More Sensibility than Sense
One night in 1765 . . . my eighth year
“Dream well, my rosebud,” my handsome father whispered. As Papa bent down to kiss me good night, his olive-tinted skin smelled comfortingly of bay rum and tobacco. I cherished the low rumble of his voice; when it was the very last sound I heard at bedtime, I knew the next day would be a lucky one. In the half-light, for then I feared to fall asleep in total darkness, I could still make out his striped waistcoat with its shiny brass buttons.Even as he tucked me into bed he looked like he was preparing to head off to the exchange.
But in the middle of that night I was shaken awake by the sound of raised voices. My parents rarely quarreled, so deep was the affection that ran between them. Mother saw Papa as I did: strong, kind, and generous.
“Their schooling, Nicholas.What do you expect me to do? Surely you do not expect proper English children to grow up like savages in the wilderness? Mary is the darling of the Miss Mores. And when Miss Hannah took her girls to see Mr. Powell in King Lear at the Theatre Royal, Mary was in raptures for weeks, eager herself to tread the boards. Miss Hannah even wrote a special part for her in one of her dramatic parables.”
“I merely thought, my dear, since you can scarcely bear to spend a moment apart from any of the children, that it would be more amenable to you to take them with us. If their education concerns you more than their companionship, perhaps it would be better to leave them here.”
“And board them somewhere? With strangers? I don’t even board Mary at the Miss Mores.”
“I am endeavoring to please you, Hester. It is only because of my esteem for you that I leave this decision in your hands, rather than ordering you to do your duty as my wife in whichever manner I see fit.”
“And I thank you for that, my love. But each prospect seems so terrible to me. It is not just the health of their minds that I fear. Illness, dampness, droughts, disease-before we even reach Greenland’s shores-not halfway to our destination-we shall be compelled to endure weeks of being tossed to and fro in the middle of the sea like so many crates of tea, with no one to hear our cries should we become imperiled. My stomach turns at the merest thought of our accommodations.”
My father grew testy. “Hester, I expect to be abroad for two years, perhaps longer. I should not ask you to join me on this venture, were I not keenly aware of its dangers and equally certain of your safety and of the children’s. You must think me a monster to believe that I would ever willingly put my family at such risk.”
“How can it not be a risk?”
“Are you refusing to accompany me?”
The saddest and most plaintive moan escaped my mother’s anguished lips. “Nicholas . . . I dared not breathe a word of this to you, certain you would find it silly . . . I have such a horror of the ocean that it mortifies me to confess it. And I fear that even for your own dear sake, such dread is not to be borne, much less overcome.”
Her words might as well have been made of iron, forming the nails for her coffin. Mother spoke her mind, revealing her darkest fears to the man she loved with every fiber of her being, and was to pay a horrible price for it.
In my early years growing up in Bristol, though I had three brothers, I was still my father’s favorite. I was the one who’d replaced their little Elizabeth-the pink angel they lost to the pox before she reached the age of three. We were cosseted, petted, and spoil’d as rotten as week-old cabbage, given the finest of everything as befitted the children of a successful-though often absent-British merchant and his doting wife.
I never was permitted to board at school, nor to pass a night of separation from the fondest of mothers. Mother adored her handsome husband and he delighted in her sweet and open nature. I recall caresses, even kisses, exchanged in front of my brothers and me, and gifts were bestowed in abundance. Mother’s jewels were enviable, for my father possessed exquisite taste and the money to put it to good use.
I slept on crimson damask sheets in a bed fit for a princess. My dresses were ordered from London. We dined on the very best china and plate. And during the summer months we were sent to Clifton Hill for the advantages of a purer air. Mother was the kindest of women; if she had any faults, it was her too tender care that she lavish’d upon my brothers and me.
My father was a North American born of black Irish stock, a man of strong mind, high spirit, and personal intrepidity, and it was all three of those noble qualities that removed him from his family on more than one occasion. But from the moment of that midnight quarrel, my life’s course took its first shattering turn, for Papa had devised an eccentric scheme as wild and romantic as it was perilous to hazard-and it would take him away from us forever.
In my romantic girlish mind my thoughts of him would fluctuate as if riding astride a pendulum. In one instant he was the American Seafarer, off on another exotic venture to a faraway and savage land; but in the next moment Papa was the British Merchant who would desert the family he adored when, surely, closer to hand there were equally prosperous projects to be explored. Caught between worshipping him and being cross with him for leaving all of us to fend as we might in his absence, I was as quick to defend him as I was to condemn. He broke my heart as often as he mended it.
After many dreams of success and many conflicts betwixt prudence and ambition, when I was but seven years old, Papa departed for Labrador to establish a whale fishery amongst the Esquimaux Indians there, believing he could civilize them and teach them the necessary skills that would eventually make British America’s whaling industry topple that of Greenland, its greatest rival. It turned out to be a double farewell, for my elder brother, John, was sent off to Italy at the same time, apprenticed to a mercantile house in Leghorn.
My parents corresponded as frequently as practicable. At first, their letters were full of fondness, even ardor, for each other, as well as Mother’s fears for Papa’s health and safety, and his repeated tender assurances that all was well and that he missed his adoring family dreadfully. He would return to England even wealthier; as triumphant for himself as for the economy of king and country; and every day would be a holiday under the Darby roof. But gradually, the tone of his letters began to change. Warm affection was supplanted by a civil cordiality, as if he now wrote from duty, rather than desire. My mother felt the change, and her affliction was infinite.
“Why did I not conquer my fears?” she lamented to me, as she pressed my auburn curls to her bosom. “Why did I let my own timidity divide me from the very man to whom I pledged myself, body and soul, and consigned my fortunes?”
At length, a total silence of several months awoke my mother’s mind to the sorrows of neglect, the torture of compunction. “Has he forsaken us for my trepidation?” she would worry aloud.
And then, one horrible day, the penny dropped.