THE SHELLBACK'S PROGRESS
IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
WALTER RUNCIMAN, Sen.
LONDON AND NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE: THE WALTER SCOTT PUBLISHING CO., LTD. NEW YORK: 3 EAST 14th STREET. 1904.
TO WALTER TOWNEND, ESQ.
"MY DEAR TOWNEND,—Perhaps no two men have ever been bound together with ties of closer or more loyal friendship than you and myself. Many years have elapsed since our unbroken comradeship was formed in the old historic building in Cornhill. You have many claims to friendship and to confidence, and perhaps you can hardly realize what pleasure it gives me to remember that during our intercourse of so many years, your sincerity, directness and single-mindedness could always be depended upon. Your joyful relish of a tale of human interest, whether as a listener or a narrator, is always contagious. Your indignation and scorn for unmanly and dishonourable conduct, and your quick appreciation of whatever is generous and true; this, and my high regard for your own personal worth, have given me the wish to inscribe this volume of sea stories to you.
"Ever yours sincerely,
These stories are drawn from the reality of things, and perhaps I may as well say that they have been written during short intervals snatched from a busy and absorbing commercial life. I have tried to portray the men as they were—brave, dauntless, rugged, uncouth, illiterate, simple-minded, kind-hearted, and, at times, unmercifully savage. And yet there shone through all these conflictingly peculiar eccentricities a humorous kind of religion which belonged exclusively to themselves, but which gave their characteristics a touch of sublimity. We have travelled far since those days of aboriginal stupidity and sordid blood-sucking. The contrast between the comforts and conditions of life at sea then and now cannot be imagined. We may only talk of it; we can never truly estimate the change. I do not draw attention to the comparison because I think the sailor has got any more than he is entitled to. I refer to it in order that he may recognize a desire on the part of modern shipowners and the Legislature to give him every possible advantage consistent with the peculiarities of the trade in which he is engaged. One of the most recent advantages suggested in their report by the Mercantile Committee, who sat for, I think, about twelve months taking evidence from shipowners, shipmasters, sailors, and others, is that an amended food scale should be adopted, and that the seaman should have the right of appeal against a bad "discharge" that may be given him. In my opinion the great body of shipowners will endorse that portion of their recommendations. It is to be desired that the seamen will recognize in this a willingness on the part of their employers to deal justly with them, for undoubtedly it was the evidence given by shipowners that influenced the Committee.
I. THE WILD NORTH SEA 1
II. CAPTAIN PLUNKER 30
III. CAPTAIN MACGREGOR 67
IV. PIRACY IN THE ARCHIPELAGO 97
V. SAILORS' OPINIONS OF NOTABLE PUBLIC MEN 148
VI. MARY ROUTLEDGE 181
VII. FORECASTLE LIFE 206
VIII. GRUB 253
IX. MISCELLANEOUS 283
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
By THOMAS RUNCIMAN.
FOUNDERING OF THE "SILVERSPRAY" Frontispiece
FINDING THE LEAK 40
CAPTAIN PLUNKER ASTONISHED 90
"THERE WERE MANY CALLERS" 140
HAVING A NIP 186
"NOW, BOYS, POUR IT ON THEM SMARTLY!" 236
A NORTHUMBERLAND HARBOUR 288
THE WILD NORTH SEA
There was a large fleet of sailing brigs, barques and schooners waiting for a favourable wind and spring tides, so that they might be put to sea without running the risk of thumping their keels off on the Bar. The vessels had been loaded for several weeks. Many of them were bound to the Baltic. These were spoken of as the "Spring Fleet." The older and smaller craft were engaged in the coasting trade, and the larger were bound to ports in the southern hemisphere. Each of them carried three or four apprentices; but the southern-going portion did not deem the collier lads "classy" enough to permit of them forming close comradeship. A condescending speaking-acquaintance was the limit of their connection. There was nothing to justify this snobbery, for in point of comparison the average collier lad in seamanship and physical capacity was the equal, and in intelligence by no means inferior to the young gentlemen who regarded the class of vessel they served aboard of as a stamp of their own superiority. They were indeed a species of that terrible creature who apes nobility because he lives in a mansion. Occasionally the collier lads resented the lofty airs of the southern-going gentry, until open hostility ensued and much blood was spilt. But pugilistic encounters were conducted on strictly professional lines, and no ill-will was supposed to exist on the part of the combatants after they were over. That was the rule laid down, and a breach of it brought disgrace on the violator and his coadjutors, who were thereupon ostracised from the party to which they belonged. The necessity for enforcing the penalty rarely occurred, not only because of its severity, but because it involved loss of honour.
A disagreement as to valour and prowess and seamanship had arisen between some sailor lads who belonged to the two different sections. They decided that their differences could only be settled by being fought out on neutral ground. This was solemnly chosen, a ring formed, seconds appointed, and the contest began. In half-an-hour victory was decided in favour of the collier boy, though with all the fulness of sailor generosity his opponent received an ungrudging share of the ovation that was given to the champion. Both, however, showed evidences of rough usage: the only visible difference being that one had two eyes badly damaged while the victor had but one. After it was over they shook hands, swore allegiance to each other, walked back to their respective vessels, had raw beef applied to the eyes that were discoloured, tumbled into their hammocks and fell fast asleep. Meanwhile a general meeting of apprentice lads from all the vessels in port was mustered, so that the result of the dispute should be publicly proclaimed; and in order that the occasion should be suitably celebrated, it was suggested and approved by loud acclamation that whereas there was every chance of the morrow being a sailing day, when the little port would be emptied of all its shipping, it might be that the parting would represent years, and perchance many of them would never meet on earth again. The latter clause was announced with marked solemnity. The orator proceeded to state that there had been enmities, jealousies, perhaps unworthy statements made about the inferiority of the collier boy, but the question had been settled by a brilliant exhibition of physical science; both sides were well represented, and both had shown that they were worthy champions of the noble art.
"Let me ask you then to call upon them both to join with us in becoming friends, and in having on the last night in port a ripping jollification. I propose," said the peacemaker, "that we have some chanties, and that we start these aboard the vessel I belong to by hoisting the topsail yards up."
The two heroes were roused, and cheerfully joined in what resolved itself into a carnival of reckless mischief. The brains of the whole company were excited, and they revelled in every form of scampishness. The leaders gave orders as to the vessels that were to be visited and have their yards crossed and their rig in other ways disfigured. This being done, the spokesman informed them that they had spent a very jolly night, and after hoisting the Silverspray's topsails to the mast head and furling the sails again, they were to disperse quietly and go each to his own ship. The sails were loosened, a chanty man was selected from among the southern-going seamen, and amid a chorus of sweet song the yards were leisurely mast-headed. The music of many voices had attracted a few people to the quay. A shout was raised that the captain of the vessel was coming. The halyards dropped from each one's hand, and a general scramble resembling a panic ensued. Down came the main topsail yard with a run, and broke in halves as soon as the sudden jerk came on the lifts. In almost as little time as it takes to write it, there was none of the revellers to be seen.
After the novelty has worn off, there is never any particular desire to put to sea on the part of youngsters; but on this occasion the anxiety to get out of the harbour was very marked. Many of the vessels got away before the damage done to the Silverspray's yard and sail became generally known. The captain did not know that anything of the sort had happened until he came down to take the vessel to sea, and being a commonsense sort of man, instead of joining in the chorus of screaming, as his owner was doing, he adjured him to cease wasting time in declaiming against those who had done the mischief.
"We must set to work," said he, "and have the damage repaired; that is more important than theorising as to who did it."
By the time the repairs were set in full swing, nearly the whole of the culprits had passed over the bar aboard their respective ships into the booming waves of the German Ocean. Many of them were destined never to reach their destination, and many never more to see the paradise that had given them so many ineffable days and nights. Sad hearts were grieving over the sudden parting from those who were loved because they were lovable. They seemed to be musing thoughts of poetry.
The Silverspray's repairs were completed in two days, and she and another vessel, that had been detained owing to her pump gear not being ready, were towed out of the harbour in the face of a strong easterly wind and a lowering glass. The portly, ruddy appearance and pronounced lurch or roll of Captain Thomas Arlington left no doubt as to his calling. He spoke with an assumed accent which resembled the amalgamation of several dialects. He was usually called Tom by his intimate friends, but mere acquaintances were not permitted to address him in any such familiar fashion. In his younger days he gained notoriety for having made several voyages to the West Indies, the Brazils and Constantinople, and he was therefore looked upon as a far-sailed and much-learned person. Owners vied with each other in sounding his praises and competing for his services. They looked upon him as a captain of the first rank, both in seamanship and education. There was no question about the former: the latter consisted in his being able to read and write a legible hand, which was a rare accomplishment in those days. He had saved a little money, and was allowed as a special favour to invest to the extent of eight sixty-fourth shares in the vessel he commanded. He never lost an opportunity of making his less fortunate compatriots feel that he was immeasurably their superior. Many of them who commanded the same class of vessel were so impressed with his influence over the owners that they looked upon his friendship as being of some value. Being part owner, his privileges were wide; in fact he was admitted within the owner circle, and contributed to the wisdom thereof in many eccentric ways.
The two little brigs were bound to the Baltic, and the first day out a heavy press of canvas was carried in order to get a good offing, lest the wind and sea should make and catch them tight on a lee shore. After they had been out twenty-four hours they both tacked off Flamborough Head, bearing west twenty miles, and stood to the N.E. The Silverspray passed close under the stern of the Francis Blake. The captains saluted each other as was the custom. The Blake's captain shouted that his vessel was making a lot of water. The other responded: "We are making some too, and we shall have more wind and sea before there is less." This was about ten on a February morning. Their sailing qualities were pretty much on a par, so that they were kept in company all through the day. The wind had shifted from E.S.E. to S.E., and they headed E.N.E. with about two and a half points leeway, making the true course, after the toss of the sea had been allowed, about N.E. So long as daylight remained no canvas was taken in, though both of them were sometimes plunging their jibbooms under, and their bows almost level with the foremast. Every bit of rigging and running gear was strained to its maximum limit. There was no question of racing or foolhardiness, but a pressing necessity to flog them off a lee shore.
And this reminds me that only six years before, I innocently committed a serious breach of nautical faith for which I was roundly reprimanded by a kindly sailor. It was my first voyage at sea. I had not seen thirteen summers by many months. I heard two sailors who were standing by the lee side of the windlass end conversing about the seriousness of the vessel's position. One said to the other that if the wind did not norther a little more she would be ashore in Filey Bay before four o'clock in the morning. My views on seafaring had undergone a change. I was overcome with delight, and, forgetting the lesson many times given me never to speak until I was spoken to, with unrestrained impetuosity I interjected that I hoped she would be ashore before four o'clock, so that I might get back to my home again. I can never forget the indignation of the two men. They frowned contemptuously on me, called me names that I had never heard before, and swore with a refinement that impressed me with the suspicion that I had said something that was not to be readily forgiven. With childlike simplicity I asked if it was wrong to wish that the vessel should go ashore.
"Wrong? you young devil!" said they. "Would you have us all drowned?"
Needless to say, my desire happily did not come to pass, and I became the object for many a long day of good-humoured chaff which I would have done anything to obviate. The sailors did not seem to recognize any humorous side to their own part in it, and yet they used to roar with laughter at my amazing conclusions, and as my anger increased so did their amusement. A lee shore is always dreaded by seamen, and many a sound ship has been made leaky, and many a spar and sail has been carried away in the effort to keep off. It was precisely this fear that possessed the two captains in question and caused them almost to bury their ships in order to get well out to sea in case the wind should back into the east again.
When darkness came on they lost sight of each other. All night long the Blake was plunged into a tremendous sea. The crew were nearly worn out with incessant pumping, and when the dawn whirled into the sky nothing could be seen of her companion. It was thought she must have shortened sail and fallen astern. The hoarse moaning of the wind, and the waves running like conical hillocks, were a sure indication that there was greater turmoil behind them. The square foresail had been hauled up, and the crew were in the act of stowing it when the hurricane burst upon her, and she was held in the grasp of the wind. The sea was flattened, and the wild drift flew before the screaming tempest. The captain called out to the men on the foreyard to "hold on for God's sake," as the vessel lurched over so far that the man on the lee yardarm said that he felt his foot touch the water. With almost superhuman effort the seamen, already worn out with pumping and with lacerated limbs, managed to secure the sail and make their way on deck to renew the fight to keep the vessel afloat. I do not believe the owner belonged to the scoundrel class who sent their ships away with the hope that no more would be heard of them, but I cannot help thinking that he had close affinity to that no less terrible though pious section who wearied heaven with prayer for the safe-keeping of their ships and crews, while they themselves neglected fundamental precautions for their safety. It was the fashion to look upon drowning not only as an incident of the profession, but a natural finish to a sailor's career; and it is no exaggeration to say that many people thought the poor fellow preferred this form of extinction to any other. The owner who squared his conscience by throwing the responsibility of the seaman's safety on to Almighty God did not unduly concern himself as to efficiency or seaworthiness; nor did he assume deep mourning if calamity came in consequence thereof. A few appropriate words of compliment addressed mainly to himself for his care in having the ship, when she sailed, in a state of unimpeachable order, and his constant intercession for divine protection were quite sufficient to exonerate him from in any way contributing either to loss of life or to loss of property. What cant, what insufferable hypocrisy! What hideous slaughter was committed in those good old times in God's name and in the name of British humanity! The late Dr Parker, preaching in the City Temple some time ago on the Armenian atrocities, exclaimed amid uproarious applause at the end of a fine peroration, "God damn the Sultan!" And William Watson wrote a fine poem in which he charged England with indifference and spoke of the Sultan as "Abdul the damned." It is considered the prerogative of Englishmen to say strong things about the heads of other Governments if their subject races are, in their opinion, treated cruelly; but we are death on anyone who would interfere or accuse us of injustice or inhumanity. The only difference between the Government of Turkey and the Government of Great Britain was that the one massacres by cutting throats, and the other used to massacre by allowing rotten, ill-equipped, ill-designed vessels to sail under the spotless flag of England and carry to their doom shiploads of the finest seamen in the world. We "God damn the Sultan"; yes; but I have known the time when poor sailors might with equal justice have "God damned" the Government of St Stephen's who would not listen to their woes. Poor fellows! Had Dr Parker and other public men dared to "God damn" their own countrymen for carrying on a system of trading with veritable coffins, the reform which has made our mercantile marine the finest in the world would not have been so long delayed.
The little vessel of which I am writing hadn't a rope (as the sailors said) strong enough to hang a cat with, and it was in consequence of this most culpable neglect that the throat halyards of the fore trysail gaff broke soon after sailing. The gaff came down with a run, and it, together with the sail, was put into a long boat which stood on the chocks over the main hatches. Paradoxical as it may appear, this accident caused by rotten running gear was the means of saving the ship and all her crew. This was only a minor mishap compared with the breaking of one of the legs of the pump brake stand, which occurred just at the time both pumps were required to keep down the increasing flow of water. The storm continued to rage with unabated fury. No sky could be seen for the flying sleet, and the sea was torn and tossed into a wilderness of broken water. The only canvas set was the close-reefed main topsail. Both pumps had been going for several hours, and at one o'clock on the morning of February 12, the well was pumped dry and the mate's watch ordered below to get a nap until four. They took their drenched clothing off, wrung the water out, hung it on a line round the bogey fire to dry, and turned into their hammocks as naked as they were born. At three the hand-spike knocked heavily on the deck and a loud voice called down the scuttle hatch, "Larboard watch, ahoy! All hands to the pumps, the ship is sinking!"
Every man in a couple of minutes had put his steaming clothes on and set to work; and the fight with death went on until noon, when it was found that the water was gaining. The men despaired of keeping her afloat over night, and as there came in sight several vessels, it was decided to put the Ensign Union down in the main rigging. The captain ordered a young hand to clear away the long boat and make her ready for launching out by the lee gangway. This necessitated the foretrysail and all its gear being thrown on to the weather side of the deck. As soon as everything was ready the young seaman went to the pumps again. He had not been long there before he observed that some of the ropes that had been thrown on the deck did not wash from side to side as the others did. His gaze became transfixed until it excited the anger of the mate who asked what he was gaping at. This aroused him from a kind of stupor, and without saying a word to the officer, he let go the bellrope and went to the object which attracted him. He took hold of a rope and found it would not yield. He then felt the deck with his bare feet and found it was holed, but in order to ascertain the extent of the hole, he determined to feel with his hands, and as the water was continuously lashing over him on that part of the deck it was no easy task to accomplish this. In a few minutes he had ascertained that about two feet of deck, the shape of a wedge, had been staved close to the hatch combings; in fact it had never been fastened with nail or bolt. He shouted at the top of his voice, "I have found the leak!"
And the little band of men re-echoed with wild delight: "The big leak is found, hurrah! Down with the ensign." And the young seaman, who by accident had discovered this wicked piece of workmanship, became the object of many flattering compliments. Up to that time there had been observed a solemn, dogged, defiant struggle to defeat death who gazed into their eyes. An occasional unfriendly wish uttered by one or other of the sailors as to the punishment the owner should have was received with applause from all except the captain and mate. These little outbursts of vengeance were a sort of tonic to their depressed spirits. A fervent "thank God" came from each man's lips as soon as the leak of the deck was stopped, the captain adding a supplementary remark that "God was good even to wicked sinners."
"In an hour from now," said he, "we might have been swallowed up in the waves. It was almost impossible that our boat could have lived until we got under the lee of the schooner" (which had been sighted and which hove to with the object of effecting a rescue). "Ah," said this penitent old man, "it is good to live as we would wish to die. God knows those who believe and trust in Him, and so He has saved us from a watery grave."
"Then keep off the whiskey and stick on deck," said one of the boldest of the crew, who was a naturalized Englishman. This remark brought the captain very near to backsliding. Fire was seen in his eyes, and he retorted with warmth: "If it wasn't the fear of God in my heart, you darned neck end, I would kick you. But," added he, "I will not be provoked into committing what may be considered a sin. We have much work to do before this passage comes to an end, if ever it does."
"Then do your part," said Jack, "and take no more drink."
Here was sound advice, and it was rigidly adhered to, for the temptation was removed by the cook slipping the remainder of the whiskey over the side. Up to that time the men had much to complain of, as their master had been very little on deck until he was made to realize that his ship was in imminent peril. They knew pretty well what he was after, and were glad of the opportunity of making him see that his well-known skill was required on the quarterdeck. Kept from the drink he was one of the smartest men that ever took charge of a vessel. He had been at the helm for nine hours before the leak was found, and as there was six feet of water in the hold, and a "private leak" which kept one pump going every hour, he stuck to it for another seven hours, when the crew called out "she sucks!" i.e., the well is dry. This was gladsome news. It is gladsome even under favourable circumstances, but here were men who had stood almost continuously up to the waist in water; and sometimes a knot of a sea would smash right over them. Their sleeves were doubled up and they had neither boots nor stockings on. Their hands were cut and their arms and legs were red raw with friction and salt water boils. Let him who may estimate the sufferings of these poor creatures. I cannot, for my vocabulary fails me. Torture does not describe it; nor yet the sweat of anguish. It was very shocking, and were it not that I fear to offend the susceptibilities of some folk I would use a term that might come very near to describing its awful character. Those who are inclined to think the picture exaggerated know little of what went on in the much applauded "good old times."
It had been dark for four hours. The clatter of the pumps could only faintly be heard for the alternate whistling and roaring of the storm. The combined music had a weird, saddening effect, as if doom were approaching. A wild and leprous moon sometimes shone through the troubled clouds of scudding sleet. The sea was white with angry commotion, and there were no evidences of the turmoil abating. Immediately the pumps sucked the captain ordered his men to go below and get something to eat; meanwhile he would remain at the helm and keep a look out. In half an hour they were at the pumps again. It took a good while to get all the water out of her, as she was continuously making a good deal, and that which had gone through the staved deck had not quite drained through into the well. However, they felt that they had got the upper hand, and would keep it, provided none of the croppers levelled in upon her and smashed either the decks or the hatches in.
As soon as the captain went below, and it was thought he was asleep, the mate, who was a phlegmatic sort of person, went below also, and left a man and a boy to do the pumping. At first they thought he had gone to light his pipe, but as he was so long in making his appearance again, one of them went into the cabin and found him in his berth fast asleep. He was shaken for a long time before he showed signs of life, and at last grunted out:
"All right. Don't worry. I'll be up directly."
He was reminded that he ought never to have been down, and that it was no place for the mate of a leaky, or any other ship for that matter, on such a night. The sailor then left him, and allowed an interval of half an hour to pass, and as the worthy officer did not make his appearance, he went below again, and found him slumbering as peacefully as before. He threatened to do no more pumping if the mate did not get up and lend a hand at once. Moreover, it was intimated to him that the skipper would have to be called if he lay there skulking while other people were being worked to death. This brought the mate out of his berth, but he got no further than the after-lockers, where he sat down with the object of lighting his pipe. Being comfortably seated, his head gradually sank on to the table, and, with the pipe in one hand and the matches in the other, he again became oblivious to the savage tumult that raged above him. Again the sailor went to see why he did not come up, and found him in the aforesaid position. This time he was not roused; a plot had been arranged, and forthwith a large bucket of water was taken below and thrown at him. He only shook himself, and murmured:
"She's the dirtiest beast that ever I was aboard of."
The second douse was flung quickly; he became confused, rushed into the captain's berth, believing he was making his way on deck. He was asked what was the matter, and replied excitedly:
"The skylight's stove in."
"Get it covered over," said the somnolent commander, "and let me know what the weather's like at daylight."
The chief officer made his way to the man at the helm, and remarked:
"That was a nasty sea that stove the skylight in, Jacob."
"There's been no nasty seas over here," said Jacob; "why, you must have been asleep."
"I tell you the cabin's flooded," said the mate.
"Very well," said the other, "if you disbelieve me, look for yourself. As to sleeping, my God, don't you talk, for you're hardly awake yet."
The mate made a survey, found no damage, and remarked in soliloquy:
"That's funny. Where can the water have come from?"
"Not funny at all," said Jacob, with some irritation; "get away and lend them poor lads a hand. She might have foundered for all you cared."
This was grave language to use to a superior officer, but the justice of it was evidenced by the submissive composure in which it was received. It was evidently soaking into the mate's thick skull that the water had not come from the skylight, and this idea was borne out by his not mentioning the matter to the lads when he went to their assistance. In spite of their weary and almost exhausted condition, they had to have their joke, so said to the officer:
"You're very wet, Tom; where have you been?"
"Been be darned!" said Thomas; "I've been nowhere. You shut up and attend to your work."
"That's all very fine, but 'nowhere' was what the monkey said when he was accused of stealing nuts," retorted the humourist.
The dialogue was cut short by the helmsman shouting out: "Two lights on the port bow."
One turned out to be a distress signal, and the other a red light. The dawn was breaking into the sky, and in less than half an hour daylight had forced its way through the dull grey mist, and brought the vessels in sight of each other. They were close to: one was a fishing smack, and the other a brig, labouring heavily in the trough of the sea, and flying a flag on the main rigging, just as the Blake had been doing the previous day. All hands were on deck, including the captain, and every eye was fixed on the sinking vessel. One of the sailors went on to the foreyard to ascertain more distinctly what was going on. As soon as he got aloft he bellowed something which could not be made out owing to the uproar, and finding that he could not make his voice heard, he made his way to the deck, and amid much excitement conveyed the belief that the brig was the Silverspray.
Sailors of that time were very quick and accurate in discerning the identity of a vessel by the cut of her sails, the length of her masts and yards, and the way they were stayed; even if she were hull down they could tell by this alone. Several of the disabled vessel's sails were in ribbons. They had evidently been blown out of the gaskets. She was drifting under the close-reefed main topsail, and the fore one was in shreds. The fore and main topgallant braces were broken, and the yards were swinging about to the toss of the ship. The remains of a boat hung to the stern davits. The long boat was flattened on the hatches, and the crew hustled together on the quarterdeck gesticulating to the other vessel (a smack) to make haste. At last all seemed to be ready, and the smack was headed before the maddened seas, and flew on the crest of a wave, which seemed to carry her on to destruction. Now she was almost lost sight of in the trough, then she was seen to dance on the summit of a roller, until the supreme moment came to bring her under the lee of the ill-fated brig. There was then witnessed a most sensational piece of bravery and superb seamanship. She was rounded to with the fore staysail sheet to windward; the small boat was launched out of the lee gangway; lines with life-buoys attached were drifted towards the boat, and in less than half an hour the crew was taken off and put aboard the Yarmouth fisherman. Succour came none too soon, as in less than an hour the brig's mainmast went by the board. She cocked her stern up and went down head first. The smack reached close across the stern of the Blake, and the shipwrecked crew exchanged salutes with her. Her speaking-trumpet was used in trying to communicate that she was making a lot of water and to report having spoken her. This was also signalled by the commercial code in case they should not have heard. Good-bye was said by dipping the ensign, and as the rescuer vanished into the dark, an unspeakable sadness crept over the Blake's crew.
They knew their peril was great, and the physical agony they were suffering was well-nigh unbearable. They predicted that neither would diminish. But for the inherent manliness and heroism that have always been a striking characteristic of the British sailor, these men would have been quite justified in asking the skipper of the smack to take them aboard. They were worn out with incessant labour, and the dividing line between sinking and being kept afloat was very narrow. A little more straining, or an ugly sea breaking on to a weak spot would quickly seal their fate. They knew all this, but scorned the thought of bringing on themselves the charge of cowardice. It soon became apparent that the little craft of only 280 tons dead-weight would have to be put before the wind if she was to be saved. The crew had to stand up in water to their waists nearly all the time they were pumping, and sometimes they were knocked down by the seas that came aboard. They could stand it no longer, so a conference was held. The captain said: "Well, my lads, there are two courses open to us: sink or run for it. She has two bold ends and will scud for ever. The only thing is we will be running out of the track of ships into the northern regions where the cold will be intense, and there will be but little daylight. Besides, our provisions may run short. Now I have put the position to you both ways: I am willing to do what you decide."
"Then we decide to run," said the men, "and trust to Providence for the rest."
The helm was put hard up, the main and foreyards laid square, and she commenced to scud dead before the wind towards the mystery of the north. For the first four hours it was doubtful whether the jolly boat, which was in davits across the stern, would last long. Each diabolic lump of water that came galloping along threatened not only the boat but the vessel with sudden destruction. It was very thrilling to witness the tiny brig flying before the ecstasy of the hurricane and fluttering away like a seabird from the mountains that towered far above and were only permitted to kiss her stern with their spray. The crew were forbidden to look behind while at the helm lest their nerves should be affected and cause erratic steering. There was really more danger in this than in any lack of seakindliness on the part of the vessel. Each time she ran away from a treacherous-looking breaker, the captain would pat the topgallant bulwarks and speak words of touching tenderness as though he was communing with a little child. The further they ran north, the bigger the seas became. One of them came prancing along, tossed up the stern so that part of the jibboom was put under and her attitude became uncommonly like running head first under the sea. Another quickly followed, and the poor captain's faith was momentarily shaken. He called out "My God, this is awful!" and certainly this was the only phrase that could describe the horror of the situation. But there was nothing for it but to keep scudding. Had any attempt been made to heave to, she would have been smashed to atoms and no more would have been heard of her. It was only by great care in steering and having the proper amount of sail set that she was kept above water. An error in judgement or the neglect of a single point in the handling would have sealed her fate. By the 20th of the month she had got so far north there was little or no daylight; the biting cold was frightful, and there was no prospect of betterness. The long winter nights were spent in pumping, steering and keeping a look out (though it was assumed she was long since out of the track of vessels and no land was near), and the only lights to be seen were the flash of the curling spray dancing on the top of tempestuous billows.
It was during the forenoon of February 21, just after a snow cloud had rushed past, the crew were both surprised and cheered to observe a barque a little on the starboard bow, heading north under two close-reefed topsails. She was low in the water, and making heavy weather of it. The crew were seen in the mizen rigging, frantically waving. A tattered flag was flying beside them, but its nationality could not be discerned. It was impossible to render the assistance that was so eagerly sought for, but even if it had been possible it was too late, for a sea was seen to break right over her stern, and in a few minutes there was another added to the long list of North Atlantic tragedies. Amongst the wreckage passed was a boat full of water, and oars floating on each side of her. Whether this belonged to the latest victim of the remorseless waves or not, no one could tell, though some of the crew thought it might. This melancholy incident was not likely to improve the spirits of the little band of indomitable workers, but they knew if they had to be saved from the same fate they must not give way to sentimental weakness.
The following day the force of the hurricane broke, and on the 24th she had reached 65 degrees north. There were indications of a change of wind. The sky had cleared so that the stars could be seen, and there was a brightness in the N.N.W. that omened the wind coming from that direction. At midnight the change came. Orders were given to let the reefs out of the topsails, but it took a considerable time to do this as the reef points and errings were covered with hard, flinty ice, and it was not until marline spikes were used that any progress was made. The men's hands, already covered with wounds, had their fingers badly cut with the icy ropes and sails in carrying out this order, but it was not until they had been running south for a couple of days that they began to feel the full extent of their sores. Regular watches were now kept, and each time they tumbled out of their hammocks to relieve each other the pain of opening their hands was terrible. Two of the apprentices had both their feet badly frostbitten.
At last the Norwegian land was made, and one fine morning in the month of March she slipped into the beautiful harbour of Stavanger to have the broken pump-stand and shattered rigging and sails put right. The two boys were landed, and the doctors said their feet were in such a state of putrefaction they must be taken off at once. None of the other members of the crew were bitten by frost, but it took many days to heal their raw wounds. The salt of the sea had not only pickled them, but had penetrated into their very bones.
Meanwhile the crew of the Silverspray had been landed at the Tyne by the Yarmouth smack, and they reported that when last they saw the Blake she was hove to, and signalled making a lot of water; and as day after day passed and no news came, grave fears were entertained for her safety; heavy premiums were paid; and the relatives blamed the Silverspray's men for leaving the crew in a leaky ship—an unjustifiable charge, for the sailors of that period were not given to abandoning vessels prematurely. But so long a time had elapsed since she was spoken of that all hope of her safety was given up. At last there appeared in one of the local papers a paragraph stating that it was feared the well-known brig had succumbed, with all aboard, to the terrible storms that raged over the northern latitudes during the early part of February. This put an end to all doubt: newspaper statements were generally believed. But a few days after this announcement a letter, part of which had been written while sailing along the Norwegian coast, in order that it might be posted on arrival, was received in a country village as the first intelligence of her safety. It is quite sailor-like in its composition, and characteristically free from whining. The writer merely deals with facts, and very briefly with them. I have just been shown this greatly valued document, and give it as it is:
"DEAR PARENTS,—We expect to arrive to-morrow morning. We have had a devil of a voyage, and saw the Silverspray founder, and asked the skipper of the smack to report us. One pump going all the time nearly. Then the decks were stove in and she nearly foundered before it was discovered. I hope the Spray's crew were safely landed and reported us, as you would be anxious. We had to run north before the hurricane until there was no daylight. She wouldn't lie to. My word, what a sea! It was fearful to look at, and the captain said we hadn't to, while steering. One day we saw a barque founder with all hands. They were in the rigging waving, but we could render no assistance. We got into 65 degrees north, then the wind changed. It was very cold. Excuse bad writing, I am doing it on the galley seat. We are very bad with saltwater boils and cut hands. The two Swedes have their feet frostbitten: they are a sight. Hoping this will find you all well as it leaves me at present, except for the sores. We have had a fearful time. I thought you would like to know soon, so I am writing this before getting into port. Will add something more then. No more at present.
"Your loving son,
"PS.—The doctor says the Swedes will have to have the soles of their feet cut off. Perhaps their feet altogether. I won't go back in her again. If I have to be drowned, I want it to be fair. The other men are leaving as well. We've been on short allowance for a couple of days, the water was spoiled as well. We are going to have a good feed now. Suppose we have to buy it ourselves."
The Cauducas was a brig of 120 tons dead-weight. She was very old, very rotten, and very leaky, and was constantly employed carrying coals from a north-east coast port to France or London. The crew consisted of the master, mate, cook, and able seaman, and three apprentices, one of whom was cabin-boy. No one cared to inquire as to when and where she was built. Wherever paint and tar could be used to cover up defects it was liberally applied, but that did not prevent the water rushing into her holds, causing the crew to have to carry her with the pumps from port to port, as it were, in their arms. The winter voyages taxed their skill and endurance so that scores of times they were nearly forced to abandon her or allow the sea to cover the vessel and themselves. The old sailors used to say when they saw her making the port that she always "looked far off at a distance," a saying peculiar to that part of the country. And yet she out-lived many of the most handsome, well-built, modern ships of that time.
Captain Bourne, or "Plunker," as he was nicknamed, was a man of much dignity and superior presence, but like many of his contemporaries, he was very illiterate; indeed, I do not believe he could either read or write, and yet he was able to collect his freights and generally to conduct the finances entrusted to him with amazing accuracy. His age was between forty-five and fifty; he stood over six feet, and was finely proportioned. He had a moderately-sized head, broad forehead, strong clean-shaven chin, side board whiskers, and a profile which suggested the higher type of man. Under pronounced, overhanging eyebrows, there glowed a pair of medium-sized dark eyes, which at times were penetrating, and occasionally wore a sad, sympathetic look. His hands and feet betokened that he had sprung from a physical working race, though there was nothing of the animal about him, and in spite of a gruff, uncultured mannerism, he either had it naturally or had acquired almost a grammatical way of addressing people when he wished to assert what he obviously regarded as the dignity of his high calling. This effort to check a natural tendency to the common dialect was very comical, and yet no one ever thought of it as snobbish; the whole thing seemed to belong to him, and he couldn't be different if he wanted to. That was the impression people got of him. In an ordinary way when he was in port he wore a blue pilot morning suit and silk hat. The waistcoat was cut so as to show a good space of coloured shirt front, though on Sundays when in port and days of sailing and arrival, white shirts were worn; usually a stand-up collar with silk stock or some kind of soft neckerchief encircled his neck. He was weather-beaten, ruddy, and altogether rather pleasant to look at. He could navigate his vessel along the coast almost blindfold. Charts were rarely used by such nautical aborigines, as he and scores of his compeers disdained the very idea of being thought incapable of carrying all the knowledge in their heads that was necessary for the purposes of practical navigation. They had a perfect knowledge of the compass and the lead. The courses, cross-bearings, lights, buoys and beacons were all riveted in their memory, and it was a rare occurrence when their memories failed them.
Plunker had all the finer attributes of his class. His character was unimpeachable; he was abstemious, and unless his fiery temper was aroused by the sight of some supposed lack of seamanship on the part of his men or boys, or the idea of imposition on himself or his owner, he might have been considered religious, but never amiable. Parsimony was his besetting sin, and he carried this to the extent of feeding his crew in a way that brought him into frequent conflict with them. Indeed, the relations on one occasion were so strained that the apprentices were encouraged to conspire with some boys from other vessels to commit an act that would humiliate him in the eyes of the seafaring community and the public generally.
The old captain's pride in his ship and his position as her commander was a slavish passion. He could not endure any liberties to be taken with him, even by his employer or his equals on these two points. The boys of his own and other ships knew this so well that they planned an indignity that should lacerate his vanity. They knew he was very partial to what are known by sailors as "two-eyed steaks," and that never by any chance was he known to allow even his mate, much less any of the crew, to partake of them except on special occasions, when he distributed them himself. They were looked upon by him as a luxury, and were actually kept under lock and key. These peculiarities of his had often been freely spoken of, and now a conference of able-bodied seamen in embryo decided that there should be no further tolerance of parsimony and piety. It must be either one thing or the other. The elder members of this august coterie gave instructions that the sacred locker should be broken open and the contents thereof brought into their presence on the quarterdeck. Each of the party was sworn to secrecy in such a way that the dread of being haunted by unspeakable troubles during the balance of their lives would have prevented any breach of confidence, even had there been no higher sense of honour. The bloaters were extracted at night and handed over to the recognized authority. It was decided to decorate the vessel from topgallant trucks to mainrail by attaching the herring to the signal haulyards about three feet apart. Captain Bourne's beloved brig was forthwith then trimmed in her frill of red herrings, and the equivalent to a vote of thanks was unconventionally moved and carried for the fearless assistance and patriotic advice rendered by comrades who upheld the true national faith of being roundly fed with good joints of beef and plum or suet pudding. After a few appropriate remarks in anticipation of the trouble and sensation of the morrow, the young gentlemen dispersed, each going aboard his own ship, while those belonging to the Cauducas tumbled into their hammocks and were soon fast asleep. They rose at the usual hour the following morning, and while they were having breakfast angry and excited voices were heard alongside; and as they eagerly listened to the picturesque flow of profane language intermixed with a few eloquent remarks to God to forgive such irreverence, their minds were permeated with fear lest suspicion would fall on them during the paroxysm of alternate rage and godliness. Plunker was a powerful man, and when his anger was roused they knew by experience it was not safe to interject a word either of denial or assent; so they determined, when he called them to him, to pursue a policy of negativeness, and trust to Providence to deliver them from a position that was showing signs of serious consequences. While the irate commander was in the white heat of a tremendous peroration, and in the act of detaching the festoons of herring which he placed so much value on, his owner, who had come down to see his property, as was the custom in those early days, came laughing towards his much troubled captain and greeted him with the advice not to take the matter too seriously. It was obviously a practical joke intended for a purpose, and he apprehended the intention was to convey the idea that a liberal allowance of food should be served out to his crew, and that the luxury he placed so much value on should no longer be the object of his special care, but that he should take to heart the lesson just revealed to him, and allow his people to partake generously of that also. As the vessel was lying alongside a shipbuilding and repairing yard, a large crowd of workmen had congregated to see so unusual a display. Discourteous and jeering remarks were loudly spoken with the studied intention of reaching the ears of the master and owner, and the news of a revolutionary act having been committed within the precincts of an unyielding discipline spread like an electric flash through the little town, and the unknown perpetrators were eulogistically stamped as heroes.
No one knew better than this old-time shipmaster the amount of capital that would be squeezed out of the incident by the gossips, and no one recognized better than he the amount of odium that would stick to himself. The poor fellow had been stabbed in a tender spot, and those who knew him intimately foreshadowed a long period of bitter suffering for him. Indeed, there were those who openly stated that he would not long survive the insult to his professional authority. He intimated to his employer that it was his intention to forthwith hold a court-martial in his cabin, and requested him to take part in the investigation. The owner was a person gifted with a sense of humour. He laconically expressed his willingness to remain aboard, but refused to have anything to do with the official inquiry.
The mate's Christian name was Matthew, but he was commonly addressed as Matt. The dignity of Mr was never by any chance applied to chief officers of this class of vessel, though quarter-deck manners were always strictly sustained so far as the captain was concerned. He was the only person who claimed the right of being addressed as "Sir," and he would brook no violation of its use. Matt, as he was called, was made the medium of communicating the master's wishes that the apprentices should meet him in his cabin immediately. The rugged officer was smitten with the comical aspect of his mission, though he carried it out in a strictly punctilious manner. These rough, uncouth men never wilfully offended the susceptibilities of their commanders, unless they became unbearably despotic, then they retaliated with unsparing vengeance. The three apprentices promptly obeyed the command given to them, and were ushered into the presence of their infuriated captain. They were each handsome, broad-shouldered athletes, with keen, sparkling, fearless eyes that indicated fearlessness. He made a short, jerky, almost inarticulate speech on the wickedness and indecency of committing an act of gross disrespect to the vessel, the owner and himself, all of whom should have been shielded from ridicule.
"I have had you brought to me," he said, "in order that I might learn from your own lips whether you are the perpetrators of this base robbery and vile insult to myself. I ask each of you, are you guilty of committing or assisting to commit this villainous insult on myself?"
The owner, who was standing in the steerage brimming over with the ludicrous character of the previous night's frivolity, was heard to chuckle and say: "What damned nonsense to ask such a silly question!"
Each of the lads stoutly denied having any knowledge of what had happened, whereupon Plunker called them "a set of damned lying mutineers, who ought to be swung to the yardarm." This phrase was commonly used at that time whenever it was thought necessary to emphasise displeasure. Sanguinary penalties were roundly threatened to them and to their scoundrelly accomplices. Leading questions were put in a more or less forceful way, but the boys determined to preserve a secretive and even aggressive aspect, which sent their burly commander into an ecstasy of violence. At last, despairing of getting any satisfaction, he told them to get out of his sight. And tradition says that he was never known to smile again; but the Cauducas became from that day one of the best found vessels, and her crew the best fed that sailed out of port. There was no more concealment or locking up, or doling out of Yarmouth bloaters, or any other thing. A great change had been wrought in the hitherto inexorable old man of the sea. His conduct became marked by a generosity that wiped out recollections of past meanness. His natural make-up prevented him from giving prominence to his better side, or of making himself endeared to those faithful men who spent a long life in his service, sharing his precarious fortunes in working and navigating a vessel that his contemporaries predicted would carry him and his crew to a tragic doom. Yet this man of icy exterior, blunt, uncouth and ofttimes vulgar manners, had beating within him as big a heart as ever was planted in a human breast. His men knew that there was a power about him that fascinated them. They could not call it affection, but it was something akin to it: a strong magnetism, indeed, that inspired their confidence and caused them to follow him into dangers that resembled the very jaws of death. It was never a thought of his to show any tender feelings. His susceptibilities would have been much offended could he have been presented with the idea that he had a soft place anywhere in his heart. This reluctance to be supposed effeminate was a characteristic of the age which caused many acts of injustice to be committed in order that the reputation for stern, slashing, devil-may-careness should be established, and many a fine fellow did violence to his whole nature by the desire to be considered a desperado.
This, however, never appeared to be an ambition of Captain Bourne. All he seems to have aimed at was to inspire his crew with an affection for his much beloved vessel, and not on any occasion or under any circumstances to be thought soft, or weak, or womanish. This of course could only be assumed, because he never conveyed his thoughts to anybody.
Long after the herring incident this little vessel was being loaded, waiting for favourable wind and water so that she might start on her voyage to Boulogne. She had been detained several weeks, when a fine N.E. wind and high tide enabled him to pass out of port. It was called in those days a sea tide, and several masters availed themselves of it to put to sea. Before this little fleet of collier brigs got as far south as Flamborough Head, it was blowing a fresh gale, and big lumps of sea were slashed over them. The pumps of the Cauducas were continually kept going, and there was much concern as to the crew being able to keep the water under. Her decks were opening and shutting, and her timbers were making suggestive noises. She scudded across Boston deeps under two close-reefed topsails and reefed foresail until abreast of Cromer high land, when the gale subsided, and before the Cockle light-ship was reached the wind had shifted into the south-south-east. With the help of the flood tide she was beaten through the Gat into Yarmouth roads, where the anchor was dropped, a good scope of chain run out, sails furled and ship pumped dry. Then the forecastle hands cast lots who should keep the first anchor watch. The hand who picked the shortest piece of matchwood had to accept the position of having to take the first two hours; then all the rest turned in.
The mate was always called at the turn of the tide to swing the vessel, so that the cable did not foul the anchor. This was done by a skilful manipulation of the yards and fore topmast staysail. Some mates had quite a genius for this piece of real seamanship. Others never got within the fringe of doing it successfully, and the result was that many a mishap occurred in consequence of cables fouling the anchor stock, or flukes, thereby pulling it out of the ground and causing it to drag. It was also the occasion of many bitter quarrels between master and mate. The former may have been a duffer at the manoeuvre himself, but that did not bother him now that the position had changed. Even a consciousness of the mate's knowledge of his fallibility did not qualify his hostile remarks; indeed, the recollection of it never failed to increase his anger. As a matter of fact, the knack of doing it was a gift that no amount of training could create if it was not inborn. I have known apprentices, after they have been at sea a year or two, become really adepts at swinging ship at a single anchor, and many of the seamen prided themselves in being able to do it well. A more difficult task was that of preventing turns getting in the cable when riding with both anchors down, and in skilled hands it could very often be obviated. The thoughtful master or officer made a practice of coming on deck at irregular hours during the night while anchored in a roadstead, so that the men might become impressed with the idea of never relaxing their vigilance. Notwithstanding this care it was not an infrequent thing for the watch to be caught napping. On one occasion a collier brig had been windbound for several days in the Yarmouth roads. The mate was accustomed to pay nocturnal visits on deck, and had suspected that a great deal of napping was done before the galley fire, and he had his suspicion confirmed when coming up one night unexpectedly, and, stealthily making his way to the galley, he found both doors closed; no one was to be seen anywhere; he looked down into the forecastle and saw one hammock vacant, so he made his way to the galley again and listened, and heard someone snoring. He asked who was there several times and got no answer. He then tried the door, but the inmate had anticipated an invasion and had wedged it so that no one could open it from without. The mate was seized with a superstition, or exasperation, or both, so he drew a belaying pin from the rail, brought it strongly in contact with the door, and loudly asked who was there. A husky voice from within answered in broad Northumbrian accent: "Thor's neebody heor!" "Then by Gox," said the excited mate, "Ye'ar the beggar I've been luckin' for these last few neights!" The slumberer was the person who ought to have been pacing the deck. Needless to say, he became the object of much vituperation, and was never again trusted to look after the lives of his shipmates or the property of his employer. Similar incidents to this occurred on every collier vessel.
The Cauducas was several days windbound. The crew had repaired rigging, running gear, and sails that were damaged during the storm, and they now welcomed a change of wind which came, so that the voyage might be continued. The anchor was weighed, and every stitch of canvas was spread and bellied out with a strong flowing wind. By the time the Kentish Knock Lightship was reached the wind had increased so that the topgallant sails had to be furled and two reefs taken in the topsails. The North Foreland was passed and a course shaped for Boulogne. The wind had increased to a gale, and the sea in the Channel was as cross and as angry as it well could be. Every preparation was made for entering port; mooring ropes and cable chains were got on deck so that the anchors might be used if necessary. She was run well over towards the French Coast before she could be hove to to take a pilot aboard. This having been done, orders were given to square away for the harbour. The sea was breaking a good distance off, and the prospects for entering looked very ugly. The captain was at the tiller and was unusually agitated. The pilot's excitement remained subdued until the sinister commotion of seas was within easy distance. He then became voluble in his orders. The little vessel rushed into the merciless liquid breakers at great speed. One of them broke over the bluff of the bow, carrying the bulwarks away, and at the same time the cable chain was lurched over the side. The master rushed from side to side with the tiller, irrespective of the pilot's equally chaotic orders. The crew became alarmed for their safety, while the captain and pilot vied with each other for first place in exhortation to keep cool, but neither the one nor the other was cool. The pilot called out in very broken English "Port" and "Starboard" in quick succession. The master answered "Port" and "Starboard" each time the order was given, adding each time as an addendum, "Look at that blooming cable chain hanging over the side!" so that the confusion of orders and irrelevant responses to them became a menacing danger to safe navigation. The pilot swore in French at the captain, requesting him to steer the vessel and not to mind the —— chain being over the side, and the captain delivered himself in even more forceful language at the pilot for arrogance in dictating orders as to how he should conduct himself; and in order to minimise the guilt of hard swearing and to appease his conscience for having offended the God of the British people, as soon as it was uttered the pilot begged forgiveness, and then poured forth his anger in a flow of strong French adjectives. The crew, being well trained and accustomed to perils of this nature, did their part of the necessary work irrespective of orders. They saw, however, that trouble would come to them if the master could not be persuaded to forget that the cable chain was overboard, so they induced Matt to go and offer to give him a spell, and to everybody's surprise he was willing to give the steering into the hands of his mate, who knew as well as either himself or the pilot the way into the harbour.
The seas broke heavily over her until she entered the mouth of the harbour. A crowd of their fellow-townsmen from other vessels had come on to the pier with the object of rendering any assistance they could, and by their goodness and skill she was moored without the necessity of letting go the anchors or even breaking a ropeyarn. Plunker was very grateful to these fine fellows for the valuable service they had rendered. They knew that he was never effusive about any favours conferred upon him, so were content to receive a plain "Thank you." The local sailormen of that time used to caricature him running in confused frenzy from side to side of the quarterdeck with the tiller, and imitate the pilot and himself haranguing each other to keep cool, and immediately afterwards breaking out into violent attacks on each other's capacity for giving and receiving orders.
This strange being, at a time when he was passing through the peril of facing death, never lost the power of making his men feel that he was above their level. Even his undignified altercations with the pilot, and his mixed erratic exclamations on the subject that obviously troubled him, in no way diminished the awe in which he was regarded.
The vessel was moored alongside the quay, and great care was used in having the fenders properly placed, so that her aged planking would be preserved from chafing. Had she been the king's yacht, no greater attention could have been given to prevent this.
The following morning there were many callers alongside, and many congratulations offered to the captain and his crew on a safe deliverance. There were shipbrokers, shipmasters, seamen and all grades of dockworkers; each of them showed a common desire to be unusually kind. The English vessels in port had their flags half-mast. Someone on the Cauducas asked the reason for this, and the reply came in subdued tones that the R—— had come in on the last flood, and her master reported having had very heavy weather crossing the Kent. Everything had been swept from the deck, and Captain Bourne's eldest son, who was serving as able-seaman, had been knocked off the lee foretopsail yardarm while assisting to close reef the topsail. He held on to the reef-earing as long as he could, but the flapping of the sail soon caused him to call out to his shipmates, "I can hold on no longer," and before any aid could be given he had slipped his hold and fallen into the sea, and the surges covered him over.
The news of his son's tragic end was communicated to Captain Bourne by his faithful mate, who pathetically, and with unconscious humour, exhorted his master not to give way to grief. "It is a bad job," said he, "but it would have been much worse had it been ourselves, and we were very near done for." His bereaved master was a man of very few words. He asked some particulars without apparent emotion, and then proceeded to his cabin, where he was found shortly afterwards praying in a simple, touching way to Almighty God that the body of his son might be picked up so that it might be taken to his home. He petitioned fervently that his younger boy might be spared to him. It seemed as though his communion with the Deity had given him a glimpse into futurity, or a presentiment of further bereavement. He was recalled to material things by being reminded by the cabin-boy that the mid-day meal was ready. He took his place at the table and proceeded to make inquiries as to whether the discharging of the cargo would commence that day. The mate informed him that he did not think there was any intention of doing so, whereupon he replied, "I must go ashore and stir them up." The masters and mates of the other vessels in port would have come in a body to condole with him for the loss of his son, but they knew that he loathed outward signs of soft emotion, and in any case would never allow sentiment, no matter how justifiable, to come between him and his business obligations.
He was well known in business circles for his devotion to the interests of his employers. That was his first and last thought, and when he went forth to do their business he wasted neither time nor words. He possessed a natural gift of diplomacy, and wrote no letters. He had the knack of conveying what he wanted to be at, and his quaint way of doing it, though it might amuse, always inspired the person who was addressed with the belief in his soundness, so that few men succeeded as he did in getting what he wanted. On the occasion of which I am writing, the merchants received him with obvious sympathy, and he was promised a quick dispatch. That night he got the boy to write a few lines to his wife at his dictation. They were very brief, very melancholy, very reverential. Here is the letter:
"DEAR WIFE,—We arrived here yesterday after a very rough passage. I hope you're well as it leaves me at present. The R—— arrived this morning's tide, and reports that Jack was knocked off the foretopsail yardarm, and they never see'd him again. He shouted 'Guidbye, I cannot hold on any longer.' I asked God to have his body picked up and sent home, and while I was doing it, a queer thought came over me that little Bobby was being washed overboard from the Savannah. I hope it's not true, and that God won't take him from us as well. No more at present, from
HIS "JOHN X BOURNE." MARK.
He seems to have had a rugged anxiety that the mother of his drowned son should be given a prompt opportunity of sharing his sorrow. It was not usual for these shellbacks to write letters while on a coasting voyage. Indeed, they were very cautious about doing it at any time in case even members of their own families should think them tender-hearted. Moreover, those who could not write or read were very sensitive about allowing others to do it for them.
 It may be as well to explain here that the straddle-leg patent, as it was called, often caused sailors to be both killed and drowned. They used to give advice in a flippant way to each other that if they were forced to let go their hands to be sure to hold on by the skin of their teeth or their feet. This little joke was rarely successful in saving them from being smashed to pieces or drowned. The invention by Collin and Pinkney for reefing and furling, and subsequently the double topsail yards introduced by the Americans, did a great deal towards preventing loss of life, and certainly saved many a spar from going over the side. It was found that there were fewer accidents both in life and property by the use of the latter. Occasionally the patents, which have been long out of use, went wrong, and the sail could neither be got up nor down, but this never happens when proper care is used with the double topsail yarders. With these a vessel may be put under close-reefed topsails in a few seconds.
In due course the cargo of the little brig was discharged and the ballast was brought alongside. The side ports were knocked out, and the crew commenced to throw the ballast into the hold, as it frequently happened that only one side was available. A couple of hands were placed in the hold to shovel it over to the opposite side in order to keep the vessel upright. While this was being done the captain proceeded to collect and pay his accounts. Cheques or bills of exchange were dispensed with as a rule, and the freight was paid over the counter in sovereigns, and scooped into a leather bag. This was taken aboard and concealed in the master's room. It was a rare thing for the freight to be wrongly settled, or go astray after it was settled. Men like Captain Bourne had a mysterious way common to themselves of counting and calculating, and any breakdown in their system (for each had his own) would have made a deep wound in their pride. The day after the ballast was all in and trimmed, orders were given to unmoor, and the little craft sailed out of the harbour with a fine southerly wind and all sail set. The breeze carried her as far north as Flamborough Head, when it gradually veered into the west and kept steady, but blew so hard that the topsails had to be double-reefed.
It was the morning watch from four to eight. The cabin-boy was called at seven o'clock to prepare breakfast and polish the brass stove and ashpan. The captain heard the little fellow doing his morning work, and called out to him, "Boy!"
"Yes sir," said the boy.
"How is the wind?"
"I will go and ask," said he.
He came down and conveyed the pleasing intelligence that it was still west and they were close in by Whitby Lights.
"Come into my berth and get yourself a glass of gin, my canny lad," said the indulgent skipper, "and see that I am not disturbed for breakfast. Don't call me until she is abreast of Sunderland."
"All right, sir," said the boy, and availed himself of his master's kindness by taking a second mate's nip out of the gin jar which was kept under his bed. The little fellow wondered what had caused such a convulsion of endearment, as Captain Bourne's demeanour had hitherto been the very antithesis of external tenderness. About an hour had elapsed when he was asked again "How the wind was."
"W.N.W.," said the youth, "and inclined to break off" (i.e., norther).
"What are you making such a noise about?" growled the now uneasy captain; "shut my door so that I may be quiet; and get the cabin properly scrubbed out ready for going into port."
The wind had freshened, the vessel began to jump into a nasty head swell, and in order to ease the strain on the rigging the necessary sail was shortened. Captain Bourne was aroused by the sombre music of the wind rustling through the rigging and making occasional discordant noises. His mind became centred on the possibility of the voyage being prolonged, and in order that his suspicions should be confirmed or otherwise, he called with a deep, agitated voice for the boy to come to him; and when he presented himself the captain asked in a tone which indicated coming trouble: "How is the wind now?"
The youthful seaman replied, with a voice and manner indicative of knowledge and assurance: "The wind, sir, is strong N.N.W., and increasing," and as this was the direction in which they were bound, the captain's mental processes became confused. A strange guttural sound came from his throat as though there was a struggle going on between the flesh and the devil. The conflict did not last long, as the sanctity which he had observed for some days went under. He jumped from his bunk, seized his boot which lay hard by, flung it at the poor, fatigued laddie, bellowing out at the same time: "On deck, you darned young spawn of ——. I've been kept awake by your clatter ever since you got up." And the boy flew before the hurricane of wrath lest he should come to grief.
The men asked him the cause of being turned out of the cabin.
"The cause," he said, "is, the old man asked me how the wind was, and as soon as I told him it was N.N.W. he flung his boot at me and ordered me on deck for making too much noise. I hadn't been more than a minute in the cabin after lending a hand to shorten sail. Besides, the old beast almost hugged me when I told him the wind was west and that we were off Whitby. Why, he was so pleased he asked me to have a nip of that gin he keeps under his bed!"
"Did he swear at you?" said one of the seamen.
"Swear?" said the boy, "it wasn't swearing, it was sulphurous."
"Ah," said the sailor, "it's a bad job he's broken out again. There'll be no more peace until something serious happens. But perhaps a fair wind might put him right for a bit. I thought the loss of Jack had knocked all the sulks out of him, and that he had fairly become religious."
"What are you gadding about, man?" said Matt, the mate; "how do you expect anybody to keep religious with the wind N.N.W. and bound north, with the prospect of being driven back to Burlington Bay or perhaps Yarmouth Roads? And besides," continued this theological authority, "sailors are allowed to swear when anything goes wrong, and the old man is only taking advantage of his rights. You make no mistake; he cannot read or write—no more can I for that matter—but he knows a thing or two when it comes to law or religion." Thus spake the loyal, well-informed Matthew.
After a few days' hard buffeting against a biting head-wind, the vessel arrived at the port to which she was bound, and after she was moored and everything made trim, running gear coiled round the belaying pins, every bight being regular and equal, sails stowed in a cloth, and yards laid perfectly square, the sailors then proceeded to arrange themselves in spotless white fustian trousers and blue jerseys adorned in front with their names or initials worked in red or white worsted. The latter article of apparel was usually knit by their wives if they were married, or their intended wives if they were not, and in either case there was great competition in producing the very best work both of art and serviceableness. They then packed their clothes in canvas bags and carried them home on their shoulders. There was considerable emulation not only in the neatness of the packing and the cleanness of the bags, but the arrangements for fastening the mouth of the bag took weeks to fashion into a very pretty piece of sailorising. These things may seem small and frivolous, unworthy indeed of being referred to as even a characteristic of the sailor of that locality and of that period. I do not know anything that came under the lash of such severe criticism as the sailor's own fashion of dress, and it must not be imagined that it was confined to the sailors themselves, though they were merciless enough with each other, but the owners and the public generally took the keenest interest in these little touches of vanity and handiwork. Many a worthy fellow got a good berth because he and his belongings had the stamp of ingenuity and tidiness about them, and certainly many of them knew that this was a sure means of winning the affections of young girls whom they wished to make their wives.
These young maidens who resided in this interesting little seaport town knew almost by instinct whether a vessel was kept smart or not; neither those who were married nor those who were single liked either their husbands or sweethearts to be associated with an ill-kept vessel. If they read anything at all it was what the newspapers said about shipping, or as a matter of religious devotion they might perchance read an occasional chapter in the Bible, so that their mental energy found a ready outlet in the gossip of things appertaining to their daily life and immediate surroundings, which for the most part were nautical, although I must not overlook the fact that many of the more intelligent of them were connected with religious institutions. These were mostly Dissenters, Wesleyan Methodists, Primitives and Presbyterians. The Church of England had not at that time become the evangelical force that it may be considered to-day. I am not sure to which of these sects Captain Bourne belonged, but amongst every class there was a widespread sympathy extended to him on his arrival at the home port. The news of his son having come to so untimely an end moved the little community so that condolences came to him from many unexpected quarters. Dignified owners shared with the common sailor and apprentices their ungrudging sympathy, and he received it with transparent gratitude. All his gruff mannerisms were forgotten in the sorrow of the moment. The poor lad who had passed so suddenly into the valley of death was looked upon as a promising captain in embryo, and there was much speculation as to the deeds he would have accomplished and the high position he would have attained had the sea not claimed him so soon. All this and a good deal besides was spoken to the sorrowing parents by way of ameliorating their suffering, and also because the occasion was opportune for speaking that which they really believed would have come to pass. Little did the people or the object of their compassion think that at the very time they were saying those encouraging words destiny was fulfilling another tragedy, and the sea had again become the tomb of a bonny, bright, promising youth who had not reached his seventeenth year. The Cauducas had been in port for a couple of weeks and was on the point of sailing, when news came that Captain Bourne's second son had been washed overboard and drowned from the vessel he was serving aboard of. The presentiment that this would happen had been overshadowed by the interest taken in the loss of the eldest boy. When the news was broken to him, a sullen, stupefied gaze came into his eyes. He murmured a few incoherent words, and then with a superhuman effort he raised his voice, and with emphasis that was terrible as well as pathetic he called out: "Oh, God, what have I done to You that You should allow this thing to be done to me? I have had two bonny lads taken from me within a month of each other. Oh, God, help me to bear the trial like a man!"
This fine old sailor, believed he was holding communion with a personal power of British nationality that could sway the universe at His will. He believed, though he could not see Him, that God was a person that kept Himself out of sight for a purpose, and that it was the duty of every Englishman to keep on good terms with Him. The mystery of divinity never entered his head. It was a simple, steadfast faith, peculiar if you like, but unyielding in devotional loyalty to His supremacy. It was a wonderful phenomenon, which even cynical logicians might have found embarrassing to their iconoclastic notions could they have witnessed it. Here was an uncultured though magnificent-looking person passing through a sorrowful tribulation, exciting the pity and calling for the admiration of hundreds of his fellow creatures, because he was able to hold his head up and appeal to the only power he knew that was capable of giving him consolation and courage. "Oh, God, help me to bear the trial like a man!" That was the melancholy burden of his petition, and the assurance that it would be answered never forsook him.
His vessel was soon ready for sea, and sailed on the first of a series of voyages that were contracted for her to run. On the completion of these he was asked by his owner to take command of a barque of about 600 tons deadweight. To an ordinary man and to the average shipmaster of that time, the opportunity of being shifted from an old rattle-trap brig to the enviable position of commander of a "South Spainer" would have been accepted with excessive pride and gratitude; but Bourne was not an ordinary man. He had spent a long life as master of a vessel on which he had placed his affections, so that the more urgent the owner became for him to take advantage of the offer of much higher wages and greater dignity, the more tenaciously he clung to the belief that some serious judgement would befall him if he were ungrateful and disloyal enough to forsake the brig that had carried him for more than a quarter of a century across many a wrathful sea. "No," said he, "I must end my days in the canny ship. Her and me have had a lot to do with each other, and I would never forgive myself if I were to agree to this request, and some useless fellow were to put her ashore on a bank or on the rocks, and she became a total wreck. Besides, if anything were to happen I could not rest in my grave."
"Well," said the owner, "I appreciate your high motives, and also the strong regard you have shown for a vessel that has made me so much money; and I must not forget to say that but for your skill and care in conducting the business, and also in the navigation, the results would have been very different. It is because of these and other sterling qualities that you possess that I ask you to consider favourably the offer I have made. You know how badly the Grasshopper has done, and I feel that you are the only man that can pull her out of the bad mess she is in. Sleep over it."
Bourne slept over it, and informed the owner the next day that the ship was far too big for him, but as the change was urged he must leave the final decision to the owner, always bearing in mind that he wished to remain where he was. The owner availed himself of the old mariner's flexible state of mind by promptly taking him at his word. And he forthwith became the object of notoriety. There had been not a few aspirants to this enviable position, and much speculation as to whether Bourne would ultimately be persuaded to take it or not. Of course it was vigorously hoped he would not, and when the announcement in the affirmative was made there were sundry disappointments. The predictions were of a gloomy character. Forebodings that the new commander would never be able to handle so large a ship became the prevalent idea, for he had never been in a vessel carrying more than about 250 tons. It was an open secret that Captain Bourne had misgivings of a similar kind himself. He feared, indeed, that she might run away with him. He apprehended that his capacity to handle a vessel of a different rig from that to which he had been accustomed all his life might prove defective. Many of his contemporaries, as well as he himself, held very contracted and primitive ideas as to size. They talked of vessels of 400 tons burden as being large, and those of six to seven or eight hundred were described as leviathans.
Captain Bourne showed signs of depression from the time his belongings were taken from the object of his devotion. He felt he was parting from a life-long friend. A Board of Trade certificated chief mate was engaged to act as "nurse." The crew were signed on, stores shipped, and after the cargo was all aboard, the Grasshopper crossed the bar amid much cheering from the people who lined the quays and piers. Moreover, the occasion was of more than usual interest, for Captain Bourne had never been off the coast during his whole life. After the tug and pilot left, a course was shaped towards the hidden mysteries that lay across the sea. The passage was made quickly, but not without mishap, for the vessel had struck on a reef of rocks, and it was thought her false keel and copper had received considerable damage. From the time the vessel left the port of loading the captain had been little seen. It was well known that a morbid brooding had taken complete possession of him. He rarely came to his meals, and when he did he never spoke except to murmur some words of endearment about the old ship he had been persuaded to leave. The stranding of his new command was interpreted as a judgement sent to him for the wrong he had committed in giving way to pride by forsaking the craft that had carried him so many years in safety. On his arrival in port several friends paid him a visit, and were struck with his changed appearance. The mates and steward said they had observed that there was a difference in him, but the passage had been so wild and eventful they had never had time to think of it. After the first two or three days his business visits ashore became very irregular, and before the cargo was discharged they had ceased altogether. He was seldom seen either below in his cabin or on deck. He could not be induced to take his meals regularly, and took to shutting himself up in his stateroom. A dangerous form of melancholia held him in fetters, so that when friendly visitors called to see him his reclusive mood forbade any intercourse with even men who knew him intimately.
There was much speculation as to the cause of this morbid determination to abstain from food and from having communication with anyone. Naturally, drinking was freely attributed to him, but this was stoutly denied by every one of the crew. His mate and steward were of opinion that he was fretting badly about having to leave the old brig; and this had led him to think more than he would have otherwise done of the loss of his boys and the stranding of his vessel. Each day saw a change for the worse, until the mate became alarmed by evidences of total collapse. He determined to see the master of a steamer who was in port and knew Bourne well enough to do what would have been resented as a great liberty in another man. This captain insisted that he would not stand the humbug of asking to be allowed to see Bourne, so he boldly went aboard, knocked at the stateroom door, and demanded admittance. On this being refused, he proceeded to force the entrance, and presented himself before the amazed inmate with quite a string of strong adjectives for the bad behaviour in not reciprocating his neighbourliness.
"What are you lying there fretting your soul out for?" said the burly commander; "get up and come ashore with me and pull yourself together. You owe a duty to your owner, your wife, and yourself. You're not going to mend matters by moping and refusing to take natural exercise and food!"
"Ah," said Captain Bourne, "I will never set my foot ashore again. I am very near the end, and I will be glad when it comes. Tell the owner as soon as I am gone that I have never been myself since I acted so bad in leaving my bonny little ship that did so much for me." And putting his hand to his breast, he added: "I have felt queer and sore here ever since. I hope God will forgive me, but I was sure my sin would find me out; and here I am, a poor shrivelled-up man, anxious to get away from earth and to be with my drowned boys. The parson told me I would meet them in a better world to this, and so I want to get to it as quick as I can, for all the pleasure was taken out of my life when I consented to come here. I haven't been very bad, and always was as good as I could to God. Sometimes I've sworn when anything went wrong, but I never meant any harm in it. Besides, they say that sailors' swearing is not like other people's."
His friend urged him in a rollicking manner to take a more cheerful view of his position.
"There are many," said he, "who would give worlds to have command of so fine a vessel."
"Let them have it, then," said Bourne; "but I was content to end my days in the old ship. That was glory enough for me, and they (meaning his owner and his friends) would not let me do it."
Captain W—— shook him warmly by the hand, and promised to call again.
Bourne murmured: "I may never see you again. I feel the end is very near. My general health is good, but what ails me is a sore heart. Tell them, W——, if I should die before seeing you again, that I trusted in God and His Son, that the parsons say preached the gospel of sorrow. My cup is full of that. So that I would be satisfied to meet death willingly could I catch but one glimpse before it comes of the ship that has been my home all my life, brought up my bairns, and kept a comfortable abode ashore for me."
His friend parted from him with a sad heart, believing that no earthly power could save him, for he saw that he was encompassed by the shadow of doom, and that the triumph of death would soon overtake him.
The following morning the Grasshopper ensign flew half-mast. Poor Bourne had passed the portal beyond which he was to find peace. His last message to his mate and steward were: "I shall soon be dead. Say 'so long' for me to my wife and the owner. Tell them my heart broke, for I could not bear the loss of my boys and the parting from the canny little brig. Tell them I bear no ill-will to anybody, and that I expect to meet them beyond the river in a better land."
These words were the last spoken by the grief-stricken old mariner, who in the plenitude of his manhood would have scorned the idea of openly giving way to emotion. His officers sat by him until he quietly slipped his moorings.
Captain Alexander Macgregor, as his name betokens, was a Scotchman, who had left his native land with credentials which gave him the reputation of being not only learned but one of the most expert mariners that ever walked a quarterdeck. For many years he had traded to all parts of the world in command of various sized vessels owned in Scotland, and had earned the confidence of his employers by the deeds he had accomplished in making them large profits. His old owner was perturbed when it became known that his services had been sought for elsewhere, and secured, owing to monetary inducements such as no worthy Scot could refuse, for Scottish shipmasters at that time were shockingly paid. His advent to English employment was not regarded favourably by the men who claimed that vessels belonging to that particular port should be commanded by men of the port, native born or reared into seamen by the matchless skill of the generation of local sailors that preceded them. He was looked upon as an interloper who had come to take bread from their mouths. But what concerned them as much as anything was their dread of a lower standard, which might lose for them the premier position which they ostentatiously declared was theirs, of breeding and rearing skilful, hardy men. The gentleman whom they held responsible for the unwarrantable innovation carried on a nourishing trade in the dual capacity of miller and shipowner. He came across Macgregor when on a visit to one of his vessels which was discharging at a Scottish port, and became fascinated by his bright, cheery intelligence. A bargain was struck and he forthwith took command of Mr Hobkirk's finest craft. The prejudice formed by this unpatriotic act had far-reaching consequences, which were never really effaced. The community regarded it as another proof of English generosity and Scottish unscrupulous pushfulness of character which worms its way into the affairs of men and captures all the blessings of earth and heaven at the expense of their neighbours.