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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 23793

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


If Boston meant to give me something to think about, he succeeded. He left me worried. Not about the treasure or mutiny at which he hinted; for the time being I put this subject out of my mind. I was concerned over his unexplained warning. What did it mean? Did some new danger threaten my friend?

I went in search of Newman, to give him the warning. He was not in his bunk, so I stepped into the port foc'sle, expecting to find him by Nils' side. Nils was dying-we had been expecting him to go at almost any hour for a week past-and Newman had been spending a goodly share of his watches below by the lad's side.

But he was not there now. The parson, and some of the squareheads of the port watch, were keeping sick vigil. Nils was very near the time when he must slip his cable; he lay quiet, eyes closed, hardly breathing, and his thin, white face seemed already composed into its death mold. Holy Joe sat holding the boy's hand; his head was bowed, and I judged he was praying. The others stared miserably at the floor, or ceiling, or at each other. Aye, the taste of bitter sorrow was in the air of the port foc'sle. I left without disturbing the silent watchers, but I wondered at their boldness. They should have been on deck. Mister Fitzgibbon did not give his men respite, even during the dog-watches.

I went poking about the odd corners of the fore deck, expecting to find my man tucked away somewhere smoking and meditating, for Newman was a solitary fellow, very fond of his own company in his free time. I laid the ill-success of my search to the dusk; it was past seven bells, and although there was still a glow in the western sky, on board ship it was quite dark and the sidelights had been out a half hour. Finally, I decided to lay off, waylay the Nigger when he came for'ard from his trick at the wheel, and ask him myself what was the meaning of Boston's talk of "snitch."

Now it was no light undertaking for a foremast hand to trespass abaft the main mast in the Golden Bough. There was risk in it, risk of a beating, or worse. A man might lay aft in that ship to work, or in obedience to orders, but for no other reason. Hell-ship discipline.

So I slipped aft without making a noise, and avoided attracting to myself unwelcome attention from the poop. I was barefoot, and I crept along the rail, keeping within the shadows on the lee deck. When I came abreast the roundhouse, I darted into the black shadow it threw upon the lee deck, and crouched there, composed to wait. My eyes were aft, upon the break of the poop, and I was ready to take instant flight for'ard, did discovery threaten me.

After I had lain there a moment, I noticed the figure of a man standing motionless, flattened against the cabin wall, on my side of the deck. He was so still he appeared to be lifeless, a part of the ship; I looked hard before I decided it was a man. It was too dark to make out his features, almost too dark to discern outline, but by the bigness of the blot he made against his background I was sure the man was Newman. What he was doing in such a position I could not guess, but I was so sure of my man, I did not hesitate to move towards him. I even spoke his name, in an urgent whisper.

My hiss brought a prompt response, but not the one for which I was looking. To my surprise the fellow ran away from me; he slipped across the deck (padding noiselessly, for he was barefoot, like, myself) and, bending nearly double, scurried for'ard beside the weather rail.

I stared after him, undecided what to do. The man looked like Newman, but he did not act like him. I had half a mind to pursue his flitting figure.

Then all at once I discovered I must take cover myself. I heard the mate's voice, up on the poop; he was hailing his tradesmen.

"We'll take a whirl for'ard," says he. "I'll give the bums a sweat at the braces so they won't think I'm asleep."

I had moved away from the shadow of the round-house, and was revealed, as I stood, to any eye looking over the poop rail. I was in a ticklish position altogether. If braces were to be tightened, the lee of the roundhouse would be a poor hiding-place for me. In fact it would be no hiding-place at all. But get out of sight I must, and quickly, or suffer the unpleasant consequences of discovery.

I heard boots clumping on the poop deck. There wasn't time for me to escape forward. So I darted aft and flattened myself against the cabin wall, in exactly the same position, and in very nearly the same spot, as that occupied by the fellow I had scared away. I was not a second too soon. Sails and Chips came down the port ladder, and paused on the main deck, almost within arm's reach of me, waiting for the mate to join them.

If they had glanced in my direction they must have seen me. But they were looking forward, and were also occupied with talk.

Said Chips, "But what's the game? He's working up trouble, that's plain. But what's he after this time?"

Said Sails, "He's after that fellow in the Greaser's watch, or I'm a damn bad guesser. But, his game-well, ask me something easy. Did you ever know anybody to fathom his game?"

This I heard with one ear. At the same time my other ear was getting filled with different kind of talk. Aye, my post was between two conversations, and I found myself eavesdropping in two directions.

This wall I hugged was the forward wall of the sail-locker, which, in the Golden Bough, was a large room in the cabin space, and as I stood, my starboard ear was but a few inches distant from the sail-locker door. This door was in two parts, and the upper half was barely ajar. Through this narrow slit I heard-I couldn't help hearing-the murmur of low-voiced talk. Two people were in the sail-locker, talking. Oh, aye, I had discovered Newman. I recognized his voice. I recognized the other voice-the lady's voice.

"Oh, Mary-little love-it doesn't seem to matter any more. When I am with you, it is just a hideous dream from which I have awakened." It was Newman speaking, and in a voice so tender, so vibrant with feeling, it was hard to believe the words came out of the mouth of the foc'sle's iron man. "But now I wish to live again. Ah, little love, I have been dead too long, dead to everything except pain and hate. But now that I know, now that we both know-oh, Mary, surely we have earned the right to live and love. God will not hold it against us, if I take you from that mad beast. God-I am beginning to believe in God again, Mary, when I am with you."

"I, too, wish to live-and in clean air," came in the lady's voice. "Oh, Roy-five years-and the piling up of horrors-oh, I could not have stood it very much longer, Roy. But now-we can forget."

"That lad for'ard is all ready to slip his cable," came from the other direction, from Chips. "The steward says he's all set to go."

"He's been all set for a fortnight," was the other man's comment, "but he hangs on. Takes a lot to kill a squarehead. Most likely he'll be hanging on when we make port."

"Not if I know Fitz and-him," said Chips. "You don't think they'd leave evidence of that sort for a port doctor to squint at. Remember that Portagee, last voyage, and how he finished?"

"Aye, it was hard on the lady, that job was. But he-he's a devil, sure. No use standing out against him."

"Five years! My God, how have you been able to stand it, Mary?" said

Newman. "Five years-and most of them spent at sea in this blood ship!"

"It has been my penance, Roy. It has seemed to me that in sailing with him, in lessening even a little bit the misery he causes those poor men, I have been atoning, in a little measure, for my lack of faith in you. Oh, it was my fault in the beginning, dearest. If only I had had faith in the beginning, if only I had trusted my heart instead of my eyes and ears. I might have known that time that Beulah was lying."

"Hush. How could you know? It was my stubborn, stupid pride. If I had not rushed away and left the field to him. And I never knew, or even guessed, until Beasley told me."

"If I was that big fellow, I'd just hop over the side and have it over with," came from Sails. "If the Old Man is after him, he's bound to get him, and making a quick finish himself would save a lot o' bother all around."

"What's it about, anyway?" says Chips.

"How do I know?" answered Sails. "I don't go poking my nose into Yankee Swope's business, you can bet your bottom dollar I don't. I take my orders, and let it go at that. Same as you. Same as the others. There's Fitz up there now, chinning with him, and I bet Fitz don't know much more of his game than you and me. He takes his orders just like we do."

"That's right. We ain't hired to think. Not in this ship," agreed

Chips.

"Do you think, Roy, that Beulah-that she jumped-herself?" The lady's voice was trembling.

"I don't know, dear. I think maybe she did. But Beasley thought-oh, well, what does it matter now?"

"Beasley thought he did it. I knew-I felt it was him, oh, long, long ago. It would be like him, Roy. He has never dropped a hint that would incriminate himself, but I have known his guilt of the other thing-for which you suffered-ever since our marriage. When he dropped the mask, revealed himself in his true character-oh, I knew he must be guilty. And I was helpless."

"My God, five years!" muttered Newman. "How could you stand it?"

"It was not so hard, except at first," said the lady. "Too much horror numbs, you know. And one thing made it endurable-he has spared me the intimacy of marriage. It is true, dearest; I am as much a maid as I was five years ago. He is that kind of a man, Roy. It is not women he lusts for, it is-oh, it is blood. There is something horrible in his mind, a diseased spot, an unnatural quirk, that drives him to abominable cruelties. It is some tigerish instinct he possesses; it makes him kill and destroy, it makes him inflict pain. Oh, Roy, it is his pleasure-to inflict pain."

"Lynch doesn't like it," said Sails, in reply to some question I had missed hearing.

"Little good not liking it will do him," was Chips' opinion. "He'll do what the Old Man wants him to do, just like the rest of us."

"Has he ever used you-as victim?" said Newman, a new, hard note in his voice.

"No, no, not in that way," answered the lady. "It is to the crew he does that. He has never hurt me physically."

"But mentally, eh?" remarked Newman, "He enjoys refinements of cruelty, also? Mental torture, when he finds a mind intelligent enough to appreciate subtleties? That is it?"

"Yes, that is it," said the lady. "It was horrible at first. But afterwards, when I had found my work, I did not mind him very much. He let me go on playing doctor to the crew because he thought it hurt me to see and handle those poor creatures. Oh, it did hurt! But the work, the being useful-it has saved me, Roy, it has kept me sane."

"He's a good man, none better," said Chips, still talking about Lynch, "but he's too soft for a bucko's job in this wagon."

"Five years; good God! The prison was heaven compared to what you have lived through. Oh, my poor darling! And he-the vile brute--"

"No, no, not that attitude! You have promised-" exclaimed the lady.

"He's not soft," Sails disputed with Chips. "He's as hard as they're made. But he's a square-shooter, Lynch is, and the rest o' us ain't. That makes the difference. Now we got good reasons to do anything the skipper says, we being what we are, and him being what he is, and we knowing he can turn us up, and will, if we don't suit. But Jim Lynch-not Swope, or any other man, has a hold on him."

"No man, maybe," says Chips. "But in the other quarter, now. If Lynch ain't soft there, I'm a soldier."

"Who ain't a bit soft in that quarter?" Sails demanded. "I'm mighty sorry for her, same as you are, same as everyone is, save Fit

z. If it wasn't that Swope has me body and soul, I'd side with Lynch, b'Gawd, in anything he wanted to start."

"Shut up!" exclaimed Chips. "That's damn fool talk to come out o' your mouth."

"Oh, you have softened me, Mary, you have unmanned me!" I heard Newman say. "I came to this ship to kill, and now-there is little bitterness left in my heart. I am only eager now to be gone with you beyond his reach."

"I am glad, more glad than I can tell," the lady told him. "His lies have ruined your life, and mine, but I do not want you to stain your hands with his blood. Oh, there has been so much bloodshed! You must not; you have promised!"

"Yes, and I will keep my promise," said Newman. "But you have promised, too, and you know how I qualified my promise. We cannot take too many chances with him, and you know that he has no scruples about shedding blood. He knows, he must know, that I do not intend to leave you in his hands; he must realize, also, that now he is not safe so long as either of us is alive and at large. Why, dear, you know the trap he is preparing!"

"Yes, yes, I know," was the response. "But my prayer is that we may get away before he is ready."

"It is my prayer, too," said Newman. "I gladly give up my revenge for your sake, little love. But I intend to protect you, and myself-that, too, is my promise."

"Here comes Fitz now," said Sails.

It was touch-and-go with discovery a second time as Mister Fitzgibbon stamped down the ladder. But he was already bawling for the watch, and had his eyes fixed straight ahead; and immediately he went forward with the tradesmen at his heels.

I waited until the mate's bellow sounded well forward, and I was sure my retreat would be unobserved. Then I placed my lips to the opening in the sail-locker door and called softly, "Newman! Come out of that at once; you are spied upon!"

I heard the lady gasp, and knew my message was received and understood. I waited for no other response. I scuttled away from that perilous spot as fast as caution permitted my legs to travel. Jack Shreve was no Newman; I had not his cool nerve when it came to flouting hell-ship rules. In truth, I was in a blue funk all the time I was aft, for fear I would be discovered. And there was another reason for my haste in getting forward. There was a sudden uproar in front of the foc'sle that bade fair to carry through the ship.

There was trouble in the air; I could sniff it as I ran. Although time enough had elapsed since the mate sang out his order to man the braces, the watch was not yet at the rail; and this was a strange thing in a ship where men literally flew about their work. The trouble was in the port foc'sle; I could see the crowd bunched on the deck before the door, and Mister Fitzgibbon's voice had risen to a shrill, obscene scream as he poured blistering curses upon some luckless head.

I dodged across the deck and around the starboard side of the deck house, and thus came upon the scene in a casual manner, as though I had just stepped out of my own foc'sle to see what was wrong. I mingled with my watch mates, who had turned out to a man to watch the row.

Over on the port side of the deck a royal shindy seemed to be preparing. Aye, the mate had at last struck fire from his squareheads! They were on the verge of open rebellion. The stiffs of the port watch had fallen to one side, and stood quaking and irresolute, but the squareheads, all of them, were bunched squarely between the mate and the foc'sle door, and to the mate's stream of curses they interposed a wall of their own oaths. Mister Fitzgibbon had his right hand in his coat pocket, and all hands knew that hand was closed about the butt of a revolver; moreover, the tradesmen stood on either side of him, prepared to back him up in whatever course he chose to take. They were good men, those tradesmen, fighting men, and skilled in just such battles as this promised to be. The port watch Sails, who stood nearest to me, was armed with a heavy sheet pin, and he stood with his face half turned towards the starboard side. Aye, they were canny fighters-if it came to blows they would not be taken in the flank by surprise.

Mister Fitzgibbon was swearing over the heads of the squareheads. He threw his words into foc'sle. He was calling upon Holy Joe, the parson, to come out of it blasted quick and be skinned alive, b'Gawd! Broken bones were being promised to poor Holy Joe. That was why the squareheads were showing fight-not to protect their own skins, but to save the parson from the mate's wrath. For their little Nils was dying, and Holy Joe was by his side, praying for his passing soul. As I learned afterwards, when the mate sang out for his watch to man the braces, all jumped to obey save the parson; he stayed with Nils. His absence was noted immediately, for the mate was lynx-eyed; and Fitzgibbon was all for invading the foc'sle and hauling out the truant by the scruff of the neck. Aye, Mister Fitz was all for teaching a lesson with boot and fist, for Holy Joe was a small man and a pacifist, fair game for any bucko. But the squareheads would not have it so. For Nils was dying, and Holy Joe was praying for his soul.

Suddenly Mister Fitzgibbon stopped cursing, and in a voice that meant business, ordered the watch aft to the braces. The stiffs tumbled over themselves in their eagerness to obey; but not a squarehead budged. They still stood between the mate and his victim. So he drew the revolver out of his pocket, and pointed it at Lindquist.

"Lay aft-or I'll splatter lead among you!" he said.

He meant it. He would have shot Lindquist, I am sure, for winging a man, or worse, meant little to the mate of the Golden Bough, and the squarehead bravely stood his ground. But the threat to shoot into the men who were shielding him had the effect of drawing the parson out of the foc'sle. He suddenly appeared in the lighted doorway.

"Oho, that brought you out of it-hey, you sniveling this-and-that!" hailed Fitzgibbon. He lifted his aim from Lindquist, and brought the weapon to bear upon Holy Joe. "Step aft, here, you swab, or I'll drill you through, s'help me!"

The words brought a menacing growl from the squareheads; there was a stir among them, and they seemed about to fling themselves upon the trio. But Holy Joe checked the movement with a word.

"Steady, lads," said he. "No violence; obey your orders. Spread out, there, boys, and let me through; I will speak with him."

That was what he said, but it was how he said it that really mattered. Aye, Holy Joe might have been the skipper, himself, from his air. He spoke with authority, in a deep, commanding voice, and the squareheads instantly gave him the obedience they had refused the mate. They did not, indeed, tumble aft in the wake of the stiffs; but they did spread out and make a lane through their midst down which Holy Joe advanced with quick and firm step. Right up to Fitzgibbon he walked, and stopped, and said to the bucko's face,

"Put away that weapon! Would you add another murder to your crimes?"

To me, to the mate and his henchmen, indeed, to all hands, it was a most astounding situation. And perhaps the most surprising element in it was the fact that Holy Joe was not immediately shot or felled with a blow, and the additional fact that none of us expected him to be.

It was the stiff, not the officer, who commanded the deck that moment. By some strange magic I could not as yet fathom, the little parson had assumed the same heroic proportions Newman had assumed the day he chased the skipper from the poop. Oh, it was no physical change that took place; it was rather as if the man doffed a mask and revealed himself to us in his true self. There he stood, a full head shorter than his antagonist, with his head tilted back to meet the larger man's eyes, and Bully Fitzgibbon quailed before his gaze.

I watched the little man, awe-stricken. I had been bred to worship force, it was the only deity I knew, and Holy Joe was in my eyes the symbol of force. He radiated force, and it was a strange and wonderful force. I had glimpsed this power in Newman; now, for the first time in my life I saw it fully revealed. The only kind of force I had known or imagined was brute force, the kind of force Mister Fitzgibbon epitomized; but now, in this duel of wills that was taking place before my eyes, I saw another and superior power at work. It was a force of the mind, or soul, that Holy Joe employed; it was a moral force that poured out of the clean spirit of the man and subdued the brute force pitted against him.

"Put down that weapon!" Holy Joe repeated.

Slowly, the mate lowered his arm.

The parson turned to the squareheads; aye, he turned his back full upon the bucko, and the latter made no move against him.

"Obey your orders, men," Holy Joe said to the sailors. "Go to your work as he commands. I will stay with the boy."

The squareheads obeyed without question. They knew, just as all of us knew, that their little champion was in no danger of mishandling, at least not at that moment. They trooped aft, heavy-footed, murmuring, but docile, and joined the stiffs at the lee braces. Holy Joe, now alone on that deck so far as physical backing went, turned again to the mate. But indeed he needed no physical backing; his indomitable spirit had cowed the bucko.

"Your men will give you no further trouble, sir; they are at their stations," said he.

It was the first time he had used the "sir." For an instant it seemed a weakening. It gave Mister Fitzgibbon the heart to bluster.

"I ordered you aft with the rest," he began. "What d'ye mean--"

"I have other work to do this watch-as you know," interrupted the parson. He said the words so solemnly and sternly they sounded like a judgment; aye, and they nipped the rising courage of the mate. He could only mumble, and stammer out,

"You-you refuse duty?"

Holy Joe was silent for an instant. All of us were silent. One could have heard a pin drop upon the deck. Then, out of the port foc'sle, a dreadful sound came to our ears, a low, strangled moan. It stabbed the vitals of the most hardened of us; with my own eyes I saw the mate tremble. Aye, in some way Holy Joe had sent a fear into the brute soul of Fitzgibbon; in some way he had sent a fear into the brute souls of us all, and, at least in my case, a great wonder. The pain-filled wail of Nils, coming as it did, seemed magic-inspired to light for me a universal truth. I felt it crudely, saw it dimly, but there it was, dramatized before my eyes, the age-long, ceaseless battle between the Beast in Man and the God in Man, the resistless power of service and sacrifice. Aye, and Holy Joe's softly spoken reply to the mate's words confirmed what I saw and felt.

"You speak of my duty, sir," said he. "I see it-and do it!"

With that he turned on his heel and walked into the foc'sle.

When he had disappeared something seemed to have gone from the air we breathed, something electric and vitalizing. There was an immediate let down of the nervous tension that had gripped us, a common sigh, and a half-hysterical snigger from some fellow behind me. Mister Fitzgibbon seemed to come out of a trance; he shook himself, and stared at Sails and then at Chips. He glared across the deck at us of the starboard watch. He even swore. But there was no life to his curse, and he made no step to follow the defiant stiff into the foc'sle. Instead, he went to the job at hand, and quite obviously sought to regain mastery and self-respect by sulphuric blustering towards the men bent over the ropes. He was a defeated man. He knew it, and we knew it.

A hand fell upon my shoulder. Newman stood behind me.

"A brave act and a brave man," said he. "But they will not let him keep his triumph." After a pause he added, "They dare not."

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