Moonlight shimmered. The sliver of pale shadows on the grubby floorboards he crossed wavered like ripples in the shallows. William “Reliance” Smith sat and tipped his sailor’s cap over his brow. With no one about to cry shame, he lounged back, putting his feet up on the comfortable, red leather chaise. A dim pattern of blue light from across the street sparkled and played on the opposite wall, where yellowed paint flaked and peeled.
The windowpanes rattled in their leaded squares, buffeted by the wind outside. Or, on the other hand, perhaps their agitation had another cause. A small bloom of anticipation swelled in his chest and the fine hairs on the back of his neck rose. Might this be the night his dreams came true? He sighed and battled to hold down the ache inside.
How many times had he hoped before? All for naught.
Not a Jack lived in the wide world that’d make him tell of it, but he feared the flavor of the bitter cup of loss, had tasted it too long and too often. He shook the thoughts away. No matter what, he’d linger, as he’d promised his darlin’ for as long as need be. Unsettled as he was this night, he sought a fresh distraction to help him through the waiting and glanced around the shop.
Before God, he couldn’t deny it. Tonight, change hung heavy in the air, but not in the way he longed for. No sign of his sweet Sally to cheer him; not a breath of her fragrance in the stillness; no clatter of her red-striped heels over the flagstones outside announced her arrival.
A part of him long ago warned this vigil, it were a waste, and he’d never hear those precious sounds again. That time had gone … he’d only to glance at the star patterns in the winter sky to know it … but … what if he were wrong? Mayhap all these doubts, this waiting, it might be a test of his love. Perhaps the day would dawn when his Sal would come to him. One precious evening he’d find her here, and they’d be happy again as they’d sworn.
Faith must be the key. He’d a head start on others in that quarter, for his very name gave his offer of assurance to his family, to his master, and to his shipmates. They’d never yet found him wanting and nor would his darlin’ wench.
Yet this night his senses jangled, out of kilter. The room didn’t set right with him at all. If anyone asked, he’d have been hard put to say what had changed, but his gut told him for sure something had occurred.
A prickle rose on the back of his neck, the fine hairs stood like a hound’s ruff to warn of storms to come and his certainty grew. T’was said only those who’d made it ’round the horn got the sense of predicting stormy winds. Well, he’d made it ’round the horn and home twice—and tonight, in the twilight shadows, proof of it raced icy down his back.
The fat blue-and-white painted vase. It had moved!
The thing always stood on the starboard side of the counter, had been there for so long he couldn’t recall.
He shook his head.
Tonight, the thick-bottomed vase sat on the frayed rush mat. Unknown hands had moved the vase from its usual spot and left it on the floor, where any bad-tempered little brat in hobnailed boots might kick it.
The pawnshop didn’t change. Why, it was only yesterday evening he’d been here and things had been the same as they’d been for—well, he couldn’t give a number on the days. Wherever else he wandered along the wharf each starlit night, he always began his evening journey here, in the shop, hoping. Before dawn he returned, dragging the tatters of his dreams, for one last glimpse before the bright light came. The first streaks of dawn and he’d leave with the prayer the next night would bring a different outcome. The sun on the water, always he saw the light sparkling on the waves, until it dimmed and the next night and his hopes came again.
He stifled the confusion in his thoughts, the ache and longing inside, rose from the chaise and picked his way through the jumble of objects in the corner. Once beyond the brass umbrella stand and the dark wood whatnot with the broken shelf, he eased by the table and made sure he didn’t brush against the cluster of china flat-back ornaments on the long open bookcase.
Surprise stilled his steps. Unblinking, like when he watched a shooting star, he stared as if he’d frozen in the bitter cold of the deepest southern ocean. He gawped in wonder at the arch of a smear mark traced by three slim fingertips scraped along the mahogany counter.
Not his darlin’ Sal’s sweet touch, though. He knew it immediately, for she’d truly tiny fingers—slender like little petals, and how he wished…
One day she’d weave her small, pale fingertips through his hair again, or she might even whack him on the chin and giggle. Didn’t he know her for a lovin’ saucy wench?
How she made the counter shine, each time he came in, and the glossy gleam on the wood reflected the light. Sal made sure of it. First time he’d seen his lovely, she’d been polishing in here with a twist of lavender in her fair curls, a thick lump of beeswax in one hand and a blue dust rag in the other. He’d leaned against the door, spellbound, watching her lithe shoulders moving, the front of her white blouse, that held a full bounty, a-jiggling like a spinnaker in a breeze with all her pretty efforts to bring forth a shine on the wood.
By his heart and soul, she was a beauty. On three continents, he’d never met her like. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes to recall the perfection of her violet-scented mouth, coral-tinted lips made for kisses, her cheeky, inviting little smile, and the sparkle in brilliant green eyes that could smolder in passion like oriental gems or blaze like a wildfire lived inside them. And her laugh.
Ah, when his darlin’ laughed, the sound danced about a room, skipped like dawn light on the waves, glimmered like ice crystals in a winter night.
Everything about his sweet, dainty Sal was beautiful, and he only lingered here awaiting the chance to haul fast beside her once again. This time when he did, he’d take her in his arms, caress her until she made those soft, welcoming little sighs and, God help him, he’d know then he’d come home.
He clenched his hand. “Christ alive, my wench, where in the wide world are ye? My girl, ye gave me yer heart, took mine in return, and ye promised we’d wed. Yer swore we would.”
But his needy rage brought no good to him, nor brought him his Sal. Each time his anger swelled, he drifted further from her sweetness.
Very gently, he picked up the cracked painted vase, placed it back where it belonged. He stared to the end of the counter and looked into the thin, glass-fronted case beyond. Inside, on the third shelf up, nestled the small red box he always checked on. Tucked carefully within the apple ripe cube was a pale satin holder to keep the contents in place. Though in the dimness tonight he couldn’t see it all, he knew the ring he’d promised his girl sat waiting. When Sally arrived, he’d be proud to pay the last due to the old woman who owned the shop. He’d already paid a deposit, and his sweetheart would have the ring meant for her little hand.
Gold. Real, bright, rosy gold formed the band with adornments too. No cheapskate’s offering this, but a thing any Jack who loved his woman would take pride in giving her to show his heart. A fine purple stone was claw set in the center of the ring, and on each side there sat three small matched pearls. In all his travels, he’d never seen a fairer sight, but for his wench who’d wear it.
The evening wore on and to entertain himself, as he’d done before while he waited, he moved the small jade balls on the solitaire board, click, click, click. He never tired of the game.
The church clock rang out ten, and he gave another sigh. Sal wasn’t coming this night. He turned and left the game for another evening, very slowly he made his way out of the shop. Tonight, he’d take a stroll down to the dockside and see if he could spot a vessel he knew.
Mayhap tomorrow his world would come to rights and he’d find his Sal. Yes, she’d be here awaiting him, as she’d sworn. For sure, on the morrow, he’d find her, and they’d be together as they should be. Not sundered apart no more, they’d be wed, and come the special morn when she was his wife, with her ring on her finger, then, she’d press her warm, smooth cheek to his, and he’d kiss her in the way he longed to.