Saturday Excerpt – A Whisper of Angels by Lourdes R. Florido

THEWHI-2 (1)Here is part of the first chapter.

I sat on the bench in the square across from the wharf and stared at The Ernestine, her three rows of white sails ascending upwards like outstretched wings. I hoped her beauty and my art would help mute my rage, but I wasn’t sure if it would be enough. It was dusk, and everything was quieting down, the merchants locking up their shops to head home while groups of mariners headed towards the nearby tavern. The Ernestine was the latest of the whalers to arrive in the harbor, having come back just a few days earlier, and like all the other ships that travelled in and out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, I wanted to add her to my collection of drawings. I wouldn’t have much time to get a preliminary sketch before the shadows of the night took hold, and I didn’t want to be around so long that I would have to deal with the people who populated the wharf at night. As I hastily worked on the drawing, a loud, rather slurred voice made me look up.

“Hey, I know him all to pieces.”

A rotund, mud splattered sailor swaggered towards me, followed by another tall one. Oh hell, not now, I thought. A couple of drunks was the last thing I needed. “Nat, Nat, now stop; don’t bother that boy,” said the taller one. “We ain’t here for the likes of him.”

They were probably out looking for one of the wharfside prostitutes that scurried out like roaches once darkness comes. The mariners made New Bedford a more raucous place than someone of my quiet disposition liked, and 1857 had been a particularly loud and hectic year for our town. Dozens of ships had gone out on the hunt for the sperm oil that made New Bedford one of the richest towns in America. The oil that came from sperm whales lit lamps and lubricated machinery, and our town was filled with all the makings of the industry, from immigrant sailors and wharfside prostitutes to rich shipping agents and owners. We “lit” the world with our trade.

As I watched the two sailors stagger away, my thoughts returned to the source of my rage as I recalled how my day had unfolded.

“Get out of that rack and get the hell out here, boy!”

That was how my morning began, as I shuddered awake at George Herrington’s deep booming voice. His yelling roused me from what had been a peaceful dream of Father. We were together again, on a sailing ship staring out onto a purplish tinged sea. For a moment my dream had felt so real, and I had been happy again, but then reality in the form of Herrington’s yelling scared me awake, back to my misery. Before I could even sit up, he was in my room, shoving me off of my bed.

“Did I not tell you last night to unpack my tools and set them in the sheds? Why are they still in the front sitting room?”

“It was too dark out there and I thought it could wait until today,” I said.

“Well your breakfast will wait then until you’re done unpacking those boxes,” he snarled. “Get out there and do it now.”

Bastard. Damn bastard, I thought, as I hurried out the back door dragging one of his heavy boxes. I hated him and could not wait till his ship left port for a hunt again, so that First Mate Herrington would go away for a long, long time. I still could not believe that Mother had married him not even two months after Father was laid in the ground. What did she see in him? He was uncouth and so young. It wasn’t proper. I had barely dragged the box into one of the sheds when he was bellowing again.

“Hurry up and get to the other boxes, boy. Stop your dawdling.” The work and the endless brow beating continued for most of the day, until I could stand it no longer and just stopped. After dinner, Herrington sat relaxing on the settee that Father had paid for, and I finally let my face express just what I thought of him.

“Do not look at me that way, boy,” he said.

“In what way?” I chided. Herrington jumped up, lunging for me, but I quickly stepped back, right into Mother who had come into the room.

“Nicolas, come here,” she said grabbing me by the shoulders and guiding me into the kitchen.

“You cannot continue to treat George with disrespect,” she said. “He is your father now.”

“Never,” I said. “That will never be my father. Mother, what were you thinking? I don’t understand why you married him. He’s so much younger than you, in his 20s; the thought of you with him sickens me.”

She looked away for a moment and then quietly answered.

“We need to move on with our lives Nicolas; this is in everyone’s best interest.”

“But Father is barely buried,” I blurted out. “You dishonor him and you dishonor yourself. Do you know what the neighbors think? I overheard Mrs. Dorsett and Mrs. Barnes talking, and I was so embarrassed. Do you know what type of woman they are saying you are?”

She slapped me then, which surprised me as she had never hit me before.

“I’m sor—…” Mother began. I didn’t stay to hear what else she had to say. Instead I ran to my room, grabbed my pencils and sketch pad and ran out the back door to the wharf, where I attempted to continue my drawing. But my art would have to wait for another day.

“What? Up to this foolishness again?”

Before I could react to the voice that at first startled me, my sketchbook was snatched out of my lap.

“Idiot,” I snapped, looking up to see Henry’s smirking face, a prankish twinkle appearing in his deep, hazel eyes. He was dressed quite formally, in a dark blue suit, gold vest, and cravat. “Why so fancy?” I asked.

“So I see you are wasting your time again in this foul part of town,” Henry said, ignoring my question. “It’s not bad,” he said assessing the drawing and dropping the sketchbook back into my lap. “But I have better plans for tonight.”

“What?” I asked, knowing that whatever it was would probably involve some mischief.

Henry had been my best friend since childhood; we had met at the wharfside, and unlikely best friends we’d become. We were different in so many ways. I was artistic; he athletic. He was outgoing; I introverted. And then there was the matter of our families. Henry’s father was a wealthy whaling agent and ship owner, and Henry lived in a grand house that was visited by all the important people in town. My father, Sam, had been a blacksmith, and we lived in a small house near the wharf district. The only time we saw town “royalty” was when they came to order something from my father. Yet, although we were very different, we had somehow connected right away. Henry had once told me that I wasn’t what he expected. I think he thought that I would be like the sailors—rough and loud—a product of my class. “You are surprisingly refined,” he once told me.

But Henry was wrong to judge everyone to be the same. Although my father was a blacksmith, he was a quiet, reflective, and religious man who had never cursed in front of me, and although he was a tradesman, he was quite literate. I had been raised in a home where books were valued, especially the Bible, which he read aloud to me every Sunday. But there was something else that connected Henry and me, a strong interest-in-common that kept our friendship going. It was a love of trickery. I may have been quiet, but I loved pulling the wool over others’ eyes. Through the years Henry and I had played many jokes on schoolmates and others, like “haunting” the Roderick manor when they were away for the summer in Europe, causing so many rumors that the family feared to move back into their home when they returned. Now I wondered what he was thinking of doing.

“What’s your idea?” I asked.

“You will pretend to be me tonight.”

“Why?”

“It’s Father. He’s met some new person, a Mr. Witham, who recently moved into town—a wealthy judge with a daughter around our age, and he and Father got to talking and managed to arrange for me to have supper with Mr. Witham and his daughter Shelley tonight. I do not want to sit through some God-awful meal with people who mean nothing to me, and this could make it interesting.”

“Perhaps it won’t be so bad for you,” I said. “Maybe you’ll find her pretty.”

“You know I don’t care,” Henry said.

“Well they do,” I said. Henry’s parents had decided it was time that he began thinking of having a serious courtship. After all, by the time his father was our age, fifteen, he had already decided that Henry’s mother would eventually become his wife. It’s not like Henry couldn’t have his pick of girls in town. His family was rich and he was handsome, his dark hair and eyes luminous against his fair skin. The girls blushed and giggled or flirted when they were near him, vying for his attention, but he never seemed to pay them much interest.

“Come on. Help me out here.”

“Okay,” I mulled. “It could be fun, but I don’t think it will work. We don’t look anything alike.”

Our differences, like day and night, extended to our looks. I had inherited my father’s fair looks, with light blue eyes and blond hair. “Mr. Witham has not seen me yet,” Henry said.

“Fine,” I said, “but what about our clothes? These chore rags just won’t make anyone believe that I’m the son of Mr. Lawton.”

“We’ll switch out of them. Let’s duck behind the trees here.”

“Okay,” I said, watching as Henry began tugging at his cravat and removing his coat. As we began walking towards the clump of trees that bordered the back of the square, we suddenly heard the clomping of horses racing down the road. I looked up to see Henry’s family coach pull up to the curb.

 

 

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