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Chapter 12

A Glorious Proposition; Moses’ Law

We dined early that day, in the captain’s quarters. When I awoke, I was ravenous. The captain, sitting at his writing desk, asked me how I felt, and when I explained that I had not eaten since the previous day he immediately sent for our dinner. The meal was splendid: beefsteak, potatoes, bread and red wine.

“I like to eat well when in port,” the captain said, “At sea, soon enough, even the captain’s meal is little better than salt beef and hardtack.”

I devoured that meal as an animal would. Then, sated and renewed, I leaned back in my chair and profusely thanked my benefactor. It was his pleasure, he said, but asked in payment that I tell him my story.

And so I related to my uncle, the great Captain Samuel Pratt, the entire tale that I have related to you, dear reader, from the day I left my childhood home in Salem to the night I landed on the floor of the Hole-in-the-Wall. As can be imagined, he sympathized with my indenture to the cooper; it so mirrored his own beginnings. And he applauded my pluck at leaving that cruel establishment. But most of the rest just drove him to laughter. The man had the most wonderful laugh; it would well up from somewhere deep inside and pour out in an abundance of pure joy that he could barely contain. He was especially amused by the incidents involving Jack, even the ones that still frighten me. He was duly impressed at how we had hoodwinked the Adirondack hermit but thought it only fair that we were then hoodwinked ourselves on the steamboat. The Hole-in-the-Wall was a familiar story to him, but it pleased him to learn how I had arrived there.

“Tell me, Jonathan,” he said after sustaining another round of laughter, “is your Jack waiting for you ashore?”

“She’s not my Jack,” I said, then thought for a moment, “and she is not waiting. I suppose I shall never see jack again.”

“Then let me make you a proposition, lad.” His voice taking a serious tone now, “I would not hold you as one of McDougal’s men, and you are free to leave at will, but I would like to offer you a position on my ship. Not as a common sailor, but as an officer; I will make you my second mate. I do not usually carry a second mate, so you will not be pushing another man aside—though pushing a man aside is a good way to get ahead on a ship; pushing him overboard if necessary, but that is off my point. As second mate you can learn what you need to know quickly and I can teach you in the proper order. Though a man can learn all as a seaman, it is the long way around, and a hard life while learning. Not a life I would impose on any kin of mine.  Starting out as second mate will save you years of trouble—should you aspire to a life at sea.”

“I accept with gratitude,” I said without hesitation. What was there to hold me in New York? What was there to bind me to land at all? This was my first opportunity for a life with clear direction, and I was going to grab it.

“Then let’s drink on it.” The captain said with laughter, pouring dark rum into two pewter tankards.

“How I envy you, boy, seeing the world for the first time.” He said, looking wistfully up at nothing in particular. “I went first to Liverpool on my maiden voyage.  Ah, the Liverpool girls love a sailor. And Hamburg and Amsterdam and Marseilles.” 

He had a hearty chuckle for each city as if remembering some pleasant moments.

“And Barcelona, the dark-eyed girls of Barcelona.” Then he broke into song,

              Farewell and adieu to you Spanish ladies,

              Farewell and adieu to you ladies of Spain.

The song dissolved into rolls of laughter and could see the man’s thought were an ocean away. I would have given anything for one glimpse through his mind’s eye.

“But you’ll be going to the Pacific, Jonathan,” He said, turning to me then, “to Maui, the closest place to paradise on earth. The girls of Maui are not yet Christianized; they’re just as God made them. They’ll bring you fish and fruit, and dance wearing nothing but flowers and skirts of grass. And the slightest of nods will persuade them to shed their vegetation.” And he was laughing again.

The captain went to his closet then and pulled out an old coat of his for me to wear. Though too small for him it was too big for me. No matter, he said, a tailor on board would make it fit and affix the proper stripes, and I would soon look part of second mate. The captain then wanted to show me where I would sleep.

Though it felt as if we had drunk and laughed all night, it was still daylight when we went out on deck. The men I had come aboard with were still working, down on their knees scrubbing the deck.

As I walked by in my oversized officer’s coat, one of the men called out loudly, “Look at the captain’s new pet.” 

This stopped the captain in his tracks, and all of his joy disappeared. He started baking orders all around, “Bosun, prepare that man for a flogging. Mr. Jenkins, fetch me the cat.”

As the men were obeying, he said quietly to me, “The insult was on you, Jonathan. If you let it go unpunished, it will fester and grow, and you will never have the men’s respect.  You must flog him.”

For myself, I bore the man no ill will. It was an afternoon for jokes, how did one more hurt? But the captain was adamant on this. The man must be punished, and I must do the punishing.

The sailor was stripped to the waist and tied around a pole with his arms in front. His legs were tied as well so that he was unable to move. The “cat” was presented to me in a bucket of salt water. It was a fearsome thing with a wooden handle covered with braided leather from which protruded nine leather “tails” each one about twenty inches long and knotted at the end. I was to use it to flog the sailor. 

The entire crew was mustered on deck, and the captain addressed them loudly and ceremoniously, “For gross insubordination towards an officer, this seaman will be given Moses’ law, the blows to be administrated by your new second mate, Mr. Pratt.”

To me, he said quietly, “You are to give him thirty-nine lashes, Jonathan, and do not hold back.”

Having never flogged a man before, and bearing no malice towards this one, my first lash was somewhat weak.  The captain took me aside then to talk about it.

“Jonathan, that will never do,” he said with quiet urgency, “you are to punish the man not caress him.”

“But I did not really feel the sting of the insult,” I replied.

“It’s gone beyond that, lad. It is about discipline now, and there will be no peace aboard this ship until that man’s back is bleeding. As you whip him, don’t think of this man, think of someone who did insult you, someone who deserves the lash. Make his the back you bloody.”

I took my stance and gave it another try, but this time, in my mind, it was Mr. McDougal, the man who had shanghaied me, who I was flogging. I hit with full force applying the blow that McDougal deserved, and I heard my target grunt with pain. I looked at the captain, and he gave me a nod.   

I continued flogging the man as if he were McDougal for several more lashes then, changing the victim in my mind, I applied a few lashes to the steamboat captain who had thrown us off.  Now I was getting into a rhythm. I switched my target again, to the men who had cheated us on the steamboat.  I was in a frenzy of anger giving each man the beating he deserved. Then everyone I could think of who had impeded me since leaving home tasted my fury; the Albany police, Ramsey and his crew, everyone aboard the Mary Claire—the Scotsman especially for dying so stupidly. Reverend Travis for setting me to the bad. Pembroke, the cooper, and Pip for their cruelty. Then my father and my brother and the whole Pratt family for turning out me and my uncle for the sake of the goddamn farm. And finally Jack, for stubbornly and selfishly leading me down the wrong road at every turn received lash after punishing lash.

Then the captain stayed my hand. “Whoa boy, that’s thirty-nine, Moses’ law. We don’t want to kill him.”

I woke as if from a dream. The sailor in front of me was no longer standing on his own. He had been beaten senseless, his back cut and bloody, the flesh torn away in spots. Two sailors untied him and carried him away between them, his feet dragging behind across the deck.

Through it all, it was as if I had been in a trance seeing nothing of the sailor or the ship or the water or the sky, only the image of whichever blackguard was receiving my wrath.

“Well, Jonathan, that should belay any notion of your weakness,” Said the captain, “You have done well on your first day.” 

He showed me to my cabin then. It was much smaller than his, just a bunk a chest, a table, and a small chair, but to me it was beauteous. I sat down on the bunk. I had thought that when my mind cleared, I would feel remorse for what I had done to the sailor, but I felt nothing for him. Instead, I felt safe and cleansed as if I had beaten back and defeated the vile beasts that had been chasing me and I was now ready to begin a new life.

I was the Second Mate of the Eastern Star, and I was on my way to Maui.