"'Tis a pleasure to please, and the straw that can tickle us
Is a source of enjoyment, though slightly ridiculous."
Oliver Wendell Holmes
"A careless song with a little nonsense in it now and then does not misbecome a monarch."Walpole
"Now this is the tale that was told to me
By a battered and shattered old son of the sea,
To me and my messmate, Silas Green,
When I was a guileless young marine."
Ancient Sea Song
The second dog-watch, from six to eight in the evening, is the sailor's play-time. Unless some emergency requires it, drills and duties are suspended for the time being and Jackie, except for supper, has his time to himself. The older seamen usually collect on the forecastle; sometimes in the lee gangway in rough weather. There they sprawl themselves on the deck, or dispose themselves comfortably against the rails or the bitts, or even the anchor-fluke, if every place is occupied, or the boom boats if the waist be the place of assemblage, and smoke their pipes and yarn.
The ordinary seamen, the landsmen, and the ship's boys, if they are not rigorously excluded from the top-gallant forecastle, or from close proximity to the group of worthies who literally "take the deck," are forced to stand afar off, at any rate, where they listen to marvellous recitals as best they can. The midshipmen, however, as a species of privileged intermediaries between officers and men, often make a part of these exclusive circles, especially when yarning is going on.
Among all the tellers of strange tales on the famous United States frigate Neversink, Jack Lang, the old bo's'n's mate, held the chief place by general consent, and the sound of his deep voice raised in narration was sure to attract to his side every available reefer not specifically on duty, and all the old shellbacks, to whom yarning and listening to yarns were as the breath of life. And nowhere will you find better listeners than at a dog-watch "gam" on a ship's forecastle. The old man's services on the Neversink were invaluable in every way, his word was law forward of the mast as the captain's was on the quarter-deck, and even as a story-teller he was supreme.
One mild, pleasant evening this before-the-mast autocrat and raconteur found himself the centre of an interested group on the forecastle. The midshipmen were burning for a yarn. They had learned, however, that the surest way not to have their desire gratified was to ask a sailor for a story. Certainly this was true of this particular old salt, and it was necessary to approach him by indirection. The conversation turned, as it frequently does in the forecastle, on the quarter-deck, and everywhere else, on woman.
"Wot's the matter with leetle Sammy Bowline?" queried the old man in a pause in the conversation. "I seed him a-weepin' an' a-bellerin' like wot you Yankees call a 'caow' in the fust dog-watch."
"A cow don't weep, Jack," answered a maintopman who had been a lumbering bucolic dairyman when the Neversink left port six months since, but who was now a smart young light yardman.
"Hev you seen all the cow critters on the yearth, youngster?"
"No, but – "
"Well, some cows weeps, I sez, an' this'n' did," answered the old sailor, sententiously. "Anyway, Sammy Bowline, he bawled awful."
"I reckon he's homesick fer his ma," remarked Billy Clumpblock, the captain of the maintop. "I just guv him a few teches with me colt to take it out'n him, w'ich I've larned that w'alin' is werry good fer homesickness, an' sent him up in the top, as he calls it, to 'spell a watch.'"
"It's a sing'lar thing," continued the old bo's'n's mate, "how much men an' boys thinks of feemales, sech as mothers an' sech like pussons. It stands ter reason thay ain't necessary to nobody's existence, though it's agreed that we all had 'em onct, though I've got no evidence of it in my own case 'ceptin' general report. Look at this ship, now. There ain't a woman on board of her, an' if they was, she'd be considerably disorganized, w'ich I means the ship an' p'raps the feemale too."
"They seems ter be necessary on shore, though," remarked the chief quartermaster, a much-married man.
"P'raps they be. But they're no 'count on sea."
"I've heered them called the weaker sex," said the purser's yeoman, who was fond of literature of the dime novel variety. "I guess that's becus they can't make sailor-men out'n 'em."
"Wall, naow," drawled the Jack-o'-the-dust, a studious New Englander, given to historic research as he could manage it, "there hev been wimmin sailor-men. I've read abaout 'em. There was two pyrates once an' they was wimmin. An' they was the wust kind of pyrates, too."
"That's nateral," said the autocrat of the forecastle; "it stands ter reason that a woman'd be a bad sailor an' she'd also make a bad pirate."
"They wus good pyrates," continued the down-easter.
"Good pirates? There ain't no sech thing," chimed in another sailor, filling the responsible position of captain of the hold.
"I mean they wus bludthirsty feemale villains, an' they done the pyrate bisness up jest's fine's if they'd a-bin men."
"I had an amazin' experience with wimmin onct," said the old bo's'n's mate, reflectively.
"I should say you had," broke in a young midshipman; "I've heard you speak of your 'ol' woman' hundreds of times, and all the trouble you've caused her."
"I don't mean her, Mr. Bobstay. God rest her soul; she's dead, sir; an', as fer the kids, my darter's married an' the boys is God knows where. I brung 'em up ter be good sailor-men, though, an' wherever they is, I guess they're a-doin' of their dooty. This was another kind of a feemale. You see, lads an' young gentlemen all, in the Med't'ranean in 1800 I was bo's'n's mate, an', like this yere ship, we didn't kerry no bo's'n on the little hooker Grampus, the luckiest barkie that ever carried the American flag. She was schooner rigged w'en I was on her. Then they turned her inter a brig, an' now they're thinkin' o' makin' a full-rigged ship of her. They've done everything they kin to spile her. She's the slowest old tub afloat now, I'm telled, but let anything British take arter her an' she jest naterally takes a bone in her teeth an' rips away. Lordie, to think of that little ship a-doin' all the things she's done! Wall, where was I, mates?"
"You wa'n't now'ere. You was gittin' ready to go som'er's, tho', I guess," said the quartermaster.
"To be sure. Wall, as I was sayin', I was bo's'n's mate, an' that was bein' ekal to bein' bo's'n on that 'ere schooner, an' Commodore Rattlin was jest takin' command of her. My, but he's a sailor an' a fighter! I never seed any one like him an' I have fit in some right good hard battles sence, onless 'twas Commodore Paul Jones, w'en we tuk the Serrypis nigh onto forty years ago. I was a smart young foretopman in them days, lads, an' it was me wot the commodore sent out on that main-yard-arm to drop them grenades down the hatchway of the Serrypis that blowed her up. So I allus thought that I won a deal of that battle myself, though the commodore got the most credit. Let's see. W'ere was I?"
"You was on the Grampus w'ich Commodore Rattlin was takin' command of," said the Jimmy-Legs, lighting his pipe.
"So I was. So I was, tho' he was only a leftenant then, lads," continued the old man. "Wall, we was mighty keen for prize money in them days, an', fer that matter, I ain't never seed the day, so far's I'm consarned, w'en I wasn't ekally desirous of gittin' my share of the same. Now, you youngsters, an' you haymakers, – w'ich is a bit unjest to you, p'r'aps, becus you've larned to be putty fair sailor-men sence we tuk our departure from Boston, – ye know prize money's divided into twenty parts by the laws of the United States. The cap'n he gits three parts; the leftenants an' sailin'-master, they gits two parts; the marine officers, surgeon, purser, bo's'n, gunner, carpenter, master's mates, an' chaplain, they gits two; three parts goes to the steerage an' chief petty officers, the other petty officers gits three, an' the balance of the crew gits seven."
"Seems to me the crew don't git no fair share," interrupted one of the new hands.
"We're lucky to git anything at all," commented the old sea philosopher. "They used to say you throwed the prize money at a ladder. Wot went through was diwided betwixt the cap'n an' th' officers an' petty officers, the cap'n takin' the biggest share. Wot stuck to the rounds was fer the crew. An' if they hadn't tarred the rounds in sum instances I knows of," he went on, mendaciously, "they wouldn't a-got none. Howsomever, this yere explanation is necessary fer to understand this yarn."
"I'd like to know wot prize money's got to do with wimmin," remarked Billy Clumpblock.
"My lad," said the bo's'n's mate, sapiently, "prize money's got a lot to do with wimmin, as you'll find out, especially if you go ashore with a pocketful of it. It had suthin' to do with the wimmin I'm goin' to tell ye of, anyway. One pleasant day in December, 1803, we was a ratchin' to an' fro in the Med't'ranean on the Grampus a-lookin' out fer Algerian cruisers, w'en we run acrost a ketch."
"What's a ketch, Jack?" asked one midshipman.
"Well, a ketch – an' the rest on you pay attention, too; if ye just take notice to wotever I says, ye lubbers, you'll soon know a heap about the sea an' other things. Bein' a silent man myself, I don't say much, as ye may hev noticed; therefur, w'en I do say suthin' it's wal'able. A ketch is a wessel wot has one big mast set well aft about midships an' a little one way aft of the fust one. This is to leave a cl'ar space forrard fer a bum [bomb]. They're mostly used fer that, w'ich is w'y they are called bum ketches, ye know. This one, however, had a cargo more dangerous an' onsettlin' than bums would ha' been, fer w'en we ranged alongside an' throwed a shot over her, you never heered sech a screechin' an' yellin' in all yer life.
"'Good Lord!' said Cap'n Rattlin out loud, w'ich as he was young an' impulsive like an' not used to controllin' his feelin's like me, he jest spoke right out. 'Good Lord!' he sez, 'wot hev we run inter?'
"'It 'pears to me,' spoke up Mr. Parbuckle, actin' as his first luff, w'ich he was only a midshipman an' had no experience wotever with the feemale sex, – but I've allus noticed that it's them as has little experience as knows the most, specially 'bout wimmin, – 'it 'pears to me,' he sez, 'that them's wimmin.'
"'Wimmin?' roars the cap'n. 'Wot are they a-doin' there? Well,' he sez, 'we'll soon find out,' sez he. With that he shoved the schooner in clus to the ketch an' hailed her. Of course, the conwersation bein' carried on in lingo Franco, w'ich I understands, it was all werry clear to me, an' I told the rest of the fok's'l wot was happ'nin'.
"'Ahoy!' the cap'n cried, 'wot ship is that?' An' then a measly old Turk he come over to the side an' throwed his flag in the water an' waved his arms an' bowed to the deck, but didn't say nuthin'. He was so skeered he was most frightened out of his baggy britches. He could see the smokin' matches, an' we was jest itchin' to turn our guns loose on the old heathen, with his wildcats, or wotever they was. The cap'n bein' young an' impetuous like, he hails ag'in. He sez, —
"'W'y don't you answer me?' he sez. 'Ain't ye got no tongue?' he sez. 'Don't you hear me? W'ere are you from? W'ere are you bound? Wot hev ye got on board? If ye don't speak up I'll turn a broadside on ye.'
"With that that old Turk he unstoppered his jaw tackle an' reels off an extr'ordin'ry lot o' stuff, but we makes out, me an' the cap'n does, that he was from Tripoli three days out. That his ketch's name was the Stamico, or sum sech other outlandish name, an' that she was loaded with feemale slaves fer the Sultan of Turkeys.
"Gosh-o'-mighty, if the cap'n hadn't insisted all the time on the most sharpest dissypline on that there leetle ship, I'd a yelled an' laughed outrajus, an' the men would hev busted inter cheers. As it was, I didn't dare to tell the crew all that bit of news; I jest guv 'em a leetle to keep 'em goin' an' hove to under the lee of the foremast where nobody seed me an' cut loose a few steps myself.
"'This is a putty how-de-do,' sez Cap'n Rattlin.
"'Wot'll we do, sir?' axes Mr. Parbuckle. 'Wot'll we do with them feemale slaves? I reckon we'll have to bring 'em aboard here, fer we can't let the ketch go,' sez that youngster.
"He was as excited as any of us, an' I reckon the cap'n was hisself, if the truth was to be told. Sech a prize as that ain't picked up every day at sea, ye know, shipmates.
"'You know old Commodore Ringtailboom,' continoos Mr. Parbuckle, grave-like; 'you know, sir, he wants a boat jest like this ketch for inshore work.'
"'You're right, sir,' sez Rattlin, werry solemn; 'take a boat, Mr. Parbuckle, an' go over there an' tell that beastly Turk we'll have to transship his cargo over here aboard the Grampus.'
"I was cox'n of that boat, young gentlemen, an' we went off armed to the teeth, not so much fer fear of the Turks, but on account of them feemales. You see, we didn't know wot'd happen to us with a ketch load of wimmin folk, an' we went prepared fer the wust. Wall, may I be jiggle-toggled, shipmates, but sech a screechin' an' yellin' you never heered w'en we got aboard. Bein' a chief petty officer an' the next in command, as it was, an' the most experienced, bein' a married man, Mr. Parbuckle, he tells me to go below an' see wot I could make out of the lot, w'ile he speaks to the beastly Turkey cap'n. Fer a reefer, young gentlemen," said the old sailor, "he was the bashfullest feller I ever seed. 'Tis a rare and onsettlin' quality in the class, – meanin' no offence," he added, amid a general laugh, in which the midshipmen heartily joined. "I didn't want nuthin' better'n that job, so I jumped below to tackle it, took off my hat, an' sez, most pleasant like, 'Ladies, yer most obejient an' 'umble sarvant.'
"They all run forrard at that an' crowded inter the eyes of the ship to git away from me. I suppose I must ha' looked mighty fierce, wot with cutlass an' pistol an' the pigtail we allus wore them days, an' w'en I tried to tell 'em that I come peaceable like, they was makin' sech a noise that they didn't seem to pay no 'tention to wot I said. I thought the best way to ca'm 'em an' to assure 'em of my peaceful intentions was – well – er – I jest caught the nearest one by the arm, slipped my own arm 'bout her waist, an' – an' – smacked her good!"
"Oh, Jack, you old sinner!" yelled the youngsters in chorus.
"Dooty, gentlemen; a true sailor-man is allus ready to sakerfice hisself fer his country, an' I done it cheerful then, bein' as 'twas in the line of dooty."
"I guess you did," said Midshipman Cringle, sagely.
"Thankee, sir," continued the bo's'n's mate, oblivious to the sarcasm. "She yelled sum at fust, but she seemed to like it. Of course, I repeats, it was all one to me, jest in the line of duty, as I sez, though I hev done more disagreeable jobs than that. I jest patted her on the head a bit w'en I got hold of her, an' told her to ca'm down, that we wa'n't goin' to hurt her, an' she seemed to feel summat assured, but, as we arterwards larned, she didn't understand a word I was a-sayin'! Howsomever, suthin' satisfied her. Perhaps 'twas my actions. Well, now, you youngsters, you must remember that I was younger then than I am now, an' there wa'n't a likelier sailor-man on the sea, ef I do say so myself. The rest of the cargo stopped makin' that infernal noise w'en they seed wot was happ'nin', an' – "
"Jack!" said Midshipman Futtocks, severely, "and you an old man! I'm ashamed of you!"
"Mr. Futtocks," said the old sailor, "as I hev said, it was strictly in the line of dooty, an' I was a young man at that time, sir. Mr. Parbuckle, he ordered me to pacify 'em, an' I was a-doin' the best I could. I was only a poor ignorant sailor-man in them days, an' couldn't be blamed fer a thing like that. W'ich I've got more experience now, tho' I don't say I wouldn't be willin' to sakerfice my feelin's to my dooty again if 'twas demanded of me. Well, I got 'em quiet by this means, anyway, w'ich I'm sorry to say you blames me fer, but w'ich my conscience is clear, an' I wish I could do it ag'in, an' I got 'em up on deck, too.
"'How did you get 'em quiet, Jack?' axed Mr. Parbuckle, who was busy arrangin' with the measly old Turkey w'en he seed me a leadin' 'em from below.
"'Well, sir,' sez I, 'I jest hauled alongside the nearest one, hove to, laid her aboard, an' s'luted her with a few light guns, an' the rest stopped a-yellin' at onct.'
"'Gad, man!' said the youngster, 'you've a genius fer dealin' with wimmin.' W'ich I tuk as a compliment, altho' comin' from one with no experience. Anyway, we got 'em aboard the Grampus all right arter aw'ile, an' ranged 'em on the quarter-deck. We didn't lose a solitary one, tho' they did beller an' bawl wuss'n Sammy Bowline at gittin' into the cutter. Mr. Parbuckle he was left in command of the prize, an' he a-protestin' bitterly; but the cap'n he sez he might send some of the prize over arter aw'ile to keep him company, but fer the present they must be mustered on the Grampus. Wall, we claimed that they all must be diwided up accordin' to law, bein' a lawful prize, an' we wasn't goin' to wait fer no prize court, nuther. The cap'n, bein' only a boy, he was in fer a lark like the rest on us, so he mustered the crew an' he made a speech.
"'Men,' he sez, 'as you knows, the prize laws of the United States diwides the prizes inter twenty parts. There ain't no money, but there are one hundred an' twenty feemale wimmin in this lot w'ich we've tuk. That's six wimmin to a part. I gits three, an' I'll make my ch'ice now. Ladies, yer most obejient,' he sez, grinnin' at 'em, an' them a-grinnin' back, becus, like me, he was young an' well favored them days, an' the feemales was havin' great larks, too. Then he steps forrard and picks out eighteen of the youngest and purtiest. Among 'em was the one I endeavored to impress myself on the ketch, an' as she passed me she made languishin' eyes at me; but she had to go with the rest, me bein' only a bo's'n's mate. So the cap'n he ranged his eighteen aft on deck, then the leftenants tuk their turn, an' the cap'n he chose fer Mr. Parbuckle, w'ich he was on the prize an' couldn't choose hisself, an' a mad young officer he was, too, seein' plain wot was a-goin' on an' him not there. Wall, arter the cap'n, the leftenants, an' the chief petty officers tuk their share, blast my eyes if there wa'n't left an assortment of the ugliest old wrecks you ever seed – forty-two of 'em – for the crew, an' them jest beginnin' to understand the game, too," said Jack, laughing, "fer they showed the greatest willin'ness to be tuk. An' sum of 'em must ha' been old enough fer grandmothers, too.
"We carried about eighty of a crew, w'ich meant there wa'n't enough to go round. There was an awful lot of protestin' from the crew on the Grampus over this yere diwidin' business. They said it wa'n't no fair. But the cap'n, he sez, it was accordin' to law, an' we was lucky to get what was there, an' to hurry an' pick 'em out. So we turned to, an' then sech a screamin' you never seed! Each woman had two men a-holdin' each arm an' claimin' of 'em, an' we was a-pullin' an' a-haulin' an' a-laughin' all over the decks.
"I tell ye, messmates, a shipload of feemales is the most disorganizin' body that kin board a ship-o'-war. Ef the old Confederation, the flag-ship, hadn't a-hove in sight jest then, I don't know wot'd a-happened. We was so okerpied in this diwidin' bisness that nobody was a-watchin' out fer her. We was a-scramblin' an' a-dancin' an' a-raisin' Ned, an' the cap'n was a-protestin' an' a-tryin' to restore order, w'en the old frigate shoved alongside, an' Commodore Ringtailboom was that rageful he could hardly speak w'en he sees us all. He settled the hull thing by takin' all them feemales on board his own ship an' then sendin' 'em to Algiers an' settin' 'em free till the Turkeys got a hold of 'em ag'in, w'ich we never seed 'em ag'in. Cap'n Rattlin he got transferred to the frigate to onct fer punishment, an' we was scattered among the fleet, cos they said 'twarn't safe to leave sech a crowd together no more.
"Shipmates, we was only jokin' about diwidin' of 'em, but arter the commodore crossed our course we was the maddest lot of officers an' men you ever seed, but that was all there was to it. You can be sure that nobody never got athwart the hawse of Commodore Ringtailboom deliberate; he was a peppery old gent, sure, an' 'twas as much as a man's life was worth to go agin him.
"Now, that's an example of how disorganizin' wimmin 'ud be on board a ship."
"Jack," said little Futtocks, amid the laughter with which this amazing story was greeted, "do you mean to tell me that this is a true yarn?"
"Hev I brung you up, Master Futtocks, to doubt me?" asked the old man, his twinkling eyes belying the resentment in his voice.
"I am not doubting you, Jack. I'm just asking you a question."
"Wall, wall, I'll tell ye wot to do. The next time you see Commodore Rattlin you jest ask him wot was done with them feemale slaves we captured in the Stamico w'en we was together in the old Grampus in the Med't'ranean in 1803."
"But, Jack – "
"Eight bells, sir," said the old man, rising as the four couplets proclaimed the hour. "All the starboard watch!" he cried, shrilling his pipe as a sign that the play-time was over.