More than two-score years and ten have come and gone since that
day when I, Benjamin Lathrop, put out from Salem harbor, a green
hand on the ship Island Princess, and in them I have achieved, I
think I can say with due modesty, a position of some importance in
my own world. But although innumerable activities have crowded to
the full each intervening year, neither the aspirations of youth
nor the successes of maturity nor the dignities of later life have
effaced from my memory the picture of myself, a boy on the deck of
the Island Princess in April, 1809.
I thought myself very grand as the wind whipped my pantaloons
against my ankles and flapped the ribbons of the sailor hat that I
had pulled snugly down; and I imagined myself the hero of a
thousand stirring adventures in the South Seas, which I should
relate when I came back an able seaman at the very least. Never was
sun so bright; never were seas so blue; never was ship so smart as
the Island Princess.
On her black hull a nicely laid band of white ran sheer from
stem to stern; her bows swelled to meet the seas in a gentle curve
that hinted the swift lines of our clippers of more recent years.
From mainmast heel to truck, from ensign halyard to tip of flying
jib-boom, her well-proportioned masts and spars and taut rigging
stood up so trimly in one splendidly coördinating structure, that
the veriest lubber must have acknowledged her the finest handiwork
It was like a play to watch the men sitting here and there on
deck, or talking idly around the forecastle, while Captain Whidden
and the chief mate conferred together aft. I was so much taken with
it all that I had no eyes for my own people who were there to see
me off, until straight out from the crowded wharf there came a
young man whom I knew well. His gray eyes, firm lips, square chin,
and broad shoulders had been familiar to me ever since I could
As he was rowed briskly to the ship, I waved to him and called
out, “O Roger—ahoy!”
I thought, when he glanced up from the boat, that his gray eyes
twinkled and that there was the flutter of a smile on his
well-formed lips; but he looked at me and through me and seemed not
to see me, and it came over me all at once that from the cabin to
the forecastle was many, many times the length of the ship.
With a quick survey of the deck, as if to see who had spoken,
yet seeming not to see me at all, Roger, who had lived all his life
within a cable’s length of the house where I was born, who had
taught me to box the compass before I learned my ABC’s, whose
interest in my own sister had partly mystified, partly amused her
younger brother—that very Roger climbed aboard the Island Princess
and went on into the cabin without word or sign of recognition.
It was not the first time, of course, that I had realized what
my chosen apprenticeship involved; but the incident brought it home
to me more clearly than ever before. No longer was I to be known as
the son of Thomas Lathrop. In my idle dreams I had been the hero of
a thousand imaginary adventures; instead, in the strange
experiences I am about to relate, I was to be only the ship’s
“boy”—the youngest and least important member of that little
isolated community banded together for a journey to the other side
of the world. But I was to see things happen such as most men have
never dreamed of; and now, after fifty years, when the others are
dead and gone, I may write the story.
When I saw that my father, who had watched Roger Hamlin with
twinkling eyes ignore my greeting, was chuckling in great
amusement, I bit my lip. What if Roger was supercargo, I
thought: he needn’t feel so big.
Now on the wharf there was a flutter of activity and a stir of
color; now a louder hum of voices drifted across the intervening
water. Captain Whidden lifted his hand in farewell to his invalid
wife, who had come in her carriage to see him sail. The mate went
forward on the forecastle and the second mate took his position in
“Now then, Mr. Thomas,” Captain Whidden called in a deep voice,
“is all clear forward?”
“All clear, sir,” the mate replied; and then, with all eyes upon
him, he took charge, as was the custom, and proceeded to work the
While the men paid out the riding cable and tripped it, and hove
in the slack of the other, I stood, carried away—foolish boy!—by
the thought that here at last I was a seaman among seamen, until at
my ear the second mate cried sharply, “Lay forward, there, and lend
a hand to cat the anchor.”
The sails flapped loose overhead; orders boomed back and forth;
there was running and racing and hauling and swarming up the
rigging; and from the windlass came the chanteyman’s solo with its
“Pull one and all!
Hoy! Hoy! Cheery men.
On this catfall!
Hoy! Hoy! Cheery men.
Answer the call!
Hoy! Hoy! Cheery men.
As the second anchor rose to the pull of the creaking windlass,
we sheeted home the topsails, topgallantsails and royals and
hoisted them up, braced head-yards aback and after-yards full for
the port tack, hoisted the jib and put over the helm. Thus the
Island Princess fell off by the head, as we catted and fished the
anchor; then took the wind in her sails and slipped slowly out
toward the open sea.
Aft, by the lee rail, I saw Roger Hamlin watching the group, a
little apart from the others, where my own people had gathered. My
father stood half a head above the crowd, and beside him were my
mother and my sister. When I, too, looked back at them, my father
waved his hat and I knew his eyes were following me; I saw the
flutter of white from my mother’s hand, and I knew that her heart
was going out with me to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Then, almost timidly, my sister waved her handkerchief. But I
saw that she was looking at the quarter-deck.
As land fell astern until it became a thin blue line on the
western horizon, and as the Island Princess ran free with the wind
full in her sails, I took occasion, while I jumped back and forth
in response to the mate’s quick orders, to study curiously my
shipmates in our little kingdom. Now that we had no means of
communication with that already distant shore, we were a city unto
Yonder was the cook, a man as black as the bottom of his iron
pot, whose frown, engraved deeply in his low forehead, might have
marked him in my eyes as the villain of some melodrama of the sea,
had I not known him for many years to be one of the most generous
darkies, so far as hungry small boys were concerned, that ever
ruled a galley. The second mate, who was now in the waist, I had
never seen before—to tell the truth, I was glad that he held no
better berth, for I disliked the turn of his too full lips. Captain
Whidden and the chief mate, Mr. Thomas, I had known a long time,
and I had thought myself on terms of friendship with them, even
familiarity; but so far as any outward sign was concerned, I might
now have been as great a stranger to either as to the second
We were twenty-two men all told: four in the cabin—Captain
Whidden, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Falk, and Roger, whose duties included
oversight of the cargo, supervision of matters purely of business
and trade in foreign ports, and a deal of clerical work that
Captain Whidden had no mind to be bothered with; three in the
steerage—the cook (contrary, perhaps, to the more usual custom),
the steward, and the carpenter; and fourteen in the forecastle.
All in all I was well pleased with my prospects, and promised
myself that I would “show them a thing or two,” particularly Roger
Hamlin. I’d make a name for myself aboard the Island Princess. I’d
let all the men know that it would not take Benjamin Lathrop long
to become as smart a seaman as they’d hope to see.
Silly lad that I was!
Within twenty minutes of that idle dream the chain of
circumstances had begun that was to bring every man aboard the
Island Princess face to face with death. Like the small dark cloud
that foreruns a typhoon, the first act in the wild drama that came
near to costing me my own life was so slight, so insignificant
relatively, that no man of us then dreamed of the hidden forces
that brought it to pass.
On the forecastle by the larboard rigging stood a big,
broad-shouldered fellow, who nodded familiarly at the second mate,
cast a bit of a leer at the captain as if to impress on the rest of
us his own daring and independence, and gave me, when I caught his
eye, a cold, noncommittal stare. His name, I shortly learned, was
Kipping. Undeniably he was impudent; but he had, nevertheless, a
mild face and a mild manner, and when I heard him talk, I
discovered that he had a mild voice; I could find no place for him
in the imaginary adventures that filled my mind—he was quite too
mild a man.
I perceived that he was soldiering at his work, and almost at
the same moment I saw the mate come striding down on him.
“You there,” Mr. Thomas snapped out, “bear a hand! Do you think
you’re waiting for the cows to come home?”
“No-o-o, sir,” the mild man drawled, starting to walk across the
The slow reply, delivered with a mocking inflection, fanned to
sudden laughter chuckles that the mate’s words had caused.
Mr. Thomas reddened and, stepping out, thrust his face close to
the other’s. “You try any of your slick tricks on me, my man,” he
said slowly and significantly, “you try any of your slick tricks on
me, and so help me, I’ll show you.”
“Ye-e-es, sir,” the man replied with the same inflection, though
not so pronounced this time.
Suddenly the deck became very still. The listeners checked their
laughter. Behind me I heard some one mutter, “Hear that, will you?”
Glancing around, I saw that Captain Whidden had gone below and that
Mr. Thomas was in command. I was confident that the mild seaman was
mocking the mate, yet so subtle was his challenge, you could not be
sure that he actually was defiant.
Although Mr. Thomas obviously shared the opinion of the men,
there was so little on which to base a charge of insubordination or
affront that he momentarily hesitated.
“What is your name?” he suddenly demanded.
“Kipping, sir,” the mild man replied.
This time there was only the faintest suggestion of the derisive
inflection. After all, it might have been but a mannerism. The man
had such a mild face and such a mild manner!
“Well, Kipping, you go about your work, and after this, let me
warn you, keep busy and keep a civil tongue in your head. We’ll
have no slick tricks aboard this ship, and the sooner you men
realize it, the easier it will be for all hands.”
Turning, the mate went back to the quarter-deck and resumed his
station by the weather rail.
While his back was toward us, however, and just as I myself, who
had listened, all ears, to the exchange of words between them, was
turning to the forecastle, I saw—or thought I saw—on Kipping’s
almost averted face just such a leer as I had seen him cast at the
captain, followed, I could have taken my oath, by a shameless wink.
When he noticed me gazing at him, open-mouthed, he gave me such
another cold stare as he had given me before and, muttering
something under his breath, walked away.
I looked aft to discover at whom he could have winked, but I saw
only the second mate, who scowled at me angrily.
“Now what,” thought I, “can all this mean?” Then, being unable
to make anything of it, I forgot it and devoted myself
industriously to my own affairs until the hoarse call of “All hands
on deck” brought the men who were below tumbling up, to be summoned
aft and addressed by the captain.
Apparently Captain Whidden was not aware that there was a soul
on board ship except himself. With his eyes on the sea and his
hands clasped behind him, he paced the deck, while we fidgeted and
twisted and grew more and more impatient. At last, with a sort of a
start, as if he had just seen that we were waiting, he stopped and
surveyed us closely. He was a fine figure of a man and he affected
the fashions of a somewhat earlier day. A beaver with sweeping brim
surmounted his strong, smooth-shaven face, and a white stock,
deftly folded, swathed his throat to his resolute chin. Trim
waistcoat, ample coat, and calmly folded arms completed his picture
as he stood there, grave yet not severe, waiting to address us.
What he said to us in his slow, even voice was the usual speech
of a captain in those times; and except for a finer dignity than
common, he did not deviate from the well-worn customary phrases
until he had outlined the voyage that lay before us and had summed
up the advantages of prompt, willing obedience and the penalties of
any other course. His tone then suddenly changed. “If any man here
thinks that he can give me slovenly work or back talk and arguing,”
he said, “it’ll be better for that man if he jumps overboard and
swims for shore.” I was certain—and I still am—that he glanced
sharply at Kipping, who stood with a faint, nervous smile, looking
at no one in particular. “Well, Mr. Thomas,” he said at last,
“we’ll divide the watches. Choose your first man.”
When we went forward, I found myself, as the green hand of the
voyage, one of six men in the starboard watch. I liked the
arrangement little enough, for the second mate commanded us and
Kipping was the first man he had chosen; but it was all in the
day’s work, so I went below to get my jacket before eight bells
The voices in the forecastle suddenly stopped when my feet
sounded on the steps; but as soon as the men saw that it was only
the boy, they resumed their discussion without restraint.
“I tell you,” some one proclaimed from the darkest corner, “the
second mate, he had it all planned to get the chief mate’s berth
this voyage, and the captain, he put him out no end because he
wouldn’t let him have it. Yes, sir. And he bears a grudge against
the mate, he does, him and that sly friend of his, Kipping. Perhaps
you didn’t see Kipping wink at the second mate after he was called
down. I did, and I says to myself then, says I, ‘There’s going to
be troublous times ere this voyage is over.’ Yes, sir.”
“Right you are, Davie!” a higher, thinner voice proclaimed,
“right you are. I was having my future told, I was, and the
A roar of laughter drowned the words of the luckless second
speaker, and some one yelled vociferously, “Neddie the
fortune-teller! Don’t tell me he’s shipped with us again!”
“But I tell you,” Neddie persisted shrilly, “I tell you they hit
it right, they do, often. And the lady, she says, ’Neddie Benson,
don’t you go reckless on this next voyage. There’s trouble in
store,’ she says. ‘There’ll be a dark man and a light man, and a
terrible danger.’ And I paid the lady two dollars and I—”
Again laughter thundered in the forecastle.
“All the same,” the deep-voiced Davie growled, “that sly,
“Hist!” A man raised his hand against the light that came
faintly from on deck.
Then a mild voice asked, “What are you men quidding about
anyway? One of you’s sitting on my chest.”
“Listen to them talk,” some one close beside me whispered.
“You’d think this voyage was all of life, the way they run on about
it. Now it don’t mean so much to me. My name’s Bill Hayden, and
I’ve got a little wee girl, I have, over to Newburyport, that will
be looking for her dad to come home. Two feet long she is, and cute
as they make them.”
Aware that the speaker was watching me closely, I perfunctorily
nodded. At that he edged nearer. “Now I’m glad we’re in the same
watch,” he said. “So many men just cut a fellow off with a
I observed him more sharply, and saw that he was a
stupid-looking but rather kindly soul whose hair was just turning
“Now I wish you could see that little girl of mine,” he
continued. “Cute? there ain’t no word to tell you how cute she is.
All a-laughing and gurgling and as good as gold. Why, she ain’t but
a little old, and yet she can stand right up on her two little legs
as cute as you please.”
I listened with mild interest as he rambled on. He seemed such a
friendly, homely soul that I could but regard him more kindly than
I did some of our keener-witted fellow seamen.
Now we heard faintly the bell as it struck, clang-clang,
clang-clang, clang-clang. Feet scuffled overhead, and some one
called down the hatch, “Eight bells, starbow-lines ahoy!”
Davie’s deep voice replied sonorously, “Ay-ay!” And one after
another we climbed out on deck, where the wind from the sea blew
cool on our faces.
I had mounted the first rung of the ladder, and was regularly
signed as a member of the crew of the Island Princess, bound for
Canton with a cargo of woolen goods and ginseng. There was much
that puzzled me aboard-ship—the discontent of the second mate, the
perversity of the man Kipping (others besides myself had seen that
wink), and a certain undercurrent of pessimism. But although I was
separated a long, long way from my old friends in the cabin, I felt
that in Bill Hayden I had found a friend of a sort; then, as I
began my first real watch on deck at sea, I fell to thinking of my
sister and Roger Hamlin.