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Ocean Echoes - Liverpool

( Originally Published 1922 )

AS the boat rounded the bends in that beautiful river, and the chug-chug of the engines echoed back from the granite walls that guarded the water in its peaceful flow to the sea, I cuddled by the warm smoke-stack and, unheeding the morrow, fell asleep.

When I awoke the sun was high, the boat was moored to a wharf, and the sound of winches greeted my ears.

"Come on, Jack," I said, "this must be Chicoutimi." We walked ashore. No one on board noticed us.

There was a railroad being built from there to Montreal. Chicoutimi, as we saw it, was a good-sized town. I hunted for work, and got a job painting steel bridges. Jack said that he'd go on to Montreal and find another ship. He claimed that he was a sailor and not a land-lubber. No railroad work for him, climbing over steel bridges.

Whether there is in a sailor's makeup a certain amount of fatalism, or whether it is mere childish trust in the future, or whether sailors take their friendships so for granted that separation is not a matter of moment, certain it is that partings with them are over in a minute; and equally certain it is that given the usual course of events, they, will sometime meet again. Of the shipmates I have had there are few that I quitted forever at the end of the voyage.

Jack said good-by to me as he would to a comparative stranger, and started up the rail-road track singing in his hearty voice the old-time chantey : "Going a-roving with my fair Maid." He disappeared in the distance with never a backward look. It seemed that the prospect of the two hundred and forty mile walk to Montreal meant nothing to him.

I was too young not to feel heart-broken at being left by the only real friend I had had since I left home. Evidently, I thought, I didn't mean much to him, and it seemed that he might understand the weariness which bound me to take work now instead of following him, and might concede something. But I was mistaken in all this, for Jack's heart was of the warmest, and that would be clear when we met again. For two months I painted bridges, at one dollar and seventy-five cents a day, for as many hours as twice the eight-hour day. Neck-breaking work. Seventy-five cents went for board and room, the rest for clothes, and when I had paid my car fare to Quebec I had little left over.

The call of the sea had me again, and I took the boat down the Saguenay, as passenger this time, and found a sailor's boarding-house at Quebec. An Irishwoman, three daughters and a son ran it. The food and treatment were better than in the Glasgow boarding-house, but every-body in it seemed to be either drunk or fighting. I have always been, as the drunkard says, "able to drink a drop of beer now and then." But I have always had a horror of degenerating through drinking into this low type. Where I got this feeling I do not know, for, with the purest of thoughts, my actions as a young man were, in all conscience, wild enough. My captains later on, when I sailed first mate with some of them on many voyages, as my story will show, chose me to drink and play with ashore, then wrung their hands over the wildness of me, and assured their friends that on shore I could certainly bear watching, although when they had me on their ships they could sleep in peace when it was my watch on deck.

By the end of a week I had shipped aboard a square-rigger bound for Liverpool and loaded with lumber. Here I was to learn another phase of the sea, the psychology of the men who command deepwater ships and in a way I was to find myself.

The captain, an Irishman from the County Wexford, was in the last throes of consumption. The mate was a big, burly Scotchman, and a drunkard. The second mate was old, wizened, and rheumatic. The crew was mostly English. We had one negro sailor in the forecastle, born of an Irish father and a black mother in the West Indies, who, curiously enough, could speak only Gaelic. I was much excited and mystified by all this, for he was very black himself; but the mate could understand him, and I soon found that I could, too.

There were good men in the crew, and some excellent chantey-men among them. They accepted me as a man, for now I stood as one, five feet ten, sinewy, quick of eye and hand, nimble upon my feet, and deep-chested. Neither was I ill-looking, nor ill-natured, being always quick to smile, and quick to sympathize, though I was something of a fighter. I have never had trouble handling gangs of men a proud boast indeed for a vagabond ! Not an unusual one for an Irishman, either; for it seems to go with the black hair and clean-shavenness and roving gray eye of some of us, that we are often good at taking orders, and often good at giving them.

We towed down the St. Lawrence to the point where the river widened out, then made sail, and with a slanting breeze started for the Newfoundland Banks. The captain was constantly coughing and spitting and in danger of dying before we reached Liverpool.

The mate ran out of whiskey when we were two or three days out. He was in danger also. He began to act like a crazy man. The cook considered himself very good-looking, and was always anxious to fascinate the pretty bar-maids ashore. He carried lotions and tonics about with him to improve his appearance. The thirsty mate got next to this, and stole the cook's Florida water, three bottles of it. This he drank as a substitute for whiskey.

After he had had a little of this he seemed to improve, and gave his orders to the crew more sensibly, which relieved the strain in the fo'c'sle. They were already superstitious, and with the two chiefs afflicted they figured that the ship was cursed, and that something would happen, for the scent of Florida was abroad in the air, wherever the mate moved. Something did happen as we were reaching away for the southern edge of the Banks.

One morning the captain staggered forward over the deckload of lumber and asked where the mate was. His voice was so weak he couldn't speak above a whisper, his eyes were sunken in his head, and he looked little better than a skeleton.

No one on board could find the mate, but there was a sailor who had been aloft overhauling the fore upper topsail buntlines, who said that he hadn't seen the mate, but that he had heard a splash in the middle watch alongside. This settled the mystery. The mate had jumped overboard, Florida water and all.

The next night we had a change of weather. The wind hauled to the southeast, and the sky turned black and stormy. The captain ordered all hands to take in sail, although there was not much wind to speak of. Not being familiar with storms at sea, I reveled in this new adventure. I got to know the ropes, yards and sails, and my way about the ship. I could steer as well as anyone on board. Neither was I afraid of abuse nor punishment. It was an altogether different atmosphere from that on the Blue-nose barque.

All the sails were furled to the lower topsails and main upper topsail, so that the wooden square-rigger lay wallowing in the trough of the sea, waiting, and apparently helpless, without sails to drive her on. Later in the night, away to the southeast, the black clouds opened like the eye of some unearthly monster, and twittering stars glimmered through.

"There comes the blasted gale !" shouted an English sailor, and sure enough a North Atlantic storm, such as I had never seen, nor ever want to see again under the same conditions, closed in upon the ship with such squeezing, breathless rage, that it reeled her upon her beam-ends, and held her there in the storm god's vice.

The captain, although gasping for the life that was soon to desert him, felt, like the true sailor he was, that he was good for one more fight with the elements, and lashed himself to the weather-rail of the poop-deck, taking charge of the ship, the crew, and the night. Oh, how I longed to have the power to defy the wind and waves as he did ! How unselfish he looked there, with the seas, green seas, roaring over him, his sunken eyes bright with courage, shouting out his orders fore and aft the ship between spasms of coughing, with never a thought of his poor old diseased body.

"Put your helm down," he cried to me at the wheel.

When the gale struck the ship it caught her on the beam. The yards were braced sharp on the port tack, and it seemed as though she'd never come up to the wind. The main upper topsail, bellied and stiff from the force of the gale, was pressing her down till the lee bulwark rail was under water. The captain's voice sounded again <> "Let the main upper topsail go by the run."

As the yard came crashing down, the moaning and hissing wind in the rigging lent an uncanny feeling to the night. I trembled as I stood with my hands on the spokes of the wheel. My mind was busy, for unfortunately I had time to think. I wondered if my mother were praying for me; and I missed her so that had I known, as I believe now, that her not seeing me for so long a time cut short her days on earth, I would have prayed then, to the noise of the storm, to be forgiven.

Still the wind raged, and still the old captain, lashed over there to windward of me, fought for his ship.

As the buntlines closed in on the topsail, the ship slowly came up into the wind. We were saved for the time being, but the seas kept coming higher. They washed the deckload of lumber away. One of the life-boats was carried away, the other was in danger. We'd only two boats left. A sailor commenced to swear, and I thought he'd never stop. He told us that the "bloody old hooker's" back was "broke," and demanded of Heaven and Hell to know what was to happen next. Towards daylight the sea was a mass of swirling foam, the storm was growing worse.

Then we took in the fore and mizzen lower topsails, and hove her to under the main lower topsail. The captain stayed at his post, cautioning the man at the wheel from time to time. It was now nearly eight hours since he had taken his post, and he continued there without relief for hours more, while I, young and hardy as I was, was grateful for relief and a cup of hot coffee at the end of two hours of that awful strain at the wheel.

The carpenter's report, when he sounded the ship, was gloomy.

"Four feet of water in the hold, sir," I heard him tell the captain.

"Keep the pumps going, the storm will break shortly. It is just a little equinoctial disturbance." And he told the steward to serve the men a glass of grog.

My opinion of the men who command ships was formed then and there. I realized, as I do now, how little the world knows of these men, or of what they have given to Progress.

We weathered the storm, and sunshine and blue skies were soon ours again. The thought of a pay-day in Liverpool, and a trip home to see my mother filled me with joy. Like all good sailors, I forgot the agonies we had passed through. The ship was water-logged. Four hundred miles from Liverpool, a Western Ocean steamer took us in tow, and docked the ship for us without further trouble.

Strange to relate, the old captain lived until he had delivered the ship to her owners, and not much longer. He had to be taken off her in an ambulance to the hospital, where he died that day. Strange also to relate, the ship died too, for that very night the Queen's Dock caught fire, and she was destroyed.

There is a vague superstition among masters that it is not the best of luck to take out a ship whose previous master had her many years and died on the last voyage. However this may be, some years later I was offered the command of an old barkentine the Tam-O'-Shanter, I think she was whose master had just died. I accepted, got my things aboard, and then backed out, for no reason except that I had such a feeling as many of us have experienced, that I should not go. Captain Donnelly took her, and his wife and two daughters went with him. They were never heard from again.

Although my pay for the voyage did not amount to much (three pounds I think it was) I was in high glee, and about to take the night boat for Ireland, when I discovered that someone had stolen my money. I learned that it was one of my own shipmates. I was in a strange city without a penny. The men of the crew, lost in the city crowd, were of no help to me now. Oh, how I damned, and still damn, the sailor who steals from a shipmate ! I couldn't go home, nor could I write for money, or say that I was in Liverpool and wouldn't come home. I did what I thought best not write at all, so that mother would never know that I was so close to her.

Once again I hunted up a sailor's boarding-house.

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