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The Plough Boy Journals

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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Flag of our Union
Vol. 24, No. 27 (Jul 3, 1869)
pp. 420-421

[Written for The Flag of our Union.]



      "Pshaw!" says the impatient reader, flirting the page over, "another total abstinence tract! We've had a surfeit of these things. We can hardly look into a book or a newspaper but we have cold water thrown upon our fond expectations, till we have almost as great a dread of hydro-mania as of hydrophobia!"

      Just so; but a bottle, as it is my present purpose to illustrate, may contain other matter quite as dangerous to the peace of mind of its victims as whiskey or wine. My title is perhaps an unfortunate one; and certainly wants the attraction of novelty; but as, like the lamented President Lincoln's quaint phrase in his message, "sugar-coated rebellion," it expresses my meaning, I shall venture to let it stand.

      It has never been my lot to meet with more domestic happiness under one roof than is to be found in the family of my opposite neighbor, Captain Reuben Winslow. A bluff, genial, hearty gentleman, of fifty or more years, bearing about him, wherever he goes, that air of unalloyed contentment, of satisfaction with his past life and pleasant anticipation of the future, which ought to be, though it is not always, characteristic of the retired mariner in easy circumstances. His wife, still a handsome matron, from whom a quiet cheerfulness, so to speak, seems to radiate throughout the household, is, in every respect, worthy of her partner. A son, grown to young manhood, two lovely blonde daughters, the belles of our street, and little George, who had flashed unexpectedly, like a sunset ray, into the afternoon of their lives, are still at home with the parents, while their married daughter lives but a few doors off, on my side of the way. She is in and out at all hours of the day, appearing to have two homes, and to be equally happy in both.

      I sat conversing with the captain and his wife, one evening, as was my wont. The daughter and her husband had gone out but a few minutes before, and I ventured a remark upon a subject which had many times occupied my passing thoughts.

      "What a difference is sometimes to be observed in features and complexion among children of the same parents!" said I, in a half-meditative way.

      Mrs. Winslow most opportunely had business to attend to up stairs at this moment, and left us alone. I have since thought that her feminine perception may have divined my meaning. After she retired, my friend looked in my face with a strange kind of inquisitive smile.

      "Yes," I blushingly said, as if in answer to a question. "I was thinking that while all your other children so strongly resemble each other, Mrs. Turner, though quite as beautiful and attractive in her way, is totally unlike them and you."

      "More like her mother, perhaps," suggested the captain.

      "She does resemble her mother in some points, I admit; but still I cannot help thinking it strange there should be such a marked contrast between her and the younger members of the family."

      "It's not strange to me at all," said he, dryly. "It wouldn't be strange to you if you know what I am going to tell you. Sophia is not my daughter."

      "Not your daughter!" I exclaimed, in surprise.

      "I'll warrant you have wondered a hundred times how she could be mine, and now you are yet more astonished to learn that she is not. If it were not being guilty of an unpardonable bull, I might say that she ought to have been." And my friend laughed at the crooked conceit.

      I must have looked very foolish as I sat revolving the matter in my mind; but what could I say? Mrs. Winslow's daughter – not his daughter – but ought to have been! He took the matter coolly, at any rate – even laughed at it. I had been intimate with the family for several years, was present at Sophia's marriage, know that she had borne the name of Winslow, and how tenderly she had always been loved, at least, apparently, by both parents, and now – what could he mean?

      "She was born," said the captain, seriously, "while her mother and I were both victims of the bottle."

      I was conscious of having acted foolishly enough before; but now I was a mere driveller. If I had "put my foot in it" at the outset, I was now, metaphorically speaking, struggling knee-deep. Could I believe that the noble man before me, or still less, his gentle, lady-like wife, had ever been debased by intemperance? My neighbor enjoyed my perplexity for a minute, and then, bursting into a laugh:

      "Come," said he, "since I have given hints enough to excite your curiosity, it is but fair that I should explain my meaning. I once did a very foolish act, in a moment of thoughtlessness, which cost both my dear Jane and myself years of misery. I have done my best to atone for it since, and, though we can never forgot it, so many years of happiness have since passed over us that I may be excusable if I do laugh at the recollection. But you can judge of that for yourself. I acknowledge that I have never since been free from self-reproach, though Jane has forgiven me long ago."

      The captain gave me his story, or confession, as it really was, on his part, making it as brief as possible; but at subsequent times, I learned all the particulars, and with his permission, will give it to the reader in my own way.

      At the age of twenty-five, Reuben Winslow, a reckless, care-for-nothing son of Neptune, was shipped as second mate in the barque Ajax, of New Bedford, for a voyage to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But, for the first time in his life, he found, as the day of sailing drew near, that be could not leave home in his usual indifferent, thoughtless manner. He had no parents or near relatives living, but a new feeling had been awakened within him during his short sojourn on shore. An attachment had been levied upon him which in the hour of separation caused a feeling of seriousness until then unknown to the heretofore thoughtless young man, even while it spurred him on to greater activity and zeal in his chosen profession. He had given all the wealth of his great heart to Jane Athearn, receiving in return the assurance that hers would accompany him, through storm and calm, wherever the stout Ajax might wind her devious course. Rich in love for each other, but poor enough in worldly chattels, they looked forward with high hopes to their union at the termination of the voyage. So, as hundreds under similar circumstances have done, both before and since, young Winslow dashed the film from before his eyes, choked back his feelings, gave his first orders to his subordinates in a husky voice, and sought temporary relief in the excitement of "Up anchor and sheet home!" while Jane, in her humble home away down on Martha's Vineyard, shed tears over a painted daub (this was before the cheap photographic and ambrotype era) which might well have been called a "counterfeit presentment" of her bold sailor-boy, its most striking points consisting in the extreme blueness of the round jacket, and the greenness of the countenance and attitude.

      Two months later, the Ajax, having made good use of the time, lay becalmed in the broad Atlantic, nearly under the southern tropic. It was Sunday, and there was no work going on, but the officers, with clean shirts and newly-shorn faces, were talking of home, and otherwise killing time as best they might. The captain came on deck with a bottle in his hand, corked and sealed tightly.

      "I have written our report, with date, latitude and longitude, on a piece of paper, bottled it up, and, here goes!" be shouted, throwing it, at the same time, over the quarter-rail into the sea.

      "What'll you bet on our hearing from it again?"

      "'Twould be safe enough to bet against it," said the first officer. "I should say the chances were about equal to those of my being struck by lightning." Whereat a general laugh went round the group.

      "But we do hear reports of vessels in that way, now and then," the captain said, "though of course the chances are a million to one against it, in any particular case. Now you throw another overboard, or any one else that has any empty bottled on hand. Let's multiply the chances, just for the fun of the thing."

      Down went the mates to ransack for bottles, and in a short time some six or eight, each containing a written statement, with embellishments to suit the fancy of the writer, were committed to the ocean.

      "I've reported the Ajax with five hundred barrels," said the third mate. "That's only anticipating a little. It we haven't got it, we want it."

      This was not said in the captain's hearing. He supposed that all the bottles contained bona fide reports, though he did not ask to look at their contents.

      "My story is," said one of the boatsteerers, "that we had had a terrible mutiny on board, that big black Sam has got command of the ship, and has driven the old man into the galley to cook grub for him.'

      "What did you write, Mr. Winslow?" the mate asked.

      "O, I'm not going to tell. If my bottle is picked up, it will astonish the finder more than any of them. But pshaw! we never shall hear from any of them again."

      "No, there's not much danger of it," was the careless reply.

      They watched the bottles, bobbing up and down in the swell, for some little time; but, gradually carried to the westward by the force of the current, they had all passed out of view long before the favoring breeze filled the sails of the old barque, and she again pushed forward on her southward course. Past the stormy headland of Good Hope, and across the great Southern Ocean, through Timor Straits to the cruising grounds about New Guinea and the archipelago of Solomon; where, cut off from all but merely accidental communication with the civilized world, we leave her and her hardy crew to pursue the objects of their adventurous cruise, and to battle with Leviathan in his native element,

      Months passed away; long, weary months to the true-hearted girl, who vainly besieged the little post-office, vainly swept her eager eye over the marine list of the New Bedford Mercury, vainly made anxious inquiries of each newly-arrived Vineyarder from all the distant whaling grounds, only to meet with disappointment, till "hope deferred made the heart sick." Only one letter, written off the Azores, three weeks out from home, had reached her; a true seaman's love letter, filled with the outspoken affection of her stout-hearted whaleman, with confidence in her enduring truth, with pride in his noble vessel and shipmates, with sanguine predictions of merited success and triumphant return. The precious document had been read, over and again, till every word was transferred to the page of memory; opened and reclosed till the folds showed alarming evidence of weakness; still its successor came not, and the Ajax had been absent nearly a year. Still Jane did not cease to hope, for her father, who had followed the sea himself but had given it up in consequence of falling health, still thought that they had found a profitable cruising ground somewhere by themselves, and made a port at some out-of-the-way island.

      "When you do hear from the ship," said he, "she will be doing well, depend upon it."

      Jane was the pride of her father, his only companion and housekeeper, indeed, almost the only tie that bound him to earth. Her mother had died several years before, and the darling wish of the invalid widower's heart was that he might live long enough to see his girl the happy wife of some one worthy of her.

      Thus matters stood when Jane one day called as usual at the post-office for the "Mercury," and hastening home with it, paused not even to remove shawl and hat, but, tearing off the wrapper, threw it open, and cast her eyes upon the column or shipping intelligence. A little caption in italics struck a chill to her very heart. With riveted gaze upon the paper, and the paleness of death chasing the rosy bloom from her cheeks, she dropped into the nearest chair, and mechanically read on.

      "What is it, Jane? News from Reuben?"

      No reply. The breath came hard and quick through the parted lips, the dilated eyes wandered not from the item till the last cruel word was read, the last spark of hope dying out with it. The paper fell to the floor, and the insensible girl was caught in the feeble arms of her father, as she sank under the blow so heart-crushing, so suddenly inflicted.

      Fever and delirium followed, and for several days Jane Athearn's life wavered in the balance. But nature, aided by medical skill and the careful nursing of her father and his kind neighbors, at last triumphed. Reason came back to the stricken one, and with it a calmness and fortitude which were inherent with her, and might have averted all danger, had the fatal tidings been less abruptly communicated,

      With the captain's permission, I have copied from the printed slip which he still carefully preserves, as a reminder, he says, of the one great folly of his life.

      "Sad Marine Disaster – Probable loss of Barque Ajax and all her crew. – Ship Condor, which arrived at this port yesterday, reports March 16th, while becalmed in the Bight of Brazil, picked up a junk bottle, sealed tightly, which appeared to have been several months in the water. On opening it, the following report was found: 'Barque Ajax of New Bedford, at sea, near the Cape of Good Hope. Aug. 1st – six feet of water in the hold, and gaining upon us every hour. We have just got the foresail on her to scud before it, but the gale, which has blown for two days, is still increasing. There is little or no hope for us. – R. W.' We have copied this from the paper itself, which is in good condition and still perfectly legible. The handwriting corresponds well with the signature of the second officer, Mr. Reuben Winslow, on the duplicate of the ship's articles. The Ajax touched at the Western Islands on the outward passage, all well; since which, nothing has been heard from her. Had she reached either Cape Town or Mauritius, the news must long ago have transpired. There can be no doubt that the ill-fated barque has foundered in the gale at sea, with all on board."

      Bitterly and sincerely Jane Athearn mourned the loss of the man she loved, for many months after her recovery from the first great shock. But time works wonders in healing heart-wounds; and whatever may be expected of the heroine of a mere romance, the observer of everyday actualities will not be astonished to learn that she neither committed suicide nor burled her young heart forever in the depths of the Southern Ocean. It is no reflection upon her judgment or her heart's truth that she declined to do either. Other cares stepped in; the failing health of her only parent demanded her attention and sympathy; his anxiety to see his darling married before he left the world, of course had its weight with her. She listened to the suit of Andrew Morrison, captain of a coaster in the Southern trade, and the close of the next year saw her united in marriage to him at the bedside of her dying father, whose last conscious act was to invoke a blessing upon the union.

      No young man's heart ever beat higher with fond anticipations of happiness than did that of our second mate on the morning when the Ajax, laden scuppers-to with oily treasure, backed her maintopsail to speak the pilot-beat off Blok Island. But the joy of the bronzed mariners swarming on her deck was equalled by the astonishment of the pilots at hearing the answer to their inquiry, "What barque to it?"

      "You must be joking," said a voice, recognized as that of the veteran Slocum, who took her out when she sailed. "The Ajax went to the bottom off Good Hope, and the insurance money has been paid on her long ago."

      What could this mean? mentally inquired every man on board, save one. It was true they had cruised on unfrequented whaling grounds, and had neither sent nor received letters since leaving the Azores. But how should they know at home how and where she was lost? if indeed, she had not been heard from at all – a case which was not without precedent thirty years ago, though hardly possible at the present day. Reuben Winslow alone hold the key to the mystery, and his heart beat yet more wildly with a new fear, as conscience sent the blood tingling to his cheeks. The words "went to the bottom off Good Hope," brought to the surface his shameful secret, so long buried in his own heart and almost forgotten – the bottle! What might have been the effect of the news upon the girl he loved? was his next thought.

      A few words from the pilot who boarded the ship explained the whole misunderstanding. But in most cases no harm had been done but such as could be soon repaired. Though friends had mourned them as dead, the joy would be the greater at the news of their resurrection, and the novel circumstance would serve as a good joke to be laughed at in years to come. But Winslow, on making inquiries of Slocum, who was well acquainted on the Vineyard, learned that which hurled him at once from happy anticipation to hopeless despair. Jane Athearn had been married but a week before, had closed the eyes of her father, and had gone South with her husband, an orphaned bride,

      The news had well-nigh crushed his heart even as the fond girl's had been by the cruel message which he had so thoughtlessly cast upon the waters. He had so looked forward to a happy meeting with her; had thought of her always as his good angel and polar-star; had, in the words of the old sea-song, "brought back her parting kiss as pure as be received it;" and now, to the pain of disappointment and blighted hope, was added that of remorse, that he owed all this to a single reckless act of his own. Had she proved false to her vows without good cause, he might have borne it manfully, for his own conscience would have been clear.

      Mechanically he attended to his duties in working the ship up the bay, but there was none of his usual spirit in the orders which he gave to the crew; no hearty response on his part to the joyous greetings which saluted the return of men risen, as it seemed, from an ocean grave. An outward-bound ship, all ready for sea, lay moored in the stream as they passed in.

      "She was ready to sail three days ago," remarked one of the "runners" for a well-known shipping-house, which also did a smart business in the way of infits and outfits, "but her mate was taken down sick at the eleventh hour, and had to give up the voyage. She is only waiting now to ship a mate."

      "I'll go in her," said Winslow, desperately; "if they'll make me a good offer."

      "Do you mean that?" asked the "shark," with an eye to business.

      "Mean it? Yes," was the dogged reply. "I'd sooner go to sea than go ashore, now."

      Within twenty minutes it was known at the office of Wing & Co., that the second mate of the Ajax was up for a berth at the shortest notice. With the highest recommendations from his captain, he was just the man wanted; the offer of "lay" and bonus was a liberal one, for time was pressing; a few hours sufficed to make all his arrangements, and the next morning's sun saw Reuben Winslow at his post between the knight-heads of the Mogul, taking her anchor.

      A change came over the whole man from that day, a change for the better, however. Though the wild exuberance of youthful spirits was suppressed, his well-balanced mind was not one to give way to "green-and-yellow melancholy." Though his fondest hopes had been wrecked by a bottle, he had too much self-respect to put in practice the doctrine of "similia similibus curanter," by rushing to the bottle for relief. He turned a deaf ear to the rough, well-meant consolations of his quarter-deck comrades, who often repeated to him the hackneyed proverb, "As good fish are left in the sea as ever were caught." With a keen sense of his own wrong-doing, he lived for atonement; the reckless, impulsive boy was lost in the sedate, thoughtful man.

      In devotion to the active duties of his profession, he had no superior. Throughout the fleet, whether "on Japan," or off shore," it was well known that no more nervous arm or truer lance was to be found than that of the Mogul's mate. And when, by an accident, he was raised to the supreme command, no young officer could have been better fitted for the position. Under his charge the voyage was prosecuted to a successful end in three years, and his em ployers were ready to start him again, with his choice either of the same ship or a new one.

      But a new tumult of feeling was stirred within him by a few words spoken by an old acquaintance whom he met in New Bedford. Jane Morrison had returned, a widow, to her old home on the Vineyard. He could give no definite reply to the flattering proposals of his owners, until she had answered one question for him. With the entire earnings of two good voyages standing due him, with health, strength, reputation as an officer, and the high road to wealth open before him – was the one great void in his heart to be filled or not?

      Sorrow and toil had written their marks upon the pleasing features of the young widow, who sat bending over her work, with a bright little girl of two years playing by her side. Her union with Captain Morrison had proved an uncongenial one, and her life, while under the sway of his arbitrary temper, was little less than a continuous martyrdom. But she had faithfully done her duty by her husband up to the day of his death, from yellow fever, in a Southern port. Bitterly had she regretted the step she had taken in becoming his wife, and the more so since the hour when she learned of the safe arrival of the missing ship, and the departure of Winslow on another voyage, almost without setting his foot on shore. When left, as she was, in destitute circumstances, she had naturally turned again to the home of her girlhood, and had since labored early and late for the support of herself and little Sophia.

      She laid aside her work to answer a knock at the door, and a tall man stood before her, who apparently made an effort to conceal his face, as he asked:

      "Is Mrs. Morrison in?"

      "Yes sir; that is my name. Will you walk in, sir?"

      The stranger entered, removed his hat, threw back his overcoat, and turned his face full towards her.

      "Jane!" said he, in a tremulous voice. "I –"

      "Reuben Winslow!" There was a touch of gladness in her tones, as she spoke his name and offered her hand; then the old regret came back that he could be nothing to her now, and the unbidden tears started as she resumed her seat.

      "Mamma cry!", said the little prattler, climbing into her lap.

      "O Reuben! that we should meet thus!" she went on; "but I thought you were lost – and – if you knew all, you could not blame me much!"

      Winslow was puzzled. At finding himself face to face with her, he knew not how to begin what he wished to say; but here was a new phase of the matter. "Blame her much," indeed! He had expected, if not reproaches, at least a bearing of injured innocence on her part, and found, instead, apology and self-abasement. Before he had made up his mind how to reply she asked:

      "How did you escape from your great danger off the Cape of Good Hope?"

      He comprehended all, now. She know not, as yet, that the report was a false one, but supposed the ship had been saved by something akin to a miracle. His tongue was loosened at once.

      "Jane," said he, "I alone am to blame! I was guilty of a foolish act, for which, God knows, I have suffered almost as much as I believe you have. A wicked act, too, though not done with criminal intent. We never were in any danger off Good Hope, but when that report was written, were lying becalmed in the middle of the South Atlantic!"

      She looked up at him in utter astonishment.

      "Don't interrupt me, Jane," he continued. "I have been tortured by remorse ever since, but I have gone on my way, striving to do right, and in all respects save one, have been prospered – more than I deserved. I have sought you out to-night, thinking you knew the truth already, to ask if I can be forgiven, and if so, to ask also if the remainder of a life devoted to your happiness may be offered as an atonement for the one great wrong of my youth?"

      She bowed her head among the bright curls of her little daughter, while Winslow in silence awaited her answer.

      "Reuben, I have been much surprised, and I cannot deny it, shocked, by what you have told me, for until this evening, I thought the fault had been all my own. It seems we both have erred, and both have suffered deeply in consequence. For your wrong is no greater – indeed, it is not so great – as mine in marrying Andrew Morrison when I never truly loved him. For you know, Reuben – indeed, I could never conceal it from you – that my heart was yours first, last and always. Let our past errors be forgotten, then, on both sides, and if you still wish me to be – " she placed her hand in his strong grasp.

      "From my heart and soul I do!"

      "I shall put my trust in you, as I have always done; and my child – "

      "Shall be mine, ours. Jane!" he interrupted." She shall know no other father."

      And until grown to womanhood, she never did. The younger branches of the family are still ignorant of the facts which I have here related.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: A Bottle – And its Victims.
Publication: Flag of our Union.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 24, No. 27 (Jul 3, 1869)
Pages: 420-421