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A poem by W. S. Gilbert

The Bumboat Woman's Story

Title:     The Bumboat Woman's Story
Author: W. S. Gilbert [More Titles by Gilbert]

I'm old, my dears, and shrivelled with age, and work, and grief,
My eyes are gone, and my teeth have been drawn by Time, the Thief!
For terrible sights I've seen, and dangers great I've run--
I'm nearly seventy now, and my work is almost done!

Ah! I've been young in my time, and I've played the deuce with men!
I'm speaking of ten years past--I was barely sixty then:
My cheeks were mellow and soft, and my eyes were large and sweet,
POLL PINEAPPLE'S eyes were the standing toast of the Royal Fleet!

A bumboat woman was I, and I faithfully served the ships
With apples and cakes, and fowls, and beer, and halfpenny dips,
And beef for the generous mess, where the officers dine at nights,
And fine fresh peppermint drops for the rollicking midshipmites.

Of all the kind commanders who anchored in Portsmouth Bay,
By far the sweetest of all was kind LIEUTENANT BELAYE.'
LIEUTENANT BELAYE commanded the gunboat Hot Cross Bun,
She was seven and thirty feet in length, and she carried a gun.

With a laudable view of enhancing his country's naval pride,
When people inquired her size, LIEUTENANT BELAYE replied,
"Oh, my ship, my ship is the first of the Hundred and Seventy-ones!"
Which meant her tonnage, but people imagined it meant her guns.

Whenever I went on board he would beckon me down below,
"Come down, Little Buttercup, come" (for he loved to call me so),
And he'd tell of the fights at sea in which he'd taken a part,

But at length his orders came, and he said one day, said he,
"I'm ordered to sail with the Hot Cross Bun to the German Sea."
And the Portsmouth maidens wept when they learnt the evil day,
For every Portsmouth maid loved good LIEUTENANT BELAYE.

And I went to a back back street, with plenty of cheap cheap shops,
And I bought an oilskin hat and a second-hand suit of slops,
And I went to LIEUTENANT BELAYE (and he never suspected ME!)
And I entered myself as a chap as wanted to go to sea.

We sailed that afternoon at the mystic hour of one,--
Remarkably nice young men were the crew of the Hot Cross Bun,
I'm sorry to say that I've heard that sailors sometimes swear,
But I never yet heard a BUN say anything wrong, I declare.

When Jack Tars meet, they meet with a "Messmate, ho! What cheer?"
But here, on the Hot Cross Bun, it was "How do you do, my dear?"
When Jack Tars growl, I believe they growl with a big big D-
But the strongest oath of the Hot Cross Buns was a mild "Dear me!"

Yet, though they were all well-bred, you could scarcely call them
Whenever a sea was on, they were all extremely sick;
And whenever the weather was calm, and the wind was light and fair,
They spent more time than a sailor should on his back back hair.

They certainly shivered and shook when ordered aloft to run,
And they screamed when LIEUTENANT BELAYE discharged his only gun.
And as he was proud of his gun--such pride is hardly wrong--
The Lieutenant was blazing away at intervals all day long.

They all agreed very well, though at times you heard it said
That BILL had a way of his own of making his lips look red--
That JOE looked quite his age--or somebody might declare
That BARNACLE'S long pig-tail was never his own own hair.

BELAYE would admit that his men were of no great use to him,
"But, then," he would say, "there is little to do on a gunboat trim
I can hand, and reef, and steer, and fire my big gun too--
And it IS such a treat to sail with a gentle well-bred crew."

I saw him every day. How the happy moments sped!
Reef topsails! Make all taut! There's dirty weather ahead!
(I do not mean that tempests threatened the Hot Cross Bun:
In THAT case, I don't know whatever we SHOULD have done!)

After a fortnight's cruise, we put into port one day,
And off on leave for a week went kind LIEUTENANT BELAYE,
And after a long long week had passed (and it seemed like a life),
LIEUTENANT BELAYE returned to his ship with a fair young wife!

He up, and he says, says he, "O crew of the Hot Cross Bun,
Here is the wife of my heart, for the Church has made us one!"
And as he uttered the word, the crew went out of their wits,
And all fell down in so many separate fainting-fits.

And then their hair came down, or off, as the case might be,
And lo! the rest of the crew were simple girls, like me,
Who all had fled from their homes in a sailor's blue array,
To follow the shifting fate of kind LIEUTENANT BELAYE.

* * * * * * * *

It's strange to think that I should ever have loved young men,
But I'm speaking of ten years past--I was barely sixty then,
And now my cheeks are furrowed with grief and age, I trow!
And poor POLL PINEAPPLE'S eyes have lost their lustre now!

[The end]
W. S. Gilbert's poem: Bumboat Woman's Story