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Title: The Passage of the Palmetto
Author: John Arthur Barry
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1302441h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  May 2013
Most recent update: May 2013

This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore

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The Passage of the Palmetto


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 Seas.

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 land.


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