Sailors' Yarns by Pierre Loti

(From Jean Berny, Sailor.)

Within the tropics, on a wondrous evening when the Southern trades were blowing with their balmiest softness, the corporeal portion of his being tired with a healthy muscular fatigue, gently lulled by the slumberous rhythmic motion of the ship, as a little child is rocked to sleep in his cradle, Jean was half sitting, half lying on the deck in the mild light of the new-born stars, in the midst of the gathering swarm of white-jacketed sailor lads, who were coming up from below, one after another, and forming snug little groups preparatory to passing the pleasant hours of evening in one another’s society. And in those moments of calmness and repose that precede slumber his thoughts, as usual, assumed a more sombre cast as the future and that dreaded examination rose before his mind.

Close at hand, on his right, were his two chosen comrades, Le Marec, quartermaster, and Joal, captain of the mizzen-top, both hailing from the Côtes-du-Nord, surrounded at that moment by a group of young pays—or men from their own district—who were listening reverentially to their conversation.

On his left was a little congregation of Basques, a race apart, who every now and then would break out and chatter in an unintelligible jargon, older than the hills.

A little further away another group was singing in chorus a lively air in couplets, in which the refrain: “Old Neptune, Monarch of the Sea,” came in every minute or so in a light, catchy way.

Among the Bretons a blood-curdling, marrow-freezing story of mystery and darkness was going on, the confused beginning of which Jean had failed to catch. The yarn was of a suspicious-looking brig, derelict and abandoned by her crew, that had been encountered in the English Channel in the twilight at the close of a dim winter’s day; a ghostly wanderer on the water that no one dared board for fear of encountering dead men on her.

The Basques of the group to the left were listening to a wild tale of warlike adventure beneath a blazing sun and on the burning sands of Dahomey.

The two stories, equally lurid and fantastic, reached Jean’s ears in disconnected fragments, and were mingled and blended in his brain, over which sleep was beginning to exert its confusing influence, while from the chorus in the distance came the persistently reiterated refrain of “Old Neptune,” running thread-like through the whole and connecting the parts by a sort of obligato accompaniment. There is small opportunity for privacy on shipboard of a fine evening, when the crew are all on deck.

“Well,” Le Marec was saying—he had been a fisherman of Brieuc in his younger days—“well, at last we concluded to board her” (it was of that grewsome derelict that he was speaking). “It was none too light, for the weather was thick and the night was close at hand, and I tell you what it is, boys, I felt pretty shaky about that time. All the same, though, I raise my hands and catch onto the gunwale, so as to hoist myself up and get a look at what was inside—and then, my friends, what think you it is I see? A huge, tall form, with black face, and horns, and a long, pointed beard, that springs to its feet and makes a rush for me—”

“It was the Devil, wasn’t it?” asked Joal, convinced that he had guessed aright.

We thought it was, for certain, for a while—but no; it was only an old billy-goat! but such a great, big fellow, you can’t imagine. I don’t believe any one ever saw his like.”

And Turubeta, a Basque from Zitzarry, was running on at the same time, in a voice, that, compared with the deep tones of the honest Bretons, seemed shrill and piercing as a fife.

“It was the Amazon who had informed on the poor beggar of a spy, don’t you see? Then the other fellow, the big black man, catches hold of him. ‘Come along to the beach,’ he says to him. ‘Come along, come along; I am going to chop off your head!’”

“And did he go?” inquired the sceptical Etcheverry—who was from Biarritz, where the sailors are beginning to acquire more modern ideas.

“Did he go? of course he did! Because he couldn’t help himself, don’t you see? the moment he was caught playing the spy he knew it was all up with him. He didn’t feel any too good over it, all the same, as you may suppose.”

And the Breton continued to reel off his yarn of mystery and darkness:

“The billy-goat was the only living soul on board the brig, and as she was carrying a cargo of barley in bulk, he had had plenty to eat. If I were to try to tell you how fat he was you wouldn’t believe me—”

“So he goes to work and binds the dirty spy’s hands behind his back,” Turubeta continued, “that way, with a rope of straw, such as they use to fasten their horses with in that beastly country, and makes him get down on his knees upon the sand, and begins to hack away at the back of his neck with his old cheese-toaster. But now that it was fairly begun, the other fellow didn’t want any more of it—oh, boys, you ought to have heard the fuss he made! And the Amazon grinned and showed her white teeth—see, like that—to show how glad she was, I suppose. Well, you may believe me or not, just as you choose, but his regulation sabre was so dull that he could not do the job with it, and in order to finish the business he had to go down into his pocket and bring out a cheap little knife that I myself had given him, and for which I paid old Mother Virginie, in the bazaar at Goree, ten sous when it was new.”

While the listeners were making merry over this original method of executing a death sentence, their neighbors, the Bretons, were brooding reflectively over the history of the abandoned brig and the black goat, and Jean, who, toward the conclusion of the two narratives, had bent his ear alternately to left and right to listen, smiled indulgently at the childish credulity of his shipmates; the sprightly song “Old Neptune” also inspired him with some of its irresistible, contagious gayety. He had never felt himself so completely and thoroughly a sailor as he did that evening. His anxieties for the future, which had been growing less troublesome with each succeeding day, now vanished entirely in the sensation of well-being and repose experienced by his weary body. He yielded himself up to the purely animal delight of living and breathing, on that pleasant evening, of feeling his muscles so hard and supple under his loosely fitting garments. He stretched himself at full length on the snow-white planks, which were his most frequent bed, and made a pillow of the man who chanced to be next to him, a neighborly courtesy to which no sailorman objects.

It was of all the twenty-four the enchanting hour on those summer seas where the gentle trade winds blow. For a moment he was conscious of the tall edifice of snowy canvas towering above his head and oscillating with a regular rhythmic movement upon the deep blue of the heavens; then the bright constellations of the southern sky blazed forth between the sails and rigging, now growing more shadowy and indistinct, and seemed to be playing a solemn game of hide and seek, vanishing at uniform intervals and reappearing, then hiding again, to commence afresh their stately evolutions in unison with the easy rolling of the vessel. At last they faded from his sight, and beneficent slumber, bearer of oblivion and peace, descended and sealed his eyes.