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A Silent Ocean Away
Friday, September 9, 1836
John Duvoisin watched the Raven labor from the landing stage. As her towboats released their lines, the cargo ship lost all momentum, and she sat indecisive for a moment. Then her canvas sails bellied out, harnessing the wind. She groaned as she cut across the current of the James River; her destination: three islands nestled in the northeastern waters of the West Indies. The islands, called Les Charmantes, were often considered the foundation of the Duvoisin fortune. To John, Les Charmantes meant much more. He tracked the vessel as she sailed off, and his mind meandered with the James. She was now but a toy on the wide river, and still, he stared after her as if, by mere eye contact, he could transport himself to her decks. A raging frustration had kept him from boarding the vessel this morning, his reward: bitter reflection, which chastised him for doing nothing. His internal war reached its pinnacle as the Raven traversed the river's bend and vanished from view. He drove rigid fingers through his tousled hair as if to liberate his turbulent thoughts, then strode from the bustling wharf, oblivious of Richmond's busy waterfront. He mounted his horse and turned it into the crowds, leaving thoughts of the Raven and Les Charmantes behind.
"We're moving! We're finally moving!" Charmaine exclaimed as she peered through the porthole of her small cabin. Turning, she smiled triumphantly at Loretta Harrington, who sat complacently on the only anchored chair. "Won't you come and see?"
"No, thank you, mydear," Loretta replied, returning the radiant smile. "I'll allow the ship to take care of itself and pray that my stomach does the same." It was the one reservation the middle-aged woman had about this entire trip: seasickness. But Charmaine Ryan was well worth any discomfort she might endure in the next four or five days, so she bent her mind to the task at hand. "Why don't we practice a bit more for the interview, Charmaine? It will take my mind off the rocking of the ship."
"I'm quite prepared," Charmaine replied, but she did as Loretta suggested and came and sat beside the woman who had become a second mother to her . . .
Charmaine had been welcomed into the Harrington house nearly three years ago. Marie Ryan had contacted the couple when she realized her daughter would not be talked out of her decision to leave home, and Joshua Harrington had taken an immediate liking to the sensitive yet talkative fifteen-year-old. In her large brown eyes, he saw a determination rarely found in one so young, and in her words, noted a firm conviction for what was right and good. After that first meeting, he was certain Charmaine Ryan would make an excellent companion for his wife, who sorely missed her five grown sons. He hoped the girl would become the daughter Loretta never had.
Within a fortnight, all the arrangements had been made, and Charmaine left one life behind to begin another. She moved into a pretty, whitewashed house in a residential section of Richmond, taking her meager belongings with her. She would live with the Harringtons during the week and spend the weekends with her parents.
Charmaine's only regret was leaving her mother to fend for herself. But Marie began spending more and more time at the St. Jude Refuge, drawing solace from the work there, content to shoulder the woes of others rather than dwell on her own, happy in fact. Thus, Charmaine found it strange when she grew unusually distant one weekend, surmising some misfortunate troubled her. Though Marie avoided the details, she said, "I used to think only the poor suffer, but I was wrong. Perhaps the greater the wealth, the deeper the pain."
Within the month, John Ryan decided to put a stop to his wife's "charity" work. Charmaine was determined to thwart him, thanking heaven her wages had exceeded what he'd expected her to earn and that she had had the good sense to secretly retain half. Now she insisted her mother use it. "Tell father the church is paying you," she conspired. "Then he will be happy you are working there." Sure enough, his grumbling ceased when the cold cash was placed in his hand.
Life with the Harringtons was a breath of fresh air. Under their roof, Charmaine felt secure. In this home, the husband treated his wife with respect and adoration. Joshua Harrington was everything a spouse should be. Likewise, Loretta was devoted to him. A dear and kind woman, she never had a harsh word for anyone. Charmaine benefited the most from the matron's fine character, blossoming in her affection.
"You are more than a companion to me," Loretta had said within the first year. "I consider you a part of my family, Charmaine."
Charmaine came to believe this, and it was only when the Harrington sons ventured home that she felt unhappy, envying the relationships between husbands and wives, children and parents, fathers and daughters. Although she was always included in their gatherings, Charmaine was careful to remain aloof, for this loving family didn't belong to her, not as long as her own parents lived. Her mother and father were a constant reminder of who she really was.
For two years, she guarded her background, frightened the Harringtons would send her packing if they learned the truth. Though her mother was a good woman, she was but an orphan whose only stroke of fortune had been her adoption and education at the St. Jude Refuge. Marie's parentage was probably no better than John Ryan's, and he was nothing more than white trash in the eyes of civilized Richmond gentry.
Loretta and Joshua pondered her pensive moods, which usually occurred after her visits home. They sensed she suffered, yet reasoned she needed time to overcome her reticence. Time, however, was not on Charmaine's side.
Her father confronted her one weekend. "You been workin' for them Harrin'tons gone two years now. When are they plannin' on payin' you more?"
Charmaine had received an increase, but since she continued to share half her wages with her mother, she'd set the additional money aside for herself.
"I'll ask them, Father," she blurted out, the vow apparently appeasing him.
Not so; her hasty response fed his suspicions, and for a week, he mulled it over. Then, late one Friday night, he decided to set things right. It took him a bottle of whisky to muster the courage to lumber up to the Harrington house on wobbly legs and pummel the front door. When the maid opened it, he pushed his way in, demanding to see Joshua Harrington.A Silent Ocean Away
Colette's Dominion. Copyright © by DeVa Gantt. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.