PILOT JACK and the KITTEN
HENRY P. HOLT
I AM a plain sailor, and writing is not my strong point, but I will try to tell the story of the black kitten— and Pilot Jack—just as it happened. You have heard of Pilot Jack, of course. A big fellow, about ten or a dozen feet long, and a sort of dark grey color. There is a white mark, like a scar, near his tail, and that is how you know it is Pilot Jack when you see him. No living soul understands why that particular shark pilots vessels into Cape Town harbour; but he does, and what’s more you’ll find many a whitehaired old mariner will tell you that when he first went to sea as a lad, Pilot Jack was on the job there at the mouth of Cape Town harbor, doing exactly what he does to-day.
Jack is liable to pick up your ship anywhere within half a dozen miles of the harbor mouth, and then he swims, straight as an arrow, quite close to the surface, about twenty or thirty feet ahead of you, until you get right inside the breakwater. He doesn’t serve any useful purpose by doing this, because you don’t exactly follow him. I mean you don’t try to.
Everybody keeps a look out for him, and when he happens to pick on you to convoy, word passes all round the ship at once. You see, deep sea sailor-men reckon it is lucky to be favored that way by Pilot Jack when they are inward bound. But it isn’t the same thing in as it is coming out. He takes lots of vessels in—one or two, possibly, in a day. But you very rarely see anything of him when you are outward bound, and, frankly, you don’t want to. For the ship that Pilot Jack takes out of Cape Town harbor never makes harbor again.
I can see some land folk, who don’t understand, laughing at that. Well, let them laugh. But you cannot get away from facts. There are at least a dozen ships that I have heard of going to the bottom after they were warned by Pilot Jack on the way out of Cape Town. In each of those cases some of the hands were saved. It never will be known how many ships have gone out with Pilot Jack under their bow and then been lost with every soul aboard. This is not mere superstition, though we who follow the sea are a little more superstitious than other people, and I don’t know why that may be unless it is because we get pretty close to nature on occasions. If ÿou are one of those people who spend their existence in crowded cities, going to work every morning by subway or in a rattling elevated train, you don’t get the chance that we do, in the ordinary course of our life, to notice that though man may be a very clever sort of animal, in a way, he doesn’t run the universe. You need to be out in a typhoon, loose every stitch of canvas, and then watch a thirty-foot sea come toppling over the deck to help you realize that man isn’t a very large piece of cheese, after all, and that the biggest sky-scraper ever built, or the longest railroad train ever thought of may be a handy thing to have around, but it isn’t half as wonderful as a sun-set—or as Pilot Jack.
WHEN we put into Cape Town I was chief mate on the American three-masted schooner Sprite, and Bob Craik was both skipper and owner of her. Bob was a young giant who knew his trade from A to Z, was a natural born leader of men, and had the strength of a healthy steam winch. If the Sprite was heeling over in a squall, the wind screaming through the halyards like ten thousand devils, canvas cracking and slapping with the venom of a battery of field pieces in full action, Bob could keep his head and bellow orders so that everybody on board heard. He gave his men a square deal, too. If they had a legitimate complaint he would listen to their point of view, just so long as they remembered he was captain and they weren’t. When they forgot that much he fought them cleanly, not with a belaying pin in his hand, but with bare fists. And I never did hear of any disgruntled mariner wanting a second fight with Bob Craik.
The skipper had one peculiarity. I won’t attempt to explain it, because it can’t be done. He was afraid of cats. It was real fear. I don’t mean that at the sight of a cat he would jump on a chair, as a woman may when a mouse skips across the floor. Perhaps somebody had scared him with a cat when he was only a child, or perhaps something had cropped up in his life which had set him against the creatures. However, there it was, and Bob Craik was no more himself in the presence of one of the feline tribe than I should be locked in a Saratoga trunk with a rattlesnake.
And I ought to tell you something about Mrs. Craik. Oh, yes, Bob was married. Very much married. He and Nan had only been wedded a year, and instead of their spending that year cooling off toward one another, as does happen sometimes, they were growing crazier about each other all the time. I’ll put it this way. If only one couple out of every fifty learnt what love could mean, as Bob and Nan had learnt, then I would say it was almost worth having the other forty-nine failures. Yes, and even some of the forty-nine would say the same thing if they weren’t the type that insists on betting on a certainty. Bob Craik
just loved the air that girl breathed. It was a great, big, burning passion that he had for her. Protective, too. If he saw her leaning against the rail while the schooner was cavorting a bit, he would quietly go and put his arm through hers, or, because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings by treating her like a child, he would think of something to ask her to do in a safer place. Not that there was exactly any danger of her toppling over the rail, but it made him uneasy to think of her being within a thousand leagues of danger.
THE day we ran into Cape Town there was some joking on board about Pilot Jack, but we didn’t see anything of him.
Then we lay moored for three days, and in between attending to the ship’s business, the skipper showed his wife the sights. On the day fixed for putting to sea, however.
Bob hadn’t much time to spare, and he told Nan to go ashore and get herself something nice as there wouldn’t be any shops to speak of all the way across the Atlantic to Pernambuco, which was to be the next port of call en route to Montreal.
It so happened that when Nan came back to the schooner the skipper was right up to the neck with worries, because of some fool shipper who had muddled things, and Bob did not see much of his wife, until we had cast off and were nosing our way out of the harbor. I was standing on the poop near the captain when Nan popped her head out of the companion.
“I’ve got something to show you, Bob,” she said. “Something too sweet for words.”
“In a few minutes,” he called back. “Let’s get clear of this first.”
He smiled at her: he was still grinning when he looked round at me. You couldn’t blame the fellow for it. Nan was a picture of loveliness. I was head over ears in love with her myself, and so was everybody else on board, for that matter. We were passing the
end of the stone breakwater just then. The minute the ship swung around onto her course, Nan came out on deck, and it gave me a shock when I saw what she had in her hands. It was a half-grown black kitten.
Of course she couldn’t have known, or she wouldn’t have done such a thing. I don’t believe either of them would consciously have caused the other a moment’s sorrow on any account.
“Look!” she said.
Bob happened to be squinting aloft just then at the set of the mainsail, the peak of which was a little too high, but he turned to see what it was that interested her so much.
AND then something happened that Nan had never seen before and I don’t suppose she was ever likely to see again. Bob’s frame went rigid. He forgot the mainsail, forgot everything except that Nan had brought a cat aboard his ship, and I firmly, believe he came nearer to striking her than he himself has any idea of. You see, I noticed the look in his eyes. Moreover, I knew a moment before it came, just what effect the situation was likely to have on the skipper. Then he strode toward the girl seeing red, and towering above her. If he had laid a finger on Nan I believe I should have gone for him, as much for his sake as hers. But one full second and a half gave his brain time to start working again. His hand, however, closed over the kitten.
“Did you bring this on board?” he asked, fighting, already, to hide his feelings. Wonderingly. Nan looked up at her husband. Even now she probably thought it was some absurd joke on his part.
“Yes, Bob. Give her back to me. Her name is Jumbo. Be careful, you’re hurting her--”
Bob’s jaw was as hard as granite. His evident intention was sticking out a yard. Every instant I expected to see that kitten shoot over the rail.
“—I’m sorry, Nan,” he said, “but—but cats aren’t allowed on this ship. Anything else in the world you like to think of, but not a cat.”
“Oh! Bob!” That was all she said, yet there was a world of meaning behind it. Her eyes were glistening.
The skipper was holding Jumbo by the body, its legs dangling down fore and aft of his hand. The girl’s appeal had changed something in the man’s expression.
“You mean you want to keep it?" he asked suddenly.
“Of course, I’m going to keep it.” she replied, reaching forward and taking the animal into her arms. Bob let it go, and I think he felt rather ashamed of his outburst.
“All right, Nan. I’m sorry if I seemed a bit rough, but I ought to have told you before,” he said in an odd voice, turning away; and it struck me that if a cat has nine lives it would only be fair for Jumbo to mark off one of them just then on account of her escape.
AT ABOUT this time I realized
there was something amiss on the fo’c’sle head. The sailor on the lookout had beckoned to another deck-hand, and the pair of them were peering over the bow down into the water. I was glad to get away from the captain for a few moments, so I strolled for’ard, and Beasly, the look-out man, spoke to me as I approached.
“He’s down there all right, sir," said the sailor.
“Who’s down there?”
The water was exceptionally clear and I could see the fish distinctly. He was two, or two and a half feet below the surface, and going like a machine. Before long the skipper himself had a look, and I suppose pretty nearly every man on board did, except the fellow at the wheel. Nan noticed what was going on, and it wasn’t much good trying to keep the news from her. She knew all about the tradition, of course.
“It. isn’t true, naturally, Bob,” she said, with sublime
faith in her husband. "You couldn’t be going to lose the
“Of course it isn’t,” he replied, a loud laugh rumbling from his throat, though I noticed that there was precious little laughter in his eyes.
“Besides,” said Nan, “there’s Jumbo! A black kitten is awfully lucky. We simply couldn’t come to any harm with her on board. I guess Pilot Jack doesn’t know we’ve got her here. Cross your fingers, silly, and don’t look so solemn.”
Bob looked at her for twenty or thirty seconds without speaking. There must have been quite a lot passing through his mind in that short time. I don’t believe it would have taken much more than two pins to make him turn right back and moor the old packet up against the wharf again, if only for ten minutes, just to prove to himself that a ship convoyed out by Pilot Jack could reach port again. Only, he didn’t. I don’t know what could have happened to us on the way back. We might have struck an old floating mine, or something like that. At any rate, Bob did what every other ship’s captain would have done in the circumstances. He kept straight on. After all, going to sea ís serious business, not to be interfered with by less tangible things than wind and weather.
BUT though we got clear out to sea, and settled down for that long three thousand mile run, Bob Craik hadn’t forgotten Pilot Jack, any more than the rest of the men aboard had. I don’t think Nan thought very much about it. After all, she wasn’t a deep sea sailor, and had not the same feeling on the subject that we had. Also, there was no doubt that she had faith in her mascot. A week out of Cape Town she did bring the subject up one afternoon when I was standing by her as she took a trick at the wheel. -That was a favorite amusement of hers, and a very good helsmwoman she was, too. I’d rather have trusted her at the wheel than many an old shell-back whose wits were like to go wool-gathering until the lift of the royal brought him back to his senses with a jerk.
“Mr. Sprague,” she said, “you don’t really think my husband is thinking anything about that silly tradition, do you?”
“Why, what makes you ask?” I replied. Nan and I were excellent friends, and she didn’t mind talking to me about things. Her question put me in rather a fix, though, because I was, as a matter of fact, perfectly sure that Bob was thinking a good deal more about Pilot Jack than he
was likely to admit. Heaven knows he was cautious enough in the ordinary way, but ever since we had lost sight of land, he had been like a pea in a hot frying pan, poking his nose on deck at all hours of the day and night as though I was not to be trusted to stand my watch without losing the ship. Every time a bit of a breeze came up you would have thought he had half the cares in the world on his shoulders. Most of the ship’s gear had been renewed only a few months before, but he had every inch of it gone over in case there should be a weak spot somewhere. Every mortal thing that master mariner could do to keep his vessel safe was done by the skipper, and there was nothing wrong with the weather, either, on the early part of the
“Well,” Nan replied. “Bob isn’t himself. He hasn’t been ever since he left South Africa. He is moody and restless. Sometimes I have thought he was afraid of something happening. He was never like this before. I wondered if you had noticed it, that was all.”
"I don’t know,” I parried. “We all get that way, a bit, at timas. It will pass off.”
“Then you don’t really think it is Pilot Jack that he is worrying about?”
“Why, no. He has other things to think of, without bothering about that sort of thing.” I could have added that there was a stack of dynamite in the fore hold, which didn’t materially soothe the skipper’s peace of mind, especially as Pilot Jack never had been known to make a mistake.
Nan gave me a queer look. I think she thought I was lying. I certainly was.
MEANWHILE, Bob was trying very hard all the time to get reconciled to Jumbo. He really was trying, for Nan’s sake. The kitten used to play around all over the ship, but mostly on the poop deck. Nan had had a narrow strip of canvas put along the lower part of the rail so that Jumbo, while doing some of her funny stunts, wouldn’t pop over the side. Bob used to watch the thing, with a most comical expression. I think he was rather in the same frame of mind toward it as is the man toward the squalling infant next door, that has kept him awake o’ nights. Then suddenly he runs up against that infant somewhere and it grabs hold of his finger, smiles at him knowingly and says “Goo-goo” or “Dad-dad.” He knows
the child may keep him awake again, but he thinks it’s rather a cunning little creature, after all.
The second week out of port brought us a nasty change in the weather. We had been running before the southeast trade wind, which had been faithful to us ever sincê we struck it, but some bad squalls began to hit us, and the skipper kept all hands lively. When he was below, tlje slightest change in the motion of the vessel would fetch him on deck immediately. Many a dozen times the watch below was called out to help shorten sail in a hurry. It was, “Tumble up there. Take in your mains’l and mizzen,” or “Stand by your top-s’l halyards,” or “Clew up the to’gal’n-s’l,” at every kind of unreasonable hour. This constant calling out of all hands created a certain amount of ill-feeling, for it was not always necessary, and deck hands are human. Moreover, a little bird had whisppered in my ear more than once that the hands for’ard were feeling none too easy about the safety of the Ship on account of Pilot Jack’s attention. I told the skipper plainly that I thought there was trouble of some kind brewing, hoping that he would take the hint and cease driving the men beyond a reasonable pitch, but he only bit his lip and said he would deal with them if they got nasty. Then some of them did get nasty, and Bob Craik put a couple of them through the mill, in the waist of the ship. It happened during the afternoon, while Nan was lying down. Bob had a cut on his cheek and an abrasion on his forehead by the time it was over, and he told Nan he had got it through being struck by the mizzen boom. But the crew showed no outward signs of their feelings after that. This all added, however, to the general air of unrest on the schooner and I myself began to feel as though someone were pressing a hair trigger. When, finally, something approaching catastrophe did strike us, it seemed as though it was just what we had all been waiting for and expecting. We were more than half way across, and running right before the wind, with a heavy following sea. In the twinkling of an eye the wind chopped round, as it will for a few moments sometimes, and, with a booming din, the sails began to thrust the schooner backward. A tremendous sea burst over her stem, and it was touch and go whether we were going to be pooped or not. When a vessel is pooped she sinks, stern first, in just such circumstances, the sails holding her back while the weight of water drags her stern down. The only thing to be said for it is that it is soon all
At the crucial moment there was a tearing of canvas and
a mad swinging of blocks and other dismantled gear. The welter of water swirled off the poop, and the old schooner righted herself with an undignified jerk, like a portly and somewhat incensed matron straightening her bonnet after she finds she has bumped into a cow most unexpectedly.
It took us two days to repair the damage, but after that it was almost uncanny the way things went smoothly.
The wind was right aft, and it was just strong enough to carry us along comfortably without any taking in and making sail. The men were in a more peaceful frame of mind, too, as their rest, now, was not interrupted at all hours of the day and night. Usually one expects to meet contrary winds or dead calms when one gets toward the coast there at that time of the year, but the south-east trade stuck to us right along, and I believe if it had not been for the memory of Pilot Jack, we should have been as happy as any ship’s company afloat. Yet there the thought was, hanging around at the back of our minds, day after day, and the more smoothly things went, the more apprehensive it made us. We were making a wonderful passage. Things were going too well for it to be natural. That something would happen sooner or later I am convinced nobody doubted except Nan. It was an oppressive, sinister feeling, due to imagination, if you like, but it was there. And the skipper felt it more keenly than anyone. It seemed to me that he had aged a full five years during that trip. His eyes got a funny look in them, due to his not having enough sleep, probably, and he was grumpy and ill-mannered toward me at times, as though his nerves were all raw.
TT WAS a tremendous relief at last to find we were'rapidly making Pernambuco. Our spirits began to rise when we got within three hours’ run of port. The hoodoo didn’t seem to have worked. If once we managed to tie up in that port the spell would be broken; and that was pretty well bound to happen within a few hours.
Nan came on deck soon after dawn. Her husband had been up and about all through the night. It was as pretty a sight on the ocean as a lover of that watery waste could wish to see. Dead astern of us there was a barquentine coming up, right in the same course that we were. She was making just about the same nine knots that we were,
and the tip of her jibboom was not more than three cables’ length off our stern. Bob cast an occasional glance back at her, looking for trouble, but even he could not see any signs of danger in that direction. Nan had a scarf on, but the weather was beautifully warm, so she stuck it into her pocket, and as the conditions were ideal, she relieved the man at the wheel. Jumbo had scrambled up the companion after her, and Nan made some laughing remark concerning the kitten, and then forgot all about it.
“Go down below and get some breakfast, Bob,” she said to her husband. “You look as though you had seen a ghost!”
Bob, after a good look around, and a final glance at the barquentine, obeyed. I had my weather eye very wide open, but everything was going on swimmingly. The wind was as steady as you could want, and just the right strength. The old packet was threshing her way into Pernambuco like a house on fire, with every sail drawing. The domes in the city were looming up. I went forward to the break of the poop for a moment to get a clearer view, and as I reached there I heard a scream. At the same instant Nan jammed the helm hard over with all her strength. There was a mighty threshing of sails while the schooner came round, and I leaped back to the poop just as the skipper bounded up the companion way.
“Quick! Jumbo! She’s fallen overboard!” Nan cried, pointing to a bit of the canvas, round the bottom of the rail, that had come adrift and was flapping in the wind.
Bob grabbed the wheel from Nan. As the schooner swung right out of her course she left a clear way for the barquentine, which did not have to alter her course an inch. We were in no danger, though we might have been, owing to Nan’s impulsiveness, had the other vessel not been dead astern of us.
“It’s no good, Nan. Your cat'll be drowned by now,”
Continued on page 54
Continued, from page 31
said the skipper, with one eye on the barquentine as it slid over the place where we had been a few minutes before. The girl was peering anxiously over the side, but white caps were making, and she realized already that what her husband said was true.
AND then there came a crashing noise from the barquentine. All three of her top-masts snapped off like carrots. She rose three feet at the bow, and stopped dead in her tracks.
“My God! She’s struck some submerged wreckage!” Bob exclaimed, white as a sheet. “And if we’d gone on that’s where we’d have been. Keep her up in the wind, Sprague. I guess that ship’s going to founder, by the looks of her.” Within fifteen minutes the barquentine did founder. The men on board barely had time to scramble into the boats before she began to sag down badly by the head, and the last of the sailors had not climbed over our side before the stricken vessel settled, lurched, and then suddenly disappeared beneath the waves.
Bob himself took the wheel of the Sprite as he made a wide détour from the place of danger and then headed for Pernambuco once more. His nerves, already none too steady, had just received a
bad shaking. There was not a shadow of doubt that but for Nan putting the helm hard over at the moment she did, we should have run full tilt into the wreck and crushed our bows in as you crush in an egg against a stone. And it was Nan’s attempt to save her black kitten that hac saved us. Nothing in the world else.
For the first time in two weeks I saw s real smile cover Bob Craik’s face as the Sprite at last sidled to her berth in Pernambuco harbor. Pilot Jack’s hoodoo hac failed. The black kitten had, literally countered it. But the smile suddenlj faded and an expression of utter amazement came over the captain’s face.
There, scrambling up the top step of th&l companion ladder, was Jumbo, dry as £ bone, and particularly frisky.
“Well, then, I will be damned,” declared the captain.
“Jumbo!” cried Nan, running forward picking the creature up, and hugging i tightly.
“Yes, but,” the skipper began, hov in the name of all that’s holy did that ca get back—”
A light suddenly dawned in Nan’s eyes and she put one hand in a pocket.
“Oh, Bob,” she exclaimed, almos apologetically, “it must have been m; black scarf that blew overboard.”