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8th day of the ninth month in the year 1767
Phoebe Starbuck flung back the worn quilt, leapt out of bed, and hurried to the window. She swung open the sash of the window and took in a deep breath of the brisk island air tinged with a musky scent of the flats at low tide. It was how she started each morning, elbows on the windowsill, scanning the water to see which, if any, whaling ships might have returned to port in the night. It was how most every Nantucket woman greeted the day.
Drat! She couldn't see the flags among the jumble of bobbing masts.
Phoebe grabbed the spyglass off the candlestand and peered through it, frantically focusing and refocusing on each mast that dotted the harbor, counting each one. And then her heart stopped when she saw its flag: the Fortuna, captained by Phineas Foulger, the most-admired man on all the island, in her opinion. And the ship sat low in the water — indicating a greasy voyage, not a broken one.
Today Phoebe was eighteen years old, a woman by all rights. Would the captain notice the vast changes in her? She felt but a girl when he sailed away two years ago, though her heart had felt differently. What a day, what a day!
"Make haste, Phoebe dear," her father called up the stairs. "Something special awaits thee."
The morning sun brightened the room as Phoebe scooped up her clothes. She tugged on a brown homespun dress and combed her hair until it crackled. She wound her thick hair into a flattering topknot, pinned it against the back of her head, then covered it with a lace cap. She gave her bedroom a quick tidy-up, plumping a goosefeather pillow and smoothing the last wrinkle from the bed.
Downstairs, Phoebe smiled as she entered the warm keeping room, its fire crackling. Father, the old dear, a small and gentle man, sat at the head of the table with a wrapped bundle in his hands and a cat-that-swallowed-the-canary look on his weathered face, seamed with lines.
"There she is, my daughter, my one and only. Happy birthday, Phoebe." He rose and held the seat out for her. When he stood, she noticed the patches on his overcoat, the sheen at the elbows, the fraying threads at his sleeve cuffs. Not today, she thought. Not on this day. I will not worry today.
Barnabas Starbuck was considered the black sheep of the Starbuck line — oddly enough, because of sheep. Her father had continued to raise sheep for profit, providing a very modest income at best, despite the fact that all his kinsmen were deeply enmeshed in the whaling industry and growing wealthy for it. The gap between Barnabas Starbuck and all other Starbucks had widened enormously in the last decade.
Phoebe loved her father, but she was not blind to his shortcomings. He was a kind and generous man but lacked the business acumen common to his relations. Barnabas Starbuck always had a venture brewing. New enterprises, he called them, always, always, always with disastrous results. He would start an enterprise with a big dream, great enthusiasm, and when the idea failed or fizzled, he would move on to something else.
For a brief time Barnabas fancied himself a trader of imports. There were the iron cook pots he had ordered from a smooth-talking Boston land shark, far more pots than there were island housewives, so many that the lean-to still had pots stacked floor to ceiling. Oversupply, he had discovered, was a pitfall. Thus the pots remained unsold and unwanted, rusting away in the moist island air.
And then Barnabas had an idea to start a salt works factory in an empty warehouse on Straight Wharf but once again neglected to take into account the high humidity of the island. The drying process needed for salt production was so greatly hindered by the summer's humidity that the salt clumped and caused condensation on all the warehouse's windows.
Her father was quite tolerant of his business failures. "Just taking soundings!" he would tell Phoebe with a dismissive wave of the hand. "Part and parcel of the road to success."
What her father refused to accept was that all roads on Nantucket Island led to the harbor. Nearly every islander understood that truth and was involved, to some degree or another, in the making of tools necessary to outfit whaling and fishing vessels. Phoebe had tried to encourage her father to consider investing in sail making, blacksmithing, ironworks, rope manufacturing. Anything that would tie his enterprise to the sea. But he was convinced whaling was a short-term industry, soon to fizzle out.
Phoebe had a dread, and not an unfounded one, that her father would soon be declared Town Poor by the selectman. The Starbuck kin had made it abundantly clear that they had reached the end of their tether to bail Barnabas out of another financial failure.
And what would become of them then? The Town Poor were miserably provided for.
Not today, she reminded herself as she poured herself a cup of tea. I am not going to worry today. Today is a special day.
Leaning across the table, her father handed her a brown parcel, tied with twine.
"A gift? I thought we had agreed no gifts this year." And here was another sweet but conflicting characteristic to her father — he was a generous gift giver, despite a steady shortage of disposable income.
"This is an inheritance," he said, beaming from ear to ear. "It has been waiting for thee until the time was right."
Carefully, Phoebe untied the twine and unfolded the paper, both items to use again. Inside the package was a weathered book, bound in tan sheepskin. When she opened it, she had to squint to read the faint ink. "What could it be?" She looked up at him curiously.
"What could it be? Why, none other than the journal of Great Mary!"
Great Mary? Phoebe's great-grandmother, her father's grandmother. Great Mary's father, Tristram Coffin, was one of the first proprietors to settle the island. Mary was his youngest daughter, regarded as a wise and noble woman, a Weighty Friend to all, oft likened to Deborah in the Old Testament. "I thought the existence of Great Mary's journal was naught but rumor."
"Nay! Nay, 'tis truly hers. Passed along to me from my father and given to him by his father. 'Tis meant to be passed from generation to generation, to whomever would most benefit from the wisdom of Great Mary. For some reason, my father felt I needed it the most."
Reverently, Phoebe stroked the smooth brown sheepskin covering. "And thee has read it?"
He was silent for some time, staring into his teacup. "Truth be told, I always intended to but never found the time." His smile disappeared and he looked uncharacteristically chagrined.
"The script is faint, my eyes are weak ... Ink is so vulnerable to humid conditions." He put down his fork and wiped his mouth with his napkin. "And then ... I have been so busy with my enterprises."
Phoebe had to bite on her lip not to point out the irony of this conversation. "I thank thee, Father. I will take good care of it, and when the time is right, I will take care to pass it on to the person who most needs Great Mary's wisdom."
It was only after breakfast, as Phoebe knotted the strings of her black bonnet under her chin, swift and taut, eager to hurry to the harbor and catch a glimpse of the Fortuna's captain, that she realized the sharp point of irony was jabbed not only at her father but also at her. For she was the one in this generation, amongst dozens and dozens of Starbuck cousins, to whom the journal of wisdom had been passed.
* * *
A fine, fair morning it was, with the air washed fresh by the rain. The countryside was soft, shades of green, hints of yellows and reds with the coming autumn. Matthew Macy tipped his hat to bid goodbye to the constable and left the gaol, tucked away on Vestal Street, heading toward the wharf where his cooperage was located. A second-generation cooper, Matthew was, with the knowledge of barrel making passed down from his late father. Late ... but not forgotten. Never that.
He filled his lungs with crystalline air, happy to be outside on this lovely morning and far away from the wretched gaol, at least for the next ten hours. After that, sadly, he was due to return.
He strode down Milk Street, turned the corner, and paused to stop and look down toward the harbor. It was a view that always affected him. How he loved this little island. Thirty miles away from the mainland — not too far but far enough. The rain last evening had chased away the usual lingering fog, and even cleansed the air of the pervasive stink of rendering whales. At the moment the sea was calm, shimmering in the morning sun, but it could change in the blink of an eye, with nary much warning, into a deadly tempest. How well he knew.
Main Street was slick from last night's rain. The markets were setting up for the day, and he had to move deftly to avoid the clusters of townspeople, horses and boxcarts, wheelbarrows and wagons. Every corner swarmed with people: seamen and merchants, black-cloaked Quaker matrons holding tightly to their children's hands, somber men in their broad-brimmed hats, rat catchers and peddlers, all going about their lives.
In front of him, he saw a bonneted Quaker maid step right into the path of a fast-moving horse. He veered around two old salts and leaped into the street to swiftly rescue the woman. As he yanked her toward him and away from imminent danger, he heard her gasp.
"Matthew Macy, take thy hands off me!"
Bother. Of all the Quaker girls on the island to rescue, this one had to be Phoebe Starbuck. He lifted his hands in the air to show her that he heard and obeyed. "'Tis you, Phoebe? Hard to discern who is under that enormous coal scuttle. But then, that is what the Friends prefer, is it not? To wear blinders to life going on around them."
Ignoring him, Phoebe tugged at her bonnet, straightened her skirts, and dusted herself off.
"Do I not deserve a thank-you for saving your life?"
She frowned. "Saving my life might be an overstatement." Another horse and cart thundered by, its wheels splashing her skirts, and she added, "But I am grateful for thy quick thinking."
"Had I known it was you ..."
She glared at him. "Thee might have let the horse run me down, no doubt."
"I was going to say ... I might have let the Quaker brethren come to your rescue. But then ... they all seem far more interested to hurry and greet the Fortuna than to notice a damsel in distress."
As he looked around the street, he realized he had unwittingly spoken truth — a crowd was growing near the harbor — though he had meant only to sting Phoebe. Being around her brought out a streak of malice in Matthew that he could not restrain. He seldom left her company without cutting her, or the Friends, with some small criticisms.
As she recovered her composure, her dark brown eyes started snapping. She glanced up Main Street. "How did thee sleep last night? Was the stiff wooden plank comfortable enough for thee? And was a breakfast of gruel fully satisfying?"
"Happily, I am a man with simple needs. I can sleep anywhere and eat anything."
"How delightful. The Nantucket gaol sounds like a suitable arrangement for thee."
And then her attention was diverted by the sight of someone she spotted, and Matthew used the opportunity to excuse himself. As he rounded the corner to Water Street, he turned his head and stopped abruptly. The sun was shining down on Phoebe, lighting her like a beam. Her bonnet brim was turned up and she was smiling as Phineas Foulger, captain of the newly arrived Fortuna whale ship, and his abominable daughter, Sarah, approached her.
Why was Captain Foulger so soon off the ship? Most captains waited until the ship's cargo was unloaded, anxious to overlook every barrel of precious oil and ensure it was accounted for in the warehouse.
Then he saw the look on Captain Foulger's face as he caught sight of Phoebe.
A sick feeling lurched through Matthew. His mouth went dry, his palms damp.
Why should he let himself be bothered? Many a night in gaol he had reminded himself that apart from his brother and mother, he cared for no one and nothing.
* * *
It was hard to control the smile that strained to burst over Phoebe's face at the sight of Captain Phineas Foulger advancing in her direction among the crowds of shoppers, sailors, and vendors, his elbow guiding his daughter, Sarah. Phoebe had to suppress the impulse to call out and wave, and the even greater one to rush toward the captain. When he did draw close, he took notice of her and stopped abruptly. The corners of his hazel eyes lifted, crinkling, and she took that as solid evidence of his approval, but she could also see he clearly did not recall her. Had she changed so very much?
Suddenly seeming to remember the presence of his daughter, the captain took a step back. Sarah's cold gaze swept over Phoebe's homespun dress, and she said with a thin-lipped smile, "Hello. How pleasant to see thee."
"And thee as well." In a pig's eye, Phoebe thought, all the while she returned as warm a smile at Sarah as she could muster. She hoped Sarah Foulger could not tell the way her heart suddenly flew to her throat at the sight of her father, Captain Foulger, so tall and handsome. Salt-and-pepper hair, trimmed beard framing his chiseled cheekbones, sun-bronzed skin.
Behind Sarah stood a fine-boned half-Indian boy, small and thin for his years, with large sad eyes that were almost too big for his face. His knitted sailor's cap covered a head of thick brown curls. His arms were full of packages. Phoebe turned her attention toward him, mindful that she was "oversmiling" at the captain — and the sweet boy beamed in return.
Suddenly the captain's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Well, I'll be blowed —'tis Phoebe Starbuck?"
His smile was so warm, so open, her heart leapt, capturing her devotion all over again. "Welcome home, Captain Foulger," she answered. Oh, welcome, welcome home! You take my breath away. "A greasy voyage, I trust?"
"Extraordinarily successful," he said. "God blessed the voyage beyond measure." His eyes appraised her. "Thee is looking ..."
Thee's looking right womanly, Phoebe hoped were the words to come.
"... quite contented," the captain said.
Contented? How does one look contented? 'Twas a compliment, she decided, though she would have preferred that he noticed how she had matured in his absence. "Today happens to be my birthday," she said. Why on earth was she telling him that? She supposed she wanted him to know that she was no longer a girl, no longer just Sarah's peer. Just Sarah's seamstress.
Phoebe rushed on. "My eighteenth birthday."
Rather than impressed, he seemed amused. "Is that right?" Sarah made a slight social cough signaling impatience and the captain glanced at her. "Sarah, did thee know it was thy friend Phoebe's birthday?"
Sarah gave her a thin smile, barely disguising her lack of interest.
The captain turned his attention back to Phoebe, hazel eyes twinkling. Oh, how they twinkled! "And what has thou received today?"
She dropped her head and lifted her drawstring purse. "My great-grandmother's journal."
The captain's face, alit with good-natured amusement only seconds ago, suddenly lost its smile and was replaced by a quizzical expression. His eyes riveted to her drawstring. "Great Mary's journal? I thought its existence was a legend."
Excerpted from "Phoebe's Light"
Copyright © 2018 Suzanne Woods Fisher.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
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