Chocolate. Smuggling. Secrets and Lies. Brazil and London in 1824.
An immersive tale of adventure, love and chocolate set at the height of the British Empire leads our International Women Issue. Author Sara Sheridan has been named one of the Saltire Society’s Most Influential Scottish Women, and she dedicates On Starlit Seas to ‘the many women who have fought for change.’
Extract from On Starlit Seas
By Sara Sheridan
Published by Black & White Publishing
This book is dedicated to the many women who have fought for change. Feminists all of us.
Outside Valparaíso, Chile, 1823
At dawn, Maria Graham stood in the drawing room of the cottage she had lived in for the last year. Outside, the trees swayed in the unseasonable breeze as the sky lightened. The hem of her grey travelling dress trailed as she crouched on the wooden boards with her eyes on the empty grate. She had loved this room. They said it was too far from town here, for an English lady alone. But the moment she had seen the low building, its walls wreathed in flowers, she knew it was the perfect place. She had strewn her papers across the comfortable chairs and laid them in a pile beside her bed. At the dining table she had eaten as she studied a vellum map of the Chilean highlands, and from the veranda she had sat contentedly and watched the swathes of green all around, and then, of course, she had witnessed the earthquakes. With quill in hand, she inspected the damage. It had been a matter of trigonometry to notate the tremors.
She knew what they said in Valparaíso. It isn’t natural. The English widow is an odd fish. But she didn’t care. The consul had troubled her with constant offers to send her home. To keep her safe. Her aunt, the august Lady Dundas, had written
repeatedly. In a tone that could only be described as testy, she demanded Maria come back to London. You are a widow now and your place is here, she insisted. A woman cannot travel by herself, Maria. We are most dreadfully embarrassed by your gallivanting. Maria set the fire. The air was thick already with the heat of the day still to come. Lighting a spill, she sat back to watch the paper burn – the twenty-two pages of her journal that were simply too private. The evidence of her mourning for Thomas. Her eyes were still as she watched the thick paper curl and flame. Then she fed the fire with her aunt’s letters and watched them burn.
The sound of a door opening echoed from the other side of the cottage. Maria poked the ashes to make sure all vestiges of the unwelcome words were gone. She stood up, brushing the rise of her skirt with the palm of her hand as if it might have creased. The maid came into the room – a young girl from the nearby village. Her skin was the colour of ginger, smooth and plump. She had kept the house well. She had cried when Maria had told her that she was leaving. Now she bobbed a curtsey, ready to face this last day. ‘The men will come later,’ Maria said, indicating with a nod the trunks and cases packed and piled high in the hallway. She removed a coin from her purse and handed it over. The maid’s dark eyes filled up as if she would weep again, but Maria didn’t wait to see.
In the hallway she fixed her hat and scooped up the blousy white roses she had picked before the sun came up, the overgrown bushes the legacy of an earlier occupant of the cottage. ‘He will come for the key,’ she instructed.
Maria had arrived on a cart she had hired from an ostler in Valparaíso. Two of the Doris’s young officers had driven it. She had been a mother to them for almost a year on the voyage from England, and Thomas a father too. Now she stowed the roses in one saddlebag and her precious manuscript, the History of Chile – the prize she had spent her year of mourning writing – in the other. She pulled herself onto the horse, side-saddle, and set off down the track, rough hewn out of the woodland, the maid standing on the shady veranda, watching her leave. The girl raised a hand and Maria waved back.
In moments the house was obscured and, at a steady trot, Maria’s cheeks were beaten pink by the warm spring squall that cut through the branches. The ride left her breathless. There was nothing like a journey to quicken the blood and feed the spirit. Maria was a natural traveller and today she would set out across the continent, or at least around it. The trees were a blur of green, thinning here and there into farmland, and as she came over the crest of the hill she caught a tantalising glimpse of the ocean. From here she could just make out the frantic, sweaty port with its tangle of sailors and rigging in a straggle along the shoreline. Beyond it, the sea sparkled. One of these ships would take her on the first leg of her journey, but first she had something to do.
On Starlit Seas by Sara Sheridan is out now published by Black & White priced £8.99. Sara delivered a number of talks in Scotland on, and around, International Women’s Day 2018.
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