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   Chapter 19 No.19

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 12199

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I was in earnest. I meant to do the murder. Aye, murder is what the law of man would call it, and murder is the right term. I planned the deed, not in cold blood perhaps, but certainly with coolness and foresight. I intended to creep aft in the night and shoot down the captain.

But you must understand my motive before you judge. More than that, you must bear in mind my environment, my character and its background, and the dilemma which faced me. I intended to become an assassin-but not for hate, or greed, or, indeed, any personal satisfaction or gain.

I was, remember, a nineteen-year-old barbarian, The impressionable, formative years of my youth had been spent in deepwater foc'sles, among men who obeyed but one law-fear. The watch, the gang, was my social unit; loyalty to a shipmate was the one virtue I thoroughly understood and respected. And it was loyalty to Newman that determined me to kill.

Newman was my friend-aye, more than that, he was in my youthful eyes a demi-god, a man to revere and worship above all others. He was prisoner, helpless. The crew were bent on mutiny; I could not stop them. The mutiny was planned and expected by the captain; and its outbreak would be the needed excuse for the slaying of Newman, and, Newman said, of the lady.

How could I save Newman? That was my problem. How indeed? The evil choice was inevitably mine; and I considered it the lesser evil. If I killed Swope, Newman would be safe. Perhaps the mutiny would collapse, would never come off. This last was something Boston and Blackie, blinded by their greed, quite overlooked. But I knew it was hate and fear of Swope, rather than greed, that impelled the squareheads to revolt. If Swope were killed, they might not go on with it, and what the sailors decided, the stiffs must agree to. And in any case, Newman would be safe.

I did not approach my task in a spirit of revulsion and horror. Indeed, no. Why should I have felt thus? In my experience I had not yet gathered the idea that human life was sacred. Certainly, my experience in the Golden Bough had not taught me that. I confess, the job I planned was distasteful, extremely so-but, I thought, necessary.

I planned Yankee Swope's murder in spite of self-sacrifice. Aye, truly I did! I dare say few acts in my life have had a finer, cleaner, less selfish motive.

I did not expect to escape after firing the shot. I expected the mates or the tradesmen would kill me. True, I thought of hiding on the dark deck, and picking off the captain when he appeared on the poop. That is what Boston and Blackie expected me to do. But I dismissed this thought without serious consideration. It was uncertain, and I meant to make sure of the brute. Besides, it was, I felt, cowardly, and I would not be a coward. I intended to get into the cabin and shoot Swope in his own arm-chair, so to speak. Afterwards-well, they could do what they pleased with me. My friend would be safe.

So I lived through a few very exalted hours before the first night watch came. Unhappy? Not I. In moments I touched the skies in exaltation.

For I was the sacrifice. I was the center of the drama. I was Fate. I was a romantic-minded young ass, and the situation flattered my generous conceit. I was tossing away my life, you see, with a grand gesture, to help my friend. I was dying for my friend's sake. My imagination gave my death nobility. I imagined Newman and the lady remembering me sadly all their lives long, thinking of me always as their saviour. I imagined my name on sailors' lips, in ships not yet launched; they would talk of me, of Jack Shreve, the lad who killed Yankee Swope so his shipmate might live.

My resolution did not weaken; rather, it grew firmer with the passage of the hours. Of course, I did not take the crew into my confidence (there might be, I thought, another Cockney among them), but I laid down the law to Boston and Blackie, and they promised faithfully to obey my injunctions. They promised they would keep the men in check until I had completed my task. They promised also to mislead the spy, and see that no man laid violent hands upon him.

This last I considered important. The crowd was eager for vengeance upon Cockney. He had committed the unpardonable sin, he had betrayed his mates. Blackie wanted to slit his throat, and drop him over the side; and the men voted an emphatic aye to the suggestion. Sentence would have been executed as soon as Cockney came forward from the wheel had I not interposed my veto and given my reasons.

It was not solicitude for the spy's life that influenced me. I, too, considered he had forfeited his right to life by his act. But I pointed out that offering immediate violence to Cockney might alarm the afterguard, and change their plan of action; moreover, we might use the spy to carry false tales of our intentions to the enemy.

So when Cockney breezed into the foc'sle, at four bells, his reception in no way aroused his suspicions. Everything seemed going his way. He sympathized volubly with me, and would have awakened Holy Joe (who had dropped into a healing sleep, after regaining consciousness) to sympathize with him, had I permitted. Aye, he was a good dissembler, was Cockney-but we matched him. His mouth dripped curses on Swope and his minions, he exhorted us to "'arve guts" and rush the poop at muster time. He was willing to risk his own skin by leading the rush. "Wot did we think abaht it?"

Boston told him we thought early evening a bad time for the adventure. We were going to wait until morning, until the beginning of the "gravvy-eye" watch, just before dawn. That was the hour in which to strike. Men slept soundest just before dawn; those who were awake were less alert. The mutiny was timed for four A. M.

"Hi cawn't 'ardly wyte that long, Hi'm that eager to get my knife 'twixt that myte's bleedin' ribs," said Cockney.

The Nigger had come in during the discussion. He seated himself, and recommenced his favorite task of stropping his knife upon a whetstone. At the Cockney's last words he lifted his head.

"Don' yoh touch de mate," he said to Cockney. "Dat man's mah meat, yes, suh, mah meat!"

Cockney disputed this. He raved, and swore, and even threatened Nigger. Aye, he made a fine bluster. "'E wasn't goin' to give hup 'is chawnce at the bleedin' myte, not 'im! 'E 'ad a score to settle with that blighter, so 'e 'ad. The Nigger could 'arve the bloomin' second myte, that's wot."

Nigger was so incensed he got up and left the foc'sle, leaving the last word to the spy. Nigger had brooded so much over his wrongs he was a bit cracked; he took no part in the councils of the crew, and did not know, I am sure, that Cockney had been unmasked as a traitor. Else he would never have acted as he later did.

It came down night. It was a good night for my purpose, dark and shadowless, with a mere sliver of a new moon in the sky. I had little difficulty in gaining entrance to the cabin.

After the eight o'clock muster, when my watch was sent below, I slipped around the corner of the roundhouse, where the tradesmen lived (it was on the maindeck, between the mainmast and the after-hatch) and crouched there in the darkness while my mates trooped forward. This roundhouse (which was really square, of course, like most roundhouses on board ship) was very plentifully supplied with ports. Designedly so, no doubt, for it was the cabin's outpost. There were two portholes in its forward wall, commanding the foredeck, and three portholes in either of the side walls. The door to the house was in the after wall. It was built like a fortress, and used as one.

As I lay there on the deck, pressed against the forward wall, I saw the muzzles of shotguns sticking out of the portholes above my head. There was no light showing in the roundhouse, but the tradesmen were in there just the same. Aye, and prepared and alert. They were covering the deck with guns; and I knew they would continue to cover the deck throughout that night.

Oh, Swope was canny, as canny as he was cruel. He would provoke mutiny, but he would run no chance of losing his ship or his life. He was prepared. What could a few revolvers do against these entrenched men? My shipmates' revolt could have but one end-mass murder and defeat!

So I thought, as I lay there on the deck, watching my chance to slip aft. Swope's plan, Swope's mutiny, I thought. Swope was the soul of the whole vile business. His plan-and I was going to spoil it! I was going to put a bullet in his black heart.

I might have picked him off at that very moment, if I aimed carefully. For, as my mates' footsteps died away forward, I edged around the corner of the roundhouse, and saw the enemy standing on the poop. The three of them were there, both mates, with the skipper standing between them. I picked him out of the group easily, even in the darkness, for he was of much slighter build than either of his officers, and besides I heard his voice.

"The rats have discovered some courage-but they'll lose it soon enough, when they face our reception," I heard him say. "But-no nodding to-night, Misters! Keep your eyes and ears open!"

Fitzgibbon mumbled something. The captain laughed his soft, tinkling laugh.

"I'm going down to take a look at him now," he said, and the three of them moved aft, out of sight.

Aye, I might have picked him off then. But I didn't even entertain the thought. It was no part of my plan to slay from concealment. I was the hero, the avenger, the saviour! I meant to face him in his own lighted cabin.

The door of the roundhouse was closed, so I did not fear the inmates would observe me entering the cabin. The break of the poop seemed clear of life. I scuttled on my hands and knees until I was past the booby-hatch; then I arose to my feet and flitted noiselessly to the cabin door. I opened it just wide enough to admit my body, and stepped into the lighted cabin alleyway.

My bare feet made no noise as I crept toward the saloon. This was the first time I had set foot within the sacred precincts of the quarterdeck. From the gossip of those who had been aft to sick-call, or to break out stores, I had some notion of the lay of the land, but not a very clear one.

There were three doors opening upon the alley-way; the one on the port side was the inner door of the sail-locker, the two on the starboard side let into the mates' rooms. That much I knew. I also knew that I need not fear these doors, since both mates were on deck.

But at the end of the alleyway was the saloon, the great common room of the cabin. I paused uncertainly upon the threshold; I didn't know which way to turn for concealment, and I had to get out of the alleyway quickly, for any moment a tradesman might come in behind me.

There were several doors on each side of the saloon. To starboard, I knew, lay the captain's quarters, and, from the sounds, the pantry. To port, I knew, lay the lady's quarters, and the steward's room. But which door was which, I did not know. I decided I had best duck into the captain's room.

But before I could act upon this decision the forward door on the port side slowly opened, and Wong, the steward, stepped out. I shrank back into the alleyway as the door opened, and the Chinaman did not glance in my direction. His whole attention was riveted upon the companion stairs; Swope's voice sounded up there in the entrance to the hatch.

Wong softly closed the door behind him, and ran on tiptoe across the saloon, disappearing into the pantry. I did not hesitate an instant. Wong had not locked the door behind him, and his room would be handy enough for my purpose. From it I could command the interior of the big room, and step forth when the moment arrived. I crossed the corner of the saloon in a bound, and turned the doorknob as silently as had Wong.

I opened the door and stepped in backwards. My eyes assured me I was unseen. I closed the door, all save a crack, through which I meant to watch for the coming of my victim.

I heard a gasp behind me. I shut the door tight and wheeled about-and found myself staring into the wide-open eyes of the lady.

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