SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER III - SAILING WITH EX-PIRATES
We departed from Orvin early in February, driving by wagon to the head of the railroad at Basle, whence we took the train for Strassburg, Paris, and the port of Havre, where we arrived some days later. As our train rounded a curve approaching the seaport I had my first glimpse of the ocean; but when I mistook the sea for a boundless field of blue flax in bloom and exclaimed: "Look at the flax!" Father burst out laughing; for even a child should know better than to suppose flax blooms in February. Shortly after we saw the ocean, the train drew into the station at Havre.
At the dock we found our ship, the Searampore, an English three-masted vessel, ready to embark as soon as the tide should begin to ebb. Father hurriedly bought ship's crackers, potatoes, sugar, coffee, and lemons, the lemons being an insurance against scurvy. With loud yells officers and crew urged the passengers aboard as cattle or goats are driven. It being an English ship with an English crew, we understood none of their words; but like dumb animals we knew from the loud yells and menacing looks that our interest lay in hurry.
It was a hard-looking crew into whose hands we were entrusting ourselves. Some of the seamen, as we were to learn, boasted of the days when they had been pirates, a thing we could well believe from the evil glances of their eyes and from the red scars of knife wounds decorating their faces.
We had never heard of such a thing as checking baggage, but, for that matter, neither had the masters of the ship. Each passenger took care of his own property, and unless he made sure of its loading, it would be left behind. Anxious passengers, my father among them, hastened about the deck, harassed at every turn by bawling Englishmen, until the last sea chest was aboard.
By that time the tide was ebbing. The loud cries, however, continued unabated; but instead of being directed at the passengers, the captain and his mates were bawling at the crew, directing some to cast off and others to clamber up the masts and out on the yard arms to unfurl the sails. With much ado the ship was launched, and after it had drifted with the tide a short distance down the harbor, a puff of land breeze caught the sails.
As the clamor of departure was at its height, we were startled by the screaming of a woman who darted up the companionway from the steerage, crying in German that she was being carried away by mistake. Behind her followed a young man, her son, we later learned, who laughingly tried to explain to her that he had decoyed her on board purposely with the intention of taking her to America. Her husband and a daughter had gone overseas the year before. Having found a location, the husband had written back for his wife and son to join them, according to a plan they had made. But as the time came to depart, the mother lost heart. Those were perilous times to go to sea, for many a ship left port never to return. Fearful of the voyage, the mother had wept and refused to go.
Her son then persuaded her to travel with him to Havre. Next he enticed her aboard ship, where he detained her below deck by his prolonged leave-taking. Not until the ship began to roll with the tide did the woman realize that they had cast off. With this discovery she became hysterical, and scarcely did her son persuade her to resign herself to the inevitable. The son had bought her passage and had provided food for two on the voyage. He had even secretly packed her belongings, which were at that moment aboard ship. I last saw the mother and son at New Orleans, where, the ocean safely crossed, she praised him for his strategy.
Our ship carried about four hundred passengers, a few of whom were quartered in a dozen first class cabins on deck. Most of us, however, were crowded into the steerage, where we could hear the cries of the sailors and the trample of their feet upon the deck above our heads. This ship had formerly been a freighter; and when it had been converted into a passenger carrier to enter the American immigrant trade, the hold was arranged more for the herding of large numbers of people into small space than for comfort. The berths were mere shelves ranged around the walls or built across the hold in tiers three bunks high. As soon as we were assigned to our quarters, Father saw to it that our trunk and sea chests were trundled to our berths, where the seamen lashed them to a pier to prevent their tumbling about with the roll of the sea. While Father was busy with the baggage, Mother curtained off our quarters, which would otherwise have been exposed to the gaze of all. The ship's company furnished mattresses for the bunks, but we supplied our own linen and blankets.
We were busy arranging our quarters, when word was shouted by the seamen that it was time to come on deck to cook. We could not understand what they said, but a few passengers understood English and repeated the call. Eight sheds, called kitchens, were assigned to the steerage. These were on deck, sheltered from rain or snow by a roof, but otherwise open on all sides to the weather. Under each roof was a long iron trough and above each trough was an iron rod from which the kettles could be suspended. Fire was laid by the seamen in the troughs; and when the billets of wood were burned to redhot coals, the passengers were summoned to cook. Woe to the passenger who did not respond immediately; for the coals died down, and there would be no more fire until the next meal! Woe to the passenger who spilled the water from his kettle as he went to the kitchen; for the water was rationed, and he could get no more! Eager to see, we children followed our parents to the deck, Father carrying the kettle for cooking and hanging it over the fire, after which Mother prepared supper. We were soon joined by other passengers, and in a short time the air was redolent with the aroma of German, Italian, French, and Swiss cooking. The meal prepared, Father carried the kettle back to our quarters, where Mother spread the table on one of the sea chests; and we sat on the trunk and on the other chest. It was like a picnic supper although we lacked for water.
Water was rationed on the basis of a small portion to adults and a smaller portion to children. It was poured each day into a glass demijohn, which was hung on the pier beside our bunks. The water so issued supplied us for drinking, cooking, and washing. From the very start we did not have enough; and I am sure that our parents suffered more than we, because they stinted themselves for us. We dry-cleaned our faces and hands with a dampened cloth; but a complete bath was out of the question, not only from lack of water, but from lack of privacy. For two months we did without baths!
It was no use to ask for more water. Early in the voyage I saw a passenger approach the man who rationed out the supply, hold out a cup, and dumbly indicate by signs that he wanted more. For answer the seaman kicked the cup out of the man's hand, sending it spinning.
I must tell about this seaman, for in the course of the voyage many other passengers had occasion to feel his tyranny. He was a red-headed ex-pirate with crooked eyes. The German passengers called him Rot Teufel, but since he understood no German, he failed to learn that the appellation meant red devil. He yelled at the children, abused the men, and insulted the women. He thought nothing of slapping or kicking any individual who got in his way. In this he merely modeled himself after the mates, who ruled the seamen with an iron hand; and he in turn took it out on the passengers, who bore the indignities dumbly.
On my first night at sea I was lulled to sleep by the rocking of the ship. Down, down, down, our side of the ship dropped, and then while the other side dropped into the trough of a wave, up, up, up our side ascended to ride on the crest. The constant lurching of the vessel had its effect, and at daybreak many passengers kept to their berths without desire for breakfast. As for myself, I was a good sailor. Not a meal did I miss. At first break of day I ran on deck to look for France, which at dusk had been a dim line on the horizon; but now the dim line was gone from view. In its place was the heaving sea with a few other sailing vessels making their way down the English Channel before a fair wind.
For the first day or two of the voyage I was busy running about, enthralled by strange sights; but as the routine of travel became monotonous, I took to sitting in a sheltered nook on the sunlit deck, reading my French Testament. My reading from the same book each day attracted the attention of a cabin passenger, who approached to ask what could interest me so constantly. For answer I handed him the Book.
"Eh," he commented, "you are a good girl."
As I look back on those days I realize that it was not so much goodness as it was the fact that the Bible was the only literature I had. Anyway, the Bible has always been fascinating reading to me. Ere I had crossed the sea, I had read it from the beginning to the four beasts and the four and twenty elders.
On the Searampore no place was set aside for the special promenade of cabin passengers. Rich and poor occupied the same deck. Even the captain's negro cook came out of his galley to bask in the winter sunshine with both cabin and steerage passengers. He was the first negro I had ever seen, and how he shocked me! I had thought of negroes as looking like white people except for the color of the skin, but this man was not only black; his hair was kinky, his lips were thick, his nose was flat. Covertly I looked at him a good deal, wondering at his strange physiognomy, and being thankful that the steerage passengers did not need to eat his cooking.
During the fore part of the voyage we children ran on deck with our parents while our meals were being prepared. Since Father and Mother also were on deck at the same time, the entire family would be absent from our quarters. One day, as we marched back with our kettle of food, we noticed that our curtains were awry. Examination proved that our lemons had been stolen. Nothing else was missing. Possibly the thief needed the lemons more than we did, for we had dried fruit and potatoes as anti-scorbutics. At any rate we did not break down with scurvy. The theft, however, gave me a queer sensation. It was my first experience with a thief, and it made me realize that we were far from our mountain home where honesty was proverbial. From that day onward Father arranged that one of us should always remain with our possessions.
As our time at sea progressed, we gradually became acquainted with other passengers. One of our first acquaintances was a French-speaking woman from New Orleans on her way home with a son, whom she had sent to Paris to be educated. This time she had traveled to Europe for the combined purpose of bringing home her son and of purchasing goods for a store which she owned in New Orleans. She was our first American acquaintance, and eagerly we listened to her tales of America, which in her case meant New Orleans, and more particularly the French quarter.
Many of the passengers whiled the weeks away by exchanging information. First they told of themselves, whence they came, and whither they were bound. Next they broadcast the more interesting news of their fellow passengers. It was astonishing how rapidly a bit of information could travel by word of mouth from one end of the ship to the other. Most of the news was trivial gossip, but sometimes the equivalent of a big news story was heralded from berth to berth. One such story had to do with the illness of a two-year-old German girl. In that day there was nothing remarkable in commencing a journey to America with one member of the family sick. People embarked in all conditions. Babies were born on board ship; old folks died; and young couples met, courted, and were married by the captain.
After about ten days at sea, the sick child was reported to be dying. Soon curious strangers crowded about her berth. When she expired, the news was quickly relayed from one passenger to another till everybody knew it.
The captain, who besides being master of the ship was chief magistrate as well, sent two sailors with a sheet of sail cloth, long darning needles, and stout white cord. They wrapped the body in the sail, drew the edges of the cloth tightly together, sewed it firmly from head to foot, and tied a weight to the feet. Then the body was stretched out on a board to be lowered reverently over the side by the two sailors. As the board neared the waves, a priest, who was a cabin passenger, read a burial service. At his final words, the sailor who held the strand supporting the foot of the board suddenly paid out half a dozen feet of rope while the other sailor held fast. This caused the body to slide feet first into the water. The iron weight instantly carried it out of sight into the deep. The sailors comforted the parents with the assurance that the weight would haul the body so far beneath the surface that the sharks would never find it.
Aside from those afflicted with seasickness, the little girl was the only ill person aboard the ship during the voyage. The ship's crew enforced strict sanitary measures. Twice a week the passengers were herded on deck while their quarters were aired, scrubbed, and fumigated.
After talk about the death and burial had died down, chief conversation had to do with a half-dozen Italians afflicted with one of the plagues of Egypt. The infested ones, far from feeling shame at their condition, laughed, scratched their heads, and then flicked lice from under their finger nails on other passengers. One raw February morning before dawn the six were unceremoniously hustled to the wind-swept deck where their hair was shorn to their scalps, their clothing stripped off and boiled in a kettle, and the men themselves scrubbed from head to foot with brooms and soap suds.
Not only did that rid us of the menace of vermin, but we were also provided with a new topic of conversation to engross our attention until February ended and March was ushered in. So far the weather had been fair, but with the approach of the spring equinox the sailors began to speak ominously of equinoctial storms. The only French sailor aboard explained to us that we were now in the region of the fortieth parallel, the stormiest area of the Atlantic and known by sailors as "the roaring forties." While storms are common in that quarter at any month, the time of the equinox was the most prolific breeder of them, according to this sailor. Anxiously we scanned the sky.
When the expected storm arrived our first warning was a cry from the lookout at the top of the shrouds. We could not understand what he shouted, but he pointed to the northwest, whence a low-lying cloud reflected the green of the sea.
"Une grande tempete," the French sailor explained to Father.
Up scurried the sailors like squirrels to take in the sails, while the bellowing mate with several seamen ordered us below. Down with us ran several seamen. They slammed shut and barred the portholes, sealing them tight with pitch. Then running like footracers up the stairs, they shut down the hatches, battening them and sealing the seams with pitch. Both air and daylight were shut out by the closed portholes and hatches. Our remaining light came from a few narrow, thick-paned windows and from oil flares which cast lurid glares as they swung to and fro with the rolling of the ship.
In our darkened quarters we had not long to wait for the storm. The first blast turned our vessel over on its beam ends so far that those of us on the under side could look up at the tiers of bunks suspended overhead, while those on the upper side clung to their bunks, fearful of being hurled down into our side. Then the ship rocked over on its other beam ends. Back and forth it rolled, each time pausing a brief instant before the rebound. At times it varied its side wise careening by pitching down by the head until it seemed we were doomed to immediate destruction. The wracking of the vessel was so severe that some of the ropes binding our sea chests were broken; our glass demijohn was shivered into fragments; the boards of the deck were warped until leaks were sprung; and salt water was spurted in upon us to swish back and forth across the steerage with the wallowing of the ship. On deck the breaking waves boomed like never-ending rumbling of thunder. As fast as the seamen caulked the leaks with oakum, new leaks were sprung.
In terror passengers shouted prayers to God and the Virgin begging them to save us. Their lamentations were sometimes ludicrous although, I must admit, they were funnier later than in the midst of the storm. One Swiss woman, in a berth near ours, kept crying out over and over in German, "Oh, if we had never gone to Iowa!" She called it "Iouay."
Shut up as we were with no news of what was transpiring above deck, the situation doubtless seemed more perilous than it really was. It was bad enough, however, as we were told later. The storm swept upon us with such suddenness that before all the sails were removed some of them became fouled in the shrouds, causing the ship to list. So great was the peril that the captain ordered the mainmast cut away to free the ship of the fouled rigging. While the sailors, axes in hand, were crawling along the wave swept deck, making their way forward a few steps at a time and hanging to the ropes to save themselves from the seas, which all but washed them overboard, the ship suddenly righted itself. A brief lull ensued, enabling the crew to clear the rigging. When the gale resumed its power, it was no longer necessary to cut away the mast. Yet the waves continued to sweep across the deck, and the helpless sailors could do nothing but hold tight as the ship scudded before the gale. That day, that night, and the following day the tempest raged. Night came a second time with no abatement of the wrath of the storm and sea. Our demijohns broken, extreme thirst added to our troubles.
With the kitchens on deck, we could have not cooked food. But we would have done very well with cold meals had we only had a little water to wash down the crackers, cheese, and dried fruit. Not only could we not reach the kitchens, our toilets were on deck. As if our plight were not bad enough, prophets spread word that the sailors would abandon us. Locked in the steerage as we were, we could not have interfered had the sailors manned the boats and escaped with the cabin passengers, leaving us in the trap.
Father and Mother, however, reassured us. They put us to bed as usual, had us say our prayers as usual, and told us to rest well, which we did. For once the pessimists were wrong. During the third night the sky began to clear and at dawn the sun broke through the clouds. The sailors celebrated by dancing, singing, and yelling. We could hear their feet thumping on the planks above our heads. Next they opened the hatches and we passengers streamed out of our filthy quarters to breathe the sweet air above deck. As I came from below I saw the sun shining, and we were bounding along with a full spread of sail. The ship, however, was much battered. One of our kitchens had disappeared, and only twisted timbers marked the places where the toilets had been. In places the rail head been ripped off by the sea, and the coops, where the captain kept chickens, had vanished. The carpenters set to work immediately to repair the damage, and in a few days all was as it had been before the storm, except that the captain and his cabin passengers had to give up chicken for their dinners.
We were now approaching the Gulf Stream; and as it was customary for ships to avoid its opposing current, we bore southward until we sighted both San Domingo and Cuba. In fact we drew so near to Cuba that shore boats came out to us.
As we skirted along the Cuban coast the wind blew less and less until it failed altogether. Our sails sagged from the spars, limp as tea towels on a rack. The ship ceased to roll, and the sea itself lay as unrippled as the face of a looking-glass. The temperature rose until our quarters below deck became stiflingly hot. We sought to cool ourselves by taking to the deck, but it was hotter under the sun's glare than in the body of the vessel.
During the calm we were witnesses to an instance of old time sea discipline. The cabin boy had committed some infraction of the rules, and the captain ordered him to the top of the mast. There the boy sat for many hours, suffering from the full glare of the tropical sun. We were greatly aroused that such a form of punishment should be dealt out to him, but what could we do? Nothing but seek the shade of the sails and the kitchens to avoid the sun, which doubtless was hotter to us mountaineers than to the boy.
The flying fish, alone, enjoyed the calm. They frisked about, frequently large numbers of them flinging themselves from the water and gliding across our ship to drop on the other side. With a piece of board as a bat, Father struck one down after it had first collided with the rigging; and when we children had examined the winglike fins, he gave it to the captain.
Father looked longingly at the calm sea, which was especially alluring to one who had been for so long without a bath; but, remembering Uncle Christian's adventures, he decided not to tempt the sharks.
We were not alone in being becalmed. Not far from us stood a second vessel, which had been on the sea longer even than we and had suffered in the storm more than we. Our captain and the captain of our distressed neighbor told each other of their experiences by speaking through storm trumpets. The captain of the other ship sent rowboats to Cuba for provisions. The Cubans also put out to us, and some of the steerage passengers replenished their provisions; but ours being ample for the voyage, Father did not buy anything.
On observing the neighbor ship send water casks ashore, a committee, representing the passengers of the steerage, called upon the captain to ask that he, too, obtain fresh water. To this the captain replied that we had a sufficient supply aboard. Our spokesman then requested that our rations be increased. He pleaded that at no time had we been given as much water as we desired, and that with the heat of the calm we were suffering from thirst. The captain shortly declined to increase the measure.
That night we suffered more than ever. Passengers tossed about, trying to sleep, but with little success. At length several of the heads of Swiss families held a council behind our curtains. They determined to go secretly into that part of the hold where the casks were stored to investigate for themselves the supply of water. Upon arriving there they found a great, dark room full of barrels. By thumping these with their fists they learned from the resonance that more than half of them were yet full. Why did not the captain let us have water when he had an abundance? The only answer seemed to be his indifference to our suffering. He no doubt felt that if all the water casks were emptied, time would be lost in New Orleans in refilling them, while if few needed replenishing, the return journey to Havre might be begun in less time.
Father carried with him a hammer and a gimlet. With the hammer he drove one of the barrel hoops to one side. With the gimlet he bored a hole into the barrel where the hoop had been, and the water gushed through the gimlet hole into buckets that the men carried. After each man had supplied himself with water, the hoop was driven back in place to conceal the hole. Secretly the men returned to their quarters, each bringing a brimming bucket to his family.
"Children, drink all you want," said Father, as he awakened us to deal out generous cupfuls. The water was warn and stale, but we were glad to have all we wanted. After that the hammer and gimlet continued in service every night until our arrival at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
For eight days we lay in the calm. Then a light breeze, growing steadily stronger, filled our sails. Slowly we moved, then faster and faster. By the next day the waves were rolling about us in their usual fashion. We rode through the Florida Straits before a stiff wind, and in a few days were near our destination.
One night they told us that in the morning we would be able to see the American shore. We children went to bed in a high state of excitement. At first I could not sleep, but when I did fall asleep I did not awaken until I heard the lookout shout, "Land! Land!"
"Land" was one of the first words of my English vocabulary. Probably I learned it because of its similarity in pronunciation to the German word, and also to the fact that I heard the lookout shout it upon our approach to San Domingo and again at Cuba. The cry was followed by a wild song and dance by the sailors. As their feet trampled the deck above my head, I hastily dressed and ran up the companionway. Looking over the rail, I saw for the first time the hazy outline of the low-lying Louisiana coast.
Nearer and nearer drew our ship, until we could make out the trees and the telegraph office from which the shipping news was flashed to New Orleans, where anxious owners were informed of the arrival of their vessels. As soon as we were sighted from the shore a small tugboat came out of the channel of the Mississippi River toward us. Fuming out its smoke, wheezing and puffing, it drew alongside, paused a few moments while the master of the tug and the captain of our ship conferred, then hurried farther out to where a second sailing vessel was approaching. Hitching a cable to the other ship, the tug drew it alongside our vessel, cast a second cable to us, and soon the little tug was lugging the two big sailing vessels into the river channel.
As we entered the channel a pump was lowered to the water, and seamen pumped up a roily stream, coffee-colored from the clay it had collected in its four-thousand-mile course from Montana to the Gulf. At that very moment Asiatic cholera was raging in the towns and cities of the Mississippi Valley, but in that far-off day we knew not that disease could be borne upon water. The captain drank, as did his mates and the first class passengers. Then the captain cried:
"Help yourselves!" We did. We drank and drank and drank, water thick with mud, but I thought it was the coolest and sweetest I had ever tasted. As far as I know, no cases of cholera were contracted from our indulgence.
All day the tug chugged up the channel. Night arrived and still it puffed on. The ship was rolling no longer, only the vibrations of the panting tug told us that were yet on our way. Sometime during the following day we arrived at New Orleans. I remember that it was a great city, stretching along for miles and miles, its levees lined with sailing vessels, their naked masts and yardarms looking for the world like a denuded forest. The levees were thronged with people, busy as ants, loading and unloading the waiting vessels.
At last we arrived at our berth. The gangplank banged into place. Then, loaded with baggage, we crowded down from the Searampore. On the levee we saw ogling at the women, old Rot Teufel! On sea, being out of our element, we had to endure his harsh rule. To have lifted a hand would have been mutiny. But the moment Father's feet touched the levee, he was within his rights. In the mountains it had been our custom to settle our quarrels without appeal to law or courts. Father was a mild man who avoided quarrels, but the sight of Rot Teufel, unpunished and free to bully another shipload of immigrants, was too much. Leaping toward the red-headed pirate, Father dealt him a blow on the chin which felled him. At the same instant several other men also struck him; then two or three score women, each of whom had suffered all sorts of indignities aboard ship, rushed upon him, striking him with their fists or open palms, or with any missile that came to hand. They pulled his hair, yanked his ears, tweaked his nose. Loudly did Rot Teufel bawl for help; but before any of his sailor friends could fight their way to his side, the women resumed their business of removing their effects from the Searampore, leaving Rot Teufel, much disheveled, to nurse his bruises.
It was on April 9, 1855, that we landed in America after a sea voyage of fifty-six days.