A LIST TO STARBOARD
By F. Hopkinson Smith
A short, square chunk of a man walked into a shipping office on the East Side, and inquired for the Manager of the Line. He had kindly blue eyes, a stub nose, and a mouth that shut to like a rat-trap, and stayed shut. Under his chin hung a pair of half-moon whiskers which framed his weather-beaten face as a spike collar frames a dog's.
"You don't want to send this vessel to sea again," blurted out the chunk. "She ought to go to the dry-dock. Her boats haven't had a brushful of paint for a year; her boilers are caked clear to her top flues, and her pumps won't take care of her bilge water. Charter something else and lay her up."
The Manager turned in his revolving chair and faced him. He was the opposite of the Captain in weight, length, and thickness—a slim, well-groomed, puffy-cheeked man of sixty with a pair of uncertain, badly aimed eyes and a voice like the purr of a cat.
"Oh, my dear Captain, you surely don't mean what you say. She is perfectly seaworthy and sound. Just look at her inspection—" and he passed him the certificate.
"No—I don't want to see it! I know 'em by heart: it's a lie, whatever it says. Give an inspector twenty dollars and he's stone blind."
The Manager laughed softly. He had handled too many rebellious captains in his time; they all had a protest of some kind—it was either the crew, or the grub, or the coal, or the way she was stowed. Then he added softly, more as a joke than anything else:
"Not afraid, are you, Captain?"
A crack started from the left-hand corner of the Captain's mouth, crossed a fissure in his face, stopped within half an inch of his stub nose, and died out in a smile of derision.
"What I'm afraid of is neither here nor there. There's cattle aboard—that is, there will be by to-morrow night; and there's a lot of passengers booked, some of 'em women and children. It isn't honest to ship 'em and you know it! As to her boilers send for the Chief Engineer. He'll tell you. You call it taking risks; I call it murder!"
"And so I understand you refuse to obey the orders of the Board?—and yet she's got to sail on the 16th if she sinks outside."
"When I refuse to obey the orders of the Board I'll tell the Board, not you. And when I do tell 'em I'll tell 'em something else, and that is, that this chartering of worn-out tramps, painting 'em up and putting 'em into the Line, has got to stop, or there'll be trouble."
"But this will be her last trip, Captain. Then we'll overhaul her."
"I've heard that lie for a year. She'll run as long as they can insure her and her cargo. As for the women and children, I suppose they don't count—" and he turned on his heel and left the office.
On the way out he met the Chief Engineer.
"Do the best you can, Mike," he said; "orders are we sail on the 16th."
On the fourth day out this conversation took place in the smoking-room between a group of passengers.
"Regular tub, this ship!" growled the Man-Who-Knew-It-All to the Bum Actor. "Screw out of the water every souse she makes; lot of dirty sailors skating over the decks instead of keeping below where they belong; Chief Engineer loafing in the Captain's room every chance he gets—there he goes now—and it's the second time since breakfast. And the Captain is no better! And just look at the accommodations—three stewards and a woman! What's that to look after thirty-five passengers? Half the time I have to wait an hour to get something to eat—such as it is. And my bunk wasn't made up yesterday until plumb night. That bunch in the steerage must be having a hard time."
"We get all we pay for," essayed the Travelling Man. "She ain't rigged for cabin passengers, and the Captain don't want 'em. Didn't want to take me—except our folks had a lot of stuff aboard. Had enough passengers, he said."
"Well, he took the widow and her two kids"—continued the Man-Who-Knew-It-All—"and they were the last to get aboard. Half the time he's playing nurse instead of looking after his ship. Had 'em all on the bridge yesterday."
"He had to take 'em," protested the Travelling Man. "She was put under his charge by his owners—so one of the stewards told me."
"Oh!—had to, did he! Yes—I've been there before. No use talking—this line's got to be investigated, and I'm going to do the investigating as soon as I get ashore, and don't you forget it! What's your opinion?"
The Bum Actor made no reply. He had been cold and hungry too many days and nights to find fault with anything. But for the generosity of a few friends he would still be tramping the streets, sleeping where he could. Three meals a day—four, if he wanted them—and a bed in a room all to himself instead of being one in a row of ten, was heaven to him. What the Captain, or the Engineer, or the crew, or anybody else did, was of no moment, so he got back alive. As to the widow's children, he had tried to pick up an acquaintance with them himself—especially the boy—but she had taken them away when she saw how shabby were his clothes.
The Texas Cattle Agent now spoke up. He was a tall, raw-boned man, with a red chin-whisker and red, weather-scorched face, whose clothing looked as if it had been pulled out of shape in the effort to accommodate itself to the spread of his shoulders and round of his thighs. His trousers were tucked in his boots, the straps hanging loose. He generally sat by himself in one corner of the cramped smoking-room, and seldom took part in the conversation. The Bum Actor and he had exchanged confidences the night before, and the Texan therefore felt justified in answering in his friend's stead.
"You're way off, friend," he said to the Man-Who-Knew-It-All. "There ain't nothin' the matter with the Line, nor the ship, nor the Captain. This is my sixth trip aboard of her, and I know! They had a strike among the stevedores the day we sailed, and then, too, we've got a scrub lot of stokers below, and the Captain's got to handle 'em just so. That kind gets ugly when anything happens. I had sixty head of cattle aboard here on my last trip over, and some of 'em got loose in a storm, and there was hell to pay with the crew till things got straightened out. I ain't much on shootin' irons, but they came handy that time. I helped and I know. Got a couple in my cabin now. Needn't tell me nothin' about the Captain. He's all there when he's wanted, and it don't take him more'n a minute, either, to get busy."
The door of the smoking-room opened and the object of his eulogy strolled in. He was evidently just off the bridge, for the thrash of the spray still glistened on his oilskins and on his gray, half-moon whiskers. That his word was law aboard ship, and that he enforced it in the fewest words possible, was evident in every line of his face and every tone of his voice. If he deserved an overhauling it certainly would not come from any one on board—least of all from Carhart—the Man-Who-Knew-It-All.
Loosening the thong that bound his so'wester to his chin, he slapped it twice across a chair back, the water flying in every direction, and then faced the room.
"Yes, sir," answered the big-shouldered Texan, rising to his feet.
"I'd like to see you for a minute," and without another word the two men left the room and made their way in silence down the wet deck to where the Chief Engineer stood.
"Mike, this is Mr. Bonner; you remember him, don't you? You can rely on his carrying out any orders you give him. If you need another man let him pick him out—" and he continued on to his cabin.
Once there the Captain closed the door behind him, shutting out the pound and swash of the sea; took from a rack over his bunk a roll of charts, spread one on a table and with his head in his hands studied it carefully. The door opened and the Chief Engineer again stood beside him. The Captain raised his head.
"Will Bonner serve?" he asked.
"Yes, glad to, and he thinks he's got another man. He's what he calls out his way a 'tenderfoot,' he says, but he's game and can be depended on. Have you made up your mind where she'll cross?"—and he bent over the chart.
The Captain picked up a pair of compasses, balanced them for a moment in his fingers, and with the precision of a seamstress threading a needle, dropped the points astride a wavy line known as the steamer track.
The engineer nodded:
"That will give us about twenty-two hours leeway," he said gravely, "if we make twelve knots."
"Yes, if you make twelve knots: can you do it?"
"I can't say; depends on that gang of shovellers and the way they behave. They're a tough lot—jail-birds and tramps, most of 'em. If they get ugly there ain't but one thing left; that, I suppose, you won't object to."
The Captain paused for a moment in deep thought, glanced at the pin prick in the chart, and said with a certain forceful meaning in his voice:
"No—not if there's no other way."
The Chief Engineer waited, as if for further reply, replaced his cap, and stepped out into the wind. He had got what he came for, and he had got it straight.
With the closing of the door the Captain rolled up the chart, laid it in its place among the others, readjusted the thong of his so'wester, stopped for a moment before a photograph of his wife and child, looked at it long and earnestly, and then mounted the stairs to the bridge. With the exception that the line of his mouth had straightened and the knots in his eyebrows tightened, he was, despite the smoking-room critics, the same bluff, determined sea-dog who had defied the Manager the week before.
When Bonner, half an hour later, returned to the smoking-room (he, too, had caught the splash of the sea, the spray drenching the rail), the Bum Actor crossed over and took the seat beside him. The Texan was the only passenger who had spoken to him since he came aboard, and he had already begun to feel lonely. This time he started the conversation by brushing the salt spray from the Agent's coat.
"Got wet, didn't you? Too bad! Wait till I wipe it off," and he dragged a week-old handkerchief from his pocket. Then seeing that the Texan took no notice of the attention, he added, "What did the Captain want?"
The Texan did not reply. He was evidently absorbed in something outside his immediate surroundings, for he continued to sit with bent back, his elbows on his knees, his eyes on the floor.
Again the question was repeated:
"What did the Captain want? Nothing the matter, is there?" Fear had always been his master—fear of poverty mostly—and it was poverty in the worst form to others if he failed to get home. This thought had haunted him night and day.
"Yes and no. Don't worry—it'll all come out right. You seem nervous."
"I am. I've been through a lot and have almost reached the end of my rope. Have you got a wife at home?" The Texan shook his head. "Well, if you had you'd understand better than I can tell you. I have, and a three-year-old boy besides. I'd never have left them if I'd known. I came over under contract for a six months' engagement and we were stranded in Pittsburg and had hard work getting back to New York. Some of them are there yet. All I want now is to get home—nothing else will save them. Here's a letter from her I don't mind showing you—you can see for yourself what I'm up against. The boy never was strong."
The big Texan read it through carefully, handed it back without a comment or word of sympathy, and then, with a glance around him, as if in fear of being overheard, asked:
"Can you keep your nerve in a mix-up?"
"Do you mean a fight?" queried the Actor.
"I don't like fights—never did." Anything that would imperil his safe return was to be avoided.
"I neither—but sometimes you've got to. Are you handy with a gun?"
"Nothing—I'm only asking."
Carhart, the Man-Who-Knew-It-All, here lounged over from his seat by the table and dropped into a chair beside them, cutting short his reply. The Texan gave a significant look at the Actor, enforcing his silence, and then buried his face in a newspaper a month old.
Carhart spread his legs, tilted his head back on the chair, slanted his stiff-brim hat until it made a thatch for his nose, and began one of his customary growls: to the room—to the drenched port-holes—to the brim of his hat; as a half-asleep dog sometimes does when things have gone wrong with him—or he dreams they have.
"This ship reminds me of another old tramp, the Persia," he drawled. "Same scrub crew and same cut of a Captain. Hadn't been for two of the passengers and me, we'd never got anywhere. Had a fire in the lower hold in a lot of turpentine, and when they put that out we found her cargo had shifted and she was down by the head about six feet. Then the crew made a rush for the boats and left us with only four leaky ones to go a thousand miles. They'd taken 'em all, hadn't been for me and another fellow who stood over them with a gun."
The Bum Actor raised his eyes.
"What happened then?" he asked in a nervous voice.
"Oh, we pitched in and righted things and got into port at last. But the Captain was no good; he'd a-left with the crew if we'd let him."
"Is the shifting of a cargo a serious matter?" continued the Actor. "This is my second crossing and I'm not much up on such things."
"Depends on the weather," interpolated a passenger.
"And on how she's stowed," continued Car-hart. "I've been mistrusting this ship ain't plumb on her keel. You can tell that from the way she falls off after each wave strikes her. I have been out on deck looking things over and she seems to me to be down by the stern more than she ought."
"Maybe she'll be lighter when more coal gets out of her," suggested another passenger.
"Yes, but she's listed some to starboard. I watched her awhile this morning. She ain't loaded right, or she's loaded wrong,-purpose. That occurs sometimes with a gang of striking stevedores."
The noon whistle blew and the talk ended with the setting of everybody's watch, except the Bum Actor's, whose timepiece decorated a shop-window in the Bowery.
That night one of those uncomfortable rumors, started doubtless by Carhart's talk, shivered through the ship, its vibrations even reaching the widow lying awake in her cabin. This said that some hundreds of barrels of turpentine had broken loose and were smashing everything below. If any one of them rolled into the furnaces an explosion would follow which would send them all to eternity. That this absurdity was immediately denied by the purser, who asserted with some vehemence that there was not a gallon of turpentine aboard, did not wholly allay the excitement, nor did it stifle the nervous anxiety which had now taken possession of the passengers.
As the day wore on several additional rumors joined those already extant. One was dropped in the ear of the Texan by the Bum Actor as the two stood on the upper deck watching the sea, which was rapidly falling.
"I got so worried I thought I'd go down into the engine room myself," he whispered. "I'm just back. Something's wrong down there, or I'm mistaken. I wish you'd go and find out. I knew that turpentine yarn was a lie, but I wanted to be sure, so I thought I'd ask one of the stokers who had come up for a little air. He was about to answer me when the Chief Engineer came down from the bridge, where he had been talking to the Captain, and ordered the man below before he had time to fill his lungs. I waited a little while, hoping he or some of the crew would come up again, and then I went down the ladder myself. When I got to the first landing I came bump up against the Chief Engineer. He was standing in the gangway fooling with a revolver he had in his hand as if he'd been cleaning it. 'I'll have to ask you to get back where you came from,' he said. 'This ain't no place for passengers'—and up I came. What do you think it means? I'd get ugly, too, if he kept me in that heat and never let me get a whiff of air. I tell you, that's an awful place down there. Suppose you go and take a look. Your knowing the Captain might make some difference."
"Were any of the stokers around?" "No—none of them. I didn't see a soul but the Chief Engineer, and I didn't see him more than a minute."
The big Texan moved closer to the rail and again scrutinized the sky-line. He had kept this up all the morning, his eye searching the horizon as he moved from one side of the ship to the other. The inspection over, he slipped his arm through the Actor's and started him down the deck toward the Cattle Agent's cabin. When the two emerged the Texan's face still wore the look which had rested on it since the time the Captain had called him from the smoking-room. The Actor's countenance, however, had undergone a change. All his nervous timidity was gone; his lips were tightly drawn, the line of the jaw more determined. He looked like a man who had heard some news which had first steadied and then solidified him. These changes often overtake men of sensitive, highly strung natures.
On the way back they encountered the Captain accompanied by the Chief Engineer. The two were heading for the saloon, the bugle having sounded for luncheon. As they passed by with their easy, swinging gait, the passengers watched them closely. If there was danger in the air these two officers, of all men, would know it. The Captain greeted the Texan with a significant look, waited until the Actor had been presented, looked the Texan's friend over from head to foot, and then with a nod to several of the others halted opposite a steamer chair in which sat the widow and her two children—one a baby and the other a boy of four—a plump, hugable little fellow, every inch of whose surface invited a caress.
"Please stay a minute and let me talk to you, Captain," the widow pleaded. "I've been so worried. None of these stories are true, are they? There can't be any danger or you would have told me—wouldn't you?"
The Captain laughed heartily, so heartily that even the Chief Engineer looked at him in astonishment. "What stories do you hear, my dear lady?"
"That the steamer isn't loaded properly?"
Again the Captain laughed, this time under the curls of the chubby boy whom he had caught in his arms and was kissing eagerly.
"Not loaded right?" he puffed at last when he got his breath. "Well, well, what a pity! That yarn, I guess, comes from some of the navigators in the smoking-room. They generally run the ship. Here, you little rascal, turn out your toes and dance a jig for me. No—no—not that way—this way-r-out with them! Here, let me show you. One—two—off we go. Now the pigeon wing and the double twist and the rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat—that's the way, my lad!"
He had the boy's hands now, the child shouting with laughter, the overjoyed mother clapping her hands as the big burly Captain with his face twice as red from the exercise, danced back and forth across the deck, the passengers forming a ring about them.
"There!" sputtered the Captain, all out of breath from the exercise, as he dropped the child back into the widow's arms. "Now all of you come down to luncheon. The weather is getting better every minute. The glass is rising and we are going to have a fine night."
Carhart, who had watched the whole performance with an ill-concealed sneer on his face, muttered to the man next him:
"What did I tell you? He's a pretty kind of a Captain, ain't he? He's mashed on the widow just as I told you. Smoking-room yarn, is it? I bet I could pick out half a dozen men right in them chairs who could run the ship as well as he does. Maybe we'll have to take charge, after all—don't you think so, Mr. Bonner?"
The Texan smiled grimly: "I'll let you do the picking, Mr. Carhart—" and with his hand on the Actor's arm, the two went below.
A counter-current now swept through the ship. If anything was really the matter the Captain would not be dancing jigs, nor would he leave the bridge for his meals. This, like all other counter-currents—wave or otherwise—tossed up a bobble of dispute when the two clashed. There was no doubt about it: Carhart had been "talking through his hat"—"shooting off his mouth"—the man was "a gas bag," etc., etc. When appeal for confirmation was made to the Texan and the Actor, who now seemed inseparable, neither made reply. They evidently did not care to be mixed up in what Bonner characterized with a grim smile as "more hot air."
All through the meal the Captain kept up his good-natured mood; chatting with the widow who sat on his right, the baby in her lap; making a pig of a lemon and some tooth-picks for the boy, who had crawled up into his arms; exchanging nods and smiles down the length of the table with several new arrivals, or congratulating those nearest to him on their recovery after the storm, ending by carrying both boy and baby to the upper deck—so that he might "not forget how to handle" his own when he got back, he laughed in explanation.
Luncheon over, the passengers, many of whom had been continuously in their berths, began to crowd the decks. These soon discovered that the ship was not on an even keel; a fact confirmed when attention was called to the slant of the steamer chairs and the roll of an orange toward the scuppers. Explanation was offered by the Texan, who argued that the wind had hauled, and being then abeam had given her a list to starboard. This, while not wholly satisfactory to the more experienced, allayed the fears of the women—there were two or three on board beside the widow—who welcomed the respite from the wrench and stagger of the previous hours.
Attention was now drawn by a nervous passenger to a gang of sailors under the First Officer, who were at work overhauling the boats on the forward deck, immediately under the eyes of the Captain who had returned to the bridge, as well as to an approaching wall of fog which, while he was speaking, had blanketed the ship, sending two of the boat gang on a run to the bow. The fog-horn also blew continuously, almost without intermission. Now and then it too would give three short, sharp snorts, as if of warning.
The passengers had now massed themselves in groups, some touch of sympathy, or previous acquaintance, or trait of courage but recently discovered, having drawn them together. Again the Captain passed down the deck. This time he stopped to light a cigarette from a passenger's cigar, remarking as he did so that it was "as thick as pea soup on the bridge, but he thought it would lighten before morning." Then halting beside the chair of an old lady who had but recently appeared on deck, he congratulated her on her recovery and kept on his way to the boats.
The widow, however, was still anxious.
"What are they doing with the boats?" she asked, her eyes following the Captain's disappearing figure.
"Only overhauling them, madam," spoke up the Texan, who had stationed himself near her chair.
"But isn't that unusual!" she inquired in a tremulous voice.
"No, madam, just precaution, and always a safe one in a fog. Collision comes so quick sometimes they don't have time even to clear the davits."
"But the sailors are carrying up boxes and kegs and putting them in the boats; what's that for?" broke in another passenger, who had been leaning over the forward rail.
"Grub and water, I guess," returned the Texan. "It's a thousand miles to the nearest land, and there ain't no bakery on the way that I know of. Can't be too careful when there's women and babies aboard, especially little fellows like these—" and he ran his hand through the boy's curls. "The Captain don't take no chances. That's what I like him for."
Again the current of hope submerged the current of despair. The slant of the deck, however, increased, although the wind had gone down; so much so that the steamer chairs had to be lashed to the iron hand-hold skirting the wall of the upper cabins. So had the fog, which was now so dense that it hid completely the work of the boat gang.
With the passing of the afternoon and the approach of night, thus deepening the gloom, there was added another and a new anxiety to the drone of the fog-horn. This was a Coston signal which flashed from the bridge, flooding the deck with light and pencilling masts and rigging in lines of fire. These flashes kept up at intervals of five minutes, the colors changing from time to time.
An indefinable fear now swept through the vessel. The doubters and scoffers from the smoking-room who stood huddled together near the forward companion-way talked in whispers. The slant of the deck they argued might be due to a shift of the cargo—a situation serious, but not dangerous—but why burn Costons? The only men who seemed to be holding their own, and who were still calm and undisturbed, were the Texan and the Actor. These, during the conference, had moved toward the flight of steps leading to the bridge and had taken their positions near the bottom step, but within reach of the widow's chair. Once the Actor loosened his coat and slipped in his hand as if to be sure of something he did not want to lose.
While this was going on the Captain left the bridge in charge of the Second Officer and descended to his cabin. Reaching over his bunk, he unhooked the picture of his wife and child, tore it from its frame, looked at it intently for a moment, and then, with a sigh, slid it into an inside pocket. This done, he stripped off his wet storm coat, thrust his arms into a close-fitting reefing jacket, unhooked a holster from its place, dropped its contents into his outside pocket, and walked slowly down the flight of steps to where the Texan and the Actor stood waiting.
Then, facing the passengers, and in the same tone of voice with which he would have ordered a cup of coffee from a steward, he said:
"My friends, I find it necessary to abandon the ship. There is time enough and no necessity for crowding. The boats are provisioned for thirty days. The women and children will go first: this order will be literally carried out; those who disobey it will have to be dealt with in another way. This, I hope, you will not make necessary. I will also tell you that I believe we are still within the steamer zone, although the fog and weather have prevented any observation. Do you stay here, madam. I'll come for you when I am ready—" and he laid his hand encouragingly on the widow's arm.
With this he turned to the Texan and the Actor:
"You understand, both of you, do you not, Mr. Bonner? You and your friend will guard the aft companion-way, and help the Chief Engineer take care of the stokers and the steerage. I and the First Officer will fill the boats."
The beginning of a panic is like the beginning of a fire: first a curl of smoke licking through a closed sash, then a rush of flame, and then a roar freighted with death. Its subduing is along similar lines: A sharp command clearing the way, concentrated effort, and courage.
Here the curl of smoke was an agonized shriek from an elderly woman who fell fainting on the deck; the rush of flame was a wild surge of men hurling themselves toward the boats, and the roar which meant death was the frenzied throng of begrimed half-naked stokers and crazed emigrants who were wedged in a solid mass in the companion-way leading to the upper deck. The subduing was the same.
"Back, all of you!" shouted the Engineer. "The first man who passes that door without my permission I'll kill! Five of you at a time—no crowding—keep 'em in line, Mr. Bonner—you and your friend!"
The Texan and the Bum Actor were within three feet of him as he spoke—the Texan as cool as if he were keeping count of a drove of steers, except that he tallied with the barrel of a six-shooter instead of a note-book and pencil. The Bum Actor's face was deathly white and his pistol hand trembled a little, but he did not flinch. He ranged the lucky ones in line farther along, and kept them there. "Anything to get home," he had told the Texan when he had slipped Bonner's other revolver, an hour before, into his pocket.
On the saloon deck the flame of fear was still raging, although the sailors and the three stewards were so many moving automatons under the First Officer's orders. The widow, with her baby held tight to her breast, had not moved from where the Captain had placed her, nor had she uttered a moan. The crisis was too great for anything but implicit obedience. The Captain had kept his word, and had told her when danger threatened; she must now wait for what God had in store for her. The boy stood by the First Officer; he had clapped his hands and laughed when he saw the first boat swung clear of the davits.
Carhart was the color of ashes and could hardly articulate. He had edged up close to the gangway where the boats were to be filled. Twice he had tried to wedge himself between the First Officer and the rail and twice had been pushed back—the last time with a swing that landed him against a pile of steamer chairs.
All this time the fog-horn had kept up its monotonous din, the Costons flaring at intervals. The stoppage of either would only have added to the terror now partly allayed by the Captain's encouraging talk, which was picked up and repeated all over the ship.
The first boat was now ready for passengers.
"This way, madam—you first—" the Captain said to the widow. "You must go alone with the baby, and I—"
He did not finish the sentence. Something had caught his ear—something that made him lunge heavily toward the rail, his eyes searching the gloom, his hand cupped to his ear.
"Hold hard, men!" he cried. "Keep still-all of you!"
Out of the stillness of the night came the moan of a distant fog-horn. This was followed by a wild cheer from the men at the boat davits. At the same instant a dim, far-away light cut its way through the black void, burned for a moment, and disappeared like a dying star.
Another cheer went up. This time the watch on the foretop and the men astride the nose sent it whirling through the choke and damp with an added note of joy.
The Captain turned to the widow.
"That's her—that's the St. Louis! I've been hoping for her all day, and didn't give up until the fog shut in."
"And we can stay here!"
"No—we haven't a moment to lose. Our fires are nearly out now. We've been in a sinking condition for forty-eight hours. We sprung a leak where we couldn't get at it, and our pumps are clogged.
"Stand aside, men! All ready, madam! No, you can't manage them both—give me the boy,—I'll bring him in the last boat."