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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXX, No. 3 (Sep 1869)
pp. 247-251

Why I didn't run away from the Rodney. 247

. . . .



      It was without flourish of trumpets or show of bunting that the old Rodney crept into her berth among the closely packed fleet of shipping in Honolulu harbor. Our season on Japan had been a tedious and an unprofitable one. A single line in "The Polynesian" summed up the whole history – "Arr'd sh. Rodney, Bennett, Japan, 150 sp."

      And this too in the memorable autumn of 'forty-nine, when every man you met on shore in Honolulu put on the airs of a millionaire, and slung money round with a perfect abandon. For, every man who was not from California, was surely from the Polar Basin. In that crowd, the geography of the world, its latest edition, comprised only two grand divisions – the Golden Land, and the Icy Sea.

      Most of our ship's company were "cruisers," and took their discharge as soon as the anchor was down. It did not take long to pay them off, as they were all in debt to the ship. But my chum, Louis Simonds, and I, had stuck by each other and the Rodney, since she left home, a weary two years and a half. We were the only "voyagers" on board now, save the captain himself – the last representatives of the original roll-call.

      "Guess he'll give us our discharge now," said Louis, "we've stood by him so long."

      "If he wont," I returned, "we must take it. It wont pay to fool away two or three more years of our young lives, wandering about the ocean picking up one or two sperm whales a year. If he would shove her up north, I

248 Why I didn't run away from the Rodney.

don't know but I would try another season with him."

      "I wouldn't," said Louis, "I'm bound towards California, now."

      But Captain Bennett, we soon ascertained, had no intention of giving us an honorable discharge. We must either follow the fortunes of the Rodney, or desert at once. Sent us ashore on liberty, too, with one dollar apiece in our pockets! Just think of it, ye who can appreciate the situation! This was in Honolulu, in '49.

      "Can't help it," he said, in reply to our remonstrance. "You've got nothing coming to ye, in the ship!"

      "We never will have anything, Louis," said I, after we were on our way to the shore, "if we hang on to the Rodney. And here are ships moored all round us, most of them homeward bound, loaded, chain-plates to."

      "Yes," returned my chum, "and here are fellows coming down here every day from the mines – pockets full of shiners – and no change out of a dollar. We must run away, Bill."

      "We'll make our arrangements accordingly, while we are on shore to-day," said I. "We ought to have brought our pockets full of hard-tack, for we shall have no money to buy a dinner, if we take a social glass and a cigar first"

      At every turn we were made sensible of our comparative poverty. At every rendezvous of seamen we were invited, with an air, to "come up and drink," but were unable to return the invitation.

      "What ship are you from?" was now and then asked of us.

      "The Rodney."

      "Rodney? – O – yes, that sperm whaler. Why didn't you go somewhere, last season?"

      "We did. Went on Japan."

      "That's nowhere at all. Why didn't you go to the Ar'tic or Okot?"

      "Why don't you run away and go to Californy?" asks another new acquaintance, showing a handful of gold. "I came in here last year in the James, and came ashore without a real, and now – " he finished his story by shaking the coin at us, in the most tantalizing manner.

      "Come along, Louis!" said I. "Let's get out of this. We've seen and heard enough, and we're fools if we don't profit by it. Let's go and sit down here awhile, and talk this thing over."

      The place we had selected was among a collection of old lumber and ship stores, near the pier where we had landed. Two or three old rusty try-pots were turned over, with one edge resting upon a timber, so as to be slightly inclined, and on one of these pots we seated ourselves.

      "Well, Bill," said my comrade," fire away and give us your opinion. Which way is it best to head, if we run away?"

      "It's no use," said I, "to trust any Kanaka to stow us away."

      "Not a bit. He'll sell us to the Kaikos for half a dollar. No, we must work out our own salvation."

      "We might easily get on board one of the ships that are moored close to us, and keep snug until after she gets to sea, I don't believe the Kaikos would find us."

      "That's the most common way of doing it in this port, but that wont do for me. It's well enough, if you want to go another season whaling, only changing your ship. But I don't want to."

      "We can get on board a homeward-bounder," I suggested.

      "But I don't want to go home. What's the use of going back penniless after three years' absence?"

      "Well," said I, "what do you suggest then?"

      "There's a brig here – you see her, there in range of the Rodney – that is bound to California. If we could get stow away on board of her now! But I don't see my way clear yet to do that, and for the present we must quarter ashore."

      "Yes, but where?"

      "Here.'" said Louis, with a ringing slap upon the iron pot under us. "Since we sat down here, it has occurred to me that we couldn't find a better place than this. If the old man or the Kaikos hunt for us, they'll pass and repass us fifty times a day without thinking to get down on their marrow-bones to look under these pots."

      "That's true," said I, " and well thought of. We shall be able to know all that is going on, and we can even slip out at night and reconnoitre, if we are careful."

      "I have quite fallen in love with the idea," he continued. "I think I shall get a stock of provisions, and take possession to-night."

      "All right. Do so, and I will manage to get on board this evening, and pick up a few traps that we want"

      "You might stay by the ship a few days, Bill. Of course you can go and come, about where you please. You can throw them all

Why I didn't run away from the Rodney. 249

off the track, if inquiry is made for me. In the meantime I shall be on the lookout for an opening to get away to California, and we can communicate once or twice every day."

      There was just height enough close up to the timber for a man to creep under flat on his face. When inside, there was room enough to sit up, and move round a little, though not to stand erect.

      "I can make good weather of it here, tonight," said Louis. "I haven't money enough to pay for a lodging at the 'California House,' or at the 'Blonde,' so I must set up an establishment on my own hook."

      I left my partner at dark to take care of himself, and going down to the pier, found the Good Return's boat just pushing off. As she lay close to the Rodney, they readily agreed to give me a passage.

      There was no one on deck when I climbed the side. Indeed there was nobody to stand an anchor-watch unless it were the captain himself. I struck a light in the forecastle and began picking up some little matters which belonged to Louis, and which I meant to carry ashore at the first opportunity. After, this I lighted my pipe, blew out the light, and went on deck with my bundle, intending to beg a passage in the first boat that I might see pass, bound shoreward. I sat up on the breast-hook at the bow, between the knightheads, enjoying my pipe in the soft, balmy air. Under the soothing influence of both, I was fast dropping into a slumber, when a slight noise, as of a movement of a hatch, roused me, and I sat up, broad awake. A man, in a slouched hat and dungaree frock, rose up the fore-hatchway and started aft. Something was in his hand that made a slight rattling noise, like a tin pail or a lantern.

      It was quite dark, but as he turned for a moment half round towards me, I saw that the dark frock only partially concealed a white shirt underneath. The figure and gait of the man as he walked aft were those of Captain Bennett.

      I crouched down and remained motionless at my post, till he had descended into the cabin. In a minute afterwards, a faint light shone up through the skylight Noiselessly I slipped down the bowsprit-heel to the deck – I always went barefoot in tropical weather – and darted into the dark forecastle. Passing through an opening in the after bulk-head into the fore-hold I found one of the lower-deck hatches off, as also an upper one. Dropping upon a water-cask which was stowed in the hatchway, I crept in on all fours, struck a match, and saw – enough to confirm the vague suspicion which had been awakened by the strange movements of the captain.

      All was still as death when I came on deck again and the same faint light was visible at the cabin skylight. I went stealthily aft, taking my tin cup in my hand, as if for a drink of water at the scuttle-butt. Peering cautiously down, I saw the captain seated at the table, with a number of papers spread out before him which he seemed to be examining. He was in his shirt sleeves, but with his best suit on; and an the floor at his side lay the dirty frock-shirt which he had worn into the hold.

      In my eagerness, as I leaned over to get a better view, I let the tin pot thump against the skylight-combings. The captain gave a sudden start. But I had only one step to take to reach the scuttle-butt, and the water was running as he pushed his head up in sight

      "Who's there?" he called. "Bill?"

      "Ay, ay, sir."

      "How did you get aboard?"

      "In the Good Return's boat, sir."

      "Got tired of the shore so soon, eh?"

      "No sir, but it's no use to stay there without money."

      "O, that was the trouble, was it? Where's Louis? Is he on board too?"

      "No sir, Louis is missing. He has run away, I think."

      "You think, eh? Don't you know?"

      "No sir, hut I have reason to suppose he is on board the Marengo, that sailed this afternoon. If so, he's In blue water long before this time."

      "Well," said the captain, reflectively, "I don't know as I can blame him, as things are. So you and I are all that's left, Bill, to take care of the old ship, eh?"

      "Yes sir," I replied. "I'll stick by her as long as the mainmast does."

      "Good!" said he. "Well, there's no need of any anchor-watch in a port like this, moored head and stern. We might ride by a towline. I suppose yon would like to stay ashore all night, wouldn't you?"

      "I should, sir, if I had money enough to pay my way."

      "Well, I guess I can let you have some. I ought to, as you are the last man to stand by the wreck. Here, take this," said he.

      I took it, and thanked him as innocently as

250 Why I didn't run away from the Rodney.

if I knew nothing of what was passing in his mind, or of what he intended to do. It was a half-eagle, as I judged from its size and appearance in the dark.

      "There's a chance for a passage," he said. "Boat ahoy! Give us a shove ashore, if you please!" speaking in my behalf. "I'll stay aboard and take care of the ship to-night"

      The strange boat touched alongside, and I was ready with my bundle in the forechains.

      "Come off early to-morrow, Bill."

      It was more like a request than a command, and yet it was neither. An absent-minded remark, as if he felt it necessary to say something. Ten minutes later I had given the signal to Louis by a peculiar scratch on the try-pot. It was answered immediately.

      "Come out, Louis," said I, " and let's make a night of it. I want you to help me get rid of this five-dollar gold-piece. And, besides, I think we shall have no need to run from the Rodney."

      "What do you mean? Have you got discharged and paid off?" he asked, looking with astonishment at the piece of money and then at the bundle in my hand, which I had contrived to make a pretty large one.

      "No, not yet; but I think we shall both have an honorable discharge before morning. Can you keep dark, Lou, in a matter of life and death?"

      "Yes. You ought to know, by this time, whether you can trust me."

      "I think so. Well, the truth is, the old man is going to make a bonfire of the Rodney."

      "You don't mean it!" said Louis, grasping me by the shoulder. "How do you know this?"

      "I've seen his combustibles in the forehold, all arranged ready for firing."

      "But why do you say they are his?" he demanded.

      "What business has the captain creeping out of the forehold in the night, with a dark lantern, and a dirty frock on over his best go-ashore clothes?"

      "You saw that, Bill?"

      "Of course I did. Besides, who else would have any motive for destroying the ship unless it were you and I? I suppose, if it is done, it will be laid to us anyhow."

      "Do you think he means to burn her tonight?"

      "Yes. If you had seen how anxious he was to send me ashore again! Gave me the gold piece without asking, and hailed a boat himself to get me a passage. But hush! who's coming here now? Keep close."

      A small, rude canoe, propelled by one paddle only, came silently in, and the man jumped out, giving her a shove with his foot that sent her drifting out among the nearest ships. He halted within ten feet of us as we lay crouched among the old lumber. He jerked an old slouched hat from his head and threw it into the harbor. The frock-shirt followed it, and a neat hat and coat were quickly produced from a bundle which he had brought. In two minutes he was metamorphosed outwardly, and vanished.

      "Are you satisfied, Louis?" I asked, as soon as he was out of hearing.

      "Yes," said he. "Look, Bill; we are not runaways!" And he pointed his hand in the direction of the Rodney. "There's an honorable discharge!"

      A glare like an ice-blink hovered over the old ship, at first hardly noticeable except by us who knew what to look for; then, amid a confused murmur of sounds from the other vessels near her, the glare became brighter, and shadows of dingy smoke rolled across it. Then, suddenly, a sheet of flame burst up the hatchway, and the ship sprung into view as a picture thrown by a magic lantern, all her top hamper and delicate tracery revealed with the most startling fidelity. The murmur of sounds increased; the call of "all hands!" on board the ships nearest the burning one; the gradual spread of the alarm to the more distant ones; the rattle of chain-cables and clanking of windlass-pawls, as those nearest either veered away or gathered in at their moorings, to make room for the fire-ship to to [sic] drift out of the fleet; the splash of oars as the boats from those more distant hurried to a focus under the Rodney's bows. Then, over all, the deafening sound of a heavy gun from the Yankee sloop-of-war "Preble," as a general alarm to ships and shore.

      Now there is a rush of shipmasters and officers to the beach. The "tammaree boys," or Kanaka wherrymen, are in high feather, for now is their chance for a harvest Each one is anxious to get on board his own ship and attend to her safety; and who so demonstratively anxious as the worthy Captain Bennett?

      "Five dollars, boys, to put me on board the Rodney in time to save my chronometer!"'

      "The old man's flush of money to-night," said my chum. "The same price he paid you, Bill, to leave him on board alone."

Why I didn't run away from the Rodney. 251

      We sat there on the try-pot, Louis and I, when all the boats had gone, and coolly watched the progress of the flames as they wrapped our late home in their destroying folds. The cables were cut, and the wreck drifted down upon the reef, where all that was to be seen of her at daylight next morning were a few blackened and still smoking timbers projecting out of water.

      "We are free to go-to California now, Louis," said I. "The voyage is wound up satisfactorily to all parties concerned – except the underwriters."

      We saw the captain three days afterwards in the barroom of the "California House." He didn't appear to be inconsolable at the loss of his ship. He expressed a little surprise at the sight of Louis.

      "I thought you had run away," he said.

      "No sir," was the answer; "the ship ran away from me while I was ashore on liberty."

      "Have you any idea how the fire originated?" I asked, looking him full in the face.

      "No," he replied, with some little confusion of manner. "I left the ship a few minutes after you did, for I had business on shore that I found must be attended to that night. It is said the flames burst up at the fore-hatchway. I hope it was entirely accidental. I wish I could think so, at any rate."

      "Do you intend to make any investigation here?"

      "No," said he. "What's the use? Nothing can be proved. Some of the Fabius's men say that they brought a man ashore from the Rodney about twenty minutes before the fire broke out. That was you, of course; but then I don't of course think you knew anything about it"

      This was said carelessly, thrown out as a feeler. It rebounded with a force quite unforeseen.

      "But," I returned, in a low tone, "the anchor-watch of the Good Return says that he saw a man leave her in a canoe not ten minutes before the fire was discovered. That was you, of course; but it's not likely you knew anything about it."

      "I saw a man land from a canoe and change some of his clothing on the beach, not two minutes before I saw the fire," added Louis; "but I don't think he knew anything about it."

      The captain turned suddenly away to the bar-keeper for a match, and seemed to have some difficulty in coaxing his cigar to suffer itself to be lighted. When he faced us again, he had quite recovered his composure.

      "Come," said he, "let's take a drink and drop the subject. Investigation would do no good. It would only cause ill feeling, and leave the matter as deep in mystery as ever."

      "It's only fair to suppose," said Louis, with a comical look, "that the old ship got discouraged and committed suicide. I'm glad we didn't run away from her, Bill; for I presume Captain Bennett will have no objection to give us a written certificate of honorable discharge?"

      "Certainly not. I'll give you that, and also a good recommend, which may be useful to you if you want to ship again."

      We all went to California in the same vessel. We separated on landing, and I never saw the captain again. I heard some months afterwards that he died on the Isthmus.

      We kept our own counsel, Louis and I, not wishing to say anything which would complicate matters. Whether the insurance money was ever paid or not on the Rodney, I cannot say. Though I have never been placed under oath in the matter, I have truly informed the reader how it happened that I didn't run away from her.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Why I Didn't Run Away from the Rodney.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 30, No. 3 (Sep 1869)
Pages: 247-251