Here to return to
THE YOUNG ICE WHALERS
A CHANGE IN LIFE’S PLANS
“I WILL do what I can to help make matters easy, father.”
The speaker was a handsome, well-built boy of seventeen, with a frank, winsome face that ordinarily showed neither strength nor weakness of character, — the face of a boy out of whom circumstances make much that is good, or sometimes much that is ill, according to what experiences life brings him. There are boys who will grow up strong and able men, anyway. They seem to have it in them from the start. There are others who have an inborn tendency to evil and dissipation, which no amount of training and opportunity for better things can eradicate. Harry Desmond was of neither of these types; his character was rather that which responds easily to outside influences, whose weaknesses may easily grow upon it, or whose strong points may be developed and brought out by use.
“Thank you, my son,” said the other simply, extending his hand; “I was very sure you would. The business will of course go on, and may be built up again with care and strict economy; but the outside investments, whose returns have made us well-to-do, and from which the money for your education was coming, are totally swept away. I’m afraid we shall have to withdraw you from the preparatory school. It is an expensive place, and just at present I do not feel able to supply you with the money necessary to keep up your standing among the boys there. In another year I had hoped to see you in the freshman class at Harvard, and that may yet be managed. There are always scholarships to be had.”
“Father,” said Harry impulsively, “I don’t think I care for college. I’d rather help you. To tell the truth, I have not stood very well at school; I mean my marks have not been high. I have managed to pass always, but it has been a close shave sometimes. I’ve liked it immensely because I have had such jolly times with the other fellows. I have thought of college much in the same way. So long as we had plenty of money, it was just as well to go. A college man who has spending-money has no end of a good time, and I don’t doubt I could pass in the studies as well as a good many of the fellows. But now it’s different. You’ve always stood by me like a brick. Now I want to help you.”
A look of pride and delight beamed in the careworn face of the elder Desmond, and the stoop came out of his shoulders a little as if a weight had been lifted from them. He had expected the boy would meet the news bravely and carry himself well. He knew his own blood. The Desmonds had never yet been the men to cry baby when unpleasant things had to be faced, and yet — he knew now how it had weighed upon him — he had feared in his heart for the effect of the news on his only son. He knew of the low marks at the preparatory school, and how careless and pleasure loving the boy had seemed. There had been one or two escapades, also, things which showed carelessness and high spirits rather than viciousness, and they had worried him a good deal.
“I think we shall be able to keep the house, here,” said the father, “though we shall have to live rather simply. The horses must go and most of the servants, but when that is done and things straightened out a bit, we shall owe no man a penny. The hardest rub is coming in the business. There we must reorganize and retrench, and the office force is badly cut down.”
Harry hesitated, though it was only for a moment, and swallowed a lump in his throat. He had a pretty good idea of the drudgery of the office. The younger clerks came in at eight or before, and never got away until six. That was for every week in the year, except a brief vacation of ten days or so. He thought of his Saturdays and holidays, of the long vacation in the heat of summer; and then he saw the careworn look in his father’s face, and he held up his head and spoke swiftly.
“I’d be glad to help you in the office if I can, sir,” he said; “I’m pretty handy at figures and have a good idea of book-keeping. I’d like to do it, if you’ll only let me. A year or two of it would be good for me. Then, if things go better, it will not be too late to go to college after all. Perhaps I shall feel more like it then.” He smiled somewhat grimly, mentally noting how swiftly ideas and ideals change. College, which had seemed inevitable only a few short hours before, had not appealed to him except as a pleasant place to spend time and enjoy himself. Now he suddenly seemed to see how useful it might be to him in the future, yet that he would probably not be able to go there.
“It is a good deal of a sacrifice, my boy,” said his father, “but you really could help me there a great deal. I need some one with the force whom I can be sure of as loyal to my interests. Think it over for a day, and if you are still willing you can begin right away. It is almost worth while to be ruined financially to find one’s son so plucky about it and so loyal to the house. I shall have to let you go now; I am to have a business conference here in a few minutes, and I see the others coming down-street now. Be as cheerful as you can about this with your mother. I think it is hardest on her; but if we can all be patient for a few years, I think I can pull through and get matters in good shape again. Good-by.”
Harry left the library, put his hat on, and stepped out of doors. It was one of those days in late April that make one glad lie is alive, and in New England. The grass was already green upon the lawn, the buds were swelling in the shrubbery, and a bluebird caroled as he fluttered from the bare limbs of a maple and inspected the bird-box where he planned to build his nest in spite of the scolding of the English sparrows that flocked about and threatened to mob him, but did not quite dare. Harry turned down the gravel path toward the boat-house. Beyond, the waters of the bay sparkled and ruffled in the wind, and his knockabout, new only last year, swung and curtsied at the mooring as if in recognition of her master. The lump came in Harry’s throat again. If he worked in the office, he would have little time in the long bright summer just ahead of him to sail the blue waters of the bay. Besides, perhaps he ought not to keep the knockabout. The boat was worth money, and should be given up just as much as the horses. Well, he had the boat now, and the afternoon; he would have a sail while yet he might. It would give him a chance to think over things, too, as his father had suggested, though he knew his mind was made up already. He found the skiff at the landing, rowed to the boat, hoisted mainsail and jib, then, as an afterthought, instead of towing the skiff astern he made it fast to the mooring and sailed away without it. It was one of those little decisions which mean nothing at. the time, but which, such are the mysterious ways of Fate, often change the whole current of life.
Pointing well up into the wind, the graceful boat slipped rapidly through the water. She was breasting the incoming tide, Harry knew, for he could feel that peculiar quiver of the rudder that thrills through the tiller into the arm when a finely balanced boat heads the tide and beats to windward at the same time. Harry looked backward at the Quincy Point Village as it slowly drew away from him. He saw the fine old houses, — his own the finest of them all, — and was devoutly glad that the business reverses were not so great that they would have to leave that. On the rear veranda of one of them he saw the gleam of a white dress, and a young girl waved her hand at him. It was Maisie Adams, he knew, and he regretted that he had not seen her sooner. Maisie was a jolly good sailor, and he would have liked her for company. It was the time of the spring vacations, and Maisie was home from boarding-school. She would no doubt have enjoyed this first sail of the season. He almost decided to put back and ask her to go out, then he happened to think he was no longer the prospective Harvard freshman with plenty of money to spend, but the prospective clerk in an office, and not likely to have even the boat he was sailing, after a few days. He ought to have had sense enough to know that this would make no difference with Maisie, but he was only a boy after all, and could not be expected to know much about the way a really nice girl like Maisie would look at things of this sort. So he pulled his hat down over his eyes a little — to keep out the sun, of course — and sent the knockabout bowling along down the Fore River, by Germantown, by Rock Island Head, and out into the wider bay toward Hull, where he got the full sweep of the bustling spring breeze.
Meanwhile Maisie pouted on the piazza. She had recognized Harry, and she, too, wished he had seen her sooner. The day was warm, almost like summer, and she would have liked a sail down the bay. However, she got some fancy work and sat down in a big piazza chair in the sun, with a wrap about her shoulders, determined to watch the boat if she could not sail in it. After a little while her mother came out.
“Aren’t you catching cold out here, Maisie?” she asked.
“I think not, mamma,” replied Maisie. “It’s just as warm as a summer day, and I thought it would be nice to sit here in the sun and embroider — and watch the boats. Sit down with me, won’t you, and talk to me?”
“I knew you wouldn’t be home long before you were on the lookout for a sail,” said Mrs. Adams rather roguishly. She knew that Harry Desmond’s knockabout was the finest small boat on the river, and that he and Maisie were great friends. “There aren’t many of the boats in commission yet. I thought I saw the Princess” — that was Harry’s boat — “at the mooring yesterday, but I see that I was mistaken.”
Mrs. Adams smiled quietly to herself as she saw the faint color creep up into Maisie’s cheek and hide itself under the dark ringlets of her hair. Then the girl looked up with charming frankness and said, “The Princess was there a few moments ago, but Harry has just gone out in her. See, he is almost down to Sheep Island now. He would have taken me, I think, if he had known I was at home.”
Maisie looked straight into her mother’s eyes, and that was one of Maisie’s chief charms. She had a way of looking at you clearly and honestly, and you knew that you were looking down through pretty gray eyes into a heart that was as open and frank as it was sunny.
“I should have been perfectly willing to have you go,” said her mother. “Harry is a very gentlemanly boy, and a good sailor. I think I can trust you with him.”
“I think you can trust me with any of the boys I am willing to go sailing with, can you not, mamma?” said Maisie, and knowing it to be true, Mrs. Adams gave her daughter a little squeeze of affection and changed the subject.
They sat and talked for a long time in the bright afternoon sun, while Maisie embroidered industriously, now and then glancing at the sail of the Princess, which had diminished to a little white speck over toward the mouth of the harbor, then grown again as her skipper headed toward home. By and by Mrs. Adams went into the house, and Maisie laid down her embroidery and strolled across the lawn and down the path toward the Adams’s boat-house.
There she found none of the boats put into the water for the season except the smallest, a light little thing with one pair of oars. Maisie was a good oarsman, and she often rowed one or another of the boats up the placid reaches of the Fore River, above the bridge; so there was nothing uncommon in what she now did. Finding it ready for use, she got into the little skiff, cast off the painter, and was soon skimming with easy strokes under the bridge and away up-river. The bridge and the heights of land on either side of it soon hid the bay and the sail of the Princess from her sight, if not from her thoughts. There were plenty of interesting things to see up-river, and who shall say that she did not turn her whole attention to these? At any rate, she alternately rowed and floated for some time, and thoroughly enjoyed the vigorous exercise and the outing in the bright spring sunshine. By and by the ebbing tide carried her back toward the bridge, and she turned the bow of her skiff homeward just as the Princess, with the west wind in her sails, came nodding and curtsying up toward her mooring.
Harry had thought it all out, and was at peace with himself. He would take the clerkship in the office and work patiently and bravely. Perhaps he would like business better than he thought, or if he did not, he could work faithfully and hope for an improvement in the family fortunes that would enable him to enter college after a few years. He had heard it said that a year or two of experience in business was a good thing for a boy who was to enter college, just as a college education was a sure help in business, if that were to be taken up after graduation. At any rate, he would be doing the thing that his father wanted him to do, and that was bound to be best. So, with the buoyancy of boyhood asserting itself, his brow was clear, the trouble was already behind him, and he whistled a merry tune as he tacked to make his mooring.
Then he noted a skiff coming through the draw of the bridge with the tide, and gave a cheerful shout of greeting as he recognized Maisie in it. Suddenly something happened, and just how it did happen neither of them could clearly tell. The skiff was passing the piling at one side of the draw, and perhaps an oar caught between two piles, perhaps Maisie turned too suddenly at the call of greeting, or the sweep of the tide did it, or all three. Whatever it was, the skiff overturned, and before Harry could realize what had happened, Maisie’s dark head floated for a moment beside the upset skiff, then sank beneath the water while the skiff floated away. He swung the tiller of the Princess swiftly so as to throw the boat back on the other tack and head for the spot, which was not far away; but quick as the knockabout was in stays, the two tacks, one immediate upon the other, had lost her headway, and she got a fill of wind too late to fairly make the spot where Maisie had gone down. As the girl’s head again came above water, the boat was a dozen feet to leeward and would be no nearer. There was but one thing to do, if she were to be rescued, and Harry did it. Letting go of tiller and sheet, he sprang quickly overboard and plunged with vigorous strokes in her direction, shouting a word of encouragement which she did not seem to heed, but which was answered by a wild warwhoop from the shore.
There the ancient ferryman, who takes people across from Germantown to the Point for a nickel, had suddenly waked up to the catastrophe and nearly swallowed his pipe, which he had been smoking placidly when it happened. He saw the need of immediate help, and sprang into the stern of his skiff and snatched an oar from the thwarts, swinging it hastily into the scull hole, very nearly upsetting himself in his excitement. Then he vigorously plied the oar and sent the clumsy boat through the water toward the scene of the accident.
Maisie was behaving herself well. Used to the water, but so weighted and snarled in her skirts that she was unable to swim, she nevertheless did not hamper Harry by needlessly clinging to him, but simply grasped his shoulders and clung tenaciously, though speechless and half drowned already. Yet Harry was having a hard time of it. He was a good swimmer, but the ice-cold water seemed to grip his chest and stop his breathing. He held Maisie up and looked for the Princess, but the boat, with its sheet caught, had swung off the wind and was rapidly sailing away. He could not reach the shore, and he knew it. He could hold Maisie up for a while, if he spared his strength as much as possible. There was a chance that help might come, though he could not tell from where. His head whirled, but he swam mechanically. Once they went under, and then as they came up something struck his shoulder and he grasped it and held on.
The swift tide had floated them out toward the mooring, and set them alongside the skiff that he had inadvertently left there some hours before. Thus kindly Fate helps us oftentimes in little things. It was only an impulse that had made him leave the skiff at the mooring, and now it was to be his salvation and Maisie’s as well.
There he clung, to be sure, but he was unable to lift the girl into the skiff. His head whirled with excitement and fatigue, but he would not let go. The iron grip of the icy water on his chest seemed to crush the strength out of him, and he scarcely knew when the ferryman, his clumsy craft quivering with newfound speed, swung alongside and lifted first Maisie and then him into the boat. Then with a strong sweep of his oar the old man swung the boat’s head toward the shore, and fell to sculling desperately without the utterance of a word.
Harry was still dazed and breathless, and Maisie was the first to recover speech. “I’m sorry I made so much trouble,” she said faintly to Griggs, “but we were nearly drowned, and would have been quite if you had not come just as you did. We thank you very much.”
Then she turned to Harry, who could still only smile faintly and shiver. “I have to thank you, too, for my life. I should have gone down before any one else could get to me if you had not been so quick and brave.” She held out her hand to him and he clasped it for a moment, while his teeth managed to chatter that it was all right.
The ferryman turned his head over his shoulder and grinned cheerfully and reassuringly across his pipe, which was still gripped his teeth, but he said no word, only went on sculling. Then the boat reached the landing and he helped Maisie out and gave a hand to Harry. The boy rose with difficulty, he was so chilled.
“Thank you, Griggs,” he said as he stepped on the wharf. “You came just in the nick of time, and I’ll see that you have more than thanks for your trouble and coolness.”
“Don’t you say a word, Mr. Harry,” said the ferryman. “You and I’ve been shipmates a good many times, and your folks have been more than kind to me. I’ll get the Princess back to her mooring for you. I’m mighty glad I was on hand, and you’ll do me a favor if you won’t say anything more about it.”
Harry was feeling better, but his teeth chattered still as he stumbled along with Maisie to her own door. At home he told his mother quietly that he had had a ducking, saying nothing about the rescue, and went to bed, while she dosed him with hot drinks. He did not seem to recover as he should, and his mother sent for the family physician. He laughed at the escapade, and gave Harry medicines that brought him round all right in due time, though not feeling very active. But the next day the doctor took care to call on Mr. Desmond privately.
“The boy is all right,” he said; “and the ducking isn’t going to hurt him any, but I want to warn you that though he is constitutionally sound, he seems lacking a bit in vitality. He is not very resilient; that is to say, things that some boys would throw off as a duck does water are likely to hurt him. Indoor life is bad for him. He’s the sort of chap that should be out in the open as much as possible for a few years. Don’t let him study too hard. Keep him sailing his boat and playing outdoor games while his constitution hardens.”
A day or two afterward Harry came into the library and found his father with an open letter in his hand.
“I’m ready to report for business, father,” said the boy, smiling. “How soon do you want me to begin at the office?”
“Are you really anxious to begin?” asked his father.
“Why, yes, father,” said Harry. “I know it will be a good deal of a grind, but it will be good for me, and I feel that I am big enough now to help when you need me.”
“Did Maisie stand her ducking all right?” asked his father with a smile, suddenly changing the subject.
“Why — yes, sir,” faltered Harry. “How did you know about it? I wasn’t going to tell anything about that part of it.”
“Oh, I saw Mr. Adams yesterday and he was quite full of the story. He spoke very nicely about your share in it, and I am quite proud of you.”
“Oh, sir,” said Harry, turning very red with pleasure at his father’s praise; “it wasn’t anything much, and anyway it was Mr. Griggs who pulled us both out. We would not have got out at all if it hadn’t been for him.”
“Well,” said his father, “it was a very fortunate escape, and I ‘in glad it came out as it did. But I have two things that I wish to talk to you about, and it may be that we shall not need you in the office at all, but can use you to better advantage in another way. First, I want you to read this letter from Captain Nickerson, my old friend from Nantucket.”
He handed Harry a letter written in a cramped but bold handwriting. It was as follows:—
WHALING BARK BOWHEAD, HONOLULU, January 15, 189—.
DEAR FRIEND DESMOND, — It is a year since I wrote you last, and longer than that since I have heard from you, but shall hope to hear from you when we arrive at Frisco, which will be in April unless something comes up to prevent. We have had rather an uneventful cruise so far, and have taken but few whales in the South Seas. We shall land about 1100 barrels of oil, however, as the result of the cruise up to date. We are refitting here as the result of a hurricane which we took about a month ago, in which we lost the fore-topmast and some gear with it. No one was hurt except two Kanakas, one of whom went overboard when the gale first struck us, and the other got a broken arm by a fall from the foreyard during the gale. How he escaped going overboard is a mystery, but it is pretty hard to lose a Kanaka. I watched out for the other one most of the way into Honolulu. Expected nothing but he might swim alongside and board us, but he didn’t come. Picked up a couple of white men off the beach here to take their places. Think they may prove good men. They have been on the beach long enough to know what it is to have a good ship under them and regular fare, though not so good as you people at home get, doubtless.
The old ship is in fine trim again, taut and nobby as a race horse over on the Brockton track. Guess I shall not be home in time to take in the county fair this year, though I would like to. We shall fit out again either at Frisco or Seattle, and will probably touch at Seattle anyway on our way north. I am going to cruise through Bering Sea and into the Arctic this summer for bowheads. Oil is cheap now, but bone is higher than ever, and a good shipload of bone and ivory, such as we can probably get if we go north, will be worth while. And this brings me to one object in writing this letter. My boy Joe is with us this cruise, and as fine a young sailor as ever you saw. I wish, however, he had a lad of good family of his own age for company. I do not like to have him have the crew alone for friends. Some of them are good fellows, too, but many of them are, as you no doubt guess, a rough lot. Your son Harry must be about his age now, — eighteen. Why do not you let him come on and meet us at Seattle, and go north for the summer? He would enjoy the cruise thoroughly, and no doubt learn much that is useful to a young lad just growing up. We shall be back by November at the latest, and it would be nothing much but a summer vacation for him. If you think he would like to go, why not send him on? We’ll make a man of him, and a sailor man at that. I spoke to Joe about it, and he is wild with delight at the idea. He remembers the visit that you all made to us at Nantucket some years ago, in which he and Harry came to be great friends. It would be good for his health, too. There is no place like the Arctic in summer for putting health and strength into a man. Besides, I could give him a paying berth as supercargo. There is not much to do in this except a little bookkeeping, and that is just what a boy who has been to school as much as Harry has ‘would do easily and well. He would have to keep track of the ship’s stores, keep account of expenditures, and such things as that. The pay is not large, but it would give him some pocket-money when he got back, and he would not feel that he was dependent, or a guest even.
Write to me at Frisco about the middle of April, and we will plan to have him meet us there or at Seattle before we start out, which will be some time early in May.
With many pleasant memories of old schooldays together when Nantucket was really a whaling town, and the schoolmasters did a good deal of whaling, — Lord! what pranks we used to play, we two! — and my regards to Mrs. Desmond, and many to yourself, I am,
Yours very truly,
Mr. Desmond watched Harry narrowly as he read this letter. He saw his eyes light up at the prospect, and noted his suppressed excitement. Then the boy handed it back, and steadied himself.
“But you need me in the office, don’t you, father?” was all he said.
“Would you like to go?” asked his father.
“Why, yes, very much, sir,” answered Harry frankly; “but not enough to go when you need me for other work here at home. If things were as they were a year ago I should tease to be allowed to go, but now I would rather stay at home.”
Mr. Desmond looked pleased. “Now,” he said, “this is the other matter I wished to speak about. My business conference the other morning was with Mr. Adams and some other wealthy men who are planning to make large investments in the whaling and trading vessels which go north into Bering Sea and the Arctic each year after whalebone and ivory. There is a good demand for whalebone commercially, and there are some industries which cannot well get along without it. At the same time the supply is limited, and the market would easily pay a much higher price for it. I am partly interested in this as a small share-owner in the Bowhead. It was hardly reckoned as an asset in the business difficulty, as the whaling has not paid well of late years, and dividends are few and far between. So I still retain the stock. The plan of these gentlemen is to concentrate all these vessels under one management, obtain control of the world’s available supply of whalebone each year, and, by careful business methods and proper handling of the market, make a good paying business of what is now conducted often at a loss. The scheme is already under way, but the arrangements will not be completed until next fall. Meanwhile we are anxious to get a report of the conditions in that country, and the circumstances under which the business of Arctic whaling and trading is carried on. If you take this trip with Captain Nickerson, you will have a chance to see much of these conditions, and be able to make such a report. It is true that you are young and inexperienced in such matters, but your work may be all the better for that. You will have no prejudices or already formed opinions to bias you, and what you lack in experience in that region may be made up by conversation with those who have made previous cruises there. At any rate, Mr. Adams seemed to think it was worth our while to give you such a commission, if you went out there. He seems much interested in you since the upset, and if you go, you will go on a modest salary in his employ, he being the head of the enterprise. That will perhaps be better for us both than work in the office would be. Now what do you say? Will you go?”
Harry looked hard at his father, saw that he, as usual, meant what he said, and was really desirous of having him go, and then his delight and enthusiasm bubbled right over. He danced about his father, wrung his hand, and in general acted more like a crazy boy than the sedate and repressed youth who had been so willing to go into the office. As he rushed off to tell his mother, and plan his arrangements for the trip, Mr. Desmond smiled cheerily.
“Humph!” he said to himself, “I suppose the doctor was right, but there certainly doesn’t seem to be much lack of vitality there.”
That afternoon he sent and received the following telegrams: —
To NICKERSON, Whaling Bark Bowhead, San Francisco, Cal.
Have decided to let Harry go north with you. Where shall he meet you, and when?
H. N. DESMOND.
To H. N. DESMOND, Franklin St., Boston, Mass.
Will be in Seattle May tenth to fifteenth. Have Harry meet me there. Great news.
Mr. Desmond wrote also, and five days later received a letter from Captain Nickerson, which he had evidently written as soon as the telegrams were exchanged, giving further instructions. Arrangements were hurriedly but carefully made, and one day early in May Harry bade good-by to father, mother, and many friends at the station in Boston, and was off. Maisie was there too, with a smile on her face but a tear in her eye as she bade him good-by with a friendly handshake.
“Good-by, Harry,” she said. “I hope you won’t go plunging overboard after careless young ladies, up there among the Eskimos. It would be just like you, though. Be a good boy, and bring me a polar bear or something when you come back.”
“Good-by, Maisie,” replied Harry. “I’ll bring you the finest aurora borealis there is in all the Arctic.”
Some one shouted “All aboard,” the train rumbled from the station, gathering headway rapidly, and Harry Desmond was fairly launched upon a new life, which was to be so strange and so different from the old that he was often to be like the old lady in the nursery tale, who exclaimed periodically, “Lauka-mercy on us! This can’t be!”