Chapter 5


The Whaler’s Wife might not have keycards or plumbing or in-room coffee pots, but evidently they do feature a wake-up service. Lacking robe or nightgown or clean shirt, I had braved the sheets and slept nude, and accordingly found myself scrambling some coverage with my cloak when I woke to the polite but insistent knocking of Bitsy. Or her look-alike. I squinted at her, still groggy and unsure, and she smiled brightly back. (Me? I need coffee before I get that kind of smile going.)

“Good morning, Miss Gayla. Mrs. Molly says to tell you she’s ready for you.” Unaware of what unknown appointment I was missing, the best way to find out seemed just to go.

“Thank you, Bitsy.” Her face flashed disapproval and I quickly changed course. “Forgive me, I’m hardly awake. You’re—?” The wrinkles above her nose smoothed out and I hoped I was forgiven. “Susan. Our mother says we look alike, but we never think so.” Their mother had the right of it, but I kept the opinion to myself.

“Thank you, Susan. I’ll just dress and be downstairs in a moment, if you would be so good as to tell Mrs. Molly. And is there—do you have coffee downstairs?” To my relief she nodded cheerfully and bobbed back down the hallway toward the stairs.

Dressing didn’t take me long. It’s not like I had any choices to make regarding my wardrobe. And I had incentive in the waiting coffee. Not to mention my curiosity.

Mrs. Molly had certainly lost no time in making her arrangements. A tidy little woman with elaborate spit curls sat in the front room, and Mrs. Molly shepherded me directly to her, practically pushing me down onto the bench across, and gesturing to Susan (or Bitsy?) to bring me a mug of coffee. I burned my tongue in my eagerness, and ended up with one hand clapped across my mouth while the other was called upon to shake the extended digits of Mrs. Norton, who had my drawings in front of her, and turned out to be a seamstress.

Oh, for a department store! This all began to look so complicated.

Mrs. Norton turned out to be something of an artist herself, subjecting me to a number of measurements, asking me a rapid-fire series of questions about fits and fabrics, and wasting no time in whipping out a set of highly professional-looking sketches. I also found them highly alarming, full of frills and fripperies, which might be “the fashion” but certainly didn’t suit me. Come to that, I wondered what about my current appearance would have led her to draw these. Well, they were unquestionably top fashion, and if her skills with a needle were on a par with her skill with a pen, she was an impressive specimen—not bad for the front room of a wharf-side inn. No wonder Mrs. Molly looked so proud of herself.

I settled in to (cautiously) sip my coffee, and to talk Mrs. Norton out of some percentage of the proposed furbelows and fandangles.

I’m not usually one to get excited over clothes, but her interest and investment in the outfits proved contagious. Or maybe it was the idea of having a “real” wardrobe from now, rather than the approximations I’d cobbled together a few years previously (rather, a couple hundred years hence). And of course the opportunity to put on something besides the one set of clothes I had. Heck, maybe it was just the coffee kicking in—but whatever the combination, I found myself animatedly discussing her sketch revisions and actually anticipating their fulfillment.

“Right,” she concluded briskly, enclosing our modified designs in a leather portfolio and pushing back from the table. “I’ll send over a nightgown and chemises before evening, and I’ll have the dresses ready for a fitting by tomorrow.” I’m sure I gaped at her, wondering if she were hiding a magic wand or a workshop of elves. Probably more like the latter—I supposed she had assistants at work in her studio. Or whatever an artist-of-outfits would call her workplace.

Business had picked up while we conferred, people coming in the front door and down the stairs for bowls of cooked cereal with stewed apples and cinnamon. I went in search of a bowl of the same for myself, and another refill of coffee. Maybe if I made friends with the cook I could even get some cream and sugar in this round. I make a habit of making nice with cooks and custodians—these are the people who make the world go round. Mrs. Molly headed me off, though, nearly bowling me over as she came rocketing through the kitchen door herself. She seemed to have two gears: light-speed, or stand-and-survey.

“There you are, Miss!” (As if I’d been anywhere but where she planted me, and a thwarted path from there to the kitchen door.) “Here, Billy just came back from the shops.” The night before I’d given her another stack of dollar coins toward the shopping, and now I saw a curious face peering cautiously around the door at about waist-height—likely the errand-runner.

Unless Billy drove a really hard bargain, I would clearly owe her some more money. With all the aplomb of a practiced personal shopper, she arrayed the items on the nearest table. An ivory comb and carved hair pins. A hand-stitched red leather notebook with thick, creamy pages. A stoppered bottle of India ink and hand-turned wooden fountain pen. A bone-handled knife with a leather sheath. Three pairs of silk stockings. A pair of white gloves. A sleek straw bonnet with a single tasteful dark blue velvet ribbon. A large carpet bag worked in delicate needlepoint. Half a dozen sperm-whale teeth that had me itching to run for my scribing tool. I wondered about nineteenth-century return policies, but only half-heartedly. Honestly, I wanted these pretty things, even the ones she’d apparently taken it upon herself to add.

“Thank you! These are perfect.” I wondered if Billy were in the habit of selecting such items, and thought it more likely that Mrs. Molly had a shopkeeper-acquaintance and conveyed explicit instruction. I had no idea what her mark-up would be, but decided she and her connections were worth it.

“I’ll need to post a letter later today—would Billy be willing to take it?” She nodded, helping me transfer my newly purchased goods into the carpet bag to take upstairs. “And now—some breakfast, if you please.”

It didn’t take me long to write out the letter, which I had composed in my head before I ever Traveled. I knew enough of the facts from the Coffin Company ledgers to put myself forward as an agent of the actual underwriter, and announced my impending arrival with intentions of inspecting the ship and overseeing its preparations to sail. It’s the sort of necessary evil a businessman has to put up with from an investor—I doubted they’d be excited about my appearance, but I was pretty certain they’d put up with me. In fact, they’d even foot the bill for my room for a couple weeks. I requested confirmation of their receipt of the letter by return post, and sent Billy off with the letter and a couple dimes, telling him the penny-and-a-half change was for him to keep.

After lunch I headed to the harbor master to see about my passage out in a week. I guess I went in with the mentality of an age of travel agents, expecting to be able to make a reservation—and found out that’s not how it works. The passenger ships currently in port were not planning to hang around for a whole week. And this guy wasn’t going to make deals for ships that weren’t yet here. It stands to reason, once I stopped to consider—it’s not like they’re running a bus schedule here and know what time the next one arrives. Sailing ships are at the mercy of wind and weather (and might not arrive at all, let alone when you anticipate them). He told me to come back closer to when I wanted to leave, and he’d see what looked to be available. Or I could take the overland stage, which does run on a schedule. True—but they don’t keep passenger lists, and I needed that.

One thing about list-makers is that we also like to cross things off our lists, and I think I’d imagined knocking off my “New York to-do list” within a couple days. Looking to dispel my disappointment over the delay, I walked a while along the wharf—practicing names of lines and rigging in my head—before eventually turning my steps back to The Whaler’s Wife. A parcel awaited me on my bed, wrapped with what looked more like embroidery floss than twine. Two chemises and a roomy nightgown that made me wonder about the per-yard cost of fabric, and a lovely dark blue blouse. It seemed a shame to pair it with my bedraggled skirt, but I happily donned the new shirt before heading downstairs.

I asked Susan-or-Bitsy for an ale, and fished the scribing tool and tooth out of my skirt pocket, casting about for inspiration for my first “real” scrimshaw project. I’d been experimenting with techniques for three years now, mostly on antler, but my new surroundings and my first actual whale-tooth made this one momentous.

I sometimes wonder if a writer feels about an empty page (or computer screen, as the case may be) the same way I feel about a blank canvas (or in this case, whale tooth). It’s both inviting and intimidating. Freighted with equal parts excitement-over-possibilities and fear-of-failure. And by “failure,” I mean not managing to manifest what’s in my mind. All artists have their share of those moments—and though the practical stakes are seldom higher than the cost of a canvas (and your time), it’s dispiriting in the extreme.

There’s something tidy and calming about geometrical shapes, so I set to outlining a series of sailor’s knots arranged in a symmetrical geometry. Small wonder that knots were on my mind; I’d been cramming on sailing-studies the night before I left. By the time I started in on the shading the ropes, an awareness had intruded of a small figure inching his way around the wall toward me from the direction of the kitchen.

“Hello, Billy,” I greeted him with a quick upward glance and a smile, which seemed to freeze him in place. I set down the work, eyes needing a few minutes’ break anyway, and picked up my mug. I’d intended to ask what he was up to, but thought he might hightail it back to the kitchen if he interpreted the inquiry as accusatory, so I switched tactics and started with what I was up to instead. “I’ve been drawing this evening. What have you been doing today?”

“Well…” He absently kicked at the wall with the toe of one shoe, considering. “I had a penny-candy from the shops.” His shy and conspiratorial grin told me that had been the fate of his postal-carrier payment. “And me an’ Sam watched the Albatross unload, and chased gulls, and fished off the dock but we didn’t catch anything and he lost his hook and his mama will set him right down for that.” Spoken with the self-righteousness or relief of someone who didn’t lose his own hook.

“Sounds like a full afternoon.” I couldn’t help but grin, thinking of my own young summers when our single block could encompass any number of adventures, and I would come home breathless to tell Tutu Ma about the goings-on of my little neighborhood posse. “So tell me—if you had ten pennies, would you buy ten candies, or is there something else you would buy?”

He scowled suspiciously, as if it were a trick question. And perhaps it was tricky, since I didn’t lead with an offer of ten pennies. But then he sidled closer, as if confiding a deep secret. “There’s a whistle”—he nodded for emphasis—“at Mr. Ellerby’s. It’s shiny and it’s loud” (clearly highly desirable qualities in any object) “and it costs a whole quarter. But if I ever had ten pennies, I’d save them for that. But Mr. Ellerby gave me two candies today, and I gave one to Sam.” Closing with that apparent nonsequitur (which I interpreted as part confession and part bid-for-favor) he clammed up again and looked at me with no small amount of hope. So I relented and made my proposal.

“Well, I’m going to be here for a week, and I’ll need some extra errands run while I’m here, maybe even need you to take me some places since you know your way around. Do you suppose you could do that if I had some pennies to pay you with?” He nodded, and proved himself not a bad little haggler. Having settled on a price of three pennies a day for his help (he suggesting some additional services he might be able to perform for me) he skipped off to scare up my dinner. And returned, balancing a plate precariously and promising that Bitsy would be right behind with a refill of ale.

“What were you drawing?” he demanded, evidently having grown more comfortable over the course of our conversation and subsequent bargaining.

“Its a design made out of knots,” I told him, around a mouthful of brown bread. Most unladylike, I’m sure.

“But I can’t see them,” he complained, frowning as if I were trying to trick him so soon after reaching our accord.

Pulling the India ink bottle out of my pocket with a flourish, I winked at him. “Watch this!” I rubbed ink over the surface of the tooth, turning it entirely black, then took out the linen rag I’d procured from Mrs. Molly and began to rub it across the mess. With each swipe, a swath of ink lifted from the surface, except for the etched lines that jumped out in sudden dark relief against the ivory. Judging by Billy’s wide eyes, it was a magic trick worth the watching. And I was quite pleased with the effect myself, though I’d keep working on the detailing.

With tomorrow’s tasks outlined and agreed upon, Billy disappeared looking quite pleased with himself. He didn’t know that I would easily have paid him more, or that I had already resolved to buy him Mr. Ellerby’s best whistle. As soon as I found out who and where Mr. Ellerby was.