Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Main Truck, or, a Leap for Life
By William Leggett (18011839)
[Born in New York, N. Y. Died at New Rochelle, N. Y., 1839. Naval Stories. 1834.]
A SHOUT and a merry laugh burst upon my ear, and looking quickly round, to ascertain the cause of the unusual sound on a frigates deck, I saw little Bob Stay (as we called our commodores son) standing half-way up the main-hatch ladder, clapping his hands, and looking aloft at some object that seemed to inspire him with a deal of glee. A single glance to the main-yard explained the occasion of his merriment. He had been coming up from the gun-deck, when Jacko, perceiving him on the ladder, dropped suddenly down from the mainstay, and running along the boom-cover, leaped upon Bobs shoulder, seized his cap from his head, and immediately darted up the main-topsail sheet, and thence to the bunt of the main-yard, where he now sat, picking threads from the tassel of his prize, and occasionally scratching his side and chattering, as if with exultation for the success of his mischief. But Bob was a sprightly, active little fellow; and though he could not climb quite as nimbly as a monkey, yet he had no mind to lose his cap without an effort to regain it. Perhaps he was more strongly incited to make chase after Jacko from noticing me to smile at his plight, or by the loud laugh of Jake, who seemed inexpressibly delighted at the occurrence, and endeavored to evince, by tumbling about the boom-cloth, shaking his huge misshapen head, and sundry other grotesque actions, the pleasure for which he had no words.
A red spot mounted to the cheek of little Bob, as he cast one glance of offended pride at Jake, and then sprang across the deck to the Jacobs ladder. In an instant he was half-way up the rigging, running over the ratlines as lightly as if they were an easy flight of stairs, whilst the shrouds scarcely quivered beneath his elastic motion. In a second more his hand was on the futtocks.
Massa Stay! cried Jake, who sometimes, from being a favorite, ventured to take liberties with the younger officers, Massa Stay, you best crawl through de lubbers holeit take a sailor to climb the futtock shroud.
But he had scarcely time to utter his pretended caution before Bob was in the top. The monkey, in the meanwhile, had awaited his approach, until he had got nearly up the rigging, when it suddenly put the cap on its own head, and running along the yard to the opposite side of the top, sprang up a rope, and thence to the topmast backstay, up which it ran to the topmast cross-trees, where it again quietly seated itself, and resumed its work of picking the tassel to pieces. For several minutes I stood watching my little messmate follow Jacko from one piece of rigging to another, the monkey, all the while, seeming to exert only as much agility as was necessary to elude the pursuer, and pausing whenever the latter appeared to be growing weary of the chase. At last, by this kind of manuvring, the mischievous animal succeeded in enticing Bob as high as the royal mast-head, when springing suddenly on the royal stay, it ran nimbly down to the foretop-gallant-mast-head, thence down the rigging to the foretop, when leaping on the foreyard, it ran out to the yard-arm, and hung the cap on the end of the studding-sail boom, where, taking its seat, it raised a loud and exulting chattering. Bob by this time was completely tired out, and, perhaps, unwilling to return to the deck to be laughed at for his fruitless chase, he sat down in the royal cross-trees; while those who had been attracted by the sport, returned to their usual avocations or amusements. The monkey, no longer the object of pursuit or attention, remained but a little while on the yard-arm; but soon taking up the cap, returned in towards the slings, and dropped it down upon deck.
Some little piece of duty occurred at this moment to engage me, as soon as which was performed, I walked aft, and leaning my elbow on the tafferel, was quickly lost in the recollection of scenes very different from the small pantomime I had just been witnessing. Soothed by the low hum of the crew, and by the quiet loveliness of everything around, my thoughts had travelled far away from the realities of my situation, when I was suddenly startled by a cry from black Jake, which brought me on the instant back to consciousness. My God! Massa Scupper, cried he, Massa Stay is on de main-truck!
A cold shudder ran through my veins as the word reached my ear. I cast my eyes upit was too true! The adventurous boy, after resting on the royal cross-trees, had been seized with a wish to go still higher, and, impelled by one of those impulses by which men are sometimes instigated to place themselves in situations of imminent peril, without a possibility of good resulting from the exposure, he had climbed the sky-sail pole, and, at the moment of my looking up, was actually standing on the main-truck! a small circular piece of wood on the very summit of the loftiest mast, and at a height so great from the deck that my brain turned dizzy as I looked up at him. The reverse of Virgils line was true in this instance. It was comparatively easy to ascendbut to descendmy head swam round, and my stomach felt sick at thought of the perils comprised in that one word. There was nothing above him or around him but the empty airand beneath him, nothing but a point, a mere pointa small, unstable wheel, that seemed no bigger from the deck than the button on the end of a foil, and the taper sky-sail pole itself scarcely larger than the blade. Dreadful temerity! If he should attempt to stoop, what could he take hold of to steady his descent? His feet quite covered up the small and fearful platform that he stood upon, and beneath that, a long, smooth, naked spar, which seemed to bend with his weight, was all that upheld him from destruction. An attempt to get down from that bad eminence would be almost certain death; he would inevitably lose his equilibrium, and be precipitated to the deck, a crushed and shapeless mass. Such was the nature of the thoughts that crowded through my mind as I first raised my eye, and saw the terrible truth of Jakes exclamation. What was to be done in the pressing and horrible exigency? To hail him, and inform him of his danger, would be but to insure his ruin. Indeed, I fancied that the rash boy already perceived the imminence of his peril; and I half thought that I could see his limbs begin to quiver, and his cheek turn deadly pale. Every moment I expected to see the dreadful catastrophe. I could not bear to look at him, and yet could not withdraw my gaze. A film came over my eyes, and a faintness over my heart. The atmosphere seemed to grow thick, and to tremble and waver like the heated air around a furnace; the mast appeared to totter, and the ship to pass from under my feet. I myself had the sensations of one about to fall from a great height, and making a strong effort to recover myself, like that of a dreamer who fancies he is shoved from a precipice, I staggered up against the bulwarks.
When my eyes were once turned from the dreadful object to which they had been riveted, my sense and consciousness came back. I looked around methe deck was already crowded with people. The intelligence of poor Bobs temerity had spread through the ship like wild-fireas such news always willand the officers and crew were all crowding to the deck to behold the appallingthe heart-rending spectacle. Every one, as he looked up, turned pale, and his eye became fastened in silence on the trucklike that of a spectator of an execution on the gallowswith a steadfast, unblinking and intense, yet abhorrent gaze, as if momentarily expecting a fatal termination to the awful suspense. No one made a suggestionno one spoke. Every feeling, every faculty seemed to be absorbed and swallowed up in one deep, intense emotion of agony. Once the first lieutenant seized the trumpet, as if to hail poor Bob, but he had scarce raised it to his lips, when his arm dropped again, and sank listlessly down beside him, as if from a sad consciousness of the utter inutility of what he had been going to say. Every soul in the ship was now on the spar-deck, and every eye was turned to the main-truck.
At this moment there was a stir among the crew about the gangway, and directly after another face was added to those on the quarter-deckit was that of the commodore, Bobs father. He had come alongside in a shore-boat, without having been noticed by a single eye, so intense and universal was the interest that had fastened every gaze upon the spot where poor Bob stood trembling on the awful verge of fate. The commodore asked not a question, uttered not a syllable. He was a dark-faced, austere man, and it was thought by some of the midshipmen that he entertained but little affection for his son. However that might have been, it was certain that he treated him with precisely the same strict discipline that he did the other young officers, or if there was any difference at all, it was not in favor of Bob. Some who pretended to have studied his character closely, affirmed that he loved his boy too well to spoil him, and that, intending him for the arduous profession in which he had himself risen to fame and eminence, he thought it would be of service to him to experience some of its privations and hardships at the outset.
The arrival of the commodore changed the direction of several eyes, which now turned on him to trace what emotions the danger of his son would occasion. But their scrutiny was foiled. By no outward sign did he show what was passing within. His eye still retained its severe expression, his brow the slight frown which it usually wore, and his lip its haughty curl. Immediately on reaching the deck, he had ordered a marine to hand him a musket, and with this stepping aft, and getting on the lookout-block, he raised it to his shoulder, and took a deliberate aim at his son, at the same time hailing him, without a trumpet, in his voice of thunder
Robert! cried he, jump! jump overboard! or Ill fire at you! The boy seemed to hesitate, and it was plain that he was tottering, for his arms were thrown out like those of one scarcely able to retain his balance. The commodore raised his voice again, and in a quicker and more energetic tone, cried,
The words were scarcely out of his mouth, before the body was seen to leave the truck and spring out into the air. A sound, between a shriek and a groan, burst from many lips. The father spoke notsighed notindeed he did not seem to breathe. For a moment of intense agony a pin might have been heard to drop on deck. With a rush like that of a cannon ball, the body descended to the water, and before the waves closed over it, twenty stout fellows, among them several officers, had dived from the bulwarks. Another short period of bitter suspense ensued. It rosehe was alive! his arms were seen to move! he struck out towards the ship!and despite the discipline of a man-of-war, three loud huzzas, an outburst of unfeigned and unrestrainable joy from the hearts of our crew of five hundred men, pealed through the air, and made the welkin ring. Till this moment the old commodore had stood unmoved. The eyes that, glistening with pleasure, now sought his face, saw that it was ashy pale. He attempted to descend the horse-block, but his knees bent under him; he seemed to gasp for breath, and put up his hand, as if to tear open his vest; but before he accomplished his object, he staggered forward, and would have fallen on the deck, had he not been caught by old black Jake. He was borne into his cabin, where the surgeon attended him, whose utmost skill was required to restore his mind to its usual equability and self-command, in which he at last happily succeeded. As soon as he recovered from the dreadful shock, he sent for Bob, and had a long confidential conference with him; and it was noticed, when the little fellow left the cabin, that he was in tears. The next day we sent down our taunt and dashy poles, and replaced them with the stump-to-gallant-masts; and on the third, we weighed anchor, and made sail for Gibraltar.