Authors: Theodore Taylor
Ben's mouth dropped. Was she calling John O'Neal a fool?
"Your papa just as well as murdered those two men he took with him to his grave."
"That whole crew was volunteer," Ben blurted frantically. "Jabez tol' me."
"Did he tell you the surf was twenty feet high that night? That every man in the crew told your papa it was sure death to go out? Did he tell you that they all had a lil' will-makin' ceremony before they went out, led by your papa?"
Rachel's eyes had tears forming. She would allow only a few. Her voice stayed steady. "Ben, he knew he wasn't goin' to come back. It was only lucky that four men got ashore after he capsized. Steerin' oar in his fists, he was tellin' the sea he was stronger than it was. Now, isn't that a fool?" There, she had it off her chest.
Ben fled out into the night and went down to the dock. He dung to a piling head, feeling sick. But he refused to cry.
About seven, Ben made his way up the ladder into the lookout cupola of Heron Head station. He'd been told that Keeper Midgett was up there.
Filene sometimes liked to have a pipe in the lookout after supper. He'd watch the lights of passing ships; look south to the warm beam of Hatteras light; north to the faint wand from Bodie Island Light.
In the darkness, Ben said, "Cap'n Midgett, can I talk to you a minute?"
There was something in the boy's voice that was queer. Subdued. Hurt. Filene recognized it. He struck a sulfur match. In the flare he saw that Ben looked like a horse had back-legged him in the breastbone.
Mark Jennette was also up there, studying a ship with the long glass. He said, "Howdy, Ben."
"Cap'n, is it true John O'Neal was a fool the night he capsized?"
Filene peered at Ben in the darkness. "Who tol' you that?"
Filene said, "Ben, I heerd you dumped that lil' sailboat today. You ought not to be out under a squall sky. Your mama's upset."
Ben pressed again. "Was he a fool, Cap'n Midgett?"
Filene looked out to sea for a while. "Ben, the surf was twenty feet high that night. I frankly don't think your papa had too much hopes o' gettin' back."
"Then he was a fool."
Filene answered slowly. "Depends on how you look at it, an' who looks at it. I will say one thing. There was a ship out there in distress. People pleadin' to be saved. Now, do you think he could 'ave turned his back on 'em?"
Ben stood for a moment, nodded, then said, "Thank you, Cap'n."
He wound on down the ladder.
Filene said to Mark Jennette thoughtfully, "He may have the makin's, at that. He could be as rough as John when he's growed."
At home, Ben faced his mother once more. He said, "John O'Neal couldn't have turned his back on those people."
Rachel felt herself cracking like glass; coming apart inside. In all the years, she had never thought of that one simple thing. She'd only thought of how senseless it was to row out to death. Not why. Now Ben had told her.
She reached out for him and pulled him tight against her so that he could not see her tears. Then she said, softly, "No, son, your papa could never do that."
Ben sighed deeply.
T CALM DAYBREAK,
when he awakened, Ben felt better than he had for a long time. A doud seemed to have lifted from the O'Neal house. Perhaps the last two days had been a storm, with fair weather following.
He hitched Fid to the cart and then went north to pick up Kilbie and Frank. He realized now how dose he'd come to death out in the Pamlico. There wasn't much doubt that if Hardie Miller hadn't happened along, he would have slipped on under. Next time, he thoughtâº he'd reckon respectfully with squall douds.
They rode along to Kinnakeet, Frank and Kilbie asking all sorts of questions about the boat tipping over. Then they brought it back home overland, strapped to the cart. Ben put it down by the dock but didn't launch it.
Rachel came out and took one look at the name on the transom. She laughed. "I might have known it."
Frank and Kilbie went back to Chicky while Ben and his mother returned to the house together, walking dose.
In the afternoon, Ben said, "I'll take Tee somewhere if you want." He felt he owed his mother a family favor.
"That would be nice," she replied.
Rachel got Tee dressed, putting the new red bob-cap Mr. Burrus had sent over on her head.
Ben hitched Fid up again and they went north in the cart up to Pea Island. He thought Tee might like to see the snow geese. They fed on the salt-marsh cordgrass over by the sound side.
On the way, he tried to talk to her once more, but it wasn't easy. The only thing he could think of was to tell her about John White, Virginia Dare, and the lost colony of Roanoke Island. They were headed in that general direction.
Tee watched the countryside while he talked and Ben finally lapsed into silence, too, knowing that her visit, if anyone wanted to call it that, couldn't go on forever. Any hour now they expected the British consul to get a message to them saying they knew who she was; then she'd leave.
Meanwhile, Ben had made up his mind to make the best of it; help when he could. Try not to let those blue owl eyes make him uncomfortable; be patient with her.
The trail turned inland and the flats unrolled, not too far below Oregon Inlet. As usual, there were thousands of snow geese there. Doing what Ben had seen them do for years. Feeding, flapping, fighting; making noises at each other. The whole marshy flat turned white come the first frost.
He stopped the cart, keeping Boo Dog tied in it The dog loved to barrel right into the thick of them, sending them skyward. It was fun when it happened. But not this day. The girl might not appreciate it, anyway.
He noticed that she was watching the geese intently. Her eyes lost the dullness and seemed to sharpen. They went back and forth and there was a funny expression on her face when a vee of them came winging in and lit.
Ben wondered if she really knew they were geese. There were also some whistling swans and gadwalls out there. Perhaps it was only his imagination, but she seemed excited.
When the ganders bulled their way around, squawking and fluttering a few feet, tail feathers rigid, Tee sat forward.
A bald eagle floated and spiraled along overhead for a moment, wheeling to take a look at all the commotion below.
"Bald eagle, Tee," he said.
He thought he saw her eyes lift. Then realized he'd also pointed. She'd caught the motion of his finger.
They stayed for almost an hour, Ben watching Tee more than the birdlife; beginning to think that perhaps something was left in her head; that she wasn't totally crazy. He kept watching her on the way home.
About a mile away from the snow-geese flats, he untied Boo Dog and let him jump to earth. The dog began running out ahead, as usual. Sniffing at the bushes; stopping to lift a leg; then rocketing out again.
Tee had turned her attention to Boo Dog, and Ben watched, too. It suddenly occurred to him that he'd never really looked at Boo very much. The muscles were rippling under his gold coat; his tail was arched up. The wind picked at the shag on his back, blowing it like a grain field.
Tee didn't take her eyes off Boo until he finally disappeared into the brush to the west.
Then she began watching the tackie.
AU right, what do you see there
Fid was holding his head high. The wind was blowing his mane. The heavy muscles were gliding on his rump and hindquarters.
Ben was so intent on watching Tee that he hardly realized a small hand had come over and was resting on his. He glanced down at it and then across to her.
Her eyes were still on Fid. He didn't think she knew she'd done it. He tried to hold the reins very still, wondering what was happening.
He was waiting for her to look over and smile; even say something.
But then a skinny rabbit scooted across the trail ahead and her eyes went to that. The hand dropped away.
At home, Ben said, "She touched me, Mama. Cormin' back"
"I don't even think she knew it."
Rachel looked over at the girl. "Ben, I swear Doc is wrong. She's not a vegetable. Every day I see a sign of somethin'."
HE NEXT MORNING
Ben rode south to Mis' Creedy's on the edge of Buxton Woods.
Mis' Creedy was one of the foremost people on the Banks. She had been a schoolteacher and had then come into some money when her father died. The main reason she'd moved to the Banks was to paint birds, and those they had ample of. Ben thought she did a good job with herons and snow geese. But her grebes and egrets didn't look alive, somehow.
She lived in a cottage, one of the finest on the barrier islands, on the sound side, midst myrtle and live oak and clematis. Made of juniper, pine, cypress, and some mahogany salvaged from a ship, it had a brick fireplace with great iron firedogs from the north. She'd bought it from Cap'n Tillett's family after the widower passed on at ninety-three. She was not Banks-born but people had taken to her. She did not even look like a mainlander. She was chunky and had a ruddy face. The women forgave her for wearing men's pants because she had to slop around in the marshes so much to paint the birds.
Ben said, "Mis' Creedy, you got any books on London I could borrow?" He knew she'd traveled over there.
Surprised, Mis' Creedy answered, "Why, I have a few books on London, Ben." He'd borrowed books before but they'd always been about the sea. "Why London?"
Ben lied. "I'm jus' curious. I saw a ship yestiddy with London on the stern." Ben crossed his fingers. If she'd think for two minutes, she'd know a ship never got in that dose unless it wrecked.
"Do you want one with pictures?"
"I don't know."
Mis' Creedy walked over to bend down by her bookcase. "I think the best thing I have here is a Baedeker."
"What's a Baedeker?"
She pulled out a small book that was bound in red leather. It wasn't much bigger than two hand palms. "It's a travel guide, Ben. I used it all over London. It's crammed with information. It even has maps in it."
"Can I borrow it?"
"Why, I'd be pleased to have you read it," said Mis' Creedy. "It certainly won't hurt you."
"I appreciate it."
"Take this one, too.
The People of London
Ben took them and even tried to read some of the red-covered book going home but Fid kept bouncing him. It did say on the front page: "London and its Environs"âwhatever that meantâ"Handbook for Travellers by Karl Baedeker; with 4 maps and 24 plans; Leipzig: Karl Baedeker, Publisher."
Ben did not know such books existed.
He decided not to tell his mother about the books he'd borrowed. She'd mention it to someone, and then they'd mention it to someone else. Then somebody would figure out the purpose, having nothing better to do. Sooner or later, Kilbie would come up to say, "You sure you not in love with that vegetable?"
He hid the black-covered book in his bottom drawer and then took the Baedeker down to the dock and began to scan it. In a few minutes, he almost dropped it into the water. On page twenty-six, under the heading of
was "Durrant's, 116 New Bond Street." Same as the label on Tee's dress.
Ben was stunned.
He ran back into the house and found the salt-stained shoe. Back on the dock, he moistened his finger to bring the printing in sharper. He made out, "Hook, Knowles & Co., 65 Bond Street." He found that shop on page twenty-nine.
Then he made a guess as to where she might have bought other things:
Gloves at Wheelers; underclothing at Sweats &Â Wells, on Oxford Street; hats at Mrs. Heath's on St. George's Place...
It seemed there wasn't any general store, like Burrus, with everything under one roof.
He figured out where Tee might have bought candy. The place was Fuller's, at 28 St. Swithin's Lane. He even picked out a restaurant where she might have gone with her parents. Simpson's, the ladies' room upstairs.
Ben read on in amazement.
London had almost five million people and that was more than North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia put together. Or so he thought It had subways and electric railways and tunnels under the River Thames. It had omnibuses (with garden seats on the roof) drawn by three horses. It had five hundred newspapers and five hundred music halls and one place with a French name where there were wax statues of everybody. It had eighteen big railroad stations and maybe a thousand small ones.
There was a fish market named Billingsgate that was big enough to put Bodie Island in; the Metropolitan Cattle Market had 10,000 head of beef, 30,000 sheep, and 1,000 pigs, all on the hoof, and the best time to go there was Monday before Christmas. Everybody bought their vegetables and flowers at a place called Covent Garden, and the best time to go there was Easter Eve. Lead-enhall Market had chickens and game on the claw. Ben reminded himself to tell Mr. Burrus about that because he was trying to raise prize White Leghorns.
It was some fine place in which Teetoncey had lived, Ben finally concluded.
Before he left the dock, he picked out an area for her house. Baedeker's told him that the finest places in London proper were in Chelsea and around Belgrave Square. He chose the latter because it sounded so fancy when it said, "Belgravia consists of handsome streets." He then selected Eaton Square as hers.
He felt the fool, but he was enjoying it. Now, he'd give her a name. He wanted it to sound elegant and looked in Baedeker's at the section on private mansions. There was the Apsley House, the Dorchester House; the Lady Brassey Museum. Then he saw the Lansdowne House.
He looked at it a long time. But that could well be her name, he thought. It certainly could.
She sure wouldn't be called Willy Ann or Lucy.
Ben laughed to himself because he'd never done anything so idiotic in all his days. Then he went on up to the house.
Tee was on the couch.
He said, "Elizabeth Lansdowne? Do you hear me? That your name?"