I had heard before I joined the Grosvenor that Coxon was a smart seaman, though a bully to his men. But this did not prejudice me. I thought I knew my duties well enough to steer clear of his temper; and for the rest, knowing what a seafaring life is, and how scarcely an hour ever comes without bringing some kind of peril of its own, I would rather any day take service under a Bashaw who knew his work, than a mild-natured creature who didn't.
The pilot was a little dusky-faced man, with great bushy whiskers, and a large chocolate-coloured shawl round his throat, though we were in August. I was watching these two men talking, when Duckling said—
"It's my belief that we shall have trouble with those fellows forward. When we trimmed sail off the North Foreland did you notice how they went to work?"
"Yes, I did. And I'll tell you what's the matter. As I was going forward after dinner, the cook stopped me, and told me the men were grumbling at the provisions. He said that some of the pork served out stunk, and the bread was mouldy and full of weevils."
"Oh, is that it!" said Duckling. "Wait till I get them to sea, and I'll give them my affidavit now, if they like, that then they'll have something to cry over. There's a Portugee fellow among them, and no ship's company can keep honest when one of those devils comes aboard. He'll always find out something that's wrong, and turn and tumble it about until it sets all hands on fire."
He went to the break of the poop and leaned, with his arms squarely set, upon the brass rail, and stared furiously at the group of men about the galley. Some of them grew uneasy, and edged away and got round to the other side of the galley; others, of those who remained, folded their arms and stared at him back, and one of them laughed, which put him in a passion at once.
"You lazy hounds!" he bellowed in a voice of thunder, "have you nothing to get about? Some of you get that cable range there more over to windward. You, there, get some scrubbing-brushes and clean the long-boat's bottom. Forecastle, there, come down out of that and see that your halliards are clear for running! I'll teach you to palaver the cook, you grumbling villains!" and he made a movement so full of menace that the most obstinate-looking of the fellows got life into them at once, and bustled about.
I looked at the skipper to see what he thought of this little outbreak; but neither he nor the pilot paid the smallest attention to it: only, when Duckling had made an end, the pilot gave an order which was repeated by the chief mate with lungs of brass—
"Aft here, and clew up the mainsail and furl it!"
The men threw down the scrubbing-brushes and chain-hooks which they had picked up, and came aft to the main-deck in a most surly fashion. Duckling eyed them like a mastiff a cat. I noticed some smart-looking hands among them, but they all to a man put on a lubberly air; and as they hauled upon the various ropes which snug a ship's canvas upon the yard preparatory to its being furled, I heard them putting all manner of coarse, violent expressions, having reference to the ship and her officers, into their songs.
They went up aloft slowly and laid out along the yard, grumbling furiously. And to show what bad sailors they were, I suppose, they stowed the sail villainously, leaving bits of the leech sticking out, and making a bunt that must have blown out to the first cap-full of wind.
I was rather of opinion that Duckling's behaviour was founded on traditions which had been surrendered years ago by British seamen to Yankee skippers and mates. He had sailed a voyage in this ship with Coxon, and the captain therefore knew his character. That Coxon should abet Duckling's behaviour towards the men by his silence, was a bad augury. I reckoned that they understood each other, and that the whole ship's company, including myself, might expect a very uncomfortable voyage.
Meanwhile, Duckling waited until the men were off the yard and descending the rigging: he then roared out, "Furl the mainsail!"
The men stopped coming down, and looked at the yard and then at Duckling; and one of them said, in a sullen tone, "It is furled."
I was amazed to see Duckling hop off the deck on to the poop-rail and spring up the rigging: I thought that he was going to thrash the man who had answered: and the man evidently thought so too, for he turned pale, and edged sideways along the ratline on which he stood, whilst he held one of his hands clenched. Up went Duckling, shaking the shrouds violently with his ungainly, sprawling way of climbing, and making the men dance upon the ratlines. In a moment he had swung himself upon the foot-rope and was casting off the yard-arm gaskets. I don't think half a dozen men could have loosed the sail in the time taken by him to do so. Down it fell, and down he came, hand over fist along the main-topsail sheets against the mainmast, bounded up the poop-ladder, and without loss of breath, roared out, "Furl the mainsail!"
The men seemed inclined to disobey: some of them had already reached the bulwark: but another bellow, accompanied by a gesture, appeared to decide them. They mounted slowly, got upon the yard, and this time did the job in a sailor-like fashion.
"I'm only beginning with them," he said in his rough voice to me; and then glanced at Coxon, who gave him a nod and a smile.
The pilot now told me to go forward and see everything ready for bringing up. We were drawing close to the Downs, but the air had quite died out and the sea stretched like oil to the horizon. I don't know what was giving us way, for the light sails aloft hung flat, and the smoke of a steamboat with its two funnels only showing away across the Channel, went straight up into the sky. There must, however, have been a faint, imperceptible tide running, but it took us another half-hour to reach the point where the pilot had resolved to bring up, and by that time the sun had sunk behind the great headland beyond Deal, and was casting a broad crimson glare upon the further sea.
The royals and top-gallant sails were clewed up and furled, and then the order was given to let go the topsail halliards. Down came the three heavy yards rumbling along the masts, with the sound of chain rattling over sheaves. The canvas fell into festoons, and the pilot called, "All ready forrard?"
"Let go the anchor."
"Stand clear of the cable!" I shouted.
Whack! whack! went the carpenter's driving hammer. A moment's pause, then a tremendous splash, and the cable rushed with a hoarse outcry through the hawser hole.
When this job was over I waited on the forecastle to superintend the stowing of the sails forward. The men worked briskly enough, and I heard one of them who was stowing the fore-topmast stay-sail say "that it was good luck the skipper had brought up. He didn't think he'd be such a fool."
This set me wondering what their meaning could be; but I thought it best to take no notice nor repeat what I had heard, as I considered that the less Mr. Duckling had to say to the men the better we should all get on.
It was half-past seven by the time the sails were furled and the decks cleared of the ropes. The hands went below to tea, and I was walking aft when the cook came out of the galley and said—
"Beg your pardon, sir; would you mind tasting of this?" And he handed me a bit of the ship's biscuit. I smelt it and found it mouldy, and put a piece in my mouth, but soon spat it out.