COUNTRY LIFE ON BOARD SHIP
At first sight, any two things more difficult to bring into intimate relations than bucolic and nautical life would appear impossible to find. Those unfortunate people who, having followed the calm, well-ordered round of pastoral progress through the steadily-succeeding seasons of many years, suddenly find themselves, by some freakish twist of fortune’s wheel, transferred to the unstable bosom of the mutable deep, become terribly conscious of their helplessness in the face of conditions so utterly at variance with all their previous experience of settled, orderly life. The old order has changed with a vengeance, giving place to a bewildering seasonal disarrangement which seems to their shaken senses like a foretaste of some topsy-turvy world. Like sorrowful strangers in a strange land are they, wherein there is no sure foothold, and where, in place of the old familiar landmarks known and cherished so long, is a new element constant to nothing but change and—upon which they seem to be precariously poised—the centre of a marginless circle of invariable variability. This subversion of all precedent is of course no less disconcerting to the humbler denizens of the farmyard and meadow than it is to those who are ordinarily the august arbiters of their destinies. And a sudden change from the placid environment of the homestead, with all its large liberty and peaceful delights, to the cramped, comfortless quarters which, as a rule, are all that shipboard arrangements allow them, at once brings them to a state of disconsolate wretchedness wherein all their self-assertive individuality is reduced to a meek, voiceless protest against their hard and unmerited fate. Sea-sickness, too, that truly democratic leveller, does not spare animals, but inserts another set of totally new and unpleasant sensations into the already complicated disorganisation of their unfortunate position.
In spite of these admittedly difficult factors, I have the temerity to attempt the setting forth of certain phases of nautical life experienced by myself which have always appeared to me to bring into close contact two such widely differing spheres of existence as country life and sea life, principally in the management of farmyard animals at sea. Sailors are proverbially handy at most things, if their methods are unconventional, and I venture to hope that country readers will at least be amused by Jack’s antics when dealing with the familiar creatures of the countryside.
With that wonderful adaptability to circumstances which, while pre-eminently characteristic of mankind, is also a notable quality of domesticated animals, they soon recover from their stupor and malaise, arrange their locomotive powers to suit the mutations of their unsteady home, and learn (perhaps soonest of all) to distinguish the very number of strokes upon the ship’s bell which announces the arrival of feeding-time. No doubt the attentions of the sailors have much to do with the rapidity of acclimatisation (if the term may be so employed) manifested by most of the animals, since sailors have justly earned a high reputation for taming and educating creatures of even the most ferocious and intractable dispositions. Nevertheless, this result is attained by some of the queerest and most ludicrous means (to a countryman) imaginable. But what does that matter, since the conditions of their existence then become, for the seaworthy animals, not only pleasant but undoubtedly profitable to their owners. And where they are presently allowed the run of the ship much fun ensues, fun, moreover, that has no parallel in country life as ordinarily understood. Perhaps my experiences have been more favourably enlarged than falls to the lot of most seafarers, for I have been in several ships where the live-stock were allowed free warren; and although the system had many inconveniences and entailed a great deal of extra labour upon the crew, there were also many compensations. But, like all things pertaining to the sea, the practice of carrying live-stock has been replaced by more modern methods. The custom of carrying fresh meat in refrigerators is rapidly gaining ground, and, in consequence, latter-day seamen find fewer and fewer opportunities for educating in seafaring behaviour the usual farmyard animals that supply us with food. By few seamen will this be regarded as a misfortune, since they find their labour quite sufficiently onerous without the inevitable and disagreeable concomitants of carrying live-stock.
By far the largest portion of my experience of farmyard operations on board ship has been connected with pigs. These profitable animals have always been noted for their adaptability to sea life, and I fully believe, what I have often heard asserted, that no pork is so delicious as that which has been reared on board ship. Be that as it may, pigs of every nation under heaven where swine are to be found have been shipmates with me, and a complete study of all their varied characteristics and their behaviour under all sea circumstances would occupy a far greater number of pages than I am ever likely to be able or willing to give. Already I have endeavoured to set forth, in a former article, a sketch of the brilliant, if erratic, career of one piggy shipmate whose life was full of interest and his death a blaze of lurid glory. But he was in nowise the most important member of our large and assorted collection of grunters in that ship. Our Scotch skipper was an enthusiastic farmer during the brief periods he spent at Cellardyke between his voyages to the East Indies, and consequently it was not strange that he should devote a portion of his ample leisure to pig-breeding when at sea. For some reason, probably economical, we carried no fowls or other animals destined for our meat, with the exception of the pigs, two large retriever dogs and two cats making up the total of our animal passengers, unless a large and active colony of rats that inhabited the recesses of the hold be taken into account. The day before sailing from Liverpool a handsome young pair of porkers, boar and sow, were borne on board in one sack by the seller, making the welkin ring with their shrill protests. We already possessed a middle-aged black sow of Madras origin, whose temper was perfectly savage and unappeasable; in fact, she was the only animal I ever saw on board ship that could not be tamed. The first few days of our passage being stormy, the two young pigs suffered greatly from sea-sickness, and in their helpless, enfeebled state endured many things from the wrathful, long-snouted old Madrassee, who seemed to regard them both with peculiar aversion. She ate all their grub as well as her own, although, like the lean kine of Scripture, she was nothing benefited thereby. But the sailors, finding the youngsters amicably disposed, began to pet them, and in all possible ways to protect them from ill-usage not only by the savage Indian but by the black retriever Sailor, who had taken up his quarters in the fo’c’s’le and became furiously jealous of any attention shown to the pigs by his many masters. It should be noted that, contrary to the usual practice, those pigs had no settled abiding-place. At night they slept in some darksome corner beneath the top-gallant forecastle, wherever they could find a dry spot, but by day they roamed the deck whithersoever they listed, often getting as far aft as the sacred precincts of the quarter-deck, until Neptune, the brown retriever that guarded the after-end of the ship, espied them, and, leaping upon them, towed them forrard at full gallop by the ears, amid a hurly-burly of eldritch shrieks and rattling hoofs. I am not at all sure that the frolicsome young things did not enjoy these squally interludes in their otherwise peaceful lives. Certainly they often seemed to court rather than to avoid the dog’s onslaught, and would dodge him round the after-hatch for all the world like London Arabs guying a policeman. The only bitter drop in their brimming cup of delights came with distressing regularity each morning. As soon as the wash-deck tub was hauled forrard and the fore part of the ship was invaded by the barefooted scrubbers and water-slingers, two hands would grope beneath the fo’c’s’le, where, squeezed into the smallest imaginable space, Denis and Jenny were, or pretended to be, sleeping the dreamless slumbers of youthful innocence. Ruthlessly they were seized and hauled on deck, their frantic lamentations lacerating the bright air, and evoking fragments of the commination service from the disturbed watch below. While one man held each of them down, others scrubbed them vigorously, pouring a whole flood of sparkling brine over them meanwhile, until they were as rosy and sweet as any cherub of the nursery after its bath. This treatment, so mournfully and regularly resented by them, was doubtless one reason why they throve so amazingly, although the liberal rations of sea-biscuit and peasoup supplied to them probably suited them as well as any highly-advertised and costly provender would have done. Their tameness was wonderful and withal somewhat embarrassing, for it was no uncommon thing for them to slip into the men’s house unseen during the absence of the crew, and, climbing into a lower bunk, nestle cosily down into the unfortunate owner’s blankets and snore peacefully until forcibly ejected by the wrathful lessee.
Our passage was long, very long, so that the old black sow littered off the Cape of Good Hope, choosing, with her usual saturnine perversity, a night when a howling gale was blowing, and destroying all her hapless offspring but one in her furious resentment at the whole thing. Jenny, like the amiable creature she always was, delayed her offering until we were lying peaceably in Bombay Harbour. There she placidly produced thirteen chubby little sucklings and reared every one of them. They were a never-failing source of amusement to the men, who, in the dog-watches, would sit for hours with pipes aglow sedately enjoying the screamingly-funny antics of the merry band. There is much controversy as to which of all tame animals are the most genuinely frolicsome in their youth, kittens, lambs, calves, pups, and colts all having their adherents; but I unhesitatingly give my vote for piglings, especially when they are systematically petted and encouraged in all their antics as were that happy family of ours. Generally, the fat and lazy parents passed the time of these evening gambols in poking about among the men, begging for stray midshipmen’s nuts (broken biscuit), or asking in well-understood pig-talk to be scratched behind their ears or along their bristly spines, but occasionally, as if unable to restrain themselves any longer, they would suddenly join their gyrating family, their elephantine gambols among the frisky youngsters causing roars of laughter. Usually they wound up the revels by a grand galop furieux aft of the whole troop squealing and grunting fortissimo, and returning accompanied by the two dogs in a hideous uproar of barks, growls, and squeals.
Our stay on the coast was sufficiently prolonged to admit of another litter being produced in Bimlia-patam, twelve more piglets being added to our already sizeable herd of seventeen. So far, these farming matters had met with the unqualified approval of all hands except the unfortunate boys who had to do the scavenging, but upon quitting the Coromandel coast for the homeward passage, the exceeding cheapness of live-stock tempted our prudent skipper to invest in a large number of fowls and ducks. Besides these, he bought a couple of milch goats, with some wild idea of milking them, while various members of the crew had gotten monkeys, musk-deer, and parrots. It needed no special gift of prescience to foresee serious trouble presently, for there was not a single coop or house of any kind on board for any of the motley crowd. As each crate of cackling birds was lowered on deck it was turned out, and by the time the last of the new-comers were free, never did a ship’s decks look more like a “barton” than ours. Forty or fifty cockfights were proceeding in as many corners, aided and abetted, I grieve to say, by the sailors, who did all they could to encourage the pugnacity of the fowls, although they were already as quarrelsome a lot as you would easily get together. The goats were right at home at once; in fact goats are, I believe, the single exception to the general rule of the discomfort of animals when first they are brought on shipboard. The newcomers quietly browsed around, sampling everything they could get a purchase on with their teeth, and apparently finding all good alike. Especially did they favour the ends of the running gear. Now if there is one thing more than another that is sharply looked after at sea, it is the “whipping” or securing of ropes-ends to prevent them fraying out. But it was suddenly discovered that our ropes-ends needed continual attention, some of them being always found with disreputable tassels hanging to them. And when the mates realised that the goats apparently preferred a bit of tarry rope before anything else, their wrath was too great for words, and they meditated a terrible revenge. Another peculiarity of these strange-eyed animals was that they liked tobacco, and would eat a great deal of it, especially in the form of used-up quids. This peculiar taste in feeding had unexpected results. As before said, the raison d’être of the goats was milk, and after sundry ineffectual struggles the steward managed to extract a cupful from the unworthy pair. It was placed upon the cabin table with an air of triumph, and the eyes of the captain’s wife positively beamed when she saw it. Solemnly it was handed round, and poured into the coffee as if it had been a libation to a tutelary deity, but somebody soon raised a complaint that the coffee was not up to concert pitch by a considerable majority. A process of exhaustive reasoning led to the milk being tasted by the captain, who immediately spat it out with much violence, ejaculating, “Why, the dam’ stuff’s pwushioned!” The steward, all pale and agitated, looked on dumbly, until in answer to the old man’s furious questions he falteringly denied all knowledge of any felonious addition to the milk. The storm that was raised by the affair was a serious one, and for a while things looked really awkward for the steward. Fortunately the mate had the common-sense to suggest that the malignant goat should be tapped once more, and the immediate result tasted. This was done, and the poor steward triumphantly vindicated. Then it was unanimously admitted that tarry hemp, painted canvas, and plug tobacco were not calculated to produce milk of a flavour that would be fancied by ordinary people.
For the first time that voyage an attempt was made to confine a portion of our farm-stock within a pen, instead of allowing them to roam at their own sweet will about the decks. For the skipper still cherished the idea that milk for tea and coffee might be obtained from the two goats that would be palatable, if only their habit of promiscuous grazing could be stopped. So the carpenter rigged up a tiny corral beneath the fo’c’s’le deck, and there, in penitential gloom, the goats were confined and fed, like all the rest of the animals, on last voyage’s biscuit and weevily pease. Under these depressing conditions there was, of course, only one thing left for self-respecting goats to do—refuse to secrete any more milk. They promptly did so; so promptly, in fact, that on the second morning the utmost energies of the steward only sufficed to squeeze out from the sardonic pair about half-a-dozen teaspoonfuls of doubtful-looking fluid. This sealed their fate, for we had far too much stock on board to waste any portion of our provender upon non-producers, and the fiat went forth—the drones must die. Some suggestion was made by a member of the after guard as to the possibility of the crew not objecting to goat as a change of diet; but with all the skipper’s boldness, he did not venture to make the attempt. The goats were slain, their hides were saved for chafing gear, sheaths for knives, &c., but, with the exception of a portion that was boiled down with much disgust by the cook and given to the fowls, most of the flesh was flung overboard. Then general complaints arose that while musk was a pleasant perfume taken in moderation, a little of it went a very long way, and that two musk deer might be relied upon to provide as much scent in one day as would suffice all hands for a year. I do not know how it was done, but two days after the demise of the goats the deer also vanished. Still we could not be said to enjoy much room to move about on deck yet. We had 200 fowls and forty ducks roaming at large, and although many of the former idiotic birds tried their wings, with the result of finding the outside of the ship a brief and uncertain abiding-place, the state of the ship’s decks was still utterly abominable. A week of uninterrupted fine weather under the blazing sun of the Bay of Bengal had made every one but the skipper heartily sick of sea-farming, and consequently it was with many pleasurable anticipations that we noted the first increase in the wind that necessitated a reduction of sail. It made the fellows quite gay to think of the clearance that would presently take place. The breeze freshened steadily all night, and in the morning it was blowing a moderate gale, with an ugly cross sea, which, with the Belle’s well-known clumsiness, she was allowing to break aboard in all directions. By four bells there were many gaps in our company of fowls. Such a state of affairs robbed them of the tiny modicum of gumption they had ever possessed, and every little breaking sea that lolloped inboard drove some of them, with strident outcry, to seek refuge overboard. Presently came what we had been expecting all the morning—one huge mass of water extending from the break of the poop to the forecastle, which filled the decks rail high, fore and aft. Proceedings were exceedingly animated for a time. The ducks took very kindly to the new arrangement at first, sailing joyously about, and tasting the bitter brine as if they rather liked the flavour. But they were vastly puzzled by the incomprehensible motions of the whole mass of water under them; it was a phenomenon transcending all their previous aquatic experiences. The fowls gave the whole thing up, floating languidly about like worn-out feather brooms upon the seething flood of water, and hardly retaining enough energy to struggle when the men, splashing about like a crack team in a water-polo match, snatched at them and conveyed them in heaps to a place of security under the forecastle. That day’s breeze got rid of quite two-thirds of our feathered friends for us, what with the number that had flown or been washed overboard and those unfortunates who had died in wet heaps under the forecastle. The old man was much annoyed, and could by no means understand the unwonted cheerfulness of everybody else. But, economical to the last, he ordered the steward to slay as many of the survivors each day as would give every man one body apiece for dinner, in lieu of the usual rations of salt beef or pork. This royal command gave all hands great satisfaction, for it is a superstition on board ship that to feed upon chicken is the height of epicurean luxury. Dinner-time, therefore, was awaited with considerable impatience; in fact, a good deal of sleep was lost by the watch below over the prospect of such an unusual luxury. I went to the galley as usual, my mouth watering like the rest, but when I saw the dirty little Maltese cook harpooning the carcasses out of the coppers, my appetite began to fail me. He carefully counted into my kid one corpse to each man, and I silently bore them into the forecastle to the midst of the gaping crowd. Ah me! how was their joy turned into sorrow, their sorrow into rage, by the rapidest of transitions. She was a hungry ship at the best of times, but when things had been at their worst they had never quite reached the present sad level. It is hardly possible to imagine what that feast looked like. An East Indian jungle fowl is by no means a fleshy bird when at its best, but these poor wretches had been living upon what little flesh they wore when they came on board for about ten days, the scanty ration of paddy and broken biscuit having been insufficient to keep them alive. And then they had been scalded wholesale, the feathers roughly wiped off them, and plunged into a copper of furiously bubbling seawater, where they had remained until the wooden-headed Maltese judged it time to fish them out and send them to be eaten. They were just like ladies’ bustles covered with old parchment, and I have serious doubts whether more than half of them were drawn. I dare not attempt to reproduce the comments of my starving shipmates, unless I gave a row of dashes which would be suggestive but not enlightening. Old Nat the Yankee, who was the doyen of the forecastle, was the first to recover sufficiently from the shock to formulate a definite plan of action. “In my ’pinion,” he said, “thishyer’s ’bout reached th’ bottom notch. I kin stan’ bein’ starved; in these yer limejuicers a feller’s got ter stan’ that, but I be ’tarnally dod-gasted ef I kin see bein’ starved ’n’ insulted at the same time by the notion ov bein’ bloated with lugsury. I’m goin’ ter take thishyer kid full o’ bramley-kites aft an’ ask th’ ole man ef he don’t think it’s ’bout time somethin’ wuz said an’ done by th’ croo ov this hooker.” There was no dissentient voice heard, and solemnly as a funeral procession, Nat leading the way with the corpuses delicti, the whole watch tramped aft. I need not dwell upon the interview. Sufficient that there was a good deal of animated conversation, and much jeering on the skipper’s part at the well-known cussedness of sailors, who, as everybody knows (or think they know), will growl if fed on all the delicacies of the season served up on 18-carat plate. But we got no more poultry, thank Heaven. And I do not think the officers regretted the fact that before we got clear of the bay the last of that sad crowd of feathered bipeds had ceased to worry any of us, but had wisely given up the attempt to struggle against such a combination of trying circumstances.
The herd of swine, however, throve apace. To the manner born, nothing came amiss to them, and I believe they even enjoyed the many quaint tricks played upon them by the monkeys, and the ceaseless antagonism of the dogs. But the father of the family was a sore trial to our energetic carpenter. Chips had a sneaking regard for pigs, and knew more than anybody on board about them; but that big boar, he said, made him commit more sin with his tongue in one day than all the other trying details of his life put together. For Denis’s tusks grew amazingly, and his chief amusement consisted in rooting about until he found a splinter in the decks underneath which he could insert a tusk. Then he would lie down or crouch on his knees, and fidget away at that sliver of pine until he had succeeded in ripping a long streak up; and if left undisturbed for a few minutes, he would gouge quite a large hollow out of the deck. No ship’s decks that ever I saw were so full of patches as ours were, and despite all our watchfulness they were continually increasing. It became a regular part of the carpenter’s duties to capture Denis periodically by lassoing him, lash him up to the pin-rail by his snout, and with a huge pair of pincers snap off those fast-growing tusks as close down to the jaw as possible. In spite of this heroic treatment, Denis always seemed to find enough of tusk left to rip up a sliver of deck if ever he could find a quiet corner; and the carpenter was often heard to declare that the cunning beast was a lineal descendant of a survivor of the demon-possessed herd of Gadara.
In the case of the pigs, though, there were compensations. By the time we arrived off Mauritius, a rumour went round that on Friday a pig was to be killed, and great was the excitement. The steward swelled with importance as, armed with the cabin carving-knife, he strode forward and selected two of the first litter of piglets, the Bombay born, for sacrifice. He had plenty of voluntary helpers from the watch below, who had no fears for the quality of this meat, and only trembled at the thought that perchance the old man might bear malice in the matter of the fowls and refuse to send any pork in our direction. Great was the uproar as the chosen ones were seized by violent hands, their legs tied with spun-yarn, and their throats exposed to the stern purpose of the steward. Unaware that the critical eye of Chips was upon him, he made a huge gash across the victim’s throat, and then plunged the knife in diagonally until the whole length of the blade disappeared. “Man alive,” said Chips, “ye’re sewerly daft. Thon’s nay wye to stick a pig. If ye haena shouldert the puir beastie A’am a hog mysel’.” “You mind your own business, Carpenter,” replied the steward, with dignity; “I don’t want anybody to show me how to do my work.” “Gie me nane o’ yer impidence, ye feckless loon,” shouted Chips. “A’am tellin’ ye thon’s spilin’ guide meat for want o’ juist a wee bit o’ knowin’ how. Hae! lat me show ye if ye’re thick heid’s able to tak’ onythin’ in ava.” And so speaking, he brushed the indignant steward aside, at the same time drawing his pocket-knife. The second pig was laid out, and Chips, as delicately as if performing tracheotomy, slit his weasand. The black puddings were not forgotten, but I got such a distaste for that particular delicacy from learning how they were made (I hadn’t the slightest idea before) that I have never been able to touch one since.
Chips now took upon himself the whole direction of affairs, and truly he was a past-master in the art and mystery of the pork-butcher. He knew just the temperature of the water, the happy medium between scalding the hair on and not scalding it off; knew, too, how to manipulate chitterlings and truss the carcass up till it looked just as if hanging in a first-class pork shop. But the steward was sore displeased. For it is a prime canon of sea etiquette not to interfere with another man’s work, and in the known incapacity of the cook, whose duty the pigkilling should ordinarily have been, the steward came next by prescriptive right. However, Chips, having undertaken the job, was not the man to give it up until it was finished, and by universal consent he had a right to be proud of his handiwork. That Sunday’s dinner was a landmark, a date to reckon from, although the smell from the galley at suppertime on Saturday and breakfast-time on Sunday made us all quite faint and weak from desire, as well as fiercely resentful of the chaffy biscuit and filthy fragments of beef that were a miserable substitute for a meal with us.
But thenceforward the joy of good living was ours every Sunday until we reached home. Ten golden epochs, to be looked forward to with feverish longing over the six hungry days between each. And when off the Western Islands, Chips tackled the wicked old Madrassee sow single-handed, in the pride of his prowess allowing no one to help him although she was nearly as large as himself—ah! that was the culminating point. Such a feast was never known to any of us before, for in spite of her age she was succulent and sapid, and, as the Irish say, there was “lashins and lavins.” When we arrived in the East India Docks, we still had, besides the two progenitors of our stock, eight fine young porkers, such a company as would have been considered a most liberal allowance on leaving home for any ship I have ever sailed in before or since. As for Denis and Jenny, I am afraid to estimate their giant proportions. They were not grossly fat, but enormously large—quite the largest pigs I have ever seen—and when they were lifted ashore by the hydraulic crane, and landed in the railway truck for conveyance to Cellardyke, to taste the joys of country life on Captain Smith’s farm, there was a rush of spectators from all parts of the dock to gaze open-mouthed upon these splendid specimens of ship-bred swine. But few could be got to believe that, eleven months before, the pair of them had been carried on board in one sack by an undersized man, and that their sole sustenance had been “hard-tack” and pea-soup.
Such an extensive collection of farm-stock as we carried in the Belle was, like the method of dealing with it, probably unique. Certainly so in my experience, and in that of all the shipmates with whom I have ever discussed the matter. For this reason, a dirty ship upon the high seas is an anomaly, something not to be imagined; that is, in the sense of loose dirt, of course, because sailors will call a ship dirty whose paint and varnish have been scrubbed or weathered off, and, through poverty or meanness, left unrenewed. The Belle would no doubt have looked clean to the average landsman, but to a sailor she was offensively filthy, and the language used at night when handling the running gear (i.e. the ropes which regulate the sails, &c., aloft, and are, when disused, coiled on pins or on deck) was very wicked and plentiful. In fact, as Old Nat remarked casually one Sunday afternoon, when the watch had been roused to tack ship, and all the inhabitants of the farmery, disturbed from their roosting places or lairs, were unmusically seeking fresh quarters, “Ef thishyer—— old mud-scow’s out much longer we sh’ll hev’ ’nother cargo aboard when we du arrive. People ’ll think we cum fr’m the Chinchees with gooanner.”
But, as I have said, the Belle was certainly an exception. I joined a magnificent steel clipper called the Harbinger in Adelaide as second mate, and, on taking my first walk round her, discovered that she too was well provided in the matter of farm-stock, besides, to my amazement, for I had thought the day for such things long past, carrying a cow. But all the arrangements for the housing, feeding, and general comfort of the live-stock on board were on a most elaborate scale, as, indeed, was the ship’s equipment generally. The cow-house, for instance, was a massive erection of solid teak with brass fittings and fastenings, large enough to take two cows comfortably, and varnished outside till it looked like a huge cabinet. Its place when at sea was on the main hatch, where it was nearly two feet off the deck, and by means of ring-bolts was lashed so firmly that only a perfectly disastrous sea breaking on board could possibly move it. Its solidly-built doors opened in halves, of which the lower half only was kept fastened by day, so that Poley stood at her window gazing meditatively out at the blue expanse of the sea with a mild, abstracted air, which immediately vanished if any one inadvertently came too near her premises. She had a way of suddenly dabbing her big soapy muzzle into the back of one’s neck while the victim’s attention was taken up elsewhere that was disconcerting. And one night, in the middle watch, she created a veritable sensation by walking into the forecastle unseen by anybody on deck. The watch below were all sound asleep, of course, but the unusual footsteps, and long inquisitive breaths, like escaping steam, emitted by the visitor, soon roused them by their unfamiliarity. Voice called unto voice across the darkness (and a ship’s forecastle at night is a shade or so darker than a coal-cellar), “What is it? Light the lamp, somebody”; but with that vast mysterious monster floundering around, no one dared venture out of the present security of his bunk. It was really most alarming—waking up to such an invisible horror as that, and, as one of the fellows said to me afterwards, “All the creepy yarns I’d ever read in books come inter me head at once, until I was almost dotty with ’fraid.” This situation was relieved by one of the other watch, who, coming in to get something out of a chum’s chest, struck a match, and by its pale glimmer revealed the huge bulk of poor Poley, who, scared almost to drying up her milk, was endeavouring to bore her way through the bows in order to get out. The butcher was hurriedly roused from his quarters farther aft, and, muttering maledictions upon ships and all sailors, the sea and all cattle, slouched to the spot. His voice immediately reassured the wanderer, who turned round at its first angry words and deliberately marched out of the forecastle, leaving a lavish contribution in her wake as a memento of her visit.
Between the butcher and Poley a charming affection existed. She loved him most fondly, and the Cardigan jacket he wore was a proof thereof. For while engaged in grooming her, which he did most conscientiously every morning, she would reach round whenever possible and lick him wherever she could touch him. In consequence of this affectionate habit of hers his Cardigan was an object of derision to all on board until upon our arrival in Cape Town one of our departing passengers divided a case of extra special Scotch whisky among the crew. The butcher being of an absorbent turn, shifted a goodly quantity of the seductive fluid, and presently, feeling very tired, left the revellers and disappeared. Next morning he was nowhere to be found. A prolonged search was made, and at last the missing man was discovered peacefully slumbering by the side of the cow, all unconscious of the fact that she had licked away at him until nothing remained of his Cardigan but the sleeves, and in addition a great deal of his shirt was missing. It is only fair to suppose that, given time enough, she would have removed all his clothing. It was a depraved appetite certainly, but as I have before noticed, that is not uncommon among animals at sea. It was her only lapse, however, from virtue in that direction. Truly her opportunities were small, being such a close prisoner, but the marvel to me was how, in the absence of what I should say was proper food, she kept up her supply of milk for practically the whole voyage. She never once set foot on shore from the time the vessel left London until she returned, and as green food was most difficult to obtain in Adelaide, she got a taste of it only about four times during our stay. Australian hay, too, is not what a dainty English cow would be likely to hanker after; yet with all these drawbacks it was not until we had crossed the Line on the homeward passage that her milk began to dwindle seriously in amount. Thenceforward it decreased, until in the Channel the butcher handed in to the steward one morning a contribution of about a gill, saying, “If you want any more, sir, you’ll have to put the suction hose on to her. I sh’d say her milkin’ days was done.” But for long previous to this the ingenious butcher had been raiding the cargo (of wheat) for his pet, and each day would present her with two bucketfuls of boiled wheat, which she seemed to relish amazingly. Partly because of this splendid feeding, and partly owing to the regular washing and groomings she received, I imagine she was such a picture of an animal when she stepped out of the ship in London as I have only seen at cattle shows or on advertisement cards. You could not see a bone; her sides were like a wall of meat, and her skin had a sheen on it like satin. As she was led away, I said to the butcher, who had been assisting at her debarkation, “I suppose you’ll have her again next voyage, won’t you, butcher?” “No fear,” he answered sagely. “She’s gone to be butchered. She’ll be prime beef in a day or two.” I looked at him with something like consternation. He seemed to think it was a grand idea, although even now the mournful call of his old favourite was ringing in his ears. At last I said, “I wonder you can bear to part with her; you’ve been such chums all the voyage.” “I don’t know what you mean, sir,” he replied. “I looked after her ’cause it’s my bisness, but I’d jest as leave slaughter her myself as not.” With that he left me to resume his duty.
But in the fervour of my recollections of Poley, I have quite neglected another most important branch of the Harbinger’s family of animals, the sheep. Being such a large ship, she had an immense house on deck between the main hatch and the fore mast, in which were a donkey-engine and condenser, a second cabin to accommodate thirty passengers, petty officers’ quarters, carpenters’ shop, and galley. And still there was room between the fore end and the fore mast to admit of two massive pens, built of teak, with galvanised bars in front, being secured there one on top of the other. When I joined the ship these were empty, and their interiors scrubbed as clean as a kitchen table. That morning, looking up the quay, I saw a curious procession. First a tall man, with an air of quiet want of interest about him; by his side sedately marched a ram, a splendid fellow, who looked fully conscious that he was called upon to play an important part in the scheme of things. Behind this solemn pair came a small flock of some thirty sheep, and a wise old dog, keeping a good distance astern of the mob, fittingly brought up the rear. They were expected, for I saw some of the men, under the bo’sun’s directions, carefully laying a series of gangways for them. And, without noise, haste, or fuss, the man marched on board closely followed by the ram. He led the way to where a long plank was laid from the deck to the wide-open door of the upper pen. Then, stepping to the side of it, without a word or even a gesture, he stood quite still while the stately ram walked calmly up that narrow way, followed by the sheep in single file. The leader walked into the pen and right round it, reaching the door just as the fifteenth sheep had entered. The others had been restrained from following as soon as fifteen had passed. Outside he stepped upon the plank with the same grave air of importance, and the moment he had done so the door was slid to in the face of the others who were still following his lead. Then the other pen was filled in the same easy manner, the ram quitting the second pen with the bearing of one whose sublime height of perfection is far above such paltry considerations as praise or blame, while the dog stood aloof somewhat dejectedly, as if conscious that his shining abilities were for the time completely overshadowed by the performances of a mere woolly thing, one of the creatures he had always regarded as being utterly destitute of a single gleam of reasonableness. The ram received a carrot from his master’s pocket with a gracious air, as of one who confers a favour, and together the trio left the ship. The embarkation had been effected in the quietest, most humane manner possible, and to my mind was an object-lesson in ingenuity.
We had no swine, but on top of this same house there was a fine range of teak-built coops of spacious capacity, and these were presently filled with quite a respectable company of fowls, ducks, and geese, all, of course, under the charge of the butcher. Happy are the animals who have no history on board ship, whose lives move steadily on in one well-fed procession unto their ordained end. Here in this grand ship, had it not been for the geese, no one would have realised the presence of poultry at all, so little were they in evidence until they graced the glittering table in the saloon at 6 P.M. But the geese, as if bent upon anticipating the fate that was in store for them, waited with sardonic humour until deepest silence fell upon the night-watches. Then, as if by preconcerted signal, they raised their unmelodious voices, awaking sleepers fore and aft from deepest slumbers, and evoking the fiercest maledictions upon their raucous throats. Occasionally the shadowy form of some member of the crew, exasperated beyond endurance, would be dimly seen clambering up the end of the house, his heart filled with thoughts of vengeance. Armed with a wooden belaying-pin, he would poke and rattle among the noisy creatures, with much the same result as one finds who, having a slightly aching tooth, fiddles about with it until its anguish is really maddening. These angry men never succeeded in doing anything but augmenting the row tenfold, and they found their only solace in gloating over the last struggles of one of their enemies when the butcher was doing his part towards verifying the statement on the menu for the forthcoming dinner of “roast goose.”
But the chief interest of our farmyard, after all, lay in the sheep. How it came about that such a wasteful thing was done I do not know, but it very soon became manifest that some at least of our sheep were in an interesting condition, and one morning, at wash-deck time, when I was prowling around forrard to see that everything was as it should be, I was considerably amused to see one of the sheep occupying a corner of the pen with a fine young lamb by her side. While I watched the pretty creature, the butcher came along to begin his day’s work. When he caught sight of the new-comer he looked silly. It appeared that he alone had been sufficiently unobservant of his charges to be unprepared for this dénouement, and it was some time before his sluggish wits worked up to the occasion. Suddenly he roused himself and made for the pen. “What are you going to do, butcher?” I asked. “Goin’ to do! W’y I’m agoin’ ter chuck that there thing overboard, a’course, afore any of them haristocrats aft gets wind of it. They won’t touch a bit o’ the mutton if they hear tell o’ this. I never see such a thing aboard ship afore.” But he got no further with his fell intent, for some of the sailors intervened on behalf of the lamb, vowing all sorts of vengeance upon the butcher if he dared to touch a lock of its wool; so he was obliged to beat a retreat, grumblingly, to await the chief steward’s appearance and lay the case before him. When that gentleman appeared, he was by no means unwilling to add a little to his popularity by effecting a compromise. It was agreed that the sailors should keep the new-comer as a pet, but all subsequent arrivals were to be dealt with by the butcher instanter, without any interference on their part. This, the steward explained, was not only fair, but merciful, as in the absence of green food there could only be a day or two’s milk forthcoming, and the poor little things would be starved. Of course, he couldn’t spare any of Poley’s precious yield for nursing lambs, besides wishing to avoid the natural repugnance the passengers would have to eating mutton in such a condition. So the matter was amicably arranged.
Thereafter, whenever a lamb was dropped, and every one of those thirty ewes presented one or two, the butcher laid violent hands upon it, and dropped it overboard as soon as it was discovered. Owing to the promise of sundry tots of grog from the sailors, he always informed them of the fact, and pointed out the bereaved mother. Then she would be pounced upon, lifted out of the coop, and while one fellow held her another brought the favoured lamb. After the first time or two, that pampered young rascal needed no showing. As soon as he saw the sheep being held he would make a rush, and in a minute or two would completely drain her udder. Sometimes there were as many as three at a time for him to operate upon, but there never seemed to be too many for his voracious appetite. What wonder that like Jeshurun he waxed fat and kicked. He grew apace, and he profited amazingly by the tuition of his many masters. Anything less sheep-like, much less lamb-like, than his behaviour could hardly be imagined. A regimental goat might have matched him in iniquity, but I am strongly inclined to doubt it. One of the most successful tricks taught this pampered animal was on the lines of his natural tendency to butt at anything and everything. It was a joyful experience to see him engaged in mimic conflict with a burly sailor, who, pitted against this immature ram, usually came to grief at an unexpected roll of the ship; for Billy, as our lamb was named by general consent, very early in his career gat unto himself sea-legs of a stability unattainable by any two-legged creature. I often laughed myself sore at these encounters, the funniest exhibitions I had seen for many a long day, until one night in my watch on deck, during a gale of wind, I descended from the poop on to the main deck to hunt for a flying-fish that I heard come on board. I was stooping down, the water on deck over my ankles, to feel under the spare spars lashed alongside the scuppers, when I heard a slight noise behind me. Before I had time to straighten myself, a concussion like a well-aimed, hearty kick smote me behind, and I fell flat in the water like a plaice. When I had scrambled to my feet, black rage in my heart against things in general, I heard a fiendish cackle of laughter which was suddenly suppressed; and there, with head lowered in readiness for another charge, stood Billy, only too anxious to renew his attentions as soon as he could see an opening. For one brief moment I contemplated a wild revenge, but I suddenly remembered that my place was on the poop, and I went that way, not perhaps with the dignified step of an officer, because that demoniacal sheep (no, lamb) was behind me manœuvring for another assault. I lost all interest in him after that. A lamb is all very well, but when he grows up he is apt to become an unmitigated calamity, especially if sailors have any hand in his education. So that it was with a chastened regret that I heard the order go forth for his conversion into dinner. We were able to regale the pilot with roast lamb and mint sauce (made from the dried article), and the memory of my wrongs added quite a piquant flavour to my portion.
It has always been a matter of profound thankfulness with me that my evil genius never led me on board a cattle-boat. For I do think that to a man who has any feeling for the lower animals these vessels present scenes of suffering enough to turn his brain. And it does not in the least matter what provision is made for the safe conveyance of cattle in such numbers across the ocean. As long as the weather is fairly reasonable, the boxed-up animals have only to endure ten days or so of close confinement, with inability to lie down, and the nausea that attacks animals as well as human beings. The better the ship and the greater care bestowed upon the cattle-fittings the less will be the sufferings of the poor beasts; but the irreducible minimum is soon reached, and that means much more cruelty to animals than any merciful man would like to witness. But when a gale is encountered and the huge steamer wallows heavily in the mountainous irregularities of the Atlantic, flooding herself fore and aft at every roll, and making the cattlemen’s task of attending to their miserable charges one surcharged with peril to life or limbs, then the condition of a cattle-ship is such as to require the coinage of special adjectives for its description. Of course it will be said that human beings used to be carried across the ocean for sale in much the same way, and men calling themselves humane were not ashamed to grow rich on the receipts from such traffic; but surely that will never be advanced as an excuse for, or a palliative of, the horrors of the live cattle trade. I have passed through an area of sea bestrewn with the bodies of cattle that have been washed overboard in a gale—hurled out of the pens wherein they have been battered to death—when the return of fine weather has made it possible, and I have wished with all my heart that it could be made an offence against the laws to carry live cattle across the ocean at all.
No, the nearest approach that ever I had to being shipmates with a cargo of live stock was on one never-to-be-forgotten occasion, when, after bringing a 24-ton schooner from a little village up the Bay of Fundy to Antigua in the West Indies, I found myself, as you may say, stranded in St. John, the principal port in that island. The dry rot which seems to have unfortunately overtaken our West Indian possessions was even then very marked in Antigua, for there was no vessel there larger than a 100-ton schooner, and only two or three of them, all Yankees with one exception, a Barbadian craft with the queerest name imaginable, the Migumoo-weesoo. The shipping officer, seeing that I was a certificated mate, very kindly interested himself in me, going so far as to say that if I would take his advice and assistance I would immediately leave St. John in the Migum, as he called her, for that the skipper, being a friend of his, would gladly give me a passage to Barbadoes. I hope good advice was never wasted on me. At any rate this wasn’t, for I immediately went down to the beach, jumped into a boat, and ordered the darky in charge to put me on board the Migum. When we got alongside I was mightily interested to see quite a little mob of horses calmly floating alongside with their heads just sticking out of the water. The first thing that suggested itself to me was that if those horses got on board with their full complement of legs it would be little less than a miracle, the harbour being notoriously infested with sharks. But presently I reflected that there was really no danger, the darkies who were busy with preparations for the embarkation of the poor beasts kicking up such a deafening row that no shark would have dared venture within a cable’s length of the spot. Everybody engaged in the business seemed to be excited beyond measure, shouting, screeching with laughter, and yelling orders at the top of their voices, so that I could not see how anything was going to be done at all. The skipper was confined to his cabin with an attack of dysentery, and lay fretting himself into a fever at the riot going on overhead for want of his supervision. As soon as I introduced myself he begged me to go and take charge, but, although I humoured him to the extent of seeming to comply with his request, I knew enough of the insubordinate ’Badian darkies to make me very careful how I interfered with them. But going forward, I found to my delight that they had made a start at last, and that two of the trembling horses were already on deck. Four or five darkies were in the water alongside, diving beneath the horses with slings which were very carefully placed round their bodies, then hooked to a tackle, by means of which they were hoisted on board, so subdued by fear that they suffered themselves to be pushed and hauled about the decks with the quiet submissiveness of sheep. There were twenty of them altogether, and when they had all been landed on deck there was not very much room left for working the schooner. However, as our passage lay through the heart of the trade winds, and nothing was less probable than bad weather, nobody minded that, not even when the remaining deck space was lumbered up with some very queer-looking forage.
As soon as the horses were on board we weighed, and stood out of harbour with a gentle, leading wind that, freshening as we got farther off the land, coaxed the smart craft along at a fairly good rate. This lasted until midnight, when, to the darkies’ dismay, the wind suddenly failed us, leaving us lazily rocking to the gently-gliding swell upon the wine-dark bosom of the glassy sea. Overhead, the sky, being moonless, was hardly distinguishable from the sea, and as every brilliant star was faithfully duplicated beneath, it needed no great stretch of imagination to fancy that we were suspended in the centre of a vast globe utterly cut off from the rest of the world. But the poor skipper, enfeebled by his sad ailment and anxious about his freight, had no transcendental fancies. Vainly I tried to comfort him with the assurance that we should certainly find a breeze at daybreak, and it would as certainly be fair for us. He refused consolation, insisting that we were in for a long spell of calm, and against his long experience of those waters I felt I could not argue. So I ceased my efforts and went on deck to enjoy the solemn beauty of the night once more, and listen to the quaint gabble of the three darkies forming the watch on deck.
Sure enough the skipper was right. Calms and baffling airs, persisting for three days, kept us almost motionless until every morsel of horse provender was eaten, and—what was still more serious—very little water was left. All of us wore long faces now, and the first return of steady wind was hailed by us with extravagant delight. Continuing on our original course was out of the question under the circumstances, so we headed directly for the nearest port, which happened to be Prince Rupert, in the beautiful island of Dominica. A few hours’ sail brought us into the picturesque harbour, with its ruined fortresses, once grimly guarding the entrance, now overgrown with dense tropical vegetation, huge trees growing out of yawning gaps in the masonry, and cable-like vines enwreathing the crumbling walls. Within the harbour there was a profound silence; the lake-like expanse was unburdened by a single vessel, and although the roofs of a few scattered houses could be seen embosomed among the verdure, there was no other sign of human occupation. We lowered the little boat hanging astern and hastened ashore. Hurrying toward the houses, we found ourselves in a wide street which from lack of traffic was all overgrown with weeds. Here we found a few listless negroes, none of whom could speak a word of English, a barbarous French patois being their only medium of communication. But by signs we made them comprehend our needs—fodder for the horses, and water. After some little palaver we found that for a few shillings we might go into the nearest thicket of neglected sugar-cane and cut down as many of the feathery blades that crowned the canes as we wanted, but none of those sleepy-looking darkies volunteered their assistance—they seemed to be utterly independent of work. Our energy amazed them, and I don’t think I ever saw such utter contempt as was expressed by our lively crew—true ’Badians born—towards those lotus-eating Dominicans. We had a heavy morning’s work before us, but by dint of vigorous pushing we managed to collect a couple of boatloads of cane-tops, carry them on board, and return for two casks of water which we had left one of our number ashore to fill. Some deliberate fishermen were hauling a seine as we were about to depart, and we lingered awhile until they had finished their unusual industry, being rewarded by about a bushel of “bill-fish,” a sort of garfish, but with the beak an extension of the lower jaw instead of the upper. I offered to buy a few of the fish, but the fishermen seemed mightily careless whether they sold any or not. After much expenditure of energy in sign language, I managed to purchase three dozen (about the size of herrings) for the equivalent of twopence, and, very well satisfied, pushed off for the schooner, leaving the fishermen standing on the beach contemplating their newly-acquired wealth, as if quite unable to decide what to do with it.
It was worth all the labour we had expended to see the delight with which those patient horses munched the juicy green tops of the cane, and drank, plunging their muzzles deep into the buckets, of the clear water we had brought. And I felt quite pleased when, upon our arrival in Barbadoes two days after, I watched the twenty of them walk sedately up a broad gangway of planks on to the wharf, and indulge in a playful prance and shake when they found their hoofs firmly planted upon the unrocking earth once more.
I hope I shall not be suspected of drawing a longue beau when I say that I was once in a big ship whose skipper was an ardent agriculturist. On my first visit to the poop I saw with much surprise a couple of cucumber frames lashed in secure positions, one on either side of the rail at the break of the poop. When I fancied myself unobserved, I lifted the top of one, and looked within, seeing that they contained a full allowance of rich black mould. And presently, peeping down the saloon skylight, I saw that carefully arranged along its sides, on brackets, were many large pots of flowering plants, all in first-rate condition and bloom. It was quite a novel experience for me, but withal a most pleasant one, for although it did appear somewhat strange and incongruous to find plant-life flourishing upon the sea, it gave more of a familiar domestic atmosphere to ’board-ship life than anything I have ever known; much the same feeling that strikes one when looking upon the round sterns of the Dutch galliots, with their square windows embellished by snowy beribboned muslin curtains. When we got to sea, and well clear of the land, so that the skipper’s undivided attention could be given to his beloved hobby, there were great developments of it. For not content with growing lettuces, radishes, endive, and such “garden-sass,” as the Yankees term it, in his cucumber frames, he enlarged his borders and tried experiments in raising all sorts of queer seeds of tropical fruits and vegetables. His garden took up so much room on the poop that the officers fretted a good deal at the circumscribed area of their domain, besides being considerably annoyed at having to cover up the frames, boxes, &c., when bad weather caused salt spray to break over them. But this was ungrateful of them, because there never was a skipper who interfered less with his officers, or a more peaceable, good-natured man. Nor was the frequent mess of salad that graced the table in the saloon to be despised. In that humid atmosphere and equable temperature everything grew apace; so that for a couple of months at a time green crisp leaves were scarcely absent from the table for a day. Mustard and cress were, of course, his main crop, but lettuce, radishes, and spring onions did remarkably well. That was on the utilitarian side. On the experimental side he raised date-palms, coco-palms, banana-palms, mango trees, and orange trees, dwarfing them after a fashion he had learned in China, so that in the saloon he had quite a conservatory. But there were many others of which none of us knew the names. And all around in the skylight, beneath the brackets whereon the pots of geranium, fuchsia, &c., stood, hung orchids collected by the skipper on previous voyages, and most carefully tended, so that some lovely spikes of bloom were always to be seen. That saloon was a perfect bower of beauty, and although the ship herself was somewhat dwarfed by comparison with the magnificent clippers we forgathered with in Calcutta, few vessels had so many visitors. Her fame spread far, and nearly every day the delighted skipper would be busy showing a string of wondering shorefolk over his pleasaunce.
We went thence to Hong-Kong, and there, as if in emulation of the “old man’s” hobby for flowers, all hands went in for birds, mostly canaries, which can be obtained in China more cheaply, I believe, than in any part of the world. Sampans, loaded with cages so that nothing can be seen of the hull, and making the whole harbour melodious with the singing of their pretty freight, are always in evidence. For the equivalent of 3s., if the purchaser be smart of eye, he can always buy a fine cock canary in full song, although the wily Chinee never fails to attempt the substitution of a hen, no matter what price is paid. There arose a perfect mania on board of us for canaries, and when we departed for New Zealand there were at least 400 of the songsters on board. Truly for us the time of singing of birds had come. All day long that chorus went on, almost deafeningly, until we got used to it, for of course if one bird piped up after a short spell of quiet all hands joined in at the full pitch of their wonderful little lungs; so that, what with birds and flowers and good feeling, life on board the Lady Clare was as nearly idyllic as any seafaring I have ever heard of.
It might readily be supposed that in such leisurely ships as the Southern-going whalers, calling, as they did, at so many out-of-the-way islands in the South Pacific, there would have been more inducement than usual to cultivate the bucolics, if only from sheer desire for something to break the long monotony of the voyage. And so, indeed, there was, but not to anything like the extent that I should have expected. On board the Cachalot we were handicapped considerably in this direction by reason of several of the officers having an unconquerable dislike to fresh pork, which was the more remarkable because they never manifested the same aversion to the rancid, foul-smelling article supplied to us every other day out of the ship’s salt-meat stores. Whence, by the by, is ship salt pork obtained? Under what conditions do they rear the animals that produce those massy blocks of “scrunchy” fat, just tinged at one side with a pale pink substance that was once undoubtedly flesh, but when it reaches the sailor bears no resemblance to anything eatable? And how does it acquire that peculiarly vile flavour all its own, which is unlike the taste of any other provision known to caterers? I give it up; I have long ago done so, in fact. Men do eat it, although I never could, except by chopping it up fine with broken biscuit and mixing it with pea-soup, so that I could swallow it without tasting it. But the only other creatures able to do so are pigs and sharks. Sailors have all kinds of theories respecting its origin, of which I am restricted to saying that they are nearly all unprintable. But I do wish most fervently that those who supply it for human food, both dealers and ship-owners, were, as their victims are, compelled to eat it three times a week or starve. Just for a month or two. Methinks it would do them much good. But this is a digression.
Most of us had our suspicions that our officers’ dislike was not so much to fresh pork as to live pigs, and truly, with our limited deck space, the objection was most reasonable. Moreover, the South Sea Island pig is a questionable-looking beast at the best, not by any means tempting to look at, and of uncertain dietary. They affect startling colours, such as tortoise-shell and tabby, are woolly of coat, lengthy of snout, and almost as speedy as dogs. When fed, which is seldom, ripe cocoa-nut is given them, as it is to all live stock in the islands. But they make many a hearty meal of fish as they wander around the beaches and reef-borders, and this gives a flavour to their produce which is, to say the least of it, unexpected. But as if to make up for our lack of pigs we had the most elaborate fowlery fitted up that I ever was shipmates with. Its dimensions were about 8 ft. long, 6 ft. wide, and 5 ft. high. It was built of wood entirely, and exactly on the principle of an oblong canary-cage that is unenclosed on any side. Plenty of roosts and nests, plenty of pounded coral and cocoa-nut, and—as the result—plenty of eggs. But such queer eggs. The yolk was hardly distinguishable from the white, and they had scarcely any taste at all. Occasionally we got a brood hatched, but for some reason I don’t pretend to understand our fowls didn’t “go much on feathers,” as the skipper said. Not to put too fine a point on it, they never missed an opportunity of plucking one another’s feathers out and eating them with much relish. So that they all stalked about in native majesty unclad, doubtless rejoicing in the coolth, and occasionally scanning their own bodies solicitously for any sign of a sprouting feather, of which they themselves might have the first taste. This operated queerly among the young broods, who never got any chance of being fledged, and whose mothers were always fighting about them; but I believe as much that they (the mothers) might eat all the feathers themselves as to protect them from any fancied danger. These naked birds certainly looked funny; but the cook, who was an ingenious South Carolina negro, used to gaze at them earnestly and say, “Foh de good Lawd, sah; ef I aint agwine ter bring hout er plan ter raise chicken ’thout fedders altogedder. W’y, jess look at it. All de strenf dat goes ter fedders ’ll go ter meat—an’ aigs—kase dem chickens ez fatter den ever I see ’bord ship befo’; an den only tink ob de weary trubble save in pluckin’ ob ’em. Golly, sah, et’s a great skeem, ’n I’se right on de top ob it.” And, really, there did seem to be something in it.
Fowls were plentiful in Vau-Vau—fairly good ones, too; but it was entirely a mystery to me how any individual property in them was at all possible. For no native had any enclosure for them, or seemed to take any care of them. They just ran wild in the jungly vegetation around the villages and roosted on the trees; but as a result, I suppose, of the persistence through their many generations of their original fellowship with mankind, they never strayed far away from the houses. Our friends brought them on board at our first arrival in such numbers that no man was without a pair of fowls, and in sore straits where to keep them. The difficulty was soon solved by the skipper, who said that in his opinion it would soon be inconvenient for the fore-mast hands to see any difference between their fowls and his. Yes, and it was even possible that having eaten their own fowls they might forget that trifling fact, and absent-mindedly mistake some of the skipper’s poultry for their own. In order to prevent such mistakes he issued an edict that no more fowls were to be entertained by the crew or cooked for them by the “Doctor.” And although this was undoubtedly the wisest solution of our puzzle, there was thereat great discontent for a time, until the ingenious Kanakas took to cooking the fowls for us ashore, and bringing them on board ready for eating. Being plentiful, as I said, poultry was cheap, the standard price being a fathom of calico of the value of 6d. for two, for ship’s stock, while our private friends furnished them to us for nothing. And there are also in the South Pacific many small islands unpeopled upon which that most sensible and practical of navigators, James Cook, had left both fowls and pigs to breed at their own sweet will. These islets have always many cocoa-nut trees, the fruit from which affords plentiful food for the pigs, who show great ingenuity in getting at the contents of the fallen nuts, while the fowls apparently find no difficulty in picking up a comfortable livelihood. By tacit agreement these lonely ocean store-houses of good food are allowed to remain undisturbed by both the natives of adjacent islands and passing ships, except in cases of necessity. We once broke this unwritten law, for although we had not long left Fiji, we landed upon one of these oases in the blue waste, and had a day’s frolic there. It was a veritable paradise, although not more than three acres in area. Its only need seemed to be fresh water, for as it had grown to be an island by the deposit of sand upon the summit of a coral reef, there were of course no springs. And yet it was completely clothed with vegetation, the cocoa-palms especially growing right down to the edge of the sea, so that at high water the wavelets washed one side of their spreading roots quite bare. Being no botanist, I cannot describe the various kinds of plants that luxuriated there, having, I suppose, become accustomed to the privation of fresh water, as the fowls and pigs had also done. But I did notice that the undergrowth seemed to consist principally of spreading bushes, rising to a height of about 5 feet, and bearing, in the greatest abundance, those tiny crimson and green cones known to most people as bird’s-eye chillies. We all had cause to remember this, for thrusting our way through these bushes under the burning rays of the sun, we got in some mysterious way some of their pungent juices upon our faces and arms. And the effect was much the same as the application of a strong mustard plaster would have been.
We did not commit any great depredations. The second mate shot (with a bomb-gun) a couple of pigs, and we managed to catch half-a-dozen fowls, but they were so wild and cunning here, that except at night it was by no means easy to lay hands upon them. As so often happened to us, we found our best catch upon the beach, where just after sunset we waylaid two splendid turtle that had just crawled ashore to deposit their eggs. The advantage of such a catch as this was in the fact that turtle may be kept alive on board ship for several weeks, if necessary, by putting them in a cask of sea-water, and though unfed, they do not seem to be perceptibly impoverished. We also collected a goodly store of fresh unripe cocoa-nuts, which are one of the most delicious and refreshing of all tropical fruits. I do not suppose it would be possible to bring them to England without their essential freshness being entirely dissipated, for in order to enjoy them thoroughly they should be eaten new from the tree. They would be a revelation to people whose acquaintance with cocoa-nut is limited to the fully ripe and desperately indigestible article beloved of the Bank Holiday caterer, and disposed of at the favourite game of “three shies a penny.” In that form no native of cocoa-nut-producing countries ever dreams of eating them. For they are really only fit for “copra,” the universal term applied throughout the tropics to cocoa-nut prepared for conversion into oil. When the nuts are fully ripe, a native will seat himself by a heap of them, a small block of wood before him with a hollow in its centre, and an old axe in his hand. Placing a nut on the block, unhusked, of course, he splits it open by one blow of the axe and lays the two halves in the sun. By the time he has split open the last of the heap, he may begin at the first opened nuts and shake their contents into bags, for they will be dried sufficiently for the meat to fall readily from the shells. That is “copra.” But before the husk has hardened into fibre, even before the shells have become brittle, when it is possible to slice off the top of the nut as easily as you would that of a turnip, the contents almost wholly consist of a bland liquor, not cloyingly sweet, cool even under the most fervent blaze of the sun, and refreshing to the last degree. Around the sides of the immature shell there is, varying in thickness according to the age of the nut, a jelly-like deposit, almost tasteless, but wonderfully sustaining. I have heard it vaunted as a cure for all diseases of malnutrition, and I should really be inclined to believe that there was some basis for the claim. The juice or milk, if allowed to ferment, makes excellent vinegar.
A long spell of cruising without touching at any land having exhausted all our stock of fowls, to say nothing of fruit and vegetables, of which we had almost forgotten the taste, it was with no ordinary delight that we sighted the Kermadec group of islands right ahead one morning, and guessed, by the course remaining unaltered, that our skipper was inclined to have a close look at them, if not to land. As we drew nearer and nearer our hopes rose, until, at the welcome order to “back the mainyard,” we were like a school full of youngsters about to break up. Few preparations were needed, for a whaler’s crew are always ready to leave the ship at any hour of the day or night for an indefinite period. And in ten minutes from the time of giving the first orders, two boats were pulling in for the small semi-circular bay with general instructions to forage for anything eatable. A less promising place at first sight for a successful raid could hardly be imagined, for the whole island seemed composed of one stupendous mountain whose precipitous sides rose sheer from the sea excepting just before us. And even there the level land only appeared like a ledge jutting out from the mountain-side, and of very small extent. As we drew nearer, however, we saw that even to our well-accustomed vision the distance had proved deceitful, and that the threshold of the mountain was of far greater area than we had supposed, being, indeed, of sufficient extent to have afforded shelter and sustenance to quite a respectable village of colonists had any chosen to set up their homes in such a lonely spot. But to the instructed eye the steep beach, wholly composed of lava fragments, gave a sufficient reason why such a sheltered nook might be a far from secure abiding-place, even had not a steadfast stain of dusty cloud poised above the island in the midst of the clear blue sky added its witness to the volcanic conditions still ready to burst forth. But these considerations did not trouble us. With boisterous mirth we dodged the incoming rollers, and, leaping out of the boats as their keels grated on the shore, we ran them rapidly up out of the reach of the eager surf, delighted with the drenching because of its coolness. Dividing into parties of three, we plunged gaily into the jungly undergrowth, chasing, as boys do butterflies, the brown birds, like overgrown partridges, that darted away before us in all directions. We succeeded in catching a few, finding them to be what we afterwards knew in New Zealand as “Maori hens,” something between a domestic fowl and a partridge, but a dismal failure in the eatable way, being tough and flavourless as any fowl that had died of old age. Of swine, the great object of our quest, we saw not a hoof-print; in fact, we assured ourselves that whatever number of these useful animals the family that once resided in this desolate spot had reared, they had left no descendants. It was a grievous disappointment, for it threw us back upon the goats, and goat as food is anathema to all sailors. But it was a fine day; we had come out to kill something, and, as no other game appeared available, we started after the goats. It was a big contract. We were all barefooted, and, although on board the ship we had grown accustomed to regard the soles of our feet as quite impervious to feeling as any leather, we soon found that shore travelling over lava and through the many tormenting plants of a tropical scrub was quite another pair of shoes. We did capture a couple of goats, one a patriarch of unguessable longevity with a beard as long as my arm, and the other a Nanny heavy with kid. These we safely conveyed on board with us at the close of the day. But the result of our day’s foraging, overshadowing even the boat-load of magnificent fish we caught out in the little bay, was the discovery of a plant known in New Zealand as “Maori cabbage.” It looks something like a lettuce run to seed, and has a flavour like turnip-tops. I do not suppose any one on shore can realise what those vegetables meant to us, that is, the white portion of the crew. For it was well-nigh two years since we had tasted a bit of anything resembling cabbage, and our craving for green vegetables and potatoes was really terrible. It is one of the most serious hardships the sailor has to endure, the more serious because quite avoidable. Potatoes and Swede turnips are not dear food, and, if taken up with plenty of mould adhering to them and left so, will keep for six months in all climates. They make all the difference between a good and a bad ship. I am sure no banquet that I have ever sat down to since could possibly have given me a tithe of the epicurean delight I felt over a plentiful plate of this nameless vegetable and a bit of hard salt beef that evening.
Although the addition to our stock of provisions, excepting the fish, was but small, we had an ideal day’s enjoyment, and the fun we got out of Ancient William, the patriarch, was great. We had him tame in two days, and trying butting matches with the Kanakas; in spite of his age I don’t know what we didn’t teach him that a goat could learn. Nanny presented us with a charming little pet in the shape of a kid two days after her arrival on board, but to the grief of all hands her milk dried up almost immediately afterwards, so that to save the little creature from starvation, as there was not even a drop of condensed milk on board, we were compelled to kill it. The Kanakas ate it, and pronounced it very good. Then William the Ripe, in charging a Kanaka, who dodged him by leaping over the fo’c’s’le scuttle, hurled himself headlong below, breaking both his fore legs. We could have mended him up all right, but he seemed to resent getting better, refused tobacco and all such little luxuries that we tried to tempt him with, and died. I think he was broken-hearted at the idea that a mountaineer like himself, who for goodness knows how many generations had scaled in safety the precipitous cliffs of Sunday Island, should fall down a stuffy hole on board ship, only about eight feet deep, and break himself all up.
Some delightfully interesting articles on the ancient sport of “hawking,” or falconry, whichever is the correct term to use, in Country Life have vividly recalled to me a quaint and unusual experience in that line, which fell to my lot while the vessel of whose crew I was a very minor portion was slowly making her way homewards from a port at the extreme western limit of the Gulf of Mexico. We were absolutely without live stock of any kind on board the Investigator, unless such small deer as rats and cockroaches might be classed under that head. And, as so often happens at sea when that is the case, the men were very discontented at the absence of any dumb animals to make pets of, and often lamented what they considered to be the lonely condition of a ship without even a cat. But we had not been out of port many days when, to our delight as well as amazement, we saw one sunny morning hopping contentedly about the fo’c’s’le a sweet little blue and yellow bird about the bigness (or littleness) of a robin. Being well out of sight of land, no one could imagine whence he came, neither did anybody see him arrive. He just materialised as it were in our midst, and made himself at home forthwith, as though he had been born and bred among men and fear of them was unknown to him. We had hardly got over the feeling of almost childish delight this pretty, fearless wanderer gave us when another appeared, much the same size, but totally different in colour. It was quite as tame as the first arrival, and did not quarrel with the first-comer. Together they explored most amicably the recesses of the fo’c’s’le, apparently much delighted with the cockroaches, which swarmed everywhere. And before long many others came and joined them, all much about the same size, but of all the hues imaginable. They were all alike in their tameness, and it really was one of the most pleasant sights I ever witnessed to see those tiny, brilliant birds fluttering about our dingy fo’c’s’le, or, tired out, roosting on such queer perches as the edge of the bread-barge or the shelves in our bunks. Their presence had a most elevating influence upon the roughest of us—we went softly and spoke gently, for fear of startling these delicate little visitors who were so unafraid of the giants among whom they had voluntarily taken up their abode. At meal-times they hopped about the fo’c’s’le deck picking up crumbs and behaving generally as if they were in the beautiful glades and aromatic forests whence they had undoubtedly come. For it is hardly necessary to say that they were all land birds; and when during a calm one day one of them, stooping too near the sea, got wet, and was unable to rise again, August McManus, as tough a citizen as ever painted the Highway red, leapt overboard after it, and, with a touch as gentle as the enwrapping of lint, rescued it from its imminent peril.
This strange development of sea-life went on for a week, the weather being exceedingly fine, with light winds and calms. And then we became suddenly aware that some large birds had arrived and taken up positions upon the upper yards, where they sat motionless, occasionally giving vent to a shrill cry. What they were none of us knew, until shortly after we had first noticed them one of our little messmates flew out from the ship’s side into the sunshine. There was a sudden swish of wings, like the lash of a cane through the air, and downward like a brown shadow came one of the watchers from aloft, snatching in a pair of cruel-looking talons the tiny truant from our midst. Then the dullest of us realised that in some mysterious way these rapacious birds, a species of falcon, had become aware that around our ship might be found some of their natural food. Now we were not less than 200 miles from the coast at the time, and to my mind it was one of the strangest things conceivable how those hawks should have known that around a solitary ship far out at sea would be found a number of little birds suitable to their needs. The presence of the small birds might easily be explained by their having been blown off the land, as high winds had prevailed for some little time previous to their appearance, but as the hawks did not come till a week afterwards, during the whole of which time we had never experienced even a four-knot breeze, I am convinced that the same theory would not account for their arrival. It may have been a coincidence, but if so it was a very remarkable one; and in any case what were these essentially land birds of powerful flight doing of their own free will so far from land? Unless, of course, they were a little band migrating, and even then the coincidence of their meeting our ship was a most strange one.
We, however, troubled ourselves but little with these speculations. The one thing patent to us was that our little pets were exposed to the most deadly peril, that these ravenous birds were carrying them off one by one, and we were apparently powerless to protect them. We could not cage them, although the absence of cages would have been no obstacle, as we should soon have manufactured efficient substitutes; but they were so happy in their freedom that we felt we could not deprive them of it. But we organised a raid among those bloodthirsty pirates, as we called them, forgetting that they were merely obeying the law of their being, and the first dark hour saw us silently creeping aloft to where they had taken their roost. Two were caught, but in both cases the captors had something to remember their encounter by. Grasping at the shadowy birds in the darkness with only one free hand, they were unable to prevent the fierce creatures defending themselves with beak and talons, and one man came down with his prize’s claws driven so far into his hand that the wounds took many days to heal. When we had secured them we couldn’t bring ourselves to kill them, they were such handsome, graceful birds, but had they been given a choice in the matter I make no doubt they would have preferred a speedy death rather than the lingering pain of starvation which befell them. For they refused all food, and sat moping on their perches, only rousing when any one came near, and glaring unsubdued with their bold, fierce eyes, bright and fearless until they glazed in death. We were never able to catch any more of them, although they remained with us until our captain managed to allow the vessel to run ashore upon one of the enormous coral reefs that crop up here and there in the Gulf of Mexico. The tiny spot of dry land that appeared at the summit of this great mountain of coral was barren of all vegetation except a little creeping plant, a kind of arenaria, so that it would have afforded no satisfactory abiding-place for our little shipmates, even if any of them could escape the watchful eyes of their enemies aloft. So that I suppose after we abandoned the ship they remained on board until she broke up altogether, and then fell an easy prey to the falcons.
This was the only occasion upon which I have known a vessel at sea to be visited by so varied a collection of small birds, and certainly the only case I have ever heard of where land birds have flown on board and made themselves at home. When I say at sea, of course I do not mean in a narrow strait like the Channel, where passing vessels must often be visited by migrants crossing to or from the Continent. But when well out in the North Atlantic, certainly to the westward of the Azores, and out of sight of them, I have several times known a number of swallows to fly on board and cling almost like bats to whatever projections they first happened to reach. Exhausted with their long battle against the overmastering winds, faint with hunger and thirst, they had at last reached a resting-place, only to find it so unsuited to all their needs that nothing remained for them to do but die. Earnest attempts were made to induce them to live, but unsuccessfully; and as they never regained strength sufficient to resume their weary journey, they provided a sumptuous meal for the ship’s cat. Even had they been able to make a fresh start, it is hard to imagine that the sense of direction which guides them in their long flight from or to their winter haunts would have enabled them to shape a course from such an utterly unknown base as a ship at sea must necessarily be to them.
While making a passage up the China Sea vessels are often boarded by strange bird visitors, and some of them may be induced to live upon such scanty fare as can be found for them on shipboard. I once witnessed with intense interest a gallant attempt made by a crane to find a rest for her weary wings on board of an old barque in which I was an able seaman. We were two days out from Hong-Kong, bound to Manila, through a strong south-west monsoon. The direction of the wind almost enabled us to lay our course, and therefore the “old man” was cracking on, all the sail being set that she would stagger under close-hauled. Being in ballast, she lay over at an angle that would have alarmed anybody but a yachtsman; but she was a staunch, weatherly old ship, and hung well to windward. It was my wheel from six to eight in the evening, and as I wrestled with it in the attempt to keep the old barky up to her work, I suddenly caught sight of the gaunt form of a crane flapping her heavy wings in dogged fashion to come up with us from to leeward, we making at the time about eight knots an hour. After a long fight the brave bird succeeded in reaching us, and coasted along the lee side, turning her long neck anxiously from side to side as if searching for a favourable spot whereon to alight. Just as she seemed to have made up her mind to come inboard abaft the foresail, a gust of back-draught caught her wide pinions and whirled her away to leeward, about a hundred fathoms at one sweep, while it was evident that she had the utmost difficulty in maintaining her balance. Another long struggle ensued as the gloom of the coming night deepened, and the steady, strenuous wind pressed us onward through the turbulent sea. The weary pilgrim at last succeeded in fetching up to us again, and with a feeling of the keenest satisfaction I saw her work her way to windward, as if instinct warned her that in that way alone she would succeed in reaching a place of rest. Backward and forward along our weather side she sailed twice, searching with anxious eye the whole of our decks, but fearing to trust herself thereon, where so many men were apparently awaiting to entrap her. No, she would not venture, and quite a pang of disappointment and sympathy shot through me as I saw her drift away astern and renew her hopeless efforts to board us on the lee side. At last she came up so closely that I could see the laboured heaving of her breast muscles, and I declare that the expression in her full, dark eyes was almost human in its pathos of despair. She poised herself almost above the rail, the vessel gave a great lee lurch, and down the slopes of the mizen came pouring an eddy of baffled wind. It caught the doomed bird, whirled her over and over as she fought vainly to regain her balance, and at last bore her down so closely to the seething tumult beneath her that a breaking wave lapped her up and she disappeared. All hands had witnessed her brave battle with fate, and quite a buzz of sympathy went up for her in her sad defeat.
That same evening one of the lads found a strange bird nestling under one of the boats. None of us knew what it was, for none of us ever remembered seeing so queer a creature before. Nor will this be wondered at when I say that it was a goat-sucker, as I learned long afterwards by seeing a plate of one in a Natural History I was reading. But the curious speculations that its appearance gave rise to in the fo’c’s’le were most amusing. The wide gape of its mouth, so unexpected when it was shut, was a source of the greatest wonder, while the downy fluff of its feathers made one man say it reminded him of a “nowl” that a skipper of a ship he was in once caught and kept alive for a long time as a pet.
Of the few visitors that board a ship in mid-ocean none are more difficult to account for than butterflies. I have seen the common white butterfly fluttering about a ship in the North Atlantic when she was certainly over 500 miles from the nearest land. And in various parts of the world butterflies and moths will suddenly appear as if out of space, although the nearest land be several hundreds of miles distant. I have heard the theory advanced that their chrysalides must have been on board the ship, and they have just been hatched out when seen. It may be so, although I think unlikely; but yet it is hard to imagine that so fragile a creature, associated only in the mind with sunny gardens or scented hillsides, could brave successfully the stern rigour of a flight extending over several hundred miles of sea. All that is certain about the matter is that they do visit the ships at such distances from land, and disappear as if disheartened at the unsuitability of their environment. Lying in Sant’ Ana, Mexico, once, loading mahogany, I witnessed the labours of an unbidden guest that made me incline somewhat to the chrysalis theory about the butterflies. Our anchorage was some three miles off shore in the open roadstead, where the rafts of great mahogany logs tossed and tumbled about ceaselessly alongside. They had all been a long time in the water before they reached us, and were consequently well coated with slime, which made them an exceedingly precarious footing for the unfortunate slingsman, who was as often in the water as he was on the raft. One evening as I lay in my bunk reading by the light of a smuggled candle, I was much worried by a persistent buzz that sounded very near, and far too loud to be the voice of any mosquito that I had ever been unfortunate enough to be attended by. Several times I looked for this noisy insect without success, and at last gave up the task and went on deck, feeling sure there wasn’t room in the bunk for the possessor of that voice and myself. Next day after dinner I was again lying in my bunk, resting during the remainder of the dinner hour, when to my amazement I saw what I took to be an overgrown wasp or hornet suddenly alight upon a beam overhead, walk into a corner, and begin the music that had so worried me overnight. I watched him keenly, but could hardly make out his little game, until he suddenly flew away. Then getting a light, for the corner was rather dark, I discovered a row of snug apartments much like acorn-cups, only deeper, all neatly cemented together, and as smooth inside as a thimble. Presently along came Mr. Wasp, or Hornet, or whatever he was, again, and set to work, while I watched him as closely as I dared without giving him offence, noticing that he carried his material in a little blob on his chest between his fore legs. It looked like mud; but where could he get mud from? I could swear there was none on board under that fierce sun, and I couldn’t imagine him going six miles in five minutes, which he must needs have done had he gone ashore for it. So I watched his flight as well as I could, but it was two days before I discovered my gentleman on one of the logs alongside, scraping up a supply of slime, and skipping nimbly into the air each time the sea washed over his alighting-place. That mystery was solved at any rate. I kept careful watch over that row of dwellings thereafter, determined to suppress the whole block at the first sign of a brood of wasps making their appearance. None ever did, and at last I took down the cells with the greatest care, finding them perfectly empty. So I came to the conclusion that my ingenious and industrious guest had been building for the love of the thing, or for amusement, or to keep his hand in, or perhaps something warned him in time that the site he had selected for his eligible row of residences was liable to sudden serious vicissitudes of climate. At any rate, he abandoned them, much to my comfort.