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Afloat at Last

John C. Hutcheson

  Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England

  Afloat at Last

  by John Conroy Hutcheson________________________________________________________________This short book tells the adventures over just one voyage to Shanghai ofthe hero, Allan Graham, whose father is a country vicar. Allan isobtained a place as an apprentice aboard the Silver Queen, which hejoins at Wapping Docks. An Irish bosun, Tim Rooney, takes a liking tothe lad and helps him learn the ropes. Hutcheson nearly always has anIrish co-hero in his books. We get a good description of how the vesselis warped out of the dock, how she makes her way down river, assisted bya steam-tug, and then down the English Channel and into the wideAtlantic Ocean. Allan begins to learn a bit about navigation andship-handling, when the movement of the vessel in the Bay of Biscaycauses him to retire with sea-sickness. A stowaway is found on board,in the forepeak. Allan finds an ally in the Chinese cook, Ching Wang.On the other hand the Portuguese steward, Pedro, hates that cook.

  They round the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), cross the Indian Ocean,and get into the Malay seas, where they notice a proa following them.After negotiating the tail end of a typhoon, they think they haveescaped these possible pirates, pass through another typhoon, in whichall their storm sails are blown out, yet see the pirates again. Theyare blown onto the Pratas shoal, aground, in which predicament thepirates attack. Ching Wang and Allan manage to get away in one of thepirates' small boats, and sail to where they can get help for the SilverQueen from a patrolling British Naval vessel, the Blazer. Rescued,eventually they get to Shanghai, where they receive their mails--it isextraordinary how the mails are always waiting for them, no matter howfast a vessel has travelled. Back home with an uneventful voyage, andthat's the end of the story. The book is very helpful in teaching youthe basics of reading these old nautical novels. N.H.________________________________________________________________AFLOAT AT LAST




  "And so, Allan, you wish to go to sea?"

  "Yes, father," I replied.

  "But, is there no other profession you would prefer--the law, forinstance? It seems a prosperous trade enough, judging from the factthat solicitors generally appear well to do, with plenty of money--possibly that of other people--in their possession; so, considering thematter from a worldly point of view, you might do worse, Allan, thanjoin their ranks."

  I shook my head, however, as a sign of dissent to this proposition.

  "Well then, my boy," went on father in his logical way, anxious that Ishould clearly understand all the bearings of the case, and have theadvantages and disadvantages of each calling succinctly set before me,"there is medicine now, if you dislike the study of Themis, as yourgesture would imply. It is a noble profession, that of healing the sickand soothing those bodily ills which this feeble flesh of ours is heirto, both the young and old alike--an easier task, by the way, than thatof ministering to `the mind diseased,' as Shakespeare has it; although,mind you, I must confess that a country physician, such as you couldonly hope to be, for I have not the means of buying you a Londonpractice, has generally a hard life of it, and worse pay. However, thisis beside the question; and I want to avoid biassing your decision inany way. Tell me, would you like to be a doctor--eh?"

  But to this second proposal of my father as to my future career, I againsignified my disapproval by shaking my head; for I did not wish tointerrupt his argument by speaking until he had finished all he had tosay on the subject, and I could see he had not yet quite done.

  "H'm, the wise man's dictum as to speech being silvern and silence goldevidently holdeth good with the boy, albeit such discretion in youth issomewhat rare," he murmured softly to himself, as if unconsciouslyputting his thoughts in words, adding as he addressed me more directly:"You ought to get on in life, Allan; for `a still tongue,' says theproverb, `shows a wise head.' But now, my son, I've nearly come to theend of the trio of learned professions, without, I see, prepossessingyou in favour of the two I have mentioned. You are averse to the law,and do not care about doctoring; well then, there's the church, lastthough by no means least--what say you to following my footsteps in thatsacred calling, as your brother Tom purposes doing when he leaves Oxfordafter taking his degree?"

  I did not say anything, but father appeared to guess my thoughts.

  "Too many of the family in orders already--eh? True; still, recollectthere is room enough and work enough, God knows, amid all the sin andsuffering there is in the world, for you also to devote your life to thesame good cause in which, my son, I, your father, and your brother havealready enlisted, and you may, I trust, yet prove yourself a doughtiersoldier of the cross than either of us. What say you, Allan, I repeat,to being a clergyman--the noblest profession under the sun?"

  "No, father dear," I at length answered on his pausing for my reply,looking up into his kind thoughtful gray eyes, that were fixed on myface with a sort of wistful expression in them; and which always seemedto read my inmost mind, and rebuke me with their consciousness, if atany time I hesitated to tell the truth for a moment, in fear ofpunishment, when, as frequently happened, I chanced to be brought beforehim for judgment, charged with some boyish escapade or youthful folly."I don't think I should ever be good enough to be a clergyman like you,father, however hard I might try; while, though I know I am a bad boyvery often, and do lots of things that I'm sorry for afterwards, I don'tbelieve I could ever be bad enough to make a good lawyer, if all thestories are true that they tell in the village about Mr Sharpe, theattorney at Westham."

  The corners of father's mouth twitched as if he wanted to smile, but didnot think it right to do so.

  "You are shrewd in your opinions, Allan," he said; "but dogmatic andparadoxical in one breath, besides being too censorious in your sweepinganalysis of character. I should like you to show more charity in yourestimate of others. Your diffidence in respect of entering the church Ican fully sympathise with, having felt the same scruples myself, andbeing conscious even now, after many years, of falling short of the highideal I had originally, and have still, of one who would follow theMaster; but, in your wholesale condemnation of the law and lawyers,judging on the _ex uno disce omnes_ principle and hastily, you shouldremember that all solicitors need not necessarily be rogues because oneof their number has a somewhat evil reputation. Sharpe is rather ablack sheep according to all report; still, my son, in connection withsuch rumours we ought to bear in mind the comforting fact that there isa stratum of good even in the worst dispositions, which can be found bythose who seek diligently for it, and do not merely try to pick out thebad. Who knows but that Sharpe may have his good points like others?But, to return to our theme--the vexed question as to which should beyour occupation in life. As you have decided against the church and thelaw, giving me your reasons for coming to an adverse conclusion in eachinstance, pray, young gentleman, tell me what are your objections to themedical profession?"

  "Oh, father!" I replied laughing, he spoke in so comical a way and withsuch a queer twinkle in his eye, "I shouldn't care at all to be only apoor country surgeon like Doctor Jollop, tramping about day and nightthrough dirty lanes and sawing off people's sore legs, or else feelingtheir pulses and giving them physic; although, I think it would be goodfun, father, wouldn't it, just when some of those stupid folk, who arealways imagining themselves ill wanted to speak about their fanciedailments, to shut them up by saying, `Show me your tongue,' as DoctorJollop bawls out to deaf old Molly the moment she begins to tell him ofher aches and pains? I think he does it on purpose."

  Father chuckled.

  "Not a bad idea that," said he; "and our friend the doctor must have thecredit of being the first man who ever succeeded in making
a woman holdher tongue, a consummation most devoutly to be wished-for sometimes--though I don't know what your dear mother would say if she heard me giveutterance to so heretical and ungallant a doctrine in reference to thesex."

  "Why, here is mother now!" I exclaimed, interrupting him in my surpriseat seeing her; it being most unusual for her to leave the house at thathour in the afternoon, which was generally devoted to Nellie's musiclesson, a task she always superintended. "She's coming up the gardenwith a letter in her hand."

  "I think I know what that letter contains," said father, not a bitexcited like me; "for, unless I'm much mistaken, it refers to the verysubject about which we've been talking, Allan,--your going to sea."

  "Does it?" I cried, pitching my cap up in the air in my enthusiasm andcatching it again dexterously, shouting out the while the refrain of theold song-- "The sea, the sea, a sailor's life for me! Hurrah! Hurrah!"

  Father sighed, and resumed his "quarter-deck walk," as mother termed it,backwards and forwards along the little path under the old elm-tree infront of the summer-house, with its bare branches stretched out like agiant's fingers clutching at the sky, always turning when he got up tothe lilac bush and retracing his steps slowly and deliberately, as ifanxious to tread in his former footprints in the very centre of the box-edged walk.

  I think I can see him now: his face, which always had such a brightgenial look when he smiled, and seemed to light up suddenly from withinwhen he turned to speak to you, wearing a somewhat sad and troubled air,and a far-away thoughtful expression in his eyes that was generallythere when he was having a mental wrestle with some difficulty, ortrying to solve one of those intricate social problems that were beingcontinually submitted for his consideration. And yet, at first glance,a stranger would hardly have taken him to be a clergyman; for he had onan old brown shooting-jacket very much the worse for wear, and wassmoking one of those long clay pipes that are called "churchwardens,"discoloured by age and the oil of tobacco, and which he had lit and letout and relit again half a dozen times at least during our talk.

  "Very unorthodox," some critical people will say.

  Aye, possibly so; but if these censors only knew father personally, andsaw how he fulfilled his mission of visiting the fatherless and widow intheir affliction, in addition to preaching the gospel and so winningsouls to heaven, and how he was liked and loved by every one in theparish; perhaps they could condone his "sin of omission" in the matterof not wearing a proper clerical black coat with a stand-up collar ofOxford cut and the regulation white tie, and that of "commission" insmoking such a vulgar thing as a common clay pipe!

  Presently, after his second turn as far as the lilac bush and back,father's face cleared, as if he had worked out the question that hadbeen puzzling him; for, its anxious expression vanished and his eyesseemed to smile again.

  "I suppose it's a family trait, and runs in the blood," he said. "Yourgrandfather,--my father, that is, Allan,--was a sailor; and I know Iwanted to go to sea too, just like you, before I was sent to college.So, that accounts for your liking for it--eh?"

  "I suppose so," I answered without thinking, just echoing his words likea parrot; although, now I come to consider the thing fully, I really cansee no other reason than this hereditary instinct to account for thepassionate longing that possessed me at that period to be a sailor, as,beyond reading Robinson Crusoe like other boys, I was absolutelyignorant of the life and all concerning it. Indeed, up to then,although it may seem hardly credible, I had only once actually seen thesea, and a ship in the distance--far-away out in the offing of whatappeared to me an immeasurable expanse of space. This was when fathertook my sister Nellie and me for a day's visit to Brighton. It was awonderful experience to us, from the contrast the busy town on the coastoffered to the quiet country village where we lived and of which myfather was the pastor, buried in the bosom of the shires away from thebustling world, and out of contact with seafaring folk and those thatvoyage the deep.

  Yes, there's no doubt of it. That love for the sea, which made me wishto be a sailor as naturally as a cat loves cream, ran in my blood, andmust have been bred in my bone, as father suggested.

  Before, however, we could either of us pursue the psychologicalinvestigation of this theory any further, our argument was interruptedby my mother's coming to where we were standing under the elm-tree atthe top of the garden.

  Father at once put away his pipe on her approach, always respecting andhonouring her beyond all women even as he loved her; and he greeted herwith a smile of welcome.

  "Well, dear?" said he sympathetically as she held out the letter shecarried and then placed her hand on his arm confidingly, turning heranxious face up to his in the certainty of finding him ready to shareher trouble whatever it might be. "Now tell me all about it."

  "It has come, Robert!" she exclaimed, nestling nearer to him.

  "Yes, I see, dear," he replied, glancing at the open sheet; for they hadno secrets from each other, and she had opened the letter already,although it had been addressed to him. Then, looking at me, fatheradded: "This is from Messrs. Splice and Mainbrace, the great ship-brokers of Leadenhall Street, to whom I wrote some time since, abouttaking you in one of their vessels, Allan, on your expressing such adesire to go to sea."

  "Oh, father!" was all I could say.

  "They inform me now," continued he, reading from the broker'scommunication, "that all the arrangements have been completed for yoursailing in the Silver Queen on Saturday next, which will be to-morrowweek, your premium as a first-class apprentice having been paid by myLondon agents, by whom also your outfit has been ordered; and youruniform, or `sea toggery' as sailors call it, will be down here nextMonday or Tuesday for you to try on."

  "Oh, father!" I cried again, in wondering delight at his having settledeverything so promptly without my knowing even that he had acceded to mywishes. "Why, you seem to have decided the question long ago, while youwere asking me only just now if I would not prefer any other professionto the sea!"

  "Because, my son," he replied affectionately, "I know that boys, likegirls, frequently change their minds, and I was anxious that you shouldmake no mistake in such a vital matter as that of your life's calling;for, even at the last hour, if you had told me you preferred being aclergyman or a doctor or a lawyer to going to sea, I would cheerfullyhave sacrificed the money I have paid to the brokers and for youroutfit. Aye, and I would willingly do it now, for your mother and Iwould be only too glad of your remaining with our other chicks at home."

  "And why won't you, Allan?" pleaded mother, throwing her arms round meand hugging me to her convulsively. "It is such a fearful life that ofa sailor, amid all the storms and perils of the deep."

  "Don't press the boy," interposed father before I could answer mother,whose fond embrace and tearful face almost made me feel inclined toreconsider my decision. "It is best for him to make a free choice, andthat his heart should be in his future profession."

  "But, Robert--" rejoined mother, but half convinced of this truth whenthe fact of her boy going to be a sailor was concerned.

  "My dear," said father gently, interrupting her in his quiet way anddrawing her arm within his again, "remember, that God is the God of thesea as well as of the land, and will watch over our boy, our youngest,our Benjamin, there, as he has done here!"

  Father's voice trembled and almost broke as he said this; and it seemedto me at the moment that I was an awful brute to cause such pain tothose whom I loved, and who loved me so well.

  But, ere I could tell them this, father was himself again, and busycomforting mother in his cheery way.

  "Now, don't fret, dear, any more," he said; "the thing is settled now.Besides, you know, you agreed with me in the matter at Christmas-tide,when, seeing how Allan's fancy was set, I told you I thought of writingto London to get a ship for him, so that no time might be wasted when hefinally made up his mind."

  "I know, Robert, I know," she answered, trying to control her sobs,while I, glad in the new p
rospect, was as dry-eyed as you please; "butit is so hard to part with him, dear."

  "Yes, yes, I know," said he soothingly; "I shall miss the youngscaramouch, too, as well as you. But, be assured, my dear, the partingwill not be for long; and we'll soon have our gallant young sailor boyback at home again, with lots of--oh! such wonderful yarns, and oh! suchpresents of foreign curios from the lands beyond sea for mother, whenthe Silver Queen returns from China."

  "Aye, you will, mother dear, you will!" cried I exultingly.

  "And though our boy will not wear the Queen's uniform like hisgrandfather, and fight the foe," continued father, "he will turn out, Ihope, as good an officer of the mercantile marine, which is an equallyhonourable calling; and, possibly, crown his career by being the captainof some magnificent clipper of the seas, instead of ending his days likemy poor old dad, a disappointed lieutenant on half-pay, left to rust outthe best years of his life ashore when the war was over."

  "I hope Allan will be good," said mother simply.

  "I know he will be, with God's help," rejoined father confidently, hiswords making me resolve inwardly that I would try so that my life shouldnot disgrace his assuring premise.

  "I must go in now and tell Nellie," observed mother after a pause, inwhich we were all silent, and I could see father's lips move as if insilent prayer; "there'll be all Allan's shirts and socks to get ready.To-morrow week, you said, the ship was to sail--eh, dear?"

  "Yes, to-morrow week," answered father bracing himself up; "and whileyour mother and Nellie are looking after the more delicate portions ofyour wardrobe, Allan, you and I had better walk over to Westham, and seeabout buying some new boots and other things which the outfittershaven't got down on their list."

  As he was going into such a fashionable place as Westham, the nearestcounty town to our parish, at mother's especial request father consentedto hide the beauties of his favourite old shooting-jacket under a moreclerical-looking overcoat of a greyish drab colour, or "Oxford mixture."He was induced to don, too, a black felt hat, more in keeping with thecoat than the straw one he had worn in the garden; and thus "grandlycostumed," as he laughingly said to mother and Nell, who watched ourdeparture from the porch of the rectory, he and I set out to make ourpurchases.

  Dear me! the bustle and hurry and worry that went on in the house andout of the house in getting my things ready was such that, as fathersaid more than once in his joking way, one would have thought the wholefamily were emigrating to the antipodes, instead of only a mere boy likeme going to sea!

  And then, when everything else had been packed and repacked a dozentimes or so by mother's loving hands in the big, white-painted sea-chestthat had come down from London--which had my name printed on the outsidein big capital letters that almost made me blush, and with such a jollylittle washhand-basin and things for dressing on the top of it justinside the lid--the stupid outfitters delayed sending my blue uniform totry on in time; and it was only on the very day before I had to startthat it was finished and sent home, for mother and Nellie to see how Ilooked in it, as I wished them to do, feeling no small pride when I putit on.

  Tom, too, got away from Oxford to spend this last day with me at home;and, though he could hardly spare the time, mother believed, from hisstudies, I think he was more interested in some forthcoming race inwhich his college boat was engaged.

  My last morning came round at length, and with it the final parting withmother and all at the rectory, which I left by myself. Father decidedthis to be the wisest course; for, as I was, as he said, making my firststart in life, it was better to do so in a perfectly independent way,bidding the dear home-folks good-bye at home.

  My last recollection was of father's eyes fixed on mine with a lovingsmile in them, and an expression of trust and hope which I determined todeserve.

  The long railway journey to town, which at any other time would havebeen a rattle and whirr of delight and interest, seemed endlesslymonotonous to me, full of sad thoughts at parting with all I loved; andI was glad enough when the train at length puffed and panted its wayinto the terminus at London Bridge.

  Thence, I took a cab, according to father's directions, to the officesof the brokers in Leadenhall Street, handing them a letter which he hadgiven me to establish my identity.

  In return, Messrs. Splice and Mainbrace, as represented by the juniorpartner of the firm, similarly handed me over to the tender mercies ofone of the younger clerks of the establishment, by whom I was escortedthrough a lot of narrow lanes and dirty streets, down Wapping way to thedocks; the young clerk ultimately, anxious not to miss his dinner,stopping in front of a large ship.

  "There you are, walk up that gangway," he said; and thereupon instantlybolted off!

  So, seeing nothing better to be done, I marched up the broad plank hepointed out, somewhat nervously as there was nothing to hold on to, andI should have fallen into the deep water of the dock had my footslipped, the vessel being a little way out from the wall of the wharf;and, the next instant, jumping down on the deck, I found myself on boarda ship for the first time in my life.