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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.

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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The Three Dogs
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p262  Dialogue between one of the tars of "Old Ironsides" and
a white mouse, which he found in his bag on the
homeward-bound passage


"Old long-tailed chap, what cheer! what cheer!

I'd like to know what brings you here

Amongst my frocks and trowsers;

I've half a mind to call the cats,

The'reº real death on mice and rats,

They're regular first rate mousers.

"You thought perhaps you'd raise a snack

By popping into my poor sack,

Why mouse you must be soft; —

You might as well to hunt for cheese,

Or beef, or duff, or things like these,

Just ramble up aloft.

"You might as well, to raise a meal,

Into our starboard steerage steal

As search amongst my clothes.

You'd find the victual-locker there,

Of solid food completely bare,

That every body knows.

"Their live stock's gone these many days —

They're lucky now if they can raise

Bread scouse, or such like trash;

Of all fresh grub they're long bereft,

Not e'en one half-starved chicken left

To make a stew or hash.

"And now, whatever gales we stem,

Fowl stomachs it will not give them,

Since with their stock they've parted;

And should a foe with haughty pride,

Bear down and give us one broadside,

They won't be chicken-hearted.

 p263  "But come, before I call the cat,

Let's have a little bit of chat: —

White mice, I know full well,

On board of ship have got the knack

Of speaking much behind one's back;

Come, come, your story tell."


"Oh, sailor, hear my plaintive moans!

Lord! Lord! you're mashing up my bones —

Just ease your hand a mite,

And I will tell you all I know

'Bout why I'm cruising here below,

When I get o'er my fright.

"In Callao, (you know that place,)

I first in daylight showed my face —

I love that spot of ground —

And though I tell it thus to you,

You'll find I am Peruvian true,

As good as e'er was found.

"The first thing I can call to mind,

I in the castle was confined

Amongst the soldiers there:

And you could tell by my phisog,

That they were pretty scarce of prog,

And precious slim my fare.

"I could not live that half-starved fashion,

For one poor Cholo's whole day's ration

Would scarcely serve a louse;

Their beef without one mite of fat,

And precious little too of that,

It would'nt suit this mouse.

"So off I went to seek for more,

I brought up in the naval store

'Mongst bread, beans, cheese, and rice;

I guess I then went the whole hog

In eating your sailors' prog —

Aye, that's the place for mice.

 p264  "One day you sent ashore for bread,

The thought then came into my head

To go on board your ship;

For I had grown so full of blood,

I thought, of course, 'twould do me good

To try the sea one trip.​a

"I'd scarcely formed that resolution,

Ere your purser of the Constitution,

O'erhauling of the bread

To see that it was free from weivils,

Jumped as if he'd seen twenty devils

When he perceived my head.

"I said, dear sir, do pray keep dark,

I've only come here for a lark —

I hope you will not 'peach,

For I can be a friend to you,

Greater than all your whole ship's crew,

If I the Frigate reach.

"Place me but once in your bag‑racks,

And if with me you'll but go snacks,

Let cats be thick as hops,

I promise you as true as fate

I'll put their clothes in such a state,

They'll have to draw more slops.

"At this he took me at my word,

And on the sly brought me on board,

'Tis true upon my soul;

Of course I quickly found the bags,

I've since been tearing clothes to rags,

And now you know the whole."


"Is this all the yarn you can stretch, —

You little, nibbling, long-tailed wretch!

I ought to raise a racket;

For 'tis the teeth in your damn'd jaw

That caused me the last month to draw

Another mustering jacket.

 p265  "I have a notion, for that action,

Out of your hide to've satisfaction,

Although you are so small;

For if again at large you roam,

Before our Frigate reaches home,

You'll eat up bags and all.

"But come, between both you and me,

I promise you I'll let you free

If you will more unfold;

I know you've in the cabin been,

And in the ward-room you've been seen,

At least so I've been told.

"Come, strike a light! don't be so shy, —

Have you not her the reason why

So hard they grind our crew,

By clapping a stopper altogether

On our tea‑water this cold weather?

I'm sure 'tis known to you.

"What reason do they give for this —

Have we in aught behaved amiss,

That they should serve us so?

I'm sure the tanks ain't given out,

And plenty wood lies strewed about

Down in the hold below.

"The war, they say that has broke out,

I guess has brought all this about,

They act just like a fool;

For swilling cold water each cold night,

If we should be drawn up to fight,

It might our courage cool."


"Sailor, if you will promise me

That you will let me off scot-free,

My word I give to you

I'll open unto you my mind,

And I am sure you then will find

I know a thing or two."

 p266  Sailor

"Then come, old boy, let's have it all,

I am afraid for me they'll call, —

Be quick and spring your luff:

And if your yarn should chance to please,

I'll stuff your guts with first rate cheese

Until you cry enough."


"Well now, you see, the fact is this,

I've noticed many a thing amiss,

Although I've held my peace;

For instance, now just twig the note,

Of keeping our gun‑deck afloat

In weather such as this.

"You, of course, how that occurs,

(I do not wish to heave any slurs)

But there's one certain gent,

That long I've scratched from off my books,

However sanctified his looks,

Is still on mischief bent.

"He was the man with malice vile,

Though looking heavenly all the while,

That in the cabin run,

And in his usual oily style.

Though rankling with splenetic bile,

Such a damn'd twister spun.

"He said the gun‑deck was much too snug,

When they had in each scupper-plug,

The tars could loaf about;

And for the comfort of each man,

He thought it was the only plan

To have the ports knocked out.

" 'Twas done — and that self-same day

The holy-stones were brought in play;

Holy — oh, that's a blunder —

For as they shoved those things along,

Instead of a prayer or godly song,

All hands they swore like thunder."

 p267  Sailor

"Yes, yes, I marked that morning well,

I mind, too, 'twas cold as h––––ll —

Our feet he made us bare:

You talk 'bout cursing — in such weather

To have cold hands and feet together,

'Twould make a parson swear.

"Another thing, how comes it so,

We do not now to quarters go

With frocks all snowy white;

That and the hard work on each gun

Was a little bit of morning fun,

In which he took delight."


"I'll tell you, Jack, say what you will,

Our Captain is our staunch friend still,

However they may talk;

I've heard him, since I've been aboard,

By one short but determined word,

Many a foul plan baulk.

"Did'nt he slash, that each one knows,

Last Sunday putting on clean clothes —

Believe me, you may thank him —

Or else the coldest day we've had,

You'd found that your fine kind old dad

Would had you in Sunday's trim.

"Your captain is no purser's friend,

For he would to the devil send

Each one of that whole tribe.

He's a member of the Claxton school —

Works from the heart, and not by rule,

And scorns to take a bribe.

"Have patience, don't get in a fret,

You'll have your hot tea soon I'll bet —

Just whisper in your ear —

I heard a yarn the other night,

I would not for ten dollars bright

That every one should hear."


As our white mouse cocked up his snout

To let this great big secret out,

Pincher, the dog, drew near;

And as he wagged his tail with pride

Upon poor long-tail's sleek fat hide,

He cast a wistful eye —

He licked his chops, he made one breach,

His teeth did our poor mousy reach,

And quick his limbs did sever.

And thus in one unlucky minute,

This secret that had so much in it

Was lost to us forever.

Thayer's Note:

a Celsus, de Medicina, III.22.8.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21