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The Everlasting Captain

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

The greatest captains are not always on the biggest ships. Sometimes ships betray their pilots, shrink and shrink, pull in their horns and their jibs; the first thing you know, four masts have dwindled to two, sails big as blocks of the Celestial City wall, and as white, pindle out into dirty little tablecloths of canvases. And there is your square-rigger shrunk to a small fishing smack that hugs the shore and smells of fish-oil and narrow lives. And the men whose hearts are as big as those that brought teakwood and tea and silks of Japan round the Horn and half about the globe have to beat at the business of nosing a cargo of mackerel from little nets into a dingy, backyard of a harbor that is reduced largely to the status of a watery, dump.

Captain Toothaker had been so betrayed, And worse. For he had not stopped at the fishing smack. The irony of the changing times had pushed him farther down the ladder of devolution. It had not been enough that the wooden Leviathans of his fathers had petered out into coasting sloops. The curse of steam had fallen upon him, and, after that, the blight complete of gasoline. From piloting the excursion steamer that brought squeamish school-teachers and beery travelling salesmen from the city to the shore dinners of a citified island, Captain Toothaker, for all the importance of the gold letters and cord on his cap, had been driven by the automobile, which finally drained away the thin and dubious life-blood of his trade, to the motorboat. He kept his cap and its legend of his glory, though, even in the midst of the idiotic hiccoughing of a gas engine. Here he was, a man with legs and arms and eyes no whit worse than those of the older captains, steering a rowboat with a filthy and loquacious machine to push it along unimportant bays. The laughter of all the blue ironies at his back, and he looking out of the eagle eyes that should have been scanning the peak of Teneriffe or gauging cross-winds of the Straits of Magellan, trying to look the man he should have been! A man to guide the white albatross of a clipper-ship presiding over a duck of a launch that quacked and quacked in a mud-puddle I It was like seeing some one of the greater Greek gods, Hermes or Poseidon, pushing a barrow of turnips.

Nor did fate leave the captain on that low rung of the ladder, even. That spreading disease of civilization, that machine which has sapped the pith from our legs, driven the philosophical and stately bicycle from the land of the living, scattered the philosophers themselves, the walkers on country, roads, into the fellowship of the dodo and pterodactyl and the sad-eyed trilobite, that comfort that has given our pleasure the kiss of Judas, that camel that has kicked the owner of the tent into the outer darkness, that speedy messenger that has shaken all messages from our addled brains, that going that has become the goal, that good servant that has become the master, that mischief, that monstrosity, that stench—the automobile, had yet further sport to make of Captain Toothaker. It ruined his motorboating; for it caught up the empty-headed excursionists with a hiccoughing more rapid and more to their liking. The fish with fine gills could breathe the bays unpolluted again. The Old Meadows Motorboat Company went on the rocks, and Captain Toothaker’s part of it was pulled up to rot on the shore, and he himself given a vacation that was to be everlasting. But he kept his cap still.

Captain!—the irony of it!—the gilt letters, made expressly to his order and cut large to his soul in the old steamboating days, all of an inch and a quarter tall and covering the whole front of his head-dress like rays of Apollo.

Captain Toothaker set the jaws that nature had squared for decisions of great import under the sun and moon and got himself a bout. It was not much of a boat, but it had a bow and a stern and, above all, a wheel to spin. The general concensus of opinion on the craft was that it looked like a torpedo, desperate and at the end of the resources in its diabolical vitals, just about to go down. The speed lines of its hull were liars. With a great deal of careful diplomacy and with the special blue lot of language at the captain’s command, it could make fifteen miles an hour—on a calm day and with the tide. But it shook what teeth a person had in his jaws, and what benevolent instincts flowered on the quiet furrows of the brain, loose at their roots in so doing. And it made a noise to waken the dead. It was like a continual bombardment, with ominous lulls here and there that presaged the dissolution of a new set of its vitals. It vibrated so that the bilge was always deep in the hold, in spite of all that the flywheel could do to distribute it over the occupants of the boat. It smelled of brimstone. The captain was not a mechanic; but he soon became one after he acquired the “Torpedo III.” For the engine constantly broke its thews and sinews. If its owner had not had an old mowing-machine at his disposal, and unlimited bolts, I don’t believe he could have kept it going as long as he did. At that, it was a miracle pure and simple. The factory, that had built it perished; the lore of the technical wizards who had brought it into being went to join the Sibylline Books. The arcana of its vitals turned into the Kabbala. It became a book sealed. I believe and hope—and the captain did, too, I know—that the designer of it went out and hanged himself. But the hay-wire and old nuts that passed continuously into its bowels just barely kept it alive. And its lord and master took out the steering-wheel, that was too modest in size for the captaincy in his heart, and put in a new one from a defunct automobile cut more on the generous lines of his soul.

If he had nothing to carry, Captain Toothaker had the boat. There were no tierces of molasses to be fetched from the West Injies with overseers’ whips coiled up at their bottoms where black slaves had hidden them; no rum to be brought to fire the fruitful stalwarts of a new pioneer age; no pepper of Sumatra, no gums of Arabia Felix, no thin and subtle wines of Spain that lodged in the ribs like a knife-blade; no cassia or cinnamon, hemp for the hangman or Hepplewhite for Colonial mansions; there were no barefoot kings with the jungle racing through their veins and the amber and jet of voodoo madness at the corners of their eyeballs to bring over to sell into the cotton and cane fields; there were no John Does or Richard Roes, even, or merely tired grocerymen to carry to steamed clams and lobster stew and back again; since the ocean had shrunk under his keen eyes to a tidal inlet, Captain Toothaker went and found what cargoes he could. There were clams about him and, after the sky had turned into a crystal cup in September, smelts. So he went after those. But he never laid aside his cap with its legend of days of the old magnificence even when he was up to his buttocks in the tide and pulling the seine into a loop around the smelts, the babies of the sea, or when clams fountained at his feet and shot up muddy water into his eyes. The letters became tarnished and dim; but he wore them like a crown. Some say he wore the cap when he went to bed. I do not know. But I do know that it was years before I discovered that he was partly bald.

And now the consummate jest of all was played on him. The automobile that had driven him step by step down to the least fish of the sea—him who had had ancestors harpooning whales—sorting out smelts from the capelins and infant jellyfish; and had bent his broad back to mining shellfish in the mud—the automobile, after all these scoffs and scorns, played its last trump. It swallowed him up as it had swallowed the others. There he was, a captain to go straight away from his port upon the sea until, without turning once, he should arrive at his starting place, presiding over a Ford in the last days of its dotage! He had to get his fish and clams to town to peddle them. So he heaped indignity upon indignity, the Ford upon the motorboat, and made his living half on the sea and half on the land. He should have moved in vast silences and in air that was crystal with the breath of icebergs or honey with the flowing spices of the East; and he moved in a sound of bedlam and on the wings of noxious vapors from the insides of machines. But the cap still qualified all. He wore it, as much the centurion as ever, when he rode the seat of the craft that moved by land. Yet I do not believe that anyone would have taken him, even had he not worn the cap, for anything but what he was, a tall and hardy, spirit, a man born for great things, skipper extraordinary, and son of the sea. Amphibian he might be; the plaything of unkind forces beyond the reach of us to know; yet he had his air about him even when hawking his clams at the poor sides of houses.

Once a captain, always a captain. This man was of the old breed. One, two, three—who knows how many thousand years of men good at the tiller had their witness in this present cleaver of waters. Certainly, he acted his small part in a large way. He had his moods, but he was large enough to come out of them with canvas spick and span. He was an optimist incurable. He had a craving especially for the water that is filled with fire. Weeks on end the smelts went free through his empty stakes while he lay under the rafters or the stars, full of flame. But drink made him only more the man, full of stories that sparkled and laughter to shake the walls of a house. He could sing, a potent tenor best heard across a bay and under the moon. He could lay aside his work like a boy, let out of school. Nothing was too harebrained for him to take a jump at. He had courage, surely. He never grumbled that the years found his back bending harder and harder and the flour always going down lower in the barrel. He only took in his belt a notch and went on tarring his nets. But, best of all, he had innocence, that gift to set off manhood, which the sea seems to know best how to bestow. Perhaps this is the compensation for living away from crowded places, among men who have to make their bed and lie in it at once and directly in every move of their hands.

This innocence of his led Captain Toothaker into strange dilemmas, sometimes. There was the affair of the exhibited shark. The captain saw the shark first one night at the full of the moon on a high-run tide. He was inclined at first to put the fish down to the pint of genial fire that was somewhere inside him at the moment. But the fish proved himself real enough to tilt down the wharf in his effort to reach a long nose over the edge to get at the waste fish piled there. It was a king of a fish, a lord of the Caribbees a thousand miles off his beat. And he was cold and hungry on this night of frosty October moonlight. Captain Toothaker got a pitchfork and threw himself upon his visitor. I will not go into the details of the epic battle that followed. I never could hope to hold a candle to the captain in his version of it; and this was the most lurid of all the tales of hazards and harrowings that he had in his sack. But Captain Toothaker got the shark. He beached him and gloated over him, six inches taller in stature than he had ever been before.

Then inspiration came. A fair, annual carnival of the fattest pumpkins and boy-babies and the heftiest oxen, was toward. Here was a marvel for the Midway. Here was fortune for its owner. The shark should go to the fair. Go he did; and Captain Toothaker stood by to take in the quarters of the curious. He had had a local Rembrandt, who was renowned for his portrait studies of clams and lobsters, do a large study of the shark in which he had let himself go completely. It hung in front of the tent, and under it flamed the words: Great Man-Eating Monster, the Untamed Terror of the Deep, an Education for a Quarter, the Fourth Part of a Dollar, Bring the Children, Ten Centsl People came in to see the fish; but not nearly so many as the different officials of the fair who came to collect fees licensing its exhibition. The Board of Health was the first and foremost on the ground; but even the D. A. R. and the Watch-and-Ward societies finally came in for their part, the captain said bitterly afterwards. Constables of all vintages had to be propitiated; there were luxury taxes, land rents, and water concessions. That shark, before he was through, entered into the domain of morals. He became a spiritual issue. Prohibition agents even claimed their fees. Captain Toothaker had to pledge a subscription to the Old Women’s Home for the privilege of educating simple country people in the lore of the sea. Through the bleak chill of an October afternoon this simple man of the sea, who had not dreamt of so complex a thing as civilization, stood glumly under his painted banner. His eloquence died on his lips. The Ossified Man drew in his thousands, and the Circassian Sisters their tens of thousands; but the coins in Captain Toothaker’s pockets clinked few and far apart. He thought of the second day and the third. He thought of new agents of civic economies and civic virtues that they might bring. He thought of the expense of carting his catch to a decent burial. His heart was aloes. That night, after the Midway had sunk to a hectic slumber, a light glowed in the captain’s tent. It glowed all night long:

“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note . . .”

Captain Toothaker worked in silence till dawn. He dug a hole and planted his shark deep in the soil of Tipsham Heights. And then he folded his tents like the Arabs and silently stole away. I know not what collectors sought his tent on the morrow to find only a vacant lot and a newly sodded grave.

Innocent as a child in the uses of an over-civilized age, this captain was as full of abandon as a child, too, on occasion. When the fire that comes in flat bottles was in him, he could roll like an unmoored comet in the sky. Navigating his truck from town one night in the glorious way that required a road with sides far asunder, he overtook a neighbor bound belated to his hunting lodge with a new hound pup to break in. Captain Toothaker did not see the neighbor for the simple reason that the neighbor got away safely into the nearest pines. But he saw the hound. The dog was foolish enough to keep to the road and try to outpace the truck. The captain’s sporting instinct was aroused. In spite of the protests of his brother, who feared for his half of the car, the skipper put on all the juice he could muster. The dog went yelping along like the wind with doom only a matter of feet behind. Belatedly the hound bethought him of the woods and turned off the road into them. Captain Toothaker followed. He brought up on the bigger trees at last, and the hound got away by the breadth of a split hair. But he was never seen again in those parts. The owner came up cursing; and the captain, whose lights were now quenched, not recognizing him at first, far from being contrite, was all for giving him a drubbing. His brother had to hold him. When he found out that it was a friend whose dog he had pursued, Captain Toothaker’s mettle melted to tears. He was heartbroken. He spent the greater part of the night looking for the dog in the forest. But he did not so readily warm to his brother. He swore he would give him his half of the car in the morning, if he had to do it by running head on into a telephone pole.

On other occasions and in other ways the captain showed his fine superiority to convention and the laws made by little men for the little. He thrashed a mender of roads for making a jest of his captain’s cap. Often he arrived at the point where he was ready to perform for a man that picturesque thing which he was so fond of threatening, to “pull his nose out, and let it snap back.” He took in the oysters an ambitious bureau of fisheries had left out to the rigors of a northern winter. He courted a widow in so direct a fashion that she used a teakettle warm from the stove upon him.

He got into terrific scrapes. But always his open heart redeemed him in the end. His conscience, when a new day rose, led him into exalted penances. For the unfortunate he had a sympathy that was like the sun. His little cabin was always full of the waifs and strays of life. I hope that there is somewhere a log of the derelicts he reclaimed and set again upon useful voyages on this human sea. He could sing, even in the dark, himself; and he could teach others to sing, too.

A captain he was, and no mistake. He could steer his despair of a boat through a sea proportionally as high to his boat as those his ancestors ploughed through. He could take bad weather in the teeth and come out smiling. He had an enormous pride in his calling. His language was always salty. He spoke in the phrases of an art that is one of the oldest and noblest in the world. Even in the Ford and at backdoors he kept his nautical terms. Poverty could not drive him away from the salt water. The independent, exciting life held him as in a vise. The sound of the waves, the march of the fogs, the ancient, secret power of the tides, these had their way with him. The sea, even the little sea near the shore, had cast “a glamourie” over him. And the sea was a wife to him in lieu of any other. If he had not a clean port-bill as a sailor, I don’t know where you will find one. Big ports and little, big storms and small; cargoes change; and the world spins. But sailors remain what they were in the days of Tyre and Sidon. Being made as he was, Captain Toothaker could never have been less than a captain. Ships might vanish entirely, and the sea go dry; but he would have found something to steer. If not oils of whale or nuggets of amber, there were still school children to collect from country farmhouses and ferry into town, as Captain Toothaker found at the last. Yes, he came rightly by, that cap of his, and he deserved to wear it, as he wore it, up to the snug harbor of the grave. I only hope they buried him in it.


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