Crossing the Line

by


Crossing the Line is an seafaring adventure story published in McRoberts' collection, Rounding Cape Horn and Other Sea Stories (1895).
An illustration for the story Crossing the Line by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story Crossing the Line by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story Crossing the Line by the author Walter McRoberts

After two weeks of tribulation, the barkentine Mohawk was through the Atlantic Doldrums. The hot, murky atmosphere, and the low-hanging rain-clouds that seem always ready to open and let fall a deluge, were left behind, and the fact that a breeze had blown from the same point of the compass for three successive hours was another certain indication that this tormenting region of calms, rain-squalls and variable winds was a thing of the past.

When one bell struck, and the steward brought Captain Charles Pitkin his morning cup of coffee, the skipper felt as light-hearted as a boy, and knew, without looking at the compass, that the craft was speeding along towards Buenos Ayres, instead of drifting aimlessly about in the calm belt or beating to the southeast against a head wind.

Rounding Cape Horn and other stories, Crossing the Line, neptune“We ought to cross the Line to-day, at this rate,” he said to himself.

The steward heard the words, and made bold to say: “Will we, sir? I only wish Father Neptune would come aboard and make subjects of those three lubbers in the fo’k’sl. They are the worst greenhorns I ever did see.”

“You mean the two Swedes and the Austrian?”

“Yes, sir; especially that Christian Anderson, in the mate’s watch, that claimed to be able to steer and then couldn’t box the compass to save his life.”

The captain made no answer, and the steward withdrew.

“George! it’s not a bad idea,” mused Pitkin. “It would do those three ‘able seamen’ good to meet the Old Man of the Seas, I honestly believe.”

The more thought he gave the matter, the better he liked it; and by breakfast time, when the captain, his sister, and the mate gathered about the table, the former had arranged in his mind the principal details of the ceremonies which he decided should take place that morning.

Miss Pitkin did not receive the narration of her brother’s plans with the approval he had expected; in fact, she was in a decidedly unpleasant frame of mind.

“Why, Rosy, you seem out of sorts this morning. I thought you’d be pleased to hear that Neptune was coming aboard.”

“Neptune, indeed! The Flying Dutchman will be the next thing on the programme, I suppose. And as for being out of sorts—Charles Pitkin, are you aware that this is the first morning for two weeks that you have not resembled a thundercloud?”

“Perhaps; but I’ve had reason to look black. Now the Doldrums are done with, I’m as merry as a lark, and you ought to be, too.”

“You are mistaken. That beast of a cat has killed my poor canary.”

Miss Rose said this in a tone of mingled anger and grief, looking hard at her coffee-cup meanwhile. She seldom indulged in the feminine weakness of tears, or a few would doubtless have been shed now as a tribute to the departed canary.

“Pshaw! that’s too bad, Rose,” said the captain, sympathetically. “Shall we kill the cat? I detest the stealthy, cold-blooded creatures, and this one does nothing but lie around in the sun all day instead of catching rats.”

“No, Charles, we will not do that. I came near throwing her overboard myself, but I suppose the creature was only following her instincts. I must try and bear it.”

Miss Pitkin had celebrated some forty birthdays, but the years had touched her lightly, and her charms, though mature, were not inconsiderable. A plump, well-rounded figure, fresh complexion, black eyes and hair, combined with regular features, made an attractive whole, the one serious blemish of which was an habitual expression of firmness and decision which was so strong as to be almost masculine. She had four brothers, all younger than herself, and on the early death of their father and mother, Rose assumed the cares of housekeeping and the bringing up of the younger children. Thus she had come to be looked up to by her brothers, and regarded rather in the light of a parent than as a sister.

As they left the table she said: “I am going to overhaul the store-room. It needs to be done, and will keep me from thinking of poor Goldie.”

“But you’ll return to the deck when Neptune comes aboard?”

“I’m in no humor for any such tomfoolery. Perhaps, between you all, you may manage to get up a snowstorm, or have an earthquake when we cross the Line.”

“But wait, Rosy, I want to ask a favor.”

The lady vanished, and was soon delving among lime-juice, guava jelly, apples, potted meats, and sundry other stores.

There was something strangely incongruous in such a woman being addressed by so childish and undignified a name as Rosy, but her brother had so called her when scarcely able to toddle about, and now that he was thirty, she was “Rosy” still.

Time was, when no craft of any description crossed the Equator without having all the landsmen on board introduced to the royal Neptune; but the good old custom has been gradually falling into disuse, and in this prosaic age the ceremony of “Crossing the Line” is rarely observed.

Captain Pitkin decided that Fritz, the carpenter, should be metamorphosed into King Neptune—principally because he was large and massive, and had a long, thick beard. Fritz was an excellent carpenter, though his mental development was far from being on a par with his physical. However, he would look the part, and that was no small item.

His majesty always comes aboard with an attendant, and here it was that Pitkin hit upon an original and brilliant idea. He had been humming an old song whose first verse runs:

“’Twas Friday morn when we set sail, And we were not far from the land When the captain spied a lovely mermaid With a comb and a glass in her hand.”

These words ran in his head some time, until he finally exclaimed: “Well, I’ll ‘spy a mermaid,’ too, though she may not be very lovely. Yes, a mermaid shall come aboard this bark to-day with Father Neptune.”

He congratulated himself upon this happy thought and set about carrying it into execution. There was but one woman aboard—his sister—and her assuming the role of mermaid was, of course, not to be thought of. Among the crew was a bright, good-looking fellow, known as Mike—just the man to make an acceptable mermaid. In stature he was somewhat below the medium height, but well proportioned and with rather attractive features. He was much tanned, of course, and his expression was decidedly bolder than is thought pleasing in one of the fair sex; but these were minor difficulties in comparison with the great question, How to obtain suitable clothes? The captain solved this, as he thought, by deciding to ask his sister for the loan of some of her old skirts and waists, but she had buried herself in the store-room before he had time to prefer his request. This was just as well, he concluded, for in her present humor he would have met with a peremptory refusal.

So, having ascertained that Rose was engaged in hauling the steward over the coals for misplacing a case of honey and leaving matches where the rats could get at them, the captain entered his sister’s room. He felt rather guilty, but suitable attire for the mermaid must be had, and he tried to think that “Rosy wouldn’t mind,”—hoping, nevertheless, that the ceremonies would be over before she came on deck.

“What a lot of clothes women have,” he soliloquized, examining the various gowns and other apparel hanging on pegs. His sister’s best garments were laid away in her trunks, and he spent considerable time in trying to choose what seemed to be the least valuable skirt and waist among the lot. He finally selected an old black alpaca for which Rose cared little, and a red dressing jacket for which she cared a great deal—it was the one she slipped on every morning when combing her hair. Just as he was leaving a green veil caught his eye.

“That will make Mike look mysterious,” he thought. He took it, bundled the things up in a newspaper, and Mr. Rivers, the mate, conveyed them forward.

The morning was hot, but a fine breeze tempered the heat and prevented discomfort. The seas chased each other along the vessel’s sides, and occasionally sobbed and gurgled in the lee scuppers as the bark leaned over to port. Just as the man at the wheel struck five bells, two strange figures climbed over the bows and gained the forecastle deck. They were the Old Man of the Seas and his companion.

The royal Neptune’s head was encircled by an elaborate wooden crown, painted green, about which were twined several pieces of sea-weed. His long beard was carefully combed out, and swept down upon his chest with a truly patriarchal air. The principal garment was a long green toga (formerly a piano-cover), which extended from the neck to the heels, and was ornamented with sea-weed stitched on in various fantastic shapes. The arms and feet of the royal personage were entirely bare, and in his right hand he carried a substantial sceptre some five feet in length, having three prongs at the upper end.

Neptune’s companion was a sight to behold. From the crown of her head to her waist, floated a wealth of yellow hair, of which any mermaid might well have been proud. This telling effect had been achieved by unbraiding and combing out several strands of sennit. The dressing-jacket and the alpaca skirt did not seem exactly “the thing” for a sea-nymph, and yet they fitted as well as could have been expected, except that the jacket was too tight across the shoulders. A straw hat covered with sea-weed was perched upon the damsel’s head, and the green veil concealed the fact that she had been freshly shaven. Her feet were encased in a pair of knit slippers. Depending from a belt around her waist were a small cracked hand-glass, a comb, and a flying-fish which had fallen on the deck that morning.

“Mariners, behold Neptune, the Ruler of the Seas, and his daughter, the beautiful Mermaid of St. Paul’s Rocks!”

Neptune made this announcement in a deep bass voice, and Captain Pitkin and the mate bowed low before the two august personages.

“Your majesty has conferred an unspeakable honor in deigning to come aboard,” answered Pitkin. “Will it please you to accompany us to the main deck, where some slight preparation has been made for your reception?”

The captain and mate led the way, followed by Neptune and his daughter. The former held his head high in the air and looked neither to the right nor to the left, while the Mermaid walked with a mincing gait and twined her long hair about her fingers.

All hands were assembled in the waist, eager to see the siren and her father, and as the quartette approached, the crew winked, nudged each other, and cast meaning glances at the three “candidates,”—Oscar, Christian and Josef, who formed a little group by themselves.

A low platform had been constructed about the capstan, and when Neptune took his seat upon the brass surface of the latter, his appearance was really imposing. A cloth-covered box had been provided for the Mermaid, but she disdained it, and leaned gracefully against the throne.

“And what bold craft have we here, which thus invades our domain and hopes to cross the Line with landsmen aboard, for the wrinkles in this vessel’s copper prove that more than one lubber stands before us!”

Neptune delivered this speech in accents of wrath, and brought his sceptre down with such force that those nearest fell back a few steps.

“We are the barkentine Mohawk, sire, from Portland for Buenos Ayres, and your majesty’s keen perception has not erred in assuming that there are landsmen aboard. I cheerfully relinquish to you the freedom of the vessel, and trust that all aliens here will shortly be transformed into loyal subjects.”

The captain bowed and withdrew to the poop, where he had an excellent view and could hear all that was said.

“Let the landsmen come before us,” commanded Neptune.

But the trio hesitated, evidently not relishing the aspect of affairs. All three possessed a certain amount of common sense,—though mostly latent,—and half-suspected that King Neptune and the carpenter were one and the same. But the silent female figure puzzled them completely, for the Mermaid, although unconventional in appearance, was so cleverly arrayed that the illusion was quite perfect.

Josef timidly whispered a few words to Oscar, but before he could reply, Neptune stamped his foot. Royalty cannot brook delay, and at this token of displeasure, half a dozen of the crew seized Oscar, Josef and Christian, and dragged them before the throne. The two former were conducted to one side in obedience to Neptune’s gesture, while Christian remained standing before the frowning monarch.

A slight hitch now occurred, caused by Neptune forgetting his lines. He was unequal to the task of extemporizing, and the more he tried to remember what “came next,” the more confused he became. His majesty glared about, his face meanwhile becoming red with embarrassment, which poor Christian attributed to rage. The Mermaid was equal to the emergency, and came to her father’s rescue.

Mike was something of a ventriloquist, and when the order was issued “Minion, box the compass!” Christian was not the only one who stared in amazement, wondering whence the strange voice proceeded. He had never been called by such a name before, and was in much doubt as to whether he was the one addressed. The Mermaid whispered something in Neptune’s ear, and the latter, tapping the culprit with his sceptre, commanded: “Answer, varlet, and quickly!”

The compass was a Chinese puzzle to Christian, [175] but he dared not remain silent, and began desperately: “North, northeast, east by north-east, east by east,—”

Here the crew set up a roar of derision, and the mate remarked: “A fine able seaman you are. The shipping-master that put you aboard this bark ought to be sent around the world as mate of a ship with two dozen like you for a crew!”

Neptune had by this time got his bearings, and asked:

“Does the sun cross the equator on the 21st of June, or the 21st day of December?”

“June,” hazarded Christian.

“What route must a steamer take to go from New York to Honolulu in eight days?”

“The middle route.”

“Why is the gulf-stream always full of sharks?”

“I never knew the reason, sir.”

“What year was the Panama Canal discovered?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“What time does the moon rise at the South Pole?”

No answer.

“How many wrecks are there on the bottom between here and Pitcairn Island?”

“There must be a good many, sir.”

Half a dozen equally absurd questions followed, most of which the wisdom of Minerva could not have answered correctly.

“Enough; away with him to the shaving-chair!” finally cried Neptune. “He’s the most unpromising subject we ever came across, and calls me ‘sir,’ instead of ‘your majesty!’”

An old steamer chair had been tilted back, and the victim—for such he now considered himself—was marched to it, and requested to sit down. Behind this chair stood a large wash-tub filled with water, but the tarpaulin spread over it concealed this fact.

The Mermaid now produced a tar-pot, in which she swished a brush about until the “lather” was of the right consistency. A piece of sacking having been spread over the occupant of the chair, the operator brandished her brush and prepared to begin.

“I don’t need to—to be shaved,” gasped Christian.

This was true, for he was one of those men—mostly Finns and Scandinavians—who couldn’t have raised a beard had his life depended on it. A few colorless hairs appeared on his cheeks and upper lip, which the Mermaid proceeded to count aloud.

“Twenty-nine!” she announced, contemptuously. “Rather different, father dear, from the visages of Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco de Gama, upon whom I operated in centuries gone by.”

She now lathered the face of the squirming Christian, laying on the tar with the peculiar slapping sound made by an experienced painter when applying a coat of paint to a flat surface.

The patient had by this time resigned all hope, and betrayed little interest when the brush was laid aside for the razor. This was a marline-spike, and the Mermaid gave it an edge—if a round object can be said to have an edge—by stropping it on a capstan bar which one of the crew had placed in the capstan. She then held the cracked hand-glass before Christian’s face, that he might see how he looked, and proceeded to shave him. This was a decided relief, and the man wondered if it was not the end of the performance.

Vain hope! Scarcely had the lather been scraped off, when two of the crew advanced to the tub and removed the tarpaulin. They then tipped the chair back suddenly, causing its occupant to slide into the tub, where he was immersed all but the feet. He was quickly drawn out and hustled forward on the port side, directly beneath the fore yard. A bowline had been rigged up at the extremity of the yard-arm overhanging the water, and the ends of the rope hung down to the deck. One end was made fast around Christian just beneath the arms, and a dozen hands grasped the other end amidst the most uproarious hilarity.

An old salt with bare feet, brass rings in his ears, and a red cotton handkerchief wound about his head, now ascended to the roof of the forward house and played a wild air upon a wheezy violin. He danced about at the same time, and sang in a hurricane voice and with great gusto, the first verse of a song whose subject was: “The Baptism of Captain Kidd.” Everyone joined in the chorus, even Neptune and his daughter, while the shrieking Christian was hoisted up to the yard-arm. There he remained suspended between sea and sky while the old salt rendered another verse, and then, as all hands took up the refrain, the rope was slackened away. Three times was the Swede ducked in the heaving swell, before being drawn up and lowered on deck again. He was then released, and patted on the back by the Mermaid, who said patronizingly:

“My son, you are a lubber no more,—in name at least,—and can now consider yourself a true subject of Neptune.”

The new subject was past speech, but he drew a deep breath of relief and got upon the galley roof, where he sat down to dry, as well as to see what befell Oscar and Josef. He had not been hurt in the least, but, as some one has said, “A man might as well be killed as scared to death.”

The other two felt that their time had come. At first they had watched the proceedings with great interest, which gradually changed to dismay, and finally gave place to absolute terror. That Christian was to be hanged or drowned, they did not in the least doubt; and just as he was ducked for the third time, Oscar gave a yell and broke from his guards, who were absorbed in watching the rites. He ran to the main rigging and darted up it as though Satan were at his heels. The guards were about to pursue, when they remembered Josef, and the latter’s break for liberty was nipped in the bud.

Neptune, the Mermaid and attendants now came aft, and many volunteers presented themselves to bring Oscar down from the top-mast head, whither he had climbed with an alacrity entirely foreign to his nature. The royal personages consulted together and announced that Josef would be “finished” before Oscar was taken in hand. So everybody gathered about the throne; even the cat, who sat gravely upon her haunches and licked her chops as though desiring another canary.

A number of ridiculous questions were propounded to Josef, who had a very imperfect knowledge of English, and made worse work than Christian in answering them. He was hurried to the chair, and the tar-bucket again brought into requisition.

Meanwhile Miss Pitkin had inspected the store-room thoroughly, and now came up the companion-way with a comfortable sense of duty performed. She scanned the horizon line for a sail, took a look at the compass, and then started to find her brother. There he was on the poop, and she ascended thither.

“Why, what is the matter, Charles? Why are all hands in the waist? Oh, I remember,—Neptune.”

The captain was relieved at seeing his sister smile, and began to hope that she was rallying from the grief and ill-temper into which the canary’s death had thrown her. Suddenly, through the crowd of figures pressing around the throne, she caught a glimpse of the Mermaid. Surprise at sight of this extraordinary vision kept her silent a moment, when she called out: “Mr. Rivers, what is that creature,—man or woman?”

The Mermaid’s wit got the better of her discretion, and she answered, before the mate could reply, “Neither one, ma’am: I’m ’alf and ’alf, like the ale and stout we mix together in Liverpool, or like one of those morphodite [183] brigs, that’s part brig and part schooner.”

The crew respectfully fell back at sight of Miss Pitkin, and the nymph was exposed to view. Rose instantly detected the deception, and in spite of the cleverly disguised voice, her feminine facility for jumping at conclusions told her that Mike was the speaker. Without knowing why, she was as absolutely certain of this fact as of her own name. Then she recognized the dressing jacket! The lady could hardly believe the evidence of her senses; but it was not her habit to remain in doubt if it could be avoided, and she hurried from the poop to verify her suspicions.

The captain was considerably disturbed by the expression of his sister’s face, and called out: “Don’t do anything rash, Rosy; it’s only a mermaid.

“Hang that fool of a Mike,” he muttered. “Why couldn’t he have kept quiet? I wish I’d never heard of mermaids or anything of the sort.”

Miss Pitkin sought her room and took a hurried inventory of her possessions. Yes, what she deemed impossible had occurred; one of the crew had actually dared to invade the sanctity of the cabin—her own room, even—and deliberately steal her clothes! The theft, audacious as it seemed, was yet of secondary importance compared to the outrageous breach of discipline it involved. At this rate the crew would soon want to dine with the captain, or sit in easy chairs upon the quarter-deck!

“And there sat my brother on the poop with his eyes open, and never even noticed that that creature was wearing his sister’s clothes!” she thought, surprise for the moment taking the place of indignation.

She gained the main deck, and advanced towards the capstan, where the ceremonies had been resumed the moment she went below. Her black eyes flashed ominously, and the crew, with a common impulse, fled in all directions, though none could have told precisely what they were fleeing from. The two mates thought it prudent to withdraw to their rooms, and the guilty Mermaid set down the tar bucket and escaped, leaving Josef in the chair with but one side of his face lathered. Neptune alone remained to face the enemy, not being actuated by bravery so much as by astonishment at the sudden rout of his attendants. While the Ruler of the Seas sat upon the throne trying to decide what to do, Miss Pitkin stepped up and surveyed him with scornful amusement. There was her green veil in his left hand, whither it had been thrust by the Mermaid!

Unable longer to control her indignation, Rose seized the tar brush, exclaiming, “Take that, you great overgrown dunce.” Suiting the action to the word, she gave his majesty’s cheek a sound slap; which insult, instead of rousing him, appeared to befog his faculties still more. She plucked the sceptre from the monarch’s palsied hand, knocked the crown from his head, and threw both overboard.

Neptune’s daughter had taken refuge in the carpenter shop, but the red jacket caught Miss Pitkin’s eye as she passed the window. Pursued and pursuer darted through the room and out of the opposite door, but as Rose was used to skirts and the nymph was not, the latter was at a disadvantage. Thrice was she nearly thrown down by the alpaca, until gathering it up in one hand, she dashed to the rigging, and attempted to ascend. Miss Pitkin was close behind, and made a pass at the Mermaid with a harpoon she had picked up; the end catching in the damsel’s hair, which all came off, together with her hat. The looking glass fell to the deck and was shivered into fragments. There was the erstwhile siren part way up the rigging, all her wit, confidence and gayety gone; while the very members of the crew who had so lately admired her, now jeered and derided from the other side of the deck.

“It will go hard with you when we reach port!” cried the irate lady, when she had recovered her breath; “and if Captain Pitkin doesn’t have you in irons before night, he’s not the man I take him for. You brazen thief, to steal my clothes!”

“I never did steal a thing of anybody aft since I came aboard, ma’am. Do you think I’d be going into the cabin where I’ve no business, and risk being caught? I’m no fool. The captain told me all I had to do was to be a mermaid (may the Virgin forgive me), and he’d furnish the togs.”

“Do you mean to say that Captain Pitkin gave you those clothes?”

“He sent them to the fo’k’sl, ma’am, this very morning.”

“Would my brother do such a thing?” Rose asked herself, as she again took her way aft.

The captain was invisible. In fact, he had retired to his room, and was endeavoring to banish the present by a perusal of the fascinating adventures of D’Artagnan and his reckless companions. He was roused by a knock at the door, but before he could say “Come in,” his sister entered.

The captain took in the situation at a glance, and knew he was in for it. The years seemed to roll back, and as Rose marched him to the sofa he imagined himself a boy of ten, and the subject of well-merited chastisement. He made a full confession, asked to be forgiven, and swore never again to hold any intercourse with Neptune or his relatives. He could not help adding: “It was partly your fault, though, for if you hadn’t flounced out of the room at breakfast, I should have had a chance to ask for the use of the clothes. Are they completely ruined? Can’t they be washed?”

“Are they ruined? Do you suppose I will ever touch them again after that Mike has worn them? And have they not been in the forecastle?”

Rose whispered a single word in her brother’s ear. It was the name of a creature all mention of which is strictly tabood in good society; or, if referred to at all, it is usually between housewives exchanging confidences, and then only with bated breath. “I cannot name ’t but I shall offend,” and it suffices to say that it is a certain little animal which invariably inhabits ships’ forecastles, though on all well-regulated craft it never invades the cabin.

“Good heavens, Rose, I never thought of that,” replied the captain, looking serious. “But never mind, it can’t be helped, and you shall have what clothes you want in Buenos Ayres, if you can find anything to suit.”

Rose was fond of her brother—in her own way,—and his straight-forward confession mollified her considerably. She did not yet allow this to appear, however, but announced sternly:

“After the manner in which you have made away with my garments, Charles, I very much doubt whether I shall make another voyage on the Mohawk. It would serve you right if I left you to your own devices. You could mend your clothes, lose your pipes, go without my desserts, and live on hash and lobscouse for years to come, besides having the satisfaction of knowing that the steward was secretly drinking bottles of ale and beer, and making way with provisions.”

The captain made a gesture as if to banish some disagreeable remembrance.

“Don’t, Rosy,—I couldn’t endure to live the way I used to. It seemed all right then, but since you’ve taken the cook, and steward and cabin in hand, it’s like a different vessel.”

This admission pleased Rose, and she answered, “Well, we shall see,” in tones which informed the captain that he was forgiven.

He put his arm about his sister’s waist and escorted her to the deck, with a sensation of having recovered a treasure whose worth had not been fully appreciated.

“It’s curious how one woman can upset everything, and raise Pandemonium in no time,” he said, aside to Mr. Rivers, a few moments later.

Orders were given for the wash-tub to be restored to its proper place, the platform about the capstan to be removed, and for everything to resume its wonted appearance.

As for Christian, Oscar and Josef, they might very appropriately have been likened to the three degrees of thankfulness. Christian, drying himself on the galley roof, represented the positive degree, and was merely thankful that Neptune had got through with him without taking his life. Josef, with one cheek lathered, felt like a fish that has been hooked, and then succeeds in escaping. He looked rather woebegone, but was thankful indeed to have escaped with such comparative comfort. But Oscar, who had now ventured part way down the main mast, had fairly baffled Neptune and his daughter; and had there been any degree beyond the superlative, it could not have been too strong to express the state of his feelings. Henceforth he regarded Miss Pitkin as a deliverer, and had she been a goddess, his veneration could scarcely have been greater.

The Mohawk crossed the Line during the afternoon on the 30th meridian of west longitude, and for all we know, Oscar and Josef are lubbers yet.


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