Cadet of the Black Star Line
Library of Alexandria
The strength of fifteen thousand horses was driving the great Black Star liner Roanoke across the Atlantic toward New York. Her promenade decks, as long as a city block, swarmed with cabin passengers, while below them a thousand immigrants enjoyed the salty wind that swept around the bow. Far above these noisy throngs towered the liner's bridge as a little world set apart by itself. Full seventy feet from the sea this airy platform spanned the ship, so remote that the talk and laughter of the decks came to it only as a low murmur. The passengers were forbidden to climb to the bridge, and they seldom thought of the quiet men in blue who, two at a time, were always pacing that canvas-screened pathway to guide the Roanoke to port. Midway of the bridge was the wheel-house, in which a rugged quartermaster seemed to be playing with the spokes set round a small brass rim while he kept his eyes on the swaying compass card before him. The huge liner responded like a well-bitted horse to the touch of the bridle rein, for the power of steam had been set at work to move the ponderous rudder, an eighth of a mile away. A lad of seventeen years was cleaning the brasswork in the wheel-house. Trimly clad in blue, his taut jersey was lettered across the chest with the word CADET. When in a cheerful mood he was as wholesome and sailorly a youngster to look at as you could have found afloat, but now he was plainly discontented with his task as with sullen frown and peevish haste he finished rubbing the speaking-tubes with cotton waste. Then as he caught up his kit he burst out: "If my seafaring father could have lived to watch me at this fool kind of work, he'd have been disgusted. I might better be a bell-boy in a hotel ashore at double the wages." The quartermaster uneasily shifted his grip on the wheel and growled: "The old man's on the bridge. No talkin' in here. Go below and tell your troubles to your little playmates, sonny." Young David Downes went slowly down the stairway that led to the boat deck, but his loafing gait was quickened by a strong voice in his ear: "Step lively, there. Another soft-baked landsman that has made up his mind to quit us, eh?" The youth flushed as he flattened himself against the deck house to make room for the captain of the liner who had shrewdly read the cadet's thoughts. As he swung into the doorway of his room the brown and bearded commander flung back with a contemptuous snort: "Like all the rest of them—no good!" It was the first time that Captain Thrasher had thought it worth while to speak to the humble cadet who was beneath notice among the four hundred men that made up the crew of the Roanoke. From afar, David had viewed this deep-water despot with awe and dislike, thinking him as brutal as he was overbearing. Even now, as he scurried past the captain's room, he heard him say to one of the officers: "Take the irons off the worthless hounds, and if they refuse duty again I will come down to the fire room and make them fit for the hospital." The cadet shook his fist at the captain's door and moved on to join his companions in the fore part of the ship. He was in open rebellion against the life he had chosen only a month before. Bereft of his parents, he had lived with an uncle in New York while he plodded through his grammar-school years, after which he was turned out to shift for himself. He had found a place as a "strong and willing boy" in a wholesale dry-goods store, but his early boyhood memories recalled a father at sea in command of a stately square-rigger, and the love of the calling was in his blood. There were almost no more blue-water Yankee sailing ships and sailors, however, and small chance for an ambitious American boy afloat.