Baby Caleb let go of her breast wetly and Rachel Lynde handed him over to her daughter Marilla to wind and change. Fixing the buttons of her blouse she stood up heading off to the next chore. Rachel still had pangs of loneliness when she wondered what had happened to the original Marilla. She had disappeared from home all those years ago with her beau John Blythe and no one had ever heard of them again. Absentmindedly dabbing at a smear of sicked up milk on her chest Rachel sat down for a quick cup of coffee before she tackled the ironing.
A pile of mail sat innocently on the table mostly bills as far as Rachel could see, but here what was this crumpled old water stained thing? The writing was unfamiliar but distinctively read Mrs Rachel Lynde, Avonlea PEI. She wiped the butter knife on her apron and slit it open. A sheaf of flimsy paper fell out and she picked them up wonderingly.
Lat 47o 56' Long 8o 47'
April 5 1867
This is your long lost friend, if I may still regard myself as such, Marilla Cuthbert. Goodness it has been a long time since I called myself Cuthbert for of course my surname has been Blythe for many a long year.
As you may have noticed I am writing to you from the Atlantic Ocean, but who knows where I will be by the time you receive this missive as I most heartily wish you will.
I don't know what it is about my current situation but I find my thoughts are drawn to our childhood in good old Avonlea Rachel, what sweet times we had together. Somehow my thoughts drift back to one afternoon when we sat on the foreshore and watched a schooner sail past. I am sure you have forgotten it. I never imagined back then that I would be sailing aboard a such a ship but so it has come to pass.
I suppose you have a child or two by now and I pray all is well. Did you wed Thomas Lynde in the end? My apologies for having missed it. I hope you were not too much vexed that I skipped off beforehand.
I had better tell you how I have fared since I left home.
You may recall John had been encouraging me to leave with him. As you may suspect I did not go easily. It was a wrench leaving home and all that I knew and held dear. Not Mama and Papa particularly but you and Matthew. In the end I just decided a life without John was not worth living. I knew he would be my only love and I believed I might be a spinster forever if I did not go with him. I had a premonition of long lonely years stretching out. It was too dreadful to contemplate so I bit the bullet as it were and we ran away. My only regret was not leaving a note of farewell to you, dearest Rachel. I feared that if Papa got wind of it before we left the jig would be up and I would be stuck there forever. My apologies though for leaving you like that, it has weighed on me.
We were able to find someone to witness our wedding and did that right quick. John got some work as a labourer for a while and we rented a mean hovel. It was not the grand life I had envisaged but at least we were together. It was harder later when John got a post on a merchant ship for a couple of years. I had my first baby by then, a boy Gilbert. It was a hard time, not a word of a lie, but we got through.
When John returned he was restless but more experienced from his time away and he was able to secure better wages for his next trip. This time he was gone for three years though he was able to visit now and again.
It was lonely, just me at home with the children for by now I had more babies. When John was finally able to secure a position as ship's captain I begged permission to join him and as you can see from the address I did so. We have engaged a young girl, Anne Shirley, mind you spell it with an E she is most insistent upon that, to help me care for the children as keeping three boys out of harm's way aboard a sailing ship is no mean feat.
So now you may address me as Marilla Blythe Captain's wife and able assistant.
Our ship is the romantically named Jonathan Swift, (I seem to be surrounded by Jonathans) a medium sized ketch which carries cargo all over the world. As I said we are currently in the Atlantic off the coast of Scilly bound for California. We have sailed that way before and I can attest to the fact that sailing around the Horn is every bit as terrifying a prospect as you may have been led to believe.
Let me tell you a little about shipboard life. Two days ago we celebrated one month since departing London. Traditionally to entice them aboard sailors are paid a month in advance, this is all very fine at the time but several days in they realise they are effectively working for nothing for a few weeks and that is when the officers have to remind them that all is not lost. I do my part to help in that endeavour too for it does no one any good to sulk about this turn of events.
In any case that debt is likened to having a horse on your back. One month after sailing the crew say they have finally gotten rid of it and hold a ceremony. Rachel, the first time I saw it I was amazed and my boys love it. The crew spend their spare time collecting all sorts of rubbish and fashion it into the likeness of a horse and it is hanged, then set on fire and the whole lot cast off into the wide blue ocean as they sing a traditional song. It is all most lively and the crew enjoy the break very much and what's more their mood improves henceforth.
Shortly as you may see by our latitude we will be passing over the Equator. My boys are already on tenterhooks to see what mischief King Neptune will invoke. We have a couple of new sailors so it should be a merry time.
My boys! It occurs to me I have not introduced them to you as yet. They are Gilbert aged eleven a mischievous scamp with the same brown curls as his handsome father and twinkling blue eyes like his mother, or so says my husband. Then there is John a rather more solemn child of five who says little as yet but watches all with a wise eye as if he has seen it before. I have also got eighteen month old Jacob who has had to learn to walk on board a rolling ship; how will he manage on dry land we do not know? I had a girl between Gilbert and John, but sadly she only lived a few days and we consigned her to the depths wrapped in a wee white shroud. The saddest day of my life. Her name was Rachel of course. I am sorry I can never introduce you to your namesake but know that she was a bonny wee thing.
I have not said anything yet to John, Rachel so in effect you are the first to know, but I have ceased to be unwell so I believe another is on the way. Depending on where we next make landfall my confinement may well be at sea. I will be far from the first woman to give birth thusly, but it is not a prospect I relish. Still it is the life of the wife of a ship captain and I will manage it bravely.
You may be wondering how I fill my days. Together with my servant girl Anne, we get the children up and breakfasted then between us we give them a little schooling. They are young yet but Gilbert is interested in reading the ship's log and is learning to read the sextant. He stays up to see the stars which his father takes great pleasure in pointing out to him. Gilbert is quite put out if the weather is cloudy and his stars have gone to bed. He has his favourites in each hemisphere, the Southern Cross and Orion's Belt. Though did you know Orion is still visible down south, except it is upside down. John pointed it out to me one quiet night when everyone else had gone to bed. After their lessons they might play a game or two of marbles while Anne or myself reads to them. I admit I am increasingly leaving that task to Anne as she has the most enjoyable reading voice and puts her all into it. Or else I catch up on my sewing, the boys are always tearing a cuff or their pants I suppose it is the same for you. I started a new sampler a week or so ago and it is progressing slowly. Otherwise I duck out leaving the boys in Anne's care and go visiting our passengers if we have any. Sometimes we merely take cargo but often there are folk who desire to travel our way.
Have you ever made love on a ship, my dear Rachel? It is the most wondrous thing. It is as is you are back in your mother's cradle yet the most marvellous things are occurring. Well I don't need to explain it to you I am sure. But the ship lends the most delicious setting as the stars twinkle between the shifting masts. It is my most favourite thing in all the world. I hope I have not shocked you, Rachel. I suppose the shipboard life makes me more forward than most.
Sometimes a great longing for home overwhelms me. I think back to those far off days we spent roaming the lanesways of home, Rachel. We would imagine our adult life together with our men by our side, do you recall? When the monotony of seeing nothing but the waves aggravates me I think back to autumnal days with great longing. I wonder if the colours still as vivid as they are in my memory? Do they still shine forth in a multitude of oranges, crimsons and gold? I have gotten to know the sea in its multitude of shades from deep blue to turquoise and it is very beautiful, but sometimes I wish to see another Canadian fall. Mayhap I will make John take me home for fall one year and show the boys.
There are times I wish I had not chosen the seafaring life, I will admit Rachel. When we are besieged by a storm and all are hunkered down in our cabin, the boys huddled around me praying. Every timber shrieking at the forces they are enduring; sure at any moment that we will all be rent asunder and disappear into the cold depths. When I hear brief snatches of John's desperate orders heard above the raging wind. Yes those are the times I wish I had stayed on land.
But then the storm blows itself out as all storms must and we come out onto the deck and listen to the crew sing their jaunty shanties as they fix the ship. An ancient denizen of the depths, maybe a massive leviathan might spout nearby and roll over lazily to fix me with its giant eye for a long moment making me feel as small and insignificant as a gnat. On hot nights in the tropics when there's barely a puff of breeze we might be surrounded by trails of phosphorescence eerily edging the waves with a bright blue light. I hear my boys laugh with delight when a sailor brings up a bucket of the stuff and they pour it over themselves watching it pool around their feet and in their hair. Or a shoal of Portuguese men o'war might come into view their navy blue sails propelling them along gently like a deadly flotilla. Or I might be leaning back into John's arms as we watch the aurora dance in the night sky. Those are the times I marvel at my decision and know that I made the right one after all. They more than make up for any hardships we might face.
If you wish, write to me care of the shipping agent in San Francisco, I am sure to be back there one day.
Your loving friend,
She's got a cheek, after all this time," was Thomas' only comment when he came in at lunch time. He had comforted Rachel when Marilla had disappeared off the face of the earth before they were married. He still remembered the hue and cry. Old man Cuthbert had torn up the whole island looking for his girl and his wife had gone to an early grave. She had been unwell beforehand but folks suspected Marilla's departure hastened her demise. Thomas hated to think how this letter might upset Rachel now.
A/N If Marilla going to sea seems implausible I'll say that I found a wonderful book where this did happen to a lady in the 1800s. She too was bored at home and set off to join her husband on board. Her diaries have been edited and published by her great granddaughter. It's a really fascinating read, if you're into that sort of thing.
John is technically probably too young to be a sea captain, but I suppose it could happen if luck fell his way.