For the first time, I was reluctant instead of eager for my departure date. As brief as our honeymoon had been—just a pair of days at home during which my housekeeper stayed conspicuously absent aside from leaving cold lunches in the larder—the world felt different when I ventured out again.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, by my wife’s apparent intention to accompany me back to the ship. After all, she had scarce been absent from it in the weeks preceding. But she shocked me to my bones with her use of a single word later that morning. “We.”
“Before we sail,” she said, as if it were the most natural assumption in the world. I asked her to repeat what she had said, thinking I had misheard, or she had misspoken. But the second time she emphasized the word as if she knew specifically what I was questioning. “You still need to hire a cook before we sail.” Her face held a hint of defiance—she knew the objection was coming—but she continued on as if I hadn’t noticed the word, and as if she hadn’t noticed me notice it. “I know you’re already set to sign sailors today, but the cook is a trickier matter, isn’t it?”
“No—yes, I mean. I’ve put out an inquiry for Samson Delacort, he just came in from New York after a cruise with the Abraham, and he’s as good as they come. But…” I sputtered out, completely thrown out of my frame of reference, and she continued on again, blocking the objection I was now certain she knew I was trying to register. “Oh I’m glad. I think that’s one position where the right man can make a real difference. But of course, you know better than I about that.” I wasn’t fooled by her sop to my superior knowledge, and I found my tongue.
“Mrs. Starbuck, we need to have a conversation. I will join thee in my cabin.” I matched her emphasis with my own singular pronoun, and aimed to give myself a moment’s thought before launching my defense—but she tucked her arm into mine as she had the night I asked her to marry me, and towed me with her. She dropped her pretended innocence as well, in the steps to the cabin door, and rounded on me seriously when I closed it behind us.
I made two mistakes—at least two. I went in already defending, and I took the conversation to privacy. I didn’t yet know her propensity to protect my public authority, didn’t know to make use of my First Mate’s presence without. If it even would have worked in this case. Truthfully, I have never known a person so set on any idea as Gayla was on her intention to ship with me.
“Obadiah, believe me, I have imagined every objection you might raise, and none of them will do. I will not be left at home for years with nothing to do but sweep an empty house. I will not pace that catwalk looking for ships carrying mail, or wondering what is happening with you. I will not be shut out of your world or be relegated to the status of a parlor chair, furnishing your house when you return to it.
“I will not be an impediment to the workings of your ship, Obadiah, I swear it. I am going with you.”
It had all the markings of a practiced speech—desperately practiced, by the look of her. Maybe it was the memory of my mother that stirred me, the contentiousness between my father and her, her oft-voiced resentments about his absences, the ways in which they were disconnected from each other and strangers to one another when he returned home. Maybe it was the fact that I’d suspected in her an intention to sail before we married, though I had since discounted the notion, that had me slightly prepared to accept the idea. Maybe it’s because she IS interesting, and I didn’t want her to be a stranger to me.
I didn’t want my housekeeper and my neighbors to know her better than I did. I didn’t want to write her letters (which circle the globe for months before returning home, if they ever do). I didn’t want to hope for a letter from her (which finds its mark even more rarely than a letter to port). I didn’t want to leave her.
Her face grew markedly tighter as I maintained my silence, struggling with conflicting thoughts. I couldn’t make such a decision on the spot. I know I sounded gruff when I finally spoke, and I could see her bracing breath when I broke the silence. “I will see thee at home, Wife, and we will speak of this.” It’s all I could think of to say, and I found myself obliged to exit the cabin and leave the ship, feeling rather foolish and at loose ends as to where to go.
I wasn’t yet expected at the docks for signing sailors. Indeed, few captains would be expected for a process often relegated to the mate, but I’d always held the opinion that the men made the voyage, and I would have some hand in choosing them. I strode uphill without attention to my direction, pondering the numerous implications of granting Gayla’s plea. And plea it was—the woman had been pleading, despite the forceful nature of her declarations. It would complicate the process of choosing a crew; although a common sailor has no say in who ships abaft the mast, I was desirous of avoiding the upfront introduction of discontent in the chemistry of the crew. And as the tattooed islander had said, many New Englanders objected to women on board.
She swore she wouldn’t impede the operations of my ship, but what accommodations would I have to make for her? She couldn’t truly appreciate the conditions of a whaling voyage—no one could who hadn’t sailed. Perhaps if I doused her in saltwater and stood her at the rail in wet woolens and a high wind, she’d think twice. Then again, picturing her face, I thought she might just become all the more stubborn. What would she think of the naked native greetings in the Pacific Islands, and what did she know of men spending months away from wives and female company?
I told myself I would argue her out of it when I got home, but I think I had already accepted the inevitable. When I returned to the dock (relieved to find she had indeed left for home) I found myself echoing the question she had been asking in the taverns. Will you sail with a woman?