WHAT WITH the lofty language of Moby-Dick and Conrad's 2 Lord Jim and John Masefield's sea poems, not to mention various real-life phenomena such as China clippers and Columbus and Joshua Slocum sailing alone around the world, and of course there's the Mayflower, too, we are used to thinking of sailing ships in the heroic mode. Nor are we wrong: for seamen it was a sterner age than our present era of cruise ships and tankers with air-conditioned crew quarters.
But it wasn't all white whales and perilous voyages, either. There was also plenty of humdrum sailing. Up until about a hundred years ago, for example, garbage was taken out into Chesapeake Bay in sailing barges; and cargoes of beer and cowhides went up and down the coast in dirty little schooners that hugged the shore.
It is this kind of seafaring, in its English version, that W.W. Jacobs writes about. Like that of his younger contemporary P.G. Wodehouse, his mode is comedy tinged with romance. But where Wodehouse cast an amused, affectionate eye on the aristocracy, and found the rest of England all but invisible, Jacobs directs a similar gaze on the small bourgeoisie and the working classes. The characters in his stories are the captains, mates, and crews of coastal ships sailing from tiny English ports to London and back again. A typical voyage might be three days. A typical captain might own his little ship, employ one mate and a crew of four. He might also have his wife or daughter along.
This unheroic but still nautical life yields, in Jacobs' deft hands, an almost infinite quantity of humor. The very first story in Many Cargoes is a classic and a gem. It's set on a relatively large if unglamorous ship ("as slow an old tub as ever I was aboard of," says the narrator) with two mates and a crew of eight. There is also the captain, who doubles as ship's doctor. Nothing special about that--very few merchantmen carried trained physicians, even barques like this, which might be at sea for several weeks. But the captain doesn't just have a little kit, he is deeply interested in medicine and fancies himself a keen diagnostician.
At first you hear about him from the point of view of the two mates, who merely complain of the scalpels he keeps in the cabin, and of his habit of making them take pills of his own composition whenever he thinks they need toning up.
Then the scene shifts to the fo'c'sle, where the eight sailors live. "One day," the narrator says, "I seed old Dan'l Dennis sitting on a locker reading. Every now and then he'd shut the book, an' look up, closing 'is eyes, an' moving his lips like a hen drinking, an' then look down at the book again.
" 'Why, Dan,' I ses, 'what's up? you ain't larning lessons at your time o' life?'
" 'Yes, I am,' ses Dan very soft. 'You might hear me say it, it's this one about heart disease.' "
Then he recites the symptoms he has just learned from the book, which turns out to be one of those home health-care manuals, groans a little, and asks the narrator to go fetch the captain.
"I see his little game," the narrator continues, "but I wasn't going to run any risks, so I just mentioned, permiscous like, to the cook as old Dan seemed rather queer, an' went back an' tried to borrer the book, being always fond of reading." No luck. "Old Dan pretended he was too ill to hear what I was saying, an' afore I could take it away from him, the skipper comes hurrying down with a bag in his 'and."
Dan recites his symptoms, and the skipper listens in mounting exciment as one by one they build to the descriptions of heart disease in his books. He confines Dan to his bunk, and prescribes a special diet full of delicacies like beef tea. There are now seven left to sail the ship.
Within an hour a seaman called Cornish Harry, a large, brutal man, takes the book away from Dan by main force, and proceeds to come down with consumption. Now six sailors are doing the work.
After two days of that, some of the others demand that Harry and Dan get well, and let them have turns lying in bed all day, being nursed on beef tea.
"'2 Well?' ses Harry, 'well? Why you silly iggernerant chaps, we shan't never get well, people with our complaints never do.' "
Eventually two more of the crew, those who are least afraid of Harry, get sick. Now there are four left to sail the ship. At this point the first mate, who has never been fooled for a minute, but who of course must obey his captain, comes up with a daring plan, based on a truly vile medicine which he concocts in the ship's galley and which he pretends he learned about from his grandmother. The captain reluctantly lets him give the four invalids a sample dose, and when they (naturally) gag at it, the captain orders him to stop. " 'I can't allow it. Men's lives mustn't be sacrificed for an experiment.' "
" 'Tain't an experiment,' ses the mate very indignant, 'it's an old family medicine.'
" 'Well, they shan't have any more,' ses the captain firmly.
" 'Look here,' ses the mate. 'If I kill any one o' these men I'll give you twenty pound. Honour bright, I will.'
" 'Make it twenty-five,' ses the skipper, considering." Even the idealists in Jacobs' world have a strong practical streak.
The mate then informs the four invalids that for his grandmother's remedy to work, they must each take a dose every 20 minutes around the clock, and they can't have anything to take the taste out, because that would weaken the effect.
The first of them begins to recover after only six doses; all are back at work within 24 hours. The story is one of the most perfectly paced pieces of comedy I know.
The second story is even better. This one is romantic comedy. The little schooner Jessica is anchored in the Thames. Jack, the mate, is idly waiting on deck for Captain Alsen to arrive, so they can leave with the tide for a coastal voyage. Soon a waterman rows out from Tower Quay with not one but two passengers--the captain and his daughter Hetty, a pretty girl of 20. She is coming along, not at all willingly. " 'It's like this, Jack,' the skipper explains to the startled mate. 'There's a friend o' mine, a provision dealer in a large way o' business, wants to marry my girl, and me an' the missus want him to marry her, so, 'o course she wants to marry someone else.' "
The parents' plan is to keep her at sea until she decides to marry the right one. As part of the plan, her father has brought along a large photograph of Mr. Towson, the provision dealer, to keep Hetty reminded of him. (Photographs still had novelty value then.) This he puts up in the cabin. Jack he assigns the role of praising the photograph, and generally encouraging the marriage.
Where to put up Hetty herself is trickier. The "cabin" on a merchant ship is where the officers dine--all two of them on the Jessica--and have such indoor life as they do have. She can't sleep there. The total of other accommodations consists of the captain's stateroom, the fo'c'sle, Jack's tiny berth, and a spare berth currently used for storing potatoes and onions. This is where her father decides Hetty should stay, even though the dead cockroach they find as soon as they start taking the onions out has left her extremely reluctant.
"Why not," says the mate, who is enchanted with Hetty, "why not let her have your stateroom?"
"Cos I want it myself,' the other replied calmly." Fathers are like that in Jacobs.
Obeying the captain's orders, Jack tries to strike up a friendship with Hetty, though she is distinctly cool. He does discover, however, that she not only has no wish to marry Mr. Towson, she has been seeing her other and younger suitor chiefly to irritate her father. "I can't understand a girl caring for any man," she says airily. "Great clumsy, ugly things."
Jack then gets his bright idea. If she pretends to fall in love with someone on the ship, he points out, her father will be forced to give up his plan and let her go home. Hetty sees the sense in this--she's very tired of living in the former onion bin--and suggests a good- looking sailor named Harry.
Jack quickly answers that that would be bad for ship's discipline. Only an officer would be suitable. Since there are just two, and her father one of them, that naturally narrows the candidates down to him. "Anything to get home," she says, obliquely accepting his offer.
At this point a three-way strategy begins. Jack's aim is to turn pretense into reality, while keeping the skipper thinking he's just working for Towson. Hetty's aims are more complex: to frustrate her father's plan; to make the voyage more amusing by setting the mate all sorts of tasks--at one point she dares him to dab mustard on the nose of Towson's portrait; and possibly to see just how serious Jack is. She has, of course, been aware of his true motive from the beginning.
Then there is the skipper's strategy. Secrets are hard to keep on a ship that small; and when Jack actually does begin to make some progress, Captain Alsen soon finds out. His aim is to break up the new romance without revealing that he knows about it.
Once again the timing is perfect. And Hetty is as enchanting to the reader (of either sex) as she is to Jack. And her father is wonderfully funny as a man who regards himself, not entirely mistakenly, as a master of human psychology.
Not all of Jacobs's stories are as good as these two. It would be a miracle if they were. He wrote several hundred stories over the course of a long life--he was born in 1863 and died in 1943--and sometimes he repeats himself or is a bit mechanical. But the best third are wonderful. Never condescending and seldom false, W.W. Jacobs made glorious comedy out of lives that to most people would have seemed humdrum or brutal or both. Note on availability: Arno has a reprint of the 1898 edition of "Many Cargoes" for $12. The International Pocket Libirary (distributed by Branden Press in Boston) sells a small paperback called simply "Cargoes" for $2. It contains nine of Jacobs's best stories, including the two described above.