At sea, Sunday, 14 June 1803, Lady Barbara
Ten days out of Bristol. Until then boredom had prevailed on board HMS Excalibur, but at last the looming mass of the Rock of Gibraltar had been sighted on the horizon, and excitement was building. Soon we would be entering the Mediterranean and embarking on the last part of our journey to Rome, the Eternal City. I had always dreamed of doing the Grand Tour ... and now it was so close ... so exciting ... just a few more days and we would be there!
It's not that the companionship had been unsatisfactory, nor the weather. In addition to myself there were four other young women of my class to keep me company, as well as some very handsome and eligible young men, particularly the dashing young Thomas, whom I secretly admired. The captain of the ship, Barnabas Steele, seemed agreeable enough ... if rather odd when around women. And, of course, our daily needs had been well cared for ... being of the right station in life, we young ladies were fortunate to have each brought along a maid servant to look after us.
Oh, yes ... and I would be remiss not to mention the presence of Lady Prudence, our tour chaperone. She was really not much older than the rest of us, but did take her responsibilities quite seriously ... thus there had been little opportunity to do anything but behave properly on the voyage, which meant hours and hours of polite conversation over meals and parlor games. Pity that. But, at least the sea had been calm, and no one had been given over to seasickness.
As we entered the Strait of Gibraltar our progress was slowed by a strong headwind, known as a "Levanter", or so our captain informed us over dinner in his rather sumptuously appointed quarters. The man had a habit of placing his hand on the knee of whomever was seated next to him at dinner, and of staring intently down the poor girl's bodice. He also enjoyed enthralling his dinner guests with tales of his adventures at sea, many of them really quite frightening. As it happened, it was my turn that evening to sit next to him, which meant I frequently had to brush away his hand from my knee throughout the meal, in addition to modestly placing my hand over my bosom.
After dinner, the men were left to drink and smoke in the Captain's quarters, while he led the ladies up on deck for a look at the Rock. As he told his long-winded stories to his captive audience, I found myself paying only half attention and staring over the opposite side of the ship at the far shore.
"Isn't that Africa?" I asked, interrupting his tale.
"Yes, milady, it is." he responded, seemingly pleased to be asked something, even if it was an interruption, by the young woman who had persistently rebuffed his under the table advances during dinner. "It's known as the Barbary Coast."
"Oh, I have heard of that," I said, raising my hand to my mouth in a mock show of shocked recognition. "That's where those dreadful pirates come from, isn't it?"
"Is indeed, Lady Barbara. Many thousands of poor Christian souls have fallen victim to their ruthless depredations, I don't mind telling you."
"I should think it rather thrilling to be taken by a pirate ... a dashing one, I mean," I tittered nervously.
"Oh Barb, don't start!" said Lady Katharine, my best friend and constant companion, taking on her customary role of keeping my impetuous nature in line.
"Seriously, Captain ... we aren't in any real danger of capture by Barbary Pirates, are we?" I said, making a conscious attempt to wipe that dreamy look from my face.
"Never can be too sure they won't show their dastardly faces," he replied wrapping his arm around my shoulders and pressing his fingers into my bodice just enough to bulge my right breast sufficiently high to reveal more than was generally deemed socially acceptable in genteel company.
"You're not serious ... You're just trying to frighten us," I sang, spinning away from his grasp and tugging at my bodice to cover up.
"Aye, I'd not be truthful were I to give miladies the impression that no danger exists. Those pirates can strike anywhere at any time. And what do they want, ye might be wondering? Well, the prize of me ship and crew, of course ... but think of their fiendish delight were they to find a bevy of virginal young English ladies on board! They'd for sure know you'd bring a high price on the slave markets ... and not just you fine young ladies, mind you, but yer maid servants too. Imagine yourselves, shackled together on stage in Rabat, Tripoli, or even some far-off Ottoman city ... displayed absolutely naked fer all to see and sold to the highest bidder. Of course, then again ye might be held for ransom too ... perhaps a more pleasant outcome for such high-class ladies as yerselves. On the other hand, ye could be kept by the pirates as sex slaves, and forced into performing day after day the most degrading acts one can imagine ... under the brutal lash if need be, mind ye! Or even worse, ye might be condemned to hard labor, perhaps even thrown into service as a galley slave in some Ottoman göke ... straining yer lovely backs, five to a bench, naked and in chains, with a lash or two administered every so often to spur ye on to greater effort," he rambled, eyes glazed bright with excitement and hand snaking around my shoulder with the intention of repeating his last grope.
"Rubbish," declared our chaperone, Lady Prudence. "Enough of such talk! I am sure that we ladies are all perfectly safe. We are British, after all, are we not? Now, my dears, it's getting late. Time to go below decks. The maid-servants are there waiting to undress us and get us all into bed for the night. Come along, girls. Bid the dear Captain, a cheery good night."
I did as Lady Prudence bade, prying myself loose from the Captain's lecherous grasp, although not before he got a good handful of what he desired.
We descended below to our quarters where our maid servants were waiting as Lady Pru promised, gathered beside a rather large wooden tub of tepid bathwater. They undressed us as we stood about, engaged in giggling chatter about Barbary pirates, slave markets, and how deliciously horrible it might be to be a sex slave and ravished in different ways. Then into the bath we went, all five of us together ... splashing at one another playfully as our maid-servants did their best to lean over the edge of the tub and bathe us.
Afterward we dressed for bed in our thin white night gowns, and clambered into our waiting bunks ... two girls to each. I slept with Lady Katherine. She and I snuggled together, listened to the gentle rhythmic lapping of water against the ship's hull, and wondered with furtive whispers and snickers, which of the others ended up sharing a bunk with Lady Prudence.