FICTION

Old Man Nelson

When that young Cheesebro sprat turned his model down. Old Man Nelson felt as if he was out on a skysail yard in a hurricane — But that was before he got his great idea

CARL D. LANE May 15 1940
FICTION

Old Man Nelson

When that young Cheesebro sprat turned his model down. Old Man Nelson felt as if he was out on a skysail yard in a hurricane — But that was before he got his great idea

CARL D. LANE May 15 1940

OLD MAN Nelson twisted wearily on his bench stool so that the last of the April sunlight, reflected in promising crimsons from the full flood of the river, would fall on his work.

He had to finish that work. Tonight. And there wasn’t even a full lantern in the shed by the river, so saving they had had to be lately. Tomorrow was the annual meeting of the Marine Historical Society, and somehow that work had to be done. Mr. Brower Hallet would be there, all the way from Halifax; and all the directors, from Halifax and other cities, and they would want to see his work. They were rich busy men, with affairs that Old Man Nelson couldn’t even imagine the extent of.

Old Man Nelson felt tired, that back of his, that he had hurt long ago as second mate for Mr. Hallet’s father on the bark John and Anne, was bothering like sin tonight. Maybe his eyes too, though he didn’t wear glasses even at sixty-seven, were bothering some. Bertha thought it was his eyes. She had a tin can into which she once in a while put spare pennies, so that some day he could go to the eye doctor. Which was all nonsense to Old Man Nelson and just showed that women had to have something to worry over.

Old Man Nelson twisted a turn of brass wire on his work and then put a drop of that new liquid solder on it. Nick had found that solder in the variety store, at the special counter for a nickel because the label was rubbed off, and he had to admit that it was as good as old-fashioned hot solder. It was great what they could invent these days. And leave it to Nick to find out about them. He was a quick one all right. It saved him time, and time was important as anything just now. Even on this little part of the work he had been since noon, six hours almost.

The file bit gently into the solder for the last smooth-over, and Old Man Nelson sat up straight. The job was done. The eight-spoke ship’s wheel, inlaid on the edges and with the king spoke all properly scored, was finished, and he laid it carefully on the bench before him.

The wheel was only three quarters of an inch across; almost to tiny to see in the half-light of the shed. But it was a good wheel; exact. They were pesky things to make, so little, and not nearly so much fun as shaping a hull or rigging. Old Man Nelson wondered if Mr. Brower Hallet would appreciate the work on that wheel when he saw the model of the John and Anne. Looking back on that long winter's work, he had to admit even to himself that the whole effect was nice. From a little distance where you couldn’t see too much detail, like maybe the wavy waterline which he couldn’t do so steady, anybody would think it was a real ship. Mr. Brower Hallet ought certainly to appreciate it especially since his own father had operated the John and Anne and maybe pass over where his hand shook a little. Old Man Nelson counted on that, in a secret inward way, much more than he would have admitted to sorehead criticizers like John Christiansen and Sven Sara, who were always picking on little things on his models.

He didn't even stop to wash his hands in the basin that Bertha kept hanging at the spring house in the side yard, he was so excited about finishing. He sat right down at the kitchen table plain, while Bertha began getting supper in the good-smelling shadows about the wood range. Like always, supper was mostly noodles, but Old Man Nelson figured that would be changed in another day. A lot of things would be changed. Mr. Brower Hallet was rich; spot cash on the dot he paid. And he was a gentleman.

"Now,” he said, trying to keep his voice even and not-caring, “it’s finished; almost. Just to rig the rudder tackles. Two hundred dollars, Mr. Brower Hallet mentioned.” 

“You better eat,” said Bertha. “Lately you don’t eat, thinking about tomorrow.” 

“No,” said Old Man Nelson, “I ain’t hungry. I almost hate to sell it though. I was her mate, second, for fourteen years.” 

“The noodles have cinnamon on,” Bertha said. "Hurry up so we don’t need a light.”

IT ALWAYS struck Old Man Nelson funny that women didn't enthuse about things. Here was his own wife, with two hundred dollars practically in her hands, worrying about a little kerosene for the lamp. All those things he had been telling her about so long; new clothes, if she wanted; pay up some on Scroggin's Market, even some left over, and her not once smiling encouraging to help wash away those long dreary months when the meeting of the Marine Historical Society seemed years, almost, away.

He ate his noodles, not lustily with smacks, like Nick, or like Nick’s pa before he went away to South America; but with a kind of sour interest only in them. It struck him that a woman could dampen things more than anything he knew. Bertha didn’t even ask to see the model, now that it was finished at last.

He stirred milk from Mrs. Sven Sara’s thin cow into the coffee left over from noontime. Bertha sat opposite him, under the calendar with the motto about the man who built mouse traps and everybody come knocking at his door. She was very quiet; waiting, sort of, like with something on her mind. Old Man Nelson felt kind of mean and selfish suddenly, thinking, as he was, of only what was on his mind.

“It’s about Nick some more,” Bertha said, her red, creased hands idle in her wide lap at last. “The man he went to see today said he had to have experienced help. He was nice to Nick though, and told him about a job in the main plant in New Headly. Only Nick hasn’t even the carfare there. Two years out of high school; at such hard pulling. It’s a shame! Not even carfare to find work!”

Old Man Nelson lighted his pipe and kept still. After all, Nick was a boy, young and pepful, and could keep on looking. In the summer, sometimes, he worked around the cottages at the Point, and that was more than lots of kids did nowadays. It was only his Gran'ma who worried all the time about Nick and even let it spoil her own pleasure. She made herself sick about it sometimes. Nick had his name in waiting lists all over and things were bound to pick up before long. And Nick was a good boy; not crazy about the girls too much and out half the night.

“You should have written Mr. Brower Hallet for some money in advance,” said Bertha, “then we’d have carfare now.”

“And suppose he didn’t like it—the model?” asked Old Man Nelson gravely, not letting on that he was kidding at all.

“At least we’d have that much money,” Bertha said, and started to sob quietly.

Old Man Nelson shut up then. You couldn’t do a thing with them, all right. He couldn’t tell her now how he was sorry for Nick and how he wished he could help the boy. It was better to say those things right out from your mind, without any leading up or prompting from your wife. He thought of one thing, though, but decided to finish his pipe before mentioning it, it was so touchy. Bertha washed the dishes, then the sink and then the towels. Darkness was over the river now and the salt mists mixing with the smell of newly turned gardens and plowed lots deeper in the hills, made the range feel homey and good.

“Now, Bert’a,” said Old Man Nelson brightly, after a while, as if he’d just come across it in his mind, “there's four dollars in that silly can for my eyes. It won’t do me any good, because any doctor would have to be a crook to say I need glasses. It’s only my back that ever bothers. It would get Nick one way to New Headly.”

Bertha didn’t answer right away. It touched her a little the very goodness of the thought, though she knew perfectly well that he wasn’t making any real sacrifice. He wouldn't admit to anyone, not even himself, that his eyes were growing old. Yet Bertha could see the wavy paint lines and the clumsy clove-hitched ratlines on the shrouds of the John and Anne plain enough and know the truth. His last few models hadn’t been as neat as they used to be. Exact? Yes. Nobody could do better, because nobody knew a ship better. But neat and with fine workmanship... no! Not any more. Sven and John Christiansen fooled a lot, kidding Old Man Nelson, but there was some truth in what they said, anyway.

“Then the tin can is for your back,” said Bertha abruptly. “Even Nick can’t have that money. Anyway, it's too late now.”

It was sure funny, Old Man Nelson thought. Hanging onto four dollars so. You’d think Mr. Brower Hallet wasn’t going to buy the model, the way she acted.

The coaster packet hooted for the railroad draw down the river, and in a little while John Christiansen came in as he did every night. He was dockmaster, when there was a freight, which wasn’t very often with trucks taking nearly everything. John had the company’s flashlight, so they used to study over the model nights, mostly arguing.

Old Man Nelson didn’t want to show his model tonight. He was sick of John and Sven pulling it to pieces, especially if they said something nasty about the wavy paint lines or some such silly business. If they pulled apart the rigging or the deck houses, or the way the spanker was brailed, like a whaleship, he didn’t mind. Then he could talk them down because he had been on the John and Anne, second mate for nine voyages, and they hadn’t. They were only coasters, never once around Cape Stiff in wintry July. Bertha listened for a while, for John Christiansen started to tell him how wrong it was to have swifter stays on the mizzen. She settled the point for good by showing John a picture of the John and Anne which Old Man Nelson had had painted by a heathen Chineeman in Foochow in 1887. It kind of surprised Old Man Nelson, this sudden fierce fire she showed for his model. It settled John. After that he began picking on the way the dead eyes were rove, not neat, and to herself Bertha had to admit he was right.

AT TEN o’clock John went home and they went to bed.

Old Man Nelson would have liked to talk to Bertha about the money he would get tomorrow; get her enthused at least a little, but she was quickly in a heavy sleep. She sure was the worrying kind all right. It was Nick not being able to get a job that was bothering; even now, she’d rather have that job for Nick than anything the two hundred dollars could mean.

Tonight, when Nick had come home, he had told them that he had met Mr. Cheesebro and Mr. Cheesebro had said, “Good evening,” very cordial, which was unusual but was maybe a good sign, because Nick had his name with him for work. Even that, though, didn’t pep Bertha up any.

Lying beside Bertha, Old Man Nelson sure hoped that Mr. Brower Hallet wouldn't look too close at that model. He wouldn’t know what to do if the Marine Historical Society didn’t take it. Now that there was only fifteen hours to wait, he felt kind of uneasy. After all, Mr. Brower Hallet had been kind of offhand last fall; just very much interested because it was his father’s old ship. Old Man Nelson had only talked to him a minute, but even in that short time he could see that Mr. Brower Hallet was a gentleman and honest, safe enough to build a whole winter’s work on. Even if he was a very busy man and so polite and gentlemanly that he wouldn’t say a positive no to anybody, he would remember. Anyway, anybody with a spark of love for a deep water ship couldn’t help falling in love with the John and Anne, such a fine modelled vessel she was.

The sun wasn’t over the cedar stand across the river yet when he was at the bench, rigging the rudder tackles. It sure looked fine, even a flag hoisted to the peak of the gaff and the anchor catted as if the second mate himself had stood over the watch. Nick came in and his blue eyes fairly snapped wide open at the sight.

“Gosh!” he said, in a way that made Old Man Nelson mighty pleased. “She’s a honey! If I could do that I would never need to worry about a job.”

Somehow, Nick’s enthusiasm buoyed him up tremendously, holding as it did no doubts or criticisms.

At eleven o’clock Old Man Nelson dressed very carefully and walked to the Marine Historical Society’s museum, in the old tea warehouse on Spar Yard Cove, to arrange with Mr. Cheesebro. He was still straight and lean, and his mild blue eyes peered from beneath shaggy white brows with all the lusty keenness of a youngster. It was mighty good, being alive on such a swell day, with the sun warm on the river path and the kids already catching fish in the tide pools.

Mr. Cheesebro was busy, talking fancy on the phone in his office which said “Director,” on the door. Old Man Nelson sat on the edge of a chair and waited, looking a little through the open archway to the museum room. Bertha had thought it all foolishness to go seeing Mr. Cheesebro, but he realized she didn’t know much about business deals and so he hadn't said much back to her.

Mr. Cheesebro was finally finished and he came grandly to the outer office.

“How do you do?” he said in his cold, kind of haughty way, just like a city man who said things polite without thinking about their meanings any. "What can I do for you?”

Old Man Nelson had somehow felt that Mr. Cheesebro would be expecting him. It was a shock, sort of, to see that he didn't even remember, and it was hard to know where to begin.

He stood up respectfully, "The model is finished,” he said. “I'll bring it this afternoon. I’d like to know where to put it so Mr. Brower Hallet can see it without no bother.”

Mr. Cheesebro raised his eyebrows; then his nose, like he was smelling. He flicked a piece of eraser rubbing off his striped pants.

“My dear sir,” he said, "what in the world are you talking about? We expect no model.”

Old Man Nelson for a minute felt heady, like up on a skysail yard when the roll takes the blood away from your brain. But Mr. Cheesebro was talking again in that smooth voice, very polite and smiling in the mouth corners.

“I assure you that we are interested in no models at present,” he said. “I have a very busy day, please. Perhaps some time later.”

And then Mr. Cheesebro bent a little from the knees and held the door open, and without even wanting to, Old Man Nelson walked right through it and was out in the corridor alone.

HE FELT weak and dizzy and his mouth was dry as seam cotton with all the words that were sizzling there but wouldn’t come out. He couldn't even swear; not Swedish even. That young Cheesebro sprat! So elegant that he stopped you from talking; from thinking even! As if he hadn't been right there when Mr. Brower Hallet had practically promised he'd pay two hundred dollars for a good model of the old John and Anne. That Marine Historical Society had better get a director who looked out for their interest instead of talking high-fallutin’ on the telephone in striped pants!

“Anyway,” Old Man Nelson muttered to himself, “Mr. Brower Hallet is the real boss.”

He couldn't tell Bertha about it. He just looked funny, not eating his dinner, and said, “Oh. yes! Mr. Cheesebro was waiting, very anxious. He was afraid it wouldn’t be there on time.” Then he went to the shed and smoked.

Bertha permitted herself to think about the two hundred dollars for the first time then. Oh, she wanted it all right! Noodles were not so good as beefsteak; no matter what you told yourself. Especially for growing boys. It would be fine to see the nieces and nephews in Halifax; and the new babies. But more even than that she wanted Nick to have work; it was terrible to see the boy just forced to be more lazy all the time. Bertha almost cried when she thought how Old Man Nelson’s model had seemed so sloppy and careless and how he acted so sure that Mr. Brower Hallet would buy it; as if it was all down in writing by a lawyer. Everything suddenly became real to her. She had been so foolish to worry about it at all.

After Old Man Nelson put a clean sheet over the model and took it in his arms, she had to put his hat on his head. It pleased him, this picture of Bertha making a fuss over him. It was nice, too, to get a kiss, even the little peck she gave him. It made what he was really getting ready for seem ’way off; below the horizon, sort of.

He felt, people look at him curiously as he walked the river path. Some kids wanted to see the model, but he said, “No," and kept right on. Somehow, before he had seen Mr. Cheesebro he would never have dreamed to put a cloth on it; now it would be like showing something you might have to be ashamed of.

He had a notion to sneak in the museum by the side door, but he figured that would be like circling around something you were afraid of. As if Mr. Cheesebro, who only worked for the Society, and wasn’t on his toes about it either, was the real boss. Compared to Mr. Brower Hallet, he was like a green apprentice to the second mate, and besides, Mr. Brower Hallet was a gentleman deep down inside, not only polite on the top. Old Man Nelson bet he could buy any vessel he wanted, or a whole shipping line, just on his word.

He sidled through the door. By hooking the fore top-gallant yard under his hat and jerking his head forward and then taking the brim in his teeth, he managed to get his hat off. It was mighty lucky he did, because there were some ladies in the crowd of people who sat on rented chairs in the museum room. Old Man Nelson sat down carefully, ’way in back, with the John and Anne on his lap, uncovered, so he could look through the rigging up to the platform.

He didn't know quite what he would do, but inside he felt that when Mr. Brower Hallet saw him everything would smooth out all right.

Mr. Cheesebro was talking up in front, and looking over some papers, very important. He didn’t even look Old Man Nelson's way. The room was bright and cheerful; buzzing with talking and hand-shaking people. The ship models and the old pictures and scrimshaw and shiny whaling gear all looked beautiful. There was one immense model of the Noank clipper Dauntless, wonderfully modelled, with not a wavy paint line on her. Exact work; precise, with even a clapper on the ship’s bell and her bottom coppered with real tiny squares of copper. But standing right out plain where everybody couldn't help seeing it, was a mistake so terrible that he would jump in the Mystic River before making a model like that. Her stunsails were set to leeward! Imagine, plain braced on the port tack and her stuns’ls to starboard! There wasn’t a thing on the John and Anne even half as bad as that. Yet somebody must have bought her for the Marine Historical Society.

Promptly at two o'clock a man began talking. First off, he said that Mr. Brower Hallet would be a little late but that he'd be here; he wouldn’t miss this meeting for anything, it was so special. Nobody looked at Old Man Nelson then, which was just as good because he felt himself getting all red after that remark. The man read about aims and purposes; how the art of seamanship and the old records and traditions must be preserved now or lost to posterity forever. The more logs and models they could get the better, So much did this posterity need them. Old Man Nelson approved of every word of it.

Mr. Cheesebro then read some papers; figures, and very dry. Pretty soon he began asking for extra money to hire himself an assistant, a kind of combined janitor and office man who should learn the museum business for when they grew real big. He said he knew a very fine young man for the job for eight hundred dollars a year extra. Nobody talked to Mr. Cheesebro direct, but they all whispered to their neighbors. Mr. Cheesebro looked kind of anxious, waiting.

AND RIGHT then the door opened and Mr. Brower Hallet walked in, smiling at everybody and shaking hands with some special people. It was as though the captain of a ship had taken the wheel and everything would be all right. Old Man Nelson could even understand the look of relief that, came over Mr. Cheesebro; Mr. Brower Hallet would smooth over his problem too.

“You all know,” said Mr. Brower Hallet, sincere, and with a smile like the streaming of the sunshine in the windows; so warm, “how I feel about our museum here. Nothing is too good; no expense too great. I am absolutely in favor of an assistant to carry on our work. The cost, unfortunately, cannot come from our regular budget; we must ourselves raise this money. Now, I will personally match any amount subscribed for this most worthy purpose. Fellow members”—and here Mr. Brower Hallet’s voice seemed to talk right to a person and not to a whole crowd at all—“step up, and don’t crowd.”

Everybody laughed very comfortable but not so many got up. Mr. Cheesebro took some money and some cheques and Mr. Brower Hallet shook hands with them and things finally settled down again. Mr. Cheesebro still looked anxious.

Mr. Brower Hallet stood up again. You could hear a pin drop. Old Man Nelson shifted uneasily in his chair. Now it was coming; Mr. Brower Hallet’s eyes stopped for a second on the John and Anne, kind of picking it out.

He wanted everybody to know how nice the museum looked; how he was so glad to be its president, especially since his grandfather’s packet line had been established in this historic community, fanned by sea breezes and washed by the sun. How everybody should keep up the good work and bring at least one new member next year. He talked about new acquisitions, like the Dauntless, and more he knew about. Old Man Nelson felt his collar growing damp and his hands, clutching the hull, were cold and clammy. It would be so public. Mr. Brower Hallet was talking about a sea trip he had made as a boy, in the old Asa Bainbridge, which was a sister ship to the John and Anne. He was leading up to it all right.

And then suddenly Mr. Brower Hallet’s speech was over. People were clapping and getting up.

Old Man Nelson didn’t move. It was like being stunned by a jibe of the spanker boom on his head. Under his suit he was sweating, but still feeling icy, and the blocks on the model were making rattling noises, so much were his hands shaking. In front of him, people were moving, but he couldn’t see them so good. It was terrible, not being able to think even; just being able to sit there with everything cloudy before you.

Somebody gave him a paper cup with punch in it so he held it, spilling it a little. Dimly, he heard somebody ask if that wasn’t the John and Anne of the Hallet Line, and the next thing a lot of people were around him with Mr. Brower Hallet right in the middle of them. Old Man Nelson could feel himself standing up. If only his words wouldn’t turn to cotton again when Mr. Brower Hallet looked at him.

“The John and Anne, Mr. Brower Hallet,” he said. “Just like we spoke last fall. All winter, I worked. I was second mate.”

It was funny to watch Mr. Brower Hallet. You couldn’t tell what he was thinking behind those nice grey eyes. First, there was question in them, uncertainty like, but quickly overshadowed with something Old Man Nelson couldn’t understand. He looked hopefully at Mr. Cheesebro, then back at Old Man Nelson and the ship model.

“He’s trying to sell it,” said Mr. Cheesebro. “I’ve already told him it was no. We can’t lower our standards to forecastlemade models, sir.”

Old Man Nelson almost got mad then. He wished he could use his fists, like the old days at sea.

“Keep out,” he said. “Just keep out. This is between Mr. Brower Hallet and me.”

Mr. Brower Hallet took the model gravely, studying it, and began walking to the desk in front, but even more he was studying Old Man Nelson beside him.

“A whole winter’s work,” he said finally. “You must forgive me for not remembering, Captain, but did we discuss price?”

“Oh, yes,” Old Man Nelson said quickly. “Two hundred dollars you said you’d pay for a good model.”

Mr. Brower Hallet fingered the wheel, acting sort of pleased when the rudder actually turned.

“Very interesting,” Mr. Cheesebro broke in, “but rather... er... shall we say, lacking the touches of the expert.”

“Please,” said Mr. Brower Hallet. “This is, as the Captain says, just between ourselves.”

SUDDENLY he pushed a chair under Old Man Nelson and himself sat down. For a long time he looked out over the river; then turned with a nice sincere smile.

“I think the model is splendid, Captain,” he said. “I’ve—I’ve been waiting to see it all winter. And yourself, too.” Mr. Brower Hallet counted out money, two one-hundred dollar bills. “I’m going to give it to the Society here. You don’t mind if I have the water line raised a little, do you? It—it seems a little low, don’t you think?”

Old Man Nelson didn’t mind, not when he put it so nice. Thinking about it, while Mr. Cheesebro was making out a paper for him to sign, he figured that whoever did it would take the wavy lines away from that water line. He felt fine now. Almost by itself, without much handkerchief dabbing, his neck was getting dry again. It would be a real treat, worth everything, when he showed Bertha the money. Even better, when they spent it; no matter how careful. He wasn’t going to let the nieces and nephews in Halifax pay one cent for the party, even if they were only Bertha’s folks, not his. And how he’d laugh last at Sven Sara and John, those two jealous on-soundings sailors with their criticizings.

He was just going to sign the receipt which Mr. Cheesebro laid before him, when, right there on the desk, he saw a picture. It was just a little one, of a kid. But the kid was Nick! Attached, it was, right to a big paper, with printing and writing on it, and over the whole thing, in red, was scribbled: Approved. Try for special fund. And, real fancy, underneath was: S. Cheesebro.

It left Old Man Nelson hot again, and confused. Somehow Nick hadn’t been in the joy he was feeling, yet now, here he was, looking right at him from Mr. Cheesebro’s desk. As if he wanted to get in too. And all the while Old Man Nelson couldn’t help feeling that it was Bertha looking up at him from that application; kind of telling him what to do; that it wasn’t clothes or a bus ride to Halifax that she wanted.

He didn’t like Mr. Cheesebro, not hardly any, but that didn’t stop him now. Nothing could stop him; so worth while was the thing that was driving him.

“Now,” he said, “how much more for that nice boy you want?”

Mr. Cheesebro stood up very straight. He didn’t like Old Man Nelson either. But maybe there was something in the old man’s eyes that told him he’d better answer.

“Four hundred dollars,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s hopeless this year.”

“Four hundred,” said Old Man Nelson slowly, trying to figure things out in his dumb head. “Altogether, or with Mr. Brower Hallet’s too?”

“Two hundred from a... a lay member,” explained Mr. Cheesebro, making smelling wrinkles with his nose again, “would be doubled under our president’s kind offer. Why?”

“Why?” Old Man Nelson shouted. “Here’s why!” and right into Mr. Cheesebro’s hand he shoved the whole two hundred dollars from the John and Anne. “I think a boy to help you is just what the Marine Historical Society needs. Please, if you’ll be so kind. Take it.”

It was pretty exciting; Mr. Brower Hallet himself on a chair and everybody clapping. This time he drank the punch. Sweet as it was, it was sour against the way he was feeling inside. Mr. Cheesebro asked him what name to put down, and Old Man Nelson thought a minute and said, “Second mate of the John and Anne" and everybody clapped and laughed again. Oh, it was like a party almost; anyway as good as with Bertha’s relatives. He wished Bertha could be here.

Mr. Brower Hallet shook hands with him last as he was leaving. He was certainly some fine gentleman all right.

“We’ll need a fine case for the model, Captain,” he said. “No rush. Just send the bill to me. Good-by, Captain.”

Old Man Nelson had tears in his mild blue eyes as he walked the river path. He was terribly happy; mostly because Bertha would soon be terribly happy too.

Nick would be walking along the path here every day now. He could stop and swim in the summer and look at the pier where the old John and Anne used to lie. Nick was a good boy; he’d be good to his Gran’ma all right.

Oh, how lovely everything was. How the sun washed everything and how the sea breezes fanned the historic community, just like that fine gentleman, Mr. Brower Hallet, had said!