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The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 7929

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Then, if I must have a beginning for the yarn (said Captain Shreve), I'll begin with that morning, in this very port of San Francisco, when I walked out of the Shipping Commissioner's office with my first A.B.'s discharge in my hand, and a twelve months' pay-day jingling in my pocket. For I must explain something of my state of mind on that morning, so you will understand how I got Into Yankee Swope's blood-ship.

It was the heyday of the crimps, and I walked through the very heart of crimpdom, along the old East street. It is not a very prepossessing thoroughfare even to-day, when it masquerades as the Embarcadero, a sinner reformed. In those days, when it was just East street, it consisted of solid blocks of ramshackle frame buildings, that housed all the varieties of sharks and harpies who live off Jack ashore; it was an ugly, dirty, fascinating way, a street with a garish, besotted face. But on this morning it seemed the most wonderful avenue in the world to me. I saw East street through the colorful eyes of youth-the eyes of Romance.

I stepped along with my chest out and my chin up-tilted. A few paces behind me a beachcomber wobbled along with my sea-bag on his shoulder-for what A.B. would demean himself with such labor on pay-day, when moochers abounded at his heel! I was looking for a boarding-house.

But it was not the Sailors' Home. That respectable institution might do very well for boys, and callow ordinary seamen, but it certainly would not do for a newly made A.B. Nor was I looking for Mother Harrison's place, as I told Mother's runner, who stuck at my elbow for a time. Mother Harrison's was known as the quietest, most orderly house on the street; it might do for those quiet and orderly old shellbacks whose blood had been chilled by age; but it would never do for a young A.B., a real man, who was wishful for all the mad living the beach afforded. No; I was looking for the Knitting Swede's.

Knitting Swede Olson! Remember him, Briggs? A fine hole for a young fool to seek! But I was a man, remember-a MAN-and that precious discharge proved it. I was nineteen years old, and manhood bears a very serious aspect at nineteen. No wonder I was holding my head in the air. The fellows in my watch would listen to my opinions with respect, now I was an able seaman. No longer would I scrub the foc'sle floor while the lazy beggars slept. No longer would I peggy week in and week out. I was A.B. at last; a full-fledged man! Of course, I must straightway prove my manhood; so I was bound for the Knitting Swede's.

Everybody knew the Knitting Swede in those days; every man Jack who ever joined a ship. They told of him in New York, and London, and Callao, and Singapore, and in every foc'sle afloat. The king of crimps! He sat in his barroom, in East street, placidly knitting socks with four steel needles, and as placidly ignoring every law of God and man. He ruled the 'Frisco waterfront, did the Knitting Swede, and made his power felt to the very ends of the seas.

Stories about him were without number. It was the Knitting Swede who shanghaied the corpse on board the Tam o' Shanter. It was the Knitting Swede who drugged the skipper of the Sequoia, and shipped him in his own foc'sle. It was the Knitting Swede who sent the crowd of cowboys to sea in the Enterprise. It was the Knitting Swede who was the infamous hero of quite half the dog-watch yarns. It was the Knitting Swede who was-oh, the very devil!

And it was on this very account I was bound for the Swede's house. Very simple, and sailorlike, my motive. In my mind's eye I saw a scene which would be enacted on board my next ship. Some fellow would ask me-as some fellow always does-"And what house did you put up in, in 'Frisco, Jack?" And I would take the pipe out of my mouth, and answer in a carefully careless voice, "Oh, I stopped with the Knitting Swede." And then the whole foc'sle would look at me as one man, and there would be re

spect in their eyes. For only very hard cases ever stopped at the Knitting Swede's.

Well, I found the Swede's place easily enough. And he was there in person to welcome me. I discovered his appearance to be just what the stories described-a tall, great paunched man, who bulked gigantic as he perched on a high stool at the end of the bar, a half-knitted gray sock in his hands, and an air about him of cow-like contentment. He possessed a mop of straw-colored hair, and a pair of little, mild, blue eyes that regarded one with all the innocence of a babe's stare.

He suspended his knitting for a moment, gave me a fat, flabby hand, and a grin which disclosed a mouthful of yellow teeth.

"Ja, you koom for a good time, and, by and by, a good ship," says he. "Yoost trust the Swede-he treat you right."

So he sent my bag upstairs to a room, accepted my money for safekeeping, and I set up the drinks for the house.

What? Give him my money for safekeeping? Of course. There was a code of honor even in crimpdom, you know. I came to the Swede's house of my own choosing; no runner of his snared me out of a ship. Therefore I would be permitted to spend the last dollar of my pay-day, chiefly over his bar, of course, and when the money was gone, he would ship me in a ship of my own choosing. Unless, of course, men were exceptionally scarce, and blood money exceptionally high. Crimpdom honor wouldn't stand much temptation. But I was confident of my ability to look after myself. I was a man of nineteen, you know.

So, at the Knitting Swede's I was lodged. I spent most of my first day there in examining and getting acquainted with my fellow lodgers. Aye, they were a crowd, quite in keeping with the repute of the house; hard living, hard swearing, hard fighting A.B.'s, for the most part; the unruly toughs of the five oceans. I swaggered amongst them and thought myself a very devil of a fellow. I bought them drinks at the Swede's bar, and listened with immense satisfaction to their loud comments on my generosity. It was, "He's a fine lad, and no mistake!" and, "He's a real proper bloke, for certain!" And I ordered up the rounds, and swung my shoulders, and felt like a "real proper bloke" indeed.

Well, I saw one chap in the house who really attracted me. I should liked to have chummed with him, and I went out of my way to be friendly towards him. He was a regular giant of a man, with yellow hair and frosty eyes, and a very white face. In fact he looked as if he might have recently been sick, though his huge, muscular frame showed no effects of an illness. He had a jagged, bluish scar over one eye, which traveled up his forehead and disappeared beneath his hair, plainly the result of some terrible clout. But it was not these things, not his face or size which drew me to him; it was his bearing.

All of the chaps in Swede Olson's house were hard cases. They boasted of their hardness. But their hardness was the typical tough's hardness, nine parts bravado, a savagery not difficult to subdue with an oak belaying pin in the fist of a bucko mate. But the hardness of this big, scar-faced man was of a different sort. You sensed, immediately you looked at him, that he possessed a steely armor of indifference that penetrated to his very heart. He was a real hard case, a proper nut, a fellow who simply did not care what happened. It was nothing he said or did, but his demeanor declared plainly he was utterly reckless of events or consequences. It was amusing to observe how circumspectly the bullies of the house walked while in his neighborhood.

But I found him to be a man of silent and lonesome habit, and temperate. He discouraged my friendly advance with a cold indifference, and my idea of chumming with him during my pay-day "bust" soon went glimmering. Yet I admired him mightily from the moment I first clapped eyes upon him, and endeavored to imitate his carriage of utter recklessness in my own strutting.

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