Tales of Hearsay
The Black Mate
A good many years ago there were several ships loading at the Jetty, London
Dock. I am speaking here of the 'eighties of the last century, of the time when
London had plenty of fine ships in the docks, though not so many fine buildings in
The ships at the Jetty were fine enough; they lay one behind the other; and the
__Sapphire__, third from the end, was as good as the rest of them, and nothing
more. Each ship at the Jetty had, of course, her chief officer on board. So had
every other ship in dock.
The policeman at the gates knew them all by sight, without being able to say at
once, without thinking, to what ship any particular man belonged. As a matter of
fact, the mates of the ships then lying in the London Dock were like the majority
of officers in the Merchant Service—a steady, hard-working, staunch, un-
romantic-looking set of men, belonging to various classes of society, but with the
professional stamp obliterating the personal characteristics, which were not very
This last was true of them all, with the exception of the mate of the Sapphire. Of
him the policemen could not be in doubt. This one had a presence.
He was noticeable to them in the street from a great distance; and when in the
morning he strode down the Jetty to his ship, the lumpers and the dock labourers
rolling the bales and trundling the cases of cargo on their hand-trucks would
remark to each other:
"Here's the black mate coming along."
That was the name they gave him, being a gross lot, who could have no
appreciation of the man's dignified bearing. And to call him black was the
superficial impressionism of the ignorant.
Of course, Mr. Bunter, the mate of the Sapphire, was not black. He was no more
black than you or I, and certainly as white as any chief mate of a ship in the
whole of the Port of London. His complexion was of the sort that did not take the
tan easily; and I happen to know that the poor fellow had had a month's illness
just before he joined the Sapphire.
From this you will perceive that I knew Bunter. Of course I knew him. And, what's
more, I knew his secret at the time, this secret which—never mind just now.
Returning to Bunter's personal appearance, it was nothing but ignorant prejudice
on the part of the foreman stevedore to say, as he did in my hearing: "I bet he's a
furriner of some sort." A man may have black hair without being set down for a
Dago. I have known a West-country sailor, boatswain of a fine ship, who looked
more Spanish than any Spaniard afloat I've ever met. He looked like a Spaniard
in a picture.
Competent authorities tell us that this earth is to be finally the inheritance of men
with dark hair and brown eyes. It seems that already the great majority of
mankind is dark-haired in various shades. But it is only when you meet one that
you notice how men with really black hair, black as ebony, are rare. Bunter's hair
was absolutely black, black as a raven's wing. He wore, too, all his beard