1842. Stranded on Deception Island in the South Atlantic, her whaling captain husband lost at sea, Karina is destitute and desperate. Disguised as a cabin boy, she stows away on a British ship. But Karina is about to get a nasty surprise.
As she grows closer to ship’s surgeon Joseph Hooker, Karina and the rest of the crew find themselves pushed to the limits both physically and emotionally as conditions worsen onboard. Engulfed in the chillingly hostile Antarctic landscape, something extraordinary happens – and Karina’s story becomes intertwined with some of the 20th century’s bravest Polar explorers …
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Sara Sheridan is the author of the popular Mirabelle Bevan historical mystery series, as well as several historical novels. Fascinated by female history, she is a cultural commentator who appears regularly on TV and radio. In 2014, she was named one of the Saltire Society’s 365 Most Influential Scottish Women. She lives in Edinburgh.
Read an Excerpt
September 1842. Deception Island, South Atlantic.
Karina waited till it was almost time for the tide before she opened the door and slipped onto the track that led to the dock. The moon hung like a lamp in the darkness. It illuminated her slim fingers as she fumbled with the catch, closing the door behind her. Not that she was coming back. They could have it all – the thin scatter of straw, the cup, the grate and the seaweed she'd left drying on the rafters. And her old dress with its single browning petticoat, cast aside now.
On the track, the wooden houses were not yet silent for the night. The lamps cast patches of buttery yellow – the only time the island ever seemed warm. From one homestead, the sound of a violin snaked through the air as if it was reaching for something. Further down, on the dock, men's laughter carried and the smell of hops mixed with the stench of whale fat from the smelting trawlers. Nervously, Karina looked at her ankles, a pale line of flesh protruding between the hem of the breeches she had pulled on and the worn tops of her husband's old boots. Poor Thebo, she thought, he died in his good ones and they never brought his body home. Inside the ragged woollen jumper, her heart was pounding so hard she wondered if it might break out of her chest. She was skin and bone these days. Unexpectedly, it had made her stronger.
At the front, she hesitated outside the company store, closed for the night. She owed money here, like everywhere else on the island. But if she stayed, she'd starve. It had been almost two years since Thebo had died and slowly she'd worn out the islanders' patience, along with what little money Thebo had left her and last of all, her teetering line of credit. She'd sold everything that would fetch a price – the furniture, Thebo's compass, her thin wedding ring and the little row of books the two of them had dragged around the world. 'My sister is sending my passage and coin. She's married to a merchant in Amsterdam,' she said, every time Van Kleek pointed to the bottom line on his damn ledger. But it had been too long since she had written begging for help, and Karina was terrified that something had happened to Marijke.
The last months, with no employment available for women, save the chances she had turned down to sell herself, she'd lived on eggs foraged from the cliffs half an hour to the north and the pickings of shellfish scavenged from rock pools. Nothing grew easily in this forsaken place, though last year there had been a few wild berries. Karina's stomach shifted at the thought of food. These days she rarely taunted herself with such imaginings.
The ships were still on their moorings. Her preference had been for a Dutch vessel but these would do. They were flying the jack. She spoke some English, she comforted herself. That was what had given her the idea she could sneak aboard. It had come to her that afternoon when an English sailor had leaned over the side, beckoning her closer to the ship. He winked and said something suggestive, first in Spanish, then in Dutch. Karina had stared blankly and pretended she didn't understand. 'Where do you think she comes from?' the sailor asked his fellow. 'I want to get her aboard.'
'Well, she's blonde. No point in trying Spanish, mate,' the other man pointed out.
Karina turned on her heel and stalked away with her mind whirring. To go aboard with the knowledge of one of the crew meant she would be put off before they sailed and there was no measure in that. She'd thought of stowing away before. She'd considered it a few times as she slid further into destitution, but had decided on balance, that she still held out hope. That hope had now diminished and yet, for hours that afternoon she had remained unsure as she paced the little cabin and turned over the possibilities, though there were only two. The next day might bring the long-awaited banker's note from Marijke. Or it might not.
Now she surveyed the ships by moonlight. The cocky sailor had called to her from aboard the Erebus, so she chose the Terror. Two men stood guard at the gangplank, or rather, played cards on a barrel to the side. A lamp creaked above them but the moon was so clear, they must hardly need it. Karina cursed the brightness as she skirted the ragged line of shacks along the shore and slipped across the stones. The great ship was moored with a thick curl of rope.
She'd seen boys climb these when she was a child. Marijke and she had watched over the harbour where they grew up, on the island of Ven. 'Like little angels,' their mother had said, and the two little blonde girls must have looked that way. Most of the visitors had been summertime tourists on a jaunt from the Danish coastline across the sound. Older, Marijke had challenged Karina from their vantage point on the tiled roof as the visitors arrived.
'If you can name even one of them, I'll do your chores for a week.' The line of her freckled nose crinkled to underline the challenge.
Karina tugged distractedly at a yellow lock that fell across her face, defying her mother's attempts to pin it.
'Johann Oesterund,' she had tried, spotting a po-faced curate picking his way up the jetty with a woman she could only assume was his elderly mother or at least a dowager aunt.
Later, she was never sure why she had assumed Marijke knew the visitors' names. The older girl was, to her mind, endowed with magical powers and simply knew everything.
'Soren Masterson,' she tried. This one a doe-eyed honeymooner in a pretty pale blue smock embroidered with sprigs of daisies. 'Her husband's name is Pieter,' Karina pronounced, the childish assertion utterly confident. She thought if she believed what she said it would make it true. She thought, perhaps, she could divine the names if only she concentrated hard enough. There was no telling of course if the incomers were Danish or Swedish or Norwegian. But the English were a different matter. You could spot them straight away.
Now, like the boys Marijke and she had seen, Karina clambered quickly up the rope. She balanced a tentative foot on an outcrop and hauled her thin frame over the side, falling silently onto the deck. Her blue eyes darted, sure she would be caught and marched down the gangplank. Certain that someone aboard must have seen this momentous event. Or someone on land, out for a stroll. Anyone could raise the alarm. But there was only the sound of the water slapping against the side. It seemed too easy.
Behind her, Deception Island continued its evening pursuits, unaware that Karina Lande was no longer resident. On board, the crew of the Terror knew no more – they ate their rations and worked their shift, the same as sailors the world over. Somewhere below there was the sound of a squeezebox being played and a man singing. Karina rose warily and dusted down her tattered-edged sealskin breeches. Then she stalked like a felon behind a pile of coiled ropes, scurrying to find somewhere to hide among the barrels, polished cleats and furled sails.
There was no hope she'd make it to port without being discovered. She tried not to think of what they might do when they found her. Seamen were cruel. 'The sea shows man no mercy, why should we?' Thebo said once. She could not recall what it was she had accused him of that elicited this response. Still, her husband's words rang in her ears as she peered from her hiding place and waited. She hadn't realized it would be so difficult to hold her nerve. After all, she was only trying to get home. She'd send them their money. She clung to a vision of a place of warm cinnamon biscuits and feather beds – the thin house off the Herengeracht where Marijke lived with her wealthy husband, thousands of miles away. Stowing away like this was forbidden and though dressed like a man, Karina would be the only woman aboard. The only woman. She'd decided and she must stick to her decision, she told herself as she clutched a rough rope, soft fingered in terror, as if she had to restrain herself from vaulting back over the side.
It didn't take long. A whistle sounded, a commotion burst on deck and she realized it was time. The men shouted orders in the moonlight and the ropes that tethered the ships to the bleakness of Deception were taken up. The tide was ready. Then, like a bell, there was a woman's voice – almost familiar. Karina raised her eyes just enough to see the squat Brazilian who ran the brewery offloaded down the gangplank in a flurry of flying bodice laces and the clinking of a bag of coin. The crew cheered as she strutted away with her earnings.
'All right, lads, settle down.'
Order was reinstated by a steely-eyed officer and all at once, it was suddenly too quiet, the wooden planks creaking as the Erebus and the Terror cast off onto starlit seas.CHAPTER 2
When she woke, it was light again. Karina clutched her empty stomach and shifted on the hard surface below as she remembered what she had done the night before with a sense of disbelief. Had she really escaped? But here she was in the sealskin breeches, the knitted pullover and Thebo's old boots. She raised her hand and sure enough, her hair was shorn. She ran a finger from root to tip, stopping at her ear and marvelling at the strangeness of the empty space around her jawline. Above her the sky was moving. Her heart fluttered. London would do fine, she thought, and allowed herself a smile as she settled.
The spot she had chosen was auspicious, warm in contrast to the icy air, for, she realized, there was a stove directly below. Karina had not lit a fire in weeks. There had been no wood and no money, not even for whale oil which on Deception Island was cheaper than anywhere else the whole world wide. She hugged her knees to her chest, and slipped a single foot out of Thebo's old boot to warm her bare skin by the little chimney that jutted through the boards. What luxury. This occupied her only a minute or two before curiosity got the better of her.
Peeking around a stack of kegs, she positioned herself to watch the deck, alive with activity in the sunshine. Two boys, far younger than her twenty-four years, played some kind of ball game. From a distance, at the other end of the vessel, three men in smart uniforms studied the sky, pointing towards the horizon to illustrate whatever they were saying. She raised herself on her haunches, her eyes skimming the top of the barrels that were shielding her from view. Carefully she scanned all directions but there was no sign of the familiar shape of Deception Island's pale cliffs looming out of the spray. There was no sight of land anywhere. She breathed out slowly in relief and dropped down, instinctively curling her fist into her belly. That way it felt as if there was something inside. The smell of fish cooking in the galley taunted her nostrils but she was too afraid to reveal herself. They'd have to find her.
As she waited, her ear settled into the sound of English. Karina had always been adept at languages. When Thebo had been given his captaincy, they had spent two years in Maine. He had rented rooms that seemed more a dream now than a memory. There was a sofa upholstered in green velvet with tassels around the hem. There was a wrought-iron fireplace with a stack of logs to one side. She liked sitting there to read, when Thebo was at sea. 'Norwegian, are you?' the landlady had questioned, loitering by the door as she delivered the mail.
'Swedish,' Karina replied.
The old woman had nodded as if this was what she had meant. Some afternoons, Karina visited her in the downstairs parlour. The place smelled of petitgrain and beeswax and quickly her English had improved as the two women sat over a hand of cards, the tea cooling beside them. By the time the young couple had left for Thebo's new position at Deception Island, her English was better than her Spanish or her Dutch. Now it came back.
Men marched up and down the deck, cleaning the already sparkling brasses and uncoiling and recoiling piles of rope. They climbed the rigging and trimmed the sails. They hoisted flags to send messages to the Erebus, sailing in the ship's wake. On one side, junior officers carefully practised decoding the Erebus's replies. The boys laughed when they got it wrong. 'Seven bells, imagine!' one said. 'Lord, Robert, you'll have us up early.'
Several times sturdy shoes and boots stopped so close that Karina could smell the polish, and yet, nobody hauled her from behind the barrels. Nobody noticed a thing. Two sailors fished over the side and an old man whittled wood, whistling an unfamiliar tune until he was called to the mess. Perhaps, she thought, they will be kinder than they need be.
By nightfall she had almost stopped worrying. It was as if she was invisible and instead of holding her breath whenever a sailor came within feet of her, she daydreamed of the island of Ven – the place she'd started out all those years ago. Her first home. The one she and Marijke had vowed to run away from so they could make their fortunes. It was Marijke who had fired the ambition. 'The island is so small,' she complained. 'How can Mother bear it?'
Other girls were content to play with dolls but Karina and her sister were strange creatures from the outset and the truth was Marijke was right: their mother was not entirely happy. With their father dead, she worked all hours, the little town's seamstress, sewing by such low light that she squinted even outside, when the sun was high. Their mother had taught them to embroider, but Karina had never taken to it. Marijke, on the other hand, worked flowers and birds onto their skirts. Sometimes when Karina woke and pulled on her clothes there was a new tattoo on her petticoat. A love heart or a key. 'The key to the world,' Marijke announced grandly.
'But what will we do when we leave?' Karina implored her sister.
Marijke shrugged. 'Trade what we have,' she replied.
Come the winter, the girls set up a snowshop on their doorstep selling snowballs and snowbottles to the neighbours' children. Once there was even a snowcake which they rolled out of bed early to fashion from fyklen, the soft first falling, which holds together best of all. The children paid with buttons and occasionally suggested a special commission for the girls' pink fingers to fashion. Once they spent the afternoon making a snowdog that looked like a wolf for Sverre, the butchers' son. The next morning, he sneaked them a sausage to share, hot from the oven, as they joined the line of youngsters carrying lykta, the little candles that lit their way to the village school. Children came from all sides, specks of light in the darkness, joining together on the old track. Still, Marijke had been determined to leave. She could not have been entirely sure of what lay beyond the little village but she knew it would be better. 'Soon we will be women setting out to cast our magic on the world,' she announced. She dreamed of cities with busy harbours and a panoply of adventure. Of people she didn't know a thing about. Of setting up a stall where the customers paid with coins, not buttons. The unknown.
On the Terror, Karina was hauled out of her daydreams by the neck. She had fallen fast asleep with the vision of Ven before her eyes and now it was dawn, she realized in a rush – her fourth day without a scrap of food. As rough-skinned fingers curled around her throat, her limbs lashed out and she struggled like a sparrow trying to fend off a hawk. The man who had hold of her was a giant. Her mind raced and if she had hoped for kindness, she realized now it was a forlorn notion. Across the open space of the deck she could make out the sailors she'd been listening to all these days – the men she'd seen only in snatches – a torso here and the rim of a hat there. They seemed suddenly huge, clustering in a mass as the sky lightened, calling for the mate, struggling to see the stowaway who had been uncovered. There was a whiff of stale rum and sweat on the air.
Round her neck, the fingers didn't loosen and Karina panicked that the man who had laid his hands on her was set on murder. He squeezed her windpipe and she wheezed as she steadied her limbs and forced herself to slow down and concentrate on breathing – staying alive. There was no measure in struggle. He stared glassy-eyed, as she made him out – a hefty black seaman with an immoveable jaw and fingers carved of stone. Another squeeze and her shoulders rounded and her knees gave way. The man sighed almost inaudibly as if he was bored by her fragility. If he kills me, he kills me, she thought, flat as if it meant nothing. A man like that could kill you by mistake.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Ice Maiden"
Copyright © 2018 Sara Sheridan.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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