An Island On A Jamboree

by Charles Weathers Bump

For three days the shipping of Baltimore, large and small, had been held in leash by a great storm upon the bay. One of those West India autumn hurricanes coming suddenly had whipped the Chesapeake into such a fury with its fierce southeast blow that steamboats and small sailing craft alike heeded the Weather Bureau warning and remained in Baltimore.

On the third night the gale had spent its fury, and, with a rising barometer and a favorable Government forecast, Captain Cromwell, eager to get home, ventured out with his bugeye as soon as the dawn came. The Patapsco was full of white caps, but the wind had softened and the skies were clear, and the Tuckahoe met with no misadventure as it passed down. A hundred other vessels were making ready to follow, but he had the start of them and the river to himself. In a few hours he would be with his family at Rock Hall.

But as he rounded Seven-Foot Knoll and headed across the bay he suddenly grew excited, and shouted the name of his favorite patron, the great Jehoshaphat.

Then he yelled to his crew:

"What in the devil is that ahead, you lazy loafer?"

The crew rose up en masse—being only one—from its lolling position beside the mainmast, and looked out over the disturbed waters. And then it was the crew's turn to become excited.

"Golly, Cap. Jim, I ain't never done seen nuthin' like that afore. What the debbil am it?"

The commander of the Tuckahoe responded:

"I'll be jiggered if I know."

The crew instinctively moved back to a position close to the master, and both, with mixed feelings of alarm and curiosity, concentrated their gaze upon the strange sight that had aroused them.

"I've been running to Baltimore these ten years, John Washington," said the Captain to the crew, "and I've seen queer things on the bay and the river. I'll never forget how them blamed naval fellers from Annapolis frightened me by coming up out of the water with one of them durned submarines. But I'll be blowed if ever I have seen anything to beat this. There warn't no island out there when we run past the Knoll going up."

"'Deed there warn't, Cap. Jim. Golly, I'se scared, I is. Ain't you 'fraid it's one of Satan's traps, Cap. Jim? The debbil am mighty cunnin', you knows dat."

"Devil or not, John, I'm going to see what it really is."

And the captain of the Tuckahoe gave the command "Hard lee!" so as to head the bay craft more directly toward the centre of the mysterious island that they had discovered. It was now about a half mile distant and, as seen in the morning light, low-lying and ten acres or so in extent. Its most peculiar feature to the pair on the bugeye was a grove of tall trees, naked to a height of 60 or 80 feet, and then crowned by enormous spreading leaves, or branches.

"Them's powerful funny trees, Cap. Jim," said the colored deckhand, doubtfully.

"Never seen anything like 'em in this bay before," replied Captain Cromwell. "I ain't never been in the tropics, John, but they look mighty like pictures of cocoanut palms."

"Tropics, Cap. Jim?"

"Yes; the West Indies."

"In de name of de Lawd, Cap. Jim, how dem trees done get here from de West Indies? Dat a long way off, ain't it?"

Captain Cromwell made no reply. He was too intently studying the island. All of a sudden he was startled by his crew sinking on its knees on the deck with an exclamation. He turned and saw the negro's skin blanched with terror.

"Fo' de Lawd Gawd, Cap. Jim, dat thing am movin'."

"Skidoo, John, skidoo," said the Captain, skeptically.

"'Deed an' double-deed, it is, Cap. Jim. You jes' look behind it ober dar at Kent Island."

The Captain peered as directed, while the negro eyed him doubtfully.

"Great Jehoshaphat!" the white man cried. "You're right, John, you're right. That there island is a-movin' up the bay."

"Ain't yer skeered, Cap. Jim?" asked the crew, with a shudder. "'Pears to me it's mighty like de debbil."

Captain Cromwell was doubtful himself. He laid his hand on the tiller and was about to change his course when he made a fresh discovery.

"There's a man on that island, as I'm a-livin'," he exclaimed.

"Whar is he, Cap. Jim?" cried the negro.

"Right by that grove of trees, John. He's waving his arms at us. He's standing by some kind of a hut and there's a tall pole with the stars and stripes turned upside down."

"Maybe dey's pirates, Cap. Jim." Visions of the dreaded skull and cross-bones and of a horrible death at the yardarm, whatever that was, made John Washington's teeth and knees knock together violently.

"Pirates, the deuce! They're Americans that want help."

"And is you gwine close, Cap. Jim? Lawdy."

The crew started forward and the Captain held the bugeye to its course to the strange island. The man by the grove of palms waved his arms and ran toward the shore nearest to them. He shouted several times, but Captain Cromwell could not hear him. Finally, the man picked up a huge leaf, and, twisting it into a cornucopia shape, made a megaphone of it. With this aid his voice came floating over the bay.

"Keep off!" he called. "There is a sunken reef on this side. Head for the cove." He pointed to the north end of the floating mass, and Captain Cromwell put about. The island, now that he was close, appeared to be making good headway—at least four or five miles an hour. There was a swish and a swirl of water on the sides that showed it would have been folly to have run in shore there. But after he had rounded a hummock of glistening sand he saw the cove, and in a few minutes more had entered it and discovered a roughly constructed wharf. John Washington reluctantly obeyed a sharp order to take in sail, and, with the aid of the stranger ashore, the Tuckahoe was presently moored.

Captain Cromwell's first impulse was to laugh at a near view of the man on the island. "Powerful funny lookin'," was John Washington's comment. His hair and whiskers were of the red hue that could never by courtesy be called auburn. Both whiskers and hair were long and ragged and would have provoked despair in any aseptic barber shop in Baltimore. For coat the islander had on a baggy affair, roughly fashioned out of jute, and his trousers were of sailcloth, cut in a style that would not have met the approval of a Maryland Club member. He was thick-set, with a slight stoop. His wrists were tattooed, his hands horny. His eyes were a placid blue pair. Above the left one was a scar.

"Where in blazes am I?" he yelled to Captain Cromwell as the Tuckahoe was nearing the wharf. "Blazes" is a mild translation of the expletive actually employed.

"Chesapeake bay, mate."

"Chesapeake bay! Jiminy crickets! Blown all the way from the Bahamas! Well, I'm danged!"

"How did it happen?" asked the master of the Tuckahoe. The newest Robinson Crusoe didn't hear him.

"How in blazes did I pass in the Capes and not know it?" Again "blazes" is putting it mildly. "Durned thick, nasty weather yesterday. Couldn't see a half mile. Must a passed in then. How far up am I?"

"Mouth of the Patapsco."

"By jinks, so it is. I might a knowed it. There's the Knoll. And there's North P'int. Many's the time I sighted them when I used to run here in a five-master from Bath."

"How did you come—this time?" again asked Captain Cromwell.

Again his curiosity had to wait. "Got a quid of 'baccy, mate?" asked the red-bearded man as he stood on the wharf beside the bugeye. "Ain't had a chaw in four years." He seized eagerly the plug that was handed to him, broke off a generous "chaw" and thrust it into his mouth. Then, and not until then, did he make reply.

"How did I come? Caught in a sou'easter, that's all. Nastiest storm you ever want to see. Hit us suddenly five nights ago. Them palms was bent double with the wind. Lord only knows why my mansion yonder didn't go. After while sort a felt we were driftin'. When mornin' broke there was my kingdom afloat in the ocean cut in two, me alone on this bit and the biggest half gone off with my subjects on it."

"Subjects?"

"Yes, my people."

The Captain looked at John and John edged off from the stranger and made a sign suggestive of deficient mentality.

"Your people?" asked Captain Cromwell.

"Yes, man. Why, I am the King of Tortilla Key."

John renewed the aforesaid sign and edged still farther away. Captain Cromwell laughed. The stranger chimed in.

"Does sound funny, don't it. Fact is I made myself King. I've got a crown up at the palace there. Rusty tin saucepan afore I knocked the bottom out."

The Captain laughed again.

"You're an odd fish," he remarked. "What was your name before you were King?"

"Me? Oh! I'm a 'down Easter.' Peleg Timrod of Squan, Mass., U. S. A. Of course, I knowed Peleg was no royal name, so I just dubbed myself Victor Fust when I annexed this here island."

"It ain't much of a kingdom."

"About four times as large as you see afore the rest broke away. Anyway, I thought it a mighty big place when I got tossed up here goin' on four year ago. I'd been afloat on the roof of a deckhouse for three days arter the fruiter Bainbridge were cast away, and I tell you, mate, I was powerful glad to hit any old kind of terra firma then. The bunch of natives who fed me and sheltered me was a kind lot. They didn't seem to belong to no country in partikler, and though I knowed Britain claimed the Bahamas, I jes' kind a thought Teddy might want the place for a coaling station some time. So I let 'em know I was their King, and I reckon I ain't had any more trouble with them than Peter Leary had in Guam. Of course, I couldn't make it plain to 'em how the Constitution follows the flag, 'cos I didn't know myself."

"Where did you get your American flag?"

"American flag, mate?" Victor I. was offended. "Why, bless you, that ain't no stars and stripes. That there's the flag of Tortilla. There's no stars there. The red's my old undershirt, the blue I found thrown up in the surf one day and the white is a bit of sail I had with me when I dropped in to take my throne. That flag means business. I"——

His Majesty was interrupted by a shout from John Washington:

"Golly, Cap. Jim, the island's stopped!"

"Stopped, you lunkhead?"

"Yes, Cap. Jim. It ain't movin' no more. I'se been watchin' Poole's Island yonder, and we done ceased."

"Maybe it's aground," suggested the King.

"Maybe it is," replied the Rock Hall captain, "but it's more likely to have run into a current down the bay from the Susquehanna. It's just as well for you, I guess, or you'd a bumped into Cecil county so hard you wouldn't a voted next 'lection."

For some minutes the trio studied the island and its surroundings with intentness. The King was the first to notice when his kingdom got to moving again.

"It's headin' down the bay this time," he cheerily declared. "Reckon you were right about getting into a current. S'pose I'm off on another cruise."

"Sail away with me, and let it go," urged Captain Cromwell.

"What! desert my kingdom in such a economic crisis! Not this King. No, siree. Victor I. stays right here as long as there's a Tortilla to king it over. There's no kin in Squan to lament the loss of Peleg Timrod, and I've had a bully time here. Plenty of bananas, pineapples and cocoanuts to live on, no work to do, and a couple of queens to boot."

"Queens?" cried Captain Cromwell.

"Golly!" exclaimed his crew.

"Yes; two as fine-looking girls as you'd want to see. I'm powerful sorry they ain't here now to give you a royal welcome. They're gone with the rest of the island and the rest of the subjects. I miss 'em."

Victor I. sighed. Then he resumed after a pause:

"Women certainly are the curiousest things. They're the same everywhere. Life's no good without 'em, and they plague you to death while you're trying to live with 'em. Now, there's those two queens. I loved both, and yet I had such trouble with 'em last week I made 'em go home to their father's hut. Ain't I sorry they wasn't at the palace when the sou'easter came!

"How did I get 'em? Oh, they were given to me when I first came to Tortilla. You see, when I got throwed up here there was a family of natives, eight in all—the old man, the old woman, three daughters, the husband of one of them and two young boys. The two girls who didn't have no husbands took a shine to me as soon as I came and dad just passed me along to both. That was before I declaimed myself King. I was brought up in Sunday-school all right and I knowed well only Turks and Mormons had two wives at a time. But, under the circumstances, I couldn't offend anybody, so I just took both. Eugenie—that's the name I give her—she could cook and keep house out of sight. The little one—Marie Antoinette—was the cutest and soon had the biggest corner of my heart. That's what got me into trouble. You see, new clothes was scarce on Tortilla, and when I gave a bit of my old sail to Marie Antoinette for a Sunday-go-to-meetin' dress and didn't give none to Eugenie their oldest sister put the devil into Eugenie's head. She"——

The further recital of the tale of a pair of queens was cut short by a terrible roaring. A piece of the island behind the wharf broke loose and sank into the bay with a suddenness that put the Tuckahoe in dire peril. The wave that followed the engulfing of an acre of land lifted the little bugeye and nearly capsized it, at the same time ripping the wharf to pieces and snapping the moorings. Captain Cromwell and his negro sprang to the tiller and succeeded in steadying her. When they had time to look about them they saw the red-headed King in the water a hundred feet away, swimming for what was left of his kingdom.

"Come nearer; I'll throw you a line," shouted Captain Cromwell.

"No; I'll stick to my kingdom," answered Victor I., alias Peleg Timrod. "You'd better sheer off; you'll hit a coral reef or get drawn under."

The Tuckahoe's master saw that it was good advice, and he ordered John Washington to hoist sail. By the time this was done they were a quarter of a mile out in the bay, and Victor I., wet and dripping, was again on his terra firma.

"Goodbye," yelled the bay captain.

"Bye-bye," returned the King, nonchalantly.

And soon he was but a speck on the strand of the floating island, which was making good progress southward.

For half an hour Tortilla Key was visible in the bay. Captain Cromwell and John watched it unceasingly, the latter growing more and more relieved as the bugeye scudded nearer home and farther from the moving marvel. Strange to relate, over the bay, usually dotted with small or large vessels, there was no steamer or sailing craft to be seen up to the time that the bunch of tall palms became a speck off Annapolis and was finally lost in the south horizon. This evidently suggested a line of action to the master of the Tuckahoe.

"John Washington," he said, as he mustered his crew aft and addressed it sternly, "don't you ever breathe a word about that floatin' island to a living soul, or I'll skin you alive."

"Golly, Cap. Jim, you knows I ain't."

"Well, you'd better not, because folks is liable to think we made a round of Pratt-street saloons afore we boarded the Tuckahoe."

"Dey sutt'nly 'll think we's liars, Cap. Jim."

"They certainly will, John."

For a week Captain Cromwell scanned the daily papers anxiously for news of the progress of the queer derelict. And each day, with equal curiosity, John Washington visited him to learn what he could.

"Thought as how it mout a bumped up down Norfolk way," said the crew.

"No, it hasn't," replied the Captain. "I guess it must be chasing up and down the ocean now."

"Golly, Cap. Jim, but dat dere was powerful queer."

"Are you sure, John, you've never told any one—not even Liza?"

"Go 'way, Cap'n, wha' for you s'pose I'se gwine tell de old woman?"

But he had. And her narrative, as circulated in Eastern-Shore cabins, was a vastly more moving tale than the simple unvarnished truth as you and I know it.