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Transcribed from the 1894 Chapman and Hall edition of "Christmas Stories"
by David Price, email [email protected]



I was apprenticed to the Sea when I was twelve years old, and I have
encountered a great deal of rough weather, both literal and metaphorical.
It has always been my opinion since I first possessed such a thing as an
opinion, that the man who knows only one subject is next tiresome to the
man who knows no subject. Therefore, in the course of my life I have
taught myself whatever I could, and although I am not an educated man, I
am able, I am thankful to say, to have an intelligent interest in most

A person might suppose, from reading the above, that I am in the habit of
holding forth about number one. That is not the case. Just as if I was
to come into a room among strangers, and must either be introduced or
introduce myself, so I have taken the liberty of passing these few
remarks, simply and plainly that it may be known who and what I am. I
will add no more of the sort than that my name is William George
Ravender, that I was born at Penrith half a year after my own father was
drowned, and that I am on the second day of this present blessed
Christmas week of one thousand eight hundred and fifty-six, fifty-six
years of age.

When the rumour first went flying up and down that there was gold in
California - which, as most people know, was before it was discovered in
the British colony of Australia - I was in the West Indies, trading among
the Islands. Being in command and likewise part-owner of a smart
schooner, I had my work cut out for me, and I was doing it. Consequently,
gold in California was no business of mine.

But, by the time when I came home to England again, the thing was as
clear as your hand held up before you at noon-day. There was Californian
gold in the museums and in the goldsmiths' shops, and the very first time
I went upon 'Change, I met a friend of mine (a seafaring man like
myself), with a Californian nugget hanging to his watch-chain. I handled
it. It was as like a peeled walnut with bits unevenly broken off here
and there, and then electrotyped all over, as ever I saw anything in my

I am a single man (she was too good for this world and for me, and she
died six weeks before our marriage-day), so when I am ashore, I live in
my house at Poplar. My house at Poplar is taken care of and kept ship-
shape by an old lady who was my mother's maid before I was born. She is
as handsome and as upright as any old lady in the world. She is as fond
of me as if she had ever had an only son, and I was he. Well do I know
wherever I sail that she never lays down her head at night without having
said, "Merciful Lord! bless and preserve William George Ravender, and
send him safe home, through Christ our Saviour!" I have thought of it in
many a dangerous moment, when it has done me no harm, I am sure.

In my house at Poplar, along with this old lady, I lived quiet for best
part of a year: having had a long spell of it among the Islands, and
having (which was very uncommon in me) taken the fever rather badly. At
last, being strong and hearty, and having read every book I could lay
hold of, right out, I was walking down Leadenhall Street in the City of
London, thinking of turning-to again, when I met what I call Smithick and
Watersby of Liverpool. I chanced to lift up my eyes from looking in at a
ship's chronometer in a window, and I saw him bearing down upon me, head

It is, personally, neither Smithick, nor Watersby, that I here mention,
nor was I ever acquainted with any man of either of those names, nor do I
think that there has been any one of either of those names in that
Liverpool House for years back. But, it is in reality the House itself
that I refer to; and a wiser merchant or a truer gentleman never stepped.

"My dear Captain Ravender," says he. "Of all the men on earth, I wanted
to see you most. I was on my way to you."

"Well!" says I. "That looks as if you _were_ to see me, don't it?" With
that I put my arm in his, and we walked on towards the Royal Exchange,
and when we got there, walked up and down at the back of it where the
Clock-Tower is. We walked an hour and more, for he had much to say to
me. He had a scheme for chartering a new ship of their own to take out
cargo to the diggers and emigrants in California, and to buy and bring
back gold. Into the particulars of that scheme I will not enter, and I
have no right to enter. All I say of it is, that it was a very original
one, a very fine one, a very sound one, and a very lucrative one beyond

He imparted it to me as freely as if I had been a part of himself. After
doing so, he made me the handsomest sharing offer that ever was made to
me, boy or man - or I believe to any other captain in the Merchant
Navy - and he took this round turn to finish with:

"Ravender, you are well aware that the lawlessness of that coast and
country at present, is as special as the circumstances in which it is
placed. Crews of vessels outward-bound, desert as soon as they make the
land; crews of vessels homeward-bound, ship at enormous wages, with the
express intention of murdering the captain and seizing the gold freight;
no man can trust another, and the devil seems let loose. Now," says he,
"you know my opinion of you, and you know I am only expressing it, and
with no singularity, when I tell you that you are almost the only man on
whose integrity, discretion, and energy - " &c., &c. For, I don't want to
repeat what he said, though I was and am sensible of it.

Notwithstanding my being, as I have mentioned, quite ready for a voyage,
still I had some doubts of this voyage. Of course I knew, without being
told, that there were peculiar difficulties and dangers in it, a long way
over and above those which attend all voyages. It must not be supposed
that I was afraid to face them; but, in my opinion a man has no manly
motive or sustainment in his own breast for facing dangers, unless he has
well considered what they are, and is able quietly to say to himself,
"None of these perils can now take me by surprise; I shall know what to
do for the best in any of them; all the rest lies in the higher and
greater hands to which I humbly commit myself." On this principle I have
so attentively considered (regarding it as my duty) all the hazards I
have ever been able to think of, in the ordinary way of storm, shipwreck,
and fire at sea, that I hope I should be prepared to do, in any of those
cases, whatever could be done, to save the lives intrusted to my charge.

As I was thoughtful, my good friend proposed that he should leave me to
walk there as long as I liked, and that I should dine with him by-and-by
at his club in Pall Mall. I accepted the invitation and I walked up and
down there, quarter-deck fashion, a matter of a couple of hours; now and
then looking up at the weathercock as I might have looked up aloft; and
now and then taking a look into Cornhill, as I might have taken a look
over the side.

All dinner-time, and all after dinner-time, we talked it over again. I
gave him my views of his plan, and he very much approved of the same. I
told him I had nearly decided, but not quite. "Well, well," says he,
"come down to Liverpool to-morrow with me, and see the Golden Mary." I
liked the name (her name was Mary, and she was golden, if golden stands
for good), so I began to feel that it was almost done when I said I would
go to Liverpool. On the next morning but one we were on board the Golden
Mary. I might have known, from his asking me to come down and see her,
what she was. I declare her to have been the completest and most
exquisite Beauty that ever I set my eyes upon.

We had inspected every timber in her, and had come back to the gangway to
go ashore from the dock-basin, when I put out my hand to my friend.
"Touch upon it," says I, "and touch heartily. I take command of this
ship, and I am hers and yours, if I can get John Steadiman for my chief

John Steadiman had sailed with me four voyages. The first voyage John
was third mate out to China, and came home second. The other three
voyages he was my first officer. At this time of chartering the Golden
Mary, he was aged thirty-two. A brisk, bright, blue-eyed fellow, a very
neat figure and rather under the middle size, never out of the way and
never in it, a face that pleased everybody and that all children took to,
a habit of going about singing as cheerily as a blackbird, and a perfect

We were in one of those Liverpool hackney-coaches in less than a minute,
and we cruised about in her upwards of three hours, looking for John.
John had come home from Van Diemen's Land barely a month before, and I
had heard of him as taking a frisk in Liverpool. We asked after him,
among many other places, at the two boarding-houses he was fondest of,
and we found he had had a week's spell at each of them; but, he had gone
here and gone there, and had set off "to lay out on the main-to'-gallant-
yard of the highest Welsh mountain" (so he had told the people of the
house), and where he might be then, or when he might come back, nobody
could tell us. But it was surprising, to be sure, to see how every face
brightened the moment there was mention made of the name of Mr.

We were taken aback at meeting with no better luck, and we had wore ship
and put her head for my friends, when as we were jogging through the
streets, I clap my eyes on John himself coming out of a toyshop! He was
carrying a little boy, and conducting two uncommon pretty women to their
coach, and he told me afterwards that he had never in his life seen one
of the three before, but that he was so taken with them on looking in at
the toyshop while they were buying the child a cranky Noah's Ark, very
much down by the head, that he had gone in and asked the ladies'
permission to treat him to a tolerably correct Cutter there was in the
window, in order that such a handsome boy might not grow up with a
lubberly idea of naval architecture.

We stood off and on until the ladies' coachman began to give way, and
then we hailed John. On his coming aboard of us, I told him, very
gravely, what I had said to my friend. It struck him, as he said
himself, amidships. He was quite shaken by it. "Captain Ravender," were
John Steadiman's words, "such an opinion from you is true commendation,
and I'll sail round the world with you for twenty years if you hoist the
signal, and stand by you for ever!" And now indeed I felt that it was
done, and that the Golden Mary was afloat.

Grass never grew yet under the feet of Smithick and Watersby. The
riggers were out of that ship in a fortnight's time, and we had begun
taking in cargo. John was always aboard, seeing everything stowed with
his own eyes; and whenever I went aboard myself early or late, whether he
was below in the hold, or on deck at the hatchway, or overhauling his
cabin, nailing up pictures in it of the Blush Roses of England, the Blue
Belles of Scotland, and the female Shamrock of Ireland: of a certainty I
heard John singing like a blackbird.

We had room for twenty passengers. Our sailing advertisement was no
sooner out, than we might have taken these twenty times over. In
entering our men, I and John (both together) picked them, and we entered
none but good hands - as good as were to be found in that port. And so,
in a good ship of the best build, well owned, well arranged, well
officered, well manned, well found in all respects, we parted with our
pilot at a quarter past four o'clock in the afternoon of the seventh of
March, one thousand eight hundred and fifty-one, and stood with a fair
wind out to sea.

It may be easily believed that up to that time I had had no leisure to be
intimate with my passengers. The most of them were then in their berths
sea-sick; however, in going among them, telling them what was good for
them, persuading them not to be there, but to come up on deck and feel
the breeze, and in rousing them with a joke, or a comfortable word, I
made acquaintance with them, perhaps, in a more friendly and confidential
way from the first, than I might have done at the cabin table.

Of my passengers, I need only particularise, just at present, a bright-
eyed blooming young wife who was going out to join her husband in
California, taking with her their only child, a little girl of three
years old, whom he had never seen; a sedate young woman in black, some
five years older (about thirty as I should say), who was going out to
join a brother; and an old gentleman, a good deal like a hawk if his eyes
had been better and not so red, who was always talking, morning, noon,
and night, about the gold discovery. But, whether he was making the
voyage, thinking his old arms could dig for gold, or whether his
speculation was to buy it, or to barter for it, or to cheat for it, or to
snatch it anyhow from other people, was his secret. He kept his secret.

These three and the child were the soonest well. The child was a most
engaging child, to be sure, and very fond of me: though I am bound to
admit that John Steadiman and I were borne on her pretty little books in
reverse order, and that he was captain there, and I was mate. It was
beautiful to watch her with John, and it was beautiful to watch John with
her. Few would have thought it possible, to see John playing at bo-peep
round the mast, that he was the man who had caught up an iron bar and
struck a Malay and a Maltese dead, as they were gliding with their knives
down the cabin stair aboard the barque Old England, when the captain lay
ill in his cot, off Saugar Point. But he was; and give him his back
against a bulwark, he would have done the same by half a dozen of them.
The name of the young mother was Mrs. Atherfield, the name of the young
lady in black was Miss Coleshaw, and the name of the old gentleman was
Mr. Rarx.

As the child had a quantity of shining fair hair, clustering in curls all
about her face, and as her name was Lucy, Steadiman gave her the name of
the Golden Lucy. So, we had the Golden Lucy and the Golden Mary; and
John kept up the idea to that extent as he and the child went playing
about the decks, that I believe she used to think the ship was alive
somehow - a sister or companion, going to the same place as herself. She
liked to be by the wheel, and in fine weather, I have often stood by the
man whose trick it was at the wheel, only to hear her, sitting near my
feet, talking to the ship. Never had a child such a doll before, I
suppose; but she made a doll of the Golden Mary, and used to dress her up
by tying ribbons and little bits of finery to the belaying-pins; and
nobody ever moved them, unless it was to save them from being blown away.

Of course I took charge of the two young women, and I called them "my
dear," and they never minded, knowing that whatever I said was said in a
fatherly and protecting spirit. I gave them their places on each side of
me at dinner, Mrs. Atherfield on my right and Miss Coleshaw on my left;
and I directed the unmarried lady to serve out the breakfast, and the
married lady to serve out the tea. Likewise I said to my black steward
in their presence, "Tom Snow, these two ladies are equally the mistresses
of this house, and do you obey their orders equally;" at which Tom
laughed, and they all laughed.

Old Mr. Rarx was not a pleasant man to look at, nor yet to talk to, or to
be with, for no one could help seeing that he was a sordid and selfish
character, and that he had warped further and further out of the straight
with time. Not but what he was on his best behaviour with us, as
everybody was; for we had no bickering among us, for'ard or aft. I only
mean to say, he was not the man one would have chosen for a messmate. If
choice there had been, one might even have gone a few points out of one's
course, to say, "No! Not him!" But, there was one curious inconsistency
in Mr. Rarx. That was, that he took an astonishing interest in the
child. He looked, and I may add, he was, one of the last of men to care
at all for a child, or to care much for any human creature. Still, he
went so far as to be habitually uneasy, if the child was long on deck,
out of his sight. He was always afraid of her falling overboard, or
falling down a hatchway, or of a block or what not coming down upon her
from the rigging in the working of the ship, or of her getting some hurt
or other. He used to look at her and touch her, as if she was something
precious to him. He was always solicitous about her not injuring her
health, and constantly entreated her mother to be careful of it. This
was so much the more curious, because the child did not like him, but
used to shrink away from him, and would not even put out her hand to him
without coaxing from others. I believe that every soul on board
frequently noticed this, and not one of us understood it. However, it
was such a plain fact, that John Steadiman said more than once when old
Mr. Rarx was not within earshot, that if the Golden Mary felt a
tenderness for the dear old gentleman she carried in her lap, she must be
bitterly jealous of the Golden Lucy.

Before I go any further with this narrative, I will state that our ship
was a barque of three hundred tons, carrying a crew of eighteen men, a
second mate in addition to John, a carpenter, an armourer or smith, and
two apprentices (one a Scotch boy, poor little fellow). We had three
boats; the Long-boat, capable of carrying twenty-five men; the Cutter,
capable of carrying fifteen; and the Surf-boat, capable of carrying ten.
I put down the capacity of these boats according to the numbers they were
really meant to hold.

We had tastes of bad weather and head-winds, of course; but, on the whole
we had as fine a run as any reasonable man could expect, for sixty days.
I then began to enter two remarks in the ship's Log and in my Journal;
first, that there was an unusual and amazing quantity of ice; second,
that the nights were most wonderfully dark, in spite of the ice.

For five days and a half, it seemed quite useless and hopeless to alter
the ship's course so as to stand out of the way of this ice. I made what
southing I could; but, all that time, we were beset by it. Mrs.
Atherfield after standing by me on deck once, looking for some time in an
awed manner at the great bergs that surrounded us, said in a whisper, "O!
Captain Ravender, it looks as if the whole solid earth had changed into
ice, and broken up!" I said to her, laughing, "I don't wonder that it
does, to your inexperienced eyes, my dear." But I had never seen a
twentieth part of the quantity, and, in reality, I was pretty much of her

However, at two p.m. on the afternoon of the sixth day, that is to say,
when we were sixty-six days out, John Steadiman who had gone aloft, sang
out from the top, that the sea was clear ahead. Before four p.m. a
strong breeze springing up right astern, we were in open water at sunset.
The breeze then freshening into half a gale of wind, and the Golden Mary
being a very fast sailer, we went before the wind merrily, all night.

I had thought it impossible that it could be darker than it had been,
until the sun, moon, and stars should fall out of the Heavens, and Time
should be destroyed; but, it had been next to light, in comparison with
what it was now. The darkness was so profound, that looking into it was
painful and oppressive - like looking, without a ray of light, into a
dense black bandage put as close before the eyes as it could be, without
touching them. I doubled the look-out, and John and I stood in the bow
side-by-side, never leaving it all night. Yet I should no more have
known that he was near me when he was silent, without putting out my arm
and touching him, than I should if he had turned in and been fast asleep
below. We were not so much looking out, all of us, as listening to the
utmost, both with our eyes and ears.

Next day, I found that the mercury in the barometer, which had risen
steadily since we cleared the ice, remained steady. I had had very good
observations, with now and then the interruption of a day or so, since
our departure. I got the sun at noon, and found that we were in Lat. 58
degrees S., Long. 60 degrees W., off New South Shetland; in the
neighbourhood of Cape Horn. We were sixty-seven days out, that day. The
ship's reckoning was accurately worked and made up. The ship did her
duty admirably, all on board were well, and all hands were as smart,
efficient, and contented, as it was possible to be.

When the night came on again as dark as before, it was the eighth night I
had been on deck. Nor had I taken more than a very little sleep in the
day-time, my station being always near the helm, and often at it, while
we were among the ice. Few but those who have tried it can imagine the
difficulty and pain of only keeping the eyes open - physically open - under
such circumstances, in such darkness. They get struck by the darkness,
and blinded by the darkness. They make patterns in it, and they flash in
it, as if they had gone out of your head to look at you. On the turn of
midnight, John Steadiman, who was alert and fresh (for I had always made
him turn in by day), said to me, "Captain Ravender, I entreat of you to
go below. I am sure you can hardly stand, and your voice is getting
weak, sir. Go below, and take a little rest. I'll call you if a block
chafes." I said to John in answer, "Well, well, John! Let us wait till
the turn of one o'clock, before we talk about that." I had just had one
of the ship's lanterns held up, that I might see how the night went by my
watch, and it was then twenty minutes after twelve.

At five minutes before one, John sang out to the boy to bring the lantern
again, and when I told him once more what the time was, entreated and
prayed of me to go below. "Captain Ravender," says he, "all's well; we
can't afford to have you laid up for a single hour; and I respectfully
and earnestly beg of you to go below." The end of it was, that I agreed
to do so, on the understanding that if I failed to come up of my own
accord within three hours, I was to be punctually called. Having settled
that, I left John in charge. But I called him to me once afterwards, to
ask him a question. I had been to look at the barometer, and had seen
the mercury still perfectly steady, and had come up the companion again
to take a last look about me - if I can use such a word in reference to
such darkness - when I thought that the waves, as the Golden Mary parted
them and shook them off, had a hollow sound in them; something that I
fancied was a rather unusual reverberation. I was standing by the
quarter-deck rail on the starboard side, when I called John aft to me,
and bade him listen. He did so with the greatest attention. Turning to
me he then said, "Rely upon it, Captain Ravender, you have been without
rest too long, and the novelty is only in the state of your sense of
hearing." I thought so too by that time, and I think so now, though I
can never know for absolute certain in this world, whether it was or not.

When I left John Steadiman in charge, the ship was still going at a great
rate through the water. The wind still blew right astern. Though she
was making great way, she was under shortened sail, and had no more than
she could easily carry. All was snug, and nothing complained. There was
a pretty sea running, but not a very high sea neither, nor at all a
confused one.

I turned in, as we seamen say, all standing. The meaning of that is, I
did not pull my clothes off - no, not even so much as my coat: though I
did my shoes, for my feet were badly swelled with the deck. There was a
little swing-lamp alight in my cabin. I thought, as I looked at it
before shutting my eyes, that I was so tired of darkness, and troubled by
darkness, that I could have gone to sleep best in the midst of a million
of flaming gas-lights. That was the last thought I had before I went
off, except the prevailing thought that I should not be able to get to
sleep at all.

I dreamed that I was back at Penrith again, and was trying to get round
the church, which had altered its shape very much since I last saw it,
and was cloven all down the middle of the steeple in a most singular
manner. Why I wanted to get round the church I don't know; but I was as
anxious to do it as if my life depended on it. Indeed, I believe it did
in the dream. For all that, I could not get round the church. I was

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