Stowaway. When Karin Myre, a young Norwegian seamstress's assistant from Seattle, gets caught up in the excitement of the steamer Portland's arrival with the first ton of riches from the Klondike Gold Rush, she decides to escape a future of too much drudgery and no choices. Sneaking on board of one of the many overcrowded ships bound north, she finds herself trapped in the cargo hold with a crowd of second thoughts. But her rescue from the captain and a fate worse than death by a handsome prospector and his photographer partner is only the beginning of her search for true gold.
I will always remember July 15, 1897, the day my life changed. I, like the rest of the hundreds of people crowded on every bluff and pier, watched the Portland steam towards the Seattle docks. I left Miss Alice in the lurch at the Macombers' and at the mercy of Mrs. Macomber's wrath over her daughter's wedding dress, but after reading the newspaper Father brought home last night I could no more have stayed away than I could have flown.
A ton of gold. A ton of gold. I could not imagine such a thing. Surely the battered little ship should have sunk before it left its Alaskan port with a load that heavy. And that was just the gold. I could barely see the people packing the space at the railing, staring back up at the crowds gazing down at them.
So far as I could tell, the whole world had gone into a frenzy when the Excelsior docked in San Francisco a few days ago and the stories flew as fast as the telegraph wires could carry them. A reporter from the Post-Intelligencer had paid an extravagant sum two days ago to be ferried out to the Portland and back on a tug just to get the story ahead of his competitors. To get his 'scoop' as the ship threaded its way through the Strait and down the Sound past Ports Angeles and Townsend, along Whidbey Island, past Mukilteo and then Ballard, where I stood shoulder to shoulder with jostling men, women, and children alike above Shilshole Bay, to the port of Seattle where doubtless an even larger mob anxiously awaited its arrival.
When it steamed out of sight the entire crowd let out a sigh and streamed back down the hill towards town. The only word I could hear out of the babble was "gold!" until another, one I had first read in that newspaper last night after Father threw it down took over its place. "Klondike! Klondike!" Everyone around me was making plans, or wishing they could make plans, or angry because they could not make plans, to go to the Klondike. If you were fancy-free enough, and had money enough to buy an outfit, you were the envy of your friends. If you could not go, if you had a wife, or God forfend children, or other responsibilities that prevented you from going, you swore and called yourself a coward. I saw more than one ragged man reduced to begging his fellows to grubstake him because he had not the pennies to rub together to buy an outfit. I saw children pleading with their parents to take them to the "K'ondyke." I saw women tearfully telling their husbands to go make their fortune and bring it back to them.
It was all worse than a stage melodrama; worse because it was real.
I let the babbling crowd carry me back down the hill, but not to the Macombers' or to Miss Alice and my lowly position as a seamstress's assistant. No. This was my chance, and I was going to take it. I had been denied adventures since I was old enough to remember wanting them. I made my plans in silence. I would not sound like a melodrama, even if there was anyone to listen to me. No one was.
* * *
My name is Karin Marie Myre. I was born in Norway in 1879, and when we immigrated to America we took as our surname the name of the town we had come from, as was the custom. I came here at the age of three with my two older brothers and my mother, who was pregnant with my sister Ronja. I wish I could remember the crossing, even if my mother's tales of seasickness and cramped quarters and storms should have been enough to make me glad I do not. We arrived in New York City and boarded a train which I also do not remember except for my brothers' boastful recollections, for Washington territory. My father had gone there before us to find work in the timber.
My earliest memories are of the smell of sawdust and rain, of tree stumps large enough to build a house upon and logs bigger around than Father was tall being skidded down to the waterfront. By the time I was ten there were six of us children in our small cabin. By the time I was fourteen, the year the world fell apart in what became known as the Panic of 1893, the mill closed and Father lost his job.
We left the woods and moved to the town of Ballard, north of Seattle, which to my eyes would have been an improvement had I not been put out to work as a seamstress's assistant before our few boxes were unpacked. I have always been good with a needle, and we needed the money. We always needed the money, since Father could not hold onto two bits to save his life, and now we were seven, with Mother showing no signs of slowing down. At least not so far as having babies was concerned.
It was not long after we moved to town that I received my first marriage proposal. Or, rather, that the man in question went to Father and asked him for me. Fortunately for me, Father turned him down. I do not think it was Mother's pleas that I was too young that stopped him. It was that he did not have enough money to suit my father. I was glad, because he was not exciting enough for me.
And so it went. My father could not find work. I have to admit it was not for lack of trying; because of the Panic thousands of men could not find work. But the reasons did not matter. If it had not been for the clams and mussels we children scavenged on the beach, we would have gone hungry more than once. Lars and John left home to go to sea, my younger brother and sisters were too young for anyone to want to pay them to do anything, and that left me.
The seamstress I worked for took me with her when she went to pay calls on her customers, to fetch and carry and hold, and I saw the insides of big houses full of fine things and ladies whose servants received more pay than I did for less skill. Oh, Miss Alice was good to me, taught me how to make French tucks and gave me extra for the crocheted lace I made with the fine thread from the shop, but she was a working woman, too. All of the fine cloth and materials passing through our hands were for other people. She often talked about her Matthew who'd been a soldier, fighting the Indians before I was born. How he'd promised her all the fine cloth she wanted, and the house and whatnot, when he came home. Made him sound like a proper savior. And then he had died a hero, and left her with nothing. It was, in its own way, as bad as my mother's own situation. If I was going to have any fine things, make anything at all of myself, it was going to have to be by the work of my own hands.
* * *
I was eighteen the day the Portland arrived. Eighteen and every penny I made went towards the care of siblings who kept arriving in spite of the fact that there was no money to pay for them. Eighteen, with four marriage proposals behind me, and thank goodness that was where they were. I knew I was desirable. My face and figure are pleasing even if I am not overtall and not willowy enough for some. My eyesight is good, and I am more than capable of earning my own way. People will always need a seamstress, Panic or no Panic. I do not know which of these characteristics men considered so well, or if it was my thick blonde hair and my blue eyes that made them want me, but I had no intention of sharing any of it. Fortunately, my father felt the same way, but I knew it was because he could not afford to let me go. Someday he would find a man who could meet his price, and unless I escaped before he could do so, I would never have a chance.
Right then, however, I was no better off than the ragged men pleading with their friends to lend them the money to buy a grubstake, whatever that was. I did not have the money to buy a steamer ticket, let alone whatever a grubstake or an outfit consisted of.
But I was not about to let that stop me. I took the two coins Mrs. Macomber had given me as a reward for some little extra thing I had done the previous day, money I did not have to account for to my father, and boarded the streetcar for Seattle.
* * *
I was disheveled, damp, and exhausted by the time I arrived at Seattle's waterfront. My hat was askew, my shoes were filthy, and I had absolutely no desire to know what the hem of my skirts looked like. I envied the men milling about the streets in their mackinaws and woolen trousers, their sturdy boots and slouch hats. They moved so freely, while I struggled for good deep breaths even with my corset laced as loosely as would still fit under my dress. I wondered if I told the merchants I was making the purchase for my husband or brother, if they would sell me clothing – but no. What would I purchase it with? A smile? I was going to have to earn my way north as it was. Surely some good captain would have need of a skilled seamstress.
Yes, I was naïve. Some of the offers I received from those "good captains" as I made my way from ship to ship down the docks opened my eyes wider than was quite necessary. Apparently, no lady going North who was not attached to a man was considered to be a lady, and adventuress has an entirely different meaning in this context than what I had aspired to.
Besides, I could not count the number of men who had perfectly good cash to pay for their tickets north. I could not help but wonder why, if they had ready access to the sums of money needed to buy passage, they felt they needed to go dig for gold in the first place.
Those sums seemed vast to me at the time. In some ways, they still do. But they could have been entirely reasonable and it still would have been beyond my reach. The sun fell behind the mountains across the Sound, changing the sky from bright blue to lit by more gaslights than in all of Ballard. Ships sailed on the outgoing tide, and I stood on the dock watching them, wanting to weep.
Instead I drew myself up and deliberately strolled away, as casual as you please. I knew I could earn my passage north if I had a chance. What I had to do was force that chance.
* * *
Her name (I am informed that referring to a ship of any kind as anything but she is a grave insult) was the Tacoma Belle. The name was slapped on her prow in brown letters on peeling, dirty white paint that predated the brown by what looked like fifty years. She chugged in from the south and slid into a space along the dock still sloshing from the departure of the previous tenant. She was a steamship, with one smokestack and two wheels, one on either side. She looked no worse than most of the ships that came into Shilshole Bay to be loaded with lumber, and better than some, and those had seemed sturdy enough. Of course, the lumber ships were not overloaded when they arrived, nor even more overloaded when they left.
I was no more a judge of seaworthy vessels than I was of horses, and I know almost nothing of horses. I knew I would have to take my chance, and here it was. I slipped into the crowd on the dock. The gangplank went down, and people and goods started aboard. I found myself some large crates and tall men, and did my best to make myself inconspicuous. It was far easier than I had thought it would be. People were cheek by jowl with animals, crates, boxes, bags, and every other sort of container or conveyance for goods imaginable. The smells were almost worse than the sights. And the noise! I thought the lumber mill where Father and the boys had worked was noisy, but my ears reverberated with the racket.
I was swept along with my company of crates, kept my eyes down, and ignored several plaintive shouts of "miss?" as I climbed down into the nether regions of the ship. It was both bigger and more jammed with goods and animals than I would have thought possible.
A voice behind me said, "Ma'am? Miss?" A hand came down on my shoulder. And I'd been so close.
I sighed, and turned to look at him. "Yes?"
"Where are you going?"
I thought quickly. What would a real passenger be doing? "To see that my goods are stowed properly." Naturally.
"Your menfolk should be doing that."
Of course. Drat him. I drew myself up. "I beg your pardon?"
"You shouldn't be down here."
I remembered Mrs. Macomber's sharp tones, so often aimed at me, and did my best at a fair imitation. "You, sir, are overstepping your bounds."
Well, that took him aback, but only for a second. "I will fetch the captain. Stay right there."
You do that, I thought. As soon as he was out of sight, a matter of a few seconds, I darted into one of the boarded divisions in the hold of the ship, and pulled the half-dozen planks nailed together serving as a door in behind me. A few seconds later, I heard a heavy slam as something thudded against it, but it did not open. I sank down on a crate to catch my breath. To try, at any rate. Corsets, being made for women, do not allow for much physical activity without causing the wearer much shortness of breath. At that moment, had I been able, I would have torn it from my body and flung it out the window.
If there had been a window. I peered around the shadowy space. Light seeped in through cracks in the ceiling, which consisted of boards nailed hastily down to crosspieces in the same manner as the walls and doors dividing the hold. Sturdy enough, but slapdash. Booted feet thumped on them almost continuously, dislodging a drizzle of dust that made me want to sneeze. The room itself was packed from floor to ceiling and side to side with crates of various sizes and shapes. The only reason I had space to stand and sit was due to the shape of the ship itself and the sheer necessity for the human packers to have at least some room to maneuver in.
Carefully I made my way to the outside wall, the only thing between me and the water slapping on the hull, leaned on it and listened, but I could not hear much, certainly not enough to tell if we were on our way yet. Then a sudden vibration, almost a chugging noise, shook me off the wall as if it were a wild animal. I sat down abruptly on the floor, and shook to my very bones, as if the vibration would jar them out of my body. The sloshing outside turned to churning, pounding against the hull as if it wanted in, a tenor counterpoint to the bass of the ship. The crates hummed and bounced in their constraints.
Over it all, completely out of place, a chorus of "baa"s pitched themselves to be heard by the deaf. They went on and on and on, rising and falling as I felt the ship move away from the dock. Both sound and motion were unmistakable. Those animals were not on the dock, they were here on the ship with me. It was God's own punishment. I was stuck in the hold of a steamship with umpteen crates and a herd of – something. Sheep? Goats? I could not help myself. I was probably half-hysterical by that point, but, back against a crate, ears full of bleating animals, ship throbbing beneath me, I laughed till I cried.
I was on my way to the Klondike.
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