Title: Shadows of Girls
Word Count 2110
Funny how you never know how long or detailed each section will be. For such an actionless bit, this one had a lot of Google checking needed. And it contains a lot of my past in puzzle pieces.
Starbuck is a Nantucket name. If someone in New England is named Coffin or Folger, Macy, Chase,or Starbuck, you can bet they are from Nantucket. And if those names have spread into coffee, and commerce, and banking, no great surprise there either. That whaling was all about money. Many a young man with such a name made a fortune and retired a respected captain by 25 or so, never to work again.
And many, as we say, were not as lucky.
One of these, was Owen Chase, born 1797. He was first mate on the Whaleship Essex. Poor man.
Shadows of Girls
“Should you like another dish of tea, Mrs Bracegirldle?” Saphronia asked.
Mrs Bracegirdle smiled and reached for her pincushion.
“No dear. At my age if I drink it after 3, I am up half the night. But please, you finish the pot if you like.”
Saphronia took a deep breath. The air under the trees was sweet and fresh, and the light far better even than that by the parlor window. The mending basket sat between them. The book they had brought out lay unread beside the tea-pot. She took another deep good breath, the air smelled of salt-- oh Christofer. Miss you so
“I was frightened, last night.” She said. Her voice felt small.
“I know, I was too. I always am, just a little, after all these years. But they are safer at sea, you know. In fact when the weather turns threatening they put out to sea on purpose. The great danger is in colliding with the land. ”
“I had not thought of that.”
Indeed, it was a strange thought. The earth beneath her felt safe, no matter how the wind blew and the trees lashed. The ocean was different. She did not confess it to Christopher, he seemed not to have any such fears. He would never laugh at her, she knew that now, but her being afraid would make him sad. Besides, she did not want him to think her a coward.
She lay awake sometimes, even when the weather was fine, listening to the wind and picturing the cold water stretching away under him, seeing it so clearly, and wanting not to see. The ocean seemed as endless as the sky. Anything could happen, anything go wrong, and a man could fall forever, among the sharks and the great monstrous fish. Last night had been the worst. The rain had struck the windows hard as rocks, the wind had screamed in the chimney and put the fire out. The big fine trees had groaned and thrashed. And there was nothing she could do, no way to help him, or anyone. Mrs Bracegirdle had been kind and composed. Saphronia had detected no hint of fear or surprise or in her. Her voice had been steady and they had taken turns reading aloud until bedtime.
When the clock spoke nine, Saphronia thought she would never sleep. All her thoughts were of him. They were not the warm lovely thoughts she saved of him for bedtime, the dear scent of him, and the sound of his laugh, and how happy he was when they-- no not that-- but shivering thoughts, alone and searching. She had slept, finally, with her arms around her pillow, clenched tight and going slowly numb.
She had wakened to a bright washed day, blue sky, lambswool clouds.
Now she looked up, aware now that she had been staring down at her idle hands for far too long. Mrs Bracegirdle was watching her.
“Have you finished your tea?”
“Then let us put our work aside for now. I have someone I think you should meet.”
Mrs Bracegirlde stood and set her apron aside.
“I am not dressed to go calling--” Saphronia faltered.
“In this case it makes no matter. We can walk, it is not far at all.”
Mrs Bracegirldle had the gate open now, and her smile was a certain one. The street was shaded and warm, but leaves and branches lay everywhere, ripped down by that howling wind. The crushed wet smell of them came up from underfoot.
This house was taller than the Bracegirdles, gleaming white and fine. The curving shell walkway led beyond a gate, to the door under a balcony, and two dormers like lifted eyebrows. With the light behind her Saphronia could not see in the windows, but windows there were, and they were broad.
The door knocker was gleaming brass. Saphronia would not have been surprised to see the door opened by a liveried footman, but this did not happen. Instead a voice called indistinctly from within-- she heard shuffling, and the door opened on a face, friendly, but old, and wrinkled as a winter apple.
“Good day to you Miss Starbuck.” Mrs Bracegirdle said. “May I present Miss Cathcart.”
Saphronia made a good deep dip and she murmured “Good day,” in her turn. The eyes that fixed on her were kind and clever, and grey and very old. The old woman was no taller than her shoulder, but plump and brisk. Her dress was white. It was plain, but Saphronia could see that the wool was soft and fine. Miss Starbuck looked like her own house.
“Miss Cathcart has a sweetheart on the Indefatigable. We hoped to use your viewing room.”
The old woman's smile was a delight. Her eyes crinkled in welcome, and her round cheeks lifted.
“Yes. T'was a blow last night. These things-- well. Go up then, you girls. You know where to find it. I'll just get my knitting. I have a pair of mittens half done for my nephew and if I don't persist, half done they will stay.”
There was a strange harsh accent to the words, Saphronia had never heard such before. It was not unpleasant, just strange. She felt a giggle rising in her gullet, but that was not why. She had to tuck her lip in her teeth to hear Mrs Bracegirdle called a girl. She must be near fifty.
Teetering on the edge of shameful laughter, Saphronia cast her eyes around for something to look at. Miss Starbuck's front hall was quite ordinary, clean, spare. White paint, dark oak. No help there. Saphronia could see directly ahead, a stair and a small door beyond it. She saw the latch depress and watched to see who would come through. Proceeding through the door, came the biggest cat she had ever seen. He was red as a maple leaf, with buff facings. He walked with tail up confidence. His feet were especially enormous. He had extra toes. The effect was charming. Saphronia crouched to pat him. He leaned hard to her knee with a wheezing with delight.
“What a lovely cat,” She scratched under his chin.
“But what happened to his tail?” The tail, proudly aloft, was bald at the end, and now that she was close she could see a line of neat black stitches.
“Oh,” Miss Starbuck said, “That is Owen. He starts fights. Came home last night dripping blood everywhere. Had to sew him up. Should do well enough as long as we keep it clean. Tomcat you know. More balls than brains.”
Saphronia suspected now that Mrs Bracegirldle was biting her lip too.
The stairs were small and narrow, they wound past three landings, and little closed doors. The room they ascended to was like none Saphronia had ever seen. It was wide as the whole third floor and contained the two eyebrow windows. This was not a sleeping room, nor a parlor, it was spare and bare and full of light. The balcony was above, Saphronia realized, like a sennit hat above the eyes. Here there were no curtains or shutters. There was a Turkey carpet on the floor, and a desk against the wall, and that was all the furniture. The windows gave a view away over the water. A wooden ladder led to an oak hatch in the ceiling. It had brass fittings too, and they shone. “That goes up to the widow's walk,” Mrs Bracegirdle said.
Mostly there was a telescope. It was not the spy-glass that Christopher just called 'a glass' which went with him on his watch. No, this was a great thing, mounted on a tripod, and facing the far window.
Mrs Bracegirldle stepped forward and put her eye to it. Saphronia watched her swing it left, come back right more slowly. She herself was standing in a blaze of sunlight, warmed through but unable to see much beyond Mrs Bracegirldle's rather broad rear aspect.
“Ah.” There was a smile in her voice.
“Come Saphronia, have a look, ” She said.
The image was small and round and blurry, but it became more clear as she blinked. Way out, far and small, pretty as a picture, a ship on a blue blue sea. She had spread white sails to the side, as well as up, and she was tilted slightly, not straight upon the water.
“Is it?” Saphronia's heart was pounding, her chest ached all the way up to her throat.
“Yes indeed.” Mrs Bracegirdle smiled, and now Saphronia could see the shadow of the girl. “She has the bone in her teeth. The Indy. Coming home.”
In the end there was time to sit. Rushing to the dockside would avail nothing, they could watch at leisure, and it would be hours maybe, yet. And anyway, anyway, Christopher might have watch. He often exchanged with Mr Kennedy though, the first night ashore. “Kennedy doesn't mind,” Christopher had said. “He had everything he likes aboard.” And that was odd, It seemed that Mr Kennedy ought to have a sweetheart. He was so handsome and kind.
Miss Starbuck came up the stairs brisk, bringing her knitting along in an oval basket. The mittens were minute, the hand part not much bigger around than Christopher's two thumbs. (Saphronia knew just how big those thumbs were, she had taken his thumb into her mouth one sweet night, and Christopher's eyes had quite rolled back in his head. Better not think on that, though. Worse than giggling.)
“For my nephew Owen. He named that cat after himself. He is three. The red makes him easy to see, and that is good for he is the kind of boy who falls into things. And red does look so friendly in the fog I find, don't you?”
A man came up presently with small cakes and coffee. He had the same harsh speech as Miss Starbuck. He he said little, left quickly. He had a gray pigtail tucked into his belt. The coffee was bitter and thin, but there was a sugar bowl with more sugar than Saphronia had ever seen in one place. She took a very little, and that helped.
Miss Starbuck ate half a jam cake, and gave the other half to Owen, who ate it on the floor, crouching like a lion.
“I see you wondering dear,” Miss Starbuck said to Saphronia. “And too well raised to ask. I have to send the mittens home to Nantucket.”
“You are from America?” Saphronia leaned forward, curiously. “How--”
“How did I come to be in Portsmouth England? Whales, mostly. The intersection of whales and war, you might say.” She nodded decisively, as if this made things more clear. It did not.
“Now,” said Miss Starbuck, “Tell me about your young man.”
And that was lovely. Miss Starbuck asked good questions, the kind that led to laughter and explaining. It felt so good to talk about Christopher. After a bit, Owen climbed into Saphronia's lap. She stroked his back, careful not to touch his tail. He stretched ecstatically on her braced knees, looking up at her face. It made it hard to drink coffee, but she managed.
So it did not seem terribly long after all before Miss Starbuck said “Check the glass again, one of you girls. We've talked half a watch away.”
“She's rounding the point.” Mrs Bracegirdle said.
“Gracious-- you had better go. Lively now. Take the cakes, I won't eat them, and Owen doesn't deserve them. Come and call again anytime-- go now, go." She flapped her apron at them.