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Title: The Passage of the Palmetto
Author: John Arthur Barry
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1302441.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: May 2013
Date most recently updated: May 2013

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Title: The Passage of the Palmetto
Author: John Arthur Barry


Published in the Australian Town and Country Journal
Saturday, June 10, 1899


There are many pleasanter spots than the deck of a sailing ship, as on
some winter's morning she hangs to the buoy at Gravesend ready for a
start; and Merchant Jack, both fore and aft, as he eyes the cold, grey
sky and low-lying dingy shores on either hand, curses the climate, the
service, and his bad luck in not having shipped on board a steamer in
place of on a wind-jammer. That is in these days. In the old ones, he
took matters as they came, rather, indeed, affected to look down upon
all "smoke jacks," and prided himself upon belonging to a "flier."
Steam, however, has changed all that. There are no "fliers" to speak of
now, and British Merchant Jack has become so scarce that the powers
that be, alarmed lest he should disappear altogether, have caught a lot
of him young, and sent him in mobs to learn his trade in certain
merchant ships, and qualify himself in some of the good old-fashioned
seamanship before inevitable steam claims him for its own.

But to return to our outward-bounder, lying at the buoy this grey and
dismal February morning, and attempt to describe to you scenes that
will, ere many years are over, be only found in books. Presently, the
river pilot comes on board, a tug catches hold of the big liner, and
she moves slowly away down the Thames; her crew sulky, sore-headed, and
shivering; her officers trying to discover what sort of a "crowd" they
had dropped across; and all hands more or less bad tempered and
uncomfortable. Of course, there are vessels that leave on fine, warm,
sunny summer's mornings as well as in the bleak ones of winter. But,
fine weather or foul, outward-bound Jack's temper, as a rule, is
atrocious, and is not improved by the sight of the homeward-bounders
towing up to the docks he has just left behind him. And, anyhow, in
fine weather there is no fun in the English Channel. It's only on a
morning like this, not thick enough to necessitate bringing up in the
Downs, but quite enough so to render objects more or less indistinct,
that there is a chance of anything exciting happening. What there is of
the wind is fair; and abreast of Dover the tug casts off her line; the
Channel pilot comes on board; the Palmetto, full-rigged ship of 1800
tons, 100 A1 at Lloyd's, carrying a few saloon and second-class
passengers, sets her topsails and courses, and gingerly feels her way
along the mid-channel course. By the time she is opposite Beachy Head
the smother has thickened, and the narrow sea is like Fleet-street in a
fog with the traffic going anyhow, and no police about. Ghostly shapes
glide past the Palmetto, coming and going, that only by the dull thump
of their screws are known to be steamers. The ringing of bells from
bewildered "sailers," and the hooting of sirens from tramps and liners
is incessant. The skipper is anxious, and wants to anchor. "Bring up,
be d--d," replies the pilot, who is cross because of losing his chance
for another ship, "can't anchor in the fairway! Besides, we're just as
safe moving." The passengers collect in groups, the "seconds" around
their house, the "firsts" on the poop, and stare and shiver, in dim
apprehension, and begin to wish that, after all, they'd taken steam for
it. More or less, they are all doing the trip under "doctor's orders;"
and, more or less, all begin to wish they had their medical adviser on
board, so that they might argue the point with him. For'ard, Jack
skulks as much as possible. British Jack skulks openly, remarking the
while that of all the blank-blanked-adjective-hookers he was ever in
this blanky old dug-out beats 'em all. Foreign Jack skulks furtively in
corners, and dodges the officers around in the fog. British and foreign
heads alike are all sore as yet, and the executive know this, and
wisely trouble them as little as possible.

In a pen lashed amidships there are a few sheep, which bleat
mournfully; pigs in a stye for'ard grunt and squabble; in the coops aft
there is a noise of crowing and clucking that makes one think of a
farmyard adrift.

"Keep your eye skinned there on the foc'sle head!" roars the pilot, as
a big homeward-bound sailer, in tow, suddenly shows up at the flying
jibboom-end of the Palmetto, just grazing it, and slides by with her
yards braced sharp up; very deep in the water, and with a cluster of
figures on her poop, barely distinguishable through the gloom.

"Starboard your hellum, you blank blank idiots!" shouts the Palmetto's
pilot, shaking his fist at the stranger. "D'ye want to come any closer?
Got letters for Sydney, or what?"

"Keep your hair on, you tarnation limejuice fool!" comes back from the
other. "We're carryin' our own mails this trip. Can't trust 'em to
British barges. So long!"

"A Yankee!" mutters the pilot, spitting over the rail, as the American
ship disappears. "Get no change out o' them fellers. Soon cut ye down
as look at ye; an' then swear black's white you was in fault."

In the afternoon the fog lifts, disclosing the sea-thoroughfare
thronged with a mass of every craft and every rig under the sun, from a
Brixham trawler to a battleship, from a Dutch galliot to a Swedish brig
with a windmill on her quarterdeck, and all either coming from or
making for the Heart of the World lying away up there at the end of the
Silver Streak, at once the Mart of Nations and Mistress of the Seven

At Plymouth the pilot goes off in a better temper, with six inches of
whisky and a good dinner under his double-breasted waistcoat; also some
specially choice Cavendish in the pockets of his coat--a purple-faced,
choleric, obese old fellow, but, like all the other servants of the
Honorable Corporation of the Trinity House, no end a good man.

Sail was now got on the Palmetto, and the wind freshening she swarmed
down channel to such purpose that in the middle watch that night her
people caught a glimpse of the light that the lonely Wolf sends forth
into the wild Atlantic; and knew that they looked their last on English


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