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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 27618

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I seized Newman's arm and led him aside, intending to impart my news. But eight bells struck, and while they were striking, Mister Lynch's voice summoned the starboard watch to assist in the job the mate had started. We hurried aft with the crowd, and I found chance to say to him no more than,

"Be careful; someone is spying upon you. Boston told me-and I saw him."

"Who?"

"I couldn't see. It was too dark, and he cleared out on the run. Ask the Nigger."

When we had belayed, the watch was relieved, and Newman went aft to the wheel. Lynch kept the rest of us on the jump, as ever, and I had no chance to steal a word with the Nigger when he came forward. At four bells I relieved the wheel. I found Captain Swope and the mate pacing the poop with their heads together. As I took over the wheel, Newman whispered to me, "Keep your weather eye lifted for squalls, Jack!"

I did not need his warning; the mere presence of either of the pair was sufficient to keep any sailorman wide awake and watchful of his p's and q's while steering her. There was nothing uncommon about the Old Man's presence; he was in the habit of appearing on the poop at all hours of the night, though he never went forward. But for the mate to give up his sleep in fair weather was unprecedented. There was something in the carriage and attitude of the two, as they slowly paced fore and aft, or stood at the break staring forward, that gave me a feeling of impending disaster. Aye, I could smell trouble coming.

Captain Swope could smell it, too. That is why he walked the deck with Fitzgibbon by his side. I could feel the alertness of the man. Yankee Swope had his finger upon the pulse of his ship. A mutiny, however sudden, would not catch the master of the Golden Bough napping. That is what I thought as I watched him, and Boston's vague scheme became harebrained in my eyes.

The second mate was seldom aft during the two hours I stood at the wheel. The times he did appear, he engaged in conversation with the Old Man, beyond my hearing. But near midnight be clumped aft hurriedly, bringing the tradesmen with him. The strollers happened to be near me at the moment he appeared, and he came towards them, speaking.

"Well, sir-he's gone," he said.

So I knew that Nils was dead.

"Very good," said Swope. "And the hands?"

"All quiet, sir."

Mister Lynch's voice was quite respectful, but I fancied I detected in it a note of contempt.

"There was danger of trouble, even before the boy went out," he went on. "Morton stood by the door and heard it all." This Morton was the sailmaker in the starboard watch. "The big Cockney in the port watch was all for trouble, a rush aft of all hands; he said he had the backing of my watch. The squareheads were willing; they want revenge. But the big jasper in my watch, Newman, went into the foc'sle and squelched the scheme with a word. He clapped a stopper on the Cockney's jaw, and told the squareheads there was to be no trouble. So there will be none, Captain."

A black curse slid out of the skipper's mouth. Aye, the man breathed fury.

"So-he commands for'ard, eh?" he said. "Well, I command aft." He seemed to think over the matter for a moment, and arrive at a decision. "Well, Mister, if it doesn't happen to-night, it may happen another night," he said. "Tell your men to keep their eyes and ears open. And-better have that body carted aft, and your sailmaker fit him to canvas. We'll dump him at dawn."

"Very good, sir," replied Lynch, and he went forward again.

The Old Man and the mate immediately went into conference. They moved over to the rail, and spoke in soft tones, so I overheard nothing they said. A ray of light from the companion hatch fell upon them, and watching them furtively, it seemed to me that Captain Swope was laying down the law to Fitzgibbon, giving him certain orders, to which he at first objected, and then agreed.

It looked wicked to me, this secretive conversation. My excited mind saw evil in it. I smelled evil, tasted evil, the very skin of my body was prickled with the air or evil that lay upon the ship. A case of nerves? Aye, I had nerves. Most sailormen had nerves when they were within sight of Captain Swope. This night he seemed to drench the ship with evil, it poured out of him as ink from a squid, it was almost something tangible. Somehow I knew that Newman's long grace was ended. This black villain had prepared a net to trap my friend, and was even now casting it. Somehow I knew that fresh wrongs and miseries were to be heaped upon the wretched foc'sle. As I watched Captain Swope out of the corners of my eyes, God's truth, I was afraid to my marrow.

Presently the second mate returned aft. "You may have your trouble now, Captain, if you wish," he said in the same clear, carrying voice he had before used, as he approached the skipper. "The squareheads won't give up the body. They'll fight if we take it. They say they'll drop him overside themselves."

The captain appeared pleased with this news. He laughed, that soft, musical little chuckle of his that contained so much malice and cruelty. "Oh, let the dogs dispose of their own offal, Mister," he said, carelessly. Then, when Lynch went down to the main deck, Swope spoke eagerly, though in low voice, to the mate. Aye, the Old Man was gleeful, and the mate received his instructions with servile pleasure. Presently, they went below, and the yelp of the cabin boy-roused from sleep, doubtless, by the toe of the skipper's boot-and the subsequent clink of glasses, told me they were toasting the occasion.

I was consumed with dread. But just what to dread, I could not guess.

The Cockney took over the helm at midnight. I hurried forward, eager to see what was happening in the fore part of the ship, and anxious to speak with Newman.

The air of unease, of expectancy, which I had felt so strongly aft, was even more evident forward. My watch, though off duty, did not go below directly. Men were standing about whispering to each other. The wheel and lookout had been relieved, but the mate did not summon his watch to labor, as was his custom; he kept to the poop, and we heard not a peep from him. The squareheads had taken a lamp from the lamp-locker and a sack of coal from the peak, and Lindquist had the body of Nils upon the forehatch preparing it for sea-burial. He stitched away in silence, his mates watched him in silence. But it was not a peaceful calm.

I found Newman in the port foc'sle, talking to Holy Joe. When I entered, I heard Newman say: "They are good, simple lads-use your authority as a minister. Reason, command, do your best to convince them they must be obedient. Tell them they will be the ones to suffer in case of trouble."

"I will do my best," the parson answered. With a nod to me, he went out on deck.

"Who was he?" I asked, when we were alone.

Newman looked blank.

"The spy," I added. "Didn't you ask the Nigger?"

"Oh, that-I have been too busy to bother about it," was the careless response. "It really doesn't matter, Jack; I dare say it was some one he set to dog my heels." He inclined his head aft to indicate who "he" might be.

"But-remember what happened that night on the yardarm! And-I heard some of you talk aft there; I couldn't help hearing! I tell you, Newman, the afterguard is awake and waiting; the Old Man is afraid of trouble. I think he is afraid you will lead the crowd, and try to take the ship."

"No; he is afraid I won't," said Newman.

I blinked. The words struck me with the force of a blow.

The big man smiled at my puzzled expression, and his hand clapped upon my shoulder with a firm, friendly pressure. "Strange things happen in this ship, eh, Jack?" said he, in a kindly voice. "No wonder you are stumped, you are too young and straightforward to be alert to intrigue. You do not understand, yet you are eager to risk your skin in another man's quarrel? And you believe in me, eh, Jack?"

I felt embarrassed, and a little resentful. I did not like to be reminded so bluntly of my youth and inexperience.

"You saved my life, and I don't forget a debt like that," I growled, ungraciously.

Newman gave a little chuckle. He knew very well it was liking, not debt, that made me his man.

"I want you to know, Jack, that your friendship is a strength to me," he said, with sudden earnestness. "It is a strength and a comfort to her, too. Your unquestioning faith in me has given both of us courage. You have helped me regain my own faith in men and in right. Heaven knows, a man needs faith in this ship!"

Oh, but I was exalted by these words! I was in the hero-worship stage of life, and this mysterious giant by my side was my chosen idol. The lady aft had quickened into activity whatever chivalry my nature contained, and it was pure, romantic delight to be told I had served her by loyalty to the man. Aye, I felt lifted up; I felt important.

"You can count on me. I'll back you to the limit," I said. Then I rushed on, eagerly, and blurted out what was on my mind. "You are in danger; I know it, I feel it. That Old Man is planning something against you. Remember that night on the yardarm! Remember the lady's warning! Look at Nils! I tell you, we'll have to fight! You can depend upon me, I'll back you to the limit in anything. So will the squareheads-you know how desperate and bitter they are. So will the stiffs-they are just waiting for you to say the word. Every man-jack for'ard will follow you!"

He checked me with stern words. "Put that thought out of your mind!" he exclaimed. "There will be no mutiny, if I can prevent it. If one occurs, I shall help put it down."

I was astonished and crestfallen. But after a moment he went on, more kindly.

"I know you are thinking of my safety, lad, and I thank you. But you do not know what you are proposing. Mutiny on the high seas is madness, and these jail-birds for'ard would be worse masters than those we now have. Besides, you do not understand my situation-an uprising of the crew whether or not led by me, is the very thing the captain expects and wishes. You are quite right in thinking he intends to kill me-and not me alone-but at present he is checkmated. I am an able seaman, I do my work and enjoy the favor of my watch officer, and both Lynch and the tradesmen revere the lady and hate, while they fear, their master. But in case of a mutiny-why, Jack, those fellows aft would unite, and back up Swope in anything he chose to do. Their own safety would depend upon it. He would have his excuse to kill."

"But if we win-" I commenced.

"We would be murderers, and our necks would be forfeit," he interrupted. "Put away the thought, lad, for only evil can come of it. A mutiny would mean disaster to the crew, to you, to me, and above all, to her. For her sake, Jack, we must prevent any outbreak."

"For her sake?" I echoed. I was aghast. Somehow, it had never occurred to me that the lady might be in any danger. "You don't mean that she would be harmed!" I exclaimed.

He nodded, and there crept into his eyes an expression grim and desperate. "I have cursed myself for giving way to the storm of hate and passion that brought me on board this ship," he said, moodily. "And yet-it could not have been otherwise."

He observed my questioning face, and added, "Swope knows we have talked together, she and I. He knows he must extinguish us both if he would rebury for good and all the truth he thought was already buried."

"His wife-his own wife!" I exclaimed.

The words probed the quick. For a minute Newman's reserve was gone, and the tormented soul of the man was plainly visible.

"It is a lie, a legal lie!" he cried.

He calmed immediately. His self-control took charge; it was as if his will, caught napping for an instant, awoke, and drew a curtain that shut out alien eyes.

I was dumb, ashamed and sorry to have unwittingly hurt my friend. But now he was speaking again, in his accustomed sober, emotionless voice.

"Of course, I trust you absolutely, Jack. I'd like to tell you the whole story. But-I am not free to talk--"

"You don't have to tell me anything," I blurted. "I know you are my man, and you know I am your man."

"You are a friend!" he exclaimed. "But I will not sail under false colors in your eyes, lad. I am a jail-bird, an escaped felon."

"Oh, I knew all about that long ago," I said, carelessly.

He looked his surprise.

"I heard that bum's story through the wall, that night in the Knitting Swede's," I explained. "I didn't try to listen, but I couldn't help hearing him. About the frame-up they worked on you-Beulah Twigg, and Mary-that's the lady, isn't it?-and the one Beasley called 'he'-I know 'he' is Yankee Swope. Oh, it was a dirty trick they played on you, Newman. I'm with you in anything you do to get even."

He shook his head, smiling. "What a young savage you are, Jack!" says he. "An eye for an eye, eh? But you guess wrongly, lad. That treachery you heard Beasley explain was but the beginning. I was sent to prison for a murder, the brutal and cowardly murder of a helpless old man."

"I know it was a frame-up," I cried. "And, anyway, I don't care. I know you're on the square, and that is all that matters with me."

"If I were not, your faith would make me on the square," he answered. "But-I was not guilty. I came on board the Golden Bough intending to become a murderer-but that madness is past. Now I am anxious to prevent killing-any killing. Now I am determined to preserve peace in this ship.

"For she is safe so long as I am alive, and he cannot easily dispose of me so long as the crew is peaceful. You can understand that, can you not? Angus Swope is a fiend; he is more than half-insane from long indulgence

of his cruel lusts. But he is cunning. I am a menace to his safety, and now he knows that she is also a menace. But he will not offer her violence or do her any harm while I am at large. By God, it would be his death, and he knows it. I give him no chance to strike at me alone and openly, so he is striking at me through the crew.

"For he must consider the attitude of his second mate. Lynch is her friend, remember that, Jack. He is an honest man. He is bluff and harsh and without imagination, as brutal a bucko as one is likely to find In any ship, but he is 'on the square,' as you put it. Also, he has more than an inkling of the true state of affairs in the ship. He knows who I am, and he guesses why the captain fears and hates me. I wish I could tell you what he has done, and is doing, in my-no, in her behalf. And in spite of his bucko's code. He would not lift a finger to aid me in case of trouble (you remember the warning he gave us that day we were in the rigging) for he is an officer, a bucko, and I am a hand. But he would not stand for another such attempt at murder as Swope made the night we were aloft. He told Swope he would not stand for it, he would not keep silent. It was a brave thing to do, to defy such a master. This is Lynch's last voyage in the Golden Bough, as he well knows. So our canny skipper set to work his crooked wits, and for weeks he has been fomenting a rebellion of the port watch. Mister Fitz is a more pliant and obedient tool than Lynch."

I was excited, wide-eyed. For I was suddenly seeing a light. The words I heard were truth, I knew. It explained what I had seen and heard that night upon the poop. This trouble that threatened was made to order, to the captain's order; even as Newman said.

"Good heavens-then Nils' death-and the hazing"-I could not continue. The heartlessness, the malignant cruelty of the man who had ordered these things was too horrifying.

"Nils' injury was unpremeditated, I believe," said Newman, "but leaving him die without attention or nursing was a calculated brutality, designed to inflame the boy's mates. Fitzgibbon's bitter hazing, without distinction or justice, was for the same purpose. They kept a close eye upon the boy's condition; they evidently figured that the hour of his death would be the hour of explosion. As you know, it very nearly was-only the parson's courage averted trouble in the dog-watch, and but a little while ago I had to quiet a storm. But the danger is passed now, I think. The little fellow's mates are naturally quiet, law-abiding fellows."

"The squareheads may be kept quiet," I said, "but how about the stiffs?

How about Boston and Blackie?"

An expression of disgust and contempt showed in his face as I mentioned the names. "I will attend to them if they try any of their tricks," he said.

"But they are, and have been, trying their tricks," I persisted, "and for some reason they are eager to have you know what they are up to. Boston told me to tell you." I repeated Boston's gossip. "He knew about the spy," I said.

He nodded. "I know; I have had an eye upon them. What Boston told you about the treasure is quite true; the ship is carrying specie. And they are precious rascals, capable of any villainy; I know them well, they-they broke jail with me. But they have wit enough to know that their gang of stiffs could put up no sort of fight, unless backed by the sailors in the crew. It is loot they are after, and there will be trouble from them before the ship makes port; but now we are in mid-sea, and they realize they would be quite helpless with a ship on their hands and no navigator. That is what they want of me. A pair of poisonous rats, Jack!

"But they will keep quiet. They had better. I promised them I would kill them both if they disobeyed me!"

I gazed at the big man with admiring awe. He spoke so coolly, was so conscious of the strength and power that was in himself. Here was the sort of man I should like to be, I thought, here was the true hard case, no bully, no ruffian, but a man, a good man, a man so hard and bright, so finely tempered, he was to the rest of us as steel to mud. Oddly enough, as I had this thought, it also occurred to me that there was a man in the ship who might with justice claim to be Newman's peer, another man of heroic stature-poor meek little Holy Joe.

"If Swope does not interfere with the decent burial of that poor boy, there will be no outbreak," added Newman.

"He will not interfere," I was able to assure him. I repeated the skipper's words to Mister Lynch. "'Let the dogs dispose of their own offal!' is what he said."

To my surprise Newman was disturbed by this news. He stared at me, frowning.

"Swope said that?" he exclaimed. "Now what is he up to?"

He sat thinking for a moment, then he said:

"The burial of Nils is the weak point in my defense. If Swope offers an indignity to the boy's body, even I will not be able to restrain Nils' mates. Surely Swope has guessed that. I have planned to bury the lad from the foredeck just as quickly as preparations can be made; that is why Lindquist is at work on the forehatch. If Swope is overlooking this chance, he must have something else up his sleeve."

He got to his feet and moved toward the door.

"Lindquist must be nearly finished. I will carry out my plan at any hazard. Common decency demands we should not let the boy be cast into the sea by the very men who murdered him."

At the door we were met by Olson, one of the squareheads, come to tell Newman that all was ready for the burial. So we joined the crowd, and Nils was put away, in the dead of night, by the light of one lantern and many stars. The hum of the wind aloft and the purr and slap of the waters against the bows were his requiem.

That scene left its mark upon the mind of every man who took part in or witnessed it-and every foc'sle man save the helmsman saw Nils go over the side. It was already late in the middle watch, but no man had yet gone to his sleep; and, considering the habits of sailors and the custom of the sea, this single fact describes how disturbed was the common mind.

Yet the putting away of Nils was peaceful. We knew that the mate was not alone upon the poop, that the men aft were alert and must know what was going on forward; but, despite Newman's fears, there was no interference from that quarter.

Nils' bier was a painter's stage, and four of the lad's shipmates held the plank upon their shoulders, with the weighted feet of the shrouded form pointed outboard. The rest of us, sailors and stiffs, stood about with bared, bowed heads; aye, and most of us, I think, with wet eyes and tight throats. It seemed a cruel and awful thing to see one of our number disappear forever, and Holy Joe's words, spoken so softly and clearly, were of a kind to squeeze the hearts of even bad men. That parson had the gift of gab; he was a skilled orator and he could play upon our heartstrings as a musician upon a harp.

Yet he did not preach at us, or even look at us. He wasted no words, and the ceremony proceeded with the dispatch Newman desired. All Holy Joe did was lift his face to the night and pray in simple words that Nils might have a safe passage on this long voyage he was starting. The words seemed to wash clean our minds. For the moment the most vicious man in that hard and vicious crowd thought cleanly and innocently. Our wrongs and hatreds seemed small and of little consequence. Aye, while Holy Joe prayed for the dead we stood about like a group of awed children. When he was finished praying, he recited the beautiful words of the Service, and raised his hand-and the pall-bearers tipped their burden into the sea.

Silently we listened to the dull splash, silently we watched the four men lower the stage to the deck. It was over. The parson fell into step with Newman, and the two paced up and down, conversing in low tones. The crowd dispersed.

Some of my watch went into the foc'sle, to their bunks. Most of the men sat about the decks, and smoked and talked in whispers. But the topic of Nils was avoided, as was talk of mutiny. The squareheads did not mutter threats, the stiffs did not curse. The spell of the parson's words was still upon us, and peace reigned.

Newman had won, I thought, and danger was passed.

I found the Nigger seated upon the fore-bitts, whetting his knife upon a stone. There was something sinisterly suggestive about his occupation at that hour; it was the first break in the strange calm which had fallen upon the crew.

"Tell me, Nigger, who's the man that's spying on the big fellow?" I said abruptly, as I sat down beside him.

Nigger did not pause in his work, but he turned his battered face to me. A couple of days before he had fallen afoul of the mate's brass knuckles for perhaps the twentieth time since he had been in the ship, and his face was a mass of bruised flesh, a shocking sight, even though his color hid the extent of his injuries.

The Nigger had been, perhaps, the worst misused man in the crew-and this notwithstanding the fact he was by far the best sailor in the port watch. But Fitzgibbon hated "damned niggers," especially did he hate "these spar-colored half-breeds," as he was fond of calling this fellow. I do believe he chose the Nigger for his watch so he might pummel him to his heart's content. Beat him up he had, constantly, and without cause, and as a result Nigger had become a surly, moody man.

"Who say dat Ah know?" demanded Nigger, in reply to my question.

"Boston said so."

"Dat man's too free wif his lip. Ah don't tell him Ah knows who's the spy; Ah tells him Ah knows dey is one."

I waited patiently, for Nigger's temper would not bear pressing. He reversed his stone, spat upon it, and resumed his monotonous whetting, then, after looking around to make sure he could not be overheard, he explained what he did know.

"Night befoh last Ah was hangin' 'round aft--"

"What?" I cried, surprised. "Hanging around aft-what for?"

"Dat's my business," he told me, curtly. Then, after a moment, he added, "But Ah don't care if yoh know, because Ah knows yoh ain't no snitch. Ah was hangin' 'round waitin' to meet Mistah Mate when he ain't got them othah two debbils wif him. Ah was waitin' 'round to meet dat man alone. And he come to de break ob de poop wif de Old Man, and de Old Man say, 'Ah got a good man watchin' every move he makes; he can't turn around in de foc'sle wifout me knowin' it. We'll be wahned befoh it happens.' Dat's what de Old Man say to Mistah Mate. And Ah knows he mus' be talkin' about de big fellow, and so Ah tells Boston about it."

"But didn't you hear any names mentioned?" I asked him.

"Dat's all Ah hears," he answered. "Den dey went away."

I was disappointed. The Nigger's news amounted to just nothing; we already knew that a spy was watching Newman. But indeed this fact seemed not so threatening as it had a few hours before. Newman's careless contempt of the spy had made me contemptuous, too. And, indeed, what could a spy report against the big man that could injure him? Newman was openly working for peace, counseling obedience. His actions invited scrutiny.

I voiced this thought to my companion.

"Well, anyway, a spy can't hurt Newman. He is doing nothing underhand, or wrong. He's keeping peace in this ship."

Nigger gave a queer little hoot of derision. "Does Ah look like peace?" he said. "Dis am a debbil-ship; Ah tells yoh dey can't be no peace in dis ship nohow."

I gestured towards the forehatch. A dozen men sat upon it, quietly smoking and gossiping. "The squally weather is past," I said. "Those lads don't want trouble. A few hours ago they were all for fight-but now they've settled down. And don't you try to start trouble! The big fellow wants peace, the lady wants peace, we must help them to keep peace. Don't you want to help the lady and the big fellow?"

"De lady been awful good to me," said Nigger, in almost a whisper. "Ah gone crazy long ago if it ain't foh de lady." He stopped his whetting and tried the edge of the blade with his thumb; then, suddenly, he reached out and clutched my wrist, and continued in a voice so charged with pain and grief, that I was appalled.

"Ah'd do mos' anything foh de lady, but, Shreve, it ain't foh me, and it ain't foh any of us forward to say what's goin' to happen in dis ship. Ah ain't no sea-lawyer; man and boy Ah've gone to sea twenty year, and Ah ain't nebber made no trouble in no ship, no suh. But, oh mah Lawd, yoh knows what all's happened to me in dis ship! Dey won't let me be a man. 'Yoh niggah, yoh black beast!' Dat's what dey calls me, and dat's what dey makes me! Ah wants peace, yoh wants peace-but does dey want peace? No, suh! Yoh say de ship peaceful now? Dis am a debbil-ship, and dey's a king debbil aft! And dey's a shark overside, and he wasn't waitin' foh what jus' went into the water, no, suh! Yoh ebber sail out East? Yoh ebber see de quiet befoh a typhoon, so quiet seems like yoh can't breathe? Dat's de kind ob peace dat's on de Golden Bough. Ah don' want to make no trouble no time, but, oh mah Lawd, when Ah does mah work right an' gets hazed foh it, when dat mate makes a beast out ob me-does yoh think Ah stand dat fohebber?"

I had no answer of good cheer. What could I say? The man's wrongs were too bitter, his hurts too constant, to be glossed over or soothed by any words I could think of. For I knew he still had weeks of brutal mistreatment ahead of him. This Nigger was a man who would not, perhaps could not, cringe and whine-and so the mate was "breaking" him.

But after all Nigger gave me the promise I was after. "Ah nebber talks trouble. Ah nebber wants trouble, and Ah nebber stirs up no trouble."

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