When I descended the stairs next morning, Billy was haunting the front room looking equal parts anxious and eager. The reason for the anxiety came clear almost at once.
“Did you tell that child you’d give him money?” Mrs. Molly demanded, landing (in her light-speed mode) uncomfortably close to my face. It dawned on me that I should probably have consulted his mother first. Obviously I don’t think like a parent.
“I did,” I answered, defensively dignified. “I contracted with him to take on some errands and tasks for me.” Her sternness relaxed into a smile, and I relaxed correspondingly.
“He’s given to stories,” she commented, and I wasn’t sure if she were warning me or explaining herself. Maybe some of each. “I wanted to be sure he’s being level with me. And he’d better be level with you.” That was unquestionably a threat, and directed not at me, but at the triumphant face beside me.
“I enjoy a person with imagination,” I assured her. “Just not lies.” That was for Billy, who seemed none daunted—compared to his mother’s forceful personality, my best effort at thinking like a parent probably seemed laughable.
Billy sat down with me, and his now-indulgent mother brought him what I suspected was a second breakfast to accompany mine.
“Do you remember our jobs for today?” I quizzed him, savoring my thick coffee.
“I’m taking you to look for a sextant”—he started counting off the tasks on his fingers—“and me and Sam are going to find out all the ships that came in since yesterday, and you want to see some booksellers. And I’m to check the post every day.” (That was one of his own additions—and though I didn’t expect a return letter just yet, I’d let him add to his own list.) “Oh, and Mama says we have to be back by four for your fitting. What’s a fitting?”
I explained and he immediately lost interest. Venturing to shops and docks was clearly a more palatable prospect. I rearranged the order-of-operations, but he’d impressed me by his ready recitation. I’d have him take me shopping this morning and turn him loose on the docks while I went back to meet Mrs. Norton.
He slipped his hand into mine when we stepped out the door, though clearly it was to guide me rather than the reverse; he didn’t consider himself the child in this equation. He towed me along in his wake, a man on a mission. “All right, Miss, I asked Mama and she says it’s The Brass Eagle for your sextant. Are we walking?” I saw he hoped for the ride that a negative would entail, but I felt restless and wanted to walk. He shrugged off whatever disappointment my answer engendered, and continued his jabber as we made our way through the denizens of 1841 New York. I’d been here a couple days, but still felt like I was walking around in a film. How telling of my cultural conditioning, that made-up movies felt more real to me than the reality around me.
“What do you need a sextant for? Sailors use those, and you can’t be a sailor… Though you draw like one,” he added with a glance up at me.
“It’s a gift for a ship’s captain. I’m going to New Bedford to marry him—I wanted to bring a wedding gift.”
“You’re awfully old not to be married,” he observed brightly, with that truthful lack of tact at which children excel, “so that’s good.” He nodded decisively (his trademark emphasis), dodging us around the wheels of a halted carriage. “But you know, he’s probably already got a sextant if he’s a captain. He must have. We’d probably better find him something else. I can help you pick better.”
I stopped in my tracks, feeling utterly foolish. I’d barreled ahead on this “to-do” item, knowing Obadiah would own this sextant and being convinced by its inscription that it had to come from me. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that it must necessarily be a redundant item to present to an active ship’s captain. I gathered my wits and my feet, but now Billy had planted his own feet, looking to me to see where I’d want to go instead. I let go the bit of lip I’d pinched between my teeth, and made my decision.
“You know what? You’re right—I’m sure he does have one already—and that’s why we have a big job here. We have to find him one that’s even better. This one has to be special. Think you can help me do that?”
Well, there’s nothing like the combination of a challenge and a small boy’s energy. Clearly uplifted rather than weighed down by the extra weight of the charge I’d laid on him, Billy practically bounded along, a constant pull at the end of my arm. And it was he who addressed the shopkeeper before I’d even opened my mouth.
“This is Miss Harper, sir, and she’s going up to marry a Ship Captain and she needs your best sextant to give him because he’s probably already got one and this one has to be better. And she has lots of money, so don’t worry about that.”
As a bargaining bid, his introduction left something to be desired—but as a catalyst for solicitous attention, it couldn’t have been better crafted. The Brass Eagle’s proprietor could have oiled a squeaky hinge with his voice. I wasn’t enchanted, but I wasn’t shopping for the man. If he had my sextant here somewhere, he could be as unctuous as he wanted. It was quickly apparent that I was a better expert at what I didn’t want than what I did. None of the three instruments behind his counter was the sextant.
“Wait, wait, there’s more,” he assured me, reminding me ridiculously of as- seen-on-TV ads in my own time. He disappeared through a door and Billy scowled.
“I already told him the best one. Why didn’t he go get it right away?”
I reflected privately that the “best” sextant might be one of these, but that didn’t change the fact that none of them matched the one I’d memorized from the museum. We might need to go somewhere else. He emerged again, breathing anxiously. My immediate refusals of the first three probably had him believing I was an exceptionally discriminating buyer.
“This instrument is not new, which is why I didn’t keep it out here” he oozed. “But its provenance is very distinguished—it belonged to a famous explorer and has been the means of creating some of the charts our sailors use even today.” He held it out.
I took leave to doubt his tale (though Billy was wide-eyed over it), but I didn’t care. This was the sextant. I nodded almost blankly, operating in my all-too-familiar realm of “not knowing how to feel.” This very instrument, whomever else it had guided in the past, had guided me here. My fate was wrapped up in its markings. It needed one more marking, though.
“Yes, that’s the one,” I managed. “I need it engraved—can you do that?”
Arrangements and payments accomplished (and Billy’s little shoulders broader by two inches at his designation as the pick-up courier), I headed out the door with an identifiable emotion: excitement. This was really happening, pieces falling into place and every hour bringing me closer to meeting the captain I would marry.
Have you ever noticed that excitement feels a lot like anxiety?