NCE upon a time there was a wide river that ran into the ocean, and beside it was a little city. And in that city was a wharf where great ships came from far countries. And a narrow road led down a very steep hill to that wharf, and anybody that wanted to go to the wharf had to go down the steep hill on the narrow road, for there wasn't any other way. And because ships had come there for a great many years and all the sailors and all the captains and all the men who had business with the ships had to go on that narrow road, the flagstones that made the sidewalk were much worn. That was a great many years ago.
The river and the ocean are there yet, as they always have been and always will be; and the city is there, but it is a different kind of a city from what it used to be. And the wharf is slowly falling down, for it is not used now; and the narrow road down the steep hill is all grown up with weeds and grass.
The wharf was Captain Jonathan's and Captain Jacob's and they owned the ships that sailed from it; and, after their ships had been sailing from that wharf in the little city for a good many years, they made up their minds that they ought to move their office to Boston. And so they did. And, after that, their ships sailed from a wharf in Boston and Captain Jonathan and Captain Jacob had their office on India street. Then the change began in that little city and that wharf.
Once, in the long ago, the brig Industry had sailed from Boston for a far country, and little Jacob had gone on that voyage. Little Jacob was Captain Jacob's son and Lois's, and the grandson of Captain Jonathan, and when he went on that voyage he was almost thirteen years old. And little Sol went, too. He was Captain Solomon's son, and he was only a few months younger than little Jacob. Captain Solomon had taken him in the hope that the voyage would discourage him from going to sea. But, as it turned out, it didn't discourage him at all, but he liked going to sea, so that afterwards he ran away and went to sea, and became the captain of that very ship, as you shall hear.
The Industry had been out a little more than a week, and she had run into a storm. The storm didn't do any harm except to blow her out of her course, and then she ran out of it. And the next morning little Jacob came out on deck and he looked for little Sol. The first place that he looked in was out on the bowsprit; for little Sol liked to be out there, where he could see all about him and could see the ship making the wave at her bow and feel as if he wasn't on the ship, at all, but free as air. It was a perfectly safe place to be in, for there were nettings on each side to keep him from falling, and he didn't go out beyond the nettings onto the part that was just a round spar sticking out.
When little Jacob got to the bow of the ship, he looked out on the bowsprit, and there was little Sol; but he wasn't lying on his back as he was most apt to be, nor he wasn't lying down with one hand propping up his head, which was the way he liked to lie to watch the wave that the ship made. He was lying stretched out on his stomach, with both hands propping up his chin, and he was looking straight out ahead, so that he didn't see little Jacob. And the Industry was pitching a good deal, for the storm had made great waves, like mountains, and the waves that were left were still great. The ship made a sort of growling noise as she went down into a wave, and a sort of hissing noise as she came up out of it, and little Jacob was—well, not afraid, exactly, but he didn't just like to go out there where little Sol was, with the ship making all those queer noises. You see, it was little Jacob's first storm at sea. It was little Sol's first storm, too; but then, boys are different.
So little Jacob called. "Sol!" he said.
Little Sol turned his head quickly. "Hello, Jake," said he. "Come on out. There's lots to see out here to-day."
"Are—are there things to see that I couldn't see from here?" asked little Jacob. "Of course there are," answered little Sol, scornfully.
"You can't see anything from there—anything much."
"The ship pitches a good deal," remarked little Jacob. "Don't you think so?"
"Oh, some," said little Sol, "but it's safe enough after you get here. You could crawl out. I walked out. See here, I'll walk in, to where you are, on my hands."
And little Sol scrambled up and walked in on his hands, with his feet in the air. He let his feet down carelessly. "There!" he said. "You see."
"Well," said little Jacob. "I can't walk on my hands, because I don't know how. You show me, Sol, will you?—when it's calm. And I'll walk out on my feet."
Little Jacob was rather white, but he didn't hesitate, and he walked out on the bowsprit to the place where he generally sat. It was rather hard work keeping his balance, but he did it. And little Sol came after, and said he would show him how to walk on his hands, some day when it was calm enough. For little Sol didn't think little Jacob was afraid, and the two boys liked each other very much.
"There!" said little Sol, when they were settled, "you look out ahead, and see if you see anything."
So little Jacob looked and looked for a long time, but he didn't know what he was looking for, and that makes a great difference about seeing a thing.
"I don't see anything," said he. "What is it, Sol—a ship!"
"No, oh no," answered little Sol. "It's on the water—on the surface. We've almost got to one of 'em."
So little Jacob looked again, and he saw what looked, at first, like a calm streak on the water. There seemed to be little sticks sticking up out of the calm streak. Then he saw that it looked like a narrow island, except that it went up and down with the waves. Sometimes he saw one part of it, and then he saw another part. And the island was all covered with water, and the water near it was calm, and it was a yellowish brown, like seaweed. In a minute or two the Industry was ploughing through it, and he could see that it was a great mass of floating seaweed that gave way, before the ship, like water, and the little sticks that he had seen, sticking up, were the stems. A little way ahead there was another of the floating islands; and another and another, until the surface of the sea seemed covered with them. They were really fifteen or twenty fathoms apart; but, from a distance, it didn't look as if they were.
"Why, Sol," said little Jacob, in surprise, "it doesn't stop the ship at all. I should think it would. What is it?"
"Well," answered little Sol. "I asked one of the men, and he laughed and said it was nothing but seaweed—that the ship would make nothing of it. I was afraid we were running aground. And the man said that the rows—it gets in windrows, like hay that's being raked up—he said that the windrows were broken up a good deal by the storm; that he's often seen 'em stretching as far as the eye could see, and a good deal thicker than these are."
Little Jacob laughed. "What are you laughing at?" asked little Sol, looking up.
"As far as the eye could see," said little Jacob.
"Well," said little Sol, "that's just what he said, anyway."
"I'm going to ask your father about it," said little Jacob. "He'll know all about it. He always knows." And he got up, carefully, and made his way inboard; then he ran aft, to look for Captain Solomon.
He found Captain Solomon on the quarter deck, leaning against the part of the cabin that stuck up through the deck. He was half sitting on it and looking out at the rows of seaweed that they passed. So little Jacob asked him.
"Yes, Jacob," answered Captain Solomon, "it's just seaweed, nothing but seaweed. We're just on the edge of the Sargasso Sea, and that means nothing but Seaweed Sea. The weed gets in long rows, just as you see it now, only the rows are apt to be longer and not so broken up. It's the wind that does it, and the ocean currents. It's my belief that the wind is the cause of the currents, too. I've seen acres of this weed packed so tight together that it looked as if we were sailing on my south meadow just at haying time. I don't see that south meadow at haying time very often, now, but I shall see it, please God, pretty soon."
"Well," said little Jacob, "I should think that it would get all tangled up so that it would stop the ship."
"My south meadow?" asked Captain Solomon. He was thinking of haying, and he had forgotten the Seaweed Sea.
Little Jacob laughed. "No, sir," he answered. "The seaweed. Why doesn't it get all tangled like ropes, so that it stops the ship?"
"The plants aren't long enough," said Captain Solomon. "Come, we'll get some of it for you."
"Oh!" cried little Jacob. "Will you? Thank you, sir."
And Captain Solomon told two of the sailors to come and to bring a big bucket. The bucket had a long rope fastened across, and the end was long enough to reach from the water up to the deck of the Industry . They use buckets like that to dip up the salt water; and, when the ship is going the sailors have to be very careful and very quick or they will lose the bucket, it pulls so hard.
So one sailor dipped the bucket just as they were passing over one of the rows of seaweed; and the other sailor took hold of the rope, too, as soon as he had dipped the bucket, and they pulled it up and set it on deck. Captain Solomon stooped and took up a plant. There were two plants in the bucket. Little Sol had come when he saw the sailors with the bucket.
And Captain Solomon showed the boys that a plant was about the size of a cabbage, and that it had a great many little balloons that grew on it about as big as a pea, and these balloons were filled with air to make the plant float. Some of them were almost as big as a nut, and little Sol and little Jacob had fun trying to make them pop.
Then little Sol found a tiny fish in the bucket that was just the color of the weed; and little Jacob saw another, and then he saw a crab drop from the weed that Captain Solomon was holding, and the crab was just the color of the weed, too. And they amused themselves for a long time with hunting for the queer fishes and crabs and shrimps, and something that was like a mussel, but it wasn't just like one, either. And they found a place in the weed where were some little balls. And they opened the balls, and little Sol said he'd bet that they were where some animal laid its eggs. But little Jacob didn't say anything, for he didn't pretend to know anything about it. But Captain Solomon got tired of holding that weed, so he dropped it back into the bucket and went away. And, at last, when little Jacob and little Sol got tired of hunting for things in the weed, the sailors threw it over into the ocean again.
And that's all.