Poor Jack

All Rights Reserved ©

In which bramble points out to me that singing is part of the profession of a pilot.

In about a fortnight from the time that Bramble commenced his tuition I was quite perfect with the compass; his method certainly was very good, for by such reiterated catechising what you had to learn was graven on your memory. All day long the same system was pursued. Even if dinner was on the table, the compass was on a chair close by, and as I was putting my fork to my mouth, much to Bessy's amusement, out would come the question, "How's her head, Tom?" Bramble soon gained his point; I could answer like lightning. But whether I was by the fire indoors, or on the shingle beach, his system was ever the same. Every time that Bramble opened his lips I gained some information; he was never wearying, and often very amusing.

One morning we were out on the beach—we had been conversing with the other pilots, and examining the vessels in the offing with my glass—when he pointed out to me, it being low neap tide, that the Goodwin Sands were partially dry. "Tom," continued he, "of all the dangers, not only of the Channel, but in the wide ocean, there is none to be compared with those sands—the lives that have been lost on them, the vessels that have been wrecked, and the property that has been sucked into them, would be a dozen kings' ransoms; for, you see, Tom, they are quicksands, and the vessel which goes on shore does not remain to be broken up, but in two tides she disappears, sinking down into the sands, which never give her or her cargo up again. There must be a mighty deal of wealth buried there, that is certain. They say that once they were a flourishing fertile island, belonging to an Earl Godwin, whose name they now bear; it may be so—the sea retreats from one place while it advances at another. Look at Romney Marshes, where so many thousands of sheep are now fed. They run up many miles inland; and yet formerly those very marshes were an arm of the sea, which vessels rode in deep water, and sea-fights, I am told, took place. Howsomever, when the sea took the Godwin island to itself it made the best trap for vessels that old Neptune now possesses, and he may consider it as the most productive spot in his dominions. Lord help us! what a deal of gold and merchandise must there be buried below yon yellow patch!"

"Do you never save anything when vessels are run on shore there?"

"When they only tail on, we occasionally get them off again; but when once fixed, there's an end of it. Yes, we save life occasionally, but at great risk of our own. I saved little Bessy from a vessel ashore on these sands."

"Indeed! Pray tell me how it was."

"Why, you see, Tom, it was just at the breaking out of the war. It was in this very month of October, '93, that I was out in a galley with some others, looking for vessels. I had just then left off privateering, and got my warrant as pilot (for you know I did serve my 'prenticeship, before I went a-privateering, as I told you the other night). Well, it was a blowing night, and we were running in for the Downs, intending to beach the galley and sleep on shore, for we had been out five days, and only put a pilot on board of one vessel. We were just to windward of the Sands, out there, where I am now pointing. The sea was very rough, but the night was clear, and the moon shone bright, when we saw a brig running down before the wind, under foresail and close-reefed topsails. 'Why, Bill, as she steers she'll be right between the Callipers,' said I to the man sitting by me. 'There's no mistake about that,' replied he; 'let's haul the foresheet to windward, and lay to, to hail him; he's coming right down upon us.' Well, we did so, and we hailed some time without any answer. At last a man looked over the gunnel, just as she was flying past us, and told us in Dutch to go to the devil. 'I think you'll go there if you don't look sharp,' replied Bill. 'Come, my lads, we may as well follow her, and see if we cannot prevent mischief.' So we bore up after her, and hailed her several times, for we sailed very fast, and there was a scuffling on deck. I think that the captain was drunk. All this passed in less than five minutes; and then, as I knew would be the case, she struck on the sands, and with such force that all her masts went over the side immediately. Now, the sea rolls awfully over the shallow water of those sands, Tom. We had kept with her as far as we dared, and then hove-to about two cables' lengths to windward of her, when she struck, for the ebb was still running strong under our lee, which only made the sea more cross and heavy. The waves made a clean breach over her, and we knew that she would go to pieces in less than half-an-hour; but we did not like to leave so many to perish without a trial to save them. So we kept away, so as to get abreast of them, and then lowered our sails and got out our oars. We pulled close to them, but it was impossible to board. We should have been stove to pieces and swamped immediately. The moon still shone bright, and we saw them as plain as we could wish, and we made every attempt to save them, for they were all crowded together forward. Once the sea drove the boat so close that we touched her sides, and then a woman pressed before the men, and reached over the gunnel, extending her arms which held the child, while several others attempted to get in; but the return of the wave carried us back so quick from the vessel that, as they attempted to jump in, they all went to the water, and never appeared again; but I had caught hold of the child, and laid it down in the sternsheets. We made a second and third attempt, but in vain. At last the vessel broke up, as it were, all at once—there was one loud cry, and all was still, except the roaring and breaking waves which buried them. It wasn't a scene to make us very lively, Tom; we hoisted the sail, and ran on to the beach in silence. I took the child in my arms—it had been snatched out of its warm bed, poor thing, and had nothing on but a calico nightgown. I took it up to the cottage, which was then Maddox's (I bought it afterward of the widow with the money I made a-privateering), and I gave it in charge to Mrs. Maddox. I did intend to have sent it to the workhouse, or something of that sort; but Mrs. Maddox took a fancy to it, and so did I, and so I thought I would take care of it, and I christened it by the name of Betsy Godwin."

"You have no idea who she may be?"

"Not a half one. Her cotton gown and cap told nothing; the vessel was Dutch, that's all I know. She may be the child of the Stadtholder or the child of the ship's cook. What's the matter?"

"But did you notice any marks upon her person by which she might be reclaimed?"

"Not I. I only axed Mrs. Maddox whether it were a boy or a girl."

"How old was she then?"

"Well, how can I tell? that's not in my way; but the knowing ones in these matters said that she must be about eighteen months old, so we have taken that for a departure as to her age. I love her now as if she were my own child, and so will you, Tom, like a sister, when you know her. She calls me her father, and you may do the same, Tom, if you like, for I will be as good as a father to you, if you are as good a boy as you now seem to be, I like to be called father, somehow or another—it sounds pleasant to my ears. But come in now, I think you have compassed the compass, so you must learn something else.

"There is another way, Tom," said Bramble, as he seated himself in his large chair, "in which a smart 'prentice may be useful to his master, and it is of quite as much importance as the compass, which is in heaving the lead. You see, Tom, the exact soundings being known will often enable a pilot to run over the tail of a bank and save a tide; that is, when he knows that he can trust the man in the chains. Some seamen are very particular in giving exact soundings, but all are not. They care more for the song than they do for anything else, and though the song is very musical, yet it won't get a ship off when she's on shore. Now, two-thirds of the seamen who are sent in the chains will not give the soundings within half a fathom, and, moreover, they do not give them quick enough for the pilot in many cases. If, therefore, you learn to heave the lead well, be correct in your soundings and quick in giving them, you will become of great use to me. You understand, don't you?"

"Yes," replied I.

"Well, go up into my room, and hanging on the nail behind the door you will see a lead-line—bring it me down here."

I did so, and then Bramble explained to me how the fathoms were marked on the line, and how the soundings were given out.

"You see," said he, "wherever there is a mark with a piece of leather or bunting, whether it be white or red, it is called a mark; and if you have five fathoms of water you would cry out by the mark five; but at the other depths there are no marks, but so many knots tied as there are fathoms, as here at nine; and then you would say by the deep nine. Now run the line through your hand, and see if you can repeat the marks and deeps as they pass."

I did so.

"Very well. Now for the song, for there is a sort of tune to it." Bramble then again passed the line through his hands, giving the song to each fathom, half-fathom, and quarter-fathom, and making me sing them after him, after which I had to repeat them by myself. The next day he took out the marks and knots from the whole line, and, giving me a two-foot rule to re-measure it, made me put them all in again. This I had to repeat three or four times. By this plan they were fully impressed on my memory; and as for the song, he made me sing it almost every half-hour for three or four days, Bessy generally repeating, in her clear voice, from the back kitchen or upstairs, "and a quarter seven—by the deep line."

On the fourth day Bramble said, "Well, Tom, I think both you and Bessy may leave off singing now. You have yet to learn the most important part, which is to heave the lead; but we must wait till we get on board of a vessel for that. Observe, Tom, it's all very well singing when you've plenty of water, and I like it, for it sounds musical and pleasant to the ear; but in shallow water the pilot's answer must be much shorter and quicker, as you will find out by-and-by."

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.