English Literature

Jack The Hunchback by James Otis

Jack The Hunchback by James Otis

Chapter I.

ADRIFT.

Tom Pratt firmly believed he was the most unfortunate boy in Maine when, on a certain June morning, his father sent him to the beach for a load of seaweed.

Tom had never been in love with a farmer’s life.

He fancied that in any other sphere of action he could succeed, if not better, certainly more easily, than by weeding turnips or hoeing corn on the not very productive farm.

But either planting or digging was preferable to loading a huge cart with the provokingly slippery weeds which his father insisted on gathering for compost each summer.

Therefore, when the patient oxen, after much goading and an unusual amount of noise from their impatient driver, stood knee-deep in the surf contentedly chewing their cuds and enjoying the cool footbath, Tom,[Pg 2] instead of beginning his work, sat at the forward part of the cart gazing seaward, thinking, perhaps, how pleasant must be a sailor’s life while the ocean was calm and smiling as on this particular day.

So deeply engrossed was he in idleness that his father’s stern command from the hillside a short distance away, “to ‘tend to his work an’ stop moonin’,” passed unheeded, and the same ox-goad he had been using might have been applied to his own body but for the fact that just as Farmer Pratt came within striking distance a tiny speck on the water attracted his attention.

“It looks to me as if that might be a lapstreak boat out there, Tommy. Can you see anybody in her?”

“I reckon that’s what it is, father, an’ she must be adrift.”

Farmer Pratt mounted the cart and scrutinized the approaching object until there could no longer be any question as to what it was, when Tom said gleefully,—

“It must be a ship’s boat, an’ if she hasn’t got a crew aboard, we’ll make a bigger haul than we could by cartin’ seaweed for a week.”

“Yes, them kind cost more’n a dory,” the farmer replied dreamily, as he mentally calculated the amount of money for which she might be sold. “I[Pg 3] reckon we’ll take her into Portland an’ get a tidy—”

“I can see a feller’s head!” Tom interrupted, “an’ it shets off our chance of sellin’ her.”

That the boat had an occupant was evident.

A closely shaven crown appeared above the stem as if its owner had but just awakened, and was peering out to see where his voyage was about to end.

Nearer and nearer the little craft drifted until she was dancing on the shore line of the surf, and the figure in the bow gazed as intently landward as the farmer and his son did seaward.

“It’s a boy, father, an’ he ain’t as big as me!” Tom cried. “Well, that beats anything I ever saw!”

This last remark probably referred to the general appearance of the young voyager.

He was an odd-looking little fellow, with a head which seemed unusually small because the hair was closely cropped, and a bent, misshapen body several sizes too large for the thin legs which barely raised it above the gunwales. The face was by no means beautiful, but the expression of anxiety and fear caused it to appeal directly to Tom’s heart, if not to his father’s.

Farmer Pratt was not pleased at thus learning that the boat had an[Pg 4] occupant.

Empty, she would have been a source of profit; but although there was apparently no one save the deformed lad aboard, he could make no legal claim upon her.

The craft was there, however, and would speedily be overturned unless he waded out into the surf at the risk of a rheumatic attack, to pull her inshore.

Although decidedly averse to performing any charitable deed, he did this without very much grumbling, and Tom was a most willing assistant.

That which had come out of the east on this bright June morning was a ship’s lifeboat about eighteen feet long, and with the name “Atlanta” painted on the gunwales.

She was a much more valuable craft than Mr. Pratt had ever seen ashore on Scarborough beach, and yet he failed to calculate her value immediately, because as the bow grated on the sand the misshapen boy, from whose white lips not a word had escaped during all this time, suddenly lifted what at first appeared to be a bundle of cloth.

This act in itself would not have caused any surprise, but at the same moment a familiar noise was heard from beneath the coverings.

Farmer Pratt stepped back quickly in genuine alarm and wiped his face[Pg 5] with the sleeve of his shirt as he exclaimed,—

“Well, this beats anything I ever seen!”

“It’s a baby, father!” Tom cried, starting forward to take the burden from the crooked little sailor’s arms; but the latter retreated as if afraid the child was to be carried away, and the farmer replied testily,—

“Of course it’s a baby. Haven’t I heard you cry often enough to know that?”

“But how did it come here?”

“That’s what beats me”; and then, as if suddenly realizing that the apparent mystery might be readily solved, he asked the stranger, “Where did you come from, sonny?”

“From Savannah.”

“Sho! Why, that’s way down in Georgy. You didn’t sail them many miles in this ‘ere little boat?”

“No, sir. We broke adrift from Captain Littlefield’s ship yesterday when she blowed up, an’ the baby’s awful hungry.”

“Ship blowed up, eh? Whereabouts was she?”

“Out there”; and the boy pointed eastward in an undecided manner, as if not exactly certain where he had come from.

“What made her blow up?” Tom asked curiously.[Pg 6]

“I don’t know. There was an awful splosion like more’n a hundred bunches of firecrackers, an’ the captain put Louis an’ me in the lifeboat to wait till his wife got some things from the cabin. While all the sailors was runnin’ ’round wild like, we got adrift. I hollered an’ hollered, but nobody saw us.” Then he added in a lower tone, “Louis cried last night for somethin’ to eat, an’ he must be pretty hungry now.”

“Well, well, well!” and as the thought of whether he would be paid for the trouble of pulling the boat ashore came into the farmer’s mind, he said quickly, “‘Cordin’ to that you don’t own this boat?”

“She belongs to the ship.”

“An’ seein’s how the vessel ain’t anywhere near, I reckon I’ve as much right to this craft as anybody else. Where do you count on goin’?”

“If we could only get back to New York I’m sure I would be able to find the captain’s house.”

“It’s a powerful long ways from here, sonny; but I’ll see that you are put in a comfortable place till somethin’ can be done. What’s your name?”

“John W. Dudley; but everybody calls me Jack, an’ this is Louis[Pg 7] Littlefield,” the boy replied as he removed the coverings, exposing to view a child about two years old.

Master Tom was delighted with the appearance of the little pink and white stranger, who was dressed in cambric and lace, with a thin gold chain around his neck, and would have shaken hands with him then and there if Jack had not stepped quickly back as he said,—

“He’s afraid of folks he don’t know, an’ if you get him to cryin’ I’ll have a worse time than last night. What he wants is somethin’ to eat.”

“Take ’em right up to the house, Tommy, an’ tell mother to give them breakfast. When I get the boat hauled around (for I’ve got every reason to consider her mine), I’ll carry both out to Thornton’s.”

Jack clambered from the craft, disdaining Tom’s assistance, and, taking the child in his arms, much as a small cat might carry a very large kitten, stood waiting for his guide to lead the way.

Farmer Pratt’s son was in no especial hurry to reach home, for while escorting the strangers he certainly could not be expected to shovel seaweed, and Jack said as Tom walked leisurely over the hot sand, —

“If you don’t go faster, the baby’ll begin to cry, for he’s pretty near[Pg 8] starved.”

“Why not let him walk? He’s big enough; his legs are twice as large as Mrs. Libby’s baby, an’ he went alone a good while ago.”

“I’d rather carry him,” Jack replied; and then he refused to enter into any conversation until they were at the foot of the narrow, shady lane leading to the house, when he asked, “Who’s Mr. Thornton?”

“He keeps the poor farm, an’ father’s goin’ to take you out there.”

“What for? We want to go to New York.”

“Well, you see I don’t reckon you’ll get as far as that without a slat of money, an’ father wants to put you fellers where you’ll be took care of for a while.”

Jack stopped suddenly, allowed the baby to slip from his arms under the shade of an apple-tree whose blossoms filled the air with perfume, as he said angrily,—

“Louis sha’n’t be taken to the poorhouse! I’ll walk my feet off before anybody but his mother shall get him.”

“You couldn’t go as far as New York, an’ if he’s so hungry you’d better let him have some bread an’ milk.”

“How long before your father’ll be back?”[Pg 9]

“It’ll take him a couple of hours to carry the boat down to the Neck, an’ that’s the only place where she can lie without gettin’ stove.”

“Then we’ll go into your house long enough to feed the baby, an’ I’ll leave before he comes.”

“All right,” and Tom took up the line of march once more. “I don’t know as I blame you, for Thornton’s ain’t the nicest place that ever was, an’ I’d rather haul seaweed for a month than stay there one night.”

Jack looked wistfully at the little farmhouse with its beds of old maid’s pinks and bachelor’s buttons in front of the muslin-curtained windows, thinking, perhaps, that shelter should be given him there rather than among the town’s paupers; but he made no remark, and a few moments later they were standing in the cool kitchen while Tom explained to his mother under what circumstances he had made the acquaintance of the strangers.

Mrs. Pratt was quite as economical as her husband; but the baby face touched her heart fully as much as did the fact that the boat in which the children had drifted ashore would amply repay any outlay in the way of food and shelter.

She accepted the statement made by Tom, that the children were to be sent to Thornton’s, because the town provided such an asylum, and there[Pg 10] was no good reason, in her mind at least, why it should not be utilized in a case like this.

Thus, with the pleasing knowledge that her involuntary guests would remain but a short time and cost her nothing, she set out a plentiful supply of fresh milk and sweet home-made bread, as she said,—

“Fill yourselves right full, children, for it will rest you to eat, and after you’ve had a nice ride, Mrs. Thornton will give you a chance to sleep.”

Jack looked up quickly as if about to make an angry reply, and then, as little Louis went toward the table eagerly, he checked himself, devoting all his attention to the child by waiting until the latter had finished before he partook of as much as a spoonful.

Then he ate rapidly, and after emptying two bowls of milk, asked,—

“May I put some of the bread in my pocket?'”

“Certainly, child; but it won’t be needed, for there is plenty to eat at Thornton’s, and most likely in a few days the selectmen will find some way to send word to the baby’s relatives.”

Jack put three slices of bread in his pocket before replying, and then, as with an effort he lifted Louis in his arms, said,[Pg 11]

“We’re not goin’ to the poor farm, ma’am. We are bound to get to New York, an’ thank you for the bread an’ milk.”

Just at that moment Mrs. Pratt was intent on carrying the dishes from the table to the pantry, therefore she did not see the deformed boy leave the house quickly, Tom following close behind.

Jack heard her call after him to wait until Mr. Pratt should return; but he shook his head decidedly, and trudged out from the green-carpeted lane to the dusty road, bent only on saving his little charge from the ignominy of the poorhouse.

“Say, hold on for father!” Tom cried. “You can’t walk even so far as Saco, an’ where’ll you sleep to-night?”

“I’d rather stay in the woods, an’ so had Louis,” Jack replied; and then in reply to the child’s fretful cries, he added, “Don’t fuss; I’ll find your mother.”

“But how can you do it if the ship has blowed up?” Tom asked, quickening his steps to keep pace with the deformed boy. “Perhaps mother’ll let you sleep in my bed to-night, an’ you won’t have to go out to the poor farm.”

“And then again she mightn’t, so I guess we won’t risk it.”

“Have you got any money?”[Pg 12]

“Not a cent.”

Tom halted irresolutely for a moment, and then his charitable impulses gained the mastery.

“Here’s half of what I’ve got, an’ I wish it was more.”

Involuntarily Jack extended his hand for the gift.

Four marbles were dropped into it, and then Tom turned and ran like a deer as if afraid he might regret his generosity.

The dusty road wound its way among the fields like a yellow ribbon on a green cloth, offering no shelter from the burning rays of the sun, and stretching out in a dreary length.

The hunchback plodded steadily on with his heavy burden, and as he walked the good people in the neighboring city of Portland were reading in their morning papers the following item:—

A SINGULAR EXPLOSION.

The ship “Atlanta” anchored inside the breakwater just before midnight, and her master reports a remarkable accident.

The “Atlanta” loaded at Savannah last week with cotton wing to baffling winds she was eighty miles off Wood Island yesterday afternoon when an explosion [Pg 13]occurred which blew off the main hatch, and was followed by dense volumes of what appeared to be smoke.

Believing the ship to be on fire, Capt. Littlefield’s first thought was of his wife and child, who were on board. The lifeboat was lowered, and in her were placed the captain’s son and the cabin boy, a hunchback.

Before Mrs. Littlefield could be gotten over the side, the sailors reported no fire in the hold, and the vapor supposed to be smoke was probably the gases arising from the turpentine stored in porous barrels of red oak.

In the excitement no particular attention was paid to the children for some time, since the boat was believed to be firmly secured, and the consternation of the captain can be imagined when it was discovered that the craft had gone adrift.

The ship stood off and on several hours without discovering any signs of the missing ones, and was then headed for this harbor.

As a matter of course the captain will be obliged to proceed on his voyage without delay; but Mrs. Littlefield is to remain in town several days hoping to receive some news of her child, and it is believed that the revenue cutter “Cushing” will cruise along the shore until the boat is found.

It is understood that a liberal reward will be offered for any information which may be given regarding the whereabouts of the children, and until that has been done the editors of this paper will thankfully receive tidings of the missing ones in case they have been seen or sighted.

It is particularly desirable that masters of vessels should keep a sharp lookout for a drifting boat.

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Categories: English Literature

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