LIX. THE LAST END OF JACKSON
"Off Cape Cod!" said the steward, coming forward from the quarter-deck, where the captain had just been taking his noon observation; sweeping the vast horizon with his quadrant, like a dandy circumnavigating the dress-circle of an amphitheater with his glass.
Off Cape Cod! and in the shore-bloom that came to us— even from that desert of sand-hillocks—methought I could almost distinguish the fragrance of the rose-bush my sisters and I had planted, in our far inland garden at home. Delicious odors are those of our mother Earth; which like a flower-pot set with a thousand shrubs, greets the eager voyager from afar.
The breeze was stiff, and so drove us along that we turned over two broad, blue furrows from our bows, as we plowed the watery prairie. By night it was a reef-topsail-breeze; but so impatient was the captain to make his port before a shift of wind overtook us, that even yet we carried a main-topgallant-sail, though the light mast sprung like a switch.
In the second dog-watch, however, the breeze became such, that at last the order was given to douse the top-gallant-sail, and clap a reef into all three top-sails.
While the men were settling away the halyards on deck, and before they had begun to haul out the reef-tackles, to the surprise of several, Jackson came up from the forecastle, and, for the first time in four weeks or more, took hold of a rope.
Like most seamen, who during the greater part of a voyage, have been off duty from sickness, he was, perhaps, desirous, just previous to entering port, of reminding the captain of his existence, and also that he expected his wages; but, alas! his wages proved the wages of sin.
At no time could he better signalize his disposition to work, than upon an occasion like the present; which generally attracts every soul on deck, from the captain to the child in the steerage.
His aspect was damp and death-like; the blue hollows of his eyes were like vaults full of snakes; and issuing so unexpectedly from his dark tomb in the forecastle, he looked like a man raised from the dead.
Before the sailors had made fast the reef-tackle, Jackson was tottering up the rigging; thus getting the start of them, and securing his place at the extreme weather-end of the topsail-yard—which in reefing is accounted the post of honor. For it was one of the characteristics of this man, that though when on duty he would shy away from mere dull work in a calm, yet in tempest-time he always claimed the van, and would yield it to none; and this, perhaps, was one cause of his unbounded dominion over the men.
Soon, we were all strung along the main-topsail-yard; the ship rearing and plunging under us, like a runaway steed; each man gripping his reef-point, and sideways leaning, dragging the sail over toward Jackson, whose business it was to confine the reef corner to the yard.
His hat and shoes were off; and he rode the yard-arm end, leaning backward to the gale, and pulling at the earing-rope, like a bridle. At all times, this is a moment of frantic exertion with sailors, whose spirits seem then to partake of the commotion of the elements, as they hang in the gale, between heaven and earth; and then it is, too, that they are the most profane.
"Haul out to windward!" coughed Jackson, with a blasphemous cry, and he threw himself back with a violent strain upon the bridle in his hand. But the wild words were hardly out of his mouth, when his hands dropped to his side, and the bellying sail was spattered with a torrent of blood from his lungs.
As the man next him stretched out his arm to save, Jackson fell headlong from the yard, and with a long seethe, plunged like a diver into the sea.
It was when the ship had rolled to windward, which, with the long projection of the yard-arm over the side, made him strike far out upon the water. His fall was seen by the whole upward-gazing crowd on deck, some of whom were spotted with the blood that trickled from the sail, while they raised a spontaneous cry, so shrill and wild, that a blind man might have known something deadly had happened.
Clutching our reef-points, we hung over the stick, and gazed down to the one white, bubbling spot, which had closed over the head of our shipmate; but the next minute it was brewed into the common yeast of the waves, and Jackson never arose. We waited a few minutes, expecting an order to descend, haul back the fore-yard, and man the boat; but instead of that, the next sound that greeted us was, "Bear a hand, and reef away, men!" from the mate.
Indeed, upon reflection, it would have been idle to attempt to save Jackson; for besides that he must have been dead, ere he struck the sea—and if he had not been dead then, the first immersion must have driven his soul from his lacerated lungs —our jolly-boat would have taken full fifteen minutes to launch into the waves.
And here it should be said, that the thoughtless security in which too many sea-captains indulge, would, in case of some sudden disaster befalling the Highlander, have let us all drop into our graves.
Like most merchant ships, we had but two boats: the longboat and the jolly-boat. The long boat, by far the largest and stoutest of the two, was permanently bolted down to the deck, by iron bars attached to its sides. It was almost as much of a fixture as the vessel's keel. It was filled with pigs, fowls, firewood, and coals. Over this the jolly-boat was capsized without a thole-pin in the gunwales; its bottom bleaching and cracking in the sun.
Judge, then, what promise of salvation for us, had we shipwrecked; yet in this state, one merchant ship out of three, keeps its boats. To be sure, no vessel full of emigrants, by any possible precautions, could in case of a fatal disaster at sea, hope to save the tenth part of the souls on board; yet provision should certainly be made for a handful of survivors, to carry home the tidings of her loss; for even in the worst of the calamities that befell patient Job, some one at least of his servants escaped to report it.
In a way that I never could fully account for, the sailors, in my hearing at least, and Harry's, never made the slightest allusion to the departed Jackson. One and all they seemed tacitly to unite in hushing up his memory among them. Whether it was, that the severity of the bondage under which this man held every one of them, did really corrode in their secret hearts, that they thought to repress the recollection of a thing so degrading, I can not determine; but certain it was, that his death was their deliverance; which they celebrated by an elevation of spirits, unknown before. Doubtless, this was to be in part imputed, however, to their now drawing near to their port.