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Bill Thayer

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The Shabby Reception

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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Capturing a Whale
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p150  The Lost Favourite

"His honest, sonsie, baws'nt face,

Aye gat him friends in ilka place;

His gawcie tail, wi' upward curl,

Hung o'er his hurdies wi' a swirl."

The inimitable Scottish bard made use of the forcible lines in the above motto when speaking of one of his "twa dogs;" blame me not then, gentle reader, if I express myself in like manner, when recording the virtues of a canine favourite — when lauding the worth of a lamented dog; yes, reader, a dog; and such a one, on board our trim frigate, I'm sure "his like will ne'er be seen again."

There is no quadruped in any part of the habitable globe, that by his sagacity entwines himself so strongly around the affections of man, as the dog: — he is the only friend that remains steadfast and unshrinking when dangers appal, or difficulties surround us: — he is the only companion whose affection no adverse turn of fortune, however severe its consequences, can estrange: — he is the only associate whose caresses are as pure and unalloyed in poverty as in prosperity: — he is the only servant that will follow his master's footsteps, when the chill hand of penury bows his frame with famine, and wrings his heart with bitter anguish: — yes! in sunshine and in storm, in affluence and distress, in danger and in safety, the dog remains still man's unalterable friend and protector; and even after the spark of life may have fled its tenement of clay, his piteous whine and sorrow­ful visage, plainly betoken that the faithful creature's love has remained immovable and unshrinking till death, and that his affections are still wrapped up in the inanimate body that lies before him.

If then on terra firma the dog, surrounded by hundreds of his fellow quadrupeds, ingratiates himself into the favour of his master, and wins by his docility his love and friendship, how much stronger must that chain of affection be, which binds the wanderer upon the mighty deep to the canine favourite — that traverses  p151 with him in storm and in tempest the expansive deep blue ocean, that enlivens the same few feet of plank upon which they both tread, with his merry friskings? On shipboard, where four or five hundred souls are crowded together within the confines of a narrow space, communing with none save themselves for months and months, the wild antics of a monkey, the pert jabbering of a parrot, or the friendly pranks of any four-footed animal, quickly wins upon the feelings of Neptune's son in his confined state, and the creature in a short time becomes the idol of the ship's company; and when bereaved of his favourite, when a vacuum takes place in the playful gambols with which he was wont to enliven the scene, his absence is severely felt, his loss becomes a matter of universal regret.

Whilst we lay at Callao in the month of July, previous to our cruise to Puna, Mr. C–––––, our carpenter, was presented by the captain of the American brig Corsair, with a full grown dog of the half-spaniel breed, and brought him on board our frigate, with the intention of taking him to the United States. On board vessels of war, where they act up to the regulations strictly to the letter, the reign of four-footed favourites is of but short duration; for when they once chance to come under the quick detecting gaze of the first lieutenant, but two alternatives remain, prescription or banishment; to parley is of no avail; at the first mandate they must vacate the ship, or tremble for the consequences. Now, Dick (the familiar cognomen by which Mr. C–––––'s dog was addressed by our tars, upon his first stepping aboard,) became almost instanter a favourite with both officers and men; perhaps it was the nonchalance with which he tripped about the several decks, or the swaggering air with which he carried his tail curled over his back as he appeared to claim the acquaintance of all whom he approached, that gained him a friendly greet from every one; but at all events he had not been half an hour on board, before he became universally admired, and his permanent stay was a consummation devoutly to be wished by all in our trim frigate, from the first lieutenant down to the most diminutive side‑boy. Every one wondered how it possibly came to pass, that Dick had not some gentle hints given him, that his  p152 presence was not at all desirable on board; but no, week after week he remained, without a murmur of disapprobation being breathed — a month or two passed over, and not even a look of displeasure was cast on him by the occupants of the cabin or wardroom; and he appeared to be aware of the esteem in which he was held, for when the drum beat to quarters, and the crew silently assembled, and ranged themselves up in front of their several guns, he would trip jauntily around the precincts of the quarter-deck, looking familiarly up into the faces of the officers, and wag his tail with as much effrontery and seeming confidence, as if pursuing his gambols on the forecastle amidst the noise and outcry of our happy tars. What he was deficient in with regard to cunning, and mischievous adroitness, he very soon imbibed under the tuition of some of the wags of the larboard gangway; indeed he appeared to have quite a partiality for that part of the ship, for whatever little movement took place, either of duty or amusement, that chanced to call together a bevy of fore-topmen, Dick was to be perceived in the midst of the throng, apparently enjoying the scene with regular gusto, and joining his harmonious bark to the general noise. The longer he remained on board, the more he became beloved; and as our wags expressed it, "he learned the ropes pretty fast," for whilst lying at the Island of San Lorenzo, the moment any of the boats were called away (which sometimes was the case every fifteen minutes,) Dick would prick up his ears, curl his tail over his back, give a bark of delight, and scamper away to the accommodation ladder, stow himself securely in the bow of the boat, and when she shoved off from the ship he would plunge into the briny element, swim to the island, and wait on the beach with a countenance all meekness for her arrival, and then return on board again highly delighted with his frolic. One day we exercised our lads with the long guns and carronades, firing shot at a target erected on shore. As soon as Dick perceived Mr. C––––– and some of the carpenter's crew about to leave the ship, for the purpose of being convenient to re‑erect the target should it chance to be shot down, he scampered into the boat, and before they were at all aware of the fact, he was on the beach close to the  p153 scene of action. At the discharge of number‑one gun, away he flew pell-mell after the shot, which was curveting up the hill, tearing the sand with fierceness in its ascent. As soon as the expended shot became stationary, our long tailed hero stopped also, placed his paw upon the circular piece of iron as if to assure himself of its quietness, started back again to the beach, and there awaited, his eager sparkling eyes fixed upon the deadly engines as their fawning muzzles peeped through the ports, until the next discharge, when he would again scamper off and amuse himself as before.

Whether tacking ship, or reefing topsails, holy-stoning decks, or mustering around the capstan, Dick was sure to be perceived in his accustomed resting-place on the booms, watching every movement going forward as if with the eye of a critic; the spar-deck was his idol, day or night, at sea or in port; in the hot sunshine, as well as when the unpleasant heavy dews added a dreary chillness to every thing around, Dick still kept possession of the upper-deck, scarcely going below for his meals; but oh! the uncertainty of existence: — On our passage from Payta to Callao, the word was whispered around the ship that our four-footed favourite was missing. If, readers, a man had fell from the mast-head, and became engulfed in a watery tomb before the straining eye‑balls of the ship's company, it would not have produced a greater sensation than did this intelligence. — "What has become of him?" — "When was he seen last?" — "Perhaps he's asleep in one of the tops;" was repeated over by a dozen different tars, every one of whom were solicitous to obtain all the information possible respecting his disappearance; some searched the boats, some the tops, others the berth-deck, sick-bay holds, &c.; in fact not a part of the ship, where it was supposed he could possibly stow himself, but what was scrutinously overhauled, but without avail; poor Dick was no where to be found, his disappearance was an enigma which no one could solve; that he must have slipped overboard accidentally from the fore-chains, during the hurry and bustle of putting the ship about, was the general opinion, and he consequently put down by all hands as expended. "Confound the stupid fellow," cried Bill Garnet, addressing himself to a crowd that  p154 were assembled around the after-bitts on the main-deck, talking over with serious faces the probability of his being picked up by some vessel astern, "I thought I poked savey enough into that fellow's brain‑box to sing out when he should chance to make a slippery bend of it; but you see he's gone to Davy Jones' locker through his own foolishness." — "You talk like an ass, Garnet," remarked old Flyblock; "he must have got overboard whilst we were in stays, and the shindy we kick up at such a time as that would drown your cries for help, if you chanced to turn turtle, let alone the bark of that poor dog: well, we'll miss him for a time at all events, for a more wide-awake animal, or one that knew the moves of a man-of‑war better for his short acquaintance, he has'nt left behind him, either on board of ship or on shore." — "You say true, matie," chimed in Bowser, the forecastle‑man, "he was indeed a dog of parts; why two or three nights ago, while putting the ship about in our watch, in the hurry and bustle they forgot to send a man to the jib‑sheet; at the word, 'helm's-a‑lee,' not perceiving the jib fluttering, I ran to the lee‑side, and there was Dick, as busy as the devil in a gale of wind, clearing away the sheet with his mouth; he had all the turns off the pin but one; now isn't that nature? if 'taint, I don't know what is." — "Bowser, I don't know how to swallow that yarn," cried Flukes, "I know Dick was pretty wide-awake, but I can't hoist that gas in no how." "Yarn eh," cried the old forecastle‑man, a little put out at the idea of his veracity being called in question," 'tis no yarn at all, but as true as to‑morrow is banyan day; why last Thursday, when they passed the word for holystoning decks, the captain of the foretop began to curse and swear because some one had stolen all his holy-stones: Dick, who was standing by, no sooner heard it than off he starts full trot, dives down on the berth-deck, and muzzles two belonging to some of the cooks, and though the master-at‑arms and ship's corporal chased him hard, armed with a couple of squilgees, he reached the gangway in safety, with the articles in his mouth; and the most curious part of it was, the holy-stones were marked fore‑top starboard too — what do you say to that?"​a

Bowser could have related a dozen more little incidents, which  p155 would fully prove the superiority of Dick's abilities, but the last was sufficient; they one and all proclaimed him the most inimitable of quadrupeds, and they retired with heavy bosoms and sorrow­ful faces, occasioned by the absence of their favourite; and for weeks, aye months, after his sudden disappearance, many a group, when huddled together under the lee of the boats, or enjoying the luxury of their pipes around the confines of the galley, would expatiate in glowing terms upon the vast acquirements and rare qualities of poor Dick.

Lament on the sudden disappearance and premature loss
of the dog Dick, who, it is supposed, fell overboard
on our passage from Payta to Callao

"Adieu, old favourite! now adieu!

With brimful eye the spot I view

Where you, amongst our jolly crew,

Skipped blythe and gay, —

And every moment swiftly flew

From day to day.

I think on deck I see you now,

And hear your musical bow wow,

Whilst pleasure beamed on every brow

To see you there;

For in each skylark, game or row

You had a share.

Of mornings now when decks are dry,

And brooms and squilgees all put by,

To sport or play no one will fly

With motion quick,

And very plain the reason why, —

They miss you, Dick.

Yes, Dick, we miss your gambols gay —

Your sportive mirth, your jocund play —

Your merry antics day by day

Are now no more;

To think the waves snatched you away

It grieves us sore.


At evening, in some favourite port,

When in the gangways all resort,

Those who did oft your friendship court

With fawns look on;

A dullness seems to cloud each sport

Because you're gone.

The life-boat may be called away

Aye, twenty times within one day, —

Who'll now upon the ladder stay

'Till she draws near?

For you at her call with spirits gay

Would cock each ear,

And as she shoved from the ship's side,

You'd curl your tail with haughty pride,

And plunge into the briny tide

And lightly float;

And towards the beach you'd swiftly glide

Before the boat.

And as you'd reach the sandy shore,

Your joyful bark would echo o'er

In concert with the surf's dull roar,

From hill to hill;

But now, alas! 'tis heard no more,

Your tongue is still.

I never will forget that day

Our ship at San Lorenzo lay,

Our cannon-balls did briskly play

Upon the sand;

And surely in that bloodless fray

You were on hand.

To see you chase each angry ball

As they upon the sand would fall,

Regardless of each eager call

From your own master —

You paid no heed to him at all,

But ran the faster.

And when the shot would stop quite spent,

You then appeared to be content,

And to the rocks your steps you bent,


And there remain

Until another shot was sent —

You were off again.

To show you were loved by not a few,

That fatal morn when they missed you,

Both fore and aft our whole ship's crew

Did sore bewail;

And young and old by turns look'd blue

When they heard the tale.

Our hard old salts they tore their hair,

And loud and deep were heard to swear, —

Cursing themselves for not being there

At that same minute;

For they would save you, foul or fair,

Or the devil's in it.

Yes, when you made that slippery bend,

Had you but gave one bark, my friend,

You'd found each tar with a rope's end

To heave to you;

And every one their aid would lend

Amongst our crew.

In midst of all the fuss and rout,

When putting our old ship about,

Had we but heard the slightest shout

To tell your state,

We'd got launch, barge, and cutters out

To avert your fate.

But, alas! no helping hand was nigh,

No friendly shipmate standing by,

No ear to catch your drowning cry

Or plaintive moans;

For if there were you would not lie

With Davy Jones.

For believe me, Dick, the slightest word

That you had tumbled overboard,

Aye, though the tempest loudly roared,

Waves mountain high,

To save you, all with one accord

Would quickly fly.


Our reefers and lieutenants too,

As well as our stout jolly crew,

Would, from your fate to rescue you,

Great efforts make;

You'd find them then both stout and true,

And no mistake.

But, alas! my words are all in vain,

Each thought but gives me greater pain,

For we can ne'er behold again

Thy honest phiz;

From weeping I can scarce refrain,

To think of this.

Alas! you've run your mortal race,

You've gone and left a vacant space, —

What favourite now can fill your place

So well as you;

No other dog show his face

'Mongst our ship's crew.

So once again a long farewell!

No other cur could you excel,

That all on board our ship could tell,

Whilst you were here;

At sailor tricks you bore the bell

Both far and near.

And when some future years pass by,

And other ships our tars may try,

Your praise from group to group will fly,

And that full quick;

And many a salt will mournful cry

"Alas! poor Dick."

Thayer's Note:

a For those of you who, not knowing dogs, may find these stories incredible, I add two from my own personal experience:

Many years ago my mother had a dog named Voodoo, a small black poodle; at the end of a dinner party sometimes, to avoid getting up from the table and leaving her guests, she would quietly ask him "Go get my cigarettes", which he would trot off to another room and do, followed by a second expedition for the lighter (sometimes without being asked): my mother made fair capital out of this with said guests.

Well once I was visiting my mother in Florida, and having just finished lunch, just the two of us, she asked Voodoo to get the newspaper. Off went poodle, back with a section of the day's paper from the coffee table in the living room; but it was the comics or the sports section or some such, not what my mother wanted to read. She looked at him and said, "No, the international section" — and off he goes again — and a scrabbling of papers from the next room, hey that section wasn't on the top of the stack — and, you know what's coming — Voodoo delivered the world news section to her in the dining room.

Years later, at home in Chicago, I had the flu. It was a really bad one; more than fifteen years since, I haven't had to stay in bed for a full day, let alone three. My eight-month-old black Lab mix WhiteSox had been at my side almost constantly during all that time. Anyway, on day three I was starting to feel well enough to get up and take a shower, and I mumbled to myself, "Allez, time to take a shower." Now though the bedrooms are on the top floor, my invariable custom had been to shower not in the upstairs bathroom but on the ground floor, with puppy often in tow (sometimes climbing in the tub!) — but this time Sox knew better: he immediately got up off my bed, went to the nearby upstairs bathroom, and waited for me, or maybe thought to lead me. Either way, he was spot‑on: no way was I going to negotiate the stairs.

The specific foretop holystones can be explained by their scent matching the foretop; somewhat similarly, the specific section of newspaper would be explained by a more persistent scent on it because that's the part we read most in the family.

How my WhiteSox, in addition to understanding that I was still in no shape to be wandering the stairs, actually generalized the word "shower", which I'd never intentionally taught him, to apply it to one I'd never used — still remains a mystery to me.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21