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Chapter X YARNS IN THE FIRST WATCH
AT midnight on the third day after passing Ushant we had crossed the Bay, and the white flashing light on Cape Finisterre showed abeam. During the night the wind had fallen, but at daybreak a fresh off-shore breeze had sprung up, enabling us to make rapid progress under all plain sail.

Throughout the day we were in sight of the ironbound coast, which from a distance presented an uninviting aspect. Owing to the abundance of pyrites along the cliffs there is said to be a danger of great deviation of the compass, and in our case we found, by taking a series of azimuths and amplitudes, that such was the case.

Fortunately, there was no sign of mist, so that a compass course was not absolutely necessary; but that evening the wind fell almost to a dead calm, and the darkness was so intense that the "Fortuna's" head was placed a point off the recognized course to prevent possible accidents.

It was a glorious night. The air was soft and balmy, and, though there were no stars visible, there was a curious phosphorescence on the water that compensated for the inky darkness of the atmosphere. In fact, it was the first evening of the voyage that could be termed splendid, and at dinner in the saloon we had skylights and ports opened to admit the air.

Presently came the sound of stringed instruments played with decided skill and expression. We looked at one another with astonishment, for music was one of the last things we expected to hear.

"Mr. Wilkins!" called my uncle through the skylight.

"Aye, aye, sir," replied the bos'n, descending the companion.

"What's that noise?"

"The watch below have got up a small band," explained the bos'n. "Shall I pass the word for them to knock off?"

"Oh, no; far from it," said my father. "But where on earth did they get the instruments from?

"Made 'em from 'baccy-boxes and bits of wire, sir. It's an old seaman's trick."

"They play jolly well," rejoined my father. "I'll tell you what. We'll have a concert on deck to-night; it will please the men. Pass the word, Mr. Wilkins."

The bos'n retired, and presently a hoarse cheer announced that the skipper's message had been welcomed by the men; and after dinner the fo'c'sle, illuminated with several lamps, was crowded with the crew, who sat on inverted tub's, coils of rope, etc., while the officers were provided with chairs from the saloon.

It seemed really marvellous what music could be obtained from such primitive instruments as the men had constructed, and, stranger still, the almost boyish delight that the grown-up men—with one exception all over forty—took in the rough-and-ready concert.

The items were mostly from the old sea stock, chanties and Dibdin's songs predominating. The bos'n led off with "Barney Buntline," and although his version of the words varied somewhat from the original, the chorus was taken up right lustily by nearly a score of voices, till some belated peasant on the Iberian shore must have wondered at the strange noise that came from the sea.
Then often have we seamen heard
How men are killed and undone
By overturns of carriages
And fires and thieves in London.
Bow, bow, bow; rum (give it tongue, lads),
Bow, bow, bow...

The men repeated the chorus till I felt sure their throats ached; but, nothing daunted, they gave "Sally Brown" in approved chanty style, followed by a quick-step on their stringed instruments.

"The Anchor's Weighed" and "All's Well" followed in quick succession, and Dr. Conolly contributed a stump speech with a Hibernian twang that evoked such rounds of applause that he was compelled to give what the men, termed "a hancore."

Several other items also received tremendous applause, The Old Folks at Home being given with such fervour that one would imagine that every man of the crew had near relations in England, instead of which they were practically without kith or kin; and just before six bells "God Save the King" brought the concert to a close, the men standing with heels together and heads bared in an attitude of devoted and simple loyalty.

At daybreak on the twelfth day of the voyage the "Fortuna" arrived at Gibraltar, entering the harbour under power, this being the first time the motor had been utilized since leaving Fowey. We anchored to the south'ard of the Rosia Mole, but hardly was everything made snug when a naval picket-boat steamed off, informing us that we were in the Admiralty anchorage grounds. So the anchor had to be weighed and the "Fortuna" moved to a spot pointed out by the lieutenant of the naval boat, close to the neutral ground, with the Devil's Tower just showing clear of Mala Point.

Here we were immediately surrounded by a swarm of bumboatmen, who offered us all kinds of articles, from bread to copper paint, and from copper paint back to bread; but by liberal speech the bos'n and the quartermaster cleared them away. The gig was lowered and manned and we went ashore, where I made my first acquaintance with a foreign port; for though under the British flag, Gibraltar is essentially "foreign" in appearance, language, and customs.

Having obtained a clean "bill of health," the next business was to order stores and water, and for the first time I realized the value of that precious fluid, which, though excessively dear, was dirty and not particularly sweet.

Two days later the "Fortuna" left Gib, and with a light easterly breeze she passed through the Straits under sail and power.

"Why have we the motor running, as the wind is aft?" I asked my father.

"Because we want to get through the Straits before the tidal stream changes."

"But we are in the Mediterranean Sea now, are we not? I thought the Mediterranean was tideless."

"Yes, so it is; but there is a strong tidal current—which is a very different thing from a tide—running under us now at the rate of nearly six knots. In another two hours it will change and be against us. If the Straits were wide enough to admit the progress of the tidal wave there would be a rise and fall in the ports of the Mediterranean, but as they are not, only the tidal current rushes in and out twice every day."

For seven days we kept in sight of the African shore, our rate of progression averaging ninety-five miles per diem, and as luck would have it, we missed the gales so prevalent off the Algerian coast, the weather being balmy by day and cool at night.

On the second night after leaving Gibraltar, I strolled for'ard to where a group of sailors were sitting on the fo'c'sle telling yarns.

"I hope you won't mind my listening," I said apologetically. "I should like a good yarn, so carry on, just as if I were not here."

"Carry on, Joe!" exclaimed one of the men. "You were just a-goin' to spin that yarn about the ghost of the 'M——'s' cat."

"I heard about that yarn when I was in the Channel Fleet," said another, who had just joined the group, and was busily engaged in ramming black tobacco into a still blacker clay pipe. "An' much as I likes Joe Dirham, I shall be obliged to tell 'im he's a liar if he persists in spinning that cuffer."

"'Tain't no more a cuffer than you are, Fred Money, for, as true as I sits 'ere, I was the man who saw it."

"What! You saw it."

"Yes."

"Joe," exclaimed his chum, in a mournful voice, "is it only plain water that you drank with your supper?"

"Never mind him, Joe," chimed in another, "but fire away."

"Well, when I was in the 'M——' in '91— she was a rotten old gunboat that would drift to loo'ard as fast as she would steam ahead—we left Portsmouth for Portland with a lot of diving gear for the Channel Fleet. It was Christmas Eve, and snowing like anything, I remember. Just as we had cleared the Needles, the old man called me —he was a Warrant Officer in charge—and says, 'Dirham, there's a blessed cat in my cabin. Get hold of her and pitch her overboard or she'll get hold of my canaries,' for he used to keep a couple of 'em caged up. Well, I grabs hold of this 'ere cat, and the brute makes for me and bites my finger. Although I was precious sorry for the animal, orders is orders, but before slinging it overboard I hits it behind the ear with a bit of iron bar, and stunned it. Then I lashes the iron on to its neck and over the side it goes.

"Back I goes to the old man's cabin. 'All correct, sir,' I reports. 'Very well, carry on,' ses 'e, 'but first 'ave a glass of rum.' Believe me, as I was drinking that, and the old man was sitting in his easy-chair with his legs on the fender, of the stove, that blessed cat, or its ghost, walked out from behind the sideboard, slipped over my boots and under the old man's legs, and disappeared under the bunk.

"My eyes were nearly startin' out of my 'ead, and I all but dropped the glass on to the floor. 'What's this, you lying rascal?' roars the old man. 'What do you mean by sayin' that you drowned that cat?' 'So I did, sir,' I answered, and told 'im exactly what I had done. I then searched every inch of the cabin, but no trace of the animal could be seen, an' the door was shut all the time. ''Elp me!' says he, all of a shake. 'It's a warnin'. Somethin's goin' to 'appen to me.'"

"And did it?" asked one of the men.

"Yes. 'E married a woman who led him a fine old dance—used to chase 'im round the Dockyard wall and up Queen Street every time 'e went ashore, givin' 'im a piece of 'er mind."

"Is that all?" asked one of his listeners.

"Isn't that enough? I calls upon Ted Hinks to spin the next yarn."

"D'ye want to hear how I was disrated?" asked Hinks, knocking out his pipe and helping himself from another man's pouch. "Well, here it is: In '87, I was gunner's mate of the 'H——,' and a comfortable ship she was, except for one luff, a chap called Warmbath. One day while we were lying at Portland, this luff had charge of a party of men going to the rifle-range, and, as gunner's mate, I went too.

"The men marched in two companies in sections of fours, the lootenant and I being between the last file of the first company and the first section of the second company. Presently I saw the Commander coming down the hill towards us.'Here's the Commander coming, Mr. Warmbath,' says I. 'Make the men shoulder arms by companies as he passes'—for in those days it was shoulder, and not slope, arms.

"'Who told you to tell me my business, gunner's mate?' snapped old Warmbath, so I subsided like a thrashed cur; but I'm blowed if the luff didn't lose his head, for when the leading section came abreast the Commander he gave the order to 'present arms.'

"Some of the men actually obeyed the order and marched along with their rifles at the 'present,' like those wooden soldiers that kids play with; others sloped or shouldered arms, while the remainder simply carried on; but every man-jack of 'em laughed outright.

"'Mr. Warmbath, you'll report yourself to me on board,' was all the Commander said; but that was enough. When he got aboard he said it was all my fault—I had told him to make the men present arms. He was cautioned, I was disrated, and a precious long time it was afore I got made gunner's mate again.'"

"Couldn't you do anything in the matter?" I asked. "Surely the men nearest to you heard what you said to the lieutenant?"

"Yes, Mr. Reginald, they did," replied Hinks, "but there's no Court of Criminal Appeal in the Navy—at least, not yet."

"Now, Bill Stainer, it's your turn."

"Another time, mate; it's my watch below now."




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