Chapter 8: Gayla


Compared to winning that battle, you’d think I wouldn’t be daunted by the prospect of outfitting myself for the journey. Fortunately, I found an ally in Obadiah’s (rather, our—I hadn’t yet adjusted to the shared pronoun) housekeeper, Mrs. Vanderhagen. I think she couldn’t make up her mind between being amused or being horrified by my audacity, but either way she seemed to feel that it would reflect on her personally if I were to fall short in the undertaking. Obadiah left her with money for the expenses, and I registered the fact that she had more latitude than I in the matter of spending. I registered further the fact that unlike Mrs. Vanderhagen, who as a widow was a free soul and merely his employee, I was technically his property as much as was the purse he had left with her. And with that perspective, I counted myself lucky that I had won the victory I had.

Besides, I had my next battle ahead of me, in convincing Mrs. V of the practicalities of a sailor’s wardrobe for a young woman she would rather have been dressing in calico skirts. Still, she had years of experience in setting up sailors for sea, her own husband (and mine) among them. Her purely businesslike attitude, surrounded by woolen socks and trousers and oilcloths, and her handy knack of disappearing all those articles into my small seaman’s chest, went some measure toward calming me.

It wasn’t a true sailor’s wardrobe, nor was it truly a feminine one, but something in the middle set by Mrs. Vanderhagen’s sensibilitiies, a mix of practicality and decorum. The billowy shirts were of finer stuff than the men would be wearing (and what I had envisioned for myself), with light embroidery at the wrists of several. I wondered whether Mrs. V really believed I intended to work, or if she thought me playing dress-up. Perhaps the former, because she included a pair of serviceable square-toed shoes in addition to the women’s slippers which she insisted would be as good as the sailors’ bare feet for gripping the deck. Even the slippers were made of sterner stuff than the decorative items worn ashore, so perhaps she took me seriously after all.

I surveyed myself in the glass and still felt as if I were dressed for a costume party. The figure looking back at me was going to appear ridiculous to my husband, I knew, and I hadn’t even cut off my hair yet. The shirt, long enough to cover me to the knees by itself, tucked into the canvas trousers with button fronts. Not the tin buttons the common sailors might sport, I noticed, but brass. Evidently I had my husband’s dignity to maintain—if that were even possible under the circumstances. Looking around at my effects, I had to concede Mrs. V had done well by me. If she wanted to doll me up just a little with a colorful sash and neckerchief among the plainer ones, she had also made sure my wardrobe would hold up to life at sea (with the requisite mending, of course—every sailor sews).

She also insisted on packing one of my new dresses and a full wool skirt—if the latest fashions did not intend it to be worn with a sailor’s blouse, at least I would have some “real” women’s wear. The skirt necessitated petticoats and a shawl and the few pieces of female get-up took as much space as my entire sailor’s rig, a chest of its own. Looking at the stuffed second chest (which I half-resolved never to open), I figured my husband should be grateful for my nontraditional approach and the extra room he’d have in the cabin compared to the many trunks that would be required for a lady’s full turn-out.

Mrs. V. drew the line at cutting my hair, saying she wouldn’t answer to the Master for such a sacrilege, it being my only beauty. Her rather cutting assessment aside, I did feel reluctant. Obadiah had brushed my hair for me each night of our brief marriage, and I already relished the ritual. Still, I had no intention of trying to wash or maintain waist-length hair for two years on a whaler, so I took up the sewing scissors myself when Mrs. V declined. I waited till the last morning, Obadiah having been onboard since the night before.

I didn’t know how he’d react, though I thought Mrs. Vanderhagen’s opinionated declaration would be just the preview to the big show. His incredulous expression when I came aboard in trousers and short hair was just about what I had anticipated. But with all the words I had imagined from him, I hadn’t counted on his laughter.