John Barleycorn HTML version

Chapter 6
But the time was rapidly drawing near when I was to begin my second series of bouts
with John Barleycorn. When I was fourteen, my head filled with the tales of the old
voyagers, my vision with tropic isles and far sea-rims, I was sailing a small centreboard
skiff around San Francisco Bay and on the Oakland Estuary. I wanted to go to sea. I
wanted to get away from monotony and the commonplace. I was in the flower of my
adolescence, a-thrill with romance and adventure, dreaming of wild life in the wild man-
world. Little I guessed how all the warp and woof of that man- world was entangled with
So, one day, as I hoisted sail on my skiff, I met Scotty. He was a husky youngster of
seventeen, a runaway apprentice, he told me, from an English ship in Australia. He had
just worked his way on another ship to San Francisco; and now he wanted to see about
getting a berth on a whaler. Across the estuary, near where the whalers lay, was lying the
sloop-yacht Idler. The caretaker was a harpooner who intended sailing next voyage on the
whale ship Bonanza. Would I take him, Scotty, over in my skiff to call upon the
Would I! Hadn't I heard the stories and rumours about the Idler?-- the big sloop that had
come up from the Sandwich Islands where it had been engaged in smuggling opium. And
the harpooner who was caretaker! How often had I seen him and envied him his freedom.
He never had to leave the water. He slept aboard the Idler each night, while I had to go
home upon the land to go to bed. The harpooner was only nineteen years old (and I have
never had anything but his own word that he was a harpooner); but he had been too
shining and glorious a personality for me ever to address as I paddled around the yacht at
a wistful distance. Would I take Scotty, the runaway sailor, to visit the harpooner, on the
opium- smuggler Idler? WOULD I!
The harpooner came on deck to answer our hail, and invited us aboard. I played the sailor
and the man, fending off the skiff so that it would not mar the yacht's white paint,
dropping the skiff astern on a long painter, and making the painter fast with two
nonchalant half-hitches.
We went below. It was the first sea-interior I had ever seen. The clothing on the wall
smelled musty. But what of that? Was it not the sea-gear of men?--leather jackets lined
with corduroy, blue coats of pilot cloth, sou'westers, sea-boots, oilskins. And everywhere
was in evidence the economy of space--the narrow bunks, the swinging tables, the
incredible lockers. There were the tell- tale compass, the sea-lamps in their gimbals, the
blue-backed charts carelessly rolled and tucked away, the signal-flags in alphabetical
order, and a mariner's dividers jammed into the woodwork to hold a calendar. At last I
was living. Here I sat, inside my first ship, a smuggler, accepted as a comrade by a
harpooner and a runaway English sailor who said his name was Scotty.