THE crowd was decidedly a heterogeneous one on the edge of which I stood at eight o’clock, A. M., one scorching July morning, under an awning at the end of a rickety pier, waiting for the excursion-steamer which was to convey us to the distant sand-banks over which the clear waters lap, away down below the green-sloped highlands of Neversink,— sea-shoal banks, from which silvery fishes were warning us off with their waving fins.
Now the crowd, being a heterogeneous one, as I have said, had the vulgar element pervading it to a dominant extent. It consisted mainly of such “ common people,” indeed, that no person of exquisite refinement would have thought of feeling his way through it, unless his hands were protected by what Aminadab Sleek calls “ little goat-gloves.” And yet there is another style of mitten, a large, unshapely, bloated knuckle-fender, stuffed with curled hair, that might be far more appropriate to the operation of shouldering in among such “ muscular Christians” as the majority around, on the occasion to which I refer.
In the resorts to which habitual tipplers have recourse for consolation of the spirituous kind, a cheap variety is usually on hand to meet exigencies, — the exigency of a commercial crisis, for instance, when the last lonely dime of the drinker is painfully extracted from the pocket, to be replaced by seven inconsiderable cents. This abomination is termed “all sorts” by the publican and his indispensable sinner. It is the accumulation of the drainage of innumerable gone drinks,— fancy and otherwise. The exquisite in the “little goat-gloves” would not hobnob with me in that execrable beverage; no more would I with him; and yet one of its components may be the aristocratic Champagne. In the social elements of a water-excursion-party may be found the “ all sorts ” of a particular kind of citylife, the good of it and the bad of it, with a dash of something that is very low. But I am going to talk about the thing as I found it,—the rough side of the social mill-stone ; and, seeing that. I have suffered nothing by contact with it, I suppose no harm will come, to such as listen to the little I have got to say on the subject.
A benevolent desire to launch far and wide the already well-spread reputation of the New York rowdy impels the present writer to declare his conviction, that, should Physiology offer a premium for the production of a perfect and unmitigated specimen of polisson, Experience would seek for it among the choice representatives of the class in question,— ay, and find it, too. Nor would the ardor of search be chilled by the suggestion of scarcity conveyed in the practical sarcasm of the sly old cynic, when he scorched human nature with a horn lantern by instituting a search with it on the sun-bright highways for an unauthenticated type of man. And yet the rowdy, like many another ugly and repulsive thing, may have his use. In the East Indies, it is customary to keep a live turtle in the wayside watertanks which are so precious in that thirsty land, the movements of the animal, as well as the industry with which it devours all noxious particles which chance may have conveyed into the waters, serving to keep them in a condition of purity and health. The rowdy is the turtle in the tank,—so far, at least, as being an ugly beast to look at and a great promoter of commotion,—by which latter service he keeps the community alive to the presence of impure particles in the social element, if he does not assist in getting rid of them. An alligator in an aquarium might furnish a better comparison for him in other respects.
Of this class there are many branches; but the one with which I have to deal at present is to be studied to most advantage by visiting some pier of the great riverfrontage of New York, to which excursion-boats rush emulously at appointed hours, crossing and jostling each other with proper respect for their individual rights as free commoners of the welltilled waters. Here, as, with audacious disregard of the chance-medley of smashed guards and obliterated paddle-boxes, the great water-wagons graze wheels upon the ripple-paved turnpike of the river, the steamboat-runner, squalidly red from the effects of last night’s carouse, and reeking sensibly of the alcoholic “ morning call,” may be recognized by the native manner in which he makes the pier peculiarly his own,—by the inflammatory character which unremitting dissipation has imparted to the inhaling apparatus of his unclassical features,—by the filthy splendor of his linen, which a low-buttoning waistcoat, gorgeous and dirty likewise, unbosoms disadvantageously to the gaze of the beholder, — by the invariable “ diamond ” pin, of gift-book style, with which the juncture of the first-mentioned integument is effected, if not adorned,— and, above all, by the massive guards and guy-chains with which his watch is hitched on to the belaying arrangements of Chatham Street garments, the original texture and tint of which have long been superseded by predominant grease. Hand and elbow with the professional city-rowdy the steamboat-runner is ever to be found : at the cribs, where the secondrate men of the “ fancy ” hold their secret meetings; clinging about the doors of the Court of Sessions, where, as eavesdroppers,— for they are known to the door-keeper, and rejected from the friendship of that stern officer, — they strive, with ear at keyhole, to catch a word or two which may give them a clue to the probable fate of “ Jim,” who is in the dock there, on his trial for homicide or some such light peccadillo; loitering round the dog-pit institutions, where the quadrupeds look so amazingly like men and the men like quadrupeds,—especially in that one where the eye of taste may be gratified by the supernatural symmetry of the stuffed bull-terriers in glass eases, the enormity of which specimens is accounted for by the gentlemanly proprietor, who tells us that “ the man as stuffed ’em never stuffed anythink else afore, only howls.”
I suppose it must have been the tacit acknowledgment of some superiority by me inappreciable, that accorded to one individual of the small assemblage of roughs under notice a decidedly influential position among the congenial spirits hovering around. The superior blanchness of this person’s linen would seem to indicate that his association with mere runners was but occasional and for commercial ends. Also might that conclusion have been deduced from the immaculacy of his cream-white Panama hat. That was a jaunty article, with upturned brim, the pride of which was discernible in the very simplicity with which it sat, unadulterated by band or trimmings, upon the closely cropped, mole-colored head of the wearer. Thirty dollars, at least, must have been its marketable value. Instead of being fitted with chain-tackle, the watch of this superior person maintained its connection with the open air by means of a broad watered ribbon plummeted straight down his leg with a seal hardly inferior in size to a deep-sea lead. This daring recurrence to first principles is much to be observed, of late, among the choice spirits of the so-called “sporting” fraternity of New York.
This man, as I supposed, and as I subsequently heard from my friend Locus, of the police, who came upon the pier, was not a runner now, but had risen from that respectable rank by large exercise of the virtues so intimately associated with it. In attributing an exalted position to him I was right. He was the keeper of a house of entertainment for emigrants in one of the down-town tributaries to Broadway, where tickets could also be had for California and most other parts of the world, at an advance of not more than one-third on the rates charged at the regular steamboat-offices. Considering the respectability of this person's occupation, I was surprised when Locus referred to him, familiarly, as “ Flashy Joe,” adding that he was widely known, if not respected, and that he would, probably, be entitled some day to have his portrait placed in a gallery of which he, Locus, knew, but into which my æsthetic researches have not hitherto led me.
There was another noticeable character in the rough part of the heterogeneous crowd. This man, while on a footing of the greatest intimacy with the runners, was far inferior to them in the matter of dress. Locus, in reply to my queries, informed me that he was a professional oyster-opener; but, judging from his appearance in general, I should have guessed that he was a professional oyster-catcher also,—a human dredge, employed chiefly at the bottom of the sea. A perfect Hercules in build, “ Lobster Bob,” as Locus called him, made his appearance on the wharf with two enormous creels of oysters, one balanced on each hip, with the careless ease of unconscious strength. His costume consisted solely of a ragged blue cotton shirt and trousers, immense knobby cowskin boots white with age, and a mouldy drab felt hat. The buttonless blue shift flapped widely open from his brawny chest; and his shirt-sleeves, rolled up to the shoulder, gave full display to a pair of arms of a mould not usually to be found outside the prize-ring, and but seldom within the sanctuary of that magic circle. As if in compensation for the merely nominal allowance of costume tolerated by this crustacean professor, his chest and arms were entirely covered with a wild arabesque of tattoowork, in blue and red. Many and original artists must have been employed in the embellishment of Robert's tawny hide. The one to whose sense of the fitness of things was intrusted the illustration of his right arm had seized boldly upon the oval protuberance of the biceps, a few skilfully disposed dots and dashes upon which had converted it into a face which was no bad reproduction of Bob’s own. On the broad flexors of his sun-bronzed fore-arm there blazed a grand device which might have puzzled a whole college of heralds to interpret, — a combination of eagles and banners and shields, coruscating with stars and radiant with stripes. But more suggestive than any of these shams was the stern reality of a purple scar which ran round the back of his neck, from ear to ear. More than one man must have been hurt, when that scar was made.
Notwithstanding the hull-dog projection of this formidable giant’s lower jaw, there sometimes beamed on his face that goodnatured expression often observable in men whose unusual muscular development places them on a footing of physical superiority to those with whom they shoulder along the road of life. When the runners “chaffed” him, nevertheless, it was in a mild way, and with manifest respect for his muscle,—a sentiment in no way diminished when be suddenly clutched one of the least cautious among them by the nape of the neck, and held him out at arm’s-length, for some seconds, over the drowny water that kept lazily licking at the green moss on the old stakes of the rickety pier.
Even unto the Prince, of Darkness, saith proverbial philosophy, let us concede his due. If, then, a single ray of good illuminates at some happy moment the dark spirit of these roughs, let it be recorded with that bare, unfledged truth which is so much better a bird than uncandor with the finest of feathers upon him.
Feeling his way into the circle with a stick, there came a poor blind man, of diminutive stature, squeezing beneath his left arm a suffocating accordion, which, every now and then, as he stumbled against the uneven planks of the wharf, gave a querulous squeak, doleful in its cadence as the feeble quavers evoked by Mr. William Davidge, comedian, from the asthmatic clarionet of Jem Bags, in the farce of the “ Wandering Minstrel.”
“Come, b’hoys! ” cried Lobster Bob, “ let’s have a squeeze of music from Billy, afore the boat comes up” ; and, plumping down one of his creels in the middle of the crowd, he lifted up the musician, and seated him upon the rough, cold oysters,— a throne fitter, certainly, for a follower of Neptune than a votary of Apollo. One of the roughs danced an ungraceful measure to the music of the accordion, mimicking, as he did so, the queer contortions into which the musician twisted his features in perfect harmony with his woful strains. All of them were gentle to the blind man, though, as if his darkness had brought to them a ray of light; and presently one of them takes off the musician’s cap, drops into it a silver dime, and goes the rounds of the throng with many jocose appeals in favor of the owner, to whom he presently returns it in a condition of silver lining analogous to, but more substantial than that of the poet's cloud.
But now the poor music of the accordion was quite extinguished by the bellowing of the brazen horns of the “ cotillon band” on the deck of our expected steamer, as she rounded to from the upper piers at which she had been taking in excursionists. This caused a stir in the crowd under the awning, many of whom were fathers of families taking their wives and children out for a rare holiday. The smallest babies had not been left at home, but were there in all their primary scarletude, set off by the whitest of lacefrilled caps trimmed with the bluest of ribbons. And now came the time tor these small choristers to take up the “ wondrous tale” ; for the big horns had ceased to wrangle, and the crushing and rushing of the crowd woke up infancy to a sense of its wrongs and a consciousness of the necessity for action.
There were some nice-looking girls around, neatly dressed, too, though by no means in their Sunday-best; for la petite New-Yorkaise is aware of the mishaps to be encountered by those who venture far out to sea in ships. They had sweethearts with them, for the most part, or brothers, or cousins, mayhap : but they were sadly neglected by these protectors, as we stood under the awning on the pier; for the male mind was full of fishing, and the male hands were employed in making up tackle with a most unscientific kind of skill.
And now the final rush came, as the steamer made fast alongside the outermost of the boats already lying at the pier, across the decks of which our heterogeneous crowd began to make its way with as little scrambling as possible, on account of the petticoat-hoops, which are capital monitors in a turmoil. Women swayed their babies like balancing-poles, as they tottered along the gangway-plank. Men tried to secure themselves from being brushed into eternity by the powerful sweep of skirts. My own personal reminiscence of this transit from the wharf to the gallant bark of our choice is melancholy and vague, being marked chiefly to memory by the complicated curse bestowed upon me by a hideous old Irishwoman, whose oranges I accidentally upset in the crowd, and by whom I was subsequently derided with buffo song and scurrilous dance as long as the steamer remained within hearing and sight.
Away we are steaming down the bay, at last, a motley party of men, women, and children of all sizes and sorts: husbands, wives, milliners and their lovers; young men who have brought no young women with them, because they have come for fishing and fishing only; and advanced fathers, who, making a virtue of having brought out wife and child for a holiday, now leave them a good deal to take care of themselves, and devote all their energies to being pleasant as remotely from them as circumstances will allow. Roughs, to the number of a dozen or so, mostly steamboat-runners and their congeners, are of the party, headed by Flashy Joe. Lobster Bob has set up his oyster-plank in a central situation. Venders of unfresh-looking refreshments have established themselves on board; and the bar-keeper, near the forecastle, is preparing himself for the worst.
By-and-by I noticed a good-looking specimen of Young New York on board, and was introduced to him by a cigar. He was a handsome boy, with dark, oval face, and Arabian eyes. The silky black line that just marked the curve of his upper lip gave promise of a splendid moustache ; his closely crisped black hair was but just visible below the rim of his jaunty straw hat, the band of which was a tasselled cord of crimson silk; while his lithe figure was suggested rather than displayed by the waving lines of his loose brown jacket with tapering gigot sleeves. His low-cut shirt-collar and narrow silken neck-tie were in the style called “ English,” as quite decidedly, also, were his cross-barred trousers of balloony build; nor, although thus flinging himself for diversion into the vortex of the lower crowd, had he foregone the luxury of tan-colored kid gloves and patent leather shoes. He was a bright boy, and precocious as a lady-killer ; for, already, before we had left far behind us the pleasant slopes of Bay Ridge, with its peeping villa-parapets of brown and white, and its umbrageous masses of chromatic green, he had evidently engaged the affections of an esiègle little straw-bonnet-maker, who did her hair something like his own, in a close-curled crop, and had her pretty little person safely shut up in a highnecked dress.
That young lady had a suitor with her, who was clearly not a sweetheart, however, by a good deal, but merely a follower tolerated for the day, and on the score of convenience only. He was a tall, gaunt, pale young man, with long hands and feet, slouching shoulders and narrow chest, and a strange, indescribable nullity of expression dwelling upon his features. He did not appear to be encouraged much by little Straw-Goods, whose mind was probably occupied with prospective possibilities of being led out to the festive dance by Young New York. Altogether, he was an unsatisfactory-looking young man, his unfinished look reminding one of raw material, though it would have been hard to say for what.
But the band had now ceased mellowing out the favorite medley which begins with “ Casta Diva ” and runs over into the lovely cadences of “ Gentle Annie ”; and the abrupt transition from that mournful strain to a light cotillon air warned four hundred holiday-people that the festive dance was about to begin on the wide floor between the engine-room and the saloon. Cotillons are a leading pastime among the people; and as the water was pretty smooth down the bay, and a splendid breeze rushed aft between-decks, many laughing girls and well-dressed matronly women now made their appearance on the floor. Dancing without noise is a luxury as yet uncalled for. Dancers must have music, we know, — and what is music, but wild noise caught and trained ? But these cotillons were unnecessarily boisterous, on account of the roughs, who, looked upon as outsiders by the better-behaved portion of the throng, got up a wild warstep of their own on the skirts of the legitimate dance, dishonestly appropriating to their coarse movements the music intended for it alone, as they stamped and shouted, and wheeled round with a ludicrous affectation of grace, in the space between the dancers and the bulkheads of the deck. One of these roughs, a drunken young fellow of wiry build, whose hair, face, eyes, nose, ears, and hands were all of the color of tomatocatchup, might have made an excellent low comedian, had destiny led him upon the " boards.” He had just been complaining to his companions that his hand had been refused for the dance by a girl at whom he pointed the red finger of wrath,—a pale, but very interesting seamstress, who was whirling about with a much decenter young man than the red one is ever likely to be. And then he nobly took his revenge by the clever, but unprincipled way in which he caricatured the rather remarkable dancing of the voting man who was the object of his hate, and whose style of movement it would not be consistent with this writer’s duty to deny was amenable to severity, and must, in any society, have subjected him who indulged in it to the scorn of the flouter and the contempt of all high-minded men.
All through the dance, it was a thing to be remembered, how superior in deportment the women were to the men. Probably it was from a natural instinct for grace, and abhorrence of the ludicrous, that they merely skimmed through the figures, without any of the demonstrations displayed by their beaux. It was pleasant to look at the nice little strawgoods damsel with the boyish hair, and to mark the contrast between her kitten glidings and the premeditated atrocities of Raw Material, as he wove and unwove his ungainly legs before her, in a manner appalling to witness. She had only a common palm-leaf fan, I remarked,— worth, probably, about two cents. But Young New York, as he waited patiently for the deadly ocean-malady to fall upon Raw Material, who was unquestionably a subject for it, and was drinking, besides, drew tightly up his tan-colored gloves, and, twirling with finger and thumb the air just about where it must some day be displaced by the future tendrils of the coming moustache, affirmed upon oath his intention of presenting her with a fan more worthy of her well-kept little hand, ere kind Fortune could have time to drop another excursion-ticket into her work-basket.
Should the solemn question arise as to how I knew that one of these young women was in the straw-bonnet line, another a milliner, a third a dress-maker, and so forth, I will answer it by stating that the left forefinger of the seamstress, long since vulcanized into a little file, furnishes the infallible sign which indicates the class. To the practised eye, the varieties are known by many a token : by the smart little close-grained cereal bonnet which little Straw-Goods put away before she came into the dance; by the spicy creation of silk and ribbons which roosts demurely, like a cedar-bird, on the back hair of the pale girl, who is a milliner; by the superior manner in which the hoops are disguised in the structure surrounding that blonde young wife with the pink baby, who is a dressmaker. Let the lofty read studiously the signs that in the heavens are portentous of storm or of shine; I, who am of commoner clay, must content myself with deciphering those that are of earth.
But a “sea-change” was upon us. Last night there was a tornado of rain and thunder and wind, and the effects of the latter were now perceptible, as we began to rock through the ground-swell off Sandy Hook, and down past the twin light-houses on the high, sunny ridges of Neversink. The music ceased, the dancers deserted the ’tween-decks floor, and, as the rocking of the boat increased, there arose in the direction of the ladies’ cabin audible suggestions of woe.
And now the twin beacon-towers of Neversink were far, far behind, having taken a position with regard to us which may be described, in military phrase, as an échelon movement upon our flank, and we went surging through a fleet, of little green fishing-boats, manned each by a single fisherman in a red shirt, whose two horny hands appeared to be a couple too few for the hauling in of the violet and silver porgies, with which the well of his little green craft was alive and flapping. In the middle of this fleet we rounded to, the anchor was let go, and we were hard and fast upon the Fishing-Banks.
The first thing done, on these excursions, by those who come to fish,— which includes nearly all the men,— is to establish a claim somewhere along the railing of the steamer, by attaching to it a strong whip-cord fishing-line, with a leaden sinker and hook of moderate size,— the latter lashed on, in most instances, with a disregard for art which must be intensely disgusting to any man whose piscatorial memories are associated with the wily salmon and the epicurean trout. Triangular tin boxes are brought along by the fishermen to hold their bait, which consists of soft clams, liberally sprinkled with salt to keep them in a wholesome condition for the afternoon take. Attaching a line to any part of the rail or combings, or to any projecting point of the boat, establishes the droit de pêche at that particular spot, — a right respected with such rigorous etiquette, that the owner may then go his way with confidence, to inspect the resources of the bar, or join the gay throng of dancers betweendecks.
There must be something singularly fascinating in this curious pastime of fishing with a hand-line from the jumpingoff places of a steamboat or pier. Doubtless it is from a defective sympathetic organization that the writer of these pages does not himself “seem to see it.” Nevertheless, I look upon the illusion with a respect almost bordering upon fear, although not quite in that spirit of veneration which moves illogical savages to fall down and worship the stranger lunatic whom chance has led to their odorous residences. Dwelling one summer on the New Jersey shore, I used to loiter, day after day, upon a deserted wharf, at the end of which was ever to be seen a broad-beamed fisherman, sitting upon an uncomfortably wooden chair, from which he dabbled perpetually with his whip-cord line in the shallow water that washed the slimy face-timbers of the wharf. There he sat, day after day, and all day, and, for aught I know, all through the summernight, a big-timbered, sea-worthy man, reading contentedly a daily paper of local growth, and pulling up never a better bit of sea-luck than the puny, meanspirited fishling called by unscientific persons the burgall. I would at any time have freely given ten cents for the privilege of overhauling old broad-beam's carpet-bag, which he always placed before him on the string-piece, with a view, I suppose, of frustrating anything like a guerrilla plunder-movement upon his widely extended rear. Ay, there must be something strangely entrancing in dragging the shoal waters with a hand-line, for unsuspicious, easily duped members of the acanthopterygian tribe of fishes,— under which alarming denomination come,
I believe, nearly all the finny fellows to be met with on these sand-banks, from the bluefish to the burgall. Only think how stuck up they would be above the lowly mollusks of the same waters, if they knew themselves as Acanthopterygii, and were aware that their great-grandfather was an Acanthopteryx before them, and so away back in the age of waters that once were over all! “ Very ancient and fish-like ” is their genealogy, to be sure !
In the far-away days, when Neversink teas, but the twin beacon-towers that now watch upon its heights were not, — when Sandy Hook was a hook only, and not a telegraph-station, from which the first glimpse of an inward-bound argosy is winked by lightning right in at the window of the down-town office where Mercator sits jingling the coins in his trousers’ pockets, — in those days, the only excursion-boats that rocked upon the groundswell over the pale, sandy reaches of the Fishing-Banks were the tiny barklets that shot out on calm days from the sweeping coves, with their tawny tarred-and-feathered crews: for of such grotesque result of the decorative art of Lynch doth ever remind me the noble Indian warrior in his plumes and paint. Unfitted, by the circumscribed character of their sea-craft, their tackle, and their skill, for pushing their enterprise out into the deeper water, where the shark might haply say to the horse-mackerel, — “Come, old horse, let you and me hook ourselves on, and take these foolish tawny fellows and their brown cockle-shell down into the under-tow,”— they supplied their primitive wants by enticing from the shallows the beautiful, sunny-sealed shoal-fish, well named by iethyologists Argyrops, the “silver-eyed.” But the poor Indian, who knew no Greek,— poor old savage, lament for him with a scholarly eheu ! — called this shiner of the sea, in his own barbarous lingo, Scuppaug. Can any master of Indian dialects tell us whether that word, too, means “ him of the silver eye”? If it docs, revoke, O student, your shrill eheu for the Greekless and imtrousered savage of the canoe, suppress your feelings, and go steadily into rhabdomancy with several diviningrods, in search of the Pierian spring which must surely exist somewhere among the guttural districts of the Ojibbeway tongue.
And here there is diversion for philologist as well as fisherman; for while the latter is catching the fish, the former may seize on the fact, that in this word, Scuppaug, is to be found the origin of the two separate names by which Argyrops, the silver-eyed, is miscalled in local vernacular. True to the national proclivity for clipping names, the fishermen ot Rhode Island appeal to him by the first syllable only of his Indian one, — for in the waters thereabout he is talked of by the familiar abbreviation, Scup. But to the excursionists and fishermen of New York he is known only as Porgy, or Paugie, a form as obviously derived from the last syllable of his Indian name as the emphatic “ siree ” of our greatest orators is from the modest monosyllable “sir.” Porgy seems to be the accepted form of the word; but letters of the old, unphonetic kind are poor guides to pronunciation. And a beautiful, clean-scaled fish is Porgy, whose g, by-the-by, as I learned from a funny man in the heterogeneous crowd, is pronounced “hard, as in ‘git cowt.
A lovely fish is he, as he comes dripping up the side of the vessel from his briny pastures. Silver is the pervading gleam of his oval form; but while he is yet wet and fresh, the silver is flushed with a chromatic radiance of gold, and violet, and pale metallic green, all blending and harmonizing like the mother-o’-pearl lustre in some rare sea-shell. The true value of this fish is not of a commercial kind, for he cannot be deemed particularly exquisite in a gastronomic sense ; neither is he staple as a provision of food. His virtue lies in the inducement offered to him by the citizen of moderate means, who, for a trifling outlay, can secure for himself and family the invigorating influence of the salt sea-breezes, by having a run down outside the Hook any fine day in summer, with an object. The average weight of the porgy of these banks may be set down at about a pound.
Five minutes after we came to anchor, there must have been at least two hundred and fifty whip-cord lines stretching out into the three-fathom water from every available rail and fender of the old boat. Most of the men had brought their tackle with them, and their tin canisters of bait. To those who had not, the articles were ready at hand; for speculators had mingled in the crowd, one of whom affixed his “shingle” to a post between-decks, setting forth,— “FishingLines and Hooks, with Sinkers and Bait,” — the latter consisting of clams in the shell, contained In a barrel big enough for the supply of the whole flotilla of green boats and red shirts, which still hung around us like swallows in the wake of an osprey. Two or three of our excursionists— men, perhaps, whose minds indulged in dear memories of a brook that babbles by a mill — had fishing-rods with them, and made great ado with scientific lunges and casts,producing much discord, indeed, by flicking away wildly outside their proper sea-limits. Most industrious among the hand-fishers I remarked a small, spare man, who, under the careful supervision of a buxom young wife in a "loud" tartan silk, baited no hook nor broke water with his lead until he had first folded and put carefully away between the handle and lid of the family prog-basket his tight little black frockcoat, aiul passed his small legs through the tough creases of a pair of stout blue “ Denim” overalls. Those, pulled up to his neck, and hitched on there with shoulder-straps, served for waistcoat and trousers and all, imparting to him the cool atmospheric effect so much admired in that curious picture of Gainsboroughs, known to connoisseurs as “ The Blue Boy. ’ Then he fished the waters with a will; and it was but a scurvy remark of Flashy Joe, who said that “ it was about an even chance whether he took porgy or porgy took him.” But it seems to me that this unskilled labor of fishing from a steamboat must be epidemic, if not contagious; for even Young New York, who in the early forenoon doubted visibly his discretion at having got himself into such an ugly scrape as an “ excursion-spree,” put off his delicate gloves, and set to hauling, hand over hand, as it for a bet.
But I believe I have committed a breach of etiquette in giving precedence to Seuppaug over the skipper, a very large and thoroughly pickled old man, who now bustled deliberately about the decks, with as few clothes on his broad back and stern-post legs as were consistent with decorum and with the requirements of those by-laws of society which
extend even to Sandy Hook and the rest of the Jerseys, as well as to the fishing-banks that shoal out from the same. Strictly speaking, this old man of our part of the sea was not the captain of the boat, but the pilot, who takes command of her when she abandons her proper line on the rivers, and ventures to that " far Cathay of city-navigators indefinitely spoken of as “outside the Hook.” The smooth-water captain of the steamer, who was nobody to talk of now, was a slim, pale voting man, in a black dresscoat, tall, silky hat, and shoes of a material which has long years ago been patented, on account of its matchless ability to shine. This commander remained permanently within the “ office,” where he was probably very poorly by himself during all this “ high old time.” The stout old pilot was the real skipper; and now that the vessel had come to anchor, he turned from his lighter duties to the grave pastime of the day, and fished earnestly through a large hole in the paddlebox,— the porgies that came to his allurements arriving at their destination by a series of flapping manoeuvres from blade to blade of the wheel. For so burly a man, and one with such a chest for the stowage of sea-breezes and monsoons, the skipper was provided with a wonderfully small voice, suggesting, as he lectured upon sea-fishing to the novices who were getting into “snarls” with their tackle hard by where he sat, the circumstance of a tree-toad discoursing from the hollow of a brave old oak.
“ If you want to ketch good fish,” said he, sententiously, to Young New York, whose hook persisted in bailing itself with his thumb, — “if you want to ketch reel snorters, you must have a heavy line, heavy lead, and gimp tackle. Then take your own time, haul in, hand over hand, and no matter what the heft, you ’ll be sure to fetch him.”
Young New York produced from his breast-pocket the blue enamelled case in which reposed his ivory tablets, and, seating himsell upon the chain-box, wrote down with golden pencil the dictum of the sage.
Notwithstanding the storm of yesterday, from which the discontented foreboded a stampede of the fish to deeper waters, porgies to an extraordinary amount were soon heaped on the decks, at the feet of each fisherman, the more Careful of whom put them into baskets or barrels. But in general they were thrown carelessly on the deck, with a string passed through their gills to keep them from straying out of their proper lots. When these bright fishes are lying on the deck, it is curious to watch them flushing and gasping there, with that singular, dubious expression of mouth peculiar to fishes out of water, as if more struck by the absence of that element than by their novel position among the accessories of dry life. Now and then a blackfish was hauled in, — an event greeted with a loud cheer from all parts of the boat. When a very large one was announced, people came rushing from all quarters to see it; but the greatest tribute to largeness in a fish that I remember anywhere to have seen was the altered expression on the face of a baby some six months old, whose features settled permanently down into the collapse of imbecility, from the moment of the arrival on the upper deck of a blackfish two feet long.
By this time the scene on the forecastle was quite a picture of the Dutch school. Grouped everywhere among the fish and fishers were matronly women and unbonneted damsels, most of them with handkerchiefs tied upon their heads; for they had got over their sea-sickness, now, and were coming by twos and threes from the saloon, to breathe a little fresh air and look on at the sport. One pretty, Jewish-looking girl, wrapped in a red and white shawl, was sitting on the big anchor near the bows, and three or four others looked quite picturesque, as they reclined on the heavy coils of the great cable. More central to the picture than was at all advantageous to it sat our friend Raw Material, with his head jammed recklessly into the capstan, abandoning himself to his misery. For the inevitable malady had fallen upon him among the first; and as he sat there, helpless and without hope, upon one of those life-preserving stools that remind one, by their shape, of the “ properties ” of Saturn in the mythology of old, he looked like Languor on an hour-glass, timing the duration of Woe. All along the bulwarks’ on both sides of the boat, men and boys were crowding upon each other, casting out and hauling in their lines with unflagging spirit. Slim city-children, blistered wholesomely as to their legs, from knee to ankle, by the sun and the salt air, harnessed themselves to little heaps of fish, and were driven about the upper deck in various fashionable styles, including four-in-hand and tandem, by other slim city-children, whose lower extremities had been treated in the same beneficial manner by the same eminent physicians. The musicians had laid away their cornopeans and other cunningly twisted horns upon the broad disk of the big drum, in a dark alcove betwoendecks, and were fishing savagely in German and broken English, according to the nationality with which their affairs happened to get entangled. Even the colored chef de cuisine, a muscular mulatto, with a beard of a rash disposition, coming out on wrong parts of his face in little eruptive pustules of black wool, sported his lines out of the galley-airholes, and his porgies were simmering in the pan while their memories were yet green in the submarine parishes from which they came. Have these finny creatures their full revenge upon fishermankind, when a smack sinks foundered into the swallowing deep? Do the midnight revellers in the sea-caverns call out in broad Scuppaug to the attendant mermaid for a “half-dozen large-sized jolterheads on the half monkey-jacket ? ” To these queries I hope that Poetical Justice, if still living, will forward a reply at her earliest convenience, Porgy now began to pervade the air with an astringent perfume of the sea: none of your Fulton Market smells of stagnating fish, but a clean, wholesome, coralline odor, such as we may imagine supplied to the Peris “ beneath the dark sea ” by the scaly follows in the toilet line down there, who are likely to keep it for sale in conch-shells,— quarts and pints. Porgy prevailed to that extent, in fact, that it came to be talked of, by-amd-by, as a circulating medium; and a hard-fisted mechanic averred his intention of compensating his landlady for his board with porgy, for the week that was passing away.
For some time, luck appeared to favor the starboard side of the boat, at which the take was much greater than at the other. Hence, discontent began to crawl in at the port-gangways, and the fishermen on that side were gradually edging over to the other, to look for a chance of stealing in their lines clandestinely between the ranks. This led to an interchange of bad compliments, as well as to a very perceptible slanting of the deck, and the captain piped out to the hands to shift the chain-box. And by this action was resolved for me a riddle with regard to the properties and uses of a prematurely stout man of fabulous girth, who had been dimly revealed to me, once or twice in the course of the voyage, through some long vista of the ‘tweendecks, but seemed always to melt into air, — or, more probably, oil,—upon any advance being made to a closer inspection. Now, as a couple of the deck-hands hauled and howled unsuccessfully at the unwieldy chain-box, this mysterious person suddenly appeared, as if spirited up, and, throwing himself stomach on to the loaded vehicle, shot across with it to the other side of the deck with wonderful velocity, retiring, then, with a gliding movement, so as to preserve, the rectitude of the deck, which now seemed inclined to slope rather too much the other way. I will not undertake to say, for certain, that the stout man was paid for doing this; but, as his hands were small and remarkably white, indications that he toiled not with them, and as he made his appearance on deck only when movable ballast was wanted, I am bound to suppose that he secured a living by sitting heavily and throwing himself on for weight, in circumstances under which such actions command a standard value.
Three hours having gone by since we came to anchor, the healthful toil of fishing in the salt sea produced its natural result, —a ravenous appetite for food and drink; and a common consent to partake of refreshments now began to develop itself. The wives had much to do with this, as they detailed themselves along the railings, influencing their husbands with hints about the hamper and flash. For most of the family-people had brought their provisions with them ; and, in many cases, the basket was flanked by a stone jar which looked as if it might contain lager-beer,— as, in several instances, it did. Where there were many small children in a party, however, I noticed that the beverage obtained from the jar was milk,—real Orange County cow-produce, let us hope, and none of that sickly town-abomination, the vending of which ought to be made by our legislators a felony, at least. Ham-sandwiches, greatly enhanced in flavor by the circumstance of their outer surfaces being impressed with a reverse of yesterday’s news, from the contact of the pieces of newspaper in which they were wrapped up, formed the staple of the feast. Large bowls of the various seasonable berries were also in request; and all the shady places of the ship were soon occupied by families, who distributed themselves in independent groups, as people do in the sylvan localities dedicated to picnics. All were hungry and happy, all better in mind and body,— illustrating the wise providence of the instinct that whispers to the over-wrought artisan and bids him go sometimes forth on a summer’s day to the woods and waters,
— a move which the marine character of the subject impels me to speak of nautically, but reverently, as taking himself and family into the graving-dock of Nature, for the necessary repairs.
Some of the girls now stole slyly about among the lines, and popped the baits timidly into the blue water. The pale seamstress, who has quite a rose-flush on her cheek now, has hooked a good-sized porgy, and her screams in this terrible predicament have brought several smart young men to her rescue. Another girl, pretty and well-dressed, — in the glovemaking line, as I guess from the family she is with, all of whom, from paterfamilias to baby, are begloved in a manner entirely irrespective of expense,—is kneeling pensively on the stern-benches of the upper deck, paying out the line with confidence in herself, but evidently hoping for masculine assistance in the process of hauling it in.
And where were our dear friends, the roughs, all this time ? and how came it that they were so quiet ? They have been asleep,— snoring off the effects of last night’s diversions, and fortifying their constitutions against the influences to come. Ever since the music ceased playing, these fellows have been rolled away, singly or in heaps, in crooked corners, into which they seem to fit naturally. But now they began to rally, waking up and stretching themselves and yawning,— the last two actions appealing to be the leading operations of a rowdy’s toilet ; and, gathering round Lobster Bob, who has been steadily employed in opening oysters for all who have a midsummer faith in those mollusks, they commenced rapidly swallowing great quantities of the various kinds, which they seasoned to an alarming extent with coarse black pepper and brownish salt. The fierce thirst, which, with these men, is not a consequence, because it is a thing that was and is and ever will be, was brought vividly to their minds by this unnecessary adstimulation ; and now the bar-keeper, whose lager-beer was wellnigh exhausted, from its connection with hamsandwiches, had enough to do to furnish them with whiskey, of which stimulant there was but too large a supply on hand. The consequence of this was soon apparent in the ugly hilarity with which the rowdies entered upon the enjoyment of the afternoon. First, in spite of the remonstrances of the Teuton whose proper chattel it was, they seized upon the large drum, with which they made an astounding din in the public promenades of the vessel, abetted, I am sorry to say, by some who ought to have known better, — and did, probably, before the whiskey had curdled their wits. In this proceeding, as in all their movements, they were marshalled by Flashy Joe, whose comparatively spruce appearance, when he came on board in the morning, had been a good deal deteriorated by broken slumbers in places not remote from coals, and by the subsequent course of drinks. Quiet people were beginning to express some dissatisfaction with the noise made by these fellows, who, however, kept pretty much by themselves, as yet, and had got only to the musical stage of the proceedings, chorusing with unearthly yells a song contributed to the harmony of the afternoon by the first ruffian, the burden of which ran, —
When this old hat was ny-oo-ooo ! ”
No voice in this chorus dwelt more decidedly by itself than the shrill one belonging to the small, spare man already spoken of as having a buxom young wife and blue cotton overalls. During his wife’s adjournment to the ladies’ cabin, this person, I am obliged to record, had become boisterously drunk, — a condition in which the contradictory elements that make up the characters of most men are generally developed to an instructive extent. In his first paroxysm, the fighting man within him was all aroused, as is generally the case with diminutive men, when under the influence of drink. Already he had tucked his sleeves up to flight a large German musician, who could have put him into the bell of his brasshorn and played him out. without much trouble. But the song pacified him ; and, with a misty sense of his importance in a convivial point of view, on account of the manner in which he had acquitted himself in the chorus, he now essayed a higher flight, and treated the party to a new version of “ The Pope,” oddly condensed into one verse, as follows : —
He fears no married care nor strife,
His wives are many as he will:
I would the Sultan’s place, then, fill! ”
At this moment the buxom young wife descended suddenly from the upper deck by the forecast-ledadder, like Nemesis from a thunder-cloud, and, seizing upon the small warbler, to whom she administered a preliminary shake which must have sadly changed the current of his ideas, drove him ignominiously before her toward the Stern of the vessel, rapping him occasionally about the ears with the hard end of her fan, to keep him on a straight course. Persons who traced the matter farther said that he was driven all the way to the upper deck, pushed with gentle violence into a state-room, the door locked upon him, and the key pocketed by the lady, who said triumphantly, as she walked away,—“That’s the Sultan’s place for him, I guess!” The moral to this little episode is but a horn-book one, and without any pretension to didactic force: That respectable citizens, like the small, spare man, would do well, on excursion-trips or elsewhere, to avoid whiskey and blackguards; and that wives might be saved a deal of trouble by keeping their eyes permanently on their husbands, when the latter are of uncertain ways.
This little domestic drama had hardly been played out, when a more serious one — almost a tragedy —was enacted on the forecastle. It originated in the misconduct of the red man, who, seized with a desire to catch porgies, went a short way to work for tackle, by snatching away the line of a peaceable, but stout Frenchman, who was paralyzed for a moment by the novelty of the thing, but, immediately recovering himself, expressed his dissent by smashing an earthen-ware dish, containing a great mess of raw clams for bait, upon the head of the red man, as he stooped over the railing to fish. This led to a general fight, in which blood flowed freely, and the roughs were getting rather the upperhand. Knives were drawn by some of the Germans and others in self-defence, and great consternation reigned in the afterpart of the boat and the neighborhood of the ladies’ cabin. Then the slim captain of the boat — the one in the black dress-coat — hurriedly whispered something to Lobster Bob, who rushed away alt, where the fight was now agglomerating, headed by the red man and Flashy Joe, both covered with blood, and looking like demons, as they wrestled and bit through the crowd. Just as they hustled past a large chest intended for the stowage of life-preservers, Lobster Bob kicked the lid of it open with a bang, and, seizing up the red man, neck and crop, with his huge, tattooed hands, dropped him into it and shutdown the lid, which was promptly sat upon by the large, stout, smiling man already favorably spoken of in these pages, who suddenly made his appearance from nowhere in particular. The picture of contentment, he sat there like one who knew how, caressing slowly his large knees with his short, plump hands, until the cries from the chest began to wax feeble, when he slowly arose, vanished, and I never saw him again. The red rowdy was then dragged, half-suffocated, from his imprisonment, and as much life as he ought ever to be intrusted with restored to him by the stout old skipper, who was at hand with a couple of buckets full of cold salt-water, with which he drenched him liberally, as he slunk away. A diversion thus effected, the disturbance was quelled. All was quiet in a short time, and the word was passed to heave the anchor and ’bout ship for home.
On the way back, we took a pleasant course inside the Hook, which brought the charming scenery of the Jersey shore and of Staten Island before us, as a pleasant drop-curtain on the melodrama just closed. The music again struck up, and dancing was resumed with fresh vigor,— the waltzing of all other couples being quite eclipsed by that of Young New York and little Straw-Goods, who had effectually got rid of her tipsy persecutor ever since the ground-swell, and was keeping rather in the background of late, with a sober-minded lady whom she called “ aunty.” With the exception of the few who took to whiskey and bad company, all appeared contented, and the better for their sea-holiday. The very musicians played with greater spirit than they did before, Owing, perhaps, to their remarkable success in the porgyfishery. One of the horn-players, far too knowing to let his fish out of sight, has propped his music-book up against a pyramid of them, as upon a desk. The good-looking man who plays upon, the double-bass is equally prudent with regard to his trophies, which he has hung up around the post on which is pinned the score to which he looks for directions when it becomes necessary to bind together with string-music the pensive interchanges of the sax-horn and bassoon.
And now, as our vessel neared the wharf from which we had started while the sun was yet in the east, I looked forward to see what signs of the times were astir on the forecastle. All had deserted it, and were tending aft, with their tackle, their fish, and their prog-baskets, — all, at least, except Raw Material, of whom we enjoyed now an uninterrupted view, as he sat in his old position, with his head jammed obstinately into the capstan. But how was this ? — he was round at the opposite side of it now; and I puzzled myself for a moment, thinking whether this change of bearings could be accounted for by the fact of the boat being headed the other way.
But Young New York, who is far more nautical than I am, and has a big brother in one of the yacht-clubs, derided the idea, and said he must have gone round with the handspikes, when the anchor was hove.
And there he remained, as we went our way, — a modern Spartan slave in a kind of marine pillory, — conveying to the red-legged children of Gotham, as they toddled ashore, a useful lesson on the doubtful relations existing between whiskey and pleasure.