THE PACIFIC OCEAN | 1889
As the familiar sailor opened the hatch to the Pride of Jefferson’s enclosed bridge and motioned Philomena inside, Captain Monk turned from a table of charts and smiled.
“Well, Miss Fox, it is a singular pleasure to have such a beautiful young woman on my bridge,” he rhapsodized. “I understand that you have already met Mr. Laurant.”
Philomena turned before she realized the captain was referring to the man that had brought her to the bridge. She was so used to seeing him around at just the right moment that she had forgotten that they had never been properly introduced.
“Dr. Whitaker told me that we owe you a debt of gratitude for helping him tend `to your unfortunate father,” the captain continued. “Tell me, how is he feeling?”
Philomena took the offer of the captain’s hand and watched helplessly as it swallowed her own in a calloused but friendly grip. “He is feeling much better, Captain Kasper sir,” she ventured, not knowing if she would get her hand back. “Thank you for asking.”
“Not many young women your age would have the fortitude to take on such a big responsibility,” the captain further piled it on while obviously—or obliviously—intent on keeping Philomena’s hand as either a memento or hostage. “You must care for him very much.”
Philomena wanted to shout, I don’t remember being given a choice, but thought better of it. She told herself the captain was just being gracious as she wrested her hand from its prison.
The captain gave a small start as if he had forgotten he was holding the girl at all. “I am sorry, Miss Fox. I … can I ask you something?” The captain’s eyes shifted to Laurant who remained by the door seemingly ready to bolt at any moment as if there were someplace to escape to. Philomena saw the men exchange a small nod and wondered just what had been previously discussed. Once again, her curiosity got the better of her.
“Yes, sir, you can ask me anything you like.” What’s my name? Puddin’ Tane. Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.
“Miss Fox, Doctor Whitaker also told me that he was sent to your cabin after administering the sedative to your father. There was some sort of a disturbance.”
“It was nothing,” she caged. “I guess my nerves finally got the best of me. It has been a very stressful few days.”
“I do not doubt it, my dear,” the captain sympathized. “I just want you to know that if you saw something … unusual, that you could tell us.”
Philomena looked from Captain Munk to Laurant, as they were obviously fishing for something in particular.
“Tell her, captain,” Laurant prodded, having finally committed to remaining in the room. “I think she can handle it.”
“There have been rumors of strange sightings on the very same deck your cabin is on. Passengers who may be a little more perceptive than others have seen … ”
“Are you talking about the sailor?” Philomena asked, somewhat relived they weren’t alluding to her father, her real father. Her very dead father.
“You’ve seen him then?” Laurant stepped up.
“I tried to tell you that I saw him!” She exclaimed. “I saw him right before I met you that first time, Mr. Laurant. That’s why I poked you in the belly. I wasn’t sure if you were real.”
Laurant burped up a single laugh in spite of the charged situation, or perhaps because of it. Either way, it was enough to draw a sharp look from the captain.
“I really don’t think this is funny, Laurant, do you?”
“No, of course not, sir,” the man straightened up. “Miss Fox, can you tell us what the sailor you saw looked like? Did he say anything?”
Philomena shivered when she thought of what the poor wretch did look like and wondered how badly these two really wanted to know.
“He didn’t say anything,” she whispered. “He looked … well, he looked drowned.”
The two men looked at each other and Laurant dropped his gaze to his shoes.
“That is all you can tell me, dear?” the captain prodded. “It would mean a lot to the crew if you could positively identify him.
Philomena paused to try and figure out how she was going to describe what she saw without upsetting the two men. I shouldn’t have to do this, she thought; I’m supposed to be the child here. Why does no one ever worry about upsetting me?
“I can only tell you that no one would have been able to positively make that man out,” she began. “All I can say for sure is that he was a sailor, about Mr. Laurant’s height, and had been in too much water for much too long.”
The captain looked pained and stared out the window of the bridge at something in the middle distance. “Miss Fox,” he began to speak, “in my hubris, I boasted to you about the technical superiority of the Pride of Jefferson. As your elder, if I can impart one thing that I’ve learned the hard way, it is that pride definitely does cometh before a fall.”
Laurant and the girl both waited for the captain make his point.
“Miss Fox,” he continued, “look out this window and tell me what you see.”
“Indeed,” the captain sighed. “There is plenty of that. I was talking about the mast you see before you. Wouldn’t you think it strange that a steamship as fine as this one would deign to employ such archaic technology.”
Philomena looked to Laurant to translate the captain’s tangent. The sailor merely shrugged unhelpfully. Unfazed by the girl’s inability to answer his question, the captain continued to unburden himself through monologue.
“This ship is rigged with traditional Brigantine sails fore and aft, mostly as a precaution against machine failure. My undoing was daring to imagine that if I were lucky enough to catch the trades and employ the sails with the Pride’s twin steam engines at full power, I … she just might break the speed record for a Pacific crossing.”
The bridge was eerily silent as the captain fought to keep his head above his own ocean of guilt.
“The last time we made this route, you see,” the captain launched into his explanation as if at an official inquiry, “I decided to try for the record.”
“We were fully engaged and an unexpected squall appeared out of nowhere. I should have ordered the sails to be fully triced, or closed,” he clarified, “but I didn’t want to give up the race. I ordered a few seamen to replace our foresails with smaller storm sails that would create less pressure on the masts. We lost a sailor overboard off the top yard. He never surfaced again. A young man, it was his first cruise to the islands. I sent him up the mast.” Captain Munk paused, embarrassed.
“It is folly, I know. He was a grown man, and this is a dangerous job sometimes. He was not the first sailor to not make it home from a cross-Pacific run, and I’m certain that he won’t be the last.”
“If I may, sir,” Laurant offered, turning toward Philomena. “What the captain is getting at is that we would all feel a whole lot better if we knew that our unfortunate crew member was not … in turmoil.”
Philomena searched the faces of the two men for a clue as to how she could assuage the captain’s guilt long enough to extricate herself from the uncomfortable situation. She knew for certain that she did not want to be placed in the position of asking a rotting apparition the time of day let alone how it felt. Luckily, like her adoptive father, she was blessed with a natural ability to read people and think on her feet.
“Sirs,” she spoke with as much authority as she could muster, “I can assure you, that your lost friend was not in pain, he was merely … lost. I would be surprised if he is seen again. Now, you will have to excuse me, I should check on my father.”
The two men silently watched the young girl take her leave with a lot more bearing than she arrived with.
“What just happened?” Laurant turned to the captain as the bridge was suddenly filled with the lack of Philomena.
The captain simply stroked his beard. “I hope she’s right,” he finally uttered, “if for no other reason, for morale and sanity’s sake.”