Read Kitty Online

Authors: Deborah Challinor

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Kitty

Dedication

This one is for my uncle, Andy Stuart, who died in November of 2004. He loved the sea, too.

Chapter One

Paihia, New Zealand, February 1839

K
itty Carlisle didn’t know it, but this was the turning point in her life. Not the humiliating shambles of what had gone before, but this—the convergence of a heaving, boundless ocean, an alien shore and the promise of unimagined encounters.

She leant against the bulwark of the
Swordfish,
her long black skirts clamped between her thighs to discourage the wind from snatching them and revealing her underthings to anyone who cared to look. Her hands were braced on the smooth rail to counter the slow roll of the sea, even though the ship had come to anchor, and her ears still rang from the musket volley fired a minute ago to alert the missionaries on shore of their arrival. She counted at least a dozen other ships anchored in the choppy harbour, almost all whalers and most with their sails tightly furled. It was summer here, so the whalemen said, but the weather today was grey, although it wasn’t at all cold, and a thick wind bullied everything in its path.

The
Swordfish,
a solid, smelly, square-rigged whaler, had set sail from Sydney Cove thirteen days ago. The vessel that had brought Kitty, and her Aunt Sarah and Uncle George Kelleher, from England to Australia had been delayed in Sydney for unexpected repairs, and the alternative had been a whaling ship or nothing at all for another six weeks. George, a minister with the Church Missionary Society, had been keen to press
on, so the
Swordfish
it had been, despite his wife’s protests at the uncouth company she and Kitty would have to endure during the voyage. Kitty suspected her aunt’s resistance had more to do with wanting to put off another sea journey for as long as possible, as she’d been as sick as a dog almost all the way from England, but as usual Uncle George had had his way.

Kitty herself hadn’t suffered even a moment’s seasickness and had in fact enjoyed the months at sea, in spite of how wretched she felt about everything that had happened at home. She had been soothed by the motion of the ship, exhilarated by the snap of canvas and rigging soaring above her, and enchanted by the constantly changing hues of ocean and sky as they blurred into an endless horizon.

But now they had finally arrived in New Zealand and the Bay of Islands was living up to its name. They had passed more than a score of islands on their way into this deep, ruggedly beautiful harbour this morning, the captain rattling off their exotic names in what was evidently the language of the native Maoris, but already Kitty had forgotten them. The hills and shores and valleys of this untamed country were undoubtedly magnificent, but now they were here she felt more like an inmate on a convict ship in Sydney Cove than a young woman about to begin an adventurous new life.

They were currently anchored between two settlements, Paihia on the western shore and Kororareka on the eastern. Neither looked like much to Kitty, although there were noticeably more European-style buildings at Kororareka. Paihia, however, appeared considerably tidier, its few buildings surrounded by paling fences and neat gardens that ran back to the base of the bush-covered hills directly behind the tiny settlement. There were also the most spectacular big trees draped with what, from this distance, looked just like vibrant red shawls.

Captain Monk, master of the
Swordfish,
came to stand beside her.

‘Why is Paihia nice and tidy, Captain Monk, but the village on the other side of the bay a complete hotchpotch?’ she said, avoiding pronouncing the name Kororareka because she was bound to mangle it.

‘That, Miss Carlisle,’ the captain said in apparent earnestness, ‘is because God resides at Paihia while the Devil is commonly known to reign over Kororareka.’ He laughed loudly at her shocked expression, his grin almost splitting his heavily bearded face in half. ‘Ask your missionary friends when you disembark—I’m sure they’ll tell you.’

‘When
are
we to disembark?’ Kitty said, ignoring his obvious mirth. She quite liked Captain Monk, although Aunt Sarah had told her not to speak to him, but she never knew when he was teasing her and when he wasn’t. ‘And where is the quay?’ she added.

‘Quay? I’m afraid there is no quay, Miss Carlisle.’

‘Well, then, how are we to go ashore?’

‘You’ll row.’


I
will?’

Again the captain erupted into what Kitty considered was unnecessarily hearty laughter. ‘No, no,’ he said, still grinning as though to imply what a jolly jape that would be. ‘I couldn’t let such a genteel party as yours loose on the seas alone. Two of my men will take you in shortly. Do you have all your bits and bobs packed?’

Kitty nodded. ‘I think so. My aunt was just finishing when I came up on deck.’

‘Good,’ Captain Monk replied. Stimulating though it had been having the comely Miss Carlisle on board for the last fortnight, he would be glad to see the back of all three of his impromptu passengers. Then he and his crew, who had been under strict orders to behave, could relax again. ‘I’ll have the boats lowered,’ he added, and strode off across the deck, yelling at the top of his voice.

Kitty found her aunt sitting in their cramped, airless cabin, surrounded by pieces of luggage, her face in the dim light the palest green of an apple cucumber.

‘It won’t be long now, Aunt Sarah,’ she said. ‘Captain Monk is having the boats lowered to take us in.’

Sarah started in alarm. ‘Can we not disembark at the quay?’ She had always been a slight woman, but was even thinner now after nearly five months at sea, and her features were pinched with fatigue.

‘There isn’t a quay, apparently. We’ll have to be rowed into shore.’

Sarah closed her eyes. Kitty knew what she must be thinking—coming all this way in two creaking, dripping ships had been gruelling enough, but now it seemed she would also have to endure crouching in a tiny boat only
inches
above the waves before she could finally set foot on dry land. Her aunt was terrified of the ocean and must surely have realised by now that she would never manage the trip back to England, no matter how much she might yearn to make it.

‘Are you ready, then?’ Kitty asked, giving her aunt a deliberately sympathetic look in the hope that she might, even at this late hour, care to unburden some of her misery.

But Sarah, her mouth pressed shut in unhappy resignation, appeared not to notice. She drew her shawl more tightly across her tense shoulders and nodded.

‘Shall I ask Captain Monk to have our trunks taken out on deck?’

‘No, Kitty, you will ask your uncle to ask the captain to have our trunks taken out. There’s no need for you to speak to Captain Monk if it’s not strictly necessary.’

Kitty almost smiled. That was her aunt all over—queasy with seasickness and frightened at the prospect of riding in a small boat, but still worried about propriety.

In the end two boats were lowered, one for the disembarking passengers and their personal belongings, the other for the larger items they had brought out with them. The boats weren’t that small after all, much to Sarah’s relief and Kitty’s disappointment; the harbour was quite rough and she’d been looking forward to the excitement of being hurled about while heading into shore. They were whaleboats, designed to chase, harpoon and tow the huge ocean-going creatures back to the
Swordfish,
and, although light, were still sturdy and remarkably steady in the water.

There was, however, also the matter of getting off the ship and into the whaleboat. Kitty experienced a moment of pure terror as the rope ladder she was negotiating—a very difficult thing to do while also holding onto your bonnet and skirts, even though the two whalemen in the boat
below were looking away to preserve her modesty—swung wildly out over the water in one direction while the ship lurched in the other, but she managed the manoeuvre without hurting herself or compromising her dignity.

Uncle George, his black hat jammed firmly over his bony temples, also descended without mishap. Aunt Sarah, however, suffered a severe attack of nerves while waiting at the bulwark, and had to be strapped into a wooden-backed chair, which was lowered by rope and caught at the bottom, her eyes squeezed steadfastly shut against the horror of the looming waves.

As the whalemen struck out for Paihia, various items of furniture were loaded into a cargo net attached to a derrick on the
Swordfish’s
deck, swung out over the bulwark and lowered into the second whaleboat, which would follow them in. When she had seen that everything was safely stowed, Kitty turned to face the front again, squinting against sea spray as the whalemen hit their stride and the buildings and fences on shore drew closer and closer.

And then she saw them. They were still only figures on the beach, now climbing into canoes and setting out towards the whaleboats, but even from a distance Kitty knew she had never encountered anyone like them in her life. Here they were at last, the Maori people she had been hearing so much about. She waited in fascinated silence as a canoe drew near the whaleboats. Two more, both containing several young women, skimmed straight past, heading for the
Swordfish.
Kitty swivelled on her seat and, forgetting her manners completely, had a good long stare at the occupants of the vessel that was coming alongside.

Eight men were paddling the long, slender canoe, while a ninth stood in the centre, apparently completely at ease with the rolling of the sea, gazing boldly back at her through what looked horribly like a single eye. They all had dark skins and bushy black hair, which some wore to shoulder length and others had drawn up in a topknot. Their clothes were a combination of European garments and what Kitty assumed was the native garb—some sort of short skirt fastened around their middles. Several were naked from the waist up, their bulging muscles rippling as they held their
paddles aloft. As she continued to stare, one of the whalemen barked a few guttural native words, making her jump. The upright Maori man inclined his head then gave a command and they were off again, paddles slicing deftly into the waves, heading out towards the
Swordfish.

‘Ferocious-looking, aren’t they?’ the whaleman said, obviously enjoying the expression on Kitty’s face.

‘Er, yes,’ Kitty agreed. ‘Quite frightening.’

‘Frightening or not,’ Uncle George said, fixing her with one of his stern looks, ‘they are God’s creatures, and we have been sent here to convert them to the ways of Christianity and offer them redemption, a better and more glorious way of life, and the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.’

Kitty looked away, avoiding the whaleman’s eye and trying not to smile. Even if Uncle George only said ‘Pass the salt’, it sounded like a sermon.

They sat in silence after that, Aunt Sarah still gripping the gunwale of the whaleboat with both hands, her knuckles sharp and white, watching as the pale shore drew nearer. Then suddenly they were through the waves, and a second later the whaleboat shuddered as it grounded on a shelly beach, the garrulous whaleman proclaiming, ‘Shore close aboard, all out!’

Kitty, however, wasn’t listening. Her attention was claimed totally by the sight of a black-haired giant, his dark face marked with heavy black lines and whorls, striding determinedly down the beach towards them, followed by a phalanx of skipping, twittering children, both brown and fair-skinned. She rose to her feet, whether as an automatic reflex or to run away, she wasn’t sure, but, grinning maniacally, the giant splashed into the shallows and scooped her out of the whaleboat with enormous, heavily muscled arms. She let out a small shriek and hit him across the side of the head as hard as she could.

Behind her, Aunt Sarah gave a squeak of fear.

The huge Maori stopped smiling immediately, dropped Kitty without ceremony and took several steps backwards. ‘Beg pardon,’ he said in a voice as deep as distant thunder.

Kitty landed on her hands and knees in a foot of water, her bonnet jarring down over her nose and her skirts taking flight over her back in the strong wind. Her embarrassment quickly turned to mortification as she felt, through the gap in her linen drawers, a tickle of fresh air on bare skin. Even worse, she thought she heard one of the whalemen give a muffled exclamation of appreciation.

But before she could do anything about it, a pair of long, scuffed sea-boots appeared in front of her. She took a second to wrench her skirts down, then looked slowly up past the brown leather of the boots to the off-white moleskin trousers tucked into them, then to a faded, open-necked blue serge shirt and, finally, into the face of their wearer. He was a European and he was laughing his head off. But, in his favour, he did lean down and offer her his hand.

Shoving her bonnet back where it belonged, Kitty grasped his wrist and heaved herself out of the water, her heavy, sopping skirts clinging to her legs as she struggled to her feet.

‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, her face burning. How indescribably rude of him to laugh!

Still grinning, the man replied, ‘My pleasure, madam.’ There was a melodic touch of Irish in his accent.

Kitty, her sleeves soaked to the elbows and her legs itching already from the seawater, glared at him. Then suddenly, and for no apparent reason at all, she felt her fur crackle. This was a phrase that her grandmama—long dead, and known in her old age for her colourful and increasingly eccentric ways—had occasionally used, and Kitty couldn’t think of a better description for the uncomfortable prickling just beneath the surface of her goosepimpled skin.

The man was solidly built and a little above average height. His hair, tied back in a short queue, was the colour of ripe wheat, although his brows, sideburns and the stubble on his chin were darker. A slightly crooked nose nearly dominated his sun-weathered face, his eyes glinted an intelligent, silvery grey, and laughter lines bracketed his mouth. Fairly ordinary, Kitty thought, but moderately attractive if you liked that windswept sort of look—which she didn’t, especially if it was
accompanied by a character as discourteous as this man’s obviously was.

A strangled squawk from the whaleboat caught her attention: Uncle George was attempting, not entirely successfully, to lift Aunt Sarah out of the boat and carry her up the beach. The fair-haired man stepped forward and intervened, taking Sarah from her husband as though she were no heavier than a feather, which actually wasn’t far from the truth, then setting her gently down on the sand.

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