A Book of Words – XV

“The First Sailor”

by Rudyard Kipling

ADMIRALS, Vice-Admirals and Rear-Admirals of the future—I am sorry for you. When you are at sea you are exposed to the exigencies of the Service, the harsh reprimands of your superiors, the malice of the King’s enemies, and the Act of God. When you come ashore you endure, as you will this evening, the assaults of the civil population teaching you your own job. For instance, my lecture deals with the origin, evolution, and development from the earliest ages, of that packet of assorted miseries which we call a Ship. With my lecture will be included a succinct but accurate history of late Able Seaman, Leading Hand and Commander, Clarke, founder of the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine.The late Commander Clarke flourished between fifteen and twenty thousand years ago, on a marshy island on the south side of a tidal estuary that faced East. Barring that he did not use patent medicines, daily papers, and similar modern excrescences, he was very like yourselves, though in a different rig. His wife, Mrs. Clarke, wove baskets out of reeds, and made eel-traps out of willows and osiers.

Neither of them knew that the river in front of them would be called the Thames, or that the island they inhabited would be called Sheer Necessity. But they knew what sheer necessity meant. It was sheer necessity for them to swim, spear salmon with flint-headed spears; knock seals on the head with wooden clubs; catch and trap fish; dig for cockles with a flattened piece of wood like a paddle; cure and dress skins; and, above all, keep the home-fires burning in their mud and wood hut. This was easy, because the river brought down any amount of unrationed drift-wood from the great forests in the interior of England, and laid it almost at Nobby’s door. He had only to swim out, get astride of a log, and paddle it ashore with the paddle he used for digging his cockles.

But he noticed that the logs nearly always turned over with him, and tipped him into the water. He didn’t mind the duckings. What annoyed him was being ducked however well he balanced himself. He did not understand logs behaving as if they were alive. You see, for aught Nobby, knew, logs might be alive. According to his religion, everything else was alive. The Winds were alive. The Tides were alive. He saw them being driven up and down the river by a God who lived in the Moon. The Sun was alive too. Nobby could see the exact place where he came out of his House under the Sea. The Sun lived at the End of the World which, as everybody in his world knew, was East of Margate Sands. If the God of the Ebb Tide caught you fishing too far out from the bank of the river, he carried you out to the End of the World, and you never came back again, because you were burned up alive in the Sun’s House. That was both Fact and Religion. But the logs and driftwood used to pass out of Thames mouth with the ebb, in long processions to the End of the World; and Nobby noticed that many of those very same logs would come back again with the flood, not even charred! This proved to him that the logs knew some sort of magic which he didn’t—otherwise how could they get back from the House where the Sun rose without being burned up? That was Logic. At last he spoke about it to the High Priest of his tribe, and asked him whether a man could go and come as the logs did. The High Priest laughed and quoted an ancient saying of the Tribe when young men boasted or children wanted something they couldn’t get. “Wait a bit!” he said. “As soon as the Stick marries the Basket, you’ll get to the World’s End and back—won’t you?” That is a silly saying isn’t it? It’s almost as silly as the old music-hall chorus that used to be sung in London ever so long ago:

When the Pigs begin to fly
Oh, won’t the pork be high?
And we’ll send old maids to Parliament—
When the Pigs begin to fly.

Now, you may have noticed, gentlemen, that the Pig, as represented by the Hun, has begun to fly. At the same time, the vote is being given to the ladies, whom we shall see at Westminster anon; and I need not draw the attention of any, Gun-room officer to the present scandalous price of tinned sausages. This shows that, though many a prophecy turns out to be a joke, some jokes—specially in the Service—become prophecies.

So it was in Nobby’s case. He didn’t know what you and I know about the Doctrine of Evolution. He didn’t know that the Stick, which the High Priest talked about, represented the single log which is the Father of all dug-out makee-paddloes, such as West African canoes, and the whole breed of rafts, praus, catamarans, and outriggers from Dakar to Malaysia; or that the Basket is the Mother of all built-up shipping that has a keel and ribs—from the kayak, junk, and dhow, dromond, bus, caravel, carrack, and Seventy-Four, to the modern transatlantic liner, now on convoy-duty, the overworked and under-gunned sloop, the meritorious but damp destroyer and sea-sick omnes, throughout all the oceans. Such considerations did not weigh with him. Being a simple soul, he was merely annoyed with those logs that turned over beneath him; and he was puzzled over the logs that went to the End of the World and back again.

One day when he was retrieving his firewood as usual, he saw a log drift past that took his fancy. He swam out and straddled it, making ready to balance if it turned over. But it didn’t. For the first time in the history of mankind, Nobby felt the gentle roll and recover of a ballasted keel beneath him. He leaned to port and starboard to make sure. Still the log didn’t turn over. Why? Because it had been a small stunted tree growing on a sou’-western exposure which had bent it over to the north-east, thus giving the trunk a pleasing sheer at the bows. To steady itself against prevailing winds, the tree had wrapped its roots round a big boulder. Then a gale had torn it out of the bank it grew on, hundreds of miles up the river, and it had drifted down to the sea, rubbing and scraping on gravel and sandbars till there was hardly any trace left of its branches. But the tough old roots were still firmly wrapped round the boulder, and the log, therefore, floated more or less plumb.

As far as we can make out, the earliest steps of invention, like those of promotion, are mostly due to accident taken advantage of by the observant mind. Accident, Providence, or Joss had presented the observant Nobby with the Mothermodel, so to speak, of all the ships that would be built hereafter. But all that Nobby knew was that, at last, he had found a log which didn’t roll over, and he meant to keep it. Therefore he made his wife put raw-hide lashings over the boulder among the roots so that the boulder should not drop out or shift. They greased the lashings, of course, the same way as they greased themselves with seal-oil when they went swimming, because grease keeps out wet. For the same reason they greased the whole log except along the top where they wanted to take hold of it. As they rubbed the stuff in, they scraped smooth, with shell and flint scrapers, all knots and bumps where the branches had been. Later on—it may have been weeks, it may have been months or years—it occurred to Nobby to hollow out the log so as he could sit in it comfortably, instead of on it. So he and his wife put red-hot ashes on the top, surrounded them with a little mud, and scraped away the wood as it charred. Bit by bit, they burned and scraped out as much of the inside of the log as they wanted. Nobby didn’t know where the buoyancy of a boat ought to be, but he liked to stretch his legs out in the well.

Then, he and his wife went out paddling very cautiously up and down the marshes behind them, or very close to the bank of the big river. Naturally, they were afraid of the God of the Tide carrying them off to the End of the World and burning them alive in the Sun’s House. All the same Nobby’s eyes used to flicker sometimes towards the End of the World in the direction of Margate Sands where the Sun lived and where the logs went.

One moonlight night in April or May, B.C. fourteen thousand nine hundred odd, Nobby showed the High Priest how Mrs. Clarke had woven a sort of basket-work back-rest in and out of what was left of the roots at the stern of the log, and how he had covered it with seal-skin to keep water from slopping down his back. As a matter of fact, it was the first dim idea of a poop and sternworks that the mind of man had conceived. Nobby had made it for his own comfort—the way most inventions are made.

The High Priest looked at it. “Ah!” he said. “It strikes me that the Stick is beginning to marry the Basket.” “In that case,” said Nobby very quickly, “what about me going to the End of the World?” “Officially,” said the High Priest, “I can’t countenance any such action, because you would be officially burned up by the Sun when he got out of bed, and I should have to damn your soul officially afterwards. Unofficially, of course, if I were your age I’d have a shot at it.”

I merely mention this conversation to show you that general instructions throwing the entire responsibility of the accident on the Watch Officer, while leaving the Post Captain without a stain on his character at the ensuing Court of Enquiry, were not unknown even in that remote age.

Then Nobby went home, where his wife was putting the children to bed, with a long lie about having to look after an eel-trap down the river. Mrs. Clarke said: “So the High Priest has talked you into it, has he? Let me tuck the babies up and I’ll come too.”

So they pushed off about midnight, paddling in the slack water. They hugged the shore all along the Columbine, past Nayland Rock to Longnose Ridge—one fool-man and one devoted woman on a twenty-five-foot long log, forty-two inches extreme beam, and ten inches freeboard, bound, as they thought, for the End of the World—and back, if they weren’t burned up alive by the God of the Sun en route. The ebb took them, at dawn, three or four miles beyond the North Foreland. There was a bit of a swell from the east, and when their log topped the long smooth ridges they saw the red-hot glare of the Sun God coming up out of his House. That panicked them! By great good luck, however, he rose two miles ahead of them. If they had paddled a little harder during the night, they would have been right on top of him. But he got up at a safe distance, and began climbing the sky as usual, and left those terrific rolling waters emptier than ever. Then they wanted to go home. They had lost the North Foreland in the morning haze; they had lost their heads; they would have lost. their paddles if those hadn’t been lashed. They had lost everything except the instinct that told them to keep the Sun at their backs and dig out. They dug out till they dripped—the first human beings who had ever come back from the End of the World. At last they reached Garrison Point again, white with the salt that had dried on them, their backs and shoulders aching like toothache, their eyes a foot deep in their heads, and the flesh on their bones ribbed and sodden with the wet. Can you imagine such feelings? When Nobby limped up the beach, Mrs. Nobby said: “Now I hope you are satisfied!”

Being a married man, Nobby told her he would never do it again. But, being the father of all sailormen, he was down on the beach next day, studying how to tune up his boat for her next cruise. Never forget that, as far back as we can trace it, the mind of primitive man was much the same as yours or mine. He knew he lived under a law of cause and effect. But, since a good many of the causes of things were unknown to him, he was rather astonished at some of the effects. So was Nobby a day or two later. While they were overhauling the canoe after its desperate voyage, it occurred to them it might be a good notion to lace a covering over the well to keep the water out. First they cleared everything out of the well, and in doing so lashed the spare paddle to the left-hand side of the poop, where it hung down like a dagger with its broad blade in the water. Then they fetched out a three-cornered skin of scraped sealgut, sewn together with sinew, which Mrs. Nobby had meant to make into slickers for family use. Nobby sat down aft, holding one corner of the skin, while Mrs. Nobby went forward to about midships, put her foot on another corner of the skin to steady it, and held the third corner up to the full stretch of her arm above her head. While they were thus measuring the triangle of shining water-tight, wind-tight stuff, all puffed out by the breeze that was blowing from their left side, the canoe began to heel and slide. Nobby grabbed the head of the spare paddle on the left side of the boat, to steady himself, and drew it towards him. The canoe ran on across the wind to the full length of her mooring-thong, and fetched up with a jerk. Now this was a reversal of every law Nobby had ever worked under, because it was axiomatic that the God of the Wind only pushed one way. If you stood on two logs lashed together, and held out your cloak with both arms, and set your feet on the lower ends of it, the God of whichever Wind was blowing at the time, would push you straight in front of him. Nothing else was possible or conceivable. Yet here was his boat moving across the path of the sou’-west breeze! There couldn’t be any mistake, because Nobby pointed it off on his fingers. He didn’t know that the natural opening between the first and second fingers of a man’s hand is eleven and one-quarter degrees; but he did know that if you pointed your first finger, holding your third and fourth fingers down with your thumb, into the eye of anything, and watched where your second finger pointed, and began again at that point with your first finger, and so on round the horizon (which was just thirty-two jabs) you could measure off the distance in finger-points between your first mark and where you were going. In this case, there were about seven of his fingerpoints between the Sou’-West wind’s eye and the canoe’s track. To make quite sure, he unmoored, carefully repeated the motions, got Mrs. Nobby to hold the skin again, pulled the head of the paddle towards him when the wind puffed; and the boat slid off for almost a quarter of a mile at right angles to the wind.

Nobby paddled back, more scared than when he had gone to the World’s End, and went to see the High Priest about it. The High Priest explained like a book. He said that Nobby finding a log which didn’t turn over with him; and his getting to the World’s End and back on it, without being burned up by the Sun; and this last miracle of the Wind, coming on top of the other two, proved that Nobby was beloved by all the Gods of Tide, Sun, and Wind, and the Log that carried him.

“ I hope that’s the case,” said Nobby, who was modest by nature. “But the next time I go foreign I shall hoist that skin on a stick and have both hands free for miracles in case the Gods spring any more.” Accordingly, he stuck a stick in a hole that he had burned out in the log a little forward of midships, and on the principle that you can’t have too much of a good thing, he hung up another three-cornered sail in front of the first, and fastened one of its corners down to the nose of the boat. But as the free corner flapped about too much, Nobby got Mrs. Nobby to sew a thong to it, and led the thong aft to the well, so that he could stop the flapping by pulling on it. Then, the miracles began in earnest! For months and months Nobby never knew when he hoisted those two triangular skins—the first fore-and-aft sails in the world—what the log and the Gods of the Wind, and the paddle, and the strings of the sails, were going to do next. And when the God of the Tide took a hand in the circus, Nobby’s hair stood on end. One day, everything would go beautifully. The God of the Tide on his leebow would make the old log look up almost within six finger-points of the wind; and Nobby would skim along at the rate of knots, thinking he’d found out all about it at last. Next day, with a lee-going tide, he would find the canoe bumping broadside on to every shoal he’d ever guessed at, and dozens that he hadn’t. Sails, wind, tide, steering—everything—was an incomprehensible wonder, which generally ended in an upset. He had nothing but his own experience to guide him, plus the certainty of something happening every time that he took liberties with the Gods. And he didn’t know when he had taken a liberty till he was tipped out of the boat. But he stuck to his job, and in time he trained his eldest son to help him, till, after years and years of every sort of accident and weather, and hard work and hard thinking and wet lying, he mastered the second of the Two Greatest Mysteries in the world-he understood the Way of a Ship on the Sea.

One fine day in autumn, with a north-west wind and good visibility, the High Priest came to him and said: “I wish you’d slip up the hill with me for a minute, and give me your opinion of the view”. Nobby came at once, and when they got to Pigtail Corner, the Priest pointed to a square sail off the tail of the Mouse Shoal, some few miles away, and said: “What do you make of that?”

Nobby looked hard; then he said: “That’s not a ship. It’s one of those dam’ barbarians from Harwich. They scull about there in any sort of coffin.” The Priest said: “What are you going to do about it? “

“I’m going to have a look at him presently,” said Nobby, screwing up his eyes. “Meantime, it’s slack water and he’s crossing the Knob Channel before the wind, because he don’t know how to navigate otherwise. But in a little while, the God of the Ebb will carry him out towards the End of the World. Then he’ll panic, same as I did; and he’ll dig out pretty hard to close the land. But it’s my impression the God of the Ebb Tide will defeat him, and he’ll spend most of the night between the land and the World’s End, paddling like a duck with the cramps. If he’s lucky, he’ll be brought back again by the God of the Flood Tide. But then, if this Nor’West wind holds, he’ll find the God of the Wind fighting the God of the Flood every foot of the way; and he’ll be put to it to keep his end up in that lop. If he isn’t drowned, he’ll be rather fatigued. I ought to pick him up when the Sun gets out of bed to-morrow, somewhere between Margate Sands and the End of the World—probably off the South Shingles.”

“That’s very interesting,” said the High Priest, “but what does it mean exactly?”

“Well,” said Nobby, “it means exactly that I’ve got to beat to windward most of this night on a lee-going tide, which, with all respect to the Gods, is the most sanguinary awkward combination I know; and if I don’t hit mud more than a dozen times between, here and the South Shingles, I shall think myself lucky. But don’t let that spoil your sleep, old man.”

“No, I won’t,” said the High Priest. “Go and keep your ceaseless vigil in your lean grey hull and—and—I’ll pray for you.”

Nobby didn’t even say “ Thank you”. He went down to the beach where his eldest son was waiting with the boat.

“Bite loose the behind-end string,” says Nobby, signifying in his language: “ Let go the stern-fast”.

“Very good, Sir,” says the boy, gnashing his teeth. “Where are we going, Dad?”

“The Gods only know,” says Nobby. “But I know that if we aren’t off the South Shingles when the Sun gets out of bed to-morrow, your leave’s stopped, for one.”

By these arbitrary and unfeeling means was discipline and initiative originally inculcated in the Senior Service.

That cruise was all that Nobby had told the High Priest it would be, and a good deal more. As long as the light lasted he moved along fairly well, but after dark he was doing business alone with the Gods of the Wind and the Tide, and the sails and the strings (which naturally fouled), in an unbuoyed, unlighted estuary, chockful of shoals and flats and rips and knocks and wedges and currents and overfalls; also densely populated with floating trees and logs carrying no lights, adrift at every angle. Can you imagine anything like it, gentlemen, in all your experience? When they had collided with their fifth floating oak, Nobby calls forward to ask his son whether he was enjoying pleasant dreams, or what else.

“But I can’t see ’em,” says the child, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

“See ’em!” says Nobby. “Who the Hell expects you to see ’em on a night like this? You’ve got to smell ’em, my son.”

Thus early, gentlemen, was the prehistoric and perishing Watch Officer inducted into the mysteries of his unpleasing trade.

So Nobby threshed along as he best could, praying to every God he knew not to set him too far to leeward when the Sun rose. And the object he was sweating his soul and carcass out for, was the one object that all his legitimate and illegitimate descendants on the seas have sweated for ever since—to get to windward of the enemy. When day broke, he found himself a couple of miles or so south-east of the South Shingles, with Margate Sands somewhere on his right, and the End of the World ahead of him glowing redder and redder as the Sun rose. He couldn’t have explained how he got there, any more than he could have explained what made him lie just there, waiting for his Harwich friend, and thumping and hammering in the bubble of the wind against the tide.

In due course, the flood brought up a big ship—fifteen foot by eight if she was an inch—made of wickerwork covered with skins. She sat low with two men trying to paddle her, and two more trying to bale. Nobby came down wind, and rammed her at the unheard-of velocity of four point two knots. She heeled over, and while the boy, who was a destructive young devil, stabbed at her skin-plating with his spear, Nobby drove his porpoise-harpoon, with line attached, in among the crew, and through her bilge. Next minute, his canoe was riding head to wind, moored by his harpoon-line to the rim of the basket flush with the water, just as the big skin square-sail floated out of her, neatly blanketing seventy-five per cent of her personnel. A minute later, the boy had hit one surviving head in the water, Nobby had cut his line, and—the first naval engagement in English history was finished, and the first English Commander was moaning over loss of stores expended in action. (Because Nobby knew he’d have to account for that harpoon and line at home.) Then he got the God of the Wind on his right side, hit land somewhere between Margate Sands and Westgate-on-Sea, and came along the shore under easy paddle to Garrison Point; the boy talking very hard and excited.

There not being any newspapers in those days, he told the High Priest exactly what he had done, and drew battle-charts in the mud with a stick, giving his courses, which were roughly North-East; then South-East; and Westerly homeward after the action.

“Well,” said the High Priest, “I don’t pretend to understand navigation, but N.E.S.E.W. means No Enemy Sails English Waters. That’s as plain as print. It looks to me, though, as if you’ve started a bigger game than you’ve any idea of. Do I understand that you followed your enemy to the End of the World and drowned him there?”

“Yes; but that wasn’t my fault,” said Nobby. “He went there first. He hadn’t any business in my water.”

“Quite so,” said the High Priest, “but that’s only the beginning of it.”

“Well”, said Nobby, “ what’s going to be the end of it? What’ll happen to me, for instance?”

“I’ll tell you,” said the High Priest, and he began to prophesy in the irritating way that civilians do. “You’ll have a hard wet life and your sons after you. When you aren’t being worried by the sea or your enemies, you’ll be worried by your own tribe, teaching you your own job.”

That’s nothing new,” said Nobby. “Carry on!”

“You’ll win the world without anyone caring how you did it: you’ll keep the world without anyone knowing how you did it: and you’ll carry the world on your backs without anyone seeing how you did it. But neither you nor your sons will get anything out of that little job except Four Gifts—one for the Sea, one for the Wind, one for the Sun, and one for the Ship that carries you.”

“Well, I’m glad there will be some advantages connected with the Service. I haven’t discovered ’em yet,” said Nobby.

“Yes,” said the Priest. “You and your sons after you will be long in the head, slow in the tongue, heavy in the hand, and—as you were yesterday at the World’s End—always a little bit to windward. That you can count on for ever and ever and ever.”

“That’ll come in handy for the boy,” said Nobby. “ He didn’t do so badly in our little affair yesterday. But what about this Stick-and-Basket pidgin you’re always hinting at?”

“There’s no end to what happens when the Stick marries the Basket,” said the High Priest. “There will only be another beginning and a fresh start. Your logs will grow as high as hills and as long as villages, and as wide as rivers. And when they are at their highest and longest and widest, they’ll all get up in the air and fly.”

“That’s a bad look-out for the boy,” said Nobby. “I’ve only brought him up to the sea-trade.”

“Live easy and die easy as far as that is concerned,” said the High Priest. “For, winning the world, and keeping the world, and carrying the world on their backs—on land, or on sea, or in the air—your sons will always have the Four Gifts. Long-headed and slow-spoken and heavy—damned heavy—in the hand, will they be; and always and always a little bit to windward of every enemy—that they may be a safeguard to all who pass on the seas on their lawful occasions.”