The look-out reported a light ahead.
"'St. Ant'ny's, Capten," said our pilot. "Will 'ee give 'er th' main to'galns'l, an' we'll be gettin' on?"
FALMOUTH FOR ORDERS
High dawn broke on a scene of storm, on the waters of Falmouth Bay, white-lashed and curling, on great ragged storm-clouds racing feather-edged over the downs and wooded slopes that environ the fairest harbour of all England.
To us, so long habited to the lone outlook of sea and sky, the scene held much of interest, and, from the first grey break of morning, our eyes went a-roving over the windy prospect, seeing incident and novelty at every turn. In the great Bay, many ships lay anchored, head to wind, at straining cables. Laden ships with trim spars and rigging, red-rusty of hull, and lifting at every scend to the rough sea, the foul green underbody of long voyaging; tall clippers, clean and freshly painted without, but showing, in disorder of gear and rigging, the mark of the hastily equipped outward bound coasters, steam and sail, plunging and fretting at short anchor or riding to the swell in sheltered creeks; lumbermen, with high deck loads bleached and whitened by wind and salt-spume of a winter passage; drifters and pilot cruisers, sea trawlers, banksmen—a gathering of many craft that the great west wind had turned to seek a shelter.
Riding with the fleet, we lay to double anchor. Overhead the high wind whistled eerily through spar and cordage—a furious blast that now and then caught up a crest of the broken harbour sea and flung the icy spray among us. Frequent squalls came down—rude bursts of wind and driving sleet that set the face of the harbour white-streaked under the lash, and shut out the near land in a shroud of wind-blown spindrift. To seaward, in the clearings, we could see the hurtling outer seas, turned from the sou'-west, shattering in a high column of broken water at the base of St. Anthony's firm headland. We were well out of that, with good Cornish land our bulwark.
Ahead of us lay Falmouth town, dim and misty under the stormy sky. A 'sailor-town,' indeed, for the grey stone houses, clustered in irregular masses, extended far along the water front—on the beach, almost, as though the townsfolk held only to business with tide and tide-load, and had set their houses at high-water mark for greater convenience. In spite of the high wind and rough sea, a fleet of shore boats were setting out toward the anchorage. Needs a master wind, in truth, to keep the Falmouth quay-punts at their moorings when homeward-bound ships lie anchored in the Roads, whose lean, ragged sailormen have money to spend!
Under close-reefed rags of straining canvas, they came at us, lurching heavily in the broken seaway, and casting the spray mast-high from their threshing bows. To most of them our barque was the sailing mark. Shooting up in the wind's eye with a great rattle of blocks and slatt of wet canvas, they laid us aboard. There followed a scene of spirited action. A confusion of wildly swaying masts and jarring broadsides—shouts and curses, protest and insult; fending, pushing, sails and rigging entangled in our out-gear. Struggling to a foothold, where any offered on our rusty topsides, the boatmen clambered aboard, and the Captain was quickly surrounded by a clamorous crowd, extending cards and testimonials, and loudly praying for the high honour of 'sarving' the homeward bound.
"Capten! I sarved 'ee when 'ee wos mate o' th' Orion! Do 'ee mind Pengelly—Jan Pengelly, Capten!"—"Boots, Capten? Damme, if them a'nt boots o' my makin', 'ee 're a-wearin' nah!"—"... can dew 'ee cheaper 'n any man on th' Strand, Capten!"—"Trevethick's th' man, Capten! Fort—(th' 'ell 'ee shovin' at?)—Forty year in Falmouth, Capten!"
Old Jock was not to be hurried in his bestowal of custom. From one he took a proffered cigar; from another a box of matches. Lighting up, he seated himself on the skylight settee.
"Aye, aye! Man, but ye're the grand talkers," he said.
The crowd renewed their clamour, making bids and offers one against the other.
"Come down t' th' cabin, one of ye," said the Old Man, leading the way. A purposeful West-countryman, brushing the crowd aside, followed close at heel. The others stood around, discussing the prospect of business.
"Scotch barque, a'n't she?" said one. "Not much to be made o' them Scotch Captens! Eh, Pengelly, 'ee knows? Wot about th' Capten o' th' Newtonend, wot 'ee sarved last autumn?"
The man addressed looked angrily away, the others laughed: a sore point!
"Paid 'ee wi' tawps'l sheets, didn't 'e?" said another. "A fair wind, an' him bound West! Tchutt! 'ee must 'a bin sleepin' sound when th' wind come away, Pengelly, m' son!"
Pengelly swore softly.
"Don't 'ee mind un, Jan, m' boy?" added a third. "Mebbe th' Capten 'll send 'ee 'Spanish notes' when 'e arrives out—Santa Rosalia, worn't it?"
A bustle at the companionway put a stop to the chaff, the purposeful man having come on deck, glum of countenance.
"You'm struck a right 'hard case,' boys," he said. "Twenty per cent ain't in it—an' I'm off. So long!"
One by one the tradesmen had their interview, and returned to deck to talk together, with a half laugh, of Scotch 'Jews' and hard bargains. Hard bargains being better than no business, the contracts were taken up, the crowd dispersed, and we were soon in a position to order our longshore togs and table luxuries—at prices that suggested that someone was warming his boots at our fire.
With Jan Pengelly we bargained for foodstuffs. It was something of a task to get comfortably aboard his 'bumboat,' heaving and tossing as she was in the short sea. In the little cabin, securely battened and tarpaulined against the drenching sprays that swept over the boat, he kept his stock—a stock of everything that a homeward-bounder could possibly require; but his silk scarves and velvet slippers, silver-mounted pipes and sweet tobacco hats, held no attraction for us: it was food we sought—something to satisfy the hunger of five months' voyaging on scant rations—and at that we kept Jan busy, handing out and taking a careful tally of our purchases.
On deck there was little work for us to do. Little could be done, for, as the day wore on to a stormy setting, wind and sea increased, forcing even the hardy boatmen to cast off and run to a sheltered creek at St. Mawes. The icy, biting spray, scattered at every plunge of our ground-fast barque, left no corner of the deck unsearched, and, after a half-hearted attempt to keep us going, the Mate was forced to order 'stand by.' In half-deck and fo'cas'le we gathered round the red-hot bogies, and talked happily of the voyage's end, of the pay-table, of resolves to stop there when we had come ashore.
Then came the night, at anchor-watch. Tramping for a brief hour, two together, sounding, to mark that she did not drive a-lee; listening to the crash of seas, the harping of the rigging, to the thrap, thrap of wind-jarred halliards; struggling to the rigging at times, to put alight an ill-burning riding lamp; watching the town lights glimmer awhile, then vanish as quick succeeding squalls of snow enwrapped the Bay. A brief spell of duty, not ill-passed, that made the warmth of the half-deck and the red glow of the bogie fire more grateful to return to.
As day broke the gale was at its height. Out of a bleak and threatening west the wind blew ominously true—a whole gale, accompanied by a heavy fall of snow. There could be no boat communication with the shore in such a wind, but, as soon as the light allowed, we engaged the Signal Station with a string of flags, and learnt that our orders had not yet come to hand, that they would be communicated by signal, if received during the day.
After we had re-stowed sails and secured such gear and tackle as had blown adrift in the night, 'stand by' was again the order, reluctantly given, and all hands took advantage of the rare circumstance of spare time and a free pump to set our clothes cleanly and in order.
Near noon the Mate spied fluttering wisps of colour rising on the signal yard ashore. Steadying himself in a sheltered corner, he read the hoist: W.Q.H.L.—our number.
"Aft here, you boys, an' hand flags," he shouted. Never was order more willingly obeyed; we wanted to know.
The news went round that our orders had come. With bared arms, dripping of soapsuds, the hands came aft, uncalled, and the Mate was too busy with telescope and signal-book to notice (and rebuke) the general muster of expectant mariners.
As our pennant was run up, the hoist ashore was hauled down, to be replaced by a new. The Mate read out the flags, singly and distinct, and turned to the pages of the signal-book.
"'You—are—ordered—to—proceed—to'—Answering pennant up, lively now; damme, I can't rest you boys a minute, but ye run to seed an' sodgerin'!"
A moment of suspense; to proceed to—where? The Old Man was on deck now, with code-book in hand, open at the 'geographicals.' "'B—D—S—T,'" sang out the Mate. "B.D.S.T.," repeated the Old Man, whetting a thumb and turning the pages rapidly. "B.D.S.T., B.D.S—Sligo! Sligo, where's that, anyway?"
"North of Ireland, sir," said M'Kellar. "Somewhere east of Broadhaven. I wass in there once, mysel'."
"Of course, of course! Sligo, eh? Well, well! I never heard of a square-rigger discharging there—must see about th' charts. Ask them to repeat, Mister, and make sure."
Our query brought the same flags to the yard. B.D.S.T.—Sligo, without a doubt—followed by a message, "Letters will be sent off as soon as weather moderates."
There was a general sense of disappointment when our destination was known; Ireland had never even been suggested as a possible finish to our voyage. Another injustice!
As the afternoon wore on, the wind lessened and hauled into the north. The bleak storm-clouds softened in outline, and broke apart to show us promise of better weather in glimpses of clear blue behind. Quickly, as it had got up, the harbour sea fell away. The white curling crests no longer uprose, to be caught up and scattered afar in blinding spindrift. Wind, their fickle master, had proved them false, and now sought, in blowing from a new airt, to quell the tumult he had bidden rise.
With a prospect of letters—of word from home—we kept an eager look-out for shore-craft putting out, and when our messenger arrived after a long beat, the boat warp was curled into his hand and the side ladder rattled to his feet before he had time to hail the deck. With him came a coasting pilot seeking employ, a voluble Welshman, who did not leave us a minute in ignorance of the fact that "he knew th' coast, indeed, ass well ass he knew Car—narvon!"
Then to our letters. How we read and re-read, and turned them back and forward, scanning even the post-mark for further news!
* * * * *
Early astir, we had the lee anchor at the bows before dawn broke. A bright, clear frosty morning, a cloudless sky of deepest blue, the land around wrapped in a mantle of snow—a scene of tranquillity in sea and sky, in marked contrast to the bitter weather of the day before. At the anchorage all was haste and stirring action. A gentle breeze from the north was blowing—a 'soldier's' wind that set fair to east and west, and the wind-bound ships were hurrying to get their anchors and be off, to make the most of it. A swift pilot cutter, sailing tack and tack through the anchorage, was serving pilots on the outward bound, and as each was boarded in turn, the merry clank-clank of windlass pawls broke out, and the chorus of an anchor chantey woke the echoes of the Bay. Quay punts passed to and fro from ship to shore, lurching, deep-laden with stores, or sailing light to reap the harvest that the west wind had blown them. Among them came Jan Pengelly (anxious that payment 'by tops'l sheets' did not again occur with him), and the Welsh coasting pilot who was to sail with us.
The weather anchor was strong bedded and loth to come home, and it was as the last of the fleet that we hoisted our number and ran out between Pendennis and the Head. The Old Man was in high good humour that he had no towing bills to settle, and walked the poop, rubbing his hands and whistling a doleful encouragement to the chill north wind.
Safely past the dread Manacles, the Falmouth pilot left us. We crowded sail on her, steering free, and dark found us in open channel, leaning to a steady breeze, and the Lizard lights dipping in the wake astern.
For over a week of strong westerly gales we had kept the open sea, steering to the north as best the wind allowed. A lull had come—a break in the furious succession, though still the sea ran high—and the Old Man, in part satisfied that he had made his northing, put the helm up and squared away for the land. In this he was largely prompted by the coasting pilot (sick of a long, unprofitable, passage—on a 'lump-sum' basis), who confidently asked to be shown but one speck of Irish land, and, "I'll tell 'oo the road t' Dub-lin, Capt'in!"
Moderately clear at first, but thickening later, as we closed the land, it was not the weather for running in on a dangerous coast, ill-lighted and unmarked, but, had we waited for clear weather, we might have marked time to the westward until the roses came; the wind was fair, we were over-long on our voyage; sheet and brace and wind in squared sail thrummed a homeward song for us as we came in from the west.
At close of a day of keen sailing, the outposts of the Irish coast, bleak, barren, inhospitable, lay under our lee—a few bold rocks, around and above wreathed in sea-mist, and the never-dying Atlantic swell breaking heavily at base.
"Iss, indeed, Capt'in! The Stags! The Stags of Broad-haven, I tell 'oo," said the pilot, scanning through his glasses with an easy assurance. "Indeed to goodness, it iss the best landfall I haf ever seen, Capt'in!"
Though pleased with his navigation, the Old Man kept his head. "Aye, aye," he said. "The Stags, eh? Well, we'll haul up t' th' wind anyway—t' make sure!" He gave the order, and went below to his charts.
Rolling heavily, broad to the sea and swell, we lay awhile. There was no sign of the weather clearing, no lift in the grey mist that hung dense over the rugged coast-line. On deck again, the Old Man stared long and earnestly at the rocky islets, seeking a further guidemark. In the waning daylight they were fast losing shape and colour. Only the breaking sea, white and sightly, marked them bold in the grey mist-laden breath of the Atlantic. "——'present themselves, consisting of four high rocky islets of from two thirty-three to three ought-six feet in height, an' steep-to,'" he said, reading from a book of sailing directions. "Damme! I can only see three." To the pilot, "D'ye know the Stags well, Mister? Are ye sure o' ye're ground?"
"Wel, wel! Indeed, Capt'in" (Mr. Williams laughed). "I know the Stags, yess! Ass well ass I know Car-narvon! The Stags of Broad-haven, I tell 'oo. When I wass master of the Ann Pritchard, of Beaumaris, it wass always to the West of Ireland we would be goin'. Summer and winter, three years, I tell 'oo, before I came to pilotin'—an' there iss not many places between the Hull and Missen Head that I haf not seen in daylight an' dark. It iss the Stags, indeed! East, south-east now, Capt'in, an' a fine run to Sligo Bar!"
Still unassured, the Old Man turned his glasses on the rocky group. "One—two—three—perhaps that was the fourth just open to the south'ard"—they certainly tallied with the description in the book—"high, steep-to." A cast of the lead brought no decision. Forty-seven! He might be ten miles north and south by that and former soundings. It was rapidly growing dark, the wind freshening. If he did not set course by the rocks—Stags they seemed to be—he would lose all benefit of landfall—would spend another week or more to the westward, waiting for a rare slant on this coast of mist and foul weather! Already eighteen days from Falmouth! The chance of running in was tempting! Hesitating, uncertain, he took a step or two up and down the poop, halting at turns to stare anxiously at the rocks, in the wind's eye, at the great Atlantic combers welling up and lifting the barque to leeward at every rise. On the skylight sat Mr. Williams, smiling and clucking in his beard that "he did not know the Stags, indeed!"
"We haul off, Pilot," said stout Old Jock, coming at a decision. "If it had been daylight ... perhaps ... but I'm for takin' no risks. They may be th' Stags, belike they are, but I'm no' goin' oan in weather like this! We'll stand out t' th' norrard—'mainyards forrard, Mister'—till daylight onyway!"
Sulkily we hauled the yards forward and trimmed sail, leaving the rocks to fade under curtain of advancing night, our high hopes of making port dismissed. The 'navigators' among us were loud of their growling, as the ship lurched and wallowed in the trough of the sea, the decks waist-high with a wash of icy water—a change from the steadiness and comfort of a running ship.
Night fell black dark. The moon not risen to set a boundary to sea and sky; no play of high light on the waste of heaving water; naught but the long inky ridges, rolling out of the west, that, lifting giddily to crest, sent us reeling into the windless trough. On the poop the Old Man and Pilot tramped fore and aft, talking together of landfalls and coasting affairs. As they came and went, snatches of their talk were borne to us, the watch on deck—sheltering from the weather at the break. The Old Man's "Aye, ayes," and "Goad, man's," and the voluble Welshman's "iss, indeed, Capt'in," and "I tell 'oo's." The Pilot was laying off a former course of action. "... Mister Williams, he said, I can see that 'oo knows th' coast, he said, an' ... I 'oodn't go in myself, he said; but if 'oo are sure——"
"Brea—kers a-head!"—a stunning period to his tale, came in a long shout, a scream almost, from the look-out!
Both sprang to the lee rigging, handing their eyes to shield the wind and spray. Faint as yet against the sombre monotone of sea and sky, a long line of breaking water leapt to their gaze, then vanished, as the staggering barque drove to the trough; again—again; there could be no doubt. Breakers! On a lee shore!!
"Mawdredd an'l! O Christ! The Stags, Capt'in.... My God! My God!" Wholly unmanned, muttering in Welsh and English, Mr. Williams ran to the compass to take bearings.
Old Jock came out of the rigging. Then, in a steady voice, more ominous than a string of oaths, "Luff! Down helm, m' lad, an' keep her close!" And to the pilot, "Well? What d'ye mak' of it, Mister?"
"Stags, Capt'in! Diwedd i! That I should be mistake.... The others ... God knows! ... If it iss th' Stags, Capt'in ... the passage t' th' suth'ard.... I know it ... we can run ... if it iss th' Stags, Capt'in!"
"An' if it's no' th' Stags! M' Goad! Hoo many Stags d'ye know, Mister? No! No! We'll keep th' sea, if she can weather thae rocks ... an' if she canna!!" A mute gesture—then, passionately, "T' hell wi' you an' yer b——y Stags: I back ma ship against a worthless pilot! All hands, there, Mister—mains'l an' to'galn's'l oan her! Up, ye hounds; up, if ye look fur dry berryin'!"
All hands! No need for a call! "Breakers ahead"—the words that sent us racing to the yards, to out knife and whip at the gaskets that held our saving power in leash. Quickly done, the great mainsail blew out, thrashing furiously till steadied by tack and sheet. Then topgal'n' sail, the spars buckling to overstrain; staysail, spanker—never was canvas crowded on a ship at such a pace; a mighty fear at our hearts that only frenzied action could allay.
Shuddering, she lay down to it, the lee rail entirely awash, the decks canted at a fearsome angle; then righted—a swift, vicious lurch, and her head sweeping wildly to windward till checked by the heaving helmsman. The wind that we had thought moderate when running before it now held at half a gale. To that she might have stood weatherly, but the great western swell—spawn of uncounted gales—was matched against her, rolling up to check the windward snatches and sending her reeling to leeward in a smother of foam and broken water.
A gallant fight! At the weather gangway stood Old Jock, legs apart and sturdy, talking to his ship.
"Stand, good spars," he would say, casting longing eyes aloft. Or, patting the taffrail with his great sailor hands, "Up tae it, ye bitch! Up!! Up!!!" as, raising her head, streaming in cascade from a sail-pressed plunge, she turned to meet the next great wall of water that set against her. "She'll stand it, Mister," to the Mate at his side. "She'll stand it, an' the head gear holds. If she starts that!"—he turned his palms out—"If she starts th' head gear, Mister!"
"They'll hold, Sir! ... good gear," answered the Mate, hugging himself at thought of the new lanyards, the stout Europe gammon lashings, he had rove off when the boom was rigged. Now was the time when Sanny Armstrong's spars would be put to the test. The relic of the ill-fated Glenisla, now a shapely to'gallant mast, was bending like a whip! "Good iron," he shouted as the backstays twanged a high note of utmost stress.
Struggling across the heaving deck, the Pilot joined the group. Brokenly, shouting down the wind, "She'll never do it, Capt'in, I tell 'oo! ... An' th' tide.... Try th' south passage.... Stags, sure! ... See them fair now! ... Th' south passage, Capt'in.... It iss some years, indeed, but ... I know. Diwedd an'l! She'll never weather it, Capt'in!"
"Aye ... and weather it ... an' the gear holds! Goad, man! Are ye sailor enough t' know what'll happen if Ah start a brace, wi' this press o' sail oan her? T' wind'ard ... she goes. Ne'er failed me yet"—a mute caress of the stout taffrail, a slap of his great hand. "Into it, ye bitch! T' wind'ard! T' wind'ard!"
Staggering, taking the shock and onset of the relentless seas, but ever turning the haughty face of her anew to seek the wind, she struggled on, nearing the cruel rocks and their curtain of hurtling breakers. Timely, the moon rose, herself invisible, but shedding a diffused light in the east, showing the high summits of the rocks, upreared above the blinding spindrift. A low moaning boom broke on our strained ears, turning to the hoarse roar of tortured waters as we drew on.
"How does 't bear noo, M'Kellar? Is she makin' oan't?" shouted the Old Man.
The Second Mate, at the binnacle, sighted across the wildly swinging compass card. "No' sure, Sir. ... Th' caird swingin' ... think there's hauf a p'int.... Hauf a p'int, onyway!"
"Half a point!" A great comber upreared and struck a deep resounding blow—"That for yeer half a point"—as her head swung wildly off—off, till the stout spanker, the windward driver, straining at the stern sheets, drove her anew to a seaward course.
Nearer, but a mile off, the rocks plain in a shaft of breaking moonlight.
"How now, M'Kellar?"
"Nae change, Sir! ... 'bout east, nor'-east ... deefecult ... th' caird swingin'...."
The Old Man left his post and struggled to the binnacle. "East, nor'-east ... east o' that, mebbe," he muttered. Then, to 'Dutchy,' at the weather helm, "Full, m' lad! Keep 'er full an' nae mair! Goad, man! Steer as ye never steered ... th' wind's yer mairk.... Goad! D'na shake her!"
Grasping the binnacle to steady himself against the wild lurches of the staggering hull, the Old Man stared steadily aloft, unheeding the roar and crash of the breakers, now loud over all—eyes only for the straining canvas and standing spars above him.
"She's drawin' ahead, Sir," shouted M'Kellar, tense, excited. "East, b' nor' ... an' fast!"
The Old Man raised a warning hand to the steersman. "Nae higher! Nae higher! Goad, man! Dinna let 'r gripe!"
Dread suspense! Would she clear? A narrow lane of open water lay clear of the bow—broadening as we sped on.
"Nae higher! Nae higher! Aff! Aff! Up hellum, up!" His voice a scream, the Old Man turned to bear a frantic heave on the spokes.
Obedient to the helm and the Mate's ready hand at the driver sheets, she flew off, free of the wind and sea—tearing past the towering rocks, a cable's length to leeward. Shock upon shock, the great Atlantic sea broke and shattered and fell back from the scarred granite face of the outmost Stag; a seething maelstrom of tortured waters, roaring, crashing, shrilling into the deep, jagged fissures—a shriek of Furies bereft. And, high above the tumult of the waters and the loud, glad cries of us, the hoarse, choking voice of the man who had backed his ship.
"Done it, ye bitch!"—a now trembling hand at his old grey head. "Done it! Weathered—by Goad!"
LIKE A MAN!
Spring in the air of it, a bright, keen day, and the mist only strong enough to soften the bold, rugged outline of Knocknarea, our sailing mark, towering high and solitary above Sligo Harbour. The strong west wind that we had fought and bested at the Stags turned friendly, had blown us fair to our voyage's end, and now, under easy canvas, we tacked on shore and off, waiting for tide to bear up and float our twenty feet in safety across the Bar.
At Raghly, our signal for a local pilot was loyally responded to. A ship of tonnage was clearly a rare sight in these parts, for the entire male population came off to see us safely in—to make a day of it! Old pilots and young, fishermen and gossoons, they swept out from creek and headland in their swift Mayo skiffs, and though only one was Trinity licensed for our draft of water, the rest remained, to bear willing hands at the braces on the chance of a job at the cargo being given.
'Ould Andy' was the official pilot—a hardy old farmer-fisherman, weazened by years and the weather. He had donned his best in honour of the occasion—a coarse suit of fearnought serges, quaintly cut, and an ancient top hat, set at a rakish angle. Hasty rising showed in razor cuts on his hard blue jowl, and his untied shoes made clatter as he mounted the poop, waving a yellow time-stained license. An odd figure for a master-pilot; but he made a good impression on Old Jock when he said, simply, "... but bedad, now, Cyaptin! Sure, Oim no hand at thim big yards ov yours, but Oi kin show ye where th' daape watther is!"
The ship steered to his liking, and all in trim, he walked the poop, showing a great pride of his importance as a navigator of twenty feet. Suddenly—at no apparent call—he stepped to the side where his boat was towing.
"What-t," he yelled. "Ach, hoult yer whisht! What-t are yez shoutin' about? What-t? Ast the Cyaptin f'r a bit av 'baccy f'r th' byes in th' boat! Indade, an' Oi will natt ast th' dacent gintilman f'r a bit av 'baccy f'r th' byes in th' boat! What-t? Ach, hoult yer whisht, now!"
Joining the Captain he resumed the thread of his description of Sligo Port, apparently unheeding the Old Man's side order to the steward that sent a package of hard tobacco over the rail.
"... an' ye'll lie at Rosses Point, Cyaptin, till ye loighten up t' fourteen faate. Thin, thr'll be watther f'r yes at th' Quay, but..." (Another tangent to the lee rail.) ... "Ach! What-t's th' matther wit' ye now. Be m' sowl, it's heart-breakin' ye are, wit' yer shoutin' an' that-t! What-t? Salt baafe an' a few bisskits! No! Oi will natt!! Ast 'im yersilf f'r a bit av salt baafe an' a few bisskits, bad scran t' ye, yes ongrateful thaaves!"
We are homeward bound; the beef and biscuits go down. After them, "a tarn sail—jest a rag, d'ye moind, t' make a jib f'r th' ould boat"; then, "a pat av paint an' a brush"—it becomes quite exciting with Ould Andy abusing his boat's crew at every prompted request. We are beginning to wager on the nature of the next, when sent to the stations for anchoring. Ould Andy, with an indignant gesture and shake of his fists, turns away to attend to his more legitimate business, and, at his direction, we anchor to seaward of the Bar.
The wind that has served us so well has died away in faint airs, leaving a long glassy swell to score the placid surface of the Bay and set a pearly fringe on the distant shore. The tide moves steadily in flood, broadening in ruffling eddies at the shoals of the Bar. On a near beacon a tide gauge shows the water, and when sail is furled and the yards in harbour trim we have naught to do but reckon our wages, and watch the rising water lapping, inch by inch, on the figured board. From seaward there is little to be seen of the countryside. The land about is low to the coast, but far inland blue, mist-capped ranges stand bold and rugged against the clear northern sky. Beyond the Bar the harbour lies bare of shipping—only a few fishing skiffs putting out under long sweeps, and the channel buoys bobbing and heaving on the long swell. A deserted port we are come to after our long voyage from the West!
"That'll be th' Maid o' th' Moy, Cyaptin," said Ould Andy, squinting through the glasses at smoke-wrack on the far horizon. "Hot-fut from Ballina, t' tow ye in. An' Rory Kilgallen may save his cowl, bedad, f'r we'll naade two fut av watther yet before we get acrost. Bedad"—in high glee—"he'll nat-t be after knowin' that it's twinty faate, no liss, that Ould Andy is bringin' in this day!"
With a haste that marks her skipper's anxiety to get a share of the good things going, the Maid, a trim little paddle tug, draws nigh, and soon a high bargaining begins between Old Jock and the tugman, with an eager audience to chorus, "D'ye hear that-t, now!" at each fiery period. Rory has the whip hand—and knows it. No competition, and the tide making inch by inch on the beacon gauge!
For a time Old Jock holds out manfully. "Goad, no! I'll kedge th' hooker up t' Sligo Quay before I give ye that!" But high water at hand and no sign of wind, he takes the tug on at a stiff figure, and we man the windlass, tramping the well-worn round together for the last time.
Leave her is the set chantey for finish of a voyage, and we roar a lusty chorus to Granger, the chanteyman.
"O! Leave 'r John-ny, leave 'r like a man, (An' leave 'r, John-ny, leave 'r!) Oh! Leave 'r, John-ny, leave 'r when ye can, (An' it's time—for us—t' leave 'r!")
A hard heave, and the tug lying short. A Merseyman would have the weight off the cable by this.
"O! Soon we'll 'ear 'th Ol' Man say, (Leave 'r, John-ny, leave 'r!) Ye kin go ashore an' take yer pay, (An' it's time—for us—t' leave 'r!")
"Heave, byes," the gossoons bearing stoutly on the bars with us. "Heave, now! He's got no frin's!"
"O! Th' times wos 'ard, an' th' wages low, (Leave 'r, John-ny, leave 'r!) Th' w'yage wos long, an' th' gales did blow, (An' it's time—for us—t' leave 'r!")
Check—and rally; check—a mad rush round—the anchor dripping at the bows, and we move on across the eddies of the Bar in wake of the panting tug.
A short tow, for all the bargaining, and at Rosses Point we bring up to moorings—the voyage at an end.
"That'll do, you men," said the Mate, when the last warp was turned. "Pay off at th' Custom House at twelve to-morrow!"
"That'll do!" Few words and simple; but the meaning! Free at last! No man's servant! With a hurricane whoop the crew rush to quarters to sling their bags for the road.
Then the trafficking with the shore, the boatmen reaping a harvest. "A bob th' trip, yer 'anner, on a day like this." The doors of the village inn swinging constantly, and the white-aproned landlord (mopping a heated brow at royal orders), sending messengers to ransack the village cupboards for a reserve of glasses. And when at last the boats are ready for the long pull up to Sligo town, and the impatient boatmen shouting, "Coom on now, byes! Before th' toide tarns; byes, now!" The free men embark, and we, the afterguard (who draw no pay), are left to watch them set off, and wish that our day were quickly come.
For a time we hear their happy voices, and answer cheer for cheer, then the dark comes, and the last is a steady clack of rowlocks, and the men singing "Leave 'r, John-ny ... like a man!"
* * * * *
Two days later, on deck of the Glasgow boat, I gazed on my old ship for the last time. At the narrow bend we steamed slow, to steer cautiously past her. The harbour watch were there to give me a parting cheer, and Old Jock, from the poop, waved a cheery response to my salute. Past her, we turned water again, and sped on to sea.
It was a day of mist and low clouds, and a weakly sun breaking through in long slanting shafts of light. Over the Point a beam was fleeting, playing on the house-tops, shimmering in window glasses, lighting on the water, on the tracery of spar and rigging, and showing golden on the red-rusty hull of the old barque—my home for so long in fair weather and foul.
A turn of the steering shut her from my sight, and I turned to go below.
"Fine ships! Fine ships—t' look aat!"
The Mate of the steamer, relieved from duty, had stopped at my side, sociable. He would be a Skye-man by the talk of him. It was good to hear the old speech again.
"Aye! she's a fine ship."
"Haf you been th' voyage in her? Been long away?"
"Oh yes! Sixteen months this trip!"
"Saxteen munss! Ma grasshius! Y'll haf a fine pey oot o' her?"
"Not a cent! Owing, indeed; but my time'll be out in a week, an I'll get my indentures."
"Oh, yiss! Oh, yiss! A bressbounder, eh!" Then he gave a half-laugh, and muttered the old formula about "the man who would go to sea for pleasure, going to hell for a pastime!"
"Whatna voyage did ye haf, now?" he asked, after filling a pipe with good 'golden bar,' that made me empty the bowl of mine, noisily.
"Oh, pretty bad. Gales an' gales. Hellish weather off the Horn, an' short-handed, an' the house full o' lashin' water—not a dry spot, fore an' aft. 'Gad! we had it sweet down there. Freezin', too, an' th' sails hard as old Harry. Ah! a fine voyage, wi' rotten grub an' short commons at that!"
"Man, man! D'ye tell me that, now! Ma grasshius! Ah wouldna go in them if ye wass t' gif me twenty pounds a munss!"
No; I didn't suppose he would, looking at the clean, well-fed cut of him, and thinking of the lean, hungry devils who had sailed with me.
"Naw! Ah wouldna go in them if ye wass t' gif me thirrty pounss a munss! Coaffins, Ah caall them! Aye, coaffins, that iss what they are!"
Coffin! I thought of a ship staggering hard-pressed to windward of a ledge of cruel rocks, the breakers shrieking for a prey, and the old grey-haired Master of her slapping the rail and shouting, "Up t'it, m' beauty! T' windward, ye bitch!"
"Aye, coaffins," he repeated. "That iss what they are!"
I had no answer—he was a steamboat man, and would not have understood.
Into a little-used dock space remote from harbour traffic she is put aside—out of date and duty, surging at her rusted moorings when the dock gates are swung apart and laden steamships pass out on the road she may no longer travel. The days pass—the weeks—the months; the tide ebbs, and comes again; fair winds carry but trailing smoke-wrack to the rim of a far horizon; head winds blow the sea mist in on her—but she lies unheeding. Idle, unkempt, neglected; and the haughty figurehead of her is turned from the open sea.
Black with the grime of belching factories, the great yards, that could yet spread broad sails to the breeze, swing idly on untended braces, trusses creaking a note of protest, sheet and lift chains clanking dismally against the mast. Stout purchase blocks that once chirrped in chorus to a seaman's chantey stand stiffened with disuse; idle rags of fluttering sailcloth mar the tracery of spar and cordage; in every listless rope, every disordered ratline, she flies a signal of distress—a pennant of neglect.
Her decks, encumbered with harbour gear and tackle, are given over to the rude hands of the longshoreman; a lumber yard for harbour refuse, a dumping ground for the ashes of the bustling dock tugs. On the hatch covers of her empty holds planks and stages are thrown aside, left as when the last of the cargo was dragged from her; hoist ropes, frayed and chafed to feather edges, swing from the yardarms; broken cargo slings lie rotting in a mess of grain refuse. The work is done. There is not a labourer's pay in her; the stevedores are gone ashore.
Though yet staunch and seaworthy, she stands condemned by modern conditions: conditions that call for a haste she could never show, for a burthen that she could never carry. But a short time, and her owners (grown weary of waiting a chance charter at even the shadow of a freight) may turn their thumbs down, and the old barque pass to her doom. In happy case, she may yet remain afloat—a sheer hulk, drowsing the tides away in some remote harbour, coal-hulking for her steam-pressed successor.
And of her crew, the men who manned and steered her? Scattered afar on seven seas, learning a new way of seafaring; turning the grip that had held to a life aloft to the heft of a coalman's shovel, the deft fingers that had fashioned a wondrous plan of stay and shroud to the touch of winch valve and lever. Only an old man remains, a warden, in keeping with the lowly state of his once trim barque. Too old (conservative, may be) to start sea life anew, he has come to shipkeeping—a not unpleasant way of life for an aged mariner, so that he can sit on the hatch on fine nights, with a neighbourly dock policeman or Customs watcher and talk of the sea as only he knows it. And when his gossip has risen to go the rounds, what links to the chain of memory may he not forge, casting his old eyes aloft to the gaunt spars and their burden of useless sail? Who knows what kindly ghosts of bygone shipmates walk with him in the night watches, when the dock lies silent and the flickering harbour lights are shimmering, reflected in a broad expanse?
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DAVID W. BONE
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R. B. CUNNINGHAME GRAHAM
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