Poor Jack

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In which a story is begun, and not finished, which i think the reader will regret as much as, at the time, i did.

The boat was soon alongside of the West Indiaman, which had been tiding it down Limehouse Reach under her topsails, there being but little wind, and that contrary; but now that she had arrived to Greenwich Reach she had braced up, with her head the right way. My box was handed up the side, and I made my appearance on the deck soon afterward, with my telescope in my hand.

"Are you the lad for whom the pilot sent the boat?" inquired a man, whom I afterward found to be the second mate.

"Yes," replied I.

"Well, there he is abaft, in a P-jacket," said he, walking to the gangway, and directing the men to drop the boat astern.

I looked aft, and perceived my future master talking with the captain of the vessel. Philip Bramble was a spare man, about five feet seven inches high, he had on his head a low-crowned tarpaulin hat, a short P-jacket (so called from the abbreviation ofpilot's jacket) reached down to just above his knees. His features were regular, and, indeed, although weatherbeaten, they might be termed handsome. His nose was perfectly straight, his lips thin, his eyes gray and very keen; he had little or no whiskers, and, from his appearance and the intermixture of gray with his brown hair, I supposed him to be about fifty years of age. In one hand he held a short clay pipe, into which he was inserting the forefinger of the other, as he talked with the captain. At the time that he was pointed out to me by the second mate he was looking up aloft; I had, therefore, time to make the above observations before he cast his eyes down and perceived me, when I immediately went aft to him.

"I suppose you are Tom Saunders?" said he, surveying me from head to foot.

I replied in the affirmative.

"Well, Anderson has given you a good character, mind you don't lose it. D'ye think you'll like to be a pilot?"

"Yes," replied I.

"Have you sharp eyes, a good memory, and plenty of nerve?"

"I believe I've got the two first, I don't know about the other."

"I suppose not, it hasn't been tried yet. How far can you see through a fog?"

"According how thick it is."

"I see you've a glass there: tell me what you make of that vessel just opening from Blackwall Reach."

"What, that ship?"

"Oh, you can make it out to be a ship, can you, with the naked eye? Well, then, you have good eyes."

I fixed my glass upon the vessel, and, after a time, not having forgotten the lessons so repeatedly given me by Spicer, I said, "She has no colors up, but she's an Embden vessel by her build."

"Oh," said he, "hand me the glass. The boy's right; and a good glass, too. Come, I see you do know something—and good knowledge, too, for a pilot. It often saves us a deal of trouble when we know a vessel by her build; them foreigners sail too close to take pilots. Can you stand cold? Have you got a P-jacket?"

"Yes, father bought me one."

"Well, you'll want it this winter, for the wild geese tell us that it will be a sharp one. Steady, starboard!"

"Starboard it is."

"D'ye know the compass?"

"No."

"Well, stop till we get down to Deal. Now, stand by me, and keep your eyes wide open; for, d'ye see, you've plenty to larn, and you can't begin too soon. We must square the mainyard, captain, if you please," continued he, as we entered Blackwall Reach. "What could make the river so perverse as to take these two bends in Limehouse and Blackwall Reaches, unless to give pilots trouble, I can't say."

The wind being now contrary from the sharp turn in the river, we were again tiding it down; that is, hove-to and allowing the tide to drift us through the Reach; but as soon as we were clear of Blackwall Reach, we could lay our course down the river. As we passed Gravesend, Bramble asked me whether I was ever so low down.

"Yes," replied I, "I have been down as far as Sea Reach;" which I had been when I was upset in the wherry, and I told him the story.

"Well, Tom, that's called the river now; but do you know that, many years ago, where we now are used to be considered as the mouth of the river, and that fort there" (pointing to Tilbury Fort) "was built to defend it? for they say the French fleet used to come and anchor down below."

"Yes," replied I; "and they say, in the History of England, that the Danes used to come up much higher, even up to Greenwich; but that's a very long while ago."

"Well, you beat me, Tom! I never heard that; and I think, if ever they did do so, they won't do it again in a hurry. What water have you got, my man? Port there!"

"Port it is."

"Steady—so."

"Shall we get down to the Nore to-night, pilot?" said the captain.

"Why, sir, I'm in hopes we shall. We have still nearly three hours' daylight; and now that we are clear of the Hope, we shall lay fairly down Sea Reach; and if the wind will only freshen a little (and it looks very like it), we shall be able to stem the first of the flood, at all events."

I ought to observe that Bramble, as soon as he had passed any shoal or danger, pointed it out to me. He said, "I tell it to you, because you can't be told too often. You won't recollect much that I tell you, I dare say. I don't expect it; but you may recollect a little, and every little helps."

The tide had flowed more than an hour when we passed the Nore Light and came to an anchor.

"What lights are those?" inquired I.

"That's Sheerness," replied Bramble. "We were talking of the French and Danes coming up the river. Why, Tom, it is not much more than one hundred and fifty years ago when the Dutch fleet came up to Sheerness, destroyed the batteries, and landed troops there. Howsomever, as I said of the French and the other chaps, they won't do so again in a hurry."

As soon as they had veered out sufficient cable, Bramble accepted the invitation of the captain to go down in the cabin, when I went and joined the men, who were getting their supper forward. I was soon on good terms with them; and, after supper, as it was cold, they went down to the fore-peak, got out some beer and grog, and we sat round in a circle, with the bottles and mugs and a farthing candle in the center. Being right in the eyes of her, as it is termed, we could plainly hear the water slapping against the bends outside of her, as it was divided by the keelson, and borne away by the strong flood tide. It was a melancholy sound. I had never heard it before; and during a pause, as I listened to it, one of the men observed, "Queer sound, boy, ain't it? You'd think that the water was lapping in right among us. But noises aboard ship don't sound as they do on shore; I don't know why." No more did I at that time; the fact is that nothing conveys sound better than wood, and every slight noise is magnified, in consequence, on board of a vessel.

"I recollect when I was on a Mediterranean voyage how we were frightened with noises, sure enough," observed one of the men.

"Come, that's right, Dick, give us a yarn," said the others.

"Yes," replied Dick, "and it's a true yarn, too, and all about a ghost."

"Well, stop a moment," said one of the men, "and let us top this glim a bit before you begin, for it seemed to get dimmer the moment you talked about a ghost."

Dick waited till a little more light was obtained, and then commenced. "I had shipped on board of a vessel bound to Smyrna, now about seven years ago. We had gone down to Portsmouth, where we waited for one of the partners of the house by which we had been freighted, and who was going out as passenger. We were a man short, and the captain went on shore to get one from the crimps, whom he knew very well, and the fellows promised to send one on board the next morning. Well, sure enough a wherry came off with him just before break of day, and he and his traps were taken on board; but it was not perceived at the time what he had in his arms under his grego, and what do you think it proved to be at daylight? Why, a large black tom cat."

"What, a black one?"

"Yes, as black as the enemy himself. The fellow came down forward with it, and so says I, 'Why, messmate, you're not going to take that animal to sea with us?'

"'Yes, I am,' said he, very surlily; 'it's an old friend of mine, and I never parts with him.'

"'Well,' says I, 'you'll find the difference when the captain hears on it, I can tell you, and, for the matter of that, I won't promise you that it will be very safe if it comes near me when I've a handspike in my hand.'

"'I tell you what,' says he, 'it ain't the taking of a cat on board what brings mischief, but it's turning one out of a ship what occasions ill luck. No cat ever sunk a ship till the animal was hove overboard and sunk first itself, and then it does drag the ship down after it.'

"Well, one of the boys who did not care about such things, for he was young and ignorant, put his hand to the cat's head to stroke it, and the cat bit him right through the fingers, at which the boy gave a loud cry.

"'Now, that will teach you to leave my cat alone,' said the man. 'He won't come near nobody but me, and he bites everybody else, so I give you fair warning.'

"And sure enough the brute, which was about as big as two common cats, was just as savage as a tiger. When the first mate called the man on deck, the fellow left his cat behind him in the fore-peak, just as if it were now here, and it got into a dark corner, growling and humping its back, with its eyes flashing fire at every one of us as we came anigh it. 'Oh!' says we, 'this here won't never do; wait till the captain comes on board, that's all.' Well, the hatches were off, and we were busy, re-stowing the upper tier of the cargo, which we had thrown in very carelessly in our hurry to get down the river; just putting the bales in order (it wasn't breaking bulk, you see), and we were at it all day. At last, toward evening, the captain comes on board with the gentleman passenger, a mighty timorsome sort of young chap he appeared for to be, and had never before set his foot upon the plank of a vessel. So as soon as the captain was on deck we all broke off our work, and went to him to tell him about this cat, and the captain he gets into a great rage as soon as he hears on it, and orders the man to send the cat on shore, or else he'd throw it overboard. Well, the man, who was a sulky, saucy sort of chap, and no seaman, I've a notion, gives cheek, and says he won't send his cat on shore for no man, whereupon the captain orders the cat to be caught, that he might send it in the boat; but nobody dared to catch it, for it was so fierce to everybody but its master. The second mate tried, and he got a devil of a bite, and came up from the fore-peak without the cat, looking very blue indeed. And then the first mate went down, and he tried; but the cat flew at him, and he came up as white as a sheet. And then the cat became so savage that it stood at the foot of the ladder, all ready to attack whoever should come down, and the man laughed heartily, and told us to fetch the cat. 'Well,' says the first mate, 'I can't touch the cat, but I can you, you beggar, and I will too, if it costs me twenty pounds;' so he ups with a handspike and knocks the fellow down senseless on the deck, and there he laid. And it sarved him right.

"Well, then the captain thought to shoot the cat, for it was for all the world like a wild beast, and one proposed one thing and one another. At last Jim, the cabin-boy, comes forward with some brimstone matches in a pan, and he lights them and lowers them down into the fore-peak by a rope-yarn to smother it out. And so it did sure enough, for all of a sudden the cat made a spring up to the deck, and then we all chased it here and there, until at last it got out to the end of the flying jib-boom, and then Jim, the cabin-boy, followed it out with a handspike, and poked at it as hard as he could, until at last it lost its hold, and down it went into the water, and Jim and the handspike went along with it, for Jim, in his last poke at the cat, lost his balance, so away they went together. Well, there was a great hurry in manning the boat, and picking up poor Jim and the handspike; but the cat we saw no more, for it was just dark at the time. Well, when it was all over, we began to think what we had done, and as soon as we had put on the hatches and secured the hold we went down below into the fore-peak, where the smell of brimstone did not make us feel more comfortable, I can tell you, and we began to talk over the matter, for you see the cat should not have been thrown overboard but put on shore. But we were called away to man the boat again, for the fellow had come to his senses, and swore that he would not stay in the ship, but go on shore and take the law of the first mate; and the first mate and captain thought the sooner he was out of the ship the better, for we were to sail before daylight, and there might not be a wherry for him to get into. So the fellow took his kit, and we pulled him on shore and landed him on Southsea beach, he swearing vengeance the whole way; and as he stepped out on the beach he turned round to us and said, as he shook his fist, 'You've thrown overboard a black tom cat, recollect that! and now you'll see the consequence; a pleasant voyage to you. I wouldn't sail in that vessel if you were to offer her to me as a present as soon as she got to Smyrna; because why, you've thrown overboard a black tom cat, and you'll never get there—never!' cried he again, and off he ran with his bundle.

"Well, we didn't much like it, and if the second mate hadn't been in the boat, I'm not sure that we shouldn't all have gone on shore rather than sail in the vessel; but there was no help for it. The next morning before daylight we started, for the captain wouldn't wait to get another hand, and we were soon out of soundings, and well into the Bay of Biscay.

"We had just passed Cape Finisterre, when Jim, the cabin-boy, says one morning, 'I'm blessed if I didn't hear that cat last night, or the ghost on it!' So we laughed at him; for, you see, he slept abaft, just outside the cabin door, close to the pantry, and not forward with the rest of us.

"'Well,' says he, 'I heard her miaw, and when I awoke I think I seed two eyes looking at me.'

"'Well, Jim,' said I, for we had got over our fears, 'it was you who knocked her overboard, so it's all right that she should haunt you and nobody else.' Jim, however, could not laugh, but looked very grave and unhappy. A few days afterward the captain and passenger complained that they could not sleep for the noise and racket that was kept up all night between the timbers and in the run aft. They said it was if a whole legion of devils were broken loose and scampering about; and the captain was very grave; and as for the passenger, he was frightened out of his wits. Still we laughed, because we had heard nothing ourselves, and thought that it must only be fancy on their parts, particularly as the captain used to bowse his jib up pretty taut every night. Well, all went on very well; we arrived at the Rock, got our fresh provisions and vegetables, and then made sail again. The captain complained of no more noises, and Jim of no more eyes, and the whole matter was almost forgotten."

Here the narrator was interrupted by the thumping of a handspike on the deck above. "Halloo! what's the matter now?"

"Come, tumble up, my lads, and pump the ship out," said the mate from above; "we had almost forgotten that. Be smart, now; it's but a ten minutes' job."

Thus broke off the story, much to my annoyance; but it could not be helped—ships must be pumped out—so the men went on deck, and I followed them.

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