I walked down the wharf looking for my ship. There were dozens moored here. The wind blew so cold my teeth were set to chattering. Each new gust took my breath away, I was left gasping every few steps. The Tsar was reported to say that he had three secret weapons on his side: January, February, and March. They had certainly taken their toll.
Much of the British army’s winter uniforms and blankets had sunk with the Prince in November. We had seen frostbite so bad that when the linseed meal poultices were removed on arrival at Scutari, entire toes came with it, chunks of flesh peeled from the bones of the legs and ankles. These men died by the hundreds.
In the distance, moored quite a ways away, were three supply ships. I could make out crates and barrels being tossed overboard. The rumor was that thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables had been allowed to rot in the holds, bound up in interminable beaurocracy while solders were dying from scurvy and starvation. This was almost as unforgiveable as the hundreds of pairs of boots shipped from England that were too small for anyone but a woman to wear. It would be laughable except that people were dying from these ludicrous mistakes.
I was leaving the hospital at Scutari, moving to the Castle Hospital at Balaclava. I had no hopes of a “better” life, per se. I looked to be more useful closer to the lines, where I could make a difference. Most of the men arriving at Scutari already had their fates decided well before they set foot there. If they had feet.
“Excuse me!” I called to a sailor. “Can you point me in the direction of the Resolute?” It was a medical supply ship that was on its way to Balaklava and then on to Sevastopol. He squinted at me, sizing me up. Then, wordlessly he pointed south.
I kept walking, doing my best to read the names on the ships. Finally I found it. My heart sank. It hardly looked seaworthy. Paint was peeling, the sails patched.
My trunk had been delivered earlier. Or so I hoped. I stepped up onto the gangplank and carefully made my way up, praying fervently that I did not loose my footing.
A gruff voice shouted from below, “Who goes there?” When I did not answer immediately, lest I lose my concentration and my step, a grizzled, leathery head popped up from the hold. He appeared to be as worn as his ship and his clothes hung from his body in the most incongruous way, apparently sewn for a man twice his size.
“Ah! Mrs. Aspern I presume?” He scrambled up to assist me. His hand was worn and calloused as he offered it to me, but his grip was strong as a vise and reassuring. He introduced himself as the first mate. “Just call me Frenchy,” he muttered.
He welcomed me aboard and showed me to my berth in the cargo hold, a sparsely furnished and very tiny room with a narrow bed. My trunk had indeed arrived. There was no heat source in the room, but it was out of the wind and for now, that was enough.
The journey would take several days. I had packed some provisions but not not enough as there was little to spare. I had hoped that there would be some food to be spared by the crew but that seemed unlikely.
There was a knocking on the door. I opened it a crack.
“Beg your pardon, miss!” a young lad of about twelve was standing there, a cap twisted up in his grimy hands. His greasy hair was plastered to his head. He grinned. “The captain would like a word with you.” His voice cracked. He looked sheepishly apologetic.
“Certainly. Please lead the way.”
I closed the door firmly behind me and followed a path through the piles of provisions on their way to the troops. As we made our way I was halted when my skirt caught on a protruding nail, tearing a nice gash in the fabric that I would have to repair later. I moved more carefully thereafter. Skirts were not for the Crimea.
The captain was a swarthy fellow who smelled of stale tobacco. I had met him the day before when I had booked passage with him. Every few minutes he would pause to lean over in his chair. He would hawk the juices from the chaw he held in his mouth, grinning with satisfaction as it rang out upon hitting the spittoon beside him. The wad was so large it made understanding him somewhat difficult.
“Missus Aspern,” he said, wiping the leftover spit from his chin with the sleeve of his dark blue coat. “Won’t ya sit down?” He nodded at the worn sofa.
“Mr. Brandishire.” I remained standing. Truthfully, I was afraid to sit on the thing. I imagined him lying naked on it at some point, scratching his balls. I shuddered involuntarily.
He cocked an eyebrow at me but said nothing. Awkward silence ensued. My eyes wandered over the worn table, bolted to the floor, the wooden chairs stacked in a corner. This room must double as an officer’s mess. The Resolute was a private vessel contracted by the British army to deliver goods, it had clearly seen better times.
Finally, he spoke. “I hope you will join us for dinner?”
“Yes. I would be delighted.” I was certain that the word delighted was not the right choice. I was, however, grateful for the offer of food.
“Is there anythin’ else ya be needin’?” he asked.
“No. No, Mr. Brandishire. Thank you.”
“Thomas will see you back to your room, then.” He stood and stuck his head out the door, bellowing, “Tommy!” I winced.
While we waited for the boy, he took my hand and with a flourish made a chivalrous bow that made me laugh. It helped put me at ease. “Please, if ya be needin’ anythin’….” He trailed off.
“I will be sure to notify you at once. Thank you.”
He was smiling, his tobacco stained teeth showing as I left. It was nice to be in the presence of someone who was not suffering, or dying, or looking to get into my drawers. Maybe this brief voyage would be pleasant after all.