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Rob's Navy by W. O. Stoddard


The tide was just out on the Staten Island shore, and the water in the little cove below Mr. Drake's residence was as smooth as a pan of milk with the cream on.

Nothing in the shape of a ship ought to have tipped over in such water as that.

So Rob Drake had thought, but every time he shoved his new ship away from the flat rock at the head of the cove, over she went. First on one side, then on the other, it did not seem to make much difference which. She stood up well enough so long as Rob kept hold of her, but as soon as ever he let go, down she tumbled.

Rob was about twelve years old, and he believed he knew all about ships.

Did he not live on Staten Island, right across the bay from New York? Did he not go over to the city on the great ferry-boat every now and then, and see all the shipping at the wharves, and sail past all sorts of craft on the way there and back?

Some of them, he knew, came from almost all the countries in the world, and he had seen hundreds of them sail out of the harbor to go home again.

Of course Rob knew all about ships; but this one, on which he and Larry McGee had been whittling and working for a week, seemed determined to float bottom up.

What could be the matter?

"Larry, she's top-heavy."

"No, she ain't. It's ownly a sort of a thrick she's got. All she wants is practice."

Larry was Mr. Drake's hired man, and knew a little of everything, only he knew more about a horse than he did about any kind of sailing vessel.

"The boy's right, my hearty. She's more hamper than hull, and she's no ballast at all."

Rob and Larry looked behind them when they heard that. They had not heard him come along the sandy beach, they had been so busy, but there he was: a short, thin old man, with broad shoulders, dressed like a United States "man-o'-war" sailor, and with a wooden leg that was now punching its round toe deep into the sand.

"'Dade, sor," said Larry, "it's a good ship she is, av she wouldn't lie down that way."

"She's a ship, then? I'm glad to know that. It's a good sign for the boy that he's taken to ships. There's not many boys care for 'em nowadays."

"Why, of course it's a ship," said Rob, as he pulled his craft ashore and held her up to let the water drip from her wet sails. "Didn't you know what she was?"

"Old fellows like me don't know much nowadays. You've put in four masts, and a bowsprit at each end, and I couldn't tell just what she was."

"Oh," said Rob, "that's nothing. I saw a steamer with four masts the other day."

"There's no accounting for steamers, my boy. And I've heard men call 'em ships, too, that ought to have known better."

"Don't I know a ship?" proudly exclaimed Rob. "Can't I tell a schooner from a sloop, and a bark from a brig? I know. It's the masts and rigging make the difference."

"Well, now," said the old man, "you're a bright boy. What's your name?"

"Robert Fulton Drake."

The old man shook his white head solemnly, and took off his round Scotch cap. "Drake's a good name. There was a great sailor of that name once. He was an admiral, too. But Fulton—Robert Fulton—it's awful the mischief we owe to that man."

"Fulton? He a bad man?" said Rob, with all sorts of wonder in his face. "No, sir. He was a great man. He invented steamboats."

"So he did—so he did. More's the pity. Ships were ships till Fulton came. Now they're all great iron pots, and go by steam. No use for sailors now."

"Steam-ships have to have sailors."

"What for, my boy? Well, yes, they do have a few lubbers on board that they call sailors. And there are some ships left too—pretty good ones. But they don't have sailors nowadays like they used to. Robert Fulton spoiled it all. But I'm glad you like ships. Only you don't know how to make 'em. Come and see me some day. I'll show you."

"Where do you live?"

"Half a mile the other side of the ferry landing." He went on and gave Rob pretty full directions how to find his house; and Larry McGee added, quite respectfully,

"Ye're an owld sailor yersilf, sor?"

"Am I? Well, yes, I was once, before I lost my leg. The ships weren't all turned into iron pots then."

"Was it there ye lost yer lig?"

"There? Oh, you mean aboard ship? That's where it was, my hearty. Did you over hear of Mobile Bay?"

"I niver did, sor."

"I did," exclaimed Rob.

"Did you, then? I'm glad of that, my boy. Did you ever hear of a sailor named Farragut?"

"The great Admiral? Admiral Farragut? Oh yes, indeed. Father's got a picture of him, up in the rigging of a ship, with a telescope in his hand. He was a great fighter."

"You're the boy for me. Do you know about that picture? That was the old ship Hartford; and when the Admiral was up in the rigging there, with the bullets flying round him, I was down on deck, getting my leg shot off."

Larry McGee took off his hat right away.

"Wuz that so indade, yer honor? Wuz it for that ye got the goold shtar ye're wearin'?"

"Star? No, indeed. I got a pension, but I didn't get any star."

"But it's a foine one."

So it was, and it was fastened by a strong, wide blue ribbon to the old man's left breast. It looked like solid gold, and it was curiously lettered and ornamented.

"I'm proud of that, my man. And I got it that day too."

"How was it?" asked Rob, who had dropped his four-masted ship to listen.

"How was it? I'll tell you, my boy. It was Farragut himself. He was the best sailor ever trod a plank, and he hated steam and iron pots to the day of his death. He came to see me and the rest, in hospital, like the true sailor he was, and he'd a good word all around. I'd been one of the crew of his own gig, and before he went he put his hand in his pocket, and seemed to be feeling for something. Belike his hand had been in that pocket pretty often, those days, for it looked as if he couldn't find a thing. When it came out, though, it had a piece of gold in it. An old Spanish doubloon he'd carried for a pocketpiece—"

"That's a gold coin?" asked Rob.

"The biggest there is, except a double-eagle, only there's not many of 'em nowadays. And says he to me, says he: 'Good-bye, Jack Peabody. Most likely I'll never see you again. Keep that to remember me by. I don't think you'll forget the old ship, nor Mobile Bay.'"

"Troth an' the owld fellow was right there," said Larry McGee.

"So I took the doubloon, but I was too weak to say much, and when I got out of hospital I worked that bit of gold into this here star, with the Admiral's name on it, and the date, and Mobile, and all the other things I could think of. There's a picture of the old Hartford on the other side. She was a ship, she was."

Rob and Larry took a long and careful look at the star, and then the old man stumped away.

"How thim owld sailors does hate the shtamers!" said Larry.

"I don't care, the sailing ships are prettier."

"So they be, but the shtamers goes betther. How'd ye loike to wait for a wind whin yez wanted to go to the city, instid of shtamin' over in a ferry-boat?"

Rob talked with his father that evening, and showed him his four-masted ship with a bowsprit at each end.

"Rob, my boy, your old sailor friend is right. I think I'll take you over with me in the morning, and we'll walk up South Street, along the wharves, and I'll show you what he means."

"That's what I'd like."

"Wounded at Mobile Bay, was he? One of Farragut's men? I must hunt him up. Every American boy ought to touch his hat when he speaks of Farragut."

Mr. Drake was a little of an enthusiast about ships and sailors, and it was no wonder Rob took after him.

The next morning, when the great ferry-boat took over its biggest crowd of passengers, and ever so many teams and loaded wagons, Rob and his father were standing out in front by the railing, looking hard at every vessel they came near, and talking about them all.

When they landed in the city, they walked on from the ferry along South Street, which is lined on one side by warehouses, and on the other by docks and piers. The docks were all full of vessels, and the great bowsprits of the larger ships sometimes stuck halfway across the street to the buildings.

They were both so busy with the shipping that they hardly noticed anything on the other side of them, but suddenly Rob heard a cracked voice exclaim:

"Robert Fulton Drake. That was his name. Drake's a good one; but then— Fulton! I say, boy, look here!"

Rob looked, and so did his father.

There sat the old one-legged sailor, Jack Peabody, on the stone steps of one of the warehouses, with his bright gold star on his breast, and a cane in his hand.

Just beyond him, however, on the upper step, stood a beautiful model of a brig, with a hull about two feet long. She was completely rigged, sails and all.

"Look at that, sir. She'll float. She isn't top-heavy. No danger of her tipping over. Made her myself."

"Father," said Rob, "it's the very man. Don't you see the star? Oh, what a pretty brig!"

There was a card stuck at the brig's mast-head, with "For Sale" written on it.

Mr. Drake had a good many questions to ask, about Farragut, and sea-fights, and the "star" itself, before he came to the brig.

The old man's sailor dress was as neat as wax, and he did not look at all poor, but he said:

"I live with my son, sir. He's no sailor. He's only first mate of one of these iron pots of steamers they have nowadays. I've my pension too, sir, but I like to build 'em. Keeps me busy, sir. Ships is going out of date, sir. It does me good to put folks in mind of 'em. The price is five dollars, sir."

There were wooden ships of all sorts and sizes lying at their wharves, as far up and down the street as any one could see, but the old sailor seemed to forget all about them in his hatred of steam and steamers.

"Rob," said Mr. Drake, "I'll buy that for you. Take it right home. See if you can make one like it."

"May I swim it?"

"Of course you may, but you mustn't spoil it."

"Boy," said the old man, "put some lead on the bottom of that double-ender of yours. It'll stand up, if you ballast it well. That'll be two. When you make another, that'll be three—"

"Oh, I'll make a dozen!"

"Will you? Why, then you'll have a navy. I hope they'll all float. Not all the ships they build nowadays make out to do that."

Rob hurried home with his brig, and he built his "navy," but it was just as the old sailor feared, not more than half of them would float.