My name is Thomas Rockafellar; father and mother always called me Tommy, and by that name was I known until I grew too old to be called by anything more familiar than Tom. I have seen people look at one another, and smile, perhaps, when they have heard the name Rockafellar mentioned as that of a family; but I here beg leave to state that the Rockafellars are an exceedingly ancient race, who, if they do not claim to have arrived in this country with William the Conqueror, can excuse themselves for not having landed with that chieftain by being able to prove that they had been many years established when the keels of the Norman galleys grounded on the Hastings shore.
Amongst my ancestors were several sailors, who had served the king or queen of their times in the navy of the state. A portrait of Ebenezer Rockafellar, who was a rear-admiral in the early years of George the Second’s reign, hung in the dining-room at home, and represented a face like that of the man in the moon when the planet rises very crimson out of the sea on a hot summer’s evening. He had a tail on his back and a great copper speaking-trumpet under his arm and his forefinger, on which was a huge ring, rested upon a globe of the world. The artist had painted in a picture of a thunderstorm happening through a window, with the glimpse of a rough sea, and an old-fashioned ship like a castle tumbling about in it resembling a toy Noah’s ark tossing on the strong ripples of a pond.
It might have been my looking at this red-faced ancestor of mine, and admiring his speaking-trumpet, and the noble colour of weather which stained his face that first put it into my head to go to sea. I cannot say. Who can tell where little boys get their notions from? I would stand before that picture, and in my small way dream about the ocean, about sharks, tropic islands full of cocoa-nut trees, and monkeys, and parrots gorgeous as shapes of burnished gold; and I would dream also, all in my small way, of flying-fish like little lengths of pearl flashing out of the dark-blue brine on wings of gossamer, and elephants and ivory tusks, and of black men in turbans and robes glittering with jewels, like the dark velvet sky on a midsummer night; and so on, and so on, until there arose in me a passion to go to sea, and behold with my own little eyes the wonders of the world.
Father and mother tried hard to conquer my desire; and then, when they found I would still be a sailor, they pretended to consent, secretly meaning to weary me out, or to give me a good long chance of changing my views by delaying to take any steps to humour my wishes. At last, finding my mind to be wonderfully resolved, my father talked to my mother gravely about my disposition for the sea—told her that when a boy exhibited a strong inclination for a walk, no matter of what nature if honest, he should not be baulked—that I might have the makings of another Captain Cook in me, or at all events of a Vancouver, and end my days as a great man.
“Besides, my dear,” said he, “one voyage at least cannot harm him; it will fill his mind with new experiences, it will also test his sincerity; it will act as the strongest possible persuasion one way or the other. It will be cheaper too than a year of schooling, and more useful, I don’t doubt. So, my dear, let us make up our minds to send him into the Merchant Service for one voyage.”
However, it was some time before my mother consented. She would not very strongly have objected to the Royal Navy, she said, but she considered the Merchant Service too vulgar for a Rockafellar.
“Vulgar, my dear!” cried my father; “why, do you forget that your own Uncle Martin was in the service of the Honourable East India Company?”
“Ah but,” she answered, “Uncle Martin was always a perfect gentleman, and even had he been a common sailor on board a barge, he would have carried himself with as much dignity and been as fully appreciated by people capable of distinguishing as if he had been an Admiral of the Blues.”
“Of the Blue, I think it is,” said my father.
“The Red is cock of the walk,” said I, who had been listening to this conversation with much interest.
Well, it ended, after many talks, in my mother agreeing with my father that one voyage could do me no harm, and that if I returned as eager for the sea life as I now was, it might prove as good a calling for me as any other vocation that could be named. So after making certain inquiries, my father one day took me to London with him, to call upon a shipowner who lived close by Fenchurch Street. He had five vessels, three of them large ships, of which two had formerly been Indiamen, and the others were barques. They were all regular traders to Australia: that is to say, to the different ports of that colony, and one or more of them were always to be found in the East India Docks discharging the wool with which they returned home full of, or taking in merchandise for the outward passage.
The shipowner, Mr. Duncan, was a large, fat, cheerful man, “with a very knowing eye, and supposed to be already worth, my dear, about a million and a half,” as I afterwards heard my father tell my mother. We passed through an office full of clerks into a little back room, where we were received by Mr. Duncan, who seemed delighted to make our acquaintance. He patted me on the head, said that he was always fond of boys whose hair curled, declared that he could not remember ever having set eyes on a more likely sailorly-looking lad, promised me that I should become the captain of a ship if I worked hard, and then he and my father went to business.
The terms were a premium of sixty guineas for the first voyage, together with ten guineas for what was called mess-money; “and with regard to pocket money,” said Mr. Duncan, “I should say if you give the captain enough to enable him to put half-a-crown a week into the lad’s pocket whilst he’s in harbour the boy will have more than he needs for simple enjoyment, and too little,” said he, closing one eye, “for what Jack calls larks.”
The name of the ship was the Lady Violet, and Mr. Duncan told us that she was commanded by Captain Tempest, who, notwithstanding his stormy name, was a gentleman-like person of a mild disposition, one of the best navigators out of the Port of London, and beloved by all who sailed with him.
“There is no flogging now, I think, sir, at sea?” said my father.
“Oh dear no,” cried Mr. Duncan, smiling all over his immense crimson face: “a barbarous practice, sir, very happily suppressed ages ago.”
“How are boys punished,” asked my father, “at sea when they deserve it?”
“Why, sir,” answered Mr. Duncan, “the captain usually sends for them to his cabin, and lectures them paternally and tenderly. His admonitions rarely fail, but if there be great perversity, then possibly a little extra duty of a trifling kind is given to them. But there is very little naughtiness amongst boys at sea, sir! very little naughtiness indeed. Perhaps I should add, in my ships, where no bad language is allowed, where sobriety is strictly encouraged, and where even smoking is regarded as objectionable, though of course,” added Mr. Duncan, drawing a deep breath that sounded like a sigh, “we do not prohibit it.”
A good deal more to this effect passed between my father and Mr. Duncan, and then certain arrangements having been made, we took our leave.
The ship was to sail in three weeks; she lay in the East India Docks, and as she would not be hauling out of the gates until the afternoon, there was no need for me to present myself on board sooner than the morning of the day of her sailing.
My outfit was procured at a well-known marine establishment in Leadenhall Street. I very well recollect the pride with which I tried on a blue cloth jacket, embellished with brass buttons, and surveyed my appearance in a large pier-glass. I had never before been dressed in brass buttons, and felt, now that I was thus decorated, that I was a man indeed. Also the glittering badge of a sort of wreath of gold, embracing a gorgeous little flag on the cap which the outfitter placed on my head, enchanted me. Indeed, I could not but think that the privilege of wearing so beautiful a decoration would be cheaply earned by years of exposure and hardship, not to mention shipwreck, and even famine and thirst in an open boat.
“It seems to me,” said my father to the outfitter, “to judge by your list, that it is the practice of young gentlemen when they first go to sea to take a great number of shirts and fine duck trousers with them.”
“They need all their fathers allow them, sir,” said the outfitter, with a bow.
“Is it,” asked my father, “that they must always appear very clean?”
“No, sir,” answered the outfitter. “I regret to say that it is the habit of most young gentlemen when first they go to sea to swap their trousers and shirts with the baker for what is termed ‘soft-tack.’”
“What is soft-tack?” said I.
“Bread, the likes of which we eat ashore,” answered the outfitter.
“Don’t they get the same at sea?” said I.
“No, young gentleman,” answered the outfitter; “there’s nothing but biscuit eaten at sea by sailors, and it’s sometimes rather wormy. When it is so, soft-tack grows into a delicacy, compared with which midshipmen’s trousers and shirts count for nothing.”
“I’d rather have a biscuit any day,” said I, “than a slice of bread.”
I thought the smile the outfitter bestowed upon me a rather singular one. My father looked pleased, and said to the outfitter, “Master Rockafellar will keep his clothes, I know.”
“Not a doubt of it, sir,” responded the outfitter, and forthwith proceeded to show us the oilskins, sou’wester, sea-boots, bars of marine soap, clasp-knife, and the other articles which were to form the contents of the brand-new white-wood sea-chest, with grummets for handles, and with a little shelf for “curios,” and upon the lid of which my name, Thomas Rockafellar, was to be painted in strong, large black letters.
I will pass over my parting with my mother and sisters and little brother. My uniform came down a week before I sailed, and my wearing of the clothes greatly helped to sustain my spirits, whilst they made me feel that I was a sailor, and must not betray any sort of weakness that might seem girlish. I tried hard not to cry as my mother strained me to her heart, and I said good-bye with dry eyes; but I broke down when I was in the railway carriage as the engine whistled, and the familiar scene of the station slipped away. My father, who was accompanying me to the ship, put his hand upon mine, and said something in a low voice, that was, I think, a prayer to God that He would protect and bless and guard his boy, and then turned his face to the window, and when presently I peeped at him, I saw that he had been weeping too.
Ah, dear little friends! let us always love our father and mother, and be grateful to them. They suffer much for us when we are young, and when we are incapable of understanding their anxieties and griefs. Later on in life we find it all out ourselves, and it is as sweet as a blessing sent to us by them from heaven if we can remember that we were always good, and loving, and tender to them when we were little ones, and when they were alive to be made happy by our behaviour.
When I look back from the hour of my trotting into the docks at my father’s side, down to the time when I felt the ship heaving and plunging under me upon the snappish curl of the Channel waters, all that happened takes so misty a character that it is like peering at objects through a fog. Everything, of course, was new to me, and all was startling in its way, confusing my little brains; and it was a sort of Wonderland also.
The docks were full of business, and movement and hurry; huge cranes were swiftly swinging out tons’ weight of cargo from the holds of ships to the snorting accompaniment of steam machinery; dockyard labourers were chorussing on the decks of the vessels, or bawling to one another on the quayside; the earth trembled to the passage of heavy waggons; and the ear was distracted by the shrill whistling and roaring puffing of locomotives. There were fellows aloft on the ships, dismantling them of their spars, and rigging, or bending sails, and sending up masts, and crossing-yards, and reeving gear for a fresh voyage.
It was a brilliant October morning, with a keen shrill wind that made even the dirty Thames water of the docks tremble into a diamond-bright flashing, and in this wind you seemed to taste the aromas of many countries—coffee, and spices, and fragrant produce, the mere flavour of which in the atmosphere sent the fancy roaming into hot and shining lands.
The Lady Violet still lay alongside the quay. I recollect thinking her an immense ship as we approached. Aloft she looked as heavy and massive as a man-of-war, with her large tops, her canvas rolled up on the yards, and all her sea-gear—a bewildering complication of ropes—in its place. She had a broad white band along her sides, upon which were painted black squares to imitate portholes. She was an old-fashioned ship, as I know now—though then I saw but little difference between her and the rest of them that lay about. Her stern was square and very handsomely gilt; there were large windows in it, and the sunlight flashing in them made the long white letters of her name stare out as though they were formed of silver. She had a handsome flag flying at the mainmast head, exactly like the one that I wore in the badge on my cap. The red ensign floated gaily at her peak, and at the fore-royalmast head the Blue Peter—signal for sailing—was rippling against the light azure of the sky.
My father seemed as much confused as I was by the bustle and novelty. He grasped my hand, and we stepped over a broad gangway bridge on to the ship’s deck. Here was confusion indeed! all sorts of ropes’ ends knocking about, men on deck shouting to men in the hold, pigs grunting, babies crying, cocks crowing, and hens cackling; steerage passengers bound out as emigrants wandering dejectedly about; unshorn, melancholy men in slouched hats, pale-faced women with hollow cheeks stained by recent tears, cowering under the break of the poop, and gazing forlornly around them; and drunken sailors on the forecastle bawling out coarse joking farewells to friends ashore. We went up a ladder that conducted us to the upper-deck or poop, and I noticed that along the rails on either side were stowed a great number of bales of compressed hay as fodder for the sheep, which were bleating somewhere forward, and for a cow that was now and then giving vent to a sullen roar, as though she were vexed at being imprisoned in a great box.
There were several midshipmen on the poop running about. They glanced at me out of the corner of their eyes as they passed. I could not but envy them, for they seemed quite at home, whilst here was I, trembling nervously by the side of my papa, staring up at the masts, and wondering if ever I should be made to creep up those great heights, and if so, what was to become of me when I had reached the top? There was no need, indeed, to glance at my buttons to know that I was a “first voyager.” My wandering eyes and open mouth were assurance as strong as though I had been labelled “greenhorn.” My father, stepping up to one of the midshipmen, asked if the captain was on board.
“I don’t think he is,” said the youngster.
“This is my son,” said my father, “who has come to join the Lady Violet. Are there any formalities to go through—any book to be signed by him—we are rather at a loss?”
All too young as I was to be an observer, I could yet see a spirit of laughing mischief flash into the lad’s brown handsome face, and I have no doubt that he would have told me to go forward and seek for the cook and report myself, or have started me on some other fool’s errand of a like sort, but for a sunburnt man in a blue-cloth coat coming up to us, and asking my father what he wanted; on which the midshipman slunk away and joined two other midshipmen, who, on his speaking to them, began to shake with laughter.
“No, there is nothing to be done, sir,” said the weather-stained man in answer to my father’s question. “I suppose your chest is aboard?” he exclaimed, looking at me. “Better go below and see that your kit’s arrived. We shall be warping out in a few minutes.”
“Are you one of the officers, sir,” asked my father.
“I am the second mate, sir, and my name is Jones,” answered the other.
My father was about to put some further questions to him, but just then Mr. Jones, bawling out “Right you are!” to some one who had called to him from some part of the ship or the shore, rushed away.