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Virginia: The Old Dominion By Frank W. Hutchins and Cortelle Hutchins Characters: 14902

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Daylight came while Gadabout was lumbering down the Elizabeth, and in the glory of the early morning she followed its waters out into Hampton Roads, the yawning estuarial mouth of the James emptying into Chesapeake Bay.

She would probably have started in upon her cruise up the historic river without more ado if we had not bethought ourselves that she was carrying us into the undertaking breakfastless. The wheel was put over hard to port (we got that out of the books) and the craft was run in behind Craney Island and anchored.

While our breakfast was preparing, we all gathered in the forward cockpit to enjoy the scene and the life about us. The houseboat was lying in a quiet lagoon bordered on the mainland side by a bit of Virginia's great truck garden. Here and there glimpses of chimneys and roof lines told of truckers' homes, while cultivated fields stretched far inland.

The height of the trucking season was past, yet crates and barrels of vegetables were being hauled to the water's edge for shipment. The negroes sang as they drove, but often punctuated the melody with strong language designed to encourage the mules. One wailing voice came to our ears with the set refrain, "O feed me, white folks! White folks, feed me!" The crates and barrels were loaded on lighters and floated out to little sailing boats that went tacking past our bows on their way to Norfolk.

It was a pretty scene, but there was one drawback to it all. Everything showed the season so far advanced, and served to remind us of the lateness of our start. We had intended to take our little voyage on the James in the springtime. It had been a good deal a matter of sentiment; but sentiment will have its way in houseboating. We had wished to begin in that gentle season when the history of the river itself began, and when the history of this country of ours began with it.

For, whatever may have gone before, the real story of the James and of America too commences with the bloom of the dogwood some three hundred years ago, when from the wild waste of the Atlantic three puny, storm-worn vessels (scarcely more seaworthy than our tub of a houseboat) beat their way into the sheltering mouth of this unknown river.

That was in the days when the nations of Europe were greedily contending for what Columbus had found on the other side of the world. In that struggle England was slow to get a foothold. Neglect, difficulty, and misfortune made her colonies few and short-lived. By the opening of the seventeenth century Spain and France, or perhaps Spain alone, seemed destined to possess the entire new hemisphere. In all the extent of the Americas, England was not then in possession of so much as a log fort. Apparently the struggle was ended and England defeated. No one then could have imagined what we now behold-English-speaking people possessing most and dominating all of that newfound Western World.

This miracle was wrought by the coming of those three little old-time ships, the Sarah Constant, the Goodspeed, and the Discovery.

It was in the year 1607 that the quaint, high-sterned caravels, representing the forlorn hope of England, crossed the ocean to found a colony on Roanoke Island. Storm-tossed and driven out of their reckoning, they turned for refuge one April day into a yawning break in the coast-line that we now call Chesapeake Bay. Following the sheltering, inviting waters inland, they took their way up a "Greate River," bringing to it practically the first touch of civilization and establishing upon its shore the first permanent English settlement in the New World-the birthplace of our country.

The civilizers began their work promptly. Even as they sailed up the river looking for a place to found their colony, they robbed the stream of its Indian name, Powhatan, that so befitted the bold, tawny flow, bestowing instead the name of the puerile King of England. That was the first step toward writing in English the story of the James River, the "Greate River," the "King's River."

It was later by three hundred years lacking one when our houseboat came along to gather up that story. But to our regret it was not springtime. The dogwood blossoms had come and gone when Gadabout lay behind Craney Island; and she would start upon her cruise up the James in the heart of the summertime.

In some way that only those who know the laze of houseboating can understand, the hours slipped by in that tiny, tucked-away haven, and it was the middle of the afternoon when Gadabout slowly felt her way out from behind the island and started up the James in the wake of the Sarah Constant, the Goodspeed, and the Discovery. That historic wake we were to follow for the first thirty miles of our journey, when it would bring us to the spot on the bank of the river where those first colonists landed and built their little settlement which (still honouring an unworthy king) they called James Towne.

As Gadabout sturdily headed her stubby bow up the wide, majestic waterway, we looked about us. After all, what had three centuries done to this gateway of American civilization? Surely not very much. Keeping one's eyes in the right direction it was easy to blot out three hundred years, and to feel that we were looking upon about the same scene that those first colonists beheld-just the primeval waste of rolling waters, lonely marsh, and wooded shore.

But eyes are unruly things; and, to be sure, there were other directions in which to look. Glances northward took in a scene different enough from the one that met the eyes of those early voyagers.

Upon the low point of land along which they at last found a channel into the James and which (in their relief) they named Point Comfort, now stood a huge modern hostelry.

To the left of this, the ancient shore-line was now broken by a dull, square structure that reared its ugly bulk against the sky-a strangely grim marker of the progress of three centuries. For this was the grain elevator at Newport News, spouting its endless stream to feed the Old World, and standing almost on the spot where those first settlers in the New World, sick and starving, once begged and then fought the Indians for corn. Lying in the offing were great ships from overseas that had come to this land of the starving colonists for grain.

Beyond all these could be seen something of the town of Newport News itself. Towers and spires and home smoke-wreaths we saw, where those beginners of our country saw only the spires of the lonely pines and the smoke from hostile fires.

As our houseboat skirted the southern shore of the James in the sunny afternoon, our engines chugging merrily, our flags flying, and our two trailing rowboats dancing on the boiling surge kicked up astern, we felt that our cruise was well begun. Not that we were misled for a moment by that boiling surge astern into the belief that we were making much progress. We had early perceived that Gadabout made a great stir over small things, and that she went faster at the stern than anywhere else.

Yet all that was well enough. So long as the sun shines and the water lies good and flat, dawdling along in such a craft is an ideal way to travel. If the houseboat is built with the accent on the first syllable, as it ought to be, the homey feeling comes quickly to the family group aboard. Day after day brings new scenes and places, yet the family life goes on unbroken. It i

s as though Aladdin had rubbed the wonderful lamp, and the old home had magically drifted away and started out to see what the world was like.

Now, just ahead of us where the chart had a little asterisk, the river had a little lighthouse perched high over the water on its long spindling legs. Gadabout ran just inside the light and quite close to it. It is an old and a pretty custom by which a passing vessel "speaks" a lighthouse. In this instance perhaps we were a trifle tardy, for the kindly keeper greeted us first with three strokes of his deep-toned bell. Gadabout responded with three of her bravest blasts.

It was not long before the sun got low, and with the late afternoon something of a wind whipped up from the bay, and the wide, low-shored river rolled dark and unfriendly. We found our thoughts outstripping Gadabout in the run toward a harbour for the night.

That word "harbour" comes to mean a good deal to the houseboater who attempts to make a cruiser of his unseaworthy, lubberly craft. A little experience on even inland waters in their less friendly moods develops in him a remarkable aptitude for finding holes in the bank to stick his boat in.

Sometimes the vessel is seaworthy enough to lie out and take whatever wind and waves may inflict; but that is usually where much of the charm and comfort of the houseboat has been sacrificed to make her so. Then too the houseboater is usually quite a landlubber after all; so that even if the boat is strong enough to meet an angry sea, the owner's stomach is not. And, over and above all this, is the fact that miserably pitching and rolling about in grim battle with the elements is not houseboating.

It is easy then to see that snug harbours count for much when cruising in the true spirit of houseboating, and in the charming, awkward tubs that make the best and the most lovable of houseboats.

So, as Gadabout was passing Barrel Point and the wind was freshening and the waves were slapping her square bow, we were thinking not unpleasantly of a small tributary stream that the chart indicated just ahead, and in which we should find quiet anchorage. There seemed something snug and cozy about the very name of the stream, Chuckatuck. In this case the pale-face has left undisturbed the red man's picturesque appellation; and we knew that we should like-Chuckatuck.

Just before we reached the creek, two row-boats put out from the river shore filled with boys and curiosity. A cheery salute was given us as the houseboat passed close by the skiffs, and we thought no more of them. But after a while footsteps were heard overhead and we found that we had a full cargo of boys. They had made their boats fast to Gadabout's stern as she passed, and were now grouped in some uncertainty on the upper deck. A nod from Nautica put them at ease, and in a moment they were scattered all over the outside of the boat, calling to one another, peering into windows, and asking no end of questions.

The boys proved helpful too. They were fisher-lads, well acquainted with those waters, and were better than the chart in guiding us among the shoals and into the channel of the creek.

A low headland prevented our getting a good view up the stream until Gadabout swung into the middle of it. We seemed to be entering a little lake bordered by tree-covered hills. At the far end of the blue basin was a break and a gleam of lighter water to show that this was not really a lake but a stream. There it made the last of its many turnings and spread its waters in this beautiful harbour before losing them in the James.

On the hills to our right, houses showed among the trees, some with the ever-pleasing white-pillared porticoes; and on the hills to our left was a village that straggled down the slope to the wharf as if coming to greet the strangers. In this little harbour was quite a fleet, mostly fishing craft, and all bowing politely on the swell of the tide.

There was such diversity of opinion among our self-constituted pilots as to the best place for us to drop anchor, that the Commodore turned a deaf ear to them all and attempted to run alongside a schooner to make inquiries. She was a good sized craft, and it did not seem as if he could miss her. He claimed that he did not. He explained that when we got up there, our ropes fell short and we drifted helplessly past because the blundering captain of the schooner had anchored her too far away from us.

Kindly overlooking this error of a fellow navigator, the Commodore patiently spent considerable of the beautiful summer evening in getting Gadabout turned around; and then again bore down upon the schooner. This time her being in the wrong place did not seem to matter; for we reached her all right, and there probably was no place along that side where we did not remove more or less paint. The captain of the schooner gave us the needed information about the harbour; our lines were cast off, and the houseboat was soon anchored in a snug berth for the night.

Then, sitting upon our canopied upper deck, enjoying the last of our city melons cooled with the last of our city ice, we looked out over what we supposed was but the first of many such beautiful creek-harbour scenes to be found along the river. We did not know that there was to be no other like Chuckatuck.

After a while, a small steamer came in from the James, a boat plying regularly between Norfolk and landings along this creek.

It was just the kind of steamer, any one would say, to be running on the Chuckatuck-a fat, wheezy side-wheeler that came up to its landing near us with three hearty whistles and such a jovial puffing as seemed to say, "Now, I'm certainly mighty glad to get back again to you all." Just the sort of steamer that wouldn't mind a bit if the pretty girls were "a right smart time" kissing goodbye; or if the Colonel had to finish his best story; or if old Maria had to "study a spell" because she had "done forgot" what Miss Clarissa wanted the steward to bring from the city next day.

As the sun sank behind the hills (or rather some time after, for we never could be nautically prompt), our flags were run down and the anchor-light was hoisted on the forward flagstaff.

The summer night closed in softly; the blue waters grew dark, and caught from the sky the rich lights that the setting sun had left behind. We could see figures sitting upon the white porticoes looking out over the miniature harbour. Somewhere were the music of a merry-go-round and the calls and laughter of children. In from the wider waters came more boats, their white sails folding down as they neared their haven. All the beautiful mystery of the deepening twilight touched water and masts, and shadowed the circling shore.

Then came the long hours of darkness when, with all aboard asleep, Gadabout lay quietly at anchor, the riding-light upon her flagstaff gently swaying throughout the night. Silently, with none to heed and none to know, was enacted again in the gloom the play that is as old as the first ship upon tideway. With bow turned up-stream, Gadabout sank slowly lower and lower, as even little Chuckatuck heard the voice of the far-away ocean calling its waters home. Then, crossing slowly over her anchor and turning to head the other way, Gadabout rose once more higher and higher, as the night wore on and as the great recurring swell rolled landward again the waters of the sea.

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