Poor Jack

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I am tempted again—my pride is roused, and my course of life is changed in consequence.

I passed a dreaming restless night, and woke early. I recalled all that had passed, and I felt very much dissatisfied with myself; the fifteen shillings, with the added prospect of receiving more, did not yield me the satisfaction I had anticipated. From what the men had said about old Nanny I thought that I would go and see her; and why? because I wished support against my own convictions. If I had not been actuated by such a feeling I should, as usual, have gone to old Anderson. When I went down to breakfast I felt confused, and I hardly dared to meet the clear bright eye of my little sister, and I wished the fifteen shillings out of my pocket. That I might appear to her and my mother as if I were not guilty, I swaggered; my sister was surprised, and my mother justifiably angry. As soon as breakfast was over, I hastened to old Nanny's.

"Well, Jack," said she, "what brings you here so early?"

"Why, mother, I was desired to ask you a question last night—between ourselves."

"Well, why don't you ask it, since it's between ourselves?" replied she, with surprise.

"Some of the people want to know if you fence now?"

"Jack," said old Nanny, harshly, "who asked you that question, and how did you fall into their company? Tell me directly; I will know."

"Why, mother, is there any harm in it?" replied I, confused and holding down my head.

"Harm in it! Ask your own conscience, Jack, whether there's harm in it. Why do you not look me in the face like an honest boy? Would they have dared to put that question to you, if you had not been a party to their evil deeds, Jack?" continued she, shaking her head. "I thought better of you; now you have filled me full of sorrow."

I was smitten to the heart at this rebuke from a quarter whence I did not expect it; but my heart was still rebellious, and I would not acknowledge what I felt. I thought to turn the tables, and replied, "Why, mother, at all events they say that once you were a real good one."

"Is it indeed gone so far?" replied she. "Poor boy! poor boy! Yes, Jack, to my shame be it spoken, I once did receive things and buy them when they were not honestly come by, and now I'm rebuked by a child. But, Jack, I was almost mad then; I had that which would have turned any one's brain—I was reckless, wretched; but I don't do so any more. Even now I am a poor sinful wretch—I know it; but I'm not so crazy as I was then. I have done so, Jack, more's the shame for me, and I wish I could recall it; but, Jack, we can't recall the past. Oh, that we could!"

Here old Nanny pressed her hands to her temples, and for some time was silent. At last she continued, "Why did I love you, Jack?—Because you were honest. Why did I lend you money—I, an old miserly wretch, who have been made to dote on money; I, who have never spent a shilling for my own comfort for these ten years?—But because you were honest. Why have I longed the whole day to see you, and have cared only for you?—Because I thought you honest, Jack. I don't care how soon I die now. I thought the world too bad to live in; you made me think better of it. Oh! Jack, Jack, how has this come to pass? How long have you known these bad people?"

"Why, mother," replied I, much affected, "only last night."

"Only last night? Tell me all about it; tell the truth, dear boy, do."

I could hold out no longer, and I told her everything that had passed.

"Jack," said she, "I'm not fit to talk to you; I'm a bad old woman, and you may say I don't practice what I preach; but, Jack, if you love me, go to Peter Anderson and tell him everything. Don't be afraid; only be afraid of doing what is wrong. Now, Jack, you must go."

"I will, I will," replied I, bursting into tears.

"Do, do, dear Jack! God bless your heart, I wish I could cry that way."

I walked away quite humiliated; at last I ran, I was so eager to go to Anderson and confess everything. I found him in his cabin—I attempted to speak, but I could not—I pulled out the money, put it on the table, and then I knelt down and sobbed on his knee.

"What is all this, Jack?" said Anderson, calmly; but I did not reply. "I think I know, Jack," said he, after a pause. "You have been doing wrong."

"Yes, yes," replied I, sobbing.

"Well, my dear boy, wait till you can speak, and then tell me all about it."

As soon as I could I did. Anderson heard me without interruption.

"Jack," said he, when I had done speaking, "the temptation" (pointing to the money) "has been very great; you did not resist at the moment, but you have, fortunately, seen you*r error in good time, for the money is still here. I have little to say to you, for your own feelings convince me that it is needless. Do you think that you can read a little? Then read this." Anderson turned to the parable of the Prodigal Son, which I read to him. "And now," said he, turning over the leaves, "here is one verse more." I read it: "There is more joy over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine that need no repentance." "Be careful, therefore, my dear boy, let this be a warning to you; think well of it, for you have escaped a great danger. The money shall be returned. Go now, my child, to your employment; and if you do receive only halfpence, you will have the satisfaction of feeling that they are honestly obtained."

I can assure the reader that this was a lesson which I never forgot; it was, however, succeeded by another variety of temptation, which might have proved more dangerous to a young and ardent spirit, had it not ended as it did, in changing the course of my destiny and throwing me into a new path of action. To this I shall now refer.

Hardly a month passed but we received additional pensioners into the hospital. Among others, a man was sent to the hospital who went by the name of Sam Spicer. I say went by the name, as it was not the custom for the seamen to give their real names when they were entered or pressed into the service, and of course they were discharged into the hospital by the same name which they bore on the ship's books. Spicer was upward of six feet in height, very large boned, and must, when he was in his prime, have been a man of prodigious strength. When he was admitted to the hospital he was nearly sixty years of age; his hair was black and gray mixed, his complexion very dark, and his countenance fierce and unprepossessing. He went by the name of Black Sam, on account of his appearance. He had lost his right hand in a frigate action, and to the stump he had fixed a sort of socket, into which he screwed his knife and the various articles which he wished to make use of—sometimes a file, sometimes a saw—having had every article made to fit into the socket, for he had been an armorer on board ship, and was very handy at such work. He was, generally speaking, very morose and savage to everybody, seldom entered into conversation, but sat apart, as if thinking, with a frown upon his countenance, and his eyes, surmounted with bushy eyebrows, fixed upon the ground. The pensioners who belonged to the same ward said that he talked in his sleep, and from what they could collect at those times he must have been a pirate; but no one dared to speak to him on the subject, for more than once he had been punished for striking those who had offended him; indeed, he nearly killed one old man who was jesting with him when he was at work, having made a stab at him with his knife screwed in his socket, but his foot slipped and the blow missed. Spicer was brought up before the council for this offense, and would have been discharged had he not declared that he had done it only by way of a joke to frighten the man; and, as no one else was present, it could not be proved to the contrary. For some reason or another, which I could not comprehend, Spicer appeared to have taken a liking to me; he would call me to him, and tell me stories about the West Indies and the Spanish Main, which I listened to very eagerly, for they were to me very interesting. But he seldom, if ever, spoke to me inside of the hospital; it was always when I was at the steps minding my vocation, where he would come down and lean over the rail at the top of the wharf. He made and gave me a boat-hook, which I found very convenient. He had a great deal of information, and as the ships came up the river he would point out the flags of the different nations, tell me where they traded from, and what their cargoes probably consisted of. If they had no ensign he would tell by their build and the cut of their sails what nation they belonged to, pointing out to me the differences, which I soon began to perceive. He had been in every part of the world, and scarcely a day passed in which I did not gain from him some amusing or useful information. Indeed, I became so fond of his company that Peter Anderson spoke to me on the subject, and asked me what Spicer talked about. I told him, and he replied:

"Well, Jack, I daresay that he is a very pleasant companion to one who, like you, is so anxious for information, and I have nothing to say against him, for we have no right to listen to foolish reports which may probably have been raised from his savage appearance. Still, I confess I do not like the man, as he is decidedly of a violent temper. As long as he talks to you about what you say he does, there is no harm done; but when once he says anything which you think is wrong, promise me to let me know; and even now, if you will take my advice, you will not be so intimate with him."

A little while afterward my father and Ben the Whaler both spoke to me on the same subject, but with much less reservation.

My father said, "Jack, I don't like to see you always in company with that old pirate, no good can come of it; so haul off a little further for the future."

And Ben told me, "That a man who couldn't sleep o' nights without talking of killing people must have a bad conscience, and something lying heavy on his soul. There's an old saying, Jack, 'Tell me whose company you keeps, and I'll tell you what sort of a chap you be.' You've the character of a good honest boy; steer clear of Sam Spicer, or you'll lose it."

Admonitions from all those whom I loved were not without their effect, and I made a resolution to be less intimate with Spicer. But it was difficult to do so, as I was obliged to be at the landing-steps, and could not prevent his coming there.

I acknowledge that it was a severe privation to me to follow the injunctions given to me, for I would listen for hours to the thrilling narratives, the strange and almost incredible accounts of battles, incidents, and wild adventures, which this man Spicer would relate to me; and when I thought over them I felt that the desire to rove was becoming more strong within me every day. One morning I said to him that "I had a great mind to go on board of a man-of-war."

"On board of a man-of-war?" replied Spicer; "you'd soon be sick enough of that. Why, who would be at the beck and nod of others, ordered here, called there, by boy midshipmen; bullied by lieutenants, flogged by captains; have all the work and little of the pay, all the fighting and less of the prize-money; and, after having worn out your life in hard service, be sent here as a great favor, to wear a cocked hat and get a shilling a week for your 'baccy? Pshaw, boy! that's not life."

"Then, what is life?' inquired I.

"What is life? Why, to sail in a clipper with a jolly crew and a roving commission; take your prizes, share and share alike, of gold-dust and doubloons."

"But what sort of vessel must that be, Spicer?"

"What sort? why—a letter of marque—a privateer—a cruise on the Spanish Main—that's life. Many's the jolly day I've seen in those latitudes, where men-of-war do not bring vessels to and press the best men out of them. There the sun's warm, and the sky and the sea are deep blue, and the corals grow like forests underneath, and there are sandy coves and cool caves for retreat—and where you may hide your gold till you want it—ay, and your sweethearts too, if you have any."

"I thought privateers always sent their prizes into port, to be condemned?"

"Yes, in the Channel and these seas they do, but not down there—it's too far off. We condemn the vessels ourselves, and share the money on the capstan-head."

"But is that lawful?"

"Lawful! to be sure it is. Could we spare men to send prizes home to England, and put them into the hands of a rascally agent, who would rob us of three-fourths at least? No, no; that would never do. If I could have escaped from the man-of-war which picked up me and four others who were adrift in an open boat, I would now have been on the Coast. But when I lost my fin, I knew that all was over with me, so I came to the hospital; but I often think of old times, and the life of a rover. Now, if you have any thoughts of going to sea, look out for some vessel bound to the Gold Coast, and then you'll soon get in the right way."

"The Gold Coast! Is not that to where the slavers go?"

"Yes, slavers and other vessels besides. Some traffic for ivory and gold-dust; however, that's as may happen. You'd soon find yourself in good company, and wouldn't that be better than begging here for halfpence? I would be above that, at all events."

This remark, the first of the kind ever made to me, stung me to the quick. Strange, I had never before considered myself in the light of a beggar; and yet, was I not so, just as much as a sweeper of a crossing?"

"A beggar?" replied I.

"Yes, a beggar. Don't you beg for halfpence, and say, 'Thank your honor; a copper for poor Jack, your honor'?" rejoined Spicer, mimicking me. "When I see that pretty sister of yours, that looks so like a real lady, I often thinks to myself, 'Fine and smart as you are, miss, your brother's only a beggar.' Now, would you not like to return from a cruise with a bag of doubloons to throw into her lap, proving that you were a gentleman, and above coppers thrown to you out of charity? Well, old as I am, and maimed, I'd sooner starve where I now stand.—But I must be off, so good-by, Jack; look sharp after the halfpence."

As Spicer walked away my young blood boiled. A beggar! It was but too true; and yet I had never thought it a disgrace before. I sat down on the steps, and was soon in deep thought. Boat after boat came to the stairs, and yet I stirred not. Not one halfpenny did I take during the remainder of that day, for I could not, would not, ask for one. My pride, hitherto latent, was roused, and before I rose from where I had been seated I made a resolution that I would earn my livelihood in some other way. What hurt me most was his observations about Virginia and her beggar brother. I was so proud of Virginia, I felt that her brother ought not to be a beggar. Such was the effect produced in so short a time by the insidious discourse of this man. Had he still remained at the steps, I do believe that I should have asked, probably have followed, his advice. Fortunately he had left, and, after a little reflection, I had the wisdom to go and seek Peter Anderson, and consult him as to what I could do, for to change my mode of obtaining my livelihood I was determined upon.

I found Anderson, as usual, seated under the colonnade, reading, and I went up to him.

"Well, Jack, my-boy, you are home early," said he.

"Yes," replied I gravely, and then I was silent.

After a pause of about a minute, Peter Anderson said, "Jack, I see there's something the matter. Now, tell me what it is. Can I help you?"

"I did wish to speak to you," replied I. "I've been thinking—about going to sea."

"And how long have you thought of that, Jack?"

"I've thought more of it lately," replied I.

"Yes, since Spicer has been talking to you. Now, is that not the case?"

"Yes, it is."

"I knew that, Jack. I'm at your service for as long as you please; now sit down and tell me all he has said to you that you can remember. I shan't interrupt you."

I did so; and before I had half finished, Anderson replied, "That is quite enough, Jack. One thing is evident to me—that Spicer has led a bad and lawless life, and would even now continue it, old as he is, only that he is prevented by being crippled. Jack, he has talked to you about privateers! God forgive me if I wrong him; but I think, had he said pirates, he would have told the truth. But say nothing about that observation of mine; I wish from my heart that you had never known him. But here comes your father. He has a right to know what we are talking about, for you owe duty to him as his son, and nothing can be done without his permission."

When my father came up to us, Anderson begged him to sit down, and he told him what we had been discoursing about. I had already stated my objections to enter on board of a man-of-war.

"Well," said my father, "I may come athwart hawse of that old piccaroon yet, if he don't look out. Not that I mind your going to sea, Jack, as your father did before you; but what he says about the sarvice is a confounded lie. Let a man do his duty, and the sarvice is a good one; and a man who is provided for as he is, ought to be ashamed of himself to speak as he has done, the old rascal. Still, I do not care for your entering the sarvice so young. It would be better that you were first apprentice and learned your duty; and as soon as your time is out, you will be pressed, of course, and then you would sarve the King. I see no objection to all that."

"But why do you want so particularly to go to sea, Jack?" observed Anderson.

"I don't like being a beggar—begging for halfpence!" replied I.

"And Spicer told you that you were a beggar?" said Peter.

"He did."

"Jack, if that is the case, we are all beggars; for we all work, and receive what money we can get for our work. There is no shame in that."

"I can't bear to think of it," replied I, as the tears came into my eyes.

"Well, well! I see how it is," replied Anderson; "it's a pity you ever fell in with that man."

"That's true as gospel," observed my father; "but still, if he had said nothing worse than that, I should not have minded. I do think that Jack is now old enough to do something better; and I must say, I do not dislike his wishing so to do—for it is begging for halfpence, arter all."

"Well, boy," said Peter Anderson, "suppose you leave your father and me to talk over the matter; and to-morrow, by this time, we will tell you what we think will be best."

"Anything—anything," replied I, "but being a beggar."

"Go along, you are a foolish boy," said Anderson.

"I like his spirit, though," said my father, as I walked away.

On the next day the important question was to be decided. I did not go to the stairs to follow up my vocation. I had talked the matter over with Virginia, who, although she did not like that I should go away, had agreed with me that she objected to my begging for money. I waited very impatiently for the time that Anderson had appointed, and, at last, he and my father came together, when the former said:

"Well, Jack, it appears that you do not like to be a waterman, and that you have no great fancy for a man-of-war, although you have a hankering for the sea. Now, as you cannot cruise with your friend Spicer on the Spanish Main, nor yet be safe from impressment in a privateer or merchantman, we have been thinking that, perhaps, you would have no objection to be a channel and river pilot; and if so, I have an old friend in that service who, I think, may help you. What do you say?"

"I should like it very much."

"Yes, it is a good service, and a man is usefully employed. You may be the means, as soon as you are out of your time, and have passed your examination, of saving many a vessel and more lives. You have had a pretty fair education, indeed quite sufficient; and, as you will often be coming up the river, you will have opportunities of seeing your father and your friends. If you decide, I will write at once."

"It is the very thing that I should like," replied I; "and many thanks to you, Anderson."

"And it's exactly what I should wish also," replied my father. "So that job's jobbed, as the saying is."

After this arrangement, I walked away as proud as if I had been an emancipated slave. That very evening I announced my intention of resigning my office of "Poor Jack," and named as my successor the boy with whom I had fought so desperately to obtain it, when the prospect was held out to me, by old Ben, of my becoming Poor Jack—forever.

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