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I was standing on the deck of the Seagull, looking over the rail and peering into the moonlight that flooded the bay where we lay at anchor, when the soft dip of an oar caught my ear.
It was the softest dip in the world, stealthy as that of an Indian, and in the silence that reigned aboard ship I stood motionless, listening for a repetition of the sound.
It came presently—the mere rustle of the drops as they slid off the oar's blade—and a small boat stole from the shadows astern and crept to our side.
I glanced along the rail and saw, a few paces away, the dim form of the watch, alert and vigilant; but the man knew I was there, and forbore to hail the mysterious craft below.
At a snail's pace the boat glided along our side until it was just beneath me, when I could see a blot in the moonlight that resembled a human form. Then a voice, so gentle that it scarce rose above the breeze, called out:
Now I ought to explain that all this was surprising; we were a simple, honest American merchant ship, lying in home waters and without an element of mystery in our entire outfit. On the neighboring shore of the harbor could be seen the skids from which the Seagull had been launched a month before, and every man and boy in Chelsea knew our history nearly as well as we did ourselves.
But our midnight visitor had chosen to steal upon us in a manner as unaccountable as it was mysterious, and his hail I left unanswered while I walked to the landing steps and descended them until I stood upon the platform that hung just over the boat.
And now I perceived that the tub—for it was little else—was more than half full of water, and that the gunwale rode scarce an inch above the smooth surface of the bay. The miserable thing was waterlogged and about to sink, yet its occupant sat half submerged in his little pool, as quiet and unconcerned as if no danger threatened.
"What's up?" I demanded, speaking rather sternly.
The form half rose, the tub tipped and filled, and with a gentle splash both disappeared from view and left me staring at the eddies. I was about to call for help when the form bobbed up again and a hand shot out and grasped a rope dangling from the landing stage. I leaned over to assist, and the fellow scrambled up the line with remarkable agility until I was able to seize his collar and drag him, limp and dripping, to a place beside me.
At this time I was just eighteen years of age and, I must confess, not so large in size as I longed to be; but the slender, bent form of the youth whom I had rescued was even of less stature than my own. As he faced mo in the moonlight and gave a gasp to clear the water from his throat, I noted the thin, pinched features and the pair of large, dark eyes that gazed with pleading earnestness into my own.
"For Heaven's sake, what are you up to?" I asked, impatiently; "and how came you to be afloat in that miserable tub? It's a wonder you didn't sink long before you reached our side."
"So it is," he replied in a low voice. "Are you—are you Sam Steele, sir?"
"Ah! I hoped it would be you. Can I go aboard, sir? I want to talk to you."
I could not well have refused, unless I consigned the fellow to the waters of the bay again. Moreover, there was a touching and eager appeal in the lad's tones that I could not resist. I turned and climbed to the deck, and he followed me as silently as a shadow. Then, leaning against the rail, I inquired somewhat testily:
"Couldn't you wait until morning to pay me a visit? And hadn't you enough sense to know that old dinghy wouldn't float?"
"But it did float, sir, until I got here; and that answered my purpose very well," he replied. "I had to come at night to keep from being discovered and recaptured."
"Oh! You're a criminal, then. Eh?"
"In a way, sir. I'm an escaped cabin-boy."
That made me laugh. I began to understand, and the knowledge served to relieve the strain and dissolve the uncanny effect of the incident. An escaped cabin-boy! Well, that was nothing very wonderful.
"Here, come to my room and get some dry togs," I said, turning abruptly to the gangway. The lad followed and we passed silently through the after-cabin, past the door of Uncle Naboth's quarters—whence issued a series of stentorian snores—and so into my own spacious stateroom, where I lighted a lamp and carefully closed the door.
"Now, then," I exclaimed, pulling some of my old clothes from a locker, "slip on this toggery at once, so your teeth will stop chattering."
He discarded his dripping garments and replaced them with my dry flannel shirt and blue trousers, my thick socks and low shoes. I picked up his own ragged clothes and with a snort of contempt for their bedraggled and threadbare condition tossed them out of the window into the sea.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, and clutched at his breast.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Nothing. I thought at first you had thrown away mother's picture; but it's here, all right," and he patted his breast tenderly.
"Hungry?" I inquired.
"Yes, sir." He gave a shiver, as if he had just remembered this condition; and I brought some biscuits and a tin of sardines from my cupboard and placed them before him.
The boy ate ravenously, washing down the food with a draught of water from the bottle in the rack. I waited for him to finish before I questioned him. Then, motioning him to a seat on my bunk, for he seemed weak and still trembled a bit, I said:
"Now, tell me your story."
"I'm a Texan," he replied, slowly, "and used to live in Galveston. My folks are dead and an uncle took care of me until a year ago, when he was shot in a riot. I didn't mind that; he was never very good to me; but when he was gone I had no home at all. So I shipped as a cabin-boy aboard the Gonzales, a tobacco sloop plying between Galveston and Key West, for I always loved the sea and this was the best berth I could get. The Captain, Jose Marrow, is half Mexican and the crudest man in the world. He whipped me when he was drunk, and abused and cuffed me when sober, and many a time I hoped he would kill me instead of keeping up the tortures I suffered. Finally he came up here with a cargo, and day before yesterday, just as he had unloaded and was about to sail again, he sent me ashore on an errand. Of course I skipped. I ran along the bay and hid in a lumber shed, from the top of which I could watch the Gonzales. She didn't sail, because old Marrow was bound to have me back, I guess; so I had to lay low, and all the time I was sure he'd find me in the end and get me back. The sloop's in the bay yet, sir, only about a quarter of a mile away."
"Well, last evening a couple of men came to sort some of the timbers, and I lay hid on top the pile and listened to their talk. They spoke of the Seagull, and how it was to sail far away into the Mediterranean, and was the best built ship that ever left this port."
"That's true enough, my lad."
"And they said Cap'n Steele was the best man to work for in the merchant service, and his son, Sam Steele—that's you, sir—was bound to make as good a sailor as his dad, and had been in some queer adventures already, and was sure to find more of them before he was much older."
I had to smile at that evident "taffy," and my smile left the boy embarrassed. He hesitated a moment, and then continued:
"To a poor devil like me, sir, such a tale made me believe this ship a floating paradise. I've heard of captains who are not as cruel as old Marrow; so when the men had gone I decided to get to you in some way and beg you to take me aboard. You see, the Mexican is waiting to hunt me down, and I'd die sooner than go back to his terrible ship. If you'll take me with you, Mr. Steele, I'll be faithful and true, and work like a nigger for you. If you won't, why, just say the word, and I'll jump overboard again."
"Can you swim?"
I thought a moment.
"What's your name?" I asked, finally.
"Well, Joe, you're asking something unusual, I must say. I'm not the captain of the Seagull, but merely purser, or to be more exact the secretary to Mr. Perkins, the supercargo. I own a share in the ship, to be sure, and purchased it with money I made myself; but that fact doesn't count when we're at sea, and Captain Steele is the last man in the world to harbor a runaway member of the crew of a friendly ship. Indeed, your old master came aboard us this morning, to inquire about you, and I heard my father say that if he set eyes on you anywhere he'd let Captain Marrow know. As he never breaks his word this promise is to be depended upon. Do you see, now, what a fix you're in?"
"I do, sir."
His voice was low and despondent and he seemed to shrink back in his seat into an attitude hopeless and helpless.
I looked at the boy more closely, and the appeal in his pinched features, that had struck me at the first glance on the landing stage, became more impressive than ever.
"How old are you, Joe?"
He was tall, but miserably thin. His brown hair, now wet and clinging about his face, curled naturally and was thick and of fine texture, while his dark eyes were handsome enough to be set in the face of a girl. This, with a certain manly dignity that shone through his pitiful expression, decided me to befriend the lad, and I had an inspiration even in that first hour of meeting that Joe Herring would prove a loyal follower and a faithful friend.
"We sail at ten o'clock, and it's now past midnight," I remarked, thoughtfully
"Yes, sir; I'll go any time you say."
"But you can't swim, Joe."
"Never mind. Don't let me be a bother to you. You'll want to turn in," casting a wistful look around my pleasant room, "and so I'll find my way on deck and you needn't give me another thought."
"Very good," said I, nodding. "I think I'll turn in this minute." He rose up, slowly.
"Just climb into that upper berth, Joe, and go to sleep. There'll be work for you tomorrow, and you'll need to get rested."
He stared into my smiling face a moment with a startled look that soon became radiant. Then he broke down and cried like a baby.
"Here, no snivelling!" I growled, savagely. "Pile into that berth; but see you get your shoes off, first."
He obeyed, still blubbering but evidently struggling to restrain his sobs. Indeed, his privations of the past two days, half starved and hunted like a dog, had completely unnerved the poor fellow. When he had tumbled into the berth I locked the door, put out the light, and rolled myself in my own blanket.
A few moments later I heard Joe stirring. He leaned over the edge of the bunk and murmured:
"God bless you, Sam Steele! I'll never forget, sir, the way you——"
"Oh, shut up and go to sleep, Joe," I cried. "You've kept me awake long enough already."
"Yes, sir." And after that he was silent.CHAPTER 2
Those who were present at the launching of our beautiful new Seagull were unanimous in declaring her the trimmest, daintiest, most graceful craft that had ever yet floated in the waters of old Chelsea bay. Her color was pure white, her brass work brilliant as gold. She was yacht built, on the lines of the fast express boats, and no expense had been spared in her construction or fittings.
My father, Captain Steele, one of the ablest and best known sailors on the Atlantic coast, had personally supervised the building of the Seagull and watched every step of progress and inspected every bit of timber, steel, or brass, so that nothing might be slighted in any way. She was one hundred and eighty-seven feet in length, with a thirty-six foot beam and a depth of twenty-one feet, and her net tonnage was close to fourteen hundred. We had her schooner rigged, because Captain Steele believed in sailing and had designed his ship for a merchantman of the highest class, but of the old school.
Uncle Naboth and I, who were also part owners of the ship—the firm being Steele, Perkins & Steele—had begged earnestly to convert her into a modern steamer; but my father angrily resented the suggestion.
"Her name's the Seagull," he declared, "an' a seagull without wings 'ud be a doggone jack-rabbit; so wings she mus' have, my lads, ef Dick Steele's goin' to sail her."
We had really put a fortune into the craft, and Uncle Naboth—a shrewd old trader who marked the world as it moved and tried to keep pace with it—was as anxious to have the ship modern in every respect as I was. So we stood stubbornly side by side and argued with the Captain until he finally granted a partial concession to our wishes and consented to our installing an auxiliary equipment of a screw propeller driven by powerful engines, with the express understanding that they must only be used in case of emergency.
"It's a rank waste o' money, an' takes up vallyble room," he growled; "but ef so be you ain't satisfied with decent spars an' riggin,' why, git your blarsted ol' machinery aboard—an' be hanged to ye both!"
This consent was obtained soon after my return from Panama, but Uncle Naboth and I had ordered the engines months previously, having been determined to install them from the day the Seagull was first planned; so no time was lost in getting them placed.
You will know the Seagull more intimately as my story progresses, so I will avoid a detailed description of it just now, merely adding that the ship was at once the envy and admiration of all beholders and the pride and joy of her three owners.
My father had sailed for forty years and had at one time lost his right leg in a shipwreck, so that he stumped around with a cork substitute. But he was as energetic and active as in his youth, and his vast experience fully justified his reputation as one of the ablest and shrewdest seamen in the merchant service. Indeed, Captain Steele was universally known and respected, and I had good reason to be proud of the bluff old salt who owned me as his son. He had prejudices, it is true, acquired through many strange adventures at sea and in foreign parts; but his heart was simple and frank as that of a child, and we who knew him best and loved him well had little fear of his stubborn temperament.
Naboth Perkins, my dead mother's brother, was also a remarkable man in his way. He knew the sea as well as did my father, but prided himself on the fact that he "couldn't navigate a ferry-boat," having always sailed as supercargo and devoted his talents to trading. He had been one of my earliest and most faithful friends, and although I was still a mere boy at the time the Seagull was launched, I had encountered some unusual adventures in company with quaint, honest Uncle Naboth, and won certain bits of prize money that had proved the foundation of our fortunes.
These prize-winnings, converted into hard cash, had furnished the funds for building our new ship, in which we purposed beginning a conservative, staid career as American merchantmen, leaving adventures behind us and confining ourselves to carrying from port to port such merchandise as might be consigned to our care. You will hear how well our modest intention was fulfilled.
The huge proportions and staunch construction of the Seagull would enable her to sail in any known sea with perfect safety, and long before she was completed we were besieged with proposals from shippers anxious to secure our services.
Uncle Naboth, who handled all such matters for our firm, finally contracted with a big Germantown manufacturer of "Oriental" rugs to carry a load of bales to Syria, consigned to merchants there who would distribute them throughout Persia, Turkey and Egypt, to be sold to American and European tourists and carried to their homes as treasures of Oriental looms.
It was not so much the liberal payment we received as the fact that the long voyage to the Syrian port would give us an opportunity of testing the performances of the Seagull that induced Mr. Perkins to accept the contract and undertake the lengthy voyage.
"If she skims the Atlantic an' the Mediterranean all right," said he, "the boat'll weather any sea on earth; so we may as well find out at the start what she's good for. 'Sides that, we're gittin' a thunderin' price fer cartin' them rags to Syria, an' so the deal seems a good one all 'round."
My father gravely approved the transaction. He also was eager to test the powers of our beautiful new ship, and this would not be his first voyage to the Orient, by any means. So the papers were made out and signed and as soon as our last fittings and furnishings were installed and our crew aboard we were to voyage down the coast in sunny September weather and anchor in the Chesapeake, there to load our cargo.
Our ship's company had been carefully selected, for the fame of my father's new vessel and the popularity of the Captain himself attracted to us the best seamen available; so we had the satisfaction of signing a splendid company of experienced men. In addition to these sailors we shipped a first and second engineer, clever young fellows that became instantly unpopular with my father, who glared at the poor "mechanics" as if he considered them interlopers, if not rank traitors. Some of the seamen, it was arranged, would act as stokers if the engines were called into requisition, so with the addition of a couple of oiler who were also carpenter's assistants we were satisfied we might at any time steam or sail, as the occasion demanded.
Excerpted from The Boy Fortune Hunters in Egypt by L. FRANK BAUM. Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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