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The Last of the Closet by Edward Everett Hale

FROM THE INGHAM PAPERS.

     [The Florida, Anglo-Rebel pirate, after inflicting horrible
     injuries on the commerce of America and the good name of England,
     was cut out by Captain Collins, from the bay of Bahia, by one of
     those fortunate mistakes in international law which endear brave
     men to the nations in whose interest they are committed. When she
     arrived here the government was obliged to disavow the act. The
     question then was, as we had her by mistake, what we should do with
     her. At that moment the National Sailors' Fair was in full blast at
     Boston, and I offered my suggestion in answer in the following
     article, which was published November 19, 1864, in the “Boatswain's
     Whistle,” a little paper issued at the fair.

     The government did not take the suggestion. Very unfortunately,
     before the Florida was got ready for sea, she was accidentally sunk
     in a collision with a tug off Fort Monroe, and the heirs of the
     Confederate government or the English bond-holders must look there
     for her, if the Brazilian government will give them permission.

     For the benefit of the New York Observer I will state that a
     despatch sent round the world in a spiral direction westward 1,200
     times, would not really arrive at its destination four years before
     it started. It is only a joke which suggests it.]

SPECIAL DESPATCH.

LETTER FROM CAPTAIN INGHAM, IN COMMAND OF THE FLORIDA.

     [Received four years in advance of the mail by a lightning express,
     which has gained that time by running round the world 1,200 times
     in a spiral direction westward on its way from Brazil to our
     publication-office. Mrs. Ingham's address not being known, the
     letter is printed for her information.]

     No. 29.

     BAHAI, BRAZIL, April 1, 1868.

MY DEAR WIFE:—We are here at last, thank fortune; and I shall surrender the old pirate to-day to the officers of government. We have been saluted, are to be fêted, and perhaps I shall be made a Knight Commander of the Golden Goose. I never was so glad as when I saw the lights on the San Esperitu head-land, which makes the south point of this Bahia or bay.

You will not have received my No. 28 from Loando, and may have missed 26 and 24, which I gave to outward bound whalemen. I always doubted whether you got 1, 7, 9, and 11. And for me I have no word of you since you waved your handkerchief from the window in Springfield Street on the morning of the 1st of June, 1865, nearly four years. My dear child, you will not know me.

Let me then repeat, very briefly, the outline of this strange cruise; and when the letters come, you can fill in the blanks.

The government had determined that the Florida must be returned to the neutral harbor whence she came. They had put her in complete repair, and six months of diplomacy had made the proper apologies to the Brazilian government. Meanwhile Collins, who had captured her by mistake, had, by another mistake, been made an admiral, and was commanding a squadron; and to insure her safe and respectful delivery, I, who had been waiting service, was unshelved, and, as you know, bidden to take command.

She was in apple-pie order. The engines had been cleaned up; and I thought we could make a quick thing of it. I was a little dashed when I found the crew was small; but I have been glad enough since that we had no more mouths. No one but myself knew our destination. The men thought we were to take despatches to the Gulf squadron.

You remember I had had only verbal orders to take command, and after we got outside the bay I opened my sealed despatches. The gist of them was in these words:—

“You will understand that the honor of this government is pledged for the safe delivery of the Florida to the government of Brazil. You will therefore hazard nothing to gain speed. The quantity of your coal has been adjusted with the view to give your vessel her best trim, and the supply is not large. You will husband it with care,—taking every precaution to arrive in Bahia safely with your charge, in such time as your best discretion may suggest to you.”

Your best discretion” was underscored.

I called Prendergast, and showed him the letter. Then we called the engineer and asked about the coal. He had not been into the bunkers, but went and returned with his face white, through the black grime, to report “not four days' consumption.” By some cursed accident, he said, the bunkers had been filled with barrels of salt-pork and flour!

On this, I ordered a light and went below. There had been some fatal misunderstanding somewhere. The vessel was fitted out as for an arctic voyage. Everywhere hard-bread, flour, pork, beef, vinegar, sour-krout; but, clearly enough, not, at the very best, five days of coal!

And I was to get to Brazil with this old pirate transformed into a provision ship, “at my best discretion.”

“Prendergast,” said I, “we will take it easy. Were you ever in Bahia?”

“Took flour there in '55, and lay waiting for India-rubber from July to October. Lost six men by yellow-jack.”

Prendergast was from the merchant marine. I had known him since we were children. “Ethan,” said I, “in my best discretion it would be bad to arrive there before the end of October. Where would you go?”

I cannot say he took the responsibility. He would not take it. You know, my dear, of course, that it was I who suggested Upernavik. From the days of the old marbled paper Northern Regions,—through the quarto Ross and Parry and Back and the nephew Ross and Kane and McClure and McClintock, you know, my dear, what my one passion has been,—to see those floes and icebergs for myself. Surely you forgive me, or at least excuse me. Do not you? Here was this fast steamer under me. I ought not to be in Bahia before October 25. It was June 1. Of course we went to Upernavik.

I will not say I regret it now. Yet I will say that on that decision, cautiously made, though it was “on my discretion,” all our subsequent misfortunes hang. The Danes were kind to us,—the Governor especially, though I had to carry the poor fellow bad news about the Duchies and the Danish war, which was all fresh then. He got up a dance for us, I remember, and there I wrote No. 1 to you. I could not of course help—when we left him—running her up a few degrees to the north, just to see whether there is or is not that passage between Igloolik and Prince Rupert's Headland (and by the way there is). After we passed Igloolik, there was such splendid weather, that I just used up a little coal to drive her along the coast of King William's Land; and there, as we waited for a little duck-shooting on the edge of a floe one day, as our luck ordered, a party of natives came on board, and we treated them with hard-tack crumbs and whale-oil. They fell to dancing, and we to laughing,—they danced more and we laughed more, till the oldest woman tumbled in her bear-skin bloomers, and came with a smash right on the little cast-iron frame by the wheel, which screened binnacle and compass. My dear child, there was such a hullalu and such a mess together as I remember now. We had to apologize; the doctor set her head as well as he could. We gave them gingerbread from the cabin, to console them, and got them off without a fight. But the next morning when I cast off from the floe, it proved the beggars had stolen the compass card, needle and all.

My dear Mary, there was not another bit of magnetized iron in the ship. The government had been very shy of providing instruments of any kind for Confederate cruisers. Poor Ethan had traded off two compasses only the day before for whalebone spears and skin breeches, neither of which knew the north star from the ace of spades. And this thing proved of more importance than you will think; it really made me feel that the stuff in the books and the sermons about the mariners' needle was not quite poetry.

As you shall see, if I ever get through. (Since I began, I have seen the Consul,—and heard the glorious news from home,—and am to be presented to the port authorities to-morrow.) It was the most open summer, Mary, ever known there. If I had not had to be here in October, I would have driven right through Lancaster Sound, by Baring's Island, and come out into the Pacific. But here was the honor of the country, and we merely stole back through the Straits. It was well enough there,—all daylight, you know. But after we passed Cape Farewell, we worked her into such fogs, child, as you never saw out of Hyde Park. Did not I long for that compass-card! We sailed, and we sailed, and we sailed. For thirty-seven days I did not get an observation, nor speak a ship! October! It was October before we were warm. At noon we used to sail where we thought it was lightest. At night I used to keep two men up for a lookout, lash the wheel, and let her drift like a Dutchman. One way as good as another. Mary, when I saw the sun at last, enough to get any kind of observation, we were wellnigh three hundred miles northeast of Iceland! Talk of fogs to me!

Well, I set her south again, but how long can you know if you are sailing south, in those places where the northeast winds and Scotch mists come from! Thank Heaven, we got south, or we should have frozen to death. We got into November, and we got into December. We were as far south as 37° 29'; and were in 31° 17' west on New Year's Day, 1866, when the second officer wished me a happy new year, congratulated me on the fine weather, said we should get a good observation, and asked me for the new nautical almanac! You know they are only calculated for five years. We had two Greenwich ones on board, and they ran out December 31, 1865. But the government had been as stingy in almanacs as in coal and compasses. They did not mean to keep the Confederacy in almanacs.

That was the beginning of our troubles. I had to take the old almanac, with Prendergast, and we figured like Cocker, and always kept ahead with a month's tables. But somehow,—I feel sure we were right,—but something was wrong; and after a few weeks the lunars used to come out in the most beastly way, and we always proved to be on the top of the Andes or in the Marquesas Islands, or anywhere but in the Atlantic Ocean. Well then, by good luck, we spoke the Winged Batavian; could not speak a word of Dutch, nor he a word of English; but he let Ethan copy his tables, and so we ran for St. Sacrament. I posted 8, 9, and 10 there; I gave the Dutchman 7, which I hope you got, but fear.

Well, this story is running long; but at St. Sacrament we started again, but, as ill-luck would have it, without a clean bill of health. At that time I could have run into Bahia with coal—of which I had bought some—in a week. But there was fever on shore,—and bad,—and I knew we must make pratique when we came into the outer harbor here; so, rather than do that, we stretched down the coast, and met that cyclone I wrote you about, and had to put into Loando. Understand, this was the first time we went into Loando. I have learned that wretched hole well enough since. And it was as we were running out of Loando, that, in reversing the engine too suddenly, lest we should smash up an old Portuguese woman's bum-boat, that the slides or supports of the piston-rod just shot out of the grooves they run in on the top, came cleverly down on the outside of the carriage, gave that odious g-r-r-r, which I can hear now, and then, dump,—down came the whole weight of the walking-beam, bent rod and carriages all into three figure 8's, and there we were! I had as lief run the boat with a clothes-wringer as with that engine, any day, from then to now.

Well, we tinkered, and the Portuguese dock-yard people tinkered. We took out this, and they took out that. It was growing sickly, and I got frightened, and finally I shipped the propeller and took it on board, and started under such canvas as we had left,—not much after the cyclone,—for the North and the South together had rather rotted the original duck.

Then,—as I wrote you in No. 11,—it was too late to get to Bahia before that summer's sickly season, and I stretched off to cooler regions again, “in my best discretion.” That was the time when we had the fever so horribly on board; and but for Wilder the surgeon, and the Falkland Islands, we should be dead, every man of us, now. But we touched in Queen's Bay just in time. The Governor (who is his own only subject) was very cordial and jolly and kind. We all went ashore, and pitched tents, and ate ducks and penguins till the men grew strong. I scraped her, nearly down to the bends, for the grass floated by our side like a mermaid's hair as we sailed, and the once swift Florida would not make four knots an hour on the wind;—and this was the ship I was to get into Bahia in good order, at my best discretion!

Meanwhile none of these people had any news from America. The last paper at the Falkland Islands was a London Times of 1864, abusing the Yankees. As for the Portuguese, they were like the people Logan saw at Vicksburg. “They don't know anything good!” said he; “they don't know anything at all!” It was really more for news than for water I put into Sta. Lucia,—and a pretty mess I made of it there. We looked so like pirates (as at bottom the old tub is), that they took all of us who landed to the guard-house. None of us could speak Sta. Lucia, whatever that tongue may be, nor understand it. And it was not till Ethan fired a shell from the 100-pound Parrott over the town that they let us go. I hope the dogs sent you my letters. I suppose there was another infringement of neutrality. But if the Brazilian government sends this ship to Sta. Lucia, I shall not command her, that's all!

Well! what happened at Loando the second time, Valencia, and Puntos Pimos, and Nueva Salamanca, and Loando this last time, you know and will know, and why we loitered so. At last, thank fortune, here we are. Actually, Mary, this ship logged on the average only thirty-two knots a day for the last week before we got her into port.

Now think of the ingratitude of men! I have brought her in here, “according to my best discretion,” and do you believe, these hidalgos, or dons, or señores, or whatever they are, had forgotten she existed. And when I showed them to her, they said in good Portugal that I was a liar. Fortunately the Consul is our old friend Kingsley. He was delighted to see me; thought I was at the bottom of the sea. From him we learned that the Confederacy was blown sky-high long ago. And from all I can learn, I may have the Florida back again for my own private yacht or peculium, unless she goes to Sta. Lucia.

Not I, my friends! Scrape her, and mend her, and give her to the marines,—and tell them her story; but do not intrust her again to my own Polly's own

FREDERIC INGHAM.

 
 
 

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