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Sailors Yarns






Within the tropics, on a wondrous evening when the Southern trades
were blowing with their balmiest softness, the corporeal portion of
his being tired with a healthy muscular fatigue, gently lulled by the
slumberous rhythmic motion of the ship, as a little child is rocked to
sleep in his cradle, Jean was half sitting, half lying on the deck in
the mild light of the new-born stars, in the midst of the gathering
swarm of white-jacketed sailor lads, who were coming up from below,
one after another, and forming snug little groups preparatory to
passing the pleasant hours of evening in one another's society. And in
those moments of calmness and repose that precede slumber his
thoughts, as usual, assumed a more sombre cast as the future and that
dreaded examination rose before his mind.

Close at hand, on his right, were his two chosen comrades, Le Marec,
quartermaster, and Joal, captain of the mizzen-top, both hailing from
the Cotes-du-Nord, surrounded at that moment by a group of young
pays--or men from their own district--who were listening reverentially
to their conversation.

On his left was a little congregation of Basques, a race apart, who
every now and then would break out and chatter in an unintelligible
jargon, older than the hills.

A little further away another group was singing in chorus a lively air
in couplets, in which the refrain: "Old Neptune, Monarch of the Sea,"
came in every minute or so in a light, catchy way.

Among the Bretons a blood-curdling, marrow-freezing story of mystery
and darkness was going on, the confused beginning of which Jean had
failed to catch. The yarn was of a suspicious-looking brig, derelict
and abandoned by her crew, that had been encountered in the English
Channel in the twilight at the close of a dim winter's day; a ghostly
wanderer on the water that no one dared board for fear of encountering
dead men on her.

The Basques of the group to the left were listening to a wild tale of
warlike adventure beneath a blazing sun and on the burning sands of
Dahomey.

The two stories, equally lurid and fantastic, reached Jean's ears in
disconnected fragments, and were mingled and blended in his brain,
over which sleep was beginning to exert its confusing influence, while
from the chorus in the distance came the persistently reiterated
refrain of "Old Neptune," running thread-like through the whole and
connecting the parts by a sort of obligato accompaniment. There is
small opportunity for privacy on shipboard of a fine evening, when the
crew are all on deck.

"Well," Le Marec was saying--he had been a fisherman of Brieuc in his
younger days--"well, at last we concluded to board her" (it was of that
grewsome derelict that he was speaking). "It was none too light, for
the weather was thick and the night was close at hand, and I tell you
what it is, boys, I felt pretty shaky about that time. All the same,
though, I raise my hands and catch onto the gunwale, so as to hoist
myself up and get a look at what was inside--and then, my friends, what
think you it is I see? A huge, tall form, with black face, and horns,
and a long, pointed beard, that springs to its feet and makes a rush
for me--"

"It was the Devil, wasn't it?" asked Joal, convinced that he had
guessed aright.

"We thought it was, for certain, for a while--but no; it was only an
old billy-goat! but such a great, big fellow, you can't imagine. I
don't believe any one ever saw his like."

And Turubeta, a Basque from Zitzarry, was running on at the same time,
in a voice, that, compared with the deep tones of the honest Bretons,
seemed shrill and piercing as a fife.

"It was the Amazon who had informed on the poor beggar of a spy, don't
you see? Then the other fellow, the big black man, catches hold of
him. 'Come along to the beach,' he says to him. 'Come along, come
along; I am going to chop off your head!'"

"And did he go?" inquired the sceptical Etcheverry--who was from
Biarritz, where the sailors are beginning to acquire more modern
ideas.

"Did he go? of course he did! Because he couldn't help himself, don't
you see? the moment he was caught playing the spy he knew it was all
up with him. He didn't feel any too good over it, all the same, as you
may suppose."

And the Breton continued to reel off his yarn of mystery and darkness:

"The billy-goat was the only living soul on board the brig, and as she
was carrying a cargo of barley in bulk, he had had plenty to eat. If I
were to try to tell you how fat he was you wouldn't believe me--"

"So he goes to work and binds the dirty spy's hands behind his back,"
Turubeta continued, "that way, with a rope of straw, such as they use
to fasten their horses with in that beastly country, and makes him get
down on his knees upon the sand, and begins to hack away at the back
of his neck with his old cheese-toaster. But now that it was fairly
begun, the other fellow didn't want any more of it--oh, boys, you ought
to have heard the fuss he made! And the Amazon grinned and showed her
white teeth--see, like that--to show how glad she was, I suppose. Well,
you may believe me or not, just as you choose, but his regulation
sabre was so dull that he could not do the job with it, and in order
to finish the business he had to go down into his pocket and bring out
a cheap little knife that I myself had given him, and for which I paid
old Mother Virginie, in the bazaar at Goree, ten sous when it was
new."

While the listeners were making merry over this original method of
executing a death sentence, their neighbors, the Bretons, were
brooding reflectively over the history of the abandoned brig and the
black goat, and Jean, who, toward the conclusion of the two
narratives, had bent his ear alternately to left and right to listen,
smiled indulgently at the childish credulity of his shipmates; the
sprightly song "Old Neptune" also inspired him with some of its
irresistible, contagious gayety. He had never felt himself so
completely and thoroughly a sailor as he did that evening. His
anxieties for the future, which had been growing less troublesome with
each succeeding day, now vanished entirely in the sensation of
well-being and repose experienced by his weary body. He yielded
himself up to the purely animal delight of living and breathing, on
that pleasant evening, of feeling his muscles so hard and supple under
his loosely fitting garments. He stretched himself at full length on
the snow-white planks, which were his most frequent bed, and made a
pillow of the man who chanced to be next to him, a neighborly courtesy
to which no sailorman objects.

It was of all the twenty-four the enchanting hour on those summer seas
where the gentle trade winds blow. For a moment he was conscious of
the tall edifice of snowy canvas towering above his head and
oscillating with a regular rhythmic movement upon the deep blue of the
heavens; then the bright constellations of the southern sky blazed
forth between the sails and rigging, now growing more shadowy and
indistinct, and seemed to be playing a solemn game of hide and seek,
vanishing at uniform intervals and reappearing, then hiding again, to
commence afresh their stately evolutions in unison with the easy
rolling of the vessel. At last they faded from his sight, and
beneficent slumber, bearer of oblivion and peace, descended and sealed
his eyes.





Next: Mr Midshipman Easy

Previous: The Loss Of The Royal George



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