A DISASTER AT SEA
The Brig Early Dawn
Off the Coast of Cape Fear: 1859
The captain and his wife were asleep in each other's arms. She, new to the watery world, slept lightly; her husband, seasoned and driven to exhaustion the last two days and nights by the perils of a gale that shipped sea after sea over the bow of his heavily loaded vessel, had plunged into a slumber as profound as the now tranquil ocean beneath him. As his wife turned in her sleep, wrapping her arm loosely about his waist and resting her cheek against the warm flesh of his shoulder, in some half-conscious chamber of her dreaming brain she heard the ship's clock strike six bells. The cook would be stirring, the night watch rubbing their eyes and turning their noses toward the forecastle, testing the air for the first scent of their morning coffee.
For four days the captain's wife had hardly seen the sky, not since the chilly morning when their ship, the Early Dawn, set sail from Nantasket Roads. Wrapped in her woolen cloak, she had stood on the deck peering up at the men clambering in the rigging, confident as boys at play, though a few among them were not young. The towboat turned the prow into the wind and the mate called out, "Stand by for a starboard tack." A sailor released the towline, and as the tug pulled away, the ship creaked, heeling over lightly, and the captain's wife steadied herself by bending her knees. Then, with a thrill she had not anticipated, she watched as one by one the enormous sails unfurled, high up, fore and aft. A shout went up among the men, so cheerful it made her smile, and for a moment she almost felt a part of the uproarious bustle. We are under way, she thought - that was what they called setting out. A line from a poem she loved crossed her thoughts, "And I the while, the sole, unbusy thing." Her smile faded. She had left her little son with her mother and now she felt, like a blow, his absence. How had she been persuaded to leave him behind?
In the year since their son's birth, the captain's wife had not passed two consecutive months in her husband's company and she was sick of missing him, of writing letters that might never find him, of following his progress on a map. Her own mother had urged her to go. Her father, another captain, retired now, home for the duration, avowed that he would have his grandson riding the pony by the time she returned. Her mother offered reassuring stories of her own first trip as the captain's wife, long years ago, and of the wonders she had seen on the voyage to Callao and the Chincha Islands. "There's nothing like the open deck on a warm, calm night at sea," she said. "The vastness of the heavens, the sense of being truly in God's hand." And her father chimed in with the time-honored chestnut, "There are no atheists at sea."
The captain's wife lowered her hood and turned to gaze at her husband, who stood nearby, his legs apart, his face lifted, his eyes roving the stretched canvas, which talked to him about the wind. He was a young man, but he had been at sea since he was scarcely more than a boy and had about him an older man's gravity. His dark eyes, accustomed to taking in much at a glance, were piercing. He was lean, strong, and steady. His frown could stop a conversation; his laughter lifted the spirits of all who heard him. After his first visit to the rambling house they called Rose Cottage, her father had announced, "Joseph Gibbs is as solid a seaman as I know. He keeps his wits about him."
And now he kept his wife about him. She studied the sailors, absorbed in their labors, each one different from the others, one skittish, one bullying, another diffident, a shirker, a bawler, a rapscallion, and a fool, yet each at his task harkened to the voice of the Master. Doubtless her mother was right - they were all of them in God's hands, but should the Almighty turn away for a moment, every soul on this ship would shift his faith to the person of Captain Joseph Gibbs.
Excerpted from The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin. Copyright © 2014 by Valerie Martin. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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