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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 13105

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I had the second trick at the wheel that watch, from ten o'clock till midnight. I came panting and sweating to the task, keenly relishing the chance of resting. For there was to be no "farming" away the night watches in the Golden Bough; the second mate had kept us upon the dead run from one job to another, and I sensed this was the routine of the ship.

It was a fine, clean smelling night of moon and stars, and brisk breeze. The wind had freshened since day, and the vessel was stepping out and showing the paces that made her famous. She had an easy helm; one of those rare craft that may be said to steer herself. I had time to think, and receive impressions, as I half lounged at the wheel. The round moon brightened the world, the west pyramids of canvas above me bellied taut, the cordage wrung a stirring whistle from the wind, the silver spray cascaded on the weather deck. I watched the scene with delight, drank in the living beauty of that ship, and felt the witchery the Golden Bough practiced upon sailors' minds steal over and possess me. Aye, she was a ship! I was soon to curse my masters, and the very day I was born, but never, after that night, did I curse the ship. I loved her. I felt the full force that night of a hoary sea axiom, "Ships are all right. 'Tis the men in them."

I was surprised not to see Captain Swope upon the poop. According to the gossip I had heard at the Knitting Swede's, this eight to twelve watch was Yankee Swope's favorite prowling time. But he did not appear; indeed, he had not shown himself since he had so ignominiously surrendered the deck to Newman. I was not disappointed. I shouldn't have cared if he remained below the entire voyage.

But I did see the lady that watch. When Mister Lynch, and his familiars (of whom more anon), had gone forward to a job, she suddenly stepped out of the companion hatch and flitted aft towards me. Then, when she was close enough to discern my features by the reflection from the binnacle lights, she stopped. I heard a sort of gasping sigh that meant, I knew, disappointment, and she moved over to the rail, and stood staring at the sea.

I knew what was wrong. She had, in the darkness, mistaken my very respectable bulk for Newman's gigantic body. She had expected to find Newman at the wheel; she was eager for a private word with him.

I watched her, with my head half turned on my shoulder. Aye, but it thrilled me, the sight of her! You will call me a romantic young fool, but it was not that. It was no thrill of desire, no throb of passion for her beauty, though she was fair enough, in all faith, as she stood there in the moonlight. It was something bigger, something deeper, a wave of sympathy and pity that surged through my being, a feeling I had never before felt during my savage young life. A pretty pass, you say, when the ignorant foc'sle Jack pities the captain's wife? Aye, but the very beasts of the field might have pitied the wife of Yankee Swope.

Her body seemed so slender and childlike. Too fine and dainty to hold the woe of a hell-ship, and, Heaven knew, what private sorrow besides. She did not know I was observing her, or else her great trouble caused her to forget my presence, for she suddenly buried her face in her hands, and her shoulders commenced to heave. It stabbed me to the quick, the sight of that noiseless grief. My eyelids smarted, and my throat bulged uncomfortably. What was her trouble? Swope? Had he hurt her? Was the talk I had heard at the Swede's correct, did that black devil beat the lady? My hands grasped the wheel spokes fiercely, as though I had Swope's sleek throat between my fingers.

I heard Mister Lynch coming aft. I thought the lady would not wish him to see her weeping, and since she did not seem to hear the approach, I called softly to her, "Lady! They come!"

She straightened, and, after a second, came swiftly to me. She bent her face within the narrow radius of the binnacle lights, and her eyes looked straight into mine. Aye, and the misery and suffering I saw in those great eyes!

"God bless you, boy," she whispered. "You are his friend? Tell him I come forward in the morning. Tell him-for my sake-as he loves his life-to look behind him when he walks in the dark!"

With that she turned and sped to the hatch, and was gone below. And up the poop ladder tramped Lynch, with the two tradesmen following him.

I have mentioned these two familiars of the second mate before, and I had better explain them.

The Golden Bough carried neither junior officers, nor bo'suns, an unusual circumstance, considering the size and character of her crews. Instead, she carried two sailmakers and two carpenters, and these tradesmen lived by themselves in the round-house, ate aft at a special table, and, save when emergency work prevented, stood watch and watch. They stood their night watches aft, with the officer on deck. This arrangement-unique in all my sea experience-provided three men, awake, armed and handy, throughout the night. It worried us a good deal, this arrangement, when, in due time, we began to talk of mutiny.

But I was not talking, or even thinking, of mutiny this night, or for many nights. Nothing was further from my thoughts. Mutiny is a serious business, a hanging business, the business of scoundrels, or the last resort of desperate men. I knew the consequences of mutiny, so did the others, squareheads and stiffs, and we had not been sufficiently maltreated to make us ripe for such an undertaking.

But there was mutiny in the air on the Golden Bough from that very first day or the voyage. I was soon to learn that there was plenty of rebellious spirit forward, and shrewd, daring fellows eager to lead, because of piratical greed. Also, she was a hell-ship. It was part of a hell-ship's routine to thump the crew to the raw edge of mutiny, and keep them there.

You must understand the Golden Bough, and to understand her you must understand the knock-down-and-drag-out system in vogue on board a good many American ships of that day, and later. A hell-ship was not just the result of senseless brutality on the part of the officers. She was the product of a system. The captain rode high in his owner's esteem when he could point to the golden results of his stern rule at sea; the bucko mates were specifically hired to haze the crew, and drew extra large pay for the job.

It was, of course, a matter of dollars. If the owners did not have to pay wages to the crew, they would save money, wouldn't they? I suppose some

sleek-jowled, comfortable pillar of church and society first thought of it, and whispered it into his skipper's ear. And the skipper whispered it to his mates, and they made that ship so hot the crew cleared out at the first port or call, leaving their wages behind. So was the hell-ship born.

For instance: We were thirty men before the mast in the Golden Bough, signed on for the voyage at $25 a month. Of course, we didn't get any of this wage until the voyage was completed, until the vessel returned to an American port. Think of the saving to the owners if we deserted in Hong Kong. They would have no labor bill, practically, for working the ship from America to China, no labor bill during the months ere she was ready for sea again. Then when ready to leave Hong Kong, Swope would ship a new crew, haze them as we were being hazed, and they would clear out at the next port.

That system worked. It was a money saver, and lasted till the ascendency of steam, and the passage of tardy laws, ended it. Why, some skippers-like Yankee Swope--boasted they never paid off a crew. Talk about efficiency, and reducing overhead costs! Some of those old windjammer skippers could swap yarns with these factory experts of to-day, I tell you!

Of course, not all American ships, or even a majority of them, adopted this system. But enough did to give American ships an evil name among sailors that has endured to the present day.

And this evil name helped sustain the system. It completed a kind of vicious circle. The crew ran away from the hell-ship, and spread the evil fame of the vessel over the five oceans. Sailors then would not willing ship in her-save, of course, a few adventuresome young fools, like myself, who sought glory-and the skipper found himself putting to sea with a mob of stiffs in his foc'sle.

Often he had trouble getting stiffs. In some ports, where the crimping system was not developed, the hell ship waited for months for a crew. In other ports, like San Francisco, where the boarding master's will was the law of sailortown, the captain paid over his blood money, and the boarding master delivered him his crew, drunk, drugged and sandbagged. When he got to sea he would find his crew composed chiefly of the very scum of the waterside, a mode of unlicked, lawless ruffians, and his bucko mates would need all their prowess to keep them subordinate. Hazing such a mob was the only way to manage them. Also, it made them run away and leave their wages behind.

But there were degrees of "heat" in the hell-ships. The bucko mates usually contented themselves with working the men at top speed, depriving them of their afternoon watches below, and thumping the stiffs, because they were lubberly at their work. This treatment was sufficiently severe to produce the desired results. This was normal hell-ship style. The few sailors, in the crew, providing they were willing, rarely received more than verbal abuse.

Now, brutality feeds upon itself. Some officers, after living under the system for a time, became perfect fiends. They came to enjoy beating up men. In some ships, the dressing down of the crew was a continuous performance, and sailors, as well as stiffs, caught it.

As in the Golden Bough. God's truth, there was blood spilt every watch! Always, after the first day out, did the foc'sle bunks contain a miserable wretch or two laid up because of a manhandling.

Yet we of the starboard watch were comparatively lucky. Mister Lynch, our officer, was what I may call a normal bucko. He hazed for the results rather than for the pleasure of hazing, though I think he did get some satisfaction out of thumping the men. You feel a fine thrill when you see a half dozen huskies cringe away before you with fear in their eyes. I imagine it is the same thrill a wild animal tamer feels as he faces his beasts. I felt this fascinating sensation many times after I had become a mate of ships. Lynch had no mercy on the stiffs of our watch; he hammered the rudiments of seamanship into them with astonishing speed. He cuffed a knowledge of English into the squareheads. But he kept his hands off Newman and me, not because he was afraid of us-I don't think Lynch feared anything-but because we knew our work and did it. Oh, I got mine, and with interest, in the Golden Bough, but not from Lynch.

The mate was a different type. He was all brute, was Fitzgibbon, and sailors and stiffs alike caught it from him. A natural bully, and, like most such, at heart craven.

Lynch used his bare fists upon the men, Fitz used brass knuckles. I don't think Lynch ever bothered to carry a gun in the daytime. Fitzgibbon never stirred on deck without a deadly bulge in his coat pocket. Lynch stalked among us by night or day, alone, and unafraid. After dark, the mate never stirred from the poop unless Sails and Chips were at his heels. Lynch was a bluff, hard man; Fitzgibbon was a cruel, sly beast.

And Swope! Well, I cannot explain or judge his character. It would take a medical man to do that, I think. He was his two mates rolled into one, plus brains. He had fed a certain strong Sadistic element in his nature until inflicting pain upon others had become his chief passion. I can imagine his perverted soul living in former lives-as a Familiar of the Inquisition, or the red-clad torturer of some medieval prince. But explain him, no. I will tell his ending, you may judge.

But, of course, I was not musing upon the economy of hell-ships, or the characters of bucko mates, during the balance of that trick at the wheel. The lady's message to Newman possessed my mind.

When I went forward at eight bells, I immediately called Newman aside, and delivered her words. He listened in silence, and his face grew soft. He squeezed my hand, and whispered somewhat brokenly, "Thank you, Jack"-an exhibition of emotion that startled as much as it pleased me, he being such a stern man.

Then, when I repeated the latter part of the lady's message, "Tell him . . . to look behind him when he walks in the dark," his features hardened again, and I heard him mutter, "So, that is his game!"

"What is?" I asked.

He did not answer for a moment, and I turned away towards my bunk. But at that he reached out a detaining hand.

"You are a big man, Shreve," he said. "Not such a difference in our sizes but that a man might mistake us after dark. Keep your weather eye lifted, lad; you, too, must look behind when you walk in the dark."

"And what shall I look for?" asked I.

"Death," he said.

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