Chapter 8


I’ve always enjoyed watching water. Water and flames—I can watch either one for hours. In this case, however, watching-the-water would involve a great deal of dancing-out-of-the-way. There didn’t seem to be a single foot of rail that wasn’t involved at some moment or another in the giant macrame project that was the process of getting under way. So I stood pressed against the cabin and watched instead the intriguing ballet of climbers and lines.

Until you know what connects to what, and what effects the moving parts have on one another (topics I had studied in depth, but only on the page) it would be nearly impossible to puzzle out what this troupe of aerial artists was accomplishing up there. For me in this moment, the translation from page to practice marked a moment of revelation. Even for a visual learner like me, the diagrams can only go so far. The three-dimensional, real-time exhibition of everything I had studied was purely fascinating.

Billy would love this, I thought, wistful for his energetic company and his chatter. No one here was talking to me, and I felt out of place and in the way. Another couple passengers had boarded, but I saw no sign of them on deck. (Apparently I needn’t have worried about people knowing my business when I arrived in New Bedford.) Captain and crew had their attention focused on the tasks at hand. And the one familiar face (Samson the cook, I learned) from the harbor master’s office had passed by me without a spark of recognition or interest.

Well, I had my notebook and my pen, and plenty in front of me to sketch.

I felt just as lonely and at-odds aboard Westphalia a handful of days later, my unease compounded by the awareness of my imminent actual destination. Everything to this point had been merely preparation for the upcoming unfolding of my storyline. That’s sort of how I felt about it—I had the outline of a story, but I was missing some major plot points. And I was about to go on stage without having learned any lines.

I prowled the rail restlessly, cursing my heeled boots that I’d thought so well broken in, cursing the impediment of skirts with which I’d been so pleased a few days prior, cursing the constrictions of collar and corset… As New Bedford loomed in view, I couldn’t seem to catch a whole breath—and I knew deep down that my undergarments were not to blame.

Though I’d intended to watch Westphalia into port, I finally gave it up as a bad job after two irritated sailors nearly collided with me, and went below to gather my things. They didn’t need gathered—every last article was already stowed in the clasped carpetbag. My wits needed gathering.

I marched into the Coffin offices—carpetbag and all—as if I owned them. Imperious bossiness makes a great cover for abject terror.

My letter had done its work—the clerk expected me, and ushered me deeper into the offices to seat myself in a hard Shaker chair and await one of the Misters Coffin. Said Coffin appeared shortly thereafter, solicitously inquired after my journeys (he thought from Barbados via New York) and (however reluctantly) put himself at my service.

I really didn’t want to interfere in any of their legitimate business—and certainly didn’t want any interference in mine—and hoped to keep this interview as brief as possible. A hope he obviously shared.

“I understand Obedience will sail in a month’s time?” He nodded affirmation, specifying the date, and I continued. “And this captain? What do you know of him?” He hastened to assure me that Starbuck had sailed for them for a number of voyages now, kept his crew in good order and brought home a full hold in good time. Not the things I actually wanted to know, but the things he naturally assumed I’d want to know in my assumed role. Fair enough.

“I will require a room during my stay”—he blinked at that—“and I shall want to look at the ship later today. I’m sure the captain will be pleased to show me.” He more than blinked at that, looking distinctly uncomfortable, and I wondered what, if anything, they’d said to their employee about me. I had assumed Obadiah at least knew I was coming, but perhaps I’d have to make a more comprehensive introduction. It seemed that Mr. Coffin was going to wash his hands of me as quickly as possible.

“Yes, well… We keep an account at the Gull by the wharf here; just tell the innkeeper you are a guest of ours. And I’m sure you’re welcome to view the ship at your convenience.” He stood, clearly looking to hasten my departure, and told me to contact his offices if I required anything else during my stay. I could read on his face the hope that he wouldn’t be seeing me again. No doubt it seemed a reasonable hope, that I would stay a day or so, that I would look at the ship (probably not knowing what I was looking at—I could see the assumption all over him) and that I would take myself away in short order with a meaningless report while he got on with the business of doing business.

Well, he might or might not see me again, but I had more than a day’s sight-seeing to do. Luckily he hadn’t thought to limit my stay. I asked him for direction to the Gull and took myself and my carpetbag away, trying to evince dignity instead of relief.

The Gull’s innkeeper proved to be a harried-looking man wearing the obligatory apron, who showed me himself to a room above stairs. Evidently a guest of the Coffins warranted personal attention. I’d dropped my show of imperiousness (unsure if I’d even carried it off when I was trying) and smiled my thanks at him. I would ask later where to find Captain Starbuck. For now I just wanted to take a breath and take a look around me.

I hung up the cloak I’d been carrying over my arm, and peeled off my bonnet with some relief. I supposed they were designed to provide shade, but mine just seemed to serve to make my head sweaty. My hairpins were coming out (again!—I couldn’t seem to keep the damnable things in place) and I removed the remaining ones with a few irritated yanks. Moments like this, I couldn’t wait to cut my hair.

A breath of air and a walk, and then maybe some lunch—that’s what was needed. Then maybe, on a full stomach, I’d be ready to beard the lion. Whatever that saying actually meant. I missed Google.

The morning market might be winding down, from the looks of things, but people still crowded the square, talking and drinking and haggling over a last deal as the sellers packed up. The fish vendors looked to be last wrapping up, probably not wanting to waste the wares that wouldn’t last another day. Several other inns faced the market square, and it was out of one of these that Obadiah appeared without warning, bobbing his head at the proprietor who stood beside her door buying cod, and striding out toward one of the side streets. His name came tumbling out of my mouth before I’d stopped to think that I wasn’t prepared for this conversation, that my hair was unkempt and unbonneted, that…

Well, really those were all the excuses I had to hand.

And I wasn’t going to feel any more ready for waiting around and getting worked up.

And now I had no choice, because he had turned his head, scanning to see who had hailed him.

Beards and lions. Right.

I raised my hand to focus his searching gaze, pulled up (from some deep unknown place inside) a cheery and confident smile, and repeated his name.

“Obadiah Starbuck, there you are. I’d intended to come looking for you after some luncheon, but I find you right in my path.”

A pipe is perfectly constructed for scowling around, and he proved it in that moment. He had paused in his forward motion, but resumed his original pace now, as if I might conveniently get left in his wake. “I don’t know you.”

“Well that’s because Mr. Coffin hasn’t had the opportunity to introduce us—I just came ashore this morning. I’m sure he apprised you of my arrival?” Actually, by now I was sure he hadn’t, but it seemed the quickest way to blow through the introductions. And objections.

By the time I wrapped up my explanation (trying not to let on that I was short of breath from trying to keep up with him), all his objections had migrated to his face. The truth was, he couldn’t voice them—he answered to the ship owners, just as they answered to their investor (represented in this case—they thought—by me).

It’s just as well that racing thoughts don’t put you out of breath, or I’d have been gasping on the cobblestones. I was trying to take in every detail of this man, as if I could memorize him in a moment and fast-forward to knowing him. His graying long hair, pulled back in a ponytail, his unruly stray eyebrow-hairs, the dark sun-dyed face, the brown stains on the teeth currently clenching his pipestem, the deep cracks around his eyes that didn’t, in this moment, look like “smile lines”…  Truth be told, he looked positively thunderous, and I hardly knew what inane cheerful chatter was coming out of my mouth to keep the lightning-strike at bay.

“Right then,” I heard myself saying. “Shall we go see your ship, Sir?”

I took his arm as if he had offered it, and he stiffly shifted course toward the wharf. I didn’t have to know the man to tell he was furious—he had sucked his way right through his bowl of tobacco before we ever reached the dock. Letting loose his arm, I had my first look at the other character who would play such a crucial role in my upcoming life: the ship Obedience.

Her three bare masts and rigging might not look like much, but I could picture all thirteen thousand square feet of sail unfurled. She’d be beautiful.

And she’d be home.

All hundred and ten feet of her. A hundred feet never looked so small. Load thirty men, three or four whaling boats, and two years’ worth of provisions on here, and there’d be no room to turn around. But that would be my life. Our life. I turned back to the seething figure beside me, dropping my facade of breezy one-sided banter.

“Do you love her?”

I don’t know what made me ask the question, but he wasn’t prepared for it. That face couldn’t be said to soften, but a tiny bit of the fury might have leaked out of it, and he looked at me instead of through me for a moment before turning away.

“She’s brought us through,” was all he said. I decided to take it for an affirmative.

At my insistence, Obadiah took me aboard and gave me a terse tour before I thanked him and released him. No doubt he hoped, like Mr. Coffin, that he’d see little else of me. If so, his hope might have deflated some when I requested introductions of the few men he had onboard. He would sign a full crew closer to the date, but he had a “skeleton crew” of three mates and two harpooners, all returned with him from the previous voyage and engaged to sail with him again. It reflected well on him, that five men who had just spent three years in close quarters with him would sign up for another round. And it boded well for a cohesive working unit onboard—he wouldn’t have brought them back if they didn’t work well together. Which made me wonder about the third harpooner.

And that kind of speculation was just an attempt to distract myself from the disastrous feeling that I’d fouled up everything. I walked slowly back to the Gull, trying not to drag under the weight of my discouragement. I had known this would be rough going, but I hadn’t anticipated it would be such a struggle just to keep a smile in place in the face of his massive dislike. Well… Pestering him with forced cheerfulness would clearly be counterproductive.

So what tactic now? All I could think of was… to stay present. Leave him alone, but be there.

It wasn’t exactly a strategy.