The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Chapter Sixteen. In Which Sailor Ben Spins a Yarn
Of course we were all very curious to learn what had befallen Sailor Ben that morning long ago, when he bade his little bride goodby and disappeared so mysteriously.
After tea, that same evening, we assembled around the table in the kitchen-the only place where Sailor Ben felt at home-to hear what he had to say for himself.
The candles were snuffed, and a pitcher of foaming nut-brown ale was set at the elbow of the speaker, who was evidently embarrassed by the respectability of his audience, consisting of Captain Nutter, Miss Abigail, myself, and Kitty, whose face shone with happiness like one of the polished tin platters on the dresser.
"Well, my hearties," commenced Sailor Ben-then he stopped short and turned very red, as it struck him that maybe this was not quite the proper way to address a dignitary like the Captain and a severe elderly lady like Miss Abigail Nutter, who sat bolt upright staring at him as she would have stared at the Tycoon of Japan himself.
"I ain't much of a hand at spinnin' a yarn," remarked Sailor Ben, apologetically, "'specially when the yarn is all about a man as has made a fool of hisself, an' 'specially when that man's name is Benjamin Watson."
"Bravo!" cried Captain Nutter, rapping on the table encouragingly.
"Thankee, sir, thankee. I go back to the time when Kitty an' me was livin' in lodgin's by the dock in New York. We was as happy, sir, as two porpusses, which they toil not neither do they spin. But when I seed the money gittin' low in the locker-Kitty's starboard stockin', savin' your presence, marm-I got down-hearted like, seem' as I should be obleeged to ship agin, for it didn't seem as I could do much ashore. An' then the sea was my nat'ral spear of action. I wasn't exactly born on it, look you, but I fell into it the fust time I was let out arter my birth. My mother slipped her cable for a heavenly port afore I was old enough to hail her; so I larnt to look on the ocean for a sort of step-mother-an' a precious hard one she has been to me.
"The idee of leavin' Kitty so soon arter our marriage went agin my grain considerable. I cruised along the docks for some-thin' to do in the way of stevedore: an' though I picked up a stray job here and there, I didn't am enough to buy ship-bisket for a rat; let alone feedin' two human mouths. There wasn't nothin' honest I wouldn't have turned a hand to; but the 'longshoremen gobbled up all the work, an' a outsider like me didn't stand a show.
"Things got from bad to worse; the month's rent took all our cash except a dollar or so, an' the sky looked kind o' squally fore an' aft. Well, I set out one mornin'-that identical unlucky mornin'-determined to come back an' toss some pay into Kitty's lap, if I had to sell my jacket for it. I spied a brig unloadin' coal at pier No. 47-how well I remembers it! I hailed the mate, an' offered myself for a coal-heaver. But I wasn't wanted, as he told me civilly enough, which was better treatment than usual. As I turned off rather glum I was signalled by one of them sleek, smooth-spoken rascals with a white hat an' a weed on it, as is always goin' about the piers a-seekin' who they may devower.
"We sailors know 'em for rascals from stem to starn, but somehow every fresh one fleeces us jest as his mate did afore him. We don't lam nothin' by exper'ence; we're jest no better than a lot of babys with no brains.
"'Good mornin', my man,' sez the chap, as iley as you please.
"'Mornin', sir,' sez I.
"'Lookin' for a job?' sez he.
"'Through the big end of a telescope,' sez 1-meanin' that the chances for a job looked very small from my pint of view.
"'You're the man for my money,' sez the sharper, smilin' as innocent as a cherubim; 'jest step in here, till we talk it over.'
"So I goes with him like a nat'ral-born idiot, into a little grocery-shop near by, where we sets down at a table with a bottle atween us. Then it comes out as there is a New Bedford whaler about to start for the fishin' grounds, an' jest one able-bodied sailor like me is wanted to make up the crew. Would I go? Yes, I wouldn't on no terms.
"'I'll bet you fifty dollars,' sez he, 'that you'll come back fust mate.'
"'I'll bet you a hundred,' sez I, 'that I don't, for I've signed papers as keeps me ashore, an' the parson has witnessed the deed.'
"So we sat there, he urgin' me to ship, an' I chaffin' him cheerful over the bottle.
"Arter a while I begun to feel a little queer; things got foggy in my upper works, an' I remembers, faint-like, of signin' a paper; then I remembers bein' in a small boat; an' then I remembers nothin' until I heard the mate's whistle pipin' all hands on deck. I tumbled up with the rest; an' there I was-on board of a whaler outward bound for a three years' cruise, an' my dear little lass ashore awaitin' for me."
"Miserable wretch!" said Miss Abigail, in a voice that vibrated among the tin platters on the dresser. This was Miss Abigail's way of testifying her sympathy.
"Thankee, marm," returned Sailor Ben, doubtfully.
"No talking to the man at the wheel," cried the Captain. Upon which we all laughed. "Spin!" added my grandfather.
Sailor Ben resumed:
"I leave you to guess the wretchedness as fell upon me, for I've not got the gift to tell you. There I was down on the ship's books for a three years' viage, an' no help for it. I feel nigh to six hundred years old when I think how long that viage was. There isn't no hour-glass as runs slow enough to keep a tally of the slowness of them fust hours. But I done my duty like a man, seem' there wasn't no way of gettin' out of it. I told my shipmates of the trick as had been played on me, an they tried to cheer me up a bit; but I was sore sorrowful for a long spell. Many a night on watch I put my face in my hands and sobbed for thinkin' of the little woman left among the land-sharks, an' no man to have an eye on her, God bless her!"
Here Kitty softly drew her chair nearer to Sailor Ben, and rested one hand on his arm.
"Our adventures among the whales, I take it, doesn't consarn the present company here assembled. So I give that the go by. There's an end to everythin', even to a whalin' viage. My heart all but choked me the day we put into New Bedford with our cargo of ile. I got my three years' pay in a lump, an' made for New York like a flash of lightuin'. The people hove to and looked at me, as I rushed through the streets like a madman, until I came to the spot where the lodgin'-house stood on West Street. But, Lord love ye, there wasn't no sech lodgin'-house there, but a great new brick shop.
"I made bold to go in an' ask arter the old place, but nobody knowed nothin' about it, save as it had been torn down two years or more. I was adrift now, for I had reckoned all them days and nights on gittin' word of Kitty from Dan Shackford, the man as kept the lodgin'.
"As I stood there with all the wind knocked out of my sails, the idee of runnin' alongside the perlice-station popped into my head. The perlice was likely to know the latitude of a man like Dan Shackford, who wasn't over an' above respecktible. They did know-he had died in the Tombs jail that day twelvemonth. A coincydunce, wasn't it? I was ready to drop when they told me this; howsomever, I bore up an' give the chief a notion of the fix I was in. He writ a notice which I put into the newspapers every day for three months; but nothin' come of it. I cruised over the city week in and week out I went to every sort of place where they hired women hands; I didn't leave a think undone that a uneddicated man could do. But nothin' come of it. I don't believe there was a wretcheder soul in that big city of wretchedness than me. Sometimes I wanted to lay down in the sheets and die.
"Drif tin' disconsolate one day among the shippin', who should I overhaul but the identical smooth-spoken chap with a white hat an' a weed on it! I didn't know if there was any spent left in me, till I clapped eye on his very onpleasant countenance. 'You villain!' sez I, 'where's my little Irish lass as you dragged me away from?' an' I lighted on him, hat and all, like that!"
Here Sailor Ben brought his fist down on the deal table with the force of a sledge-hammer. Miss Abigail gave a start, and the ale leaped up in the pitcher like a miniature fountain.
"I begs your parden, ladies and gentlemen all; but the thought of that feller with his ring an' his watch-chain an' his walrus face, is alus too many for me. I was for pitchin' him into the North River, when a perliceman prevented me from benefitin' the human family. I had to pay five dollars for hittin' the chap (they said it was salt and buttery), an' that's what I call a neat, genteel luxury. It was worth double the money jest to see that white hat, with a weed on it, layin' on the wharf like a busted accordiun.
"Arter months of useless sarch, I went to sea agin. I never got into a foren port but I kept a watch out for Kitty. Once I thought I seed her in Liverpool, but it was only a gal as looked like her. The numbers of women in different parts of the world as looked like her was amazin'. So a good many years crawled by, an' I wandered from place to place, never givin' up the sarch. I might have been chief mate scores of times, maybe master; but I hadn't no ambition. I seed many strange things in them years-outlandish people an' cities, storms, shipwracks, an' battles. I seed many a true mate go down, an' sometimes I envied them what went to their rest. But these things is neither here nor there.
"About a year ago I shipped on board the Belphcebe yonder, an' of all the strange winds as ever blowed, the strangest an' the best was the wind as blowed me to this here blessed spot. I can't be too thankful. That I'm as thankful as it is possible for an uneddicated man to be, He knows as reads the heart of all."
Here ended Sailor Ben's yarn, which I have written down in his own homely words as nearly as I can recall them. After he had finished, the Captain shook hands with him and served out the ale.
As Kitty was about to drink, she paused, rested the cup on her knee, and asked what day of the month it was.
"The twenty-seventh," said the Captain, wondering what she was driving at.
"Then," cried Kitty, "it's ten years this night sence-"
"Since what?" asked my grandfather.
"Sence the little lass and I got spliced!" roared Sailor Ben. "There's another coincydunce for you!"
On hearing this we all clapped hands, and the Captain, with a degree of ceremony that was almost painful, drank a bumper to the health and happiness of the bride and bridegroom.
It was a pleasant sight to see the two old lovers sitting side by side, in spite of all, drinking from the same little cup-a battered zinc dipper which Sailor Ben had unslung from a strap round his waist. I think I never saw him without this dipper and a sheath-knife suspended just back of his hip, ready for any convivial occasion.
We had a merry time of it. The Captain was in great force this evening, and not only related his famous exploit in the War of 1812, but regaled the company with a dashing sea-song from Mr. Shakespeare's play of The Tempest. He had a mellow tenor voice (not Shakespeare, but the Captain), and rolled out the verse with a will:
"The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I,
The gunner, and his mate,
Lov'd Mall, Meg, and Marian, and Margery,
But none of us car'd for Kate."
"A very good song, and very well sung," says Sailor Ben; "but some of us does care for Kate. Is this Mr. Shawkspear a seafarm' man, sir?" "Not at present," replied the Captain, with a monstrous twinkle in his eye.
The clock was striking ten when the party broke up. The Captain walked to the "Mariner's Home" with his guest, in order to question him regarding his future movements.
"Well, sir," said he, "I ain't as young as I was, an' I don't cal'ulate to go to sea no more. I proposes to drop anchor here, an' hug the land until the old hulk goes to pieces. I've got two or three thousand dollars in the locker, an' expects to get on uncommon comfortable without askin' no odds from the Assylum for Decayed Mariners."
My grandfather indorsed the plan warmly, and Sailor Ben did drop anchor in Rivermouth, where he speedily became one of the institutions of the town.
His first step was to buy a small one-story cottage located at the head of the wharf, within gun-shot of the Nutter House. To the great amusement of my grandfather, Sailor Ben painted the cottage a light sky-blue, and ran a broad black stripe around it just under the eaves. In this stripe he painted white port-holes, at regular distances, making his residence look as much like a man-of-war as possible. With a short flag-staff projecting over the door like a bowsprit, the effect was quite magical. My description of the exterior of this palatial residence is complete when I add that the proprietor nailed a horseshoe against the front door to keep off the witches-a very necessary precaution in these latitudes.
The inside of Sailor Ben's abode was not less striking than the outside. The cottage contained two rooms; the one opening on the wharf he called his cabin; here he ate and slept. His few tumblers and a frugal collection of crockery were set in a rack suspended over the table, which had a cleat of wood nailed round the edge to prevent the dishes from sliding off in case of a heavy sea. Hanging against the walls were three or four highly colored prints of celebrated frigates, and a lithograph picture of a rosy young woman insufficiently clad in the American flag. This was labelled "Kitty," though I'm sure it looked no more like her than I did. A walrus-tooth with an Esquimaux engraved on it, a shark's jaw, and the blade of a sword-fish were among the enviable decorations of this apartment. In one corner stood his bunk, or bed, and in the other his well-worn sea-chest, a perfect Pandora's box of mysteries. You would have thought yourself in the cabin of a real ship.
The little room aft, separated from the cabin by a sliding door, was the caboose. It held a cooking-stove, pots, pans, and groceries; also a lot of fishing-lines and coils of tarred twine, which made the place smell like a forecastle, and a delightful smell it is-to those who fancy it.
Kitty didn't leave our service, but played housekeeper for both establishments, returning at night to Sailor Ben's. He shortly added a wherry to his worldly goods, and in the fishing season made a very handsome income. During the winter he employed himself manufacturing crab-nets, for which he found no lack of customers.
His popularity among the boys was immense. A jackknife in his expert hand was a whole chest of tools. He could whittle out anything from a wooden chain to a Chinese pagoda, or a full-rigged seventy-four a foot long. To own a ship of Sailor Ben's building was to be exalted above your fellow-creatures. He didn't carve many, and those he refused to sell, choosing to present them to his young friends, of whom Tom Bailey, you may be sure, was one.
How delightful it was of winter nights to sit in his cosey cabin, close to the ship's stove (he wouldn't hear of having a fireplace), and listen to Sailor Ben's yarns! In the early summer twilights, when he sat on the door-step splicing a rope or mending a net, he always had a bevy of blooming young faces alongside.
The dear old fellow! How tenderly the years touched him after this-all the more tenderly, it seemed, for having roughed him so cruelly in other days!