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THE TEXT CAME IN overnight.
Peter Fallon read it when he got up around six thirty: “SFO to BOS. Redeye, boarding now. Early biz in town. Breakfast, Arbella Club, 7:30? JetBlue Flt 2034. LJ”
LJ was his son.
They had named the boy after his grandfather, who had been known in the Boston building trades as Big Jim Fallon. So it was only natural that they would call the first son of a new generation Little Jim. And when Little Jim topped six foot one, along about the time that Big Jim passed, they started calling the kid “LJ.”
LJ Fallon was now an associate in the San Francisco law firm of Van Valen and Prescott. And he did not do things spontaneously. Every step he had ever taken—from the colonial in West Roxbury, where he grew up with Peter’s ex and a stepfather, through Harvard, then law school, all the way to an office in the Transamerica Pyramid—had all appeared as part of a plan.
A surprise night flight across the country and an early breakfast with Dad? That defined “spur of the moment.” Not like LJ at all.
Something was up.
So Peter showered and dressed, threw on a tweed sport coat, and grabbed his scally cap. Donegal herringbone, perfect for an autumn-crisp morning and the kind of cap that a smart-ass Boston guy might put on to proclaim his Irish heritage at Boston’s oldest, most Yankee-fied social club, named for the ship that brought the Puritans to Massachusetts and renowned for its unrelenting prejudice against the children of the Irish potato famine, at least until the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
It puzzled Peter that LJ had joined the Arbella instead of some other Boston bastion, like the Harvard Club or the Somerset or even the Club of Odd Volumes. Something to do with a girl, or with impressing the girl’s family, but the girl had left the picture when LJ left for Boalt Hall, the Berkeley law school. This disappointed Peter on two fronts. He liked the girl, and he did not like the distance between Boston and Berkeley. At least the kid had a real job. He’d also kept his club membership, so maybe he might move home someday to use it.
Peter hurried along Marlborough, across the Public Garden, up Beacon Hill to Louisburg Square, a living monument to the three “b’s” of nineteenth-century Boston architecture—bricks, bowfronts, and black shutters—encircling a fenced park where locals with gate keys could clean up after their dogs while inhaling all the high-toned history, too. Charles Bulfinch, famous Federalist architect, had lived on the square. So had the Alcotts, William Dean Howells, Robert Frost, even former Secretary of State John Kerry. The last house to sell here went for twelve million.
Peter sometimes thought he should have gone after the big bucks in Boston real estate. But he never regretted the path he chose. He had a long list of adventures, a longer list of clients, and one of the great brokerages for rare books and documents in America.
When someone needed a volume appraised, they turned to Peter. When someone needed some cash and decided to sell a presentation copy of a Mark Twain or a signed Lincoln letter, they turned to Peter. When someone learned of a lost first draft of the U. S. Constitution or some other treasure that needed finding for the good of the country and the wider world, they turned to Peter, because Peter … got it.
History mattered. The documents that let us touch it mattered. The buildings where it unfolded mattered. The whole parade of human beings in general and Americans in particular mattered. To study the past was to light the way to the future. That’s what Peter liked to believe, anyway. That’s why he did what he did. And he was good at it.
He was also good at going anywhere in Boston and looking like he belonged. He could stop for a quick shooter in some Southie bar, where they talked about sports, politics, and money and knocked back buck-a-bottle Buds at three in the afternoon, or he could visit the Arbella Club, where they talked about money, sports, and politics and sipped Far Niente Chardonnay at lunch, and he always fit in.
So he didn’t bother to make a big flourish with the scally cap.
He climbed the Arbella Club stoop, rang the buzzer, and admired the polish on the brass door knocker. He also noticed a little hand-lettered sign in one of the sidelights: No soliciting. All deliveries in the rear. He imagined the No Irish Need Apply sign pasted discreetly into that spot a century before.
When the door opened, he removed the cap. But before he stepped in, three men pushed out. He made way. Exit before entry. Simple good manners.
He nodded, but they barely acknowledged him. This would not have surprised him with some members of the Arbella, except that these were not the usual Arbella types. One was black, one white, one Asian. All wore dark suits. Dark expressions, too. And the first two seemed, by their bulk and manner, to be working for the Asian. Security? At the Arbella Club?
Times, Peter concluded, were changing.
* * *
HE STOPPED IN THE foyer to let his eyes adjust. The tall case clock chimed once for 7:30. In the library, two men and a woman were talking about something that sounded important. On the staircase, a waiter in a crimson jacket was carrying a coffee service. At the coat check under the stairs, a man was collecting his briefcase.
Peter approached the reception desk and said, “I’m a guest of Mr. Fallon.” He liked referring to his son as “mister.”
The maître d’, in blue blazer and tie the same color as the waiters’ jackets, gave a polite, “This way, sir,” and led Peter into the dining room.
The sun poured through the east-facing bowfront, burnishing the mahogany furniture, illuminating the mural of old Boston on one wall and the portraits of old Bostonians on the other. Coffee cups and silverware chimed and chirped, but wall-to-wall carpet, patterned after the green and gold original, muffled the sound. So conversation merely murmured—business talk at some tables (but no work papers, please), leaf-peeping chitchat at others, where out-of-town reciprocals planned their foliage tours. It was morning in Boston. And there was no better place to enjoy it than the Arbella Club, or so this room would suggest.
LJ Fallon was sitting with his back to the door, reading The Globe sports page.
The waiter was clearing one round of plates and setting out another.
Peter said, “The Patriots need cornerbacks.”
LJ looked up and brightened.
Peter remembered the expression. It said, Dad’s here. It would always say that. And it would always give Peter a little twinge of pleasure and pain, because it was the face that greeted him whenever he came to collect the boy for a weekend visit. The divorce had been hard on LJ, and even now, after all these years, Peter still saw the same mixture of hurt and hope when he looked into his son’s eyes.
He also saw the resemblance. From the day LJ was born, people said that he was a Fallon. He had the black hair, the strong brow, the wiry build. He was taller than his father, but that was as it should be. He was also smarter, as Peter would tell anyone. LJ could handle math and physics, subjects that Peter had ducked. So … smarter, yes, but short on experience and maybe a bit light on common sense, as every father who’d ever taken pride in a son’s brains had reminded the boy at least once.
LJ glanced at the scally cap. “Nice touch.”
“Subtle.” Peter was pleased that his son got the joke. It meant that six years in San Francisco had not entirely drained the kid of his Boston attitude. Peter sat and slipped the cap onto the empty chair between them. “So … how was your flight?”
“Got some sleep, landed at five thirty, came straight here. Used the weight room, then showered.” LJ’s hair shone in the light, still a bit wet.
“You could have showered at my place.”
“I didn’t want to bother you so early, especially if Evangeline is there.”
Peter shook his head. “She’s in New York. She and I are—”
“On the outs?”
“Taking a break.”
“There’s a reason we’re not married. A reason we live in different cities. We have lots of fun together. Then we don’t. So—” Peter shrugged.
“I think you’re pretty well suited.”
But Peter didn’t want to talk about Evangeline. Talking with your son about your girlfriend was just … wrong. Like kids imagining their parents having sex, or vice versa. He gestured to the coffee stains on the tablecloth. “You already had a meeting?”
“Yeah.” LJ laughed. “No rest for the weary.”
The old waiter returned with a coffeepot and a fresh cup. LJ thanked him by name. The waiter smiled as if not everyone remembered his name. Then he filled the cups and asked if they would like to order from the menu.
No. Father and son would take the buffet, thanks. But first, some chitchat.
Peter asked, “How’s this new girlfriend?”
“She’s one of the things I wanted to talk with you about.”
“Oh?” Peter took a sip of coffee.
“No spit takes, Dad. But … I think she’s the one.”
Peter swallowed and set down the cup. He always proceeded with caution in conversations like this. He liked everyone who came into his son’s life, until he was told not to. “You think?”
“Oh, hell, I know.” LJ broke into a grin. “I gave her a ring last week. We’ve been living together for three months.”
So that was why LJ had crossed the country, to tell his father about his engagement. He wasn’t in trouble. He hadn’t lost his job. No one was suing him for malfeasance or misfeasance or any other kind of feasance.
Peter relaxed for the first time since he’d seen that text. “Congratulations. If she’s the one, I’m happy for you.”
“You’ll like her. She’s smart. Pretty. Funny. And … she’s also half Chinese.”
Peter noticed his son’s eyes shift. The little boy again, telling his father something that he was not certain would meet with approval.
Peter said, “Just half?”
“Her late mother came from an old Chinatown family. Her father’s white.”
Peter said, “I can’t wait to meet her.” He almost asked what the kid was so worried about. Chinese, Japanese, Indian … it didn’t matter to Peter. He had dated plenty of women from outside the Irish-American gene pool. A gorgeous black history professor who wrote a book about Lincoln. An Algerian beauty he met at the Paris Book Fair. And of course, a daughter of old Boston privilege named Evangeline Carrington.
But Jimmy was popping up, as if relieved to have that business out of the way. “Let’s get some food. I’m starving.”
The buffet stretched along the wall, beneath portraits of the club presidents. At one end, above stacked plates and bowls, loomed the face of the eighteenth-century founder, far less famous than his portraitist, John Singleton Copley. At every stop, cold New England faces looked down on warming dishes of bacon and French toast, a bubbling pot of “porridge,” bowls of fruit salad, and Danish pastries in raspberry, apple, and, of course, prune.
Thaddeus Spencer, wearing a brown cutaway and red silk cravat, hung over the scrambled eggs. His jaw was set hard against whatever wind was blowing in his face. He looked like a man of business, and not only a man who was good at his own business but one who could, if called upon, make it his business to mind yours.
Peter whispered to LJ, “Do you think he’ll complain if I take an extra sausage?”
“He may be the smartest guy on this wall. He persuaded the board to buy a double bowfront on Louisburg Square in 1836. This building’s worth twenty million.”
LJ dropped a few more sausages onto his father’s plate and said, “I’m here to talk to one of his Boston descendants. And I want to talk to you about his San Francisco son.”
So there it was, thought Peter. Something was up.
* * *
THE STORY SPILLED OUT over breakfast: At the behest of senior partner Johnson “Jack” Barber, LJ was overseeing the liquidation of the Spencer estate.
“I thought your specialty was corporate stuff, mergers and acquisitions—”
“When a senior partner asks you to do something, Dad, you do it. It’s how you climb the ladder.”
Peter popped a piece of sausage into his mouth and said, “How can I help?”
“Appraise the Spencer rare book collection. James Spencer was the son of the guy on the wall behind me. He went to the Gold Rush, had adventures, did well. His company lasted until the 1990s, when corporate raiders dismantled what was left of it. Now the family is liquidating the estate, house and all, including the Spencer library.”
“How many books?”
“Maybe two thousand. All good stuff. A complete H. H. Bancroft, signed Mark Twains, old Spanish manuscripts.”
“A few days of work, but a few days in San Francisco? Hell, yeah. I can get the Hangtown fry at Tadich’s and the Shanghai soup dumplings at Great Eastern, go for a hike in the Muir Woods, and meet my future daughter-in-law.”
LJ took a sip of coffee and said, “It’s a little more complicated than that.”
Peter was not surprised. “It always is.”
“Spencer kept a journal.”
“He was part of a literate generation. They saw the Gold Rush as the great adventure of their lives. So a lot of them wrote about it.”
“He transcribed his and gave it to the California Historical Society. But about a year ago, it disappeared.”
“And you want me to find it?”
“I want you to help me reconstruct it. The last great-granddaughter, named Maryanne Rogers, died without issue. She put a codicil into her will that before the liquidation of the estate, all seven original sections of the journal, scattered among the heirs, should be gathered and digitized, so that—I quote—‘the world may read a document essential to California’s history, even if it starts another gold rush.’”
“Another gold rush?”
“She was a little batty.”
“But another gold rush? That sounds like a big deal.” Peter took a sip of coffee and looked into his son’s eyes.
The little boy flickered for just a moment, only to be replaced by the level gaze of the young man on the rise.
The father said, “There’s more here, isn’t there?”
“Well, the heirs have their own agendas.”
“Heirs always do.” Peter leaned across the table. “If memory serves correctly there is a certain Spencer heir named Sturgis. Is he in on this?”
“He’s in on everything.” LJ looked down again, a bit guilty. “But Dad, you’re the man for the job, no matter who else is involved. So, what about it?”
“Another gold rush … difficult heirs … strange codicils in a batty old woman’s will. How did she die?”
“Hit in a crosswalk.”
“Wait, wait, don’t tell me. Hit-and-run, right?”
“Don’t be sarcastic.” LJ sipped a little coffee. “But, yeah. She lived in the old family mansion on California Street. It’s called Arbella House, believe it or not.”
“So this James Spencer remembered his Boston roots.”
LJ cut into a sausage. “Every Thursday, Mrs. Rogers doddered down California to Van Ness, then three blocks to the House of Prime Rib. She always ordered two martinis and a big plate of beef—”
“House Cut or City Cut?” said Peter.
“You’ve eaten there?” LJ laughed. “When it comes to food, Dad always knows.”
“And when it comes to hit-and-runs, Dad’s always suspicious.”
“She was hit in the crosswalk at Sacramento. White panel truck. They never found the driver.”
“Anybody else with her?”
“Mr. Yung, the butler. He survived.”
“Witnesses? Other than the butler or Colonel Mustard?”
“Come on, Dad, don’t be sarcastic. My boss, Johnson Barber, was waiting for her in front of the restaurant. She liked it when an important San Franciscan of the masculine variety escorted her around town.”
“A full-service law firm.” Peter looked again into his son’s eyes, then up at the eyes of the portraits on the wall. The eyes in the portraits did not shift, unlike his son’s.
“So,” said Peter, “it was either an accident, or somebody wants to get this journal reconstituted quickly, and offing the batty old heiress was the only way to do it?”
LJ sipped his coffee, as if to say, Point made.
Peter buttered his croissant. “Has anybody told you what this new gold rush would look like?”
“All I know is that we are trying to find seven notebooks that created the finished version of James Spencer’s journal.”
“Put them together and you get … what? A treasure map? The location of a buried gold stash? Or is it a gold vein?”
“Maybe all three. Maybe something international. But yeah, there’s more to this than meets the eye.”
“There always is,” said Peter again.
“If I find the notebooks, my treasure is the goodwill of Mr. Johnson ‘Jack’ Barber, senior partner at Van Valen and Prescott.”
Peter did not need to think it over or ask any more questions. He loved a challenge, like reconstructing a Gold Rush journal. He loved to go after something with a bigger story, and between the Revolution and the Civil War, there was no bigger American story than the Gold Rush. He also loved searching for a pot of gold, and here was real gold, maybe in a real pot. Most importantly, he loved helping his son, even when the son’s eyes said he was hiding something. So, Peter offered his hand. “Deal.”
And LJ’s cell phone buzzed. Half the people in the room jumped. LJ fumbled into his pocket, pulled out the phone, put it on silent. By then, the maître d’ was beside him. “Excuse me, sir, but cell phones are—”
LJ put up his hand, apologized, and stood, “Dad, I have to take this.”
The maître d’ gestured toward a door at the end of the buffet. “The cell-phone booth is that way, sir.”
LJ told his father, “Check your email. I sent you the first section of the journal, just to whet your appetite. Passed down from Maryanne Rogers, typed by my secretary.”
“So that means we only have to find six?”
“See? The job is already easier than you thought.”
Peter took out his phone and saw first that he had a text from Evangeline: “RE: weekend. Driving or AMTRAK? And what ETA in NYC?”
After a two-month “trial separation,” Peter and Evangeline were planning a weekend in New York. Plays, museums, dinners, all on her turf.
Peter didn’t want to blow her off. But his son almost never asked him for anything. So he texted back: “How about trip to San Fran instead? Doing job for LJ.”
Text answer: “Are you lying? No using son as excuse.”
“No lie. Come along. On me. Separate beds.”
“Side trips? Just pitched article on California old-vine Zins.”
“Side trips to old-vine vineyards, yes. Side trips with old-vine boyfriends … up to you. Although a certain boyfriend unavoidable.”
That boyfriend would be Manion Sturgis, Spencer descendant.
Her answer: “OK. I’ll book the Mark Hopkins. Separate beds.”
“Drinks at the Top of the Mark, on me.”
Then Peter clicked to the email, opened the link to the journal pages, and saw the beginnings of a grand national adventure. Sixty pages, starting on January 10, 1849. He glanced up at the portrait of Thaddeus Spencer, who would have been hanging right there on that very day, then he began to read. And to his astonishment, the first entry brought him to exactly where he was sitting.…
The Journal of James Spencer—Notebook #1
January 10, 1849My Iliad Begins
The day had come. I had made my decision. I would do what drove me and not what tradition prescribed.
I know that this displeased my father. Thaddeus Spencer may have passed on to the heavenly counting-house where God now provided him with ledgers to balance and coins to number and then to balance and number again, like Sisyphus on holiday, but his eyes still stared down upon me from his portrait, as they would upon any who ever again called for a plate of oysters or a tureen of duck liver pâté in the Arbella Club dining room. And those eyes did not approve … of anything.
I had determined, as our friend Richard Henry Dana had put it, to serve my time “before the mast,” to live fully in the world of men, visit our distant shores, and write of my adventures. I would “see the elephant” before settling down to a life as remunerative and yet as unremarkable as my father’s. And so, on that bright, cold Wednesday, I had invited to the Arbella Club my brother and five women whom I loved or merely tolerated—sometimes simultaneously—so that they might hear the words of two men named Samuel, one who always encouraged me and one who left me quietly intimidated.
I had not revealed that last bit to my mother. I had forewarned her of my announcement, so she was unhappy enough already. She took her seat at the round table, with her husband’s portrait peering over her shoulder and her other children flanking her like an honor guard, and she pursed her lips at me in long-suffering disappointment.
To her left sat Diana, the slightly more cheerful of my siblings.
Beside Diana, the portly Samuel Batchelder, editor of the Boston Transcript, admired the champagne bubbling into his glass. To his left, his wife, Hallie, maintained a stream of happy chatter about the depth of the snow in Louisburg Square, the beauties of the new Boston mural on the wall behind me, and the miracle of the even newer, green-and-gold Belgian-loom carpet on the floor.
My brother, Thaddeus Jr., sat at Mother’s right like the Spencer prince regent, a title that was his inheritance by virtue of his place in the birth order and his due by virtue of his efforts in the family business.
His wife, Katherine, a meddlesome ninny with a crinkling eye and an irritating laugh, was crinkling her whole face in my direction, as if the prospect of planning a spring wedding appealed to her almost as much as the prospect of spring itself.
The object of her speculations, Miss Janiva Toler, sat next to me.
Our recent appearances about town—at museums, musicales, and poetry readings—had set Boston to wondering. Would this be the young lady to capture James Spencer? The answer would be no … for the moment. And when I returned from my adventure, the answer might still be no … forever. It was a chance I had to take.
Until she graced you with her smile, Janiva usually presented a dour expression to the world. But on this day, her jaw seemed to have grown so heavy with disappointment that she could do no more than keep her mouth tightly shut, or it might drop open, causing her to resemble one of those old women who wears lead-matrix dentures and goes about looking as if the weight of the world may not be on her shoulders but is surely in her mouth.
The heaviest weight at the table, however, the true force of gravity, sat opposite Sam Batchelder, between my sister-in-law and Janiva. He did not make much in the way of small talk but greeted each guest cordially, then took his seat and allowed the conversation to flow around himself as the rock allows the stream.
While the ladies were most solicitous of him, the coolness of his demeanor suggested that he did not find female attentions unusual. Of course, the ladies would have been solicitous even if he were not, as my sister whispered when he entered the dining room, “as darkly handsome as Byron himself, in black velvet cutaway and gold waistcoat.” Samuel Hodges’s wife had died eleven months earlier, leaving him with two small daughters. So ladies were inclined to see tender bereavement beneath his black brow. I saw the rock and the rock-hard surety of an experienced man.
The waiters—in crimson cutaways and breeches—finished pouring the champagne. Then the two Samuels exchanged glances, and Batchelder raised his glass.
“A toast,” he proclaimed, “to the monthly ladies’ lunch and our female guests, who bring to this masculine space a refinement that inspires us all.”
“Here, here,” said Hodges, and we gentlemen concurred.
Hallie Batchelder, who was happily taken in by her husband’s charms, gave a giggle, took a drink, and said, “Oh, Sam, you’re too kind.”
My mother, who had never been taken in by charms of any sort—which may have explained her attraction to my father—barely touched her glass to her lips.
“And now”—Sam Batchelder aimed his glass at Hodges and me—“to the Sagamore Mining Company. May they pass safely to California and leave there a bright example of New England democracy … while leaving with all the gold they can carry.”
It was plain that this toast brought consternation to the table.
My sister, easily consternated, said, “Who are the Sagamore Mining Company?”
“We are,” I answered. “Samuel Hodges and I and ninety-eight more, a joint stock company going to the Gold Rush on the ship William Winter. We leave Friday.”
“The Gold Rush?” said my brother.
“That crazy thing in California?” said my sister.
“The very thing,” said I. “And a real thing. So says the president of the United States.”
“But the wedding,” said Katherine. “I thought this was about the wedding.”
And Janiva broke her silence. “There’s not to be a wedding … at least for now.”
“Oh, James,” said Katherine, seeing her spring plans fade, “how could you?”
“A fair question.” My mother pursed her lips even more tightly.
Hallie Batchelder tried to change the subject. “I … I love champagne, so decadent in the middle of the day, and so icy cold.”
“Chilled out in the snow, my dear,” said her husband.
“From the faces I see around me,” said Samuel Hodges, “we might have chilled it right here at the table.”
“Forgive us, Mr. Hodges”—my mother haughtily raised her chin—“but I had hoped for news of my son’s engagement to Miss Toler. Instead we learn that he is bound for a barbarous shore and foreign country.”
“The territory of Alta California is now an American possession, ma’am.” Hodges spoke neither aggressively nor defensively, as if facts were facts and needed no adverbs. “It’s been so since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo last year.”
“I daresay,” offered my brother, “had Mexico known of the gold, they might have driven a harder bargain.”
“I doubt it,” said Hodges. “They are an inferior people.”
“How do you come by such knowledge, sir?” asked my brother.
I explained that Hodges was supercargo for the Boston Leather Works. “So he’s been to California many times to procure hides.”
“They called you Bostoños, do they not?” asked Sam Batchelder.
Hodges nodded. “When word goes out that a Boston ship has entered the great bay, the rancheros slaughter their cattle by the thousands to trade.”
“What leads you to conclude that they are inferiors?” asked my sister.
“Why, their indolence, miss. They take only the hide and leave the rest to rot in the open country … sirloin for the vultures, rump steak for the dogs.”
The plain-speaking Mr. Hodges was bringing a harsh new level of discourse to the ladies’ lunch. “These Spaniards and their Mexican serfs are not worthy of California’s bounty. I’m glad we’ve taken it from them.”
“All I know,” said my mother, “is that California is more than six months away.”
“There’s no time to waste, then, is there?” said Sam Batchelder.
My mother turned her eye onto our old family friend. “What are you after, Sam?”
“Dispatches from the Gold Rush,” I said, “And I’m going to deliver them. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, Mother, not a businessman. This is my chance.”
My sister said, “What makes you think you’re even half the writer that Dickie Dana is? You’ve never written anything more than a love letter in your life.”
I was tempted to say that she should not comment on love letters, as she had received so few of them. But I would not see her for a very long time, so I refrained from hurting her feelings and said, “I know that I’ve written too many ledger entries.”
And Hodges took my part. “Your brother will chronicle our efforts, miss, to show New Englanders how a noble band of their own kind shapes a world-historical event.”
“Noble?” My brother scoffed. “How noble can a shipload of fortune hunters be?”
“How noble?” Hodges swung his big head at my brother, like an ox swinging a horn at something that annoyed him. “In California, we will demonstrate the quality of our breeding, sir. A hundred Christian New Englanders, all signing articles of incorporation, all putting up bonds of three hundred dollars apiece for tools, food, and provisions, all prepared to confront the disorder and chaos of California—”
“Just a moment”—my brother raised a finger, a gesture of pure pomposity learned from my father—“James can make his own decisions about where he goes and what he does. He’s twenty-four. He’s of age. But if he’s pledging company funds—”
“You are a small-minded man, Mr. Thaddeus Spencer, Junior.” Hodges’s tone could have chilled a jeroboam of champagne, let alone a few glasses.
Sam Batchelder tried to thaw things. “Now, Thaddeus, the fact is that the Transcript is putting up the bond for your brother.”
“If you think it’s such a good idea, Sam, why not go yourself?” asked my mother.
“Someone needs to stay and edit your son’s dispatches. Besides”—Sam patted his belly—“I’m too fat.”
“You get seasick, too,” said Hallie.
“So does James,” said my mother.
“Seasickness passes,” I said.
“Death does not,” answered my mother.
“Oh, Abigail,” said Sam Batchelder, “they’re picking up gold by the fistful out there. A series of dispatches from one of our own? It’ll be a sensation.”
As my elders batted my fate about like a shuttlecock, my eye was drawn to the waiter filling Hallie Batchelder’s water glass. He was new and was doing something unheard of on the staff. He was listening to our conversation, listening with such rapt attention that the glass came close to overflowing.
But no one else noticed him. They never noticed the waiters. They were all listening to Sam Batchelder tell my mother, “Half the young men in America are headed west, half of Europe, too. Don’t keep James from the story of the century.”
“The story of the century,” asked my brother, “or the myth?”
“The myth, yes”—my sister rolled her eyes—“the myth of the Golden Fleece.”
I was beginning to think that I should have left without saying good-bye to anyone but Janiva. So I asked them, “If Miss Toler understands, why can’t my family?” I took her hand, which rested on the table beside mine. And her touch told me that she did not understand … or approve. It was limp and cold. And suddenly it was wet.
The waiter had reached between us to fill her glass, which overflowed and spilled onto her sleeve. He snatched the towel from his arm and sopped the water on the table. Then he began daubing at Janiva herself.
She pulled away. “It’s all right. It’s quite all right.”
Hodges said, “Pay attention to your own business, mister, or I’ll have your job.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” The waiter hurried away.
But something about him annoyed Samuel Hodges, whose dark eyes followed him all the way to the kitchen door.
Sam Batchelder, however, kept talking. “This is no myth. A tea caddy containing two hundred and thirty ounces of fine gold, carried across the continent by military courier, put on display in Washington? That is evidence of glittering reality.”
My brother scoffed. My sister rolled her eyes. My mother pursed her lips.
* * *
CONVERSATION CALMED AFTER THAT, perhaps because even when upset, the Yankee stomach is always ready for chowder, which was soon emerging from the kitchen.
An ancient waiter named Jonas led with a silver ladle and a towel on his arm.
The new man followed, holding the tureen with the grandest of ceremony, extending it to arm’s length, moving with a measured gait, not taking his eyes from it, as if by watching it he could keep from sloshing it. But he was not only ceremonious. He was slow. And the tip of his tongue peeked out of the corner of his mouth, proclaiming that he was nervous, too. Whatever experience he had gained from life had plainly not come in service. Nevertheless, he arrived at the table without spilling a drop.
I gave him a nod, as if to let him know that I approved. He winked, as if to say that he had just put one over on all of us, except perhaps for me.
Ladies first, Jonas ladled, and the aroma set my mouth to watering.
But our new waiter seemed distracted. Jonas had to give him a hard jerk of the head to bring him along from my mother’s place to my sister’s and so on.
Sam Batchelder watched the chowder fill his wife’s cup as a child watches the cutting of his own birthday cake. “Hurry, Jonas, before the ladies’ chowder cools.”
“I can’t wait.” Hallie Batchelder dipped her spoon.
My mother pursed her lips at the woman she sometimes called “Hungry Hallie.”
Jonas stepped to Janiva’s shoulder and again jerked his head.
My brother said, “Our new man’s a bit of a laggard, Jonas. What’s his name?”
“It’s Michael, sir,” answered Jonas.
My brother flicked his eyes at the new man. “Where do you hail from, Michael?”
The waiter said, “Unh … I … I hail from … the … the—”
“Come now, man,” said Hodges, “you must know where you were born.”
“The British Isles, sir.”
By now, everyone had noticed his accent.
Hodges gave a snort, as if deciding whether to charge. “Which British Isle?”
Through clenched teeth, old Jonas whispered, “Go back to the kitchen, Michael. You’re wanted in the kitchen. Go back. Go.”
“Which British Isle?” repeated Hodges, as if he already knew the answer.
My brother stroked his beard and said, “The second largest of them, I suspect.”
“That would be Ireland,” said my sister, forever proud of her geographical knowledge, though she had seldom traveled much beyond Boston Light.
“You mean this fellow’s Irish?” said my mother. “Irish? Call the club secretary.”
“Hightower!” shouted my brother. “Mr. Hightower!”
Mother grumbled, “Bad enough that we have to put up with them on our streets—”
But for the muffled sound of Hightower’s footfalls on the new carpet, the dining room had gone quiet.
Jonas reached for the tureen. Michael pulled it back, sending creamy hot chowder sloshing and splattering. I jumped up to avoid it and snatched Janiva out of the way, too.
Hallie Batchelder gave out with another, “Oh, dear.” And while she was distracted, her husband slid her chowder over and spooned some into his mouth.
I might have found the whole scene hilarious, except that Hodges had picked up his butter knife and was wiping it off so methodically that it appeared something he had done before, with sharper knives. Skinning knives, perhaps.
So I put myself between Janiva and the Irish waiter and told him to hand over the tureen.
He looked into my eyes, then into the chowder, as if deciding whether to give it to me or throw it at me. He was slightly shorter than I, not much older, with black hair and refined features quite unlike those of the ape-like Micks caricatured in the newspapers. He glanced at Hodges, then he grinned and proffered the tureen, “If you think you can do a better job, sir—”
By now, the cadaverous Mr. Hightower had reached our table. “Back to the kitchen with you, Michael. There’s dishes to be washed—”
“—and debts to be paid.” Michael Flynn plunked the tureen on the table and retreated.
Hightower pulled Janiva’s chair out and invited her to sit again. He told Jonas to get a damp towel and sop up the splatters. He invited Hodges to enjoy another bottle of champagne “compliments of the club secretary.”
“Never mind the champagne.” Hodges dropped his butter knife on his plate with a rattle. “I want that Mick out. Out today. He was listening to our conversation.”
The Irish waiter stopped at the kitchen door, his back to us but his ear cocked.
Hightower was saying, “He claimed he was a Scot, sir. We hired him to wash dishes, but today we needed—”
The Irishman turned on his heels, as if he had come to a decision, and announced, “I ain’t a Scot. I ain’t a Brit. And I ain’t the sultan of Turkey.” He stalked back. “Michael Flynn’s the name, and as Irish as Paddy’s pig I am, a poor refugee—”
“Be quiet,” said Hodges.
“—from the rocky fields of Galway, where the potatoes turn to black mush and the people die from starvation.” He pushed past Hightower and grabbed the ladle from Jonas. “And I can see that I’ve been called by the Good Lord himself to save all you fine folks from the same sad fate. So I’m needed right here. Not in the fuckin’ kitchen!”
“In the what kitchen?” said Hallie Batchelder.
“Cover your ears, dear,” said her husband.
“So I’ll finish chowderin’ up the lot of ye’s, or you’ll all think less of me and me race!”
“We could not think less of you than we do,” said Hodges.
“Then let me change your mind.” Michael dunked the ladle and splashed chowder into Hodges’s cup. “Eat that. It’ll take the edge off your temper.”
Then he splashed another measure into Hallie Batchelder’s cup. “You, too, darlin’, but get it down quick before your fat-guts husband steals it all.”
My brother jumped to his feet, “We don’t want your chowder. We don’t want you in our club. We don’t want you or your kind in our city.”
“And I don’t want to be here,” said Michael Flynn, “but life don’t always work out, now, does it? I’m payin’ the debts me sister owes for makin’ the mistake of dyin’ in a miserable room in a miserable hovel called Hightower House, in a miserable Boston slum called Fort Hill. Until I work off them debts, Hightower’s weasel of a brother is holdin’ all her property, includin’ the only thing dear to me in the world.”
“Be quiet,” whispered Hightower.
The Irishman looked at my mother. “’Tis a fine daguerreotype of me and me sister and our own dear mother, taken a month before she died.”
My mother pursed her lips and looked away, as if she could not care in the least.
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” said Michael Flynn, “we Irish have mothers, too.”
“Dams is a better word,” said Samuel Hodges.
“Dams? Dams, is it? A dam is a female breed horse, sir. Not a human person.”
Hodges leaned back and folded his arms, as if to say that was exactly his point.
“If you’re callin’ me sainted Irish mother a dumb animal, I’ll be askin’ you to step outside. And we won’t be fightin’ with butter knives. Bare knuckles it’ll be, to the count of ten.”
Hodges pushed back his chair to stand.
But the Irishman grinned. He seemed well-skilled at starting fires, then throwing water on them. “Of course, if you’re callin’ her a fine thoroughbred, which is usually what it means when you put a sire to a dam in the sport of kings, I accept the compliment. So take your seat and eat up. You’ll need your strength for your long trip.”
Flynn splattered chowder into the remaining cups and called out as Hightower slipped away, “No need to be sendin’ for the constable, there, Mr. Club Secretary. I’m done. Let these fine folks get back to plannin’ the conquest of California.” He dropped the ladle into the tureen. “I just might head out there meself. So you can keep the family picture. That way you’ll recognize me when I come back a rich man.”
He had seized the moment and made it his own. I was impressed and secretly entertained.
Then his eye fell on Janiva. “And may I say, miss, if your handsome beau won’t marry you and take you along, I’d be charmed to offer you protection on the voyage. You’ll get no sneaky-fingers or bloomer pullin’ from me—”
Hallie Batchelder gasped. She knew what that meant.
“—for I’m as honorable as any man in this room. And there’s no reason why ladies shouldn’t see the world and have a bit of adventure, too, is there?”
I was shocked. This waiter had just said to Janiva what Janiva had said to me when I told her I was leaving. I stiffened my spine and said, “You’re done, mister. Best hurry for the next ship.” Then I prepared to defend myself.
But Michael Flynn answered with a courteous bow. “I apologize, sir, if I’ve offended you or your lady. You seem a right gentleman, despite your upbringin’.”
Yes, he could start a fire and put it out, all in a sentence or two. Then he turned smoldering ash into a conflagration by reaching his arms around Hallie Batchelder, and before anyone could react, grabbing the table and flipping it at Hodges. Amidst screams and shouts and gasps of shock, the tureen, chowder, glasses, silverware, dishes, centerpiece, and my ninny of a sister-in-law went flying.
Flynn snatched the bottle of champagne before it toppled, took a swallow, pivoted on his heels, and stalked toward the cloakroom, shouting, “May the lot of ye’s rot under the gaze of all the dead Boston bastards on these walls.”
Though the table was gone from in front of her, my mother remained motionless in her chair, pursing her lips. Hallie Batchelder seemed to be having a fit of hyperventilation as her husband fanned her with his napkin. My sister stared at the dinner plates now spinning on the floor with eyes almost as wide as the plates.
But Hodges took action. He flung the table off himself and sent it flying at me. Then he scrambled to his feet and hurried toward the cloakroom. A moment later, all two hundred pounds of him staggered back into the dining room, turned once, and collapsed onto an unoccupied table, setting off another explosion of glass, cutlery, and club-monogrammed china.
The Irishman, wearing someone’s fine winter cape and a familiar brown hat with a leather visor, poked his head through the door and shouted at the unconscious Hodges, “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten. Out!” Then he pivoted and strutted down the hallway.
I hurried after him, reaching the foyer just as the front door slammed. Then, from the outside, Michael Flynn’s gloved fist smashed through one of the sidelights.
“Good God!” shouted Hightower. “Somebody should shoot that man!”
“Let him go,” I said.
“But sir, he just stole your hat.”
The Irishman was singing as he bounded down the steps. Something about a “wild colonial boy.”
“My hat?” I said. “He can keep it. Wherever he’s going, he’ll need it.” Then I picked up the card that had flown into the foyer with the broken glass. Neatly lettered upon it were the words No Irish Need Apply.
January 12, 1849Farewelling
The air smelled of snow on the morning that I gazed for the first time upon the vessel that would take us to California. The William Winter loomed over Long Wharf, a wall-sided Atlantic packet with raised decks fore and aft, false gun ports painted into a white strip along her side, and three mighty masts piercing the clouds.
I stepped from our coach directly under the gaze of Reverend Winter himself, a North Shore minister so beloved of his parishioners that they had named a ship for him. He appeared seven feet tall, exquisitely carved in black robes, with his Bible clutched to his chest and his god-like mane of white hair blown back in the imaginary breeze, a fitting figurehead for a boatload of high-minded Christian adventurers like us.
But this wooden minister paid no mind to the Sagamores farewelling with friends and families, or to the bustle on the nearby wharves, where other crowds were gathering and other ships readying for California. And he did not cock his ear to the band playing light airs by the gangway. His gaze reached beyond all of us, beyond the harbor islands, out to the gray sea that would soon be our highway to wealth and fame.
Let others have the wealth, I thought. I would take the fame of writing it all down.
Then my mother interrupted my reverie. “You’re not going to California in that little chamber pot, are you?”
“It’s as seaworthy as the Constitution, Mother, and almost as big.”
My sister leaned out the carriage window. “Has it ever gone around that thing at the bottom of South America?”
“The Horn,” I said. “It’s called Cape Horn. And this ship has crossed the Atlantic a hundred times. She can weather whatever comes at Cape Horn.”
“I wouldn’t sail to Cape Cod in it.” My sister climbed out after me. “And why do they call it a ‘she’ if it’s named for a man?”
“Let’s ask the captain.” I helped her down, then reached up to help my mother. “I’ll introduce you both.”
“Where is he?” asked my mother.
“He’s standing by the taffrail, that man in the black sea cape and the top hat that looks like an upturned plant pot.”
“Taffrail?” said Diana.
“The stern rail,” I said, “at the very back of the ship.”
My mother looked at him. “Stern rail and stern face.”
“Like you, Mother.” And I noticed two men sniggering at our conversation.
One was Christopher Harding. He was an old Harvard chum. He had even squired my sister to a cotillion in college. He could be forgiven.
The other was Deering Sloate, whom I had disliked from the day that the alphabet made us neighbors in a classroom at the Boston Latin School twelve years before.
Was it any wonder that I had asked my mother and sister not to attend our departure? I had no desire to see this voyage turned into a floating boys’ school, complete with the cliques, grudges, and the needling insults so common in such places. And no one had more skill at sophomoric needling than Sloate, especially where mothers and sisters were concerned. So I decided to needle first.
I said, “Hello, lads. Ready for me to write about how brave you think you are?”
“Jamie, old boy! I was hoping you’d be with us.” Christopher’s skinny frame fairly quivered with excitement. “There are half a dozen of us from the Class of Forty-five.”
“We can start a Harvard Club, then,” I said.
“What fun!” said Christopher, who had a naïve innocence and absolutely no ear for sarcasm.
“Fun.” Sloate laughed, though it was unclear if he was laughing with Christopher or at him. “He thinks it’s going to be fun, Spencer.”
I gestured to the big Walker Colt that Sloate wore in a holster at his hip, like a badge of manhood. “That gun won’t help against twenty-foot seas.”
“You’re not bringing pistols?” Sloate rested his hand on the gun. “Just your pen?”
“I can do more damage with my pen. Be careful, or I might turn it on you.” Then I turned my back on Sloate.
I had packed a brace of Colt Dragoons, a gift from my brother, but as my mother’s first glimpse of them in our parlor had caused her emotions to overflow, I was not wearing them on the wharf. I did not want another scene. I also wanted to board quickly, so I ordered our footman to fetch my sea bag from the boot.
The bylaws of the company, acceded to by all members when they signed articles of incorporation, stated, “Each man shall be allowed one sea bag, not to exceed seventy-five pounds weight, the contents being the equivalent in bulk of a single sea chest, dimensions 36 × 48 × 24. For reasons of space, no chests shall be allowed, except those belonging to the company physician and assayer.”
I had weighed, measured, and packed my bag, based on this list:
1 oilskin for rain
2 hats—1 broad-brimmed black felt (which I was then wearing), 1 straw
2 pairs of boots (1 new, 1 broken in)
3 each of flannel shirts, heavy twill trousers, suits of small clothes
1 blanket, 1 sheet of India rubber for ground-sleeping
10 reams of foolscap, 7 notebooks, 100 pencils, 5 pens, 20 nibs, 20 bottles of ink
5 books—Shakespeare, Virgil, Dickens, Fielding, the Holy Bible
2 Colt Dragoons, with powder horn and lead mold
In addition, I was wearing my winter cape over my tweed suit. It was a rig that could stand up to Boston’s weather, so I was certain that it could handle the worst that the ocean might hurl at us.
When the footman handed me my sea bag, my mother’s eyes filled with tears. She pretended to shiver and said, “Oh … I hate a raw winter day.”
And I was glad that Janiva and I had already bidden our farewells.…
* * *
I HAD RIDDEN THE day before to her home on Blackstone Square, to take tea under the watchful—and baleful—gaze of her parents.
Mrs. Toler was a sweet and perceptive woman. Mr. Toler was better known for bluntness. He owned the Roxbury Cordage Company and boasted that there was no more important industry in Massachusetts, as his ropes formed the shrouds and fashioned the lines that held Boston masts in place and kept Yankee sails aloft in the heaviest gales in the farthest reaches of the watery world. I had never disputed this statement, as Mr. Toler did not invite disputation.
While the mother had made lively small talk, the patriarch had said little, and by his scowl had reminded me—if I did not already know—that he disapproved of my continued presence in both his parlor and his daughter’s affections. A spurned father, it is said, can be even less understanding than a spurned daughter.
At length, Mrs. Toler had made an excuse to draw her husband from the room, thus providing her daughter and me with a moment of privacy.
Once alone, I had taken Janiva’s hand and assured her, “If I could bring you, I would.”
“Then why don’t you? Women deserve a chance to look beyond the horizon, too, just as that Irish waiter said.”
“I wouldn’t take my life’s philosophy from Irish waiters.”
“Even when you know it to be true?” She had slipped her hand from mine.
“When I return, I’ll take you to Italy. We’ll visit the antiquities.”
“Is that meant to be the proposal my father has been expecting?” This had burst from her so angrily that I was glad to see Mr. Toler reappearing with my cape and hat, a wordless invitation for me to be on my way.
Janiva had then escorted me to the foyer, where she pulled from her sleeve a red neckerchief with a yellow paisley pattern. She said it was silk and so would warm me in winter and cool me in summer and dry quickly when I washed it, which she hoped I would do often.
After a glance into the parlor to make sure that her father was not watching, I had embraced her. And even through the heavy layers of wool that I wore and the lighter cotton and petticoats that encased her, I had felt enough to make more than my heart leap up. She had then shocked me by taking my face in her hands and giving me a kiss longer and more profound than any I had ever enjoyed.
“My parting gift,” she had said with a mixture of loving ferocity and cold anger. “I won’t be there tomorrow. I won’t play the heartsick lover for all of Boston to see.”
“Nor would I ask you to. We sail on the morning tide. It ebbs at eight thirty.”
“Far too early for my delicate constitution.” She had added bitterness to her tone.
And her father’s voice had echoed from the parlor: “Good-bye, Mr. Spencer.”
* * *
NOW THE SHIP’S BELL was ringing—eight times for eight in the morning.
The first mate spoke through a brass trumpet while the captain stood, arms folded at his back, projecting an air of imperturbable calm. “All Sagamores to board immediately. Those not registered in twenty minutes will be left behind.”
This brought a wordless moan from the crowd and a burst of movement on the wharf. Mothers held their sons. Fathers hid their tears. Lovers kissed. And a group of young men—full of life, energy, and optimism—gathered their gear and pressed for the gangways, all to the band’s accompaniment of a jaunty “Yankee Doodle”.
I embraced my mother and sister and turned for the ship before either of them started weeping.
I tipped my hat to a group of tradesmen who were passing a bottle in the cold air: the Brighton Bulls, six former butchers from the abattoir on the Charles River. Their leader introduced himself as Fat Jack Sawyer, whose fat looked more like muscle to me.
I dodged a Negro rolling a water cask to the forward gangway.
Then I fell in behind Jason Willis, whose wife could not bring herself to leave her husband’s side. Willis was a classmate of my brother’s and generally a decent fellow, but not one who believed that the rules ever applied to him. As if to prove that point, his servant was carrying his sea chest while Willis carried his bag and his wife clung to his arm.
At the top of the gangway, the second mate was checking each name and weighing each bag, so Willis and I had time to talk.
He said, “Looks like we’ll be sailing with darkies, James.”
“If the crew doesn’t mind, why should we?” I asked.
“Indeed. Why should we mind darkies if we’re asked to tolerate Micks? From all the brogues and blarney I’ve heard, there’s a few of them in the fo’c’sle, too.”
I had never considered Jace Willis worth the energy it took to argue with him. So I smiled and turned to the man behind me.
He was a burly fellow, with a sullen brow and dark eyes. He wore the clothes of a tradesman, which may have explained his discomfort, considering that so many of us were dressed like dandies out for an afternoon of pistol-shooting fun. He carried a sea bag in one hand and a large canvas sack in the other. I offered my hand.
He dropped the sack, which clanked, pulled off his glove, and enveloped my hand with his own. “Name’s Dooling. Matt Dooling.”
“Well, Mr. Dooling, I hope you’re ready for adventure.”
“Ain’t expectin’ adventure. That’s a word with a ring of fun to it. Ain’t expectin’ nothin’ but a hard voyage and hard labor in California.”
“If I may ask, then, why have you decided to join us?”
“Every man has his moment. Every man has to take his chance when it comes, or he’ll spend the rest of his life wonderin’. That’s what I told my wife and kids.”
And a line from Shakespeare popped from my mouth: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which if taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
“Didn’t tell ’em that, exactly. Just told ’em, if I sold the blacksmith shop, I could pay the bond and get a berth on one of the first ships leavin’ for California. So here I am, aimin’ to work hard and send every nugget home.”
In the face of such simple sincerity, I was embarrassed at showing off my book-learning. So I said, “It will be a pleasure to sail with you, sir.”
Then we were distracted by raised voices at the head of the gangplank.
“I’ll have your name,” Willis’s wife was saying. “My husband is on the board of this company.”
“Name’s Kearns, ma’am, Sean Kearns. And these is your own rules. No sea chests allowed.” Kearns spoke with one of the brogues that Willis had alluded to.
“But an extensive library,” said Willis, “will benefit everyone on a six-month voyage. An exception can be made.”
“I ain’t the man to say.”
Samuel Hodges was standing by the mainmast, in much the same authoritative attitude as the captain on the quarterdeck. Now he came to the side. “Trouble?”
Willis said, “Samuel, this fellow won’t allow me to bring a few books.”
“No sea chests allowed,” said Hodges. “It’s in the articles.”
Mrs. Willis said, “But, Samuel, surely a few more books will—”
“Madame,” said Hodges, “in California, we will need only what we can carry.”
“This is ridiculous,” said Willis.
“Ridiculous?” And Hodges revealed how quickly his calm might blow up a tempest. “I’ll show you ridiculous.” He grabbed one of the handles of the chest on the servant’s shoulder, gave a sharp tug, and flung it into the water.
Both Willises gasped as if their child were in that trunk.
“Now, come aboard with your sea bag,” said Hodges, “but not your wife, or the two of you can stay here and fish your Fenimore Cooper out of the harbor.”
The wife tugged on her husband’s arm, and a red-faced Jason Willis turned and pushed back down the gangway.
Hodges called after him, “Don’t delay if you plan to sail, Willis.” Then he turned to me and his mood changed in an instant. “Good morning, James.”
“Good morning, Samuel.” I glanced at the chest sinking into the harbor, then spelled my name for the mate and handed over my bag for weighing.
“Give him a good billet,” said Hodges. “He’s the most important man on the ship.”
“I’m hardly that,” I said.
“Nonsense.” Hodges turned for the quarterdeck. “We’re making history, Spencer. You can’t make history without a historian.”
“First cabin, berth four, larboard.” Kearns waved me aboard and turned to Dooling, who had fit his tool bag into his sea bag. “Bag on the scale and state your name.”
“Matt Dooling’s my name, and my bag’s fifteen pounds over.”
Hodges spun around and approached again.
I interceded. “This man’s a blacksmith, Samuel. He’s brought tools. That’s why his bag’s over the limit.”
“Is that true?” said Hodges.
Dooling nodded. “I brung hammers, tongs, hand bellows—”
“A blacksmith may be valuable in California,” I added.
Hodges thought that over, then told Dooling, “You should have filled out a request. But Spencer’s right. We can use your tools. Come aboard.”
As we descended the companionway, the blacksmith said to me, “Matt Dooling never forgets a favor.”
* * *
SOON, A HUNDRED MEMBERS of the Sagamore Mining Company assembled on the deck in a swirling snow flurry. And what a grand mix of men we were—merchants, mechanics, shopkeeps, schoolteachers, lawyers, six butchers, a new-minted doctor, and one ambitious writer, all bundled against the cold and warmed by the mix of emotions that boiled in every breast. Most of us were in our twenties, prime age for adventuring. But some, like Dooling, appeared to be in their thirties, the decade when men must either accept their place in life or take a final chance to change it. And a few, like Hodges, had reached their forties, already successful yet hungry for more.
While California beckoned, we would first hear from Reverend Stone, pastor of the Park Street Church. He took to the quarterdeck, raised his hand, and the band stopped playing. This caused the buzz of conversation to cease on both the ship and the wharf.
The first mate brought the speaking trumpet to his lips: “Seamen, stand by!” And twenty sailors stopped in their tasks, wherever they stood.
As the wind puffed from the west and pushed the snow sideways, the austere young minister looked up into the flurry and said, “Almighty God, you who made the sweeping seas and the craggy mountains, look with favor upon this company of Christian men. Guide them through the dangers they will face and the temptations they will encounter.”
And from somewhere forward came whispering. I could not see the whisperer’s face as his hat was pulled low, but I recognized his brogue … and the hat.
Reverend Stone continued, “When the great winds blow on your ocean sea or the dark impulses course through your human creations, keep these men in your grace.” Then he lowered his gaze to us. “As for all of you, I charge you to bring your values, your culture, and your Christian faith to California. Implant them there to grow and flourish.”
I was listening to the reverend, but I could still hear that Irish waiter whispering to one of his mates by the anchor capstan, “When these Yanks get to the diggin’s, they’ll be no different from the rest of us. They’ll knock down any who get in their way.”
Just then a carriage came clattering onto the wharf and caused me to forget both the whispering Irishman and the droning minister. Seeing the Toler footman at the reins, I knew that Janiva had come after all! For a moment, I considered leaping over the side to embrace her and surrender straight away to the life of domesticity I was fleeing.
But just as suddenly as she appeared, our leaving-taking accelerated.
It started with a slight motion beneath our feet and a gentle whoosh of water along our hull. Slack tide had ended. The ebb was begun. And neither time, tide, nor Captain Nathan Trask would wait for any man, not even the pastor of the Park Street Church. The reverend was reaching his conclusion, “In the name of Almighty God—” when Trask cried, “Amen! Amen, Reverend. Amen.”
The crowd answered, “Amen.”
The captain shook Reverend Stone’s hand and directed him to the gangway while dockhands scrambled and the first mate called through his megaphone, “Drop anchor!”
Yes. Drop was the order. Our longboat had hauled a light kedging anchor into the channel. Once it dug into the mud, the men at the capstan would crank the ship onto it, repeating the process until the William Winter was well away from Long Wharf. The captain did not seem to favor the newfangled steam-driven tugs puffing about Boston Harbor, perhaps because no tugboat would be waiting in California. Our crew would know how to warp ship and leave a dock the old-fashioned way.
The anchor splashed, and the first mate cried, “Away all lines!”
Now rose another cry, almost a wail, from the families on the wharf, as if they were at last accepting the truth that we would be gone for years and might return as different men, if we returned at all.
Somewhere in the crowd, a little girl cried, “Daddy!”
Samuel Hodges took off his hat and waved it at her. “Be good to your sister, and mind your Aunt Nell!” I thought that I saw him wipe away a tear. I could not be certain.
The reverend stepped off the gangway and nodded to the band, which began to play “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.”
But I was watching Janiva push through the crowd, her eyes searching. I squeezed between Christopher Harding and Jason Willis and called to her.
“James! James!” She waved. “Godspeed, James Spencer. Godspeed!”
“I’ll write. Every week. I promise.”
People in the crowd and in the company were now taking up the old hymn.
“On Jordan’s stony banks I stand and cast a wishful eye…”
The mate cried, “Lay on the capstan.”
“To Canaan’s far and happy land, where my possessions lie…”
Eight men held bars fitted into the capstan-head like spokes in the hub of a wheel. As they pushed clockwise, seven hundred and fifty tons of William Winter almost miraculously began to move.
“All o’er those wide extended plains shines one eternal day…”
As the Irish waiter cranked past, he said to me, “Are you sure you don’t want to take her along?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to sail on a different ship?” I answered.
“Quiet at the capstan,” shouted Kearns.
Yes, I thought, quiet at the capstan. There would be time enough for you later, Michael Flynn of Galway, time enough for Samuel Hodges to make your life miserable.
“There, God the son forever reigns and scatters night away…”
Janiva was standing now beside my mother and sister, and they were all singing:
“I am bound for the Promised Land, I am bound for the Promised Land…”
Then my mother turned away in tears. My sister brought her hand to her mouth to hide her quivering chin.
“Oh, who will come and go with me?”
But Janiva kept her eyes resolutely on mine, as if she would not allow me to see her weep. And through the falling snow, her lips formed the words, “I love you.”
“Isn’t that sweet,” whispered Deering Sloate. “She loves you.”
I ignored Sloate. There would be time enough for him later, too.
“I am bound for the Promised Land.”
I pulled off the red and yellow-paisley neckerchief that she had given me and waved it.
I waved it until the William Winter had twice kedged the length of her cable and turned into the channel. I waved it until we had shaken out our t’gallants and made for President Roads. I waved it through three choruses of the old hymn and prayed that when we returned, I would find no irony in the lyrics, that I would come home to tell of a true promised land on the far side of our vast American continent.
But I did not deceive myself. We were not bound for the promised land. We were bound for adventure, bound for danger, and bound for gold, however we could get it.
* * *
BY LATE AFTERNOON, THE William Winter was running before a brisk northwesterly that pushed the morning flurries far to the east and brought down a cold that was deep and bracing and filled a man with a sense of his own existence, even as it froze the tips of his ears.
I reveled in the rhythm of wind, water, and wooden hull, and I understood yet again why men would leave all that was warm and domestic to sail the endless and unforgiving sea, for here was a domesticity all its own. Our ship was like a great birth mother, rocking us, rocking us, up and down, down and up, over and over, with a soft yet certain hand, holding us to her bosom like the living thing she was … never mind that a third of the company had taken seasick before we crossed Massachusetts Bay.
I feared that belly-churning head-spinning spew, feared it like a broken bone, feared it for the misery of it, and feared it for on this ship, the sick ones would only give the needlers another reason to needle.
But much to my satisfaction, the chief needler sickened before anyone else. We had barely passed Boston Light when Deering Sloate lurched to the rail so suddenly that he did not have the time, or perhaps the knowledge, to determine which was the better side for puking. So he did it straight into the wind, with the expected effect.
By the time we cleared Cape Cod, two dozen men, green-faced and groaning, had stumbled like drunks to the side.
* * *
JUST AFTER FOUR O’CLOCK, eight bells and the beginning of the first “dog watch,” we made the turn south. By then I had found a spot on the weather side, away from the vomiteers, where I could watch the sun dip toward the horizon and hear the hiss of the water along our hull, all without their retching and wretched accompaniment.
I calculated that we would pass near two hundred seaborne sunsets before reaching San Francisco. I resolved to observe each one and celebrate nature’s unending variety even as it unfolded within the proscenium of her comforting predictability.
Then I sensed beside me a man who embodied the predictability of ancient hatreds within the discomforting proscenium of an explosive Irish temperament. I gave him the corner of my eye and said, “A fine hat.”
“Best I could find in the cloakroom. I like the leather visor.” He tugged at it.
“Did you know that the Sagamores were sailing on this ship?”
“Didn’t know and don’t much care. I’ll steer clear of the big Hodges feller, but it ain’t him you need to be worryin’ about. It’s the captain. He’s the hard case on this ship.”
“Where did you learn to sail?”
“Never said I did. But I can haul a line and climb a rope. The rest I’ll learn.” He looked up at the canvas bellied round in the booming wind. “Better than ladlin’ chowder for Yankee swells in a club where everybody has a broomstick up his ass.”
The bosun’s whistle sounded three notes that cut through the roar of wind and sea, and the first mate shouted into the speaking trumpet, “Ship’s company, all aft!”
With alacrity, the men responded, and in minutes, the midships was crowded with Sagamores, while nineteen sailors, all save the helmsman, stood before the rail separating us from the quarterdeck and the captain, who studied us with a kind of interested detachment, as if examining a tray of oysters and deciding which one to pop into his mouth first. Then he nodded to the mate, who began:
“I’m Hawkins, first officer and last man between you and the captain. Before you speak to him, you speak to me. I will determine if your words are worth his time.”
The captain turned toward the setting sun. His face became all angles and edges, sharpened by reddening rays skimming low across the sea.
“Now, you Sagamores,” Mr. Hawkins went on, “if you’re seasick, don’t vomit belowdecks. It’ll stink for months. And don’t vomit on the weather side. Get to the lee. If you don’t know the lee, look to the sails. If the sails belly to larboard, puke to larboard.”
And as if it had been planned, Christopher Harding, who had been swaying by the mainmast, suddenly brought his hand to his mouth and turned toward the setting sun. The mate shouted, “The other side! Leeward, I said! Puke to leeward!”
Christopher made it just in time, generating loud amusement from the Sagamores. The crew, however, knew to stand stock-still and silent when assembled.
“The captain don’t usually speak so soon in the voyage, but all this pukin’ means we’re full up to the scuppers with landlubbers. So you need a talkin’ to right now. So…” The mate stepped back, leaving the stage to his superior.
With one sweep of his eye, the captain fixed his gaze on every man. “I am Nathan Trask.” His voice was high and harsh, sharpened by a lifetime of cutting through storms and stiff Atlantic gales. “I have sailed the Boston to Liverpool run for nine years without incident. But the owners of this vessel see greater profit in ferrying fortune-seekers to California.”
He paused, as if to let the contempt in his voice settle upon us like a mist. “It will not be an easy journey. We will cover seventeen thousand miles. There will be storms and cold and heat to cook your nuts if you sit too long on the deck.”
No one cracked a smile now. It was plain that nothing this man said was meant for laughter.
“At Cape Horn the wind’ll blow so hard, you won’t be able to breath it before it jams down your throat. And the waves’ll run as high as the mainmast. Every man’ll get wet and stay wet for as long as it takes to clear the danglin’ prick of South America.”
I was glad that I had brought my sea cape.
“In the Pacific, we’ll run the Roarin’ Forties, ride the Southeast Trades, and fall into the doldrums. When we are becalmed, it’ll be boredom and heat that do you in. I tell you this because I tell you the truth, which you may not have heard until now. But I tell you this because we are New Englanders, and no race has rounded the Horn as regular as we. That’s why you’re running for riches on my ship instead of on the back of a mule pulling a wagon.”
He strode right, then left, looking into every eye like a minister before a sinful congregation. “It don’t matter a fiddler’s fart to me whether you find gold or not. I will get you where you’re going in six months, more or less, so long as you follow the rules. Mr. Hawkins, tell them the rules.”
“Aye, sir.” Hawkins affected similar chin whiskers and gaunt appearance, a captain in waiting. “There’s only one: obey the captain in all things.”
Trask nodded. “Let any man violate, deviate, or hesitate when an order is given, and I will have that man spread-eagled before the next sail change. I’ll waste no breath on you Sagamores. Obey your leaders. You elected them. But you did not elect me, any more than you elected He who rules above. And on this ship, He is my only superior.”
I was beginning to doubt that Captain Trask believed even that.
He said, “I can condemn you to hell or take you to the Promised Land in that song. It’s up to you. Is that clear?”
The Sagamores mumbled and nodded, though a few scowled and shot angry glances about, as if insulted at such a talking-to.
Captain Trask looked at Hodges, who had put himself on the quarterdeck, though respectfully to windward of the captain. “Speak for your people, sir. I want to hear it. I want to know that I am making myself clear.”
“As clear as the sunset, Captain. We hired you to take us to California. We will obey your orders and trust your experience. Once there”—Hodges looked out at the assembled company—“the president and board of directors will determine our course.”
Trask studied Hodges, as if deciding whether this answer was sufficiently subservient. Perhaps he recognized that Hodges had to project leadership, too. Men in power usually understood one another, and so long as one man’s power did not challenge the other’s, all would be well.
But if any aboard doubted Trask’s supremacy, he was about to disabuse them. “You veteran seamen, you know what’s expected. The rest of you, pay attention. Seaman Flynn, step forward.”
We had not yet crossed the forty-second parallel, and Michael Flynn had already crossed an imaginary line. He hesitated a moment, then obeyed. I could not see his face, so I watched as Hodges glanced at him, then looked more closely, then stared as if he were seeing an Irish apparition. Then he turned and said something into the captain’s ear.
The captain ignored Hodges and proclaimed, “Seaman Flynn, while at the capstan, you showed disrespect to Reverend Stone. In so doing, you showed disrespect to the ship’s company, to the Sagamores, and to me. After obedience, I demand respect, because disrespect is the forerunner of disobedience. A dozen lashes.”
“A dozen lashes?” cried Flynn.
“Make that fifteen. And another for every word out of your mouth.”
“Sixteen. Ship’s company to witness punishment. Mr. Hawkins, seize him up.”
“Aye, sir.” The first mate signaled to a pair of sailors who grabbed Flynn and wrestled him to the starboard side, where they raised a hatch grate and trussed him to it. Then they stripped his shirt. The white skin of his back against the grate looked like fine Irish linen set down on a black frying pan.
“Mr. Kearns, fetch the cat,” ordered Hawkins.
We all knew of the cat-o’-nine-tails, nine knotted strands of rope attached to a handle, a simple yet diabolical instrument of discipline. And we had all heard of floggings. We had expected to see a few before the voyage was done but not on the very first day.
And I could rightly say that the next few minutes chastened any man who might ever have considered back-talking Captain Nathan Trask.
“One!” cried First Mate Hawkins.
Flynn grit his teeth and clenched his jaws.
Whistle, snap, and “Two!”
Flynn straightened up as if he would shake off the pain.
Whistle, snap, and “Three!”
Blood appeared on Flynn’s skin.
Four more lashes, and Flynn’s back began to resemble rare beef, purpling, bruised, blood-blistered. But still he kept silent.
Deering Sloate joined Christopher Harding at the rail, and others followed, because this was a sight to sicken any man.
Two more lashes and a line of blood droplets splattered across the deck, as if to describe the arcs that the whip strands were taking with every swing.
“This is getting inhuman,” I muttered and turned my eyes toward the sky that was itself blood red.
“They been doin’ it since the Romans,” whispered Matt Dooling from behind me. “And you was ordered to witness punishment. You can’t turn away.”
So I watched and tried to concentrate on the motion of the ship, but the maternal rhythm seemed now to be keeping pace with the infernal swinging of the whip and the snapping of the ropes against that white Irish flesh.
Up, whistle, down, snap. Up, whistle, down, snap.
After a dozen strokes, the captain made a small motion of his hand, and the second mate stopped swinging. The captain announced, “We will forego further punishment. Cut him down and salt his wounds.”
Released from the grate, Flynn wobbled, trembled, but instead of collapsing, pulled himself up straight and defiant, like a man who had taken a beating before.
The captain said, “Have you learned your lesson, seaman?”
Flynn glared toward the quarterdeck.
“Belay that cross look, mister,” said the captain, “or I’ll seize you up for another dozen. Have you learned your lesson?”
“I have the utmost respect, sir, for you.” Then Flynn turned his eyes to Hodges.
Hodges moved closer to the captain and said something else in his ear. The captain did not even shift his eyes in Hodges’s direction.
A man pushed forward, George Beal by name, Sagamore physician. He had recently completed studies at the Harvard Medical Annex and, like so many of us, saw this voyage as a chance to test his mettle in a world not made by his parents. He would test it first on lacerations made by a knotted rope. He asked permission to tend to the sailor’s back.
The captain eyed him and nodded.
As the doctor led him to the companionway, Flynn glared at me. “I ain’t like you or your friend up there. When I fight a man, I fight him and we’re done with it. I never had a man flogged for beatin’ me fair.”
I was shocked but reminded myself that a man who had endured such punishment might lack clear-headedness. I watched him stagger to the companionway, with Doc Beal close behind, then I asked Willis, “May I borrow your flask?”
* * *
BELOWDECKS, A POT OF stew bubbled on the cast-iron caboose, the ship’s stove. The heat and hefty aromas made this dark, low-ceilinged space feel like the sailor’s home it would be for six months. The forecastle, or “fo’c’sle” in seafaring jargon, occupied the space forward of the mast, snug in the bow. Eighteen wooden berths, in stacks of three, lined the bulkheads. Lanterns swung over the table and the benches affixed to the deck. Here the crew ate, slept, sang, and kept warm.
Flynn was sitting on a bench, his shoulders hunched, his head down.
Doc Beal was mixing something with a mortar and pestle.
The cook, a burly Negro in a white apron, was examining Flynn’s back, saying, “Ain’t so bad. More bruise than blood. Second Mate go easy on you.”
Flynn said, “It ain’t the pain botherin’ me, Pompey. It’s the singlin’ out.”
“Hodges and his nancy-boy friend singled me out, told the captain I’m a troublemaker, which I ain’t.”
“Nah.” Pompey shook his head. “First day, the cap always pick on somebody. But I ship with him for three years and he never yet listen to no passenger ’bout nothin’. He’s a hard man but fair. If he say you done somethin’, you done it.”
Flynn seemed too pained to argue. He just bowed his head.
And from the shadows, I said, “I can’t speak for Hodges, but I had nothing to do with this.”
Flynn looked up with anger in his eyes.
I preferred to look into them than at his back. I asked him how he was feeling.
He laughed, though he could not be amused at anything but the stupidity of the question. “I feel like a peeled potato.”
I offered the flask. “A little painkiller.”
“I never touch the stuff.”
Now it was I who laughed. But he turned away and stared into the shadows. So I offered the flask to the Negro, who took it eagerly and poured a shot down his throat. With his apron he wiped off the mouth before handing it back to me.
Doc Beal told Flynn, “If you’ve never touched it, you might want to start, because this is going to hurt.”
Flynn looked into the mortar. “What’s that?”
“Salt mixed with vinegar.”
Pompey peered over the doctor’s shoulder. “I use plain salt.”
“Salt dries the wound,” said the doctor, “and that’s good. But vinegar cleans it. The mix stings just as bad but works better.”
Flynn snatched the flask, took a long drink, and said, “Lay on.”
And for the next few minutes, Doc Beal dipped his fingers into the concoction and spread it delicately across the lacerations. Flynn kept silent, though the pain was surely excruciating. I watched with such awe that I did not take a swallow from the flask until the salting was done.
Then Flynn growled at me. “You got somethin’ else to say?”
“Only this.” I paraphrased his own words: “When I fight a man, I fight with my fists. I never had a man flogged for fighting me fair.”
“A fine speech.” Flynn slipped a clean shirt over his skinned back. “When I’m up to it, you can take a swing at me to prove you ain’t a nancy-boy. Now get out.”
I shoved the flask into my pocket and returned to the main deck. If I had nothing else to say to that Irishman on the voyage, I had said my piece.
January 14, 1849Our First Sunday
The ship makes a steady eight knots that will bring us in two months to S 8'03? W 34'52?, just off the Brazilian coast, where we can finally make a turn west. As the great belly of South America bulges far into the Atlantic, some thousand miles east of Boston, we must sail away from our goal before sailing toward it, but that seems always to be the nature of travel by sea … and through life, too.
Little intercourse between sailors and passengers. Much settling in. Many routines established, including my writing. I conclude that some days will require long passages rewritten into the past tense. Others will make little impression but for their monotony.…
January 18–20Seasickness and Storms
Overnight, the northwesterly that had driven us began to shift. By six bells, we were banging hard against a headwind that sent cold sleet into our sails and slammed relentless waves over our bow. This “hulling,” as the sailors call it, produced a motion that I could neither ignore nor tolerate. Soon I had joined a dozen or more Sagamores at the rail to “cast and scour,” as ye olde Pilgrims put it, much to the amusement of the seamen who warned us yet again not to puke into the wind.
But after two days, good sailing returned, about the time that I stopped vomiting. Pompey told me I was now “cleaned out good,” so I might tolerate a bit of salt pork and biscuit. It eased me, and now I can truly say that I have got my sea legs.
January 24, 1849A Dispatch for the Transcript
We hove-to when a northbound ship appeared on the horizon, the brig Pemberton, carrying a cargo of molasses and hemp after trading lumber and codfish in Barbados.
It is a cordiality of the sea that passing vessels often reach out to one another. The exchange may be simple, as when we sighted our first sail: “Ship Ahoy!” “Halloo!” “What ship is that, pray?” “The bark Virginia, from Le Havre, bound for New York. Where are you from?” “The ship William Winter from Boston, bound for California, five days out.” Unless there is leisure or something special to say, this is seldom varied from. But if there is time or need, men who might never have call to communicate on land become, in the great blue void, as brothers. And if one asks another to enact the role of Winged Mercury, to convey a message that will calm a worried wife or assuage an uncertain family, it will be done.
So, we exchanged news with the Pemberton and delivered a satchel of mail, including my first dispatch for the Transcript:
We have been cruising a dozen days and neither the temperature nor the angle of the sun give promise of the warmth that lies ahead. It is as cold as if we were wandering the White Mountains of New Hampshire rather than the white caps of the Atlantic.
Captain Trask issues no order without certainty and maintains strict discipline. He punished a sailor the first day and has found no further need to let the “cat out of the bag.” The sailor in question now goes about his duties gingerly, avoiding any eye contact, thereby avoiding any further difficulty.
In truth, every sailor is kept busy through every watch. There is always work to be done—replacing lines, holystoning the deck, drawing out yarns from bundles of rags and junk (of which the owners buy up great quantities) to be used for chafing gear and caulking, and a thousand other daily chores, all in addition to steering, reefing, furling, and pumping. Our wooden mother demands constant attention, assuring that her children are too tired to cause mischief.
As for the Sagamores, we have organized into “watches,” like the crew, so there are no more than thirty-five of us on deck at a time. We eat at appointed hours. We hold formal meetings to discuss company business. In the evenings, some engage in Bible study while others enjoy lively debate on political or literary subjects, with topics such as, “Is the Death of Slavery Imminent?” and “The Novel v. the Epic Poem: Wherein Lies Greater Truth?”
The British wit Samuel Johnson may once have said, “Going to sea is like going to jail, with the added danger of drowning,” but as this vessel formerly plied the Atlantic passenger trade, we enjoy certain comforts. My own billet, in the first cabin, contains a berth separated from the main saloon by a door fitted with shutter blinds for ventilation. Once I am settled, I am as comfortable as if I were in my own bed on Beacon Hill.
The saloon, between mizzen and mainmast, features a table and benches fixed to the deck. We enjoy natural light from the skylight and gratings, which we may open for ventilation but may batten down when the weather—in sailor’s parlance—“turns dirty.”
On the deck below are members who chose “second cabin,” thereby saving forty dollars. Below them is the hold, containing the supplies that will stand us in good stead in California. And therein lies our only controversy.
A contingent of Sagamores, led by Jason Willis, has raised the possibility of operating as merchants rather than miners. He comes from a mercantile family—his father is one of the owners of the William Winter—and he theorizes that goods will be scarce in San Francisco, so inflation may turn a well-stocked hold into a gold mine of its own. Board President Samuel Hodges opposes this idea.
I shall elaborate upon the dispute in the weeks ahead. But for now, the way is clear and the winter sea has calmed.
Yr. Ob’t Correspondent,
January 28, 1849Another Sunday
Psalms in the morning. Brisk sailing through the day, an invitation to dine at the captain’s table in the evening.
Other captains, I had been told, entertained passengers every night. But Nathan Trask appeared to have taken the lonely responsibility of leadership into his very soul. When he came on deck, he held himself aloof. Some days, he spoke exclusively to the mate, who conveyed his orders to the rest of us. Some days, he appeared only to take sightings and return below. Some days, he appeared not at all.
His cabin impressed me in the fashion of an orderly set of rooms at the College, with a tight berth to starboard, a privy seat and sink-stand to larboard, a mahogany table beneath the skylight that formed the roof of the aft deck house. Charts hung in a rack on one bulkhead, sextant and chronometer in cherry boxes on the shelf above his berth. Railed cases along the hull held books: novels by Dickens, Maury’s Wind and Current Charts, and other scientific works. A learned man, then, despite his manner.
That evening, he welcomed myself, Samuel Hodges, Jason Willis, and our “quartermaster,” the corpulent Charles Collins, former food broker from Quincy Market.
Hodges offered a toast, “To our illustrious captain and our first two weeks at sea.”
The captain raised his glass. “Pray that your last version of that toast is as warm, for we’re likely to be another six months at sea.”
“James here will run out of things to write about,” said Willis.
As we talked, we were passing bowls and filling plates with a concoction of beef, potatoes, and carrots prepared by a cheerful Portagee steward who buzzed about, serving, topping glasses, and generally seeing to our comfort.
Feeding a company of gentlemen—who expect something more than a bit of salt beef for supper—is a tall task on a long voyage. But Collins had done an estimable job. He had loaded a hundred barrels of beef and pork. He had taken aboard two dozen egg-laying hens, a pair of breeding pigs (the sow being pregnant), fifty barrels of peas, fifty of kidney beans, root vegetables, and apples to last four months, by which time we would have reached the bottom of the world and turned north again.
“Rounding the Horn,” said Trask, “is a thing that no man forgets but that few have adequately described. It will give Mr. Spencer plenty to write about.”
Hodges turned to me. He was growing whiskers like black adze blades on the sides of his face. “So, James, have you written about the efficacy of a good flogging?”
“The incident on the first day was—” I searched for a word.
Willis provided it: “Powerful.”
“Powerful indeed,” said Samuel Hodges. “And may I say, Captain, that you made a good slam among the men by flogging an Irishman who surely deserved it.”
“Deserved it?” said the captain. “Had that Irishman gone whispering a few days later, I might have ignored it, for by then I would have found someone else to punish.”
Hodges cocked a brow, the first time I had seen him perplexed about anything.
The captain leaned forward. “Punishing one man focuses every man. Do it early but do it mercifully. You’ll achieve many goals at the expense of one man’s back.”
“One unlucky man,” I said.
The captain turned to me. “Ever gone aloft in a heavy blow, Mr. Spencer?”
“You should. Then you might understand.”
I felt my face redden. I had never climbed anything higher than the ladder leading to the second tier of bookshelves in my father’s library. I asked, “What, exactly, would I understand?”
“The simple physics of fear. The motion of the deck is multiplied on the mast. Like so.” The captain held his knife at my chin and pivoted his wrist, so that the tip augured toward my nose. “The mast is the lever, the deck is the fulcrum. The higher you go, the wider swings the mast. Imagine climbing eighty feet of icy shroud, sidestepping along a thin footrope to the end of a spar, then reefing a tops’l while the deck pitches and the mast spins and the wind grabs at your collar like Satan’s own crimp, press-gangin’ you to hell. Imagine that, and you’ll know the physics of fear.”
Hodges scoffed. “But, Captain, an ignorant Irishman knows nothing of physics.”
“I do,” answered Trask. “I know that his fear of climbing those shrouds must needs be less than his fear of the stripes I’ll put on his back if he refuses.”
“I think Seaman Flynn is a slow learner,” said Hodges. “I would have punished him a second time for his cross looks.”
“Flynn served his purpose. And you, sir, are to have nothing to do with him. I recruited him at the Bell-in-Hand. I took the measure of him and gave him the quill. Whatever went on between you two in Boston is of no matter to me.”
Hodges said, “May I remind you, Captain, that I am the president of the company that has hired you, and so long as we are contracted, we expect certain—”
The captain’s cutlery clanked onto his plate. “Certain what?”
Wherever his next remark was to have taken us, Samuel Hodges showed the good sense to reconsider. “We expect a smooth voyage to San Francisco, sir.”
“Where some of us”—Collins spoke for the first time, taking an opportunity to change the subject—“would like to enter into a business arrangement with you, Captain.”
“Business arrangement?” The captain shifted his eyes to the other side of the table.
Hodges said, “They would start a trading house in San Francisco, sir.”
“A more traditional means of money-making than the gold pan,” answered Trask.
“So it is,” said Willis. “The William Winter would make a fine vessel for ferrying goods from the East.” He had conducted himself with icy disdain for Hodges ever since the immersion of his library. It surprised me that he would even dine at the same table. And now, he pressed the captain, “We may be sailing in the real gold mine, sir.”
“I have told you,” said Hodges, “we seek more than gold. We seek timber, fur, hides, tallow. We seek to clear land. We seek, in short, to conquer California. But an empire needs a cornerstone. And the cornerstone is gold.”
Empire … a word to reckon with. Hodges had not used it before in my presence. But I suppose that any man who had seen as much and dreamed as grandly might use such words.
The ship rocked, and the timbers groaned. We had become familiar with the motion and the sound, but at times, the sea would assert itself, as if to provide a rhythm for our talk or a punctuation for the uncomfortable silence that settled now upon us.
At length, the captain lifted his decanter and refilled our glasses. He did not smile, though he seemed amused. “I’ll not worry about conflicts between the Sagamores and crew, when such fundamental conflicts exist among the Sagamores themselves.”
Hodges lay his gaze on Willis and Collins for a few moments, then he said to the captain, “There will be no conflict between the Sagamores and your men, sir. You have my word. And none within our group.”
I was not so certain. While Hodges dreamed grand dreams, Willis and his compatriots were sons of New England, men from the measure-twice-cut-once school, who sought their advantage in the simple arithmetic of wholesale over retail, who pursued their wildest dreams by electing directors and hiring lawyers. And around the edges of the company lurked the loners who would happily pursue their dreams on their own … charters be damned.
February 7, 1849A New Season
Near four bells of the larboard watch—two in the afternoon—the sun emerged as if from hibernation. The temperature leapt up and with it our spirits. We were another week closer to the equator and also to the equinox. The ocean, slate-colored for so long, appeared suddenly as blue as Boston Harbor in July. Flecks of golden sunlight danced on its surface, and warmth seemed to radiate into every soul.
Around six bells we fell in with a school of dolphins that announced by their presence that we had reached happier seas. They circled back, swept around the hull, and sped along in the bow wake, leaving white wakes of their own as they went. But when Pompey produced a harpooner’s lance and began muttering about fresh fish for dinner, the dolphins disappeared, as if by some magic they had heard the conversation.
There was magic in the glorious southern sunset, too. Like a painter I studied the layers of red, pink, purple, and amazingly, green, that shimmered on the horizon.
After dark, the off-watch sailors gathered for a “sing” on the foredeck and filled the air with the scratchy jauntings of fiddle and hornpipe.
I listened to their tunes and stared up into a sky so thick with stars that they appeared as a fog of light in the blackness. And it crept into my mind that I would have loved to show Janiva this marvelous sight, but I banished thoughts of her as quickly as I could, so as not to dwell on feelings that often asserted themselves in physical ways, no matter how hard I tried to ignore them.
I stopped beside Willis, who was likewise staring into the dark, perhaps thinking of his own loyal wife. How much more difficult must it have been for him on such a romantic evening as this, given his knowledge of intimacy? Once a man has enjoyed nightly connubial pleasure, it must be even harder to ignore the need.
“A fine evening,” I said.
“I would be reading, but my library is edifying the crabs in Boston Harbor.”
“You can borrow my books or perhaps the captain’s. I think he favors you.”
“The captain favors efficiency.” Willis leaned close to me. “He is a close-hauling man, Spencer, the perfect partner for a long-range trading company.”
Just then, a roar rose from the sailors. The music had stopped because someone was telling a story. I glanced toward the noise, wanting to slip away from this conversation and join that, because I knew where Willis was headed.
But he gripped my elbow. “If it comes to it, are you with us?”
“If it comes to what?”
“If we take the company away from Hodges. If we recast the charter. Your brother would leap at the chance to invest.”
That was not the thing to say to me, and surely not when Hodges was watching from the starboard rail, worried perhaps that “the most important man on the ship” was conspiring against him. I removed Willis’s hand and said in a loud voice, “You are forgetting one thing.”
“I am not my brother.” And letting on not at all that I had noticed Hodges, I ambled toward the crowd of sailors near the bow.
Michael Flynn was standing on the raised forecastle deck, like Reverend Stone on the quarterdeck three and a half weeks before. But here was no holy solemnity. Uproarious laughter answered the Irishman’s scatological preachments:
“So I find meself on a window ledge three stories above Broadway. Barefooted and damned near bare-assed, I am, whilst in the bedroom, the delectable Delia Dunphy is tellin’ her husband there ain’t no one else there. But her husband’s a disbelievin’ man. He’s tearin’ the room apart, sayin’, ‘Where is he? I can smell him!’ And he goes lookin’ in the closet and under the bed and even between her legs—”
The crew roared at that. These were young, virile men, cooped up for six months on a ship where randy stories were as close as they would get to the amorous adventures that all of them craved. Whatever they were thinking—or longing for in their private moments—the best reaction was to laugh.
And Flynn had the gift, punctuating his story with swooping arms, pivots, pirouettes, voice changes, and accent changes, too. “All the while, her husband’s mutterin’, ‘I’ll find that Irish bastard and fix it so’s he never fucks another man’s wife again.’ Now, below me, a crowd’s gatherin’. And someone shouts, ‘Jump! Jump!’ Nice folks, them New Yorkers. Anyways, that’s when the husband sticks his head out the window and says, ‘Aha! I found you!’ And he points a big old flintlock right at me nut sack and says, ‘Stand still, ’cause I’m gonna shoot your pecker off, you black Mick bastard!’”
“Black!” shouted Pompey. “You ain’t black. I’se black!”
“He meant it metaphorically, me African friend. But”—Michael Flynn’s eye fell on me—“there’s times when the high mucky-mucks and their minions make us all feel like the sons of slaves. I’m lookin’ at one of them now.”
I do not remember if I took a step into the shadows. Perhaps I did.
Flynn leaped from the forecastle and pushed through the crowd of sailors to stand in front of me. “A few weeks ago, I promised this Sagamore swell that I’d let him take a swing at me once I was feelin’ better. Well, sir, me back’s healin’ up nice, and here I be.”
The Irishman was challenging me, directly, publicly, tauntingly.
He offered his chin. “Go ahead. I ain’t got this far in life with a glass jaw.” Then he closed his eyes and let his mouth go slack, like a man who knew how to take a punch.
Every sailor was watching now, to see what I would do. If I walked away, I would be marked. If I took the taunting and struck, that would lead to other difficulties.
But on a crowded ship, a man needed to hold his head high. Momentary conflict was preferable to months of ignominy. Those thoughts, however, did not come to me in an orderly fashion. I simply decided that the best thing to do was to punch this smart-aleck Mick, but slack or not, his Irish jaw might break my fist.
So I pulled back my right, prepared to deliver my knuckles to his nose, and someone grabbed my elbow. Then a voice growled into my ear, “None of that.”
Flynn’s eyes popped open and brightened at the sight of Samuel Hodges, who had me by the arm. “Well … speakin’ of glass jaws.”
Hodges ignored him and kept his mouth close to my ear. “Remember my promise to the captain. No conflicts with the crew.”
“A good idea,” Flynn said. “No conflict. Besides, I ain’t after givin’ free punches to every fancy-pants Yank aboard. Just one. And it ain’t you, Mr. Sam the Glass Jaw.”
Like any man finding himself in a fight he doesn’t want, I was happy to let Hodges pull me away.
“Don’t dirty yourself,” Hodges told me, “or hurt your writing hand.”
“Oooh, your writing hand.” Flynn made a gesture with his own right hand, mimicking one that men on a long voyage might be tempted to use in the middle of the night. “Mustn’t hurt that.”
The sailors roared.
Hodges said to Flynn, “Keep it up, Mick, and if there’s trouble, it’ll be on your head. I might have the captain cut your grog rations.”
This caused the laughter to stop as suddenly as if someone had dropped a boulder from the crow’s nest.
But Flynn hopped back into the lantern light atop the forecastle and got back to his story. “As I was sayin’, the richest man in New York wanted to shoot off me manhood, so I did me best to protect the jewels”—Flynn clapped both hands over his groin—“while the crowd kept callin’ for me to jump.”
The sailors were laughing again.
“I asks him, ‘How can you shoot me pecker off when I ain’t got one?’ The feller’s eyes go wide, and he says, ‘Ain’t got a pecker? Where’d you lose it?’ I says, ‘I got it shot off in the war.’ ‘War? What war? There ain’t no war.’ He had me there, so I had to think fast, so—”
A part of me was curious to hear the rest of the story, but Hodges was leading me toward the gangway. “I know you’d love to wallop him, James, but—”
Hodges stopped in mid-sentence and looked to the larboard side, near the mizzen shrouds, where Willis was now in deep discussion with Collins, two former schoolmasters, Selwin Gore of Brookline and Hiram Wilson of Dorchester, and Tom Lyons, who styled himself the company attorney.
Hodges released his grip on me and strode across the deck. “May I join you?”
“Why, of course,” said Willis with false sincerity. “We’re just discussing early Renaissance sketching.”
“Indeed,” added Collins. “So many nights to talk between here and California.”
I wanted no part of this, lest I be drawn into choosing a side, so I descended the gangway and bumped into Matt Dooling, coming up.
“Evenin’, Mr. Spencer. I’m for a bit of air. Gettin’ stuffy down there.”
“There’s plenty of hot air above, too,” I said.
“Whatever there is of it, there’s more belowdecks.”
“Put a hundred men on a ship for long, hot air and hot talk become the currency.”
“Aye. But hot talk is just paper money. There’s plenty aboard who believe in nothin’ but specie. Hard coin. And the hardest money is gold, to be got however we can get it. That’s what the men are sayin’ down there.”
So, above and below, mutiny was in the air. And we still had months to go.
February 10, 1849Target Practice
We now went about the deck in shirtsleeves, enjoying summer in February. All the hatches and skylights lay open, admitting fresh air deep into the ship and alleviating for a time the growing tension.
About six bells, eleven in the morning, the lookout sighted a whale carcass to larboard. Someone said that it would make a fine target, and within minutes, a dozen Argonauts had produced pistols, many boxed since the beginning of the voyage. I considered bringing out my Colt Dragoons but decided that this was an event worthy of description rather than participation.
The deck quickly became a dangerous place with so many excited young men waving weapons about. Some were shooting for the first time and had so little clue as to the proper handling of a pistol that muzzles were flashing and bullets flying about like a swarm of lethal insects. Most of the sailors went scrambling up into the rigging. But I concluded that the safest place was behind something, not above. So I put myself behind the longboat stowed amidships, took out my notebook, and watched.
Christopher Harding accidentally fired a round into the deck. It ricocheted back and blew a hole right through the brim of his hat. He shrieked and jumped a foot into the air.
Second Mate Kearns hurried from the quarterdeck and warned the shooters to point the guns overboard or target practice would be prohibited.
Deering Sloate answered by aiming his big Walker Colt over the side and haphazardly discharging it. “Like that?”
“If you want to waste bullets,” said Kearns. “But no more shootin’ into the deck.”
“If I’m so careless as to waste bullets, take care that none of them hit you.” Sloate sneered, so that his features, enhanced now by a goatee, made him resemble ever more closely the rats reproducing down in the hold.
I had done my best to avoid Sloate, but as he was also firmly with Hodges in the dispute over our stores, Hodges considered us both allies.
He turned back to the men at the rail and shouted, “A contest, lads. Who’s first?”
Even the poorest marksman thought he had the chance to hit that great mass of wallowing blubber. So they all crowded the rail, and as each man squeezed off his shots, the others responded with shouting, joshing, laughter, and a few groans, too. From a distance, we must have made a strange sight on that bright, blue sea, with the little white puffs of pistol smoke blowing off into the wind and the gray, shark-chewed carcass floating by.
I took notes, filling three pages before a pair of polished boots appeared on the deck beside mine. I looked up to see the smoking barrel of that huge Walker Colt and Sloate smiling behind it.
He said, “Write this: ‘In the first shooting contest aboard the William Winter, Deering Sloate of Dorchester has won with five hits on a dead humpback at fifty yards.’”
“I’m sure your friends back home will be very happy.”
“You are an insincere little scribbler, James Spencer.” Sloate took the cylinder out of the pistol to dump the spent percussion caps on the deck.
But a voice dropped from above: “Belay that!” And Michael Flynn dropped from the ratlines. “Dump your trash over the side, mister. Me and the lads holystone these boards every day. We’ll have no little pieces of metal stickin’ in our knees when we do.”
“Certainly not.” Sloate flicked his wrist, so that the metal caps dropped into the sea. “Don’t want to hurt the knees of a man who spends so much time on them.”
I could see anger in Flynn’s stiffening posture and in the half-step he took toward Sloate. Then the memory of his flogging seemed to temper him.
Sloate laughed, goading with the skill he had been honing since grammar school.
I said, “You’d best reload, Sloate. This fellow’s got a short fuse.”
“His fuse was cut the first day.” Sloate looked at Flynn. “Just stay on your knees, Irish, and the captain will stay off your back.”
Flynn watched Sloate saunter back to the shooters on the lee side. Then he said to me, “A fine lot of friends you’re travelin’ with.”
“They’re not all friends.”
“Then you shouldn’t be travelin’ with ’em. Travelin’ is for friends.”
After six weeks, I was sifting carefully to determine who my friends were.
February 24, 1849Crossing the Line
We had now reached S 0'1? W 45'4?, which meant that the sun at noon was directly over us. I sat on an empty hogshead, basked in the warmth, spread my papers on my knee, and prepared another dispatch for the readers of Boston. It began thus:
“And now, we are sons of Neptune. In keeping with seafaring tradition, we enjoyed a raucous ceremony last night. Second Mate Kearns, who has crossed the line more often than any man aboard, played the King of the Sea, complete with false beard and long hair fashioned from a deck mop. Dressed in a breechclout, armed with a harpoon, attended by two Negro sailors, he sat on his “throne”—the winch capstan on the forecastle deck—from whence he announced that he would choose one crewman and one Sagamore to represent all aboard who had never before breached the equator. ‘They will be shaved with a dull razor, usin’ tar for soap and oakum for towel. By their sacrifice they’ll earn for all—’”
A shadow appeared above me as I wrote: Michael Flynn, off watch. “An easy way to make a livin’, that, sittin’ down all day stringin’ words together.”
I said, “Sometimes, I’d rather be working in the rigging.”
“Not in a big wind, you wouldn’t.” Flynn’s face showed the cuts and scratches of a dull shave, for he had represented the crew in Neptune’s barber chair and had taken it all in great good humor, though clumps of tar still clung to the hair on the sides of his face.
I suspected our King Neptune knew that Flynn would do well when he selected him, just as he knew that Christopher Harding, the representative—or victim—elected by the Sagamores, would provide fine entertainment when he squirmed and squeaked as Pompey scraped the peach fuzz from his face and the sailors roared.
Christopher had retreated to his cabin afterward and had not appeared since.
During the night, I had heard him whimpering and had knocked on his door, but he ordered me away. So I said, through the shutters, that he had taken it like a man and done us all proud. “Even Mr. Hodges agreed.” I didn’t mind a small lie in service to a friend. I hoped for him to regain his pride, or he would soon be known as a nancy-boy, to borrow one of Michael Flynn’s more inelegant phrases.
Now the Irishman leaned over me and said, “Outside of the Bible and some damn-fool pamphlets on gold minin’, there ain’t much to read in the fo’c’sle. How about you let me have a gander at what you’re writin’? I’ll tell you what I think.”
“Some of what I write is for people to read. Some of it is for me to remember so that I can write it better later. Someday I’ll give you some. How’s your face?”
He ran a hand over the nicks and scratches. “I give the lads a good laugh, so it was worth it. Easier to ignore pain when the lads are laughin’.”
“That shave was not your first time ignoring pain, I’d bet.”
Flynn leaned against the rail. “Ignoring pain is a lesson you learn when life hurts you here”—he jerked his thumb to his flogged back—“or here”—he gestured to his heart.
“Your sister?” I asked.
“Long before that.” He looked off to the northeast, as if he could see all the way to the land of his birth. “When you’re a boy and your da dies tryin’ to move a boulder so’s he can till the rocks beneath … when the potatoes turn black, and your ma loses heart ’cause she’s got no hope of feedin’ you and your sister … when you steal a lamb and they catch you and flog you. Them things make you hard and bitter, rebellious-like.”
Flynn fixed his eyes on the whitecaps. “Comes the day you join the Fenians—fellers lookin’ for a way out, fellers who think things should be different. And one night, one of you takes a shot at the resident magistrate—I ain’t sayin’ who—and an informer whispers, and you spend a month in custody whilst the law tries to beat more names out of you. Well, in a life like that, you learn how to ignore pain.”
“Were you convicted?”
“If I was, I’d be rottin’ in Kilmainham Gaol this very day. But here I am, runnin’ for riches just like the lot of ye’s.”
Eight bells rang. High noon. Time for Flynn’s watch.
I said, “About what I told you in the fo’c’sle—”
He chuckled, as if my earnestness amused him. “You didn’t put the captain up to anything. I know that. What I don’t know is, why do you care a damn for what I think?”
“It’s a small ship, and I care for what any man thinks about me.”
“A small ship, aye. A short life, too. Best not waste it carin’ about what men who don’t care about you are thinkin’ about you.” Flynn gave me a salute and headed off.
He made sense, in a roundabout way.
But my thoughts were drawn to a splash in the water. Christopher Harding had come on deck and had thrown something over the side. I went to the rail and saw that it was a split of stove wood. Then he pulled out his Colt and began firing madly at it.
Sloate, who’d come up close behind him, whispered, “Squeeze, squeeze the trigger.”
Christopher, as skinny as a shroud, with arms no thicker than rat lines, held the pistol with both hands. The barrel quivered. The arms shook. He drew back the hammer and … Bang! A bullet struck the floating wood. Then two more shots, two more hits.
“Good boy,” whispered Sloate like a proud teacher. Then he noticed Hodges watching, and he said, “We’ll all be deadeye shots before this cruise is over, Samuel. I promise.”
“Every man a marksman,” said Hodges. “That will do us well in California.”
Every man a marksman? Marksmanship is a talent like singing or painting. Some men are born to it and some are not. But every man would be something before this cruise was over. And the one thing we surely would be was changed.
Peter Fallon read “The Journal of James Spencer” whenever he had time, all the way to the JetBlue gate at Logan. He skimmed over the weather reports and shorter entries. He slowed and settled in for the narrative.
The William Winter pounded south, encountered more dolphins, sighted sperm whales, and cruised through schools of albacore that the sailors caught and Pompey cooked into a fine chowder. They collected enough rain in barrels that they never put in for water. They grew tired of salt beef. They grew tired of each other. Petty disputes festered, and the larger dispute was never far from any conversation.
Spencer wrote about the tensions. But he also observed the heavens and tracked the constellations. A few nights after they crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, just as Dana had promised in Two Years Before the Mast, they saw the Magellanic Clouds, a glowing cluster of two nebulae named for the first explorer to run the treacherous straits at the bottom of the world.
Soon they felt the chill and put on their winter clothes again. They navigated between the cold coast of Patagonia and the fog-shrouded Falklands. They spied a majestic albatross following their wake. Sloate told Christopher Harding to shoot the bird, but Spencer grabbed Harding’s hand and reminded him of his Coleridge. Harding laughed and fired, and the bird fell into the sea. Someone, Spencer wrote, would be cursed for that.
On they sailed until the Southern Cross, brightest constellation in the hemispheric sky, passed directly overhead. That meant they had reached the latitude of Cape Horn. But the wind held fair from the northeast, and the men began to wonder what the worry had been. As Spencer wrote for the Transcript:
Captain Trask shaped a course to ride the friendly zephyrs as far as possible. And all was well until the afternoon of April the eleventh, when a cloud the color of coal dust rose on the southwest horizon. Soon it was racing toward us, consuming daylight and blackening the sea. Then the northeast wind shifted and swung round, as if the Lord had deemed the William Winter sturdy enough to form the pivot point between two mighty currents of water and moving air. The first mate cried, “All hands ahoy!” The captain, who seldom spoke from the quarterdeck in more than a whisper, shouted for reefed tops’ls. But before our sailors could climb, the sea leapt up with the fury of an Appalachian catamount. The sudden turbulence knocked me off my feet, and the sudden wave that rolled over us drove me halfway down the deck.…
Copyright © 2018 by William Martin