The Boy Tar
A Voyage in the Dark
Captain Mayne Reid
Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1864

Review by John Berg

“My name is Philip Forster, and I am now an old man.

“I reside in a quiet little village, that stands upon the sea-shore, at the bottom of a very large bay--one of the largest on our island.”

Captain Forster takes little time to start his story. Favorite storyteller of the village boys who frequently stop him on his seashore strolls, demanding that he tell another. And the captain, with a telescope under his arm, white whiskers glistening in the sun, always would select a convenient rock, sit, and tell another.

But today the boys insisted on hearing about the Captain's life. In the beginning pages, Captain Forster shows his boyish mettle through a series of pond and seashore adventures but after his mariner father is lost at sea and his mother dies, he found himself bundled off to his Uncle's farm.

Missing the sea, he runs away and seeks a berth on the Inca, “The Inca-- For Peru-- Tomorrow,” as cabin boy. Less than four feet tall, the boy's application only amuses the kindly crew busily loading the ship and the Inca's Captain declines firmly by having the bosun carry the boy off the ship. Instantly the boy plans to stowaway, to remain hidden until the Inca is too far at sea to return. He uses the crew's supper time to slip into the ship's hold. Safe in a little niche among the stores, he listens to crew's loading noises until he falls asleep.

Pitch black darkness surrounds him when he awakes. How much time has passed? The loading noise continues and the boy wonders at the sailors working through the night. Sleep quietly comes again but waking shows that the darkness continues but the loading noise is gone, replaced by sounds indicating the ship is getting underway, proven shortly by the sound of water rushing down the hull and the ship's leaning to leeward. “Hurrah! we are off!”

“I rose from my recumbent position and began to grope my way along the side of the great butt. I reached the end of it, and felt for the aperture by which I had squeezed myself in. To my great surprise, I found that it was closed up!” Careful investigation of his lightless niche revealed no openings in any direction. “I shall leave you to fancy my feelings when the conviction broke upon me that I was actually shut in--imprisoned--built up among the merchandise!”

After a bout with despair he begins his plan to tunnel his way through the cargo to the hatch. Meantime he must find food and water. Time is measured only in the return of hunger or the need to sleep. With only the sense of touch available to him, progress is slow, obstacles daunt him, and perils come in unusual forms. Piercing a brandy keg becomes life- threatening in his small space. But he is not alone.

“Down came my hands, with the fingers outstretched to cover it; but oh! my horror! what a mistake I had made!

“Instead of the little tiny mouse, which I had intended to clutch, my hand rested upon the body of an animal almost as large has a kitten! There was no mistaking what it was. Beyond doubt, it was a great, horrid rat!”

The rats became at first competitors for any food found and soon began to become predators-- until Philip turns the table.

Progress, measured not in meaningless days but in periods of sleep and a container breached, emptied, and broken through, continues until he encounters the crated piano-forte. Again dark despair.

But touch reveals the oddly shaped crate of the piano-forte which eventually proves to provide unbarred upward progress, up, at least, until, opening another box, his fingers come against a large sack, heavy but slightly yielding and unlike anything he's encountered so far. He cuts a cautious slit. “I felt for a moment as if I was in danger of being suffocated, and my first impulse was to beat a speedy retreat....” The flour continued falling. “The movement of the ship ... and the flour was escaping.” Finally the flour stopped and boy's perch was safely above the final level. After recovering his wits, the boy investigates.

“I had stretched up my hand to ascertain if the sack was quite empty. It appeared so. Why, then, should I not pull it through the aperture and get it out of the way? No reason why I should not; and I at once dragged it down, and flung it behind me.

“I then raised my head through the end of the box, into the space where the sack had lain.

“Merciful heavens! What did I behold? Light! Light! Light!”

Just on the threshold of salvation, the boy considers the captain's reaction to the havoc below, the ravished ladies bonnets, the unrolled linens, the shifted velvets, the flour sifting into the bilges. What awaits him?

In this case, we know that future is preamble.

Copyright © 1997 by John Berg
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

Back to Book Reviews