The Weldins

Excerpt from Goshen Cove

They hardly dared name the baby, born with hair dark as it was to this day, eyes just as blue. They had named his older brothers too early, the first at one week, the second at three. Those were the names inscribed on two small stones, side by side in the New London graveyard: Jonah and Jeremiah, infant prophets, laid to rest years before their sister Alice joined them there.

Still, they took the chance, Lucy and Isaiah Weldin. They named him Daniel when he was barely two hours old, on a bright April morning in 1877, twenty years ago. Surely, God would not begrudge them this son. He had tested them enough, and they had bent uncomplaining to His will. He’d left them Alice of course, already thirteen when her third brother was born, tall as her mother, slim as a switch, restless, darting, quick to laugh. In His mercy, they hoped God would allow them Daniel too, as perfect a child as ever came into the world.

Daniel rarely cried. He lay contented in his cradle. He called them mama and papa at nine months. He walked at ten months. He spoke his first sentence at twelve months.

“Fly me up,” he’d begged, his arms outstretched. And his father lifted him, held him high above his head, rocked him side to side, sang him an old whaler’s song.

Before Daniel turned four, Alice was taken by a fever so sudden by the time her parents grasped its danger she was gone. Sister and brother been inseparable, Alice a benevolent tyrant, Daniel her devoted follower. After she died, he searched for weeks, looked under beds and behind doors, playing hide and seek, calling her name, crying in frustration when she would not come out. Finally, Lucy took him to the cemetery, showed him where Alice’s body lay.  Alice did not want to go, Lucy explained, but her soul is happy now in Heaven. But she did go, Daniel sobbed, and threw a pebble at her grave.

They kept Daniel from school until he was seven for fear of the scarlet fever that killed his sister. He grew to be a quiet, thoughtful boy. He often roamed the city—they lived in New London then, in a comfortable house on a pleasant street—wandering down to the wharf, looking for his father in shipping offices and taverns although his father scolded him each time, told him shipping offices and taverns—dull and dreary places now, the haunts of old men– were not meant for children, but there was no real anger in the scolding, and after it Isaiah would walk with Daniel to the ships, the whalers rotting in the harbor, and tell him of a time when their masts rose straight and tall and their freshly painted hulls gleamed.

His father’s stories were ancient history, like the legends Daniel loved to read, Jason and the Argonauts, the voyages of Odysseus and of Sinbad. Daniel showed no inclination to become a sailor like his father. Lucy never said a word to discourage the idea, but then Isaiah never said a word to encourage it. Daniel was a smart boy; his future lay on dry land, in a law office or a bank, in a laboratory, perhaps, or at a writer’s desk.

At fourteen, Daniel was as tall as his father. By fifteen, he was taller. More slender, too. Isaiah was a blocky man—never fat—but solid, with broad shoulders and big hands, raised on hard work. Daniel was more delicate–not weak, of course, not frail, not as thin as he was now—more thoroughbred than plow horse. He was a fast runner, with an easy, graceful stride, good at baseball, throwing and hitting.

At fifteen, Isaiah left his father’s farm. He would have gladly stayed, but his parents forced him into millwork—the pay was steadier and times were hard—and so he ran away, shipped out on his first whaling voyage. At fifteen, Daniel was in high school, mastering Latin and Greek. They’d moved from New London to Waterford by then, but Daniel had no liking for the drudgery of farm life.

His father didn’t think him lazy. There were other things, more important things for Daniel to do than milk a cow or plant a field. Isaiah did not want Daniel to waste his time on chores. Isaiah was happy to do them himself, or hire some local man to help. He bought a bicycle so Daniel could travel easily to town, attend school, visit the library, meet his friends. He supplied paper, pens, ink, books. He knew a man with a son at Yale College, and determined that Daniel should go there, too. The smartest boys in the state went to Yale, and no one was smarter than Daniel.

The summer before Daniel left for college—not this past summer but the one before–was unusually warm, with thick, moist days and airless nights. Daniel had done well in high school, graduating second in his class, winning an award in history and another in Greek. After graduation, he had two months to fill. Earlier summers he’d spent time in Hartford with his Aunt Ida and Uncle Albert, or in Springfield with Cousins William and Charlotte, or, when they were still alive, in East Haddam with his grandparents, Lucy’s mother and father.

That summer, Daniel could have gone to Hartford to work for his cousin George. Learn a little something about the insurance business, George had offered, get a taste of the real world, put some money by. You can read poetry and dead languages in college, George laughed, fine things as far as they go, but not enough for a man to build a life on. Insurance was a steady and respectable calling, exciting in its own way, full of risk and calculation. A career to count on, George suggested, once Daniel’s college years were done.

But Daniel didn’t go to Hartford; not for a minute did he consider following his cousin’s path.  He spent all that June and the first days of July on his bicycle, leaving the house each morning with a paper bag filled with bread, cold meat, and peaches from their small orchard, returning in time for supper, shirtsleeves rolled up, hair tousled, blue eyes shining, sometimes with the bag full of blackberries, sometimes with a handful of wild flowers, sometimes with a book or two from the library in New London. His parents never begrudged Daniel a moment of his freedom. Long days of classwork and long nights of study lay ahead, they knew, and it made them glad, his father in particular, to see Daniel so full of life and health, so vigorous and happy in the last summer of his late boyhood. Daniel, then, had not been home the day his father died.