Captain Tom: A Resurrection.
Harper's New Monthly Magazine 20 (119): 620-628
IN one of his letters to Coleridge, Charles Lamb raises the interesting question, "Whether an immortal and amenable soul may not come to be damned at last, and the man never suspect it beforehand?" Which starts in a thoughtful mind the farther query "How long could a man live after he was thus dead and damned?"
To the latter question, I suppose that only a proximately correct answer could be given, viz.: It depends, first, upon what manner of soul the dead man has; and, secondly, perhaps, upon what manner of body he has.
That there are men thus insensibly dead I consider beyond a doubt. I meet such frequently in Broadway and Wall Street (in which last place they exhibit a degree of movement which is horrid enough to me who know their case); and to convince the skeptical reader, I propose to relate here some singular circumstances in the life of one of these Dead Men, who—to set my theory beyond a doubt—has but lately suffered a resurrection: for how can there be a resurrection if death have not foregone?
When Tom Baker had attained the mature age of ten years he began to strike out for himself. This was necessary, because Tom’s father, who should have struck out for him, was dead. Uncle Amaziah Baker was a man who had all his life "sailed very near the wind," as they say on the Cape of one who finds his expenses threatening continually to exceed his income; and who, in consequence, affects patched trowsers, darned socks, second-hand fish-boots, and a hat which was in fashion a good many years ago, i.e., when he was married. The fact is, Uncle Amaziah was an unlucky man; and to be a fisherman and unlucky: surely nothing could be unluckier than that.
Uncle Amaziah had what is facetiously, but unfeelingly, called "a large wife and several small children." The large wife was a blessing to him; for she helped the income more than she did the outlay, being not only large but healthy, smart, frugal, and a scold. The children were—well, the children were put to bed at seven o’clock, to be out of the way, and blessed their stars when they got their little stomachs full without a scolding.
Uncle Amaziah, as I have already said, was notoriously unlucky. In his youth he had tried hard to be a smart fisherman. He was to have a vessel when he was twenty-two, and on the strength of that prospect fell desperately in love with Prudence Robbins, who didn’t love him in return, and told him so at his special request. Whereupon Amaziah turned about and offered his wounded heart and prospective fishing-schooner to Elmira Rogers; and she, having sometime before experienced a hankering after him, incontinently took him up—which, being a large woman while he was a smallish man, she was well able to do.
When Amaziah got his schooner Elmira got her Amaziah. Whether he came to her with a whole heart is more than I can tell. He had a whole coat, and a whole week’s holiday, and then went to live at his father-in-law’s, who liked his son-in-law so well that he presently built him a small house a mile off, into which the young couple moved when Captain Amaziah came home for the winter.
I am afraid I shall again have to state the fact that Captain Amaziah Baker was an unlucky man. He had a new vessel, he had a new crew, he had brand spanking new fish-gear; but he had his old luck. When the first-fare men came in from the Banks, he was at the tail of the heap; and he spent so much time in washing out his fish, and bewailing his ill-luck, careening his vessel and proving that Heaven had a spite against him, that the owners lost all patience with him, and all hope of their second fare. In which last they were not disappointed; for he came back from the Banks on Thanksgiving Day, and hadn’t wet his salt! However, as he himself remarked to an irate shoresman: "We’m not so bad off arter all; got more fish than Jonathan Young, ‘nd there ain’t no sharper feller ‘n he on the Cape."
Now, when you hear an unlucky fisherman comforting himself at the expense of an unluckier, you may guess that his jig’s up.
"‘Tain’t whistlin’ makes the plow go," said Uncle Shubael, from whom I had these preliminary facts; "Captain Amaziah was willin’ enough; but wishers ‘nd woulders makes poor housekeepers, ‘nd sayin’ ‘nd doin’s two things. Ef young men mean to git along these days, they must fly ‘round, ‘n’ study ‘n’ du all in one breath. It’s all very fine fur the Captain to work hard, but airly up may be never the nearer, ‘nd forecast’s better'n work-hard any day; ‘n’ thet’s what Amaziah never hed. But ye can’t make a foghorn out of a pig’s tail; the squeal ain’t in that end, ye know. He allers wus right down onlucky, ‘nd as my old grand’ther used to say, them thet’s born under a three ha’penny star ‘ll never be wurth two-pence. He warn’t jest slow, but he couldn’t never strike when the iron was het. When he sailed other folks fished, ‘nd when he hove to the fish was always gone. He usen’t to keep with the fleet, ‘nd thet’s a sign o’ conceit in a young man. When he lost he alays put on a smooth face, ‘n’ said ‘good enough;’ but good enough’s a poor shoat, ‘n’ though good’s good, better’s better, I think. ‘Tain’t a good sign when a young feller gits so’s’t he kin stan’ it to be tail o’ the heap; ‘nd no wonder Amaziah stuck there; fur though a man’s friends may help along fur a while, every herrin’s got to hang to his own gills: so what’s the use? Them thet’s got shall hev, the Bible says, ‘nd, by Godfrey, them thet’s got luck kin hev any thing else. Thet’s what I’ve found."
In short, to put an end to Uncle Shubael’s twaddle, Amaziah went on from bad to worse, lost his schooner on the rocks off Manhegan; had to go mate of another man’s coaster all winter—no joke, I assure you, to go up and down our ice-bound coast from Thanksgiving to Mayday, do all the work and have none of the credit —finally, fell to be cook of a mackerel-catcher, and eked out his wretched subsistence by digging clams on the beach all winter, at six dollars a barrel, frozen fingers thrown in. He worked hard enough, but got to be dreadfully slow—or, to put it in the Cape vernacular, "it took him a of long time to go an hour.’ He had a knack of being too late for every thing, and another knack of always blaming Providence or some of his acquaintance for this fatality. Finally, after losing all his friends, and every thing else he could lose, he died and was buried, fully convinced to the last moment of his existence that all his misfortunes were owing to Prudence Robbins refusing him; from the time of which rejection he dated his uselessness. Peace to his bones! For such as he there is no resurrection—I mean, of course, in this life. It must have been a great relief to him to leave this world, and it certainly was to his Elmira, who, though she probably liked him from mere force of habit, had long ceased to hanker after him.
Did it ever occur to you to inquire what was the making of one of your smart men? I don't mean a genius, but a Yankee; a man for any occasion, who is never too late, and makes even a losing speculation pay him something? Nine times in ten such a man has had an energetic scold of a mother, and a do-less father. So it was with Tom—to whom I am right glad to return after this dreary story of his father.
When Amaziah had the good fortune to die—the only streak of real luck in his miserable failure of a life—he left Mrs. Elmira with five children to take care of. It was better than if she if had died and left the five to him; but yet it was a hard case. She was not sorry to have the little Tom at least support himself, and this he began to do immediately, by becoming cook of a coaster trading between Boston and New York. Here he was provided for, and could take his great monthly six dollars to his mother, who gave him instead good counsel, and, when he needed them, new clothes, ingeniously contrived out of his father’s old ones.
Tom had what the Cape men call "‘nuity," which means what the rest of America calls "go-a-headativeness"—a barbarous word which no nation would coin that did not find it easier to coin money than words. Little as he was, he had felt the multifarious stings of poverty, and now saw the world open before him: his oyster, whose meat he meant surely to taste. And so well did he use his opportunities that at twenty-three he was mate of a China-trader, and at twenty-six captain and part-owner of one of the finest Indiamen out of Boston.
I have not time to recount here the various fortunes of these intermediate days, but know that his native shrewdness never failed him from the day when, a little shaver of twelve years, he begged a cabin-boy’s berth with Captain Nickerson, and, by some occult trickery of bargaining which I think he could not himself have explained, got a dollar more per month wages than day that close-fisted gentleman had intended to give him, to the day when first he was hailed as Captain Tom.
You are not to think that he achieved his good fortune without labor. He was not only honest and faithful; he was ever at his post, and always contriving to understand some trick of steering, or stowing, or navigation, which was considerably beyond his years, and to be in the very place where a better man was urgently needed—whereupon Tom incontinently himself that better man. Reliable servants are always rare, as your wife will tell you, friendly reader, if you have not discovered it for yourself; and it did not a little for Tom that in his various voyages his masters could always put their hands on him when they wanted anybody. Moreover, Tom had that kind of spirit which regards the thing just now in hand the best thing in the world. When in his boyhood he swept the ship’s decks, he swept as though sweeping were the very noblest work to which the human body and soul could be put; and swept so clean that he wrung reluctant praises from the oldest growler of the forecastle. In fact, Tom was a new broom all the while—and a new broom which does not get old is almost as good as a goose that lays golden eggs. (Only, a man might be something more and better than even a new broom.)
Then as he grew up his watch below was devoted to books. Novels sometimes, perhaps, though novels he did not grow to love; they told him nothing. Bowditch rather, and the Nautical Almanac, and M’Culloch’s ponderous Dictionary of Commerce, which last was to him the most interesting of books. For he never forgot that some day he was to be captain—and in those four hours of rest he got his education. He knew all about the odd corners of the world; knew how, where, and in what quantities the commercial staples are produced and used; and one day—it was before he was eighteen—surprised Captain Kelley Howes, busy planning out a new voyage, by the confident announcement that if he would take a cargo of codfish to the Cayenne he would make money.
"Pooh! pooh!" said the Captain. "Go about your business, my boy. Don’t be impertinent."
"Hold on," cried the owner, who was present, conferring with the Captain. "What do you mean by such impertinence, Sir—offering advice to your master? Explain. Why do you want fish sent down to French Guiana?"
"They’re Catholics down there, Sir, and they have slaves besides; all Catholics eat fish on Friday, and salt fish is cheaper than meat, in any hot country, for slave-food," answered Tom, sententiously, his face burning at the reproof and his own audacity.
"That'll do! Now clear out, Master Philosopher," said Mr. Sleeper, pushing him off the quarter-deck. But he turned to his Captain, and said, gravely, "You must take care of that lad; some day I’ll give him a ship."
He heard nothing farther of his impertinent suggestion, but the brig Cerito went down to the Spanish main with a load of dried cod, and on her next voyage Tom was her second mate.
They don’t doubt of themselves, these Cape boys. I dare say when Tom was twelve he felt himself equal to the command of a seventy-four-gun ship; and what is more, trusting to luck and his native shrewdness, would have carried her safely round the world. When first he was second mate he got himself, by some foolish bragging, a reputation for speaking Spanish. Now the brig was bound to Palermo, and losing a spar on the outward passage, put into Port Mahon to get it replaced. Away goes the Captain to order his yard, but finds the ship-builder
innocent of the English language.
"Send the second mate this way," cried the skipper; "he’ll talk to him."
Whereupon enter Tom, with inward trepidation, but much outward brass.
"Tell him I want a new main-yard, and must have it by to-morrow evening."
TOM (to the Spaniard, with a familiar air).
"Senor, roundy come roundy, and squary come squary: you make a main-yard for John Ingletary?"
SPANIARD (amazed). "No intendez" (I don’t understand).
TOM (to skipper, with virteous indignation). "He says, not in ten days, Sir."
SKIPPER (enraged). "Tell him to go to H—alifax. We’ll hunt up some other man."
And Tom’s luck did not fail him; for the next sparmaker they addressed understood English. Now the point and moral of this incident lies here: Tom, having once successfully cheated, did not trust the devil again, but sat himself down to the study of Spanish, and, by the help of an Andalusian shipmate, could both read and speak it by the next time he passed Gibraltar. A duller fellow would have chuckled over his escape, tried it again, and failed miserably.
When Prudence Robbins gave to Uncle Amaziah that fatal blow which sent him staggering into the arms of Elmira Rogers, and, as he believed, crippled him for the balance of his life, one of her motives was this: she loved somebody else. Said somebody was named Isaiah Crowell; and the marriage of Isaiah and Prudence, which took place in due course of courtship, resulted in: little money, considerable happiness, and one daughter, named Mehetabel.
Now one of the earliest play-mates of little "Hetty" was Tom Baker—at that time little bigger. I suppose it was out of some latent kindness for the man who had once offered her all the best of men can offer a woman that Mrs. Prudence showed an especial regard for little Tom, whose happiest hours were spent beneath her roof—who, as Uncle Amaziah once remarked, should have been his mother. The little Mehetabel was a pretty child, and Tom’s earliest
love affair had her for its object. In fact, until he went to sea, he used to call her his little wife, and when he returned from his voyages he always brought something—a bright handkerchief, a box of figs, a string of coral, some gay sailor gift, redolent of foreign shores—for her; who, meantime, grew persistently prettier, till, at the age of eighteen, she had a face which would have been rarely out of Tom Baker’s memory had not business and the thoughts of his career occupied the foremost and most important place there. But I am sure Mehetabel got more of his thoughts than any thing else but business. He no longer dared call her his little wife, and, indeed, got his ears boxed, when, coming home one day, he demanded his usual kiss.
"She’d show him that he could not take such liberties with young ladies on the Cape, whatever Mister Impudence might do to the tawny young women he met on his voyages;" wherein she wronged poor Tom sadly, for a more faithful lover (of business and Mehetabel) could not have been, and his career and her fair image kept him unusually free from all temptation of foreign kisses.
Poor Tom! with his sailor innocence of woman s wiles, he was considerably taken aback. Confidant of his own love, he had—business-like —taken hers for granted, and had predetermined not to ask formally for her till he got his ship. And now—now, when he felt like immediately having his fate decided for him, he did not dare.
Result: what is commonly known as a lover’s quarrel. Tom sulky: Mehetabel pouting. Tom savage: "Het" ingeniously cruel. Tom determined to go home from singing-school with Het’s aversion, Mercy Nickerson: "Het" triumphantly ahead, laughing and talking to Enoch Rogers, Tom’s second cousin—a first-class stupid, whom he had already once thrashed for attentions to Mehetabel. Whereupon Tom, humbled, bit the dust, and tried to mollify the saucy beauty by a present of his best Canton silk handkerchief, which was received with a toss of the beautiful head, and a look of the wicked gray eyes, which said, plainly, "I’ll show you, Mister Impudence."
This time Tom was chief mate. They were bound on a long voyage, and the poor fellow finally determined to tell his love and know his fate before he sailed. What long hours he spent in devising the scene in which the important revelation was to be made! How he determined each day, as his sailing-day drew near, that now, this evening, before he slept, all should be over! How, neglecting the while even the sacred thoughts of business, he rehearsed to himself, shaving before his little round pocket-glass, or walking alone among the scrub pines on the sand-beach, or sailing his boat across the bay, the very words in which he would ask for the great prize! And then, when all was arranged —when the very manner in which the subject of subjects should be introduced was ingeniously
devised, and the fatal trap was ready to he sprung—behold! the victim was off! She had a headache, or she had promised to go out with Enoch, or she preferred to stay at home with father and mother: but plainly she had some instinctive perception of what was coming, and avoided it, as women know how to avoid what they do not wish to meet. Day after day Tom lingered in torture, till at last he must be off; and, going over to say farewell to Mrs. Prudence and her daughter, now firmly determined to bring matters to some distinct issue, he found Miss Mehetabel—gone to Hyannis to spend a week!
"She’ll be sorry not to have bid you good-by, Tom," said kind Mrs. Crowell; and with this morsel of cold comfort he was obliged to take off his wounded heart Canton-ward.
To tell the truth Mehetabel did not love any one—but especially not him—and she had just begun to discover that fact. She had indeed "liked him well enough"—oh, fatal phrase to lovers!—in that girlhood which was just now ripening into dangerous womanhood. That is to say, he was her earliest playmate, and she was always glad to see him. But in these last years Tom’s sober business face, on which the untimely cares and eager ambitions of his life had written their hard lines too early, had lost its charm for her. I have noticed that your thoroughly lucky man, who rushes on through the world, conquering and to conquer, mastering every opposing circumstance, winning every point on which he sets his fancy, scarce ever gains the woman’s heart he loves. For women have an instinctive horror of worldliness—an instinctive jealousy which closes their hearts against the man who may in after-life care less for wife and babies than for bank stock, and live more in Wall Street than in the bosom of his family. "Thou shalt have no other love but mine," says every true woman’s heart; and so when your conquering hero confidently assails this last frail fortress of a woman’s heart, he finds it impregnable—to him.
So it was with Tom; and while he was going on from luck to luck, and saw himself now presently to be not only rich but honored—while he was eagerly grasping all he could of that good which was to him supreme, behold, Mehetabel was lost to him forever.
There came home one day from sea one Farley Burgess, of whom strange stories were told on the Cape. He had been mate of a ship bound to Rio, and on the outward passage his vessel had foundered and sunk. For many days they floated about, in a small boat, at the mercy of the winds and waves; slowly perishing of hunger and thirst; at last lifting ravenous eyes to each other, with dreadful thoughts of what should come to-morrow. Till one glad morning the wretched crew were picked up by a passing ship. Now, in all these days of heaviest trial, young Burgess had been the life of his companions, keeping up their fainting hopes, denying himself a part of even his small share of bread and water to comfort his dying captain ; in all things a brave, self-sacrificing, hopeful soul. His shipmates did not speak of him but with tears in their honest eyes. And now he was come home, penniless, almost shirtless, to gain some strength to tempt the deep once more.
I suppose you think they made a hero of him —those staid old Cape folk? Not they. Heroism is too common with them for that.
"Well, Burgess," said Captain Young, "I hearn ye had bad luck, boy?"
"Yes, Sir; not so bad’s it might ha’ been, though."
"Well, well, better luck next time. Heard you held yourself like a man, though. That’s right. Want to come mackereling with me?"
That was Farley Burgess’s welcome home. From the Cape men, at least; who appreciate manliness readily enough, but having it also in their own bones, don’t fling up their hats and make speeches when one of their fellows has done his duty man fashion. But the Cape women—God bless them!—in their quiet hearts Farley Burgess found such welcome that he had never in his life seen so many bright eyes as now rested upon his patched shirt and starved face.
And brightest of all were the gray eyes of Mehetabel Crowell.
Tom’s luck was nothing against this man’s misfortunes. Tom’s smart looks and Canton handkerchiefs stood no chance against Farley’s torn clothes and sea-washed face.
And so Tom Baker’s fate was decided in his absence.
When he came home Farley and Mehetabel were betrothed. When they should be married was a question of time and luck; for on the Cape young folks must have a house and garden spot of their own before their marriage is like to have the applause of a prudent and comfort-loving public, which has the fear of poverty ever before its eyes.
Tom came home with an easy, self-satisfied swagger, excusable enough in one who at twenty-six, and without help of rich friends, has achieved the command of an Indiaman. This time a crape shawl was brought for Miss Mehetabel’s acceptance; and when offered, was kindly declined.
"Why? It was not seemly for a young girl to accept such presents even from a good friend, as Tom was, and, she hoped, always would be," was Het’s timid explanation.
Whereupon Tom refused longer to be called friend, and bluntly demanded right to a dearer title.
And then it all came out. How Mehetabel had always liked Tom, and always would. How she loved some one else. How she had never loved him. "Had she ever told him she did?" she asked, wickedly unable to restrain this little stinging reproof to one who had, it seemed to her, been all too confident of a love which he had taken little care to gain, except by gifts; and Het’s cheeks glowed, and her heart grew scornful, as the thought came that perhaps this proud young sultan thought a Canton handkerchief guerdon enough of love.
"And who is the happy man, Miss Mehetabel ?" asked Torn, with a quite perceptible sneer, when he found speech of his rage and surprise.
"Tom, "cried Het, bursting into tears, "don’t speak so to me! What have I done that you must look so? Did I know? Did you ever ask me to love you? I never knew you loved any one better than your ship and your voyage. And if I do love Fancy Burgess, and he loves me, there’s no reason you should be mad!"
"Farley Burgess, eh?" said Tom, stung beyond self-possession; "well, I wish you joy of Mr. Farley Burgess, that’s all. Good-by!
And he left poor Mehetabel sobbing, and went home to his little room, locked himself in, and there silently surveyed his defeat.
It strikes men differently, this accident which had just now befallen Captain Tom. (For an accident I must call it, seeing that women are the most inconsistent and uncertain of created beings.) I have known a man thoroughly humbled by a rejection. Have seen him after, a little sadder, a little lonelier perhaps, but also a great deal tenderer, wiser, manlier; acquiescing in his fate; acknowledging that he was not worthy this divine blessing of a true woman's love; but cherishing her memory ever after with a love purer, kinder, nobler, because less selfish than before: such a love as many a Benedick rises to only after years of trial and suffering have cleansed him and made him pure. Giving thereafter to all the world, but especially to all pure women and little children, this wealth of love which she could afford to do without, and growing into genial old bachelorhood with the fine grace of a loving heart ever surrounding and brightening his life.
Captain Tom was another manner of man. The bitterness of death was in his heart as he paced the narrow floor of his little room. He gnashed his teeth, and swore great oaths, redolent of tar, great oaths of vengeance for this his first defeat in life. There is no finer fellow in the world than your prosperous go-ahead man—while fortune favors him, that is. He acquits himself of life with a graceful swing which captivates all beholders—of the male sex particularly; finds it easy enough to be witty or generous; and standing at the top, flings down with gracious complaisance his penny or his good word to the poor devils below. Every man gives him his hand, and by very virtue of his success he gains the air which wins him greater luck. But beware of this man’s first defeat. Napoleon carries all before him till Waterloo, and then— never was so mean and undignified a prisoner as he.
Tom gnashed his teeth in impotent rage. How could he be revenged? and how could he live without his satisfaction? To thrash Farley Burgess was of course the first thought. But then—setting aside the chance that he might not succeed in this so very well—it occurred that this would only make him a laughing-stock to his friends. To marry some one else? Tom smiled sardonically, and vowed eternal hatred, not to this one woman alone, but to all the tribe! What should he do? What could he do? that was the worst.
Pondering which things, he opened a letter from his owner's, which that afternoon’s mail had brought from Boston. And as he read his face lit up with a smile so devilish in its malignity that now indeed it was evident he had found his revenge.
And so he had. The letter related that his ship was nearly ready. That he would please report himself in Boston in one week from date. That if he could pick up at home three or four good boys it would be well to ship them. That probably Mr. Farley Burgess, whom the owners had engaged as second mate, would be able to give him some assistance in this. That said Burgess had been some time waiting for a berth, and as they knew him to be a reliable and intelligent man, they trusted Captain Baker would be pleased with his second officer. That they remained his obedient servants.
"D— him," muttered Captain Tom, crushing the letter in his hand, "I’ve got him now. "
Tom had him sure enough. He was abundantly satisfied—so he wrote the owners—and as for Farley, even if he had not been satisfied, which, knowing nothing of the storm he had raised in his Captain’s heart, was not the case, Tom knew he would not back out.
I need not stop to recount all the guileless ways in which poor Mehetabel sought to mollify the rage of her lost lover—to show him what he would by no means see, that he alone was in fault; to win from him one good word, or insinuate into his hard heart one kindly thought of her he had so professed to love. Tom cherished his hatred, his sense of injury received and revenge due, as men always cherish the devil when he has secured a snug corner in their hearts. "His old luck had not failed him yet," he said to himself "for what could be luckier than to have his arch-enemy at this vantage?"
Poor Mehetabel had little comfort of her love. For she knew, better than you do, probably, fair reader, how thoroughly indeed Tom had Burgess in his power. At best the second mate of a ship is only the chief drudge. The first on deck and the last to leave it; the first to put his hand to every mean toil; the first to leap to every place of peril; the first to be blamed if any thing goes wrong; the last to receive credit if all goes right. It is no small matter to hold creditably this post, which demands, for the wages of a porter, all the manual skill of the finest old sailor; all the energy and endurance of a dray horse; all the judgment, knowledge, and fertility of resource necessary to command a seventy-four. Then consider that the autocrat who holds in his hands the few morsels of comfort left to this luckless mortal is his deadly enemy, and has not only power and will, but time, place, and opportunity, to wreak upon him every small indignity, every discomforting annoyance which the devil of ingenuity can prompt. No wonder poor Mehetabel carried her anxious face over to old Mrs. Baker’s, and humbled herself in vain efforts to make it up with Tom.
And so the good ship Melchior sailed.
Do you know what they call "hazing" at sea? Hazing is the art of tormenting systematized; it is making a man unhappy without breaking his bones; it is adroitly robbing him of every privilege and comfort which the law does not in so many words secure him; heaping upon him every indignity short of that last point where even prudent men come to blows; artfully indulging every other man that this man’s complaints may find no hackers: in short, it is making of the narrow decks of an Indiaman such a hell that many a good man has been hazed over-board to cool his agony in a watery grave; and many another, less lucky, has been hazed into murdering his hazer—whereupon the majesty of the law steps in and virtuously strings him up. This is hazing. They say our American captains are good at it. I have known one or two who were. There was Captain Carver—but he was a fool.
And to this work Captain Tom —dead and damned if ever a living man was in this world— now devoted long days and studious nights. The sore which festered at his heart left him no peace, no rest, no joy. His black face, not scowling, but carrying ever a fine devilish sneer, cast its gloom even to the bows of the old ship, whose good heart of oak had surely never before carried such an infernal load as this.
And truly he hazed Farley Burgess.
The Highland light was not yet out of sight when the work began. The foretop-sail was to be reefed, and Captain Tom, well knowing that if at this first reefing match the second mate did not get his weather earing he would he disgraced forever with the crew, by various subterfuges kept him aft till the gear was hauled out and the men were in the rigging. This time, though, Farley was too much for him, for, springing on the yard, he ran out over the men’s heads, to their no slight admiration, and took his place of honor.
But this was only a beginning, and Captain Tom was not the man to he defeated on his own deck. Day and night he found fault. If the log was not written up at the exact time; if the ship was steered badly; if too much or too little sail was made; if the wind changed suddenly, and she was not at once put about, down he came on the second mate. He refused new rope, and when a halyard carried away called Mr. Burgess to account. He deprived the morning watch of their six o’clock coffee, and contrived that the second mate should hear the blame. The starboard watch always holy-stoned the decks—by his secret orders to Burgess—while the mate’s watch simply washed down; and thus poor Burgess fell into bad odor with his crew as one who tried to "curry favor" with the Captain. He curry favor! He lingered over his dinner, in pleasant converse with the mate, knowing that meantime the second mate’s dinner was spoiling. Shall I tell you more of the small, maddening tyrannies of the sea? No; let it suffice that the devil need want no better position to wreak his spite on any poor human soul than this of Captain Tom’s: autocrat of an India-man; lord of all he surveys; holding a power of more than life and death over the wretches who must go when he says go, come when he says come, and stand silent when his lordship, moved by indigestion, or a broken night’s slumber, vents his spleen upon them.
Let it suffice, that, whatever artifice any malignant genius could suggest, Captain Tom unscrupulously used to bring his second mate into contempt, and to make his life thoroughly wretched. Always stopping short, remember, at that point—very far off, indeed, on shipboard—where resistance becomes a virtue: though not even then a lawful virtue. For bear in mind that, under our blessed laws, your Captain may starve you, may curse you, may beat you, may force you to peril your life beyond hope of salvation, and you may not resist—may not even remonstrate. You may sue for damages—that is, if you survive, and your tyrant does not leave the ship at Sandy Hook, and disappear till you have gone to sea again to keep bread in your mouth, as some of our "Bully" New York captains used to do, and do now, for aught I know.
And Farley Burgess bore it all. Patiently, silently: only not defiantly, for he felt that if it once came to defiance, actual battle would he imminent—and then—Mehetabel. How he repined over the hard fate which tied his hands, and bound him, an honorable brave man, every inch a sailor, to bear, unresisting, the contumely of such a master! Once, indeed, he ventured on a word. They lay in Canton River, opposite Whamnpon; and Farley said,
"Captain Baker, you don’t seem to be satisfied with me."
"Yes, Sir," replied Tom, with a gleam of malignant triumph in his eyes, "I am satisfied; why?"
"You don’t show it, Sir; and I have to say that if you want to be rid of me, you need only make out my discharge."
"No, Sir; if you don’t like your berth you may desert. I don’t think I shall look for you. But I’m satisfied." And the cool villain turned away.
Of course Burgess could not desert, and thus stain his fair fame at home with bride and owners.
The passage home was just as bad. There was no relenting in Captain Tom, who, to tell the truth, was getting such a habit of abusing his second mate that he would have found it difficult to leave off. Day by day his heart grew blacker with the hate he so carefully nourished. Day by day as he himself grew more wretched, he found more pleasure in hazing Burgess. But even a passage home must come to an end. I scarce know what was in these men’s hearts, toward each other, as they approached once more their native shores. Captain Tom thought only of the present, and probably gave no heed to the day of reckoning which was approaching. And Burgess? "I’ll thrash this beast till every bone of his body cries for mercy." This was what honest Farley Burgess said to himself fifty times a day, counting eagerly every mile the good ship bore him on his way to liberty and revenge. For even an honorable brave man may be imbruted by such persistent devilishness as Captain Tom’s.
And now they near the land. Still no let-up from Captain Tom. And now they see the land, the old Highland of Cape Cod; and to-morrow Parley Burgess means, "God willing," to give this his tyrant such a warning as will go far to make a man of him, if he survives.
They had been slowly drifting all night, and just caught a glimpse of the land in the dim distance, as the morning sun rose fiery out of the ocean and plunged into the other sea, of clouds, which waited his appearance to hang out their colors of fierce portentous scarlet.
"Sunrise red in the morning,
Sailors take warning, "
chanted old Harry Hill, a sturdy croaker of the forecastle, who, by dint of persistently foretelling ill-luck, had now and then got himself the reputation of a prophet.
"Never heed the warning," replied Burgess. To-morrow night you’ll sleep softer than you’ve done this year past, old Harry, in your snug Sailors’ Home."
All day they drifted down upon the land—no wind, but only a rapid tide setting the ship with no small speed along the bending shore, till at last it seemed they must round the Race, and drift past Wood End, fairly into Provincetown harbor.
Better they had.
Toward night a slight breeze was felt from the southward, and spreading all studding-sails, threatening as it looked, Captain Tom urged the good ship on.
But scarce were the studding-sails set when the breeze chopped round to the north. The great white clouds which had rolled over and over along the horizon all day, rose, as by magic, and covered the whole sky; the wind came in sharp puffs, each stronger than the last; and by the time the topsails were close reefed there blew a gale from the north, beneath which the old ship lay down almost to her beam ends.
When they had once more time to look round, they found themselves where they should not have been caught in this gale. The land of the Cape trends by a long slow curve from the Highland light to the west and south; and by a shorter semicircle, from the Race, forms the landlocked harbor of Provincetown. Between the Race and the Highland is a stretch of high bluff, with a narrow beach running along its foot, and this, from its shape, is known to navigators as the "back" of the Cape—the place where many a good homeward-bound ship has laid her bones to bleach. Now, while the Melchior lay becalmed, the tide, which runs along here like a millrace, had set her imperceptibly past the Race, and left her with this fatal "back" dead under her lea.
There was no time for deliberation. Putting the ship on the port tack, Captain Tom shook a reef out of his main and foretop sails, set his whole foresail and reefed main-sail, and sending the best man to the helm, sought to drive her past the bluff point which now loomed fearfully near, through the dark gloom of the night.
"If only the tide favored us," sighed he to himself. But the deadly tide of the Race favors no man.
On she forged, groaning grievously under the tremendous pressure of her canvas, which sent her headlong into vast seas, each one of which it seemed must be her tomb. The men held on about the quarter-deck—there was no living, forward— and with set faces awaited the event, powerless to do more. The officers stood aft, watching the helmsman; scanning close the sails and rigging, fearful lest some over-strained piece of cordage might give way and plunge all into ruin. Captain Tom, silent, grim, every nerve braced, every sense alive to the occasion, held by the mizzen rigging, now watching the red glare of the light, which shone almost down upon his decks, now commanding the helmsman to "ease her when she pitches—you’ll have the masts out of her next !"—as though old harry Hill had not steered a frigate ere now, in as tight a place as this.
"We don’t gain much, Sir," shouted Mr. Falconer, the chief mate, in the Captain’s ear, pointing to the high bluff which already seemed overtopping the masts, and from whose edge the fearful glare of the light-house light seemed calmly eying them, as some one eyed Polyphemus waiting for the prey which should be surely his.
"No, Sir, we lose," was Captain Tom’s reply; "set the mizzen topsail, close-reefed, and go out, some one, and loose the jib!"
The men looked aghast. Five or six sprang to prepare the mizzen topsail; but no one moved forward.
"Loose the jib! d’ye hear there? What are ye waiting for ?" shouted Tom, chafing at the delay.
"No man can lie out on that boom and live, Sir," said an old seaman, touching his forelock; and as he spoke a solid green sea boarded her over the bows, submerging bowsprit and jib-boom, and swept aft an avalanche of water, bearing before it caboose, water-casks, every thing movable on deck—ready witness to the impossibility.
"Loose the jib, I tell ye !" shouted Captain Tom. "‘Who says can’t here? Let me hear it once!"
But as he spoke a form was seen struggling out on the bowsprit, and, bewildered and cowed, the crew lay forward to hoist away. In the din of waters no voice could be heard, and no soul knew who was the daring fellow who had risked all at their mad Captain’s word, till, as her bows were lifted on a vast wave, Farley Burgess made one mighty leap from the bowsprit end, and landed fairly on the top-gallant forecastle. So the jib was set.
And still the fiery eye looks down upon them through the storm, calm, inscrutable as fate, in the midst of the raging gale, only waiting, waiting for the hapless prey which vainly struggles in the toils. And now the hollow boom of the surf becomes dimly audible amidst the groaning and creaking of the timbers, the wild shrieking of the gale, and the fierce rush of the mighty sea.
"I hear it !" shrieked Captain Tom to his mate, "I hear it! But if all holds we’ll drive her by yet!" And standing on his own deck there, he looked, in this last extremity, happier, better, than he had looked or felt these many months.
If all holds! But what is that? With a sound as of a sudden thunder-crash, the brand new main-topsail splits, and in a moment is blown into a hundred thousand shreds.
"Mind your helm! Ease her! Ease her now!"
Too late! No human hand can ease her now. The surf has her; and as she feels the fierce, passionate jerk of the under-tow, as she is pitched, and tossed, and twisted in the relentless grasp, a mere chip in this maelstrom, a straw in the torrent of Niagara, Captain Tom’s voice is heard, ringing out above even this thunderous roar, "Hold fast, every body!"
And none too soon. For, rising for the last time in her life on a vast, towering, foam-topped billow, the good old ship is hurled crashing to her doom. Down, down, down! Will she never stop? It is but half a second: it seems many minutes to those who, with clenched teeth and streaming hair, cling to the shrouds, till, with a shock as of two planets meeting, she strikes the beach!
"God help my poor men !" sobbed Captain Tom, as he felt himself torn from his firm grasp of the rigging, Eand slung far into the seething caldron of waters; slung out into the surf, where, for a moment striking out, there comes a great blinding shock, as though his head were splitting, and then Captain Tom closes his eyes, folds his hands, and knows no more.
Meantime, a more fortunate wave had cast six half-drowned men upon the narrow beach; to whom, just collecting their scattered senses, crawled slowly the second mate.
"How many are we here? Thank God!" exclaimed he. Then scarce waiting to get a little breath, he gathered himself to the rescue of his drowning shipmates.
"Here, hold this line." With wise forethought Burgess had tied about his body a small strong line of considerable length, and with this about him, gathering a few hasty breaths of spray-laden air, he now rushed back into the roaring surf, intent on saving whom he might; but first of all his enemy—his Captain.
Once he returns, bearing the lifeless body of the steward.
A second time, and the boiling surge gives up to him a half-drowned seaman.
Again, and yet no Captain.
Yet once more! Breaking from the men, he rushes in to grasp what may come to his hands. Buffeted, blinded, only half conscious himself, they are already pulling him back, when his fingers close mechanically on the hair of one dashed by on the long sweep of an outward-bound wave. With the grasp of death he holds his prize, and drags out Captain Tom.
Lifeless? Yes. No; but faintly breathing, and sorely wounded. Carry him up! And Burgess, forgetting his own exhaustion, no longer remembering his bitter enmity, bears the limp body to a sheltered spot, strips his few rags to protect it from the cold blast, binds up its wounds, and cares for its flickering life.
When Captain Tom opened his eyes it was day. He was lying on the wreck-strewn beach, a half dozen sea-drenched sleepers near him, sole survivors of his brave crew; the second mate keeping silent watch. "Is this all, Mr. Burgess?" he mustered strength to ask.
"I’m hurt, I find. But you might have saved more, Sir. I hope you did your duty," said Captain Tom. The old devil had not been washed out of him yet.
Burgess made no reply, for his Captain sank back, exhausted, and slept.
On the 15th of last June the little village church of Dennis was crowded, chiefly with women and children, the men being mostly off fishing, to witness the marriage of Captain Farley Burgess with Miss Mehetabel Crowell. The ceremony had been performed, the short prayer was ended, and friends were advancing to congratulate the newly married, when a wagon drove up to the door, and Captain Tom Baker, grim, pale, and with a huge scar across his forehead, a memento of his shipwreck, advanced slowly and painfully up the aisle. Now Captain Tom had not been seen at home since the wreck; and knowing his former feelings toward Mehetabel his presence here was embarrassing to all, who easily conjectured that he could come hither unbidden on no pleasant errand.
And truly it was no pleasant errand to him. Looking neither to right nor left, he walked to the altar, and there, lifting his hat, said:
"Good friends, when a man has publicly done wrong, been mean and cowardly and devilish, it is right that he should publicly confess his sins and ask forgiveness; and I for one find he’ll get no peace otherwise. Here’s my shipmate, Farley Burgess, to whom I have done every mean spite that I could work out, and who repaid all by saving my life—whom I abused after he had saved me and cared for me—and who never gave me a word of reproach. I’ve come to ask you, Burgess, to forgive me if you can, and to make me feel like an honest man once more, by giving me your hand in token that you forgive and forget. God knows, I see the meanness of my life, and—"
More he would have said, the stern proud man, but Farley stepped forward, and grasping him by the hand, led him to where Mehetabel stood, a blushing bride, then said: "God bless you, Tom Baker, I knew there was a man’s heart in you!"
And Mehetabel, lifting up her sweet tearful eyes, said only, "Brother Tom? "
But Brother Tom had lost his voice, and had such a choking feeling in his throat, that, pale and weak as he was, Hetty had to support him on her arm; and, Burgess holding his other arm, they walked down the broad aisle to the little porch of the church.
And there stood Uncle Shubael—just arrived, who, beholding this trio, exclaimed:
"God bless my soul! Captain Tom Baker? When did you come to life?"
"Just now, in the church," was Tom’s reply, turning to Farley and his bride.
Nordhoff, Charles, Captain Tom: A Resurrection. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. 20, issue 119 (April 1860). pp. 620-628