don't know, Toad-in-the Hole?"
I was beginning to believe her, when she finally smiled and laughed. "Mayhaps not so much." She rested her head on my shoulder. I loved it when she laughed--she looked so carefree and happy--the way she must have looked as a girl.
Something tickled at the back of my mind, and I cast my eyes around me, studying the crush of passengers getting their exercise. Nothing stood out, so I shrugged off that vexing feeling, a sense that something was amiss. We continued to stroll the best we could, weaving between knots of people on deck, when I felt that sensation again. This time, I looked to my right, toward the wall of one of the deck houses. I could see a figure of a man standing in its shadows. Surprise gripped me, and I felt adrenaline race throughout my bloodstream. It was the dapper African man, and once again, he was looking at me. When he saw that I noticed him--how could I miss him?--he tilted the bridge of his hat in acknowledgment. But he did not melt into the shadows like before. No, as we walked, so did he, one hand tucked into a pocket. I felt as if my heart was a bass drum and that my mother should surely hear it, but she seemed not to have noticed the strange exchange I had had. That I was having. We walked. He walked. When we turned around, so did he. I tried not to look at him, to act as if I wasn't aware of him, but I was. I could feel his eyes burning into me, as if he knew me and had claimed me in some unfathomable way.
For the first time, I felt relief when we arrived at the entrance to steerage. He kept his distance, but his scrutiny was close and intense. I saw that he stopped one of the steerage sailors and that the sailor had looked in our direction. What could that be about? Why was he so interested in me?
At least, so far, he had not attempted to come below deck. But what would stop him if he chose to? I suddenly remembered the flimsy curtain that separated our quarters from the rest of steerage. It was no kind of barrier, except perhaps to prying eyes. I started to shake, and this time, my mother noticed.
"Alice, dear, are you ill?" she said. She lifted up my chin and turning it back and forth, as she studied my complexion. "You are so pale! Let's go below. I will see about some tea, and you shall have a rest."
"Thank you, mother," I said. "I do feel weak. The lack of sleep has caught up with me."
I darted a look behind me and saw that he was gone. The heavy weight that had been on my chest for the last half hour lifted. Perhaps he had nothing better to do than stare at young women. As soon as we were below, and mother got me a cup of hot tea (thanks to our friendship with the galley master), I thought perhaps that I was being silly about the whole thing. Why would this man have any interest in me? If it had been my sister Mary, I would have understood. Her golden hair and wide, blue eyes drew beaus like flies to honey. In her wake, I am hardly ever noticed. Most of the time, I'm happy to be overshadowed. I wished that was the case now.
The Birdcatcher Series