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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 18042

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The talk in the Swede's house was all of drink and women and ships. I was too young and clean to find much enjoyment in too much of the first two; much liquor made me sick, and I did not find the painted Jezebels of sailor-town attractive. But ships were my life, and I lent a ready ear to the gossip about them. To tell the truth, I didn't enjoy the Knitting Swede's place very much. I did so want to be a hard case, and I guess I was a pretty hard case, but I didn't like the other hard cases. Youth likes companionship, but I didn't want to chum with that gang, willing though most of them were that I permit them to help me spend my money. I hadn't been ashore twenty-four hours before I found myself wishing for a clean breeze and blue water.

Shipping was brisk in the port, and I discovered I would have no trouble in picking my ship when my money was gone. The Enterprise was loading for Boston; the Glory of the Seas would sail within the fortnight for the United Kingdom; there were a half-dozen other smart ships wishing to be manned by smart lads. I had nothing to worry about. I could blow my pay-day as quickly as I liked; there was no danger of my being stranded "on the beach."

So I spent my money, as violently as possible. I made a noise in the

Swede's house, and was proud of myself. My first A.B.'s spree!

On the third evening of my "bust," my mettle was tested. There was a woman in the Swede's house, a slim wisp of a little Jewess, with the sweet face of a Madonna and the eyes of a wanton. Well-she smiled on me. She had good reason to; was I not making my gold pieces dance a merry tune? Was I not fair game for any huntress?

But she belonged to the Swede's chief runner, his number one bouncer, as ugly a brute as ever thumped a drunken sailor. The bully objected, with a deal of obscene threatening, to my fancied raiding of his property. We had it out with bare knuckles in the Swede's big back room, with all the little tables pushed against the wall to make fighting space, and the toughest crowd in San Francisco standing by to see fair play. I was the younger, and as hard as nails, he was soft and rotten with evil living, so I thrashed him soundly enough in five rounds.

After he had taken the count, I turned away and commenced to pull my shirt on over my head. I heard a sharp curse, a yell of pain, and the clatter of steel upon the floor. When my head emerged, I beheld my late antagonist slinking away before the threatening figure of the man with the scar. The bully's right arm dangled by his side, limp and broken, and a sheath-knife was lying on the floor, at the big man's feet. The sight gave me a rather sick feeling at the pit of the stomach, for I realized I had narrowly escaped being knifed.

The scar-faced man would not listen to my thanks. He bestowed upon me a cool, bracing glance, and remarked, "You must never take your eyes off one of that breed!" Then he resumed his seat at a table in the far corner of the room, and quite plainly dismissed the incident from his mind.

Indeed, the house as speedily dismissed the incident from Its collective mind. A fist fight or a knifing was but a momentary diversion in the Swede's place. Five minutes after he left the room, the whipped bully left the establishment, his one good hand carrying his duffle. The Knitting Swede would have no whipped bouncer in his employ.

That was a purple night for me. I was the victor, and the fruits of the victory were very sweet. The Jewess murmured adoring flatteries in my ear. The others-that crowd of rough, tough men-clapped me respectfully upon the back, felt gingerly of my biceps, and swore loudly and luridly I was the best man in the port. I agreed with them-and set up the drinks, again and again. Oh, I was a great man that night! The house caroused at my expense till late.

Only my silent friend in the corner declined to take part in the merry-making. The man with the scar sat alone, drinking nothing, and regarding with cool and visible contempt the dizzy gyrations of the roughs who were swilling away the money I had worked for. But his open contempt of them was not resented, even at the height of the orgy. They were hard cases, rough, tough fighting men, but they gave the big fellow plenty of sea-room. No ruffling or swaggering in his direction. No gibes or practical jokes. The bludgeon-like wit of the house very carefully passed him by. For he was so plainly a desperate man.

"He's a bad one," whispered the Jewess to me, lifting an eye towards the lonely table. "He has the house bluffed. Bet you the Swede doesn't try any of his tricks with him. He's a real bad one. Wonder who he is?"

I openly admired the man. I'd have given my soul almost to own his manner. The careless yet grand air of the man, the something about him that lifted him above the rest of us-aye, he was the real hero, he was the sort of hard case I wanted to be.

"I know he's a sailorman by the cut of his jib," I said. "But he is so pale-and that scar-I guess he is just out of the hospital. Been sick, or hurt, most likely."

The woman gave me a pitying look that set my teeth on edge. She was continually marveling over my innocence, and I didn't relish being innocent. "Just out of hospital!" she mocked. "You certainly haven't been around places like this very much or you would know."

"Know what?" I demanded.

She shook her head, and looked serious. "No, I'll not preach, not even to you. And I like him-because he saved you."

Next morning the Swede interrupted his knitting long enough to toss my last ten dollars across the bar. "Ay tank you ship now?" says he.

The huskies who were gathered about the room immediately chorused their disapproval. "Oh, give the poor beggar a chance!" they sang out. "Let him rest up a spell, Swede!" But the Swede had gauged me correctly. He knew I would not want to stay on the beach after my money was spent.

"I am ready to ship," I told him, "but, remember this, Swede, in a ship of my own choosing."

He grinned widely, and showed his whole mouthful of yellow teeth. His baby stare rested appreciatively upon me, as though I had just cracked an excellent joke. "Oh, ja, you pick him yourself," he chortled. "Mineself get you good ship, easy ship. No bucko, no hardtack, good pay, soft time, by Yimminy!"

His mirthful humor abruptly vanished. He leaned towards me, and the lids of his little round eyes slowly lifted. It was like the lifting of curtains. For an instant I looked into the unplumbed abyss of the man's soul, and I felt the full impact of his ruthless, powerful mind. It was an astonishing revelation of character, that glance. I think the Swede designed it so, for he was about to make me a momentous offer.

"Ay ship you by easy ship, shore-going ship. No vatch, no heavy veather, good times, ja. You thump mine roonar, you take his voomans, so-you take his yob. Ja? You ship by the Knitting Swede?"

The eyelids drooped, and his gaze was again one of infantile innocence. His fat smooth jowls quivered, as he waited with an expectant smile for my answer.

I'll admit I was completely bowled over for a moment. A hush had fallen upon the room. I heard a voice behind me exclaim softly and bitterly, "Gaw' blimme, 'e's got it!" I knew the voice belonged to a big Cockney who was, himself, an avowed candidate for the runner's job. My mind was filled with confused, tingling thoughts. Oh, I was a man, right enough, to be singled out by the Knitting Swede for his chief lieutenancy. I was a hard case, a proper nut, to have that honor offered me. For it was an honor in sailordom. I thought of the foc'sles to come, and my shipmates pointing me out most respectfully as the fighting bloke who had been offered a chief runner's berth by the Knitting Swede.

For I did not doubt there would be other foc'sles, and soon. Life ashore at the Knitting Swede's was not for me. Young fool, I was, with all the conceit of my years and inches. Yet I realized clearly enough I would only be happy with the feel of a deck beneath my feet, and the breath of open water in my nostrils. I was of the sea, and for the sea. And if anything were needed to make my decision more certain, there was the little Jewess. She leaned close, and there was more than a hint of command in her voice. "Boy, say yes! I want you to, Boy!"

"Boy!" To me, a nineteen-year-old man, who had just been offered a fighting man's berth! "I want you to," she commanded. I saw more clearly just what the Swede's offer meant: to spend my days in evil living, my drugged will twisted about the slim, dishonest fingers of the wanton; to spend my nights carrying out whatever black rascality the Swede might command. An ignoble slavery. Not for me!

"I'll only ship in a proper ship, Swede," I said, decisively.

The Swede nodded. My refusal did not disconcert him; I think his insight had prepared him for it. But the tension in the room released with a loud gasp of astonishment. It was unbelievable

to those bullies that such an offer could be turned down. A sailorman refusing unlimited opportunities for getting drunk! "Gaw' strike me blind, 'e arn't got the guts for hit!" a voice cried at my elbow, and I found the Cockney openly sneering into my face.

I saw through his motive immediately. Cockney wanted the job, and he wasn't going to allow the Swede to overlook his peculiar qualifications a second time. Therefore, he would risk battle with me.

I was nothing loath. I might turn down the job, but I would not turn down a challenge. I stepped back, and my coat was already on the floor by the time the Swede had a chance to form his words. And his words showed him also cognizant of the Cockney's ruse.

"'Vast there, Cocky! Ay give you the yob. No need to fight, and get smashed sick. To-night I got vork-to put the crew by the Golden Bough!"

The Cockney's hostility melted into a satisfied smirk. He called upon his Maker with many blasphemies while he assured the Swede he was the very "proper blushin' bloke" for the berth. The crowd straightway lost all interest in the runnership; they had another sensation to occupy them. At the Swede's words, a low growl ran around the room, a growl which swelled into a chorus of imprecations.

The Swede was going to ship the crew for the Golden Bough that night! That meant he needed sailors. And every man who was in debt to the Swede, or in any way under his thumb (and I suspect every man Jack of them was under his thumb in some fashion or other), quaked in his boots, and thought, "Will the Swede choose me?" For they knew ships, those men, and they knew the Golden Bough. Some of them had sailed in her.

The Swede grinned jocosely at me. "How you like to ship by the Golden Bough! There ban easy ship, Ja! Plenty grub, easy vork, good mates--"

"Yah-h-h!" One swelling, jeering shout from the whole crowd submerged the Swede's joking reference.

"Plenty to eat!" yelled one. "Aye, plenty o' belaying-pin soup, an' knuckle-duster hash!"

"Easy work!" sang out another. "In your watch below, which never happens!"

"Proper gents, the mates are," spoke up a third. "They eats a sailorman every mornin' for breakfast!"

Oh, they knew the Golden Bough! Who did not?

"How many, Swede?" called out a man.

"Ay ban ship a crowd of stiffs-and some sailor-mans," stated the Swede.

Cursing broke out afresh. Some of them must go! The bulk of the crew was to be crimped, of course, in the Swede knew what kennels of the town. But a few tried sailormen must go to leaven that sodden, sea-ignorant lump. It was like condemning men to penal servitude. No wonder they swore. And swear they did, with mouth-filling, curdling oaths, as though in vain hope their flaming words would quite consume that evilly known vessel.

In the midst of that bedlam I stood thinking strange thoughts. It is hardly credible, but I was considering if I should tell the Swede I would ship in the Golden Bough. And I had heard all about the ship, too, for if the Knitting Swede was the hero of half the dog-watch yarns, the Golden Bough was the heroine of the other half. I knew of the ship, the most notorious blood-ship afloat, and the queen of all the speedy clippers. I knew of her captain, the black-hearted, silky-voiced Yankee Swope, who boasted he never had to pay off a crew; I knew of her two mates, Fitzgibbon and Lynch, who each boasted he could polish off a watch single-handed, and lived up to his boast. I knew of the famous, blood-specked passages the ship had made; of the cruel, bruising life the foremast hands led in her. And I stood before the Swede's bar and considered shipping. Oh, Youth!

For my thoughts were fathered by the vaulting conceit of my nineteen years. Consider . . . a few days before I had for the first time assumed a man's estate in sailordom. Already I was a marked man. Had I not stopped at the Knitting Swede's, and ruffled on equality with the hard cases? Had I not whipped the bully of the beach? Had I not been offered a fighting man's billet by the Swede, himself? Was not that glory?

Then how much greater the glory if I spoke up with a devil-may-care lilt in my voice, and shipped in the hottest packet afloat! Glory!-why, I would be the unquestioned cock of any foc'sle I afterward happened into. You know, in those days the ambitious young lads regularly shipped in the hot clippers; it was a postgraduate course in seamanship, and accomplishment of such a voyage gave one a standing with his fellows. I had intended going in one-in the Enterprise, or the Glory of the Seas, both loading in port. But the Golden Bough! No man shipped in her, sober, and unafraid. If I shipped, I should be famous the world around as the fellow who feared neither God, nor Devil, nor Yankee Swope and his bucko mates!

So I stood there, half wishful, half afraid, deaf to all save my own swirling thoughts. And there happened that which gave me my decision.

It was the man with the scar. He had been lounging against the bar, an uninterested spectator of the bestowing of the runnership. Now, my eyes fell upon him, and I saw to my surprise that he was shaken out of his careless humor. He was standing tensely on the balls of his feet, and his hands were gripping the bar rail so fiercely his fingers seemed white and bloodless. It was apparent some stern emotion wrestled him; the profile I saw was set like chiseled marble. There was something indescribably menacing in his poise. The sight of him jolted my ears open to the noises of the room.

The crowd was still talking about the Golden Bough. And the talk had progressed, as talk of the Golden Bough always progressed, from skipper and mates, to the lady. They spoke of the ship's mystery, of the Captain's lady. She was a character to pique a sailorman's interest, the Lady of the Golden Bough. Her fame was as wide, and much sweeter, than the vessel's. With all their toughs' frankness, the crowd were discussing the lady's puzzling relations with Swope.

"Uncommon queer, I calls it," said one chap, who had sailed in the ship. "They call 'em man an' wife, but she lives to port, an' he to starboard. Separate cabins, dash me! I had it from the cabin boy. They even eats separate. . . . He's nasty to her-I've heard the devil snarl at her more than once, when I've had a wheel. . . . Blank me, she's a blessed angel. There was I with a sprained wrist big as my blanked head, an' Lynch a-hazin' me to work-and every morning she trips into the foc'sle with her bright cheer an' her linaments. A blanked, blessed angel, she is!"

"He beats her," supplemented another man. "I got it from a mate what chummed with the bloke as was a Sails on her one voyage. He said, that sailmaker did, as how Swope got drunk, and beat her."

The big Cockney, who had been visibly possessed by a pompous self-importance since his elevation to the dignity of runner, saw fit to interpose his contrary opinion of the Lady of the Golden Bough. Because the man was vile, his words were vile.

"Blimme, yer needn't worrit abaht Yankee Swope's lydy, as yer call 'er. She arn't nah bleedin' lydy-she's just a blarsted Judy. Yer got to knock a Judy abaht, arn't yer? Hi 'arve hit straight-'e picked 'er hoff the streets--"

The man with the scar wheeled on his heel, reached out, and grasped the Cockney by his two wrists. I exclaimed aloud when I saw the man's full face. There was death in it. He spoke to Cockney in a voice of cold fury. "You lie!" he cried. "Say you lie!"

Cockney was a big man, and husky. He cursed, and struggled. But he was a child in the grasp of that white-faced giant towering over him. The hands I had seen gripping the rail a moment before, now gripped Cockney's wrists in the same terrible clutch. They squeezed, as though to crush the very bones. Cockney squirmed, and whimpered, then he broke down, and screamed in agony.

"Ow, Gaw' blimme, let hup! Hi never meant northin'! A lie- Ow, yuss-a lie! She's a proper lydy- Hi never 'eard the hother- Gaw' strike me blind!"

The man with the scar cast the fellow contemptuously away; and Cockney lost no time in putting the distance of the room between them. The big man turned on the Swede, and his voice was sharp and commanding.

"Swede, does the Golden Bough sail to-morrow?"

"Ja, with da flood," the Swede answered.

"Then I ship in her," declared the man. "I ship in the Golden Bough,

Swede!"

It was the spark needed to fire my own resolution. What another dared,

I would dare. I thumped the bar with my fist and sang out valorously,

"I ship in her too, Swede!"

The Swede's needles stopped flashing in and out of the gray yarn. He regarded us, one after the other, with his baby stare. Then he said to the big man, "Vat if your frients ship by her?"

"I have no friends," was the curt answer.

The Swede leaned back on his stool, and his big belly quivered with his wheezy laughter. "By Yimminy, Ay tank da Golden Bough haf vun lively voyage!" he exclaimed.

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