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Virginia: The Old Dominion By Frank W. Hutchins and Cortelle Hutchins Characters: 10172

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

It was dark and still and four o'clock on a summer morning. The few cottages clustering about a landing upon a Virginia river were, for the most part, sleeping soundly, though here and there a flickering light told of some awakening home. Down close by the landing was one little house wide awake. Its windows were aglow; lights moved about; and busy figures passed from room to room and out upon the porch in front.

Suddenly, with a series of quick, muffled explosions, the whole cottage seemed carried from its foundations. It slipped sidewise, turned almost end for end, then drifted slowly away from its neighbours, out into the darkness and the river. Its occupants seemed unconscious of danger. There was one of them standing on the porch quite unconcernedly turning a wheel, while two or three others were watching, with rather amused expressions, two little engines chugging away near the kitchen stove.

And thus it was that the houseboat Gadabout left her moorings in the outskirts of old Norfolk, and went spluttering down the Elizabeth to find Hampton Roads and to start upon her cruise up the historic James River.

But to tell the story we must begin before that summer morning. It was this way. We were three: the daughter-wife (who happened to see the magazine article that led to it all), her mother, and her husband. The head of the family, true to the spirit of the age, had achieved a nervous breakdown and was under instructions from his physician to betake himself upon a long, a very long, vacation.

It was while we were in perplexed consideration as to where to go and what to do, that the magazine article appeared-devoted to houseboating. It was a most fetching production with a picture that appealed to every overwrought nerve. There was a charming bit of water with trees hanging over; a sky all soft and blue (you knew it was soft and blue just as you knew that the air was soft and cool; just as you knew that a drowsy peace and quiet was brooding over all); and there, in the midst, idly floated a houseboat with a woman idly swinging in a hammock and a man idly fishing from the back porch.

That article opened a new field for our consideration. Landlubbers of the landlubbers though we were, its water-gypsy charm yet sank deep. We thirsted for more. We haunted the libraries until we had exhausted the literature of houseboating.

And what a dangerously attractive literature we found! How the cares and responsibilities of life fell away when people went a-houseboating! What peace unutterable fell upon the worn and weary soul as it drifted lazily on, far from the noise and the toil and the reek of the world! All times were calm; all waters kind. The days rolled on in ever-changing scenes of beauty; the nights, star-gemmed and mystic, were filled with music and the witchery of the sea.

It made good reading. It made altogether too good reading. We did not see that then. We did not know that most of the literature of houseboating is the work of people with plenty of imagination and no houseboats.

We resolved to build a houseboat. There was excitement in the mere decision; there was more when our friends came to hear of it. Their marked disapproval made our new departure seem almost indecorous. It was too late; the tide had us; and disapproval only gave zest to the project.

As a first step, we proceeded to rechristen ourselves from a nautical standpoint. The little mother was so hopelessly what the boatmen call a fair-weather sailor that her weakness named her, and she became Lady Fairweather. The daughter-wife, after immuring herself for half a day with nautical dictionaries and chocolate creams, could not tell whether she was Rudderina or Maratima; she finally concluded that she was Nautica. It required neither time nor confectionery to enable these two members of the family to rename the third. They viewed the strut of plain Mr. So-and-So at the prospect of commanding a vessel, and promptly dubbed him Commodore.

An earnest quest was next made for anybody and everybody who had ever used, seen, or heard of a houseboat; and the Commodore made journeys to various waters where specimens of this queer craft were to be found. All the time, three lead pencils were kept busy, and plans and specifications became as autumn leaves. We soon learned that there was little room for the artistic. Once Nautica had a charming creation, all verandas and overhanging roofs and things; but an old waterman came along and talked about wind and waves, and most of the overhanging art on that little houseboat disappeared under the eraser.

"That's all good enough for one of those things you just tie to a bank and hang Chinese lanterns on," he said. "But it would never do for a boat that's going to get out in wide water and take what's coming to it."

When we concluded that we had the plans to our satisfaction (or rather that we never should have, which amounted to the same thing), we turned over to a builder the task of making them into something that would float and hold people and go. The result

ing craft, after passing through a wrecking and some rebuilding, we called Gadabout. She was about fifty feet long and twelve feet wide over all, as the watermen say; and was propelled by twin screws, driven by two small gasoline engines. Though not a thing of beauty, yet, as she swung lazily at her moorings with her wide, low windows and the little hooded cockpit that we tried hard not to call a porch, she looked cozy and comfortable. Her colouring was colonial yellow and white, with a contrast of dark olive on the side runways and the decks.

Inside, Gadabout was arranged as house-like and, we thought, as homelike as boating requirements would permit. There were two cabins, one at either end of the craft. Between these, and at one side of the passageway connecting them, was what we always thought of as the kitchen, but always took care to speak of as the galley.

At first glance, each of the cabins would be taken as a general living-room. Each was that; but also a little of everything else. At customary intervals, one compartment or the other would become a dining-cabin. Again, innocent looking bits of wall would give way, and there would appear beds, presses, lavatories, and a lamentable lack of room.

Both cabins were finished in old oak, dark and dead; there is a superabundance of brightness on the water. The ceilings showed the uncovered, dark carlines or rafters. The walls had, along the top, a row of niches for books; and along the bottom, a deceptive sort of wainscoting, each panel of which was a locker door. Between book niches above and wainscoting below, the walls were paneled in green burlap with brown rope for molding. The furnishing was plain.

The kitchen or galley was rather small as kitchens go, and rather large as galleys go. It would not do to tell all the things that were in it; for anybody would see that they could not all be there. Perhaps it would be well to mention merely the gasoline stove, the refrigerator, the pump and sink, the wall-table, the cupboards for supplies, the closet for the man's serving coats and aprons, the racks of blue willow ware dishes, and the big sliding door.

One has to mention the big sliding door; for it made such a difference. It worked up and down like a window-sash, and always suggested the conundrum, When is a galley not a galley? For when it was down, it disclosed nothing and the galley was a galley; but when it was up, it disclosed a recess in which two little gasoline motors sat side by side, and the galley was an engine-room.

It was a very ingenious and inconvenient arrangement. Operating the stove and the engines at the same time was scarcely practicable; and we were often forced to the hard choice of lying still on a full stomach or travelling on an empty one.

There yet remains to be described the crew's quarters. The crew consisted of two hands, both strong and sturdy, and both belonging to the same coloured man. Though our trusty tar, Henry, had doubtless never heard "The Yarn of the 'Nancy Bell'" and had never eaten a shipmate in his life, yet he had a whole crew within himself as truly as the "elderly naval man" who had eaten one. There was therefore no occasion for extensive quarters. Fortunately, an available space at the stern was ample for the crew's cabin and all appointments.

All these interior arrangements were without the makeshifts so often found in houseboats. There were no curtains for partition walls nor crude bunks for beds. People aboard a houseboat must at best be living in close quarters. But, upon even the moderate priced craft, much of the comfort, privacy, and refinement of home life may be enjoyed by heading off an outlay that tends toward gilt and grill work and turning it into substantial partitions, real beds, baths, and lavatories.

Gadabout was square at both ends; so that the uninitiated were not always sure which way she was going to go. Indeed, for a while, her closest associates were conservative in forecasting on that point. But that was for another reason. The boat was of extremely light draft. While such a feature enables the houseboater to navigate very shallow waters (where often he finds his most charming retreats), yet it also enables the houseboat, under certain conditions of wind and tide, to go sidewise with all the blundering facility of a crab.

At first, in making landings we were forced to leave it pretty much to Gadabout as to which side of the pier she was to come up on, and which end first, and with how much of a bump. But all such troubles soon disappeared; and, as there seemed no change in the craft herself, we were forced to believe that our own inexperience had had something to do with our difficulties.

To Gadabout and her crew, add anchors, chains and ropes, small boats, poles and sweeps, parallel rulers, dividers and charts, anchor-lights, lanterns and side-lights, compasses, barometers and megaphones, fenders, grapnels and boathooks-until the landlubberly owners are almost frightened back to solid land; and then all is ready for a houseboat cruise.

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