can't say much for this, cook," said I.
"It's not fit for dogs," replied the cook. "But, so far as I've seen, all the provisions is the same. The sugar's like mud, and the molasses is full of grit; and though I've been to sea man and boy two and twenty year, I never saw tea like what they've got on board this ship. It ain't tea—it makes the liquor yaller. It's shavings, and wot I say is, regular tea ain't shavings."
"Well, let the men complain to the captain," I answered. "He can report to the owners and get the ship's stores condemned."
"It's my belief they wos condemned afore they came on board," answered the cook. "I'll bet any man a week's grog that they wos bought cheap in a dockyard sale o' rotten grub, by order o' the Admiralty."
"Give me a biscuit," said I, "and I'll show it to the captain."
He took one out from a drawer in which he kept the dough for the cuddy's use, and I put it in my pocket and went aft.
I will here pause to describe the ship which, being the theatre of much that befel me which is related in this book, I should place before your eyes in as true a picture as I can draw.
The Grosvenor, then, was a small, full-rigged ship of five hundred tons, painted black, with a single white streak below her bulwarks. She was a soft-wood vessel, built in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her lines were very perfect. Indeed, the beauty of her hull, her lofty masts, stayed with as great perfection as a man-of-war's, her graceful figure-head, sharp yacht-like bows and round stern, had filled me with admiration when I first beheld her. Her decks were white and well kept. She had a poop and a top-gallant forecastle, both of which I think the builder might have spared, as she was scarcely big enough for them. There was a good deal of brass-work on her after-decks, and more expense than she deserved, from the perishable nature of the material of which she was constructed, had been lavished upon her in respect of deck ornamentation. Her richly carved wheel, brass belaying-pins, brass capstan, brass binnacle, handsome skylights, and other such details made her look like a gay pleasure-vessel rather than a sober trader. Her cuddy, however, was plain enough, containing six cabins, including the pantry. The woodwork was cheaply varnished mahogany; a fixed table ran from the mizzen-mast to within a few feet of the cuddy front, and on either side this table was a stout hair-covered bench. Abaft the mizzen-mast were the two cabins respectively occupied by Captain Coxon and Mr. Duckling. My own cabin was just under the break of the poop, so that from the window in it I could look out upon the main-deck. A couple of broad skylights, well protected with brass wire-fenders, let plenty of light into the cuddy; and swinging trays and lamps, and red curtains to draw across the skylights when the sun beat upon them, completed the furniture of this part of the vessel.
We could very well have carried a few passengers, and I never learned why we did not; but it may, perhaps, have happened that nobody was going our way at the time we were advertised to sail.
We were bound to Valparaiso with a general cargo, consisting chiefly of toys, hardware, Birmingham and Sheffield cutlery, and metal goods, and a stock of pianofortes. The ship, to my thinking, was too deep, as though the owners had compensated themselves for the want of passenger-money by "taking it out" in freight. I readily foresaw that we should be a wet ship, and that we should labour, more than was comfortable, in a heavy sea. The steerage was packed with light goods, bird-cages and such things, but space was left in the 'tween decks, though the cargo came flush with the deck in the hold.
However, in spite of being overloaded, the Grosvenor had beaten everything coming down the river that day. Just off the Reculvers, for example, when we had drawn the wind a trifle more abeam, we overhauled a steamer. She was pretty evidently a fast screw, and her people grew jealous when they saw us coming up astern, and piled up the fires, but could not stop us from dropping her, as neatly as she dropped an old coal brig that was staggering near the shore under dirty canvas. But she smothered us with her smoke as we passed her to leeward, and I dare say they were glad to see the dose we got for our pains.
I came aft, as I have said, after leaving the baker, with the biscuit in my pocket, and got upon the poop. The skipper had gone below with the pilot, and they were having tea. Duckling was walking the poop, swearing now and again at a couple of ordinary seamen, whom he had set to work to flemish-coil the ropes along the deck, for no other reason than that he might put as much work upon them as he could invent—for this flemish-coiling was of no use under the circumstances, and is only fit for Sundays on passenger ships when you want to please the ladies with "tidy" effects, or when a vessel is in port. A watch had been set forward, and having cast a look up aloft to see that everything was trim, I went down the companion-ladder to the cuddy, followed by Duckling.
The interior of the cabin looked like some old Dutch painting, for the plain mahogany woodwork gave the place an antique air. The lamps were alight, for it was dusk here, though daylight was still abroad upon the sea; and the lamplight imparted a grave, old-fashioned colouring to the things it shone upon. The skipper sat near the mizzen-mast, stirring the sugar in a cup of tea. He looked better without than with his hat; his forehead was high, though rather peaked, and his iron-grey hair, parted amid-ships and brushed carelessly over his ears, gave him a look of dignity. The coarse little pilot was eating bread and butter voraciously, his great whiskers moving as he worked his jaws.
Duckling and I seated ourselves at the table, and I had some difficulty to prevent myself from laughing at the odd figures Duckling and the pilot made side by side—the one with his whiskers working like a pair of brushes, and the other with that door-mat of red hair on his head, and the puzzling cast of the eye that made me always doubt which one I should address when I tried to look him full in the face.
"There's a breeze coming from the sou'-west, sir," said Duckling to the captain. "The water's darkish out in that quarter, but I don't think there's enough of it to swing the ship."
"Let it come favourable, and we'll get under way at once," answered Coxon. "I had a spell of this sort of thing last year—for ten days, wasn't it, Duckling?—because I neglected a light air that sprang up south-easterly. I thought it couldn't have held ten minutes, but it would have carried me well away to the French side before it failed, and made me a free passage down, for the wind came fresh from south by west and dead-locked me here. Mr. Royle, what's going forwards among the men? I heard them cursing pretty freely when they were up aloft."
"They are complaining of the ship's provisions, sir," I replied. "The cook gave me a biscuit just now, and I promised to show it to you."
Saying which, I pulled the biscuit out of my pocket and put it upon the table. He contracted his bushy eyebrows, and, without looking at the biscuit, stared angrily at me.
"Hark you, Mr. Royle," said he, in a voice I found detestable for the sneering contempt it conveyed. "I allow no officer that sails under me to become a confidant of my crew. Do you understand?"