Mate of the Ship "Pirate"
By T. Jenkins Hains
Author of "The Wind-jammers," "The Wreck of the Conemaugh," etc.
To All Hands under the lee of the weather cloth this is inscribed
By some means, needless to record here, I found myself, not so many years ago, "on the beach" at Melbourne, in Australia.
To be on the beach is not an uncommon occurrence for a sailor in any part of the world; but, since the question is suggested, I will say that I was not a very dissipated young fellow of twenty-five, for up to that time I had never even tasted rum in any form, although I had followed the sea for seven years.
I had held a mate's berth, and as I did not care to ship before the mast on the first vessel bound out, I had remained ashore until a threatening landlord made it necessary for me to become less particular as to occupation.
It was a time when mates were plenty and men were few, so I made the rounds of the shipping houses with little hope of getting a chance to show my papers. These, together with an old quadrant, a nautical almanac, a thick pea coat, and a pipe, were all I possessed of this world's goods, and I carried the quadrant with me in case I should not succeed in signing on. I could "spout it," if need be, at some broker's, and thus raise a few dollars.
As I made my way along the water front, I noticed a fine clipper ship of nearly two thousand tons lying at a wharf. She was in the hands of a few riggers, who were sending aloft her canvas, which, being of a snowy whiteness, proclaimed her nationality even before I could see her hull. On reaching the wharf where she lay, I stopped and noticed that she was loaded deep, for her long black sides were under to within four feet of her main deck in the waist.
Her high bulwarks shut off my view of her deck; but, from the sounds that came down from there, I could tell that she was getting in the last of her cargo.
I walked to her stern and read her name in gilt letters: "Pirate, of Philadelphia." Then I remembered her. She was a Yankee ship of evil reputation, and although I wanted to get back to my home in New York, I turned away thankful that I was not homeward bound in that craft. She had come into port a month before and had reported three men missing from her papers. There were no witnesses; but the sight of the rest of the crew told the story of the disappearance of their shipmates, and the skipper had been clapped into jail. I had heard of the ruffian's sinister record before, and inwardly hoped he would get his deserts for his brutality, although I knew there was little chance for it. He belonged to the class of captains that was giving American packets the hard name they were getting, so I heartily wished him evil.
As I turned, looking up at the beautiful fabric with her long, tapering, t'gallant masts, topped with skysail yards fore and aft, and her tremendous lower yards nearly ninety feet across, I thought what a splendid ship she was. It made me angry to think of what a place she must be for the poor devils who would unwittingly ship aboard her. Only a sailor knows how much of suffering in blows and curses it cost to accomplish all that clean paint and scraped spar.
"Kind o' good hooker, hey?" said a voice close aboard me, and looking quickly aft I saw a man leaning over the taffrail. He was a strange-looking fellow, with a great hairy face and bushy head set upon the broadest of shoulders. As for his legs, he appeared not to have any at all, for the rail was but three feet high and his shoulders just reached above it; his enormously long arms were spread along the rail, elbows outward, and his huge hands folded over the bowl of a pipe which he sucked complacently.
"Not so bad to look at," I answered, meaningly.
"She is a brute in a seaway, but she keeps dry at both ends," assented the fellow, utterly ignoring my meaning. "It's always so with every hooker if she's deep. Some takes it forrad and aft, and some takes it amidships. It's all one s'long as she keeps a dry bilge. Come aboard."
I hesitated, and then climbed up the mizzen channels, which were level with the wharf.
"Short handed?" I suggested, reaching the deck.
"Naw, there's nobody but me an' the doctor in the after guard; we'll get a crew aboard early in the morning, though; skipper, too, if what they say is kerrect."
"Where's the captain?" I asked.
He looked queerly at me for a moment; then he spread his short legs wide apart, and thrust his great hands into his trousers pockets before speaking.
"Ain't ye never heard? Limbo, man, and a bad job, too." Here he made a motion with his hand around his neck which I understood.
I hesitated about staying any longer, and he spoke up.
"Got a hog-yoke, I see," he said, "Be ye a mate?"
I told him I had been.
"Well, sink me, my boy, that's just what I am aboard here, and they'll be looking for another to match me. I saw what ye were when I first raised ye coming along the dock, and sez I, ye're just my size, my bully."
As he could have walked under my arm when extended horizontally, I saw he had no poor opinion of himself. However, his words conveyed a ray of hope.
"Is the mate with the skipper?" I asked.
"The second mate is, yep; but he won't raise bail. The old man might though, quien sabe? The agents will hail us to-night and settle matters, for we're on the load line and nigh steved. We can't wait."
I reflected a moment. Here was a possible chance for a mate's berth, and perhaps the skipper would not get bail, after all. In that case I thought I could hardly manage better, for my fear of the little mate was not overpowering. I was not exactly of a timid nature,—a man seldom rises to be mate of a deep-water ship who is,—but I always dreaded a brutal skipper on account of his absolute authority at sea, where there is no redress. I had once been mixed up in an affair concerning the disappearance of one, on a China trader—but no matter. The affair in hand was tempting and I waited developments.
The little mate saw my course and laid his accordingly.
"S'pose you come around about knock-off time. The agents will be along about then—Sauers and Co.; you know them; and I'll fix the thing for you."
"All right," I said, and after a little conversation relating to the merits of various ships, the Pirate in particular, I left and made my way back to my lodgings.
I notified my landlord of my proposed voyage, and he was as gracious as could be expected, at the same time expressing some wonderment at the suddenness of my good fortune.
The more I thought of the matter, the more I felt like trying elsewhere for a berth; but the time flew so rapidly that I found myself on the way to the ship before my misgivings took too strong hold of me.
As I turned down the principal thoroughfare, feeling in a more humorous frame of mind at the many possibilities open to me, I heard a shout. The sound came from a side street, and I looked to see what it meant. Through the door of a saloon a man shot head-long as if fired from a gun. He struck in the gutter and staggered to his feet, where he was immediately surrounded by the crowd of men that had followed him. This promised much in the way of diversion, and I stopped to see what hidden force lurked behind the door of the saloon. As I did so, a short fellow with a great bushy head emerged, struggling with half a dozen men who bore down upon him and tried to surround and seize him. The little man's face was red from exertion and liquor, but when I caught a glimpse of his great squat nose and huge mouth I had no difficulty in recognizing my acquaintance on the Pirate. He backed rapidly away from his antagonists, swinging a pair of arms each of which seemed to be fully half a fathom long while every instant he let out a yell that sounded like the bellow of a mad bull. Suddenly he turned and made off down the street at an astonishing pace for one with such short legs, still letting out a yell at every jump.
The men who had set upon him hesitated an instant before they realized he was getting away; then they started after him, shouting and swearing at a great rate. He was up to me in an instant, and as he dashed by I narrowly missed a clip from his hand, which he swung viciously at me as he passed. I saw in a moment he couldn't escape at the rate he was moving, in spite of his tremendous exertions, so I stepped aside to watch him as the crowd rushed past in pursuit.
The little mate's legs were working like the flying pistons of a locomotive, and his bush hair and beard were streaming aft in the breeze as he neared the corner. Suddenly he stopped, turned about, and dashed right into the foremost of the crowd, letting out a screech and swinging his long arms.
"Git out th' way! Th' devil's broke loose an's comin' for ye," he howled as he sent the foremost man to the pavement. "Don't stop me. I ain't got no time to stop. Don't stop a little bumpkin buster what's got business in both hands. Stand away, or I'll run ye down and sink ye," and he tore through the men, who grabbed him and grappled to get him down. In a second he was going up the street again in exactly the opposite direction, having hurled over or dashed aside the fellows who had seized him.
"Soo—oo—a-y!" he bellowed as he passed. Then he rushed to a doorway where stood a boy's bicycle. He jumped upon the saddle with another yell as he pushed the machine before him, and the next instant was whirling down the thoroughfare with the rapidity of an express train, bawling for people to "Stand clear!" In another moment he was out of sight, in a cloud of dust, and his yells fell to a drone in the distance.
I was in no hurry to get down to the dock, so I strolled around the streets for some time. Then, thinking that the little mate had about run himself out, I made my way to the wharf where the Pirate lay.
As I drew near the ship, I was aware of a bushy head above her port quarter-rail, and in a moment the little mate, Trunnell, looked over and hailed me. He was smoking so composedly and appeared so cool and satisfied that I could hardly believe it was the same man I had seen running amuck but an hour before.
"Have a good ride?" I asked.
"So, so; 'twas a bit of a thing to do, though I ain't never rid one of them things afore. They wanted me to cough up stuff for the whole crowd. But nary a cough. One or two drinks is about all I can stand; so when I feels good ye don't want to persuade me over much. Come aboard."
He led me below, where we were joined by the "doctor," a good-looking negro, who, having washed up his few dishes and put out the fire in his galley, came aft and assumed an importance in keeping with a cook of an American clipper ship.
We sat in the forward cabin and chatted for a few minutes, becoming better acquainted, and I must say they both acquitted themselves very creditably for members of the after guard of that notorious vessel. But I had learned long ago that there were good men on all ships, and I was not more than ordinarily surprised at my reception.
The forward cabin was arranged as on all American ships of large tonnage,—that is, with the house built upon the main deck, the forward end of which was a passage athwartships to enable one to get out from either side when the vessel was heeled over at a sharp angle. Next came the mates' rooms on either side of two alleyways leading into the forward saloon, and between the alleyways were closets and lockers. The saloon was quite large and had a table fastened to the floor in the centre, where we now sat and awaited the appearance of the agents. Aft of this saloon, and separated from it by a bulkhead, was the captain's cabin and the staterooms for whatever passengers the ship might carry.
While we were talking I heard a hail. Mr. Trunnell, the mate, instantly jumped to his feet and sprang up the companionway aft, his short, stout legs curving well outward, and giving him the rolling motion often noticed in short sailors. In a moment there were sounds of footsteps on deck, and several men started down the companionway.
The first that reached the cabin deck was a large man with a flowing beard and sharp eyes which took in every object in the cabin at a glance. He came into the forward saloon, and the "doctor" stood up to receive him. He took no notice of the cook, however, but looked sharply at me. Then the mate came in with two other men who showed in a hundred ways that they were captains of sailing ships. The large man addressed one of these. He was a short, stout man with sandy hair; he wore thin gold earrings, and his sun-bronzed face showed that he had but recently come ashore.
"If you don't want to take her out, Cole," said the large man, roughly, "say so and be done with it. I can get Thompson."
"There's nothing in it without the freight money. Halve it and it's a go."
"Andrews has the whole of it according to contract."
"But he's jugged."
"He'll need it all the more," put in the other captain, who was one of the agents. "Colonel Fermoy has put the rate as high as he can."
"I'm sorry, colonel," said the stout skipper, turning to the large man. "Halve or nothing."
"All right, then, nothing. Mr. Trunnell," he continued, turning to the mate, "Captain Cole will not take you out in the morning as he promised. I'll send Captain Thompson along this evening, or the first thing in the morning. I suppose you know him, so it won't be necessary for me to come down again. Is this your mate?" And he looked at me.
"Yessir, that's him," said Mr. Trunnell.
"Got your papers with you?" asked the colonel.
I pulled them out of my pocket and laid them upon the table. He glanced at them a moment and then returned them.
"All right; get your dunnage aboard this evening and report at the office at nine o'clock to-night. Eight pounds, hey?"
I almost gasped. Eight pounds for second mate! Five was the rule.
"Aye, aye, sir," I answered.
"Done. Bear a hand, Mr. Trunnell. Jenkinson will have a crew at five in the morning. Good night." And he turned and left, followed by all except the "doctor," who remained with me until they were ashore. Mr. Trunnell came aboard again in a few minutes, and after thanking him for getting me the job I left the ship and went to attend to my affairs before clearing.
I had my "dunnage" sent aboard and then stopped at the office and signed on. After that, the night being young, I strolled along the more frequented streets and said farewell to my few acquaintances.
I arrived at the ship before midnight and found the only man there to be the watchman. Trunnell and the "doctor" had gone uptown, he said, for a last look around. I turned in at the bottom of an empty berth in one of the staterooms and waited for the after guard to turn to.
The mate came aboard about three in the morning, and as there was much to do, he stuck his head into a bucket of water and tried to get clear of the effects of the bad liquor he had taken. The "doctor" followed a little later, and fell asleep on the cabin floor.
"Has the old man turned up?" asked the mate, bawling into my resting place and rousing me.
"Haven't seen any one come aboard," I answered.
"Well, I reckon he'll be alongside in a few minutes; so you better stand by for a call."
While he spoke, the watchman on deck hailed some one, and a moment later a steady tramp sounded along the main deck, and a man came through the port door and into the alleyway.
He hesitated for an instant, while a young man with rosy cheeks and light curly hair followed through the door and halted alongside the first comer.
The stranger was tall and slender, with a long face, and high, sharp features, his nose curving like a parrot's beak over a heavy dark mustache. His face was pale and his skin had the clear look of a man who never is exposed to the sun. But his eyes were the objects that attracted my gaze. They were bright as steel points and looked out from under heavy, straight brows with a quick, restless motion I had observed to belong to men used to sudden and desperate resolves. He advanced into the cabin and scrutinized the surroundings carefully before speaking.
"I suppose you are Mr. Trunnell," he said to me, for I had now arisen and stood in the doorway of the stateroom. His voice was low and distinct, and I noticed it was not unpleasant.
"I have that honor," said the little mate, with drunken gravity, sobering quickly, however, under the stranger's look.
"There are no passengers?" asked the man, as the younger companion opened the door leading into the captain's cabin and gazed within.
"Not a bleeding one, and I'm not sorry for that," said Trunnell; "the old man wasn't built exactly on passenger lines."
"You wouldn't take a couple, then, say for a good snug sum?"
"Well, that's the old man's lay, and I can't say as to the why and wherefore. He'll probably be along in an hour or two at best, for the tug will be alongside in a few minutes. We're cleared, and we'll get to sea as soon as the bloody crimp gets the bleeding windjammers aboard. They ought to be along presently."
"Em-m-m," said the man, and stroked his chin thoughtfully. "He'll be along shortly, will he,—and you are all ready. I think I can hear the tug coming now, hey? Isn't that it?"
"S'pose so," answered the mate.
"Well, just let me insinuate to you politely, my boy, that the sooner you clear, the better;" his voice was low and full of meaning, and he leaned toward the mate in a menacing manner; "and if I have to speak to you more than once, my little friend, you will find out the kind of man Captain Thompson is. Can you rise to that?"
Trunnell shrank from the stranger's look, for he stuck his face right into the mate's, and as he finished he raised his voice to its full volume. The liquor was still in the stout little fellow's head, and he drew back one of his long arms as if about to strike; then quickly recovering himself, he scratched his head and stepped back a pace.
"How the bleeding thunder could I tell you were Captain Thompson, when you come aboard here and ask for a passage?" he demanded. "I meant no disrespect. Not a bit. No, sir, not a bloody bit. I'm here for further orders. Yessir, I'm here for further orders and nothin' else. Sing out and I go."
It was plain that the little bushy-headed fellow was not afraid, for he squared his broad shoulders and stood at attention like a man who has dealt with desperate men and knew how to get along with them. At the same time he knew his position and was careful not to go too far. He was evidently disturbed, however, for the little thin silver rings in his ears shook from either nervousness or the effects of liquor.
The tall man looked keenly at him, and appeared to think. Then he smiled broadly.
"Well, you are a clever little chap, Trunnell," he said; "but for discernment I don't think you'd lay a very straight course, hey? isn't that it? Not a very straight course. But with my help I reckon we'll navigate this ship all right. Who's this?" and he turned toward me.
"That's Mr. Rolling, the second mate. Didn't you meet him at the office? He was there only a couple of hours ago. Just signed on this evening."
"Ah, yes, I see. A new hand, hey? Well, Mr. Rolling, I suppose you know what's expected of you. I don't interfere with my mates after I get to sea. Can you locate the ship and reckon her course?"
I told him I could; and although I did not like the unnautical way this stranger had about him, I was glad to hear that he did not interfere with his mates. If he were some hard skipper the agents had taken at a pinch, it was just as well for him to keep to himself aft, and let his mates stand watch as they should on every high-class ship. The young man, or rather boy, who had come aboard with him, looked at me curiously with a pair of bright blue eyes, while the captain spoke, and appeared to enjoy the interrogation, for he smiled pleasantly.
"Everything is all ready, as I see," the captain continued. "So I'll go to bed awhile until my things come aboard. This young man will be third mate, Mr. Trunnell, and I'll put him under your care. He will go ashore now and see to the trunks. But let me know the minute the crew come down, for I won't wait for anything after that. You can let the tug take the line and be ready to pull us out."
Then the skipper went into the captain's cabin, and we saw him no more for several hours. The young man went back up town, and half an hour later returned with a cab containing a trunk, which was put in the after-cabin. The skipper heard the noise and bade them not reawaken him under any circumstances until the ship was well out at sea.
"If I have to get up and see to our leaving, some one will be sorry for it," he said, in his menacing voice, and Mr. Trunnell was quite content to leave him alone.
At five in the morning the boarding master brought down the men, and a sorry lot of sailors they were. They counted nineteen all told, and half of them could not speak English. I went among them and searched their dunnage for liquor and weapons, and after finding plenty of both, I bundled the entire outfit into the forecastle and let them sort it the best they could, with the result that they all struck a fair average in the way of clothes. Those who were too drunk to be of any use I let alone, and they made a dirty mess of the clean forecastle. The rest I turned to with some energy and soon had our towing gear overhauled.
There was now a considerable crowd collecting on the dock to watch the ship clear, and as it was still too dark to see objects distinctly, I couldn't tell what was taking place in the waist, for I had to attend sharply to the work on the topgallant forecastle. Mr. Trunnell bawled for the tug to pull away, and the ship started to leave the dock.
At that instant a man rushed through the crowd and sprang upon the rail amidships, where, seizing some of the running rigging, he let himself down to the main deck. He looked aft at Mr. Trunnell, and then seeing that the mate had command of the ship, he looked into the forward cabin and came to where I stood bawling out orders to the men who were passing the tow-line outside the rigging. I called to him and asked who he was and what he wanted, and he told me quickly that he was the twentieth man of the crew and had almost got left.
"What?" I asked; "after getting your advance money?" And I smiled as I thought of his chance of getting away without being caught.
"I never welsh, sir," he replied, "and as I signed on, so will I work. I never skinned a ship yet out of sixpence."
"Most remarkable," I sneered; but the fellow had such a frank, open face that I felt sorry afterward. He was a young man and had probably not learned enough about ships to have such delicate scruples. He had a smooth face and looked intelligent, although it was evident that he was not much of a sailor.
"Well, don't stand gaping. Get to work and show what you are made of. Stow those slops of yours and get into a jumper quick. Where's your bag?" I continued.
"I haven't any."
"Well, lay up there and help loose the maintopsail. Don't stand here."
He looked bewildered for a moment and then started up the fore rigging.
"Here, you blazing idiot," I bawled. "What are you about? Don't you know one end of a ship from another?"
The fellow came to me and spoke in a low voice.
"I have never shipped before the mast—only as cook, or steward," he said.
"Well, you infernal beggar, do you mean to say that you've passed yourself off as a seaman or sailor here?" I cried.
"Then, blast you, if I don't make a sailor of you before you get clear of the ship," I said with some emphasis; for the idea of all hands being incapable made me angry, as the ship would be dependent entirely upon the sailors aboard, until we had taught the landsmen something. The whole outfit was such a scurvy lot it made me sick to think of what would happen if it should come on to blow suddenly and we had to shorten down to reefed topsails. The Pirate had double topsail yards fore and aft and all the modern improvements for handling canvas; but her yards were tremendous, and to lift either of her courses on the yards would take not less than half a dozen men even in good weather.
The fellow hung about while I dressed him down and told him about what a worthless specimen of humanity he was. Finally I sent him aft to help where he could, and he lent a hand at the braces in the waist under the direction of Mr. Trunnell, who stood on the break of the poop, with the young third mate beside him, and gave his orders utterly oblivious to the boy's presence.
In a short time we made an offing, and as the pilot was on the tug, we had only to let go the line and stand away on our course. The t'gallant yards were sent up, then the royals sheeted home, and by dint of great effort and plenty of bawling we got the canvas on her fore and aft and trimmed the yards so as to make each one look as if at odds with its fellows, but yet enough to make a fair wind of the gentle southerly breeze. Then we let go the tow-line and stood to the westward, while the little tug gave a parting whistle and went heading away into the rising sun astern.
I will say now that when I look back on that morning it is evident there was a lack of discipline or command on board the Pirate; but at the time it did not appear to me to be the fact, because the lack of discipline was not apparent in my watch. Trunnell and I divided up the men between us, and I believe I laid down the law pretty plain to the Dagos and Swedes who fell to my lot. They couldn't understand much of what I said, but they could tell something of my meaning when I held up a rope's-end and belaying-pin before their eyes and made certain significant gestures in regard to their manipulation. This may strike the landsman as unnecessary and somewhat brutal; but, before he passes judgment, he should try to take care of a lot of men who are, for a part, a little lower than beasts.
If a man can understand the language you use, he can sometimes be made to pay attention if he has the right kind of men over him, but when he cannot understand and goes to sea with the certain knowledge he is on a hard ship and will probably come to blows in a few minutes, he must have some ocular demonstration of what is coming if he doesn't jump when a mate sings out to him. Often the safety of the entire ship depends upon the quickness with which an order can be carried out, and a man must not hang back when the danger is deadly. He must do as he is told, instantly and without question; if he gets killed—why, there is no great loss, for any owner or skipper can get a crew aboard at any of the large ports of trade. Of course, if he takes a different point of view, the only thing for him to do is to stay on the beach. He must not ship on a sailing packet that is carrying twenty percent more freight than the law allows and is getting from three to four dollars a ton for carrying it some ten or fifteen thousand miles over every kind of ocean between the frigid zones. My men were surly enough, perhaps because they had heard what kind of treatment they should expect; so after I had told them what they must do, I bade them go below and straighten out their dunnage.
Mr. Trunnell, after separating his men from mine, cursed them individually and collectively as everything he could think of, and only stopped to scratch his big bushy head to figure out some new condemnations. While doing this he saw me coming from the port side, and forthwith he told me to take charge of the ship, as he was dead beat out and would have to soak his head again before coming on watch. He smelled horribly of stale liquor, and his eyes were bloodshot. I thought he would be just as well off below, so I made no protest against taking command.
"Ye see, I never am used to it," he said, with a grin. "I can't drink nothin'. Stave me, Rollins, but the first thing I'll be running foul of some of these Dagos, and I don't want a fracas until I see the lay of the old man. He's a queer one for sure, hey? Did you ever see a skipper with such a look? Sech bleeding eyes—an' nose, hey? Like the beak of an old albatross. He hasn't come out to lay the course yet, but let her go. She'll head within half a point of what she's doin' now. Sink me, but I don't believe there's three bloomin' beggars in my watch as can steer the craft, and she's got a new wheel gear on her too. Call me if the old man comes on deck." As he finished he staggered into the door of the forward cabin and made for his room, leaving me in command.
I went aft and saw the lubber's mark holding on west by south, and after being satisfied that the man steering could tell port from starboard, I climbed the steps to the poop and took a good look around. It was a beautiful morning and the sun shone brightly over our quarter-rail. The land behind us stood boldly outlined against the sky, and the lumpy clouds above were rosy with sunlight.
The air was cool, but not too sharp for comfort; the breeze from the southward blew steadily and just sent the tops of the waves to foam, here and there, like white stars appearing and disappearing on the expanse to windward. The Pirate lay along on the port tack, and with her skysails to her trucks she made a beautiful sight. Her canvas was snowy white, showing that no money had been spared on her sails. Her spars were all painted or scraped and her standing rigging tarred down to a beautiful blackness. Only on deck and among the ropes of her running gear was shown that sign of untidiness which distinguishes the merchant vessel from the man-of-war.
I managed to get some hands to work on the braces, and finally got the yards trimmed shipshape and in the American fashion. That was, with the lower yards sharp on the back-stays, the topsails a little further aft, the t'gallant a little further still, until the main-skysail was almost touching with its weather leach cutting into the breeze a point or more forward of the weather beam. The fore and aft canvas was trimmed well, and the outer jibs lifted the ship along at a slapping rate. She was evidently fast in spite of her load, and I looked over the side at the foam that was seething past the lee channels in swirls and eddies which gave forth a cheerful hissing sound as they slipped aft at the rate of six knots an hour. The man at the wheel held her easily, and that was a blessing; for nothing is much worse for a mate's discomfort than a wild ship sheering from side to side leaving a wake like the path of some monstrous snake.
When I looked again on the main deck I saw the figure of a man whom I failed to recognize as a member of the ship's company. He was standing near the opening of the after-hatchway, which had not yet been battened down, and his gaze was fixed upon me. He was a broad-shouldered fellow, about the average height, and was dressed in a tight-fitting black coat which reached to his knees. On his head was a skull cap with a long tassel hanging down from its top, and in his mouth was a handsome meerschaum pipe, which hung down by its stem to the middle of his breast. His beard was long and just turning gray, and his eyebrows were heavy and prominent.
I stood staring at the figure, and I must say I never saw a more brutal expression upon a man's face. His large mouth and thick lips appeared to wear a sneering smile, while his eyes twinkled with undisguised amusement. His nose was large and flat like a Hottentot's, and while I gazed at him in astonishment, he raised it in the air and gave forth a snort which apparently meant that he was well satisfied with the way affairs were being carried on aboard the ship and he was consequently amused.
"Here! you man; what the deuce are you doing aboard here?" I asked as I advanced to the break of the poop and stared down at him. He gave another snort, and looked at me with undisguised contempt, but disdained to answer and turned away, going to the lee rail and expectorating over the side. Then he came slowly back across the main deck, while my spleen rose at his superior indifference. I have always been a man of the people, and have fought my way along to whatever position I have held on the comprehensive rule of give and take. Nothing is so offensive to me as the assumption of superiority when backed solely by a man's own conception of his value. Therefore it was in no pleasant tone that I addressed the stranger on his return to the deck beneath me.
"My fine cock," said I, "if you haven't a tongue, you probably have ears, and if you don't want them to feel like the grate-bars of the galley stove, you'll do well to sing out when I speak. Can you rise to that?"
The man looked me squarely in the eyes, and I never saw such a fiendish expression come into a human face as that which gathered in his. "You infernal, impudent—" he began; and here for a moment followed a string of foul oaths from the man's lips, while he passed his hand behind his back and drew forth a long knife. Then without a moment's further hesitation he sprang up the steps to the poop.
The fiendishness of the attack took me off my guard, for I was not prepared for such a serious fracas during the first half hour in command of the deck; but I saw there was little time to lose. There were no belaying-pins handy, so the thing for me was to get in as close as possible and get the fellow's knife.
As he came up the steps, I rushed for him and kicked out with all my strength, when his face was level with my knees. The toe of my heavy shoe caught him solidly in the neck, and he went over backward almost in a complete somersault, landing with a crash upon the main deck just outside the window of Mr. Trunnell's room. He was stunned by the fall, and I hastened down to seize him before he could recover. Just as I gained the main deck, however, he gave a snort and started to his feet. Then he let out a yell like a madman and closed with me, my right hand luckily reaching his wrist below the knife.
It was up and down, and all over the deck for a time, the men crowding aft around us, but fearing to take a hand. The fellow had enormous strength, and the way he made that knife hand jump and twist gave me all I could do to keep fast to it. Soon I found I was losing ground, and he noted the fact, exerting himself more and more as he found me failing. Then it dawned upon me that I was in a bad fix, and I tried to think quickly for some means to save myself. In another mad struggle he would wrench himself clear, and his ugly look told me plainly how much mercy I could expect. I gave one last despairing grip on his wrist as he tore wildly about, and then I felt his arm slip clear of my fingers, and I waited for the stroke with my left arm drawn up to stop its force as far as possible. I could almost feel the sting of the steel in my tense nerves, when something suddenly caught me around the middle and pressed me with great force against my enemy. His face was almost against mine, but his arms were pinioned to his sides, powerless, and then I was aware that we both were encircled by the ape-like arms of the mate, Mr. Trunnell. How the little fellow held on was a marvel. He braced his short legs wide apart, and giving a hug that almost took the breath out of me, bawled lustily for some man to pass a lashing.
Suddenly a man rushed aft and passed a line around the stranger, and I saw that the young landlubber to whom, earlier in the morning, I had been so harsh was a man to be depended on. The young fellow tied my enemy up in short order, although the knots he used would not have done any credit to a sailor. But I was more than thankful when I had a chance to wring the long knife out of the murderous stranger's hand, and I spoke out to the smooth-faced fellow. "You'll do, my boy, even if you don't know a yard from a main-brace bumpkin. Pass a line around his legs and stuff a swab into his mouth if he don't stop swearing."
"Steady," said Trunnell, "none of that," as the swab was being brought up. "But, Captain Andrews, if you don't belay your tongue we'll have to do something." And the little mate squared his shoulders, and gazed calmly down upon the prostrate stranger who foamed at the mouth with impotent fury.
"So," I said, "this is the ruffian who jumped his bail and is aboard here on the sneak? I reckon we'll tack ship and stand back again to put him where he belongs."
I was breathing heavily from the fight, and stood leaning against the cabin to recover, while Mr. Trunnell and the fellow Jim, who had helped tie the skipper up, appeared to be in doubt how to proceed. The noise of the scuffle and our conversation had aroused the captain in the cabin, and as I finished speaking he came to the break of the poop and looked down on the main deck. I was aware of his hooked nose and strange, glinting eyes almost before I turned, as he spoke. He placed his foot upon the rail and gave a dry cough.
"I reckon there ain't any call to tack ship," he said slowly; "a pair of irons'll do the rest. Jest clap them on him, hand and foot, Mr. Rolling, and then rivet him to the deck away up forrads. If he don't stow that bazoo of his, you might ram the end of a handspike in his mouth and see if he'll bite."
"Who are you, you molly-hawk, to give orders aboard here?" roared Andrews, from where he lay on deck. "What's happened, Trunnell, when a swivel-eyed idiot with a beak like an albatross stands on the poop and talks to me like this?"
"He's Captain Thompson, in command, owing to the little—the little fracas you was mixed into last v'yage. We didn't exactly expect to have ye this trip, sir," said the mate.
"Well, I'm here, ain't I? Sing out, can't you see me? Has your hair struck in and tickled your brain so you don't know who's boss aboard here? Who's this galoot you've just kept from being ripped to ribbons? I'll settle matters with you later on for meddling in this affair, you kelp-haired sea-pig. Sink you, Trunnell; I never expected you to turn rusty like the miserable swab you are."
"Don't you think it would be best to stand away for port again, sir?" said the fellow Jim, looking sharply at the skipper on the poop as he spoke, and then to myself and Trunnell.
"We don't keer for your suggestions, young feller," said the skipper, leaning over the rail above us. "When there's any orders to be given, I'll attend to matters myself." He spoke in a low, even tone, and his eyes seemed to focus to two sharp, bright points at the sailor, making his great beak-like nose more prominent.
"Cast me adrift, Trunnell," commanded the ruffian Andrews, with an oath. "I'm a-going to kill that lubber you've got for mate anyhow, and it might as well be done at once as any other time. We'll settle the matter about who's skipper afterward."
"I hears ye well enough, Cap'n Andrews," said Trunnell; "but I ain't eggzactly clear in my mind as to how ye have authority aboard. If I was, I'd cast ye adrift in spite o' the whole crowd, an' ye could rip an' cut to your bloody heart's content. Ye know I'd back ye if 'twas all right and proper; but I never disobeyed an order yet, and stave me, I never will. I don't care who gives it so long as he has the right."
"Spoken like a man an' a sailor," came the sudden sharp tones of the skipper on the poop; and as I looked, the skipper drew forth a watch in one hand and a long revolver in the other, which clicked to readiness as it came in a line between his eye and the body of Andrews. "You have just a few seconds less than a minute to get that fellow forrads and out of the way," he said slowly, as if counting his words, I made no movement to drag the ruffian away, for at that minute I would have offered no objection whatever to seeing the skipper make a target of him; but Trunnell and the sailor Jim instantly seized Andrews, while he cursed the captain and dared him shoot. He struggled vainly to get free of his lashings, but the little bushy-headed mate tucked him under his arm, while Jim took his feet, and the crowd of gaping men broke away as they went forward.
After I had recovered from my somewhat violent exertions, and bound up the slight cut that Andrews had made in my hand with his knife, eight bells had struck, and the steward brought aft the cabin hash. The skipper went below, and Trunnell and I followed.
Captain Thompson seated himself at the head of the table and signed for us to take our places; then it suddenly occurred to me that I was only second mate, and consequently did not rate the captain's table. Trunnell noticed my hesitation, but said nothing, and the skipper fell to with such a hearty good will that he appeared to entirely forget my presence. I hastily made some excuse to get back on deck, and the little, bushy-headed mate smiled and nodded approvingly at me as I went up the alleyway forward. I was much pleased at this delicate hint on his part, for many mates would have made uncalled-for remarks at such a blunder. It showed me that the little giant who could keep me from being carved to rat-line stuff could be civil also.
I was much taken with him owing to what had happened, and I looked down at him as he ate, for I could see him very well as I stood near the mizzen on the port side of the cabin skylight. The glass of the hatch was raised to let the cabin air, and I watched the bushy head beneath, with its aggressive beard bending over the dirty table-cloth. The large squat nose seemed to sniff the good grub as the steward served the fresh beef, and Trunnell made ready with his knife.
He laid the blade on his plate and heaped several large chunks of the meat and potatoes upon it. Then he dropped his chin and seemed to shut his eyes as he carefully conveyed the load to his mouth, drawing the steel quickly through his thick lips without spilling more than a commensurate amount of the stuff upon his beard, and injuring himself in no way whatever. The quick jerk with which he slipped the steel clear so as to have it ready for another load made me a trifle nervous; but it was evident that he was not a novice at eating. Indeed, the skipper appeared to admire his dexterity, for I saw his small, glinting eyes look sharply from the little fellow to the boyish third officer who sat to starboard.
"Never had no call for a fork, eh?" said he, after watching the mate apparently come within an inch of cutting his head in two.
"Nope," said Trunnell.
They ate in silence for some minutes.
"I like to see a fellow what can make out with the fewest tools. Tools are good enough for mechanics; a bit an' a bar'll do for a man. Ever been to New York?"
"Nope," said Trunnell.
There was a moment's silence.
"I might 'a' knowed that," said the skipper, as if to himself.
Trunnell appeared to sniff sarcasm.
"Oh, I've been to one or two places in my time," said he. "There ain't nothin' remarkable about New York except the animals, and I don't keer fer those."
"Oh, I was closte into the beach off Sandy Hook onct when we was tryin' to get to the south'ard, an' I see an eliphint about a hundred feet high on the island acrost the bay. There was a feller aboard as said they had cows there just as big what give milk. I wouldn't have believed him, but fer the fact that there ware the eliphint before my eyes."
"Stuffed, man,—he was stuffed," explained the captain.
"Stuffed or no; there he ware," persisted Trunnell. "He would 'a' been no bigger stuffed than alive. 'Tain't likely they could 'a' stretched his hide more'n a foot."
The skipper gave the third mate a sly look, and his nose worked busily like a parrot's beak for a few minutes.
"You believe lots o' things, eh?" said he, while his nose worked and wrinkled in amusement.
"I believe in pretty much all I sees an' some little I hears," said Trunnell, dryly.
"'Specially in eliphints, eh?—a hundred feet high?"
"But not in argufying over facts," retorted Trunnell. "No, sink me, when I finds I'm argufying agin the world,—agin facts,—I tries to give in some and let the world get the best o' the argument. I've opinions the same as you have, but when they don't agree with the rest o' the world, do I go snortin' around a-tryin' to show how the world is wrong an' I am right? Sink me if I do. No, I tries to let the other fellow have a show. I may be right, but if I sees the world is agin me, I—"
"Right ye are, Trunnell. Spoken O.K." said the skipper. "I like to see a man what believes in a few things—even if they's eliphints. What do you think of the fellow forrads? Do you believe in him to any extent?"
The third mate appeared much amused at the conversation, but did not speak. He was a remarkably good-looking young fellow, and I noted the fact at the time.
Trunnell did not answer the last remark, but held himself very straight in his chair.
"Do you believe much in the fellow who was skipper, especially after his tryin' to carve Mr. Rolling?"
"I believe him a good sailor," said Trunnell, stiffening up.
"Ye don't say?" said the skipper.
"I never critisizez my officers," said Trunnell; and after that the skipper let him alone.
I was pleased with Trunnell. His philosophy was all right, and I believed from that time he was an honest man. Things began to look a little brighter, and in spite of an aversion to the skipper which had begun to creep upon me, I now saw that he was an observing fellow, and was quick to know the value of men. I didn't like his allusion to a bit and bar for a man, but thought little about the matter. In a short time Trunnell relieved me, and I went below with the carpenter and steward to our mess.
The carpenter was a young Irishman, shipped for the first time. This was the first time I had been to sea with a ship carpenter who was not either a Russian, a Finn, or a Swede. The steward was a little mulatto, who announced, as he sat down, after bringing in the hash, that he was bloody glad he was an Englishman, and looked at me for approval.
This was to show that he did not approve of the scene he had witnessed on the main deck in the morning, and I accepted it as a token of friendship.
"'Tis cold th' owld man thinks it is, whin he has th' skylight wide open," said Chips, looking up at the form of Trunnell, who stood on the poop. There was a strange light in the young fellow's eye as he spoke, as if he wished to impart some information, and had not quite determined upon the time and place. I took the hint and smiled knowingly, and then glanced askance at the steward.
"Faith, he's all right," blurted out Chips; "his skin is a little off th' color av roses, but his heart is white. We're wid ye, see?"
"With me for what?" I asked.
"Anything," he replied. "To go back, to go ahead. There's a fellow forrads who says go back while ye may."
"An' it's bloody good advice," said the steward, in a low tone.
"I'm not exactly in command aboard here," I said.
"D'ye know who is?" asked Chips.
"His name is Thompson, I believe," I answered coldly, for I did not approve of this sudden criticism of the skipper, much as I disliked his style.
"See here, mate, ye needn't think we're fer sayin' agin the old man, so hark ye, don't take it hard like. Did ye iver hear tell av a sailorman a-callin' a line a 'rope' or a bloomin' hooker like this a 'boat'? No, sir, ye can lay to it he's niver had a ship before; an' so says Jim Potts, the same as passed th' line fer ye this mornin'. Kin I pass ye the junk? It's sort o' snifty fer new slush, but I don't complain."
"What's the matter with the meat?" I asked, glad to change the conversation.
"Jest sort o' snifty."
"That's what," corroborated the steward, looking at me. "Jest sort o' smelly like fer new junk."
"What has Jim Potts got against the old man?" I asked. "You said he didn't believe the skipper had been in a ship before."
"Nothin' I knows of, 'cept he was hot fer turnin' back this mornin' an' tried to get th' men to back him in comin' aft."
"Do you mean it's mutiny?"
"Lord, no; jest to blandander ye inter tackin' ship. He most persuaded Mr. Trunnell, an' wid ye too, 'twould ha' been no mutiny to override the new skipper, an' land th' other in th' caboose."
Much as I would have liked to get ashore again, I knew there was no immediate prospect of it. The skipper would not hear of any such thing. As for Trunnell acting against orders, I knew from what I had seen of this sturdy little fellow he would obey implicitly any directions given him, and at any cost. There was no help for it now. We would be out for months with the ruffian skipper forward and the strange one aft. I said nothing more to the carpenter or steward, for it was evident that there had been some strong arguments used by Jim Potts against the regularity of the ship's company. The more I thought of this, the more I was astonished, for the young landsman was not forced to come out in the ship, and had almost been left, as it was. I went on deck in a troubled frame of mind, and determined to keep my eye on every one who approached me, for the voyage had the worst possible beginning.
There was much to be done about the main deck, so I busied myself the entire afternoon getting the running gear cleared up and coiled down shipshape. The skipper stood near the break of the poop much of the time, but gave no orders, and I noticed that Jim the sailor, or landsman, kept away from his vicinity. Sometimes it seemed as though the captain would follow his movements about the deck forward with his keen eyes.
It was Trunnell's dog-watch that evening, and by the time the bells struck the vessel was running along to the westward under royals, with the southerly breeze freshening on her beam. She was a handsome ship. Her long, tapering spars rose towering into the semi-gloom overhead, and the great fabric of stretched canvas seemed like a huge cloud resting upon a dark, floating object on the surface of the sea, which was carried along rapidly with it, brushing the foam to either side with a roaring, rattling, seething, musical noise. At least, this is the picture she presented from the forecastle head looking aft. Her great main yard swung far over the water to leeward, and the huge bellying courses, setting tight as a drumhead with the pressure, sent the roaring of the bow-wave back in a deep booming echo, until the air was full of vibration from the taut fabric. All around, the horizon was melted into haze, but the stars were glinting overhead in promise of a clear night.
I left the forecastle head and came down on the main deck. Here the six-foot bulwarks shut off the view to windward, but little of the cool evening breeze. The men on watch were grouped about the waist, sitting on the combings of the after-hatch, or walking fore and aft in the gangways to keep the blood stirring. All had pea coats or mufflers over their jumpers, for the air was frosty. The "doctor" had washed up his pots and coppers for the evening, and had made his way toward the carpenter's room in the forward house, where a light shone through the crack of the door.
On nearly all American ships the carpenter is rated as an officer, but does not have to stand watch, turning out only during the day-time or when all hands are called in cases of emergency. The cook, or "doctor," as he is called, also turns in for the night, as do the steward and cabin boys; the steward, however, generally has a stateroom aft near those of the mates, while the "doctor" bunks next his galley. The carpenter having permission to burn a light, usually turns his shop or bunk-room into a meeting place for those officers who rate the distinction of being above the ordinary sailor. Here one can always hear the news aboard ships where the discipline is not too rigid; for the mates, bos'n, "doctor," steward, and sometimes even the quartermasters, enjoy his hospitality.
Trunnell was on the poop, and the captain was below. I had a chance to get a little better insight into the natures of my shipmates if I could join in their conversation, or even listen to it for a while. My position as second mate was not too exalted to prohibit terms of intimacy with the carpenter, or, for that matter, even the bos'n.
I took a last look to windward, over the cold southern ocean, where the sharp evening breeze was rolling the short seas into little patches of white. The horizon was clear, and there was no prospect for some time of any sudden call to shorten sail. The sky was a perfect blue vault in which the stars were twinkling, while the red of the recent sunset held fair on the jibboom end, showing that the quartermaster at the wheel knew his business. I edged toward the door of the house, and then seeing that my actions were not creating too much notice from the poop, I slid back the white panel and entered. The fog from damp clothes and bad tobacco hung heavy in the close air and made a blue halo about the little swinging lamp on the bulkhead. Chips, who was sitting on his sea-chest, waved his hand in welcome, and the "doctor" nodded and showed his white teeth. The bos'n was holding forth in full swing in an argument with one of the quartermasters, and Jim, the fellow I noticed in the morning, was listening. He arose as I entered, as also did the quartermaster, but the rest remained seated. I waved my hand in friendly acknowledgment and lit my pipe at the lamp, while they reseated themselves.
"Yah, good mornin' to ye—if it ain't too late in the day," said Chips. "Sit ye down an' listen to me song, for 'tis a quare ship, an' th' only thing to do is to square our luck wid a good song. Cast loose, bos'n."
We were all new men to the vessel except the carpenter, and had never even sailed in the same ship before on any previous voyage. Yet the bos'n "cast loose" without further orders, and the "doctor" joined in with his bass voice. Then Chips and the rest bawled forth to the tune of "Blow a man down," and all the dismal prospect of the future in an overloaded ship, with bad food and a queer skipper, was lost in the effort of each one trying to out-bellow his neighbor. Sailors are a strange set. It takes mighty little to please one at times when he should, with reason, be sad; while, again, when everything is fair, nothing will satisfy his whims.
When the yarn spinning and singing were over, I turned out for my first watch well pleased with my shipmates.
During the following days all hands were so busy bending new sails and reeving running gear for our turn of the Cape that there was little time for anything else. Much of this work could have been avoided had the ship been under better command when she cleared, but Trunnell had no authority to do anything, and the agents were waiting until the skipper took command and could attend to the necessary overhauling.
At meals I saw little of either Trunnell or Captain Thompson and his third mate, but in the short hours of the dog-watch in the evening I had a chance to talk with them upon other subjects than those relating immediately to the running of the ship.
The dog-watch is the short watch between six and eight o'clock in the evening. This is made short to keep one watch from turning to at any regular time and consequently getting all the disagreeable work to be done during those hours. For instance, if one watch had to be on deck every night from twelve until four in the morning, it would mean that the other watch would be on deck from four to eight, and consequently would have to do all the washing down of decks and other work which occurs upon every regulated ship before breakfast. So the dog-watch divides a four-hour watch and is served alternately. As second mate I had access to the poop and could come aft on the weather side like any officer, all sailors, of course, being made to go to leeward.
Trunnell grew to be confidential, and we often discoursed upon many subjects during the hours after supper; for there was little time to turn in when not on dog-watch, and the skipper allowed me aft with much more freedom than many second mates get. He seldom ventured to join in the conversations, except when discussing shore topics, for his ignorance of things nautical was becoming more and more apparent to me every day, and he saw it. I wondered vaguely how he ever managed to get command of the ship, and set the reason down to the fact that the agents were glad enough to get any one to take her out. He, however, checked up Trunnell's sights every day and commented upon their accuracy with much freedom, finding fault often, and cautioning him to be more careful in the future. This somewhat perplexed the mate, as he always made his reckoning by rule of thumb, and could no more change his method than work out a problem in trigonometry. The third mate, on the other hand, was quite shy. I noticed what I had failed to note before, and that was the peculiar feminine tone of his voice and manner. He never swung his hands or lounged along the deck like a man used to the sea, and as the regulations call for at least two years' sea experience certified to by some reputable skipper before a mate's certificate is issued, this struck me as strange. Besides, he walked with a short mincing step that failed to swing his rather broad hips, and his knees were well set back at each stride, that went to show more conclusively than anything else that he was not used to a heaving deck. An old sailor, or a young one either, for that matter, will bend his knees to catch the roll and not try to walk like a soldier.
One evening after we had been out about a week, Trunnell and I happened to be standing aft near the taffrail looking up at a royal preventer stay.
"D'ye know what th' old man called this cleat?" asked Trunnell, pointing to where it had been made fast.
"No," said I. "What did he call it?"
"A timber noggin."
"Well, that don't prove there is anything wrong with him, does it?" I queried.
"Either that or the timber noggins has changed summat in character since I seen them last," said Trunnell. "What in Davy Jones would a skipper of a ship call a cleat a timber noggin for unless he didn't know no better?"
"A man might or might not have many reasons for calling a cleat a timber noggin besides that of not knowing any better than to do so," I responded. "For instance—"
But Trunnell cut me short. "No, Mr. Rolling, there ain't no use disguising the fact any more, this skipper don't know nothin' about a ship. You'll find that out before we get to the west'ard o' the Agullas. Mind ye, I ain't making no criticism o' the old man. I never does that to no superior officer, but when a man tells me to do the things he does, it stands to reason that we've got an old man aboard here who's been in a ship for the first time as officer."
I agreed with him, and he was much pleased.
"A man what finds fault an' criticises everybody above him is always a failure, Mr. Rolling," he went on. "Yes, sir, the faultfinder is always a failure. An' the reason so many sailors find fault all the time is because they is failures. I am tryin' not to find fault with the skipper, but to pint out that we're in for some rough times if things don't change aboard in the sailorin' line afore we gets to the west'ard o' the Agullas. Sink me, if that ain't so, for here we is without half the sails bent an' no new braces, nothin' but two-year-old manila stuff what's wore clean through. Them topsails look good enough, but they is as rotten with the lime in them as if they was burned. No, sir, I ain't makin' no criticism, but I burns within when I think of the trouble a few dollars would save. Yes, sir, I burns within."
Mr. Trunnell here spat profusely to leeward and walked athwartships for some moments without further remark. The third mate came on deck and stood near the lee mizzen rigging, looking forward at the foam swirling from the bends and drifting aft alongside at a rapid rate. The phosphorus shone brilliantly in the water, and the wake of the ship was like a path of molten metal, for the night was quite dark and the heavy banks of clouds which had been making steadily to the westward over-spread the sky. It was nearly time for the southwest monsoon to shift, and with this change would likely follow a spell o' weather, as Trunnell chose to put it. The third mate had never given an order since he had come aboard, and I noticed Trunnell's sly wink as he glanced in the direction of the mizzen.
"Mr. Rolling," said he, "wimmen have been my ruin. Yes, sir, wimmen have been my ruin, an' I'm that scared o' them I can raise them afore their topmast is above the horizon. Sink me, if that ain't one." And he leered at the figure of the third mate, whom we knew as Mr. Bell.
"What would a woman be doing here as third mate?" I asked; for although I had come to the same conclusion some days before, I had said nothing to any one about it.
"That's the old man's affair," said Trunnell; "it may be his wife, or it may be his daughter, but any one can see that the fellow's pants are entirely too big in the heft for a man. An' his voice! Sink me, Rolling, but you never hearn tell of a man or boy pipin' so soft like. Why, it skeers me to listen to it. It's just like—but no matter."
"Like what?" I suggested gently, hoping much.
But it was of no use. Trunnell looked at me queerly for a moment as if undecided to give me his confidence. Then he resumed his walk athwart the deck, and I went forward to the break of the poop and took a look at the head sails.
The night was growing darker, and the breeze was dying slowly, and I wondered why the skipper had not come on deck to take a look around. He was usually on hand during the earlier hours of evening.
I reached the side of the third officer, and stood silently gazing at the canvas which shone dimly through the gathering gloom. As we had always been separated on account of being in different watches, I had never addressed the third mate before save in a general way when reporting the ship's duties aft.
"Pretty dark night, hey?" I ventured.
The third officer looked hard at me for the space of a minute, during which time his face underwent many changes of expression. Then he answered in a smooth, even tone.
"Sorter," said he.
This was hardly what I expected, so I ventured again.
"Looks as if we might have a spell o' weather, hey? The wind's falling all the time, and if it keeps on, we'll have a calm night without a draught of air."
"What do you mean by a ca'm night without a draft of air?" asked the young fellow, in a superior tone, while at the same time I detected a smile lurking about the corners of his eyes.
If there's one thing I hate to see in a young fellow, it is the desire to make fun of a superior's conversation. Being an American sailor, I had little use for r's in every word which held an a but I had no objection to any one else talking the way they wished. I was somewhat doubtful just how to sit upon this nebulous third mate, so I began easily.
"Do you know," said I, "there are a great many young fellows going out in ships as officers when they could be of much more benefit to people generally if they stayed home and helped their mothers to 'bark cark,' or do other little things around the nursery or kitchen."
As I finished I thought I heard some one swear fiercely in a low tone. I looked over the poop rail down to the main deck beneath, but saw no one near. The third officer seemed to be lost in thought for a moment.
"It isn't good to be too clever," said he, in the tone which was unmistakably a woman's. "When a person is good at baking cake, or 'barking cark,' as you choose to call it, the sea is a good place for them. They can look out for those who haven't sense enough to perform the function."
I had a strong notion to ask him outright if he was fitted to perform the function, but his superior air and the feeling that I might make a mistake after all and incur the displeasure of the beak-nosed skipper deterred me. But I was almost certain that our third mate was a woman.
We remained standing together in the night for a few moments while neither spoke. My advances had not received the favorable acknowledgment I had expected, and there was a distinctly disagreeable feeling creeping upon me while in this neutral presence. I was young and hot-headed, so I spoke accordingly before leaving the field, or rather deck, in retreat.
"I wish you had the distinction of belonging to the port watch."
"I think I might strengthen your powers of discernment regarding the relative positions of second and third mates."
"We'll see who has the better insight in regard to the matter without my being bored to that extent," said the third officer in his softest tones, and again I fancied I heard the voice of a man swearing fiercely in a low voice as if to himself. Then I turned and went aft.
"It's something queer," said Trunnell, shaking his great shaggy head and glancing toward the break of the poop. A step sounded on the companion ladder, and the skipper came on deck.
"Pretty dark, hey?" he said, and his quick eyes took in both Trunnell and myself comprehensively.
"Looks like we might have a spell o' weather if the wind keeps fallin'," observed Trunnell.
"Well, I don't suppose a dark night is any worse than a bright one, and I call to mind many a time I'd give something to see it a bit blacker. Do you know where you're at?"
"She's headin' about the same, but if ye don't mind, I'll be gettin' her down gradual like to her torps'ls if the glass keeps a-fallin'. Short commons, says I, on the edge o' the monsoon."
"Short it is, my boy. Get her down low. The more she looks like you, the better she'll do, hey? What d'you think of that, Mr. Rolling? The shorter the longer, the longer the shorter—see? The sooner the quicker, eh? Supposen the question was asked you, Mr. Rolling, what'd you say, hey? Why is Mr. Trunnell like a lady's bouquet, hey? Why is the little man like a bunch of flowers? Don't insult him, Mr. Rolling. The sanitary outfit of the cabin is all right. 'Tain't that. No, split me, it ain't that. Think a minute."
Trunnell walked to and fro without a word, while the captain grinned. The fellow at the wheel, Bill Spielgen, a square-cut man with an angular face and enormous hands, stared sullenly into the binnacle.
"It's because he's a daisy," rapped out the skipper. "That's it, Mr. Rolling, he's a daisy, ha, ha, ha! Split me, if he ain't, ho, ho, ho! Shorten her down, Trunnell; you're a daisy, and no mistake."
There was a distinct smell of liquor in the light breeze, and as the skipper came within the glare of the binnacle lamp I could see he was well set up. Trunnell went to the break of the poop and called out for the watch to clew down the fore and mizzen skysails. He was much upset at the skipper's talk, but knew better than to show it. The captain now turned his attention to the man at the wheel.
"How d'you head, Bill?" said he.
"West b' no'the," said Bill.
The skipper came to the wheel and stuck his lean face close to the quartermaster's. His glinting eyes grew to two little points and his hooked nose wrinkled on the sides as he showed his teeth while he drawled in a snarling tone:—
"D'you set up for a wit, Bill, that you joke with your captain, hey? Is that it, you square-toed, lantern-jawed swab? Would you like me to rip you up the back, or lam some of the dirt out of your hide, hey? Is that it? Don't make jokes at your captain, Bill. It's bad business."
Then he went on in a more conciliating tone:—
"Just remember that I'm a knight of a round table, or square one either, for that matter, while I'm aboard this boat, and if you forget to mention my title of 'Sir,' every time you speak of me, you'll want to get your hide sewed on tight."
"I beg pardon, sir," said Bill, taking a fresh grip upon the spokes with his great hands.
"That's right, my son; you're a beggar aboard this here boat. Don't aspire to anything else."
"Aye, aye, sir," said the quartermaster.
"And now that you've got to your bearings, as Trunnell would say, I'll tell you a little story about a man who lost a pet dog called Willie."
I saw that it was high time for me to get forward, and slipped away. I turned in ready for a call, thinking that perhaps Trunnell was right in regard to our future prospects in the South Atlantic.
When I turned out for the mid-watch that night, Trunnell met me at the door of the forward cabin. It was pitch dark on deck, and the wind had died away almost entirely. The canvas had been rolled up, as it had begun to slat heavily against the masts with the heave from a long, quick swell that ran rapidly from the southward. The running gear was not new, and Trunnell was a careful mate, so the ship was down to her upper topsails on the fore and mizzen and a main t'gallant on mainmast, the courses fore and after being clewed up and left hanging.
"He's out for trouble to-night," said the little mate. "Blast him if he ain't touching the boose again."
"Who, the skipper?" I asked.
"He's been below twice during the watch, an' each time he's gettin' worse an' worse. There he comes now to the edge of the poop."
I looked and saw our old man rolling easily across the deck to the poop rail. There he stopped and bawled out loudly,—
"Lay aft to the main-brace."
The men on watch hesitated a moment and then came crowding aft and began to cast off the weather-brace from its belaying-pin.
It was so dark I couldn't see how many men were there, but I noticed Bill the quartermaster, and as I stood waiting to see what would happen, a little sailor by the name of Johnson, who had a face like a monkey's and legs set wide apart, so they never touched clear up to his waist, spoke out to a long, lean Yankee man who jostled me in the darkness.
"Don't pull a pound on the bleeding line. The old cock's drunk, an' we ain't here to be hazed around decks like a pack o' damned boys."
The skipper, however, didn't wait to see if his order was carried out, but came down from the poop and asked for Trunnell and myself. We went with him into the forward cabin, and he motioned us to sit down.
"Did you ever see such a lot o' confounded fools?" he said. "Here I calls for to take a pull in the main-brace, and the whole crowd of duff-eaters come layin' aft as if the skipper of a ship should blow them all off to drinks. Blast me, Trunnell, I'd 'a' thought you'd get them into better discipline. It's come to a fine state o' things when the whole crew turns to every time I get thirsty. But never mind, sing out as you says, and tell the steward what kind o' pisin you'll mix with your blood current. Mine's the same old thing."
"It's my watch below now," said Mr. Trunnell, "an' if you'll excuse me, I'll turn in. The third mate's gone below some time ago."
"Oh, the boat's all right. It's dead calm, and she can't hurt herself floating around this ocean," said the old man. "You can take a drink before you go. Steward! Ahoy there, steward!"
"Yessir," said that active mulatto, springing out of his cabin. "Yessir; I hears yo', cap'n."
"What'll you have?" asked Thompson, addressing the mate.
Trunnell scratched his big bushy head a moment, and then suggested that a bottle of the ginger pop which the steward had in the pantry would do for him.
"Hell'n blazes, man, take a drink o' something," cried Thompson, turning upon him with his fierce eyes. "What's the matter with you?"
"Nothin', only I drinks what I drinks or else I don't drink at all," said Trunnell. "Ye asked me what I'd have, an' I says it."
"All right, Shorty," said Thompson, in mock gravity. "You drinks what you drinks. What's yours, Rolling?"
"As I've just turned to, a little soda will do for me," I answered. "I'd rather take my grog in the morning at regular hours."
Thompson let his hand fall upon the table with a crash, and then sat motionless, looking from one to the other, his long, beak-like nose twitching convulsively.
"Steward," said he, with a nasal drawl which made his hooked nose wrinkle, "get Mr. Trunnell a drink o' ginger pop, or milk, if he prefers it, and then, steward, you may get Mr. Rolling a drink o' sody water. It's hot, but I reckon it'll fizz."
"Yessah. What's yourn, cap'n?"
"You don't think there's a priest aboard here, do you, steward, hey?"
"No, sah, 'tain't likely, but I ken find out, sah. Shall I get yo' drink fust, sah?"
"Well, I dunno, I dunno, steward; I can't think what I kin take what won't offend these gentlemen. You might see first if there's a priest, an' if you find one you can bring me a pint or so o' holy water. If it's too strong for you," said he, turning toward Trunnell and myself, "I can get the steward to dilute it for me, hey?"
Trunnell made no remark at this. The steward brought in our drinks and informed the skipper loudly that there was no one in the crew who had held holy orders.
"Never mind, then, steward," said Thompson. "I'll wait till it rains and get it fresh from heaven."
In a moment Trunnell rose and went into his room with a rough "good night." Thompson arose and passed through the door in the bulkhead, and I went on deck to take charge.
The night was quiet, and I leaned over the poop rail, looking into the water alongside, which appeared as black as ink. The Pirate had little or no headway, for it was now dead calm. Forward at the bends a sudden flare of phosphorescent fire would burn for a moment alongside when the heavy ship rolled deeply and soused her channels under. The southerly swell seemed to roll quickly as if there were something behind it, and the topsails slatted fore and aft with loud flaps as they backed and filled with the motion. It was a bad night for wearing out gear, and I was glad Trunnell had rolled up the lighter canvas. Chafing gear had been scarce aboard, and nothing is so aggravating to a mate as to have his cotton or spars cut by useless rolling in a quiet seaway. If sails can be kept full of wind, they will last well enough with care; but let them slat for a few days, and there is more useless wear than would take place in a month of ordinary weather, with no headway to pay for it.
While I looked into the dark water I noticed a long thin streak of fire moving slowly alongside. It wavered and snaked along, growing brighter at times and then dying out almost completely. Suddenly it turned at the fore channels and came slowly aft. I looked harder at the black surface below me and tried to see what caused the disturbance. In an instant I beheld a huge shadow, blacker than the surrounding water, outlined faintly with the phosphorescent glow. It was between twenty and thirty feet in length, and had the form of a shark. The grim monster swam slowly aft and rounded the stern, then sank slowly out of sight into the blackness beneath.
There is something so uncanny in the silent watchfulness of these giants of the deep that a sailor always feels unpleasantly disposed toward them. I thought how ghastly would be the ending of any one who should get overboard that night. The sudden splash, the warm water about the body, and the heads of the fellows at the rail starting to pull the unfortunate aboard. Then the sudden grisly clutch from below, and the dragging down out of sight and sound forever.
I began to actually reckon the amount of arsenic I should put into a chunk of beef to trick the giant at his last meal.
"Sharp lightning on port bow, sir," came the news from the forward; for, although I was supposed to be able to see well enough, I had taught the men of my watch to sing out at everything unusual, more to be certain that they were awake than anything else.
I looked up from the black depths and my unpleasant reflections, and gazed to the southward. As I did so, several sharp flashes showed upon the dark horizon. It looked as if something were raising fast, and I stepped below a moment to see the glass. It was down to twenty-eight. Going on deck at once, I bawled for the watch to clew down the main-topgallantsail. In a moment the men were swarming up the main rigging, and the sail was let go by the run, the yard settling nicely, while the clews, buntlines, and leachlines were hauled down in unison.
"Mizzen topsail!" I cried.
The watch came up the poop ladders with a rush and tramping of feet that sounded ominously loud for the work on so quiet a night. The yelling of the men at the braces coupled with the tramping aroused Captain Thompson in spite of his liquor, and he came up the after-companion to see what was the matter.
"Hey, there, hey!" he bawled. "What are you doing, Rolling? Are you coming to an anchor already? Have I been asleep six months, and is this the Breakwater ahead? No? Well, do you expect to get to port without canvas on the ship? Split me, but I thought you knew how to sail a boat when you signed on as mate. Don't come any of these grandmother tricks on me, hey? I won't have it. Don't make a fool of yourself before these men. Get that topsail up again quicker'n hell can scorch a feather, or I'll be taking a hand, see! I'll be taking a hand. Jump lively, you dogs!" he roared, as he finished.
The topsail was swayed up again, the men silent and sullen with this extra work. Then came the order for the t'gallantsail, and by the time that was mastheaded, the skipper followed with orders for royals, fore and aft.
During the time these affairs were going on upon the ship, the southern horizon was lit up again and again by vivid flashes. It appeared to sink into a deeper gloom afterward, but in another moment we heard the distant boom of thunder. Before we could get the topgallantsail set there was a blinding flash off the bow-port, followed by a deep rolling peal of thunder. I was standing in the waist and sprang to Trunnell's room—
"All hands!" I bawled.
Then I rushed for the mizzen rigging, yelling for the men to clew down the t'gallantsail and let the topsail halyards go by the run. At the cry for all hands the men tumbled out, looking around to see what had happened. It was dead still, and the only sounds were the cries of the men on deck to those aloft, and the rattling of gear. Trunnell was on deck in a moment, and as he rushed aft I went for the main rigging with the intention of saving the upper topsail if I could. It was quick work getting up those ratlines, but even as I went I heard a deepening murmur from the southward. The yard came down by the run as I gained the top, owing to Trunnell having cast off everything, trusting that we might get some stops on the sail before too late. I heard the skipper roaring out orders to "hurry there," followed by curses at the slowness of the work. He appeared to realize now what was happening, and it sobered him.
As I crawled out to starboard with a couple of hands, Jackson of Trunnell's watch and Davis of mine, the murmur to the southward swelled rapidly in volume. I glanced into the blackness, and as I did so there was a blinding flash. My eyes seemed to be burned out with the brightness, and a crashing roar thundered in my ears. Instantly afterward I heard Trunnell's voice:—
"Hard up the wheel. Hard up, for God's sake!"
Then, with a rush that made the mast creak with the strain and laid us slowly over amid a thunder of thrashing canvas, the hurricane struck the ship.
There was nothing to do but hold on with both hands and feet. Jackson, who was outside of me, gripped the jackstay and threw his feet around the yard-arm which was springing and jumping away at a terrific rate with the shock of the cracking topsail. I did likewise, and noticed that the canvas was bellying forward, which showed that we were not aback. If we were, I knew our lives were only questions of seconds. All sounds from below were silenced in the roar about us, but flash after flash, following rapidly in succession, showed me momentary glimpses of the deck.
We were far over the water as the Pirate was laying down with her topgallant rail beneath the sea. The mizzen topsail had disappeared, as though made of vapor, leaving the mizzen clear. Forward, the two topsails and fore topmast staysail were holding, but between the flashes the upper canvas melted away like a puff of steam, the ragged ends flying and thrashing into long ribbons to leeward. Three men were on the yard when I looked at first, and then, almost instantly afterward, the yard was bare. Whether they had gone overboard I could not tell, but the thought made me look to myself while I might.
Pulling myself along the jackstay until I reached the bunt, I managed to grasp a line that was tailing taut downward toward the deck. This I grasped quickly with both hands, and bawling with all my might to Jackson and Davis to follow, I swung clear of the yard. Looking below, the sea appeared as white as milk in the ghastly light, with the ship's outline now dimly discernible in contrast. I breathed a prayer that the line was fast amidships and slid down. There was a terrific ripping instantly overhead, and I knew the topsail had gone. The line bowed out with the wind, but led toward the deck near the mast, and in a moment my feet struck the fife rail. I was safe for the present. Jackson followed close upon me, but Davis was unable to get the line. He was never seen again.
Making my way aft by the aid of the weather rail, I reached the poop and climbed up the steps. The wind nearly swept me from my feet, but I managed to crawl aft to where I could make out by the flashes the forms of Trunnell and the skipper.
"She'll go off soon," yelled the mate in my ear. "Nothin' gone forrads yet, hey?"
"Only the canvas and a couple of men," I yelled in reply.
The wind began to draw further and further aft, showing that the ship was gradually gathering headway in spite of her list to starboard. Soon she began to right herself in the storm-torn sea. All was white as snow about us, and the whiteness gave a ghastly light in the gloom. I could now make out the maintopsail, dimly, from where I stood, and the outline of the hull forward. Evidently the fore lower topsail was holding still. Jackson, who was tall and strong, and who was an American by adoption, was put to the lee wheel, as his knowledge of English made him quick to obey. John, a Swede, built very broad with stooping shoulders, and Erikson, a Norwegian with a great blond head and powerful neck, grasped the weather spokes. Bill, the other quartermaster, had not shown up, and we found later that he was one of the missing from the fore topsail yard.
Trunnell and Captain Thompson called the men aft to the poop, and away we went into the gloom ahead.
She was doing a good fifteen knots under her two, or rather one storm topsail; for we found out afterward that the fore had gone almost instantly after she had payed off. The water was roaring white astern, and the wind blew so hard that it was impossible to face it for more than a moment. The sea was making fast, and I began to wonder how long the vessel could run before the great heave which I knew must soon follow us.
Thompson stood bareheaded near the binnacle, and roared to the men to be careful and keep her steady. It was plain he knew nothing of seamanship, but could tell that a thing must be done well after the mate had given orders. He was apparently perfectly sober now, and as cool as though on the beach. It was evident the man feared nothing and could command. I saw that I could be of little use aft, so I started forward, hoping to be able to keep a lookout for a shift of wind and get some gear ready to heave the vessel to.
On reaching the main deck, things showed to be in a hopeless mess. Everything movable had gone to leeward when she was hove down, the running rigging was lying about, and no attempt had been made to coil it. The sea, which had been over the lee rail, had washed that on the starboard side into long tangles which would take hours to clear. I stumbled over a mass of rope which must have been the fore topsail brace. I saw a figure moving through the gloom along the bulwarks and called for the man to lay aft and coil down some of the gear. The man, however, paid no attention to me, but made his way into the forward cabin, and as the door opened and the light from within flashed out I recognized the third mate.
A man named Hans answered my hail, and I started forward again. The sea by this time was running rapidly. The ship was so deep that I knew she would not keep her deck clear, and I started to gain the topgallant forecastle where the height would make it safer.
Just as I gained the highest step, a tremendous sea following broke clear along the top of the rail in the waist, and went forward a good five feet above her bulwarks, the entire length of the main deck.
It was terrific. The thundering crash and smothering jar nearly paralyzed me for a moment. In the dim glare I could see rails, stanchions, boats, rigging, all in the furious white rush. The Pirate settled under the load and seemed to stop perfectly still. Then another huge sea went roaring over her and blotted out everything to the edge of the forecastle head.
I stood looking down at the main deck in amazement. How long would the hatches stand that strain? Everything was out of sight under water, save the top of the forward house. I looked up into the roaring void above me and breathed a parting prayer, for it seemed that the ship's end must be at hand. Then I was aware that she was broaching to, and I grabbed the rail to meet the sea.
Every stitch of canvas had gone out of her now, and nothing but the bare yards were left aloft. How they ever stood the frightful strain was a miracle and spoke volumes for the Yankee riggers who fitted her out. The wind bore more and more abeam, and under the pressure she heeled over, letting the great load on her decks roar off in a torrent to leeward, over the topgallant rail and waterways. A sea struck her so heavily that the larger portion of it went thundering clear across her forty feet of deck, landing bodily to leeward as though the ship were below the surface. I could hear a bawling coming faintly from the poop and knew Trunnell was trying to heave her to. Something fluttered from the mizzen rigging and disappeared into the night. Part of a tarpaulin had gone, but it was a chance to get another piece large enough on the ratlines to hold her head up. I tried to make my way aft again to help, for I saw it was about our only hope, and started to crawl along the weather topgallant rail. Then a form sprang from the black recess under the forecastle head and seized me tightly around the body.
The suddenness of this attack and the peculiar position I was in when seized, put me at a disadvantage. The quick breathing of the man behind me, and the strong force he put forward as he rushed me toward the ship's side, made me aware that I was in a bad fix. The assassin was silent as the grave, save for his panting, but his bearded face against mine was visible enough to show me the former captain of the ship.
I was carried half over the rail in an instant by the power of the rush. The foam showed beneath me, and for a moment it seemed that the man would accomplish his deadly purpose. It was with a horrid feeling of certain death before me that I clutched wildly at the forecastle rail. Luckily my hand caught it, and I was saved from the dive over the side. Then with frantic strength I twisted around enough to seize the fellow, and dropped on my knees with a grip around his middle. It was up and down and all over that side of the forecastle head for some minutes, until we were both getting tired. We were apparently alone forward, and the fight would be one of endurance, unless the ruffian happened to have some weapon about him.