The Cruise of the Dolphin
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
(1 An episode from The Story of a Bad Boy, the narrator being Tom
Bailey, the hero of the tale.)
Every Rivermouth boy looks upon the sea as being in some way mixed
up with his destiny. While he is yet a baby lying in his cradle, he
hears the dull, far-off boom of the breakers; when he is older, he
wanders by the sandy shore, watching the waves that come plunging
up the beach like white-maned sea-horses, as Thoreau calls them;
his eye follows the lessening sail as it fades into the blue
horizon, and he burns for the time when he shall stand on the
quarter-deck of his own ship, and go sailing proudly across that
mysterious waste of waters.
Then the town itself is full of hints and flavors of the sea. The
gables and roofs of the houses facing eastward are covered with red
rust, like the flukes of old anchors; a salty smell pervades the
air, and dense gray fogs, the very breath of Ocean, periodically
creep up into the quiet streets and envelop everything. The
terrific storms that lash the coast; the kelp and spars, and
sometimes the bodies of drowned men, tossed on shore by the
scornful waves; the shipyards, the wharves, and the tawny fleet of
fishing-smacks yearly fitted out at Rivermouth--these things, and a
hundred other, feed the imagination and fill the brain of every
healthy boy with dreams of adventure. He learns to swim almost as
soon as he can walk; he draws in with his mother's milk the art of
handling an oar: he is born a sailor, whatever he may turn out to
To own the whole or a portion of a rowboat is his earliest
ambition. No wonder that I, born to this life, and coming back to
it with freshest sympathies, should have caught the prevailing
infection. No wonder I longed to buy a part of the trim little
sailboat Dolphin, which chanced just then to be in the market. This
was in the latter part of May.
Three shares, at five or six dollars each, I forget which, had
already been taken by Phil Adams, Fred Langdon, and Binny Wallace.
The fourth and remaining share hung fire. Unless a purchaser could
be found for this, the bargain was to fall through.
I am afraid I required but slight urging to join in the investment.
I had four dollars and fifty cents on hand, and the treasurer of
the Centipedes (1 A secret society, composed of twelve boys of the
Temple Grammar School, Rivermouth.) advanced me the balance,
receiving my silver pencil-case as ample security. It was a proud
moment when I stood on the wharf with my partners, inspecting the
Dolphin, moored at the foot of a very slippery flight of steps. She
was painted white with a green stripe outside, and on the stern a
yellow dolphin, with its scarlet mouth wide open, stared with a
surprised expression at its own reflection in the water. The boat
was a great bargain.
I whirled my cap in the air, and ran to the stairs leading down
from the wharf, when a hand was laid gently on my shoulder. I
turned, and faced Captain Nutter (2 Tom Bailey's grandfather.) I
never saw such an old sharp-eye as he was in those days.
I knew he would not be angry with me for buying a rowboat; but I
also knew that the little bowsprit suggesting a jib and the
tapering mast ready for its few square feet of canvas were trifles
not likely to meet his approval. As far as rowing on the river,
among the wharves, was concerned, the Captain had long since
withdrawn his decided objections, having convinced himself, by
going out with me several times, that I could manage a pair of
sculls as well as anybody.
I was right in my surmises. He commanded me, in the most emphatic
terms, never to go out in the Dolphin without leaving the mast in
the boat-house. This curtailed my anticipated sport, but the
pleasure of having a pull whenever I wanted it remained. I never
disobeyed the Captain's orders touching the sail, though I
sometimes extended my row beyond the points he has indicated.
The river was dangerous for sailboats. Squalls, without the
slightest warning, were of frequent occurrence; scarcely a year
passed that three or four persons were not drowned under the very
windows of the town, and these, oddly enough, were generally
seacaptains, who either did not understand the river, or lacked the
skill to handle a small craft.
A knowledge of such disasters, one of which I witnessed, consoled
me somewhat when I saw Phil Adams skimming over the water in a
spanking breeze with every stitch of canvas set. There were few
better yachtsmen than Phil Adams. He usually went sailing alone,
for both Langdon and Binny Wallace were under the same restrictions
Not long after the purchase of the boat, we planned an excursion to
Sandpeep Island, the last of the islands in the harbor. We purposed
to start early in the morning, and return with the tide in the
moonlight. Our only difficulty was to obtain a whole day's
exemption from school, the customary half-holiday not being long
enough for our picnic. Somehow, we could not work it; but fortune
arranged it for us. I may say here, that, whatever else I did, I
never played truant ("hookey" we called it) in my life.
One afternoon the four owners of the Dolphin exchanged significant
glances when Mr. Grimshaw announced from the desk that there would
be no school the following day, he having just received
intelligence of the death of his uncle in Boston. I was sincerely
attached to Mr. Grimshaw, but I am afraid that the death of his
uncle did not affect me as it ought to have done.
We were up before sunrise the next morning, in order to take
advantage of the flood-tide, which waits for no man. Our
preparations for the cruise were made the previous evening. In the
way of eatables and drinkables, we had stored in the stern of the
Dolphin a generous bag of hard-tack (for the chowder), a piece of
pork to fry the cunners in, three gigantic apple pies (bought at
Pettingil's), half a dozen lemons, and a keg of spring water--the
last-named articles were slung over the side, to keep it cool, as
soon as we got under way. The crockery and the bricks for our camp-
stove we placed in the bows with the groceries, which included
sugar, pepper, salt, and a bottle of pickles. Phil Adams
contributed to the outfit a small tent of unbleached cotton cloth,
under which we intended to take our nooning.
We unshipped the mast, threw in an extra oar, and were ready to
embark. I do not believe that Christopher Columbus, when he started
on his rather successful voyage of discovery, felt half the
responsibility and importance that weighed upon me as I sat on the
middle seat of the Dolphin, with my oar resting in the rowlock. I
wonder if Christopher Columbus quietly slipped out of the house
without letting his estimable family know what he was up to?
Charley Marden, whose father had promised to cane him if he ever
stepped foot on sail or row boat, came down to the wharf in a sour-
grape humor, to see us off. Nothing would tempt him to go out on
the river in such a crazy clam-shell of a boat. He pretended that
he did not expect to behold us alive again, and tried to throw a
wet blanket over the expedition.
"Guess you'll have a squally time of it," said Charley, casting off
the painter. "I'll drop in at old Newbury's" (Newbury was the
parish undertaker) "and leave word, as I go along!"
"Bosh!" muttered Phil Adams, sticking the boathook into the
string-piece of the wharf, and sending the Dolphin half a dozen
yards toward the current.
How calm and lovely the river was! Not a ripple stirred on the
glassy surface, broken only by the sharp cutwater of our tiny
craft. The sun, as round and red as an August moon, was by this
time peering above the water-line.
The town had drifted behind us, and we were entering among the
group of islands. Sometimes we could almost touch with our boat-
hook the shelving banks on either side. As we neared the mouth of
the harbor, a little breeze now and then wrinkled the blue water,
shook the spangles from the foliage, and gently lifted the spiral
mist-wreaths that still clung alongshore. The measured dip of our
oars and the drowsy twitterings of the birds seemed to mingle with,
rather than break, the enchanted silence that reigned about us.
The scent of the new clover comes back to me now, as I recall that
delicious morning when we floated away in a fairy boat down a river
like a dream!
The sun was well up when the nose of the Dolphin nestled against
the snow-white bosom of Sandpeep Island. This island, as I have
said before, was the last of the cluster, one side of it being
washed by the sea. We landed on the river-side, the sloping sands
and quiet water affording us a good place to moor the boat.
It took us an hour or more to transport our stores to the spot
selected for the encampment. Having pitched our tent, using the
five oars to support the canvas, we got out our lines, and went
down the rocks seaward to fish. It was early for cunners, but we
were lucky enough to catch as nice a mess as ever you saw. A cod
for the chowder was not so easily secured. At last Binny Wallace
hauled in a plump little fellow clustered all over with flaky
To skin the fish, build our fireplace, and cook the chowder kept us
busy the next two hours.
The fresh air and the exercise had given us the appetites of
wolves, and we were about famished by the time the savory mixture
was ready for our clam-shell saucers.
I shall not insult the rising generation on the seaboard by telling
them how delectable is a chowder compounded and eaten in this
Robinson Crusoe fashion. As for the boys who live inland, and know
not of such marine feasts, my heart is full of pity for them. What
wasted lives! Not to know the delights of a clambake, not to love
chowder, to be ignorant of lobscouse!
How happy we were, we four, sitting cross-legged in the crisp salt
grass, with the invigorating seabreeze blowing gratefully through
our hair! What a joyous thing was life, and how far off seemed
death--death, that lurks in all pleasant places, and was so near!
The banquet finished, Phil Adams drew from his pocket a handful of
sweet-fern cigars; but as none of the party could indulge without
imminent risk of becoming ill, we all, on one pretext or another,
declined, and Phil smoked by himself.
The wind had freshened by this, and we found it comfortable to put
on the jackets which had been thrown aside in the heat of the day.
We strolled along the beach and gathered large quantities of the
fairy-woven Iceland moss, which at certain seasons is washed to
these shores; then we played at ducks and drakes, and then, the sun
being sufficiently low, we went in bathing.
Before our bath was ended a slight change had come over the sky and
sea; fleecy-white clouds scudded here and there, and a muffled moan
from the breakers caught our ears from time to time. While we were
dressing, a few hurried drops of rain came lisping down, and we
adjourned to the tent to wait the passing of the squall.
"We're all right, anyhow," said Phil Adams. "It won't be much of a
blow, and we'll be as snug as a bug in a rug, here in the tent,
particularly if we have that lemonade which some of you fellows
were going to make.
By an oversight, the lemons had been left in the boat. Binny
Wallace volunteered to go for them.
"Put an extra stone on the painter, Binny," said Adams, calling
after him; "it would be awkward to have the Dolphin give us the
slip and return to port minus her passengers."
"That it would," answered Binny, scrambling down the rocks.
Sandpeep Island is diamond-shaped--one point running out into the
sea, and the other looking towards the town. Our tent was on the
river-side. Though the Dolphin was also on the same side, she lay
out of sight by the beach at the farther extremity of the island.
Binny Wallace had been absent five or six minutes when we heard him
calling our several names in tones that indicated distress or
surprise, we could not tell which. Our first thought was, "The boat
has broken adrift!"
We sprung to our feet and hastened down to the beach. On turning
the bluff which hid the mooring-place from our view, we found the
conjecture correct. Not only was the Dolphin afloat, but poor
little Binny Wallace was standing in the bows with his arms
stretched helplessly towards us--drifting out to sea!
"Head the boat inshore!" shouted Phil Adams.
Wallace ran to the tiller; but the slight cockle-shell merely swung
round and drifted broadside on. Oh, if we had but left a single
scull in the Dolphin!
"Can you swim it?" cried Adams desperately, using his hand as a
speaking-trumpet, for the distance between the boat and the island
Binny Wallace looked down at the sea, which was covered with white
caps, and made a despairing gesture. He knew, and we knew, that the
stoutest swimmer could not live forty seconds in those angry
A wild, insane light came into Phil Adam's eyes, as he stood knee-
deep in the boiling surf, and for an instant I think he meditated
plunging into the ocean after the receding boat.
The sky darkened, and an ugly look stole rapidly over the broken
surface of the sea.
Binny Wallace half rose from his seat in the stern, and waved his
hand to us in token of farewell. In spite of the distance,
increasing every moment, we could see his face plainly. The anxious
expression it wore at first had passed. It was pale and meek now,
and I love to think there was a kind of halo about it, like that
which painters place around the forehead of a saint. So he drifted
The sky grew darker and darker. It was only by straining our eyes
through the unnatural twilight that we could keep the Dolphin in
sight. The figure of Binny Wallace was no longer visible, for the
boat itself had dwindled to a mere white dot on the black water.
Now we lost it, and our hearts stopped throbbing; and now the speck
appeared again, for an instant, on the crest of a high wave.
Finally it went out like a spark, and we saw it no more. Then we
gazed at one another, and dared not speak.
Absorbed in following the course of the boat, we had scarcely
noticed the huddled inky clouds that sagged heavily all around us.
From these threatening masses, seamed at intervals with pale
lightning, there now burst a heavy peal of thunder that shook the
ground under our feet. A sudden squall struck the sea, ploughing
deep white furrows into it, and at the same instant a single
piercing shriek rose above the tempest--the frightened cry of a
gull swooping over the island. How it startled us!
It was impossible any longer to keep our footing on the beach. The
wind and the breakers would have swept us into the ocean if we had
not clung to one another with the desperation of drowning men.
Taking advantage of a momentary lull, we crawled up the sands on
our hands and knees, and, pausing in the lee of the granite ledge
to gain breath, returned to the camp, where we found that the gale
had snapped all the fastenings of the tent but one. Held by this,
the puffed-out canvas swayed in the wind like a balloon. It was a
task of some difficulty to secure it, which we did by beating down
the canvas with the oars.
After several trials, we succeeded in setting up the tent on the
leeward side of the ledge. Blinded by the vivid flashes of
lightning, and drenched by the rain, which fell in torrents, we
crept, half dead with fear and anguish, under our flimsy shelter.
Neither the anguish nor the fear was on our own account, for we
were comparatively safe, but for poor little Binny Wallace, driven
out to sea in the merciless gale. We shuddered to think of him in
that frail shell, drifting on and on to his grave, the sky rent
with lightning over his head, and the green abysses yawning beneath
him. We suddenly fell to crying, and cried I know not how long.
Meanwhile the storm raged with augmented fury. We were obliged to
hold on to the ropes of the tent to prevent it blowing away. The
spray from the river leaped several yards up the rocks and clutched
at us malignantly. The very island trembled with the concussions of
the sea beating upon it, and at times I fancied that it had broken
loose from its foundation and was floating off with us. The
breakers, streaked with angry phosphorus, were fearful to look at.
The wind rose higher and higher, cutting long slits in the tent,
through which the rain poured incessantly. To complete the sum of
our miseries, the night was at hand. It came down abruptly, at
last, like a curtain, shutting in Sandpeep Island from all the
It was a dirty night, as the sailors say. The darkness was
something that could be felt as well as seen--it pressed down upon
one with a cold, clammy touch. Gazing into the hollow blackness,
all sorts of imaginable shapes seemed to start forth from vacancy--
brilliant colors, stars, prisms, and dancing lights. What boy,
lying awake at night, has not amused or terrified himself by
peopling the spaces around his bed with these phenomena of his own
"I say," whispered Fred Langdon, at last, clutching my hand, "don't
you see things--out there--in the dark?"
"Yes, yes--Binny Wallace's face!"
I added to my own nervousness by making this avowal; though for the
last ten minutes I had seen little besides that star-pale face with
its angelic hair and brows. First a slim yellow circle, like the
nimbus round the dark moon, took shape and grew sharp against the
darkness; then this faded gradually, and there was the Face,
wearing the same sad, sweet look it wore when he waved his hand to
us across the awful water. This optical illusion kept repeating
"And I too," said Adams." I see it every now and then, outside
there. What wouldn't I give if it really was poor little Wallace
looking in at us! O boys, how shall we dare to go back to the town
without him? I've wished a hundred times, since we've been sitting
here, that I was in his place, alive or dead!"
We dreaded the approach of morning as much as we longed for it. The
morning would tell us all. Was it possible for the Dolphin to
outride such a storm? There was a lighthouse on Mackerel Reef,
which lay directly in the course the boat had taken when it
disappeared. If the Dolphin had caught on this reef, perhaps Binny
Wallace was safe. Perhaps his cries had been heard by the keeper of
the light. The man owned a life-boat, and had rescued several
persons. Who could tell?
Such were the questions we asked ourselves again and again, as we
lay huddled together waiting for daybreak. What an endless night it
was! I have known months that did not seem so long.
Our position was irksome rather than perilous; for the day was
certain to bring us relief from the town, where our prolonged
absence, together with the storm, had no doubt excited the
liveliest alarm for our safety. But the cold, the darkness, and the
suspense were hard to bear.
Our soaked jackets had chilled us to the bone. In order to keep
warm we lay so closely that we could hear our hearts beat above the
tumult of sea and sky.
After a while we grew very hungry, not having broken our fast since
early in the day. The rain had turned the hard-tack into a sort of
dough; but it was better than nothing.
We used to laugh at Fred Langdon for always carrying in his pocket
a small vial of essence of peppermint or sassafras, a few drops of
which, sprinkled on a lump of loaf-sugar, he seemed to consider a
great luxury. I do not know what would have become of us at this
crisis if it had not been for that omnipresent bottle of hot stuff.
We poured the stinging liquid over our sugar, which had kept dry in
a sardine-box, and warmed ourselves with frequent doses.
After four or five hours the rain ceased, the wind died away to a
moan, and the sea--no longer raging like a maniac--sobbed and
sobbed with a piteous human voice all along the coast. And well it
might, after that night's work. Twelve sail of the Gloucester
fishing fleet had gone down with every soul on board, just outside
of Whale's-Back Light. Think of the wide grief that follows in the
wake of one wreck; then think of the despairing women who wrung
their hands and wept, the next morning, in the streets of
Gloucester, Marblehead, and Newcastle!
Though our strength was nearly spent, we were too cold to sleep.
Once I sunk into a troubled doze, when I seemed to hear Charley
Marden's parting words, only it was the Sea that said them. After
that I threw off the drowsiness whenever it threatened to overcome
Fred Langdon was the earliest to discover a filmy, luminous streak
in the sky, the first glimmering of sunrise.
"Look, it is nearly daybreak!"
While we were following the direction of his finger, a sound of
distant oars fell upon our ears.
We listened breathlessly; and as the dip of the blades became more
audible, we discerned two foggy lights, like will-o'-the-wisps,
floating on the river.
Running down to the water's edge, we hailed the boats with all our
might. The call was heard, for the oars rested a moment in the
row-locks, and then pulled in towards the island.
It was two boats from the town, in the foremost of which we could
now make out the figures of Captain Nutter and Binny Wallace's
father. We shrunk back on seeing him.
"Thank God!" cried Mr. Wallace fervently, as he leaped from the
wherry without waiting for the bow to touch the beach.
But when he saw only three boys standing on the sands, his eye
wandered restlessly about in quest of the fourth; then a deadly
pallor overspread his features.
Our story was soon told. A solemn silence fell upon the crowd of
rough boatmen gathered round, interrupted only by a stifled sob
form one poor old man who stood apart from the rest.
The sea was still running too high for any small boat to venture
out; so it was arranged that the wherry should take us back to
town, leaving the yawl, with a picked crew, to hug the island until
daybreak, and then set forth in search of the Dolphin.
Though it was barely sunrise when we reached town, there were a
great many persons assembled at the landing eager for intelligence
from missing boats. Two picnic parties had started down river the
day before, just previous to the gale, and nothing had been heard
of them. It turned out that the pleasure-seekers saw their danger
in time, and ran ashore on one of the least exposed islands, where
they passed the night. Shortly after our own arrival they appeared
off Rivermouth, much to the joy of their friends, in two shattered,
The excitement over, I was in a forlorn state, physically and
mentally. Captain Nutter put me to bed between hot blankets, and
sent Kitty Collins for the doctor. I was wandering in my mind, and
fancied myself still on Sandpeep Island: now we were building our
brick stove to cook the chowder, and, in my delirium, I laughed
aloud and shouted to my comrades; now the sky darkened, and the
squall struck the island; now I gave orders to Wallace how to
manage the boat, and now I cried because the rain was pouring in on
me through the holes in the tent. Towards evening a high fever set
in, and it was many days before my grandfather deemed it prudent
to tell me that the Dolphin had been found, floating keel upwards,
four miles southeast of Mackerel Reef.
Poor little Binny Wallace! How strange it seemed, when I went to
school again, to see that empty seat in the fifth row! How gloomy
the playground was, lacking the sunshine of his gentle, sensitive
face! One day a folded sheet slipped from my algebra: it was the
last note he ever wrote me. I could not read it for the tears.
What a pang shot across my heart the afternoon it was whispered
through the town that a body had been washed ashore at Grave
Point--the place where we bathed! We bathed there no more! How well
I remember the funeral, and what a piteous sight it was afterwards
to see his familiar name on a small headstone in the Old South
Poor little Binny Wallace! Always the same to me. The rest of us
have grown up into hard, worldly men, fighting the fight of life;
but you are forever young, and gentle, and pure; a part of my own
childhood that time cannot wither; always a little boy, always poor
little Binny Wallace!