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The Sea Captain's Wife

by (author) Beth Powning

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Nov 2010
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2011
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2010
    List Price

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Growing up on the Bay of Fundy, Azuba Galloway dreams of going to sea. She watches magnificent ships slowly making their way into Whelan’s Cove, the sense of exoticism bursting from their holds along with foreign goods.
As a young woman, Azuba marries a seasoned merchant sea captain, Nathaniel Bradstock. Unwilling to have him away at sea for most of their married life, and anxious to see far shores, she extracts a promise that he will take her with him. But Azuba becomes pregnant soon after they marry and Nathaniel knows too well the perils of life on a ship. He reneges on his promise and refuses to allow Azuba to join him.
When Nathaniel leaves on his journey, Azuba desperately misses her husband. Days turn into weeks and months – voyages can take two, three years before the ship and crew return home. Despite her loneliness, Azuba becomes a strong, independent woman, caring for her child and her home. With her parents and beloved grandmother nearby, she settles into a life of quietude and predictability, all the while yearning to be by her husband’s side aboard his ship.
Her loneliness eventually propels her into a friendship with the local vicar, Reverend Simon Walton. He is a quiet, kind and contemplative man, and Azuba takes comfort and enjoyment in their increasingly intimate friendship. One afternoon, despite her misgivings, Azuba goes on a picnic with the vicar and becomes trapped by the tide. When they return home the next morning, Azuba and Reverend Walton have become a topic of gossip.
When Nathaniel returns home he is enraged by her impropriety. Reluctantly he decides to take Azuba and their young daughter, Carrie, with him on his next voyage. Mother and child are loaded from a rowboat and hauled onto the weather deck along with barrels of coal and crates of chickens. Nathaniel has drawn a line across the deck. ”You’ll never again cross that line,“ he instructs Azuba.
It is October 1862. It will be three years before Azuba sees the shores of Whelan’s Cove again. Aboard Traveller, the small family visits places Azuba dreamed she would one day see: London, San Francisco and exotic countries in Europe.
But she also experiences the terror that can come during a life at sea: a harrowing passage around Cape Horn, half-starvation while listlessly floating in the doldrums, and a stop at the Chincha Islands to pick up a load of guano, where she witnesses a mass suicide by slaves. She begins to question her decision to join her husband, particularly when she realizes there is ”no way to erase horror from a child’s memory.“
Misery follows misfortune and Azuba feels alone in a male world, surrounded by the splendour and the terror of the open sea. The voyage tests not only her already precarious marriage, but everything Azuba believes in.
With a sure hand, Beth Powning captures life aboard a sailing ship – ferocious storms, the impossibly isolated ports of call, the gruelling daily routine – and shows how love evolves even in the most extreme circumstances.
The Sea Captain’s Wife is an awe-inspiring tour that captures the vigour of life in the last days of the Age of Sail and gives us an unforgettable young heroine who shows compassion, courage and love while under incredible duress.

From the Hardcover edition.

About the author

Beth Powning grew up in a small New England town, where her family has lived since the 1790s. In 1972, she and her husband Peter Powning moved to Canada and bought an 1870s farm in New Brunswick, where they established a pottery business.

In 1995, Beth Powning published a book of photography, Roses For Canadian Gardens (written by childhood friend Bob Osborne). She later found her voice in Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life. Over the next fifteen yaers, five books followed: another book of photographs, Northern Trees and Shrubs; two works of non-fiction, Shadow Child and Edge Seasons; and two bestselling novels, The Hatbox Letters and The Sea Captain's Wife.

Beth Powning's profile page

Excerpt: The Sea Captain's Wife (by (author) Beth Powning)

1. Noah’s Ark
It was the fifth year of her marriage, when her child, Carrie, was four years old. The bleeding began in the privy. Azuba wiped herself with a square of newspaper and found a red gout. She ripped newsprint from the nail. More blood came, thick, flecked with black strands. She mopped, mopped. She stood, bent with pain, settled her hoops, petticoat and skirt.
Wind snatched the door from her hand. She left it unhooked, gathered her cloak across her breast. The house loomed against a grey sky, the path a pale string in the headland grass.
Blood surged, trickled down her legs.
She began to run, one arm clasping her belly.
”Hush, now, could’ve been worse,“ the midwife said. ”You were only four months.“
She set a tin basin on the floor by Azuba’s bed, stooped and gathered the rags. ”Baby’s gone, but there’ll be more bleeding. Stay still.“
Azuba lay flat on her back listening to the midwife’s steps going down the stairs. Mother was in the kitchen, feeding Carrie her supper. Soon the whole town would know.
Azuba Bradstock lost a child, people would murmur. Years before she’ll have another chance. The next time she went into the village, women would lower their voices, clasp her wrist, touch her shoulder. Such a pity.
She rolled her head sideways to gaze at the candle flame.
Nathaniel. Oh, Nathaniel, my beloved.
She pictured her husband reading the letter she had recently sent. Perhaps he’d been in Cape Town, where he’d planned to stop for provisions. There he sits, she thought, at the rolltop desk in Traveller’s saloon, holding the letter over a mess of business papers. She pictured his fingers smoothing his moustache, wide mouth bent downward, studying her words. His eyes lighten, he smiles. He reads the letter again. Then he folds it, tucks it into its envelope. Presses it to his heart.
February 6, 1861
Whelan’s Cove, New Brunswick
Dear Nathaniel,
I am with child. Carrie is excited to think she will have a brother or a sister. Oh my darling, if only you could be home for this child’s birth.
Nathaniel had left six months after their wedding, and had been at sea when Carrie was born. Once he received news that he had become a father, he’d written to say that he’d be home as soon as possible. One thing, though, had led to another: a cargo of coal to Bombay; a long delay in port; a consignment across the Pacific. His letters became increasingly frustrated. Carrie had been a sturdy little girl of almost three when he’d finally arrived home.
Azuba thought of the tiny nightgown in her workbox. It was a smocked nainsook, embroidered with a red rose, its stem unfinished. Her needle, piercing the fabric. Carrie’s finger, tracing it.
”May I name the baby, Mama?“
The candle flame licked the air, blue at its base.
Azuba watched it through tears. She felt the heartbreak of motherhood— sorrow, now, not only for herself and Nathaniel, but for Carrie.
Ah, the day he left. He had been home for a one-year furlough and had left again just after Christmas. He’d carved Carrie a Noah’s ark with all the animals and, before leaving, had clasped her to his chest, gruff voice in her hair and a rare tear glistening in his eye.
”I’ll be home soon,“ he’d said to her. ”Don’t worry.“
There Carrie had stood, waving to her father going out to his ship in a rowboat. Returning home in the carriage, she’d knelt to look back down the bay, too stunned to cry. And then, when they returned to the house, she had climbed onto his chair and made herself into a ball, pressing her face to the brocade, refusing to speak, eat or be comforted. For days afterward she had stood at the bow window, staring out over the headland pasture, asking for Papa. Expecting to see his sails, coming home.
And that night of his leave-taking. How I took his coat from the closet. She’d sat on the bed with her face buried in its black wool, breathing its smell of tobacco and cold air. And realized that her love for him had no expression now other than in words— scrawled or read.
Now she cried herself to exhaustion and lay staring at the ceiling. She longed to tell Nathaniel. Her shock, stumbling over the field. Her hired man, Slason, hurrying to the barn. How she’d waited, moaning, while the carriage went for her mother and the midwife. She longed to be held in his arms, to feel his hand on her forehead, smoothing, consoling. To feel the bitter comfort of shared loss.
Despair, she thought, was the inability to imagine. She pictured the nightgown she had been embroidering. The names she had thought to bestow on the new child.
I have no reason to despair.
The bedroom had two bow windows overlooking the Bay of Fundy with its spruce-cragged cliffs. At the age of nineteen, she had married Nathaniel Bradstock, who at twenty-eight was a seasoned captain. Her father had given them the house as a wedding gift, hiding it beneath a scaffolding strung with sails as it was being built. A big house meant to be filled with dogs, toys, music, guests, family. He had set the house high on a headland, fit for a sea captain’s wife, where Azuba could look down at Whelan’s Cove with its shipyards, hulls looming higher than the rooftops, gulls circling in clouds of sawdust; its harbour, crowded with fishing boats, coastal schooners, sloops— and farther out, in the deeper water, square-rigged merchant ships with their forest of masts and rigging. One of which might, on occasion, be Nathaniel’s Traveller.
She could look down at the farmstead of her childhood, set within fields of oats and buckwheat, and the ribbon of shore road. She could see the salt marsh where, as a child, she had run with her older brothers, Benjamin and William, and the dunes where compass grass scratched half-moons in the sand. She could see the beach where they’d chased stiltlegged sandpipers, jumped the ropes of froth, watched ships beating up the bay with billowed, patched sails.
She pictured herself as a child— dark-haired, impetuous, with black eyes, different from her fair-skinned cousins— and felt pity for her hope. Her innocence.
I thought I would sail away on one of those ships. Married to a sea captain. I’d be Mrs. Shaw, with her red-headed parrot.
Her days, now: as they would unfold tomorrow, and next week, and next month. She saw herself working with her hired girl, Hannah— planting, weeding, scrubbing— her own hair pinned back, sleeves rolled, scissors and knives jingling in the deep pockets of her wash dress. How she made her choice to work from the wearisomeness of its alternative: tea parties, visits, carriage rides. She pictured Slason, with his crooked leg and loose-lipped mouth. He tended the pigs, the horse, the cow. His voice, submissive. What do you need, Mrs. Bradstock? And the violent headland winds, different from the winds of her childhood. Clothes on the line, twisted into knots. Doors, pulled from her hand. Often, she paused on the porch and looked out at the blue line of Nova Scotia and the silver gleam in the southwest where the bay widened to the Gulf of Maine: the sea spread before her, thundered in her ears; and sometimes she loathed it, since Nathaniel was at its mercy. At other times, she closed her eyes, tossed back her bonnet and breathed deep of the world’s size.
Azuba drew up her knees, rocking from the ache in her womb, thinking of Carrie.
No brother. No sister.
The May wind blew onshore and there was a spring tide. Carrie was at her granny’s for the day.
Azuba sat in an armless chair, a Paisley shawl concealing the opening at the back of her dress; she had left her corset loosely knotted. She wore a brown dress with purple piping. Her black hair was unwashed, parted in the middle, caught up in a net at her neck. Beneath her eyes were blue shadows. After four days, she still felt a low cramp in her womb.
The new Anglican minister, Reverend Walton, had come to visit. He had heard she was unwell, but would not speak of the reason. He sat upright, his ankles crossed and his arms laid precisely along the chair’s carved arms. He was a slight, mild man, easily moulded by the parish women.
She and Nathaniel had paid a call at the parsonage when he had first arrived. He’d shown them his studio, a large room at the back of the house with an easel, drawing books and a table beneath a window littered with treasures he’d collected along the shore— feathers, shells, skulls.
Even when he’s old, she thought, he’ll still look eager, innocent.
Sunlight streamed through the windows, lit the carpet-draped table with its oil lamp and leather books; a japanned china cabinet; a pump organ.
”It’s a beautiful house, Mrs. Bradstock,“ he said.
His composure was disarming and she felt an impulse to tell him her real feelings about the house. How, when her father had told her he would build it, she’d exclaimed, ”No, no, we won’t need . . .“ And then had paused. Mother had looked up from her sewing, shocked, her face revealing all she hoped for in a married daughter: help, companionship, grandchildren. Father’s smile paled. ”What did you say, Azuba?“ His voice was awry, like Mother’s face, its tone incredulous. He’d laid down his pen slowly, his eyes had narrowed, and she had been caught by his prescient gaze. She saw that her intention to go to sea with her captain husband was so far from her parents’ expectations that her words were like a foreign language. And she had not dared refuse the house, or announce her plan. A house, she’d thought. Only a house. ”I meant that you needn’t do so much for me,“ she’d amended. ”Thank you, Father. We would be grateful for such a gift.“
Or how, on the day of their wedding, in the midst of an October gale, she and Nathaniel and most of the villagers had gone up the headland road in horse-drawn carriages. Father had lifted his arm, men had slashed the ropes, and the sails had fallen from the scaffolding, revealing a large white house that would forever be known as ”the sail house.“ It had gingerbread shingles, a porch and steep gables. In their enthusiasm, the men had cut the ropes tethering the sails and the canvas had risen like monstrous, demented gulls, flapping towards the horses. Drivers had stood, shouting, hauling on reins. Nathaniel had jumped from the carriage, seized their horse by the bridle, growling ”Whoa! Whoa!“ even as he stared up at the newly minted house with a complex expression—surprise, affront and then a dawning comprehension.
At that moment, she realized later, Nathaniel had glimpsed the implications of taking her to sea: the danger to her, the anguish of those left behind. Perhaps when the sails fell from the house, Nathaniel’s mind had shifted like ballast throwing a ship off true. A place he could safely leave me. She wondered if her father might have hoped for such an outcome.
”My father built it as a wedding gift, as you know.“
Reverend Walton leaned forward, picked a dead leaf from his pants. ”It must be a comfort to you to have such a house.“
He was studying the leaf, and she saw that he was unsure of his boundaries, as a minister and as a man.
She pressed her folded hands to the ache in her belly. She felt an upwelling of longing to be sharing the loss of the baby with Nathaniel, and it was borne upon her that she must learn to fold waiting into living, like a kind of stillness within motion.
It is the nearness, she thought, of his last visit. Only four months since he’d left. And then this loss. It made his absence more unbearable. And she wondered if the pain of parting, over the years, would increase rather than diminish.
She must begin again her work of maintaining love. Keeping Nathaniel alive in her memory, and now in Carrie’s. Reminding the child how he carved the tiny animals, one eye squinted, critical; or knelt on the rug with his muscled thighs, being a horse for Carrie. His lovely baritone voice singing Irish ballads. And her own, private memories: silky flesh, his hands cradling her face, the way he lifted her shawl from the floor and tucked it around her. And to compose in her mind an imagined life that dexterously shrunk the years he was away and expanded the time he was home.
She began speaking nervously, as if confessing. ”You know, Reverend Walton, I married for love. I wanted to be with my husband. I thought that I would go to sea with him. I’ve always wanted to sail; I still do. I’ve always wanted to travel, to see the world.“ She gestured at the window.
It came in a rush.
”I thought we would be a seafaring family, like so many others. Did you know that Captain Shaw delivered all three of their children at sea? They had a pet billy goat on board. Captain Shaw made a little cart for it. The children had a full-rigged model ship that they towed in the wake of their ship. Mrs. Shaw hung her wash in the rigging. She saw Buckingham Palace. The children rode on elephants.“
Reverend Walton tightened his arms to his sides as she spoke. His eyes slid to the clawed feet of the organ stool. He brushed hair from his forehead, as one would a fly.
”Well,“ he said, after a silence. ”Could you not? Go with him?“
”He changed his mind.“
When Nathaniel had first bent his eyes on her, she had felt a heat in her chest, fear mixed with elation. She had felt light as the wind, and as formless. Oh, and I asked him, Will I come with you, on Traveller? Yes, he said. He took me by the elbows and studied my resolve. Yes, he said, I could not bear to leave you.
Reverend Walton appeared agitated by her tone. His eyes flew to the window and remained there. ”It would be a life filled with peril,“ he ventured. ”For you and the children.“
”I’m sorry,“ Azuba said. ”I shouldn’t . . . I’m not myself.“
The minister rose. ”Mrs. Bradstock, please.“ He stepped forward, took her hand, held it for an instant before shaking it. ”I’ve tired you. Please come visit the parsonage. Bring your daughter. I’ll show her my collection.“
After he had seen himself out, Azuba rose and sought her sewing box. She sat on the horsehair sofa, lifted out a bundle of Nathaniel’s letters tied with blue satin ribbon.
My dearest Azuba,
I am at lat. 35 11,’ long. W. 126, in the vicinity of Pitcairn Island. We are in the S.E. trades and the weather has been beautiful.
She skimmed through the letters, seeking words.
Love. Sweet. My dear wife. Home, soon. Our wedding. Wish that I. Forever.
Azuba dropped the letter into the sewing box and replaced the lid. It was her secret, what she had told Reverend Walton. Everyone assumed her contentment. There was not a girl in the village who would not have married Nathaniel Bradstock. Sea captains’ wives were envied, whether they sailed with their husbands or not. Nathaniel was the youngest of three boys, all sea captains. When he was twelve years old, he had served as cabin boy on his oldest brother’s ship; at fourteen, he was sent away to the academy in Sackville. And was a second mate at nineteen. The Bradstock brothers, Nathaniel included, were renowned for their hard-driven voyages, extravagant items brought or shipped home, adventures spiced with rumours of ruthlessness. Their parents gave balls and dinners to celebrate their infrequent visits.
Azuba thought of her plaid silk wedding dress, hanging in her bedroom closet. Green and purple, with a shimmer of gold thread.
The following week, Azuba and Carrie drove to visit Azuba’s grandmother, Grammy Cooper. Slason offered to drive, but Azuba refused. She loved to collect the mare’s energy, tightening the reins, snapping the whip. And it was only five miles, through the village, up along the needle-softened road.
Far below, Whelan’s Cove was like a toy village, and off to the west, Grand Manan spliced the silver sea.
”I loved to come here when I was little,“ Azuba said. Carrie sat straight-backed with excitement. She held her doll, Jojo, face-forward to see the view.
They turned down the lane. Budding hardwoods held the light tenderly. Half-wild cats slithered away beneath the barn. Grammy was stumping lopsided towards the house. She clutched a bunch of parsnips by their tops.
”Come along in,“ she called. She waved her cane.
Azuba unhitched the mare, led her to the barn. Carrie squatted by the sill making chirping noises for the cats.
They crossed the hen-scratched earth. The poplar leaves funnelled the wind with a soft roar. They went up the wooden steps, holding their skirts.
The house was placid, vital: knitting needles spiked a sweater; carded wool was piled by the spinning wheel. Geraniums lined the windowsills. By the stove was a pail, a bucket of potatoes and a narrow, high-sided cradle.
Carrie took her doll to the cradle. It had been Grammy’s as an infant and had kept her warm during that first terrible winter in Saint John. Carrie had heard her greatgrandmother’s story, the words incantatory as prayer. Log house caulked with seaweed. The autumn fleet. Loyalists. Grammy, child of refugees.
Grammy made tea while Azuba poured cold water from a pitcher into a bowl, washed the parsnips. They sat at the table to chop them. Grammy’s fingers were twisted, the knuckles swollen. She held her knife by tucking it in her palm. It flashed in the sunlight, cut as fast as Azuba’s.
”Lost a baby. Probably something wrong with it, Azuba. Nature knows. Think it’s something you did?“
Azuba looked into the beloved face with its splotchy brown marks. Skin fanned beneath Grammy’s chin in parchment folds; her eyes were tucked deep beneath loops of flesh.
”Every woman thinks the same, Azuba. I began bleeding once after I’d lugged a bushel of potatoes.“
”Why—“ began Carrie.
Grammy raised a finger at her. ”Take these to the hens.“ She swept the peelings into a bowl.
Carrie went out to the sunshine and the cats. They saw her wandering towards the barn, strewing parsnip skin. The wind lifted her dress, revealed her tiny boots.
”No. I don’t think it’s something I did,“ Azuba said. ”I think it’s the way I was feeling.“
Grammy darted a look, but said nothing, only pursed her lips with their white waxy patches.
”Maybe wanting the baby so that Nathaniel would hurry back home.“ She laid the white, rubbery parsnips in a row and aligned the ends. ”When he was home, it was as if it was my house, or Father’s house. Not his. I could feel it. He was only a visitor. And I will never tell Father, but I have not yet reconciled myself to my life. I don’t live to fill my rooms with silver tea sets and satin cushions, delivered to me by my husband from Paris or Bombay.“ She lowered her voice, spoke as if to herself. ”I want to go to those places. With him.“
Grammy put down her knife. ”He’s a good man, Nathaniel.“ She spoke firmly, as if she had once doubted. ”Some say he’s too hard, or too blunt, or too used to command. But I’ve watched him look at you, Azuba. No one else except Carrie gets that look from Captain Bradstock. Do you think you made a bad choice?“
”No. Never.“
”Still. You’re not like those peacocks in their pretty pens.“
They both watched Carrie. She was skirting the rooster, whose yellow and black tail feathers fluttered.
”I could see you on that ship of his. Do him good.“
Azuba remembered her small, bright-faced grandfather and how Grammy had broken into a keening at his burial, her cries unfurling into the sky. She’d been urged to come down off the mountain when he died, but had refused. She said she would live her life the way she wanted.
After they had eaten dinner and washed the dishes, Carrie and Azuba said their goodbyes. There were deep, oval holes in the soil where hens had scratched out dust baths. Carrie held up Jojo. Nathaniel had carved the doll’s face, arms and legs. He had painted its cheeks red, given it a wispy smile. Azuba had stuffed the body with dried peas.
Grammy took the doll in her hand. ”Father made that for you?“
”Papa makes my toys,“ Carrie said. She spoke solemnly and as if her Papa were not far away, nor would be long in returning.
Grammy kissed the doll’s head. Carrie hugged her great-grandmother and Grammy put one arm around the child. She set her cane, looked deep-eyed at Azuba.
”Never let men frighten you, Azuba. They’re boys at heart. Just boys.“
May 16, 1861
The Sail House
Whelan’s Cove, New Brunswick
Dear Nathaniel,
I have sad news for you, my dear. I am no longer with child. There was no fall or apparent cause. The baby slipped away, and I am left well but sorrowing. Carrie is heartbroken, for she had been hoping for a little brother, and had begun choosing names.
I am well. I am back at work with Hannah and Slason. I know you will think I should not be, but it is my wish to be outside and vigorous, and so we have begun breaking up the soil with the mare for a new garden.
Nathaniel, I missed you so during this misfortune. My heart ached for you. If I could have made a miracle, I would have lifted you from the seas and set you here in your chair. I hope you can find a way to make a shorter voyage, although I know it is not always in your control. This past year that you were home, although we had not agreed upon our future, was so blessed, not least the joy of seeing you and Carrie together. She misses you terribly and plays with her ark every night as she promised you she would.
I know that after you changed your mind about my coming with you, we had many discussions. I know that you tire of hearing my views on this, and hesitate to write them down, but I must say that I continue to believe Carrie and I would not be such a burden as you think. If you cannot find time to come home, please know that I am still ready to pack up and join you so that we may be a family. I am not afraid, as you know. No storm seems as bad as having to live day after day with no husband, and no knowledge of when he might return.
I am sorry; perhaps I should not write this letter, but these are my feelings at the moment, and were you here I would be telling them to you.
I love you, always. I miss you. I pray for your safety.
”Oh, Mr. Marr has ridden an elephant, too.“ Crumbs blew from Mrs. Marr’s lips. She was tiny. She patted her mouth with a linen napkin. ”He assured me he was not a bit frightened.“
Azuba and Carrie had been invited to tea at the home of Mrs. Black. Mrs. Holder and Mrs. Marr were present. All were sea captains’ wives.
Their skirts rustled, releasing the scent of lavender. They sat forward on their chairs to accommodate their bustles. Carrie’s feet did not touch the floor. She sat with a biscuit forgotten in her hand, staring at the cut glass chandelier, the fringed lamps, the stuffed pheasant, the clocks, mirrors and waxed fruit.
This house, Azuba thought, holding a teacup and saucer, was as large as hers, similarly ornamented with gables and turrets, set back from the main street on a slope overlooking the harbour. But it was so stuffed with possessions that its rooms seemed smaller, darker. Nor could she think of herself as similar to the other women. They were as overly decorated as the room. They wore rings on every finger, gold chains around their necks, dangling jet earrings, lace collars, ribbons, beads. They swept their hands in negligent arcs and talked loudly, without reflection.
Mrs. Black resumed her husband’s latest letter, lifting her chin to read from the very top of the paper. Fine silver chains looped from her pince-nez.
The cook baked tarts and gingerbread. I have a very attentive steward who brought me these with my tea. I passed the morning pleasantly, scarcely a ruffle on the ocean or a cloud to be seen. Today some handsome birds have been flying under our lee. I spied a brigantine standing to the westward but could not make her out . . .
Mrs. Black swept the pages with an ostentatious rustle.
Later in the day came a heavy gale from the northwest, attended with squalls of rain. I called the watch, but before we could get all sail in, the fore and maintop split . . .
Azuba leaned forward. She pictured the black clouds, the rain-stippled waves.
”Oh, bother that part. Let me find something interesting.“
”Oh!“ Azuba said.
Mrs. Black lowered the paper. ”What, Mrs. Bradstock?“
”No, I’m sorry. I just wondered what happened.“
”Well . . .“ She raised the pages, scanned them. ”He doesn’t say much more. They limped along, I suppose.“
Mrs. Marr set down her cup and saucer. She frowned when she spoke, causing a wedge-shaped furrow on her brow. ”I skip those parts too. They will go on about the storms.“
”I like to read about the storms,“ said Azuba. She glanced at Carrie. ”Although I always wonder what he’s feeling, and he never says.“
”Feeling!“ Mrs. Marr’s narrowed eyes slid sideways to Mrs. Holder, a stern-faced woman from Saint John. Mrs. Holder’s expression held a permanent state of affront, her mouth pinched down at the corners. The two women exchanged a glance. ”Don’t expect to hear about feelings, my dear.“
”Not a shred of fear in their bodies,“ said Mrs. Black, setting down the letter. ”Annie?“
An Irish girl dressed in a starched cap and apron circled the room with the teapot and a plate of biscuits.
”It’s not only his feelings,“ Azuba said, taking a biscuit from the maid. She wanted, suddenly, to needle these women. ”It’s the storms. He dismisses them in a word or two. ‘Storm last night.’ But I find them exciting. I always want to know what happened. Whether the sails shredded, or if they had to heave to.“
There was a silence. The room was overheated, the windows closed against the spring air.
”What really happens, we don’t care to know,“ said Mrs. Marr. She glanced at Carrie. ”It’s best not.“
Azuba turned to stare at the bright little woman. ”I wouldn’t be afraid to know.“
”Wouldn’t you? I suppose you would like to sail with your husband?“
Azuba saw that Mrs. Black’s mouth was opening, a change of subject in her eyes.
”Yes,“ she answered, quickly. ”I wouldn’t mind. I’d love to see London, Paris. Antwerp.“
The women laughed. They made clucking sounds, glanced at Carrie, who had not yet finished the biscuit she held in her hand and whose dress, Azuba noticed, was covered in crumbs.
”Have you met any of those women who sail with their husbands?“ Mrs. Marr hissed. ”Have you seen their skin? Observed their manners? And think, Mrs. Bradstock, of what we read in the papers.“ The wedge on her brow raised, hardened.
The voyages that went dreadfully wrong, Azuba thought. Fire at sea, women put off in lifeboats, captains shot dead by mutineers, dramatic rescues in icy waters. These landbound wives could not conceive of the excitement of such drama, or imagine the lives of the families who sailed without mishap. They saw no challenge, no thrill; only the evils of weathered skin, the pity of coarse manners.
”Will you grow your heliotrope this year, Mrs. Marr?“ Mrs. Black turned the conversation to Flower Sunday, in July, when the church would be decorated with blooms from their gardens.
” . . . lovely new rose. Mr. Marr brought some rootstock from England . . .“
” . . . Love-Lies-Bleeding. So foggy in Saint John, can’t grow . . .“
Azuba looked at Carrie and raised her eyebrows. The biscuit. Eat it.
She pictured Nathaniel sitting in a hotel parlour in San Francisco. Perhaps he was speaking to a woman with sunbrowned cheeks who was sailing with her captain husband, telling her about his own beautiful wife, Azuba, back home in New Brunswick, and of their fine house on the headland overlooking the Bay of Fundy, and of Carrie, his little daughter. Perhaps the sun-browned woman bowed her head demurely and then slid him an admiring glance. And Nathaniel was free to think of Azuba as privileged, safe, fortified by wealth, glorified by her absent husband.
Carrie nibbled nervously at her crumbly butter biscuit. Azuba felt sudden rage at the sight of her little girl, already burdened by the weight of expectation. Expectations. These tiresome women who clucked so disapprovingly expected her to come to their sewing circle. They expected her to grow formal flowers suitable for ornate vases or placement in the church. Like her parents, they expected her to spend Nathaniel’s money on carriages and dresses, and to stand proud at village events—ship launches, cotillions. Like Nathaniel, they expected her to produce children on whom a father might lavish attention when he returned on his infrequent visits.
Sun broke through a bank of clouds, quivered in the rainbowed daffodils. In the room, the light illuminated the stuffed partridge and the powder on Mrs. Black’s cheek.
Azuba leaned forward and set her cup and saucer on a table whose heavy cloth silenced the motion. She sat staring at the wrinkled pages of Captain Black’s letter, lying beneath Mrs. Black’s pince-nez.
Never again. Never again will Nathaniel set sail without me.
She glanced at Carrie.
Without us.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

”In history and in literature, the sea has always been the realm of men, but Beth Powning reminds us that women were there, too. The Sea Captain’s Wife is both a brilliant and absorbing story of a singular woman’s courageous entry into this alien world and of her growing sense of self-knowledge and strength as she encounters its demands. It is a tale of adventure and adversity, and of the terrors and deep satisfactions of life on the ever-dangerous and unpredictable sea.“
— Derek Lundy, author of Godforsaken Sea and The Way of a Ship
"An exciting story. The Sea Captain’s Wife reveals Powning to be intuitive and reflective, yet self-assured in her mastery of the art of nature writing. She skillfully weaves both a harrowing and touching story about marriage, obligation, and devotion."
— Winnipeg Free Press
"An ambitious historical novel rich in adventure."
— Telegraph-Journal

"The best novel of 2010. . . . A brilliant, absorbing story. . . . Not since Derek Lundy’s The Way of a Ship have I read such powerful descriptions of life in the Age of Sail. . . . Both [Azuba and Nathaniel] are fully fledged characters. . . . And, much like The Hatbox Letters, Powning’s prose never misses a beat."
— Owen Sound Sun Times
"Beth Powning has the gift of drawing her readers into a work. The characters in The Sea Captain’s Wife are enduringly memorable. Set in the 1800s, Powning paints scenes of sea life and its pains, fears, wonders, joys and tragedies."
— The Coast (Halifax)

"One terrific voyage"
— The Globe and Mail 

"An elegant piece of writing"
— National Post
The Sea Captain’s Wife is a terrific tale, fast-moving and expertly told, one which measures, in the author’s phrase, ‘the true size of the world.’ Like The Hatbox Letters, Powning’s second cleverly crafted novel is not to be missed.“
 —Ottawa Citizen
”Powning has a terrific eye for detail, and her dramatic scenes read like a treatment from an action movie. Equal parts character study, travelogue, and action-adventure tale, The Sea Captain’s Wife is a marvellous read.“
— Edmonton Journal
”Powning is an extraordinary writer. . . . Her people are as real as personal friends, neighbours or compelling strangers. . . . The writing rings true to its period without ever sounding like a device. . . . The book is clearly thoroughly researched, yet never reads as written research but as lives fully and panoramically lived.“
— The Globe and Mail

From the Hardcover edition.

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