Chapter 3: The Road To Duxbury
Already I have looked over these few pages, and am astonished by the quality of the writing. The prose is rich and melodious. My meaning is clear, and I have succeeded in laying down my recollections with a subtlety of thought that is generally only recognized in French writers. Indeed, I have done in these few pages what so-called professional poets have struggled over their whole lives and been unable to achieve. And yet the reader will find no great surprize in this achievement; for letters and the arts are a gentleman’s true calling.
It was a blistery winter afternoon as I set out upon the road to Duxbury. The cold wind blew fierce across the New England steppe and I wrapped my face in my scarf as best I could to keep out the frost. As I wandered the road southwards, my mind plagued me with questions and doubts over the previous day’s event and I began to consider whether my haste in evading the Law had been premature. It was, by this time, becoming Increasingly clear to me that I alone was the aggrieved party. Surely no magistrate could find any blame in my character for having been the victim of so base a deception? Worthington was surely to blame. The Reverend too was to blame. And of course in the strictest Legal sense, Miss Harriet’s hands could not be washed clean with all the perfume of Arabia.
And yet and yet, gentle Reader, do not be so wrathful in your anger towards Miss Harriet. Only consider how consumed with Lust the poor girl must have been, and how desperately she must have wanted me for her bedchamber? You, gentle Reader, who perhaps have not known what it is to be gay & Handsome may not fully understand that seduction by inferiors is but one of the many burdens imposed upon the high & Noble. Of course, I cannot compel you to forgive Miss Harriet; but for me and my part, I have often found that Mercy can be a greater weapon than justice, and that kindness may relieve more suffering than hatred, torture & chastisement. It is a simple fact of life that we Handsome creatures must at times be merciful, and forgive the wretched passions of the mob. And bedsides, whatever the Girl’s guilt in seducing me, I would not allow Worthington to condemn me as a miscreant. I decided then that I would write to Miss Harriet at first opportunity, and exclaim to her that in time I would marry her, and install her as chief mistress of my estate. This piece of charity warmed my spirit, and gave me still greater strength to press on along the winding road.
Around the road that led south to Braintree, I caught up with a carriage master on his way to the Plymouth. He agreed to take me on for a small fee of three-pence. I paid over my copper, and joined him atop the coach. He was a stout peasant with a very low center of gravity, and arms altogether too short for his body. He smoked a corn-cob pipe, and was missing one eye that had been replaced with a large piece of tow. He made small gossip, and I told him I was on my way to Duxbury to take ship for the Indies with Captain van der Slythen.
“Aye, Captain Slythen ’tis known as a great seaman in Duxbury. A gentleman with his gloves on to be sure.”
“I am pleased to hear it.”
“And you wish to become a cabin boy?” asked the Coachman, who thence gave me a curious look that I found rather presumptuous. “I worry you may be a bit long in the tooth for that.”
“A cabin boy!” I laughed, “No Coachman, I intend to secure employment as the First Mate. I have been graduated from New College, and am learned in Geometry, Navigation & Astronomy. I shall be a credit to any Captain of distinction.”
I saw the Coachman examine my hands with what appeared to me a disapproving look.
“Have you something to say?” I asked.
“But if your Honor does not mind me saying, I think ye might do better as a humbler man. Tell them ye fleeing from debts in Boston-towne, and that ye has been a boy in a fish monger’s stable. And that ye has concocted the French Disease.”
I inquired why I should conceal from the Captain my best qualities.
“Well you see, Mister Sperryhawke, life at sea is rather gruesome business. And to be sure, the men are all in trouble of one sort or another. They are not astronomers or navigators. They are dogs. And so ’tis better to approach them as one of there’s own. I daresay Mr. Sperryhawke, if you don’t take offense, the men shall laugh you out of if you try to give them any of that stuff about astronomy, and physick.”
The Reader would be in Error if he thinks this retort offended me. I am not so proud as to take good advice where it is given. For where is it written that a poor & physically repulsive Coachman may not have knowledge worth learning? In fact, this wretched coachman knew his business, for he had been at sea, as he then related.
“But upon me marriage, I gave up the seaman’s life and took after my wife’s father, who was a coachman himself, along this very highway.”
South of Braintree, we approached a wagon tipped over in the middle of the road, its horses tied up with one another. Several large crates and boxes had been thrown from the Coach, and were lying just there in the mud & snow. There stood in the road a peculiar looking man, tall, thin, and wearing a long black coat. He smoked a pipe, and about him were two lads scurrying to correct the accident. I was prepared to call out to this fellow, but the Coachman, I believe sensing my impulse towards charity, put his hand onto my leg, and gave me a keen look as if to say “let’s mind our business.”
The Coachman slowed his horses, and passed by the accident with scare an acknowledgement of his fellow traveler. The man with the pipe was no more cordial in his manner. He watched us with a keen eye as we drove past, but neither cried for help, nor seemed disturbed that we failed to offer any.
“But why did we not offer assistance?” I asked after we had gone on another few hundred yards.
“Aye,” nodded the fat coachman, and clicked his wip against the horses to speed up the pace. “They’s be smuggling for the Dutch traders.”
“How can you tell that?” asked I.
“That’s Black George, he don’t like nobody looking into his business.”
I made further Inquiries into this Black George, whose Character & habits were known to the Coachman; and I was informed of his criminality, and wanton Mischief, of his thefts, and his deceptions, and all of his gross immorality upon the Highway. I thence inquired why the Authorities should not issue a warrant for his arrest.
“They surely do!” laughed the coachman, “But tis not so easy to detect. A pound of Dutch tea looks nearly the same as the pound of English. And besides, they is a rough lot, Mr. Sperryhawke. If Black George & his friends discover you’s been talking to the constable, they’ll come to you with knives and cudgels, and make it hurt too.”
We tumbled along the post road, passing the evening in Pleasant discourse. Although I am a solitary creature by nature, I will yet confess that Social intercourse is a useful solvent when applied to disturbances of the brain. This coachmen and I made small talk on the crop yield, and the shipping lanes, and tho’ he was an ignorant fool, his gaiety soon relieved me of the ill-humor which had been plaguing me since I left Cambridge.
* * *
We reached Duxbury just before dawn and the coachman put me down at the Tewksbury Inn, a lonely looking barn converted into a boarding-house for the sea trade. The Tewksbury had a tavern on the first floor, and the bedchambers perched above like the forehead of a mongoloid. The tavern itself was a dusty room, tho’ not lacking in creature comforts, with a great firepit in the far corner, and an assortment of tables and chairs dotted about the place. I called at once for the porter to bring me a penny bread & tea, and thus inquired after Mr. Archibald van der Slythen.
“Captain van Der Slythen?” rejoined the proprietor, Mrs. Tewskbury.
“Yes, I am engaged to meet with the captain.”
But the old hag shook her head, “Captain Slythen sailed for Barbuda just last night.”
She told me that another ship would be along later that day, and that I should inquire with them of their need for crew. This was not to my liking, as it would deny me the chance to use my introduction from Thomas. But there seemed to be little to say or do, and so I ordered this lady to provide me with rooms for the evening. Thence I retired to the top floor, and set down at the table provided to compose those two letters, which I had resolved to write.
My dearest Mrs. Higginbottom,
Greetings. I write you by way of Mrs. Tewskbury’s Inn in Duxbury; a very high establishment and one that exclusively caters to young gentlemen of means.
I am to take ship as a chaplain en route to the Indies, where I shall begin my missionary work. Please do not be alarmed at this sudden change in circumstance but rather let me explain.
As I told you, I had been awarded a prize in oration on the topic of Original Sin. This most excellent lecture soon became the stuff of Legend in Cambridge, and I was approached by many of the finest clergymen from Old Saint Paul’s and Trinity Church. These great reverends requested -- nay, begged -— my assistance in converting the savages, and bringing the lamp of truth to the far flung corners of the globe. I abated them for a time, but at last succumbed to their entreaties. A man such as I does not live for himself, but instead for others, and still more for Christ.
These poor savages are in need of spiritual healing, and God has chosen me as his medic. In this I can only say that I must oblige. Just as Noah was commanded to build the Ark, so too I have been commanded to spread the gospel. Here I stand, I can do no other.
I will say one other thing in closing. The President Holyoke is a very loose man, and has wrought a terrible blow upon the honor of the College. I say that the man is a libertine, and one cursed and damned by God. He is tolerant of Popery, Idolatry and Idleness, and I could no longer abide the peril of my eternal soul in his charge. Were I only able, I should have freed the rest of the boys from his clutches, so damnable and devastating will be the consequences of his tutelage. He has not only integrated many of the worst of the pagan authors, but has allowed all manner of new fashions, many of which a gentleman cannot abide and still call himself such. Nor does the President have any notion of republickanism. He is a loyalist and a royalist, and a traitor to the new faith, of which you inducted me as pupil. I believe in the rights of the people to be secure in the bosom of liberty. Nor does this Holyoke have any appreciation for Monsieurs Voltaire or Diderot.
Whence I return to you, I will be eager to take up the Deaconship of the Salem Church, where I suspect the legend of my charity will soon reach.
My only goal in life is to serve you; for it is in this way that I may serve Christ.
Your Most Humble & Obedient Servant,
P.S. I should be very grateful that you satisfy my bill at the Tewksbury Inn. As a missionary, I have scant coin, but should not wish to surrender my high tastes, which I know you rely upon as a source of pride. Bill enclosed.
P.P.S One last thing. I will be sending my wife to you. She is a Miss Harriet, and though she be low in birth, she is high in spirit, and I trust you will accord her the proper place in your household. She is with child, whom you should call George if a boy, and Esther in your honor if a girl.
The second letter was to Ms. Harriet.
My dearest Miss Harriet,
Greetings. Apologies for my haste in leaving Cambridge, but your master was rather keen that I should be gone. I have taken ship for the Indies.
But do not think I have left you in such a lurch as all that. Please pack your belongings and make your way to Salem, where you shall stay with a Mrs. Esther Higginbottom, my guardian. She will see to your care, and whence I return, we shall marry and I shall settle upon you a handsome stipend.
I posted these letters by way of the Tewksbury. I thought then too of writing to my poor mother. I wondered after her often, and prayed to the Almighty to keep her and protect her. Twice I began a letter, but the shame of my circumstances prevented me.
As Mrs. Tewksbury promised, a merchant ship docked that evening. I watched the ship make anchor on the dock abutting the Inn, and at last emerged a man whom I should later learn to be the Captain of that great ship, Dobbin. Now here was a seaman after God’s own heart! A tired old man with Long white-hair, and an emaciated face; his body was covered in scars and sores, and he limped like a deformed colt.
I watched from the window of my rooms as the men finished tying off the bow, and made ready for an evening’s rest and drink in the tavern. I had two pounds left from my winnings at the Faro table, and could think of no better investment than standing the men drink, and the captain his supper. I ordered the Porter to bring two casks of ale for the men, and the finest cut of salt beef for the Captain.
“You’re a sprightly one,” said the Captain, when the food had been lain before him.
“I was engaged by Mr. Van der Slythen, but have recently resigned my place in his crew for reasons of principle. He is a low fellow and a thief besides.”
I do not know whether the Captain heard me, for no sooner than the Beef were laid on his plate, that he became entirely mesmerized. I marvel’d at the way he Crammed all Manner of Meats into his Mouth until his face turned Purple and the veins stood out at this Temples. He drank three cups of Ale in rapid Succession, along with an entire basket of Breads. And upon the meats & breadstuffs, the Captain laid Prodigious amounts of Mustard.
Once he was finished, I inquired after their business, and whether they were to sail for sugar in the Indies.
“Nay,” replied the Captain, drinking again from his tin of cider. “The Isabella be a ship sailing for tea.”
“Tea?” I rejoined, altogether dissatisfied with such a common commodity.
“Aye, tea, tea from India.”
“Well that shan’t do at all,” I shook my head in disagreement. “I mean to take ship for the Indies. To the sugar plantations, where Prosperity spreads wide her legs. Tell me fellow, have you any friends with concerns such as that?”
“The sugar trade is a gruesome business me boy,” burped the Captain as he stood from the table to join the men beside the roaring fire. “The devil’s work I say.”
Owing to my Generosity & bounty, the men all got fox’d that night. The Company being a large one, and the occasion an Important one, I tried my best to ingratiate myself to crew. We did drink Ale and Wine, according to our taste, and I invented for them a thousand adventures into which I had been Submerged. And owing to their Kindly disposition towards me, I soon re-Ordered my thinking of the tea trade, and Resolved that it was not so quickly to be dismissed. I thus informed the captain that I should be willing to join his crew in their voyage to India.
“Tis a fine thing, Mister Sperryhawke but we don’t sail for India. Only to London, to purchase tea from the Company.”
“Very well sir, then I accept,” I told the captain. “I shall join your crew.”
Dobbin looked embarrassed, and replied, “Of course Mister Sperryhawke, I should be glad of your company were I not already bursting at the seams with crew. I’m afraid we have no need of another hand.”
This was something of a blow to my esteem, and I thought the Captain a very cruel fellow to abuse me in this way after I had lowered myself to accept service in his employ.
“But trouble ye-self not my boy, there’ll be another ship through here in a week’s time. Captain O’Doulle I believe; his be a whaling ship. Good money, and an honest trade it is.”
I crawled into bed that night more alone than ever, and suffering most Acutely from a great lowness of spirit. Driven from my ancestral home, cast out from my rightful place in Cambridge, and now, refused intercourse with these loathsome deckhands, whose favor I had been unable to purchase with dirty Ale. And to make matters less Pleasant, the linens on my bed were not at all to my liking. Exceedingly threadbare, and stained in the oils & fluids of long-forgotten travelers. The pillows too were dull things, without ornament or pattern.
How long was I expected to endure this sort of humiliation? Days? Whole Weeks? Did the Almighty expect me to endure this sort of degradation for months? I resolved then and there that if I could not secure employment on a ship by the next day, I should throw myself into the frigid waters of the Atlantic and thereby extinguish my life from the earth. And let it not be said that Sperryhawke surrendered to Despair; but rather, that Sperryhawke chose Honor. If God were not prepared to use my talents for His Purpose, then I should deprive him of my services for all Time -- in which case the blood would not be on my conscience but upon His -- and that of His Son, and His agent, the Holy Ghost.
I fell asleep that night and dreamt of my mother of all things. What shame it would be for her to hear of my death. I dream’t of my body, pale and blue, lying on an enormous piece of exquisite cedar-wood. I saw my mother, standing erect before the body, who had grown old in the intervening years. She threw herself into my lifeless arms, weeping and chastising God for his negligence. My brothers and sisters exited the house, and wailed at the sight of my noble death.5 Thence the Heavens open’d up into a terrible Storm, as a bloody & long-haired Comet shot across the night sky. I dreamt still of a great funeral pyre erected in the town square, and hundreds of local peasants wailed and beat their chests in mourning whilst the terrible fires roared all through the night. I could well enough see and feel the flames as they offered my spirit & ashes to the Almighty. I began to cough first lowly, and then Vigorously, until I felt myself slipping from the Dream.
When my eyes opened, the room was thick with charcoal and smoke so dense it could choke a serpent. I leapt from my bed, and already the flames were eating through the very fine wallpaper, which was laced in Silver and decorated with artisanal patterns. I began to hear the cries from the Men coming through the chambers, now coming in from all sides. I grabbed up my sack, and with great courage and instinct, broke through the bedroom door. The hallway was filled with the hot red fire, which only grew and twisted and changed its shape. I saw at once that there should only be one chance of escape, and thus I dove through a gaggle of hysterical crewmen.6 Providence had not forgotten to save her most priz’d Possession and I rolled through the fire without a mark upon my person. I thence raced down the back staircase, and out into the yard beyond the sea.
I came out upon the heath, short of breath, my face black with soot & ash. The Tewksbury Inn was now in aglow in glorious flames, great swaths of blue and orange consuming her in rapid Order. There was screaming and cries for help from the crew, whose faces now appeared in the windows along the second floor of the Inn. But there was simply nothing I could do for them. Their Cowardice had doomed them.
The Captain, at least, had removed himself from the fire. He Stood there in his hosiery watching the Inn burn to the ground.
“The men will be lost!” he cried.
Fortunately, a heavy rain came in from the sea, and put out the flames before it could consumer the whole of the Crew. But there was little left of the Inn by that point. Mrs. Tewksbury had survived, and weap’t without restraint over the ashes of her life. Together we lads who had escaped began to sift through the rubble, whence we happened upon the corpse of the poor chaplain of the Isabella. He had not yet surrendered his last breath before the Captain got to him.
I will pause here a moment. Though I am a hard & ferocious man, and yet I am not entirely without sentiment. I do feel the injustice that so many others must suffer and die without distinction, without favor or fame. When I think that I should race from one triumph to another, from one victory to another, and that my fortune should have been immune from all the vicissitudes of war, of famine, of Evil! That I should have done all of thee things, and more, while a humble Parson, a man who never asked for (and surely never received) the Almighty’s favor, and that instead, he should be crushed to death in a three-penny Inn without ever knowing the taste of Victory or the thrill of conquest, why it brings a tear to my eye and I marvel at the patience with which the common man confronts his situation.
“My dear fellow!” cried the Captain, his eyes wet with tears. He pulled the hair from the Parson’s brow. “I fear you’ve come to grief.”
Dobbin and I removed a large timber that had crushed the chaplain’s chest. Dobbin thence grasped the dying man’s hand, and began to raise him from the rubble. But t’was too late. The poor chaplain looked sadly at the Captain, put his lips to the great man’s ear and expired there on the heath. The Captain removed his hat and put it to his chest. I saw a small tear form in his eye and was moved by his emotion.
Of course, I knew that the Almighty had arranged all of this to my own benefit -- the fire, my heroism in escape, and now the death of this poor parson. All of these things were Necessary in order to procure my employment on the ship, without which it is possible the whole history of nautical commerce should have been different. That much was clear to me. And the reader may be sure that I grieved for Mrs. Tewksbury in all this. She was an innocent victim of Providence; but the crushing & indifferent hand of God is very often indistinguishable from the machinations of the Devil.
But it also became clear to me that the Isabella was now in want of a parson. And so I recited the only line of Latin I could recall:
“Omnes autem Homines sunt fures.”
“George, you have the Latin tongue?” said the Captain in hushed tones.
I nodded, and confessed that I was an ordained minister.
“But why ever did you not say so before?”
“I did not wish to shame you with my Learning.”
Dobbin nodded in appreciation of my Modesty. The sky was grey and dark, and Neptune roared in waves, as we stood there in the ashes of the Tewksbury Inn. I looked to the Captain, who was quietly weeping.
“Come George, take up the bodies. We must bury them.”
The Captain and I dragged the corpses to the top of the hill beyond the Inn. Somewhere the captain obtained a spade and we dug out four feet of dirt.
“Say a few words would you George,” requested the captain.
I had no Christian prayer at my fingertips, but instead only a doggerel I had heard Holyoke recite upon the passing of the Butler at school:
Fear no more the heat of the sun,
nor the winter’s furious rages
though thy worldly task hast done,
home art gone and taken thy wages
golden lads and girls all must, as chimney sweepers
and come to dust.
The captain seemed pleased enough with my efforts, and bowed his head one final time. Then looking up at me, “We sail at dawn.”