BY NANCY KAY CLARK
Nancy Kay Clark is the editor of CommuterLit.com and is a long-time magazine writer and editor. This story was inspired by a visit to Discovery Harbour, a recreated 19th century British Naval Base near Panetanguishene, Ontario. Copyright rests with the author.
MADDY AND I stand in a clapboard room in a recreated British Naval Base on Penetanguishene Bay. I’ve confiscated her iPod, so she’ll pay attention. We’re listening to another teenaged girl whose summer job is to dress up in an 1817 sailor’s uniform and interpret the lives of ghosts. This is Miss Letitia’s room. There are two slender windows — I wonder if they open — covered by faded lace curtains. The dark-wood canopy bed is too short and squat for 21st century tastes. Its straw mattress sags beneath a patchwork counterpane. Beside one of the windows, where the barest bit of light peaks through, sits a small table and two straight-backed chairs. And on the table — as if Miss Letitia just stepped out for a moment — are a blue-and-white porcelain teacup and saucer and in a stained oak case, a set of used and dried-out watercolour paints.
A cell phone rings and a woman rummages through her giant bag. Our guide pauses with a smile fixed to her face and bored eyes. I judge her quickly — a hometown girl, marking time at this summer gig, until she can get the hell out in September — perhaps heading south to go to school in Toronto — or even Montreal. She has a boyfriend, but will move on to more worldly fare when she goes. The woman cannot find her damn cell, and shrugging in apology, leaves.
“You’ll notice that Miss Letitia’s room connects directly with the bedroom of Captain Roberts and his wife,” says our guide, leading the group onwards.
I lag behind. A faint breeze from the open door has caught the lace at one of the windows, billowing up the fabric and giving it life. I picture the first really warm day of spring — the melt water and April rains had recently receded from the floorboards. Outside the window, the lawn was mud, with bits of new greenery edging forward. A fence, made of spiked lime-washed logs, circled the Captain’s house. It was 10 feet high. Such a pity, for it obscured the view — a view they had traveled so far to see.
“Can we not walk, Rose?” I can hear Letty say. Slim, I think, mid-brown hair piled high on her head, a periwinkle blue empire-waisted dress — the kind favoured by Jane Austen heroines — a white pinafore lightly paint-stained. She sat at the table, staring at the fence out the window, neglecting her watercolours.
“Impossible, dear, without an escort,” said her sister Rosamund, the Captain’s wife. She stood at the other window, teacup and saucer in hand. She was fair-haired, and wore a grass green dress trimmed with yellow ribbons. She pursed her lips often. “And the Captain cannot spare anyone today.”
“I thought to visit Mrs. Todd.” Mrs. Todd was the only other white woman around; she was the wife of Dr. Todd, the assistant surgeon at the base.
“Not today, Letty, but we will see her tonight at our soiree. We will send off Lieutenant Bayfield in style.”
“Is he off then?”
“Tomorrow. I told you that this morning. The ice is finally off the lake, you see.”
“He’ll be gone for the whole of the summer?”
“Yes. Oh, do not be so gloomy, my dear. The captain promised a promenade tomorrow up the hill to see the view of the lake — if the weather holds. Won’t that be nice?”
Midnight, and on the other side of the thin wall, the Captain had finally stopped grunting over Rose. He was now snoring. Letty assumed Rose was asleep as well, but could not be sure as her sister seemed to barely utter a squeak in bed. Letty, wrapped in the counterpane, waited, waited to be sure. He had kissed her hand. He had — Lieutenant Henry Wolsey Bayfield, Surveyor for the Royal Navy — had kissed Letty’s hand as he left after the evening’s festivities. She had looked particularly enchanting this evening, she knew. She had worn the ruby red evening dress, and her grey lace shawl, donned her ivory-coloured gloves, curled her hair in ringlets with a hot iron, rouged her lips, worn her pearls and matching drop earrings. With time to eat up, she had made a five-course meal out of getting ready. She had stretched her toilette so that it would last the whole of the afternoon — planning, choosing, re-choosing (the ruby red or the silver blue?), rehearsing her repartee — dished out in slow morsels to savour.
Letty got out of bed; the quilt still wrapped around her, and pushed her bare feet into her boots. She slipped out of her bedroom — hoping the door wouldn’t creak — out of the house and into the yard. She picked her way through the now cold mud, holding up the hem of her nightgown and went out the front gate. The Captain’s compound stood half way up the hill and the trees had been cleared around it. Letty stayed close to the fence, and looked around. A full moon hung over the lake. She breathed deeply. A breeze caressed her face and whipped back her hair. She shivered.
She was not alone. There was a guard on duty close by. He saw Letty’s silhouette in the moonlight — her breath in the air, her hair tumbling about her shoulders, but he did not call out or ask who goes there. She glanced his way. The sailor tilted his head in acknowledgement, but did not approach, said nothing, did nothing. The guard allowed Miss Letitia these midnight freedoms; she’d been out through the gate before. She never walked very far. It was enough just to be on the other side of the fence for a few minutes at midnight.
Penetanguishene. The name sounded savage on Letty’s tongue. The navy purchased the land from the Red Indians, said the Captain, perfect spot for a naval base — sheltered and hidden — yet with water deep enough for the largest of lakers.
“Why don’t you go with your sister as her companion?” her parents had asked. Letty had not had a successful first season; no offers of marriage had materialized.
“Oh yes, please do come Letty,” Rose had said. “For the Captain will be busy with his duties and you are such good company.”
Pen-e-tangui-shene. Letty imagined trees and more trees, higher and taller and fatter than any trees in England, a jumble of trees, wherever you looked. She saw rocky cliffs and cold blue water. She saw the most extreme weather — rain and hail, snow and ice, piled on snow and ice and a blasting, riveting wind, which froze your face in an instant. She saw giant bears, and slinking wolves, and vast birds of prey. She saw red-Indian braves, running through the autumn woods with bare chests and squaws with ebony pigtails down to their bottoms. And she thought, why not?
“How bright this world is!” said Letty, her face turned to the wind. Letty and Rose were in the first of five sleighs. They had set out two mornings ago heading north from York. Furniture, linens, flatware and porcelain, trunks of dresses and bonnets brought all the way from England were piled high on the sleighs. There had been a thaw and then a refreeze — and everything glittered underneath a thin layer of ice.
“Sit down a bit more, dearest, wrap yourself up well. You’ll get a chill,” Rose said, tucking the furs around her sister’s lap. But the wind made Letty smile. The ragged air. The glare of the snow. The blue of the sky. The brown tree trunks and green pine needles. This world of sharp contrasts pleased Letty more than the creaking, stinking ship of the Atlantic crossing — or the trip on the laker to York.
While Rose sunk further under the furs and seemed to doze, Letty sat straighter in the sleigh. She reveled in the crack of the whip on the horses — the crunch of their hooves in the snow. The trail took the caravan of sleighs into the woods and then out again — the world contracting and expanding. Letty took her gloves off, kept one hand deliberately out of her wrappings. She wanted to feel the cold creep into her fingertips. She liked the sweet ache in the bones, and how the skin slowly turned white and then a delicate shade of blue. She liked how, when she could not stand it any longer and finally buried her hand underneath her furs, sharp, prickly heat would envelope the limb.
“How pretty the woods are,” said Rose, sleepily — but Letty knew they were so much more than pretty. For at any minute, out from the trees could spring a cougar. The great northern woods were home to a whole encyclopedia of dangers — if only they would show themselves.
Late in the afternoon of the fourth day a great expanse of frozen lake came into view. By this time, Letty’s bright world had turned dull. The sky hung low with clouds and a relentless sleet poured down. Letty wondered whether she should take off her hat to get the full effect — but Rose probably wouldn’t let her.
Captain Roberts came alongside them on horseback.
“Mr. Talbot seems to think we should set up camp on this side of the lake, until the weather clears.”
“What, here?” Rose looked around at the pitiful wet woods.
“Perhaps there’s a red Indian encampment nearby. We could take shelter there,” said Letty.
The Captain ignored Letty, and patted his wife’s hand. “I think we will brave it, and push on across the lake.” It was the worst decision he could have made, but the best one as far as Letty was concerned.
One afternoon, two months later, over tea and whist in the drawing room of the Captain’s house, Letty recounted the tale to Lieutenant Bayfield in greatest detail.
“We were drenched — simply drenched! The people, the horses, the sleighs, and all our bundles — everything a soggy mess. Oh and that smell of wet wool, the stench of the beaver pelts. Well I’m sure, I don’t have to tell you, Sir.”
“Letty and I were in the first sleigh, behind us in a line were four other sleighs,” Rose piped in, not allowing the young officer a comment.
“Piled high with bric-a-brac and crockery,” said Letty. “Can you imagine, Lieutenant?” Letty was at her best at these moments. Her eyes were bright; her laughter was contagious. Bayfield was half in love.
“Great Aunt Gertrude’s mahogany occasional table with rosewood inlay is hardly bric-a-brac, Letty!” Rose felt compelled to point out.
“And linens and trunk upon trunk upon trunk…”
“It was grandmama’s tea service… and my embroidered table cloths.”
Letty cut in and continued the story: “Well what do you think happened, Lieutenant? We were three-quarters of the way across the lake, when we heard a marvelous crack from behind. I knew what it was immediately — I was expecting it somehow.”
Rose cut back in: “The Captain told our driver to keep going, make for the shore as quickly as possible. With all haste, the captain rode his horse back to help. The horse as you know, Lieutenant, was a beautiful thing — black with white stockings. Trafalgar was its name.”
Letty interrupted: “There were screams, yells from the other sleigh drivers, the horses pulling the sleighs were screaming. We were craning our necks back to see behind us — the sleet and slush in our eyes. Two sleighs, it looked like, had fallen through the ice. The men were trying frantically to cut the horses free so they too would not go through. There was one sleigh on its side — all Rose’s bundles strewn everywhere.”
“And then my dear, beloved Captain…,” said Rose in a high squeak.
“Suddenly disappeared!” declared Letty.
“I could not breath…I could not see my dearest,” Rose said in such a dramatic whisper that Bayfield had to lean forward to hear her.
“We learnt later that Trafalgar tripped, slid on the ice. Horse and rider went down. There was another enormous crack. Another sleigh sank. The Captain got up…he tried to get Trafalgar up. But the horse was injured; it would not move. The ice all around was cracking. The Captain took out his pistol….” At this point, with Bayfield at the edge of the settee, Letty stood up to mime the action — cocking the imaginary pistol, pointing it at the imaginary prone horse.
Rose sobbed into her hanky. “The sound of that shot.”
“He had no choice, Rose. It was either that or let the poor horse drown. By this time, our sleigh had made it to shore, along with the second sleigh. The men with what horses they could save scrambled across the lake.”
“All my linen and porcelain…”
“Three sleighs full…but thankfully none of the men….”
Bayfield murmured his agreement.
“Trafalgar…and four other horses…all gone…down into a watery grave.”
“Letty,” said Rose, sipping her luke-warm tea. “You make that sound almost desirable.”
After Bayfield left with his survey crew that summer, life for the Roberts women dissipated. The captain was busy and could not keep them company as much as he professed to have liked. May dragged into June and July. Sometimes it was too hot and sometimes too cold. Sometimes it was too dry and sometimes too wet. And most of the time too full of biting insects to keep the windows open. At first Letty thought she might help Mrs. Todd and her husband the doctor. One afternoon, she raced into the dining room, where Rose sat eating luncheon alone.
“Letty, where have you been?”
“I went to visit Mrs. Todd.”
“Oh, do not scold, Rose. I took a guard. Only Mrs. Todd was not there. She had already left to assist Dr. Todd at the hospital. There has been an accident at the shipyards. I have this on reliable authority — I met Mr. Talbot on the way. Apparently, an astronomically large pile of logs has gotten loose. The logs rolled down the hill and landed on top of several men, crushing limbs and vital organs.”
“Oh how horrid! Where are you going, Letty?”
“I must change into appropriate attire.”
“Appropriate attire for what?”
“Why to help attend the wounded at the hospital, of course.”
“Oh, Letty, I’m not certain that you should.”
“But I must, there is talk of amputations!”
“But Mrs. Todd is there.”
“Mr. Talbot assured me there are more than enough wounded for the both of us.”
“Letty, I am sure Mr. Talbot said no such thing. What you fail to understand is that Mrs. Todd is accustomed to such work. Being born and raised in lower Canada, she is tough in character. You, however, are not. It is too much for your constitution.”
“Rose! It is my Christian duty. Besides I know I will be very good with severed limbs.”
“Letty, the Captain will not approve.”
Rose was right, Captain Roberts did not approve. And as July slid into August, Letty spent most of her days sitting in the drawing room, working on her embroidery. Rose was not much company. Things had become heated in the Captain’s bedroom. Letty could not quite hear the muffled conversations through the wall, but she could hear the tone of voice. It would start out plaintive and imploring — this was Rose. There would be a taciturn reply from the Captain. Rose would start again, but now her voice was higher pitched, a little more insistent. Again, the captain would reply, but it would not satisfy Rose. And she would make a third attempt and then a fourth, until the Captain invariably shouted: “Confounded woman, be still!” And Rose was heard sobbing.
Letty tried to talk to Rose about it — to be useful, to give comfort — but when it came to her husband Rose would not confide. Mornings of bare conversations between the sisters melded into silent afternoons, until one day in August, Letty absent-mindedly pricked her finger with her embroidery needle. She liked it — the surprise — the sharp pain — the swift hiss under her breath — she liked it. She pricked her finger again — her heart fluttered. She looked over at her sister, who was staring out the window at the fence. Letty took her needle and jammed it into her finger until it throbbed and the blood pooled out and dripped onto to the white embroidery. She sucked at the blood like a vampire.
That night there was a tremendous thunderstorm. Lightning lit up the rooms; thunder rattled the clapboards and rain pounded on the ceiling. All was silent from the room next door — as if one storm had melted the other. But Letty could not sleep. She hated her room — could not stand the bed, the patchwork counterpane, the lace curtains, the prim table with its two chairs, her watercolours. She wanted to be outside — outside the fence. She wanted to feel the rain on her face and between her breasts. She wanted to feel the mud on the soles of her feet. It had been so long since her last midnight freedom. She got out of bed. She left the counterpane and her boots behind, and did not care whether the door creaked. In her thin nightgown, in her bare feet, with the rain already seeping through the floorboards, she left her room, she left the house, she left the yard, she went through the gate, to the other side of the fence. She did not stop at the fence, but shrieking, raced down the hill toward the lake.
The guard on duty saw Letty run — in a flash of lightning, like a mad ghost, her hair in a soggy mess and her white nightie wet and plastered to her body in such an embarrassing way that the guard could not help but stare.
He caught up to her before she could pitch herself into the water and dragged her struggling body back to the Captain’s house. Rose dried her off and put her back to bed. Someone fetched Dr. Todd and soon a diagnosis was declared: Hysteria Nervosa — a woman’s complaint. She was given laudanum and slept for two days.
And here I’ll leave her — Miss Letitia — stuck in her bed, in her room in the wilds of Penetanguishene for close to two centuries now. I can almost see her outline beneath the counterpane on her straw mattress. Her shrieks make the lace curtains billow.
Our tour of the base is over, we thank our guide and Maddy and I leave.
In the car, Maddy puts on her iPod and is lost in Taylor Swift. As I pay the parking attendant, I plot Letty’s escape. Perhaps, when the last of the sightseers leaves her room today — Ghost Letty will find that woman’s cell phone. Perhaps it’s one of those fancy phones that lets you surf the net and Letty figures it out and Googles a map of Ontario’s highway system. Perhaps she steals some money from the teenager and when all the other ghosts are asleep tonight, she’ll put on her boots, sneak out of the base with the security guard’s flashlight and in her nightie hitchhike to town. It could happen. It’s more doable now, since there are fewer woods and more roads than when she was alive.
I stop at Tim Horton’s outside Midland so Maddy can use the toilet and I can get a coffee. As I wait in line, a noise catches my attention. I turn to look. It’s just my imagination — I’m sure. But somehow, I see a vapour-thin Letty running through the door, right through a dozen oblivious people and up to the counter. “Help me! Hide me!” she yells at the uniformed girl at the cash. “They’re right behind me. I can’t go back, please.” She grabs the girl’s hand with her insubstantial one. The girl doesn’t notice.
“What can I get for yous?” the girl asks the man in front of me. Ghost Letty and me turn to look back at the entrance. We see a terrifying sight. The ghosts of Dr. Todd and Captain Roberts barge in and head straight for Letty.
“Help me! Help me!” Letty cries, but no one hears her. She wraps her arms around the Plexiglas doughnut display and holds on for dear life.
“Now Letitia, be reasonable,” says the Captain. “We’re not going to hurt you. Please, be a good girl and come with us. You are not well.”
But Ghost Letty will not budge. She plants her feet as firmly as a ghost can. She shakes her head back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. “No. No. No.”
Dr. Todd grabs her shoulders in his beefy hands and pulls. The Captain grabs her waist. I am the only witness to this assault, but am helpless to intervene.
And as I step up to the counter to place my order, Miss Letitia is led away kicking and screaming — back to her bed, back to her room in the wilds of Penetanguishene where her watercolours are waiting for her in 1817.