Lost Island/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III
OFF TO SEA

"Gone! Gone where?" asked the captain, with a frown of annoyance.

"I met him on the wharf and he said he'd left the ship, sir," Dave replied.

Suddenly the captain's face wore a smile. The situation appeared to amuse him.

"What d' you know about that!" he said, with a deep laugh. "You 'll get on, son, if you 're always as smart as this. Come back and talk to me in a week. From what I can see of you, I reckon you 'll fill the billet, but I'm too busy to waste time on you now. Come along next Thursday, and then I'll run the rule over you."

Dave's heart beat a little faster than usual as he walked home. Nothing had been farther from his mind earlier in the day than definitely to ask for a job on a vessel. Now he was as good as booked to sail in a week! In the excitement of the moment he had quite forgotten to ask where the ship was bound for. All he knew was her name—the Pacific Queen. As a matter of fact, he was not deeply concerned as to her destination. Any point of the compass was equally satisfactory to him. Perhaps he rather favored China or Japan, but any other old place would do nearly as well. He felt supremely happy and much more important than he ever remembered. Although he had not officially "signed on," the big captain with the deep laugh had said he would fill the billet, and Dave was prepared to take the captain's word for it. The only thing that made him thoughtful was the fact that he would have to go without telling his father or Aunt Martha. There did not seem to be any way out of that difficulty. If he told Aunt Martha, she would make a fuss and his father would hear of it, and Dave knew what that would lead to. Captain Hallard had definitely said his son was not to go to sea until the following year, and when Captain Hallard said a thing he meant it. Dave weighed the whole situation up carefully on his way home and decided the best thing was to disappear quietly to prevent a scene. He would just leave a note for his dad, explaining matters, and promising to return home immediately he got back to America.

That programme was all right in theory until he reached the house. As soon as he entered the door he felt that Aunt Martha's eyes were on him, and that she somehow knew. As a matter of fact Aunt Martha did glance at him, but not more closely than she always did. He was as dear to her as her own son would have been. David tried to act in a perfectly natural manner, but when a boy has just arranged to go to sea on the impulse of the moment, he would be more than human if he failed to show that something unusual was in the wind.

"What's come over the lad?" Aunt Martha exclaimed after a while. "You 're dancing around like a pea in a hot frying pan."

This surprised Dave. He was under the impression that he was exceptionally quiet.

"You 're all excited and worked up," declared Aunt Martha. "I expect you 've been to one of these ball games or watching red Indians at the movies, have n't you?"

"No," replied Dave, subsiding into a chair and making an iron resolution not to move a muscle for five minutes at least.

"Then I guess you 're feverish. Why, I never saw your cheeks so flushed."

Dave stood the ordeal well. He buried himself in a book, pretending to read, but the words danced under his eyes. He, David Hallard, was a sailor at last, or at least as good as a sailor. In seven short days school and Brooklyn would be things of the past. He would be "outward bound." The words had a fine ring to them. There was to be no waiting for twelve dreary months.

Dave lay awake many hours that night, and, with the first streaks of dawn, crept quietly down the stairs, for he wanted to set his eyes on the Pacific Queen again. He felt an air of proprietorship in regard to the vessel. Also, he half dreaded to find she had disappeared in the night, and it was with positive relief that he saw her lying snugly tied up at her berth.

He had learned in recent months to judge the cut of a vessel, and the Pacific Queen looked a trim craft to him. She was a single-screw steel freighter that had not been launched more than three years. No mail-boat that ever tore her way out of New York seemed half so magnificent in Dave's eyes as the Pacific Queen lying at her moorings that early summer morning. There was no sign of life on board except a thin stream of smoke from the galley stack, and the boy stood feasting his eyes on his future home for a full hour before a healthy appetite sent him hurrying home to see what Aunt Martha had for breakfast.

The problem of what to take on the voyage puzzled him somewhat. There were not many things he could take, as the money-box into which he had been dropping dimes and five-cent pieces for a couple of years contained only a few dollars. A large clasp-knife, of course, must be included. Of that there was no question. Whoever heard of a sailor without a clasp-knife? Dave was not absolutely certain what it was for, but he knew it was indispensable, so he boldly laid out a dollar and a half on a fearsome weapon with a bone handle. Fortunately, he had a new pair of heavy shoes. One problem gave him many uneasy hours. His father had once told him that when the time came for him to go to sea he could have the binoculars that formed one of Captain Hallard's souvenirs of the sea. The clasp-knife was a treasure already, but those binoculars were the crowning point of Dave's desires. They had cost an awful lot of money at one time and were not a necessary part of a boy's outfit, but Dave felt it would be a great thing to have them with him.

Choosing a suitable opportunity, he asked:

"Dad, do you remember saying I could have your glasses when the time came?"

"Surely," his father agreed, "and I hope you will remember always to treat 'em as carefully as I have done. They 've got fine lenses in them, and I don't know that I ever handled a better pair of binoculars in my life. There's many a sea-captain tramping round the ocean who'd give a whole lot to own a pair of glasses like them, so you 'll have to be careful or they will get stolen. Not that stealing is common on board ship. It's the unforgivable sin at sea. I have seen a man thrown overboard and near drowned for taking what was n't his. All the same you 'll have to keep your eyes open, but if you 've still got them when the time comes for you to be pacing the bridge they 'll be worth a sight more to you than the junk you can pick up for good money at most stores. When there's a thick haze and you 're driving down on a vessel that's blowing her buzzer fit to wake the dead, you can't tell which direction the sound is coming from. The lives of everybody on board may depend on your being able to spot the other boat. That's when you want a good pair of binoculars to see through."

"Can I use them now just as if they were mine?" Dave put in anxiously. He had a nice sense of honor. Nothing would have induced him to take them on the Pacific Queen without a favorable reply to this question.

"Why, I don't see any objection," Captain Hallard replied good-naturedly, puffing away at his pipe. "Only, as I say, take care of them, and mind you don't scratch the lenses. They were given to me nigh on thirty years ago by an old deep-sea pilot once when we were in the North Sea, making Flushing on the Dutch coast. I was second mate at the time. It had been blowing a regular gale, and we'd got to the lightship where the pilot cutter was generally hanging around. Dark! You could n't see your hand before you, away from a lamp; and there was a heavy ground swell running. All of a sudden we saw the flare off the cutter, signalling that a pilot was coming to us. It means fifty dollars at least for a few hours' work, so they 'll board you in a mighty bad sea if their small boat can stand it. Our skipper did n't reckon they could make it, but he sent up a flare in answer, and pretty soon the dory bumped alongside with two men at the oars besides the pilot. I'd slung a rope ladder over and was standing by. The pilot got ready to catch hold of the ladder when the ship was n 't rolling extra hard. The dory was bobbing up and down and I felt kind of nervous for the old man. He had boarded hundreds of ships in the dark, but the sea is a queer thing, my lad. She's always waiting. You never know when she's going to get you. Just as the pilot was reaching out for the ladder a big wave caught us on the starboard quarter and rolled us right over on top of the dory. It crumpled up like an egg, and I made sure all three men in her must have been killed.

"I gave a yell up to the bridge, bent a line on to a stanchion, took hold of one end of it, and slipped over the side. I could swim quite a bit in those days, but I did n't fancy paddling around in the North Sea under such conditions without something to hang on to the old ship by. I could n't see a thing, but presently I touched a man's head. I got one arm round him and when we were heaved on board we found it was the pilot. He'd got a nasty bump on the forehead, and was dazed for a while, but he came round after the skipper had given him a stiff glass of grog. We never saw anything of the other men. Before we dropped the pilot he gave me these binoculars that he had in his overcoat pocket, saying he'd made up his mind to retire anyhow, and reckoned he could take a hint from the sea as well as any man."

At times Dave felt almost bursting with the desire to tell one of his school friends the wonderful thing that was to happen on the following Thursday, but he kept his own counsel and waited as patiently as he could. On his last night at home he wrote two letters, one to his father and one to Aunt Martha. The first ran:


Dear Dad:

I couldn't wait, and I'm going to sea. Please forgive me. I 'll take good care of the binoculars and write to you often.

Your loving son,

David.


He propped the two letters up against the dock on the mantelpiece and then went to bed in his own room for the last time, after packing his few possessions in an old suitcase. Dave hardly dared close his eyes lest he should sleep too long. Before it was light he slipped on his clothes. The stairs creaked as he walked down them in his stocking-feet, with his shoes in one hand and the suitcase in the other. He dreaded waking either his father or Aunt Martha, and yet had to fight with a desire to say good-by to them. He had to bite his lips hard and a lump came into his throat when he passed his father's door.

The lock and bolt on the front door took an eternity to manipulate in the dark. His fingers seemed to be all thumbs. He had never noticed before how much noise the key made in that lock. He wondered vaguely how long it would be before he turned it again. Quite a lot had to happen before then. The lump in his throat grew bigger. Not until he had closed the door ever so softly, and stood on the path, did he realize exactly how dear home was to him, or what a lot Aunt Martha had done for him in her prim fashion. The great adventure was starting. No, it had actually started! From that moment onwards he was to be a wage-earner and a sailor.

For three hours Dave waited on the wharf, until there were signs of life on the Pacific Queen. When Captain Chisholm turned out of his berth he was told there was a boy waiting to see him.

"A boy!" he said. "What does he want?"

"Says you told him to come, sir. He's been on deck since four o'clock."

"Oh, I know," said the captain. "Send him here."

The master mariner was having breakfast when Dave was ushered in. He had already ascertained that the boat was bound for Auckland, New Zealand, and other Australasian ports.

"So you want to go to sea, eh?" the big man asked, attacking a pile of bacon and eggs.

"Yes, sir," Dave replied.

"Ever been afloat?"

"Not yet, sir."

"What's your name?"

"David Hallard."

"How old?"

"Sixteen, sir."

"Got a father!"

"Yes, sir."

"What does he say about it?"

"He says I can be a sailor, sir," he answered, after a moment's hesitation. "He was a ship's master, but he's got rheumatism now."

"Well, you seem a smart enough lad. You 'll have to jump around a bit at sea. We 've no use for lazy folk here. Go and report to Mr. Quick, the first mate. He will tell you what to do. He's rough and ready, but he knows his business. Don't let him have to tell you twice and you 'll be all right. We sail at noon. Run along now."

Dave found that Mr. Quick was a very different type of man from the captain. He seemed to bark instead of talking, nor did he appear to be in a particularly pleasant frame of mind that morning. He had fiery red hair and piercing eyes. Mr. Quick devoted precisely sixty seconds to the new hand, during which he gave Dave some terse and emphatic advice, after which he hustled him off to the galley, where he was placed under the wing of Barnes, the ship's cook.

"Well, and what have they sent to plague the life out of me now?" Barnes asked in a high, squeaky voice. If Dave had not been trying hard to make a good impression on every one he might have laughed, for Barnes had the most comical face he had ever seen. In reality he was good-natured enough, but for some reason he always tried to give the impression that he was cranky and unapproachable, perhaps because people had been taking advantage of his amiability for forty years at sea. His fat cheeks were red, and his eyebrows stood out like two white bushes. In spite of the greeting, Dave liked Barnes instinctively on sight, and grew to like him still more in the course of time; and he is a lucky person who makes a friend of the cook afloat.

"I 've come to help you," the boy said. "So far, I only know how to peel potatoes, though."

"Well, I sha'n't be askin' you to bake doughnuts or fry chickens for the passengers yet a while," the cook growled, "'cause there ain't no passengers this trip, and again there ain't no chickens to fry. Ship's biscuits, cold, with plenty o' weevils in 'em, is all the hands get on this ship week-days. Sundays it's different. We has to warm the biscuits up into a puddin' for a change."

"Then what do we want a cook for?" asked Dave, with a grin.

"Look here, youngster, I 'll not stand for any impidence," Barnes declared, puffing out his cheeks and doing wonderful things with his bushy eyebrows. "You 'll have a frying-pan about your ears in a brace of shakes. Don't stand there like a dummy! Why don't you get to work? Do you expect me to wash all them dishes?"

Dave whipped off his coat and started on the task with a celerity which brought a grunt of satisfaction from the cook—a sound which Barnes hastily strove to hide with a cough.

It occurred to the new hand that he might be able to extract some information from the cook.

"Can you tell me what other duties I 'll have on board this boat, Mr. Barnes, besides washing dishes?"

The cook glared at him.

"Not a thing, my son," he said. "It's one of the rules on this ship that the boy is n't allowed to do anything but wash dishes. When he's got through he has to part his hair in the middle and dine with the skipper—if there isn't some more dishes to wash, which there allus is. What are you pesterin' me with fool questions for, anyhow? Do you take me for the navigatin' officer or only the owner? Reach me that frying-pan down and I 'll belay your ears with it."

Dave promptly obeyed, and got a thump on the shoulders with it for "more impidence." After that, he was kept busy with various duties in the galley until, for the first time in his life, he felt the peculiar vibration of a ship's engines. The propeller had began its endless song of "chug-chug-a-chug."

Another Hallard had started on his first voyage.

"Can I go on deck a few minutes, Mr. Barnes, please?" he asked. The idea of cutting up cabbages while the lights of his home town dropped astern did not appeal to him.

"Why, yes, son," the cook replied, working his eyebrows so ridiculously that the boy had to laugh in spite of the curious feeling it gave him to know that Aunt Martha was probably in tears at the moment and that his dad was possibly watching that very ship from the window upstairs. "Go right along. Don't forget to ask Mr. Quick for a deck-chair and plenty of cushions. You 'll need the cushions if Mr. Quick catches you admirin' the scenery."

Dave slipped up the companion-way. Already they were steaming along at seven or eight miles an hour, a thick trail of smoke hanging astern. All was hustle and hurry on deck. The boy dodged out of the way of the sailors, and, standing on a coil of rope, watched familiar scenes disappear. It seemed difficult to realize that he was not dreaming. The lump was there in his throat bigger than ever when he went back to the galley, and something in his expression caught the watchful eye of the cook.

"Never mind, laddie," said Barnes. "This is your first trip, is n't it? Left the old folks behind, eh? We 've all been through it. It's a dog's life at sea, but you 'll be back eatin' corn-beef an' cabbage at home afore you know it."