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   Chapter 1 No.1

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 16145

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was the writing guy who drew this story out of Captain Shreve. He talked so much I think the Old Man spun the yarn just to shut him up. He had talked ever since his arrival on board, early that morning, with a letter from the owners' agent, and the announcement he intended making the voyage with us. He had weak lungs, he said, and was in search of mild, tropical breezes. Also, he was seeking local color, and whatever information he could pick up about "King" Waldon.

He had heard of the death of "King" Waldon, down in Samoa-Waldon, the trader, of the vanishing race of island adventurers-and he expected to travel about the south seas investigating the "king's" past, so he could write a book about the old viking. He had heard that Captain Shreve had known Waldon. Hence, he was honoring a cargo carrier with his presence instead of taking his ease upon a mail-boat.

Captain Shreve must tell him all he knew about the "king." He was intensely interested in the subject. Splendid material, you know. That romantic legend of Waldon's arrival in the islands-too good to be true, and certainly too good not to put into a book. Was Captain Shreve familiar with the tale? How this fellow, Waldon, sailed into a Samoan harbor in an open boat, his only companion his beautiful young wife? Imagine-this man and woman coming from nowhere, sailing in from the open sea in a small boat, never telling whence they came!

He said this was the stuff to go into his book. Romance, mystery! It was quite as important as the later and better known incidents in the "king's" life. That was why Captain Shreve must tell him all he knew about the fellow. If he could only get at the beginning of the "king's" career in the islands. Where did the fellow come from? Why should a man bring his bride into an uncivilized and lawless section of the world, and settle down for life? There must be a story in that. Ah, yes, and he was the man who could properly do it.

Well, that was the way that writer talked. He talked so steadily nobody could slide a word in edgeways. Yet he said he wanted information. We wondered. If the ability to deliver an unending monologue, consisting chiefly of the ninth letter in the alphabet, is any sign of lung power, that chap didn't need any cod-liver oil or sea air. He could have given up writing, and still have made a good living ashore as a blacksmith's bellows! And as for the local color and information-well, he blinked through his black rimmed glasses at our immaculate decks, and said it was a pity they built ships for use and not for looks nowadays, and went on talking about himself, and what he could do with "King" Waldon.

Briggs, the mate, confided to me in a soft aside that the chap was making the voyage because he knew he had an audience which couldn't escape-unless it jumped over the side. Captain Shreve didn't confide; his face kept its accustomed expression of serenity, and he made no attempt to stem the author's flood of words. I was somewhat surprised by this meekness, for our Old Man is a great hand to puncture a windbag; but then, I reflected, the writing guy, being a passenger, was in the nature of a guest on board, and, according to Captain Shreve's code, a man to be humored.

We lay in the Stream, with a half dozen hours to pass ere we proceeded to sea. It was Sunday, so we were idle, the four of us lounging on the lower bridge deck-the Captain, Briggs, myself, and this human phonograph. It was a pleasant day, and we would have enjoyed the loaf in the warm afternoon sunshine, had it not been for the unending drivel of the passenger. I enjoyed it anyway, for even though the ears be filled with a buzzing, the eyes are free, and San Francisco Bay is an interesting place.

". . . and the critics all agree," the passenger rambled on, "that my genius is proved by my amazingly accurate portraits of character. I have the gift. That is why I shall do 'King' Waldon so well. I need but a mental image of the man to make him live again. You must tell me what he looked like, Captain. Is it true, as I have been told, he was such a giant of a man, and possessed of such enormous physical strength? And that his hair retained its yellow luster even in old age? And that he had a great scar on his face, or head, about which he never spoke? Ah, yes, you must tell me about him, Captain."

Captain Shreve grunted at this-the first sound he had been able to squeeze into the talk for half an hour. But the author did not pause; in fact he hastened on, as though determined to forestall any interruption. Talk! I don't know when that fellow found any time to write. He was too eager to tell the world about his gift.

"You know," says he, "I need but a few little intimate facts about 'King' Waldon's appearance and character, and I can make him stalk through my story as truly alive as when he was in the flesh. If he were alive I should not need your assistance, Captain; one look at the man and I could paint him in his true colors. I have that gift. Not men alone-I am able to invest even inanimate objects with personality. A house, a street, or a-yes, even a ship. Even this ship. Now, this old box--"

Captain Shreve sat up straight in his chair. I thought he was rasped by the fellow's slur, for he is very proud of his ship. But it was something else that rubbed the expression of patient resignation from his face; he was staring over the starboard rail with an expression of lively interest. I followed his gaze with mine, but saw only a ferryboat in the distance, and, close by, a big red-stack tug towing a dilapidated coal hulk.

The Captain's eyes were upon this tow. He tugged excitedly at his beard. "Well, by George, what a coincidence!" he exclaimed. He turned to the mate, his bright eyes snapping. "Look, Briggs! Do you know her? By George, do you recognize her?"

The writing guy was disgusted by this interruption, just when he was going to prove his genius. Briggs shifted his quid, spat, and inspected the passing hulk with extreme deliberation. I looked at her too, wondering what there was about an old coal-carrier that could pierce Captain Shreve's accustomed phlegm.

The tow was passing abreast, but a couple of hundred yards distant. The tug was shortening the line, and on the hulk's forecastle-head a couple of hands were busy at a cathead, preparing to let go anchor. She was ill-favored enough to look at, that hulk-weather-beaten, begrimed, stripped of all that makes a ship sightly. Nothing but the worn-out old hull was left. An eyesore, truly. Yet, any seaman could see with half an eye she had once been a fine ship. The clipper lines were there.

Suddenly Briggs sat up in his chair, and exclaimed, "Well, blast my eyes, so it is!" He nodded to the Captain, and then returned his regard to the hulk, his nostrils working with interest. "So it is! So it is! Well, blast my--"

"Is what?" I demanded. "What do you two see in that old hull that is so extraordinary?"

Just then the writing guy decided we had monopolized the conversation long enough. So he seized the opportunity to exercise for our benefit the rare gift he was endowed with. He glanced patronizingly at the coal hulk, wrinkled his nose in disapprobation of her appearance, and delivered himself in an oracular voice.

"What a horrible looking old tub! Not a difficult task to invest her with her true personality. An old workhorse-eh? A broken down old plug, built for heavy labor, and now rounding out an uninspiring existence by performing the most menial of tasks. An apt description-what?"

I noticed a faint smile crack the straight line of Captain Shreve's mouth. But it was Briggs who was unable to contain himself. He turned full upon the poor scribe, and plainly voiced his withering scorn.

"Why, blast my eyes, young feller, if you weren't as blind as a bat you'd know you were talking rot! 'A workhorse!' you say. 'A broken down old plug!' Blast me, man, look at the lines of her!"

The passenger flushed, and stared uncomprehendingly at the poor old hulk.

The tug had gone, and she was lying anchored, now, a few hundred yards off our starboard bow. A sorry sight. The author could see nothing but her ugliness.

"Why, she is just a dirty old scow-" he commenced.

"Blast me, can't you even guess what she once was?" went on Briggs, relentlessly. "Well, young feller, that dirty old scow-as you call her-is the Golden Bough!"

The passenger only blinked. The name meant nothing to him. But it did to me.

"The Golden Bough!" I echoed. "Surely you don't mean the Golden

Bough?"

"But I do," said Briggs. He waved his hand. "There she is-the Golden Bough. All that is left of the finest ship that ever smashed a record with the American flag at her gaff. She's a coal hulk now, but once she was the finest vessel afloat. Eh, Captain?"

Captain Shreve nodded affirmation. Then he turned to the writing guy, and courteously salved the chap's self-esteem.

"Small wonder you overlooked her build; it takes a sailor's eye for such things. And really, your description strikes home to me. We are all workhorses, are we not, we of the sea? And time breaks down us all, man and ship." The Old Man was staring at the hulk, and his voice was sorrowful. "Aye, but time has used her cruelly! What a pity-she was so bonny!"

The writing guy perked up at this. "Well, you know, I see her through a layman's eyes," he explained. "And she does look so old, and dirty, and commonplace--"

Briggs snorted, and the Captain hastened to continue, cutting off the mate's hard words. "Oh, yes, she looks old and dirty-no mistake. But time was when no ship afloat could match her for either looks or speed. Aye, she was a beauty. Remember how she looked in the old days, Briggs?"

Briggs did. He emphatically blasted his eyes to the effect that he remembered very well the Golden Bough in the days of her glory, the days when she was no workhorse, but a double-planked racehorse of the seas, as anyone but a lubber could see she had once been, just by looking at her. Yes, blast his eyes, he remembered her. He remembered one time running the Easting down in the Josiah T. Flynn, a smart ship, with a reputation, and they were cracking on as they would never dare crack, on in these degenerate days, when, blast his eyes, the Golden Bough came up on them, and passed, and ran away from the poor old Flynn, and Yankee Swope had stood on his poopdeck at the passing, and waved a hawser-end at the Old Man of the Flynn, asking if he wanted a tow. "And then we caught hell," commented Mr. Briggs. Aye, he should say he did remember the Golden Bough. But he had never sailed in her.

"And she looks commonplace enough," continued Captain Shreve, "providing you know nothing of her history. But she does not look commonplace to Briggs or me. I suppose we regard her through the mist of memory-we see the tall, beautiful ship that was. We know the record of that ship. Aye, lad, and if those sorry-looking timbers yonder could talk, you would not have to make the voyage with us in order to get a taste of the salt. You'd get real local color there-you'd hear of many a wild ocean race, of smashed records, or shanghaied crews and mutinies. Yes, and you'd get, perhaps, some of that particular information you say you are after. Those old, broken bulwarks yonder have looked upon life, I can tell you-and upon death."

"The dangerous life of the sailor, I presume," drawled the writing guy. "Falling from aloft, and being washed overboard, and all that sort of thing."

"Not always," retorted Captain Shreve. "There were other ways of going to Davy Jones in the old clipper days-and in these days, also, for that matter. Knives, for instance, or bullets, or a pair of furious hands-if you care for violent tragedy. But I did not mean the physical dangers of life, particularly; I meant, rather, that Fate tangles lives on board ship as queerly as in cities ashore. I meant that the Golden Bough, in her day, left her mark upon a good many lives. She broke men, and made them. And once, I know, she had to do with a woman's life, and a woman's love. There was a wedding performed upon that ship upon the high seas, and a dead man sprawled on the deck at the feet of the nuptial pair, and the bride was the dead man's widow!"

"Oh, come now-" said the writing guy. It was plain he thought the skipper was stringing him. But I knew how difficult it was to get our Old Man to spin a yarn, and I was determined he should not be shunted off on a new tack. I interrupted the author, hurriedly. "Did you ever make a voyage in the Golden Bough, Captain?" I asked.

"Yes," replied the Captain. "I was a witness to that wedding; and I played my small part in bringing it about. Yes, that old wreck yonder has had a good deal to do with my own life. I received my first boost upward in the Golden Bough. Shipped in the foc'sle, and ended the voyage in the cabin. Stepped into dead man's shoes. And more important than that-I won my manhood on those old decks."

"Ah, performed some valorous deed?" purred the writing guy.

"No; I abstained from performing an infamous deed," said Captain

Shreve. "I think that is the way most men win to manhood."

"Oh!" said the writing guy. He seemed about to say a lot more, when I put my oar in again.

"Let us have the yarn, Captain," I begged.

Captain Shreve squinted at the sun, and then favored the passenger with one of his rare smiles. "Why, yes," he said. "We have an idle afternoon ahead of us, and I'll gladly spin the yarn. You say, sir, you are interested in ships, and sailors, and, particularly, in 'King' Waldon's history. Well, perhaps you may find some material of use in this tale of mine; though I fear my lack of skill in recounting it may offend your trained mind.

"Yet it is simply life and living-this yarn. Human beings set down upon those decks to work out their separate destinies as Fate and character directed. Aye, and their characters, and the motives that inspired their acts, were diverse enough, heaven knows.

"There was Swope, Black Yankee Swope, who captained that hell-ship, a man with a twisted heart, a man who delighted in evil, and worked it for its own sake. There was Holy Joe, the shanghaied parson, whose weak flesh scorned the torture, because of the strong, pure faith in the man's soul. There were Blackie and Boston, their rat-hearts steeled to courage by lust of gold, their rascally, seductive tongues welding into a dangerous unit the mob of desperate, broken stiffs who inhabited the foc'sle. There were Lynch and Fitzgibbon, the buckos, living up to their grim code; and the Knitting Swede, that prince of crimps, who put most of us into the ship. There was myself, with my childish vanity, and petty ambitions. There was the lady, the beautiful, despairing lady aft, wife of the infamous brute who ruled us. There was Cockney, the gutless swab, whose lying words nearly had Newman's life. And last, and chiefly, there was the man with the scar, he who called himself 'Newman,' man of mystery, who came like the fabled knight, killed the beast who held the princess captive, and led her out of bondage. And I helped him; and saw the shanghaied parson marry them, there on the bloody deck.

"Stuff for a yarn-eh? But just life, and living. By George, it was mighty strenuous living, too! And yet, well as I know this tale I lived in, I am at a loss how to commence telling it. You know, sir, this is where you writing folk have at disadvantage the chaps who only live their stories-you see the yarn from the beginning to the end, we see but those chapters in which Fate makes us characters. The beginning, the end, the plot-all are beyond our ken. If indeed there is a beginning, or end, or plot to a story one lives."

"Every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end," began the writing guy, sonorously. "Now I--"

Just then I leaned over and placed my number nine brogan firmly upon that writing guy's kid-clad foot, and held him in speechless agony for a moment, while Captain Shreve got his yarn fairly launched.

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