Wendy begged him to take her along, of course, but he always refused.
“If it were my own ship, Miss Darling,” he would tell her, “I would hire you without hesitation. You have a keen intellect and a persevering nature. But I am not the captain. I could not protect you if the men decided upon some nefarious purpose.”
“But if you won’t take me with you, why teach me anything at all?” Wendy would complain.
“Because I saw a spirit in you the day we met,” he would reply. “I believe you will eventually find your way onto a ship, one way or another, and I want you to be prepared.”
And then he would finish with, “Just not today,” which Wendy would say right along with him, bobbing her chin in time with his and rolling her eyes.
Despite this frustration, life at the almshouse was much better after Wendy began her studies. The other children still snickered when she talked about the navy. Or when she stood out in the cold, studying the stars. But Wendy didn’t mind. Her life had a purpose, and no one could take that away from her.
When she went to visit her mentor, only Charlie bothered to ask where she was going. And when she read in the parlor, Charlie would plop himself down at her feet and ask about the book. Eventually, he even stood next to her through the cold, winter nights, staring up at the stars.
“Do you see that one?” Wendy asked him one night, as they were doing just that.
“Which?” Charlie asked.
“Look. There’s a first star, there. And then a second, to the right a bit. And if you draw a line between them and keep right on going, there’s another one they almost point to, off by itself and not quite as bright. Do you see it now?”
“I see it!” Charlie shouted.
“That’s the North Star,” she told him. “All the other stars spin around that one all night long, but that one doesn’t move. That’s how you can tell where north is, even without a compass. So you can never truly be lost.”
“Never?” Charlie asked.
“Well, not in the northern hemisphere, at least. They have different stars on the other side of the world.”
“The northern what?”
They stared at each other for a moment in silence, shivering.
“Come with me,” Wendy finally said. “I need to show you on a globe. It’s easier.”
“All right,” Charlie agreed.
“Now, you know,” Wendy warned him, “if I start showing you things, the other children will laugh at you, too. So you’d best be prepared.”
“I don’t mind,” Charlie promised. “They laugh at me anyway. But you never laugh at me. I’d rather be friends with you.”
Wendy smiled. “All right,” she said. “That’s what we’ll do, then.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
So, Wendy had a tutor and a friend and as many books as she could read. That would have been all she ever needed if she could have remained a child forever, but all children grow up. And grown-ups need to earn a living.
The way they managed this in London in 1787 was to place children in apprenticeships. The children would learn blacksmithing from a blacksmith, for example, or tailoring from a tailor. And then, after seven years, they would become blacksmiths or tailors themselves. These apprenticeships could begin any time after the age of fourteen. In an almshouse, as you might imagine, fourteen-year-old children were practically shoved out the door.
Children didn’t feed themselves.
Wendy wanted Mr. Equiano to take her on as an apprentice, but he refused on the grounds that he could not take her with him to sea and also that he did not practice a proper trade in which he could certify her.
“And what will I tell a ship’s captain in seven years’ time?” he asked her. “That I have taught you to be a sailor? When you have never once set foot upon a ship?”
“Then take me with you!” she argued.
But, of course, he would not.
And Wendy was running out of time.
“You must accept an apprenticeship,” Mrs. Healey declared on Wendy’s fifteenth birthday. “There is a dressmaker who inquired just yesterday.”
Another dressmaker. Wendy shuddered. No one wanted to apprentice the girls. Dressmakers, weavers, housemaids. Perhaps the occasional milliner. Only boys became blacksmiths. Or shipbuilders. Let alone sea captains.
Dresses? Undergarments? The very thought filled Wendy with dread. She would rather face an entire fleet of pirates than spend one day sewing whalebone into ladies’ corsets.
“Send Bridget,” Wendy begged. “Please, Mrs. Healey? Bridget loves dresses.”
Mrs. Healey pursed her lips and rubbed the fingers of her right hand together for several long moments.
“Very well,” she agreed finally. “But you must choose something, Wendy. You cannot delay forever, or I shall decide for you.”
After that, Wendy made herself as scarce as possible. She begged Mr. Equiano for chores that she and Charlie could perform for a farthing, or perhaps even two, and when he was away at sea, they ran odd errands for their lord benefactor. They scraped together just enough to pay for meager suppers of stale bread and hard cheese, so they wouldn’t have to eat at the orphanage.
While the other children were slowly divvied out among London’s poorest tradesmen, Wendy and Charlie stayed out of sight. They climbed into the dormitory windows late at night, just to sleep, and they snuck back out before daylight. It was during this time that Mortimer Black was apprenticed to a shipwright, of all things. A shipwright! Wendy thought she might vomit, it was so unfair.
“I can’t believe it!” she lamented. “Mortimer gets to be a shipwright, while Charlie and I have to sneak around after dark like a couple of thieves!”
“There are worse ways to live, Miss Darling,” her tutor admonished her. “This life is of your own choosing. You could make dresses or hats if you desired. There is a price to changing one’s destiny.”
But not one of them at the time—not Mr. Equiano or Wendy or Charlie—knew just how true those words would prove to be.
Copyright © 2016-2017 by Erin Michelle Sky & Steven Brown (Dragon Authors). All rights reserved.