23 February, 2016 by katelaity
‘I was a clerk in a shipping magnate’s office as a young man, looking to learn the ropes then to advance to a more responsible position. I was sent on a particular day to the docks to carry out an errand with one of the firm’s ships. At that time the boatwrights were carrying out repairs on the vessel, which had undergone a series of fierce storms at sea. The pounding of the wind and the waves had torn off a good bit of timber and they were making it water-worthy once more.
‘I was sent to get a precise measurement of the timber needed and to take away any that was extra, for the magnate had a tight fist when it came to capital expenditures that was second to none. Indeed he had been known to gather up woodchips in his pockets for safekeeping. He always looked with great pain at sawdust as a very wrenching loss.
‘I arrived quayside and explained my task. The disapproving looks I received puzzled me. My first impression was that there had been some kind of financial misdeeds and the magnate had been right to be suspicious, but I soon discovered that the worries had another cause and regretted my suspicions of the working men.
‘One of them explained to me about the nature of their superstition as I suppose we must name it. At that time I was more than ready to bluster on my superior’s behalf. Truth to tell, I was a bit afraid of the old man who shouted gruffly at all the young clerks though he might as often be kind to us in equally unexpected ways, sending round a tray of cakes with our tea or sending us away from work early on a particularly bright spring day. But he was a most exacting task master. When he wanted a job done, it was best to do it at once and with all close attention to accuracy.
‘But I was struck by the particularity of their belief. Measuring the boards, they thought, meant measuring the life of the crew. They thought it would bring on disaster by drawing the end of their time near.’
Tansy, who had been listening with rapt attention to the story, could not help interrupting at that point. ‘Surely they had to measure sometimes themselves? How else could they repair the ship—or even build one at that?’
The gentleman nodded. ‘You would assume so, but as I delved into the matter I discovered that they used old planks as a way to gauge new ones and generally relied on the good eye of the boatwright to judge the length of pieces.’
‘A very inexact science,’ I said, quite amazed at this tale.
‘Indeed but they trust in it completely, even going so far as to round up men of various heights to have them stand next to boards or lie down next to them in order to avoid measuring them precisely. I have heard that smaller pieces of wood are compared to the ship’s cat.’
‘Clearly we shall not seek our goal amongst the shipyards, for we would not wish to alarm anyone,’ Tansy said. ‘If something were to happen I would feel awful.’
‘Indeed,’ the gentleman intoned, ‘by measuring only a few boards as I had done I feel responsible for the terrible fate of that vessel.’
‘What on earth happened?’