It was said of Captain Nitty that he had the gift of the gab. We shall not pause here to define the gab, but instead press on, press on, for time is tight. Time is as tight as Captain Nitty’s tunic, a size too small, the collar of which constricts his throat, thwarting the gab. And without the gab this man is nothing.
Why, then, does he not tear off his tunic and cast it to the winds, or at least loosen his collar, so that he might give vent to the gab? To answer that question, or questions, we need to know something of the regulations, and the esteem in which they were held, then, there. They were draconian and pitiless and unyielding. Yet a man would think no more of bending them than he would of tearing off his own head and tossing it into a stream.
It is in midstream, of a rushing gurgling torrent, that we find Captain Nitty, on this nineteenth century day. He is in it up to his eyeballs, breathing through a leather and gutta-percha contraption strapped to his head, covering his mouth and nostrils, and with a tube, reinforced with the wire from pipe-cleaners, rising above the level of the torrent into the mephitic air. No gab from Captain Nitty, in the circumstances.
But gab, or something like it, from the riverbank, where Captain Nitty is closely observed by howler monkeys disporting in the trees. Howl, then, rather than gab. The monkeys watch his slow progress as he toils along the river, against the current. Are their howls howls of encouragement or of mockery? Captain Nitty hears them not, for the same contraption that affords him the ability to breathe muffles his hearing, its thick woollen earflaps tugged tight against his head by means of a strap buckled under his chin, as tight as his tunic.
It is, perhaps, a mercy he can hardly hear the howler monkeys. Each step is a struggle, and now and then he loses his footing and is submerged in the torrent. He manages to pull himself upright through pluck and vim. For balance, he has a stick. It is not a branch torn from a riverbank tree, but his regulation stick, thick, of tropical wood, with a golden knob. He holds it horizontally in front of him, just above the surface of the water, for at all costs he must not get it wet. Even when he loses his footing he takes care to hoist the stick higher, keeping it in the air though the top of his head is briefly below the waterline.
Here in midstream there is no tree cover to block out the sun. Its burning brilliance batters down, reflected in the golden knob on the end of Captain Nitty’s stick, the golden knob itself as bright as a miniature sun. Captain Nitty must keep one eye closed in consequence, that he is not blinded by it. As he makes his painfully slow progress upriver, he now and then switches the position of the stick, so the golden knob is on his left or his right, to rest one eye and employ the other. It is difficult for him to judge distance with but one working eye. He thought he would reach the rapids at least two hours before he does so.
River rapids! Bane of the unwary! But Captain Nitty is nothing if not wary. He has the gift of the gab and he has a nose for danger. He has been called reckless, and teased for his excessive gung ho. Just as promised, there is a small wood and canvas boat tied to the trunk of a tree at the river’s edge. Captain Nitty makes for it, and clambers in. Now at last he can remove the contraption from his head. His senses are assailed, by the howling of the howler monkeys, now deafeningly loud, and by the stink of rot and foulness and disease and death. He places his regulation gold knobbed tropical wood stick carefully in the bottom of the boat, and lifts the oars, sliding them through the tholes. One would think, watching him, that he has rowed a boat before, but he has not.
But of course there is nobody watching him, nobody human, only the howler monkeys and the billions of tiny buzzing winged things with which the air is riddled. Captain Nitty pulls on the oars and heads inexorably for the rapids. Now he has his back to the shining golden knob on his stick, laid at his feet, and he can keep both eyes open. On the other side of the rapids, if he negotiates them without being tossed from his boat, he has been told to find a patch of land by the riverside and set up camp. He has, in his haversack, the makings of a tent, a stove, a flag, a pack of playing cards, and a Bible. And at nightfall, as the howler monkeys howl and nocturnal birds hoot and screech, and the raging torrent roars, Captain Nitty will cast off his tunic, and hang it up on a clothes line improvised between two trees, and while his sausages cook on the stove he will give vent to his gift of the gab. He will plant his flag and name his camp and name all the land around. He will sing rousing hymns. He will bless the Lord, O Captain Nitty’s soul: and all that is within him, bless his holy name, bless the Lord and forget not all his benefits, who forgiveth all Captain Nitty’s iniquities; who healeth all his diseases, who redeemeth his life from destruction, who crowneth Captain Nitty with loving kindness and tender mercies, who satisfieth his mouth with good things, so that his youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord executeth righteousness and judgment for all that are oppressed. He made known his ways unto Moses, his acts unto the children of Israel. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with Captain Nitty after his sins; nor rewarded him according to his iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed Captain Nitty’s transgressions from him. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth Captain Nitty’s frame; he remembereth that he is dust. As for Captain Nitty, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them. The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all. Bless the Lord, Captain Nitty and his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word. Bless ye the Lord, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure. Bless the Lord, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the Lord, O Captain Nitty.
He has the gift of the gab, and sausages to eat, and an empire to build.