I hope my family is still alive. The last time I saw my Uncle John, we’d loaded the wagon with eight bushels of wheat and departed from Sussex at sunrise. Our two Shire horses, Jolly and Bonnet, pulled the dray along mud roads to Portsmouth. They led us southward towards the coast, their heads bobbing rhythmically on the bit, rings and harnesses jingling. My uncle made deliveries to the port and even London in the summer, but never so late in the season as we did in the fall of 1808.
We’d traveled halfway from Sussex to the Royal Dockyards before he asked me to drive the team. I held the reins firmly between my fingers, in control of nearly two tons of draft horse. “You’ll run the farm someday, Will,” my uncle said. I’d just turned fifteen and was skilled with the plow, breaking furrows into the ground and sewing seeds in straight lines. I liked the symmetry in the fields—the carpets of a chaotic world—and believed my life would follow the seasons and harvests.
While I drove, my uncle loosened his stock to catch his breath. He settled his heavy frame among the bushels of wheat, all bound for the bakehouse in the victualling yard. “War is a hungry machine, William. Keeps England in business, though.” He fell asleep, lulled by the incessant rocking of the wagon.
Groves of giant oaks bordered pastures on either side of the road, casting towers of shadow in the fading October sun. I relaxed into the plodding of the horses’ hooves, steady and sturdy and even. My mother had been dead five years by then. I strained to recall the color of her hair—if it had tones of chestnut or hints of a darker brown. “Come here for a story,” she used to say, sitting with her sewing by the fire. Tommy and I would crowd in at the folds of her skirts, draped in her voice. “On an island lived a man who could sew magic sails,” she’d say, pulling a length of thread through her muslin cloth. “He used a tall tree to build a boat and sail away.”
I was ten when a fever consumed her and my brother, Tommy. For what reason was I spared? That I thought Death had spared me shows how little I knew of living.
I loved my Uncle John. He and my aunt had taken me in after my father lost himself in drink. On the day Father dragged himself from the pond, sodden and savage and asking who I was, I knew that God had finally forsaken me, that I could expect no mercy from Him. I ran and ran through the brittle woods, into tangles of branches that whipped my skin, until I emerged at the edge of my uncle’s farm. Tears and blood stained my face. My uncle did not force me to go back to my father’s house. The one time I did, I found it abandoned, doors swinging open and birds roosting in the cupboards.
It was spring. The cows were calving. I learned to pad a stall with fresh straw and to recognize when a cow was ready to give birth. Soon I could clear the nostrils of a newborn calf to help it take its first breath. And though I became as strong as any man on the farm, my uncle persisted in thinking of me as a boy. I tolerated it because he’d been so good to me, and because he and my aunt had no children of their own. He’d shown me how to coax life into a crop, starting from only a seed, how to calm a frightened mare as her foal entered the world. How to survive.
Dusk deepened into a purple twilight on our path to Portsmouth. A waxing moon cast its light in fragmented shadows. “Whoa,” I urged the horses at Portsbridge Creek, where the uneven country road gave way to cobblestones. The heave of the wagon’s halt woke my uncle. He took the reins and said we were nearly to the dockyards. By then I could smell the brine of the sea. The horses pricked their ears when the wagon clattered over the bridge.
“There’s Anchor Gate ahead.” He pointed to a vast enclosure of limestone walls with sentinels posted along the top. Mountains loomed and wavered in the distance.
“Are those the cliffs of the Isle of Wight?” I asked, standing for a better view.
My uncle laughed. “Those are no cliffs, Will. That’s a row of His Majesty’s ships of the line.”
“His Majesty’s ships of the line,” I repeated, straining to make out what might have been a topsail, billowing like a cloud nearly two hundred feet in the air. In the years before my mother died, she had taught me to read her father’s books. One had an anchor imprinted on its blue cover and contained intricate diagrams of naval vessels and rigging. With a portion of twine, I’d practiced tying every knot pictured in the book, yet I’d never seen a ship with my own eyes.
At the gatehouse of the dockyard, a Royal sentry detained us to inspect our papers from the Victualling Board. The marine read the order by lantern light. Beyond him, the orange glow of forges at a smithy breathed in and out of the darkness. The deep clank of a hammer against iron resounded across the yard.
Once through the gate, we entered what seemed another city entirely, a base crisscrossed by roads and outcroppings of buildings. With nightfall it had nearly emptied of laborers, leaving the lonely blacksmith. My uncle guided the wagon through the yard. We passed into a warm current of air, thick with the scent of hops and barley, outside what must have been the brewery.
“Here’s the cooperage next,” he said. In Sussex I’d known a cooper’s apprentice named Silas, who’d left to work on what I’d imagined as a grand ship on a grand adventure. Barrels were stacked the length of the building. Rows of wooden circles and staves rose against its walls.
“They need so many?” I asked.
“Grog, powder, water, salt beef,” said my uncle. “A single frigate carries one hundred and fifty tons of water in the hold.”
“How do you know so much about ships?” I asked. His girth suggested hearty meals at a farm table, not rations of salt beef in a mess.
“I’ve read your grandfather’s naval books too.” Then he looked off to the side so I couldn’t see his face. “Your mother and I were children when he lost a leg to gangrene.”
My mother had not told me that story.
He shifted his attention back to the team. “No far-off horizons for me. Better to keep my head down, work the land.”
We smelled the bakehouse before we saw it: the yeasty aroma of proofing bread and the smoke of wood-fires in ovens. As we neared the low stone building, I watched figures moving fluidly behind a row of steamed-up windows. They moved in graceful slowness, like bodies drifting underwater. We tied the horses near a trough and entered the warm cocoon of the bakery.
“Hello?” Uncle called.
We waited in a narrow entryway and soon heard footsteps crunching along the floor. A slender man covered in white dust emerged like a ghost from the darkness of the hallway. The dusting of flour in his hair made it look as if he wore a powder wig from a London haberdasher.
My uncle removed his hat. “Good evening. I’m John Brooke, with a quarter of wheat.” He handed the order to the baker, who glanced at the paper and handed it back.
“Our storeroom’s been running low,” he said. “I’m Gibson. My foreman told me you’d be along.”
“This is my nephew, William, here to help unload the wagon.”
“Very well,” he said. “My son can assist you.” He turned and called, “Charles!”
A boy only a few years younger than myself appeared in the hallway. My first impulse was to avert my gaze. The left side of his face was badly convoluted, his jawbone misshapen and one cheek fallen in. Where there should have been an eye, there was a drooping aperture. When he smiled, the side of his mouth opened like a gash, revealing small stumps of teeth. He was about the age my little brother would have been. Tommy at twelve, but with a horrible face.
“’Tis how he was born,” the baker said simply, to end our uncomfortable silence. “His mother died the same day.”
After staring at Charles so rudely at first, I extended him my hand. “Hello, Charles. I’m William.” I talked rather loudly so he would hear me. “But please call me Will.”
“Charles can’t speak on account of his poor tongue,” his father said. “But he can hear you just fine,” he added, with a slight grin to relieve my awkwardness.
Charles shook my outstretched hand with a firm grip for a boy of twelve. His lopsided smile looked more like a leer, but what he lacked in the mouth, he made up for in hair. Messy bangs fell across his forehead in unruly tufts, which gave him a roguish air.
“Well,” said my uncle, pulling his gaze from Charles’s grotesque features. “This is a fine place for your labors.”
“Infernal hot in the summer,” said the baker. “We’ll bring those stores in round back.”
Charles followed me out to the wagon, hopping onto the slat as if ready to drive the team himself. After I’d untied Jolly and Bonnet, we brought the dray to the rear of the bakehouse. I worked the bits from side to side in the horses’ mouths, easing them backwards toward the open door. Charles jumped down and heaved off a sack of wheat. Mr. Gibson and my uncle stood by the storeroom door, talking of the year’s fickle crops compared to the bounty of 1807.
After storing the bushels, we entered the bakehouse through a room of cavernous brick ovens. Fires blazed and crackled with kindling. Cut wood was stacked against one wall. We continued to a workroom, a laboratory of balancing scales and troughs and specialized cooking implements. “You’ve quite an operation here,” said my uncle.
“Forty bakers,” Gibson said. “We make a hundred sacks of the finest hardtack a day. More’n they do at Deptford,” he added proudly.
Charles motioned for me to join him at a long worktable. It was covered in trays of cut biscuit dough, lined up like regiments across the plain of the table. The evenly spaced rounds brought to mind the straight rows of seeds I placed so precisely in the ground. He removed an iron rod from the wall and pressed its flat end into the top of a raw biscuit. I leaned in more closely to study the imprint he’d made: dozens of dimples and three broad arrows, along with the letter “P.”
He took down another biscuit press and held it out to me, gesturing towards the waiting trays. The small metal press was heavier than I’d thought it would be. I eased it into the dough’s surface, trying not to pierce it through. The arrows looked like the tracks of a tiny bird who’d pecked her way across a wafer.
“What does the ‘P’ stand for?” I asked Charles. I already knew that broad arrows marked the King’s property.
He looked to his father to answer, and I felt foolish for having directed a question at him.
“Portsmouth,” said Gibson. “That way the purser knows which yard he’ll blame if he lets his stores rot.”
In the time it took me to press ten biscuits, Charles finished two trays. He pretended to inspect each of my attempts meticulously, nodding his final approval when he reached the end of my meager row.
“We’d best be going,” my uncle announced. “It’s a long ride back to Sussex tomorrow.”
The hearth-like warmth of the baking room held me. I ran my hand along the edge of a kneading trough, its surface worn smooth from years of men working flour and salt into dough. The baker stood next to his son. They both wore aprons caked with hardened biscuit dough.
“Where do you plan to stay?” Gibson asked.
“The Brass Lion,” said my uncle.
The baker glanced through a steamy window, towards the anchorage at Spithead. “The merchant ship Lenora came into port this afternoon.”
We looked at him blankly.
“The town is full of mercantile sailors now, prime hands for the Navy to man her warships. The press-gang will be out tonight.”
“I’m certain we’ve nothing to fear,” Uncle John said.
“This is 1808, Mr. Brooke. Only last week a press-gang swept through town, leaving behind a trail of bloodied cobblestones.”
“William is but a farm boy.”
I turned away and saw in Charles’s kind brown eye that he understood the insult.
“Perhaps we’ll try The Pembroke in Queen’s Lane then,” my uncle said. “It’s well-removed from the waterfront.”
I thanked Charles for helping me to unload the wagon, anxious to make up for my disgust earlier. “And thanks for showing me how to press the King’s biscuit,” I said.
Charles bowed ceremoniously, as if to assure me it was all in humble service to His Majesty. We laughed, though his laughter sounded like a raspy cough.
When I turned to wave good-bye from the empty dray, Charles stood alone at the bakery’s rear door, hands in the pocket of his apron. Flames from the ovens reflected in his watery brown eye. It appeared as though he were on fire from within, as Tommy had seemed when the fever burned him alive.
The night air felt blacker and colder after the warmth of the bakery. The moon cast a gauzy light on the cooperage as we retraced our path back towards Anchor Gate. A guard stopped us when we reached the enclosure. Another inspected the bed of the dray, then waved us into the night. As the dirt road disappeared under a cobblestone street, we veered away from the seafront. A line of clouds had begun to gather to the south.
For a half-hour we heard only the hypnotic sound of the horses’ shoes clopping upon stones. Uncle John spoke little. “Carry on,” he said once, and I thought that, like mine, his mind must be on dinner. My stomach growled, long empty of the cold sausage and cheese we’d eaten at noon.
When we turned into Queen’s Lane, the glow of tapers dotted the darkness in small-paned windows above a row of shops. A hanging placard for The Pembroke Inn came into view. We heard the notes of a fife and fiddle, and the rise and fall of a crowd of voices.
“Steer round back,” my uncle pointed. “I think they’ve a stable here.”
I guided the team down a short alleyway and into a courtyard. A stable-boy in need of a hat and boots approached.
“Down for the night?” he asked.
“If there’s room,” Uncle said, hoisting himself from the slat. He paused to regain his breath.
The boy reached a hand up to Jolly’s bridle, with a hesitant glance at Bonnet.
“Don’t worry, they’re friendly,” I said, though a scuffle in a stall caused the horses to bellow and shy away from the darkened barn. A skittish barn cat darted under the dray with a growling hiss.
The boy approached Jolly again and stood shivering next to the tall gelding.
“Have you fresh straw?” I asked him. A dampening mist had rolled into the yard, and the animals would need to stay dry.
“Fresh straw,” he echoed like a parrot.
I began to grow impatient with him and decided to return shortly to check on the team. After my uncle had slipped the boy a shilling, we walked to the front of the inn and found the door locked tight. We rapped a tarnished knocker until the door opened a crack.
“State your business,” a voice commanded, though we couldn’t see a face.
“We’d like a meal and a room,” my uncle said.
A steady rain had begun to fall. When we received no reply, I feared we’d have to spend the night in the shabby stable. Finally, though, we were admitted by the ale-soaked doorman.
His face was obscured by a hooded cape that dragged on the pine-board floor. Beyond him, tin lanterns hung from ceiling beams. There was an uneasy lull in the tavern’s hubbub as we crossed over the threshold. With a bright fire in the hearth, there was enough light to see that we’d interrupted some sort of costume ball. By one table stood a man in an ill-fitting coat, his breeches sagging at the ankles. Another wore the red velvet cap of a jester. To his right stood a youth in fine stockings and bulky clogs.
My uncle removed his hat, with a nod of acknowledgment to the motley group. We made our way to a bench and table against a wall. A man clad in black from head to toe approached us, his somber attire like that of the local undertaker in Sussex. He placed his hands on the table, leaning in to eye us closely. His top hat bobbled slightly. When he reached up to steady it, I saw a rope tattooed round his wrist like a bracelet.
“How do you do?” my uncle offered.
“Hello,” I said lamely, not sure what he wanted of us.
He nodded at me, and without taking his eyes from mine shouted to the others, “They’s all right!”
The fiddler resumed a happy jig, and laughter rose above clanking tankards. The undertaker-fellow found a place by the fire and lit a carved bone pipe.
“Do you think they’ll have a room here, Uncle? It seems crowded,” I said.
“Town always feels crowded compared to the country.” He mopped beads of sweat from his brow. “Let’s enjoy it while we can. Tomorrow we’ll be stuck on the slat of the wagon.”
It was true that there was little respite from the demands of the farm, much as I enjoyed the routine of the work.
A crowd formed a circle around several men dancing in lively pairs. I joined in by clapping my hands in time to the fiddler. My uncle hailed the barmaid.
“Don’t mind them blokes,” she said, setting down a breadboard and two tankards of ale. “They can be a bit touchy on shore-leave.”
“Shore-lea…” my uncle began, but the barmaid winked and nodded towards the stairwell by the entrance. The man in the hooded cape maintained his watch at the door.
“They’ve cleaned out the cloakroom this time,” she said. “Disguised like regular dandies to hide from the press-gang.”
It explained why their clothes fit so poorly. But could they pass for gentlemen? Could we? I studied Uncle John, overstuffed in his vest and ruffled shirt. He looked haggard, even pale for a man who worked outdoors.
“Might we get a room for the night?” he asked.
“We’ve a room, and plenty of mutton stew. The cook’s special.”
The maid set our place with pewter chargers and disappeared into the kitchen.
“She’s a fine one, that Sallie.” An old man I hadn’t noticed sat in the corner, with a kerchief around his head and gold hoops in his ears. A dagger hung from his belt. “But you don’t seem to think so,” he added, addressing himself to my uncle.
Uncle John stared ahead glassy-eyed, with one hand bracing himself against the table. His other hand clutched the front of his shirt. He drew in a rattling breath as his body slumped against the wall.
The old man jumped to my uncle’s aid. He quickly unwrapped Uncle’s stock, plucking away each shirt button with a flick of his dagger. “Sallie!” he called. “Bring us a jug of water!”
I sat there dumb as an ox, unable to grasp what was happening. “Is he breathing?” I finally asked the old sailor, afraid of what his answer would be.
He didn’t reply, just called out to the man dressed like an undertaker. “Dawson!” The fife and fiddle quieted, and the laughter faded away. “Smelling salts,” he demanded.
“What am I now, Jones,” the undertaker said, “a ship’s surgeon?” He removed his top hat and held it in both hands, looking on as helplessly as I.
Sallie brought a pitcher of water, which Jones used to soak Uncle’s stock and mop water along his brow. His cheeks regained some color, and I saw the shallow rising and falling of his chest.
“How ’bout vinegar?” Dawson suggested a moment later, as if he might still play the role of a medical man.
“I’ll fetch the horses right away,” I said. I wasn’t sure how that would help my uncle, but I wanted to do something. “The stable-boy’s taken them.”
“The Pembroke’s got no stable-boy,” Jones said. Before I could ask what he meant by it, he called to Dawson, “See if a boatswain’s boy is out back!”
Dawson ducked into the kitchen after Sallie. When he returned, his face was as white as a stone. “The gang’s been hidin’ in the barn, Jones.”
The old sailor didn’t have time to respond. The tavern door crashed in, toppling the man who’d acted as doorman.
“The devil!” cried Dawson. Costumed men leapt in all directions, clawing over tables and benches. Tankards and chargers smashed to the floor. In the mayhem I froze to the spot, as did the old sailor, Jones.
A giant of a man with wild red hair stepped over the fallen lookout at the door. He clubbed the next man in his path with a short bat, grunting with the effort of each blow. His gang swarmed in behind him, six hellions swinging leather bludgeons. One wielded what looked like a knotty hangman’s noose.
The gang felled one person after another, beating them even as they balled into lumps on the floor. Each sickly thud of contact upon a man was like a dull pounding on a terrible drum, followed by cries of anguish.
My uncle lay on the bench, defenseless. Jones stood by him, dagger in hand.
The monstrous man with the club turned to the sailor, tapping the bat as if relishing his next chance to swing it. “You’re no good to me dead,” he said, smacking the tip of the club against his hand. “Ye’d best give up that knife.”
“Leave off, Killington,” said Jones. “You know we’s papers what proves we work the Lenora. Not that you could read ’em.”
The man called Killington hit Jones with one fast swoop to the head. The sailor crumpled like a sack emptied of grain. Fragments of his bloodied teeth skittered across the floor. I pressed my back against the wall, as near to Uncle John as possible.
Killington stood over the broken sailor, seemingly bewitched by the power of his awful work. He streamed with sweat, ropes of fire-red hair hanging to his shoulders. When his wild eyes refocused, taking in the tavern, they fell squarely upon me.
“What’s this, then?” he asked, resuming the slapping of the bat in his palm. His face was even uglier when he smiled.
Over his shoulder I saw tables in broken pieces and benches overturned. The room reeked of ale and lingering smoke from the fire, which had died down by this time to burning embers. The Pembroke was nearly empty, though I heard sluggish groans, low and aching, as bodies were dragged away by Killington’s crew.
He looked from me down to Uncle John, whose eyes were still closed. I had just enough time to throw myself over my uncle before the room went silent and dark.
Escape from Providence is a historical thriller set during the Napoleonic Wars. The main character, William Price, is pressed into naval service while helping his uncle deliver wheat to a port. For the next two years, he works to survive aboard the British warship Providence while plotting his escape. As he makes allegiances and compromises, William must decide how much he will risk for his freedom. I think of the novel’s mood as Shirley Jackson meets Patrick O’Brian.
Sea stories offer an exciting combination of adventure, mystery, and lore. When I began to research the historical period of the Age of Sail, I learned that “impressment” was common in England at that time (c. 1800). Ordinary citizens were abducted by press-gangs and thrown into the service of the British Royal Navy. It was essentially a legalized form of kidnapping. Once aboard a ship, sailors had to pay for their food, clothing, and other expenses. So, after being kidnapped, they owed the Navy money! I began to wonder how far a person would go to survive in such a brutal situation, and whether he might risk death to escape it. Soon I became fascinated with the plight of this character, who has no good options: stay aboard and endure abuse and enslavement; try to escape and risk drowning or being shot; get caught and be hanged. What would you do? The book’s larger themes are endurance, loyalty, and the question of whether or not we have free will. Can you control your destiny? Or is it out of your hands?
In my MFA program, I completed a graduate project on Alfred Hitchcock, in which I studied the techniques he used to develop suspense. That research influenced my decision to divide the novel into sections that lead explicitly towards William’s escape attempt. Our humanity, today as in the past, has always been worth fighting for, even in the face of tyranny and despair. I hope the novel will offer modern readers not only a thought-provoking story but also one of possibility and inspiration.
Andrea Caswell holds an MFA in fiction and nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has been published by Fifth Wednesday Journal, River Teeth, The Normal School, and others. Andrea lives with her husband in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Embark, Issue 6, October 2018