“Well, Tommy,” said my father, “as the ship will soon be leaving I had better be off, as I do not want to go to Australia with you. God bless thee, my son. Be a good lad; do not forget your prayers; remember to write to us as often as you can send a letter”—and here his voice breaking, he ceased and stooped to kiss me; but I drew away. I did not like to be kissed by my father in the presence of the little bunch of midshipmen who were viewing us from near the wheel. I feared they would regard it as an unmanly act, and sneer at me afterwards as being girlish.
My father, with a sad smile, squeezed my hand and left me. Little boys are often very sensitive on points of what they consider manliness. They will laugh at this weakness when they grow older, but I think it is wise to humour them. I afterwards heard—but I did not then know—that my father when he stepped ashore walked straight to the building that was then called the Brunswick Hotel, and posting himself at a window where I could not see him, sat watching me with the tears in his eyes, until the ship had hauled through the lock gates and I was no longer visible.
No one who has stood on board a large sailing ship for the first time, and witnessed the proceeding of getting her under way, will wonder at the confusion my mind was in as the Lady Violet hauled out into the river, and at my inability therefore to recollect all that passed, I took very little heed of my father’s leaving the vessel. I stood lost in amazement, staring about me like a fool, my mouth wide open. I remember noticing the pier heads gliding past the ship as we warped out stern first; people standing on the quayside shouting to us, waving hats and handkerchiefs, some of them weeping; whilst our passengers in groups along the line of bulwarks responded to these farewells with kissing of hands, broken cries of “God bless you!” “Good-bye!” and the like. I remember the sharp shouts of the mate on the forecastle repeating the pilot’s orders, the half-tipsy chorusing of seamen heaving at the capstan, the figure of a fellow at the helm revolving the spokes, first one way, then another, the manœuvring of a little snorting tug to receive the line for the hawser by which our great ship was to be towed down the river. Nobody took any notice of me. I stood at the head of one of the poop ladders leaning against the rail, wondering at the swiftness with which the people on the pier heads, who continued to gesticulate towards us, were diminished into dwarf-like proportions.
Four or five midshipmen hung about the poop, but they seemed too busy with their thoughts, now that we were in the actual throes of leave-taking, and had started in earnest upon our long voyage, to favour me with their glances and grins.
The river was full of life—of barges and wherries, of dark-winged colliers, swarming along under full breasts of sail; of Thames steamers cutting through the sparkling grey waters with knife-like stems; of ships in tow like ourselves, bound up or down; of huge majestic metal fabrics, gliding to their homes in the docks after days of thunderous passage through the great oceans, or floating regally past us on the way to the distant west or far more distant east.
I know not how long I had thus stood staring, when a big, broad-shouldered young fellow, with a face like a prize-fighter’s, yet of a kindly expression, stepped up to me, and said, in a gruff, deep-sea note—
“Well, youngster, and who are you?”
“I am Master Rockafellar, sir,” I answered.
“That’s our livery you’ve got on,” said he; “you’re one of the midshipmen, I suppose?”
“Yes, sir,” said I; “and are you a midshipman, please?”
“No,” he answered; “I’m third mate. What’s your name, again?”
“Master Rockafellar,” said I.
“Ha!” he exclaimed; “the right sort of name to go to sea with. Every ‘wave,’ as one’s grandmother calls it, would speak of itself as a ‘rock-a-fellow.’” He burst into a mighty laugh, and then said kindly, “Well, well; I’ve heard of even queerer names than ‘Rockafellar.’ Been below yet?”
“No, sir,” said I.
“Haven’t you seen your bedroom?”
“No, sir,” I answered again.
“Well, take my advice,” said he, “and jump below at once, and secure a bunk, and see that your chest is all right—I suppose you’ve brought one—or some of those ’tween-deck passengers down there will be borrowing your mattress and forgetting to return it, and rigging themselves out in your clothes.”
“My chest is locked, sir,” said I.
“And what of that?” he roared. “D’ye think there never was a handspike aboard a ship since the days of Nelson? Jump below, jump below, I tell ye!”
“Please, sir, which is the way?” said I, trembling.
“Go down those steps,” said he, pointing to the poop ladder, “and just over against the cuddy front there’s a black hole. Drop down it, for that’s the way.”
I at once stepped on to the main-deck, and saw a square aperture, which I was afterwards informed was called the “booby hatch.” There was a little crowd of third-class passengers standing round it, looking very wretched and melancholy, two or three of the women holding babies, who cried incessantly.
I looked into the hatch; it seemed very dark beneath, and a close, most unpleasant, but quite indescribable smell rose up through it—a sort of atmosphere of onions, yellow soap, fumes of lamp-oil, the whole tinctured with a peculiar flavour of shipboard. A short flight of perpendicular steps fell to the bottom. I was too manly to ask my way of the women; so, perceiving a sailor coiling away a rope upon a pin near the main-shrouds, I went up to him, and said, “I want my bedroom; d’ye know where it is?”
He turned his eyes slowly on me, took a somewhat sneering survey of my buttons, spat a mouthful of tobacco-juice into a scupper-hole, and then said, whilst he proceeded with his work, “Better ask the capt’n.”
The sailor was too grumpy and surly a man for a little boy like me to address a second time; so I made my way to the hatch, and put my leg over into it, concluding that I should find somebody to tell me where my bedroom was when I had descended. The ladder was perpendicular, and I was very slow in stepping down it.
“Now then!” bawled a powerful voice: “up or down; one ways or t’other. There ain’t too much light here; and who’s bin and made you think you’re made o’ sheet glass?”
This remark, I found, was uttered by a seafaring man, one of the sailors of the ship, I afterwards came to know, who had been told off to help our handful of emigrants to secure their boxes. I think he was slightly in liquor; at all events, I grew sensible of a distinct taste of rum-and-water on the air as I jumped backwards on to the lower deck close beside him.
“Where is my bedroom?” said I.
“No bedrooms at sea, young ’un,” he answered. “What callin’s yourn? Are ’ee a sailor man? My precious eyes! there’s buttons! See here, my lively: when the shanks of them buttons is worn off, I’ll give ye the value of a fardenswuth of silver spoons for the whole boiling of ’em.”
“I promised my father not to sell my clothes,” I answered, with dignity. “Where’s my bedroom, I say?”
“Why, there,” said he, pointing with a tar-stained stump of forefinger into the dusk. “Shut your eyes and walk straight, and your nose’ll steer ye the right course, I lay.”
I spied a door to the right some little distance abaft the part of the deck that was pierced by the great mainmast, and making for it, entered, and found myself in a long narrow cabin fitted on either hand with a double row of bunks, or sleeping-shelves, and lighted by three little round portholes, called “scuttles.” Bright as the day was outside, in this cabin it was no better than twilight, and I hung for some moments in the doorway, scarcely able to distinguish objects.
When presently I could fairly use my sight I took notice of a thin slip of a table, penetrated by stanchions, up or down which it could be made to travel as space happened to be wanted. At the aftermost extremity athwart this interior were two or three shelves containing tin dishes, pannikins, coarse black-handled knives and forks, jars of pickles, red tins of preserved potatoes, and other such commodities: the produce, as I afterwards heard, of the amount which each midshipman had to subscribe in a sum of ten guineas to what was called “the mess”—and a mess it was!
Under these shelves stood a cask of flour, and another of exceedingly moist sugar, and an immense jar of vinegar. Here and there against the bulkhead partitions between the bunks hung a sou’wester or a coat of oilskin; whilst under the lower tier of bunks you caught a glimpse of the soles and heels of sea boots and shoes, with a thin canvas bag, perhaps, like a man’s leg. In most of the bunks lay a heap of rude bedding, roughly-made mattresses, and stout blankets.
Immediately facing the door there was stretched, in one of the upper sleeping-shelves, a young red-faced youth. He was in his shirt and trousers, and was smoking a short sooty clay pipe. He eyed me out of a pair of little black eyes, which winked drowsily on either side of his immense nose, the polished point of which caught the ruddy glow of his pipe-bowl as he sucked at it, and shone over the edge of his bunk as though it were a glowworm. There was nobody else in the cabin but this youth.
“Is this a bedroom?” said I.
He expelled several mouthfuls of smoke before answering, and then exclaimed, “Yeth.”
“Am I to sleep here, do you know?” said I.
“Can’t thay,” said he, lazily. “If you’re a midthipman, you do; if you aint, you’ll be kicked out.” Saying which, he closed his eyes, and refused to answer other questions, though, by his continuing to smoke, I knew he had not fallen asleep.
I entered the cabin, and after peering a bit into the bunks, saw my bedding in one of the two sleeping-places which ran athwartships. At this point my memory grows misty again. I have some dim recollection of attempting to make my bed, of hunting about for the sheets—not then knowing that sailors do not use sheets at sea—of moodily getting into the bunk, and wishing that I was at home again; of stretching myself, after a little, and falling asleep; of being awakened by a hubbub of voices, and discovering that the berth was full of midshipmen—nine “young gentlemen” in all, including myself—who were sitting round the table, using the edge of their bunks for chairs, and drinking tea out of pannikins, and hacking at a lump of cold roast meat.
This, I say, I recollect; also that I was invited by the third mate, who sat on a cask at the head of the table, to arise and join the others, and drink tea with them, which I did; that the handsome young fellow whom my father had spoken to on the poop began with a grave face to ask me questions intended to raise a laugh at my expense, and that he was abruptly silenced by the third mate (whose name was Cock), who said to him, “See here, my lad: this is your second voyage, and you are giving yourself airs on the strength of it. Now, what are your talents as a sailor? Could you put a ship about? Could you send a yard down? Could you take a star? D’ye know anything about stowing a hold? See here, my heart of oak!—until you’ve got some knowledge of your calling, don’t you go and try and make a fool of a lad who comes fresh to it. Everybody’s got to begin, and so I tell you; and if before six months of shipboard this young Master Rockafellar hasn’t more seamanship in any one of his fingers than you’ve got in all your body, though this is your second year at sea, then you shall call me a Chinaman, without risk of earning a kick for the compliment.”
The lad blushed to the roots of his hair, and looked subdued. He was a great powerful man was this third mate, and I seemed to feel with the instincts of a boy that no sort of bullying or mean sneaking tyranny was likely to be attempted so long as he made one of our company.
The tea was very strong, and the bottom of my pannikin was full of black leaves. The liquor had a flavour of old twigs and stale molasses; the beef was so hard that I could scarcely make my teeth meet in it, yet it was fresh, and it was not long before the salt food upon which we had to live made me think yearningly of it as a delicacy—as something for even a bite of which I would have gladly “swapped” a shirt.
All this while the ship was being towed down the river. I was still in the midshipman’s cabin when there was a great noise on deck—voices of men shouting, sounds of feet running hastily—and on looking through one of the portholes I saw the houses of a town just abreast, and noticed that they moved slowly, and yet more slowly, until they came to a dead halt. We had come to a mooring-buoy, for the night, off Gravesend; but one of the midshipmen told me that we should be underway again long before this side of the world was awake; by which he meant that the tug would take us in tow at daybreak.
It was dark by this time. A boy who acted as our servant lighted a lamp that was shaped like a coffee-pot, with the end of the wick coming out of the spout. By this weak and fitful light the scene of the berth looked very strange to my young, inexperienced eyes. All the midshipmen were below, some smoking, some cutting up pipefuls from squares of black tobacco, jabbering loudly about the pleasures they had taken during three months ashore. The language was not of the choicest, and my young ears were frequently startled by terms and expressions which I had never before heard. The third mate sat with his legs over the edge of his bunk listening grimly.
“Well, young gentlemen,” he presently roared out, “three of you are new to this ship this voyage, but there are six of you who sailed in her last year, and when those six went ashore they were a deal more gentlemanly and careful in their language than I now find ’em. Where, pray, did you pick up these fine words? Not in your homes, I’ll warrant. Now hearken to me, mates; you’re not going to make the better sailors for employing language which you wouldn’t tolerate in the mouth of any man, speaking in the presence of your mothers and sisters. You’re in my charge understand, and since you come to me as young gentlemen, young gentlemen you shall be; so stand by and mind your words!” saying which he looked at them one after the other, directing an emphatic nod at each of the lads as he stared. After this I heard no more bad words, and if I except a slip or two, I may truthfully say that when the voyage had fairly commenced, and the lads had come well under the influence of Mr. Cock, there never was afloat a better spoken body of youths than those which occupied the midshipmen’s berth aboard the Lady Violet.