The Sponge-Spoilers

W’en Gawd get tired he mek sponge-t’ief.

I

EPHRAIM yawned sleepily and spread stalwart arms heavenward, twisting the muscles of his black body until they swelled against his ragged undershirt. He bent over the gunwale of the schooner and swashed the crisp, cool sea-water into his face. A rub with his dirty sleeve, and a gulp of dark brackish liquid from the butt lashed to the mainmast, completed his toilet.

He selected a staff from among a dozen lying on the deck, a long slender pole, so supple that its own weight bent it perilously, and examined the two-pronged hook attached to one end. Having done this he grunted his approval, then cast the pole noisily upon a dingy that lay nuzzling the larger boat. Next he secured a water-glass, and after transferring it gently to the thwart of the dingy, untied the painter from the boat-ring to which it was fastened and, holding the rope in one hand, moved to the hatchway.

‘ Prins Arter!’ His hoarse bass swelled out on the morning air like a bassoon. ‘Prins Arter, dey clean! Skin yer 1 eyes an’ git de oo’s.’2

A thin, disjointed boy in loose flapping garments peeped timidly from the open hatch.

‘Dey clean fer true,’ he mumbled, urging himself over the rails. ‘Gawd, I’se cole.’

He shivered as he exposed his body to the morning air, and stood irresolute for a moment. Then he tied the loose, torn sleeves of his over-sized jacket into firm knots, bandaged his gargantuan pantaloons around him, with some ravelings of tow, and fumbled dejectedly for an oar. From a scattered pile he fished out one that was brokenbladed, short-handled and stock-worn, and viewed it reproachfully.

‘Tell yer fer git new oo’s. Dis one ain’ no use ’tall ’tall,’ he whined, sidling meanwhile toward the skiff which Ephraim still held up to the vessel’s side.

‘ New oo’s! ’ echoed Ephraim. ‘ What fer new oo’s w’en roller 3 only sellin’ fer t’ree cent bead? Umph— Can’t buy grub, much less oo’s.’

He gave the rope an impatient tug as though to emphasize his remarks.

‘You rub,’ he added when the boy had limped in.

‘Won’ rub much longer,’ whispered the sculler under his breath, slipping the stock in the sculling-crease and deftly spinning the blade, whereupon the boat pushed along, making curving furrows in the calm sea as evenly as a child’s finger might, when drawn through dry sand.

The ‘Mud’ is a wide shallow, locked in by cays and islands of the Bahama group; a marine lake with many paths and gateways leading to the ocean. It gained its name from its soundings, which are composed of a fine milky dust or marl. On this sponge thrives. Inexhaustible gardens of sponge stretch along its bottom, just within reach of the pronged staff; though it is scarcely correct to speak of gardens, since sponge is a low form of animal life.

The ‘Mud’ is seldom vexed by tempests, but this morning it was more calm than usual. It was like a titanic canvas flushed evenly and firmly by the sun, just appearing in the sky. In the very centre of the suffusion moved the little boat.

When the schooner was well astern, and the low cay near which she was moored had dwindled to a thin line, Ephraim stationed himself in the bows of the skiff and, crouching there, submerged the water-glass a few inches beneath the tide. The staff he held with one end on the gunwale, its loose lithe length quivering out over the water, like a living creature impatient for its prey.

Meanwhile, the sponger himself, every muscle set, peered intently through the glass, watching the gray gravel beneath. The abyss teemed with life. Furcated sea-rods as soft as silk yet as strong as wire, sea-fans unfolding gorgeous fantasies in purple and bronze and cardinal and ochre, conches with glistering armor tinted in pearl and amaranth, marine flowers, mosses and ferns, delicate transparent fishes with opalescent scales and slender bodies, all were there, but Ephraim saw none of them. It was a black elfish face that beckoned him on, and each sponge hoisted with toil and sweating lessened the distance between him and his heart’s desire. It was not that the image ever before him was altogether a comforting one. It was not. There was little in common between him and the girl whom he loved, but he pinned his faith to that which had given comfort to many another in his predicament. Play and sing and dance he could not, but he was a careful worker and ho could provide. There would be no want and wretchedness if she should give her consent.

Ephraim’s bleared eyes watered with the fierceness of his gaze, as he looked straight down into the water, never for a second winking or turning to the left or the right.

‘H’m-m,’ he grunted, and the rhythm of the oar ceased.

‘Pull to yer,’ — His voice became a whisper as if afraid lest it might frighten some unwary prey.

‘So’ — The hand holding the pole grew rigid as the fathoms of pine slipped into the sea. A tense moment passed, and then he gave a dexterous twist of his powerful wrist. The pole spun around swiftly, and became motionless. The sponger rested the waterglass on the thwart and hauled up the dripping mass which he had wrenched from its home in the soft marl. He shook it off, and it fell with a splash of dark liquid to the bottom of the boat. The mannikin in the stern laughed shrilly.

Ephraim resumed his pose, and once more the boat wound its slow way through the slough of the tide. Again and again as the morning wore on, did he peer into the depths, locate his prey, and then drive at it with his slender hook.

The sun streamed down in tropical fury, the atmosphere grew dense and fevered, the water of the shut-in ‘Mud’ ’ warmed and gave out a sickening scent, while the dying sponges made breathing a torture.

The last captured sponge had had an unusual history. Released from its mother, it had floated out with the undertow, feeling for a foothold, and had at last drifted upon a young conch. Its gelatinous feelers had fastened on the cusp and had clung there. Thus anchored, the sponge grew merrily, careless of the discomfiture that it caused its rescuer. Day by day it had increased in size, until the weary conch, seeking to be rid of its burden, had dug deep in the mud. Nature teaches these mollus ks to clean their shells in that way. This, however, was precisely what the sponge desired, for once rooted in the mud with such a burden on its back, the conch could rise no more, and so, buried alive in the grave which it had dug for itself, it perished miserably.

There was deep tragedy in the event; it was the old battle for existence fought out through countless centuries in the field, the mart, the temple, and on the sea; even the ‘Mud’ could not escape it. Under the surface of the stream there were others who felt the burden of living.

A conch with its spade-shaped operculum had dug out from the abounding slime a dainty sea-worm, and was devouring it with relish and satisfaction. A splendid overflowing of purple and saffron tentacles smothered the insect, and slowly sucked it into a viscid maw; but before the gorging was ended,a conch-killer had crept out from a jungle of moss and sea-rod, lifted the bulk of the conch sidewise, and thrust his venomed spear deep into its body. The conch tried to retreat to the cover of its shell, but the spear had transfixed it utterly. The struggle was brief but decisive, and the victorious conch-killer battened voraciously on his victim, all unheeding of the judgment hanging over, for with his spongehook Ephraim lifted victor and vanquished to one death between the footlings of the boat.

‘Good ’nuff fer youna,’ grinned Ephraim, as he slammed them from his hook. ‘ Good ’nuff fer youna, youna lay dere till dinner-time.’

The impish sculler giggled approval of the capture as he turned again to his task.

The mound in the boat steadily increased, and she sank deeper and deeper into the water. The shadow of the squirming figure in the stern was twisted into grotesque shapes on the surface of the sea as he strove to keep headway against the set of the tide, but still Ephraim persisted in his quest. The lead was a good one, and the rollers easy to find; not until the sun had dropped well in the west did he throw his staff from him. As it clattered on the gunwale, he rested the glass on the slimy cargo and sat up dizzily, wiping his horny hands over his face. The oarsman paused in his strokes, and the cockle broad-sided to the current.

‘Gawd, I’se tired ! ’

His gaunt arms quivered wit h pain as he pressed them against his emaciated flanks, his fingers cramped like claws from handling the oar. His hungry eyes stared weakly across the watery wilderness, searching for the schooner. Too weary for words, Ephraim answered the look with a wave of his hand, indicating a northerly direction.

‘Six mile we come,’ wailed the lad. ‘Gawd, how we’s goin’ git back?’

‘Scull, man,’ broke out Ephraim fiercely.

His vitals were gnawing at him now; over there toward the north, miles away, were food and rest.

‘Scull, yer lazy sponge-t’ief, scull!’ he cried.

The rickety boy made a despairing gesture. Every bone of his lank frame protested against the outrage; but he clinched the oar and put the boat’s head toward the north. Then silence fell around them, broken only by the weak crepitation of the oar winding in and about the sculling crease, as the boat sagged along homeward through the lagoon.

II

‘Was dem?’

The mate’s huge mouth widened in wonder as the deep-laden craft drew up beside the schooner.

‘ Rollers, all on’ em,’ grunted Ephraim wearily.

‘Gwan, doan’ talk fool. What mans ever ketch boat-load roller one day?’

He leaned over the vessel’s side and caught up one of the viscous spheres. He soused it in a barrel of water, squeezed it dry, and beat it against the gunwale until a rent in its slimy coating showed the soft bones beneath. His face changed its expression of contempt for one of intense interest. Ephraim guffawed contently.

‘Wha’ say now?’ he asked.

The mate scratched his fuzzy eyebrows with a dirty forefinger. ‘ I doan ' know w’ere dey come from, dey mus’ er jist enkiver demself for yer. Dey is sure rollers.’

Ephraim chuckled again. ‘Doan’ put me ’mong dose lazy sponger who jist play ’roun’ dc vessel till grub time. I wuks, me.’

He dug his bare arms to the elbows into the filthy mass, and began tossing the sponges to the deck.

‘ Clean up dat boat,’ he commanded, when the task was done.

He threw a ragged sponge to Prince Arthur in the stern, and the boy began scrubbing the footlings and sopping the muddy bilge.

The caboose of the ‘Outward Go’ was a huge box filled with bay sand, on which were several large stones to support the pots. To-night a cheery flame winked and fluttered around a large Dutch oven wherein an unhealthylooking liquid was bubbling furiously, ever and again tossing to the surface brown fragments of some substance that was as uninviting in appearance as the broth. It was a conch stew. A thick journey cake4 leaned against one wall of the caboose, and scattered about were tin plates and spoons dripping from a recent bath.

The haggard imp cleaning the boat regarded it all with solemn longing.

‘Gawd, I’se hongry! ’ he whimpered, wringing the filth-laden sponge over the boat-side. He searched his shallow mind for some more forcible expression, but failed to find any.

‘Gawd, I’se hongry! ’ he repeated, and turned again to his task.

However remote from luxury, it yet was easeful to lie prone on the deck, face down over a steaming pannikin of stew, with a slab of dingy cake beside it, and to gulp in the hot brew, using meanwhile powerful grinders to macerate the tough fibres of the conch meat. It was refreshing to swallow tin after tin of smoking coffee, and then cool off with a torrent of water.

But the supreme moment of bliss for the sponger came when he dislodged his pipe from its own particular cranny, rammed into its grimy bowl the precious weed reeking with molasses, and applied the glowing coal.

Ephraim stretched himself until his joints cracked, then, pillowing his head on a coil of rope, indulged in what daydreams his slow-moving fancy might conjure up. Work was done, repose was his, the faithfulness of nature he never doubted.

‘Did yer see any sail?’

It was the mate who broke into his content.

‘Nary one,’ replied Ephraim, between his puffs. ‘Nary one. Wha’ fer any sail ’bout now, in dis kyam — only t’ief —’

' Das funny,’ returned the questioner, settling his head on a pile of firewood. ‘Jerry been here ter-day, an he say he see strange sail dat way.’

He swung his hand toward a group of low cays in the distance.

‘Who Jerry?’ mumbled Ephraim, covering his pipe-bowl with his finger to increase the draught. ‘Yer doan’ mean liar Jerry Dean, does yer?’

The mate pushed a stray sponge aside with his free foot.

‘Pshaw, doan’ b’lieb him,’ said Ephraim. ‘Jerry up ter somet’in’. Wha’ he want?’

‘Spongin’.’

‘Spongin’!’ repeated Ephraim in quick contempt. ‘ Who ebber see Jerry sponge? Lazy t’ing! Gawd hear me, if I wus wuthless as Jerry I’d er drownded myself, please Gawd I would.’

‘He say he sine on Early Bird,’ declared the mate. ‘She down to Mate Cay.’

‘Jerry skull from Mate Cay here?’ Ephraim laughed and spat.

‘Jerry ain’t scullin’, he hookin’,’ exclaimed the captain.

‘Doan’ talk fool, cap’. Jerry hooker? Mans mus’ be scarce.’

Ephraim laughed capaciously at the humor of the thought.

‘We ought to break groun’ Mondee, please Gawd’— The mate changed the subject, raising his voice a little.

‘I’se ready. My crawl mos’ full, an’ dis yer,’ Ephraim kicked toward the dying sponges, ‘will ’bout full er up. I’se ready.’

But the rest of the crew who had been lying around silently, smoking, rose in hoarse protest.

‘Ephraim Rolle, you bin lucky, but we’s had it tough enough.’

A tall, thin Abaconian spoke in a quarrelsome tone. ‘You say break groun’ — humph — yer crawl full, enty, an’ we, wha’ we fer do, we who don’ make one boatload dis v’y’ge, an’ den onlee grass sponge? I clunno war yer hook so much roller from.’

‘Cause good reason why, w’en youna jes’ play wid y er wuk. Ast Prins Arter war we been ter-day, an’ ebry day. Gawd heah me, six mile an’ not er faddom less, eh, Prins?’

The boy, who had coiled up his lank bones in the bows, raised a scraggy neck to a level with the hatch.

‘Six mile, sixty mile; Lawd, I’se mos’ dead!’

He sank back exhausted and shut his eyes.

‘An’ I hooks, me,’ boasted Ephraim complacently. ‘I hooks, an’ I hooks, youna hear me. I don’ carry no pipe wid me, an’ no rum wid me, an’ no grub wid me. I wuks, me.’

‘Yer a disgrateful mans,’ admonished a stocky Exumean, who had been fighting with a refractory tube. ‘Yer is a disgrateful mans, Ephraim Rolle. Gawd gin’ yer tier roller, an’ you boas’ ’bout yerse’f. You disgrateful.’

’But I wuks,’ defended Ephraim.

‘An’ we all wuks,’ shouted the Abaconian. We all is mans, an’ we all an us wnks. You is lucky, das it.’

‘Lucky?' questioned the Exumean reprovingly. ‘He am bless, das it. An’ Gawd hear me, if he drink his rum art’ percolate wid de street gal, Gawd will struck him.’

But Ephraim came in on the clamor with the word of command that they should break ground on Monday, and the grumblers, with half-empty crawls, protested and argued to no purpose.

‘ ’Tain’ work,’ bewailed a disaffected sponger. ‘ Tain’ work an’ fait’ful ’tall ’tall.’

‘ Was ’t is den ? ’ queried the moralist.

‘ ’T is ’ooman, ’pen’ ’pun it, ’t is ’ooman, an’ ’tain’ no use fer yer to dictate dat.’

’He wan’ we fer punish. Fer why? ’Cas ’ee wan’ gin Titie cloes an’ t’ings, but he bes’ mind Nego. Nego got dat girl fool, an’ fer all Ephum wuk, an’ fait’ful, Nego goin’ larf at him yit, please Gawd.’

With this dismal prophecy the speaker proceeded to dig in the dying caboose fire for a coal.

Finally, however, order was restored, and the sponger’s good humor soon returned. When night fell, every man was eager for Monday and the run to town.

The next morning, the overloaded dingy managed by Ephraim was conspicuous among the tiny fleet that zigzagged to the crawls. Rows of wattled suares lay along the soft muddy reaches of a sandy cay, the spaces between the wattles allowing the tide free entrance, and the dead matter room to wash away.

In these pens the sponges were dumped until their thin outside layer of flesh had rotted, when, armed with stout wooden beaters, the spongers entered and bruised and banged the dead meat out of the pores, until only the skeleton was left, clean and fit for market.

With the instinct that serves bee and bird so well, Ephraim pushed his boat straight to the crawl that was his. It was nearly full of sponges in all stages of decomposition, and the tide as it flowed out was discolored with the unhealthy wash that oozed through the wattle fence. He looked down into the pit with swelling pride. Every specimen told of labor and hardship and skill. Every sphere meant food and comfort.

‘Broke groun’ Mondee, eh,’ he muttered. ‘Who’s a carin’? Not me.’

He began tossing his cargo into the crawl, pressing it down with his feet.

‘Sundee, me and Prins’ will gin ’em a shake out.’

He examined the beaters tied to the wattles. They were worn and ragged. He poled to the weed-strewn beach, disturbing a flock of noisy snipe that were dominating a tiny promontory near by. From a mastic he hewed a tough limb, and with infinite patience fashioned the snappy wood into new beaters with his short sheath-knife. The one which he meant to use, ho nicked deeply.

He poled back again and lashed the beaters firmly to the fence. Then he surveyed his work. He felt a complacent satisfaction in his success. The mildewed spheres filled the crawl, and their sobbing and sucking in the tide was as sweet music to his ears.

He lighted his pipe and lay in the stern of his boat, from which point of vantage he watched his neighbors. At varying distances, they too were busy. Some cursed and quarreled over their work; some sang and played in the water like children; but all were engaged in getting their catches ready for the beating.

Ephraim smiled in vast content. They were so foolish, the rest of them. They never ‘wuk’d right,’ they were always in trouble, while he — his crawl was full. His work was over for that voyage, and the biggest space in the ‘ ’tween decks ’ must be his to stow his cargo.

One by one the spongers drifted away, to fish along the reefs or to gather firewood for the run home. But Ephraim still rested, while the broiling sun beat down upon the low marshy cays and the air grew still more rank.

Suddenly he shaded his eyes with his hands and sat up straight. He gazed long and fiercely into the distance, where a whitish cloud-like blur moved slowly along. Only an eye practiced in sea-craft could have detected the sail of a vessel in that dim blot.

Under ordinary circumstances a sail on the ‘Mud’ is a common sight, but a sail with this June calm on was a different matter — it could mean only a stranger, or a —

Ephraim caught his breath with a hard gasp as he called to mind the captain’s statement about Jerry Dean.

His nimble hand flared the oar, and his boat bounded toward the distant craft. Almost immediately he lost sight of her, for there were faint catspaws that her light draught could use, and she was a long way off. After an hour’s chase Ephraim turned back in disgust, not tired but disheartened. A sense of impending misfortune, for the moment, weighed him down.

Sunday observance is strictly enforced on the ‘ Mud.’ The sponger’s outfit is never complete without a Pure Gold or Songs of the Sanctuary hymnal, and it is the delight of the sponger to employ his Sunday leisure in vociferous expression of his favorite tunes. Ephraim alone showed no desire to join the others in their devotions, and in vain the crew remonstrated with him for his Sunday labor.

‘Goin’ to beat sponge on ’de Sabbat! Ephraim Rolle, I’se shamed an yer an’ you a member ob class an’ cap’n dis craf ’ too!’

‘Sho’ ef yer crawl is full, dere’s cause for t’ankfulness,’ warned the Exumean; ‘’stead er wukin’, yer sh’u’d be praisin’ de Lawd. You ’se disgrateful, Ephraim RoIIe.’

Popular sentiment ran high against him, but still he persisted. He routed out Prince Arthur, and together they moved slowly over the water to the crawls, while sacred songs rose from the schooner lying idly at anchor.

Sprawled over the deck in every conceivable attitude, the swarthy crew, each provided with a hymn book, rendered praises that were more strenuous than reverent. Their wide nostrils grew wider, their huge mouths were distended to their utmost capacity, while their thick red tongues moved clamorously over the rhythmic numbers of ‘Whiter than Snow’ and ‘The Pearly Gates.’

The decks were untidy with sponge, rotting in the sun, and with stones, water-glasses, firewood, and bits of wearing apparel. The men themselves would have been benefited by a plunge into the water beneath them, but the inexorable code of a law which they but faintly comprehended, and which they violated on other days, held them to their hymnals.

III

When Ephraim awoke on Monday morning, it was later than usual. He gazed in dismay at the climbing orb whose slanting rays illuminated the ‘Mud.’ He shook Prince Arthur from his sleep with an ungentle hand, and tumbled him into the dingy with scant feeling; and Prince, still half asleep, sculled automatically toward the crawl.

Ephraim stretched himself, alternately loosing and flexing his muscles, preparatory to a hard day’s work. He was jubilant this morning, after his first burst of ill humor over his tardiness in starting.

The air was wonderfully fresh and invigorating. Above the low stretches of marshland a golden haze lay, broken here and there by fervid growths. The water, as it shallowed to the shore, shone splendidly clear, and the rocks, as the swell of the tide covered them, gave out a faint music that delighted the eager toiler who was advancing toward them.

‘Prins’,’ he said ‘der beater wid da nick is mines. Your’n is da small en.’

The crawls were in sight now, and his blood leapt in his veins as he thought of his full catch. He began to loosen his clothes, and in a few moments slipped them off and plunged into the sea. Prince was more simple in his methods. He tumbled in as he was. Grabbing the boat between them, the man and the boy moored it to the stern of a wild mangrove, and clasped the sticks of the crawl.

At first Ephraim could not comprehend. He fell over the points of the wattles and slashed the water with a fierce hand like a crazed man. Prince Arthur stared stupidly. His one expression failed him as he watched the lonely little roller that ducked and slid and tossed at the bottom like a live thing.

Speechless rage filled Ephraim’s face and he leaned his big bulk against the wattles until they bent with his weight. At last he found his tongue.

‘Prins’, Prins’,’ he shouted, as if his partner were half a mile away, ‘ Prins’, my Lawd — de sponge gone.’

And Prince made answer, ‘ Gawd, I’se sorry.’

Life is the same everywhere.

Ephraim had woven and spun and dug, had toiled and suffered, and he who had neither woven nor spun had entered into his toil. Ephraim was a cog in the machinery of fate, t hat is all, an unconscious and unwilling exponent of a universal law.

Suddenly Prince pointed toward the horizon.

‘Look-er—look-er,’ he yelled in his shrill treble. ‘ Look-er.’

A sail, dim on the edge of the world, was creeping down and out of it. Ephraim was lashed to fury. Erect, blatant, like some sable demon charged with vengeance, he menaced the far-off vision.

‘T’ief!’ he bellowed. ‘T’ief, damn t’ief!’

  1. The Bahama darkies say ‘you’ and ‘yer’ for the singular, interchangeably; ‘youna’ or ' yinna ’ for the plural.
  2. ‘ Oo’s ’ means Oars.
  3. Roller : fine-grade sponge.
  4. In the United States known as johnny cake.