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The Cabin-Boy
by [?]

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.