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Authors: The Outer Banks House (v5)

Diann Ducharme (6 page)

He smiled. “Yep. That’s all I do. Just about every day and night. Takes a lot of time, fishing.”

“How do you find the time to be a guide? And then come out here for tutoring? Do you really think you’ll be able to make it over here every afternoon?” I asked skeptically. Maybe he’d get fed up with the process and stop coming altogether.

“It’s the slower time of year, summer is. We long-net down in the Pamlico Sound every couple of weeks, catch spot and croaker mostly. We always have a little extra time on our hands come July and August. But things’ll start ripping again in September, I reckon. Then it’s back to the ocean for us.”

It seemed like such a hard life. “I hope you make some money at it at least.”

“Not too much. As you can see,” he said, fingering his ripped shirt, “I’m lacking in niceties. But this spring Pap and me had a record catch of shad, at least for us.”

“You fish with your daddy?” I asked.

“Ever since I was nothing but a babe in arms. We get sick of each other most days, but he’s the only pap I got, and I love him. Plus, he’s the one with the boats and the nets, so I have to stick with him,” he joked.

“But you mentioned that you might want a different sort of job someday?”

He nodded, his blue eyes shifting toward the sea. “Guess time will tell. I’ve got my eye on some things coming down the pike.”

A seagull flew to the bottom of the porch steps and stood there watching us out of the corner of its eye. We had gotten sidetracked, but I couldn’t seem to stop the conversation.

“We don’t eat fish very much back home. Mama’s of Swedish descent, so you’d think she’d have fish for every meal. But she won’t even eat salmon. Plus, Daddy’s not the best fisherman in the world. We’re not what you’d call water people.”

“Oh, well, your pap’s doing all right.” His eyes lit up as he started to talk about his livelihood. “It’s all a matter of knowing where they’re gonna bite, and that’s where I come in. But your pap’s a keen observer of nature. Right clever. And I’ll tell you, he is a darned good shot with the hunting rifle. Just about gave me a run for my money last fall when I took him bird-gunning up yonder in Currituck.”

“I believe it. All he ever does back home is shoot animals. He’s taking out his anger on the poor innocents of the world.”

He looked concerned. “Is he angry? He seems even-keeled enough to me, I reckon.”

I had probably said too much to the man. I didn’t want him in our family’s business any more than he was. “Oh, just worried is all. About the plantation.”

I looked over at Mama, who seemed to be engrossed in her reading. I took up my quill and a piece of paper. “I’m going to copy out the alphabet on a piece of paper for you, and for practice, study your letters so that you can recite them all by memory. If I think you’re ready, we’ll start writing them soon.”

“When do you think I’ll be able to read books like that one you was reading the other day? Seems I’m a pretty fast learner. Shouldn’t take too long, I reckon!”

I laughed a bit, then wondered if he wasn’t joking. “Oh, mercy, I’m not sure you’ll be able to read books like that for many—It’s just that reading books like
Moby-Dick
takes many years of dedicated reading practice. And it takes a lot of learning about the world and the people in it, a lot of education.”

He raised his eyebrows at me. “Well, ain’t we proud? You can teach me all that, though, right? I wasn’t born yesterday.”

I shook my head. “Not in one summer.”

He looked so downhearted that I grew bothered with myself for disappointing him. He seemed to have such high hopes for himself. “I’m not saying that you can’t learn. But some of the concepts in that particular book are difficult to grasp, even for me.”

I grabbed the book off the table and thumbed the pages. “See, on the surface, the novel appears to be about a whaling voyage. But it’s not. There are deeper interpretations to consider.”

His eyes narrowed and he scratched his head. “Huh?”

“The whale is not really a whale,” I said slowly. “They’re chasing knowledge, fate, the meaning of life.”

He raised his eyes to the porch ceiling and drawled, “Oh, I see. Hidden meanings and all. Like a treasure map, but in a book.”

I nodded enthusiastically. “That’s right. Grasping those themes takes study and reflection. Maybe I could read aloud a bit of another book that I brought along for Charlie and Martha, a book about a shipwrecked sailor living on a deserted island. I think you may like it.”

“Hey now, that’s a great idea! Reading out loud! I reckon I’ve never heard a person read a book out loud before, except the Bible, you know,” he exclaimed, and grabbed the paper on which I’d written the alphabet. “I’m going to learn all these little sons-o’-guns, all right! You’ll see! Much obliged to you, Miss Sinclair! Bye now, Mrs. Sinclair!”

And off he ran down the beach. He moved as loose-limbed and carefree as a child. Mama raised her head and said, “Good gracious, he runs like an animal.”

And in spite of myself, I smiled. I pictured myself running down the shore with him, but where we were off to together, I had not one single notion.

The next morning I accompanied Winnie to the little market, which was built on long stilts over the Roanoke Sound so that people traveling on small boats could dock and come up to fetch their supplies.

Winnie had been back and forth to the market and the post office in the hotel a few times already, fetching items that were desperately needed for our first couple of days at the beach, so she had met a few of the local “Bankers” already.

In a loud rant in the kitchen one morning, Winnie had expressed her exasperation with their stubborn ignorance and “evil eyes,” and she told me she was looking forward to the start of the weekly packets of fresh vegetables and fruit from the plantation so she wouldn’t have as many dealings with them.

Maybe it was because I’d been cooped up all day at the house, but I was curious about the folks who lived here permanently, having met Mr. Whimble. I guessed that they were all as simple as he was, with no schools or much industry to speak of out here.

I knew already that they were an independent sort of people, since they were notoriously pro-Union during the war. Daddy had complained, back when the war began, that many of the folks out here had more ties with New England, with all of their shipping concerns,
than with the land-bound inner cities of North Carolina. He said that they were as good as Yankees.

Now Winnie and I walked down a little pier to the market, and a tanned, big-boned woman with a ragged old bonnet and patched brown homespun dress emerged from the back to greet us. Her dark, crinkled eyes looked me over, and I felt, suddenly, foolishly dressed, with my fine linen dress cascading unnaturally with crinolines over the warped wood. With a cheek full of chewing tobacco, she asked Winnie what we’d like from the market.

Winnie, likely with visions of her famous fried catfish and okra dinner in her head, examined the produce first, then asked what kind of fish was available. With expert hands that cradled and caressed the sweet potatoes and watermelon like newborn heads, she chose several fat catfish and a basketful of fresh vegetables and fruits.

As Winnie loaded our baskets onto the cart, the woman spoke to me. “So you from that fam’ly what built the new house on the ocean side? That piney house down yonder?” she asked, pointing a crooked brown finger southward, toward the ocean.

I smiled at her unexpected interest. “Yes, that’s right. I’m Abigail Sin—”

“I can’t for the life of me feature why all you folks built those houses so close to the ocean. It’s the devil’s own foolishness, we all agree. We’ll soon see yer house a-floatin’ with the next storm. Serve you right, it will.” With that, she spat an arc of tobacco juice over her shoulder and retreated into the shack without a thank-you or a good-bye.

My body pulsed with indignation. I complained to Winnie as we walked to the hotel to fetch our mail. “Who does she think she is, speaking to me in such a manner? I doubt I’ve ever been spoken to so rudely.” I was certainly accustomed to Mama’s simmering anger, but not to outright rudeness.

“It just their way out here. They a peculiar bunch of folks, from what I can see,” said Winnie, looking around to see if anyone was listening. “She never done learned her manners, living out here like she do. I reckon some folks see you and figure they got the short end of the stick.”

She bit her lip then and averted her eyes from my face. “And too, she might feature you all to be wasteful kind of folks, just handing out perfectly fine dresses like you do.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“She the one I gave your dirty dress to. She gonna give it to her daughter. She ’bout your age, I reckon. So if you see that dress out yonder, wearing itself out on some poor old white gal, don’t get all huffy over it, mind!”

My mouth dropped open. The terrible luck of my nice dress ending up in the hands of that woman! I started to complain, but Winnie smacked her hand over my mouth.

“You’ll catch flies in that gaper, so close her on up,” she scolded. I knew from experience that she couldn’t be bothered by me anymore. “And Miz Abby, you got to thicken up that pale skin of yours if you want to live out here with these Banker folks. It ain’t like living in the big house no more.”

It seemed that I stewed over the repossessed dress for a long, long time before the withered old postman at the hotel finally handed over the Sinclair pile of letters. On top of the pile was a thick beige envelope addressed to me, Miss Abigail Sinclair, care of Mr. and Mrs. Nolan Sinclair, Nags Head, North Carolina. The letter was sealed with the Newman family seal, a cross with a medicinal herb in the middle of it.

On the cart ride back to the house I opened the envelope, my fingers stiff with anxiety. Hector Newman had written on two sheets of engraved white stationery, in bold, slightly illegible black cursive.

June 18, 1868

My dear Abigail
,

I hope this letter finds you and your family settled and peaceful there at the ocean’s edge
.

The days are turning hot and humid here in Edenton, and I find myself thinking of you a great deal, envious of your ocean breezes and clean air. You may find that you have some new neighbors next year. I have been accompanying my father on his visits to his patients, many of whom have already contracted the yellow fever. At my father’s insistence, they have heartily vowed to make a trip to the ocean next year to take the air
.

Indeed, I would like to make a visit to the island soon, to see the sights. I will write a request to your father and mother. I have also inquired about lodging at the local hotel there on the island, and would be honored if you and your parents would accompany me to supper there one evening
.

I will wait eagerly for your reply
.

Most sincerely
,
Hector Newman

I was flattered that Hector hadn’t forgotten about me yet. I was sure that in my absence he would have found a bevy of other young Edenton girls to visit while on his summer hiatus. Perhaps that was still true. I really didn’t
know
Hector at all, having only entertained his company three times in the early spring.

But he had stellar prospects. He currently attended the medical institute at Yale University, and his father was the revered Dr. Newman, our family physician since before I was born. People in Edenton were already talking about how purely wonderful it would be if Hector followed his father’s career path.

’Course, Hector was uncommonly handsome. His face was so perfectly
put together that I never was very sure what words were coming out of my mouth when we were conversing.

Sometimes, during fits of boredom, I’d imagine myself married to him, living in a stately home on Water Street with a garden overlooking the Albemarle Sound. I could play the role of doctor’s wife very well, I thought.

“Save any lives today, my dear?” I’d lovingly ask him at supper.

“Oh, only a few,” he’d say with a chuckle.

But it was embarrassing how Mama just fawned over Hector when he came to call on me, monopolizing the conversation with medical and ethical concerns and plying him with things that she had learned in the thick medical textbooks that she read as a kind of hobby.

I planned to show Mama the letter when I returned, and discuss Hector’s visit with her, but she was upstairs napping again. And Hannah, with a mischievous glint in her eye, whispered to me that Mama had vomited her dinner in a mixing bowl before taking to her bed.

CHAPTER FOUR

Benjamin Whimble
June 27, 1868

[My father] told me … that mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found by long experience was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind
.

—R
OBINSON
C
RUSOE

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