John Barleycorn HTML version

Chapter 17
North we raced from the Bonin Islands to pick up the seal-herd, and north we hunted it
for a hundred days into frosty, mitten weather and into and through vast fogs which hid
the sun from us for a week at a time. It was wild and heavy work, without a drink or
thought of drink. Then we sailed south to Yokohama, with a big catch of skins in our salt
and a heavy pay-day coming.
I was eager to be ashore and see Japan, but the first day was devoted to ship's work, and
not until evening did we sailors land. And here, by the very system of things, by the way
life was organised and men transacted affairs, John Barleycorn reached out and tucked
my arm in his. The captain had given money for us to the hunters, and the hunters were
waiting in a certain Japanese public house for us to come and get it. We rode to the place
in rickshaws. Our own crowd had taken possession of it. Drink was flowing. Everybody
had money, and everybody was treating. After the hundred days of hard toil and absolute
abstinence, in the pink of physical condition, bulging with health, over-spilling with
spirits that had long been pent by discipline and circumstance, of course we would have a
drink or two. And after that we would see the town.
It was the old story. There were so many drinks to be drunk, and as the warm magic
poured through our veins and mellowed our voices and affections we knew it was no time
to make invidious distinctions--to drink with this shipmate and to decline to drink with
that shipmate. We were all shipmates who had been through stress and storm together,
who had pulled and hauled on the same sheets and tackles, relieved one another's wheels,
laid out side by side on the same jib-boom when she was plunging into it and looked to
see who was missing when she cleared and lifted. So we drank with all, and all treated,
and our voices rose, and we remembered a myriad kindly acts of comradeship, and forgot
our fights and wordy squabbles, and knew one another for the best fellows in the world.
Well, the night was young when we arrived in that public house, and for all of that first
night that public house was what I saw of Japan--a drinking-place which was very like a
drinking-place at home or anywhere else over the world.
We lay in Yokohama harbour for two weeks, and about all we saw of Japan was its
drinking-places where sailors congregated. Occasionally, some one of us varied the
monotony with a more exciting drunk. In such fashion I managed a real exploit by
swimming off to the schooner one dark midnight and going soundly to sleep while the
water-police searched the harbour for my body and brought my clothes out for
Perhaps it was for things like that, I imagined, that men got drunk. In our little round of
living what I had done was a noteworthy event. All the harbour talked about it. I enjoyed
several days of fame among the Japanese boatmen and ashore in the pubs. It was a red-
letter event. It was an event to be remembered and narrated with pride. I remember it to-
day, twenty years afterward, with a secret glow of pride. It was a purple passage, just as