"Captains Courageous": A Story of the Grand Banks
Harvey waked to find the “first half” at ‘breakfast, the fo’c’sle door drawn to a crack, and every square inch of the schooner singing its own tune. The black bulk of the cook balanced behind the tiny galley over the glare of the stove, and the pots and pans in the pierced wooden board before it jarred and racketed to each plunge. Up and up the fo’c’sle climbed, yearning and surging and quivering, and then, with a clear, sickle-like swoop, came down into the seas. He could hear the flaring bows cut and squelch, and there was a pause ere the divided waters came down on the deck above, like a volley of buck-shot. Followed the woolly sound of the cable in the hawse-hole; a grunt and squeal of the windlass; a yaw, a punt, and a kick, and the “We’re Here” gathered herself together to repeat the motions.
“Now, ashore,” he heard Long Jack saying, “ye’ve chores, an’ ye must do thim in any weather. Here we’re well clear of the fleet, an’ we’ve no chores--an’ that’s a blessin’. Good night, all.” He passed like a big snake from the table to his bunk, and began to smoke. Tom Platt followed his example; Uncle Salters, with Penn, fought his way up the ladder to stand his watch, and the cook set for the “second half.”
It came out of its bunks as the others had entered theirs, with a shake and a yawn. It ate till it could eat no more; and then Manuel filled his pipe with some terrible tobacco, crotched himself between the pawl-post and a forward bunk, cocked his feet up on the table, and smiled tender and indolent smiles at the smoke. Dan lay at length in his bunk, wrestling with a gaudy, gilt-stopped accordion, whose tunes went up and down with the pitching of the “We’re Here”. The cook, his shoulders against the locker where he kept the fried pies (Dan was fond of fried pies), peeled potatoes, with one eye on the stove in event of too much water finding its way down the pipe; and the general smell and smother were past all description.
Harvey considered affairs, wondered that he was not deathly sick, and crawled into his bunk again, as the softest and safest place, while Dan struck up, “I don’t want to play in your yard,” as accurately as the wild jerks allowed.
“How long is this for?” Harvey asked of Manuel.
“Till she get a little quiet, and we can row to trawl. Perhaps to-night. Perhaps two days more. You do not like? Eh, wha-at?”
“I should have been crazy sick a week ago, but it doesn’t seem to upset me now--much.”
“That is because we make you fisherman, these days. If I was you, when I come to Gloucester I would give two, three big candles for my good luck.”
“To be sure--the Virgin of our Church on the Hill. She is very good to fishermen all the time. That is why so few of us Portugee men ever are drowned.”
“You’re a Roman Catholic, then?”
“I am a Madeira man. I am not a Porto Pico boy. Shall I be Baptist, then? Eh, wha-at? I always give candles--two, three more when I come to Gloucester. The good Virgin she never forgets me, Manuel.”
“I don’t sense it that way,” Tom Platt put in from his bunk, his scarred face lit up by the glare of a match as he sucked at his pipe. “It stands to reason the sea’s the sea; and you’ll git jest about what’s goin’, candles or kerosene, fer that matter.”
“Tis a mighty good thing,” said Long Jack, “to have a fri’nd at coort, though. I’m o’ Manuel’s way o’ thinkin’. About tin years back I was crew to a Sou’ Boston market-boat. We was off Minot’s Ledge wid a northeaster, butt first, atop of us, thicker’n burgoo. The ould man was dhrunk, his chin waggin’ on the tiller, an’ I sez to myself, ‘If iver I stick my boat-huk into T-wharf again, I’ll show the saints fwhat manner o’ craft they saved me out av.’ Now, I’m here, as ye can well see, an’ the model of the dhirty ould Kathleen, that took me a month to make, I gave ut to the priest, an’ he hung Ut up forninst the altar. There’s more sense in givin’ a model that’s by way o’ bein’ a work av art than any candle. Ye can buy candles at store, but a model shows the good saints ye’ve tuk trouble an’ are grateful.”
“D’you believe that, Irish?” said Tom Platt, turning on his elbow.
“Would I do Ut if I did not, Ohio?”
“Wa-al, Enoch Fuller he made a model o’ the old Ohio, and she’s to Salem museum now. Mighty pretty model, too, but I guess Enoch he never done it fer no sacrifice; an’ the way I take it is--”
There were the makings of an hour-long discussion of the kind that fishermen love, where the talk runs in shouting circles and no one proves anything at the end, had not Dan struck up this cheerful rhyme:
“Up jumped the mackerel with his striped back. Reef in the mainsail, and haul on the tack; For it’s windy weather--”
Here Long Jack joined in:
“And it’s blowy weather; When the winds begin to blow, pipe all hands together!”
Dan went on, with a cautious look at Tom Plait, holding the accordion low in the bunk:
“Up jumped the cod with his chuckle-head, Went to the main-chains to heave at the lead; For it’s windy weather,” etc.
Tom Platt seemed to be hunting for something. Dan crouched lower, but sang louder:
“Up jumped the flounder that swims to the ground. Chuckle-head! Chuckle-head! Mind where ye sound!”
Tom Platt’s huge rubber boot whirled across the fo’c’sle and caught Dan’s uplifted arm. There was war between the man and the boy ever since Dan had discovered that the mere whistling of that tune would make him angry as he heaved the lead.
“Thought I’d fetch yer,” said Dan, returning the gift with precision. “Ef you don’t like my music, git out your fiddle. I ain’t goin’ to lie here all day an’ listen to you an’ Long Jack arguin’ ‘baout candles. Fiddle, Tom Platt; or I’ll learn Harve here the tune!”
Tom Platt leaned down to a locker and brought up an old white fiddle. Manuel’s eye glistened, and from somewhere behind the pawl-post he drew out a tiny, guitar-like thing with wire strings, which he called a machette.
“‘Tis a concert,” said Long Jack, beaming through the smoke. “A reg’lar Boston concert.”
There was a burst of spray as the hatch opened, and Disko, in yellow oilskins, descended.
“Ye’re just in time, Disko. Fwhat’s she doin’ outside?”
“Jest this!” He dropped on to the lockers with the push and heave of the “We’re Here”.
“We’re singin’ to kape our breakfasts down. Ye’ll lead, av course, Disko,” said Long Jack.
“Guess there ain’t more’n ‘baout two old songs I know, an’ ye’ve heerd them both.”
His excuses were cut short by Tom Platt launching into a most dolorous tune, like unto the moaning of winds and the creaking of masts. With his eyes fixed on the beams above, Disko began this ancient, ancient ditty, Tom Platt flourishing all round him to make the tune and words fit a little:
“There is a crack packet--crack packet o’ fame, She hails from Noo York, an’ the Dreadnought’s her name. You may talk o’ your fliers--Swallow-tail and Black Ball-- But the Dreadnought’s the packet that can beat them all.
“Now the Dreadnought she lies in the River Mersey, Because of the tugboat to take her to sea; But when she’s off soundings you shortly will know (Chorus.) She’s the Liverpool packet--O Lord, let her go!
“Now the Dreadnought she’s howlin’ ‘crost the Banks o’ Newfoundland, Where the water’s all shallow and the bottom’s all sand. Sez all the little fishes that swim to an’ fro: (Chorus.) ‘She’s the Liverpool packet--O Lord, let her go!’”
There were scores of verses, for he worked the Dreadnought every mile of the way between Liverpool and New York as conscientiously as though he were on her deck, and the accordion pumped and the fiddle squeaked beside him. Tom Platt followed with something about “the rough and tough McGinn, who would pilot the vessel in.” Then they called on Harvey, who felt very flattered, to contribute to the entertainment; but all that he could remember were some pieces of “Skipper Ireson’s Ride” that he had been taught at the camp-school in the Adirondacks. It seemed that they might be appropriate to the time and place, but he had no more than mentioned the title when Disko brought down one foot with a bang, and cried, “Don’t go on, young feller. That’s a mistaken jedgment--one o’ the worst kind, too, becaze it’s catchin’ to the ear.”
“I orter ha’ warned you,” said Dan. “Thet allus fetches dad.”
“What’s wrong?” said Harvey, surprised and a little angry.
“All you’re goin’ to say,” said Disko. “All dead wrong from start to finish, an’ Whittier he’s to blame. I have no special call to right any Marblehead man, but ‘tweren’t no fault o’ Ireson’s. My father he told me the tale time an’ again, an’ this is the way ‘twuz.”
“For the wan hundreth time,” put in Long Jack, under his breath.
“Ben Ireson he was skipper o’ the Betty, young feller, comin’ home frum the Banks--that was before the war of 1812, but jestice is jestice at all times. They f’und the Active o’ Portland, an’ Gibbons o’ that town he was her skipper; they f’und her leakin’ off Cape Cod Light. There was a terr’ble gale on, an’ they was gettin’ the Betty home’s fast as they could craowd her. Well, Ireson he said there warn’t any sense to reskin’ a boat in that sea; the men they wouldn’t hev it; and he laid it before them to stay by the Active till the sea run daown a piece. They wouldn’t hev that either, hangin’ araound the Cape in any sech weather, leak or no leak. They jest up stays’l an’ quit, nat’rally takin’ Ireson with ‘em. Folks to Marblehead was mad at him not runnin’ the risk, and becaze nex’ day, when the sea was ca’am (they never stopped to think o’ that), some of the Active’s folk was took off by a Truro man. They come into Marblehead with their own tale to tell, sayin’ how Ireson had shamed his town, an’ so forth an’ so on; an’ Ireson’s men they was scared, seem’ public feelin’ ag’in’ ‘em, an’ they went back on Ireson, an’ swore he was respons’ble for the hull act. ‘Tweren’t the women neither that tarred and feathered him--Marblehead women don’t act that way--’twas a passel o’ men an’ boys, an’ they carted him araound town in an old dory till the bottom fell aout, an’ Ireson he told ‘em they’d be sorry for it some day. Well, the facts came aout later, same’s they usually do, too late to be any ways useful to an honest man; an’ Whittier he come along an’ picked up the slack eend of a lyin’ tale, an’ tarred and feathered Ben Ireson all over onct more after he was dead. ‘Twas the only time Whittier ever slipped up, an’ ‘tweren’t fair. I whaled Dan good when he brought that piece back from school. You don’t know no better, o’ course; but I’ve give you the facts, hereafter an’ evermore to be remembered. Ben Ireson weren’t no sech kind o’ man as Whittier makes aout; my father he knew him well, before an’ after that business, an’ you beware o’ hasty jedgments, young feller. Next!”
Harvey had never heard Disko talk so long, and collapsed with burning cheeks; but, as Dan said promptly, a boy could only learn what he was taught at school, and life was too short to keep track of every lie along the coast.
Then Manuel touched the jangling, jarring little machette to a queer tune, and sang something in Portuguese about “Nina, innocente!” ending with a full-handed sweep that brought the song up with a jerk. Then Disko obliged with his second song, to an old-fashioned creaky tune, and all joined in the chorus. This is one stanza:
“Now Aprile is over and melted the snow, And outer Noo Bedford we shortly must tow; Yes, out o’ Noo Bedford we shortly must clear, We’re the whalers that never see wheat in the ear.”
Here the fiddle went very softly for a while by itself, and then:
“Wheat-in-the-ear, my true-love’s posy blowin’; Wheat-in-the-ear, we’re goin’ off to sea; Wheat-in-the-ear, I left you fit for sowin’; When I come back a loaf o’ bread you’ll be!”
That made Harvey almost weep, though he could not tell why. But it was much worse when the cook dropped the potatoes and held out his hands for the fiddle. Still leaning against the locker door, he struck into a tune that was like something very bad but sure to happen whatever you did. After a little he sang in an unknown tongue, his big chin down on the fiddle-tail, his white eyeballs glaring in the lamplight. Harvey swung out of his bunk to hear better; and amid the straining of the timbers and the wash of the waters the tune crooned and moaned on, like lee surf in a blind fog, till it ended with a wail.
“Jimmy Christmas! Thet gives me the blue creevles,” said Dan.
“What in thunder is it?”
“The song of Fin McCoul,” said the cook, “when he wass going to Norway.” His English was not thick, but all clear-cut, as though it came from a phonograph.
“Faith, I’ve been to Norway, but I didn’t make that unwholesim noise. ‘Tis like some of the old songs, though,” said Long Jack, sighing.
“Don’t let’s hev another ‘thout somethin’ between,” said Dan; and the accordion struck up a rattling, catchy tune that ended:
“It’s six an’ twenty Sundays sence las’ we saw the land, With fifteen hunder quintal, An’ fifteen hunder quintal, ‘Teen hunder toppin’ quintal, ‘Twix’ old ‘Queereau an’ Grand!”
“Hold on!” roared Tom Plait “D’ye want to nail the trip, Dan? That’s Jonah sure, ‘less you sing it after all our salt’s wet.”
“No, ‘tain’t. Is it, dad? Not unless you sing the very las’ verse. You can’t learn me anything on Jonahs!”
“What’s that?” said Harvey. “What’s a Jonah?”
“A Jonah’s anything that spoils the luck. Sometimes it’s a man--sometimes it’s a boy--or a bucket. I’ve known a splittin’-knife Jonah two trips till we was on to her,” said Tom Plait. “There’s all sorts o’ Jonahs. Jim Bourke was one till he was drowned on Georges. I’d never ship with Jim Bourke, not if I was starvin’. There wuz a green dory on the Ezra Flood. Thet was a Jonah too, the worst sort o’ Jonah. Drowned four men she did, an’ used to shine fiery o’ nights in the nest.”
“And you believe that?” said Harvey, remembering what Tom Platt had said about candles and models. “Haven’t we all got to take what’s served?”
A mutter of dissent ran round the bunks. “Outboard, yes; inboard, things can happen,” said Disko. “Don’t you go makin’ a mock of Jonahs, young feller.”
“Well, Harve ain’t no Jonah. Day after we catched him,” Dan cut in, “we had a toppin’ good catch.”
The cook threw up his head and laughed suddenly--a queer, thin laugh. He was a most disconcerting nigger. “Murder!” said Long Jack. “Don’t do that again, doctor. We ain’t used to Ut.”
“What’s wrong?” said Dan. “Ain’t he our mascot, and didn’t they strike on good after we’d struck him?”
“Oh! yess,” said the cook. “I know that, but the catch iss not finish yet.”
“He ain’t goin’ to do us any harm,” said Dan, hotly. “Where are ye hintin’ an’ edgin’ to? He’s all right.”
“No harm. No. But one day he will be your master, Danny.”
“That all?” said Dan, placidly. “He wun’t--not by a jugful.”
“Master!” said the cook, pointing to Harvey. “Man!” and he pointed to Dan.
“That’s news. Haow soon?” said Dan, with a laugh.
“In some years, and I shall see it. Master and man--man and master.”
“How in thunder d’ye work that out?” said Tom Platt.
“In my head, where I can see.”
“Haow?” This from all the others at once.
“I do not know, but so it will be.” He dropped his head, and went on peeling the potatoes, and not another word could they get out of him.
“Well,” said Dan, “a heap o’ things’ll hev to come abaout ‘fore Harve’s any master o’ mine; but I’m glad the doctor ain’t choosen to mark him for a Jonah. Now, I mistrust Uncle Salters fer the Jonerest Jonah in the fleet regardin’ his own special luck. Dunno ef it’s spreadin’ same’s smallpox. He ought to be on the Carrie Pitman. That boat’s her own Jonah, sure--crews an’ gear make no differ to her driftin’. Jimmy Christmas! She’ll etch loose in a flat ca’am.”
“We’re well dear o’ the fleet, anyway,” said Disko, “Carrie Pitman an’ all.” There was a rapping on the deck.
“Uncle Salters has catched his luck,” said Dan, as his father departed.
“It’s blown clear,” Disko cried, and all the fo’c’sle tumbled up for a bit of fresh air. The fog had gone, but a sullen sea ran in great rollers behind it. The “We’re Here” slid, as it were, into long, sunk avenues and ditches which felt quite sheltered and homelike if they would only stay still; but they changed without rest or mercy, and flung up the schooner to crown one peak of a thousand grey hills, while the wind hooted through her rigging as she zigzagged down the slopes. Far away a sea would burst in a sheet of foam, and the others would follow suit as at a signal, till Harvey’s eyes swam with the vision of interlacing whites and greys. Four or five Mother Carey’s chickens stormed round in circles, shrieking as they swept past the bows. A rain-squall or two strayed aimlessly over the hopeless waste, ran down wind and back again, and melted away.
“‘Seems to me I saw somethin’ flicker jest naow over yonder,” said Uncle Salters, pointing to the northeast.
“Can’t be any of the fleet,” said Disko, peering under his eyebrows, a hand on the fo’c’sle gangway as the solid bows hatcheted into the troughs. “Sea’s oilin’ over dretful fast. Danny, don’t you want to skip up a piece an’ see how aour trawl-buoy lays?”