ONE could, I suppose, tell this yarn in the third person; but I would rather not. It is bad form, I know, to tell a yarn in the first person when one is one’s self the hero. I can’t help that. There is no fiction in my tale, not a word. Any old sailor will tell you that I in no way exaggerate in the matter of our fare.
The sea-apprentice breed is extinct. It passed with the passing of the sailing ship. There was never a breed quite like it, I think; never a brotherhood quite so comradely. To-day the petrels hover above the trails we sailed, and see no ship pass by.
In my old ship there were eight of us. We came from all classes; but class, so rigidly observed ashore, made no difference at all. Some of us were gentlemen’s sons, others not. One was the son of a Member of Parliament, another of an army officer of high rank, another of a barrister. There was the son of a poor board-school master; he dropped his aitches. There was the son of a commercial traveler. There was a farmer’s son, there was a Belgian boy, and there was myself. The sons of the M. P., the army officer, and the barrister, each of whom had been to one or another of the great English public schools, were gentlemen’s sons, of course. But no gentleman drops his aitches, and a commercial traveler is scarcely a gentleman. Whether or no a farmer could be a gentleman would depend on how big a farmer he was. If he was a very big farmer, and did no work at all himself, he might just scrape through. That leaves the Belgian boy and me. When the ship left port the Belgian boy’s father was there to see him off. He wore kid gloves, a long-tailed black coat, spats, and a silk top hat. That placed him. He was a gentleman.
Our skipper, the Old Man, Stormalong, was a Bluenose. He had a sharp thin face, cold gray eyes, a little pointed beard, and a close-clipped moustache. We both hated and feared him. He ignored us utterly, unless he saw one of us doing some piece of sailor work not exactly as it should be done, or found one of us, when at the wheel, not holding the ship absolutely true to her course. On those occasions harsh words snapped from his thin lips and his eyes flashed. He had been skipper for many years, and all the time his wife, the Old Woman, had sailed with him. The Old Woman also ignored us. When we spoke of them it was with curses. Blaming the Old Man for our hard fare, we, in the hasty judgment of youth, did not know or did not allow ourselves to think that, just as we were his bound servants, so was he the bound servant of the owner for whom he sailed. It never entered our young heads that he too was the victim of circumstance; that his stern manner, in reality no more than a pose, was forced on him by the hard need of that iron discipline that must ever be maintained if storms are to be fought successfully, nerveracking calms endured, great cold borne, and days and nights of breathless heat lived through without complaint voiced by servitors forever hungry and oftentimes athirst.
The Old Man ate no pantiles. At his table, cabin biscuits took the place of those common ship biscuits, and were fine fare. And for him there was fresh bread made from good white flour. None but the best and freshest pieces of pork or junk ever went to the cabin. Even had he taken no private stores to sea, he would have fared far better than did we. But he supplemented the stores furnished by the owner with stores of his own, and the Old Woman was a most excellent cook. In the steward’s pantry, which adjoined the cabin dining saloon, was a little stove, and often when we were at hard labor on the ropes of quarter-deck or poop, or fighting to hold the ship true to her course in strong winds and rough seas, delicious fragrances would come to us.
Since an apprentice served for four years with no pay at all, we never had any money of our own, and for pocket money depended upon the generosity of our people. On leaving port we took to sea with us such stores as we were able to buy with what they could afford to give us. It was never much, but for the first few weeks after sailing we lived well. With two small holes punched in the top of the can and the lips applied to one of them, a hungry apprentice could make a pleasing meal on canned milk in the long watches of the night. We never wasted it in the coffee or the skilly. Good shore biscuits took the place of ‘ flint-hard ’ or of age-softened pantiles. When they were gone, good shore jam helped pantiles down. Used in liberal quantities, pickles made the ship’s salt pork or junk, both of them quite often so spoiled as to be really unfit for human food, more or less edible. Eating chocolate and fruit cake were good at any time. One could go to the wheel with some of either tucked away in a pocket, and, if the wind was light and the ship steering well, nibble while one steered — unobserved in the darkness by the officer of the watch. Life was endurable, even pleasant, so long as our shore grub lasted.
On the voyage of which I write, the ship’s fare was perhaps a little worse than usual. One of the company’s vessels had been sold, and such stores as had been in her had been transferred to our ship. Her last voyage had been a long one. When, a few days after we sailed, a barrel of her pork and a barrel of her junk were opened, the smell of them pervaded the decks from forecastle head to poop. We were bound round the Horn, and due to be down there in June — which is the worst month.
One day, a week or so after we left port, the suggestion arose that we cease using our private stores and keep what was left of them till we were off the Horn. We talked it over and finally agreed to do so.
The apprentices’ quarters, known as the half deck, were just abaft the mainmast. There were two tiny rooms, one for the four boys of the mate’s watch and the other for the four of the second mate’s watch. They opened on a common entrance alleyway in which hung our oilskins and sea boots. In each there was just room for four bunks, our four sea chests, and the little table fixed to the outer bulkhead. At the far end was a locker in which were kept our tin plates, pannikins, hook pots, forks, and spoons. Having nailed up our remaining stores, we set them away in the lockers.
It was a fine Sunday afternoon when we made our decision. In fine weather, once the decks had been scrubbed down in the morning watch, there was no work on Sunday. We were sitting in the half deck, idling our time away. We had none of us eaten any pantiles since the voyage began, and the bread barge on the deck in one corner was full of them. The army officer’s son was painting the picture of the ship on one now, having given the pantile a coat of varnish the previous evening. As soon as the painting was dry he would give it another coat. Through two of the holes in it he had passed a length of varnished twine, whereby his girl, to whom he would give it at the end of the voyage, might hang it up. Such souvenirs were often given by apprentices to their sweethearts. The barrister’s son was rummaging in the bread barge, looking for another pantile fresh and hard enough to paint a picture on. Being from the old stock of the sold ship, most of them were soft. When he presently found one, he laid it on the palm of his hand and brought it down forcibly against the corner of the table. It didn’t break. ‘That’s normal; it’ll do,’ he said; and then changed his mind about painting a picture on it. ‘There won’t be any hard pantiles left soon. I’ll keep it for supper,’ he said.
Having set it aside, he took a soft one from the barge and began to crumble it. It was full of white crawlers. He picked out a long, lean one. ‘Come on,’ he said to the Belgian boy, ‘I’ll give you a race.’ While the Belgian boy crumbled a soft pantile, seeking a fast-looking crawler, the challenger stuck two pins at each end of the table to serve as goal posts. With a bet of a pound of tobacco on the outcome, they raced their crawlers from end to end of the table, pricking them along, holding them to a straight course, with pins. The Belgian boy won, and was at once challenged by the schoolmaster’s son, who had meanwhile selected for himself a good-looking crawler from another soft pantile.
‘ I don’ vant no more tobacco. I got plenty. Vot you bets?’ asked the Belgian boy.
‘I’ll bet you a winter undershirt,’said the schoolmaster’s son.
The Belgian boy, who for some reason was habitually lucky, won again. Such races were a common pastime with apprentices.
Eight bells clanged out. Soon it would be supper time. Some of us crumbled soft pantiles, removed the crawlers, and, having mixed the crumbs with scraps of salt-pork fat, took them to the cook to fry for our supper. The dish was known as ‘dandy funk.’ Others, since to break pantiles with teeth or hands was not possible, broke hard ones to fragments by beating them against the corner of the table. Fried with salt-pork fat, they became ‘cracker hash.’ The barrister’s son dipped his hard pantile into salt water for a few seconds, set it on his tin plate, and took it to the cook. When in a few minutes he fetched it from the galley oven, it had swelled to several times its normal size. So treated, pantiles were known as ‘midshipman’s muffins.’ They were very filling. Their flavor reminded one of the smell of an old board floor that has been recently washed. Such, with thin hot skilly that was supposed to be tea, but bore no resemblance to it except perhaps in color, was our supper. At breakfast next morning, there being then no time to prepare special dishes, we should eat our pantiles straight, with bitter black coffee.
Our dinner on Monday consisted of split-pea soup and highly odoriferous boiled salt pork. Wednesday’s and Friday’s dinner would be precisely the same. Owing to scarcity of fresh water, the pork was boiled in the soup, which made the soup very salty and of a rich unpleasant flavor. On the other three days of the week we should dine on bean soup and salt junk. Junk, said to be beef, was commonly understood to be horse. Whether pork or junk, there was never enough lean for more than a couple of mouthfuls for each of us.
On Monday evening, when the dogwatch came and we went off duty, the schoolmaster’s son started to sing an old familiar sea song: —
There’s nothing done in a lime-juice ship contrary to the hact!
Then wot’s the use o’ growlin’ w’en you know you’ll get your w’ack
Of limejuice and vinegar accordin’ to the hact? ’
The act referred to was the Board of Trade act that regulated the feeding of sailors. ‘Limey’ sailors in the nineties were living on practically the same fare as that served to the crews of Nelson’s ships.
While the schoolmaster’s son sang, an apprentice from each watch went aft to the cabin door, where the steward served to each of them enough coarse brown sugar and canned marmalade to last, supposedly, till the next Monday evening. For every one of us there was a half pannikin of each (a pannikin held a pint). There was also, for the boys of each watch, a large bottle of poor vinegar. When they brought the week’s ‘whack’ to the half deck we sat down to supper. Each of us spread all his marmalade on a midshipman’s muffin, placed the week’s allowance of sugar on top, and devoured it at one meal — our invariable custom.
A week passed. Pantiles, spoiled pork and junk, pea and bean soup. Lime juice, a half gill each at noon every day to ward off the scurvy. Always vinegar, in which one might dip his evil-smelling meat. Skilly and coffee to be thrown to the sea, whither we not infrequently threw also the bitter, lip-puckering lime juice. But on Saturday there was, as sometimes happened on a Saturday, something in the way of a change of diet. That day at dinner we were served ‘strike-meblind’ — boiled rice with blackstrap molasses. A damnable mess, yet a change.
On Sunday came the treat of the week. A great day, Sunday, for then we ate ‘Harriet Lane’ in place of salt meat. Harriet Lane came in tall blue corrugated cans, similar to those which held the marmalade. Eleven pounds to the can. Harriet Lane was an underworld woman who had been murdered many years ago in Sydney, New South Wales. Her body was never found, and it was said that she had been canned for sailors. Her lean was packed down in the cans in long tough strings, coiled down like rope. There was never any fat on her. The labels on the cans said ‘Queensland Mutton.’
It took a good deal of forbearance to endure the ship’s food, with our good shore grub always in sight. But the Horn, with its savage gales and bitter cold, was an old story with all of us. Down the North Atlantic, across the line, and on into the southeast trade winds we hungered. With the barrister’s son, and the sons of the farmer and commercial traveler, I was in the second mate’s watch.
One dark night the barrister’s son reached a hand in through a galley port that the cook had forgotten to close, and found four potatoes that were intended for the cabin breakfast table. He brought them to the half deck, where we peeled them and ate them raw. On a blazing day in the doldrums when the army officer’s son, eldest apprentice in the mate’s watch, ‘whacked out’ the noon meal into four equal portions, he was accused by the M.P.’s son of having taken for himself a hair more than his just share. A fist fight followed. Such occurrences were common in the lime-juicers. Continual hunger made of well-schooled lads from gentle homes plain savages at times. But our ill feeling never lasted. We soon forgot, jested, and were brot hers again.
Yet, good chums though we all were, there was much rivalry between the watches. We of the second mate’s watch considered ourselves smarter than the mate’s boys. They thought, themselves smarter than we. All of us welcomed any test that came to give fair trial. Hungry though we were, curse ship and sea though we might, we yet took a sailorly pride in our work.
On a fine afternoon while we were running down the southeast trade wind, I saw the steward come up from the booby hatch on his way to the cook’s galley with the stores for the cabin supper. An idea struck me.
The booby hatch was a small hatch directly abaft the big cargo hatch. It opened on hinges, as a skylight does, and in fine weather was kept open to afford ventilation for the betweendecks hold. A ladder led from it to the ’tween-decks. A short distance from the foot of the ladder was a bulkhead that divided the storeroom from the hold, and in the centre of the bulkhead was a sliding door. To go from the storeroom through the sliding door into the hold and thence to the galley with the cabin stores was a much shorter way than to go back up to the pantry, across the saloon, and out to the quarter-deck.
When we were off duty that evening I said to my three comrades, ‘I wonder if the steward leaves the sliding door open. If he does, we could maybe raid the Old Man’s stores.’
‘Not on your life!’ said the barrister’s son. ‘We’d be in a devil of a mess if we got caught! ’
‘Why get caught?’ I asked. But my comrades were of one mind.
‘All right. That settles it, then,’ said I.
Later, in the middle watch that night, I broached the subject again. We had eaten dandy funk for supper and should be eating pantiles for breakfast. It was Tuesday night, and there would be no more sugar or marmalade for another week. The pork of the previous day’s dinner had been too evil altogether. This time, instead of dissenting, my comrades considered the matter. The more we talked, the hungrier we became. Soon the farmer’s son suggested that one of us go down and see if the bulkhead door was open. But the night was clear and starry, and we had no business on the quarter-deck. If one of us ventured toward the booby hatch, the second mate would be sure to see him. We must wait, then, till the ship was in the cloudy weather that might be expected once she was out of the trade wind. And on one thing we agreed unanimously: we would tell the mate’s apprentices nothing of our plan.
On the following day the commercial traveler’s son was at work on one of the boats above and at one side of the booby hatch. When I chanced to pass beneat h him he called to me to lend him my knife for a moment, saying that he had left his in the half deck. I tossed the knife up to him, and in a moment he tossed it back. And he so tossed it that it struck and fell down the booby hatch. I understood at once, and with a good excuse to go down the hold, where no one was ever allowed while the ship was at sea, I descended to retrieve the knife. It took but an instant to find it, and another to dart to and back from the bulkhead. The door was open.
A week or so later the trade wind left us. It was Saturday. Evening set in cloudy and windless. The second mate’s watch was to be on duty from eight to midnight, off from midnight to four o’clock, and on again from four to eight. Between eight o’clock and midnight would be the time for us to carry out our raid.
Having waited till well after ten o’clock to make sure that the Old Man had gone below, we gathered barefooted at the booby hatch. There was no star in the sky. Now and again an idle sail flapped in the darkness, or a rope creaked. The footsteps of the second mate, pacing to and fro on the poop above us, were distinctly audible. While our two comrades kept watch, lest he take it, into his head to come down from the poop and walk forward, the farmer’s son and I slipped noiselessly down the hatch. As we started for the storeroom a rat scampered away. With pounding hearts, we stood still. Silence fell again. Not till we were at the bulkhead did we dare to strike a match, lest the second mate see its flare. A moment more then, and we were crawling on all fours over the great iron tanks that contained the ship’s pantile supply.
Directly above us, only their cabin deck planks between them and us, the Old Man and the Old Woman slumbered. Quickly we found that section of the storeroom in which their private stores were stowed, and hastily we filled the big gunny sack that we had brought. Match after match flared while captain’s, biscuits, canned milk, beef essences, canned tripe, canned vegetables, canned liver, item after item of unspeakable deliciousness, dropped softly into our sack. The burned-out matches we put carefully into our pockets. The ship’s cat miaowed, and we gasped with apprehension. But soon the four of us were safely back in the half deck, hiding our booty in our sea chests and under our straw mattresses. Then we returned to the hatch, and while the others went below the farmer’s son and I kept watch.
Rousing our comrades of the mate’s watch at a few minutes before midnight, we gave no sign that anything unusual had occurred during our time on duty. Pitying our slow-witted fellows, we laughed up our sleeves. And when they woke us again at four o’clock they had no idea at all that we were wakening to feast.
Sunday morning broke fair and fine, and, with well-filled bellies, never a care knew we. A light, steady, leading wind had risen during the middle watch, and under full sail the ship was standing south. The opening of a sailor’s perfect day. By seven o’clock we had finished washing her down and were sitting in the half deck, smoking our pipes, ready to rouse out the mate’s apprentices at seven bells, that they might get their miserable breakfasts before going on duty at eight. Suddenly a shadow darkened our doorway. Supposing that the second mate had come to order us out for something, we looked up — and were struck dumb.
‘Which of you young blackguards has been stealing my stores?’
In silence we stared up at Stormy. Suppose we denied? And then suppose he ordered the half deck searched? There was no possible escape. What dire sentence would he pass on us? But, sailing under Stormy, I had been well trained to coolness in emergency.
In plain sight in the locker were the stores that we were keeping till we should be off the Horn. I pointed to them now. ‘Sir,’ said I, in an aggrieved voice, ‘we have stores of our own. We don’t need to steal from anyone.’
‘I’ll treat you all alike till I find out who it was,’ snarled Stormy, in accents utterly contemptuous. And then he was gone.
Voiceless, we looked at one another. What would that treatment be? And suppose we owned up, what then would be our fate? Would he, when our apprentice days were done, give us bad references? There was the black cloud that shadowed us. For an apprentice with a bad reference to obtain an officer’s certificate was impossible. With a stroke of his pen he could ruin our careers, render vain the hard years of our apprenticeship.
And then, while we sat mute, there was a movement in the other side of the half deck. The mate’s innocent apprentices were stirring, wakened by Stormy’s voice. A moment, and they appeared in the entrance alleyway. How they would jeer at us now!
But our comrades looked down on us with no merriment in their faces. There was, instead, in the face of each of them a strangely sheepish look. It was the army officer’s son who broke the silence, and no four lads were ever more surprised than were we.
On the night when first I had suggested raiding the storeroom, two of the mate’s apprentices had been on the deck close to one of our open ports and had heard my words. They had heard the response, ‘Not on your life!' They had heard my ‘All right, then. That settles it.’ And, ever since, they had been waiting for a dark night that they themselves might act on my scorned suggestion. In the middle watch of the night just past they had been down to the storeroom and had stolen stores enough to fill two big gunny sacks! We heard how, while the son of the schoolmaster was below, the mate had shouted an order to trim the sails for a wakening breeze. In his haste to get to the deck the schoolmaster’s son had let fall a can from his too full sack, and, not daring to strike a match that he might look for it, had left it where it fell. Later the steward, on his way to the galley, had found the can, of course. That was evident. He had put two and two together and had reported our theft to the Old Man. So we were able to tell our comrades that it was owing to them that the theft had been discovered. That was an obvious technicality, for, with such a large amount stolen, our theft must have been discovered very soon. But they were good fellows, and, with scarce any dissent, agreed that it was they who were to blame. What to do, then? There was but one thing to do. The booty must be returned.
Each with a laden sack on his shoulder, the mate’s apprentices went aft to the cabin. And in a few moments they were back, with, the still-laden sacks. And their eyes were merry. Gleefully they repeated the Old Man’s words: ‘You’ve stolen it. Now you can keep it and take the consequences.’
We put the morrow out of mind, seated ourselves to a feast, and, feasting, talked things over. The decision at which we arrived was that, provided the punishment should be no more than plain sea misery, the mate’s apprentices should take it. It was a plain case of ‘sauve qui peut and devil take the hindmost,’ and they were the hindmost. But we of the second mate’s watch agreed unanimously that if it were to be, eventually, a case of getting bad references, then we would own up and share that dreaded fate.
We were still feasting when the steward appeared with a message from the Old Man. The Old Man had been to the storeroom, taken tally of his stores, and found the theft to be far larger than he had at first supposed. We were to return the booty. Once more we loaded the sacks. At the last moment, as the mate’s boys were starting for the cabin, I, unable to bear parting with so much delight, removed from one of the sacks two big cans of preserves. While our comrades were gone I took them to the sail locker and hid them in the folds of a sail. The foremast sailors were below at breakfast. There was no one to see me. I would retrieve them later, when the storm had blown over.
Days passed, and nothing happened. Our comrades suffered no punishment of any sort. It must be, then, that bad references were to be our fate. A gloomy cloud hung over us.
In due course I went to the sail locker to retrieve the two cans of preserves. They were gone. Some unsuspected sailor of the foremast crew had seen me hide them, and had taken them. We damned him for a low thief.
One morning, a week or so after our raid, the second mate’s watch were hoisting a sail that had been furled during the night. I was pulling forehand, straight down, my hands reaching high on the halyards, when the rope parted. With the weight, of the whole watch upon it, the heavy halyard block came down squarely on the top of my head. When I regained consciousness I was seated in a chair in the after saloon, with blood streaming down my forehead. On one side of me stood the Old Man, with a basin of water in his hands; on the other the Old Woman, with bandages. As soon as he was sure that I was not seriously hurt the Old Man went to the deck to oversee the repairs made necessary by the parted halyards; the spar that we had been hoisting had snapped in two. I was left alone with the Old Woman.
Not a word did she speak while she bandaged my wound, and not a word did I. But when I had risen, and was starting somewhat unsteadily away, she spoke. ‘Do you think you could eat some bacon?’ she asked. And I replied, most modestly, that I thought I could. So she sat me down at the table in the dining saloon, and set before me fried bacon, and doughnuts made by her own hands. Oh, glory of glories! And when I was done she said, ‘Come back this evening, and I ’ll dress your head again.’ You may be sure that I went to the cabin when I knew that the cabin supper was over. My plan worked. When my head was dressed I again sat down to a plate of cabin leavings. ‘Come aft again in the morning,’ said the Old Woman when I rose to go.
Morning and evening I went, to the cabin, always when I knew that the cabin breakfast or supper was done. Never a pant ile did I touch; day by day I breakfasted and supped on cabin leavings. At the end of a week, aware that there must come an end to my joys once my wound was healed, I one night removed the bandages and gave it a good scratching. When I went to the cabin next morning the Old Woman asked how it had come to be opened. ‘I was aloft furling a sail last night,’ said I. That was the truth, and the prevarication escaped her. ‘The canvas must have flapped against your head,’ said she, and I said never a word. ‘Poor devils!’ said I to my envious comrades. ‘Don’t you, just wish it was your heads that had been busted?’ They muttered and growled and loved me very little indeed while I watched them eat their cracker hash and dandy funk.
In due course I again gave my wound a good scratching. But that time the Old Woman asked no question, and when I rose said nothing about any meal. ‘You need n’t come aft any more. Your head’s all right now,’ she said. For a moment she looked smiling into my face. And then she added, ‘You don’t know how glad the Captain and I are that you were not among the boys who stole our stores.’ I mumbled something, and took my departure. Returning to the half deck where my comrades sat at their pantiles, I sat down too and reached for a pantile. They jeered, they hooted at my downfall. And, having a trick up my cuff’, I said never a word till they were done. Then, imitating the Old Woman’s voice, I repeated to them those last words of hers. ’How does it feel to be a low-down thief?’ I asked them. Their curses were to me as water on the back of a duck. And it ended, of course, in our all laughing together.
We had a wild time of it rounding the Horn. Weeks of incessant hard labor in howling winter gales. Ravening great seas across which the snow drove. Our shore grub soon gone, we knew continual hunger. But we did our job. Day after day we toiled, the flinty eyes of the Old Man ever upon us while we wrenched at her kicking wheel, while, high aloft, we struggled with her frozen sails. And so, by and by, we brought her into the Pacific, back to the trade winds once more. And always, bitter gale or balmy trade wind, the thought of bad references was with us.
When we came to port the army officer’s son and I were out of our apprenticeships. The time had come for us to go to the cabin and ask the Old Man for references. So the army officer’s son went first, and we others waited. If he returned with a bad reference, then I must go and own up that I was equal thief with him. It seemed long while he was gone, but at last he came, and he came merry-eyed. Gayly he held his reference out for us to see.
This is to certify that the bearer . . . has served his four-year apprenticeship in the ship . . . under my command. I have always found him a strictly sober and honest young man, at all times attentive to his duties. I think that he will make a good officer, and it is with pleasure that I give him this recommendation.
So then I too went aft to ask for a reference. And when I came back the half deck rang with the laughter of my seven comrades. Only I did not laugh—for in my reference the word ‘honest’ was underlined.
Stormy is dead these many years. In days after we had left the sea, I used to visit him at his home. Though there was gray in my hair, he always addressed me as ‘boy.’
‘Boy,’ asked Stormy one day, ‘why did the owners make me feed my crews as they did?’
Once I tried to ask Stormy if he remembered the time when his apprentices raided his stores, but could not bring myself to do so. If to-day I sometimes feel a bit guilty toward him, that is no one’s affair but my own.
To me waye, aye, O Stormalong!
Of all the skippers he was best!
Aye, aye, aye, Mister Stormalong!
To me waye, aye, 0 Stormalong!
We’ll lower him down with a golden chain!
Aye, aye, aye, Mister Stormalong!