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Night Birds On Nantucket

Joan Aiken



  About the Book

  Title Page


  1. On board the Sarah Casket – the sleeper wakes – tale of the pink whale – half a world from home

  2. The captured whale – the mysterious weeper – Captain Casket’s task

  3. Talking to Penitence – the veiled lady – hopscotch – Dido makes a promise

  4. Encouraging Pen – the Galapagos – gamming with the Martha – Mr Slighcarp’s strange behaviour – round the Horn and back to New Bedford


  5. Trouble with Cousin Ann – Captain Casket slips his cable – arrival in Nantucket – the Casket farm

  6. Aunt Tribulation – pigs and sheep – green boots in the attic – Aunt Tribulation is hungry – Pen meets a stranger

  7. Aunt Tribulation gets up – second trip to the attic – Dido’s in the well – return of Captain Casket – trip to the forest – the conspirators – the gun

  8. Captain Casket’s illness – Dido sees the doctor – the professor in the bog – an abominable plot – Aunt Tribulation overhears

  9. Kidnapped – Captain Casket is taken for a walk – Pen meets the doctor – the pink whale meets her friend – breakfast on the beach

  10. Ways and means – Penitence eavesdrops – Aunt Tribulation is suspicious – the rocket – the gun’s last ride

  11. Mr Jenkins returns – the civic banquet – the Thrush – another Aunt Tribulation – goodbye to the pink whale

  About the Author

  Also by Joan Aiken


  About the Book

  From the epic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence

  Shipwrecked Dido Twite, picked up by a whaling ship, finds herself many miles from home and facing deep troubles. Sinister Miss Slighcarp, the governess from Willoughby Chase, makes a reappearance, this time in cahoots with Hanoverian plotters who have a dastardly plan in mind.

  Part One


  On board the Sarah Casket – the sleeper wakes – tale of the pink whale – half a world from home

  LATE IN THE middle watch of a calm winter’s night, many years ago, a square-rigged, three-masted ship, the Sarah Casket, was making her way slowly through northern seas, under a blaze of stars. A bitter, teasing cold lurked in the air; frost glimmered on the ship’s white decks and tinselled her shrouds; long icicles sometimes fell chiming from the spars to the planks beneath. No other sound could be heard in the silent night, save, from far away, the faint barking of seals.

  On the deck a child lay sleeping in a wooden box filled with straw. Sheepskins covered her warmly. Had it not been for her breath, ascending threadlike into the Arctic air, she would have seemed more like a wax doll than a human being, so still and pale did she lie. Near by squatted a boy, hunched up, his arms round his knees, gravely watching over her. It was his turn below, and by rights he should have been in his bunk, but whenever he had any time to spare he chose to spend it by the sleeping child.

  She had been asleep for more than ten months.

  Presently a bell rang and the watches changed. Bearded sailors came yawning on deck, others went below; one, as he passed the boy, called out:

  ‘Hey, there, Nate! No sign of life yet, then?’

  The boy shook his head without replying.

  One or two of the men said:

  ‘Why don’t you give over, boy? She’ll never wake in this world.’

  And one, a narrow-faced character with close-set eyes and a crafty, foxy look to him, said sourly:

  ‘Why waste your time, you young fool? If it weren’t for you and our sainted captain she’d have been food for the barracootas long ago.’

  ‘Nay, don’t say that, Mr Slighcarp,’ somebody protested. ‘She’ve brought us greasy luck so far, hain’t she? We’re nigh as full with whale-oil as we can hold.’

  ‘Hah!’ sneered the man called Slighcarp. ‘What’s she to do with the luck? We’d have had it whether we picked her up or no. I say she’d be best overboard before it changes. I’ve allus hated serving on a chick frigate.’

  He went below, muttering angrily. Meanwhile the boy, Nate, calmly and taking no notice of these remarks, addressed himself to the sleeping child.

  ‘Come on now, young ’un,’ he said. ‘It’s your supper-time.’

  One or two of the men lingered to watch him as he carefully raised the child with one arm and then, tilting a tin coffee-pot which he held in the other hand, poured down her throat a thick black mixture of whale-oil and molasses. She swallowed it in her sleep. Her eyelids never even fluttered. When the pot was empty Nate laid her down again in her straw nest and replaced the sheepskins.

  ‘Blest if I’d care to live on such stuff,’ one of the men muttered. ‘Still and all, I guess you’ve kept her alive with it, Nate, eh? She’d have been skinny enough by now, but for you.’

  ‘Guess I like looking after live creatures,’ Nate said mildly. ‘I’d been a-wanting summat to care for ever since my bird Mr Jenkins flew away in the streets of New Bedford. And Cap’n Casket says there’s no more nourishing food in this world than whale-oil and m’lasses. Ye can see the young ’un thrives on it, anyways; six inches she’ve grown since I had the feeding of her.’

  ‘And for what?’ snarled the first mate, the foxy Mr Slighcarp, reappearing from the after-hatchway. ‘What pleasure is it for us to see our vittles vanishing down that brat’s throat when, so far as anyone can see, it’s all for Habakkuk? Break it up, now, men! Those that’s going below, get below!’

  The men were dispersing quickly when a cry from aloft galvanized them in a different way.

  ‘Blo-o-ows! Thar she blows!’

  The lookout in the crosstrees was dancing up and down, dislodging, in his excitement, about a hundredweight of icicles which came clanking and tinkling to the deck. His arm was extended straight forward.

  ‘Whale-o! Dead ahead, not more’n a mile!’

  And indeed on the horizon a pale silvery spout of water could just be seen.

  Like ants the men scurried about the ship while Mr Slighcarp shouted orders.

  ‘Set royals and t’gallants! Bend on stuns’ls! Lower the boats!’

  Light as leaves, three long cedarwood whaleboats glided down from the davits on to the calm sea. But just before the boats were manned a startling thing occurred. As if roused by all the commotion, the child lying in her straw-filled box turned, stretched, and yawned, drawing thin hands from under the sheepskin to knuckle her still-shut eyes. The boy Nate had gone below, but one of the sailors running by noticed her and exclaimed:

  ‘Land sakes to glory! Look at the supercargo! She’s stirring! She’s waking!’

  ‘Devil’s teeth, man! Never mind the scrawny brat now! See to the boats!’

  Thus urged, the men swung nimbly to their places in the boats, but they went with many a backward look at the child who was moving restlessly now under the pile of sheepskins, still with her eyes tight shut. Waves of colour passed over her pale face.

  But the boats had sped away, hissing in white parallels over the dark sea that was like a great rumpled black-and-silver patchwork quilt, before the child finally opened her eyes and struggled to a sitting position.

  She looked about her blankly. All was still now on board the whaler. Even with the added canvas the ship made but slow headway in that light air and the boats had long drawn ahead. Only a few shipkeepers remained on board and they were occupied elsewhere.

  The child stared vaguely about her until at length her eyes began to fix, with puzzled intelligence, on the few things visible in the dim light from a lantern hanging over her head. She could see white-frosted planking, a massive tangle of rigging between
her and the stars, a dark bulk, the try-works, amidships, and, above, the gleam of spare tools lodged on the skids.

  ‘This ain’t the Dark Dew,’ she murmured, half to herself. ‘Where can I be?’

  The boy, Nate, was passing at that moment. When he heard her voice he started, nearly dropping the mug he carried. Then he turned and cautiously approached her.

  ‘Well I’ll be gallied!’ he breathed in amazement. ‘If it isn’t the Sleeping Beauty woke up at last!’

  The child stared him him wonderingly and he stared back at her. He saw a girl who might have been nine or ten, with a pointed face and long tangled brown hair hanging over her shoulders. She saw a thin boy of about sixteen, hollow-cheeked and with eyes set so deep that it was imposible to guess their colour.

  ‘You aren’t Simon,’ she said wonderingly. ‘Where’s Simon?’

  ‘Human language, too! Who’s Simon?’

  ‘My friend.’

  ‘There’s no Simon on board this hooker,’ the boy said, squatting down beside her. ‘Here, want a mug o’chowder? It’s hot, I was just taking it to the steersman – he’s my uncle ’Lije. But you might as well have it.’

  ‘Thank you,’ she said. She seemed dreamy, still only half awake, but the hot soup roused her. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked.

  ‘Nathaniel Pardon. Nate, they call me. What’s yours?

  ‘Dido Twite.’

  ‘Dido – that’s a funny name. I’ve heard of Dionis – never Dido. You’re British, ain’t you?’

  ‘O’ course I am,’ she said, puzzled. ‘Ain’t you?’

  ‘Not me. I’m a Nantucketer.’ And he sang softly:

  ‘Oh, blue blows the lilac and green grows the corn And the isle of Nantucket is where I was born, Sweet isle of Nantucket! where the plums are so red,

  Ten hours and twelve minutes south-east of Gay Head.’

  ‘Never heard of it,’ Dido said. ‘What ship’s this, then?’

  ‘The Sarah Casket, out of Nantucket.’

  ‘Did you pick me up?’ she asked, knitting her brows together painfully in an effort to recall what had happened.

  ‘Sure we picked you up, floating like a bit o’ brit. And from that day to this you’ve lain on the deck snoring louder’n a grampus; I never thought you’d trouble to wake up. You seemed all set to sleep till Judgment. Cap’n Casket allowed as how you musta had a bang on the head, maybe from a floating spar, to knock you into such an everlasting snooze. You musta had considerable dreams all that time, didn’t you?’

  ‘Dreams?’ she murmured, rubbing her forehead. ‘I can’t remember . . . The ship caught fire and me and Simon was in the sea, hanging on to a spar. Then we was on a rock . . . You’re sure you didn’t pick up a boy called Simon?’

  ‘No, honey,’ he said gently.

  ‘Maybe some other ship did.’ Dido was still hopeful. ‘When’ll we get to port?’

  ‘’Bout eight months from now. Maybe nine.’

  ‘Eight months? Are you crazy? There ain’t that much sea atwixt England and Hanover.’

  ‘That’s not where we’re bound, chick. Back to Nantucket, that’s where we’ll be heading, soon’s our casks are all full. That’ll set you a step on your way, anyhows. Guess you can find some packet out o’ New Bedford that’ll take you to England.’

  Plainly these names meant nothing to Dido.

  ‘Where are we now, then?’ she asked.

  ‘Somewhere north o’ Cape East. Just got to raise another whale or two and we’ll be homeward bound. Then all the casks’ll be full.’

  ‘Full of what?’

  ‘Spermaceti o’ course – whale-oil. What d’you think you’ve been living on for the last ten months?’

  ‘Ten months? I’ve been aboard this ship for ten months?’

  ‘Guess so. And pretty scrawny you’da been by now if I hadn’t kept pouring whale-oil and sulphur and m’lasses down your gullet.’

  Dido looked quite dazed. ‘Ten months,’ she repeated, half to herself. ‘How did you come to pick me up, then? Where was it?’

  For the first time the boy Nate appeared slightly embarrassed. ‘Well,’ he explained hesitantly, ‘we was a mite off course. It was thishow, you see. Cap’n had fixed to go after sperm-whales in the western grounds, so we was a-cruisin’ off Madeira. And then the Old Man – he’s a fine captain, just old pie on knowing where they’re running, could raise you a whale in a plate o’ sand, but he’s funny in one way, awful peculiar–’

  He stopped, his mouth open.

  ‘Go on,’ said Dido. ‘How’s he funny?’

  A voice from behind made her start.

  ‘What is thee doing up on deck, Nate?’ it said sternly. ‘Thee should be in thy bunk at this hour.’

  Dido turned and saw a tall man, dressed all in black. He had a long black beard almost covering his white shirt-front; his face was severe but two great mournful eyes in it seemed as if they paid little attention to the words he spoke; they were fixed elsewhere, on vacancy.

  ‘I – I’m sorry, sir, Cap’n Casket,’ Nate said, stammering a little. ‘I was taking a hot drink to Uncle ’Lije when I saw the little girl had wakened up.’

  ‘So she has. So she has. How strange,’ murmured Captain Casket, bending his eyes on Dido for the first time. ‘Does thee feel better for thy long sleep, my dear?’

  ‘Yes, thank you, mister,’ Dido answered bashfully.

  ‘Nate, since the little one has woken, thee had better fetch her some slops.’

  ‘Yes, sir, cap’n. Shall I fetch some o’ Miss Du–’

  ‘Don’t be a fool, boy!’ Captain Casket said sharply. ‘Thee knows it is impossible. They – they would be too small. There must be some boys’ gear in one of the slop chests, fetch out a bundle. And shears: that long hair won’t do aboard a whaler.’

  ‘Yes, sir.’ Nate ran off in a hurry. Captain Casket fixed his sad wandering eyes on Dido but they soon moved back to the horizon and, heaving a deep sigh, he seemed to forget her. She was in too much awe of him to speak.

  At length, turning to her again, he said:

  ‘Has thee family and friends in England, my child?’

  ‘Y-yes, sir!’

  ‘Poor souls. This will have been a sorrowful time for them. No matter, the joy when thee is restored to them will be all the greater.’

  ‘Yes, sir. Thank you for picking me up,’ Dido said bravely.

  ‘Providence must have ordered that we should be sailing by. His ways are strange.’ Captain Casket’s grave face lightened in a smile of rare sweetness and simplicity; he added, ‘Now thee has wakened up, my child, thee can be of considerable help to me in thy turn.’

  ‘Yes, sir. H-how?’

  ‘Tomorrow will be soon enough to explain the task I have in mind for thee. I will not burden thee tonight. Here comes Nate now, with the clothes. When thee has put them on, thee had better sleep again.’

  He moved away silently over the deck.

  Nate came running with an armful of clothes and a great pair of shears. He proceeded to chop off most of Dido’s hair.

  ‘That feels better,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Can’t think how it come to be so long, it never used. It musta growed while I was sleeping. Why won’t long hair do aboard a whaler?’

  ‘Why? Because o’ the gurry,’ Nate said grinning. ‘Now, can you fix yourself up in them things?’

  ‘What’s gurry?’

  ‘Slime. You’ll see at cutting-in time, if the men have had greasy luck.’

  Nate had brought nankeen breeches, a shirt, a monkey-jacket, red drawers, Falmouth stockings, and a pair of leather brogans.

  ‘These’ll be too big for me,’ Dido said. But she soon found they were not. ‘Great snakes! I ain’t half growed since I been a-laying here.’

  ‘Guess that’ll be all the whale-oil. We could see it was doin’ you good. You used to cough considerable, at first, but you haven’t done so for months.’

  Dido looked round to make sure they were not overheard. ‘What were
you going to tell me about Captain Casket? And why does he talk in that queer way?’

  ‘He’s a Friend – a Quaker – that’s why. And what I was going to tell you –’ Nate in his turn glanced behind him and, seeing the deck was clear, went on, ‘He’s allus had a kind of an uncommon fancy, you see – ever since he was a boy, Uncle ’Lije says. First-off on this trip it warn’t so noticeable. His old lady, Mrs Casket, she sailed along with us because she warn’t well and they reckoned sea air would do her good. But it didn’t. She took sick and died, poor soul, afore we ever sighted Santa Cruz. When she was on board he kept to plain whaling. But when she died and –’ Nate came to a halt and started again. ‘She was a mite solemn-like and fussy in her ways, and scared to death of the sea, but there warn’t no real harm in her. She used to make gingerbread and molasses cookies sometimes, afore she was took ill. Can you bake cookies?’ he asked Dido.


  ‘Oh. Well, after she died Cap’n Casket got quieter and quieter. Never smiled – not that he was ever much of a one for a joke – never spoke. One day he said he saw the pink whale.’

  ‘What’s queer about that?’ asked the ignorant Dido.

  ‘What’s queer? Well, they don’t come pink whales, that’s all! But Uncle ’Lije says Cap’n Casket for ever had this notion that one day he would see one. No one liked to say anything, but they thought he was a bit touched. Anyway, he swore he’d seen it and it was making north’ards and we was bound to follow it. Then Mr Slighcarp, he’s the first mate, he allowed as he’d seen it too. Some thought he was just humouring the Old Man but anyways we chased it, up past Finisterre and Finistère and Ushant and Land’s End, and next thing we was squeezing through the North Sea past London River. Clean lost the pink whale but that’s where we picked you up. Only you was fast asleep and wouldn’t wake to tell us where your home port was. For all we knew you mighta been a Fiji Islander. So I adopted you, kind of like a mascot because I’d lost my pet mynah bird. Then Cap’n Casket he sees the pink whale again, off John o’ Groats, and she leads us a fair dance first south right round the Horn and then north again up past the Galapagos and Alaska to where we are now.’