With a heavy heart, sixteen-year old Alice Davison boards a transatlantic steamship heading toward an unknown life in post-Civil War America. This dread soon blossoms into terror when she senses that there is someone, or something, lurking in the dark crevices of the ship. When a new friend mysteriously dies, Alice finds that her worst fears have come true: she and the other passengers are trapped on board with a creature straight out of a Gothic novel. Vampires, it seems, are all too real.
Unfortunately, danger doesn’t only prowl in the dark bowels of the ship. It also thrives in the sparkling rooms of first class and even hides in the murky waters of the Atlantic. And when she finds herself ensnared by a first-class passenger, enchanting Sir Henry Falkner, she can’t even be sure whether he is her suitor or her enemy.
Targeted Age Group: Young Adult & Teen
My eyes took so long to readjust to the muted light of the passageway, that I was grateful for Vadoma’s grip on my arm. If a passerby could see us, he or she would simply assume that we were bosom friends taking a walk. We would certainly be noticed–Vadoma with her jet black hair and me with my vivid red.
“Listen,” she hissed once we were well away from the crowd. “I’m really not a fortuneteller–a chovihani–but I have a feeling about you,” she said.
“A feeling.” My voice was deadpan, but my heart began to race.
“A good feeling or a bad feeling?” I finally asked.
She squeezed my arm against hers. Her arm felt slightly fleshy, but strong.
She said nothing, and it seemed that time crawled as we made our way deliberately, slowly, as if we both wanted the moment to last. She shivered as if someone had stepped on her grave. Egads, what a horrible saying.
“Last night, before we met, I had a dream, and now I think it was about you.”
I huddled closer to Vadoma; for some reason, I felt safe with her. She was, after all, offering to warn me.
“I’m sure it was my guardian spirits, warning me of something dangerous. Something deadly. I’ll tell you what happened. In the dream, I was back in England, sitting outside my family’s caravan. I was making this charm,” I could feel her motion toward her neck, “which I would show you if it wasn’t so dark! Gray clouds began to rush toward the sun and completely blocked out the light, so that I could barely see the shrouded figures of spirits rising from the dark, surrounding me in a tight circle. Each one held out a hand filled with salt, and they created a protective circle around me. I thanked them, but then a wind began to blow and whilst I was safe on the steps of the caravan, they were lifted from the ground.”
“What an awful dream!” I interjected.
“Hush, now! Let me finish. As they began to spin around me, the salt circle scattered, and I was no longer under its protection. And whilst the wind left me alone, it chose to take my amulet, ripping it from my hands.” I could feel her tremble a little at this memory.
“And when it left my hands, I heard a lone voice, and it said ‘Give it to the one with the crown of fire.” She paused. “And when I saw you tonight, I was sure that they meant I should give it to you.”
I thought that I should laugh, but I found that I could not. My sisters would. I didn’t feel any humor in her words. She was as serious as death.
“I don’t know what to say. I believe you mean me a kindness, but I don’t believe in such things as amulets. After all,” I gave a hollow little laugh, “apart from food poisoning, disease, and icebergs, I’m hardly in any danger.”
She suddenly stopped and pulled her arm away. I felt instantly cold.
“Don’t mock me,” she said. “There is much you don’t know about this world. I feel that there is evil on this ship. I can’t tell what form it takes. I only know that I felt compelled to warn you.” She pulled at my hand and shoved the amulet into it.
“Here. Do with it what you will,” she said and turned away, back toward the lively party.
“Wait.” This time, I reached for her arm.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. Your dream, the music, everything has been unreal, and I don’t know how to act.” I was relieved when she stopped. For some strange reason, I did not want to be away from her.
“What I mean to say is thank you. Thank you for trying to warn me and for showing me a kindness.” I gripped her hand. “Do we part as friends?”
She laughed with her musical laugh that brought fragile things to mind. “Of course we do. Why else would I have talked to you? Sleep thee well, my new friend. Now that you have my amulet, I trust that you will.” She gave me a quick peck on the cheek, and she spun away.
I never got the chance to ask her how she would replace her protective amulet.
I hurried back to my bed. My mind was very full with what had transpired this evening. I fully expected to have dreams of Sir Falkner’s hungry eyes and the spinning figures of the peasant dancers, but instead, I had the best sleep I’d had in near a fortnight.
I can’t remember if it was the bright sunlight that penetrated my eyelids or the sounds of shouts that first woke me the next morning. My first thought was that, oh, I had overslept. As I stirred, and then rose up on my elbows, I saw that my entire family were still a’bed. And then there was more shouting in the passages and on the deck. My family all quickly rose from their beds, and since we were all already dressed, we followed our father up to the deck. With our sleepy faces and wrinkled frocks, we must have looked like ducklings with mussed feathers, and I thought his hair, as it stuck up into a point at the back of his skull, looked a little like a duck’s tail.
When we got to the deck, the light was blinding, and I had to shield my eyes. I saw my father check his pocket watch.
“It is only seven o’clock.” he said. “Stay here. I will make inquiries.”
The ocean breeze was more gusty than usual, so we huddled together and waited for our father. The crowd on the deck was composed of small groups who seemed to be discussing some tragedy. I wondered if someone had fallen overboard during the night? Had there been a knife fight? I thought of some of the young men at the party last night, full of lust and bravado, their shirt collars loose and their hats angled jauntily on their heads. I remembered their thick arms and heavy thighs made strong from manual labor. These men were the sorts who were ruled by their passion, I was sure. The types to woo a woman with a fast tongue and even faster hands. I felt my face turn red at the thought.
“Why, Alice,” my sister Mary said, “we must get you out of this wind! It already makes your complexion look so rough and chapped!” She smirked and challenged me with a glare.
“No more chapped than yours is, sister,” and I would have said more, perhaps something about the bags under her eyes or her thick ankles, but my father returned to us with a serious expression.
“Come on, back down with you all. I will tell you the news once we are below deck.” He put a hand at my mother’s back and herded her toward the steerage door. My sisters followed, but I slowed my steps, craning to look around the deck.
And there was my shadow, Mr. Adebayo. As usual, he gave me a grin that did not reach his eyes, and he even tipped his hat at me. For the first time, now that I had met Sir Falkner, I realized Mr. Adebayo was more than a partner. Perhaps his representative. In what capacity, I hadn’t a clue. A strong ocean wind felt like it blew down the neck of my frock, and I shivered. And then I got mad. I made a “V” with my fingers and shoved them in his direction. For the first time, I saw surprise on his face, and then, real frivolity. He threw his head back and laughed. I had to look away then.
Before I descended, my eyes swept once more across the deck, looking for a clue as to all of this excitement, when a crowd of onlookers happened to part. I saw a lumpy, blanket-covered shape seemingly abandoned on the deck. The blanket was one of the standard-issue, scratchy gray ones that we all had. Peeking from the top, though, I caught a glimpse of black curls, and I sucked in my breath. My hands went to my cheeks and my knees felt rubbery. I knew those black curls.
And for the first time in my life, I fainted.
When I came to, I was surprised to find myself lying on the settee in the first class saloon. I sat up quickly, causing the view of the chandelier and the rich appointments to spin before me, not unlike a carousel Mr. Adebayo was in a chair across from me, both hands resting idly on his knees. His eyes appraised me as if I were a fine leg of mutton in a butcher’s window. The captain, however, had only an expression of concern as he stood over me. I supposed the man checking the pulse at my wrist was the ship’s doctor.
“Welcome back, young miss. It seems you fainted from fright. No surprise there.” He briskly put his pocket watch back in his vest pocket.
“But, you will live, and after a bit of beef tea, I’m sure you will be right as rain.” The doctor lifted up his black bag and strode toward the interior door. I whispered a thank you, but he didn’t seem to hear it.
“Mr. Adebayo saw you faint and alerted the staff. He thought you would be more comfortable here,” He looked at my supposed benefactor with wariness, “and he was quite right.” He put his arms behind his back, looking every bit the captain that he was. “Ah, here’s Lizzy, Mrs. Galbreath’s girl, with some beef tea for you.”
A young woman, slim and pale, nervously set the tray on the low table before me. I could see her scalp through her thin hair as she bent over. She moved as if to leave, but the captain stopped her.
“Lizzy, please help Miss Davison to get more comfortable before you leave us. And if you could then let her family in steerage know that she is well and will be returned to them promptly, I’m sure they would be grateful.”
The already pale woman turned even paler, as if she found entering steerage a frightening consideration. “Yes, sir,” she replied with a girlish voice. I guessed that she couldn’t have been more than 15. Younger than me. I wondered how long she had been in service?
Her fingers felt cold, even through my day frock, but she managed to help sit me upright and then passed me the cup and saucer. The steam and the odor of the tea were both reassuring. I closed my eyes for the first sip, savoring the warmth and sustenance it gave me.
Once I was settled, Lizzy scurried for the exterior door on her way to steerage. I’m sure that my parents weren’t the least bit concerned. They would probably be thrilled, in fact, that I had found my way back to first class. The room had stopped spinning, and I felt stronger for a bit of warm food. I tried to keep the image of Vadoma out of my mind, but her spilled, black curls and the shape of her body under that cheap blanket returned unbidden to my mind. It had been only, what, six hours since I saw her last? What had happened between that moment and her last? How could someone so full of life now be a discarded figure on the deck, an object of hungry speculation by the hoards? I had an urge to run downstairs, to protect her body from the greedy eyes of the crowd. I had only just met her, but she had a vibrancy that I had never seen in anyone else before. And in this moment, the world, no, I, was deprived of knowing her further. I had wanted to be her friend. I closed my eyes and willed the tears not to fall. I didn’t want HIM to see me cry.
“You are upset, am I right, young Miss?” Mr. Adebayo asked me, his face thrown partly in shadows by the slant of the morning light and the chair’s high wings. I jumped when he spoke.
I simply nodded.
“Did you know her?” he said.
I nodded again. I really didn’t want to exchange words with him.
“A tragedy. Someone so young. So full of life.”
I looked at him closely. He almost spoke as if he knew something.
“Do you know what happened to her?” I asked.
He made a tsk-tsk sound. “The good doctor believes that she has killed herself. Rat poison perhaps.” He leaned toward me. “Perhaps her affections were not returned.”
I thought about that possibility. It was clear that Donald was heads over heels in love with her, but was she that in love with Donald? I shook my head without meaning to. I was certain that to her, he was just a friend. Someone to have fun with, or at least that was the feeling I got last night. If she carried strong feelings for someone, it hadn’t been anyone in the room last night. She had been at the party, she had laughed and danced, but she also seemed to put a barrier of artificial frivolity between herself and others. But, I wondered. Why did she feel the need to protect herself from others? My hands began to shake when I remembered what she had given me last night. Her amulet. Her protection. And now she was dead.
Suddenly, the room felt claustrophobic, crowded with the clutter of fine furniture and trinkets; by Mr. Adebayo and the way he stared at me. I got to my feet, making the china tea cup and saucer clatter as I practically dropped them on the table in front of me.
“Thank you, sir, for your assistance,” I rushed for the door. “I should return to my family.”
Before he could reply, I was out the door and had shut it behind me. I felt an instant sense of relief. Close to where I stood on the upper deck, between the skylights, I could see the spot where Vadoma had been found. They seemed to believe she had committed suicide. But, I did not believe it. She did not have the attitude of despair last night. Concern, yes, maybe even fear on my behalf, but she did not seem the type given to humors and self-pity.
The sea air revived me, and since the deck was surprisingly clear, I had the solitude I needed. I looked at the horizon as if it could give me some answers. My mind brought forth a line from my favorite novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho: “Those tend’rer tints, that shun the careless eye, And, in the world’s contagious circle, die.” The world was certainly proving itself deadly.
My father had forbidden this novel at home and had called it “rubbish.” Presently, the volumes were stored at the bottom of my bag, beneath my extra petticoat and chemises. This novel, with its romantic and dark suggestions, had been too delicious to forgo.
I don’t know if Vadoma was tender in particular, but I felt that her purity lay in her difference and that it was the world that was polluted, not she. And something in the world had killed her.
At that moment, I felt I should know what had happened to her. I savored the solitude for a few moments more, then I returned to the saloon.
Mr. Adebayo still sat in his chair. His eyebrows rose in surprise when he saw me.
“Can you take me to where she is? I asked.
He rose from his chair with a speed and fluidity that surprised me.
“I assume you mean the dead girl,” he said.
“Vadoma. Her name was Vadoma.”
“Vadoma, then. Of course. The doctor took her to his surgery.”
I tried to hide the shock that I felt. I suppose the doctor would have to ascertain the cause of death. I hoped that however it had happened, it was quick.
“Could you take me to her later? Tonight, perhaps?”
“That might be better,” his voice was soft like velvet. “I will meet you by the outside entrance to the parlor. Tonight. At midnight.”
I swallowed hard.
“I will be there.”
When I found my family down in steerage, my mother made a fuss over me, tucking me in bed, and wrapping me in an extra blanket. My sisters stared at me with large eyes, and for once, Mary was quiet.
“How did she die?” Lucy asked me at last. She looked terrified and very small next to Mary. I was glad to see Mary put an arm around her. She could be tender to Lucy at least.
“We don’t know yet, Luce,” I said. “Perhaps it was an illness, nothing more.”
My mother didn’t seem to be comforted by that idea, and she frantically kept herself busy tidying up our quarters. It was a fear on passenger ships such as these that a fever could break out and spread like wildfire.
“How many more days until we arrive, Mother?” Lucy asked.
“Only a little more than a week, poppet,” she said. We had only spent three nights on board. We were about a third of the way to America.
I shuddered when I thought of any more nights on board. Vadoma had not sacrificed herself, nor been ill, so somewhere on this ship, there was a murderer.
“Let me read to you, Lucy,” I said. “Why don’t you bring me A Tale of Two Cities?”
Lucy found the book, handed it to me, then curled up on her berth as I read. I didn’t stop until it was lunch time.
The day was so long! After lunch, we took a quick walk around the deck, but none of us wanted to revisit the site where Vadoma’s body was found. I did not reveal my acquaintance with her, so I had no one with whom I could talk about my fears. It was a very lonely feeling.
I read to the whole family in the afternoon. Supper was in the steerage dining saloon this time; I suppose father didn’t want to go to the trouble for first class, so it was a dismal affair compared to the previous night. But I did catch a glimpse of Donald. He looked like a deflated version of himself. His eyes never lifted from his food, which he had barely touched. It was some sort of fish stew, and I could barely eat it either. The odor was pungent, and it was another reminder of this ocean we floated on. I was dead sick of it all.
Steerage was silent when we got into our beds. No parties this night. Perhaps a wake was being organized? I lay in bed waiting to hear the steward march along on his usual watch. I reckoned it was near 11 o’clock. I hoped he would be on the other side of the ship by midnight.
When his footsteps had dissolved into the night, and everyone was asleep, I crept from my bed. It was just like the previous night, but instead of meeting with Vadoma, alive and well, it would be to visit her corpse.
I walked out into the chill air, greeted by the damp ocean air and the smell of the steam. The deck was thrown into shadows, and they all frightened me. As quietly as I could, I approached the door to the saloon. I only had to wait one moment, for soon, Mr. Adebayo separated himself from a shadow and was, in a moment, behind me.
“Miss Davison” he whispered in my ear, his voice seeming to crawl inside me and to nestle unwelcome therein.
I jumped and an embarrassing squeak escaped my lips. I clamped my mouth tight. I was determined to appear brave. I had had some practice at that. I thought of my first day at Mrs. Vickery’s school for young ladies and how all of the daughters of wealthy families had laughed at my clothes and my accent. I worked hard that first year to improve both–I begged my father for new dresses and elocution lessons–but still, I was never accepted by the other girls. There was one advantage to emigration: no one would know about that humiliation in America. Except for me.
I squared my shoulders.
“Lead the way, please, Mr. Adebayo” I said. I pictured the face of Olivia Stockridge, the worst of all the bullies, and the anger suppressed my fear.
“Of course. Let us go.” He opened the door and gestured me in. The saloon was nearly dark at this time. I remembered the layout of the room, and the light of the moon through the portholes helped me navigate. Once we left this room, my memory was vague. I thought we had turned right for the dining saloon, but I couldn’t be certain. He, however, walked before me, quite sure-footed in the obscure light.
We traversed a number of passages, which were wider than the ones we had in steerage. The ship was vast, so the journey took much longer than I would have liked. Every once in awhile, he turned and smiled at me, his teeth gleaming in the dark. I thought of a tiger hunting in the night, like Blake’s tyger poem. To myself, I whispered “What dread hand and what dread feet?” I must’ve whispered it more loudly than I thought, for Mr. Adebayo whipped his head around and studied me. I feared this ship was making me unbalanced.
He stopped before an unpainted door.
“Is this the doctor’s chambers?” I asked.
“Yes, it is the surgery. At the moment, it’s also the morgue.”
“Morgue?” I felt my knees threaten to sway.
“The autopsy’s done. They are simply awaiting for burial at sea.”
I can do this, I told myself. I will do it for the girl who gave me her amulet.
“Is the door locked?” I asked.
He reached for the large white knob and turned. The door swung open, and we faced a square room that, thank goodness, had an exterior window. I thought we must be on the starboard side, but I couldn’t be sure.
Mr. Adebayo took something out of his pocket. He struck the bottom of his shoe, and a diminutive flame burst from the match he held between his nimble fingers. His nails were rounded, each one reminding me of a small, pink shell. He went to a lamp on a table, and soon the room was revealed.
“That’s better,” he said. Then he pointed to the shape on a table covered in a white muslin sheet. “There she is.”
I couldn’t move. I had been dreading this moment all day, and I didn’t know what I thought I might do. What did I understand about causes of death?
“What was the doctor’s final opinion?” I asked, stalling for time.
“An infection. From a rat’s bite.”
I moved toward her, slowly, dreading the moment when I would lift the sheet. But, I did. I watched my hand lift the sheet, and it almost seemed as if it was someone else’s hand. I pulled the cover down to her shoulders. She wore the same dress as the previous night, of course, and her hair was disheveled. No one had taken care to make her more presentable. Who cared about a low class gypsy girl anyway?
To my surprise, she didn’t look as different in death as I thought she would. Her face was waxen, but her eyes were closed, her long eyelashes, dark and thick against her high cheekbones. Her lips were slightly parted, but the way her head rested, it did seem to be her neck that was the issue. I didn’t dare turn to look at Mr. Adebayo. I didn’t like it that he stood behind me, but wasn’t it better than being alone?
As gently as I could, I lifted the heavy mass of curls away from her neck. I couldn’t see any tell-tale mark on her neck. I didn’t want to touch her skin, but I had to if I wanted to find out what had happened. With one hand, I tilted her chin–her skin was so cold!–and her head swung easily to the side, revealing the left side of her neck. I gasped when I saw a wound. My eyes didn’t know how to interpret what I saw. Was it swelling from a rat’s bite? Wordlessly, I took the lamp and held it closer to her neck. It was bruised and red, and in the center were two puncture wounds about an inch apart from one another.
I turned and looked at Mr. Adebayo. His expression was flat.
“Look, Mr.Adebayo. Does a rat bite cause this type of injury? What else could do this?”
“Perhaps it was a giant wharf rat that bit her before she came on board,” he answered after a while. His voice was monotone, indifferent. Under his English accent there was a trace of someplace else, a sign that his life had been varied way beyond my own limited experiences.
“A rat,” I echoed, my mind engaged elsewhere. A girl at my school had read a book to us that featured puncture wounds. And vampires. Girlish nonsense, my father would say. I supposed he was right–the girls at my school bought every low-brow, penny dreadful they could find, especially Reynold’s Miscellany–and the more gruesome, the better. They loved the stories of vampires the most, imagining themselves to be like the irresistible female victims of an insatiable creature of the night. I felt haunted by those stories now, and it almost seemed that I was in the middle of one of them. I could have hardly felt less titillated by my situation.
I brushed her hair from her face, and rested my hand on the top of her head. I promise, Vadoma, I will find out who, or what, killed you.
I owed her that much.
About the Author:
Stacy Bourns was born in Oklahoma and currently lives in Texas with her husband and three children. She received her Ph.D in English from University of North Texas. The Birdcatcher is her first published novel. Although she has crossed the Atlantic many times by plane, she hopes someday to travel by ship.
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