The Sea Boy
IN the narrow space of the ship’s after deckhouse were four bunks, two fore and aft and two athwartships. In front of the lower fore-and-aft bunk, on the deck, was a wooden sea chest, its top slightly smaller than its base, with grummets spliced into cleats on each end. Into the lower bunk, and partly on top of the chest, some articles of clothing had been carelessly thrown: a pair of rubber boots, a heavy reefer jacket, blue cloth trousers, a pair of thick woolen socks, and a heavy blue muffler.
On the outboard bulkhead hung a narrow, hinged table, held up when in use by two triangular wooden legs that swung inward from the bulkhead. On the edges of this board were polished hardwood rims to prevent the dishes from sliding off in heavy weather. A suit of yellow oilskins and a sou’wester hung from a hook in the uprights supporting the after end of the bunks. A paraffin lamp with a clean globe, faintly glowing, hung in gimbals fixed to the bulkhead.
In the upper fore-and-aft bunk a young boy was sleeping the profound sleep of the sailor in heavy weather. Judging by the motions of things in the room, the movement of the ship was unbelievably violent, yet the boy’s sleep was not disturbed. As she rolled to starboard his head and body sagged sidewise, inert and flaccid; when she lifted to the urge of the seas he sank and flattened into the mattress. In her abysmal drop to the trough, as swift as a falling stone, he seemed for a brief instant to float, untroubled and unconcerned, between bed and blankets.
The suit of oilskins on the hook, capped by the steadier sou’wester, contrived a riot of fantastic motion, weird and surpassingly idiotic, in the dim glow of the lamp. The legs of the pants swung forward together, then flew apart; the arms of the coat waved helplessly, in flapping movements like gestures of hopeless resignation; the whole suit with all its limbs outspread swung wildly in a sweeping curve, then arms and legs collapsed and fell against the upright beam with a soft slap. It squirmed against the steel support, like a yellow scarecrow hanged by the neck and dying.
The lamp moved with ease and dignity. Having been designed and constructed for this sort of thing, it remained erect and efficient, bathed in its own halo, unaffected by the labored distress of the ship, which might heave and plunge to her heart’s content without endangering its expert balance. There seemed a sort of magic about it, the appearance of a quaintly useful conjuring trick which man has played against the rage of the sea.
The sea chest was solid, with joints carefully closed to make it water-tight. Its rope grummets were lashed with stout cords to the uprights at the head and foot of the bunks, which at first had been drawn taut to allow no play whatever. But the wetness and the violence of the ship’s motion had loosened the lashings. When she rolled to starboard the chest slid smoothly an inch or so till stopped by the tautened grummets. As she rolled to port it came back against the lower bunk with a gentle thud.
The table was almost barred from this fellowship of motion. Held rigid at the hinges by the unyielding bulkhead, its flap fastened on the underside with a brass hook, it appeared securely gripped. But even so it moved a little. Within the eyebolt, where the hook fitted, there was just a mite of play, and with each movement to starboard or to port the flap took up this play with a steady, almost clocklike click.
It was a marvel how the tanned, fair-haired boy in the bunk could have sunk from this bedlam into the quiet stillness of sleep. The sounds within were subdued, recurrent, intimate, the voices of familiar things, friendly and useful. But the clamor on the deck outside was the outcry of an alien world, torn by the struggle among those ancient antagonists, a roaring wind, a driven sea, and a stubborn ship. The noise of the storm, subdued by the heavy steel walls of the deckhouse, came through as a hard, droning scream, deepened from time to time by the muffled crash of seas breaking aboard, like the distant booming of a minute gun fired by a ship in distress.
Aft on the poop a boy, closely bundled in oilskins, detached himself from the shelter of the weather cloth and the stability of the shrouds to which it was lashed and staggered to the binnacle, inside of which a small clock showed the time to be fifteen minutes to four. Reaching for the rope of the small bell on the cabin skylight, he struck one tinkling chime that was lost in the storm before it was fully born.
‘They ’ll never hear that,’ he thought, peering into the murk ahead, all his attention strained to hear the answering stroke of the ship’s bell at the break of the forecastle. None came, and he began to work his way to the taffrail on the forward end of the poop. Up here there were no seas coming aboard, but the motion was a dance of madness. Over the glass panes of the cabin skylight were gratings of brass rods, set firmly into the hardwood sashes. Gripping these, the boy steadied himself to the end of the skylight. From there to the end of the companion hatch was an open space of five feet, through which the wind blew with the force of a hurricane. Across this he dived and gained the lee side of the hatch, where he was sheltered from the wind. The hatch was made of teak, polished smooth and varnished, and offered no projections to serve as handgrips. But the boy w-as wise in these matters. The wet surface of the wood was sticky and roughish from rain and salt sea spray, and by pressing the palms of his hands against its rounded top he maintained his footing and reached its forward end.
From there to the taffrail was a clear twelve feet of wind-swept deck. Watching his chance when the ship heaved her starboard scuppers out of the water and swung her decks level for one uncertain moment, he dashed for the rail. The wind caught him and carried him to starboard so that his course was slantwise, but the continuing cant of the deck opposed the power of the wind, and he arrived at the forward corner of the rail with an ease that brought him a faint sense of triumph. Here was the end of the speaking tube that communicated with the lookout.
Twisting the whistle out of the mouthpiece, the boy blew into the tube with all the force of his vigorous lungs. The shrill scream of the whistle at the forward end of the tube reached the expectant ears of the man on lookout, who came aft to the watch and called, ‘One Bell!’
Struggling to the after end of the deckhouse, one of the men descended the iron ladder to the sea-swept main deck, clawed his way forward in the lee of the house and the forehatch, and struck the ship’s bell once with all his force. Stumbling then to the door of the starboard forecastle, he wrenched it open, tumbled inside, and pulled the door quickly shut, then raised his voice in a strident yell to wake the watch below.
Clinging to the poop taffrail, the boy waited, crouching down on the rail, one arm thrown over it, the other hand clasping the neck of the speaking tube, until his ears caught the vanishing note of the bell forward. When it came he replaced the whistle in the mouthpiece, moved across the short space to the head of the starboard ladder, and seized both its rails with a nervous grip. Descending step by step, he slid his hands carefully down the rails, never for a moment relaxing his hold, watching the wild white water foaming from port to starboard with the motion of the ship. A heavy sea had just come aboard, flooding her fore and aft, and he waited on the second step from the main deck until it had found its way out through the bulwark ports.
When the chance came, and the after deck was clear of water, he left the ladder and ran for the house, missed it and slid with a clatter into the scuppers, gained his feet again in a moment and charged for the house, caught the brass ring of the lock, and held on grimly while the ship reeled insanely to starboard. When she steadied enough and he regained his balance, he turned the lock and jerked the door open, jumped inside and pulled it shut, heard a monstrous sea fall aboard forward, and listened for a few seconds to the sound of the rushing water. Then he raised his shrill young voice in a savage, exultant cry, stepped to the bunk in which the fair-haired boy lay sleeping, and shook him with rough decision by the shoulder.
‘Now then, you sleeper,’ he chanted, ‘wake up and turn out. One Bell’s gone.’
The boy in the bunk heaved himself up to a sitting posture, and regarded the other with tragic wide blue eyes, aching for further sleep.
‘One Bell!’ he exclaimed. ‘It can’t be One Bell yet. I’ve just fallen asleep.’
The dark-haired boy yelled with derision.
‘That’s the way I always feel at One Bell,’ he cried. ‘But it’s One Bell now, all right, and no mistake about it, so you tumble out and get your clothes on.’
He stepped to the door and opened it cautiously, peered out to consider his chances, turned his head swiftly toward the bunk and saw the sleepy boy scrambling out on to the sea chest, then pushed the door open and leaped out, flung the door to with a bang, and raced for the poop ladder.
The fair-haired boy balanced precariously on the top of the sea chest and pulled on his pants over the woolen underwear in which he had slept, wrapped the slack of the legs about his ankles and drew the thick socks up over them, dragged on his rubber boots and stood on the deck, jamming himself between the chest and the table flap until he had put on his vest and reefer and muffler. Over these he coaxed the sticky oilskins, the legs and sleeves of which he tied with many turns of tarred yarn around the wrists and above the ankles. He was now practically water-tight, ready for the boisterous deck. As Eight Bells had not yet struck, he sat on the lid of the sea chest and gazed pensively at nothing, his eyelids, now that his activities had ceased, beginning to droop over his sleep-haunted eyes. He was a very young boy, not yet fourteen, and this was his first voyage to sea, the realization of a dream that had colored his waking, and sometimes sleeping, hours as long as he could remember.
At this particular moment he was not sure that the dream had possessed any single element of reality. Things were very different from the bright picture his boyish imagination had painted before the beginning of actual experience. The work, so far as he was concerned, seemed to be a mixture of such duties as are usually performed by the humbler class of servants ashore. In fine weather he swept the decks, swabbed paintwork, polished brass work, coiled up ropes, cleaned the Mate’s room once a week, went aloft to overhaul buntlines and leech lines and make them fast with a single turn of twine that would break easily when required, and in all weathers he was timekeeper, striking the hours on the little bell on the cabin skylight. Some of these tasks seemed to the boy to be flunky’s work, altogether foreign to his notion of the sea. But the work had to be done, as the Mate had once told him, and there was nobody else to do it. That was what they carried boys for.
These, however, were small matters compared with ot hers — sleep, for instance. He never got enough sleep, and just now he was desperate for it. On this night he had slept for something like three hours and a half, and his ungrown brain and body yearned for more, for whole long nights of sleep. But he had to go on deck for four hours. That was well enough. He liked to stand behind the weather cloth, watching the straining ship and the leaping seas, and keenly aware of all the sounds of their warfare. That was a sailor’s life as he had dreamed of it. But just at this moment what would he not give for a few hours’ more sleep. His eyes closed against his protesting will, and his head dropped slackly forward.
The dark-haired boy on the poop stood gazing into the binnacle at the face of the small clock inside. Just as the minute hand touched twelve he seized the bell rope and struck vigorously eight times, four double strokes, ting-ting, ting-ting, ting-ting, ting-ting. The pallid tinkle of the little bell, its farcical inadequacy in all this tumult, moved him to passionate scorn. He dived across the reeling deck, wrenched the whistle out of the speaking tube, and blew a furious blast. A few moments later, as he stood tensely listening, he heard the chime of the ship’s bell, faint and far away, and charged down the ladder, seeing a clear deck to the after house.
Wrenching open the door, he shot his head and shoulders inside, saw the bowed head of the fair-haired boy, and emitted a startling yell: ‘On deck the Watch! Eight Bells! Shake a leg, there!’ He slammed the door shut, scrambled to the weather side of the house, plunged into his own room, and in less than three minutes was sound asleep in his bunk.
The fair-haired boy jerked his head up at the howl of his shipmate and rose swiftly to his feet. Sleep fled from his eyes, and his face became composed and wary. Thrusting the door slightly open, he peered out, and felt the situation to be safe for the moment. Her starboard side was reeling upward, and there was no heavy water on the deck. He skipped outside, slammed the door, and raced for the poop ladder, slid on his feet against the after hatch, but did not check his advance, and reached the ladder safe and dry. He was well on his way up when she shipped a heavy sea that curled over the bulwarks from forecastle to poop and filled her main deck with boiling white water. Hauling himself along the taffrail to the weather side of the poop, he joined the Mate behind the weather cloth, hooked his arm around a backstay, and peered through the darkness at the Mate, whose big bulk loomed beside him, shadowy and vague to his eyes, but very clear and definite in his mind as the acting centre of power and authority. The Captain was the source, the origin, and the symbol of supreme command, but he moved in a different orbit from officers and crew, lived in a higher sphere. He was quiet, affable, kindly, but remote and inaccessible, not familiar and abusive like the Mate, who was intensely human and roamed the decks with his eyes everywhere.
The boy liked t he Mate, although he often dodged him, kept out of his way as much as possible, and avoided to the best of his ability, being a sane and healthy boy, the unimportant flunky work that was left for him to do.
On this wild morning the Mate ignored him completely, was only briefly aware that he had come on deck and forgot him immediately, his mind being occupied with that bitter, impotent revolt against the sea which is the mark of the true seaman. From his rich and shocking vocabulary he was silently choosing the strongest words he could find to express his contempt for sailors. He cursed the ship and the crew, the owners, the sea, and himself, chiefly himself, and wondered with sardonic self-pity why he had not been a farmer. The idea of a farmer expresses an ancient contempt fostered by men of the sea for men of the farm, and it pleased his present humor to double the scorn of the term by referring it to himself. At varying intervals he asked himself, with an exquisite fury of sarcasm, ‘ Who would n’t sell a farm and go to sea?’
His feet well apart, his left arm hooked around a backstay and his right hand gripping it, the boy was safe from the hazard of the reeling decks, and felt only a keen exhilaration from the ship’s motion. The weather cloth gave him complete protection from the wind, and a feeling of deep enjoyment possessed his mind. He loved the storm, the turbulent roar of the wind, the rising and falling scream of the rigging. His mind moved slowly from one sound to another. He heard it, felt and followed it for minutes, let it sink into his soul. He knew the shuddering crash of the heavy seas as they broke aboard: just a booming sound and a trembling of the hull at first, followed swiftly by rushing, slapping noises as the tumbling water met the smooth sides of the forward house and the coamings of the fore hatch, then a noise of broken rapids while the water rushed from side to side across the deck with the rolling of the ship.
The boy began to feel the approach of six o’clock, when Four Bells had to be struck. He brought his mind to the task of getting across the poop to the little bell. He shifted his grip and moved to the after edge of the cloth, waiting until her decks were rolling up from starboard, then walked with short steps sidewise against the slope of the deck toward the bell, bracing hard against the enormous wind as he left the shelter of the weather cloth.
Looking into the binnacle, he saw that it was ten minutes to six. The Mate noted his absence, looked round and saw his face illumined in the light of the binnacle, and turned his gloomy eyes forward again. The boy decided to wait beside the bell for ten minutes, not caring to make the passage to the weather cloth and back again. But his position here was too unsheltered, and he turned toward the wheel, which was lashed hard up and had no man at the spokes while the ship was hoveto. The wheel stood in front of the wheel box, a teak structure with a low gable roof in which were the worm gears that reduced the strain from the rudder to the wheel, giving the steersman an immense leverage. The boy went round the wheel to the lee side of the box, sat down, and lowered his head to get shelter from the wind. In a moment he was asleep, caught by outraged nature as suddenly as by the blow of a hammer in the dark.
The Mate looked round again in a few minutes, saw no sign of the boy, knew at once what had happened, and cursed him under his breath. He was not unsympathetic, — it was hard enough for a seasoned old seaman like himself to stay awake sometimes, — but discipline must be enforced, and the man on lookout had to wait till Four Bells before he could be relieved. The Mate let go the backstay and staggered to the bucket rack where water buckets with brass hoops were kept. The first in the rack was half full of water; he picked it up and made his difficult way to the wheel box, and saw the boy sprawled backward, utterly asleep. The Mate drew back the bucket and dashed the water into the sleeping boy’s face.
To be wrenched out of deep sleep by any sudden stroke of pain or acute discomfort, deliberately inflicted, is an experience shocking and indescribable. There leaps to life in such a moment something that is better left undisturbed. The boy sprang up convulsively, lost his balance and fell, rolled down against the rail, heaved himself up and turned toward the Mate. He could barely distinguish the form of the officer, but in his ears rang the laughter that had greeted his frightful awakening, a sound that seemed to him obscene and apelike. He was a Scot, the son of a hundred generations of men utterly intolerant of oppression. Mad fury flamed in his heart, and he took a step toward the Mate. Had the boy been just a few years older, that officer would have gone down to the lee scuppers, Mate or no Mate — aye, or the Captain himself. But full awakening came swiftly, and the boy’s anger died as quickly as it had been born. He was at fault. He was asleep on watch, the one unforgivable sin in a seaman. A sleeping sailor had more than once brought ship and crew to sudden appalling death.
The Mate swung suddenly to the binnacle and glanced at the clock, which showed the time to be six o’clock. Striking the bell four times, he looked at the dim figure of the boy over against the rail.
The boy saw the movement and heard the tinkle of the bell, became at once the ship’s timekeeper again, and listened intently for the sound of the bell forward. It did not come, nor had he expected it would, and he made his way to the forward taffrail and blew four powerful blasts into the speaking tube. The lookout heard the signal and passed the word to the watch, one of whom went forward and struck Four Bells.
The Mate worked his way forward to the bucket rack and replaced the bucket, then crouched forward against the wind and gained the shelter of the weather cloth, where he resumed his ceaseless watch. The boy heard the faint strokes of the ship’s bell from forward, and, replacing the whistle in the tube, made a circuitous course to the weather cloth. The Mate turned as he arrived and gripped him by the shoulder, shouting into his ear against the roar of the storm, ‘Don’t you ever go to sleep on watch again!’
‘All right, sir!’ shouted the boy, his mouth close to the ear of the Mate, who nodded in the blackness and turned away.
The boy began to be aware of a slowly growing distinctness in the dim bulk of the Mate, a thinning and refinement of the darkness, which seemed to be transforming itself, magically, into something else. A wordless emotion, immeasurably old, of joy and worship combined, come down from ancient men who feared the night, possessed him as he watched the advance of day. Somewhere the sun was heaving up over the rim of the world. Here his approach was hidden by the murk of war, a wrack impenetrable of twisted cloud and driven scud. The light came through slowly, revealing the foam-streaked sea in the stormy dawn.
Now his small world lay open to his charmed and watchful eyes. The violence that had tossed him back and forth in the unrevealing darkness he could see and understand in the gray gloom of day. The Cape Horn Sea, range upon range of foaming crests tormented by devils and rushing to destruction, advanced upon the ship in endless ranks. There seemed to the boy enough of these to press the assault forever, but he was not afraid. His faith in the ship was limitless.
When the light of day became broad enough, the seeing eye of the Mate, roving aloft, halted and stayed upon a loose end of gasket, whipping like a pennant in the wind on the mizzen upper topsail yard. The sail was furled, the ship being hove-to under main and mizzen lower topsails and a storm jib, and the yard was down. The loose end worried the Mate. If the whole gasket worked loose, the wind would rip the sail to ribbons in no time, might carry away the yard and lose the lives of the men sent aloft to make it fast. He turned to the boy and shouted, pointed to the yard and the forward house where the watch were standing by. What he said was to send a man to the mizzen upper topsail yard to make that gasket fast.
The boy did not hear the words, but he saw the loose rope and knew it had to be made fast. Being a firstvoyager, he was never sent aloft in heavy weather, but if he remembered this he ignored it, controlled by an obscure desire to make good, to atone for his crime of falling asleep on watch, to show the Mate that he was of some account where seamen’s work was concerned. He charged away from the weather cloth and gained the bridge leading from the poop to the after deckhouse, went along t his easily, securely gripping the handrails, and gained the top of the deckhouse.
Pausing here, he watched the deck for a favorable opportunity, descended and dashed to the weather mizzen shrouds, scrambled swiftly into the rigging and began toiling upward. He did not see the frantic fling of the Mate’s arm, and heard no whisper of his bellowed order to come down out of that. He heard nothing but the thunder of the storm, felt nothing but the pressure of the wind at his back. In his heart was a great elation, an acceptance of the struggle between the gale and himself.
As the ship rolled into the wind he was forced irresistibly against the rigging, jammed breathless against the shrouds with an immense pressure that held him helpless. As she rolled to leeward the weight lifted from his back, and he scrambled up a distance of four or five ratlines. Intent upon his task, he did not know that the Mate on the poop and the men on the forward house were watching him steadily.
‘Good Lord,’ the Mate prayed inwardly, ‘don’t let that fool boy go over the side!’
The men did not pray. They were rough men, hard, ignorant, resentful, users of obscene and blasphemous language. But they were wishing the boy good luck on his venture and helping him on with silent encouragement. Every one of them wanted to go to his assistance, but there is a feeling among sailors in such matters, an unwritten law that neither man nor boy shall be humiliated by having his work taken out of his hands, proof that he is unfit for his job.
The boy waited a moment or two, his hands securely grasping the futtock shrouds and his feet on a ratline of the lowermast rigging. The futtock shrouds are heavy iron rods leading outward from the upper end of the lower rigging to the edge of the top, making an angle with the horizontal of something like forty-five degrees when the ship is on an even keel. The top is a platform fixed to the head of the lowermast; to its edge are bolted the lower ends of the topmast rigging. On either side of this platform, between the rigging and the mast, is an opening called the lubber’s hole, through which a man may crawl if he does not care to risk the climb over the edge of the top.
For the space of a breath, the boy considered the lubber’s hole. He knew that on a day like this he might go through it without loss of self-respect. But he had no intention of doing so; the possibility of avoiding the dangerous outer passage had merely entered his mind. He waited till the ship was nearing the end of her roll to starboard and the futtocks were perpendicular, then he started up, making very sure of his grip. In a second or two he reached the edge of the top and grasped the shrouds of the topmast rigging — the most dangerous moment of his journey, because his legs were held at a forward angle so that his feet could rest on the ratlines of the inward sloping futtocks, and the middle of his body was pressed against the edge of the top. The thing to do was to lean his body outward, clear of the edge, and this he endeavored to do in order to give his legs free play, but the ship rolled back to windward and the pressure of the gale held him jammed against the top, unable to move. The Mate and the men held their breath. The ship stopped her weather roll and whipped her masts back to leeward, and the boy started up over the top, but missed his footing, and his legs swung out behind him, all his weight on his desperately gripping hands. In another short moment he would have been torn from his hold and nothing but a miracle could have saved him.
The Mate leaped to the main deck to go to his rescue, but a sea came aboard and washed him back to the foot of the poop ladder. Seizing the handrail, he mounted a few steps, clear of the churning water on the deck, cast his disturbed eyes aloft to the mizzen top, allowed a sigh of relief to escape from his hairy chest, and returned to his place behind the weather cloth.
The ship ended her dizzy reel to leeward and hung for one trembling moment almost on her beam ends, her masts inclined at such a slant that the boy’s legs fell against the futtock shrouds by their own weight. He immediately found his feet and climbed into the topmast rigging. After a struggle he reached the level of the upper topsail yard and worked his way cautiously on to the footrope, crawled out on the yardarm to the loose gasket, and made it well fast. The work done, he came into the rigging and descended to the top, halted in that comparative haven, both arms embracing the rigging and each hand grasping a shroud, lifted his head, and looked out over the wild sea. In that moment he saw the unforgettable sight of his life: a threemasted, full-rigged ship running before the wind with all sail set. Involuntarily he flung his arm out toward that vision of magic or mirage, as it seemed to him, and the watchers on the deck saw what he saw.
The motion in the top was more violent than on deck, and there was no protection from the battering wind, which forced the breath back into the boy’s throat and seemed likely to tear him from his double hold and carry him away to leeward. But neither danger nor discomfort made any impression on him then, his soul being wholly engaged in watching the driving ship. She came storming along in a smother of outflung foam, a living thing of power and beauty and most compelling majesty, charging across the colossal seas and thrusting them aside. He watched her diving into the trough, and wondered, appalled, if she would ever come up again. Behind the intervening crest he saw her disappear, hull and courses and topsails, till only her topgallants and royals remained in sight. From the deck she was wholly lost to view. But in a little she rose again, topsails heaved into his vision, courses lifted above the spume, her dripping bowsprit stabbing the scud, her trenchant forefoot leaping clear of crest and tumbled foam. Lost in amazement and rapture, the boy clung to the thrashing backstays above the top and gazed with all his eyes, receiving on the tablets of his memory an impression so deep and strong that it remained forever indelible. Neither the passage of the years nor the growing mass of later experience could dim the beauty and the thrill of that picture of the sea.
She passed close by, a hundred fathoms at most, her men scrambling into the fore rigging to send forth a cheer, a message of sympathy and encouragement that came faintly through the storm like the cry of a child in the wilderness. The greeting was answered by the men on the forward house, but the boy remained silent, too deeply stirred for outward display.
In a moment she was gone, fled away into the gray gloom and faded into the drifts of foam and spray and low-flying scud, only her milk-white wake remaining to tell that she had passed. The boy sighed deeply and returned to the deck.
In the eyes of the Mate was a look somewhat resembling that which dwelt in the eyes of the boy, but mingled with scorn and weariness, as if he too had dreamed a dream and seen a vision, but awoke to find it deceitful and meaningless. It had been his intention to rebuke the boy for going aloft in this sort of weather, but when he saw the light in the young blue eyes raised to his he lost this design, and only told him to see what time it was. The boy went aft and saw by the binnacle clock that it was eighteen minutes past seven. He extracted the lamp from the binnacle, opened the little glass door and let the wind blow out the pale yellow flame, replaced the lamp, and struck Seven Bells. Being now visible to the men on the forward house, who were anxiously awaiting the end of their watch on deck, he was seen striking the cabin bell, and the ship’s bell forward was struck immediately after.
When Eight Bells went and the blue-eyed boy was relieved, he got an enameled plate and hook pot from his room and, with earnest prayers to the gods of the sea to spare his breakfast, made the trip to the galley. Here he received a sufficient quantity of oatmeal porridge, which sailors designate ‘burgoo,’ a pot of hot but otherwise doubtful coffee, and a half-pound loaf of newly baked soft bread — this last a treat which was enjoyed only three times a week. The loaf of soft bread was a treasure to be guarded at any risk short of life itself, and the boy had moments of terror as he turned from the galley door with both hands full and realized that he might lose it on the way aft.
He went with swift but cautious steps along the lee of the forward house, emerged upon the open deck, and leaned against the gale, casting anxious glances toward the weather bulwarks, where drops and little pools of restless water were whipped into quick spurts of spray by the searching wind. The main hatch, covered with rough tarpaulin and raised two feet above the deck, gave surer footing than the slippery planking, and also provided safety from all but the heaviest water. He reached the end of this and stepped to the deck, hope rising higher every instant. But the sea had been balked long enough. The ship, miraculously dry for all these minutes, gave a sudden lurch to windward, a movement strange and unexpected, which switched the deck from under his feet and brought him down, still holding to his coffeepot, his plate of burgoo, and his coveted loaf of bread.
Brought by her sidewise movement right under a stupendous wall of water, the ship did not have time to rise to it, and the sea came over, green from the bows to the break of the poop. The roaring flood caught the boy in its rush, and washed him like a chip toward the fife rail. He dropped his coffeepot and plate of burgoo and shot forth a desperate hand to find a grip, but the intolerable weight of water tore him loose and swept him aft, flung him from rail to rail, dashing him against the after hatch and the jigger fife rail and finally against the foot of the poop ladder, where the powerful hairy hand of the Mate swooped down and drew him out of the snarling water, heaved him up against his chest, and carried him to the poop, where he set him on his feet. The boy coughed and spluttered, shook the water from his eyes, and looked up at the Mate with a smile, his soaked and uneatable bread still clasped in his left hand. The heart of the Mate was touched, but he gave no sign of any emotion other than amusement.
‘Are you wet?’ he grinned.
The boy laughed, glanced at the disintegrating mass of stuff in his hand, and tossed it over the side.
Back in his room again, the boy sat on the sea chest, both elbows on the raised table flap, slowly munching a dry ship’s biscuit, there being neither beef nor butter nor marmalade in his locker. He was tired and very hungry, and a little despondent, thinking of home and its comforts, of the sheltered life he had led before he came to sea, of his prosperous, genial father, his beloved mother. The dry biscuit became suddenly distasteful, and he tossed it listlessly into the bread kid.
There came to his ears a faint drumming sound of footsteps on deck, the door was suddenly wrenched open, and the bearded face of the Mate thrust inward.
‘Here, boy!’ he shouted, pushing a bundle across the table toward him. Then he slammed the door and was gone. The boy opened the bundle, which was wrapped in a clean towel, and found three cabin rolls, buttered, each one almost as big as the loaf he had lost, a pot of hot coffee with milk and sugar in it, and a slice of beautiful boiled ham. The manner in which he disposed of these delectable viands was, perhaps, as complimentary to the cook as to the Mate, but the cook certainly received no credit in the boy’s mind when his hunger was fully satisfied and he prepared to turn in.
Drifting ineffably on to that smooth and magical slope which leads downward to the wells of sleep, the sounds of the wind and the sea came to him refined and beautified. Other sounds were coming from the deck, voices and thumping of boots, and the shrill wailing cry of the dark-eyed boy, who had gone on watch: —
‘Loose the fore tops’l.
The wind must be going down, he thought; they were setting sail.