Midshipman Farragut - James Barnes


A little, narrow canoe made from a hollowed log was dancing up and down at the end of a small wharf that extended into the shallow waters of Lake Pontchartrain.

The palmetto trees and the moss-laden oaks grew to the water's edge, where on a narrow stretch of beach some little negro boys were playing noisily in the sun.

All at once one of them set up a shout.

"Hyah comes Massa David," he said, pointing up a path that led down to the pier.

A figure no bigger than any of the little negroes, dressed in a light, cool suit of white cotton, stepped down the bank—a clear-eyed youngster with a high forehead and waving brown hair.

"What are you doing, Eugene?" he called to the largest black boy.

"Playin' huntin' 'gator, sah," responded the small negro, with a touch of that strange accent, half African, half French, that marks the speech of the Louisiana blacks.

In those days it was easy to play at hunting real alligators, for that matter; their great forms were plentiful along the bayous and inlets of the lake, and the runways, where they crawled in and out to sun themselves on warm days, were evident without much searching.

The little white boy joined in with the others in their play. He had always wrestled and run races with them, but, although they were his companions, there was a marked difference in their mutual treatment indeed, the little boy addressed as Eugene belonged heart and body to the youngster in the white cotton suit.

While the game was at its noisiest a tall, slight man appeared on the path.

"David," called a musical and commanding voice, "come out for a sail with me, my son."

It was not exactly put in the form of a request; it was more like a command. The little negroes had stopped their noise at once, and without a word their young master joined the tall man who had now made his way out on the pier and was untying the fastenings of the pirogue, the name given to the wooden canoes of the gulf.

The boy did not speak, but settled himself in the stern sheets, making room for his father to sit beside him.

Only skillful handling could carry such a long, narrow, and apparently dangerous craft through the choppy seas. The wind was blowing stiffly, and the sail of the pirogue was large and held the breeze in a manner that caused the little craft to list now and then dangerously to leeward.

The boy held tight to the seat, the spray dashing into his face. Not once did a look of fear, however, show for an instant.

The skipper seemed to enjoy the sensation. He would shove the little vessel's nose up into the wind at exactly the right moment. Often he would lean far out over the side to help keep the proper balance.

No mistake, Sailing-Master George Farragut could handle a pirogue in a way that was equaled by, none of the half-breed or the Creole fishermen who made their living along the bayous and the lake. In fact, he was the only one who had ever made a voyage in one of these crank vessels from New Orleans to Havana and returned in safety.

At last, after sailing on in silence for a few minutes, Mr. Farragut turned.

"David," he said, "we are going to have a visitor to-night. You may remember a naval officer who was ill at our house some time ago and who died there. It is his son, Commander David Porter, who is coming to visit us. We must try to make it comfortable for him."

"Yes, sir," the little boy said gravely. He remembered well the visit of Commodore Porter and the time that his elder brother William had entered the navy. Secretly in his heart he had cherished the hope that some day he might wear the same uniform, that he might sail abroad and see the strange countries of which he had often and often heard his father speak.

When they had returned to the landing, the boy helped to tie the pirogue in its accustomed place and, taking his father's hand, walked silently beside him up to, the low rambling house, half concealed in its covering of vines whose leaves tapped against the small window frames. A little girl and a tiny youngster of four greeted their father and brother at the doorway, and were sent away to get dressed in their best clothes.

That evening a tall, handsome man in a fine uniform, with a high, stiff stock and gold-laced epaulets sat at Mr. Farragut's table. Little David could hardly keep his admiring eyes from Commander Porter's splendid figure. He had scarcely spoken throughout the meal, for the maxim had been very firmly impressed upon his mind that "small boys should be seen and not heard."

The gentlemen had been talking together in low voices when suddenly Mr. Farragut raised his eyes and looked affectionately across the table at his son. The question he asked set David's heart beating as it hardly ever beat before.

"Commander Porter wishes to know if you like the navy, my boy?" he inquired.

But before David could reply the naval officer had supplemented the question with another.

"Would you come with me and be a midshipman some day?" he asked.

There was no shyness or no hesitation in the answer the small boy gave. His hands were tightly gripped together in his lap and his eyes shone.

"Yes, sir," he said, "if father will let me."

"Spoken like a little man," returned Commander Porter. "Mr. Farragut, let him go with me. I shall treat him as though he were my son."

"We shall see," rejoined the father thoughtfully.—"Come now, run away."

This last was addressed to David and his little sister. The children bowed as they went out the door, and left the gentlemen to their cigars. The boy did not know, however, the substance of the talk which followed, nor had he any idea that it was a long farewell he was soon to take of his Louisiana home.

David had picked up little or no learning from books, except his letters, but his active mind recorded everything he saw. He knew the note of every bird in the canebrake. He could tell the different kinds of water-fowl that paddled about in the rushes offshore. Often at midnight he had lain awake listening to the boom of the alligators or the hoarse cry of the bittern in the swamps. But his mind had been always filled with a desire to see the stranger countries and stranger creatures of the lands from whence had come the curious shells and the many relics that his father had collected in his voyages.

Commander Porter had been attracted by David from the first, and it was a strange and sudden proposition that he made to Mr. Farragut. It was that he should adopt David and take care of his future and his bringing up. The children were half orphans, for their mother had died only a few years before.

George Farragut hesitated some time. He was not a wealthy man, and his life had been a constant changing of one thing for another. He had been a merchant, a major in the army, a settler and trader with the Indians in Tennessee, a sailing master in the merchant service, and had commanded a schooner as an officer of the regular navy before he had purchased the small farm on the Pascagoula River. But it was a chance for his son that might never come again. So, after some deliberation, he accepted the proposition.

Commander Porter had then charge of the naval station at New Orleans. Through his influence it would be easy for him to obtain a midshipman's warrant for the little lad who had won his heart; but David was too young yet to go immediately into the service. So, when a few weeks later Commander Porter was relieved and transferred to Washington, the boy set out with him to attend school in the North.

So thus came the day when he was to bid a final farewell to the scenes that had come to mean home to him, and to set sail on the open sea.

He did not weep, although he had hard work to choke back the tears as his father kissed him the last time. Mrs. Porter had opened her kind, motherly heart to the strange, dignified little lad, and as she stood beside him on the deck of her husband's vessel, watching Mr. Farragut row back to the shore, she held David's hand closely in her own.

The Vesuvius, Commander Porter's vessel, was a small bomb ketch and the quarters were very cramped. It took some days' sailing before they were fairly out of the gulf; then they rounded the Florida capes, shaping their course for the North Atlantic.

Already had love and admiration for his adopted father begun to fill the boy's heart. He admired the way in which he walked the small quarter-deck; the manner in which the men jumped at his word; and once, when there was a blow, and the Vesuvius was dipping deep into the great waves, he felt quite safe, as he had often felt in the pirogue with his real father, because he trusted the hand that was at the helm. He felt that with Commander Porter in charge, affairs could not go wrong.

But soon they were to part; for immediately after the arrival of the Vesuvius in Philadelphia David was bundled off to a boarding school in a Pennsylvania town, and, as his life here was devoid of anything unusual, we skip over it in this story and make haste to begin a more eventful chapter,