No, canal travel was not the adventure I had hoped for. It was slow; often I was tempted to jump out and walk on ahead and meet the boat at the next lock. In sunny weather, I sat on the cabin roof, as did most of the passengers, and watched the scenery (albeit lush, green and beautiful) ever so gradually reveal itself. Once or twice an hour we would hear the cry of “bridge! Low bridge!” and all would prostrate ourselves to the oncoming viaduct. I never again failed to heed the helmsman’s warning or allowed a bridge to take me by surprise after the day Jack had so fully diverted my attention that a low bridge very nearly broke my back.
And he tried again—often. When a bridge wasn’t imminent, he would trip me as I passed on deck, or try to knock my cap into the canal. In fact, Jack never missed an opportunity to make me look the fool, ridiculing my clothes and my speech until I could barely stand it. It was no different than Pip at the cooperage; where I had sought friendship and camaraderie and found only misery. And once again, I had to find a way out.
It wasn’t just Jack, either; the Travises were terrible traveling companions. Mirabile and the Reverend remained at odds, and though she would half-heartedly drill me in scripture (much to the amusement of Jack), Mirabile spoke very little to me. Instead, she used every free minute to giggle and chat with Captain Horne. The joy I had experienced from Mirabile’s kiss was now just a brief and fading memory.
I was glad, in a way, that the Travises were preoccupied with other matters because I knew that soon enough they would be back to planning their “harvest of souls” and I feared I could longer tolerate my role in it. It seemed to have more to do with taking money than saving souls, and I was ashamed of the deception. Besides, I still hadn’t seen a penny of it.
The boat would stop, from time to time, at locks to raise us up to a higher stretch of canal and at towns along the way where we would stop to take on supplies and passengers. It gave us all a chance to step onto dry land and stretch our legs. I thought of bolting during one of these stops, but where would I go in the middle of New York, a state that seemed to be nothing but primeval forest and canal towns, so new they still smelled of sawdust? How would I survive in either?
We stopped just east of Canajoharie, and I saw another preacher giving advice to some of the hoggees—the boys who lead the mules pulling the packet. The Horne brothers employed two of them who, like the mules that they walked down the towpath, worked six-hour shifts, around the clock, sleeping in the bowstable—a little stall in the front of the boat—when not working. Mostly orphans, with no homes but the canal, the hoggees had atrocious reputations, drinking and smoking at a young age and swearing like sailors at sea. I had grown used to the blasphemy and vulgar language of the Horne brothers, but to hear it from the lips of a boy of nine or ten was still shocking. The minister was admonishing them gently, trying to shame them into dropping the curses from their vocabularies. He left the boys with a tract entitled “The Swearer’s Prayer.” They seemed attentive and happy to take the tract though I doubted any could read. When the preacher turned away, I heard one mutter, “Goddam fool.” and the rest laughed.
The preacher then moved to enter our boat but of course Capt. Horne spotted him right away as a man of the cloth. This one was especially exuberant holding a Bible in one hand and a bag of religious tracts in the other as he strode up the gangplank.
“Stop right there, Reverend.” The Captain said. “I haven’t room for another passenger.”
“Oh I won’t take much room, sir and I won’t be with you long. Just long enough to lead your passengers in prayer, talk with those who profess Christianity, and minister to you and your crew.”
“Oh no, you won’t.” Said the captain.
“This is the Mary Claire, is it not? And you would be Captain…” he pulled paper from his coat, unfolded it and scanned the contents, “Horne, Captain Horne. Am I correct?”
“What is that to you?”
“I have a letter here, Captain Horne, from Mr. John Allen of Rochester, New York, giving me free passage at any time on any of his canal packets for the purpose of edifying passengers and crew on the word of God.” He handed the letter to the captain. “That includes the Mary Claire.”
Captain Horne took the letter and grimaced at the content; I sensed that reading was a laborious task for him, but he got the gist. “Jesus Christ, that son of a bitch Allen has been a thorn in my side since I set foot on this boat.” He thrust the letter back. “Alright, Reverend, come aboard and do what you must but cause no trouble and don’t try to convert the crew.”
“Thank you Captain, but I not an ordained minister. I am Deacon Eaton of the American Bethel Society. Our mission is to bring the gospel to men of the sea, including canalers, so I am afraid I must speak with you and your men before I leave. In the meantime, it would please me if you refrained from cursing or taking the Lord’s name in vain in my presence.”
“Best of luck ta ya.” The Captain said as the man passed.
True to his word, Deacon Eaton brought the word of the Lord to the canal, insisting we say grace before meals and as he got to know the passengers, calling on some of them to say it. In the evening he held prayer services in the cabin with larger attendance each day. During the day passengers would seek him out for heart-to-heart talks that often ended in tears. When no one sought him, he would seek them. The Mary Claire was awash in the glory of God.
The afternoon of Deacon Eaton’s second day aboard was hot and still as we all sat lazily on deck. Nothing was moving, and there was no sound, but the Captain singing as he stood on the bow, watching for God knows what, in the canal ahead of us. Mirabile was watching him just as intently, and Captain Horne knew it; his song was not as shocking as his usual fare but still saucy enough to hold her interest. The deep baritone rolled through the otherwise tranquil afternoon.
Our cook she was a grand old gal,
She wore a tattered dress
We hoisted her upon a pole
As a signal of distress.
Oh the E-ri-e was risin’
And the gin was getting’ low
I scarcely think we’ll get a drink
Till we get to Buffalo-o-o,
Till we get to Buffalo.
Someone had caught Reverend Travis’s attention as well; a handsome and well-dressed lady passenger, not too many years older than he, was listening intently as the Reverend earnestly, but quietly, revealed the word. With the captain busy singing, he thought his preaching would go unnoticed, but he had not counted on Deacon Eaton who had been standing quietly behind him the whole time.
“Pardon me, sir,” the Deacon said in his exuberant fashion, nearly startling Reverend Travis off of his chair, “but I could not help but overhear you spreading the gospel to this fine lady. We haven’t been introduced; I am Deacon Eaton of the Bethel Society, and they tell me you are Reverend Travis, a minister of the Lord. Is that correct sir?”
“It is,” said the Reverend, rising to shake the Deacon’s hand.
“I came to ask you Reverend, why do you hide your light? Will you not lead this boat in worship?”
Reverend Travis had been watching the deacon closely since he boarded; studying him, I thought. Though he was called to lead, Travis knew he was not the leader here, and that did not suit him. And he was still, very wisely, afraid of angering Captain Horne.
“I have made a promise to the captain of this vessel that I would do no preaching. I am a man of my word and will not break that promise.”
“How fortunate we are that Paul made no such promise to the Romans.”
“Render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s.” Said Travis.
“How does that apply, sir? No, the captain is lost, and it is for us to redeem him. ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?’”
The old Scotsman (whose name I never learned), sat nearby, trying to stay out of the fray, but could not resist turning to see who was quoting scripture. Mr. Eaton caught his eye and said, “And what about you sir, wasn’t I told that you, too are a Presbyterian minister?”
“And what if you was?” said the Scotsman.
“Don’t you agree that we should be tending to the souls on board this boat? Shouldn’t we be professing our Christianity? Shouldn’t we be spreading the Word, and leading these people in worship of our Lord?”
“Ach,” he said with a sweeping gesture to the towpath, “Why not go lead them mules in worship? It amounts to the same.”
“Sir, if you are implying that the people on this boat are no more Christians than mules are, then I must heartily disagree. I have prayed with them, and I daresay each one is a better Christian than you show yourself to be.”
“It takes more than folding your hands and mouthing the words.” The Scotsman spat back, “You are either saved, or you’re not saved. The Lord has already chosen, nothing you do or say can change that. It doesn’t take much to see that none here but myself is saved, the rest of you are among the non-elect with no hope of salvation.”
“Are you saying that only the Presbyterians are saved?”
“No, no, of course not.” Shaking his head, “Ach, the Presbyterians in this country have gone so far astray they can never be saved. Only the members of the Anti-burgher Secession Church have a hope and not all of them, to my mind, are truly righteous.”
“’For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ - Romans 10:13” said the deacon.
“’For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son,’ Romans 8:29” shouted the Scotsman, turning red with anger.
The two fought each other verse for verse, often, as in the first case, drawing contradictory sentiments from the same book. These were not hellfire verses of Reverend Travis, nor were they Mirabile’s merciful ones; they were strange and mysterious, fraught with heavy and unfathomable meaning. It was hard to follow, but I could see the crux of the argument: we were either free to choose salvation or that that decision had already been made for us, long before we were born. They each argued well, but I was beginning to favor the Scotsman’s view—everything that happened was preordained, and each of us came into the world either saved or damned. It would explain so much.
Reverend Travis started out taking Eaton’s side but realized early that he was outclassed and by the end seemed to be waiting for a winner before committing himself.
As the intensity of the argument increased, with verses hurled in angry shouts, the fight got the attention of the Hornes. Two of the brothers, Jack and the Captain, came running to the deck.
“I told you, gentlemen, I would have no fights over religion and I damn well meant it.” The captain said. Then he grabbed Eaton while Jack grabbed the old Scotsman and each pushed his man toward the edge of the boat. Eaton went flying into the canal, but hard as Jack pushed, the Scotsman held his ground. Captain Horne turned his eyes toward Travis, and the Reverend jumped off the boat himself without need of further coaxing. It seemed to me like jolly fun now, and I rushed to help Jack with the Scotsman and together we had him over the edge and into the canal. Then Jack hollered, “All preachers in.” and a push of his shoulder knocked me into the canal as well.
I stood up and found that the water was shallow enough to walk through. The canal water stank of sewage and I scrambled toward the boat, anxious to get out as soon as possible. Soon we were back on board, and having a good laugh over it, even Deacon Eaton. But the Scotsman was still in the canal, floundering and crying for help.
“I canna swim! I canna swim!
The captain called down, “Stand up, ya fool, the water’s only four foot deep.”
But the Scotsman could not find the bottom, and still he floundered, no longer calling for help, his head under the water. Then the struggling stopped, and he lay still in the water, just a big mass of dark, sodden wool floating in the canal. The Scotsman had drowned.