A big man with a gentle voice, Walter Allen Hall regained his family’s fortune by venturing beyond the shores of England.
While his peers insisted the only money to be made abroad was via the British East India Company or through the slave trade, he staunchly disagreed.
“People are not a commodity. Not in England, not in Africa, not anywhere a good man wishes to lay his head without shame.”
In all his business dealings, he kept his wife Florence by his side. “No man could be as clever as my Florence. The opinions of my peers mean little beside your fierce mind.”
Their youngest daughter Clara insisted on accompanying her parents. The only child of four who shared ways considered wildly inappropriate by the ton, she tripped happily toward spinsterhood without a care in the world.
Walter’s scandalous ideals were tolerated as a member of the nobility but as his older brother George lost their inheritance through poor investments, social tolerance of his idiosyncrasies began to lag.
Walter took his wife and youngest daughter into his parlor for a family meeting. “A bold move is required to save us from ruin.” Seeing his daughter’s expression turn to fear, he assured her, “Not marrying you off, dear. No, no. Quite the opposite.”
“Whatever you shall do, I’ll help,” Florence assured him as she took his hand.
Clara nodded. “As will I, Father.”
“It will mean postponing your coming out, Clara. I gamble your very future.”
“I care not. Take the money set aside to present me to society and my dowry as well.”
“Clara! You can’t know what you’re saying! You’re barely seventeen!” Her father looked genuinely distraught. “My plan may well fail.”
She laughed softly. “Then I’ll be forced to endure the company of my brilliant parents, reading all the books I wish without expectation to bring squalling little ones into the world. I believe Agatha has that very well handled, as do James and Henry. They’re all married, well situated, and happy. I’ve never been like them, Father. Tell me what I may do.”
He outlined his intent to go into business with the bastard son of a London lord. “I shall match his investment to the farthing. He purchased two factories in Africa. He requires an investor to stock them.”
“Do you trust him, Walter?” Florence asked.
“I do though it is admittedly strange that I do. He’s base-born but well-educated. I’ve rarely seen a man work as hard. His reputation is in good standing and he has an uncanny penchant for following profit.” He looked back and forth between them. “He is not like us. You must know that before we begin.”
“In what way, Father?”
“He is…not a white man. I’m unsure of his mother’s parentage but am familiar with his father. We will travel with his crew to the African coast and take boarding at a small village near the factories.”
“He is a ship captain?” Her father nodded. Eyes wide, she murmured, “He is African, Father?”
“I believe he may be, yes.”
“Fascinating!” she exclaimed. “When do we leave?”
Holding their hands, he asked again, “You must both be sure of this. Clara, I know not what your reputation will be upon return if we take you with us to such a wild place.”
“I shan’t miss such an opportunity, Father. You’ve read me stories of the dark continent since I was a little girl. I care nothing for being a wife and mother so if no man takes me to wife, I shall live as a happy spinster with the two of you if you will have me.”
He delivered a rough kiss to her forehead before hugging her mother tightly. “How blessed to have such fearless women at my back.”
“Most would not consider you blessed, darling,” Florence told him with a chuckle. “In fact, I’m certain we’d be locked up tight in the nearest asylum for daring to wish for adventure away from knitting circles and teas.”
“Let us plan together.”
* * *
Within weeks, they were ready to leave.
Only a few of the ship’s crew were visible at the far end of the ship while their belongings were loaded. They remained turned away, staring out at the water.
Her father said, “You must stay below until we leave, Clara.”
“Must I?” He nodded in the way he had that meant no argument would change his mind. “Will you come get me?”
“I will. Your mother will be in the cabin beside you. Your trunks are there.”
She was enthralled by the snugness and the carvings on her cabin door. She rummaged in her pocket for a small book she tucked there to pass the time and sat on the edge of the slim bed to read.
From above, there was shouting and banging. Her curiosity was aflame but she stayed put because her father rarely gave her an order. The respect she had for him demanded she follow it.
Then they were moving and excitement churned in the pit of her stomach.
She sickened from the movement of the great ship on the open water within minutes. Again and again, she held the edges of the bucket beside the bed and tried to make it stop. She could feel sweat beading on her skin and beneath her layers of clothes.
Someone knocked on the door of her cabin but she was too mortified to open it in such a state.
“Miss. I can help.” The woman’s accent was unique, lilting, like none she’d ever heard. “Come, miss.”
Stumbling across the room, Clara cracked the door.
A small woman stood in the narrow passage. She had large blue eyes set in dark skin and her hair was tightly braided away from her face.
She looked so different from anyone Clara had ever seen outside the pages of a book that she exclaimed, “Oh, how lovely you are…”
Then she stumbled across the room and vomited again. Never so humiliated in her life, she couldn’t face the woman who knelt beside her.
“I’m sorry. Truly sorry.”
“You English are so proper.” She laughed softly. “You are sick. This is part of life. I will help you.”
The first thing she did was open the round window. Helping Clara stand, she loosened her dress and worked it off. Untying her corset was an instant improvement.
She asked, “What’s your name?”
“Leila. Few English ask such questions.”
“I-I’m Clara. Thank you for helping me.”
“I cannot call you by your Christian name, miss.”
“Of course you can. My parents are eccentric and I follow in their footsteps.” She straightened with a sigh but bent again to support herself on the bed. “Infuriating. I don’t wish to miss a moment of the journey.”
“We will be on the water almost two weeks, miss. The hull is filled to capacity so we move slower. This will ease.”
“Do you like being on the water, Leila?”
“At first, no. My brother taught me to love it.”
“Your brother? I’m glad you have family with you in your travels.”
The woman tilted her head. “What…a strange thing to say.” She turned to go. “Leave your bindings off and the window wide when you’re in the cabin. I’ll bring you ginger tea.”
Her father visited her often but her mother felt as poorly as Clara.
It took three days for her to feel capable of standing up straight and walking around her little cabin. Another before she could bear the tightness of her corset.
“You can leave it off, miss,” Leila suggested.
“That’s one convention I’m not allowed to discard.”
Leila helped her dress in the thinnest dress she owned so she could get some much-needed air above decks. She walked slowly through the narrow passage and when they started up, she took the woman’s hand without thinking.
She glanced over her shoulder sharply. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to invade your person. I didn’t want to fall.”
With a slight squeeze of her hand and a nod, she led the way into the sunlight. Bracing herself against a wall, Clara took several deep breaths.
“So much better. Thank you for everything you’ve done. I’m grateful.”
Her father was suddenly there with his arm around her waist. “Clara, more rest perhaps.”
“I’m missing everything, Father. How’s mother?”
“On the mend. Another day perhaps.”
She smiled at the woman who nursed her. “Without Leila, I wager I’d still be suspended over a bucket.”
He smoothed her hair from her face. “I’ve never seen you so pale. Are you certain you’re well?”
“Well enough.” She looked out over the water. “It’s so beautiful, Father. How small we are in comparison.”
Behind them, a deep voice said, “You must be Miss Hall.” She winced as she straightened and turned. “You’ll be sore for a few days.”
The man who stood there was taller than her father, leaner, and muscular in a way she’d never seen on a man. His eyes were blue, his hair a coarse black swept back from his face, and his skin like Turkish coffee with cream.
“Hello, yes. Forgive my rudeness for remaining in my cabin.”
“You were ill. It happens to many.”
Holding out her hand, she said, “I’m Clara Hall.”
The man stilled and his eyes cut to her father.
She was immediately flustered and tucked her hand to her chest. “Is…that not the custom? I didn’t mean to offend.”
Walter squeezed her shoulders. “No, darling. You’re simply different than most of your age, station, and gender.” To the man, he added, “Please. No matter the political climate, we are all of us equals here.”
Suddenly, she understood and blushed brightly. She could only imagine how awful it looked with her unusual paleness. She held out her hand again and stared into blue eyes that regarded her with equal parts curiosity and suspicion.
He took a small step closer and shook her hand. “Silas Dover.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Dover. My father speaks highly of you.”
“Likewise on both counts.” She blushed again and he released her hand, stepped back, and clasped them behind his back. “Please let my sister know if you need anything at all and we’ll endeavor to make it possible.”
With a nod at her and another at her father, he returned to the captain’s deck.
“That could have gone better. I apologize, Father.”
“For what, Clara? You were lovely as always.”
She smoothed her hair. “I look frightful and rambled as if I were simple-minded. I’ll strive to make a better impression in future.”
“Nonsense.” He wrapped his arm around her waist. “Come, let’s find you a place to sit so you can soak up the sun and breeze.” He lowered her to a large crate. “I’ll check on your mother.”
The crew avoided getting within several feet of her, they didn’t look at her directly, and no one spoke. She stared at her lap with her hands folded.
“You like to talk,” Leila said beside her.
She sighed. “Yes. I-I like people.” She met the woman’s eyes. “I made things awkward. It wasn’t my intent.”
“You are rare for English. Rarer even than I realized. It was unexpected, not awkward.” Leila smiled warmly. “It will get easier.”
* * *
It was Clara’s first trip of many between her native England and the West African Coast. Each voyage, her stomach took less time to acclimate.
Her father returned twice every year aboard Captain Dover’s ship to check their textile mill and steel factory. The steel goods created on a continent still considered primitive were better than any the Europeans could craft.
Every trip, he was accompanied by his wife and daughter.
Clara refused her presentation to society and entertained no offers of marriage as their fortunes returned to prior health.
She didn’t wish to marry the weak-minded, pale-bodied men available in her social circle. She didn’t wish to attend balls and prepare teas and walk around the park for social interaction.
None of the life she was supposed to want appealed to her. Therefore, she begged her parents to no longer speak of such things.
They respected her wishes.
Deep inside her, in a place she rarely visited, was an imaginary life. A life spent on the water, seeing the world, beside a man who once hesitated to shake her hand simply because his skin was darker than her own.
It was a dream she hid from everyone, including herself. In love with a man who could be hurt or even killed if he were to love her back.
She crushed it down, refused to settle, and lived the life of a spinster. Envious of the romance her mother and father shared.
Certain, as the years passed, she would remain alone.
© Shayne McClendon
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