Journey Cakes

EARLY in April 1895, I joined the Skipper on board his cruising boat Garland at Norfolk, Virginia. I found the ‘old man’ short-tempered with impatience to be off and away on the voyage home to New Bedford, where he had agreed to deliver me on a certain day; for I was a schoolboy then, and Easter vacations had a way of ending abruptly on specified dates.

The Garland was a fifty-foot yawl. She had been built for the Skipper the summer before at Beetle’s Boat Yard on Clark’s Point. Fife of Fairlie, Scotland, had designed her. She was flush-decked and the rig was snug; but I thought her too heavy a vessel to be handled by so small and light a crew as we were. The Skipper’s gray hairs put him in the ‘venerable’ class; and Willie Lucas, a young neighbor of ours on The Point, was no more of a seasoned sailor than I.

However, by the time we were abreast of Montauk Point, I had the feeling that Willie and I, not counting the Skipper, could ‘handle the sticks out of her,’ for we had made a wonderful run of it, so far, with a steady south-southwest wind, clear warm days and nights, a smooth sea, and regular hot meals.

Fourteen hours later my confidence had disappeared; so too had the serving of ‘regular hot meals.’ Our good breeze deserting us in the late afternoon, a dead calm kept us rolling and wallowing through the early hours of the night; and then, at about eight bells, a strong northeast wind made its boisterous appearance. Since then we had been beating to windward under reefed sails, and had had to face, without letup, an incessant bombardment of heavy spray and a sniping of snow, hail, and rain that came screaming at us in thin showers from the cover of a low, gray, hurrying sky.

This combined attack had worked through our defense of oilskins, sou’westers, towels around our necks, and sea boots until we were lumps of icy pulp, longing to exchange the hammer and splash, the procession of white-crested, steely seas, and the cold searching wind for the quiet of an anchorage.

By midafternoon the wind backed two points and blew harder. It was clear we could not fetch New Bedford by daylight; but we could lay up through Vineyard Sound on the port tack with a fair tide and smooth water under the lee of the Elizabeth Islands. By this change in course we were able, as dusk was coming on, to ease the sheets and run to leeward out of the current-tortured waters of Woods Hole and commence twisting our way into the landlocked haven of Hadley Harbor, Naushon Island. Both Willie and I shivered with relief when we felt the wind on our backs instead of in our faces — but the Skipper, in spite of his gray hairs, sat there on the steering bench with the long tiller tucked under his left arm and gave no outward sign of his emotions. As we made the last turn and opened the inner pool to sight, all hedged about with wind-clipped oaks and beeches, there lay the old Myra, beamy and comfortable — a very homey sight.

Before anchoring the Garland the Skipper steered close under the Myra’s stern and hailed her. Instantly the slide of her companion was shoved forward and a head with silvery hair was inquiringly poked out.

‘I’ll match a bottle of my Braganza against one of your dinners if you’ll come aboard us and cook it, Captain Wasque,’ barked the Skipper, as we rounded up into the eye of the wind and slowly forged ahead with the mainsail and the sheet blocks slatting and banging.

Up went the Captain’s right arm with that sweeping gesture of acceptance — the universal and perhaps oldest signal in the code of the sea. And twenty minutes later, when the Garland had settled into her berth with sails furled and stopped, ropes coiled, and riding light set for the night, Captain Wasque and his inseparable mate, Theoph Crowell, came alongside in their skiff. Spurred by a fierce shower of hail that rattled down on us at this moment, they boarded the Garland in a hurry, after handing up to us a basket that crackled and quaked with a constant weaving motion, and with it a fetch bag, bulging with sundries that evidently called for protection from the wet.

No one of average build, standing beside Captain Wasque for the first time, could fail to feel both gross and clumsy. His delicacy suggested a porcelain figurine — perfect in proportions and of fragile workmanship. Seventy years and the sun and wind of the Seven Seas had not tanned the pink out of his cheeks, nor creased his face and neck with lines. Everything about him was fitting and very clean, and although he wore on his tiny feet a pair of women’s black, glazed-kid, buttoned boots — scallops and all — this rather startling finishing touch was so in scale with the rest of him that it did not strike a false note.

Shaking hands with the Skipper and running his eye over the Garland’s deck and gear, the Captain turned and disappeared down the companionway, like a chipmunk diving into a stone wall, and was followed by his ponderous Man Friday with the basket and bag.

Much as we longed to be below with our friends in the shelter and warmth of the cabin, the Skipper, Willie, and I had to spend ten more disagreeable minutes on that wet, hail-swept deck while we fumbled over buttons with numb, wizened fingers in our struggle to peel off the outer layers of our sodden clothing.

The dinghy that lay bottom up over the skylight made a shelter for these discarded wrappings; and there, as soon as possible, we left, them and slithered down the companion ladder in stocking feet, singlets, and drawers.

Theoph, the good Samaritan, as we landed on the cabin floor, handed us three heavy-bottomed bar glasses which he had filled with a pale liquor that had a white bead on top. ‘Sup that up slow,’ said he, as he dusted the bead with powdered cinnamon from a salt shaker.

As the first ‘sup’ reached my vitals I felt the stirring of hope, and by the time I had swallowed the whole of my drink this sprout had grown to a vigorous plant with tendrils reaching out to my frozen extremities.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘Bridgetown snorter,’ replied Theoph. ‘Barbados XXX rum, lime juice, Falernum, a dash of angostura, white of an egg beaten stiff, a lump of ice, and a hell of a stir — smooth, ain’t it?’

You bet,’ thought I, as, following the Skipper’s example, I stood naked and glowing after a rubdown with a coarse crash towel.

Meantime Captain Wasque, swathed in a white apron, hovered busily over the coal-burning cookstove that now, purring fiercely, was filling the cabin with warmth and teasing our craving for food with savory odors.

Turning to the Captain, the Skipper, dry, clothed, and pleasantly relaxed, asked an old man’s unvarying question after an absence from home: ‘Who died since I’ve been away?’

‘Nobody much ‘ was the reply, ‘only Wash Peck over to Central Village, my Myry’s first cousin, the fella that was always runnin’ rum or cigars or liftin’ sheep or cows —you remember him. I had to go to his funeral. Lot of folks there — interested to see the end of him, I guess. Fella from away presided at the meetin’ — said he, “I’ve been exhorted and im-portuned to preach Brother Peck’s funeral sermon, ‘n’ I don’t want to. He was a bad man ’n’ you all know it. He kep’ hosses ‘n’ he rin ‘em; he kep’ cocks ‘n’ he fit ‘em; but they do say occasionarily he was good to a fire. We will now all jine in singin’ hymn one hundred: ‘With rapture we rejice the cuss [curse] is now removed.’” Kinda short, wasn’t it? But most folks seemed real pleased. And now, boys, come and get it.’

The dinner Captain Wasque dished up for us that night was surely a thing of beauty. As he stood at the after end of the table dealing out the piping-hot willow-pattern Canton plates, his apron and silvery hair seemed to imbue him with priestly authority. He proceeded, as if performing a ritual, to put a clean folded dish clout in the middle of the table, on which he set a blue bowl of snow-white mashed potato that had been whipped to a creamy smoothness and mossed lightly with the green of chopped chives. Next to this, hot from the oven, he placed a brown earthenware baking dish capped with a golden crust of bread and cracker crumbs that had been worked into a paste with butter flavored with a few drops of lemon juice. Under this crust, which heaved slightly from internal pressure, there lay, as we presently discovered, the tenderest parts of the eight live lobsters that had come aboard in the ‘crackling’ basket, together with morsels of the green fat. As a catalyst in this compound the Captain had used a thin white sauce flavored with two tablespoonfuls of ‘Bristol Milk’; and as a sign of his deep friendship for us he lastly presented a pan of what he called ‘Rye Injun Journey Cakes’ — the recipe for which no one could ever wring from him.

As we were about to dip into these good things, all sizzling hot, an unusually heavy squall swept singing through the Garland’s rigging, to be followed immediately by the annoying slap-slapslap of a slack halyard against the mainmast. ‘Whose slippery hitch is that?’ said the Skipper, eying me with reproof. ‘Mine, I guess,’ I had to answer, as I squeezed by Willie to go on deck.

It was cold, wet, and dark up there and I did not linger. Hurrying back through the fore hatch, I slipped on my wet soles, so that I came below on the run, fetching up in the forecastle with a crash, and reaching my place at table shaken, subdued, and moist.

As I suppose time is reckoned, it was only a scant half hour before the blue bowl and the brown baking dish stood there on their white mat as cleanly empty as the day they were drawn from the kiln. The journey cakes had gone too; for they had a crisp crunchiness and a flavor suggestive of salted almonds, right out of the oven, and we were continually helping ourselves to ‘just one more.'

Now the Skipper, faithful to his promise, brought from the spirit locker five slender-stemmed glasses enriched with delicate designs in gold leaf, and also a quart bottle of so dark a green that, as it stood on the table jinking in the light of the slightly swaying lamp, it glowed a jet black. Against this background the crude white letters and figures painted on the irregularly rounded sides were thrown into high relief. To the initiated, these marks on the girth of the bottle and the cap of red wax on the long neck were guarantees that the contents were a portion of those two pipes of Madeira that had been laid down in New Bedford years ago after a three-year whaling voyage in the ship Braganza.

As the Captain set his second pan of cakes on the table, the Skipper, using great care, cracked the seal and drew the cork of that bottle, while Willie and I cleared away the plates and silver.

‘I propose the toast “To absent friends,”’ said the Skipper, after he had charged the glasses and passed his own under his nose and held it to the light; and I can remember that as the first sip lacquered my tongue and trickled down my throat the last shred of the discomfort of the past twenty-four hours faded away and was replaced by the exaltation of accomplishment — the job well done.

The passage of time and sequence of happenings for that evening now come to an end for me. I only know that as the hard squalls buffeted the Garland, causing her to shift her head and quiver as her masts and rigging vibrated, I had a sense of security never experienced on shore; and that the bronze green of the floor planking, the Chinese red of the sheathing, the white of the deck planking overhead, and the occasional roar of the burnished copper stovepipe all combined to make of that little cabin a palace of contentment and delights — where I could lie full stretch on the transom cushion listening to the low-pitched conversation of the three old men and watching the blue smoke of their cigars drifting and eddying about, to soften all angles and to perfume as with an incense.

At last I heard the Skipper, who had been nibbling a journey cake between the regular circulations of the Braganza, say with emphasis, ‘Captain Wasque! You know you’re living now on borrowed time, and I think it’s your duty to give me a written record of how you concoct these cakes of yours. Now come across — clean.’

‘Oh, gammon!’ said the Captain, with a grin of satisfaction. ‘This harbor here and Bub’s fall tonight puts me in mind of the old Euphrates, Capt’n John Smith, that was owned by Fish and Grinnell of Noo York. The Hillman brothers built her in New Bedford — oak for her timbers was cut right here on Naushon. They run her as a packet between Noo York and Havre. Capt’n Smith, The Mate Elihu Jones, ‘n’ second mate Hosea Robinson, was all drivers — out to make records for the ship ‘n’ ‘emselves — no liquor when at sea — but Mister Jones, when in port, used to bowse his jib up pretty taut once ‘n a while. One mornin’, when they was dischargin’ cargo and had the main hold cleared with the main hatch wide open, Mister Jones, who’d been ashore, come flyin’ on board and started across-deck to bawl out one o’ the hands he thought was soldierin’, but, not lookin’ where his feet was goin’, he stubbed his toe on the main hatch coamin’ and pitched head fust into the hold. Capt’n Smith was on the quarter deck, and believin’ there’d been a fatal accident he sings out: “Mister Robinson, take two hands and the fall of a whip and bring Mister Jones’s body on deck.” All who’d seen that dive was sure The Mate was a corpse, for the drop was considerable and the keelson a hard landin’ place. Down the ladder to the ‘tween decks went the second mate and the two hands and disappeared into the dark of the hold. For a while nothin’ happened — ‘n’ then up come Mister Robinson and the two hands again, lookin’ kinda sheepish, but no signs of The Mate. “Mister Robinson,” says the Capt’n, “what about Mister Jones, and why did you leave him below instead of bringin’ his body on deck as I ordered?”

‘Before the second mate could answer, Mister Jones himself, lookin’ very cross and marked up considerable from his collision, comes bouncin’ out the hatch, runs up to the second mate, ‘n’, wagglin his fist in his face, bawls out, “Can’t I go down below in this ship, when I want to, the way I want to, without you follerin’ me around?” And that,’ ended Captain Wasque, ‘is the way I feel about them Rye Injun Journey Cakes.'