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A Marriage of Earth and Water

Chapter 1: Sailing

By Vanessa GonzalesPublished 7 months ago Updated 7 months ago 7 min read
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A Marriage of Earth and Water
Photo by Esther Ann on Unsplash

Chapter 1: Sailing

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Nell is listening, more or less, when her Aunt Eleanor mentions that single second-class passengers may be asked to share accommodations on the Atlantic crossing. She hears the words, but in the excitement of buying her ticket and the flurry of packing, they drift past like flotsam on a sea of other information, and she pays them no mind until later.

When she’s shown to her cabin on sailing day, there’s nothing to make her think she won’t be occupying it in solitary splendor. Perhaps less splendor than if she were in first class, which she’s heard is magnificent–as well it ought to be, with the likes of Astors and Guggenheims on board–but more than enough for a professor’s daughter, who is only going home to Ithaca after six months spent abroad.

Not, she thinks, that anyone will be particularly excited for her return. It’s no secret that she was sent to Aunt Eleanor in a last-ditch hope that she might find someone to marry–as you seem to have exhausted all the possibilities in this country, her mother had said, a comment Nell had ignored.

Upon arriving in London, she’d had a frank conversation with Eleanor, an old maid herself, and explained her situation. Thereafter, she’d been left in peace to amuse herself with long walks, trips to the theater, and–disgracefully–to celebrate her thirtieth birthday without at least being engaged.

Now she is on her way back, as unmarried as ever, and she wonders if her father will finally relent and let her enroll in the very university where he teaches. Female students have been accepted there since before she was born, but that makes no difference to Dr. Charles Godfrey, a man as dusty and creaky and old-fashioned as the antique wooden chalkboard in his lecture hall.

Still considering the possibility of higher education, Nell puts her clothes away in the polished mahogany wardrobe, eats spring lamb and green peas for dinner at one of the long tables in the second-class dining saloon, and retires early for the evening. Perhaps tomorrow, she thinks, she’ll try her hand at shuffleboard.

Instead, she gets a roommate.

In the late morning, the ship arrives at Queenstown to take on a final group of passengers before the real voyage begins. They’re just about to raise anchor again when there’s a tap at the stateroom door, and Nell opens it to find an anxious-looking steward in his smart uniform and hat. He’s steering a luggage trolley that bears two large suitcases and a leather valise. Just behind him is a woman in a bottle-green traveling cape, carrying what appears to be a bundle of blankets.

“I’m very sorry, miss, but I have a lady here who is down to share your stateroom.” The steward makes a polite gesture toward his charge. Even his bow tie looks apologetic. “She’s just boarded at Queenstown. May I?”

Startled, Nell stands aside and lets him usher the woman in ahead of him. She gives Nell a friendly enough look, but doesn’t smile. Her eyes are as calm and dark as tidepools on a moonless night. The little of her hair Nell can see underneath her hat (a somewhat old-fashioned hat, she notes; something Aunt Eleanor might have in a box at the back of the wardrobe) is a smooth, smoky brown.

The steward finishes unloading the small amount of luggage into the room, tells them to ring if they need anything, and vanishes, leaving the two women alone. The blankets in the stranger’s arms stir, let out a whimper, and Nell realizes it’s a baby she’s holding.

She remembers her manners. “How do you do? I’m Eleanor Godfrey–Nell, for short.”

“I’m Anna. And this is Hope.” Anna pushes aside a soft white fold of blanket so Nell can see the baby’s face, with big, long-lashed dark eyes that immediately answer the question of whether Anna is her mother. “If you’re worried about her crying at night, don’t be. She’s a good girl.”

“Oh, I wasn’t worried,” Nell says, not entirely truthfully. The engines are revving up, vibrating under their feet as the massive ship prepares to steam out into open water. She feels an instant of vertigo, hesitates until it passes. “You’ll have the lower berth, of course, so she can’t fall and hurt herself.”

“That’s kind of you.” Anna sits down on the brocade sofa, cleverly built into the wall and rocks Hope, soothing her. “I’m sorry to have pushed in on you this way, but we bought tickets at the last minute and it was the only choice.”

“It’s quite all right. They did say it might happen,” Nell says, remembering Aunt Eleanor’s words at last. “If you’re traveling alone, that is.”

“We’re not traveling alone.” Anna's head is bowed over the baby, too low for Nell to see her expression, but there's a stiffness in her tone that signals something lying behind the simple words.

"But surely that's a mistake, then," Nell says. "They ought to have put you with your companion, oughtn't they? Unless it’s someone you can’t share with…?”

“Hope’s father,” Anna says shortly. “He’s got his own accommodation. First-class. He’ll be down to check on us at some point, I expect.”

“I see," Nell says. She doesn’t see–in fact is busy trying to puzzle this out–but she can’t think of how to ask without being very rude indeed. It wouldn’t be unusual for a wealthy man to have separate accommodations to his wife and child, but a wealthy man would book a first-class stateroom for them as well, and there would be at least a nanny and possibly a maid along. The only reason she can fathom for Anna and Hope to be here, bunking in with a single female passenger, is that Hope’s father is not Anna’s husband.

“It’s not what you’re thinking,” Anna says, as if she can read Nell’s mind. “We are married, you see–” She frees a hand from under Hope’s blankets and shows Nell a thin circlet of gold gleaming dully on her finger. “It's nothing scandalous. It’s only–”

The door handle turns, and Anna breaks off in mid-sentence as a man pushes into the room.

"Who's this, Annie?" He gives Nell an unfriendly look from behind horn-rimmed spectacles. "Someone you know?"

"We're sharing with her." Anna clutches the baby tighter. It lets out a little cry, the squeak of a child's toy. "I didn't ask to. The man said there wasn't room enough for us each to have our own."

"It's true," Nell says, wondering whether this is Anna's putative husband. If so, she doesn't like the look of him one bit. He's not a large man–even in her sensible low-heeled boots, she can make direct eye contact if she stands up straight–and he's smartly dressed in what she recognizes as the latest style from London. There shouldn't be anything intimidating about him, and yet her insides feel unsettled in a way she can't attribute to the waves.

"Well, Annie?" He turns to Anna. "Are you going to introduce us? Lady to gentleman, remember?"

"Miss Godfrey, may I present Mr. Carroll," Anna says with some reluctance.

Nell summons Aunt Eleanor's coolest voice and says "How do you do," and Carroll gives her a brusque nod of acknowledgement before turning back to his wife.

"Mind your manners, Annie, and be sure you're here whenever I come looking for you. You know why."

"What about meals? I've got to eat." Anna's dark eyes are full of both pleading and anger. "I can't feed the baby if I'm starving, can I?"

"Ring for a steward," Carroll says, and departs, shutting the door behind him. The silence he leaves in his wake is curdled with embarrassment and anger. Even baby Hope is mouse-quiet, nestled in her mother's arms as if she knows better than to make a peep.

"I'll bring you your meals, if you like," Nell offers eventually.

"I wouldn't want to trouble you."

"It's no trouble," Nell insists. "I'll speak with the steward, or someone in the dining saloon when I go for the dinner seating. I'm certain they'll help."

"Thank you." Anna lifts Hope up and kisses the wispy hair on top of her head. "Poor little thing. You didn't ask for a father like the one fate gave you. But one day we'll see, won't we?"

Nell is frozen, unsure of what she's just seen, what she's seeing now. For a moment she wishes she were in Aunt Eleanor's parlor, extending her hand to accept a cup of tea, or at home already and arguing with her mother about marriage. Anywhere but here in this in-between place, watching this strange woman talk to her baby.

"We'll see," Anna croons to Hope, low and sweet, almost a song. "Yes, we'll see, we will...when I get back what's mine."

Historical FictionFantasy
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About the Creator

Vanessa Gonzales

“Rule one, you have to write. If you don’t write, nothing will happen.” - Neil Gaiman

When I'm not writing, I take photos. You can see them here.

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