Poor Jack

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In which i take a cruise contrary to the received rules of navigation—on my return from a cold expedition, i meet with a cold reception.

As soon as I was fairly in possession of my office, I gained sufficient money to render me almost entirely independent of my mother. Occasionally I procured an old jacket or trousers, or a pair of shoes, at the store of an old woman who dealt in everything that could be imagined; and, if ever I picked up oakum or drifting pieces of wood, I used to sell them to old Nanny—for that was the only name she was known by. My mother, having lost her lodgers by her ill temper and continual quarreling with her neighbors, had resorted to washing and getting up of fine linen, at which she was very expert, and earned a good deal of money. To do her justice, she was a very industrious woman, and, in some things, very clever. She was a very good dressmaker, and used to make up the gowns and bonnets for the lower classes of people, to whom she gave great satisfaction. She worked very hard for herself and my sister, about whose dress and appearance she was more particular than ever; indeed, she showed as much affection for her as she did ill-will toward me. To look at me, with my old trousers tucked up above my knees, my ragged jacket, and weatherbeaten cap; and then to see Virginia, so neatly and even expensively dressed, no one could have believed that we were brother and sister. My mother would always try to prevent Virginia from noticing me, if we ever met when she was walking out with her. But my sister appeared to love me more and more; and, in spite of my mother, as soon as she saw me, would run up to me, patting my dirty jacket with her pretty little hand; and, when she did so, I felt so proud of her. She grew up handsomer every day, and so sweet in disposition that my mother could not spoil her.

It was in the autumn that I gained undisputed possession of the office of "Poor Jack"; and that winter I had an adventure which nearly occasioned my making a vacancy for somebody else, and which, the reader will agree with me, was anything but pleasant.

It was in the month of January—the river was filled with floating ice, for it had frozen hard for several days; and, of course, there were but few people who trusted themselves in wherries—so that I had little employment, and less profit. One morning, as I was standing on the landing-steps, the breath coming out of my mouth like the steam of a tea-kettle—rubbing my nose, which was red from the sharpness of the frost—and looking at the sun, which was just mounting above a bank of clouds, a waterman called to me, and asked me whether I would go down the river with him, as he was engaged to take a mate down to join his ship, which was several miles below Greenwich; and, if so, he would give me sixpence and a breakfast. I had earned little for many days, and, hating to be obliged to my mother, I consented.

In an hour we started: there was no wind—the water was smooth, and the sun's rays glittered on the floating patches of ice, which grated against the sides of the wherry as we cut through them with our sharp prow. Although we had the tide with us, it was three hours before we gained the ship. The mate paid the fare, and gave us something to drink; and we passed an hour or more warming ourselves at the caboose and talking with the seamen. At last a breeze sprung up, and the captain ordered the men to get the ship under way. We shoved off, the tide having flowed some time, expecting to be back to Greenwich before dark.

But it clouded over, and a heavy snowstorm came on, so that we could not see in what direction we were pulling; the wind blew very fresh, and it was piercing cold; however, we pulled as hard as we could, not only to get back again, but to keep ourselves from freezing. Unfortunately, we had lost too much time on board of the vessel; and, what with that, and the delay arising from the snowstorm preventing us pulling straight back, the ebb-tide made again before we had gained more than two-thirds of our way. We were now nearly worn out with the severe cold and fatigue, but we pulled hard, keeping as close inshore as we could. It was necessary, at the end of one reach, to cross over to the other side of the river; and, in so doing, we were driven by the tide against a large buoy, when the wherry filled and upset in an instant. We both contrived to cling on to her, as she was turned bottom up; and away we were swept down among the drifting ice, the snowstorm still continuing to beat down on our heads. I was nearly frozen before I could climb on the bottom of the wherry; which I at last contrived to do, but the waterman could only hold on. There we both were, shivering and shaking; the wind piercing through our wet clothes—the snow beating down on us, and our feet freezing among the drifting ice—borne away with the tide toward the mouth of the river—not able to see two yards before us, or likely to be seen by any one, so as to be assisted. We were too cold to speak, but remained in silence, looking at each other, and with no pleasant forebodings as to our fate. The ice now formed in large masses; the icicles hung from our clothes and all sense was lost in our extremities. It was now dark as pitch; and so feeble were we that it was with difficulty we could keep in our positions. At last the storm abated, the sky cleared up, and the bright full moon shone in the heavens; but our case appeared hopeless—we felt that before morning we must perish. I tried to say what prayers I had learned by hearing my sister say them; but my teeth chattered, and I could only think them. At last I perceived a vessel at anchor: the tide was sweeping us past—we were close to her, and I contrived to cry out; but there was no reply. Again I screamed, but it was in vain. They were all in their warm beds, while we floated past, freezing to death. My hopes, which had been raised, and which had occasioned my heart to resume its beating, now sank down again, and I gave myself up in despair. I burst into tears; and, before the tears had rolled half-way down my cheeks, they had frozen hard. "I am indeed 'Poor Jack,' now," thought I; "I shall never see my father or Virginia any more." As I thought so, I saw another vessel ahead of us. I summoned all my strength, and called out long before we floated past her. The light wind bore my voice down; there was a man on deck, and he heard it; he walked forward, and I perceived him looking over the bows. I hallooed again, to direct his attention to where we were; for our wherry was so encrusted with ice that she might have been taken for a larger piece floating by. I saw him turn away, and heard him thump with a handspike on the deck. How my heart bounded! I almost felt warm. As we were passing the vessel, I cried out again and again, and the man answered me—

"Ay, ay, hold on for a minute or two, and I'll send for you."

"We are saved," I cried to the waterman; but he was quite insensible, apparently frozen stiff where he was clinging. In a few minutes I heard the sound of oars, and then they stopped; the boat came quietly alongside, that they might not by the shock throw us off into the water; they dragged us both in, and took us on board, poured a glass of brandy down our throats, stripped off our frozen clothes, chafed our limbs, and put us between the hot blankets which they had just left. As soon as I was in bed the mate made me drink a tumbler of hot grog, and left me. I soon fell into a deep sleep, long before they had ceased their attempts to restore vitality to my companion, which at last they did. When I awoke the next morning I was quite well, and the waterman was also recovering, although not able to leave his hammock. The mate who had had the watch and had saved us, told me that the wherry was safe on board, and, as the ship was bound up the river, that we had better remain where we were. I narrated our accident; and my clothes having been dried at the caboose, I dressed myself and went on deck. My companion, the waterman, did not escape so well; his foot was frostbitten, and he lost four of his toes before he recovered. It was singular that he, who was a man grown up, should suffer so much more than I did. I cannot account for it, except that my habit of always being in the water had hardened me more to the cold. We remained on board two days, during which we were treated with great kindness.

It was a fine bright morning, when, as the ship was passing the hospital, we shoved the wherry off, and landed at the steps; and when we jumped out we were greeted by all who were standing there. We had very naturally been given up for lost. They supposed that we had perished in the snowstorm. Old Ben was among those who were standing at the steps, and he walked up with me toward my mother's house.

"I did go to the old woman and break the matter to her in a becoming way, Jack," said Ben; "but I can't say that she appeared to take it much to heart, and that's the truth. Had it been little Jenny, she'd have cried her eyes out."

I arrived at Fisher's Alley, and the neighbors looked out; and as I nodded to them they cried, "Why, here's Jack come back again. Where have you been to, Jack?" This passing from mouth to mouth at last reached my mother's ears; she looked out and saw me and old Ben close to the door.

"Here be your son, missus," said Ben; "so you may thank God for His mercy."

But my mother did not appear to be very thankful. She turned round and went in. I followed her, while Ben was standing at the door in amazement at her not flying to me and kissing me. On the contrary she must have been angry at my return, for she commenced singing:

"Jack and Gill went up the hill To fetch a pail of water; Jack fell down and broke his crown, And Gill came tumbling after."

And then she broke out: "And where have you been, you good-for-nothing boy, all this time? putting me to all this useless expense that you have; all my money thrown away for nothing." I looked at the table and perceived that she had been making a black dress and bonnet, to put little Virginia into mourning; for she never let slip an opportunity to dress out my sister.

"Fifteen good shillings thrown away and lost, all by your coming back. Your sister would have looked so beautiful and interesting in it. Poor child! and now she will be disappointed. Never mind, my darling, you may have to wear them soon yet, if he goes on this way."

Virginia did not seem to mind it at all; she was kissing and patting me, and was delighted to see me again. But my mother took her by the hand, and catching up the half-made dress and bonnet in her other, walked away upstairs to her room, singing:

"There was an old man who lived under a hill, And if he's not dead, he lives there still."

"So much for motherly love! Dang it, what's her heart made of?" said a voice. I turned round; it was old Ben, who had been an unobserved spectator of the scene.

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