The Vanishing Point
An Excerpt of a Novel
by Mary Sharratt
Anne Arundel Town
October 2, 1689
The morning May Powers stepped off the ship in Anne Arundel Town, drizzle fell, dampening her hair, which she had combed so carefully before leaving the hold. She had bitten her lips and pinched her cheeks to make them red. Now she asked herself why she had bothered. Clouds hung over the harbor town with its crude jumble of houses. A cow lowed from a distant paddock as the drizzle dimpled the pewter water. May observed the bewigged planters and the sailors unloading cargo. Her eyes searched the scene for something exotic to ease her disappointment. To think she had sailed this far, breaking her poor sister’s heart, only to arrive at such a dismal place. She had expected to see the flowering tulip trees Cousin Nathan had described in his letter. She had expected red Indians with feathers in their hair.
Surveying the crowd, she wondered which of these strutting planters was Nathan’s son— the bridegroom she had crossed the water to marry. When her eyes met those of a curly-haired young man, she winked at him before she could stop herself. Though the days of her freedom were well and truly over, old habits were hard to kill. She needed some bit of cheer to lift her spirits. This was the Chesapeake, after all, not some dour Puritan settlement like the ones in New England of which she had heard. In his letter, Cousin Nathan had written that people here were merry, loving nothing better than horseraces, hunting parties, and cotillions, where they got themselves up in handsome clothes.
Her thoughts turned to her wedding dress, folded away inside her trunk. She and her sister, Hannah had spent six weeks sewing it. She could still feel the crisp lawn, the silk embroidery thread slipping along her fingers as her needle guided it through the fabric. Hannah had baptized the gown with her tears. Although it would have been unpardonable for her sister to abandon Father in his old age, she wished Hannah were standing beside her now. Hannah wouldn’t be so easily discontented. Eyes big and wondering, her young sister would clutch her arm, both amazed and a little frightened by the strangeness, while May reassured her that all would be well. No, they were not abandoned at the pier; Cousin Nathan would find them any minute.
A commotion drew her attention to the waterfront. The crowd pressed forward, cheering and then jeering at some spectacle. Standing on tiptoes, she tried to see what it was about. Although she didn’t want to abandon her trunk, it was impossible to get any view where she stood, so she pushed her way to the front of the throng.
Beyond the harbor wall, a shallop boat skimmed the water in wide circles. One man worked the rudder, another controlled the sail, while a third man stood at the prow, arms outstretched, welcoming the applause. At first she didn’t understand what the fuss was about, then she spotted the rope dragging something in the boat’s wake. Straining her eyes, she finally recognized the body at the end of the rope, the long skirt trailing. May snorted and shook her head. What manner of sport did these bumpkins play at, pulling a dead woman behind a boat? But the woman, she realized, was still alive, though only barely. She clung to the rope, struggling to keep her head above water. The boatmen showed her no mercy. The scene reminded May of a line in a dark old ballad. Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam. The woman’s drenched head crested above the white foam before the current slammed her beneath the surface. Fists clenched, May glared around at the clapping crowd. Were they just going to stand there like grinning half-wits while the woman drowned?
“Do something!” she shouted. “They will kill her!”
No one paid her any mind. It was like a nightmare where she was forced to witness a masked stranger slit her sister’s throat and she was powerless to do anything but watch. Just as she thought the woman would surely drown, the men in the boat tugged on the rope, dragging her out of the water. May watched her spit and vomit overboard. No one helped her, even to give her a handkerchief or put a blanket around her quivering shoulders. The man who had stood at the prow sat down, his back to her.
“That’ll teach the trollop,” a voice behind her said.
May whirled around to confront the speaker, but there were so many faces, she had no idea who had spoken. Among the men and boys, there were also women who pointed and laughed. It dawned on her that this near drowning was punishment for some crime—much like public flogging or putting someone in the stocks on the village green. As the boat sailed out of view, May imagined the woman quaking in fear and cold. What would happen to her now? Shoving her way back through the crowd, May decided to return to her trunk before someone made off with it. Her thoughts were in such a muddle that she hardly looked where she was going. Before she knew it, she had trodden on a boy’s foot.
“Begging your pardon,” she muttered, though if he had gotten any pleasure from watching the proceedings, she was not sorry in the least. If she caused him pain, then so much the better. Half a head shorter than she was, the boy glanced up at her in confusion. Brushing past him, she strode toward her trunk, only to find a stout man peering over it. With his gloved hand, he traced the letters of her name carved on the lid.
“What business have you with my baggage, sir?”
Straightening his back, he looked her over carefully, as though a merchant inspecting a bolt of cloth to see if it met his satisfaction. She held his gaze without backing down. They were the same height. His wig, she noted, was woefully out of fashion. It looked as if he had affixed a spaniel’s pelt to his skull.
“Are you May Powers?” he asked, doffing his hat. When he bowed, the spaniel wig nearly slid off. Although he looked like a rustic, there was a hint of steel in his voice, no deference in his bow. May sensed that he was not a man she would wish to cross.
“That is my name, sir,” she replied, matching his haughty air. Father had always scolded her for her pride. She dropped in a reluctant curtsey. If Hannah were here, she would bob her head as a modest maiden should. May stood tall and lifted her chin.
His eyes appraised her. “You do resemble your late mother.”
May dropped her eyes. Though only seven when her mother died, she still remembered her singing at the spinning wheel. She remembered brushing Mother’s hair.
“As you have surely gathered, I am Nathan Washbrook, your father’s cousin.” A note of cheer mingled with the pomposity in his voice. She decided he was being convivial.
“Pleased to meet you at last, sir.” She inclined her head.
“Here comes your bridegroom.”
She looked in the direction he pointed and saw nothing. So he had only meant to jest with her. If her future father-in-law had a sense of humor, she just might be happy here. Then she saw the boy whose foot she had stepped on earlier. This could only be a joke. That boy was a mere stripling with a girl’s long hair. He hardly looked to be eighteen, as the letter had claimed. She turned helplessly to Cousin Nathan, who still pointed at the boy.
“This is my son, Gabriel.”
Gabriel watched the disappointment bloom on her face. The way she looked at him, he thought, as though he would never do for her at all.
“Good day to you,” she said, so tall and stately, so voluptuous and womanly, that he felt like a minnow before a queen.
“Good day to you also, Mistress Powers.” He bowed.
“I trust your voyage was not too harrowing,” said Father. “You look rested and well nourished.” He was busy examining her. Gabriel almost expected him to open her mouth and inspect her teeth.
“I am blessed with good health, sir.” May’s attention was focused on Father, as if this business were strictly between the two of them.
“Very well, then.” Father caught Gabriel’s eye and grinned. “I have rented a chamber in the Shipwright Inn. There you may prepare for the nuptials.”
For an instant, May looked so vulnerable and lost that Gabriel saw only her beauty, the color high in her salt-stung cheeks. He searched for words of kindness.
“The nuptials, sir? But this day I have only just arrived.”
“Do you have any other plans in mind?” Father’s tone made her flinch. Gabriel watched her take a step back. “Do you wish to undo the arrangement I have made with your father? Am I to write the good man with the news that I must send you back?”
Gabriel pushed himself forward. “Don’t be so harsh, Father.”
May ignored him. It was as though he hadn’t spoken.
“Send me back, sir? I hardly think I am a piece of cargo you might return.” For all her brave words, she trembled.
Father was sizing her up, seeing how far he could push her before she stood her ground. If she displayed weakness, she was done for. Gabriel took his place beside her, ready to step in and defend her. When he considered what she was up against, he could forgive her for being so mighty and proud.
“I merely wish,” May continued, “for a chance to accustom myself to your country, sir, before the wedding.” Defiance blazed in her eyes.
Father seemed to find her willfulness charming. He smiled, as though to a daughter. “See you the clock on the church tower?”
“She’s not blind, Father.”
“Shut your mouth, son. I will have no impertinence. Mistress Powers, can you read the time?”
“The wedding shall commence at two o’clock,” Father announced, so full of himself that Gabriel wanted to throw a clod of dung at him. “That gives you two hours to make ready.”
When she gaped, Father chuckled. “You see, my dear, we colonials must be expedient. There are no churches in the back country. It must be done today, before we return home. We will not see Anne Arundel Town for another year.”
Gabriel wished his father would allow him a few minutes to speak to her on his own before he vowed to spend the rest of his life with her. But neither of them gave him a chance to squeeze in a word.
“How did you know I would arrive this day?” she demanded. “The ship might have been blown off course.”
Father beamed. “I arranged for the wedding to take place the day of your arrival. The minister has grown accustomed to performing the ceremony when the ships sail into port. And ere the ship was sighted in Port Tobacco, messengers traveled up the Bay, spreading the news.”
James, Father’s favorite servant, approached. “Master Washbrook, all is ready at the inn.” He eyes sparked at the sight of May. When he smiled at her, she brightened like the sun breaking out of the clouds. Her eyes went soft and she blushed. Gabriel wondered what it would take to have her look at him that way. If he grew a foot taller, perhaps. Golden and shining, James dwarfed him.
While James bowed to her, Father rocked on his feet. Indeed he, too, loved to look at James and seemed to find it only fitting to see May so dazzled. “James and Gabriel will carry your trunk to the inn. Let me lead the way.” He offered May his arm. “Fret not, my dear. I will buy you a cup of wine for courage.”
James hefted one end of May’s trunk and Gabriel took the other. It was not heavy; he could have carried it without assistance. To think she was an ocean away from her people and that this box held her earthly possessions. He listened to her question Father about the banns.
“I did post them two months ago,” Father told her. “All was well prepared.”
Gabriel saw her dig in her heels, as if she would not allow Father to drag her one inch closer to the altar. She came to such an abrupt halt that Gabriel bumped into her. In his surprise, he dropped his end of the trunk, which hit the ground with a bang.
“But Master Washbrook,” she said to Father, “you cannot force me to marry in such awful haste.”
Indeed, Father could not, Gabriel thought. If he and May both refused, Father would be forced to surrender.
“She is right,” Gabriel said, but Father stared him down.
“After the many pains I have taken to get you a bride, you defy my will?”
“I would at least have flowers,” May said.
Father raised his eyebrows comically. “Flowers, you say.”
“Yes, sir.” She threw back her head. “A bride must have a bouquet. Such is the custom amongst civilized people.”
Gabriel saw James grinning to hear her address his master with such spirit. His own spirits sank when he caught May stealing another glance at James. Father regarded her, his eyes lively and amused. There was nothing lecherous in his gaze, merely the pride of acquisition. Gabriel sensed that Father admired her for putting up a challenge.
“Your heard your bride, son. She would have flowers. A charming request, do you not think?”
Gabriel had no idea what to say.
“After you have brought the trunk to her room, you must procure her some flowers.” Father laughed at him.
Gabriel had half a mind to tell him to send James on the mission, seeing as he was the one for whom May had the biggest eyes.
One look at Gabriel’s downcast face filled May with regret. With such a father, it was no wonder he was so shy. If it weren’t for fear of backing down in front of Nathan, she would have taken back her request. Where could the boy hope to find flowers, anyway? It was October.
Nathan held out his arm to her again. “Let us be on our way.”
Still she refused to budge. “Sir, I would know why the men in the boat did drag that woman till she was nearly drowned. What was her crime?”
He studied her for a moment. “Adultery.”
Though May stood on dry land, she felt the cold salt water coming over her head. She had to fight just to breathe. Glancing backward, she tried to catch Gabriel’s eye, but he was already walking away. Shouldering her trunk on his own, he receded into the crowd.
The Vanishing Point, a literary novel of dark suspense set in 17th century Maryland, is Mary Sharratt’s third novel. She is an American writer currently living in the North of England. Previous novels are SUMMIT AVENUE (Coffee House 2000) and THE REAL MINERVA (Houghton Mifflin 2004, Mariner, January 2006). She serves as a Reviews Editor for the Historical Novel Society and teaches as a regular Guest Instructor at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.