Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas

by Herman Melville

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WHILE gliding along on our way, I cannot well omit some account of a poor devil we had among us, who went by the name of Rope Yarn, or Ropey.

He was a nondescript who had joined the ship as a landsman. Being so excessively timid and awkward, it was thought useless to try and make a sailor of him; so he was translated into the cabin as steward; the man previously filling that post, a good seaman, going among the crew and taking his place. But poor Ropey proved quite as clumsy among the crockery as in the rigging; and one day when the ship was pitching, having stumbled into the cabin with a wooden tureen of soup, he scalded the officers so that they didn't get over it in a week. Upon which, he was dismissed, and returned to the forecastle.

Now, nobody is so heartily despised as a pusillanimous, lazy, good-for-nothing land-lubber; a sailor has no bowels of compassion for him. Yet, useless as such a character may be in many respects, a ship's company is by no means disposed to let him reap any benefit from his deficiencies. Regarded in the light of a mechanical power, whenever there is any plain, hard work to be done, he is put to it like a lever; everyone giving him a pry.

Then, again, he is set about all the vilest work. Is there a heavy job at tarring to be done, he is pitched neck and shoulders into a tar-barrel, and set to work at it. Moreover, he is made to fetch and carry like a dog. Like as not, if the mate sends him after his quadrant, on the way he is met by the captain, who orders him to pick some oakum; and while he is hunting up a bit of rope, a sailor comes along and wants to know what the deuce he's after, and bids him be off to the forecastle.

"Obey the last order," is a precept inviolable at sea. So the land-lubber, afraid to refuse to do anything, rushes about distracted, and does nothing: in the end receiving a shower of kicks and cuffs from all quarters.

Added to his other hardships, he is seldom permitted to open his mouth unless spoken to; and then, he might better keep silent. Alas for him! if he should happen to be anything of a droll; for in an evil hour should he perpetrate a joke, he would never know the last of it.

The witticisms of others, however, upon himself, must be received in the greatest good-humour.

Woe be unto him, if at meal-times he so much as look sideways at the beef-kid before the rest are helped.

Then he is obliged to plead guilty to every piece of mischief which the real perpetrator refuses to acknowledge; thus taking the place of that sneaking rascal nobody, ashore. In short, there is no end to his tribulations.

The land-lubber's spirits often sink, and the first result of his being moody and miserable is naturally enough an utter neglect of his toilet.

The sailors perhaps ought to make allowances; but heartless as they are, they do not. No sooner is his cleanliness questioned than they rise upon him like a mob of the Middle Ages upon a Jew; drag him into the lee-scuppers, and strip him to the buff. In vain he bawls for mercy; in vain calls upon the captain to save him.

Alas! I say again, for the land-lubber at sea. He is the veriest wretch the watery world over. And such was Bope Tarn; of all landlubbers, the most lubberly and most miserable. A forlorn, stunted, hook-visaged mortal he was too; one of those whom you know at a glance to have been tried hard and long in the furnace of affliction. His face was an absolute puzzle; though sharp and sallow, it had neither the wrinkles of age nor the smoothness of youth; so that for the soul of me, I could hardly tell whether he was twenty-five or fifty.

But to his history. In his better days, it seems he had been a journeyman baker in London, somewhere about Holborn; and on Sundays wore a Hue coat and metal buttons, and spent his afternoons in a tavern, smoking his pipe and drinking his ale like a free and easy journeyman baker that he was. But this did not last long; for an intermeddling old fool was the ruin of him. He was told that London might do very well for elderly gentlemen and invalids; but for a lad of spirit, Australia was the Land of Promise. In a dark day Ropey wound up his affairs and embarked.

Arriving in Sydney with a small capital, and after a while waxing snug and comfortable by dint of hard kneading, he took unto himself a wife; and so far as she was concerned, might then have gone into the country and retired; for she effectually did his business. In short, the lady worked him woe in heart and pocket; and in the end, ran off with his till and his foreman. Ropey went to the sign of the Pipe and Tankard; got fuddled; and over his fifth pot meditated suicide—an intention carried out; for the next day he shipped as landsman aboard the Julia, South Seaman.

The ex-baker would have fared far better, had it not been for his heart, which was soft and underdone. A kind word made a fool of him; and hence most of the scrapes he got into. Two or three wags, aware of his infirmity, used to "draw him out" in conversation whenever the most crabbed and choleric old seamen were present.

To give an instance. The watch below, just waked from their sleep, are all at breakfast; and Ropey, in one corner, is disconsolately partaking of its delicacies. "Now, sailors newly waked are no cherubs; and therefore not a word is spoken, everybody munching his biscuit, grim and unshaven. At this juncture an affable-looking scamp—Flash Jack—crosses the forecastle, tin can in hand, and seats himself beside the land-lubber.

"Hard fare this, Ropey," he begins; "hard enough, too, for them that's known better and lived in Lun'nun. I say now, Ropey, s'posing you were back to Holborn this morning, what would you have for breakfast, eh?"

"Have for breakfast!" cried Ropey in a rapture. "Don't speak of it!"

"What ails that fellow?" here growled an old sea-bear, turning round savagely.

"Oh, nothing, nothing," said Jack; and then, leaning over to Rope Yarn, he bade him go on, but speak lower.

"Well, then," said he, in a smuggled tone, his eyes lighting up like two lanterns, "well, then, I'd go to Mother Moll's that makes the great muffins: I'd go there, you know, and cock my foot on the 'ob, and call for a noggin o' somethink to begin with."

"What then, Ropey?"

"Why then, Flashy," continued the poor victim, unconsciously warming with his theme: "why then, I'd draw my chair up and call for Betty, the gal wot tends to customers. Betty, my dear, says I, you looks charmin' this mornin'; give me a nice rasher of bacon and h'eggs, Betty my love; and I wants a pint of h'ale, and three nice h'ot muffins and butter—and a slice of Cheshire; and Betty, I wants—"

"A shark-steak, and be hanged to you!" roared Black Dan, with an oath. Whereupon, dragged over the chests, the ill-starred fellow is pummelled on deck.

I always made a point of befriending poor Ropey when I could; and, for this reason, was a great favourite of his.

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