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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 16759

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Cockney relieved me at the wheel, at one bell, when the mates turned the crowd to after a short half hour for dinner. Oh, what a changed Cockney from yestereve! He came slinking meekly along the lee side of the poop. When he took over the wheel he had hardly spirit enough in him to mumble over the directions I gave him. His eyes were puffed half closed, and his lips were cut and swollen. Gone was the swanking, swaggering Cockney who had paraded before the Swede's bar. Instead there was only this cowed, miserable sailorman taking over the wheel. That Cockney had suffered a cruel double cross when he drank of the black bottle, and was hoisted over the Golden Bough's rail. Yesterday he was a great man, the "Knitting Swede's" chief bully, with the hard seafare behind him, and with unlimited rum, and an easy, if rascally, shore life ahead of him. To-day he was just a shell-back outward bound, with a sore head and a bruised body; a fellow sufferer in the foc'sle of a dreaded ship, mere dirt beneath the officers' feet. Such a fall! Keenly as I had disliked the man yesterday, to-day I was sorry for him. The more sorry because I felt that the Jocose Swede had come near having me as the butt of his little joke, instead of Cockney.

I scurried forward, intent upon dinner. I drew my whack from the Chinaman in the gallery, and bolted it down in the empty foc'sle. It was a miserable repast, a dish of ill-cooked lobscouse, and a pannikin of muddy coffee, and I reflected glumly that I had joined a hungry ship as well as a hot one.

I finished the last of that mysterious stew, and then filled and lighted my pipe. I felt sure I would be allowed the half hour dinner spell the rest of the crowd had enjoyed, and I relaxed and puffed contentedly, determined to enjoy my respite to the last minute. For the sounds from the deck indicated a lively afternoon for all hands. But something occurred to interrupt my cherished "Smoke O," something that caused me to sit up suddenly and stiffly on the bench, while my pipe fell unheeded from my slackened mouth, and an unpleasant prickle ran over my scalp and down my spine.

I have already mentioned that the Golden Bough had a topgallant forecastle; that is, the crew's quarters were away forward, in the bows of the ship, beneath the forecastle head. It was a gloomy cavern; the bright day of outdoors was a muddy light within.

Well, in the floor of the port foc'sle, wherein I was sitting, was the hatch to the forepeak, below. It was this yard square trap-door which caused my agitation. My glance fell casually upon it, and I saw it move! It lifted a hair's breadth, and I heard a slight scraping sound below.

Aye, I was startled! A rat? But I knew that even a ship rat did not grow large enough to move a trap-door. The ghost of some dead sailor-man, haunting the scene of his earthly misery? Well, I had the superstitions of a foc'sle Jack, but I knew well enough that a proper ghost would not walk abroad in the noon o' day. I stared fascinated at that moving piece of wood. It slowly lifted about an inch, and then, through the narrow slit; I saw an eye regarding me with a fixed glare. I glared back, my amazement struggling with the conviction that was oversweeping me; and then, just as I was about to speak, Bucko Lynch's voice came booming into my retreat.

"Hey, you! D'you reckon to spell-o the whole afternoon? If you've finished your scouse, out on deck with you-and lively about it!"

There was no denying that request, eye or no eye. And at the second mate's first word, the trap door dropped shut, I clattered out of the foc'sle, and to work; but I was turning that little matter of the forepeak hatch over in my mind, you bet!

It was near dusk, well on in the first dog-watch, when the mates let up with their driving, and herded all hands aft to the main deck. The forepeak hatch had rested heavily upon my mind all afternoon, and I was tingling with excitement when I went aft with the rest to face the ceremony which always concludes the first day out, the choosing and setting of the watches, and the calling of the muster roll. Something unexpected was about to happen, I felt sure.

We were a sorry looking crowd gathered there on the main deck, before the cabin, a tatterdemalion mob, with bruised bodies and sullen faces, and with hate and fright in our glowering eyes. Those few of us who were seamen possessed a bitter knowledge of the cruel months ahead, the rest, the majority, faced a fate all the more dreadful for being dimly perceived, and of which they had received a fierce foretaste that merciless day.

Captain Swope came to the break of the poop, lounged over the rail, and looked us over. In his hand he held the ship's articles. He regarded us with a sort of wicked satisfaction, seeming to draw delight from the sight of our huddled, miserable forms. Without saying a word, he gloated over us, over the puffed face of the Cockney, over the expression of desperate horror in the face of the red-shirted man, over the abject figure of the little squarehead, who had been going about all afternoon sobbing, with his hand pressed to his side, and whose face was even now twisted with a pain to which he feared to give voice. Aye, Swope stared down at us, licking his chops, so to speak, at the sight of our suffering; and we glared back at him, hating and afraid.

Then the lady appeared at the poop rail, some paces distant from the Old Man. It was heartening to turn one's eyes from the Old Man's wicked, sneering face to the face of the lady. There was sorrow in that brooding look she gave us, and pity, and understanding. She was used to looking upon the man-made misery of men, you felt, and skilled in softening it. There was a stir in our ranks as we met her gaze, a half audible murmur ran down the line, and the slackest of us straightened our shoulders a trifle. The Old Man sensed the sudden cheer amongst us, and, I think, sensed its cause, for without glancing at the lady, he drawled an order to the mate, standing just below him.

"Well, Mister Fitz, start the ball rolling-your first say."

The mate allowed his fierce, pig eyes to rove over us, and to my secret delight he passed me by. "Where's the nigger?" he said, referring to the mulatto, who was at the wheel. "The wheel? Well, he's my meat."

So the watch choosing began. Lynch promptly chose me, as he had promised he would, and I stepped over to the starboard deck. Fitzgibbon chose the Cockney, Lynch picked a squarehead-so the alternate choosing went, the mates' skilled eyes first selecting all those who showed in their appearance some evidence of sailorly experience.

"You!" said Fitzgibbon, indicating the red-shirted man, and motioning him over to the port side of the deck.

The red-shirted man, whose agitated face I had been covertly watching, instead of obeying the mate, stepped out of line and appealed to Swope. "Captain, may I speak to you now?" he asked, in a shrill, excited voice.

"Eh, what's this?" exclaimed Swope, gazing down at the fellow. He lifted his hand and checked the mate, who was already about to collar his prey. I think Swope knew just what was coming, and he found sport in the situation. "What do you want, my man?" his soft voice inquired.

A flood of agitated words poured out of the red-shirted man's mouth. "Captain-a terrible mistake-foully mistreated, all of these men foully mistreated by your officers-tried to see you and was beaten. . . ." With an effort he made his speech more coherent. "A terrible mistake, sir! I have been kidnapped on board this vessel! I am not a sailor, I do not know how I come to be here-I have been kidnapped, sir!"

"How terrible!" said Swope. "I do not doubt your word at all, my man. Anyone can see you are no sailor, but a guttersnipe. And possibly you were-er-'kidnapped,' as you call it, in company with the wharf-rats behind you."

"But, Captain-good heavens, you do not understand!" cried the man. "I am a clergyman-a minister of the Gospel! I am the Reverend Richard Deaken of the Bethel Mission in San Francisco!"

The Reverend Richard Deaken! I saw a light. I had heard of the Reverend Deaken while I was in the Swede's house. The labors of this particular sky-pilot were, it appeared, particularly offensive to crimpdom. He threatened to throw a brickbat of exposure into the

camp. He was appealing to the good people of the city to put a stop to the simple and effective methods the boarding masters used to separate Jack from his money, and then barter his carcass to the highest bidder. I had heard the Swede, himself, say, "Ay ban got him before election!" And this is how the reverend gentleman had been "got"-crimped into an outward bound windjammer, with naught but a ragged red shirt and a pair of dungaree pants to cover his nakedness; and he found, when he made his disclosure of identity, that the high place of authority was occupied by a man who enjoyed and jeered at his evil plight.

For, at the man's words, the Old Man threw back his head and laughed loudly. "Ho, ho, ho! D'ye hear that, Misters? The Swede has given us a sky-pilot-a damned Holy Joe! By God, a Holy Joe on the Golden Bough! Ho, ho, ho!" Then he addressed the unfortunate man again. "So you are a Holy Joe, are you? You don't look it! You look like an ordinary stiff to me! Let me see-what did you call yourself? Deaken?" He lifted the articles, and scanned the names that represented the crew. "Deaken-hey! Well, I see no such name written here." I did not doubt that. Save my name, and Newman's, I doubted if any name on the articles could be recognized by any man present. "I see one name here, written in just such a flourishing hand as a man of your parts might possess-- 'Montgomery Mulvaney.' That is undoubtedly you; you are Montgomery Mulvaney!"

"But, Captain-" commenced the parson, desperately.

"Shut up!" snapped Swope. "Now, listen here, my man! You may be a Holy Joe ashore, or you may not be, that does not concern me. But I find you on board my vessel, signed on my articles as 'Montgomery Mulvaney, A.B.' Yet you tell me yourself you are no sailor. Well, my fancy man, Holy Joe you may be, stiff you are, but you'll be a sailor before this passage ends, or I'm not Angus Swope! Now then, step over there to port, and join your watch!"

"But, Captain-" commenced the desperate man again. Then he evidently saw the futility of appealing to Captain Swope. Abruptly, he turned and addressed the lady.

"Madam-my God, madam, can you not make him understand--"

The lady shook her head, frowned warningly, and spoke a soft, quick, sentence. "No, no-do not protest, do as they say!" Well she knew the futility of argument, and the danger to the one who argued. Indeed, even while she spoke, the mate took the parson by his shirt collar, and jerked him roughly into his place. And there he stood, by the Cockney's side, wearing an air of bewildered dismay both comic and tragic.

The mates renewed their choosing, and in a few more moments we were all gathered in two groups, regarding each other across the empty deck. There were fifteen men in the mate's watch, but, because of Newman's absence, only fourteen had fallen to Lynch.

The Old Man handed down the articles to Mister Lynch. "All right, Mister, muster them," he said. "And (addressing us generally) if you don't recognize your names, answer anyway-or we'll baptize you anew!"

Lynch held the papers before his face. I thrilled with a sudden expectancy. Something startling was going to happen, I felt it in my bones. Some clairvoyant gleam told me the forepeak hatch was wide open now.

"Answer to your names!" boomed Lynch's great voice. "A. Newman!"

"Here!" was the loud and instant response.

As one man, we swung our heads, and looked forward. Sauntering aft, and just passing the main hatch, was the man with the scar. He came abreast of us, and paused there in the empty center of the deck.

It was the lady, on the poop above, who broke the spell of silence the man's dramatic arrival had placed upon all hands. She broke it with a kind of strangled gasp. "Roy-it is Roy-oh, God!" she said, and she swayed, and clutched the rail before her as though to keep from falling. She stared down at Newman as if he were a ghost from the grave.

But it was the manner of Captain Swope which commanded the attention of all hands. He was seeing a ghost, too, an evil ghost. It was like foc'sle belief come true-this man had sold his soul to the Devil, and the Devil was suddenly come to claim his own. He, too, stared down at Newman, and clutched the rail for support, while the flesh of his face became a livid hue, and his expression one of incredulous horror.

"Where have you come from?" he said in a shrill, strained voice.

Newman's clothes and face were smutted with the grime from the peak, but his air was debonair. He answered Captain Swope airily. "Why-I come just now from your forepeak-a most unpleasant, filthy hole, Angus! And less recently, I come from my grave, from that shameful grave of stripes and bars to which your lying words sent me, Angus! I've come to pay you a visit, to sail with you. Why, I'm on your articles-I am 'A. Newman.' An apt name, a true name-eh, Angus? Come now, are you not glad to see me?"

It was unprecedented, that occurrence. A foremast hand badgering the captain on his own poop deck; badgering Yankee Swope of the Golden Bough, whilst his two trusty buckos stood by inactive and gaping. But, as I explained, there was an air about Newman that said "Hands off!" It was not so much his huge, muscular body; there was something in the spirit of the man that was respect-compelling; something lethal, a half-hidden, over-powering menace; something that overawed. He was no foc'sle Jack, no commonplace hard case; as he stood there alone, he had the bearing of a man who commanded large ships, who directed great affairs. And his bearing held inactive and over-awed those two fighting mates, while he mocked their god, Swope.

And Swope! The man became craven before Newman's upturned gaze. He was palsied with fear, stark fear. I saw the sweat beads glistening on his brow. He lifted a shaking hand and wiped them off. Then he suddenly turned and strode aft, out of our view, without a parting word to the mates, without even the time honored, "Below, the watch." In the quiet that was over us, we heard his footsteps as he walked aft. They were uncertain, like the footsteps of a drunken man. We heard them descend to the cabin.

Newman turned his gaze upon the lady. She stood there, clutching the rail. Her body seemed frozen into the attitude. But her face was alive.

Yes, alive-and not with fear or horror. There was a delight beyond the powers of description shining in her face. There was incredulity, with glad conviction overcoming it. Her eyes glowed. Her heart was in her eyes as she looked at Newman.

Newman spoke, and his voice was rich and sweet, all its harsh menace gone.

"I have come, Mary," says he.

She did not reply with words. But they looked at each other, those two, and although there were no more words, yet we gained the impression they were communing. Men and mates, we gaped, curious and tongue-tied. This was something quite beyond us, outside our experience. Bully Fitzgibbon, across the deck from me, pulled wildly at his mustache, and every movement of his fingers betrayed his bewilderment.

For what seemed a long time the man and the woman stood silent, regarding each other. The dusk, which had been gathering, crept upon us. The lady's face lost its clear outline, and became shadowy. Suddenly she turned and flitted aft. We listened to her light footsteps descending to the cabin, as, a short while before, we had listened to the Old Man's.

When sound of her had ceased, Newman, without being bidden, stepped to the starboard side and fell into line beside me.

The mate finally broke the awkward silence. Lack of the usual sting from his voice showed how the scene had shaken him.

"Well-carry on, Mister!" he said to Lynch. "Finish the mustering."

The second mate read off the list of names. With the single exception of myself, not a man responded with the usual "Here, sir." Not a man recognized his name among those called; a circumstance not to be wondered at, for the list was doubtless made up of whatever names happened to pop into the Knitting Swede's mind. But the mates did not care about responses. As soon as Lynch was finished, Fitzgibbon commanded shortly, "Relieve wheel and lookout. Go below, the watch."

We of the starboard watch went below. Newman came with us, and he walked as he afterwards walked and worked with us, a man apart.

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