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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter X


The acme of weakness is an accusing conscience.

THE tongue lashing, to which we patiently submitted, was severe but true, and I hope useful. She dwelt on the sin of such cruelty, and then and there made us sit down and write home (she would pay the mail) and acknowledge our faults, making this step the condition of her receiving us into her cottage to lodge. This lady on the following day made a fruitless endeavor to dissuade us from a seafaring life, and well she might; for out of a family of six, four sons and two daughters, that insatiable element had swallowed up two, and those her first-born boys. Her younger boys were also bound apprentices to the sea, which to this loving soul proved a fruitful source of grievous anxiety, that they likewise would in all probability be buried in the deep. Such, indeed, is the effect of the fascination held out by the rollicking Jack Tar on the youth of the Northumberland coast, and the demands made upon it, that it fully accounts for the disparity of the number of males as compared with that of females, there appearing in the census of that period five to one in favor of the latter. But it must be borne in mind that this is the principal nursery of the British navy, and where will you find such sailors? Here you have the bone and muscle provoked into play by an ingenious device in practice on this coast. Most seamen are paid by the month. Here they are paid by the voyage. Pride and profit are great incentives to speed. By this mode, the interest of employer and employe are alike promoted, and the government reaps the principal advantage. To return to our story: I am ashamed to say the unanswerable eloquence of that estimable lady was lost upon us, and seeing our resolution unshaken, she determined to exercise her disinterested guardianship by placing us under the guidance of a worthy man. Emanuel Walmsley was the owner of four vessels, all hailing from North Shields, and employed in carrying coal to London and elsewhere, in one of which her two sons were apprenticed. Thither she carried us, and were she our mother an introduction could not have been couched in more tender language. Oh! the priceless value of motherly love! The remembrance of that woman's disinterested kindness has proved a balm to my mind for three-score years, and during the season of my subsequent prosperity I resolved to visit and tangibly thank her for past kindness, but on arriving at Bowmaker's bank, North Shields, found the old cottage cold and desolate, the family dispersed, and the venerable Samaritan returned to dust just one week. With a heavy heart I returned to London, regretting the baneful effect of a culpable procrastination. Mr. Walmsley, a gentleman of three-score years, attentively listened to the appeal of Mrs. Cookson, and kindly complied with that lady's request to take us three boys into his employment as apprentices, and arranged with her to board us while his ships were at sea. The old Barbara, more commonly called the old Meal Barrel, was due in ten days, and two of the boys should ship in her, which two should be settled between themselves. As for the third boy, she could not vouch for him as being truthful. " In the meantime, send them down to my marine warehouse, where we'll teach them to be half sailors before they get to sea." This kind reception and arrangement proved satisfactory to all parties concerned. Even the good old lady seemed half reconciled to the prospects of her adopted charges, and we, the pair of scapegraces, were overjoyed at our success. The addition to our number failed to enhance our respectability. He lied regarding his name. Still, he was employed. Twelve days' experience in the good man's marine store, with the exception of the usual bantering the poor Scotchmen have to stand when thrown into contact with a low class of English, was mainly comfortable, each day's petty annoyances being more than compensated by the happy evenings spent in the bosom of Mrs. Cookson's family. I may here remark that young as I was I did marvel at the senseless jargon leveled at us on the part of the foreman, who in other respects seemed intelligent, but who uttered his broken English as if the most prickly part of a guid auld Scotch thistle were stuck in his throat, ignoring the use of the forceful rattling "r" in the noble English language, and who pronounced the lower lights of his own harbor "the law leets." But the man was intoxicated with authority. He briefly lorded it over seven of his fellows, and stands excused. Now comes a very painful scene in the drama. The two Davies had been nearly a year boon companions, and had together tasted of life's sweetness, and some of its bitters. The hour approached that they must part. The old Barbara, Captain Patterson, has thrown her ports open to receive another load of black diamonds for London. One of the Davies must forthwith report on board to undergo the usual trial trip previous to binding. It fell to my lot to become cabin boy to one of the most tyrannical of men. Painful it was to part from the Cookson family, but the pain was softened in the prospect of seeing them on my return. Not so in parting with the sonsy, slow-going, taciturn, kind-hearted David Bonner, whom it never has been my good fortune to see since; but I was subsequently informed that he shipped on board the Harmony.

David Pierce, for that was the third's real name, shipped with me on board the Barbara, and our respective vessels keeping apart in their traffic deprived us of the chance of meeting. From the comparatively cleanly occupation of teazing oakum, etc., in the store, to the hold of the Meal Barrel, trimming coal, was no very fascinating change, but passive obedience is in the sailor, as in the soldier, an important attribute. To-day I am in the hold ; to-morrow on the gallant mast. Report says there is a four foot sea on Tynemouth bar and expected to increase. Our hatches were battened and decks half washed, when the order was given to cast off lines and be off to sea. My first duty as a seaman was to assist to unfurl the foretopgallant sail. Getting safely aloft, "and in the act of obeying instructions, I was seized with all the symptoms of an aggravated form of seasickness, which, totally unfitted me for the duties devolving upon me, and before I could reach the shrouds was compelled in my nausea, amidst the heartless jeers of my shipmates, to cast up my accounts down upon the deck below. Oh, the humiliating effect of that event! Vain must be the attempt to describe my feelings. I could neither eat nor sleep, consequently got daily worse and less useful. Hitherto, my good health and buoyancy of spirits had gained friends in the most trying circumstances. Now I found that sickness and hopeless disappointment met with naught else but kicks, cuffs and sneers from an unfeeling crew. In the course of a few days, with a strong tide and southerly wind against us, we cast anchor in Yarmouth Roads. While lying there, the carpenter, a coarse fellow, taking umbrage at me for daring to ask him to repeat something which I failed to understand, struck me a blow on the side of my head, carrying my hat overboard, which I thoughtlessly followed, being something of a swimmer. Placing the hat where it belonged, on my head, I essayed to reach the ship, but was suddenly struck with a sense of danger on finding myself so far astern of her as to make it appear impossible ever to reach her in my present weakness against so strong a current, but hope revived when I perceived the bustle on deck getting the boat out to save the drowning boy. Nearly exhausted when picked up nearly a mile astern, I was glad to see the carpenter foremost in his efforts to save. Of course, the rope's end, the universal antidote for false steps on the part of unthinking youth on board ship, had to be applied. To allow my poor emaciated frame to escape the ordeal would, in the eyes of Patterson, amount to an unpardonable breach of discipline. This brutish scoundrel was a good seaman, and was known to make in the slowest-sailing craft in the Northumbrian coast trade the quickest runs. My testimony in this case may be partial, and therefore deemed worthless, but I could not help thinking while under the chastisement that the proverbial caution, "To spare the rope's end would spoil the sailor," was somewhat overstrained. Be that as it may, from that moment I ceased to have any regard for the man. Yet, strange to say, my life on board the Barbara was from that hour greatly improved. I became unwittingly the hero of the crew, whose gibes and jeers were turned to loving kindness, and just in proportion to the heart tide flowing in on the poor sick stranger did it ebb from Captain Patterson. They all saw my earnest desire to become a sailor, and lamented with me the cruel sickness standing in the way, and had I swallowed half the nostrums proffered to kill it, and exploded in the trial, I am sure that the crack would never have been laid to the charge of spontaneity.

Even the carpenter manifested an anxiety in my behalf, and declared that to cure seasickness there was nothing equal to hot dough soused in treacle. The few days spent in the Pool enabled me to recuperate a little, but the north run, with a light ship and a heavy sea, soon brought me back to a condition more deplorable than ever. I was so emaciated on my return to Shields that my kind friends had to look twice to recognize me. The kind commiseration I received would require an abler pen than mine to describe. Even Mr. Walmsley expressed a hope that the second trip would prove more conducive to my comfort, and while he chid me for my rashness in leaping overboard in a tide running three and a half knots, after a two and sixpenny hat, he did not fail to censure the captain for his severity. Thus fortified, I prepared to encounter the second ordeal. On bidding good-by at home, I was agreeably surprised at the manifestation of feeling on the part of a sweet girl of sixteen years. She had, during the few days in port, prepared a charm against the disease to which I appeared to be so prone. This charm consisted of a neat silken bag, heart form, containing odoriferous material, of which the smell of camphor unfortunately predominated. This had to be placed with a silk ribbon around the neck by the charmer's own hands, which I felt was a most agreeable ceremony, although the remedy proved entirely futile, and added to the list of my antipathies, which the smell of camphor proves to be up to the present time.

Of affairs of the heart one labors under a disadvantage in speaking in the first person. Thou canst say with some degree of impunity, "He fell in love," but who ever dared say, "I fell in love," without subjecting himself to the ridicule of his fellow-susceptibles? This being a tale o' truth, what can I do but confess?

To the cavilers at my inexperienced weakness for that Northumbrian beauty, her heart teeming with the milk of human kindness, and the bloom of health upon her cheek, I would ask my dear reader, Did you ever have the good fortune to be so favored? If not, in sorrow subdue your risibility and try thinking.

The remainder of my time in the old Meal Barrel will form the subject of another chapter, together with a little experience in London.

I confess now to have had an intensified motive to follow at that period a seafaring life. Not only on account of the kind attentions of that young maiden, but the delicate and disinterested kindness of her mother and every member of the family. Indeed, I seemed to grow in the good graces of that delightful family until I became as one of its members. Little did I dream of the ordeal awaiting me in London. It is well we know not what a day may bring forth.


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