Thirty years before, behind, and either side of the mast*

Ha! ‘Tis many a long year since I strode the deck of a tall ship. Well I remember how I bound my breasts and put on boys’ clothing, signed articles as a deck-hand on a cat-boat. I worked my way up by hard tack and little sleep, on luggers, cutters, coasters, trawlers, whalers, schooners, and square-riggers (in fact everything that showed a sail, apart from scows and dhows), till at last I became a deck-hand on the good ship Fancy out of Liverpool. Thirty years before the mast!

The Fancy? She was a floating purgatory, I can tell you. The captain was a bully, the mate was a bully, the bosun was a bully, and the ship’s salt-beef was a little too al dente for my taste too. But that bully captain – Dan Thirkell was his name – could drive her to make eleven knots, and that close-hauled! For all that the life on board her was hard, she was the trimmest tops’l schooner you could ever wish to see. Holystoned from keel to topmast she was.

Many’s the long voyage she saw, and many’s the time we beat around the Horn, Valparaiso-bound, half-seas-over. Aye, and many’s the good shipmate was washed overboard and never will be found until the sea shall give up its dead. Scurvy and yellowjack we endured, lateen-rigged pirate sloops we outsailed, monsoon and hurricano we withstood; sometimes Dan Thirkell would drive her until scarcely a piece of sailcloth remained aloft, while the mate and the bosun drove us fo’c’sle hands just as hard! (‘Twas thus on the very worst voyage; we saw St Elmo’s Fire on the topmast, mermaids off the port beam, and the mate shot an albatross. As all good sailors do know, ‘tis bad joss to bring golf clubs on board a ship!) But she was a fine sight with new canvas and new rigging, sailing goose-winged with a following trade wind.

But all things pass, shipmates. I mind the time that meself and me old mucker Bill Bracey from Boston (Lincs) were on the foredeck. We were a-skylarkin’, a-spinnin’ yarns, a-tellin’ tall tales, and a-spittin’ over the t’gallant rail the way that old salts do, when up comes Bigton Bill Buchan the bully bosun.

“Lay aft!” says he.

“Watch below, bosun,” says I. “Watch below until eight bells.”

“Damn ‘ee for a sea-lawyer!” says he, and starts a-lambastin’ me with his Malacca knout.

Later, in the fo’c’sle the ship’s cook (who was the nearest we had to a chirurgeon or a sawbones, being handy at jointing) tended to my wounds, stripping the shirt from my back and the breeks from my shanks to rub on tar-oil and goose-grease. Well that was the dismasting of me, because all of the hands could now see how I was rigged fore and aft!

“Why, Markie boy, you be a-sailin’ under false colours!” exclaimed Bristol Bob Bannerman, the sailmaker and ship’s carpenter. “For I see you be a judy!”

I was taken before the captain, and I expected the worst. To my surprise he was most civil when he saw what quarter the wind blew from. He cleared the mate out of his cabin and gave it over to me, gave me crinolines and petticoats to put on, even allowed me to wash. The rest of the voyage passed in pleasantness. I would stroll the deck, my parasol in my gloved hand, listening to the sea shanties and the orders from below to aloft borne on the wind, and they would seem exotic to me, sounds from another world. The crew would knuckle their foreheads as I passed and call me “Ma’am”; and the captain would stroll along half a pace behind me, hands clasped behind his broad back, head bowed, brows knitted, always as though about to speak of something.

Only later did it occur to me to wonder why he kept such an extensive female wardrobe aboard. I did notice that the dresses were a size or two large for me.

Y’know… even now, when the wind is set fair from the sou’ sou’ west, I have a longing to go to sea again. But this old peg leg of mine does warp so in the wet, and breaks my rolling gait.

Sorry – all this nautical reminiscing comes about by a circuitous route. An old Cheyenne woman knocked at the flap of my teepee this morning asking whether I still had the frying pan I borrowed from her village lo these many years. While Consuela (my Tejana maid) was rummaging in one of the yet-to-be-emptied tea-chests downstairs, she found my old pea-jacket and brought it to me.

Ah that old pea-jacket… still smelling of the salt wind and the spray… that old pea-jacket. I found something in the starboard pocket. It was a pea.

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* This story originally appeared in a series of humorous writings on an earlier blog