Poor Jack

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In which i narrate what i consider the most fortunate incident in my life; and ben the whaler confides to me a very strange history

Among the pensioners there was one with whom I must make the reader acquainted, as he will be an important person in this narrative. His name was Peter Anderson, a north countryman, I believe, from Greenock; he had been gunner's mate in the service for many years, and, having been severely wounded in an action, he had been sent to Greenwich. He was a boatswain in Greenwich Hospital; that is, he had charge of a ward of twenty-five men, and Ben the Whaler had lately been appointed one of the boatswain's mates under him. He was a very good scholar, and had read a great deal. You could hardly put any question to him, but you would get from him a satisfactory sort of an answer; and he was generally referred to in all points of dispute, especially in matters connected with the service, which he had at his fingers' ends; and, moreover, he was a very religious good man. I never heard him swear, but correct all those who did so in his presence. He had saved some money in the service, the interest of which, with his allowances as boatswain, enabled him to obtain many little comforts, and to be generous to others. Before Ben was shifted over to Anderson's ward, which he was when he was appointed boatswain's mate under him, they had not been well acquainted; but, since that time, they were almost always together; so that now I knew Anderson, which I did not before, except by sight. He was a very venerable looking old man, with gray locks curling down on his shoulders, but very stout and hearty; and, as Ben had told him all about me, he took notice of me, and appeared also to take an interest. When I came back, after the providential escape I have mentioned in the last chapter, Ben had narrated to him the conduct of my mother; and a day or two afterward, when the frost had broken up, and they were both sitting down, basking in the sun, which was shining bright, I went up to them.

"Well, Jack," said old Ben, "are you ready for another trip down the river?"

"I hope I shall earn my sixpence at an easier rate, if I do go," replied I.

"It was wonderful that you were saved, boy," said Peter Anderson, "and you ought to very thankful to the Omniscient."

I stared; for I had never heard that term applied to the Diety.

"You mean God, don't you?" said I, at last; for I thought he couldn't mean any other.

"Yes, boy; has not your mother taught you that name?"

"She never would teach me anything. All the prayers I know I have stolen from my sister."

"And what do you know, Jack?"

"I know 'Our Father,' and 'Now I lay down to sleep,' and I believe that is all."

"How old are you now, Jack?"

"I am three years older than Virginia; she, I heard my mother say, was six the other day—then I suppose I'm nine."

"Do you know your letters?"

"Yes, some of them; I learned them on the boats."

"But you cannot read?"

"No, not a word."

"Has your mother ever told you of the Bible?"

"Not me; but I've heard her tell Virginia about it."

"Don't you ever go to church?"

"No, never. Mother takes little Virginia; but she says I'm too ragged and ungenteel."

"Why does your mother neglect you? I suppose you are a bad boy?"

"That he's not," interrupted Ben; "that's not the reason. But we must not talk about that now; only I must take Jack's part. Go on, Peter."

"Would you like to learn to read, Jack?" said Anderson; "and would you like to hear me read the Bible to you, until you can read it yourself?"

"Indeed I would," replied I. "There's many of the boys on the beach, smaller than me, who can both read and write."

Peter Anderson then told me that he would teach me, provided I behaved myself well. He desired that I would come to his cabin every afternoon at six o'clock, a time which interfered little with my avocation of "Poor Jack," and that he would give me a lesson. Before he had finished talking, one of the lieutenants of the hospital sent for him; and Ben remained behind, to point out to me how valuable my knowing how to read and write might one day prove to me.

"I've no larning myself, Jack," said he; "and I know the loss of it. Had I known how to read and write, I might have been something better than a poor Greenwich pensioner; but nevertheless I'm thankful that I'm no worse. Ever since I've been a man grown I've only regretted it once—and that's been all my life. Why, Jack, I'd give this right arm of mine—to be sure, it's no great things now, but once it could send a harpoon in, up to the hilt—but still a right arm is a right arm to the end of your days!—and I'd give it with pleasure, if I only knew how to read and write. Nay, I wouldn't care about the writing; but, if I could only read print, Jack, I'd give it; for then I could read the Bible, as Peter Anderson does. Why, Jack, when we do go to chapel on Sunday, there's not one in ten of us who can follow the parson with his book; all we can do is to listen; and when he has done speaking, we are done also, and must wait till he preaches again. Don't I feel ashamed, then, Jack, at not being able to read? and ought not they to feel proud who can—no, not proud, but thankful[2]? We don't think of the Bible much in our younger days, boy; but, when we are tripping our anchor for the other world, we long to read away our doubts and misgivings; and it's the only chart you can navigate by safely. I think a parent has much to answer for that don't teach its child to read; but I must not blame my father or mother, for I never knew them."

"Never knew them?"

"No, boy, no. My father and mother left me when I was one year old: he was drowned, and my mother—she died too, poor soul!"

"How did your mother die, Ben?"

"It's a sad, sad story, Jack, and I cannot bear to think of it; it was told me long afterward, by one who little thought to whom he was speaking."

"Do tell me, Ben."

"You're too young, boy, for such a tale; it's too shocking."

"Was it worse than being froze to death, as I nearly was the other day?"

"Yes, my lad, worse than that; although, for one so young as you are, that was quite bad enough."

"Well, Ben, I won't ask you to tell me if it pains you to tell it. But you did not do wrong?"

"How could a baby of two years old do wrong, and five thousand miles off at the time, you little fool? Well, I don't know if I won't tell you, Jack, after all, because you will then find out that there's a comfort in reading the Bible; but you must promise me never to speak about it. I'm a foolish old fellow to tell it to you, Jack, I do believe; but I'm fond of you, boy, and I don't like to say 'no' to you. Now come to an anchor close to me. The bells are ringing for dinner—I shall lose my meal, but you will not lose your story, and there will be no fear of interruption.

"My father was brought up to the sea, Jack, and was a smart young man till he was about thirty, when a fall from the mainyard disabled him from hard duty and going aft; but still he had been brought up to sea, and was fit for nothing on shore. So, as he was a clean, likely fellow, he obtained the situation of purser's steward in an Indiaman. After that he was captain's steward on board of several ships. He sailed originally from Yarmouth, and going home after a voyage to see his relations, he fell in with my mother, and they were spliced. He was very fond of his wife, and I believe she was a very true and good woman, equally fond of him. He went to sea again, and I was born. He made another voyage to India, and when he came back I was two years old. I do not recollect him or my mother. My father had agreed to sail to the West Indies as captain's steward, and the captain, with whom he had sailed before, consented that he should take his wife with him, to attend upon the lady passengers; so I was left at Yarmouth, and put out to nurse till they came back. But they never came back, Jack; and, as soon as I can recollect, I found myself in the workhouse, and, when old enough, was sent to sea. I had been told that my father and mother had been lost at sea, but no one could tell me how, and I thought little more about it, for I had never known them, and those we don't know we do not love or care for, be they father or mother.

"Well, I had sailed four or five voyages to the north in the whalers, and was then about twenty-five years old, when I thought I would go back to Yarmouth and show myself, for I was 'harpooner and steersman' at that early age, and not a little proud. I thought I would go and look at the old workhouse, for it was the only thing I could recollect, and see if the master and mistress were still alive, for they were kind to me when I was living with them. I went to Yarmouth, as I said. There was the workhouse, and the master and mistress both alive; and I made myself known to them, and the old people looked at me through their spectacles, and could not believe that I could possibly be the little Ben who used to run to the pump for water. I had money in my pocket, and I liked the old people, who offered me all they could give without hopes of receiving any thing in return, and, as I knew nobody else, I used to live much with them, and pay them handsomely. I gave the old man some curiosities and the old woman a teapot, and so on, and I remained with them till it was time for me to sail again. Now, you see, Jack, among the old folk in the workhouse was a man who had been at sea; and I often had long talks with him, and gave him tobacco, which he couldn't afford to buy—for they don't allow it in a workhouse, which is a great hardship, and I have often thought that I should not like to go into a workhouse because I never could have a bit of tobacco. This man's hair was as white as snow, much too white for his age, for he was more decrepit and worn out than, perhaps, he was old. He had come home to his parish, and, being unable to gain his living, they had sent him to the workhouse. I can't understand why a place should be called a workhouse where they do nothing at all. Well, Charley, as they called him, got very ill, and they thought he would not last long; and, when the old people were busy, I used to talk a great deal with him. He was generally very quiet and composed, and said he was comfortable, but that he knew he was going fast.

"'But,' says he, 'here's my comfort;' and he pointed to a Bible that he had on his knees. 'If it had not been for this book,' said he, 'I do think, at times, I should have made away with myself.'

"'Why,' says I, 'what have you done? Have you been very wicked?'

"'We are all very wicked,' said he; 'but that's not exactly it. I have been haunted for so many years that I have been almost driven mad.'

"'Why,' said I, 'what can you have done that you should have been haunted? You haven't committed murder, have you?'

"'Well, I don't know what to say,' replied he; 'if a man looks on and don't prevent murder, is it not the same? I haven't long to live, and I feel as if I should be happier if I made a clean breast of it; for I have kept the secret a long while, and I think that you, as a sailor, and knowing what sailors suffer, may have a fellow-feeling; and perhaps you will tell me (for I'm somewhat uneasy about it) whether you think that I am so very much to blame in the business? I've suffered enough for it these many years, and I trust that it will not be forgotten that I have so, when I'm called up to be judged—as we all shall, if this book is true, as I fully believe it to be.'

"Here he appeared to be a good deal upset; but he took a drink of water, and then he told me as follows:

"'About twenty-three years ago I was a seaman on board of the "William and Caroline," West Indiaman, bound to Jamaica. We had two or three passengers on board, and the steward's wife attended upon them. She was a handsome, tall young woman; and when she and her husband came on board, they told me they had one child, which they had left at home. Now Yarmouth, you see, is my native place, and, although I did not know her husband, I knew her family very well. So we were very intimate, and used to talk about the people we knew, and so on. I mention this in consequence of what occurred afterward. We arrived very safe at Jamaica, and remained, as usual, some time at the island before the drogers brought round our cargo, and then we again sailed for England.

"'Well, we got clear of the islands, and were getting well north, when there came on a terrible gale of wind which dismasted us; and for three weeks we were rolling about gunnel under, for we were very heavily laden, and we lost our reckoning. At last we found out that we had been blown down among the reefs to the southward of the Bahama Isles. We had at one time rigged jury-masts, but unfortunately the gale had blown up again, and carried them also over the side; and we had no means of doing anything, for we had no more small spars or sails, and all our hopes were of falling in with some vessel which might assist us.

"'But we had no such good fortune; and one morning, when a heavy sea was running, we discovered that it was bearing us down upon a reef of rocks, from which there was no chance of escape. We had no resource but to get the boats out, and take our chance in them. The captain was very cool and collected; he ordered everything in which might be requisite; called up the men, and explained to them his intentions. All the water and provisions were put into the launch, for the sea ran so high that the small boats could not carry them; and it was intended that all the boats should keep company till it moderated, and then each boat should have its own supply. When all was ready, we were told off to our respective boats. The steward and his wife were to be in the same boat with me, and I had put her carefully in the sternsheets, for I was her great friend. Now the steward was called out by the captain to go for something which had been forgotten; and while he was away the ship was struck by a heavy sea, which occasioned such a breach over her that all was in confusion, and, to prevent the small boats from swamping, they were pushed off. The launch still held on for the captain, who hastened in with the mate and the steward, for they were the only three left on board; and away we all went. I mention this as the cause why the steward was separated (only for a time, as we supposed) from his wife. We had not been clear of the ship more than five minutes before we found that we, in our boat, could hardly make head 'gainst the wind and swell, which bore down on the reef close to us; the launch, which was a heavy-pulling boat and deeply laden, could not; and in a quarter of an hour we had the misery to see her in the breakers, swallowed up with all hands, together with all the provisions and water for our sustenance. I will not attempt to describe the agony of the steward's wife, who saw her husband perish before her eyes. She fainted; and it was a long time before she came to again; for no one could leave his oar for a minute to assist her, as we pulled for our lives. At last she did come to. Poor thing! I felt for her. Toward night the wind lulled, and we had every appearance of fine weather coming on; but we had nothing to eat, and only a barrico of water in the boat, and we were quite exhausted with fatigue.

"'We knew that we must pull to the northward, and try and fetch the Bahama Isles, or, perhaps, some of the small quays to the southward of them, where we might procure turtle, and, perhaps, water; and when the sea had gone down, which it did very fast, we put the head of our boat in that direction, pulling all night. At daybreak the other boat was not to be seen; it was a dead clam, but there was still a long heavy swell. We shared out some water and rested till the evening, and then we took to our oars again.

"'We rowed hard till the morning, but when the sun rose it scorched us up. It was impossible for us to keep to our oars without drinking, and, there being no one to take the command, our water was all gone, and we had not gained fifty miles to the northward. On the third morning we laid down exhausted at the bottom of the boat—we were dying not only with thirst, but with hunger; we had agreed that when night came on we would take to the oars again; but some would and some would not; so that, at last, those who had taken to their oars would pull no longer.

"'The steward's wife at times sang psalms, and at times wept. She had a very sweet voice, but her lips were soon glued together for want of water, and she could sing no longer.

"'When the sun rose on the fourth day there was no vessel to be seen. Some were raving for water, and others sat crouched under the boat's thwarts in silent despair. But, toward evening, the sky clouded over, and there fell a heavy rain, which refreshed us. We took the gown from off the steward's wife, and spread it, and caught the water; and we all drank until our thirst was quenched—even our wet clothes were a comfort to us; still we were gnawed with hunger. That night we slept; but the next morning every man's eyes flashed, and we all looked as if we would eat each other; and there were whisperings and noddings going on in the bow of the boat; and a negro who was with us took out his knife, and sharpened it on the boat's gunnel. No one asked him why. We spoke not, but we all had our own thoughts. It was dreadful to look at our hollow cheeks—our eyes sunken deep, but glaring like red-hot coals—our long beards and haggard faces—every one ready to raise his hand against the other. The poor woman never complained or said a word after she left off singing; her thoughts appeared elsewhere. She sat for hours motionless, with her eyes fixed on the still blue water, as if she would pierce its depth.

"'At last the negro came aft; and we were each upon our guard as he passed us, for we had seen him sharpen his knife. He went to the sternsheets, where the poor woman sat, and we all knew what he intended to do, for he only acted our own thoughts. She was still hanging over the gunnel, with her eyes fixed downward, and she heeded not his approach. He caught her by the hair, and dragged her head toward him. She then held out her arms toward me, faintly calling me by name; but I—shame on me!—remained sitting on the afterthwart. The negro thrust his knife into her neck, below the ear; and, as soon as he had divided the artery, he glued his thick lips to the gash and sucked her blood.

"'When the deed was done, others rose up and would have shared; but the negro kept his white eyes directed toward them—one arm thrust out, with his knife pointed at them, as he slaked his thirst, while, with his other round her waist, he supported her dying frame. The attitude was that of fondness, while the deed was—murder. He appeared as if he were caressing her, while her life's blood poured into his throat. At last we all drew our knives; and the negro knew that he must resign his prey or his life. He dropped the woman, and she fell, with her face forward, at my feet. She was quite dead. And then—our hunger was relieved.

"'Three days passed away, and again we were mad for want of water—when we saw a vessel. We shouted, and shook hands, and threw out the oars, and pulled as if we had never suffered. It was still calm, and, as we approached the vessel, we threw what remained of the poor woman into the sea; and the sharks finished what we had left. We agreed to say nothing about her, for we were ashamed of ourselves.

"'Now I did not murder, but I did not prevent it; and I have ever since been haunted by this poor woman. I see her and the negro constantly before me, and then I think of what passed, and I turn sick. I feel that I ought to have saved her—she is always holding out her arms to me, and I hear her faintly call "Charles"—then I read my Bible—and she disappears, and I feel as if I were forgiven. Tell me, what do you think, messmate?'

"'Why,' replied I, 'sarcumstances will make us do what we otherwise would never think possible. I never was in such a predicament, and therefore can't tell what people may be brought to do. But tell me, messmate, what was the name of the poor woman?'

"'The husband's name was Ben Rivers.'

"'Rivers, did you say?' replied I, struck all of a heap.

"'Yes,' replied he; 'that was her name; she was of this town. But never mind the name—tell me what you think, messmate?'

"'Well,' says I (for I was quite bewildered), 'I'll tell you what, old fellow—as far as I'm consarned, you have my forgiveness, and now I must wish you good-by—and I pray to God that we may never meet again.'

"'Stop a little,' said he; 'don't leave me this way. Ah! I see how it is—you think I'm a murderer.'

"'No, I don't,' replied I; 'not exactly—still, there'll be no harm in your reading your Bible.'

"And so I got up, and walked out of the room—for you see, Jack, although he mayn't have been so much to blame, still I didn't like to be in company with a man who had eaten up my own mother!"

Here Ben paused, and sighed deeply. I was so much shocked with the narrative that I could not say a word. At last Ben continued:

"I couldn't stay in the room—I couldn't stay in the workhouse. I couldn't even stay in the town. Before the day closed I was out of it, and I have never been there since. Now, Jack, I must go in—remember what I have said to you, and larn to read your Bible."

I promised that I would, and that very evening I had my first lesson from Peter Anderson, and I continued to receive them until I could read well. He then taught me to write and cipher; but before I could do the latter, many events occurred, which must be made known to the reader.

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