Read The Flight of Sarah Battle Online

Authors: Alix Nathan

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The Flight of Sarah Battle

Contents

Title Page
Dedication
Prologue
Part I
Part I: 1
Part I: 2
Part I:: 3
Part I: 4
Part I: 5
Part I: 6
Part I: 7
Part II
Part II: 1
Part II: 2
Part II: 3
Part II: 4
Part II: 5
Part II: 6
Part III
Part III: 1
Part III: 2
Part III: 3
Part III:: 4
Part III: 5
Part III: 6
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Copyright

The Flight of Sarah Battle

Alix Nathan

To the memory of my parents

Prologue

She's sick as soon as the
Fair American
leaves the mouth of the Delaware and is out at sea. Recalls how they were both sea-sick when they left England three years before. There was ship fever on board then. Somehow they escaped it, the flushed and swollen faces, raging headaches, rows of prone bodies. They huddled under tarpaulin by day, driven below deck at nightfall by ice and wind to a hole of a cabin with nothing but an ill-fitting door between them and the shouts of seamen, the sounds of distant delirium.

In their cupboard cabin, as nausea finally left them, they celebrated escape. Sailing to the new land, they left lies and oppression behind, tasted freedom and joy.

Now, when the vein of Pennsylvania coast has thinned to nothing, there's only sea and the ship: neither America nor England. For the first time in her life she's alone. Sarah Battle. Wretched, desolate. And sick like a girl. Soda water helps calm her heaving gut. She refuses Peruvian Bark, distrusts it; can't bear the thought of the other remedy, chicken broth.

She leans on the rail. Lets the wind beat her face, strike her in welcome punishment.

Thinks to stand at the rail for the whole two-month journey. She's spent much of her life standing. Aloof, detached, even when surrounded by men demanding drinks and attention. But two days of soda water alone cause her to crumple on deck, be carried below, lain in her trough bunk, a coffin without a lid. Where time is obliterated by sound: boom, roar, sough.

Seven weeks later, at the cry of ‘England!', she has recovered her health. The journey from Philadelphia has been shorter than sailing to it, what with the following sea and a broad reach. She's exchanged the strangely intimate pleasantries of those thrown together by potential peril with a few others who, like her, are strong enough to resist the typhus. The passengers will never see each other again, can risk a little revelation. They'll remember her for a while, her youth, her sadness, then forget her.

At first she doesn't recognise the banks of the Thames. On the way out she observed nothing. It was winter then and the ship had crept through drifts of mist, its pilot cautious, dour. Propelled by their own urgency, by a longing to abandon, they had no time for apprehension, for anything outside themselves. Had willed the ship to hasten to the sea.

Now, at the mouth of the river a huge black-winged bird, immobile on a post, suddenly dives into the water, disappears. Distance no longer shimmers. The river edges curdle, clot with mud, marshland. No houses, no trees, only ships at anchor or passing the other way, sailing into their future, her past.

Fields at last; the banks nearing, a hovel here and there, shacks for cattle. Small houses support each other in tipsy groups; inns, waterside yards sprout up, their inflorescence timber piles, rope coils, nets, inverted hulls. Fishing boats pitch in the ship's wake.

Warehouses, mill-chimneys, stench of soap and tannery. The river fills with craft, rocking heavily at moorings or skimming across it. She feels a gladness that doesn't suit her sorrow; a homing pigeon's relief at the familiar window-ledge.

They approach the city and she begins to search for known buildings, steeples, waterworks, though it's not her part of London. Her fellow passengers crane and quip to each other with anticipation. They see new warehouses, bricks unblackened; rows of ships lining docks of gleaming stone. The new century shows its face.

In the upper pool at Wapping the
Fair American
's anchor drops and watermen swarm off in wherries towards it. She steps up onto the quayside among justling, cursing sailors, lightermen, warehousemen. As she stands with her box, her feet unused to stability, she notices a pale girl holding a bag, waiting against a wall. Sees the girl's eyes frantically pin each passing traveller, how her whole body strains to find. She stares at her, wonders, pities.

But here's a porter who'll shoulder her box to a hackney. She must make her way back to Battle's.

PART I

1

In Change Alley lecherous sparrows nested in roofs, hopped on and off each other in constant copulation. Cheeping incessantly, they fought in the gutters at Battle's, her father's coffee house. Sarah Battle watched life outside her window high in the building every day of her childhood; on dark mornings she listened for the scratch of pecking, pelt of rain. After the Cornhill fire in 1748, begun at the peruke-maker's, Battle's had been rebuilt. There, twenty years later, Sarah was born.

Downstairs, light fed through large windows, but the Alley's other buildings, peering in, crowded out the sun. There was space in the big room to drink and eat at open tables, to mingle, move from group to group, even address the company, but also to huddle in private behind thin walls of high-backed settles. Where deals took place, stock was shifted by jobbers and brokers from the nearby Exchange, vital figures passed on or withheld.

To a little child the place was enormous, full of the noise and smell of men. One woman officiated at the curved bar in the centre, Anne, her mother, and a cook worked in the kitchen, but all the rest were men, loud, looming. They patted her head, laughed at her, asked her impossible questions, fed her morsels of bread like a caged goldfinch, though she didn't have to sing for them. Made her sip chocolate, teaspoons of punch when her father wasn't looking. She played with the puppy among their legs and feet, learned that they would be charmed by her presence through a rack of steam and smoke. Wondered why some kinds of rowdiness caused her to be removed to the kitchen or up to her little room where she knelt on her bed and gazed across roofs. Heard the shouting and thumping continue floors below.

Often if the puppy was asleep she watched unobserved. How men picked their noses and teeth, rubbed their thighs, scratched their groins, clapped the backs of their friends, causing showers of white dust. She saw wigs slip, staring to see if fuzz, matted strands or naked skin lurked beneath. Saw eyeballs roll, lips purse at the man who read aloud the morning news each day, watched earnest talk, handshakes, secret signs, money pass and fingers touch their lips when they saw her see.

Her childish view fixed on the peculiar, absurd, self-important. She smiled to herself at singular expressions, habits, movements supposed unseen, food and drink slopping and dripping, fish bones flying, chops dropped, crusts lodged in odd places, men no better than babies. Hid under tables when overcome by giggles.

She might have continued to decorate Battle's with her innocence. Sam Battle, brought up to the business by his own father, knew her value, but her mother had modest ambitions for her daughter and, egged on by educated customers, put Sarah to school. Where she learned the necessary elements and failed to enjoy the companionship of girls unlike herself.

The best thing about Sarah's early life in the coffee house was Benjamin Newton, who made her sit beside him while he drew pictures which to her were real. Through him she'd learned her letters, whole words:
bottle, pie, goose, wig
and graduated to sentences:
the goose wears a wig, swigs the bottle and gobbles the pie.
She began to read from books plucked out of his apparently infinite pockets. Through him she heard about existence outside her smoke-thick, closed-in world: sea, ships, animals strange beyond belief, other lands, snow-deep, heat-dry, Turks, Lapps, Scots. Before long, recognising a shared attitude with his child companion, Newton sketched regular customers in familiar poses, their characters or weaknesses exposed: greasy tricorns, fantastic shoe-buckles, popping eyes; men who fiddled with their ears, gawped at scandals in the
Morning Post
, snored then gasped themselves awake. Among his sketches, the formidable Sam Battle occasionally appeared, armed cap-à-pe, as did Miss Sarah Battle laughing behind her hands with a scrawny, bird-like friend labelled B—n N——n.

Newton was young, unknown, sold his drawings to print shops when he could. He rarely paid his tab but Sam didn't press too hard, seeing that men enjoyed his satires, lingered, ordered more coffee, more punch. Her mother, Anne, was glad to have the child off her hands. For Sarah, Newton was a private magician, drawing for
her
, casting his delicate smile at her alone. He wore no wig, his hair was wayward, his clothes unkempt, and he hummed sweet tunes. While he sketched or read a book of verse, she pulled off thrums from his ragged cuff; held a hoard of short green threads in her pocket to keep him always present.

‘Look, Newton,' she'd say, poking him in the side, annoyed by his absorption. ‘Over there.'

‘Where? What?'

‘
Look
; where I'm pointing.'

‘If you point they'll see and stop doing whatever they're doing that's funny.'

‘
Oh
! The man behind the man warming his arse at the fire.'

‘You ought not to say ‘arse' if you're going to grow up into a lady,' he'd say, mumming disapproval.

‘The man at the table behind the man at the fire. Look at him, he's sliding off his chair.'

‘Well observed, Sarah! And if someone moves the table even slightly down he'll go.'

‘Quick, draw! Draw him! Quick!'

She rushed back from school, imagining that he'd spent the day waiting only for her return. And he did, indeed, always have some newly-drawn absurdity with which to make her laugh. In turn she would mock her teacher voraciously for him, tell half-invented tales about the other pupils, watch them appear in wonderful exaggeration on the paper before her. It was like conspiracy with an angel: Newton was her authority, Newton, his books and his drawings.

They were always side by side.

‘Man behind you. Don't look
yet
.'

‘Is it seriously funny? I thought you were reading that poem.'

‘He cut up his meat into pieces. Sucked the gravy off each one in turn, then he put them to dry round the edge of his plate. Now he's slipping them into his pocket. Look,
look
!'

She prodded him. He'd stopped humming. In repose Newton's face looked sad. It felt like a threat.

As she grew older and it was seen how well she could read, others made her stumble over the
Morning Chronicle
and
Gentleman's Magazine
, birthday odes for the King, even significant bits of Blackstone's legal
Commentaries
. She obliged, though their amusement was greater than hers.

*

In June 1780 thunderous heat kept casements wide open all night. Mephitis of cesspools replaced the pungent pipe-smoke and boiling coffee steam which hung in clouds in Change Alley. Returning early from the school she hoped soon to leave, Sarah found herself suddenly pressed up against buildings, pushed aside by crowds surging past from St George's Fields, across London Bridge and down Cornhill. The banners they held up said
Protestant Association
, they waved flags, sang hymns and wore blue cockades in their hats.

‘Is you a papist?' a woman glared into her face. ‘Git you indoors if you is.'

Sarah was familiar with her father's view of papists (Irish weren't they?), though he'd not ask questions if Irish customers paid well and caused no trouble. The woman fluttered a pennant on a stick at her.
No Popery
, it read.

The mood was sprightly in Battle's.

‘North's a dismal fool. We've enough Irish; we don't need more. Every other house a mass-house.'

‘You
would
say that, Bullock.'

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