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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 21360

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


This strange peace, this interlude of quiet, lasted for several days.

It was a curious time, a period of uneasy suspense for me, for I could

feel hell simmering beneath the smooth surface of the ship's life, but

I could not see it, or guess when or where it would bubble over.

Even Lynch toned down his adjectives, and slackened his driving. He was commanded to do so by Captain Swope while the watch was within hearing. The Old Man told him to "go easy with those boys, Mister; we've made it too hard for them this voyage." Aye, that was a nice bitter pill for Bucko Lynch to swallow before his watch; oh, the lads enjoyed it, I can tell you.

Fitzgibbon, the roaring lion, became the bleating lamb. He hardly worked his men during those days, let alone haze them. He let Nigger alone. He stopped swearing at Holy Joe. Why, a man might fancy from his manner that he had become afraid of his men. Aye, a man might fancy from their behavior that the lot of them aft possessed a sudden fear of the crew. Even the tradesmen were publicly ordered to treat the men with civility. But I didn't fancy they were afraid. I knew better. It was part of the game Swope was playing.

"I took the trick when Nils died," explained Newman, when I asked him what the new program meant, "and now our sweet captain is dealing a new hand, from a cold deck. He is nursing the scum, because this time he will strike through them, instead of through the squareheads."

By "scum," Newman meant our unsavory mob of stiffs. And indeed they were being "nursed," and without even suspecting it. Inevitably, the unwonted gentleness of the men aft was interpreted as weakness and fear, and of course their stiffs' courage mounted and slopped over. Aye, he was a canny brute, was Captain Swope; he knew just how to play such a crowd as we were. And I think he thoroughly enjoyed such a cat-and-mouse game.

There was valorous talk in the foc'sle, and half-veiled insolence on deck. These cringing stiffs began to swank and swagger. They began to bluster openly about what they could do and would do; they began to tell each other how easy it would be to "dump 'em over, and take charge o' the hooker." That's the sort they were. It took bucko methods to keep them decent.

Blackie and Boston were plainly jubilant over this turn of events. Now they were fairly shrewd men, even if they were damned rascals, and one would have thought they possessed sufficient insight to at least be suspicious of the skipper's sudden 'bout-face. But they were not. They were just as convinced as the rest of the stiffs that the afterguard had suddenly become afraid of the foc'sle. Just lack of imagination, I suppose; I've read that it is usually a characteristic of professional criminals.

They ceased hinting darkly and whispering in corners, and came out fiat-footed with their great news. Aye, and it was a weighty argument with the stiffs. Even though they knew about it already-as most of them did-it was a delight to talk about it openly. There was money in the hooker. That is what made their tongues wag. Aye, money; kegs and kegs of shining trade dollars, aft in the lazaret, to be had for the taking by lads with stiff backbones. And their backbones were stiff enough for the job. So Boston and Blackie told them, so Cockney told them, so they told each other.

It surprised me that Newman ignored this state of affairs among the stiffs. He could have clapped stoppers on Boston's and Blackie's jaws by just telling them to shut up. They stood in such awe and fear of him. He could have as easily silenced Cockney; aye, and the gang, too. We all stood in awe of him. There wasn't a man forward who would dream of opposing him openly.

But Newman was contemptuous of stiffs' talk. "Oh, let them blow off

steam," says he. "Big talk, small deeds; that's their caliber, Jack.

They'll have their sauciness hammered out of them quickly enough when

Swope plays his next card."

"Aye, but what if Blackie and Boston, or that Cockney, make trouble?

They are bossing the stiffs."

"Those two jail-birds know what I will do to them if they go beyond talk," said Newman. "As for that Whitechapel beauty, he is quite harmless, I think. They would not follow him into a fight; they know he is scum, like themselves, for all his bluster. They would follow me, or you, if we led the sailors aft. But so long as the sailors are quiet, there is no danger. That scum would not fight alone. And, as you know, our little friend has his Norsemen eating out of his hand."

This last was certainly true. By "our little friend" Newman meant Holy Joe. The squareheads idolized him. For one thing, his being a parson gave him, from the beginning, standing with them. They were decent, simple villagers, with an inbred respect for the cloth. But more important, was the service he had rendered their dead shipmate. They were not the men to forget a thing like that, or fail to be impressed by the fine courage Holy Joe had exhibited when he faced the angry mate.

Now there was a curious thing. The decent men in the crew gave Holy Joe unstinted admiration; his bravery that day clinched his authority over the squareheads. They would have done almost anything for him; aye, they loved the little man, and admired him. Yet the stiffs were not much impressed by what Holy Joe did to the mate. I guess they simply couldn't understand it. But Cockney's trying to stick a knife into the mate's back quite captured their fancy. Aye, that attempted murder was a great deed; it made Cockney their hero. I won't say that the rest of us damned Cockney. We were, after all, foc'sle savages, and our hatred of Fitzgibbon was very bitter. But it took the stiffs to honor Cockney for that knife-play.

Well, Newman might dismiss this fellow with a contemptuous word, but I couldn't. Cockney had become a rival I must reckon with. I didn't like the way he lorded it over the stiffs in my watch, even if the stiffs themselves did like it. I didn't like the noise he made in the starboard foc'sle, or the hard case airs he assumed. I was number one bully in my watch, and intended to remain so. I was, in fact, cock of the crew (Newman excepted, of course) and I thought that Cockney's chesty boasting was in a way a defiance of me.

No doubt I was right. As I discovered in time, Cockney had a good reason behind his blatant tongue. It was necessary that he accustom some of the crew, even a few stiffs if no more, to follow his leadership. But he couldn't blow big in his own foc'sle, because Holy Joe wouldn't allow it; and he didn't dare lay a curse or a finger on the little parson because he knew if he did the squareheads would jump him in a body. So he ventured into my bailiwick, hoping, I suppose, that the open support of Boston and Blackie, his size, which matched my own, and his newly got reputation as a bad man with a knife, would bluff me.

It didn't. His dirty and violent talk sickened and wearied me, and just as soon as I had a reasonable pretext I ordered him out of the foc'sle. This wasn't as high-handed as it sounds, for Cockney had the gall one afternoon to leave the deck during his watch out, and break into my watch's rest with his obscene gabble.

He was disposed to dispute my order, and the stiffs backed him up with talk. So I turned out and turned to. I slapped a few stiffs, and threw Cockney through the door. He invited me out on deck, and of course I accepted. We had a nice set-to before all hands. Even the tradesmen came forward to see the sport.

Well, Newman's estimate of the man was correct. Cockney was scum, yellow scum. His fighting methods were as foul as his tongue; he tried all of his slum tricks, the knee, the eye-gouge, the Liverpool-butt, and when he found I was up to them, and the stronger man in the clinches, he wanted to call enough. But I was too incensed by this time to let him escape easily, and I battered him all about the foredeck. Finally he turned tail and fled aft. Of course I did not pursue beyond the deck-house. His fleeing the battle really pleased me more than knocking him out. I felt sure that such an ignominious defeat would cook his goose with the stiffs.

It did. Boston and Blackie stopped grooming Cockney for mob leader; they had seen that he lacked guts in a pinch, and that finished him with them. The other stiffs still welcomed and admired him (for, although he was a good sailor, he was one of them at heart, and, after all, hadn't he tried to stick the mate?), but he was no longer their hero. Aye, it was quite a fall for Cockney; he lost a lot of face when he ran away from my fists. He kept out of my foc'sle thereafter.

I mentioned that this fight started because Cockney came into our foc'sle during his watch on deck. Now, that illustrates the surprising slackness of discipline in the port watch. Just a few days before the mate was ready to shoot Holy Joe for going below during his watch on deck, but he never bothered his head about Cockney's much worse offense. In fact, during these strange days he seemed not to bother his head about anything his men did. He promenaded on the poop during his watches on deck, alone, or arm-in-arm with the captain, and just about left the ship to sail herself. No wonder the stiffs commenced to believe they could take liberties; in fact, they could take them in the mate's watch, and get away with it.

But they couldn't take liberties in the second mate's watch. You bet they couldn't! Bucko Lynch curbed his vocabulary and stopped using his fists, as the captain ordered, but he didn't stop working his men. There was no slackness in his watch; he kept us up to scratch. That made the starboard stiffs especially bitter against him. They felt themselves cheated of the easy times Fitzgibbon's men were having.

But the sailors didn't feel that way about it. They were worried, just as I was. The sailors knew ships as the stiffs did not. They could feel ships. Those dumb squareheads could not reason it out as I could (with Newman's assistance), but they could feel the undercurrent of intrigue. They were glad to escape the thumpings to which the mates had accustomed them; but they were not satisfied with the new order for they could feel that this strange peace was unreal, unhealthful. Aye, the calm before the typhoon. They felt it just as I felt it, just as Nigger felt it. As for pessimistic Nigger, so strictly did he mind his own business these quiet days he was like a dumb man, a silent brown shadow. But he went on sharpening his knife.

To heighten the squareheads' foreboding, and to scare the wits half out of us all, Nils' ghost

visited the ship. You know what sort of men we were in that foc'sle; save Newman and the parson, we were ignorant men, and superstitious. We all believed implicitly in ghosts, I, and the squareheads, Nigger and Cockney, and even the stiffs who had not the sea in their blood. Aye, even Blackie and Boston believed in haunts. It seemed reasonable to us that Nils should come back to the scene of his earthly misery. Reasonable, and fearsome.

Nils came at night, in the middle watch, always in the middle watch. That circumstance might have aroused suspicion in sceptical minds. But we were not sceptical.

Lynch had us busy forward this night. Aye, it had become a practice with him to keep us busy in the fore part of the ship during the night watches. One of his tradesmen, Connolly, kept the poop watch for him. No, we did not think this arrangement odd; we worked too hard to think.

Newman had the first wheel. At four bells, a lad named Oscar went aft to relieve the big fellow. A moment later he reappeared forward, wild-eyed and spluttering his own lingo. Oh, he was a frightened squarehead. All we could understand of his speech was the word "Nils."

The word was enough. We didn't need the commotion and consternation among Oscar's countrymen to help us interpret. He had seen Nils.

"What's the matter with you?" demanded Lynch.

Lindquist answered for Oscar. Nils was at the wheel. Oscar had gone aft to relieve Newman, and he had seen his dead shipmate at the wheel, steering the ship. He was afraid to relieve a ghost.

"Oh, rot!" says Lynch. "Here, come along aft with me, the lot of you.

We'll lay this ghost."

Oscar did not want to go aft again, but he had to. It was better to face a ghost than disobey Bucko Lynch. That is what the rest of us thought, too. We were all afraid to go aft, but more afraid not to. So we huddled close upon the second mate's heels, and clumped noisily upon the deck, as though to rout the wraith with our racket.

Perhaps our racket did send Nils away. It certainly aroused the men sleeping in the cabin, and the roundhouse. But we saw Newman at the helm, not Nils.

"Well, m'son, where's your ghost?" demanded Mister Lynch.

Oscar was still too frightened to muster his scant English, but Lindquist talked for him. "He say like dis, sir, Nils ban at da wheel when he koom aft, oond den he yump vrom der wheel oond run for'ard yust like da time da captain thoomp him."

"Rot!" says Lynch. "My man, have you permitted a ghost stand your trick at the wheel?" This last to Newman.

"Hardly a ghost, sir," answered Newman. We could not see his face, but from his tone I knew he was smiling. "Do I look like one? Not yet, I hope. I was just about to turn over the wheel to the lad, sir, when he shied-at the shadow of the mizzen stays'l I think-and rushed away forward."

"What is wrong, Mister?" inquired the captain's soft voice. Aye, we all jumped as if it were the ghost talking. Captain Swope, with Mister Fitzgibbon behind him, had popped up from below as quietly as If he were a ghost.

"Nothing wrong, Captain," replied Mister Lynch. "One of my jaspers declared he saw the little squarehead's ghost dancing about the poop, and now the lot of them have nerves. I brought them aft to teach them better in a peaceful way."

This was a straight dig at the Old Man's "be gentle" orders, but it didn't pierce his skin. Swope laughed, genuinely amused, his soft, rippling laugh that always frightened us so much. "Peaceful, eh? By the Lord, Mister, it sounded like an army overhead. And it was no more than a ghost!" He peered aft, and discerned Newman at the wheel, recognizing him by bulk, I guess, for the binnacle lights were half shuttered and Newman's face invisible. But I'm sure he recognized him, for he pursed his lips in a way I had seen him do before when he looked at Newman. He strolled away forward, to the break of the poop, glancing this way and that, and back again to the hatch. "If it were moonlight, I'd say your man was touched," says he to Lynch. "But I suppose he was half asleep and dreaming."

"I'll wake him up and work the dreams out of him," promised Mister

Lynch.

"But no hazing, Mister. The men are in bad enough temper as it is."

Aye, thus to Lynch, as though the rest of us were beyond ear-shot. But all the time his eyes were upon us, measuring the effect of his words. Oh, he was a sly beast, a "slick one," as Beasley said.

"Which is the lad who beheld this-ghost?" he added.

The second mate shoved Oscar forward so that he stood in the light that streamed up from the cabin.

"So one little ghost scared you, eh?" says he to poor trembling Oscar. "Why, my man, if all the ghosts in this ship were to begin walking about, we living men would be crowded into the sea." With that he went below, laughing, as though he had just made a fine joke, and leaving us more frightened than ever.

The mate went below again also, but he wasn't laughing. We sensed that the news worried Fitzgibbon, and that strengthened our conviction. Blackjack Fitzgibbon had cause for worry. So we thought. Wasn't it he, as well as Swope, who mishandled the boy to his death?

That ended the scene aft. Oscar relieved the wheel; he had to. Lynch put the rest of us to work again, and during the balance of the watch we saw ghosts in every corner.

When we went below at eight bells, we held a grand talk in the foc'sle, a parliament that practically all hands attended. Aye, we were quite convinced that the ghost was abroad. Oscar stuck to his yarn, and embellished it, and left no room in our minds for doubt. Newman laughed at us, and denied the presence of a spook on the poop; that done he turned in and slept. But his evidence didn't shake our belief. Oscar gave too many particulars.

The compass had not been shuttered when he went aft to relieve the wheel, and he had seen Nils standing in the light. He couldn't be mistaken. "Yust as plain like a picture." He knew him by his boyish stature, by his beardless features, by his clothes. He was wearing his Scotch-plaid coat and red tam-o'-shanter; Oscar couldn't be mistaken in them, because he had helped Nils pick them out in a Glasgow slops shop "last ship." Didn't his mates remember those togs?

His mates remembered them. So did the rest of us. That coat and cap had hung on the wall opposite Nils' bunk all during his illness. He was very proud of these colorful garments. Of course, we told each other, he would appear in them after death. And, of course, he was bound to come back. Didn't murdered men always come back? So we assured each other; and the older men began spinning yarns about other ghosts in other ships. Aye, we talked so much we were afraid to turn in. Captain Swope's words about the ghost crew in the Golden Bough impressed us mightily. We told each other that many men must have died cruel deaths in this notorious hooker; very likely Nils' spirit was but one of many. Some of the lads recalled mysteries of the night that they had encountered in this ship, shadowy things melting into darkness, strange noises, and the like; and always they had seen or heard these things aft, around the break of the poop or beneath the boat skids-in just about the spot where Nils had been beaten up, first by the skipper and then by the mate. Aye, Nils gave us the creeps. Another herald of storm, I felt.

Next night Nils did not walk, though the lads in both watches insisted they saw and heard things that were not right or natural. The night following in the midwatch-our midwatch-half the watch swore they saw him flit across the main deck and disappear behind the roundhouse.

The next night marked Nils' last and most startling appearance. In the heart of the middle watch, while my mates were sound asleep, the ghost walked into the empty port foc'sle.

That is, the port foc'sle should have been empty, since the mate had the watch out. But it happened that Nigger, coming from the wheel, seized an opportunity to slip into the deserted room for a quiet smoke-O. It was a liberty he was safe in taking, now that the bucko mate had reformed.

My bunk in the starboard foc'sle was handy to the door connecting the two rooms, and when he burst terror-stricken through that door my unconscious head was right in front of him. I awakened abruptly to discover Nigger clawing my hair; aye, and when I looked up and saw his convulsed face and gleaming, bulging eyes, I knew at once he had seen Nils.

He was too scared to talk; he could only stutter. "Gug-gug-gug-God!"

But he pointed into the other foc'sle.

Well, my bowels were water, as the saying is, but nevertheless I turned out promptly. I had to. Other men were waking up. Even Newman, in the bunk opposite, had his eyes open; and he was regarding me in a very curious way. So I couldn't hold back. I was bully of the crowd, and I would not let the crowd think I was afraid to face anything, even a ghost.

Out I rolled, and into the doorway I stepped. There I stopped. God's truth, I was frozen to the spot with terror. For Nils' shadow lay athwart the floor of the port fo'sle, his moving shadow. It was this shadow coming in through the deck door that had frightened Nigger. He recognized the shadow as Nils because a tam-o'-shanter crowned the silhouette, and Nils had owned the only tam on board.

I recognized that awful shadow, too. But I saw more than the shadow. I saw a white hand appear on the door jamb. A ghost-like hand, it was so white and small, a patch of plaid cloth, a little bare, white foot lifting above the sill, and then the tam and the white face beneath it. Aye, that white face with its great, staring eyes!

So much I saw during the instant I stood in the doorway. Then Newman pushed past me and crossed the port foc'sle in a bound. He joined the white face in the other doorway, and disappeared with it into the outer darkness.

Not a man save I-and Newman-had had nerve enough to turn out. Not a man save I-and Newman-had seen that white face. Even Nigger had not seen it; he had run out on deck through the starboard door. But my watch-mates were awake and eager. "Is it gone?" they chorused.

"Yes," I answered gruffly. I rolled into my bunk, and turned my face to the wall. My wits were still spinning from shock, and I didn't want to answer questions.

"Where did Big 'Un go?" came from Blackie's bunk.

"How do I know? Stow the guff, the lot of you; I want to sleep."

But I didn't sleep. I lay there thinking about the face I had seen. Nils' shadow, Nils' clothes-and the lady's face! The ghost that had scared all hands was the lady dressed in Nils' clothes!

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