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High and Mighty, High and Dry
By Adam Dixon
Lady Sophia grasped the wooden railing as the Emerald Nypmh crashed into the rocks. The ship recoiled with an awful shattering of wood and the shock jolted dozens of passengers as they flocked to the deck. Lady Sophia screamed as she was lifted from her feet, her hip colliding painfully with the railing. As she righted herself and chanced a peek out into the ocean, a second, more violent impact wrenched her fingers from the railing and flung her overboard. She hit the water seconds later and the air was driven from her lungs. She cast about to and fro in a frenzy, salt water stinging her eyes and filling her nostrils. With an effort she broke the surface in time to gulp a mouthful of air before she was dragged back under. Her voluminous silken gown was trapping her limbs and pulling her down into the green depths. She struggled desperately, her heartbeat booming in her ears. She cried out in terror and the ocean rushed into her throat. She choked and thrashed, and everything went black.
The next thing Lady Sophia became aware of was a rhythmic pounding on her chest. She felt water being forced from her lungs into her throat and she began to cough and splutter. She heard gulls screeching and the sound of crashing waves as she ejected the salty water from her mouth and her nose. Strong hands turned her on to her side and she continued coughing and retching with her head hanging limply from her shoulders.
“Go on, miss, get it all out,” a voice said gently. A man’s voice. After what seemed like an age Lady Sophia was able to sit up. Squinting against the sunlight with her chest heaving, she looked at her rescuer. She saw a rough-looking man with a large nose and a square jaw crouched next to her, also soaking wet. He was at least twenty years younger than her, and his brown eyes were gazing at her with concern.
“You a’right, miss?” Lady Sophia noted with some distaste that he sounded like a commoner. She nodded slowly. He man smiled in relief, exposing uneven, brown teeth.
“Thank the Lawd!” He exclaimed. “I fort you was a goner for sure! The name’s Simpson, John Simpson. At yer service.” He thrust a large, calloused hand towards her. Lady Sophia regarded the hand with a mixture of astonishment and revulsion. She cleared her throat painfully.
“Yes, well, you have my thanks, Mister Simpson,” she croaked. Drawing herself up and attempting to find her learned poise, she glanced around. They were on a tiny island, essentially no more than a collection of rocks. Debris from the shipwreck floated nearby: a broken mast here, a plank from a deck there. The wreck itself was nowhere to be seen; it must have sunk beneath the surface.
“What in the name of the Almighty happened, Simpson?” Lady Sophia demanded. “How did the ship befall such a tragedy? More importantly, where are we?” Simpson’s smile faltered and he lowered his arm.
“Can’t say, miss,” he said. “I reckon we’s a few leagues away from the Indies. The Cap’n shouted somethin’ ‘bout rocks beneath the surface, an’ the next thing I know I was overboard on the port side. I spotted this ‘ere island an’ I made straight for it. I saw you thrashin’ about an’ I couldn’t just leave ya. I’d have ‘elped more if I could, honest to God, but most were trapped on board.” Lady Sophia paled.
“Trapped…” she whispered. “Have you noticed any other survivors?” Simpson shook his head sadly. “Dear God…” They sat in silence for some time, the gravity of the situation settling on their shoulders like a leaden weight. Finally, Simpson stood up.
“Well, we’re still ‘ere, praise the Lawd,” he announced, rubbing his hands together. “An’ we’d best not waste ‘Is mercy. We’ll need t’find some way t’catch fish, if there’s any t’be found. We oughta try an’ pinch summa that driftwood, an’ all. ‘Praps we can build a fire ‘an…”
“What, pray tell, do you mean by ‘we’?” Lady Sophia interrupted. Simpson stopped, frowning in confusion.
“Well, miss,” he said. “I mean you an’ me, o’ course.”
“First of all,” Lady Sophia said, her voice cutting. “It is ‘you and I’, and secondly, you must be out of your mind if you expect me to lower myself to manual labour,” she spat the words as if they had a foul taste. “And thirdly, I am not a “miss”, I am the Countess Sophia Hartford of Essex and I am to be addressed as ‘My Lady’. You would do well to know your place, Simpson, and perhaps then we shall deduce a reasonable way to escape from this dreadful island.”
Simpson’s jaw had fallen open. He stood for a moment in silence, stunned by the onslaught.
“Well?” Lady Sophia demanded, folding her arms. “What say you? Are you a simpleton, man?”
“No, I ain’t,” Simpson began slowly. “I ain’t a simpleton, milady, but you ‘ave knocked me back a fair bit, I’ll grant ya.”
Lady Sophia was incredulous. “How so? Surely even the simplest commoner knows how to conduct himself when in the company of a woman of noble birth!”
“’Praps, so, milady,” Simpson was struggling to find the correct words as he voiced his frustration. “But as you can see, we ain’t in England, and we ain’t even on board a ship no more. So as far as I see it, your title counts for nothin’.”
“How dare you..!” Lady Sophia began, but Simpson cut her off.
“How dare I?!” he shouted, causing Lady Sophia to take a step backwards. “I do dare, milady! I know I’m only a poor deckhand wi’ nothin’ to ‘is name, but on this pile o’ rocks, you ain’t nothin’ either!”
“I…you cannot address me…in that tone,” Lady Sophia spluttered, her face a mask of indignation and fury.
“Shut up!” barked Simpson. “We’re in trouble, my lady, an’ you’d best see it sharpish! You need to ‘elp me if you wanna live long enough t’see England again. That’s yer choice, ‘elp me or die ‘ere!” With that, he stalked off to the other side of the island, picking his way carefully among the rocks.
“Insufferable man!” Lady Sophia raged. “When I return to England I shall see him punished for his insolence! I knew I should not have allowed myself to be talked into boarding that cursed ship! The Emerald Nymph, hmmph! A name as vulgar as that was certain to attract bad luck!” She stood for a few minutes watching Simpson searching among the rocks, the sun evaporating the salt water on her skin. She noted with displeasure the brittle, tangled mess it had reduced her greying hair to. Her fine dress was ruined also, and she thought sadly of the wasted work that had gone into creating it. She found a slightly less jagged rock and sat as straight and as primly as possible.
As the sun reached its zenith, Lady Sophia was sunburnt, thirsty and miserable. She had watched Simpson poking about in the rocks, and he had managed to catch a medium-sized crab. He had salvaged a small pile of driftwood after swimming a short distance from the island and he was drying them in the sun. Lady Sophia noted that the man was a strong swimmer, and felt ashamed for not expressing her appreciation properly. A short while later, her eyes bulged out of her head. She stood up and attempted to march across the rocks to Simpson, the effect negated by the treacherous footing.
“I say, Simpson!” she barked. “What in God’s name do you think you are doing?” Simpson was whittling a stout piece of driftwood with a jagged rock and ignored her. He had removed his scruffy woollen shirt and his simple breeches and had left them on a rock to dry.
“Are you listening, Simpson?!” Lady Sophia spluttered. “How dare you remove your clothes in my sight?! This is an indecent and disgusting display! Squatting in your undergarments like a savage! You will dress yourself at once!”
“I shan’t,” Simpson said, not looking up from his work. “It’ll only get cold again come the evenin’. I’ll not feel the benefit of ‘em if I’m wearin’ ‘em already, small comfort though they’ll be. You oughta do the same wi’ that ‘eavy thing yer swaddled in.”
“Remove my…” Lady Sophia was aghast. “Swaddled?! Why, you uncultured cretin!”
“’Praps I am, milady,” Simpson shrugged. “But I knows the weather in these waters, I been sailin’ ‘em since I was a lad. Take my advice or don’t. ‘Opefully I’ll ‘ave a fire goin’ before the evenin’, or else we’ll be ‘aving cold crab for tea.” He promptly went silent, and ignored all of Lady Sophia’s increasingly fervent attempts to force a reaction from him. Eventually she stalked back to her rock in a huff.
Simpson did not get a fire started and so they ate cold, uncooked crab in silence as the evening drew in. They were forced to slake their thirst on its blood, much to Lady Sophia’s disgust. Simpson turned out to be correct about the weather, and soon Lady Sophia was shivering violently. When Simpson suggested that they huddle together for warmth during the night, she threw a barrage of rocks at him and called him every vulgar name she could think of. He retreated to the other side of the island, and neither of them slept that night.
On the second day, a small miracle occurred. Simpson spotted something floating roughly a hundred yards away from the island and swam out to it. Lady Sophia then had the panicked realisation that should Simpson drown, she would certainly die on the island. She waited in agony, scanning the water for his bobbing head. He swam back to the island, pushing what looked like a large wooden barrel. It turned out to be full of water, likely from the stores of the Emerald Nymph, and it was untouched. They both drank mouthfuls of the clean, sweet liquid and praised God for their change in fortune. Simpson insisted that they ration the water in order to preserve it, and Lady Sophia reluctantly agreed.
On the third day Simpson managed to spear a fish with a sharpened stake. It tasted like another offering from God to the two of them.
During the fourth night, Lady Sophia walked over to Simpson and huddled close to him against the chill. Neither of them said a word.
By the eight day, disaster. Neither had eaten for two days, but Simpson appeared to be coming down with a sickness. He was cold despite the heat of the day, and sweating profusely during the night. Lady Sophia felt her panic rising once again. What would she do if he became too sick to catch food?
On the tenth day, Simpson’s sickness was much worse. He drifted in and out of consciousness, babbling deliriously. Lady Sophia knelt next to him in her undergarments, dabbing at his sun-scorched skin with her sodden dress, speaking soft nonsense into his ear.
On the eleventh day, Simpson died. Lady Sophia wailed into the air, cursing God and the vast expanse of ocean which surrounded and mocked her.
Fourteen days after the sinking of the Emerald Nymph, a cargo ship carrying spices bound for France passed by the small rocky island. The sailor in the crow’s nest spotted a shape waving to them and alerted the captain. The captain looked through his telescope and saw a dishevelled, grey-haired woman dressed in filthy rags jumping about desperately. He swiftly ordered a boat sent out to the island and accompanied the party personally. When they reached the island, a grisly sight met their eyes. The woman was half-mad, gibbering and weeping uncontrollably, and nestled between the rocks was an empty barrel and a partially eaten corpse.