The Cruise of the Dolphin
by T. B. Aldrich
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 be afterwards.
To own the whole or a portion of a row-boat 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
sail-boat 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 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. I never saw such an old sharp-eye
as he was in those days.
I knew he wouldn't be angry with me for buying a row-boat;
but I also knew that the little bowsprit suggesting a jib, and the
tapering mast ready for its few square yards 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 had indicated.
The river was dangerous for sail-boats. Squalls, without the
slightest warning, were of frequent occurrence; scarcely a year
passed that six or seven persons were not drowned under the very
windows of the town, and these, oddly enough, were generally sea-captains,
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 Fred Langdon and Binny Wallace were
under the same restrictions I was.
Not long after the purchase of the boat, we planned an excursion
to Sandpeep Island, the last of the islands in the harbor. We
proposed 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 couldn't work it; but
fortune arranged it for us. I may say here, that, whatever else I
did, I never played truant 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 hardtack (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
article we 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 row-lock.
I wonder if Christopher Columbus quietly slipped out
of the house without letting his estimable
family know what he was up to?
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 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 two 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 crusted all over with flaky
To skin the fish, build our fireplace, and cook the dinner, 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 naught of such marine feasts, my heart is full of pity for
them. What wasted lives! Not to know the delights of a clam-bake,
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 sea-breeze 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
The banquet finished, Phil Adams drew forth from his pocket a
handful of sweetfern cigars; but as none of the party could indulge
without risk of becoming sick, 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 await the passing of the
"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, it lay out of sight by the beach at the farther extremity of
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 in shore!" shouted Phil Adams.
Wallace ran to the tiller; but the slight cockle-shell merely
swung round and drifted broadside on. O, 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 widened momently.
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 waters.
A wild, insane light came into Phil Adams's eyes, as he stood
knee-deep in 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 instant, 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 away.
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
Finally it went out like a spark, and we saw it no more. Then
we gazed at each other, and dared not speak.
Absorbed in following the course of the boat, we had scarcely
noticed the huddled inky clouds that sagged down 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 to keep our footing on the beach any longer.
The wind and the breakers would have swept us into the ocean if
we had not clung to each other 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 fell to crying, the three of us, and cried I know not
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 suddenly, at
last, like a curtain, shutting in Sandpeep Island from all the world.
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 round his bed with these phenomena
of his own eyes?
"I say," whispered Fred Langdon, at length, 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 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 itself.
"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 people. Who could tell?
Such were the questions we asked ourselves again and again, as
we lay in each other's arms 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. To keep warm,
we lay huddled together so closely that we could hear our hearts
beat above the tumult of sea and sky.
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 don't know what would have become
of us at this crisis, if it hadn't 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
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. 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 on 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 from 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 people 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, dismasted boats.
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 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
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 play-ground 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 couldn't 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 Burying-Ground!
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!