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The Terrible Voyage of the Toad by Edward Page Mitchell

 

It was not owing to any lack of enterprise or courage that Captain Peter Crum of Mackerel Cove, Maine, did not visit the Paris Exposition in his own sloop yacht, the Toad. Nor was the failure of his famous expedition due to any demerit in the craft which he commanded. Ever since Captain Crum sailed his sloop by dead reckoning to Boston, in spite of unpropitious weather, including a heavy sou'east blow off Cape Elizabeth, and returned in safety with a cargo of Medford rum to discomfit the critics who had predicted certain disaster, there had been no question as to the seagoing qualities of the Toad. It is generally conceded at Mackerel Cove that Captain Peter Crum would have reached Paris in triumph but for the malignant hostility of a power justly abhorred and dreaded by all serious-minded men.

"Oh, the Toad sails, she does!" Captain Crum carelessly remarked to his neighbor, Deacon Silsbee, in the deacon's store one day early in June.

"The Toad does sail," allowed the deacon.

The captain gazed significantly at the deacon, whose face put on a receptive expression, as if to say the court awaits further communications.

"An of you kin diskiver any rashn'l reason," continued Captain Crum, lowering his voice to a confidential whisper, "why she shouldn't carry you and me and Andrew Jackson's son Tobias to the big show over yonder, it's more'n Deacon."

The deacon bore the reputation of being, when sober, the subtlest logician, both in theological and secular matters, on that section of the coast. He sympathized heartily in the captain's project, but felt it due to himself to proceed deliberately, analytically, and cautiously.

"Hum!" said he, wagging his head; "the Toad's a toler'b'l old boat."

"She is," assented the captain. "Old an' thurowly seasoned." "Without intendin' to disperidge," continued the deacon, "her bottom's more putty'n timber."

"Putty or no putty," rejoined the owner of the Toad, "she sails afore the wind like a thing of life and minds her helium like a lady."

"It's a long tack to Paris," suggested the deacon, shifting his ground, "and them that go down upon the sea in ships [so to speak of the Toad] take their lives in the palms of their hands."

"Deacon!" said the captain, solemnly; "you ain't actin' up fer to deny an overrulin' Providence, or the efficacy of prayer? Won't you be along?"

"True," said the deacon, mollified by the compliment to his powers of intercession. "The godly man feareth neither the hurricane's fury nor the leviathan's rage. Are you certain you kin lay the course?"

"Unless the geographies lie like Anemias," continued the captain, growing more earnest as the details of the adventurous scheme presented themselves to his mind, "it's as plain a course to Havy-de-Grass as it is to Bangor. You take a short hitch round Cape Sable and then you're practically thar. Who says the Toad won't sail? Gimme a sou'east or sou'west wind, Andrew Jackson's old compass out of the schooner Parida P., a good stock of pervisions, two or three of them twenty-gallon kags of rum, and the benefit of your petitions mornin' and evenin', and I'll allow I'll lay the Toad 'longside the city landin' in Paris in sixty days, spite of blows or Beelzebub!"

The captain brought his fist down upon the cover of Deacon Silsbee's pork barrel with a vigor that denoted fixed determination. Several neighbors who had dropped into the store while he was speaking and had gathered around him, attracted by the energy of his utterances, applauded the daring vow. "In spite," he repeated, "of blows or Beelzebub!"

"Cap'n! Cap'n!" said the deacon, coming round from behind his counter and holding up both hands in protest, "say nothing thet's rash. While I hold that prayerful navigators, sailing so seaworthy and serious a craft as the Toad, hey little or nothin' to fear from Satan's wiles, I hold it likewise that a willful and froward sperrit of defiance at sech a mement is onnecessary and foolish. And I would also remark that if it's a question in your mind between two and three of them kags of rum for so long a v'yage, it's a dooty and a vartue to be on the safe side, Cap'n Crum!"

It is as well authenticated a fact as any in the history of Mackerel Cove that on the morning of Monday, June 17, 1878, the sloop Toad, of 8,825-10,000 registered tonnage, Crum master, cleared for Havre with a cargo consisting of Deacon Silsbee, Andrew Jackson's son Tobias, and nearly eighty gallons of Medford rum. Deacon Silsbee and Tobias Jackson are advisedly classed with the cargo rather than with the working crew of the vessel. In order to be on hand for an early departure they had thought it prudent to embark the night before. In accordance with a suggestion of the deacon's, namely, that any surplus of rum left over from the outward voyage could be profitably disposed of in Paris for such articles of merchandise as the natives might have to offer in exchange, the captain had added a fourth keg to the stock already on board. When the captain took command of the craft in the morning, he found his younger passenger curled up in the cuddy, utterly insensible to the momentous character of the occasion. By comparison with Tobias Jackson, Deacon Silsbee was very sober, but judged by any other standard he was very drunk. The deacon sat on the heel of the bowsprit, his chin resting heavily on both hands, singing in a dismal voice hymn after hymn of various metres, but to one unvarying tune. An invitation from the captain to lend a hand at the jib halyard met with no response. The deacon did not stir, but sat with his bleary eyes glued on the rum kegs in the standing room aft and began, "The voice of free grace cries escape to the mountain!" in a louder and more melancholy intonation than before.

The entire population of the cove had come down to the shore to witness the departure of the Toad. Many were the weather prophecies and the arguments of dissuasion shouted at the bold skipper. Even those of his neighbors who had been friendliest to the undertaking urged him to postpone his start until a more favorable day. They pointed to the long fog bank that lined the horizon to the seaward and had already shut in Damiscove Island and was hurrying toward Bald Head light and the main shore. "I calkilate to hey considerable fog more or less till I fetch beyond the Banks," returned the captain, cheerfully. "Guess I mought as well overhaul thet air compass of Andrew Jackson now ez later on."

Under these discouraging circumstances, with prophecies of evil sounding behind him and a thick fog dead ahead, with one of his companions helplessly drunk below deck and the other uncomfortably noisy above, Captain Peter Crum began his memorable voyage. Standing erect at the stern sheets, he poured out for himself a brimming tumblerful of rum as a sort of first line of fortifications against the fog. Then, alone and unaided, he ran up his mainsail and his jib and resumed his position at the helm. He had sworn in the presence of all Mackerel Cove to sail the Toad across the Atlantic in spite of Beelzebub. He would do it or perish in the attempt, along with Deacon Silsbee and Andrew Jackson's son Tobias. Captain Crum drank another tumblerful of rum. The mainsail fluttered in the first flurry of the fog breeze. Waving a graceful adieu to the assembled multitude on shore, and throwing an affectionate kiss to his weeping wife, who already considered herself in effect his widow, and whom he could readily distinguish in the distance by her pocket handkerchief, he grasped the tiller and brought the Toad round into the wind. The sails filled and the gallant though rather aged craft bounded off toward the open sea, while loud above the splash of the waves and the shouts of the crowd on shore rang out the deep voice of Deacon Silsbee, as he sang at the top of his lungs:

"My willing soul wo-o-od shtay
In slusha framer zish;
An' sit an sing her shellaway
To efferlash [hic] blish."

The first news of the Toad's progress was brought to Mackerel Cove twenty-eight hours after her departure, by the crew of a Halifax lumberman which put in on account of the fog. The lumberman reported it very thick outside--thicker than anything he remembered at that time of year. He had narrowly escaped running on to the Clamshell, a well-known rock in the shelter of Pumpkin Island, twenty miles out. As he sheered off he had perceived a small sloop, apparently fast hung on the ledge. To his hailing there had come the answer, in a voice as thick, if not thicker than the fog and much more unsteady, that the stranded sloop was the Toad of Mackerel Cove, bound for the Paris Exposition with a cargo of rum. The captain of the Toad confidently expected to get off at the next flood tide. Offers of assistance were received by the Toad's crew with derisive howls, and with some insulting reference to Beelzebub, which the lumberman could not distinctly understand.

"As I had no call to stand thar and be sarsed," concluded the lumberman's captain, "I put round agin and left the critter on the Clamshell. It's my private opinion that all hands on board had been splicin' the main brace a good many times too often."

For the next three weeks the anxious population of Mackerel Cove heard nothing further of the fortunes of their adventurous townsmen. The fog clung to the coast relentlessly for all that time. At last a northwest wind drove it off the shore, and on the second clear day the little steamer Moonbeam, engaged in the porgy fishery, came up to the cove with a small sloop in tow and three dejected, exhausted, and thoroughly disgusted navigators on board. This sloop was the Toad.

The master of the porgy boat reported that he had found the Toad aground on the Clamshell. At first he had seen no signs of life on board, but upon running as near to the rock as the draft of his steamer would allow, he discovered three human beings lying unconscious in the cuddy, together with several empty kegs that still smelled strong of rum. He took off the men, and by attaching a rope to the sloop, succeeded in dragging her into deep water. The rescued sailors partially recovered their senses under the influence of hot coffee, dry clothing, and kind treatment, but they still appeared to be in a state of semi-stupefaction, and the story they told was so deliriously incoherent that he could make neither head nor tail of it.

Of course the first inference drawn by the people of the Mackerel Cove was that the Toad, seen aground on the Clamshell June 19 by the Halifax lumberman, and found aground on the same ledge July 11 by the porgy steamer, had remained aground uninterruptedly between those two dates, the crew, meanwhile, consuming the four kegs of rum. This theory implied so inglorious a termination to an adventure begun with so much bravado that for several weeks Captain Crum, Deacon Silsbee, and Tobias Jackson were subject to a great deal of ridicule on the part of their neighbors and friends, and even the Toad itself became an object of derision in the cove.

The returned voyagers bore all this with extraordinary meekness for a while. At last, however, they began to hint that the reproach was unmerited: that there was a marvelous and mysterious history behind their apparent failure; and that if the whole truth were known, they would figure for all time as the heroes of one of the most protracted and terrific encounters with diabolical agencies in this or any other age.

Little by little the story came out: partly in conversations at Deacon Silsbee's store, partly in Tobias Jackson's communications to boon companions in convivial hours, and partly in allusions made by the deacon himself in prayer and exhortation in the vestry of the Baptist meetinghouse. When the whole story became known, it was so consistent and conclusive that it carried conviction at the first recital.

The hostility of a malign power had confronted the voyagers at the outset and driven them upon the Clamshell, in spite of Captain Crum's positive knowledge that he was at least seventeen miles to the southward of that rock at the moment when the Toad struck it. Once aground and waiting for the tide to flow, it became necessary, as a precaution against the chilling fog, to use a good deal of the rum medicinally. The voyagers did not remember being hailed by any Halifax lumberman. They did remember, however, that a huge black craft sailing without sails in the very teeth of the wind, yet not propelled by steam, and manned by no earthly crew, loomed up in the fog close to the Clamshell. There came to the rail of this apparitional vessel a monster with a head four times as big as a rum keg, and eyes that shone like coals of green fire, who demanded, in a supernally awful voice, who it was that proposed to cross the sea in spite of Beelzebub. Upon their shouting back defiance and the deacon's repeating a text from Job, the phantom (for phantom they believed it to be) vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.

That, however, was only an unimportant episode, and one that had almost escaped their memories in the press of later and more terrible experiences. It was Tobias Jackson, who, when they found that the Toad did not float at flood tide, suggested that the only way to get off was to lighten the cargo. They, therefore, went to work industriously on the contents of one of the rum kegs, and by nightfall, to their unspeakable satisfaction, felt the Toad rising and falling beneath them with the motion of the water. Captain Crum then laid a course for Havre, as straight as he could, allowing always for the hitch round Cape Sable.

From the moment when the Toad got fairly afloat the voyage was like a continuous succession of nightmares. After they had cleared the fog the atmosphere became hot and heavy and mysteriously oppressive to the lungs, though the sun was shining brightly and there was, to all appearances, a fine fresh breeze. Sometimes even at noonday the heavens would suddenly turn as dark as pitch while strange phosphorescent lights played around the mast of the Toad and the bungholes of the rum kegs. The air seemed to be charged with electricity. One day the compass acted as if possessed with the Devil. As an aid to navigation it was very much worse than useless. The needle swung round and round without any obvious cause, with a rapidity which no one could contemplate without becoming dizzy and bewildered. Captain Crum at last wedged the needle so that it could not move in the box. But as soon as the compass stood still the Toad itself began to spin round so viciously that they hastened to release the needle.

On the fourth or fifth day out the wind freshened, and the sloop went bounding over the billows. The deacon and Tobias Jackson were seriously affected by the motion, and retired to the cuddy. Even the captain himself, an old sailor who had weathered many storms, was obliged to succumb to the nausea; but though deadly sick, he held his post at the helm, and kept the bowsprit pointed straight for Havre. The breeze increased to a gale, the waves seemed animated with a merciless desire to overwhelm and swallow up the frail Toad, appalling thunders filled the sky, lightnings darted from every square inch of the heavens, and the sloop labored fearfully. In this emergency it became necessary, as a matter of self-preservation, to lighten the cargo still further. The captain, after some trouble, succeeded in arousing his sick and discouraged companions, and all hands went to work on the second keg with an energy born of desperation. Thus the Toad outrode the storm.

According to the best recollection of the sorely tried navigators, who about this time lost all reckoning of days and hours and began to measure events by another chronology, it was either in the last quarter of the second keg or the first quarter of the third keg that the sea suddenly became populous with reptiles of vast dimensions and manifestly hostile disposition. Captain Crum, Deacon Silsbee, and Tobias Jackson are agreed in affirming most positively that it was neither whales nor porpoises that they saw. The monsters which crowded the water around the Toad, and fairly tumbled over each other in their malignant eagerness to get at and annihilate that little craft, were far larger than any whale, far livelier than any porpoise. They were gigantic, antediluvian creatures of hideous shape, with eyes that shone with malevolent purpose, and voices that bellowed loud enough to strike you dumb with fear. They swam round and round the Toad, glaring with hungry eyes upon her unfortunate crew, and lashing the sea with their huge tails until it was foam white as far as sight could reach. In the largest of all these alarming monsters Deacon Silsbee was confident that he identified the terrible beast with seven heads and ten horns mentioned in Revelations.

"It is Beelzebub," whispered the deacon to the captain, as soon as horror allowed him the use of his tongue. "It is the old horned beast himself!"

As if to confirm the deacon's recognition, the air rang with a diabolical laugh, and the principal beast reared its seven heads high out of the water, and bore down directly upon the Toad, while all the other beasts gave way.

"The critter come right on," said the deacon afterward in describing the crisis, "and the cap'n and Tobias Jackson flopped down among the kags, limp ez dead flounders. I knew the righteous need not fear, so I stood firm and looked the sarpint squar in the eyes. At this he begun to show symptoms of oneasiness. He hitched an' backed an' sheered off a bit, glarin' at me ez fierce ez ever. I felt encouraged, but bein' a little shaky in the legs, reached down for the tin dipper and began fumblin' at the plug in the bung of one of the kags. This giv him a minnit's advantage, and he swum up close alongside; but I cotched his eye agin, and he stopped short ez if shot. 'Beelzebub, begone!' sez I. 'You are known, and you'd better begone!' 'Ho! Ho!' sez he, in an aggravatin' tone, 'you're known likewise, Deacon Silsbee, an' you'd better put round for Mackerel Cove, if you valley your health. Crost the Atlantic in spite of me, ho! ho!' With that he roars an onearthly roar, and I could feel Tobias Jackson, who was lyin' agin my right leg, shake like a jellyfish."

"How about the cap'n?" asked one of the deacon's audience.

"The cap'n," continued the deacon, "had crawled into the cuddy. It's no discredit to him ez a sailor or ez a man, for the critter's roar was powerful skeerin'. But I, you see, bein' varsed in Scripter and familiar with doctrine, knew the beast's weak pints. 'Beelzebub!' sez I, looking him squar in the eye, 'you may roar and lash, but you can't intimidate me. Resist the Devil and he will flee from you. You old serpent, you adversary, you tormenter, you prince of unholiness, begone! Now git!'"

"And did he git?" inquired one of the deacon's neighbors.

"Not at wunst," said the deacon. "The old liar is dreadf'l sub-tile. He swam off a few hundred rods in a hesitatin' uncertain fashion and then turned round agin. 'Look here, Deacon Silsbee,' sez he in an insinuatin' voice, 'I come in a friendly, neighborly sperrit, and it's onnecessary fer you to speak so ha'sh. Ez long ez you're bound to crost, and won't be balked of it, I mought ez well give ye a lift an' save ye a sight of trouble. Jest turn your eyes the tother way a jiffy till I git alongside the Toad. Then take a double hitch with your tow line round one of my horns and I'll snake ye over to the French coast in less than it takes a cable despatch to crost. That's solid!' 'It's solid,' replied I, waxin' very wrothy, 'that I know you and your lyin' ways. The Toad wants none of your unholy towin', Beelzebub. Now git!'

"That time," added the deacon, "he did git. He and all of his ten thousand lesser devils sot up a howl of baffled rage so loud that I thought it would shake the sun out of the sky down on to our heads, and then of a suddin they all dove under. The sea was smooth, the weather fair, with a good, fav'able sou'wester, and the Toad seemed to be bowfin' along to the Exposishun. We were so delighted at havin' escaped Satan's wiles that we forgot the commercial featur of the enterprise, and went straight through the third kag, plum into the fourth."

Captain Crum's version of this encounter with the demon monster in mid-ocean agreed substantially with the deacon's, except in one unimportant particular. According to the captain's recollection, it was Deacon Silsbee who sought shelter in the cuddy when Beelzebub began to roar, and he, the captain, who repulsed the arch enemy by the firmness of his demeanor. On being questioned as to the relative accuracy of those two versions, Tobias Jackson privately confessed that the memory of both the captain and the deacon was at fault, and that it was he, Tobias, that had saved the Toad. The diabolical fish had swum up to the sloop and seized hold of the gunwale with its huge, talon-like fins, the captain and the deacon had taken refuge below deck, and the destruction of all on board seemed imminent, when Tobias, who alone preserved his presence of mind, grasped a belaying pin that happened to be within reach and beat Beelzebub so lustily about the head and claws that he was glad to relinquish his infernal clutch. This trifling discrepancy in the narratives of the three navigators need not distract attention from the main facts, namely, that Beelzebub did appear, was boldly met, and was put to flight.

As to the remainder of the voyage, there was no disagreement. The navigators again found that they were no match for Beelzebub, who, though defeated in the face to face encounter, was a wily and persevering foe and possessed a great advantage by reason of his unfair and unscrupulous employment of supernatural agencies. If Captain Crum attempted to take an observation of the sun to determine the latitude and longitude of the Toad, the sun would not stand still, but at Satan's instigation bobbed and wobbled around the heavens in a manner that made nautical reckoning an impossibility. Nor did the stars at night afford any better data for calculation. They danced about through each other's constellations with utter recklessness of consequences, and all three of the Toad's crew testify that four moons often appeared simultaneously, and the dipper frequently rose in the west and set in the southeast. At times the wind would blow from all points of the compass and the Toad would remain stationary for hours, buffeted by conflicting breezes.

Notwithstanding these impediments to a prosperous passage, Captain Crum believes that he finally would have made the coast of France had not Beelzebub resorted to an unexpected and insuperable trick. It was a foul blow to navigation--a blow beneath the belt.

For day after day the Toad, to all appearances, had been making good progress and the Toad's crew were well along in the last half of the fourth and last keg. The wind blew steadily abaft, the jib and mainsail drew finely, the water rippled about the bows, and the captain had begun to look sharp ahead for signs of land. By his rough reckoning the Toad ought to have been in west longitude 5° 40', somewhere off Ushant. At length land appeared--a faint blue line of land--but, to their complete bewilderment, it was neither ahead nor on either beam. It was directly behind the Toad, and although by the wind, by the compass, by the swash of waves, and by every other indication known to navigators they were sailing directly away from it, its outlines every moment became more distinct. Captain Crum caught up an empty rum keg (they were all empty now) and threw it overboard. The keg rapidly passed by the Toad from stern to stem, disappeared for a second under the bowsprit, and was soon lost in the horizon to the eastward.

The three bold sailors looked at each other with despairing eyes. By this infallible test they knew that the Toad was sailing, and had for days been sailing, directly backward, in the teeth of the wind and in the face of all natural laws. It was no use contending against an enemy who had such diabolical resources at his command. Discouraged and sick at heart, they sank down under the weight of their terrible disappointment and knew nothing more until they found themselves on board the porgy steamer Moonbeam, steaming up Mackerel Cove. Of the Toad's second grounding upon the Clamshel! they knew nothing. It was a singular coincidence, but what event could surprise them now?

Such was the story told of the Toad's voyage to France by the courageous navigators who had fought hard against unearthly odds. The inhabitants of Mackerel Cove, after hearing it attentively, weighing it judicially, and cross-examining closely, are unanimously agreed on three points:

1. That the voyage, although unsuccessful, is highly creditable to the Toad, to the Toad's crew, and, by reflex glory, to Mackerel Cove.

2. That Beelzebub, when actuated by motives of spite, is a hard fellow to beat; yet

3. That if the rum had held out long enough, the three navigators would finally have got across and viewed the splendors of the Exhibition in spite of him.

End.

 
 
 

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