"Captains Courageous": A Story of the Grand Banks
That was the first of many talks with Dan, who told Harvey why he would transfer his dory’s name to the imaginary Burgess-modelled haddocker. Harvey heard a good deal about the real Hattie at Gloucester; saw a lock of her hair--which Dan, finding fair words of no avail, had “hooked” as she sat in front of him at school that winter--and a photograph. Hattie was about fourteen years old, with an awful contempt for boys, and had been trampling on Dan’s heart through the winter. All this was revealed under oath of solemn secrecy on moonlit decks, in the dead dark, or in choking fog; the whining wheel behind them, the climbing deck before, and without, the unresting, clamorous sea. Once, of course, as the boys came to know each other, there was a fight, which raged from bow to stern till Penn came up and separated them, but promised not to tell Disko, who thought fighting on watch rather worse than sleeping. Harvey was no match for Dan physically, but it says a great deal for his new training that he took his defeat and did not try to get even with his conqueror by underhand methods.
That was after he had been cured of a string of boils between his elbows and wrists, where the wet jersey and oilskins cut into the flesh. The salt water stung them unpleasantly, but when they were ripe Dan treated them with Disko’s razor, and assured Harvey that now he was a “blooded Banker”; the affliction of gurry-sores being the mark of the caste that claimed him.
Since he was a boy and very busy, he did not bother his head with too much thinking. He was exceedingly sorry for his mother, and often longed to see her and above all to tell her of his wonderful new life, and how brilliantly he was acquitting himself in it. Otherwise he preferred not to wonder too much how she was bearing the shock of his supposed death. But one day, as he stood on the fo’c’sle ladder, guying the cook, who had accused him and Dan of hooking fried pies, it occurred to him that this was a vast improvement on being snubbed by strangers in the smoking-room of a hired liner.
He was a recognised part of the scheme of things on the “We’re Here”; had his place at the table and among the bunks; and could hold his own in the long talks on stormy days, when the others were always ready to listen to what they called his “fairy-tales” of his life ashore. It did not take him more than two days and a quarter to feel that if he spoke of his own life--it seemed very far away--no one except Dan (and even Dan’s belief was sorely tried) credited him. So he invented a friend, a boy he had heard of, who drove a miniature four-pony drag in Toledo, Ohio, and ordered five suits of clothes at a time, and led things called “germans” at parties where the oldest girl was not quite fifteen, but all the presents were solid silver. Salters protested that this kind of yarn was desperately wicked, if not indeed positively blasphemous, but he listened as greedily as the others; and their criticisms at the end gave Harvey entirely new notions on “germans,” clothes, cigarettes with gold-leaf tips, rings, watches, scent, small dinner-parties, champagne, card-playing, and hotel accommodation. Little by little he changed his tone when speaking of his “friend,” whom Long Jack had christened “the Crazy Kid,” “the Gilt-edged Baby,” “the Suckin’ Vanderpoop,” and other pet names; and with his sea-booted feet cocked up on the table would even invent histories about silk pajamas and specially imported neckwear, to the “friend’s” discredit. Harvey was a very adaptable person, with a keen eye and ear for every face and tone about him.
Before long he knew where Disko kept the old green-crusted quadrant that they called the “hog-yoke”--under the bed-bag in his bunk. When he ‘took the sun, and with the help of “The Old Farmer’s” almanac found the latitude, Harvey would jump down into the cabin and scratch the reckoning and date with a nail on the rust of the stove-pipe. Now, the chief engineer of the liner could have done no more, and no engineer of thirty years’ service could have assumed one half of the ancient-mariner air with which Harvey, first careful to spit over the side, made public the schooner’s position for that day, and then and not till then relieved Disko of the quadrant. There is an etiquette in all these things.
The said “hog-yoke,” an Eldridge chart, the farming almanac, Blunt’s “Coast Pilot,” and Bowditch’s “Navigator” were all the weapons Disko needed to guide him, except the deep-sea lead that was his spare eye. Harvey nearly slew Penn with it when Tom Platt taught him first how to “fly the blue pigeon”; and, though his strength was not equal to continuous sounding in any sort of a sea, for calm weather with a seven-pound lead on shoal water Disko used him freely. As Dan said: “‘Tain’t soundin’s dad wants. It’s samples. Grease her up good, Harve.” Harvey would tallow the cup at the end, and carefully bring the sand, shell, sludge, or whatever it might be, to Disko, who fingered and smelt it and gave judgment. As has been said, when Disko thought of cod he thought as a cod; and by some long-tested mixture of instinct and experience, moved the “We’re Here” from berth to berth, always with the fish, as a blindfolded chess-player moves on the unseen board.
But Disko’s board was the Grand Bank--a triangle two hundred and fifty miles on each side a waste of wallowing sea, cloaked with dank fog, vexed with gales, harried with drifting ice, scored by the tracks of the reckless liners, and dotted with the sails of the fishing-fleet.
For days they worked in fog--Harvey at the bell--till, grown familiar with the thick airs, he went out with Tom Platt, his heart rather in his mouth. But the fog would not lift, and the fish were biting, and no one can stay helplessly afraid for six hours at a time. Harvey devoted himself to his lines and the gaff or gob-stick as Tom Platt called for them; and they rowed back to the schooner guided by the bell and Tom’s instinct; Manuel’s conch sounding thin and faint beside them. But it was an unearthly experience, and, for the first time in a month, Harvey dreamed of the shifting, smoking floors of water round the dory, the lines that strayed away into nothing, and the air above that melted on the sea below ten feet from his straining eyes. A few days later he was out with Manuel on what should have been forty-fathom bottom, but the whole length of the roding ran out, and still the anchor found nothing, and Harvey grew mortally afraid, for that his last touch with earth was lost. “Whale-hole,” said Manuel, hauling in. “That is good joke on Disko. Come!” and he rowed to the schooner to find Tom Platt and the others jeering at the skipper because, for once, he had led them to the edge of the barren Whale-deep, the blank hole of the Grand Bank. They made another berth through the fog, and that time the hair of Harvey’s head stood up when he went out in Manuel’s dory. A whiteness moved in the whiteness of the fog with a breath like the breath of the grave, and there was a roaring, a plunging, and spouting. It was his first introduction to the dread summer berg of the Banks, and he cowered in the bottom of the boat while Manuel laughed. There were days, though, clear and soft and warm, when it seemed a sin to do anything but loaf over the hand-lines and spank the drifting “sun-scalds” with an oar; and there were days of light airs, when Harvey was taught how to steer the schooner from one berth to another.
It thrilled through him when he first felt the keel answer to his hand on the spokes and slide over the long hollows as the foresail scythed back and forth against the blue sky. That was magnificent, in spite of Disko saying that it would break a snake’s back to follow his wake. But, as usual, pride ran before a fall. They were sailing on the wind with the staysail--an old one, luckily--set, and Harvey jammed her right into it to show Dan how completely he had mastered the art. The foresail went over with a bang, and the foregaff stabbed and ripped through the stay-sail, which, was of course, prevented from going over by the mainstay. They lowered the wreck in awful silence, and Harvey spent his leisure hours for the next few days under Tom Platt’s lee, learning to use a needle and palm. Dan hooted with joy, for, as he said, he had made the very same blunder himself in his early days.
Boylike, Harvey imitated all the men by turns, till he had combined Disko’s peculiar stoop at the wheel, Long Jack’s swinging overhand when the lines were hauled, Manuel’s round-shouldered but effective stroke in a dory, and Tom Platt’s generous Ohio stride along the deck.
“‘Tis beautiful to see how he takes to ut,” said Long Jack, when Harvey was looking out by the windlass one thick noon. “I’ll lay my wage an’ share ‘tis more’n half play-actin’ to him, an’ he consates himself he’s a bowld mariner. ‘Watch his little bit av a back now!”
“That’s the way we all begin,” said Tom Platt. “The boys they make believe all the time till they’ve cheated ‘emselves into bein’ men, an’ so till they die--pretendin’ an’ pretendin’. I done it on the old Ohio, I know. Stood my first watch--harbor-watch--feelin’ finer’n Farragut. Dan’s full o’ the same kind o’ notions. See ‘em now, actin’ to be genewine moss-backs--every hair a rope-yarn an’ blood Stockholm tar.” He spoke down the cabin stairs. “‘Guess you’re mistook in your judgments fer once, Disko. What in Rome made ye tell us all here the kid was crazy?”
“He wuz,” Disko replied. “Crazy ez a loon when he come aboard; but I’ll say he’s sobered up consid’ble sence. I cured him.”
“He yarns good,” said Tom Platt. “T’other night he told us abaout a kid of his own size steerin’ a cunnin’ little rig an’ four ponies up an’ down Toledo, Ohio, I think ‘twas, an’ givin’ suppers to a crowd o’ sim’lar kids. Cur’us kind o’ fairy-tale, but blame interestin’. He knows scores of ‘em.”
“‘Guess he strikes ‘em outen his own head,” Disko called from the cabin, where he was busy with the log-book. “‘Stands to reason that sort is all made up. It don’t take in no one but Dan, an’ he laughs at it. I’ve heard him, behind my back.”
“Y’ever hear what Sim’on Peter Ca’houn said when they whacked up a match ‘twix’ his sister Hitty an’ Lorin’ Jerauld, an’ the boys put up that joke on him daown to Georges?” drawled Uncle Salters, who was dripping peaceably under the lee of the starboard dory-nest.
Tom Platt puffed at his pipe in scornful silence: he was a Cape Cod man, and had not known that tale more than twenty years. Uncle Salters went on with a rasping chuckle:
“Sim’on Peter Ca’houn he said, an’ he was jest right, abaout Lorin’, ‘Ha’af on the taown,’ he said, ‘an’ t’other ha’af blame fool; an’ they told me she’s married a ‘ich man.’ Sim’on Peter Ca’houn he hedn’t no roof to his mouth, an’ talked that way.”
“He didn’t talk any Pennsylvania Dutch,” Tom Platt replied. “You’d better leave a Cape man to tell that tale. The Ca’houns was gipsies frum ‘way back.”
“Wal, I don’t profess to be any elocutionist,” Salters said. “I’m comin’ to the moral o’ things. That’s jest abaout what aour Harve be! Ha’af on the taown, an’ t’other ha’af blame fool; an’ there’s some’ll believe he’s a rich man. Yah!”
“Did ye ever think how sweet ‘twould be to sail wid a full crew o’ Salterses?” said Long Jack. “Ha’af in the furrer an’ other ha’af in the muck-heap, as Ca’houn did not say, an’ makes out he’s a fisherman!”
A little laugh went round at Salters’s expense.
Disko held his tongue, and wrought over the log-book that he kept in a hatchet-faced, square hand; this was the kind of thing that ran on, page after soiled page:
“July 17. This day thick fog and few fish. Made berth to northward. So ends this day.
“July 18. This day comes in with thick fog. Caught a few fish.
“July 19. This day comes in with light breeze from N. E. and fine weather. Made a berth to eastward. Caught plenty fish.
“July 20. This, the Sabbath, comes in with fog and light winds. So ends this day. Total fish caught this week, 3,478.”
They never worked on Sundays, but shaved, and washed themselves if it were fine, and Pennsylvania sang hymns. Once or twice he suggested that, if it was not an impertinence, he thought he could preach a little. Uncle Salters nearly jumped down his throat at the mere notion, reminding him that he was not a preacher and mustn’t think of such things. We’d hev him rememberin’ Johnstown next,” Salters explained, “an’ what would happen then?” So they compromised on his reading aloud from a book called “Josephus.” It was an old leather-bound volume, smelling of a hundred voyages, very solid and very like the Bible, but enlivened with accounts of battles and sieges; and they read it nearly from cover to cover. Otherwise Penn was a silent little body. He would not utter a word for three days on end sometimes, though he played checkers, listened to the songs, and laughed at the stories. When they tried to stir him up, he would answer. “I don’t wish to seem unneighbourly, but it is because I have nothing to say. My head feels quite empty. I’ve almost forgotten my name.” He would turn to Uncle Salters with an expectant smile.
“Why, Pennsylvania Pratt,” Salters would shout. “You’ll fergit me next!”
“No--never,” Penn would say, shutting his lips firmly. “Pennsylvania Pratt, of course,” he would repeat over and over. Sometimes it was Uncle Salters who forgot, and told him he was Haskins or Rich or McVitty; but Penn was equally content--till next time.
He was always very tender with Harvey, whom he pitied both as a lost child and as a lunatic; and when Salters saw that Penn liked the boy, he relaxed, too. Salters was not an amiable person (he esteemed it his business to keep the boys in order); and the first time Harvey, in fear and trembling, on a still day, managed to shin up to the main-truck (Dan was behind him ready to help), he esteemed it his duty to hang Salters’s big sea-boots up there--a sight of shame and derision to the nearest schooner. With Disko, Harvey took no liberties; not even when the old man dropped direct orders, and treated him, like the rest of the crew, to “Don’t you want to do so and so?” and “Guess you’d better,” and so forth. There was something about the clean-shaven lips and the puckered corners of the eyes that was mightily sobering to young blood.
Disko showed him the meaning of the thumbed and pricked chart, which, he said, laid over any government publication whatsoever; led him, pencil in hand, from berth to berth over the whole string of banks--Le Have, Western, Banquereau, St. Pierre, Green, and Grand--talking “cod” meantime. Taught him, too, the principle on which the “hog-yoke” was worked.
In this Harvey excelled Dan, for he had inherited a head for figures, and the notion of stealing information from one glimpse of the sullen Bank sun appealed to all his keen wits. For other sea-matters his age handicapped him. As Disko said, he should have begun when he was ten. Dan could bait up trawl or lay his hand on any rope in the dark; and at a pinch, when Uncle Salters had a gurry-sore on his palm, could dress down by sense of touch. He could steer in anything short of half a gale from the feel of the wind on his face, humouring the “We’re Here” just when she needed it. These things he did as automatically as he skipped about the rigging, or made his dory a part of his own will and body. But he could not communicate his knowledge to Harvey.