“Get up, you stupid, stupid boy!” yelled Miss Ainsworth as she helped him to his feet with the tug of an ear. “Master Bostwick plans to be here by seven. I want you looking presentable. And try to take that sick look of your face. No one wants a boy with the look of death upon his face.”
Isaac Stearns rubbed his ear and watched as Miss Ainsworth left the dormitory room. He wondered how a woman with so big a bottom could manage the stairs to his room so quietly. At fifteen years old, Isaac stood a lean six feet tall and it was hard for the school to give him pants that fit properly. Most of the clothes distributed at Coll’s School for the Education of Young Men, came from charitable institutions, closed estates and church donations. It appeared that the best of the lot went to Headmaster Dillingham.
Richard Bostwick periodically came by the school to enlist the aide of young Christian men to accompany him to the missions in China. Rumors had arisen when Master Bostwick would come by every couple of years looking for another “volunteer” snd that he may be a little “light on his feet.” What was the alternative? If Bostwick put his eyes upon you as a good candidate, would any dare say no? Could the yellow heathen of China be any worse than life here as a “Coll’s man?”
Isaac came down to the main hall wearing his best shirt that was several sizes too big. With the aide of a tattered overcoat, the large oval sweat stains on the under sleeves of the shirt were well concealed. His pants were generous in length and helped conceal his worn out shoes. Miss Ainsworth had showed him how pinching his cheeks would add a look of health to his countenance and help to disguise his oft sickened appearance.
Isaac recalled to mind the mine that his uncle worked at year after year for low company wages. The men looked tired, haggard and dirty before their assigned shifts had even started. As a young boy, he would watch as the men that came out as they were replaced by the new shift of coal miners going in. He remembered peering into the opening of the mine. Looking beyond the lift, as far as the lack of light could allow, it appeared as the portal to hell. As Isaac stood in the main hall of Coll’s School, with the lack of light and the smell of sweat and dirt he was reminded of his uncle's face once again. He could not forget the look of resignation that registered upon the face of his Uncle Tootsie as he prepared to enter the mine each day. Isaac imagined that in some strange fashion his face looked like that of his Uncle Tootsie. He stood in the hall waiting for Headmaster Dillingham and Master Bostwick to conclude their private matters. Thirty minutes later the door to the Headmaster’s room opened allowing the smell of cigars to precede their actual appearance.
“Young Master Stearns!” Mr Bostwick overstated.
“Your servant, sir,” answered Isaac.
“Straighten up! Extend your hand, man,! shouted the Headmaster. “He’s a little short on good custom but a fine lad, sir. He will suit you fine in your noble endeavors.”
“I suppose you’ve gathered your things,” Mr Bostwick said to the noticeably nervous Isaac.
Mr Bostwick looked ever the fine gentleman. He sported a neatly trimmed mustache that curled upward at the ends and appeared to compliment a long full nose. His hands were curiously long and he wore no ring. His vest did sport what one would imagine to be a very fine pocket watch and the wide lapels of his town coat made him an impressive and authoritative sight.
“Come, young Master Stearns. Let us prepare for our journey.”
Isaac had lived at Coll’s since the young age of eight. The bones of his father lie somewhere in the Americas. In truth, he was presumed, or rather, wished dead by his mother’s family. Billy McCarthy wed Margaret Stearns within two weeks after their first meeting. As Ireland lie deep in famine, Billy toured the city of Liverpool with a drink in one hand and quick fingers on the other. His marriage to Margaret was viewed as a family tragedy. Her brothers took to beating the “Bog Trotter” nearly to death and he was last seen on a ship to the Americas. With each telling of the story, Billy became ever more loathsome and even Isaac had little affection in his heart for the father he had never known. When the dear sister came up pregnant a short time later, the family’s love morphed to shame and Margaret’s pregnancy was borne out in secrecy. After a difficult labor her hemorrhaging could not be stopped. The family found themselves saddled with a baby boy with no mother to look after it. For Isaac’s first eight years he lived with his Uncle Tootsie. Tootsie himself was a widow. He and his mother in law took good care of Isaac until the death of Tootsie in winter of 1844. It was at this juncture that Isaac became a “Coll’s man,” a distinction that bore no one any mark of privilege or blessing.
The trip from Coll’s Road began in mud and ruts and a tossing about of the carriage occupants. Mr Bostwick continued to be a man of few words. Isaac felt terribly hungry and looked out the window hoping for a short ride to Liverpool once they turned onto the Tudor highway. They rode in silence for several hours until Mr Bostwick rustled through his things and brought out an apple. Isaac’s spirits lightened briefly until Bostwick began to slowly eat the apple without the offer of a slice or a look of acknowledgment. Isaac felt that he must soon burst through the silence but fear held his tongue. Soon a glimpse of darkness caught his eye. On the horizon his attention was drawn to the low black smoke that covered the city of Liverpool. From it’s many manufacturing companies, dense smoke hung low about the city. Isaac had expected bright colors and streets filled with gentlemen and their ladies. He envisioned vendors and hawkers selling their wares. As they drove down to their point of lodging he saw dirty children and haggard woman. Not at all what he had expected to see in the ever talked about Liverpool.
“Off you go boy,” Mr Bostwick interrupted the silence of Isaac’s brooding thoughts. “This is where you will spend the night. I’ll come for you in the morning. Tell them you’re my charge and they’ll feed you and give you a bed a bit more welcoming than what you’re accustomed to.”
Isaac rolled out and stood facing a rather ominous looking public house that appeared to lean awkwardly to the left. He opened the door and looked about feeling overwhelmed by the noise of patrons enjoying their drink. He looked about for someone that he might question and startled when a firm grip met his left shoulder.
“My, my. A wee bit young to be smellin’ round here, don’t you think?
Isaac looked up to see a woman with eyelashes so big that he thought she must be French. He had heard about French woman. His eyes quickly lowered from her face to a large overflowing bosom that looked eager to pop from their mooring. Now, he knew she was French! She pulled his face deep into her cleavage with a laugh and asked again of his intentions.
“Mr Bostwick, Miss!. He sent me here to lodge for the evening.”
Her discovery changed her tone immediately. She led Isaac to a back room with a table and a coal stove that warmed the room quite generously. “Sit! I’ll soon fill you to your toes with fine stew and our best bread.” She leaned over in a whisper, “Just pick off any mold you might discover.”
In the morning, true to his word and nature, Mr. Bostwick retrieved Isaac in silence and they walked a leisurely pace towards Liverpool Port.“Where are our things?” inquired Isaac, half expecting to hear no response at all.
“They are at the Ship. The Ship, Master Stearns. We will not set foot on dry land for some time lad. I thought a good stretch on the Queen’s good Earth might be a sustaining memory. Sometimes the voyage to China can seem to last an eternity.”
In all of his fifteen years, Isaac had not lived more than a days journey from the ocean. This was his first look at the inspiration of many tales. He found the smell of the water unpleasant. Ships tales told of water of the deepest blue. The docks were surrounded by green and murky water that showed the consistency of blood. In a short time they were boarded upon the three masted Clipper named the Pleasant. The Hull was painted black with red just above and below the waterline. Isaac walked from stem to stern and counted out 200 paces. There was the loading of cargo and passengers and crew. By mid morning, October 2, 1851, they were under sail for a port in distant China. Isaac watched as the land flowed further and further away until it seemed to stay a constant distance from port side. As they entered the Irish Channel a gale wind fought to halt their progress and men ran fore and aft shouting and instructing a change in sails. Isaac went below yearning for dry ground when they were less than twelve hours out to sea.
Once underway and free of the channel, the Pleasant maintained a steady course and Isaac finally saw the deep blue color of the open seas. One, two, three, and onward to two hundred paces. Up the starboard and down the port side he paced. Sometimes the length came to two hundred and three paces while at other times it counted out at two hundred paces even. The counting seemed to calm the nerves. With a little concentration he paced a constant two hundred and three paces. Up the starboard, down the port. Up the starboard, down the port. During the lull of winds near the equator, Isaac continued on for hour after hour for three days until a wind caught the sail and guided the Pleasant into a strong wind counted worthy of the Pleasant’s three masts.
Isaac and Mr Bostwick were only two out of a passenger list of five. All of the passengers kept their own company while the ships crew worked, slept and ate as one unit. By January, 1854, Isaac became intensely ill and spent most of his days below. A young black man who worked slops would often check on his state of health and offer bits of food and drink trying to coax Isaac’s recovery. Finally, on March 22nd 1852, the Pleasant had made its port of call. Isaac was placed upon a litter and carried away topside. The bearers tightened their coats as the day was wet and cool. Isaac was in full fever thinking that he was back at Coll’s School awaiting punishment by Miss Ainsworth or the Headmaster and yelled loudly for mercy. His bearers, accustomed to seeing fevers and sickness, focused on their destination looking only to relieve themselves of their burden. A mile or two from port, they found their destination and placed him within an open courtyard outside of a two story home, Isaac lay upon the litter and slept an uncomfortable sleep until some unsolicited help placed him in a clean and warm bed. Isaac’s sickness left him weak and bedridden for several weeks. The house appeared to have several Chinese Christian converts employed for household chores and laundry. One old woman, with a face of leather and very few teeth provided Isaac with fresh bed clothes and water each day. She urged him to sit out in the sun by gently pulling him by his arm while forcing him to comply. She seemed genuinely happy to take care of him and Isaac would often wish that she was with him at night when he felt at his weakest. Isaac’s mind began to torment him with thoughts that he would never recover and die far away from England as his Irish father had. Each day, when the old woman felt that Isaac had spent a sufficient amount of time in the courtyard, she would assist him back to his room much the same way she led him out.
Isaac had been in port for a month and hadn’t seen Mr Bostwick in all of that time. Isaac expected to see missionaries coming and going within the compound but he saw no one but the old woman and three or four other woman considerably younger than the old Chinese nurse maid. He could see over the wall when he sat on the forecourt. Although originally set up as an area of privacy, with the building of roads and newer homes nearby, Isaac could relax and view any activity going on nearby. He noticed that as foot traffic went by everyone crossed over to the other side of the road. At first, he believed that it might be because it would give them an equally distinct view of him as he had of them. In time Isaac realized that the eyes of those passing by were often averted while their pace quickened. It gave Isaac a deep feeling of uneasiness, making his empty stomach tighten even further.
One nightfall, Isaac was awakened by voices involved in heated discussion. It sounded like the old woman and the voice of an irate Englishman. When things had quieted, the door to his room slowly opened and a familiar shadow stood in the doorway. Mr. Bostwick stood with cane in hand looking as though he had just returned from the ball.
“Master Stearns! Are you still ill?” inquired the long missing Mr Bostwick. Rumor on the street has it that you have a host of demons inside of you. I thought, what in God’s name would give them that idea? Then I realized that the old woman heard you talking and yelling in your sleep week after week. When that happens, no amount of reasoning can get the little yellow heathen and their superstitious black hearts to calm down. We can’t have these idolaters afraid of us, can we? So, I gave her leave.”
“Oh no, Mr Bostwick. Please bring her back. She has been a comfort to me!” Isaac pleaded.
With a look of consternation etched upon his face, Bostwick let out a long sigh. “Master Stearns! I will provide you with all the comfort that you need.” With this, Mr Bostwick turned on his heel, shut the door, and left.
The following day brought rains and a feeling of dampness in the air. Isaac was feeling particularly feverish and longed for the old woman. The door opened and Mr Bostwick entered carrying in a basin of water and some loose towels. “I thought that with some prayer and clean clothes you would be well enough for something to eat.” Mr Bostwick approached Isaac and began to undress him not waiting for approval in word or by glance. With his sweaty night clothes put aside, Mr Bostwick began to pray for Isaac’s returning health and wrung out a warm linen and began to wash him.
“Father. We come to you in the name of your son and our redeemer, Jesus Christ. We ask that you impart your healing touch and bring health to your good servant, Master Isaac.” This was the first time that Mr Bostwick had ever called Isaac by his Christian name. The warm cloth washed his face and chest while the prayer continued. “Let your Holy Spirit reveal to Isaac your love and your desire to touch him with glowing health so that he may serve you in leading the Godless heathens to your grace and mercy.” At this, the warm cloth began to wash Isaac’s private area and proceeded to his legs and feet. “Turn over man,” gulped Mr Bostwick as he proceeded to wash Isaac’s back. After washing his back and bottom, he finished with the back of his legs and Mr Bostwick patted him dry. Isaac was startled to find a kiss falling upon his left shoulder and then the cheek of his buttocks. “Get up, Master Isaac and I will fix us something to eat,” sighed Mr Bostwick.
As they ate in silence, Mr Bostwick was again strikingly absent and ate without speaking. With the old woman gone Isaac felt homesick for company. He examined his thoughts with disbelief when he considered Coll’s School for the Education of Young Men, something to be missed. After they had finished eating, Isaac whittled away the day browsing through the considerable collection of books in the makeshift library searching for comfort. In the late afternoon, Mr Bostwick entered the library and placed a tray with tea and biscuits before Isaac and departed. Again, without ever saying a word. When evening arrived he felt that he had made some improvement and contentedly retired to his room for the evening. He noticed that his sweaty nights clothes from this morning had not been replaced as the old woman had so often done. Tiredly he climbed into bed enjoying the coolness of the linens upon his naked body. Perhaps the prayer of Mr Bostwick had effected a change, he thought. With the house quiet and the room dark, he fell fast asleep.