Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 1/My friend the doctor


My friend the doctor is a negro by birth, Englishman by education, and nautical—strictly nautical—by inclination. Leave him ashore for more than a month at a spell, and the doctor would run to seed like an overgrown cucumber, or wither like a caterpillar-blighted cabbage. Only let him skim up the side of a vessel again, be she large or small, steamer or sailor, and he revives immediately. Climate or exposure have no influence upon his iron constitution, and he lives always under the happy conviction that without his valuable services the captain and crew and passengers, to any amount, must inevitably perish. Yet my friend the doctor possesses no diploma—no licence to practise medicine or surgery; no knowledge of physic or drugs (thanks to his good constitution), excepting that Epsom salts are exceedingly abominable of flavour, and apt in the course of an hour or two to produce spasmodic cramps where the doctor would sooner stow away a pint or so of pea-soup. And my friend the doctor is—the ship’s cook!

The origin of this appellation it is hard to discover, nor do I presume that by a perusal of James’s “Naval History” any one would be a bit the wiser: perhaps it is because he is a general benefactor. In India they call the sea-breeze the doctor, and gasp and look out for its approach with all the anxiety that a suffering patient evinces for the arrival of some skilful physician. The cook has been the doctor with sailors beyond even the memory of that gifted individual, the oldest nautical inhabitant, and doctor he will remain so long as England has a plank to float upon the waters, and a flag to brave the battle and the breeze.

My friend the doctor is one of a very extensive class or genus; but to study him to perfection we must see him established on board of some small collier brig, or little trading schooner, whose voyages seldom extend further than the Mediterranean or the Brazils. It is here where his genius and skill are put to the utmost stretch, the culinary means at his command being limited to salt beef to-day, salt pork to-morrow; pease-pudding, pea-soup, lobscouse, and, at dreary intervals, a sea pie. Now and then a hapless shark or a shoal of bonnettas afford him an opportunity of rivalling a Soyer in his dishes, and the liver of a porpoise causes him to be elevated as high as the “sweet little cherub that sits up aloft” in the estimation of captain, mates, and crew—so dainty and savoury to the poor hungry sailors is the mess he produces. The doctor’s mainstay at sea is the dark, dampish pantry, or store-room, a box about ten feet square beneath the cabin or cuddy, and to dive into which gloomy recess he has to furnish himself with a glimmering horn lantern, and remove a hatch just under the cabin dining-table. Herein, in casks, in boxes, in bags, piled up and screwed together as only sailors can stow them, are invaluable treasures, items without which the doctor would feel like a stranded camel in an African desert. Butter and onions, currants and raisins, treacle and sugar; potatoes, flour, spice, split peas, and, curiously intermingled with them, paint kegs, tallow candles, blocks, odds and ends of ropes, a slush bucket, herrings, and a bale of salt fish. This region is sacred to the doctor and the second mate. The latter descends once a week to serve out the crew’s weekly allowance of groceries—the doctor daily, in search of indispensable culinary articles. And what with the horrible stench and the legions of rats scampering in all directions, his visits are usually as brief as he can possibly contrive to make them. The doctor’s only assistant is “Jimmy Ducks,” the hapless orphan cabin-boy, who is so perpetually occupied with one thing or another, from lighting the caboose fire at four o’clock in the morning to washing out the skipper’s socks at eleven p.m., that he can only find time to lave himself once a week (when the doctor kindly assists in scouring him), and generally makes the caboose his dormitory for the few hours mercifully allowed him to rest his weary and oftentimes very sore limbs.

My friend the doctor, when he finds himself fairly afloat and out of sight of land, settles down comfortably into every-day life; his sleeping apartment is the best bunk in the “fo’castle,” and close under the hatchway, so as to permit of his enjoying respiration freely. The floor of the fo’castle constitutes his drawing-room, and his large deal box answers for a settee or sofa, or anything that a fertile imagination may convert it into, upon which, of a stormy or rainy night, he will loll, with a very short, very black pipe in his mouth, and spin yarns to the watch below; till some sudden gust or danger, and the summons of all hands on deck, leaves him to the rats and cockroaches, and solitary cogitations (the doctor being exempted from sailors’ duty, especially at night), which opportunity he skilfully improves by unlocking and diving into the mysterious recesses of his chest, producing a dark-looking, well-protected phial, which evidently contains something that comforts him in solitude and danger, and must possess all the virtues of the widow’s cruise of oil, that, despite often applications, was perpetually full. By the way, amongst other treasures under the doctor’s charge, are the spirits and bottled-beer on board, besides sundry pickles and sauces, and hermetically sealed meats and vegetables, all which are jealously detained under lock and key in the side-lockers of the captain’s state-room (a miserable bandbox, six feet by two), and only brought to light on very remarkable and state occasions.

To investigate the contents of the doctor’s chest would prove an afternoon’s entertainment to every soul on board; for, of a truth, they are varied. From the gay gilt-buttoned tail-coat, down to the pomatum-pot and the really useful housewife, everything has been bought and carefully packed by the doctor’s absent wife, who enjoys the privilege of drawing his half-pay and rents a second pair back in the salubrious neighbourhood of Ratcliffe. The doctor consequently looks upon the disturbing of this chest as little short of sacrilege. Every soul on board, from the captain to the cabin-boy, entertains a secret veneration for the doctor’s “missus,” who has been represented by the doating husband as a paragon of virtue and a “scholard” to boot, and who happens to be, at the very time these encomiums are uttered some thousand miles away at sea, enjoying herself prodigiously with the “double shuffle” at the “Jolly Sailor,” and imbibing such liquid comfort as that establishment can provide. But the doctor is happily innocent of disparaging impressions, and though under a dusky husk, his affectionate heart paints his Susan’s portrait as the climax of virtue and goodness.

My friend the doctor’s reception-room, audience-hall, dining and sitting-room, are all concentrated in the caboose, which, in stormy weather, is not unfrequently exposed to the risk of being pitched overboard, doctor and all. In it he can never stand upright; in it he can only sit with his knees up to his eyebrows; in it, however, with the door closed to windward, he manages, with the help of a good fire, an iron saucepan, a kettle, and an oven, to prove a perfect magician. If there is one thing more than another in which he excels, it is the manufacturing of that, by sailors, dearly-loved dish—“duff” or “dough”—without which British tars would go to rack and ruin, and which, being usually as solid and heavy as a leaden bullet, might give a rhinoceros an indigestion, but is satisfying and a mere trifle to the English sailor. Here, in this caboose, the doctor receives deputations, who, pannakin in hand, suggest that a little hot water would greatly facilitate the weekly operation of eradicating bristles, constitutionally of a wild boarish nature. Here, when the watch below are indulging in a forenoon siesta, and the watch on deck are up aloft scraping and tarring, and pitching and painting, the doctor receives in state the bare-armed, straw-hatted second mate, who possesses an appetite awful even for a sailor; and despite the heat of the weather and the fury of the furnace—despite the fact that the perspiration pours down both their faces in torrents, they get up an extemporaneous lunch of thin-sliced pork fried with onions, assisted by hard ship-biscuit, and washed down with rum-and-water that would stupify any other mortals upon the face of the earth, excepting those who are undergoing the fierce ordeal of a hot sun and a hotter furnace, with much manual labour to boot. Here also, with condescension, the doctor receives the humble appeals of the wretched cabin-boy, whose face and arms are covered with slush and soot, and who, having been suddenly summoned from scraping and greasing the fore-top gallant mast—a pleasant little occupation which the mate has allotted him, because he neglected to “give them fowls their meat in proper time this morning”—has been summarily cuffed and buffeted by the skipper for daring to present himself in his august state room without being au grand parfait as regards toilet.

Even for him the good old doctor has balmy words and a lump of cold duff with treacle; and having been initiated in the science before, strongly recommends the ill-used cabin-boy to return to the innocent and useful calling of clay-pipe making so soon as his poor feet touch British soil again. Hence also, at stated periods, this great purveyor to the necessities and comforts of the floating community issues the daily rations of coffee, tea, meat, potatoes, pease-pudding, duff, &c.; and, seated upon the ledge of the caboose-door, with a knife-board across his knees to answer for a table, the doctor condescendingly partakes of every meal, mingling freely in the conversation and jest of his brother sailors who are squatted on the deck all around, receiving their encomiums, and like them, ever and anon cracking a biscuit with his elbow, which has defied every other applicable force.

The doctor’s life on board is rather a monotonous one. His costume is occasionally varied by the state of the weather, and includes a rough tarpaulin coat, in which he invests himself on very rainy or cold wintry days. Otherwise the Guernsey frock, red flannel nightcap, and dubious trousers—originally brown canvass, but now a composition of tar, smoke, and soot—constitute his daily habiliments. Having no watch to keep at night, he is an early riser; and a huge bucket of salt water, soap, and a scrubbing brush make his polished skin shine like ebony. Breakfast is no important tax upon his abilities, except perhaps as regards the cabin, and here it is sometimes a perplexing mental question as to whether salt pork or salt beef fried with a liberal supply of onions, and perhaps seasoned with a little curry powder, would prove most savoury for the cabin gourmands.

After breakfast the serious duties of the doctor commence. He has then to visit the harness cask (as the salt provision casks are called, and by the way rather suspiciously savouring, as harness does, of salt horse), and pick and choose suitable joints for the cabin and fo’castle. The soaking of this meat, the peeling of potatoes and onions, preparation of duff or pease-pudding, occasional lending a hand to “haul upon the bowline, the maintop bowline,”—sabbath executions of poultry or pork, interspersed with some score or two of pipes during the forenoon, and friendly admonitions to the poor cabin-boy as he washes up the plates and dishes—these constitute the every-day life of my excellent friend the doctor when at sea. The exceptions are high days and holidays, when potted meat and bottled fruit are brought into play, and when all the energy and skill of the doctor are taxed in the construction of savoury meat pies, pudding, and pastry. The afternoon and evening, weather permitting, he usually de votes to literature and anecdote, and great is the enthusiasm with which the other sailors receive his often-repeated story of how in such and such a year, at some small town in the West Indies—Cook being then a mere hop o’ my thumb—he and a lot of others contrived to entice and entrap a whole battalion of turkeys and a fleet of geese by means of skilfully baited fish-hooks; and so, putting manfully to sea, dragged these unwilling victims over the waves and into the ship’s caboose, much to the astonishment and terror of the natives, who conceived their poultry labouring under the same influence as the wretched swine of the Gergesenes.

But to see my friend the doctor in the height of his glory and enthusiasm, you must behold him freshly arrived, after a lengthened sea-voyage, at some foreign port, with a score or two of bum-boats flying round the vessel. Who dares interfere with his behests then? From the captain downwards everybody confides in his skill and taste, both as regards bargaining and as to the articles of consumption to be purchased. With his ivory teeth gleaming satisfaction out of their ebony frame, my friend the doctor struts the deck barefooted, and still crowned with the greasy red night-cap, an object of veneration to the butchers, the bakers, the poulterers, the dealers in fruit and vegetables, &c., that are plying alongside. Strictly he scrutinises each article—positive is the price he fixes. Gradually the caboose assumes the appearance of a green-grocer’s, with a poulterer’s and a butcher’s hard by; whilst the long-boat has been converted into a fruit-shop. The skipper and half the crew have gone ashore, the mates and the remainder are busy investigating baskets of oranges, bananas, lemons, &c. By some winked-at contrivance, “strong waters” have been smuggled on board, and whilst speculating upon the astounding results that his caboose will produce about dinner-time—the soup and the boiled fish, and the baked mutton, puddings, pies, tarts, &c.—my friend the doctor squats down like a black thrush amidst a profusion of foliage; and labouring under the influence of heat, the black cutty-pipe, and perhaps something else, nods complacently to the gentle rise and fall of the anchored schooner, until savoury odours recall him once more to a sense of the arduous duties that a nautical doctor has to perform.

F. A. N.