Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Nightbirds on Nantucket

Joan Aiken

  Nightbirds on Nantucket

  Joan Aiken

  * * *

  Houghton Mifflin Company


  * * *

  Copyright © 1966, 1994 by Joan Aiken

  All rights reserved. For information about permission

  to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions,

  Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South,

  New York, New York 10003.

  The text of this book is set in 12-point Apollo MT.

  RNF ISBN 0-395-97124-1 PAP ISBN 0-395-97185-3

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number


  Manufactured in the United States of America

  EB 10 9 8 7

  * * *

  I am grateful to the whaling museums at Nantucket and New Bedford, from whom I obtained much valuable information, and to the latter for their instructive glossary of whaling terms.


  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 tinseled 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 layers of straw. Sheepskins, covering her warmly, concealed her size, but from her face and tangled hair, her age might have been guessed at as seven or eight. 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. Nearby 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 bead 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'de 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 suppertime."

  One or two of the men lingered to watch him as he carefully raised the child with one arm and then, tilting a tin coffeepot 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 just before we sailed. 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 afterhatchway. "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 onto 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!" bellowed Mr. Slighcarp.

  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 color passed over her pale face.

  But the boats had sped away, hissing in white parallels over the dark sea 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. Only a few shipkeepers remained, 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 tryworks 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 at him wonderingly, and he stared back at her. He saw a girl with a pointed face and long, tangled brown hair hanging over her shoulders. She looked older now she was awake—perhaps nine or ten, he guessed. She saw a thin boy of about sixteen, hollow-cheeked and with eyes set so deep that it was impossible to guess their color.

  "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 a Britisher, 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 southeast 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 in the North Sea, 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 bead, maybe from a floating spar, to knock you into such an everlasting snooze. Can you remember what happened to you?"

  "Our ship, the Dark Dew, caught fire," she murmured, rubbing her forehead. "Me and Simon was in the sea, hanging onto the mast. Simon was my friend—he was on this ship, bound for Hanover, and I stowed away too, for a lark, so's to be with him.... You're sure you didn't pick up a boy called Simon?"

  "No, honey," he said gently. "But there's plenty shipping off the British coast where we found you. Maybe someone else took him on board."

  "Yes, reckon that's so," Dido agreed eagerly. "He'll be all right, won't he? I wouldn't like no harm to come to Simon, acos he was the only person who was ever kind to me. He was the lodger at my ma's house. He used to tell me stories and took me to the fair. Soon's we get home I'll ask if he's safe. When do we get to port?"

  "'Bout eight months from now. Maybe nine."

  "Eight months? Are you crazy? Hey, where in Jonah's name are we?"

  "North o' Cape East—in the Arctic Ocean." Plainly this meant nothing to Dido, so he explained, "Soon's our casks are all full we'll be heading down across the Pacific and round Cape Horn, back to Nantucket. That'll set you a step on your way. Guess you can find some packet out o' New Bedford or Boston that'll take you to England. You'll be home in under a year."

  "Not before?"

  "Well," Nate said, "we've had you on board ten months. You've traveled a long way since we picked you up."

  Dido looked quite dazed at this information. "How did you come to pick me up?" she asked presently.

  For the first time Nate appeared slightly embarrassed. "Well," he explained hesitantly, "we was a mite off course. It was this how, 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 shirtfront; 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 a boy's nankeen breeches and 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 musta growed six inches since I been a-laying here. I'm as big as a 'leven-year-old."

  "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 around 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 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 solemnlike 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—he's second mate on this here craft—says Cap'n Casket forever had this notion that one day he would see one—on account of summat as happened when he was a boy. Some folks think he's a bit touched about it, though other ways he's sensible enough. Well, one day off Madeira he swore he'd seen a pink whale and nothing would do but we must chase it. Why? Uncle
'Lije asks. Cap'n Casket says he wants to get close enough to take a good look at it. Seems there's summat special about it he's keen to find out. What? Don't ask me. No, he don't want to catch it, just study it. Then Mr. Slighcarp—he's the first mate—he allowed as we'd better humor the Old Man, so he let on as he'd seen it too. We clapped on sail and went chasing up past Finisterre 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 Feejee Islander. So I adopted you, kind of like a mascot because I'd lost my pet myna bird. Then Cap'n Casket, he sees the pink whale again, off John o' Groat's, and she leads us a fair dance right round the Horn and up past the Galapagos and Alaska to where we are now."

  "Did you ever catch her?"

  "Not likely! No one's ever seed her but Mr. Slighcarp and the Old Man. Still, we had good luck, we caught plenty other whales after that first little dummy run. But some o' the men was a bit ashamed of getting so far off the whaling grounds as we was when we picked you up."

  Suddenly Dido's lip quivered.

  "I wish you hadn't! I wish some English ship had picked me up!"

  "Well, there's ingratitude!" Nate said indignantly. He added in a gentler tone, "We couldn't leave you to drown, now, could we? You'll get home soon enough."

  But, for Dido, the dreamlike strangeness of her surroundings, the huge, dark, frosted ship, the blazing arctic sky across which mysterious arches and curtains and streamers of red and green now flickered—most of all, the fact, only half-understood, that she was an immense distance, half a world away from home—all this was suddenly too much to be borne. She flung herself down on the pile of sheepskins and cried as if her heart would break.

  "There, there!" said Nate uncomfortably. "Come now, don't take on so, don't! Supposin' somebody was to see you?"

  "I don't care!" wept Dido. "I wish I was at home. Oh, I wish I was at home now!"

  Finding her inconsolable, Nate did the kindest thing; he helped her back into her straw bed, covered her warmly with sheepskins again, and left her, giving her a cautious pat on the shoulder.