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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 21908

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


During my brief communion with Lynch in the foc'sle, I had, of course, been conscious of ship work proceeding on deck. I had been deaf otherwise, what with the mate's obscene, shrill voice ringing through the ship, and the rattle of blocks, the cries of men, and the tramp of their feet as they pulled together. Now, as I stepped from the foc'sle into the bright daylight, I saw just what work was doing.

The vessel was aback on the main, her way lost for the moment. Abeam, a tug was puffing away from us, carrying the port crew-who had lifted anchor and taken the Golden Bough to sea-back to San Francisco. And we were fairly to sea; the rugged coast of Marin was miles astern, and the Golden Gate was lost in a distant haze. The voyage was begun.

I saw this at a glance, out of the corners of my eyes, as I ran aft to join the crowd. For I was minded to take the second mate's advice, and fly about my work in the Golden Bough. To wait for an order, was, I knew well enough, to wait for a blow. The crowd were already at the lee braces, commencing to trim up the yards, and I tailed onto the line and threw in my weight, thanking my lucky star that Mister Fitzgibbon was too busied with the weather braces to accord my advent on deck any other reception than a sizzling oath.

We got the ship under wary, and then jumped to other work. Mister Lynch had flung several more sick, frightened wretches out of the foc'sle, and now he joined with the mate in forcible encouragement of our efforts. The port gang had hoisted the yards, and loosed the sails, but the upper canvas was ill sheeted, and soon we were pully-hauling for dear life.

The best of ships is a madhouse the first day at sea, but the Golden Bough-God! she was madhouse and purgatory rolled into one! My own agility and knowledge saved me from ill usage for the moment, since the mates had plenty of ignorant, clumsy material to work upon. Such material! I never before or after saw such a welter of human misery as on that bright morning, such a crowd of sick, suffering, terrified men. Most of them knew not one rope from another, some of them knew not a word of English, half of them were still drunk, and stumbled and fell as they were driven about, the other half were seasick and all but helpless. Oh, they caught it, I tell you! The mates were merciless, as their reputations declared them to be. It was sing out an order, then knock a man down, jerk him to his feet, thrust a line into his hands, and kick him until he bent his weight upon it. It was bitter driving. But I'll admit it brought order out of chaos. We cleared the decks of the first-day-out hurrah's nest in jig time. Mercifully, it was fair weather, with a light, steady, fair breeze.

I found myself working shoulder to shoulder with a big, trim-bodied mulatto. He was a sailorman, I saw at a glance, and we stuck together as much as possible during the morning. He already bore Fitzgibbon's mark in the shape of a raw gash on his forehead, and his blood-specked eyes were hot with mingled rage and terror. He murmured over and over again to me, as though obsessed by the words, "Does yoh know where yoh am, mate? Lawd-de Golden Bough! de Golden Bough!"

There came an ominous flapping of canvas aloft. "He done gib her too much wheel!" said the mulatto to me. "Lawd help him!"

The black-bearded man who had been lounging over the poop rail watching us work, and at whom I had been casting curious and fearful glances as I rushed about beneath his arctic glare, now swung about and damned the helmsman's eye with soft voiced, deadly words. The mates' voices dropped low, and we listened to Yankee Swope's storm of venomous curses with bated breath.

As a man curses so he is. I learned that truth that morning, a truth amply tested by the days that came after. It was like a book page before my eyes, revealing the different characters of the three men who ruled our world, by comparison of their oaths.

Now Lynch swore robustious oaths in a hearty voice. They enlivened your legs and arms, for you sensed there was a blow behind the words if you lagged. But they did not rasp your soul. You knew there was no personal application to them. They were the oaths of a bluff, hard man who would drive you mercilessly, but who would none the less respect your manhood. They were the oaths of the boss to the man, and they bespoke force.

Fitzgibbon's swearing always sounded dirty. His curses fell about you like a vile shower, and aroused your hot resentment; the same words that came clean from Lynch's lips, sounded vile from Fitzgibbon, because the man, himself, was bad through and through. His oaths were the oaths of a slave-driver to the slave, and they bespoke cruelty.

But the curses of Captain Swope! God keep me from ever hearing their like again. They sounded worse than harsh, or vile, they sounded inhuman. The words came soft and melodious from his lips, but they were forked with poison and viciousness. As we of the foc'sle listened to him curse the helmsman, that first morning out, each man felt fear's icy finger touch the pit of his stomach. The captain's words horrified us, they sounded so utterly evil, and foretold so plainly the suffering that was to come to us.

He suddenly cut short his cursing, and turning, caught sight of us, men and mates, standing idle by the main fife rail. "What's this, Misters?" he sang out. "Going asleep on the job? Rush those dogs-rush them! And send a man aft to the wheel-a sailorman! This damned Dutchman does not know how to steer!"

Those evenly spoken words aroused us to a very frenzy of effort. Fitzgibbon struck out blindly at the man nearest him, and commenced to curse us in a steady stream. Lynch reached out and dragged me away from the line on which I was heaving. "Aft with you!" he ordered me. "Take the wheel-lively, now!"

Lively it was. I ran along the lee deck towards the poop, my belly griped by the knowledge that the black-bearded man was watching my progress. Nineteen-year-old man I might be, able seaman and hard case, but I'll admit I was afraid. I was afraid of that sinister figure on the poop, afraid of the soft voice that cursed so horribly.

It was a little squarehead who had the wheel. A young Scandinavian, an undersized, scrawny boy. He was pallid, and glazy-eyed with terror, as well he might be after facing the Old Man's tirade, and when I took the spokes from his nerveless grasp he had not sufficient wit left to give me the course. Indeed, he had not much chance to speak, for Captain Swope had followed me aft, and as soon as I had the wheel he commenced on the luckless youth.

"You didn't watch her, did you? Now I'll show you what happens in my ship when a man goes to sleep on his job!" he purred. Purred-aye, that is the word. Through his beard I could see the tip of his tongue rimming his lips, as he contemplated the frightened boy, much like a cat contemplating a choice morsel about to be devoured; and there was a beam of satisfaction in his eye. Oh, it was very evident that Yankee Swope was about to enjoy himself.

The poor squarehead cowered backward, and Swope stepped forward and drove his clenched list into the boy's face, smashing him against the cabin skylights. The boy cried out with pain and fear, the blood gushing from his nose, and, placing his hands over his face, he tried to escape by running forward. Swope, the devil, ran beside him, showering blows upon his unprotected head, and as they reached the break of the poop he knocked the boy down. Then he gave him the boots, commenced to kick him heavily about the body, while the boy squirmed, and pleaded in agonized, broken English for mercy. It was a brutal, revolting exhibition. I was an untamed forecastle savage, myself, used to cruelty, and regarding it as natural and inevitable, but as I stood there at the wheel and, watched Yankee Swope manhandle that boy I became sick with disgust and rage. Aye, and with fear, for what was happening to the squarehead might well happen to me!

The boy ceased to squirm under the impact of the boots, and his pained cries were silenced. Then the captain ceased his kicking, though he did not cease the silky-toned evil curses that slid from his lips. He leaned over the bruised, insensible form, grasped the clothes, and heaved the boy clear off the poop, much as one might heave aside a sack of rubbish. So the little squarehead vanished from my ken for the time being, though I heard the thud of his body striking the deck below.

Swope stood looking down at his handiwork for a moment; then he swung about and came aft, brushing invisible dirt from his clothes as he walked. When he drew near, I saw his eyes were bright with joyous excitement; yes, by heaven, Captain Swope was happy because of the work he had just done; he was a man who found pleasure in inflicting pain upon others! He paused at my side, glanced sharply at me, then aloft at the highest weather leech, for I was steering full and by. But he found no cause for offense, and after damning my eye to be careful, he turned away and commenced pacing up and down. I was in a furious rage against the man. But when he looked at me my knees felt weak, and I answered his words respectfully and meekly indeed. God's truth, I was afraid of him!

Oh, it was not his size. Yankee Swope was only of medium build; I was much the better man physically, and could have wiped the deck with him in short order-though, of course, a quick death would have rewarded any such attempt upon the master of the Golden Bough. Nor was his face ill to look at. Indeed, he had a handsome face, though beard and mustache covered half of it, and there was a peculiar and disturbing glitter in his black eyes. Some of my fear was caused, I think, by the sinister softness of his voice. But most of it was caused by the impression the man, himself, gave-call it personality, if you like. It was much like the impression of utter recklessness that Newman gave, only in Yankee Swope's case it was not recklessness, but utter wickedness. An aura of evil seemed to cling about him, he walked about in an atmosphere of black iniquity that was horrifying. Any foremast hand would look after Yankee Swope and say, "There-he's sold his soul to the Devil! He's a bad one, a real bad one, and no mistake!"

So I looked after him, and thought, while he paced the poop, and I held the wheel. "You're in for it, Shreve!" I thought. "This packet is so hot she sizzles, and this Old Man is a bad egg, and no fatal error! There will be bloody, sudden death before this passage is ended, or I'm a ruddy soldier!"

Standing there at the wheel, with one eye upon Captain Swope and the other upon my work, I found I owned a full measure of rueful thoughts. The Golden Bough was an eye-opener to me, used though I was to hard ships and hard men. I wished I had not shown myself such a hard case back there in the Swede's

. I cursed myself for the vainglorious fool I was for having put myself in such a hole. The only rift in my cloud of gloom was Lynch; the second mate seemed favorably disposed towards me, I reflected, and had promised to choose me for his watch. He said I would be safe if I jumped lively to my work. I promised myself to do that same, for I foresaw a cruel fate for the malingering man aboard that vessel.

From Lynch, my thoughts naturally jumped to Newman. What had become of him? Deserted, as Lynch had declared? Developed a craven streak, and cleared out? No. My grim, reserved companion of the night before had had some strong, secret purpose in joining the Golden Bough; if he had deserted, I knew it was in obedience to that same hidden purpose, and not from fear of ship or officers.

It was while I was speculating about Newman's disappearance that Mister Lynch came aft and reported that fact to the Old Man, in my hearing. "We have them all hustling except two," he told Swope. "One jasper the Swede dosed with his black bottle, and another one who has been sandbagged. I'll have them on deck by muster. A damned seedy bunch, taken by and large, Captain. We're one hand shy!"

"What's that? One hand shy?" exclaimed Swope, sharply.

"Yes, sir; cleared out, I expect. Came on board last night-one of the two the Swede told us about, who picked the ship themselves. There's one of them at the wheel. But the other one, the big one, was gone this morning. Best looking beef of the entire lot, too. Good sailorman, or I'm a farmer; looked like an officer down on his luck."

Swope turned to me. "Where is the fellow who came on board with you?" he demanded.

"I don't know, sir," I replied. "He had disappeared when I woke up this morning."

"Huh! Sounds fishy!" was his response. "Don't lie to me, my lad, or I'll wring your neck for you!" He stood silent a moment, opening and shutting his fingers, just as though he were turning the matter over in the palms of his hands. Then he cursed.

"You searched about for'ard for him?" he asked Lynch.

"Yes, sir; he isn't on board," the second mate answered.

"Then why are you bothering me?" the Old Man wanted to know. "If the swab is gone, he's gone. Drive the rest of them the harder to make up for his loss!"

He resumed his pacing of the poop, while Lynch went forward.

I was well enough pleased by the ending of the incident. For a moment

I had feared the captain would blame me for Newman's absence. With the

little squarehead's fate fresh in my mind I had no desire to foul

Yankee Swope's temper.

But I could not help thinking about Newman. His going was a mystery, and, moreover, I was sorry to see the last of him. I wondered why he had not stayed. It was not fear that made him clear out; of that I was certain. What then? The lady?

I began to think about the Golden Bough's lady. To think of Newman was to think of her. I was sure she had drawn him on board the ship. Had she, then, sent him packing ashore, while I slept? What was he-a discarded lover? Was she the lass in the beggarman's yarn? Had he shipped so he might worship his beloved from the lowly foc'sle? Or was he seeking vengeance? Oh, I read my Southworth and Bulwer in those days, and had some fine ideas regarding the tender passion. I felt sure there was some romantic heart-bond between Newman and the lady.

I wondered if the lady were really so lovely, possessed of such goodness of heart, as glowing foc'sle report declared. Was she really an incarnate Mercy in this floating hell? Did she really go forward and bind up the men's hurts? Why did she not show herself on deck this fine morning? I wanted to see this angel who was wedded to a devil.

I heard her voice first, ascending through the skylight. It thrilled me. Not the words-she was but giving a direction to the Chinese steward-but the rich, sweet quality of the voice. I, the foc'sle Jack, whose ears' portion was harsh, bruising oaths, felt the feminine accents as a healing salve. They stirred forgotten memories; they sent my mind leaping backwards over the hard years to my childhood, and the sound of my mother's voice. No wonder; I had scarce once heard the mellow sound of a good woman's voice since I ran away to sea five years before, only the hard voices of hard men, and, now and then, the shrill voice of some shrew of the waterside.

She ascended from the cabin, and stepped out upon deck, and, as if moving as far as possible from the harsh voices forward, came aft and stood near the wheel. And at the first glance, I knew that foc'sle report of the lady was not overdrawn, that the most glowing description did ill justice to her loveliness.

Her age? Oh, twenty-four, perhaps. Beautiful? Aye, judged by any standard. But it was not her youth, or the trimness of her figure, or the mere physical beauty of her features that touched the hearts, and made reverent the voices of rude sailormen. No; it was something beyond, something greater, than the flesh that commanded our homage.

Once since have I seen a face that was like the face of Captain Swope's wife-in a great church in a Latin country. It was a painting of the Madonna, and the master who had painted it had given the Mother's face an expression of brooding tenderness as deep as the sea, an expression of pity and sympathy as wide as the world. You felt, as you looked at the picture, that the artist must have known life, its sufferings and sins.

It was a like expression in the face of the Captain's lady. She was no pretty lass whose sweet innocence is merely ignorance. She was a woman who had looked upon life; you felt that she had faced the black evil and hideous cruelty in a man's world, and that she understood, and forgave. You felt her soul had passed through a fierce, white heat of pain, and had emerged burned clean of dross, free of all petty rancor or hatred. It glowed in her face, this wide understanding and sympathy, looked from her eyes, and sounded in her voice, and it was this that won the worship of the desperate men and broken derelicts who peopled the Golden Bough's forecastle.

Hair? Oh, yes, she had hair, a great mass of it piled on her head, black hair. Eyes? Her eyes were blue, not the washed out blue of a morning sky, but the changing, mysterious purple-blue of deep water. She turned those wonderful eyes upon me, as I stood there at the wheel, and the red blood flushed my cheeks, while the mask of cynical hardness I had striven so hard to cultivate fled from my face. She saw through my pretence, did the lady, she saw me as I really was, a boy playing desperately at being such a man as my experience had taught me to admire. I was abashed. I was no longer a hard case with those pitying, understanding eyes upon me. I was like a lad detected in a mischief, facing my mother.

She had heard some talk in the cabin, or perhaps she had overheard Lynch's report to the Old Man, for her words showed she knew me as one of the men who had shipped in the vessel of my own will. "Why-you are only a boy!" she said, in a surprised voice. Then her face seemed to diffuse a sweet sympathy and understanding. I can't explain it, but I knew that the lady knew just why I had shipped. She looked inside of me, and read my heart-and understood! "Oh, Boy, why did you do it?" she exclaimed softly. "It is not worth it-why did you come! Listen!-do not give offense; whatever they do, show no resentment. Oh, they are hard-forget your pride, and be willing!"

She seemed about to say more, but Captain Swope interrupted. When she appeared on deck, he affected not to see her; he had paced past her twice, but not by the quiver of an eyelash had he shown himself aware of her presence. Now he suddenly paused nearby. Perhaps his sailor's sense of fitness was ruffled by the sight of her in conversation with the man at the wheel; or, more likely, his eye had noted the scene occurring forward, and he wished to force it upon her attention, because it would cause her pain.

"Ah, madam, commencing your good works so soon?" he remarked, in a soft, sneering voice. "Well, from all signs for'ard, you had better overhaul your medicine chest. You will have a patient or two to sniffle over to-morrow morning."

The lady shuddered ever so slightly at Swope's words, and her features contracted, as though with pain. Just for an instant-then she was serenity again, and she gazed forward, as Swope bade, and silently watched the mates at their work.

They were manhandling, of course. I might have found humor in the scene had not the lady just stirred the softer chords of my being. Away forward, by the foc'sle door, Mister Lynch was engaged in dressing down the Cockney. This was not a particularly interesting exhibition, though, for although the Cockney showed fight, he was clearly outmatched, and arose from the deck only to be knocked down again.

But, by the main hatch was a more interesting spectacle. There, Mister Fitzgibbon was busied with the spare, red-shirted man, he of the intelligent face and gashed skull, the man I had found so mysteriously occupying the bunk Newman had gone to bed in, and who, Lynch declared, was neither sailor, nor bum. There on the poop, we could not overhear the small man's words for Mister Fitz's shrill cursing, but he seemed to be expostulating with the mate. And he seemed intent on forcing past the mate and coming aft. He would try to run past the hatch, and Fitzgibbon would punch him and send him reeling backwards. Even as we watched, the mate seized him by the collar of his red shirt, slammed him up against the rail, and then, with a belaying pin, hazed him forward at a run.

I heard the lady sigh-and Swope chuckled. Then I noticed she was staring fixedly at the side of the cabin skylight. A few drops of the blood the Old Man had drawn from the little squarehead were splattered upon the woodwork and the deck. Silently, she regarded them, and her slight figure seemed to droop a bit. Then, with a queer little shrug, she squared her shoulders, and faced the Captain with up-tilted chin. . . . Aye, and I sensed the meaning of that little shrug, and the squared shoulders. It meant that she had picked up her Cross, and that she would courageously bear it in pain and sorrow through the dark days of the coming voyage. For I truly believe the lady suffered vicariously for every blow that bruised a sailor's flesh on board the Golden Bough!

"Yes, I must look to my medicines," she replied to Swope. "I see they will be required." There was no active hate in her voice, or in her eyes, but she looked at the man much as one looks at some loathsome yet inevitable object-a snake, or a toad. And she turned away without further words, and descended to the cabin. Swope watched her departure with a half smile parting his beard and mustache. Oh, how I longed to be able to wipe that sneer from his mouth with my clenched fist!

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