The story of why old Elsie smiles at the sea


Elsie sits alone on the beach. She knows that she is the most beautiful girl in the town. She strongly resents that this does not do her much good. Her husband is the town magistrate, universally respected, much-loved, even feared – as much as any magistrate should be feared.

She was married off four years ago, to this impeccable public figure twice her age with no romantic or sexual competence whatever. No one in the town would risk offending or making an enemy of him. Or certainly no one has indicated any willingness to – she has, God knows, dropped plenty of hints to select individuals, and always been completely disappointed. Some she’s worked on for months now; scared, slightly disbelieving, guilty looks of longing are the most she has elicited. The novels she reads encourage and refine, far more than they appease her appetites. She is twenty-one. She knows she remains childless only because her husband is half-impotent and normally far too exhausted by his public duties to do anything but sleep when, each night, he finally joins her in the marital bed. It won’t be long though. The social pressure on them to breed is growing almost by the day, and he is most responsive to social pressure. She sees the mothers of the town – they are not beautiful, or they are fast losing what beauty they have. She will not be the most beautiful girl in the town much longer. Sitting alone on the beach, she is furious. It is so extraordinarily unfair. She thinks back to the years before she had to put a corset on, make her little debut, play the wife-in-waiting and, so soon afterwards, the wife: running around with the young boys of the town, feeling the power she had over them, expressed in their dumb smiles and blushes, their fumbling hands during the games and dances, their feeble excuses to get her on her own, occasional stolen kisses, earnest vows to marry her, the fights they had over her, usually theatrical – all part of the game – in their early stages, but often ending in real tears and bruises. Those boys, the ones that haven’t gone off to the mines or the wars, have followed their fathers into trades, and become so eager for the patronage of her husband that they are apparently incapable of really seeing her anymore, except as a necessary object of respect. She feels – with some justification, don’t you think? – that she was promised much, and now has been cheated out of all of it.

Elsie sees, perhaps a mile out to sea, a ship, a clipper. Presumably from England, it will sail on for another day or so and then dock in the capital. Ships like this go by every few days.  She wonders how long this one has been at sea. Weeks, surely. Maybe months. She doesn’t know. She wonders what kinds of lives the sailors live. She wonders what their wives and sweethearts back in England are like. And then what those wives and sweethearts get up to while their men are away. If only her husband were a man of the sea. If only she lived in England! In England, she would not be trapped like this. In England, there must be plenty of men who would not be so desperate to kowtow to her husband. In England there would surely be men that her husband would himself be only too anxious to cultivate. What would those men do with her hints? The extraordinary unfairness of it! That her place in the world should be a place in which she is powerless to help herself. She envies the men in that ship, able to go at will to the ends of the earth. They must have their fun too. And when they get to the capital, doubtless they will. Months at sea, not a woman in sight… Some lucky girls in the capital will get all the benefits of that. She sighs. She gets up and makes her way home, thinking of what it must be like aboard that ship now, the tensions, the impulses long denied.

Months pass, much as they previously had, only now Elsie finds she is more and more attentive to these passing ships. When one goes by, it becomes quite an event. Increasingly, if she is busy indoors and only glimpses a ship just as it is going out of sight, she feels disappointment and frustration. If, on the other hand, she has the good fortune to be watching the sea when one is just coming into view, she is strangely delighted.

Elsie is once more on the beach. She is waiting quite impatiently to see another ship. It has been nearly a week since the last. For the past day or two, in waking hours, she has been keeping an almost constant vigil over the sea. It does disturb her somewhat. It is most unusual… Five days. She is walking barefoot on the sand, looking up every few moments and scanning the horizon. Half-way up the beach, she comes across a little rowing boat, perhaps it belongs to the Vermeers, just left there, oars in the hull. She sits down in it, facing the sea. Still nothing. Nothing at all… Quite suddenly, she knows what she must do.

She gets out of the little rowing boat and pushes it into the water. She drags it a little farther, until the water is nearly up to her waist and then she gets in. Her dress is soaked, but she is not concerned about that – it’ll dry. She rows away from the beach for about an hour, not rushing at all and stopping occasionally for a little rest. Then, as if in divine affirmation of her actions, she sees it: the long-awaited clipper, far in the distance but unmistakably heading in her direction. The rush she experiences now! It’s happened! For a moment, she is weak with excitement. Determinedly, she calms herself down, focuses. The wind is behind her, and that’ll help, but even so, the clipper will be moving fast. If she’s lucky, the lookout will have spotted her by now, guessed that she’s in trouble and told the helmsman to steer a course as close to her as possible. She cannot count on this though. She concentrates all her attention on the clipper’s line of approach and rows on accordingly. Soon, it seems that they must have noticed her, for the clipper is charging towards her. And now it is here, just a few yards from her, faster than she had expected. For a second she fears that it will simply leave her behind. Looking up, she sees a small crowd leaning over the rails. They have thrown a rope ladder, and she seizes it with all her strength and is violently wrenched from her little boat, sent spiralling off, away from the clipper.

Almost immediately the rope ladder itself begins to ascend, heaved up by those above. In the moment before she feels the rough hands on her arms and sees the faces of her hosts, she tries to assume a distressed, exhausted, shocked expression – she has, after all, just been saved. And here they are! Her saviours. Her men. Big, dirty, hairy, muscly and wide-eyed, mouths agape. She is back in one of the games of her adolescence, and entirely ready to play her part. She tells them, her voice faint and hurried, that she is so grateful, she was out for a little row and the tide just carried her, it was so strong she could do nothing about it, farther and farther from the shore… Some of them utter reassuring words. One of the ones nearest her tells her not to fear, she is safe now, and they are but a day’s sail from the capital, where the captain will no doubt ensure she finds transport back to the place from which she has come. Weakly she repeats her thanks.
  ‘I’m so very sorry,’ she murmurs, ‘I don’t feel altogether well. Could someone perhaps… escort me to a place where I might rest?’
  There is a moment’s silence and uncertainty, during which she feels every man’s desperate hope that the task will be assigned to him. Impulsively, she gestures at a young man with curly brown hair standing directly in front of her.
  ‘You…’ she says, ‘…would you be so kind?’
  ‘Of course, madam…’ his accent is charming, Irish, she thinks.
  No sooner has he spoken though, and another man steps between them – in fact, the one who told her they were but a day’s sail from the capital.
  ‘No. It’s very good of you, Kelly, but I believe this falls within my range of duties.’ His speech is brisk, politely commanding. He is older, but still handsome in a way, and in uniform, unlike the others. She supposes he is, of those present, the highest ranking. He has very much taken control of the situation now, offering her his arm, which she takes. Kelly is silent. The senior officer might have construed this lack of response as disrespectful, were he not otherwise preoccupied.

As Elsie is led down a single flight of stairs, and along a dimly lit passage, this man informs her that his name is Owens, that he is first mate, and that the ship she has had the good fortune to find herself in the path of goes by the perhaps fitting name of the Espérance. She says nothing. She is enjoying the enclosed space and gentle light, their privacy, the feeling of his arm in hers, the pride and affectations in his voice. They turn a corner, and almost immediately there is a door, which he opens and leads her through.
  ‘Pardon me, Madam,’ he says, ‘I don’t believe I’ve asked your name.’ While addressing this question to her and looking right at her, he gently closes the door behind him.
  She smiles. She likes that he has closed the door, and perhaps in such a way as not to draw her attention to the act.
  ‘You’d like to know my name?’ she asks.
  ‘Why yes,’ he answers, a little confused.
  ‘Forgive me. Perhaps I am still under the influence of my recent ordeal, but I have this idea that I would prefer you not to know my name.’
  ‘And why is that?’
  ‘If you knew my name… you might then wonder about my family, and where I live, and what I do with my days. I suppose it will seem a terribly strange whim to you, but I would prefer it if you thought of me as just a woman, who did not exist before you picked her out of the sea, and will again not exist after tomorrow.’
  He ponders this for a moment. ‘It is indeed very strange,’ he agrees. His brow is furrowed. ‘It is almost as if you have escaped from a convent, or prison, or asylum, and wish to avoid any risk of being returned there.’
  ‘And what if that is exactly right?’
  ‘Oh I’m sure it isn’t.’ He grins. ‘Such a fine, well-mannered young woman.’
  ‘Suppose it is though. I am quite at your mercy. Will you humour me? Will you let me remain anonymous for this short time? Invent a name for me, if you must.’
  ‘I think I will humour you. We have no need of names, at least so long as there is no one else present.’
  ‘I am grateful.’
  They smile at each other. She feels what she is in his eyes: radiantly youthful and feminine, mysterious now too. Some sort of siren, perhaps.
  ‘But you wanted to rest.’ He gestures to the single berth behind her. She nods appreciatively and sits herself on the edge of it, facing him.
  ‘It is odd,’ she says. ‘I don’t feel so out of sorts as I did a moment ago. You have quite revived me somehow.’
  ‘Perhaps you were just in shock.’
  ‘Shall I leave you to rest anyway? Or is there something else you would like to do?’
  She smiles at him again. ‘Recall that you are supposing me to be an escapee from a prison or convent or asylum. Then it would not be so out of character for me to say that I would like to fornicate.’
  She watches him now, fascinated by what she has just done to him; hears his breathing for the first time. He does not take his eyes off of her but seemingly cannot respond. She knows she has him. He is only busy burying his manners and fears and habits and religion. To help him along, she slides her arms farther back behind her, and leans back, raising her breasts. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘I won’t tell the others.’
  Suddenly he is on top of her, her dress is up above her waist, he is tearing at her undergarments, tearing at his own clothes. She closes her eyes, waiting – she feels the pain of his first thrust, the great weight of him crashing into her. Again! Again! She loves it. And then he groans and collapses onto her, and she feels the weak trickle of his seed.

Elsie lies on her back. Owens is beside her, catching his breath, his eyes closed. Probably he’s still shocked, no doubt he has his own ambivalence to contend with.

She thinks of her husband. He would be upset if he knew. She doesn’t like that thought. He is not a cruel man. Simply one who cannot conceive of why she wouldn’t be entirely happy in her role as a fine piece of animated furniture. Any tentative attempt she makes to explain he answers only with confident, if concerned, declarations that she is overtired, overtaxed by some element of her almost completely eventless life. This sheer obliviousness of his so pre-emptive… She feels the familiar, ever-thwarted anger rising up in her. She thinks of the weeks and months that have passed, him exchanging only pleasantries with her. His public duties naturally consuming all his time and energy. Naturally.
  There is a knock at the cabin door.
  Her eyes flick first to where the sound has come from, and then round to meet those of Owens. She almost laughs out loud. He looks pathetic. Half-dressed, his hair dishevelled, his face red with a mixture of recent exertion and the first blossoming of extreme embarrassment – terror in his eyes!
  ‘Come in,’ she calls out. Pure glee is what she feels now. Is she punishing this man in lieu of her husband? There is an explosion of scrambling and irate, agonised protest beside her, as the door opens. A large man steps inside, portly and tall, dressed in a uniform much like Owens’s. He stops in his tracks.
  ‘Owens?’ he exclaims, but falteringly, in shock and uncertain rebuke. And then a massive smile fills his face. ‘Why, you devil!’
  ‘It’s not as it looks!’
  ‘It’s not as it looks!’ his colleague roars with amusement.
  Elsie is laughing too.
  ‘Well, well, well. I heard there was a lady onboard. Captain’s sent me to find out the details… But, goodness me, you don’t hang around, do you?’
  ‘Henderson, please!’
  ‘Please, what?’
  ‘Your presence is far from helpful in what is – I don’t expect you to appreciate – a very delicate situation!’
  ‘Oh, a very delicate situation is it? Perhaps you could explain?’
  ‘I will explain in due course, but for the moment I would ask you to vacate this cabin, as your presence is most oppressive!’
  Henderson turns to Elsie, who is still smiling. ‘Do you find my presence oppressive, my dear?’
  ‘Not at all.’
  ‘Thank you. Might you care to explain this ‘delicate’ situation that my good friend Owens alludes to?’
  ‘Certainly. Your good friend Owens has disappointed me. He was, before your arrival, no doubt coming to terms with this, and wondering whether he has it in him to make another attempt. But now you are here…’
  ‘Indeed I am.’
  There is a moment of delightful silence.
  ‘Get out!’ shouts Owens, as he jumps to his feet, still holding his breeches up with one hand and gesturing violently with the other.
  ‘Why should I?’ Henderson’s eyes narrow, his frame tenses. ‘Maybe you’re the one who should get out. As the lady says, you have disappointed her.’
  Owens lunges at Henderson. 
  Elsie watches contentedly as the two men begin to wrestle in front of her.

A few moments pass, and she realises that, whatever the outcome of this tussle, it doesn’t exactly promise more fun for her. She takes advantage of their distraction to slip away. Rounding the corner, she sees a younger man – presumably the cabin boy – ahead of her. As she nears him, she takes advantage of the ship’s motion, willfully losing her balance a little and stumbling against him. Steadying herself with his help, she apologises, and then quickly moves on down the corridor. ‘Madam,’ he calls after her, but she ignores him. Does she really want to go back up on deck, she wonders. She is fast approaching the bottom of the steps now, but there is someone coming down them. She recognises the hair. Kelly!
  ‘Hello again!’ he exclaims.
  As she reaches him, she seizes him urgently. ‘Listen I just had the most alarming experience with two of your shipmates… they became violent! I… I am more than a little scared that they’ll be pursuing me even now.’
  Peering over her shoulder, Kelly sees the cabin boy coming towards them. ‘Come with me,’ he says, taking her by the hand.
  He leads her along another corridor and then down another flight of stairs. ‘Why did they become violent?’ he asks after a little while.
  ‘They were fighting over me.’
  He stops walking, and turns to look at her, not letting go of her hand. ‘They were fighting over you?’
  She nods.
  He looks into her eyes. ‘May I ask – why are you trusting me to be any more civilised?’ After a second, he turns and continues walking, still leading her by the hand.
  ‘Where are you taking me?’ she asks.
  ‘We’ll be there in just a moment.’
  Now, before them, there is a hatch in the floor. He has let go of her hand and is opening it.
  ‘Do you know what this ship carries?’ he asks her.
  Elsie is surprised to realise she doesn’t. She shakes her head.
  The hatch cover is gone, and now there is simply a pitch-black opening in the floor, with the rungs of a ladder disappearing into it.
  ‘Do you wish to find out?’ He nods towards the opening.
  ‘Do you have a lamp?’
  He has started to go down the ladder himself. ‘We won’t need a lamp,’ he says. He is grinning a little now.
  She follows him. With her feet on the ladder and her head still above the opening, her nostrils are abruptly filled with the most extraordinary scent. Or perhaps many scents…
  ‘My goodness, it’s like all the spices of the Orient!’
  ‘That is precisely what it is.’
  At the bottom of the ladder she can see very little. She stands still, holding onto the ladder with one hand, and giving herself over to the fragrances and air-born tastes of the spices.
  ‘Do you want to tell me about that old bore Owens and the fighting?’ His voice is coming from somewhere close-by, but she’s unsure whether it’s in front of or behind her.
  ‘No,’ she answers.
  ‘I thought not.’ Thinking he is right beside her now, she reaches out with her spare hand, but grasps at thin air. She takes a few steps in the direction she supposes he must be.
  ‘Where are you?’
  ‘I’m over here.’
  Elsie laughs. It’s no clearer where he is. ‘Where are you from?’
  ‘Derry. Ireland.’
  ‘I like your accent.’
  ‘I like your legs.’
  She is standing still again, all her senses alive with the intoxication of the spices, her efforts to balance, to try and see him, or trace him by his voice. ‘Well, it’s a shame you can’t see them then.’
  ‘A terrible shame.’
  She feels a kiss just above her left ankle, and then another by her knee, and then another further up. She reaches for and grips his hair, pulling his face into her. Soon her knees buckle, and she is on the floor, and he is kissing and feeling his way all over her. After some moments he stops, takes one of her hands firmly with one of his and lifts her up onto her feet. He leads her over to a chest, on which he seats her. He parts her legs. She hears him remove his belt. Again, this moment of waiting. But he moves with art, this one. He really does.

They are interrupted eventually by voices getting closer, and then the light of a lamp. There is nowhere to escape to. When a voice calls out, Elsie answers merrily enough, and as the light reaches the bottom of the ladder, she steps into it, greeting those sent to find her.
  ‘What are you doing down here?!’ one of them demands.
  Kelly also steps into the light. ‘I was just showing the lady our cargo.’
  Moments later she is being marched up through the ship and then she is in a large, well-furnished cabin, sitting at a grand table, opposite the captain. He has greying hair, weathered and wise features, a strong build. He is fiddling with one of the golden, crown-emblazoned buttons on his uniform. Abruptly, he looks up at her.
  ‘What are you doing on my ship?’
  ‘I was adrift in a rowing boat. Your men saved me.’
  ‘They helped you aboard with my permission, but I do not believe you were adrift. That is not what I saw through my telescope.’
  ‘Very well, I was not adrift.’
  ‘So you wanted to board my ship. Why?’
  ‘I wanted to meet the crew. I… I live a very dull life.’
  The captain is silent for a moment. He looks at her intently. ‘You live a very dull life… You are trying to escape your very dull life? You don’t expect to become a member of my crew?’
  ‘No, I don’t. Of course. I knew you would be docking in the capital. I will make my own way home.’
  There is another pause.
  ‘So you wanted temporary respite from the dullness of your life, and you thought a day on this ship might provide it?’
  ‘So you rowed a rowing boat into our path?’
  He shakes his head in disbelief. ‘An extraordinary story. But we are being evasive, are we not? I don’t doubt you have found temporary respite from the dullness of your life – you have been on my ship about an hour and already made at least two of my men adulterers.’
  ‘Kelly is married?’
  ‘Of course he is married! Do you think the girls in Londonderry are blind? Do you think they’d let a boy like him stay a bachelor past eighteen?’
  ‘I suppose not.’
  ‘You suppose not! Are you possessed by the devil, girl?!’
  ‘I don’t think so.’
  ‘How do you reconcile your actions with what Our Lord commands?’
  ‘Our Lord understands my actions better than you do, better even than I do.’
  ‘I see… so you are exempt from His commandments because of the monotony of your life?’
  Elsie is silent for a few seconds. ‘I do not know. And neither, I am certain, do you,’ she says quietly.
  He considers this. ‘Very well. What about my men? Surely you see that you do not do a man any favours by ensnaring him?’
  ‘They will go straight to the whores in the capital.’
  ‘Many of them will not!’
  ‘Kelly had forsaken his Londonderry wife long before he saw me, I’m sure. And probably she had forsaken him too. As you say, it is not kind to ensnare – with a smile or a fluttering of eyelids, but also with attention, gifts, talk of ambitions, unspoken promises of safety and decency. Some kinds of ensnarement are far more consequential and thus crueller than others. Oh, I believe they forsook each other completely, even in charming and marrying each other.’ Elsie is surprised by the force and spite in her voice.

Again, the captain considers her words.
  There is a knock on the door.
  ‘What?’ he calls out.
  ‘Captain, the men want to know who this woman is.’
  ‘I daresay they do. Tell them they can forget her.’
  ‘Yes, Captain.’
  ‘What is your name?’ he asks her.
  ‘For today, I do not have a name.’
  ‘Very wise. If you have no name, it cannot be irreparably besmirched. Isn’t that so?’
  ‘Let me ask that you – now that you have said your bit – stop worrying about my soul and my reputation, leave me to worry about such things. And think of me instead as what I am to you, a small complication on your voyage. Something akin to a patch of inclement weather you have to navigate, or a low tide, or, maybe, at worst, a lone siren–’
  ‘Ha! You like this mythological image of yourself, no doubt. You recall that the sirens lured sailors onto the rocks, drowned them?’
  This does embarrass her. She’s been caught out. She has got carried away, perhaps. Her response is defensive: ‘Do you really think I pose any great threat to your enterprise?’
  ‘As I am sure you are aware, women are not even allowed on ships such as these. It is for good reason.’
  ‘And you will be rid of me tomorrow.’ After a moment she continues: ‘And in any case, do you not learn from your dalliances with the rocks? Don’t they leave you wiser, more alive, more appreciative of being so, more prepared for the next trial? Isn’t some gratitude in order? Would you want to sail, sail away the years of your life, if it were always plain-sailing?’
  ‘Being glad of the challenges of sea-faring is one thing. Wilfully sailing into the rocks is quite another.’
  ‘The difference is not so great as you imply. You must sail where there may be rocks, and, if not rocks, then storms, or hostile vessels. Or goodness knows what.’
  There is another knock at the door.
  ‘Captain, I’m sorry. The men are insistent. They want to know who this woman is, and what is to happen with her.’
  The captain sighs. ‘For God’s sake. Tell them to get on with their work! It is none of their business!’
  ‘Aye aye, Captain.’
  Elsie smiles. ‘Of course it is their business. I came here to see them.’
  He glares back at her. ‘How on earth do you speak like this?’
  ‘I told you that I live a dull life. Up until now, my escapes from it have been almost exclusively literary in nature.’
  ‘Like Madame Bovary! And you, a kind of Madame Bovary of the seas!’
  ‘I suppose. Yes, had Madame Bovary read Madame Bovary, and lived by the sea, in a far-flung colony… I can assure you I make a point of being in debt to no one.’
  ‘You know, I feel the sanest thing to do would be to throw you overboard. But I’m certain that some of my men would jump in after you.’
  ‘So let me go to them, why not? I will touch no man who doesn’t want to be touched. I will give each man only what he wants. And they will remember this day for the rest of their lives. And remember you as the captain who granted it to them.’
  ‘Why is it madness?’ she asks, sincerely.
  He thinks. A look of weariness comes over him. He repeats her question to himself, almost under his breath. ‘Why is it madness?’
  ‘It is not just very unusual?’ she asks, ‘And can your habits of thought guide you in situations so far removed from what you are used to?’
  There is a louder, more urgent knocking at the door, and it is a very different voice they hear now: ‘Keepin’ ‘er all to y’self, y’ dirty ol’ bastard?’

The captain seizes a pistol from his belt, and strides to the door. He wrenches it open, and then he is still. Elsie turns to look at the captain as he stands in the open door, pistol in hand. Elsie senses (for, from the angle she’s at, she cannot see) that beyond the door there is a crowd big enough – and perhaps purposeful enough – to have shocked him, taken the words out of his mouth. After a moment he slams the door, and turns back to face her.
She wonders whether he will point the pistol at her.
  ‘I won’t insult you by telling you that what I am doing is good,’ she says, ‘or even that it is not bad. Why not let your men face this little storm each for himself? Why not let me face it for myself?’
  He does then look at her, for a moment, as if she is his child. Then the look fades, replaced by one of weary, angry resignation.
  He throws open the door again.
  ‘Men! The devil wishes to play with you.’

At times that night, Elsie feels like a rag doll, fought over by dogs, and at times like a queen, attended to by her gallant and worshipful courtiers. Later, she will never find a coherent or comfortable way of thinking of the experience.

As she walks down the gangway, they sing for her – some rousing shanty about a courageous female sailor who takes to the seas in search of a lost love.

Three or four days later, she tells a greatly relieved husband of the strange compulsion she felt to take a rowing boat she found on the beach out to sea, her fear as the tide took her, the bruises and cuts she got from the waves and the rocks, her good fortune to find herself at last safely on dry land again up near the capital. His relief engenders an appreciation of her that she has never known before, of which more frequent and enthusiastic love-making is one expression.

Nine months later, Elsie gives birth to her first child, a fine healthy son. She is insistent on, as a middle name, Esperance.