Ocean Echoes - The Real Thing At Last
( Originally Published 1922 )
IT happened that there would be a Blue-nose ship to sail on in a few days, and the Swede's wife thought that this was a good chance to ship me away; so I got a bed in the boarding-house after my licking that night, in preparation for the final fleecing which is administered to all sailors on departure from such boarding-houses, and is made as palatable as possible on account of their inevitable transformation into homeward-bounders.
Two days later I was shipped aboard a barque bound for Sidney, Cape Breton. I wrote to my mother, and told her that at last I was off to sea. There was a Jew outfitting store next to the boarding-house, and here I was outfitted from my .month's advance. They took it all; and gave me a blanket, a straw tick, a few cigars that I couldn't smoke, a clammy handshake, and this Godspeed ; "Be sure and visit us again." That is part of their stock in trade.
Hell will never close its gates as long as one of those outfitting stores for sailors exists.
We towed down the Clyde, on the Blue-nose barque. The crew was a conglomeration of everything, Greeks, negroes, Scandinavians, English, Irish, Scotch and Germans. The mate was over six feet tall, stout and wiry, with a hand on him that had the spread of the wing of a mallard duck, and a mustache that obscured his mouth. His voice would chill you to the marrow, but he was proud of it.
The captain was broad, chubby, and porky looking. He carried his wife and child along. She was quite the reverse of him in looks, tall and slender as a bean-pole. The child, a boy, was three years old, and able to run all around the poop-deck.
When we got well out to sea, we set all sail and let go the tugboat. I was of very little use at first aboard that ship. I knew nothing about square-riggers. But I was soon to learn.
About the second day out everyone commenced to scratch himself. Even the child would lean against the binnacle and scratch its little back and shoulders. The Blue-nose barque was lousy fore and aft, and we even found vermin crawling in the upper topsails. One old sailor who had many years behind him on the sea, remarked that as nearly as he could remember, the flying jib-boom was the highest he had ever found them on a ship.
Sailors as a rule in those days were clean. They took baths, and scrubbed their clothes. The crew of our barque got busy, but while we drove the vermin from the decks and forecastle, we were never sure about the sails. They were never changed while I was aboard of her.
The food was new to me. Stirabout, stewed apples and gingerbread, salt-horse, which was scarce, and pork once a week on pea soup day. The hardtack, the boss of the fo'c'sle said, was good. He was a Liverpool sailor, and the bis-cuits were supposed to have come from there.
Far be it from anyone in the forecastle to question him. He was a fighter, and we had a world of respect for him. His word was law to the shell-backs. Four days out from Glasgow, a thick, heavy-set Dane thought that he would become the boss of the forecastle. The quarrel arose over the equal distribution of the ginger-bread. The Dane was a big eater, and a greedy one.
Liverpool Jack, that was his name, had his code of ethics, that all were to share with the food. The Dane was the more powerful man of the two, and he tried to put his bluff across and "con" the Irishman. What a mistake he made !
They stripped to the waist for action. He cleared the benches away to give them room. The forecastle was large, which favored Jack. In all the years afterwards that I spent on the sea, that fight on the Blue-nose barque beat them all. Jack trimmed the Dane, and beat him until he cried "enough." The fight was clean but it was speedy. There was no hitting nor kicking when one of them was down. The Dane's head was large before the fight but who could de-scribe how large it was afterwards? After we had led him around for a couple of days he became quite a good Dane, satisfied with his equal share of the gingerbread.
While I was always doing the wrong thing from a sailor's point of view, I got along very well in the forecastle. But not with the mate, who, I believe, despised me. I told him that I was a sailor, and he had found out that I wasn't —only a green country boy.
When we were nearing the eastern edge of the Newfoundland Banks it commenced to blow one evening, and the mate ordered the main-royals clewed up. The barque carried no fore royal. The breeze was too strong for this light sail. Usually it took two men to furl it. But this evening he shouted to me to shin up, and make it fast alone.
I did get a gasket around it, but I was unable to pull the sail up on the yard the way it should have been, snugly furled. When I came down on deck again it was growing dark. The mate greeted me with an oath, and a kick from his Wellington boots.
"Get up there." he said, "and get that sail up on the yard, or I'll break every labile in your body."
I have often thought of that kick. That night was the first in my life that I felt I was alone with the stars. The barque below me looked like a helpless bug being borne away by the whim of the sea. The light from the binnacle lamp shone on the figure of the helmsman.
What an insignificant creature he looked ! The very wheel looked like spider's web, spun for the moths of frail humanity.
The mate had made me angry, and I was in no hurry to obey him, but as I looked at the stars above me, and the restless sea below, I felt that it was worth more than one kick to be allowed the privilege of being alone with one's self on the main royal of a Blue-nose barque in the fine thrill of such a night as this. Feeling so, the strength of youth aided me to the difficult task, and I rolled the sail up on the yard. The mate might abuse me, but he could never destroy the spirit of the sea that was born in my soul.
We had an accident that brought gloom to the forecastle. A Greek sailor fell through the 'tween decks down into the lower hold. We carried him up to the deck. He was unconscious from a blow on the head. He had the bunk over me, and we put him into it. The mate came for-ward with liniment, and orders to rub it on his head.
"And," said he, "give him these pills when he comes to."
Beecham's Pills for a fractured skull ! Such was the practice of medicine aboard the sailing ship of those days.
The Greek sailor didn't come to for forty-eight hours, and in the meantime our Scotch cook, out of kindness of heart, prepared a flax-seed poultice for the head, and claimed the honor of restoring the Greek to his senses again.
Sailors were hard to kill thirty years ago, bar-ring an accident, such as drowning, or falling from aloft. They were a good deal like the jackass they would grow so old that they'd just naturally wander away and die from old age. I know one master of a ship, who is over eighty years old, and just as full of fight as ever, and still on the job. The sailors of to-day are better fed and clothed, they have rooms to sleep in, and waiters to serve their food. "Sissies," the cal-loused old-timers call them. They say that they belong in Snug Harbor, and the sooner they go the better. I do not feel that they are so much to blame, for many of them were heroes in the war, but it would not hurt if they had more training at the hands of two-fisted men, and at sea the working day should be more than eight hours.
Twenty-three days out from Glasgow we sailed into Cape Breton Harbor, and dropped the anchor. I may mention here that the barque was in ballast from Scotland. We got orders at Cape Breton to take on more ballast, and to proceed to the St. Lawrence River, and as far up it as the mouth of the Saguenay. There, I believe, she was to load lumber for a South American port.
Yellow fever was raging in South America then. Liverpool Jack made up his mind that he wasn't going to any yellow fever port, and so announced to the forecastle.
We sailed up the St. Lawrence to the sawmill town, and anchored about two miles from the beach. The lumber came off in barges. We took it aboard through the 'tween deck ports, and stowed it down in the hold.
There was no possible chance that I could see to get ashore, and I was as anxious as Jack to leave the barque. The stories the crew told in the forecastle had me badly scared. One old man was saying : "I'll tell you men how it is down there. You come to anchor in Rio harbor to-night, and if the wind should haul off the land and blow from the city you're dead in the morning Mind you," with warning hand upraised, "that isn't all, men. You turn as black as Hell !" he whispered.
That story was enough for me. There wouldn't be any escape from Rio. Out of Hell there was no redemption.