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Wide is the Water

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Wide is the Water


  Jane Aiken Hodge

  Oh, wide is the water, I cannot get o’er,

  The water lies wide twixt my true love and me

  I stand alone on a stranger shore

  And never more my true love shall see.

  The water is wide, and I cannot get o’er

  I long to fly, but I fear to fall,

  I wait my love on a stranger shore,

  I await my love, for love conquers all



  Chapter I

  Chapter II

  Chapter III

  Chapter IV

  Chapter V

  Chapter VI

  Chapter VII

  Chapter VIII

  Chapter IX

  Chapter X

  Chapter XI

  Chapter XII

  Chapter XIII

  Chapter XIV

  Chapter XV

  Chapter XVI

  Chapter XVII

  Chapter XVIII

  Chapter XIX

  Chapter XX

  Chapter XXI

  Chapter XXII

  A Note on the Author


  It was cold. Too cold to think; too cold to feel. Outside, a savage wind threw snow against the windowpanes, found cracks in the wood-built inn, blew the flames of a newly lit fire angrily back down the chimney.

  ‘The sledge should be ready any minute now.’ Hart Purchis reached inside his greatcoat to pull out his watch. ‘You’re sure you won’t stay and have some breakfast?’

  ‘After you’ve gone? No.’ Like her husband, Mercy was wearing a heavy coat and shivering inside it. She held out her hands to the fire and would not let them shake. ‘The Pastons will give me something when I get there.’ He was still holding his watch, and she sensed his impatience to be gone. So much to say. Impossible to say any of it. Not here; not now; not like this. ‘Hart. Don’t wait. There’s no need. The landlord will take good care of me, I’m sure. I know you’re desperate to get back to the Georgia, to get her out with the tide, before she gets frozen in like the other ships. That has to come first, hasn’t it? You didn’t get safe away from Savannah to be frozen in, helpless, here at Boston. You have a job to do; the British to beat. Please, Hart, let’s say good-bye; get it over with.’

  He took her cold hands in his and chafed them gently. ‘I’m sorry, Mercy. Sorry for everything. It’s not the way we hoped, is it? Any of it. But you’ll be happy with the Pastons. They’re my good friends. They’ll take care of you. And I’ll write whenever I can. Come spring, when the harbour thaws, we’ll be here to see you, the Georgia and I, bringing our prizes with us. The men will miss you.’

  ‘Will they?’ She raised exhausted eyes to his. ‘I wonder.’ Even for an acclaimed heroine of the Revolution, the stormy voyage north from Savannah, sole woman on a small privateer crammed with men, had not been easy.

  ‘Of course they will.’ His voice came out a little too strong. ‘Their mascot. The Rebel Pamphleteer.’

  ‘And a great nuisance.’ She thought of the tiny, cramped cabin, every sound audible, it felt, throughout the ship. A mockery of a honeymoon. A disaster. Hart looked at his watch again. ‘Hart, do go. I couldn’t bear it if you missed the tide on my account. Where the Georgia is anchored, she’d be a sitting target for a British man-of-war. She’s not even far enough in to be protected by the harbour batteries.’

  ’I know. But any further and we really would have been frozen in like the others. God, what a winter. I hope you’ll be warm enough, Mercy. Comfortable. I wish I knew more about this Cousin Golding Mrs. Paston is staying with. But a Boston merchant rich enough to live out at Farnham should keep a good house. And you’ll be able to pay your way, at least for a while. Until I come sailing in with that prize. I wish I could have given you more.’

  ‘Don’t worry, Hart. I’ll manage. I always have. I’ll find work. Teaching, perhaps. Something. Everyone says the New Englanders have been getting rich while we in the South bore the brunt of the war.’

  ‘Better not say that to the Goldings.’ The sharp answer was characteristic of their new, strained relationship.

  ‘I won’t.’ She had bitten back a protest against his repeated assumption that the Georgia would be successful in her next privateering cruise. Not normally superstitious, she had felt a shiver run through her at his first mention of prizes; the second one was almost too much. But she had learned self-control during those cramped months on the Georgia, and besides, they were going to part in a minute. Till spring? Till the end of the endless war? No way of telling. And no time to quarrel. She reached up to put both hands on his shoulders. ‘I love you, Hart. Remember that. Always. And forgive me for everything that’s been wrong. It’s been a hard time.’

  ‘My fault,’ he said. ‘All my fault.’ And then: ‘Oh, my God!’

  ‘Hart, what is it?’

  ‘Your marriage lines,’ he said. ‘The paper Captain Bougainville gave you. It’s still in my Bible, on board.’

  ‘Our marriage lines.’ She could not help the sharp correction but winced as she saw it hurt him. ‘Never mind, my darling.’ It was a while since she had used the endearment. ‘I doubt if the city fathers of Farnham would set much store by a wedding performed on a French ship by a French sea captain. But you say Mrs. Paston will believe me, and that’s what matters.’

  ‘I wish I’d heard from her. I wish so many things. If only we could have got ashore, found a minister, the way I meant, been married again. Properly.’

  Was that what had been wrong? ‘It was proper enough for me,’ she said, ‘that wedding. But if that’s the way you feel, maybe it’s just as well there’s no chance that I’m carrying a little, dubious Purchis.’

  Now she had really got him on the raw. ‘Forgive me. I didn’t mean … I can’t bear it. Mercy—’

  But she had turned away from him as the landlord of the inn opened the door to announce that the sledge was ready for her. ‘Best get going right away, ma’am, before the horses freeze in their traces. And the tide’s almost on the turn, Cap’n Purchis.’

  They looked at each other. ‘Mercy!’

  ‘Hart. I love you.’

  ‘You know I do.’ He had his arm round her, guiding her out to where the sledge stood dark on the snow, her tiny portmanteau already stowed, steam rising from the horses’ nostrils in the grey light of a reluctant dawn.

  Their cold lips met. He helped the landlord pile furs around her, repeated the Farnham address to the driver, bent to kiss her one last time. ‘God bless you, my dear wife, and keep you.’

  ‘And you.’ She was interrupted by the swift forward movement of the sledge as the driver gave the office to his horses. ‘Good-bye.’

  ‘Good-bye!’ already his answer came from behind, against the drive of the wind. God be with you. She found herself crying and praying at the same time.

  The driver was saying something in the clipped accent she found difficult to understand. ‘I beg your pardon?’ she said, and then, belatedly understanding: ’Two hours to Farnham, you say? Can the horses stand it?’

  ‘The cold? Yes, ma’am. Don’t you fret about them, but see you keep your hood tight round that pretty little head of yours. I don’t want to get to Farnham and find your ears friz off. Ain’t been to these parts before, I reckon?’

  ‘Never. I didn’t believe it could be so cold.’

  ‘Coldest winter for years.’ He was proud of it. ‘Ships fruz tight in the harbour. Sensible fellow, your friend Cap’n Purchis. He’s doing the right thing with his Georgia, that’s for sure.’

  ‘My husband,’ she said.

  ‘Wind’s rising.’ Perhaps he had not heard her. ‘Bit of luck we shouldn’t get too much snow

  She shook her head, hardly able to hear him against the creak of the sledge and the howling of the wind, and settled back among her rugs, grateful for the unaccustomed solitude. On the little Georgia, during the storm-tossed voyage north, she had often been lonely, but never really alone. Meeting the fringes of a hurricane as they sailed away from the fiasco of the French and American attack on British-held Savannah, they had been blown far off course, and the voyage to Boston that Hart had hoped to make in a few weeks had taken two exhausting months. They had spent a glum Christmas at sea, and now, counting on her cold fingers, Mercy realised that it was New Year’s Day, 1780. A whole new decade. I should have wished Hart a Happy New Year, she thought, and then: What’s happy about it?

  If only they had taken a prize, the crew might not have been so resentful about what they considered the unnecessary trip to Boston. Hailed as a mascot at first, when Hart brought her on board, the heroine who had fooled the British for so long in occupied Savannah, Mercy had begun, in the last few weeks, as they battled up the storm-swept coast, to feel herself regarded more and more as an incubus. She had begged Hart to send her ashore to Philadelphia, but he could be obstinate, too. The French squadron had sailed away south after the fiasco at Savannah, and the British ships based on captured New York kept sharp watch on the mouth of the Delaware. To put in there was to risk capture, prison for him and his crew and, for her, very likely the spy’s death from which he had saved her in Savannah.

  Right, wrong? Wrong, right? No way of telling, but the argument had still further strained a relationship exacerbated by the appalling lack of privacy on the Georgia. And of course, Hart had meant to spend some time in Boston, for the refit his ship badly needed, to see her settled with his friends the Pastons, and, as she had learned only today, to marry her again. She put up a mittened hand to brush away a tear before it froze. It had been a happy ceremony, that swift wedding on board Captain Bougainville’s ship the Guerrier, with everyone making the most of an occasion for rejoicing after the bitter disappointment of defeat at Savannah. The Guerrier’s chaplain had been killed evacuating the wounded from Hart’s burned plantation house at Winchelsea. And anyway, he had been a Roman Catholic. Well, so, she supposed, had Bougainville, but that was different. He had officiated, not as minister, but as ship’s captain, supreme at sea.

  Had Hart had doubts all the time? Was that why he had made such a point of sailing in company with the Guerrier so that the ceremony took place, not in the Savannah River, presumably American territory, but at sea, well off Tybee Light in international waters? But for that fatal delay, they might have been clear of southern waters before the hurricane struck Jamaica and its fringes lashed the coast right up to North Carolina. Fighting for all their lives, Hart had had no time or strength for his new wife, and she had understood, or thought she had. There would be time for happiness, for their honeymoon, when they got to Boston.

  But in that freak winter Boston Harbour was frozen solid. Warned in time, Hart had anchored briefly and dangerously off Cohuit, south of the town, to put her ashore. She pulled the furs more closely around her. Maybe it was as well that there was no chance she could be carrying his child. She had put a good face on it when he had broken it to her that he could give her only Georgia paper money, and not much of that. But everything she had read and heard about the rich merchants of Boston, who had thriven on wartime trade, made her wonder what they would think of Georgia paper. Well, she would find out soon enough.

  ‘Not long now.’ The driver turned to encourage her. ‘You look kind of peaked.’

  ‘I’m tired,’ she admitted, amused at the understatement.

  ‘Breakfast in Farnham. We hit the main road here; it’ll be quicker.’ He shouted to his horses, and the sledge moved forward more swiftly on the firm, ice-covered snow of a well-used road. Even under snow, this country looked lived in, Mercy thought, man-dominated, very different from the wilds and swamps she had got used to in the six years she had lived in Georgia. More like the England she had left. And how strange to find a sudden, homesick knot of tears in her throat at that thought. She was an American now, the wife of an American, and moreover, she had been fighting the English, with all her wits and all her strength ever since they had taken Savannah. Only a year, but it seemed a lifetime.

  The driver slowed his horses at sight of the first human figure they had seen, an old man, almost buried in a huge, shabby coat.

  ‘Paston?’ He shook his head. ‘Never heard of ‘em.’

  ‘Ask for Golding.’ Mercy leaned forward to remind the driver of Mrs. Paston’s cousin’s name.

  ‘Oh, him.’ Something odd in the old man’s tone. ‘Look out for the church. You’d see it now if it wa’nt for this danged snow. Turn right when you get to it. A mile down the road, and it’s on your left. And good luck to you.’ He put his head down and trudged away.

  The snow was coming harder now, and the church was merely a darker blur on their left as the driver swung the sledge into its new direction. ‘Not long now,’ he said again. ‘Road’s good. A mile’s nothing. You all right?’ he asked anxiously.

  ‘Oh, yes.’ But the last mile seemed endless. They had turned into the wind, and snow was seeping into the folds of her hood, settling in her eyelashes, caking on her mittens so that she could not use her hands to brush it away. It was an extraordinary relief when they turned once more, out of the direct blast of the wind, and she was able to look about her again.

  On either side of the road big houses stood well back in the huge lots. Farnham was a prosperous village evidently. Mrs. Paston’s cousin, John Golding, must be a wealthy man. It was full morning now, and columns of smoke rising from the chimneys of the first houses they passed spoke of warm kitchens and breakfast being cooked. Hard to decide whether she was more tired, more hungry, or more cold, but at the thought of breakfast she concluded that hunger was the worst.

  ‘Are they expecting you?’ asked the driver.

  ‘I don’t know. My husband wrote, but there was no way we could hope for an answer.’

  ‘Bad times,’ he said. ‘Send by sea, the British take the ship. Send by land, they’re out from New York and stop the coach. I just hope your friends have heard. Thing is, I can’t see smoke. I hope they’re home. I don’t want to scare you, miss – ma’am,’ he corrected himself. ‘But there’s plenty people cut and run inland after the British raid on Connecticut and the Penobscot affair last year. They reckoned the British might take the same kind of revenge round here for Penobscot that they did on those Connecticut towns for attacking their ships in Long Island Sound. Well, here we are.’ As he turned his horses off the road, the sledge crunched into deeper snow. ‘No one’s been here for awhile,’ he said. ‘But that’s no wonder, this weather. We New Englanders reckon to be able to hold out on our own for weeks in the winter if we must. Ah. Someone is home.’ He pointed with his whip to a thin trickle of smoke rising from the chimney at the end of the house. ‘Now you’ll be all right.’ He had been wondering what in the world he would do with her if no one was there? ‘You stay dry in the sledge while I rouse them.’ He stopped the sledge as close as he could get it to the house and plunged through deep snow to the front door.

  It swung open as he approached, and a slight girl in black greeted him eagerly. ‘Thank God you’ve come at last.’ And then, looking beyond him to Mercy in the sledge: ‘But it’s not Dr. Frobisher. Who in the world?’ She swayed and caught at the doorframe.

  ‘Easy there.’ He reached out a hand to steady her.

  ‘Don’t touch me!’ The scream brought Mercy out of the sledge, plunging through the snow, grateful for the sea-boots Hart had made her wear.

  ‘What’s the matter?’ she asked the frantic girl, who was shrinking against the door jamb as if terrified that the driver was going to assault her.

  ‘Make him go away.’ Her eyes were huge with terror in the thin white face. ‘You come in. Make him go away. I’ll tell you.

  Mercy and the driver e
xchanged a quick glance. ‘I’ll wait in the sledge,’ he said. And then, elliptically: ‘Indians, maybe? But not here … not in New England.’

  ‘No, but something. I’ll try to find out as quick as I can. If they need a doctor, maybe you could go?’

  ‘Sure will. We all have to help each other these days. You just find out what’s up.’ He returned to the sledge, and the girl let out a great shuddering sigh of relief and reached out a hand to pull Mercy into the house.

  ‘Who are you?’ she asked, and then paused at the sound of a faint voice from the back of the house. ‘Coming, Mother. This way.’ She pulled Mercy after her down a cold bare hall and in at the open door of what should have been the parlour. ‘Mother fell,’ she said as Mercy took in the hastily improvised bedroom and the frail old figure propped by pillows on a cot bed. Mrs. Paston? But Hart had described her as a formidable woman in the prime of life.

  ‘I’ve done the best I could,’ the girl went on. ‘Couldn’t get her up the stairs, so Jed and I fixed the bed for her down here. But she’s hurt bad, I’m afraid. Jed’s gone for the doctor; on his snowshoes, across the fields. Quicker that way. I wish they’d come. How do you feel, Mother?’ She bent to take the old lady’s hand. ‘You’re so cold. We’re out of wood.’ She turned to explain to Mercy. ‘Jed went off at first light. I didn’t like to leave Mother. But the fire’s going out. I’ve done my best.’ She was crying like a child but must surely be in her early twenties.

  ‘I’ll ask my driver to fetch the wood for you.’ A quick, anxious glance from the dying fire to the grey-faced, silent figure on the cot bed. ‘She looks bad. Have you sal volatile in the house, or spirits? Anything to warm her?’

  The girl shook her head. ‘Cousin Golding locked it all up before he left. Temptation out of Jed’s way, he called it, but I reckon it was just Cousin Golding’s meanness.’ She was sitting by the bed now, chafing the hands of the invalid, who seemed to have drifted off into something between sleep and unconsciousness.

  Something very odd about the girl, but no time to think about that now. Mercy hurried to the front door, found the driver waiting anxiously outside, and rapidly explained the situation.

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