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The Honey Harlot
By Christianna Brand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Christianna Brand
All rights reserved.
I AM VERY OLD now—very old. Is it sixty years or nearer seventy that I have been immured in this place?—behind these high white walls, doing penance for his sins—for my husband's sins and for hers also whom they called Honey Mary, but for whom the Honey Tigress might have been a better name. The Tigress of the Sea ...
And the white walls dissolve and I am standing again on the foredeck of the brigantine Amazon—a young girl as I was then, bride of a few weeks—looking down on the dirt and darkness of the swarming wharves of the New York waterfront and seeing their shadows lit, like the sombre hues of a Rembrandt picture, by a sudden gleam of gold.
The gleam of her hair: that hair that was the colour of dark honey straight from the hive, a great rolling, curling mass of it, brushing her creamy white shoulders, framing her bold, beautiful face as she strolled, so sunnily sweet and smiling, among the great throng of sailors there—offering gold for gold.
And my husband, Benjamin Briggs, captain of this ship, the Amazon: a God-fearing man.
Some fool is giving a lecture to the convent school-children on the so-called mystery of the 'Marie Celeste' as he keeps calling her. The most famous maritime mystery of all time. So they've brought me down to listen (me—to listen to the story of the Mary Celeste!)— Reverend Mother thinks it will be a little treat for me; they are full of little treats, these days, it seems that I am celebrating some jubilee or other, something, I really don't know what. Or rather they are celebrating it; there's not been much for me to celebrate, locked away here for all this long time, among these bright, dark, narrow-minded women in this bright, dark, narrowly walled-in place. So, shrugging, hunched in my wheelchair, pretending indifference, I have let them bring me down. It will interest me, Reverend Mother feels sure: I shall be the only one present who may remember something of the time when it all happened—perhaps even heard echoes of the extraordinary events of those long-ago days? Eighteen seventy-two.
Eighteen seventy-two—the very year I immured myself within these walls. Did it never enter anyone's head that I, discovered drifting, near to death, in that battered rowing boat not so very, very far away from where the abandoned ship had been found, might be in some way connected with the mystery? But no. I was brought ashore up here in northern Portugal, and the brig was eventually sailed into Gibraltar harbour where the enquiry was held. Communications no doubt were hardly expeditious in these wild parts all those many years ago, and wrecks were frequent enough and so were survivors in open boats. Nothing remained, I dare say, after all her bufferings in wind and weather, of the name on the stern of the yawl; and such letters as may have been discernible will have been the letters of the old name, Amazon, not of the new. Only one letter, the 'a' common to the two names. Did this cross then, which now dangles at the end of my rosary with her name engraved upon it, suggest nothing to them? But again, no—why should it?—the Captain's wife was known to have been aboard but her name was Sarah Briggs; and what would the name Mary Sellers mean to those ignorant of her very existence—when they insist to this day upon referring to the abandoned brig as the Marie Celeste?
And the Marie Celeste the lecturer calls her, droning on. But the rest is true enough, of course—is history. Two-masted, square rigged, (about a hundred foot long, she would be, twenty-five foot wide, if you would visualise her). Carrying a crew of seven with the Captain and his wife. Bound for Genoa from New York with a cargo of crude alcohol. Found drifting 4 December 1872, a derelict, between the islands of the Azores and Portugal. Latitude 38° says the man (if that means anything to you, for certainly it doesn't to me), longitude 17°. With not a living soul aboard her.
Floating, all sails set. No living creature to be seen. A few papers and the chronometer gone, the log still remaining but not written up for the past ten days. Money and possessions lying all about as though she were still inhabited, clothes, women's trinkets, pipes and tobacco, papers, charts, books. Food in the galley as though still in use; a letter started on a slate as though to be fair copied later, 'Fanny, my dear wife—' In the captain's cabin beneath the double bunk, a sword or cutlass in its scabbard, stained with what might be blood; over the bunk his pocket-watch hanging from its hook. The mark of a hatchet or cleaver, driven into a wooden deck rail. A lanyard cut or torn down—a length of thick rope, that would be; but no sign of any use it might have been put to. The one boat the brig carried, the ship's yawl, missing, but with nothing to suggest her launching; the davits where the longboat would have hung, showed still that no boat had hung there, and indeed it was known to have been left ashore at New York. Only the yawl, then; and, with a perfectly sound vessel beneath him, suggests the lecturer, who would dare crowd nine souls aboard one rowing boat with a single small sail and launch them upon the winter Atlantic, eight hundred miles from land? (Even less ten souls, my dear sir! Even less ten!)
And a few feet above the waterline, two long scars across the bows as though from collision with another vessel. But in the cabin a sewing-machine all ready for working; and perched on a narrow shelf above the machine, a small oil can and a cotton reel that must certainly have been dislodged by any considerable jar, let alone a collision between ships. 'And those are the facts, my dear girls and boys—meus meninous e meninas—those are the facts about the mystery of the Marie Celeste which have never been explained to this day
Yes, the facts. Much that would not fit in with the story, neatly explained away—the cotton reel had rolled to the floor and one or other of those first to board the ship had picked it up automatically and in the excitement forgotten the tiny incident; the food exposed in the galley not really there, an exaggeration of detail built in to make the story more exciting; the stained cutlass merely rusty. But the rest admitted to be true: to be history. A ship abandoned under full sail, drifting uncontrolled and yet holding to a steady enough course, east, nor'east, for two hundred miles since she had been abandoned—judging by the last date when the log was made up. Not a living soul aboard, but without the smallest sign of any preparation for departure; clothes, money, valuables all left as they lay. A cask of alcohol broached—crude alcohol, unfit in this form for human consumption and very little of it gone. A cutlass lying under the captain's bed stained with what might or might not be blood, a hatchet mark cloven into the wooden deck rail. Scars across the bows of a collision which had caused no jar sufficient to dislodge a reel of cotton. No boat missing but a cockle-shell, impossible of accommodating in any safety the ship's complement of eight men and one woman, on the stormy waters, shark infested, of the bitter cold Atlantic, eight hundred miles from land. And no sign ever again of a crew of seven or of the Captain or his wife, nor of any spar or fragment of the ship's yawl. Of all the great sea mysteries—to this day the greatest and most inexplicable ...
The lecturer mumbles off into the old tally of possible solutions, every one long dismissed as untenable. Invasion by pirates, sailing off with the prisoners as well as the—nonexistent—booty; but except for the hatchet mark, no sign of any fight or struggle aboard ship and the cutlass stowed safely away. Captain Briggs and the crew, party to some plot involving insurance of the ship?—but the whole world of sail knew that Benjamin Briggs was a man incapable of such an act of dishonesty, and of his crew of supposed accomplices, let alone his wife, no sign was ever heard of again—impossible for eight men, familiar about the narrow world of trading ships, to vanish without trace; impossible that, rich in ill-gotten gains, much given to women and drink, they could have kept such a secret close to the end of their days. A vast octopus, then, reaching up its tentacles to curl them about every soul aboard and suck them all down into the sea? An outbreak of Yellow Fever aboard? Or a threatened explosion among the casks of alcohol? But the trading captains were well experienced in the care of such cargoes; and what threat could be sufficient to drive them all into that tiny boat, single-sailed, on the cold, heaving, storm-tossed bosom of the limitless ocean ...?
And so on and so on. I am sickened by their nonsense, I sign to two of the younger nuns—I am grown imperious in my old age and none cares to gainsay me—to be wheeled away and up to my white-walled cell and so to the prie-Dieu beneath the heavy crucifix; and, kneeling, pray as I have prayed every hour I think, of the thousands of hours of my self-imposed incarceration here: Christ have mercy upon him, Christ forgive him the weaknesses of the flesh! And Christ forgive her also!—who was golden and beautiful and in her wicked, wanton ways strangely—innocent. Father, forgive her! Father, forgive him!—for it is true to say I think that he knew not what he did: that in his heart and in his soul, my husband, Benjamin Briggs, was a God-fearing man. Hail Mary, full of grace ...
At the end of my rosary dangles the golden cross, engraved with her name.
Her name also was Mary. Mary Sellers. And the name of my husband's brig was the Mary—not the Marie—Celeste.
It was the nearest he had dared to come, to naming his ship after her.CHAPTER 2
IT WAS THE GOLD cross that attracted me when I saw her first, gleaming at her creamy white throat as the honey hair gleamed all about her white shoulders; which now, however, were wrapped in an old black shawl, held huddled about her. She sat crouched against a tall pillar down there on the dockside and she was weeping. I watched from the deck of the Amazon as now and again a man stopped and spoke to her, bending over her, concerned; and she shook her bright head and spoke a word and the men moved sharply away. Up here on deck, all was clean and shining; the ship was new-fashioned, recently much rebuilt, a top deck above the old single deck, a few feet added to her length, a great deal to her tonnage. My husband, the new captain and part-owner, was delighted with her, she was so slender and pretty with all the sheen still upon her of her spruce and pine above, and strong, clean beech and birch and maple below. But down on the waterline, the wharves were cluttered and foul, great bales of straw, infested with rats the size of cats, their red eyes glittering; crates and barrels and boxes, the tall cranes stooping their rigid necks to pick up and swing aloft the knotted rope nets into which the ships' cargoes were bundled, and lower them with a screeching scrape of unoiled machinery, into the holds. It was early November, very chill and yet, fascinated, I continued there, wrapped in my shawl, watching the pushing, thrusting, cursing, laughing mob that swarmed below, jostling in good humour, or in ill-temper flaring into fisticuffs. The sailors, flat-capped, in their rough navy jerseys or heavy serge jackets, shouldering their way through the crowds with their canvas bags slung over their shoulders—back from a long voyage perhaps and hungry for a woman's comforting, as I know now: I was ignorant and innocent then—or setting forth and as hungry again for what they would not know for weeks, even months, to come. I watched with fascinated horror the brassy women moving among them, speaking to them boldly, accosting them, putting up a hand to stroke a shaven cheek or tug with importunate familiarity at a growth of beard. Only among them all crouched the still figure wrapped in the black shawl, shrugging away all those who approached her: weeping. Oh, God!—that I had never seen her weeping there, weeping, weeping, with her bright hair and the gleam of the golden cross!
I was very young: totally inexperienced, had never been more than twenty miles, I daresay, from my small-town home in Marion, Massachusetts, where my father was pastor. I understood nothing of men and women until my husband—also from Marion, and in fact my first cousin—married me and brought me down to New York where his new ship, the recently fitted Amazon, awaited him, picking up her first cargo at the East River docks. I looked down at the weeping woman and knew nothing of her but for some plight which I could not guess at. I said to one of the crew, 'Do you know anything of that poor woman? Why do you think she's crying so?'
Andrew Gilling it was, the second mate, a big, burly, bearded man, rough and crude, a bullying man. He said: 'Why don't you go down and find out?'
I looked with dismay at the filthy cobbled waterside, with its rats and its crowds and its hustle and bustle of men and those terrible women. It was early November, a time when in these parts, they say, there often comes a sort of second summer, a week or two of sunshine, the weather cold but clear. Now the sun slanted down, its rays lit up the huddled, dark figure abandoned to its grief. My husband had warned me—as though it were necessary—never to leave the ship. But ... She, after all, was down there alone. I stood, hesitant, confused, bewildered, at a loss what to do: and at that moment she lifted her beautiful, tear-stained face and looked up at me.
Without further thought, I leaned over the rail and beckoned her to come aboard.
I had thought that Gilling might go forward to meet her but he had disappeared, fading into the background without another word. She rose, looked up again at me as though to question that I really invited her; then slowly moving, so tall and stately, wrapped in the black shawl with her honey hair shining, she passed through the jostling throng and came up the companionway steps to where I stood awaiting her on the deck. And it seemed to me—and well may have been the case, as it later proved—that the hustle on the wharf-side was for a moment stilled, that a hundred faces were lifted, curious, incredulous, and as I now know—amused. I put out my hand to her and she stepped on to the deck of the brigantine Amazon; and so into my life, and his.
I said to her, holding her hand: 'Can I help you in some way? You look so sad.' She looked back at me with her great eyes, the colour of amber, drowned in tears. 'I am wrong to come to you,' she said.
'If you're unhappy—?' I held her hand still and led her into my cabin in the stern of the ship. There was water there in a carafe and I poured out a glass for her—my husband, though he carried so incongruous a cargo, would permit no liquor aboard his ship. She drank as it seemed gratefully, sinking down into the chair I offered her and throwing back the black shawl. And so for the first time I saw her in all her beauty.
She was magnificent: tall, exquisitely slender and yet with a full bosom, her shoulders brushed by the tumbling curls of heavy golden hair. Her waist was small, her hips spreading out beneath but only into a fullness, a roundness which left her slender still: she was a creature all curves, not an angle about her, never a movement without its matchless grace. Yet her gestures were quick and expressive, there was no heavy slowness about her, she was all life and movement and as she spoke she used her hands to illustrate every point. Her voice was low and vibrant and even when she raised it, it had in it a sort of sweetness. She was all sweetness—Honey Mary; and even I whose long life has been through her something close to hell, must ever concede that for all her monstrous wickedness there was something in her, deeply and essentially, true to her name.
I waited in silence while she drank the water, put down the empty glass. I would not press her confidence. She also was silent, drying her eyes, pushing back the damp curls from her forehead, settling the neck of her dark dress where the golden cross hung gleaming. She touched the cross with her fingers when at last she spoke to me. She said: 'I shouldn't be here. I'm in great distress, it's true, but I shouldn't be here, not with such as you.' And she raised the great tear-filled eyes to me. She said: 'I'm a bad woman. I daresay you don't even know that such women as I exist.'
Excerpted from The Honey Harlot by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1978 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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