by LLEWELLYN HOWLAND
I WAS eighteen, and as youngest member of the staff of a State Street, Boston, office had been left alone to close up on a Saturday afternoon of late winter. Outside, a drizzle — half snow, half rain — mingled with the sooty slush underfoot. I was growing both bored and lonely when the postman shoved a letter through a slot in the door. I read my name in the superscription and noted the official atmosphere that stamped the missive. So strongly did it smack of courts and lawyers that I slit the envelope reluctantly, to draw out a slip of paper on which was much printing in a minute type under the bolder caption: —
COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS
which confirmed my foreboding that through some carelessness “thousands had disappeared” for which I was now to be held accountable.
Thoroughly shaken, I extracted a second sheet that was neatly folded in the envelope. Spread open, this too proved to be a printed notice — but with a bank check to my order, in the amount of five hundred dollars, tucked away in it. My scalp prickled as, holding my fortune tightly, I began to read the legal phrasing of the printed form.
Translated into honest English it meant that a “Cornelius Howland et als,” owners of the ship Fox, had suffered the loss of this vessel and her cargo in 1798 by the unlawful act of a French man-of-war, and that now, after the lapse of a hundred years, restitution in part for this seizure had been given to me. There was mystery about this business. I felt I could not sleep without an explanation. The answer, I knew, could be had in New Bedford — and a half hour later I was on board the evening train that would land me there before bedtime.
I have never enjoyed two hours more, for during the entire journey I was spending my money over and over again in imagination, only to find the windfall still intact on my arrival at the New Bedford depot. I felt so opulent that I hired one of the hacks that “met every train” to carry me over the four miles of cobbled streets and sandy roads to “The Cottage,” a farm on Clark’s Point, where my old friend the Skipper lived.
“Why, hang it all, my boy,” said he as X explained as well as I could the story of my incredible fortune, “we must build a new Fox! Your great-great-grandfather, the owner of the little ship in that notice of yours, would want you to do it — for he loved the sea and all that goes with it. I’ve heard him tell the whole story — how ‘those frog-eating French rascals,’ as he called them, in a big black frigate bore down on the little Fox, his first command, when she was on a West India voyage. They sent her into Fort-de-France with a prize crew aboard and sold her and the cargo out from under him without a by-your-leave. It riled him clear to the bottom and he would never quit pressing his claim for damages although it cost him more than it was worth in the end — and now here at last, through you, he’s squared accounts. I know he’s rubbing his hands and chuckling with pleasure. Now let’s see to it that the new Fox is a credit to the old gentleman.”
Then, without waiting for any comments, the Skipper pulled out his draughting board, scale rule, tracing paper, French curves, and thumb tacks, and within an hour we were deep in the problems of the new ship’s design. Before I started on my return journey to Boston next day we had arranged with Charles Beetle, the proprietor of Beetle’s Boat Yard, to build our new Fox with all possible dispatch.
For the next six months I spent every Saturday night that I could at The Cottage, and Sundays at the Boat Yard. Here, when they could spare the time, the Skipper and Charles Beetle joined me and put in many hours of their skilled labor on the new boat. We three had some hand in every part and detail as she grew. We were intimate with the scarfs, mortises, tenons, and fastenings that were worked into the well-seasoned, pasture-grown white oak of the keel, stem, sternpost, and deadwood. We set up molds, we ran battens, we bent steamed timbers into place. We worked out garboard strakes and planking from a parcel of clear Gulf cypress. We selected the stock of native white cedar from which the five-eight hsinch ceiling was sawed. We spent much time and thought on the layout below decks — and yet, in spite of the fact that she was the product of their experience and skill, of their time and, I now suspect, of a considerable amount of their money, those two good friends of mine succeeded in maintaining in me the pride of creation and ownership.
Planned for singlehanded cruising in all seasons and weather, she was twenty-three feet overall, with short ends and seven-foot beam. All her ballast was “outside” — on her keek She was flush-decked except for a small selfbailing steering well. Access to belowdecks was through a hatch with a slide — light and ventilation by means of a skylight. She was ketch rigged.
At last, late in September, a Saturday was chosen for the launching and a holiday from the office for me. I was up and out of The Cottage early that day to take an observation. The yellow light of the dawn and the freshness of the air gilded and crisped the entire landscape — it was the first morning of a reborn world with the weariness and dust of the old one swept away. And as I came on a run to the little rise that sloped sharply down to the beach on the margin of which the Boat Yard sprawled, there, freed from the constricting walls of the building shed, lay my Fox in her cradle. For the first time I saw her in true perspective. Bow on, she seemed breasting her way up the gentle slope — risen but that moment from the water — and coming to greet me. To my astonishment, in the week I’d been away her masts had been stepped, her bowsprit run out, her standing rigging set up, her running rigging rove, and her tanned working sails bent.
Surprise mounted as I finally climbed on board and inspected her down below where the same order as on deck was evident, even to kindlings and coal in the fuel locker. All the gear requisite was on board and stowed, including a replica in proper scale of the family “house flag” that for three generations had been flown throughout the Seven Seas. I lost all count of time as I investigated, and I must admit I grew a shade jealous at the thought that the Skipper had had “all the fun” of assembling that equipment. With a sense almost of wrongdoing, I looked up to the hatch, to see the Skipper’s face framed in the opening, smiling down at me.
“It’s nine o’clock,” said he, “and if you can spare the time we might sit here in the cockpit for a minute and discuss the balance of the day.” I ran up the ladder, and as I dropped into the well he handed me a basket. “Here’s a bite of breakfast Debby insisted I must bring you — and, Lord, how she grumbled over the trouble menfolks and boats make around a house.”
This was heaping coals of fire with a vengeance, and as I started in on the toast, tea, and crisp rashers that came out of the basket I tried to think how I could ever tell him how pleased, grateful, contrite — and all — I felt.
“Don’t try to say it,” he said as he watched me. “Charlie Beetle and I have had even more fun out of building her than you have.”
“And now,” he continued, “if you’ll hustle back to The Cottage with the basket, you’ll find there’s a chance there to square yourself with Debby and give Willie a hand with a job of work I’ve left him to do. I’ll stay here to make sure the old railway’s in shape so that when we let her go at high tide she’ll slide.”
When I reached The Cottage I found Deborah the cook in command. She immediately drove me out of the house to help Willie and Levi take the scats out of the spring wagon and begin to load it in the cool of the carriage house. The first item was a heavily built case marked “Pol Roger 1894”; then came a hamper with linen and another with glass and crockery; a plate basket with table silver; two big chafing dishes with their hot-water baths and a jug of “spirits” for their lamps. By the time we had Billy Bowlegs, the old horse, harnessed and flicking his ears with curiosity at the stir of things, Debby was shouting from the kitchen door for us to make haste and bring the wagon there.
Passing through the kitchen to the scullery, to which place she ordered us, I saw Deborah was very busy frying “thumblings” — small croquettes about the size of a big man’s thumb — in two kettles of deep fat, and that a glazed bowl lined with a napkin stood warming in the mouth of the open oven, half full of the finished product. At that moment her back was toward the range, so I “popped” one of these thumblings. It was fiery hot, but I managed to hold on to it until I could trust it in my mouth, when I found, as I’d hoped, it was composed of a batter of mashed potato, shredded salt codfish, a mere trace of garlic, and cream — all whipped into a consistency that could be rolled into shape between the palms of the hands and then treated to a coating of finely crushed cracker crumbs and beaten yolk of egg, and lastly dusted with flour.
By the time there were four bowls full of these thumblings all wrapped in linen, the two boys and I had transferred from the scullery to the wagon a big pine-staved tub of chipped ice, four wooden pails, and two smaller tubs in the middle of each of which was a big wooden bowl of lettuce hearts and skinned tomatoes — half red and half yellow — and two tight-capped jars of mayonnaise all packed round with ice and carefully covered with clean cloths. Deborah insisted on superintending the loading of her precious thumblings before dispatching up to Beetle’s with the parting broadside: “Lord love yer if you upset things — for, like Queen Charlotte, I never will.”
It was obvious now that doings were to take place at the shop and that the Skipper, as I might have known, was not going to let the Fox slip unnoticed down the ways. Her launching was to be colorful; and as a proof of it, when we came in sight of the Yard both she and the buildings were gay with bunting — the many flags snapping in the now brisk breeze.
By noon, under the vigorous leadership of Charlie Beetle and the Skipper, the construction shed had been swept and tidied and a long trestle table with benches on each side and a chair at the head and the foot had been set up. The polished copper chafing dishes, one at each end of the table, gleamed richly pink in the reflected light from the white tablecloth, while the expanse between was relieved by the two salad bowls with their cool, brittle contents of yellow, green, and scarlet. In the measured center of the table rested a three-foot scale model of the Beetle Whaleboat, the acknowledged acme for craft of her kind. The big tub of chopped ice stood in a corner in the shade, the gilt-capped necks of the black champagne bottles sticking out invitingly.
Soon after twelve our first guest, Mrs. Beetle, arrived in the shop, leading a troop of boys and girls, all “bearing gifts” — loaves of waterbread so light of heart that they were straitjacketed in a thick, brittle, glazed crust; pats of primrose-colored butter; a pair of New York State cheeses mellowed by some secret process, and several jars of her celebrated chowchow.
Within fifteen minutes a host of friends — twenty-two in all — were on hand and none without some offering. Job Almy, the sailmaker, had made a beautifully knotted bottle net to protect us against flying splinters when the actual christening of the Fox took place. John Sherman, who had dubbed out with his adze and broadaxe the keel, stem, and sternpost, brought a blue bowl of damson plums. With Aunt Rachel, our beloved Quakeress, in a pearl-gray dress, poke bonnet, and white, lacy shawl, came Joshua, her coachman, carrying a black and gold lacquered tray on which was a jar of candied ginger surrounded with lemon meringue tartlets shaped and sized to be handled whole — a single mouthful. And that our other senses beside taste might be titillated, Obed Handy, the shipsmith, had fetched his accordion; while the shop itself, warmed by the midday sun, contributed delicious wafts of fragrance from the barrels of white cedar shavings we had swept from the floor.
Then the Skipper led Aunt Rachel to her chair at the head of the table and took his place at the foot; a champagne cork popped; everyone else found a seat, and thumblings hot from the chafing dishes began to flow with the sun. If there had been any unease among that various company, it was driven away by this time — not to return; and if kindliness and harmony among the sponsors at a launching have influence on the fortunes of a ship, the Fox was blessed that day.
But inexorably the sun sloped toward the west, the tide rose, and the moment came for us to leave the shop and perform the ceremony for which we’d gathered. When we were all on our feet, but before a move had been made toward the door, the Skipper signed to Golcanda, and that gray-haired Kanaka whaleman and boss caulker immediately filled the cavernous building with the music of his sweet, true, falsetto voice. His choice of songs that day was “Rolling Home,” the English chantey that commences : —
For it’s time for us to go.
And such is the effect of the spirit of the grape, when accompanied by good food and friendly faces, that all hands put their hearts into “Rolling Home” when Obed pumped his bellows to lead the chorus. Every eye glistened with sentiment as the final “Rolling Home, dear land to thee” faded and we filed out into the sunshine to form a semicircle round the bows of the Fox.
At this moment the Skipper whispered to me, “ You climb aboard and go down with her.” Then, turning to Aunt Rachel, he gave her a hand up onto a low trestle that raised her to the level of the boat’s deck. Here she stood above the rest of the company, her gentle old face lighted with the excitement of what she was about to do. Taking the bottle in its net that Job handed to her, and with a tinge of color in her cheeks, she raised it, brought it down smartly with a crack on the bow chock, and as the foam sprayed out and ran creaming down the stem she called out: —
“I christen thee Fox — little ship; and may thee always run as swiftly and as cannily as thy namesake, Reynard! ”
With the report of the bursting bottle I felt a tremor run through the Fox as I stood expectant in the cockpit — and in another moment she and I were trundling down the beach to be lifted presently from the cradle, as if by strong arms, and lie gently rocking on the clear water of the Acushnct estuary.
It took a minute or two for me to recover my breath from the crowding events of this faultless launching and to realize that a “singlehander” makes inordinate and constant demands on her crew. With what speed my unfamiliarity with the new gear would allow, I loosed the sails, hoisted them, and ran the house flag to the mainmast head — at which moment came the boom of a cannon. Startled, I looked toward the Yard, to find it hidden in a cloud of white smoke which, drifting slowly to leeward, finally revealed my friends lined up along the beach, wavingme farewell — with the Skipper a little apart, his outflung arm plainly signaling that the Fox and I were to make the trial trip alone. And so with sheets trimmed for a reach out to the Bay the little ship gathered headway, while I was exalted by this further proof of the Skipper’s deep and understanding generosity.