23 August, 2016 by katelaity
‘Of course Vinegar was a celebrated mouser—ratter, really. For there is no ship not given to the predations of rodents, however scrupulously clean. I’ve known ships to have a dozen cats onboard to keep their holds clear of mice and rats, but our ship had only Vinegar and it seemed as if the rodents might have known her by smell because all but a few of the most intrepid stayed far from The Prince of Wales. It was rare to see those beady little eyes upon entering a darkened corner below decks, which I assure you was not always the case onboard other vessels.
‘Vinegar carried out her job with great success but in addition to that she had a character that endeared her to the fierce men who sailed that wide ocean regularly. Hard they might be, bombastic and often uncouth. But there were few who did not relish the chance to get a little cuddle with Vinegar when she had dispatched her duties. It was quite something to see the tenderness with which these weather-beaten sailors would welcome this rather large ginger cat with her many toes, a rough and patchy coat from her many scrambles with the enemy and that long, long tail.
‘Even the most seasoned sailor at times feels the loneliness of the waves. After many days at sea with the sight of land only a fading memory, one can feel unmoored from all that is real, floating as if in a kind of limbo. The simple comfort of a purring cat curled up by your side offers a homely sort of warmth without sentimentality that even the gruffest seaman can appreciate. Perhaps it is easier to be kind to one who cannot speak, and to pour out your heart to one who can never betray your secrets.
‘All of which is to say that Vinegar was a great favourite and beloved by all aboard the ship. All save one, that is. A Boston man, name of Mather, who was second mate for the first time that journey. I would not be exaggerating to say that men on ships, like men imprisoned, had their ways of surviving the time—rules of a sort that they all agreed upon. Everybody has their place and their duties are distinct. You’ll find that in close quarters that sort of thing can head off a lot of problems, for people are nowhere as likely to come into conflict than when they are pressed upon one another day to day.
‘The second mate has often been the one charged with any sort of medical care or impromptu doctoring. Myself joining the ship as a newly crowned physician made that part of his duties redundant. Whilst one sort of person might see that as a relief, Mather was the sort of man who grudged anyone what he thought belonged only to him. In the communal life of sailors, this was a recipe for disaster eventually. My being on board only exacerbated the timeline, I suppose.
‘Mather was a small, hunched sort of man, reddened by the sun rather than browned, which gave him a sort of permanently petulant air. His eyes were very pale blue, like the sea in shallows and he was given to squinting like most who spend many years on the sea. Although he professed his faith often and loudly, brandishing it as sort of badge of righteousness, Mather was little given to the sort of acts that might demonstrate its tenets. Consequently he was not particularly popular with the rest of the crew as a whole for this and other reasons.
‘Things would only deteriorate from there.
‘Displaced of his medical duties by me, he made the most of his navigational work, explaining into too great detail to anyone who would listen the manifold dangers of the journey and the poor alignment the stars suggested at that time—always a bad thing to do with superstitious sailors.
‘All of which made him disagreeable, but things might have been all right if he had not taken a dislike to poor Vinegar…
[Thanks to the British Library images cache!]