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A short story by James Runciman

The Cabin-Boy

Title:     The Cabin-Boy
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The master of a smack was lately accused of having murdered an apprentice; so the mob made desperate attempts to lynch the prisoner every time he was brought before the magistrates. They heard that the dead boy used to be beaten with ropes'-ends, kicked, dragged along the deck, drenched with cold water, and subjected to other ingenious modes of discipline, and they were horrified. Yet only a few years ago no surprise or indignation greeted a skipper who habitually ill-used his cabin-boys. If screams were heard coming from a collier in the Pool, the men in neighbouring vessels scarcely took the trouble to turn round. They know that some unhappy boy was being corrected; and they believed in stripes and bruises as necessary agencies in nautical education. When a weakly lad chanced to die he was dropped overboard, and there was an end of the matter; the strong lads who lived through these brutalities grew into fine sailors.

Times are altered. The old-fashioned sailor is an extinct creature, and modern conditions have developed a totally new variety. The old-fashioned sailor was brought up in an atmosphere of rough cruelty; the new-fashioned sailor will submit to no tyranny whatever. The old-fashioned skipper was very like the Hull culprit in habits and customs; the new-fashioned skipper is overbearing and often conceited, but rarely brutal.

They formed a strange society, did those East Coast sailors of past days. A boy grew up in one of the brisk little ports that lay between Wivenhoe and Spittal. The notion of inland life had no place in his mind, for his thoughts in early years suffered a sea change. He played on the quay, and heard the growling talk of the lounging, bearded sailors; so that he soon became critical in the matter of ships and seamanship. He could tell you the name of every black and apple-bowed vessel that came curtseying over the bar on the flood tide; and he would prove the superiority of the "Halicore" over the "Mary Jane," with many clenching allusions to aged authorities. If the black fleet went out with a northerly breeze blowing, he could name the ship that would be first clear of the ruck; if the wind were off the land, he knew which ship would be suited by having the breeze on the beam. Long before he ever saw the outside of the bar he had heard of every point on the coast. The possibility of becoming anything but a sailor never entered his head. He tried to copy the flat-footed rolling walk of the seamen, and he longed for the time when he might wear a braided cap and smoke a pipe. While yet little more than a child he went on his trial voyage, and had his first experience of sea-sickness. Then he was bound apprentice for five years, his wages beginning at L8 per year, and increasing yearly by L2 until the end of his term. His troubles began after his indentures were signed. The average skipper had no thought of cruelty and yet was very cruel. The poor lad had a very scanty allowance of water for washing; yet if he appeared at breakfast-time with face and hands unclean he was sent squeaking up to the galley with a few smart weals tingling upon him. All sorts of projectiles were launched at him merely to emphasize orders. The mate, the able seamen (or "full-marrows"), the ordinary seamen (or "half-marrows") never dreamed of signifying their pleasure to him save with a kick or an open-handed blow. His only time of peace came when it was his watch below, and he could lay his poor little unkempt head easily in his hammock. In bad weather he took his chance with the men. The icy gusts roared through the rigging; the cold spray smote him and froze on him; green seas came over and forced him to hold on wheresoever he might. Sometimes the clumsy old brig would drown everybody out of the forecastle, and the little sailor had to curl up in his oilskins on the streaming floor of the after-cabin. Sometimes the ship would have to "turn" every yard of the way from Thames to Tyne, or from Thames to Blyth. Then the cabin-boy had to stamp and shiver with the rest until the vessel came round on each new tack, and then perhaps he would be forced to haul on a rope where the ice was hardening. It might be that on one bad night, when the fog lay low on the water and the rollers lunged heavily shoreward, the skipper would make a mistake. The look-out men would hear the thunder of broken water close under the bows; and then, after a brief agony of hurry and effort, the vessel beat herself to bits on the remorseless stones. In that case the little cabin-boy's troubles were soon over. The country people found him in the morning stretched on the beach with his eyes sealed with the soft sand. But in most instances he made his trips from port to port safely enough. His chief danger came when he lay in the London river or in the Tyne. As soon as a collier was moored in the Pool or in the Blackwall Reach, the skipper made it a point of honour to go ashore, and the boy had to scull the ship's boat to the landing. From the top of Greenwich Pier to the bend of the river a fleet of tiny boats might be seen bobbing at their painters every evening. The skippers were ashore in the red-curtained public-houses. The roar of personal experiences sounded through the cloud of tobacco-smoke and steam, and the drinking was steady and determined. Out on the river the shadows fell on the racing tide; the weird lights flickered in the brown depths of the water; and the swirling eddies gurgled darkly and flung the boats hither and thither. In the stern of each boat was a crouching figure; for the little cabin-boy had to wait in the cold until the pleasures of rum and conversation had palled upon his master. Sometimes the boy fell asleep; there came a lurch, he fell into the swift tide, and was borne away into the dark. Over and over again did little boys lose their lives in this way when their thoughtless masters kept them waiting until midnight or later.

Through hunger and cruelty and storm and stress, the luckier cabin-boy grew in health and courage until his time was out. When he went home he wore a thick blue coat, wide blue trousers, and a flat cap with mystic braid; and on the quay he strolled with his peers in great majesty. Tiny children admired his earrings and his cap and his complicated swagger. Then in due time came the blessed day when he called himself ordinary seaman, and when the most energetic of mates dared not thrash him (unless, indeed, the mate happened to be much the stronger man, in which case professional etiquette was apt to be disregarded); his pay rose to L2 a month; he felt justified in walking regularly with a maiden of his choice; and his brown face showed signs of moustache and beard. Then he became A.B., then mate, and last of all he reached the glories of mastership and L8 a month. By that time he had become a resolute, skilful man, with coarse tastes and blunt feelings. Danger never cost him a thought. He would swear fearfully about trifling annoyances; but in utmost peril, when his ship was rolling yard-arm under, or straining off the gnashing cliffs of a lee-shore, he was quiet and cool and resigned. He took the risk of his life as part of his day's work and made no fuss about it. He was hopelessly ignorant and wildly conservative; he believed in England, and reckoned foreigners as a minor species. His sinful insularity ran to ludicrous manifestations sometimes. An old coaster was once beating up for his own harbour and trying to save the tide. A little Danish brig got a slant of wind and rattled in over the bar, while the collier had to stand off for six hours. The captain was gravely indignant at this mischance, and, sighing, said, "Ah! God cares far more for them furriners than He does for His own countrymen."

As he grew in years his temper became worse, and his girth greater. The violent exertion of his earlier days was exchanged for the ease of a man who had nothing to do but stand about, eat, sleep, and throw things at cabin-boys. He had all the peremptory disposition of an Eastern tyrant; and the notion of being called to account for any one of his doings would have thrown him into apoplectic surprise. So he lived out his days, working his old tub up and down the coast with marvellous skill, beating his boy, roaring songs when his vessel lay in the Pool, and lamenting the good times gone by. When at last his joints grew too stiff, and other troubles of age came upon him, he settled ashore in some little cottage and devoted himself to quiet meditation of a pessimistic kind. Every morning he rolled down to the quay and criticised with cruel acuteness the habits of the younger generation of mariners; every evening he took his place in the tavern parlour and instructed the assembled skippers. At last the time came for him to go: then the men whom he had scored with ropes'-ends in his day were the first to mourn him and to speak with admiration of his educational methods.

The skipper of the new school is a sad backslider. He would think it undignified to beat a boy; he wears a black frock coat, keeps novels in his cabin, wears a finger-ring, and tries to look like a ship-broker. He mixes his north-country accent with a twang learned in the West-end theatres, and he never goes ashore without a tall hat and an umbrella. His walk is a grievous trouble to his mind. The ideal ship-broker has a straight and seemly gait; but no captain who ever tried to imitate the ship-broker could quite do away with a certain nautical roll. The new-fashioned captain is not content with that simple old political creed of true sailors, which began and ended with the assertion that one Englishman could beat any six foreigners. This is crude in his eyes. He knows all about Gladstone and the Land Bill; he is abreast of his age in knowledge of the Eastern Question; and he claims kindred with a Party. His self-confidence is phenomenal, but not often offensive. In short, he is a sort of nautical bagman, with all the faults and all the business-like virtues of his kind.

[The end]
James Runciman's short story: Cabin-Boy