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Bill Thayer

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The Literary Tars

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.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Auction on Shipboard
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p112  The Boiled Mess-Cloth

A Tale

When I was young, I heard folks say,

"That something new came every day;"

And this age we at present move in,

Is wonder­fully fast improving.

Some years ago, if you'd made mention

About each present new invention,

How cars would fly along the road

With an enormous heavy load,

Propelled by nothing else but steam;

Good Lord! they'd thought it all a dream

And mention but an air‑balloon

You've seen fly almost to the moon,

You'd soon been brought to task severely,

And as a wizard, punished dearly:

E'en in our ship, amongst our crew,

Why every day there's something new;

And I of an incident will tell,

That board our frigate late befel.

We had amongst our crew, a spark

Who foremost was in every lark,

A comic, witty, jocund wight,

Who in each mischief took delight;

A berth-deck cook he chanced to be,

And all his mess-mates plain could see,

Though he was wild as any hare,

Of his mess he took the greatest care —

He fed them high on scouse and fish,

(What better grub could any wish,)

And scarce a meal but what he'd raise

Some extra dish deserving praise:

They eulogised him o'er and o'er,

And such a cook they stoutly swore

They never in their lives had seen,

For cooking grub so choice and clean.

Our wag, he chuckled at their praise,

Their admiration more to raise;

He told them next day, please the Lord,

He'd bring a mess upon the board

 p113  The like they'd never seen before

Either on shipboard or on shore.

This dear announcement gave delight,

Each mess-mate's eye it sparkled bright,

And all had something to express

Concerning next day's coming mess: —

"What can our cook have got?" cries one,

"That he does boast so much upon,

I'll bet a dollar bill or more

He's got a dinner from the shore,

Some roasted pork, or beef-steak pie,

Or of good sausages a fry;

But we to‑morrow will find out

What 'tis he's talked so much about."

"Why," cried another of the mess,

"I'm certain I can almost guess

What he to‑morrow will produce;

'Twill be a turkey or a goose,

Or perhaps some savoury leg of veal;

(My mouth is watering now I feel;)

'Tis something extra though, I'll bet,

For he has never failed us yet: —

So patience 'till to‑morrow night,

I'm sure he will surprise us quite."

And so he did: next day came round,

When all the mess-mates might be found

With open and well-sharpened knives,

Impatient 'till the cook arrives;

The salt beef, that is untouched quite;

For why? 'twould spoil their appetite;

And who'd not leave salt junk behind,

When they a daintier dish could find.

At length the waggish cook draws nigh;

With humour twinkling in each eye

He lays the mess-cloth at their feet,

And bids them all commence and eat: —

"Eat what?" cries one, "where's this tuck out

That you made such a fuss about?

You yesterday said o'er and o'er,

You'd have a mess ne'er seen before;

For my part, I see nothing here

Except the same old Tuesday's cheer

Which I have seen times out of mind —

And for salt horse I'm not inclined."

 p114  "Why," cries the cook, "I told you true,

And here is what I promised you;

This mess-cloth, it is boiled full well,

That all the galley cooks can tell,

For fearing it would not be cooked right,

'Twas in the coppers all the night;

So I hope you'll all allow with me,

That this is a dish you seldom see: —

But come, don't let it cloud your brows,

Let's eat what Uncle Sam allows,

And perhaps to‑morrow I may raise

A mess that you will not dispraise;

So let's shove the mess-cloth out of sight,

I see it don't suit your appetite."

This was enough; the mess-mates now —

Who stood before with sullen brow,

When they perceived the dainty dish

For which they'd such an anxious wish,

Had disappeared as in a cloud, —

Broke forth in laughter long and loud,

And swore that tho' the waggish wight

Had tampered with their appetite,

They would forgive him for the trick,

He played it off so neat and slick.

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Page updated: 15 Sep 21