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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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The Grog Expended

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p53  The Fatal Prediction

––––– "Deep and dark blue Ocean,

They sink into thy depths with bubbling groan,

Without a grave; unknell'd, uncoffin'd, and unknown."

Many clever writers have affirmed, that sailors are generally the most superstitious beings in existence, and I believe with some reason, for since my sojourn on the boundless Ocean I have never seen an accident occur on ship-board but what some one would step up with a prophetic countenance, and engross the attention of every by‑stander with a relation of some little circumstance that he had taken notice of prior to the occurrence, which he considered as a fore-warning. I have known a particular number in our fore‑top; the first person that filled it was unfortunately drowned; it was afterwards given to a young fellow who shipped on the station, and he also met with an accidental death: after this second occurrence, our tars swore 'twas an unlucky number, and prognosticated whoever would take possession of it would most certainly meet a fatal end; but it was filled up a third time, and the individual who got it was often reminded of unlucky seventy-seven, but he returned home from the cruise safe and sound, which quieted their superstitious fears.

Sailors put great faith in the predictions of fortune-tellers, or persons supposed to be skilled in magic charms, and implicitly believe they are to undergo whatever dangers and difficulties the sibyl may chalk out for them through the agency of the cups or cards; I have myself often visited the haunts of these "cunning mortals," to ascertain from them whether my approaching voyage would be for weal or for woe, but did so as much for a lark as anything else, for I never put any belief in their prophecies, although several instances have come within my knowledge in which their prognostications have been verified. — The following "unvarnished tale" I place before  p54 the reader, as it occurred on board our frigate, and is but one amongst the many similar incidents that have come under my own observation.

It was a delightful night in the month of late September; we had but the day before sailed from Rio de Janeiro, in company with the sloop-of‑war St. Louis, and with a propitious breeze, light hearts and sanguine expectations, were urging our way speedily onward towards the "dreaded cape," the icy perils of which many of us were as yet strangers to, and all on board indulging in flattering anticipations that our passage to the Chilian shores would be speedy and felicitous. Cape Horn, with its frigid blasts and terrific tempests, as a matter of course, became the theme of conversation almost in every group, and those who had never yet doubled this fearful and celebrated head-land, swallowed with intense eagerness the "tough yarns" that some of our old cruisers were launching forth concerning the heavy blows they had encountered in their former passages to the Pacific, and causing many of our youngsters to look quite glum and chap-fallen, when they brought to their "mind's eye" the dreadful weather they and all considered was in store for them. As I sauntered leisurely along the deck, giving ever and anon a heartfelt, ardent gaze, upon the dazzling face of the beauteous moonlit sea, over which our "bonny bark" was dancing merrily, leaving behind for a considerable distance her track of foam, my attention was arrested by a little knot of mizen-topmen, who were huddled together in the lee‑gangway, almost directly under the stern of the launch, one of whom was pouring forth, I must say in a style above mediocrity, the simple but pathetic and heart-touching song of "Home, sweet home." Vocal music never transfixed me so before; I have listened to the syren witchery of Mrs. Wood; I have been almost entranced by the rich and voluptuous voice of Miss Shirreff, but at this particular time, upon this heavenly moonlit night, far, far separated from kindred and friends, as this simple melody struck upon my ears, it appeared to me sweeter than any thing I had ever heard before; and as the plaintive tones of the humble performer were wafted away upon the breeze, recollections of former days  p55 crowded with giddy haste upon my senses, and I felt with a double pang my utter loneliness.

After the song was concluded, home and its endearments became the topic of conversation, and they commenced relating, each in his turn, a slight outline of their peregrinations through life, and the motives that urged them to leave behind domestic joys and become wanderers upon the mighty waters. "I ought to be the last person in the world to attempt the sea for a livelihood," remarked Bill J–––––, a fine, interesting looking young fellow, belonging to the mizen‑top. "Why so?" remarked one at his elbow. "I suppose you're one of those chaps that have rich relations, and could live ashore like a gentleman. Such fellows are foolish, certainly, for having good fresh grub to come and eat Uncle Sam's 'salt horse.' " "No, no," continued J–––––, "I've had to work for my living ashore as hard as any other person, I assure you, but still my friends all tried to prevent me from shipping, and even when I was on board the receiving-ship they procured my discharge, but I would'nt take it." "And what might the reason be?" enquired one of the group. "Why," replied J–––––, "about two months before I shipped I was on a frolic one evening with a lot of young chaps, and in the course of our spree, we determined, for a bit of a lark, to visit an old woman who lived a short distance in the country, who, it was said, dealt in the black‑art, and have our fortunes told. She was a complete sour, cross-grained old wretch, that appeared to hate every person on earth: It was late in the evening when we reached her door, at which we thundered for admittance with little ceremony, and the owner soon made her appearance; and I could see by the bitter sneer on her withered countenance that our intrusion was anything but agreeable. My companions soon made known their errand. The old crone drew forth a dirty pack of cards and commenced operations; after going through with them all, and telling them of rings, and purses, and I know not what, they were soon to be in possession of, she fixed her eyes earnestly on me, and enquired if I would'nt try my luck. I at first refused, for I never put any faith in those sort of people, but my comrades beginning to banter me for my timidity, to escape their  p56 raillery I consented. She cut the cards, and after going through some maneuvers and placing them on a table, appeared to be confused and shook her head mysteriously. She tried them again but with the same success, and at the third attempt dashed the cards on the floor. She asked me if I followed the sea. I told her I did not. 'Then,' she continued, 'for God's sake keep clear of it, for if I know anything about the cards that now lie there, you'll meet a watery grave, and that before you are much older; three times they told me so, and I'm not often wrong.' I must acknowledge when she first gave me this gloomy intelligence, I felt a little fearful; but I soon thought better of it, laughed it off, and put her down as an impostor. And 'tis in consequence of this prophecy that my friends did not wish me to go to sea." "And what do you think of it now, Bill?" asked one of the crowd. "Why, I think," says J–––––, "she's an old lying fool, and when I return I'll take the trouble to call on her and tell her so."

Eight bells now striking broke up this sociable party. Those belonging to the watch below, retired to their hammocks to "steep their senses in forgetfulness," and those who had the four hours on deck stretched out their lazy limbs on the softest plank they could find; and save the looks‑out, the officer of the deck, and the quartermaster and men at the wheel, in a few moments all were enjoying profound repose, and our gallant frigate was as still and noiseless as a deserted city. The next morning whilst engaged about some job or another in the cockpit, I heard a considerable bustle and outcry on the spar-deck, and upon reaching there I understood a man had fallen from the mizen-topsail yard overboard, while endeavouring to hook the midship buntline, striking the quarter-boat in his descent. At this juncture the ship was hove to and the life-boat pulling vigorously towards a black object which they perceived upon the surface of the water; but all their promptitude and exertion were of no avail; they returned aboard with sorrow­ful hearts and gloomy countenances, reporting the man lost, bringing his hat with them, which was the object that had attracted their attention. I now enquired who the unfortunate person was that had thus met this sudden  p57 and melancholy end, and the response was "Bill J–––––, the mizen-topman;" upon hearing which I called to my recollection the circumstances of the preceding evening, showing how fearfully was realized the old crone's fatal prediction.

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