Afloat And Ashore
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
This story is one of the author's favorite sea-tales, and is believed to be partly autobiographical.
WAS born in a valley not very remote from the sea, by the shore of a small creek that ran into the Hudson. My father, Miles Walling-ford, whose name I bear, was descended from an English family that had settled on the spot three generations ago. He had followed the sea during his youth and engaged in several of the hardest sea-fights of the Revolution. Then he settled down on the farm, which was called Claw-bonny, and by his thrift added to the value of the property. As there were no steamers plying on the Hudson (nor anywhere else) at that time, the produce of Clawbonny, raised chiefly by the family slaves born and brought up on the place, was shipped to New York in a sloop attached to the estate. By this means and by the full-rigged model of a ship preserved in the house, together with the instructions of my father as to matters concerning ships and the sea, I not only gained much knowledge of the subject but, what was more important, imbibed an intense longing to follow the sea for a profession.
My father was killed while experimenting with a new water-wheel which he was adding to his mill, and my mother's death soon followed, overcome as she was by this dreadful event. I was sixteen years old when the loss of our last parent left me alone with my sister Grace. The estate, which was very comfortable for those days, brought up simply as we had been, was left in charge of the Rev. Mr. Hardinge, our excellent rector, until I should come of age. His family, like ours, consisted of a son and a daughter, Rupert and Lucy. We were very nearly of an age, Rupert being the oldest of the four, and we had grown up together almost as brothers and sisters, although as we advanced Lucy and I developed a special liking for each other that required but little to ripen into a deeper sentiment. The same might be said of Grace and Rupert, al-though less on his side than on hers, for he was of a light and volatile nature, handsome but selfish, and soon grew away from any partiality toward Grace.
My parents had designed me to go to Yale, hoping I might prove a successful lawyer, while Mr. Hardinge had settled it in his mind that Rupert should study for orders. But nature was too strong to be diverted by parental plans. Slowly but surely my ambition developed in the direction of the sea. Rupert, from the force of example, or because his mind had no settled aim, decided to go with me. Of course our charming sisters, while agreeing that it was all very romantic, did their best to dissuade us from such a hare-brained experiment. But they promised not to divulge our secret. I had made up my mind for good and all, and for that very reason insisted that good Mr. Hardinge should have no suspicion of what we proposed to do; for as guardian and father he would inevitably have prevented our departure. For this reason, also, we sailed down to New York in a small sailboat after nightfall, instead of taking our old freighting sloop. "Neb," short for Nebuchadnezzar, a bright young slave who was greatly attached to me, accompanied us in order to take the boat back to Clawbonny. After taking an affecting farewell of our sisters and boyish sweethearts, we cast off to seek our destinies. It may be that a consciousness that, should I fail of success in the pursuit I had chosen, I still had a competence to fall back on, had some influence in strengthening my resolution.
As soon as possible we betook ourselves to the wharves where ships bound to the Indies were moored. After glancing at a number, I was especially attracted by the fine ship John, a vessel of four or five hundred tons. The mate invited us on board and led us aft to the master, who was on the quarter-deck. Replying to his questions, I stated that I had some means and therefore proposed going to sea from sheer love for it and a desire to follow in the steps of my father, Miles Walling-ford. Captain Robbins started at the name and said he him-self had sailed under Captain Wallingford, knew him well, and would gladly do what he could for any child of his. For Rupert, as the son of a parson, he showed less interest, evidently thinking from the cut of his jib, as the sea-phrase has it, that he gave but slight promise of making a sailor; but he agreed to take him, and we were asked to step up and sign the articles. The next thing was to advance us three months' wages and furnish us each with a suit of sea-clothes, including a jaunty tarpaulin, from the slop-chest, as it is called, out of which the crew may purchase such articles as they require on a voyage and which are sold on account, but not by any means at a discount. We were to board the ship the following day, as she would sail very soon.
We passed the interval looking over the town, and had a narrow escape from encountering poor Mr. Hardinge, who, learning of our sudden flight—how quickly such dead secrets leak out! had hastened down to New York to take us home, if he could find our ship in time. We met him on Broadway, but in his anxiety he failed to recognize us in our fine new sailor suits, and we saw no occasion to call his attention to us.
I should say that when we paid our bill at the tavern we look a formal leave of Neb, who was to return to Clawbonny. But after we cast off and stood down the bay the rascal suddenly turned up, discovered by the black cook, and ready to go to work as if he were one of the crew. He declared that he would never forsake me, and that his fortune was bound up with mine. On my representation of the facts Captain Robbins agreed to take him, and he was assigned to one of the watches, without pay excepting his bunk and food. Rupert was quickly diagnosed by the crew, who thought he had found his right berth when Captain Robbins put him to copying and arranging his papers, for captains in those days had to be business men and supercargoes as well as seamen. As for myself, it took me but a week to know the ropes and reef and steer as if I had been at sea for years, so readily does one apply himself to his true vocation.
We made the run to China without any unusual adventure. I was in the starboard or first mate's watch, and Mr. Marble, who had taken a liking to me from the first, favored me in various ways, especially by giving me bits of information important for a sailor to know. As evidence that I had the true seafaring blood in me, I never in my life lost a meal or suffered a qualm of seasickness.
But when we reached the region about the Straits of Sunda, noted as a haunt of picarooning Malay pirates, we did meet with an exciting adventure which made some noise when reported in the papers, after our arrival in New York. We were attacked by several proas, or native boats, which stole stealthily upon us in the night. At the first alarm the Captain and entire crew were on deck quicker than I can write of it. 'We carried eight guns and a supply of small arms, and finally succeeded in beating off the ruffians with great loss. But it was a very narrow escape, for the enemy, favored by darkness, had got so near, and were so numerous, and so desperately deter-mined, that it lacked but little more and they had swarmed on board our ship and massacred us all.
Our next adventure was less fortunate in its outcome. Captain Robbins, like many shipmasters, had certain theories of his own regarding currents and sea phenomena, theories less in vogue now than formerly, navigation and scientific knowledge having greatly advanced. Trusting to his own notions and ignoring the mate's warning, he persisted in running close to the northern coast of Madagascar. The wind fell, and we could not save the ship from the rocks, amid the network of rushing currents and cruel reefs where we drifted. Just when we thought we were finally clear the ship struck on a sharp rock. We considered ourselves fortunate to be able to get away in the launch and jolly-boat with a few provisions and breakers of water. We had the choice of running down the coast along a wall of steep cliffs in search of a landing, or to steer for the islet of Bourbon, several hundred miles distant in the Indian ocean. Dreading the savages of Madagascar, we chose the latter course. Before long we encountered a severe gale and the boats were separated, with scarcely a chance of ever meeting again, if indeed we did not all go to Davy Jones. The jolly-boat, in which were the chief mate, Neb, and myself, with several of the crew, at last reached Bourbon, proceeding thence to the Isle of France, where, after a few weeks, we found passage for home in the ship Tigris. The launch was given up for lost. But remarkable as it may seem, we, ourselves, on the Tigris picked her up some days later. The survivors were at the last gasp, and Captain Robbins barely survived the hardships which grew out of his theory of ocean tides and currents.
His fate, indeed, was not long deferred. In the neighborhood of Guadaloupe an armed brig bore down on us which proved to be a French privateer; a brief, quasi-war had broken out between the United States. and France over a dispute as to the rights of neutrals carrying provisions and materials of war to England, then at war with Napoleon. The privateer was heavily armed and swarmed with men. But Captain Digges of the Tigris succeeded in beating her off with some loss, by cleverly pouring scalding water on the boarders by means of the hand engine and hose used to wash the decks and wet the sails in calm weather.
Off the Capes of Delaware Captain Robbins undertook to reach shore in the boat which brought off the pilot. He was anxious to be the first to convey news of the loss of his ship. The wind was blowing strong out of the nor'west. But we hoped we could get under the lee of the land before the sea should rise. We had aboard the two men who had brought the pilot, and Rupert and myself, who volunteered for this ticklish adventure. But our hopes of making a landing were vain. The wind rapidly increased to a furious gale and stirred up a wild sea. Night was on us and we could reach neither our ship nor the coast. Our doom was evidently at hand. We toiled for hours until utterly exhausted. Suddenly the dark form of a coasting schooner loomed upon us in the shadows. She could not hear our shouts and actually ran down the yawl. I managed to grasp her bobstay as I was going down, and, being both large and strong, pulled myself on board, as did the others in one way and another, all except poor Captain Rob-bins, who was never seen again.
We were landed on the cape and made straight for New York. But the Tigris had already reached Philadelphia. The loss of the John and of our boat was thus reported in the papers, with obituaries of Rupert and myself. We rushed to the Albany basin to catch our sloop Wallingford, and thus intercept the sad tidings. But we learned that she had just sailed with Neb and our chests. Luckily we found that the fastest sloop on the Hudson was on the point of sailing, and we jumped aboard, hoping to reach Clawbonny at least as soon as the Wallingford. We landed but a few moments after the arrival of the Wallingford and found Grace and Lucy on the shore weeping and wringing their hands, while Neb, himself greatly perturbed, was relating to them the incidents of the voyage and his fear that we had gone down with the boat in the storm off the Jersey coast. How intense was the reaction of emotion when the dear girls actually saw Rupert and myself appear before them as if raised from the dead!
I found my affairs in capital condition, and a good sum laid by out of my income, and most people would suppose that by this time I had had enough of the sea to last for the rest of my life, especially as I had not the usual inducement for leading a sailor's life. But what is in the blood is not easily resisted. Like the sirens of old, the voice of the sea called to me to go forth again and brave my fate. While I was considering the matter, we all took a pleasure-trip to New York in our sloop Walling-ford. Dr. Hardinge there found a place in a lawyer's office for Rupert, who wanted never to smell salt water again. As I was strolling along the wharves, turning over the matter in my mind, I heard a loud voice on the quarter-deck of a ship saying "There, Captain Williams, there's just your chap; he'll make as good a third mate as can be found in all America." I could not on the instant recall who the speaker was. But turning in the direction of the voice, I saw the hard features of that capital seaman Mr. Marble, the ex-mate of the John in whose watch I had served. I bowed, and he beckoned to me to come on board. The vessel proved to be a tight little ship of four hundred tons, mounting ten nine-pounders in her batteries and carrying letters of marque for a voyage around the world. After an interview of fifteen minutes Captain Williams accepted Mr. Marble's suggestion, and offered me the berth of third mate. I stood six feet two in my stockings, although only eighteen, and so far as I knew had won the approval of my superiors. I therefore felt a humble confidence in my ability to fill the place offered to me. I looked carefully over the ship, scrutinized the Captain on the sly, finally accepting the offer on condition that Neb should be taken as an ordinary seaman. By Marble's earnest ad-vice this arrangement was agreed to. Six days later the good ship Crisis put to sea with a crew, fore and aft, of thirty-eight souls.
I had some reason to believe that Lucy Hardinge, who had matured into a most lovely girl, responded to sentiments of which I myself had become conscious. But as I was still an infant before the law, and was thoroughly wedded to the sea, this matter bore as yet but little influence on my plans; and I was at an age, too, when the spirit of adventure is, to the adventurous, like a consuming fire.
As we neared the middle of the Atlantic we encountered the French letter-of-marque La Dame de Nantes, a powerful ship carrying a crew much more numerous than ours. In the severe and bloody fight which followed she so far succeeded in crippling us as to be able to escape. But several days later, having made repairs, we surprised her in a heavy fog and before she could prepare for the new encounter we captured her by a coup de main. She mounted twelve nines with a crew of eighty-three souls, and her cargo was valued at sixty thousand dollars. My share of the prize amounted to eleven hundred and seventy-three dollars.
The Dame de Nantes was sent to America, and the next day we laid our course westward. Before long we overtook a vessel that proved to be a prize captured by the Dame, and which was on the way to France manned by a French crew. It did not take long for us to seize her, and I was appointed as master to take her to London, where she would be sold as prize of war. The next morning when I took charge of the deck I found myself on the wide ocean, with no other ships in sight, at the age of eighteen, and in the enemy's seas, with a valuable vessel to care for, my way to find into narrow waters that I had never entered, and a crew on board of whom just one-half were now on their first voyage. Seamanship, navigation, address, prudence—all depended on me. But the first six hours set me quite at my ease, and the fact that Neb, ever bright, good-natured and faithful, was with me tock away some of the sense of loneliness. We reached London safely, and the prize and cargo were sold for a good sum. But near the Downs we had a very narrow escape from a powerful French privateer, whose large crew would have surely overpowered us but for a timely trick we played on them which effected our escape.
Soon after on the Thames we were joined by the Crisis. Having disposed of her cargo and shipped another, Captain Williams now shaped a course for Cape Horn and the Pacific, where we met with furious weather and several times gave up all hope of saving either ship or crew. After escaping by way of the Straits of Magellan the fury of Cape Horn, we cruised five months along the west coast of South America, touching at numerous little ports and trading chiefly by smuggling. The guardacostas kept a sharp lookout for us and we had several smart fights. From there we proceeded north as high as 53°. The stern and solitary coast of that latitude was inhabited wholly by savages, who traded in furs with the ships that ventured into that inhospitable region. Great caution was required in dealing with these treacherous natives, as we found to our cost. Anchoring in a sheltered bay, the ship was soon visited by a crowd of savages. Forgetting the experience of others, we fell into the trap prepared for us. The savages suddenly attacked. Captain Williams was slain and the deck was crowded by over five score of natives led by their cunning and powerful chief, Smudge. I was in some degree to blame for this catastrophe, for I had fallen to sleep when on watch. For hours in the early morning I was the only white man on deck, a prisoner kept there to aid the savages in swinging the ship into a creek where she could he stripped and burned. By the practise of a cunning equal to theirs I managed to get sail on the dismantled spars, and to let the crew out from their imprisonment below the deck. The savages were surprised and overpowered. Some leaped into the sea; others, panic-stricken, were killed like sheep. Smudge, the leader of the plot and an able man, even though a tawny, unwashed barbarian, was hanged from the yard-arm, in spite of my earnest pleading with the Captain, for I saw some excuse for his act.
From this scene of blood we stood southwest and put into the lagoon of a low, lonely coral island, hitherto unknown. Not imagining it to be inhabited, except by turtles and seabirds, we all slept well that night, being greatly fatigued after the laborious and dangerous passage through the rocky inlet of the lagoon by moonlight. I was aroused by the voice of Marble, who had became captain after the murder of Williams, while I had been promoted to be second mate. He whispered in a hoarse voice, "Mutiny! there's mutiny on board." He then explained that the companionway was fastened down. Astounded at the news, I too examined the companionway and at the same time heard low voices and suppressed laughter. The mystery was solved in a few moments by a statement from above in broken and peculiarly French-English, to the effect that the good ship Crisis was the prize of the crew of a French privateer which had been shipwrecked on the island, and was waiting for just such a chance as this to get away. They had no desire to harm us, they said; all they wanted was the ship, which we were cordially invited to surrender without resistance or delay. The language used in the cabin of the Crisis on this summons was in a low key but eloquently profane; it did not, however, alter the situation. Expostulation was useless and hence undignified, and we accepted the invitation to quit our ship, not without a certain sense of the grim humor of the thing.
But we succeeded in turning the tables on the French in a way they least expected. From the wreck of their own ship they had nearly completed the construction of a small schooner by which they hoped to gain the coast of South America. After they had sailed we completed this schooner in about a third of the time they had evidently expected to take. We overtook the Crisis by piling on all sail and carried her by storm, killing her polite but incautious captain and several of her crew. Masters once more of the good ship Crisis, we resumed our voyage home by way of China. In the China Sea we were attacked, as had already happened to me on my first voyage, by twenty piratical proas, but escaped unharmed after killing a lot of the ruffians and sinking several of their boats.
On arriving home, I found Mr. Hardinge so thoroughly convinced that sea life was my vocation that he paid $15,000 out of my estate very cheerfully in order to purchase a new ship for me. She was just five hundred tons and her name was the Dawn. In my first voyage with her she cleared for me sixty-five per cent. of her purchase price.