The first time he set foot on the new continent, he felt unmoored. Granted, he’d spent the last four months aboard ship and felt somewhat ill-prepared for the battle of land and sea in his body. The ship’s carpenter had warned him that he’d walk askew for a few days, head and shoulders against the non-existent imagined headwind. Knees with a slight wobble. That at night his body would roll and spin within a flat, unmoving bed. That his stomach would roil and churn as his eyes sought out the flatness and comfort of the horizon. Yet with all this advice he was unprepared for how the ground pitched and tilted as he stood perfectly still on it.
The wharf was rocky so he dug his heels in to ground himself, put his arms to his waist, doubled over, and let out what little there was in his stomach. Watered-down coffee, some oat bread, a little hardtack and then bile.
The second time he came up for air, he wiped the sweat from his brow, took a embroidered handkerchief from his coat pocket and looked around.
A bustle of short men with black hair moved his trunks and supplies from the hold with little difficulty despite their short stature. Like ants, he thought. Identical in movement, in features, so much so that one was unable to distinguish one from another. He wiped the beads of sweat from his brow as he stood and watched their industry.
The delicate cloth he held still bore the faint scent of perfume of the lady who gave it to him. Unwashed since the day he received it, he could barely remember the face of the original bearer. To compensate for the animal odors of the natives around him, he breathed in what he could of lingering lilacs. The smell of another land, a civilized one. A land of long dinner tables, covered in fine linen, set with porcelain plates and gold-rimmed water glasses. With candelabras so large they wouldn’t fit into a captain’s stateroom, of easily digested food, boiled and white and all that he could ever eat. Of never-ending glasses of champagne filled in goblets of crystal and silent footmen who served from the right, never once landing a scoop of a dreadful, gray, lumpy sea porridge in his lap. Above all, a still and steady land that didn’t roll and pitch, where when it rained, there was always shelter from it so one might never be damp, and where a roaring fire and a glass of sherry was always nearby.
Eleanor was it? Lady Kentwell, but please call me Esther? With raven black hair pulled tightly back from her forehead, showcasing a rather high, unflattering area with horizontal lines creased there. Hints of crow’s feet around her eyes. And the beginnings of a waddle under her chin. Under that, a very fine green emerald surrounded by diamonds. He remembered that very clearly.
“Oh Dr. Stanley,” she’d breathed out his name before taking a coquettish sip of champagne, poured in his honor, while her husband stared disapprovingly from across the dinner table. “How I envy you a voyage to South America!”
Another sip from her and a heavy harrumph from her husband over the way.
South America! The subject finally broached, his other dining companions held forks and wine glasses mid-air, eager to hear what the enigmatic, nay, the rather taciturn Dr. Stanley had to say.
Not a grandstander like his father, nor a politician like his brother, Stanley grimaced and moved back from the candlelit table, away from the prying eyes and overly interested ears.
“Come now,” the woman said. Evelyn? She patted his hand as if coaxing a shy child. “Please won’t you tell us? We’ve all been very desirous to hear from you on the subject, Dr. Stanley. There isn’t a person around this table who would have missed this dinner no matter if taken ill or run down by carriage. Surely you realize not a single one of us has ever gone on such a journey as yours,” to which she moved her gaze to her husband and frowned slightly before turning back to Stanley with such a renewed light in her eye. “Natives and grand discoveries, to be sure. An adventurous crossing, of course. Storms one day, a sky full of stars the next. Imagine how glorious it shall be. Surely you can tell us a little of what lies ahead.”
He looked ashen-faced at the thought of it. Beads of sweat appeared on his upper lip as his heart began to race wildly in his chest. So many eyes on him, like he was the main course to be devoured.
The woman pleaded with him silently by placing a hand on his.
“There isn’t much to tell,” he muttered and drank the rest of his champagne, which was quickly and silently refilled by the footman beside him, much to his relief.
“Come now,” her husband barked with a slight snarl. “You must do better than that!”
“Where will you go?” his wife asked gently, her eyes almost drilling into his head.
“Well,” Stanley started. “We set sail to Pará, where I shall take up residence and begin my collection. I hope, one day, to move up the Amazon to the rainforest where I believe the greatest discoveries have yet to be made.”
“Like our dear friend Wallace,” the woman said, turning to her husband, her hands clasped in delight.
“Be sure your fate doesn’t befall his,” her husband muttered from across the table. “Send the samples on multiple ships or you’ll lose your life’s work.”
“Surely we’ve all learned from Wallace,” the woman said to her husband with the slightest sign of impatience and turned back to Stanley. “You must promise to come for dinner once you return and tell us all about it.”
“It may be years, madam, until I return,” he muttered.
“Then years it shall be,” she said, pulling the very handkerchief he carried now from her bosom, ignoring the multiple harrumphs from her husband, and placed it firmly in his hand. “Safeguard it,” she said and smiled sweetly. “For you shall be taking a little part of me with you on your journey for which I shall be ever grateful.”
He stared down at the E. K. embroidered in the corner, her name lost in his memory as the purser stood rigidly in front of him, aheming to catch his attention.
“What is it?” Stanley asked, putting away the handkerchief.
“Your equipment is loaded in the wagon,” the small man said, using his chin to point in the direction of the waiting men, horses, and trunks.
“Yes,” Stanley sighed deeply, keeping his face as blank and emotion-free as possible. “I see.” He gazed for a moment longer at the ship, at the horizon, and the invisible path he’d just taken to get there, and took an uncertain and shaky step toward what awaited him. Slipping on the dock.