Thursday, October 4, 2012

Eliza # 4

"Crowded" took on a new meaning on the Jessie Readman.  You might have read the reports that it was clean and comfortable and generally a much better ship than some others which my later friends had the indignity of sailing on.  But comfortable is always a relative term.  Sometimes it means hardly anyone died. 

Cleaning, always cleaning.  Perhaps generously paying upper deck passengers had someone else to clean for them, but on our deck we all had to clean everything to a certain standard by half an hour after breakfast.  As you might imagine, in the women and children section, there was no shortage of officious matrons who lead the charge on making sure we all did our bit.  Not that anyone had a large area to clean, but you can still make a mess in the space it takes to swing a cat.

One day there was something of a commotion in the bunk next to mine.  Mrs Doherty was having a tough time delivering her fifth child.  Blood was running everywhere and the women beside her were looking both grim and fearful.  I was sent to sleep on the other side of the room while they tried to give Mrs D as much care and privacy as they could. 

I wouldn't say I was the most popular woman on the ship.  I wasn't given to prayer groups, or discussions of my husband's plans (did I know them to discuss?  Not really).  My escapade following Julia and Margaret had marked me out as someone to avoid for the more carefully pious in the room.  But once settled on the eastern side of the women and children's room on our deck, I began to make a little friendship with a very quiet girl called Annie.  Like me, Annie wasn't in a huge hurry to explain the full circumstances of how she came to be on the ship.  Unlike me, she was quite good at not drawing attention to herself.

When Mrs D and the baby died, some of the women lead a large prayer and Bible reading session before we had the full funeral.  As they assembled, Annie asked if I had a Bible.  Oh yes.  Even if she'd had not a penny to clothe or feed me for the trip, I think my Mammie would have made sure I took a Bible.  I sat beside her and opened the page to where the reading was about to begin.  I was only 19 and I'd already sat at the prayers and Bible readings for far too many woman who had died in childbirth back home.

It was then that I noticed that she was trying to match the words being spoken with the words on the page desperately and, it seemed, probably unsuccessfully.  Maybe I could play teacher on board after all, though more quietly than I'd played follow-the prostitutes.

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