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Just after midday the wind dropped. Briar, at last, was able to proceed with the packing and fastening of the trunks unaccompanied by the sickening pitch and sway that made her head spin dizzily, but which did much more devastating things to Sophia and Mrs. Crewe.
Although they were in sight of land, Mrs. Crewe had to take to her bunk for the twentieth time during the voyage. Sophia, however, threw off her malaise and went for a last walk on the deck.
"When you've finished packing, see what Prudence is doing," Mrs. Crewe instructed Briar weakly. "Goodness knows, she can't come to much harm now, within an hour of arriving, and in broad daylight, but never will I undertake to chaperon two young ladies on a long voyage again. Never!"
Briar looked at the plump prostrate ineffectual woman with guarded contempt. All the way from England she had fussed like a hen with a hatching of ducklings who constantly escaped her into the water, and Prudence and Sophia had giggled behind her back and gone their flirtatious way. At least, Sophia had bestowed her attention on all and sundry with a careless gregariousness, but Prudence had fallen in love with the handsome second officer, and was already in anguish at the thought of parting. She was probably regarding Mrs. Crewe's indisposition as heaven-sent, Briar reflected.
But nothing much could happen now except a prolonged farewell. For they were within hours of landing.
Briar folded the last of the girls' voluminous muslin and silk gowns with her meticulous care. The ship tipped a little, and through the porthole she caught a glimpse of wooded hillside. Suddenly uncontrollable excitement seized her. Casting a quick look at Mrs. Crewe's humped back, she crushed the billowing materials heedlessly into the trunk, banged the lid, and ran from the cabin on to the deck.
A sharp cool breeze and brilliant sunshine struck her. Across the blue bay the hills, as bare as a plucked chicken on the summits and with the green bush running like water down the hollows and crevices, rose in an encircling wall. In the distance, at the foot of the hills and rising thinly up their sides, lay the scattered buildings of the township. No, not a township. A town. An aspiring city. Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.
That little cluster of buildings towered over by the hills and the windy sky! The place they had all spoken of so optimistically during the long voyage, where Mrs. Crewe was to join her son and daughter-in-law, and where Prudence and Sophia were to find husbands.
No one had said much about what Briar was to find, but then what was she looking for, poor little thing? She wouldn't expect much after what she had come from, a good position as housekeeper, or perhaps marriage to an honest, sober type of immigrant who wouldn't inquire too closely into her antecedents.
"Aunt Charity will find you a husband," Sophia had said blithely. "She just loves marrying off people. That's why she's sent for Prudence and me. She says she's always longed for daughters, and the colony needs gentlewomen, but really she's only looking for the fun of arranging weddings. She promised Mamma she'd see we got well-bred husbands, so I haven't a doubt that when Prue and I are settled she'll find someone for you, too. Though you're such a prickly little thing, aren't you? I don't know who'll marry you."
Briar's chin went in the air, but she forced herself to reply meekly, "I don't expect your aunt to find me a husband, Miss Sophia." "There you are, you see!" said Sophia. "You mustn't be so hoity toity. It's out of place for someone in your position. I don't expect Prue and I would keep you a day if we were back in England. But here we are in the back of beyond where goodness knows if we'd ever find another maid—" she shrugged her pretty plump shoulders—"and now we've been so much together we're really quite fond of you. I'll speak to Aunt Charity myself. She'll know of some suitable young man."
"No! Don't you dare!" cried Briar, then bit her tongue. "Please, Miss Sophia. I don't really want a husband. At least, not one that's found for me."
"Oh well, if you're going to be too proud! Silly little creature! You'd be quite pretty if you had more color and more flesh on your bones. Did your family starve you as a child?"
"No!" said Briar fiercely.
"Well, don't get angry about it. I'm just giving you advice. And I'm sure Prue and I won't scorn Aunt Charity's help to find husbands. I long to have one. Goodness me, I'm twenty! I'm getting old!"
But Prudence had fallen in love with Second Officer Edmund Wheeler, and her face, less round and jolly than Sophia's, was already getting wan and strained as the inevitable farewells drew near. For Edmund was a penniless younger son with only his career as a sailor, and it wasn't likely that Aunt Charity would permit such a marriage. That was, if Edmund was serious. Everyone said never trust a sailor ...
Marriage! The girls and Mrs. Crewe talked of nothing else. Briar was weary of the subject. Was there nothing else in life? And if that were so, what was her life to be? A servant and an orphan who did not even know who her parents had been, who had been rescued out of the dead arms of her mother in a ditch by a passing farmer who heard her feeble cries.
The farmer had been a rustic with a poetic turn of mind, and had said, as from her dirty bundle of clothes she gave him her fleeting tremulous smile. "A liddle briar rose, that's what she be. Growing in a ditch."
He had taken her home to his wife, and the police had buried the unknown girl who had been, one presumed, her mother. She had grown up with the farmer's own brood of children until she was old enough to be sent out to her first position. The farmer's wife had been kind enough, but had never really cared for the thin little changeling, and was relieved to see her go. She had been rescued from death, and was now given a good start in the world. Neither the farmer nor his wife had anything on their consciences. And Briar, aged nine years, was taken into the home of a schoolmaster and his wife to be fed and clothed and educated a little (because Andrew Gaunt was a born teacher and could as little tolerate illiteracy as starvation), in return for multitudinous household duties.
The next seven years were Briar's first and only taste of happiness. She had a quick eager mind, and Andrew Gaunt, somewhat to his own astonishment, had found himself not only acquainting her with the English classics, but with the French, and also with a little Latin and Greek. He corrected her rustic accent and encouraged her instinctive good taste. His lean scholarly face was the only one she had ever grown to love. When he died she was desolate.
Another position had to be found, because his widow was left too poor even to be able to feed an extra mouth. That was when, hiding her intellectual ability (for no one required a maid with a knowledge of the classics and a love, of all things, for the works of Montaigne), she obtained employment with a clergyman's widow, and later with a Mrs. Carruthers, the mother of Sophia and Prudence.
Here, there was a household of five girls, a Jane Austen Mrs. Bennet's household, Briar had told herself, all of them to be married, and none of them beautiful or witty enough to compensate for her lack of dowry. So that when the suggestion came from their mother's sister-in-law in New Zealand that she longed for one or perhaps two of the dear girls to come out to her—she had a large house, the climate was ideal, and marriageable young men abounded—poor distracted Mrs. Carruthers leaped at the opportunity and arranged to send the two eldest, Sophia and Prudence, in the care, of course, of a suitable chaperon and accompanied by a maid.
Briar had been judged to be about three months old when she had been discovered in her dying mother's arms. Her rescuers had subsequently been able to tell her nothing about her mother beyond the fact that the young woman had had a fine silk petticoat, strangely enough, beneath her ragged cloak, and had been very young. This had been material enough for Briar's inventive and lonely mind to feed on. Her mother had been a lady forsaken by her lover, or perhaps a young widow with no one to whom to turn. But she had fiercely loved her baby. That was one thing Briar always insisted to herself. She, whom her foster parents had merely tolerated as a stray kitten, and then whose quick sharp mind Andrew Gaunt, the schoolmaster, had played on.... But her mother had loved her. That she knew. And some day, some day ...
Her incoherent longings ended in genuine deceit. She lied to the Carruthers about her family. She said she had parents in Devon who were too poor to keep her at home. But they wrote her letters, of course, and were deeply interested in her well-being.
Before this deceit could be found out the tremendous excitement of the voyage to New Zealand had come up.
Briar would never forget that interview with Mrs. Carruthers.
"Briar, if I asked you to go to New Zealand with Sophia and Prudence, would your parents agree?"
Briar's heart leaped in awful excitement. She felt as if a clean cold wind from the ends of the earth were blowing in her face. A new country, a new start, the chance to be somebody, a person who sloughed off all her memories except those of dear Mr. Gaunt and the slim young girl in the silk petticoat who had closed her loving arms around her baby even as she died ...
Confused and terribly excited, Briar could not define her emotions. And before she could speak Mrs. Carruthers was going on, "Of course, you would have to want to go yourself. I wouldn't ask you to do such a tremendous thing against your will. But it seems to me a young thing like you might well have better prospects out there than here—they say a great many honest laboring men are immigrating, and wanting wives. You would have to promise, of course, to perform your duties with my daughters as long as they needed you. And to behave correctly. But you seem to be a quiet intelligent girl who knows her place. Now supposing I write to your parents—"
"No, let me, let me!" Briar cried. Then remembering herself she added, "Please let me, ma'am. I can persuade them to almost anything if I try. They don't like to refuse me, you see." Her lashes were downcast, hiding her brilliant eyes, dilated with excitement. "I'd dearly like to go, ma'am. And I do promise you I'd look after Miss Sophia and Miss Prudence."
Mrs. Carruthers smiled tolerantly. "You're younger than either of them, but I believe you have a lot of sense in that little head. Very well, write your letter yourself, and let me know when you receive an answer. By the way, who taught you to write?"
Briar lifted demure eyes. "My father, ma'am."
A few days later Briar, with the deliberately misspelled letter purporting to be from her mother, went to Mrs. Carruthers and gasped, "I can go, ma'am. Oh, ma'am, I'm so happy!"
"What do you think you're going to find in this strange country?" Mrs. Carruthers said dryly. "Very well, child, you must have the true pioneering spirit. Now remember, I trust you to behave as befits your position in life, in all situations. Do you understand?"
Long ago, twelve whole weeks ago in England, she had nodded gravely and said yes, she understood. But already, with the clean cold wind in her face, and the dark hills looming nearer, she felt an uncontrollable reaching out to something that awaited her, something that would make her a real person, an individual, someone of whom voices would say tenderly and lovingly, "Here's Briar come!"
Mrs. Carruthers and her bouncing unmarried daughters were suddenly the people who were unreal....
It had been a long long voyage with patches of tedium, humor and tragedy. There had been gales, and periods of hot airless calm, fights had broken out in the steerage, and flirtations had progressed on the upper deck. Two babies had been born, one to die almost at once and the other to be kept alive with milk from the unhappy Devonshire cow, Daisy, incarcerated below, the property of an optimistic young settler who prayed that he would get her to her destination alive. There had been an outbreak of measles, that most dreaded of shipboard complaints, and seven of the children had died.
The woman, Jemima Potter, who had the fragile new baby, lost two of her four other children, and it was Briar who stood at her side when the two small bodies, almost too weightless to sink, were slid into the curling waves. Jemima recognized an instinctive sympathy in the slim, soberly dressed girl with the shut face, and a bond sprang up between them. Jemima was only twenty-six, and had already borne her phlegmatic husband, Fred Potter, five children. Now three survived, and Briar saw deep apprehension in her face as to what the new country would do to the remaining children. But Fred had wanted to go somewhere where he could have his own little patch of ground to grow potatoes, so they had come. It seemed as if his freedom had been purchased at very great cost.
These were the only friends whom Briar had made on the voyage, and it was to them she turned when at last the anchor ran down into the blue depths of the bay.
She slipped below to find them in the mêlée of trunks, bags and milling people.
"We're here, Jemima!" she cried. "Just imagine! We're here."
"Why, Briar, you look downright pretty when you're excited. All flushed, like a rose."
Briar laughed. "Don't waste time paying me compliments. Let's get up on deck. Here, I'll take the baby."
"What about your mistresses?"
"Oh, they can take care of themselves for once."
"That's no way to talk, Briar," said Fred Potter, in his ponderous way. "You may be in a new country, but you're still in the same station in life."
"Yes, you're still a servant, love," said Jemima anxiously. "You're dependent on them."
Behave as befits your position in life ... came the echo of Mrs. Carruthers' voice.
Briar tossed her head, spinning her dark curls. Her eyes were a brilliant green, her cheeks glowing. She could not understand the excitement that possessed her, as of some strange unexpressed dream about to come true.
"I won't be a servant for long. You'll see!"
On the top deck, Sophia looked impatiently about her. Where was Prudence? Where was Briar? Where was Mrs. Crewe—though one didn't want her clickety-clacking in one's ears any more. More important still, where was Captain Bower, who had been so flattering to her, always complimenting her, and Geoffrey Standish, the owner of that absurd cow, Daisy? Geoffrey had probably disappeared to see to Daisy's welfare over the last stage of the journey, and Prue, the scamp, was hidden somewhere behind the lifeboats with her Edmund. She'd have to get over that infatuation, Sophia reflected practically. Aunt Charity wouldn't stand any nonsense about penniless sailors. She would have the most eligible young men lined up. After all, she was the Governor's cousin, and virtually the leader of society.
Really, what did it matter that one stood alone at the rail at this last moment? Everyone on this mortally dull ship would matter less than nothing in a few days. She, Sophie, was much prettier than Prue, and anyway Prue would be looking pale and sulky, as she always did when she was unhappy. She would be the one to sweep the young men of Wellington off their feet and be the belle of the city.
Aunt Charity had written about Government House balls, and week-end parties at country houses, and all kinds of sophisticated festivities. With those new gowns, the latest fashions from London and Paris that Briar was packing, everyone would gasp with admiration. "There goes Miss Sophia Carruthers, niece of the Governor, catch of the season...."
Oh, yes, one would do very well in this new country.
But it was rather unbecoming to be standing here alone, as if one were the most unpopular young woman on board ship. Sophia stamped her foot pettishly. Where was Prudence?
In the cabin, becoming conscious of the diminished motion of the ship, Mrs. Crewe stirred and sighed, then heaved her bulk off the bunk. One would have to pull oneself together. One would be going ashore presently, and would have to present the young ladies in good order, and no fault of hers if they were not still virgins.
Excerpted from Sleep in the Woods by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1974 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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