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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Blood Ship By Norman Springer Characters: 20459

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


She was on her knees, at the other end of the room. Aye, and it was a room, a spacious cabin, not a cubbyhole berth I had blundered into; the lady's own quarters, no less. There was a lamp burning in gimbals, and its light disclosed to my first startled glance that it was a woman's room. Aye, to my foc'sle-bred senses the quarters were palatial.

The lady crouched on her knees, with her skirts spread wide, and her hands hidden behind her back. When first her eyes met mine, I saw she was fear-stricken. But immediately she recognized me the fear gave way to relief.

"Oh, I thought it was-" she began. Then she saw the revolver in my hand, and the fear leaped into her eyes again. Aye, fear, and comprehension. "That-oh, Boy, what do you mean to do?"

I had been gaping, open-mouthed, too surprised to utter a sound. But her swift recognition, and her words, brought me to myself. Also, just then we heard Captain Swope's voice. He was in the saloon, calling out an order to the steward. We listened with strained attention, both of us. He told the steward to open the lazaret hatch, and be sharp about it.

I jerked my thumb over my shoulder, and nodded significantly to the lady. "Don't be afraid, ma'am," I whispered. "He isn't going to hurt Newman. He isn't going to hurt anyone-not any more." Oh, the dread that showed in her face when we heard Swope's voice!

She brought her hands into view, when I spoke. Something she had been holding behind her back dropped on the deck with a metallic clink, and she pressed her hands against her bosom.

"You-you mean-" she began.

I nodded again. I really thought I was reassuring her, lifting a load of care from her heart.

"I'm going out there and get him. Don't be afraid, ma'am. I won't make a miss of it. He isn't going to hurt Newman, or you, or anyone, after I've finished. And ma'am, please-will you try and slip for'ard and tell the men not to mutiny. They'll listen to you, especially when you tell them the Old Man is dead. They don't want to mutiny, ma'am-anyway, the squareheads don't-but they're afraid not to. If you tell them I've killed him, and appeal to them, the sailors will keep quiet, I know; and they'll make the stiffs keep quiet, too. It will save some lives, ma'am-for the crowd is coming aft to-night, like the Old Man plans, and the tradesmen are in the roundhouse, with guns, waiting for them."

There was anguish in her whispered reply. "Coming aft? No, no, they must not! It would mean-his death--"

She stopped. We listened. We heard Swope again, out in the saloon. He was damning Wong for a sluggard, and demanding a lighted lantern that instant or sooner, or "I'll take a strip off your yellow hide, you heathen!"

"No, not Newman's death," I answered the lady. I turned, and laid my hand upon the door knob. My weapon was ready. This was the moment I must act.

Before I could open the door, I felt the lady's cool fingers upon my wrist.

"No, no, not that! Not murder!" she exclaimed. "Oh, Boy, you would not take life-you would not do that!"

I turned and faced her, astonished. Her eyes were but a few inches distant from mine, now, and to my amazement I read in their expression not approbation but startled horror. And I could not mistake the meaning in her voice. She disapproved of my killing Captain Swope.

I was as shocked as she. Here I had been happy in the consciousness I was playing the hero, I had believed myself cutting a very pretty figure indeed in the lady's eyes, and, instead-well, my bubble was pricked. As I looked into the lady's eyes, I could feel my grand dimensions dwindling in my own eyes. More than that, I began to feel ashamed. Just why that look in her eyes should shame me, I didn't know. My education had not progressed to the self-analytic stage. But shame me it did. I felt mean, vile. I felt, without consciously reasoning about it, that murdering Yankee Swope would, perhaps, be not such a noble deed after all. I confronted something that was superior to the barbarous moral code of my brutal world. I discovered it in the lady's wide open eyes. It vanquished me. It took from me the feeling I was doing right.

But I could not surrender thus tamely. Indeed, the need for the deed remained as urgent.

"But, ma'am, you know I must!" I said. "You know-he will kill him!"

Her little fingers were plucking at mine, which were stubbornly gripped about the revolver's stock. "I know you must not!" she answered. "You must not take human life!" It was a commandment she uttered, and I took it as such. Especially, when she added, "Do you think he would kill in that fashion?"

That finished me. Aye, she knew how to beat down my defense; her woman's insight had supplied her with an invincible argument. I averted my eyes from hers, and hung my head; I allowed her to take the revolver from my grasp.

For I knew the answer to her question. "He" would not creep into the cabin and shoot Captain Swope. She meant Newman, and I knew that Newman would scorn to do the thing I planned to do. Kill Swope in fair fight, with chances equal? Newman might do that. But shoot him down like a mad dog, when he was unprepared and perhaps unarmed-no, Newman would not do that. Nor would any decent man.

I passed another milestone in my evolution into manhood, as I stood there, hangdog and ashamed. I added another "don't" to my list.

She brushed back the hair from my forehead. Oh, there was magic in her fingers. That gentle stroke restored my pride, my self-respect. It was a gesture of understanding. I felt now as I felt the first time I saw the lady, like a little boy before a wise and merciful mother. I knew the lady understood. She knew my heart was clean, my motive good.

She held up the weapon she had taken from me. "This-is not the way," she said. "It is never the way. You must not!"

"I must not," I echoed. "Yes, ma'am; I won't do it now.

But-what-how--"

I floundered and stopped. "What-how," aye, that was it. If I did not kill Captain Swope what would happen to Newman? That was the question that hammered against my mind, that sent a wave of sick fear through me. If I did not kill Swope-then Newman was lost.

"But-I must do something," I added, miserably. "You know what will happen when the hands come aft. It will be the skipper's excuse; Newman told me it would. I can't see him butchered without doing something to prevent it. Why, ma'am, Newman is my friend!"

"He is my life," said she. Her voice was so low I barely caught the words. "But I would not buy his life with murder; it would lower him to their level." She swayed, and clutched at my shoulder; I thought she was falling, and gripped her arm to steady her. But she was not the swooning kind. Not the lady. She recovered herself instantly. She clutched my lapels, and laid down the law to me.

"There must be no fighting. The men must not come aft," said she. "If they do, it will ruin everything. Boy, you must stop them. Deakin will help you. You must hold them back."

I shook my head. "It's too late," I informed her. "They will not listen to the parson, or me; they are too afraid."

"But they must be stopped!" she cried.

"Only one man can stop them-and that's Newman, himself," I replied.

"What time have they set?" she asked, quickly.

"Next eight bells," I told her. "We gave the skipper's spy to understand it was timed for four o'clock in the morning; but the lads really mean to make the rush at midnight."

"Then we have time," was her verdict. "And you must help me."

She pointed to the deck. My eyes followed her gesture, and for the first time I examined the floor of the room. The first thing my gaze encountered was a large carpenter's auger, or brace and bit; the next thing I saw, was a pattern of holes in the floor. There were two rows of them, parallel, each about eighteen inches long, and the same distance apart. The holes overlapped each other, and made a continuous cut in the deck.

The lady thrust out her hands, palms up, for my inspection. Upon each palm was a great red blister.

"I was nearly despairing," said she, "I could longer press down hard enough. But now--"

She did not need to explain. The sight of the holes and the auger told me enough to set me to work instantly. Aye, I grabbed up the tool and turned to with a song in my heart and the strength of Hercules in my arms. There was after all a chance to save my friend, and it depended in part upon my haste and strength. A chance to save him without murder.

The lady locked the door, and came and sat down beside me. While I worked she explained the plot behind the task. She talked eagerly, without reserve; it helped her, eased her mind, I think, to unload into my ears.

I was boring my way to Newman. My task was to connect the two rows of holes already bored through the deck with two other rows; when I was finished there would be an opening in the deck some eighteen inches square. A manhole to the lazaret below, where lay Newman.

But this was not all. She told me there was a scheme to free her and him completely from the captain and the ship. Well, I had guessed something like that was in the wind; but I did not tell her so. She said that Mister Lynch was in the plot; aye, this hard bucko, this "square-shooter," as I had heard him called, was the instigator and prime mover in the affair. One of the tradesmen was also friendly, and had brought the lady the tool I was using to cut through the deck. Wong, the steward, who was the lady's devoted slave, played a very important part.

The plot was this. We were to get Newman out of the lazaret (she always called him "Roy" when she spoke of him or to him; and when she mentioned Swope, it was always with a little hesitating catch in her voice) through this hole we were making. She had the key that would release him from irons. Wong had stolen it from the skipper's desk.

When he was out of the lazaret, the situation would be managed by Mister Lynch. The ship's longboat, in the port skids, was ready for the water. They planned, said the lady, to launch this boat at night, in the second mate's watch, and she and Newman were to sail away together.

For it was no h

aphazard plan born of desperation after Newman's arrest. Newman knew all about it. It had kept him occupied this past week; it was responsible in large measure for the mysterious happenings of the past week, for Newman's absences, and for the lady's masquerade in Nils' clothes. She had access to Nils' chest through Wong, who had charge of it, and she first dressed up in Nils' clothes so that she might, as she thought, move about at night on deck unobserved. When she was observed, and taken for a ghost, both Newman and Lynch told her to continue the masquerade; it helped their business with the longboat, because it kept spying eyes away from that part of the ship. They had been provisioning and preparing this boat for a week, working thus in the night, and by stealth. Another day or two, and they would have been away.

But the captain's blow this afternoon had jeopardized the entire scheme. Indeed, it was on the verge of utter ruin. For Newman was in the black hole in irons, and the crew were preparing to mutiny.

It was this last, the threatened uprising, that terrified the lady. It would finally ruin their chances of escape, she told me. At all hazards, we must get Newman out of the lazaret before the sailors' attack occurred. We must get him forward, she said, so that he might squelch the mutiny before it began. Oh, Newman could tame Boston and Blackie, he could tame the stiffs and compose the squareheads; she had no doubt he could do all that, and instantly. I was not so sure. I didn't think that anything or anybody could stop the crew-unless it was killing Swope, which she forbade. But I didn't say so.

And in any event, the immediate thing to do was to release Newman. It would at least give him a fighting chance. She urged haste, and I worked like a fiend. It was hard work. The deck planking was three inches thick, and the number of holes I must bore seemed endless. I was surprised at the amount of work already accomplished; it did not seem possible that this slender woman had done the two long rows of holes. Nor had she, I learned. Wong had bored most of them, during the odd moments he could slip away unobserved from his work. The tradesman who furnished the tool had even driven a few. The lady had done some of the work, as the condition of her hands proved. But my coming was really providential. She could never have finished the job on time, and now she knew of the crew's intention, she recognized the need of haste.

I longed mightily for a saw. Yet I knew I could not have used a saw had I possessed one. A saw makes a carrying noise. The tool I had was nearly noiseless. I sweated and wondered, and now and then asked a question.

I wondered what Lynch would do when the lads came aft. Aye, and I discovered that this was one reason the lady was so terrified at the prospect of mutiny. For Lynch, she was certain, would make common cause with the rest of the afterguard against any uprising forward. He was helping her and Newman. But he had no interest in helping the hands. The hands were just hands to him, so much beef to work and beat. He would never side with the foc'sle against the cabin.

"I have sailed three voyages with Lynch," said she. "He is a hard man, a cruel man; I have seen him do terrible things to sailors. But he is also, according to his lights, a just man. His brutality is always for what he considers the ship's welfare, never for any personal reason. You know how he has treated you, and Roy, and other men who know and do their work."

"Fair enough," I admitted.

"When my-my husband tried to kill Roy, that night you and he were aloft together, he violated James Lynch's very strict code. He considered that attempt a serious blot upon his honor. He told him-Angus-as much. He told him he would not have that sort of thing in his watch. It wasn't regard for Roy that made him say that; it was just that he thinks it is not right to kill or even hurt a man for personal reasons, but only when the welfare of the ship is at stake. And also, I think-well, he-likes me. He is willing to help me. That is why, a week ago, he came to me and offered his help. He had discovered what my-my husband really intended doing; I think he overheard a conversation between my-between Angus and the mate. He said we were both in danger, I as well as Roy, and that we must leave the ship.

"Roy suggested the longboat, and he agreed. Roy can navigate, of course, and there are islands not distant from our present position. So we have been preparing the boat, and Mr. Lynch planned to launch it some midwatch when the mate and-and Captain Swope were in their berths. He hoped to get us away so quietly they would know nothing about it until hours later."

"But surely Lynch didn't intend staying by the ship? Why, when the Old

Man found out he'd skin him alive!" I exclaimed.

"He said not, and I think not," she said. "He has sailed under my-my husband for years. He is not like Mr. Fitzgibbon, and the others. He does not fear my husband. I think Angus fears him. He knows things that have happened in this ship that my-my husband dare not have told on shore. He refused when we urged him to come with us; he declared he would be in no danger, that he could guard himself. I think he can."

The lady clenched her hands, and her voice broke a little, as she disclosed the anxiety that was wrenching her soul.

"But now-I don't know what he will do. If we can free Roy in time; if we can stop trouble forward! Then I know Mr. Lynch will keep his promise; he will lock up Angus and the mate, get them out of the way somehow, until Roy and I have left the ship. But if the men rise before we have gone-then he will think his duty is to the ship. He will not think of us, and my-my husband will do what he wishes. Do you understand?"

"Yes, ma'am. But we have until midnight, or after, and it's just a little past two bells, now. Ten minutes more, ma'am, and I'll have this hole open."

But it took a little longer than ten minutes. Three bells struck while I was still whittling and digging at the caulking in the seams with my sheath knife. But the echo of the big ship's bell forward had hardly died away when I carefully, ever so carefully, lifted up and laid back the cut-away section of the deck. I had left the caulking at one end nearly intact, so the solid piece laid back like a trap-door.

The lady and I knelt by the side of the hole and peered down into the littered darkness. We could make out, dimly, heaps of barrels and boxes. A damp, chill air rushed up into our faces, carrying with it the sound of a scurrying rat, and another sound which made the lady gasp and tremble, and caused me to grind my teeth with rage. It was a long, drawn-out sigh, the moan of a man in agony of flesh or spirit. It was Newman's voice. Mingling with it, and following it, came the low, demoniac chuckle of Captain Swope.

Lying flat and craning my neck into the hole, I saw, far over on the other side of the ship, the flicker of a lantern upon boxes. I immediately drew back, got to my feet, and extinguished the lamp in the gimbals. Then I snatched a blanket from the steward's bunk, and spread it across the hole. That done, there was no danger of light or draught betraying us to the man below.

I asked orders of the lady, and discussed ways and means with her. It was decided at once that I should go below and effect Newman's release-and she gave me the small key that the Chinaman had filched. I was the stronger and more active, and could more easily make my way about in the dark, cluttered lazaret; besides, her work lay above. Swope was evidently pleasuring himself by viewing and taunting his helpless prisoner; he must be drawn away from this amusement.

She could not go on deck herself, she said; Fitzgibbon was up there, and would see her-and she was supposed to be locked in her room. But she would send Wong on deck with a message to Mister Lynch; she would have Lynch sing out for the captain's presence on the poop. When the captain responded to the hail, I was to accomplish my task. I was to bring Newman to this room. What happened then depended upon chance-and Lynch. Newman and I must get forward, some way, and quiet the men; Lynch would take care of Swope. She had a fine faith in the second mate, had the lady.

I had never been in the lazaret, the task of breaking out stores having usually fallen to the stiffs. But from foc'sle gossip I knew it was a big storeroom, comprising the whole 'tweendeck beneath the cabin space. The Golden Bough, like most clippers of her day, sometimes carried emigrant passengers, and had need of a spacious lazaret.

The lady sketched the lay of the land for me. The hatch to the lazaret was in the saloon floor, well aft, on the starboard side. Wong was more familiar than any man with the lazaret's interior, and he had decided the deck should be cut through from this room, rather than at any other point. This, said the lady, was because farther aft, on this side of the ship, a strong room occupied the lazaret space (aye, the same strong room which so tickled the fancy of some of my shipmates!). The Chinaman had planned with foresight; he had even disposed stores below to convenience and shield the man who played rescuer. When I dropped through the hole, the lady told me, I would find myself in a narrow alleyway, walled with tiers of beef casks and other stores; if I followed this alleyway I would come to the lazaret hatch, near where Newman was secured.

She thought I should wait until I heard the captain leave the lazaret. But to this I demurred. The success of the scheme might well depend upon the leeway of a moment's time. The ship's noises, always present in a ship's hold, would cover any slight noise I might make. Truth to tell, that sound of Newman in pain had thrown me into a fever of impatience to get to his side; and I suspect it rendered the lady less cautious, too.

"God bless you, Boy-and, oh, be careful," she whispered.

I drew back the blanket, and lowered my body into the opening. I hung by my hands an instant, and felt her draw the blanket over my head as she covered the hole again. Then I let go, and dropped.

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