Masses & Mainstream
April, 1950, pp 61-70
The CHILD and the SHIP
A Story by HOWARD FAST
THE child was then eleven years old, and if you must have a time, it was the year 1733, in the town of Boston in Massachusetts Bay Colony. The ship came from the West Indies, to where she came from the old country, a dirty old bark that still could make enough money for the owners, and she came sailing into the harbor like a monster from hell.
A bark is a three-masted sailing ship. Foremast and mainmast are square-rigged, and the mizzenmast, which is the shortest mast, at the stern of the ship, is rigged fore and aft - in other words, two booms carry a sail slung between them, and this can be swung and set any place in a full arc of a hundred and eighty degrees. This was the kind of a ship which sailed slowly and not too well into Boston harbor, and the boy saw it. Who would not see it? The boy was on Union Street, and the ship pointed north around the Long Wharf, and people ran from everywhere like crows flapping down on a cornfield. An old sailorman, Jack McKinney, an Irishman and therefore scum and dregs and dirt in that town at that time, called out to the boy: "Hey there, Sam'l, and what in hell's name do you suppose they are running for, what they got nothing better to do, them fine folk'"
They were fine folk too, as well as others, the merchants out of their shops in their velvet caps, and the fat ladies of quality in their little lace aprons, and the old deacons and the young apprentices. The ropewalkers and carpenters and wrights came more slowly, with a different kind of dignity.
"There's a vessel, there is," young Samuel answered, proud to be singled out for an inquiry by a man as unrespectable and exciting as wicked Jack McKinney, whom he had seen at other times lying dead
drunk in the gutter and again with one of the fat, toothless prostitutes who were such a disgrace and plague to the town. Now they stood where there was a break in the houses and a narrow run of vision down to the bay, and the boy saw the ship framed there an instant. He had grown up on terms with ships of every sort. "Stinking old bark, she is," he said. They were already part of the drift to the waterfront. "Bad language makes for a bad one, now, young Sam'l. It ain't fitting." Samuel said, "No, sir, Mr. McKinney, but there is something funny about her." Then, when they came past the hogpens where Faneuil Hall would be raised up seven years later, the child saw what was funny about her. They crossed Merchant's Row, and there was the bark standing in drunkenly, with the fore and aft booms swinging loose and crazy, and with a little boy - and no older than this child, Samuel Adams - hanging from the upper one. And from the yardarms of the two forward masts, four other men hung, their bodies swollen and ugly and torn where the birds had fed upon them.
Boston of that time was a hard city, and in her there were some hard men, and what else would you expect from a place that had scrabbled its own bed out of the wilderness only a century before, with no guarantee to anyone except the odds that he would die under thirty? But if she was hard, she wasn't hard enough to see this unmoved, and there was a lot of vomit cast up by people who saw that child's body swinging back and forth like the pendulum of a clock. The child Samuel Adams pressed close to the sailorman Jack McKinney, who folded his big horny hand around the boy's little one, holding the lad close beside him and protectively, but not sufficiently the master of his own curiosity to turn away - as was no one else either.
And the bark moved in as the crowd of people gathered on the dockside to watch her. Many a small boat pushed toward her, but you could see that these bumboat peddlers and bottom fishermen had no urgent desire to get onto that dirty old ship, so reeking with death, even though there were those on board who were alive. Now the people on shoreside could see them, the helmsman on the stern deck, the captain beside him, the sailors sullenly - and that was plain from every movement they made - and poorly working the ropes and canvas, some passengers in their shore clothes close together on top the midship housing.
"Why that's the Larkspur," someone said, and everyone agreed and wondered why they had not recognized her before.
"And that's old Ebnezer Saxon," someone else said, pointing to the captain, "by God, it is, the wicked old sinner." "And more to answer for too, and many a day to spend in church before he makes God or the citizens forgive this," another said. But still another said, "What happens on the high seas is not what happens on the hard earth, before you make judgment." But many made their judgment just looking at the child's form.
His Majesty's customs palavers with ghosts, if the need warrants, and they ran out and stood under her side. Captain Hixby went up and spoke to Captain Saxon of the Larkspur, and those with good eyes - and young Samuel's were very good indeed - could see the vigor with which Captain Saxon pounded one fist into the other palm, and they could also see the obedient nods of Hixby. The Larkspur had no motion now, just lying broadside to the shore and not too far off, making for Samuel and everyone else a convenient stage for drama. Thus Samuel, all sick and shaky and terrified and excited, saw how the customs man pointed at the little boy's body, and how Captain Hixby pointed at it too, nodded his head and then pointing from one to another of the sullen seamen, and then calling to one of the passengers who came down from the housing and joined them. Then the three spoke, Hixby pounding palm with fist again and the customs man uneasily pulling at his lower lip and scraping wax from his ear, and the passenger judicial and sober.
Then young Samuel began to cry, and McKinney, moved by a sudden tenderness, gathered the boy up in his arms and carried him away to a little inn by the Old South Church, where he bought him a small beer and talked to him soothingly. For McKinney did not have to see anymore. He knew the story, all of it, and what detail he was not aware of would be supplied him a hundred times over for many weeks to come. And anyway it was a commonplace story, and some sense, some strange intuition, told the Irishman that this was no commonplace boy at all.
BUT why did they want to kill the lad? Samuel asked him. Will they kill me?" he added anxiously.
"If you did what the lad did, Sammy, why sure and make no mistake."
"What did he do?"
"Ah now - and that's still a matter of conjecture." The Irishman had a large, long, bony face. Samuel could see how tight the skin stretched over the bones, weather-beaten skin that was traced over with the red finery of broken capillaries and made a nest of wrinkles for each of the little pale blue eyes, a hard, savage face he had always thought when he was somewhat afraid of Jack McKinney; which he was not now, but rather warm inside with the small beer which he had never tasted before. Perhaps a little drunk too, which was the sin of the old sailorman. Now Jack McKinney stroked his head and answered gently, "But I conjecture pretty good, huh, Sammy, I tell you, Sam'l, you ask a pretty deep question, all right, when you ask what he did. He did wrong, Sammy. Wrong for you? Now what is right and what is wrong for you, just a shaver and never out of Boston, which is just a bit of a town and would never be noticed even a mite in one of the old countries. Wrong for me? Well, now, I'm an old evil one, and going to burn my fill too, Sammy, for what there ain't no redemption, none at all, considering the sin I sinned. But, you know, Sammy, sometimes I say to myself, maybe I never sinned no sin what I would call it. But I don't know, Sam'l, and that's the round world of it. And how shall I say that the little lad, God rest his soul, did wrong. I ain't no preacher, am I, Sammy? Come along - let me see a smile out of you.
"You ain't no preacher, no," Samuel said, smiling.
"And don't you go home and tell your bonny mother I fed you small beer, or every cursed Christian in this town will have the whipping of me, and me in the stocks soon after too."
"Are you no Christian then?" Samuel asked.
"Hah!" The Irishman drank deeply of his beer, smacked his lips, and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt. "Tastes good, Sammy, and calls to mind too the hot days I spent in the stocks of this same cursed town. For what? For no being no Christian, so they give me Christian treatment, thirty or fifty hours in the stocks with never a spot of water, never saying beer, to wet my poor cracked lips and my poor swollen tongue. Ah, it is a hell of a life that a sailing man lives, Sam'l, with a dry mouth on shore and a dry mouth on sea too, where all is water. Now what is a Christian, Sammy?"
"Don't you know?"
"Do I know? That ain't the point, Sammy. Do you know? A good Christian, I tell you, is Captain Saxon of the Larkspur, him that hanged a little lad from the boom for the birds to eat! In this town, it is a bluenosed Puritan what's a Christian, begging your pardon, Sammy. So I ain't no Christian, am I? Only fit to put away in stock if I have a wee little bit too much. But the mother and father of me was Roman, Sammy, which even I ain't, since I was never confessed or given the Sacrament these twenty years. No. I am no Christian, Sammy, and I don't lose no sleep over it. I will burn in hell properly, and maybe a fine, good lad like you will say a prayer for me, a candle being not permitted in that dry barn you call a church. But I tell you this, Sammy, there will be some fine folk burning with me...."
He cocked his head at the boy, who looked back at him with wide, terror-stricken eyes. So would the lightning, proper partner for the hellish thing he had just witnessed, fork down from heaven and consume this iniquity! But instead, the sun shone.
"And the Larkspur was a proper Christian ship," the sailorman went on. "Proper, Sammy. You asked me how I knew what had betaken her. I conjectured from out of experience, laddie, and don't you never go to sea. Mother of God, I could take off my shirt and show you, in the many raised welts on my poor aching back, a history all right. The dirty miserable food, the lashes, the work, the freezing cold, the dry time when she's blown off course and no water no more, no more, the scurvy with the teeth a-dropping out, the wet that goes into your bones when she storms - and work, Sammy, such work from the poor body of a man. Sometimes you vomit it up, like they must-a done on the Larkspur, and that is mutiny, and the punishment is death. But if you want to make a mutiny, Sammy, out of your terrible misery and despair, you will want a gun, won't you? And where are the guns, Sammy, but in the captain's cabin and in his fowling chest? And who can get to it but the cabin lad? So he must be one of you, the poor, motherless, lost lad who has no childhood but only the bitter years at sea. So you entice him, Sammy - God forgive you, you entice him - and his tender little heart bleeds for you, and he does your will. And then, when the mutiny is put down, like always the revolting and striking of scum like me is put down, you got to pay the price. That's right, Sammy - that's proper. He who dances must fair enough pay the pipers, and every one of them, Sammy. So that is why you see the little lad hanging from the boom, hanging out there in the hot sunshine, while his soul races off to hell for the terrible wrong he did."
Only then did the Irishman realize that the white face of Samuel Adams was covered with tears. In a fumbling and awkward way, he took the boy's small hand between his big, coarse ones and fondled it, and remembered a lad of his own who had died of the pox, and said, "Bide your own way, Sammy, in quiet and peace. Don't take heed of what is said of adventure and far places, for it is all a rotten curse. Stay at home, Sammy, and make no revolts - for when you strike out against what makes you less than a man, there is always a lash for the back and a rope for the neck. Now heed me, Sam'l."
IT IS wrong to say that all and anything that happens to a child is of great consequence - and as wrong to say that nothing that happens to a child is of great consequence; and this was a child who lived in a world of ships, where the land was only shelf for the ship to nuzzle to, but who did not take ship. There began somewhere at some time in this child, in his mind, in his blood, in his heart, in the whole of him, a series of less than thoughts and more than thoughts, patterns perhaps, for there is no precise way of describing the formation and growth of what is sometimes called personality and sometimes character and sometimes other names as foolish - but is actually a fire the world stokes and then sometimes in return sets the world on fire. You will have to look hard to find the Larkspur, and it doesn't matter; for once the boy saw a carriage roll over a mouse, just seeming to touch it but killing, even though the mouse was able to kick and squirm and make tiny mouse cries of terror and anguish and pain, and the boy, picking the mouse up in his two hands and holding it close to his face, thought that in all his life he had never heard anything so heartrending, and as the life went out of the mouse, he pressed it against his cheek, filled with the sense of suffering and hurt that he shared with the world, not in equal guilt but in equal sufferance.
THE child sat at home at table with his mother and his father and his sisters and his brothers, and each and all knew that a ship terrible and horrible had come into Boston Harbor, but to each it was different and to none as it was to him. "Blessed art thou, oh Lord our God, King of the universe," said his father, in a rough and homely grace, stripped, as he so often put it, of the swinish filth of that iniquity of iniquities, the High Church of England, "who layeth our board and giveth us bread to grace it." They said, "Amen," and one of them then said, "Who saw the ship?" knowing they all had seen it.
"There will be no talk of that," said Samuel Adams, the father, and the son, Samuel Adams, said, "I saw it."
"With the black, heathen Irishman McKinney," said his brother, with malice; and in the child there were the unspoken words, "Damn you, curse you." His eyes probed at his brother who was soon to die, in a time when few enough grew to manhood; the memory of sickness goes, but the memory of hatred festers and lingers; and while the two children stared at each other, the father said stolidly, "This is a house where God is not unwelcome and we do not talk of godless things. No ship came into Boston harbor today. A ship of iniquity is no ship, even as a man who makes of himself a vessel of iniquity is no man."
Large jawed, big-boned and righteous was the father, Samuel Adams; he was a fierce and God-fearing man and he had done well in the world - justice of the peace, deacon, selectman, representative of the people on one hand and the Almighty God on the other, a merchant of means, a man who conducted his business with a word bonded by the sword of the angel Gabriel, a man of substance and property, he could be understood better by what he hated than by what he loved. What he loved was unspoken and often unrealized in the conscious parts of his mind, but what he hated he catalogued day in and day out; English he hated, the sound of the London language, the men who used it, and the high Church they worshipped in; he hated Rome a little less, and he hated the Irish who deserted ship and profaned the Boston streets and worshipped images, even as the Children of Israel did when they heeded not Moses who led them, and of all folk in all the past, he loved Moses best. He hated the whores who multiplied in the streets day by day, and he hated the red Indians, the black-eyed somber men who wandered in from the wilderness like a conscience in motion; he hated the West Indian rum that cursed his land, and he hated all men who wore the uniform of His Majesty's regiments, even as he hated His Majesty and all the crowned "scum," as he put it, of all time back. These and much more he hated, but what he loved he had never formulated; he was not a sensitive man, and when his children spoke, he often as not hardly listened. So the name of the Irishman McKinney echoed in his mind for a time before he reacted to it, slowly then, fixing his pale eyes on the child who bore his own name.
"Samuel," he said.
"You were with the Irishman McKinney?"
"Yes," said the child.
"Can we not eat in peace?" the mother asked, a thin and ailing and tired woman.
"There will be peace," the father said. "Peace, Mary, comes with the truth. And what is the truth, Samuel?"
"I went with him to look at the ship," the child said.
"Through the public street?"
"And you knew that you walked with a handman of the devil?"
"Yes," Samuel whispered.
"But it was not the child's doing," Mary Adams pleaded, "and if the child didn't know, it was not the child's sin."
There was a frozen, timeless silence at the table, and even the brother who had betrayed him was awed and crushed by what he had done. Calvin and Wesley stood one on either side of Samuel Adams, the father - who stared so somberly and thoughtfully at Samuel Adams, the child, and to the mother there came a phrase from the book that was so knit with their lives, and he hardened his heart against him. "And he hardened his heart," she said to herself over and over.
The father then said, "And this is a just household, Samuel - heed ye, we walk in justice and in righteousness. Perhaps he enticed you?"
The child could not speak; but he moved his head from side to side, just a fraction, just a trifle.
"Cozened you? Wheedled you?"
"No," the child whispered.
"No," the child managed to say again.
"Then you walked with him of your own free will, through the public streets."
"Yes," the child admitted, with no sorrow, no regrets, no resentment, but only a projection of himself into the image of the lad who swung and swayed from the yardarm. And also no sorrow and no fear when
the father rose and motioned. In the midst of the meal, the two departed, so that justice might be done according to the lights of the elder, but for the younger justice was a thing forming in a riot of troubled impressions and doubts and wonders.
THE town was already old, a century old in this new land, and the men of the Massachusetts Bay Company who had put it there were all of them dead and gone and many of them forgotten too. The town had the aspect of something old and established, perhaps more so than would ever again be the case in the future. Only an occasional citizen whose imagination was a little more vivid and active than most would pause to think of how the great and endless wilderness swept away westward from this town, a green sea, unknown, untouched, unexplored, unchanged, crossed only by the narrow, moccasin-beaten trails of the red men and filled with all manner of wild beasts. If you looked at the town with that in mind, you would have realized that it was just a scratch on the shore; but that was not the point of view of the child, born and raised in the town. For him it had always been here, since he could not accept emotionally what he knew intellectually - that a group of men had come from a share-holding company in an old country called Britain, and that they had planted the few shacks with which the town began. His sense of time was not yet developed to a point where he could wholly accept such a thing; he saw the town as it was in the moment of its being.
He had crept out of the house, and the town lay there in the spring moonlight, in the gentle, sweet New England evening, all black and all over with a ripe velvety sheen. The great silver-blue moon sailed in the heavens and its trail coursed across the bay. The town was old and homely and lovely in that moonlight, with all the hard edges softened away, and ancient too, and for the first time in his life, the child was able to make a conscious appraisal of the relationship between himself and his city. His heart filled with wonder and love and awe, and he was able to put into words a feeling that this was his place and he was able to realize himself as a plant that had sprung out of this cobbled earth. The sense of identity flowed through him like heady wine, and he felt like he walked on air as he moved down toward the waterfront. He felt that he would like to touch every piece of wood in every house in this town, and the sleeping folk in the houses communicated to him. He felt a song in his heart that was nameless and wordless but which he knew very well indeed and would never forget, and now, in this moment, the future was assured and resilient and ready to be kneaded, like a wet lump of clay. He remembered the Irishman McKinney, and he felt a great pride in his ability to know people and like them and understand them - and no fear for the sin he had sinned. Sin would not trouble him again.
So he thought as he came onto the dock and curled up against a tangle of rope and looked out over the bay to where that awful ship floated. Still, the bodies hung, and the boy looked without fear at the obscene thing that had been done to the living.
But horror, already muted, was less horrible in this caressing moonlight, and the child who had paid with his life for acting in the mutiny was familiar by now. From the child on the dock, there went out a current of love and sympathy to the child on the yardarm, and sitting there, Samuel Adams wept softly and without fear or pain for what the other had suffered.