William, September 1886
“Who can that be?” Today’s newspaper lay half folded across William Johnson’s knees. He’d been combing through its pages for work at a cooperage near Fishtown; his apprenticeship had ended eight days prior, and he could not keep working so close to his master’s shop. The visitor rapped knuckles against the wood again, the silence between each knock shorter, more urgent.
Standing, he folded the paper and settled it upon a table beside the chair. Once his father’s chair, the soft, supple leather was lined with thin cracks like an aged face. William thought of his father as he walked out of the parlor and into the foyer. They shared the same first name, but his father had been a whaler, and his face lined not with age but from years of wind, the spray of the sea and smiling. William remembered his father often smiling until the corners of his eyes crinkled. Other differences in their appearance were minor: William wore his hair long, and kept it tied back whereas his father’s hair was cropped short, often uneven from his cutting it himself. Everyone in the family had dark hair and light eyes, but William was the only one with hazel eyes.
Squeezing the latch, he pulled the door open. “Thomas,” he smiled, “come to see Catherine, hm?”
“You, actually.” Thomas walked through the doorway. “If I may.” William noticed his friend wringing his hands, and the crease of his brow. Thomas was short, but carried himself as though he was the tallest man in the room—his back was always perfectly straight and he never craned his neck to look at anyone taller than himself. Some thought this gave him an angry expression but after so many years of friendship, William knew better.
“Of course. What’s happened?” Stepping aside, William offered to take his friend’s coat but his friend seemed disinclined to part with it, leaving him to let his hands drop to his sides.
“I’m here about your father.” Thomas did not budge from his spot in the foyer, and pushed his hands into his pockets. When William did not answer, he continued. “He was murdered.”
A sharp tone hummed in his ears. William wasn’t sure if he heard his friend correctly. His eyes focused on the striped wallpaper beyond Thomas’ right shoulder as he remembered the day, nearly ten years ago, that Captain Matthews stood in this very spot to tell his mother about his father’s death. He and Catherine had spied the scene from their hiding place in the parlor doorway halfway down the foyer corridor. “No, you must have it wrong,” he breathed out, wiping the fresh perspiration from his forehead. “My father died at sea. Captain Mathews said as much himself; he’s a friend of our family’s and wouldn’t lie about such a thing.”
“But he didn’t say how he died. Catherine has told me this before, that your family never really knew the reason. Doesn’t look good, does it, murder aboard his ship? How can you be sure that—”
“You’re wrong, Thomas. Captain Matthews wouldn’t keep it from us if my father had been murdered. Catherine and my mother are upstairs. Perhaps you should leave if you don’t plan on visiting with my sister.”
Thomas shook his head. “I cannot stay now. I’m signing up for Matthews’ ship, the Vance Thurgood. Why don’t you come with me?”
“I’m no whaler.”
“I know. But you’re a cooper now, and a ship always needs a cooper.”
“I think you’d better go now, Thomas.” William reached in front of his friend to open the door, in no mood now to entertain a guest, even if it was his brother-in-law to be. Before Thomas could leave, he asked one more question. “Why didn’t you tell Catherine?”
“I thought I’d speak to you first about it, to see if you ever had any suspicion that your father’s death might have been…something more. I will tell her, unless you want to.”
“No, don’t tell her. It’ll only upset her and besides, if anyone tells her it ought to be me.” Thomas opened his mouth, presumably to protest, but William just shook his head and asked him to come back tomorrow. “I need to think.” He stood at the open door, thinking about the newspaper folded over the arm of his father’s chair. He recalled in his mind’s eye the tiny section listing work needed in various areas of Connecticut.
He thought about his father. Is it better to seek the truth, or let my father’s spirit rest? If he died, William knew he would want someone to seek justice on his behalf…but he also knew that had there been a murder at sea, it was the Captain’s job, ultimately, to seek justice. Was it possible that Captain Matthews did not know the truth…or perhaps he was hiding it? This notion set William on edge. His stomach churned. His heart beat hard against his ribcage. A moment passed before he realized he was clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides. William forced a deep breath and then shut the door before going upstairs to sleep.
Over breakfast in the dining room the next morning, William stood and cleared his throat. Both his sister and mother looked up from their plates. “I have news,” he began, standing from his chair at the head of the table. He glanced toward the wall behind his mother, where a painting depicted the roiling sea beneath a darkening sky. His eyes darted across the room to a portrait of his father and he wished he was making this announcement in a different room. He couldn’t decide whether it looked as though the smooth brush strokes which described his father’s face carried displeasure or concern, or whether he was simply imagining it. So many times, as a boy, he’d looked upon that portrait as though it were his father, here in the flesh. In the man’s long absences, he sometimes found himself whispering pleas for advice at the painting.
“What is it, William?” his mother asked, having turned back to her breakfast in the wake of his hesitation. Ella Johnson was a pale and drawn woman, at least these days. Illness came and went as frequently as the rain, and he worried that his decision might further weaken her, but he couldn’t simply disappear without an explanation.
“I am joining the crew of the Vance Thurgood as their cooper for the next trip out.” Silence met his proclamation, growing heavier with each passing second. The clock in the corner behind him ticked and tocked, and he could hear his own blood rushing in his ears. Catherine was the first to voice her disapproval.
“No, you cannot. You cannot leave us for so long, William. And not on that ship.” She pushed her chestnut-colored hair over one shoulder. Typically she wore it in a loose bun but today it was braided. William traced the contours of the plait with his eyes; it was easier to do that than to look at her eyes, which were usually a soft blue but this morning, following his announcement, had cooled until they were like shards of ice.
His mother, Ella, said nothing, though her eyes filled with tears. “We need the money,” William stated quietly and evenly. “And I need work.”
Catherine stood so quickly that her water glass tipped, spilling a miniature ocean across the table. She hastened to mop up the spill with her napkin, glaring up at him. “Go to Stonington for work, if you must.”
“There’s no work for me in Stonington. Besides which, work is not my only compelling reason to go.” William sat back down. Catherine is getting too agitated about this, he worried. He needed her to calm down, for the sake of their mother at least.
Ella finally spoke. “What other reason can there be? First I lose your father aboard that ship—will you be next? I say to you, William, if you board that vessel I will not speak to you again.” Threatening a lifetime of not speaking had always been Ella’s last resort tactic to encourage her children into compliance. This method always worked in the past.
Not today, William decided. “Father was murdered aboard that ship and I intend to find out who was responsible. Thomas came here yesterday and we both plan to sail on that ship—”
“No!” Catherine’s interruption stopped her brother. “I will not permit both you and he to go aboard that ship. Years, William, years. He and I intend to marry in June. Besides, this is ridiculous. Wherever did you get the notion that Father was murdered? And why wouldn’t Thomas not come to see me? Tell me himself?”
“Thomas overheard it. He didn’t tell you because I asked him not to.”
“William Johnson, you had no right!” she threw the wet napkin down at his feet.
He frowned. “Look, I am going; you don’t have to believe me but you won’t change my mind. Thomas went to sign up this morning—I expect he’ll be calling soon to tell you.” He turned toward Ella. “Mother, I am certain you will speak to me again. I will be gone long enough for you to forgive me.” He tried to catch her eye, but Ella looked away.
“Father died long ago, William. Let him rest.” Catherine pushed away from the table and strode out of the dining room. Ella left more quietly and soon William sat alone with his plate. He did the only thing he could think to do, which was to eat; it might be a long while before so sumptuous a meal was laid before him. The Vance Thurgood was to sail on the following morning’s tide. After he finished eating breakfast, William picked up Catherine’s chair and the napkin before he went to sit in his father’s old chair.
The leather was smooth under his fingers; he couldn’t even feel the cracks he could see. “How you must have longed to sit here again,” he murmured. “How you must have thought you someday would. I will find out how you died, and if you were murdered, I will find your killer, Father. I swear it.”