THE cabin-boy had been traveling around all summer long with his captain; but when they began to prepare to set sail in the fall, he grew restless and did not want to go along. The captain liked him, for though he was no more than a boy, he was quite at home on deck, was a big, tall lad, and did not mind lending a hand when need arose; then, too, he did as much work as an able seaman, and was so full of fun that he kept the whole crew in good humor. And so the captain did not like to lose him. But the youth said out and out that he was not minded to take to the blue pond in the fall; though he was willing to stay on board till the ship was loaded and ready to sail. One Sunday, while the crew was ashore, and the captain had gone to a farm-holding near the forest, in order to bargain for small timber and log wood--presumably on his own account--for a deck load, the youth had been left to guard the ship. But you must know that he was a Sunday child, and had found a four-leaf clover; and that was the reason he had the second sight. He could see those who are invisible, but they could not see him.
And as he was sitting there in the forward cabin, he heard voices within the ship. He peered through a crack, and there were three coal-black crows sitting inside the deck-beams, and they were talking about their husbands. All three were tired of them, and were planning their death. One could see at once that they were witches, who had assumed another form.
"But is it certain that there is no one here who can overhear us?" said one of the crows. And by the way she spoke the cabin-boy knew her for the captain's wife.
"No, you can see there's not," said the others, the wives of the first and second quartermasters. "There is not a soul aboard."
"Well, then I do not mind saying that I know of a good way to get rid of them," said the captain's wife once more, and hopped closer to the two others. "We will turn ourselves into breakers, wash them into the sea, and sink the ship with every man on board."
That pleased the others, and they sat there a long time discussing the day and the fairway. "But is it certain that no one can overhear us?" once more asked the captain's wife.
"You know that such is the case," said the two others.
"Well, there is a counter-spell for what we wish to do, and if it is used, it will go hard with us, for it will cost us nothing less than our lives!"
"What is the counter-spell, sister," asked the wife of the one quartermaster.
"Is it certain that no one is listening to us? It seemed to me as though some one were smoking in the forward cabin."
"But you know we looked in every corner. They just forgot to let the fire go out in the caboose, and that is why there's smoke," said the quartermaster's wife, "so tell away."
"If they buy three cords of birch-wood," said the witch,--"but it must be full measure, and they must not bargain for it--and throw the first cord into the water, billet by billet, when the first breaker strikes, and the second cord, billet by billet, when the second breaker strikes, and the third cord, billet by billet, when the third breaker strikes, then it is all up with us!"
"Yes, that's true, sister, then it is all up with us! Then it is all up with us!" said the wives of the quartermasters; "but there is no one who knows it," they cried, and laughed loudly, and with that they flew out of the hatchway, screaming and croaking like ravens.
When it came time to sail, the cabin-boy would not go along for anything in the world; and all the captain's coaxing, and all his promises were useless, nothing would tempt him to go. At last they asked him whether he were afraid, because fall was at hand, and said he would rather hide behind the stove, hanging to mother's apron strings. No, said the youth, he was not afraid, and they could not say that they had ever seen him show a sign of so land-lubberly a thing as fear; and he was willing to prove it to them, for now he was going along with them, but he made it a condition that three cords of birch-wood were to be bought, full measure, and that on a certain day he was to have command, just as though he himself were the captain. The captain asked what sort of nonsense this might be, and whether he had ever heard of a cabin-boy's being entrusted with the command of a ship. But the boy answered that was all one to him; if they did not care to buy the three cords of birch-wood, and obey him, as though he were captain, for the space of a single day--the captain and crew should know which day it was to be in advance--then he would set foot on the ship no more, and far less would he ever dirty his hands with pitch and tar on her again. The whole thing seemed strange to the captain, yet he finally gave in, because he wanted to have the boy along with him and, no doubt, he also thought that he would come to his senses again when they were once under way. The quartermaster was of the same opinion. "Just let him command all he likes, and if things go wrong with him, we'll help him out," said he. So the birch-wood was bought, full-measure and without haggling, and they set sail.
When the day came on which the cabin-boy was to take command, the weather was fair and quiet; but he drummed up the whole ship's crew, and with the exception of a tiny bit of canvas, had all sails reefed. The captain and crew laughed at him, and said: "That shows the sort of a captain we have now. Don't you want us to reef that last bit of sail this very minute?" "Not yet," answered the cabin-boy, "but before long."
Suddenly a squall struck them, struck them so heavily that they thought they would capsize, and had they not reefed the sails they would undoubtedly have foundered when the first breaker roared down upon the ship.
The boy ordered them to throw the first cord of birch-wood overboard, billet by billet, one at a time and never two, and he did not let them touch the other two cords. Now they obeyed him to the letter, and did not laugh; but cast out the birch-wood billet by billet. When the last billet fell they heard a groaning, as though some one were wrestling with death, and then the squall had passed.
"Heaven be praised!" said the crew--and the captain added: "I am going to let the company know that you saved ship and cargo."
"That's all very well, but we are not through yet," said the boy, "there is worse to come," and he told them to reef every last rag, as well as what had been left of the topsails. The second squall hit them with even greater force than the first, and was so vicious and violent that the whole crew was frightened. While it was at its worst, the boy told them to throw overboard the second cord; and they threw it over billet by billet, and took care not to take any from the third cord. When the last billet fell, they again heard a deep groan, and then all was still. "Now there will be one more squall, and that will be the worst," said the boy, and sent every one to his station. There was not a hawser loose on the whole ship.
The last squall hit them with far more force than either of the preceding ones, the ship laid over on her side so that they thought she would not right herself again, and the breaker swept over the deck.
But the boy told them to throw the last cord of wood overboard, billet by billet, and no two billets at once. And when the last billet of wood fell, they heard a deep groaning, as though some one were dying hard, and when all was quiet once more, the whole sea was the color of blood, as far as eye could reach.
When they reached land, the captain and the quartermasters spoke of writing to their wives. "That is something you might just as well let be," said the cabin-boy, "seeing that you no longer have any wives."
"What silly talk is this, young know-it-all! We have no wives?" said the captain. "Or do you happen to have done away with them?" asked the quartermasters.
"No, all of us together did away with them," answered the boy, and told them what he had heard and seen that Sunday afternoon when he was on watch on the ship; while the crew was ashore, and the captain was buying his deckload of wood.
And when they sailed home they learned that their wives had disappeared the day of the storm, and that since that time no one had seen or heard anything more of them.