The Apothecary's Daughter
- Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from The Apothecary’s Daughter by Julie Klassen (Bethany House).
I remember it clearly, although it was years ago now. For I remember everything.
The year was 1810. I was a girl of fifteen, standing on the arched Honeystreet Bridge—which I often did when I was not needed in Father's shop—gazing upon the brightly painted boats that floated past. There a blue barge, and there a yellow-and-white narrowboat. In reality, I was searching. Searching the face of every person on every narrowboat that passed by on the newly completed K and A Canal. There were not many women, but a few. For though men worked the canals as pilots, navigators, and merchants, entire families sometimes lived aboard—as wives and children made for less costly crews.
My mother had disappeared on one of those narrowboats two months before, or so the villagers whispered when they thought I could not hear. I suppose I hoped she would return as she left, declaring her absence a lark, an adventure, a mistake ... anything. How many hours had I stood there? How many boats had I seen pass beneath that bridge—boats with names like the Britannia, Radiant, or Perseverance? Where had they come from, I always wondered, and where were they bound? What cargo did they bear—spices from the West Indies, perhaps, or tea from China? Coal from the Midlands or timber from as far away as Norway? How often I dreamt of stowing away and leaving Bedsley Priors for the bright unknown beyond.
That day, however, I watched the yellow-and-white narrowboat for another reason. A gangly boy with a cinched bag slung over his shoulder climbed unsteadily from the moored boat. My father, standing on the bank, extended his hand in greeting, just as the boy leaned over and was sick.
I winced. Not a very propitious beginning for a new apprentice. Father's shoes were likely spoilt.
I sighed. I knew I should go down to them. Father had not seen me there or he would have called for my help. He always did. With Mother gone and my only brother slow of mind, many responsibilities for both the household and shop fell to me.
But no. I would wait and meet young Mr. Baylor later, once he'd had a chance to collect himself. I would brew ginger tea for him and find an old cloth for Father's shoes. But first I wanted a few more moments on the bridge.
Several minutes later, a red-and-blue narrowboat approached from the west, from as far away as Bristol, perhaps, on its way to the Thames and then to London some eighty miles east. A man led one boat-horse along the towpath. A lone person sat in the curved bow deck. Far behind, aft of the cabin, two crewmen stood on the tiller deck.
As the boat drew nearer, I saw that the figure in the bow was a woman, head low, as if in prayer. Or perhaps she was reading. A wide bonnet concealed her face from the sun, from me. My heart leapt. Something about the woman's posture and tilt of her head struck me as familiar. Mother loved to read.
I leaned across the wide brick ledge, peering hard, heart beating. The boat drew closer. I saw that the man leading the horse was deeply tanned and broad-shouldered. The man she left us for? As he led the boat-horse along the strip of land beneath the bridge, he disappeared from view. The bow of the boat reached the shadow of the bridge, and one of the crewmen gaped up at me. I barely saw him. Instead I read the vessel's name painted in decorative lettering on the side, The Gypsy, and I thought, How apt. Still, I could not see the woman's face.
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