The year is 1775 and Elise, a young Guernsey woman, is on her way to join her fisherman husband Thomas on Jerseyman Island, in the Maritime Province of Nova Scotia, Canada.
She has endured a heartbreaking farewell with her family and her island home, and now faces a terrifying sea voyage across the Atlantic Ocean with her chaperone and travel companion, Renee Sebire…
Huddled in a corner of the deck of the St Brelade Elise braced herself as the ship heaved and strained. She clutched her journal and stared at the untouched pages. So much for recording all her experiences. The first terrifying weeks of her journey had dashed such intentions from her poor befuddled mind. Now the empty pages chided her but she found herself lost for words. How to describe the horror of being shut in with rats that scurry back and forth as though they own the ship? Of being deprived of fresh air and natural light for great stretches of time? Of being pitched about in a tiny dark box of a cabin until the senses become so confused that one cannot tell between the rising and falling of the ship? Of clinging hour after hour for all one was worth to the sides of a narrow coffin-bed? And all the time the timbers creaking as though they would part. And all the time longing for her mother’s comfort. And all the time wondering if she would live or die.
She found it insufferable to be in the bowels of the ship where, once the hatches were battened, no daylight filtered and where wicks and oil were limited. The agony of being forced to behave so unseemly in the company of a stranger, and likewise she with you was as bad as the sickness itself. Her courage and dignity were sorely tried. As was her skull. The height between decks seldom exceeded five feet and she was forever forgetting to stoop and so bumping her head.
During the worst of it, and barely two days out from Jersey, she and her fellow passenger, Renee Sebire, refused to stay below. ‘We will be trapped in the sinking ship,’ Renee had screamed. Elise was of the same opinion. So it was that they were secured to a life-line on deck. There they saw the crew, fishermen and Mr Sebire, also fastened to life-lines, hard at their duties or straining at the pumps. The deck vibrated with a low hum that went through her whole body. Even her teeth rattled – but perhaps that was the result of fear and cold. The sea drenched everyone and everything. The air heaved with the noise of ropes and canvas that beat and cracked, writhed and fidgeted against the mast and spars. The clamour filled her head until she thought she would go mad. Meanwhile, the great wheel took the force of two men as they hauled it this way and that.
Both women cried out for mercy and muttered their prayers through chattering teeth. Elise wept for the pity of poor Thomas and dearest Mère and Père receiving news of her terrible demise. In her plight she remembered her brother William’s prediction of a bouncing wooden tub in an endless sea. Please God, if I survive this, let him be less accurate about wolves and savages, she muttered, adding that she would be forever grateful if God in His wisdom would spare them from further storms. She also wept for the poor indentured lad who groaned and cried out for his mother.
When, much later, the storm abated a little, and the tossing and surging of the ship modified to an erratic unpleasant roll, a seaman was assigned to wash their quarters with vinegar and sea water.
‘That’s all we need,’ Renee groaned. ‘The sharp reek of vinegar is now to join the stench of wet canvas, stagnant seawater, tar, rotting wood, lamp-oil and fish.’ She rolled over and pressed a cologne soaked handkerchief to her nose.
‘And atop all that, the odour of illness,’ Elise cried, also making use of the cologne bottle.
Much to the chagrin of her rebellious stomach, Elise had taken on the task of emptying their slops over the side – a perilous chore demanding good timing and an awareness of wind direction.
‘Do you suppose,’ Renee asked one night as she lay squeezed inside her bunk a few feet beneath where Elise was squeezed into her own bunk, ‘your Thomas’s journey was so full of plungings and rollings to the point where it was impossible to stand?’
‘He didn’t say so.’
‘Hmm. Perhaps he thought you would refuse to join him if he did.’
‘Surely his years as a fisherman would have accustomed him to such seas,’ Elise said.
‘Yet even some of Mr Robin’s fishermen, off to conquer the new season and make their fortunes, have not fared as well as you, my dear,’ murmured Renee, sounding distinctly sleepy.
To the accompaniment of Renee’s snoring, Elise wondered if, indeed, she would have boarded the St Brelade so willingly had Thomas warned her of the journey. But then, had not the shipmaster, Mr Le Cheminant, told her that many journeys weren’t so violent and that this was a particularly unfortunate crossing?
For her part, with Mr Le Cheminant’s kind offer of the use of his day cabin, Elise had at last made some progress with her journal. “Has there ever been a time, she wrote, when I did not taste salt on my lips morning noon and night?” So she opened her narrative.
Eventually, desperate for some clean, fresh air, she staggered up the steps, through the hatch and out onto the deck. Last time she’d been on deck she had been too busy clinging tight for dear life against the might of wind and rain to see beyond her own nose. Now her heart gave a great jolt as she looked in all directions. Endless, endless horizon. That first shock of perpetual ocean wore off a little but never completely left her. “If I allow myself to imagine how eternally deep the black sea is beneath my feet, my mind freezes with fear,” she confessed in her journal, adding, “Poor Renee remains indisposed by le mal de mer, despite my Horehound Elixir.”
The sky remained pewter but four weeks into the voyage the storms passed and the wind blew the worst of itself out at last. The repair of the sails and the carpenter’s maintenance suddenly became as never-ending as the sea itself. There was a spell when, to make up for lost time, they sailed even on the darkest nights. “How they tell where we are just by studying the heavens as though seeking some hidden code, is beyond me,” she wrote.
Once the weather improved Elise and the Sebires when not feeling the effects of the sea, would sometimes dine with the master, Mr Le Cheminant, a Jerseyman, and the chief mate Mr Martel who navigated and supervised the steering. There was no shortage of food but it was not always the best quality and she didn’t think she would ever wish to eat salted beef again as long as she lived. The best times were when the sailors caught fish. They even had fresh shark or swordfish occasionally. Cook was an old sea-tar and despite his grumbles always had a cheery whistle and a friendly, toothless smile. His fish soup tasted good, but then Elise supposed he had many years to perfect his recipe. Of course there was the inevitable ship’s biscuit, or hard tack as the sailors called it – and no wonder. They carried a pig and chickens for fresh produce, and these were most welcome.
‘I sorely miss my mother’s cooking’ she wrote in her journal after yet another meal of dried, salted beef with an overload of boiled onions.
When it rained the sailors spread awnings to catch fresh water. A real treat, for their store of water soon began to taste fetid. She had the notion to add a squeeze of lemon which helped, as well as ensuring that the scurvy stayed at bay. There were several goats in the hold, two with kid, for the settlement. It was most distressing to hear the noise, like anguished souls, those poor creatures made during the storms, but eventually even they found their sea-legs. As for the ship’s company, apart from the master and chief mate, there was a second mate and eight crew including the cook and carpenter, and a boy. She soon appreciated how hard and long their days were, and how dangerous their work. Crammed below deck were eighteen passengers, all Mr Robin’s fishermen as well as the indentured lad, plus Elise and the Sebires.
Besides the casks of dried and salted foodstuffs from Jersey, they carried numerous barrels of sun-dried salt, picked up from Cadiz before Elise embarked. A fisherman told her that Mr Robin was most particular about the quality of his salt. “Well, bless me,” she told her journal. “All this sea and they have to bring their own salt. How much I have to learn of my new life.”
The sight of burly sailors doing fancy ropework captivated her and one fellow, with the patience of a brother to his little sister, showed her how to make the knots and how to use clay to keep the work white. Useless as she was with any sort of needle, here was some delicate work she could manage passably well. One of the fishermen, a Jerseyman, had a squeeze-box and they all enjoyed some rousing tunes and sea chanties. The crew and the fishermen knew all the words, and sometimes danced a jig on deck though there was little enough space. She did not join in the dancing, naturally, but she clapped her hands to the steps, a distraction that always cheered her.
Some five weeks after setting sail and chafing against her restricted existence, she came on deck one night to take the air. Suddenly, at the masthead ghostly blue flames leapt into the night and clung to the masts, illuminating them like God’s candles. Surely a holy messenger had come to speak to her and she cringed with fear. The sailor on watch laughed and told her not to worry, it was the fire of St Elmo, the patron saint of sailors, and it meant that their voyage would be blessed. She fervently prayed that this saint would do his work well.
“Mère and Père would be pleased that I do not neglect my immortal soul,” she wrote, “for the master holds a service every Sunday, weather permitting, during the second dogwatch. I find the services most uplifting. As well as plain prayers he reads a bible story or extract from Pilgrim’s Progress, and we end with a hymn. The second mate has a fine voice.”
Then the dreams started. Terrifying dreams that left her exhausted and trembling. A huge purple-black raven with embers for eyes had swooped over her as it rasped an ugly krawk, krawk, krawk. Its fish-hook talons sought her face. Its wings smothered her, sucking the breath from her. At that moment something changed. She peered through her fingers to see that the raven had transformed into a huge dark monster as tall as a tree, its claws fit to tear her in two. Oh dear God, save me. Make it go away. She tried to run but her feet became tree roots planted into the soil. Gut-wrenching roars hit the pit of her stomach like a fist, leaving her without breath. The monster’s jaw was a fearsome cavern revealing great fangs. As it closed in on her its foul-smelling breath filled her nostrils. Solid, yet at the same time insubstantial, the fiend pounced to devour her. She tried to scream but the scream was stifled in her throat. She was paralysed by her fear. Then the monstrous thing evaporated leaving a black, vaporous trail and the echo of a raven’s screech.
She awoke bathed in perspiration and panting in the cold dark night. She was petrified. It was so real, so vivid and shocking. What did it mean? Had she called out and disturbed Renee? Thankfully the good lady continued to snore in her bunk below. Such nights Elise could well do without. She tried not to dwell on these visions, which were surely rooted in some unimaginable evil. This was not the first time she had experienced such night apparitions. From an early age she had suffered in this way. Gran’mère told her that they were the voice of her guardian angel. You must listen to them, she’d insisted. But you must tell no-one. Once you learn to listen you will be blessed by God’s care.
No matter what her grandmother said Elise was sure that such visitations as these must be the work of the devil.
When her thoughts turned to Gran’mère and to her dear family already so far away she was filled with yearning. The pain of remembrance matched the comfort it offered.