March 1, 1919. When the car got to the Board of Trade Office, which is opposite the old chapel of ease where the crews of John Company's ships "used to worship," as a local history tells us, I saw Uncle Dave by the kerb, with time apparently on his hands. I got down.
He told me old Jackson is dead. Jackson was a mast and block maker, but his fame was the excellence of his figure-heads. It is many years since old Jackson made one, but if it is doubted that he was an artist, there is a shop near where he once lived which still displays three of his images, the size of life, reputed to have been conjured from baulks of timber with an axe. I remember Jackson. He rarely answered you when you questioned him about those ships to which he had given personality and eyes that looked sleeplessly overseas from their prows. He regarded you, and only his whiskers moved in silent indifference (he chewed), as though you were wasting the time of a man and an artist. Those images of his were all of women. He would make no figure-head for a ship bearing the name of a man, though it were that of a Greek hero. And, of course, you dare not even think of the trousered legs of a modern man stuck each side of a ship's prow, boots and all; but the drapery of a woman flows with grace there. She would look indeed its vigilant guardian spirit. It would be pleasing to write of some of the more famous of those idols, as I remember them in repose, above the quays of the docks.
Here we were joined by some young men who knew Uncle Dave. They were looking for a ship. But Uncle continued to tell me of the merits of his friend the maker of figure-heads. A stoker became a trifle irritated. "Well, what's the good of 'em, anyway?" he interjected. "Lumber, I call 'em. They can't be carried on straight stems, and clipper-bows aren't wanted these days, wasting good metal. Why, even Thompson's White Star liners have chucked that sort of truck. They're not built like it now. What's the good of figger-'eds?"
This youth's casual blasphemy in the presence of Uncle Dave (who once was bo'sun of a China clipper), extolling as he did his age of mere machines against the virtues of an age when ships were expected to look good as well as do good things, made us shrink in anticipation of the storm. For Uncle Dave has a habit of listening to a talk about ships in a deliberate and contemptuous silence, with nothing to show of his inward heat but a baleful light in the eye. He does not like steamers. He does not think steamer-men are seamen. He declares they can never be seamen. And now we waited, dreading that his anger, when it burst, would be quite incoherent with force. There was really something of hatred in his look as he gazed at the youngster, his mouth a little open, his hand holding his trembling pipe just away from his mouth, which had forgotten it. The old sailor bent forward, screwing his eyes at this young man as though trying to believe it was real.
An older hand interposed. "Ah, come away now! I've heard chaps make game of figger-'eds, an' call 'em superstition. But I say let such things alone. I know things that's happened to funny fellows through making game of figger-'eds. There was the Barbadian Lass. She was a brigantine. She used to run to Trinidad. There was something queer about her figger-'ed. It was a half-breed woman. She was smiling. She had bare breasts, and she used to wear earrings. Her chaps used to keep a spare pair for her in a box. She was always fresh and bright, but I've heard say she was never painted--no, not since the day the ship was launched. She kept like that. And one day young Belfast MacCormick slipped a tar-brush over her dial. Said it was idolatry. And what happened to him? You answer me that!"
"Yes, I know," broke in one of us. "But you can't say it was along of that tar-brush . . ."
"You young chaps ain't got no sense," here interrupted Uncle, his voice evidently under control, but shaky. "I'd like to know where you were brought up. You learn it all wrong at them schools of yours, and you never get it right afterwards. You learn about the guts of engines and 'lectricity, and you mix it up with the tales your grandmothers told you, and you get nothing straight. What you've got is all science and superstition. And then you wonder why you make a mess of it. Listen! It don't matter what you do to a figger-'ed, if you're fool enough to spoil it. It's having it that matters. It's something to go by, and a ship you're glad to work in."
He turned on the stoker. There was astonishment and pity in his glance. "Look at you. In and out of a ship, and you forget her name when you've signed off. You don't care the leavings in a Dago's mess-kid for any ship you work in, if you can get a bit out of her and skip early."
"That's me, Uncle," muttered the stoker.
"Can you remember names, like some of us remember the Mermerus, the Blackadder, and the Titania? Not you. Your ships haven't got names, properly speaking. They're just a run out and home again for you, and a row about the money and the grub."
"Sure to be a row about the grub," murmured the stoker.
"What are ships nowadays?" he went on, raising a shaking index finger. "Are they ships at all? They're run by companies on the make, and worked by factory hands who curse their own house-flags. It's a dirty game, I call it. Things are all wrong. I can't make them out. You fellers take no pride in your work, and you've got no work to take pride in. You don't know who you work for or what, and your ships got no names. They might be damned goods vans No good in a figger-'ed! Then I'll tell you this. You'll get no good till you learn better, my lad."