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Mr. Baker, chief mate of the ship Narcissus, stepped in one stride out
of his lighted cabin into the darkness of the quarter-deck. Above his
head, on the break of the poop, the night-watchman rang a double stroke.
It was nine o'clock. Mr. Baker, speaking up to the man above him,
asked:--"Are all the hands aboard, Knowles?"
The man limped down the ladder, then said reflectively:--
"I think so, sir. All our old chaps are there, and a lot of new men has
come.... They must be all there."
"Tell the boatswain to send all hands aft," went on Mr. Baker; "and tell
one of the youngsters to bring a good lamp here. I want to muster our
The main deck was dark aft, but halfway from forward, through the open
doors of the forecastle, two streaks of brilliant light cut the shadow
of the quiet night that lay upon the ship. A hum of voices was
heard there, while port and starboard, in the illuminated doorways,
silhouettes of moving men appeared for a moment, very black, without
relief, like figures cut out of sheet tin. The ship was ready for sea.
The carpenter had driven in the last wedge of the mainhatch battens,
and, throwing down his maul, had wiped his face with great deliberation,
just on the stroke of five. The decks had been swept, the windlass oiled
and made ready to heave up the anchor; the big tow-rope lay in long
bights along one side of the main deck, with one end carried up and hung
over the bows, in readiness for the tug that would come paddling and
hissing noisily, hot and smoky, in the limpid, cool quietness of the
early morning. The captain was ashore, where he had been engaging some
new hands to make up his full crew; and, the work of the day over,
the ship's officers had kept out of the way, glad of a little
breathing-time. Soon after dark the few liberty-men and the new hands
began to arrive in shore-boats rowed by white-clad Asiatics,
who clamoured fiercely for payment before coming alongside the
gangway-ladder. The feverish and shrill babble of Eastern language
struggled against the masterful tones of tipsy seamen, who argued
against brazen claims and dishonest hopes by profane shouts. The
resplendent and bestarred peace of the East was torn into squalid
tatters by howls of rage and shrieks of lament raised over sums ranging
from five annas to half a rupee; and every soul afloat in Bombay Harbour
became aware that the new hands were joining the Narcissus.
Gradually the distracting noise had subsided. The boats came no longer
in splashing clusters of three or four together, but dropped alongside
singly, in a subdued buzz of expostulation cut short by a "Not a
pice more! You go to the devil!" from some man staggering up the
accommodation-ladder--a dark figure, with a long bag poised on the
shoulder. In the forecastle the newcomers, upright and swaying amongst
corded boxes and bundles of bedding, made friends with the old hands,
who sat one above another in the two tiers of bunks, gazing at their
future shipmates with glances critical but friendly. The two forecastle
lamps were turned up high, and shed an intense hard glare; shore-going
round hats were pushed far on the backs of heads, or rolled about on the
deck amongst the chain-cables; white collars, undone, stuck out on each
side of red faces; big arms in white sleeves gesticulated; the growling
voices hummed steady amongst bursts of laughter and hoarse calls. "Here,
sonny, take that bunk!... Don't you do it!... What's your last ship?...
I know her.... Three years ago, in Puget Sound.... This here berth
leaks, I tell you!... Come on; give us a chance to swing that chest!...
Did you bring a bottle, any of you shore toffs?... Give us a bit of
'baccy.... I know her; her skipper drank himself to death.... He was a
dandy boy!... Liked his lotion inside, he did!... No!... Hold your row,
you chaps!... I tell you, you came on board a hooker, where they get
their money's worth out of poor Jack, by--!..."
A little fellow, called Craik and nicknamed Belfast, abused the ship
violently, romancing on principle, just to give the new hands something
to think over. Archie, sitting aslant on his sea-chest, kept his knees
out of the way, and pushed the needle steadily through a white patch
in a pair of blue trousers. Men in black jackets and stand-up collars,
mixed with men bare-footed, bare-armed, with coloured shirts open
on hairy chests, pushed against one another in the middle of the
forecastle. The group swayed, reeled, turning upon itself with the
motion of a scrimmage, in a haze of tobacco smoke. All were speaking
together, swearing at every second word. A Russian Finn, wearing a
yellow shirt with pink stripes, stared upwards, dreamy-eyed, from under
a mop of tumbled hair. Two young giants with smooth, baby faces--two
Scandinavians--helped each other to spread their bedding, silent, and
smiling placidly at the tempest of good-humoured and meaningless curses.
Old Singleton, the oldest able seaman in the ship, set apart on the deck
right under the lamps, stripped to the waist, tattooed like a cannibal
chief all over his powerful chest and enormous biceps. Between the blue
and red patterns his white skin gleamed like satin; his bare back was
propped against the heel of the bowsprit, and he held a book at
arm's length before his big, sunburnt face. With his spectacles and a
venerable white beard, he resembled a learned and savage patriarch, the
incarnation of barbarian wisdom serene in the blasphemous turmoil of
the world. He was intensely absorbed, and as he turned the pages an
expression of grave surprise would pass over his rugged features. He was
reading "Pelham." The popularity of Bulwer Lytton in the forecastles of
Southern-going ships is a wonderful and bizarre phenomenon. What ideas
do his polished and so curiously insincere sentences awaken in the
simple minds of the big children who people those dark and wandering
places of the earth? What meaning can their rough, inexperienced souls
find in the elegant verbiage of his pages? What excitement?--what
forgetfulness?--what appeasement? Mystery! Is it the fascination of
the incomprehensible?--is it the charm of the impossible? Or are those
beings who exist beyond the pale of life stirred by his tales as by an
enigmatical disclosure of a resplendent world that exists within the
frontier of infamy and filth, within that border of dirt and hunger, of
misery and dissipation, that comes down on all sides to the water's edge
of the incorruptible ocean, and is the only thing they know of life, the
only thing they see of surrounding land--those life-long prisoners of
the sea? Mystery! Singleton, who had sailed to the southward since the
age of twelve, who in the last forty-five years had lived (as we had
calculated from his papers) no more than forty months ashore--old
Singleton, who boasted, with the mild composure of long years well
spent, that generally from the day he was paid off from one ship
till the day he shipped in another he seldom was in a condition to
distinguish daylight--old Singleton sat unmoved in the clash of voices
and cries, spelling through "Pelham" with slow labour, and lost in an
absorption profound enough to resemble a trance. He breathed regularly.
Every time he turned the book in his enormous and blackened hands the
muscles of his big white arms rolled slightly under the smooth skin.
Hidden by the white moustache, his lips, stained with tobacco-juice that
trickled down the long beard, moved in inward whisper. His bleared eyes
gazed fixedly from behind the glitter of black-rimmed glasses. Opposite
to him, and on a level with his face, the ship's cat sat on the barrel
of the windlass in the pose of a crouching chimera, blinking its green
eyes at its old friend. It seemed to meditate a leap on to the old man's
lap over the bent back of the ordinary seaman who sat at Singleton's
feet. Young Charley was lean and long-necked. The ridge of his
backbone made a chain of small hills under the old shirt. His face of a
street-boy--a face precocious, sagacious, and ironic, with deep downward
folds on each side of the thin, wide mouth--hung low over his bony
knees. He was learning to make a lanyard knot with a bit of an old
rope. Small drops of perspiration stood out on his bulging forehead; he
sniffed strongly from time to time, glancing out of the corners of
his restless eyes at the old seaman, who took no notice of the puzzled
youngster muttering at his work.
The noise increased. Little Belfast seemed, in the heavy heat of the
forecastle, to boil with facetious fury. His eyes danced; in the crimson
of his face, comical as a mask, the mouth yawned black, with strange
grimaces. Facing him, a half-undressed man held his sides, and, throwing
his head back, laughed with wet eyelashes. Others stared with amazed
eyes. Men sitting doubled up in the upper bunks smoked short pipes,
swinging bare brown feet above the heads of those who, sprawling below
on sea-chests, listened, smiling stupidly or scornfully. Over the white
rims of berths stuck out heads with blinking eyes; but the bodies were
lost in the gloom of those places, that resembled narrow niches for
coffins in a whitewashed and lighted mortuary. Voices buzzed louder.
Archie, with compressed lips, drew himself in, seemed to shrink into
a smaller space, and sewed steadily, industrious and dumb. Belfast
shrieked like an inspired Dervish:--"... So I seez to him, boys, seez
I, 'Beggin' yer pardon, sorr,' seez I to that second mate of that
steamer--'beggin' your-r-r pardon, sorr, the Board of Trade must 'ave
been drunk when they granted you your certificate!' 'What do you say,
you------!' seez he, comin' at me like a mad bull... all in his white
clothes; and I up with my tar-pot and capsizes it all over his blamed
lovely face and his lovely jacket.... 'Take that!' seez I. 'I am a
sailor, anyhow, you nosing, skipper-licking, useless, sooperfloos
bridge-stanchion, you! That's the kind of man I am!' shouts I.... You
should have seed him skip, boys! Drowned, blind with tar, he was! So..."
"Don't 'ee believe him! He never upset no tar; I was there!" shouted
somebody. The two Norwegians sat on a chest side by side, alike and
placid, resembling a pair of love-birds on a perch, and with round eyes
stared innocently; but the Russian Finn, in the racket of explosive
shouts and rolling laughter, remained motionless, limp and dull, like
a deaf man without a backbone. Near him Archie smiled at his needle. A
broad-chested, slow-eyed newcomer spoke deliberately to Belfast during
an exhausted lull in the noise:--"I wonder any of the mates here are
alive yet with such a chap as you on board! I concloode they ain't that
bad now, if you had the taming of them, sonny."
"Not bad! Not bad!" screamed Belfast. "If it wasn't for us sticking
together.... Not bad! They ain't never bad when they ain't got a
chawnce, blast their black 'arts...."
He foamed, whirling his arms, then suddenly grinned and, taking
a tablet of black tobacco out of his pocket, bit a piece off with
a funny show of ferocity. Another new hand--a man with shifty eyes and
a yellow hatchet face, who had been listening open-mouthed in the shadow
of the midship locker--observed in a squeaky voice:--"Well, it's a
'omeward trip, anyhow. Bad or good, I can do it on my 'ed--s'long as
I get 'ome. And I can look after my rights! I will show 'em!" All the
heads turned towards him. Only the ordinary seaman and the cat took no
notice. He stood with arms akimbo, a little fellow with white eyelashes.
He looked as if he had known all the degradations and all the furies. He
looked as if he had been cuffed, kicked, rolled in the mud; he looked as
if he had been scratched, spat upon, pelted with unmentionable filth...
and he smiled with a sense of security at the faces around. His ears
were bending down under the weight of his battered felt hat. The torn
tails of his black coat flapped in fringes about the calves of his legs.
He unbuttoned the only two buttons that remained and every one saw that
he had no shirt under it. It was his deserved misfortune that those rags
which nobody could possibly be supposed to own looked on him as if they
had been stolen. His neck was long and thin; his eyelids were red; rare
hairs hung about his jaws; his shoulders were peaked and drooped like
the broken wings of a bird; all his left side was caked with mud
which showed that he had lately slept in a wet ditch. He had saved his
inefficient carcass from violent destruction by running away from an
American ship where, in a moment of forgetful folly, he had dared to
engage himself; and he had knocked about for a fortnight ashore in the
native quarter, cadging for drinks, starving, sleeping on rubbish-heaps,
wandering in sunshine: a startling visitor from a world of nightmares.
He stood repulsive and smiling in the sudden silence. This clean white
forecastle was his refuge; the place where he could be lazy; where he
could wallow, and lie and eat--and curse the food he ate; where he could
display his talents for shirking work, for cheating, for cadging; where
he could find surely some one to wheedle and some one to bully--and
where he would be paid for doing all this. They all knew him. Is there
a spot on earth where such a man is unknown, an ominous survival
testifying to the eternal fitness of lies and impudence? A taciturn
long-armed shellback, with hooked fingers, who had been lying on his
back smoking, turned in his bed to examine him dispassionately, then,
over his head, sent a long jet of clear saliva towards the door. They
all knew him! He was the man that cannot steer, that cannot splice, that
dodges the work on dark nights; that, aloft, holds on frantically with
both arms and legs, and swears at the wind, the sleet, the darkness; the
man who curses the sea while others work. The man who is the last out
and the first in when all hands are called. The man who can't do
most things and won't do the rest. The pet of philanthropists and
self-seeking landlubbers. The sympathetic and deserving creature that
knows all about his rights, but knows nothing of courage, of endurance,
and of the unexpressed faith, of the unspoken loyalty that knits
together a ship's company. The independent offspring of the ignoble
freedom of the slums full of disdain and hate for the austere servitude
of the sea.
Some one cried at him: "What's your name?"--"Donkin," he said,
looking round with cheerful effrontery.--"What are you?" asked another
voice.--"Why, a sailor like you, old man," he replied, in a tone that
meant to be hearty but was impudent.--"Blamme if you don't look a blamed
sight worse than a broken-down fireman," was the comment in a convinced
mutter. Charley lifted his head and piped in a cheeky voice: "He is a
man and a sailor"--then wiping his nose with the back of his hand bent
down industriously over his bit of rope. A few laughed. Others stared
doubtfully. The ragged newcomer was indignant--"That's a fine way to
welcome a chap into a fo'c'sle," he snarled. "Are you men or a lot of
'artless canny-bals?"--"Don't take your shirt off for a word, shipmate,"
called out Belfast, jumping up in front, fiery, menacing, and friendly
at the same time.--"Is that 'ere bloke blind?" asked the indomitable
scarecrow, looking right and left with affected surprise. "Can't 'ee see
I 'aven't got no shirt?"
He held both his arms out crosswise and shook the rags that hung over
his bones with dramatic effect.
"'Cos why?" he continued very loud. "The bloody Yankees been tryin' to
jump my guts out 'cos I stood up for my rights like a good 'un. I am an
Englishman, I am. They set upon me an' I 'ad to run. That's why. A'n't
yer never seed a man 'ard up? Yah! What kind of blamed ship is this?
I'm dead broke. I 'aven't got nothink. No bag, no bed, no blanket, no
shirt--not a bloomin' rag but what I stand in. But I 'ad the 'art to
stand up agin' them Yankees. 'As any of you 'art enough to spare a pair
of old pants for a chum?"
He knew how to conquer the na´ve instincts of that crowd. In a moment
they gave him their compassion, jocularly, contemptuously, or surlily;
and at first it took the shape of a blanket thrown at him as he stood
there with the white skin of his limbs showing his human kinship through
the black fantasy of his rags. Then a pair of old shoes fell at his
muddy feet. With a cry:--"From under," a rolled-up pair of canvas
trousers, heavy with tar stains, struck him on the shoulder. The gust of
their benevolence sent a wave of sentimental pity through their
doubting hearts. They were touched by their own readiness to alleviate
a shipmate's misery. Voices cried:--"We will fit you out, old man."
Murmurs: "Never seed seech a hard case.... Poor beggar.... I've got an
old singlet.... Will that be of any use to you?... Take it, matey...."
Those friendly murmurs filled the forecastle. He pawed around with his
naked foot, gathering the things in a heap and looked about for more.
Unemotional Archie perfunctorily contributed to the pile an old cloth
cap with the peak torn off. Old Singleton, lost in the serene regions of
fiction, read on unheeding. Charley, pitiless with the wisdom of youth,
squeaked:--"If you want brass buttons for your new unyforms I've got two
for you." The filthy object of universal charity shook his fist at the
youngster.--"I'll make you keep this 'ere fo'c'sle clean, young feller,"
he snarled viciously. "Never you fear. I will learn you to be civil
to an able seaman, you ignerant ass." He glared harmfully, but saw
Singleton shut his book, and his little beady eyes began to roam from
berth to berth.--"Take that bunk by the door there--it's pretty fair,"
suggested Belfast. So advised, he gathered the gifts at his feet,
pressed them in a bundle against his breast, then looked cautiously
at the Russian Finn, who stood on one side with an unconscious gaze,
contemplating, perhaps, one of those weird visions that haunt the men
of his race.--"Get out of my road, Dutchy," said the victim of Yankee
brutality. The Finn did not move--did not hear. "Get out, blast ye,"
shouted the other, shoving him aside with his elbow. "Get out, you
blanked deaf and dumb fool. Get out." The man staggered, recovered
himself, and gazed at the speaker in silence.--"Those damned furriners
should be kept under," opined the amiable Donkin to the forecastle. "If
you don't teach 'em their place they put on you like anythink." He
flung all his worldly possessions into the empty bed-place, gauged with
another shrewd look the risks of the proceeding, then leaped up to the
Finn, who stood pensive and dull.--"I'll teach you to swell around," he
yelled. "I'll plug your eyes for you, you blooming square-head." Most of
the men were now in their bunks and the two had the forecastle clear to
themselves. The development of the destitute Donkin aroused interest. He
danced all in tatters before the amazed Finn, squaring from a distance
at the heavy, unmoved face. One or two men cried encouragingly: "Go it,
Whitechapel!" settling themselves luxuriously in their beds to survey
the fight. Others shouted: "Shut yer row!... Go an' put yer 'ed in a
bag!..." The hubbub was recommencing. Suddenly many heavy blows struck
with a handspike on the deck above boomed like discharges of small
cannon through the forecastle. Then the boatswain's voice rose outside
the door with an authoritative note in its drawl:--"D'ye hear, below
there? Lay aft! Lay aft to muster all hands!"
There was a moment of surprised stillness. Then the forecastle floor
disappeared under men whose bare feet flopped on the planks as they
sprang clear out of their berths. Caps were rooted for amongst tumbled
blankets. Some, yawning, buttoned waistbands. Half-smoked pipes were
knocked hurriedly against woodwork and stuffed under pillows. Voices
growled:--"What's up?... Is there no rest for us?" Donkin yelped:--"If
that's the way of this ship, we'll 'ave to change all that.... You leave
me alone.... I will soon...." None of the crowd noticed him. They were
lurching in twos and threes through the doors, after the manner of
merchant Jacks who cannot go out of a door fairly, like mere landsmen.
The votary of change followed them. Singleton, struggling into his
jacket, came last, tall and fatherly, bearing high his head of a
weather-beaten sage on the body of an old athlete. Only Charley remained
alone in the white glare of the empty place, sitting between the two
rows of iron links that stretched into the narrow gloom forward. He
pulled hard at the strands in a hurried endeavour to finish his knot.
Suddenly he started up, flung the rope at the cat, and skipped after the
black tom which went off leaping sedately over chain compressors, with
its tail carried stiff and upright, like a small flag pole.
Outside the glare of the steaming forecastle the serene purity of the
night enveloped the seamen with its soothing breath, with its tepid
breath flowing under the stars that hung countless above the mastheads
in a thin cloud of luminous dust. On the town side the blackness of the
water was streaked with trails of light which undulated gently on slight
ripples, similar to filaments that float rooted to the shore. Rows
of other lights stood away in straight lines as if drawn up on parade
between towering buildings; but on the other side of the harbour sombre
hills arched high their black spines, on which, here and there, the
point of a star resembled a spark fallen from the sky. Far off, Byculla
way, the electric lamps at the dock gates shone on the end of lofty
standards with a glow blinding and frigid like captive ghosts of some
evil moons. Scattered all over the dark polish of the roadstead, the
ships at anchor floated in perfect stillness under the feeble gleam
of their riding-lights, looming up, opaque and bulky, like strange and
monumental structures abandoned by men to an everlasting repose.
Before the cabin door Mr. Baker was mustering the crew. As they stumbled
and lurched along past the mainmast, they could see aft his round, broad
face with a white paper before it, and beside his shoulder the sleepy
head, writh dropped eyelids, of the boy, who held, suspended at the end
of his raised arm, the luminous globe of a lamp. Even before the shuffle
of naked soles had ceased along the decks, the mate began to call
over the names. He called distinctly in a serious tone befitting this
roll-call to unquiet loneliness, to inglorious and obscure struggle, or
to the more trying endurance of small privations and wearisome duties.
As the chief mate read out a name, one of the men would answer: "Yes,
sir!" or "Here!" and, detaching himself from the shadowy mob of
heads visible above the blackness of starboard bulwarks, would step
bare-footed into the circle of light, and in two noiseless strides pass
into the shadows on the port side of the quarterdeck. They answered in
divers tones: in thick mutters, in clear, ringing voices; and some,
as if the whole thing had been an outrage on their feelings, used an
injured intonation: for discipline is not ceremonious in merchant
ships, where the sense of hierarchy is weak, and where all feel
themselves equal before the unconcerned immensity of the
sea and the exacting appeal of the work. Mr. Baker read on
steadily:--"Hansen--Campbell--Smith--Wamibo. Now, then, Wamibo. Why
don't you answer? Always got to call your name twice." The Finn emitted
at last an uncouth grunt, and, stepping out, passed through the patch of
light, weird and gaudy, with the face of a man marching through a dream.
The mate went on faster:--"Craik--Singleton--Donkin.... O Lord!" he
involuntarily ejaculated as the incredibly dilapidated figure appeared
in the light. It stopped; it uncovered pale gums and long, upper teeth
in a malevolent grin.--"Is there any-think wrong with me, Mister Mate?"
it asked, with a flavour of insolence in the forced simplicity of its
tone. On both sides of the deck subdued titters were heard.--"That'll
do. Go over," growled Mr. Baker, fixing the new hand with steady blue
eyes. And Donkin vanished suddenly out of the light into the dark
group of mustered men, to be slapped on the back and to hear flattering
whispers:--"He ain't afeard, he'll give sport to 'em, see if he
don't.... Reg'lar Punch and Judy show.... Did ye see the mate start
at him?... Well! Damme, if I ever!..." The last man had gone over,
and there was a moment of silence while the mate peered at his
list.--"Sixteen, seventeen," he muttered. "I am one hand short, bo'sen,"
he said aloud. The big west-countryman at his elbow, swarthy and bearded
like a gigantic Spaniard, said in a rumbling bass:--"There's no one left
forward, sir. I had a look round. He ain't aboard, but he may, turn
up before daylight."--"Ay. He may or he may not," commented the mate,
"can't make out that last name. It's all a smudge.... That will do, men.
The distinct and motionless group stirred, broke up, began to move
"Wait!" cried a deep, ringing voice.
All stood still. Mr. Baker, who had turned away yawning, spun round
open-mouthed. At last, furious, he blurted out:--"What's this? Who said
But he saw a tall figure standing on the rail. It came down and pushed
through the crowd, marching with a heavy tread towards the light on
the quarterdeck. Then again the sonorous voice said with
insistence:--"Wait!" The lamplight lit up the man's body. He was tall.
His head was away up in the shadows of lifeboats that stood on skids
above the deck. The whites of his eyes and his teeth gleamed distinctly,
but the face was indistinguishable. His hands were big and seemed
Mr. Baker advanced intrepidly. "Who are you? How dare you..." he began.
The boy, amazed like the rest, raised the light to the man's face. It
was black. A surprised hum--a faint hum that sounded like the suppressed
mutter of the word "Nigger"--ran along the deck and escaped out into the
night. The nigger seemed not to hear. He balanced himself where he stood
in a swagger that marked time. After a moment he said calmly:--"My name
is Wait--James Wait."
"Oh!" said Mr. Baker. Then, after a few seconds of smouldering silence,
his temper blazed out. "Ah! Your name is Wait. What of that? What do you
want? What do you mean, coming shouting here?"
The nigger was calm, cool, towering, superb. The men had approached and
stood behind him in a body. He overtopped the tallest by half a head.
He said: "I belong to the ship." He enunciated distinctly, with soft
precision. The deep, rolling tones of his voice filled the deck without
effort. He was naturally scornful, unaffectedly condescending, as if
from his height of six foot three he had surveyed all the vastness of
human folly and had made up his mind not to be too hard on it. He went
on:--"The captain shipped me this morning. I couldn't get aboard sooner.
I saw you all aft as I came up the ladder, and could see directly you
were mustering the crew. Naturally I called out my name. I thought
you had it on your list, and would understand. You misapprehended."
He stopped short. The folly around him was confounded. He was right as
ever, and as ever ready to forgive. The disdainful tones had ceased,
and, breathing heavily, he stood still, surrounded by all these white
men. He held his head up in the glare of the lamp--a head vigorously
modelled into deep shadows and shining lights--a head powerful and
misshapen with a tormented and flattened face--a face pathetic and
brutal: the tragic, the mysterious, the repulsive mask of a nigger's
Mr. Baker, recovering his composure, looked at the paper close. "Oh,
yes; that's so. All right, Wait. Take your gear forward," he said.
Suddenly the nigger's eyes rolled wildly, became all whites. He put
his hand to his side and coughed twice, a cough metallic, hollow, and
tremendously loud; it resounded like two explosions in a vault; the dome
of the sky rang to it, and the iron plates of the ship's bulwarks seemed
to vibrate in unison, then he marched off forward with the others. The
officers lingering by the cabin door could hear him say: "Won't some of
you chaps lend a hand with my dunnage? I've got a chest and a bag." The
words, spoken sonorously, with an even intonation, were heard all
over the ship, and the question was put in a manner that made refusal
impossible. The short, quick shuffle of men carrying something heavy
went away forward, but the tall figure of the nigger lingered by the
main hatch in a knot of smaller shapes. Again he was heard asking: "Is
your cook a coloured gentleman?" Then a disappointed and disapproving
"Ah! h'm!" was his comment upon the information that the cook happened
to be a mere white man. Yet, as they went all together towards the
forecastle, he condescended to put his head through the galley door and
boom out inside a magnificent "Good evening, doctor!" that made all the
saucepans ring. In the dim light the cook dozed on the coal locker in
front of the captain's supper. He jumped up as if he had been cut with
a whip, and dashed wildly on deck to see the backs of several men going
away laughing. Afterwards, when talking about that voyage, he used to
say:--"The poor fellow had scared me. I thought I had seen the devil."
The cook had been seven years in the ship with the same captain. He was
a serious-minded man with a wife and three children, whose society he
enjoyed on an average one month out of twelve. When on shore he took
his family to church twice every Sunday. At sea he went to sleep every
evening with his lamp turned up full, a pipe in his mouth, and an open
Bible in his hand. Some one had always to go during the night to put out
the light, take the book from his hand, and the pipe from between his
teeth. "For"--Belfast used to say, irritated and complaining--"some
night, you stupid cookie, you'll swallow your ould clay, and we will
have no cook."--"Ah! sonny, I am ready for my Maker's call... wish
you all were," the other would answer with a benign serenity that was
altogether imbecile and touching. Belfast outside the galley door danced
with vexation. "You holy fool! I don't want you to die," he howled,
looking up with furious, quivering face and tender eyes. "What's the
hurry? You blessed wooden-headed ould heretic, the divvle will have
you soon enough. Think of Us... of Us... of Us!" And he would go away,
stamping, spitting aside, disgusted and worried; while the other,
stepping out, saucepan in hand, hot, begrimed and placid, watched with a
superior, cock-sure smile the back of his "queer little man" reeling in
a rage. They were great friends.
Mr. Baker, lounging over the after-hatch, sniffed the humid night in
the company of the second mate.--"Those West India niggers run fine and
large--some of them... Ough!... Don't they? A fine, big man that, Mr.
Creighton. Feel him on a rope. Hey? Ough! I will take him into my watch,
I think." The second mate, a fair, gentlemanly young fellow, with a
resolute face and a splendid physique, observed quietly that it was
just about what he expected. There could be felt in his tone some slight
bitterness which Mr. Baker very kindly set himself to argue away. "Come,
come, young man," he said, grunting between the words. "Come! Don't be
too greedy. You had that big Finn in your watch all the voyage. I will
do what's fair. You may have those two young Scandinavians and I...
Ough!... I get the nigger, and will take that.... Ough! that cheeky
costermonger chap in a black frock-coat. I'll make him.... Ough!... make
him toe the mark, or my.... Ough!.... name isn't Baker. Ough! Ough!
He grunted thrice--ferociously. He had that trick of grunting so between
his words and at the end of sentences. It was a fine, effective grunt
that went well with his menacing utterance, with his heavy, bull-necked
frame, his jerky, rolling gait; with his big, seamed face, his steady
eyes, and sardonic mouth. But its effect had been long ago discounted
by the men. They liked him; Belfast--who was a favourite, and knew
it--mimicked him, not quite behind his back. Charley--but with
greater caution--imitated his rolling gait. Some of his sayings became
established, daily quotations in the forecastle. Popularity can go
no farther! Besides, all hands were ready to admit that on a fitting
occasion the mate could "jump down a fellow's throat in a reg'lar
Western Ocean style."
Now he was giving his last orders. "Ough! You, Knowles! Call all hands
at four. I want... Ough!... to heave short before the tug comes. Look
out for the captain. I am going to lie down in my clothes.... Ough!...
Call me when you see the boat coming. Ough! Ough!. The old man is sure
to have something to say when he gets aboard," he remarked to Creighton.
"Well, good-night.... Ough! A long day before us to-morrow.... Ough!...
Better turn in now. Ough! Ough!"
Upon the dark deck a band of light flashed, then a door slammed, and Mr.
Baker was gone into his neat cabin. Young Creighton stood leaning over
the rail, and looked dreamily into the night of the East. And he saw in
it a long country lane, a lane of waving leaves and dancing sunshine.
He saw stirring boughs of old trees outspread, and framing in their arch
the tender, the caressing blueness of an English sky. And through the
arch a girl in a light dress, smiling under a sunshade, seemed to be
stepping out of the tender sky.
At the other end of the ship the forecastle, with only one lamp burning
now, was going to sleep in a dim emptiness traversed by loud breathings,
by sudden short sighs. The double row of berths yawned black, like
graves tenanted by uneasy corpses. Here and there a curtain of gaudy
chintz, half drawn, marked the resting-place of a sybarite. A leg hung
over the edge very white and lifeless. An arm stuck straight out with
a dark palm turned up, and thick fingers half closed. Two light snores,
that did not synchronise, quarrelled in funny dialogue. Singleton
stripped again--the old man suffered much from prickly heat--stood
cooling his back in the doorway, with his arms crossed on his bare and
adorned chest. His head touched the beam of the deck above. The nigger,
half undressed, was busy casting adrift the lashing of his box, and
spreading his bedding in an upper berth. He moved about in his socks,
tall and noiseless, with a pair of braces beating about his calves.
Amongst the shadows of stanchions and bowsprit, Donkin munched a
piece of hard ship's bread, sitting on the deck with upturned feet and
restless eyes; he held the biscuit up before his mouth in the whole fist
and snapped his jaws at it with a raging face. Crumbs fell between his
outspread legs. Then he got up.
"Where's our water-cask?" he asked in a contained voice.
Singleton, without a word, pointed with a big hand that held a short
smouldering pipe. Donkin bent over the cask, drank out of the tin,
splashing the water, turned round and noticed the nigger looking at him
over the shoulder with calm loftiness. He moved up sideways.
"There's a blooming supper for a man," he whispered bitterly. "My dorg
at 'ome wouldn't 'ave it. It's fit enouf for you an' me. 'Ere's a big
ship's fo'c'sle!... Not a blooming scrap of meat in the kids. I've
looked in all the lockers...."
The nigger stared like a man addressed unexpectedly in a foreign
language. Donkin changed his tone:--"Giv' us a bit of 'baccy, mate," he
breathed out confidentially, "I 'aven't 'ad smoke or chew for the last
month. I am rampin' mad for it. Come on, old man!"
"Don't be familiar," said the nigger. Donkin started and sat down on a
chest near by, out of sheer surprise. "We haven't kept pigs together,"
continued James Wait in a deep undertone. "Here's your tobacco." Then,
after a pause, he inquired:--"What ship?"--"_Golden State_,"
muttered Donkin indistinctly, biting the tobacco. The nigger whistled
low.--"Ran?" he said curtly. Donkin nodded: one of his cheeks bulged
out. "In course I ran," he mumbled. "They booted the life hout of
one Dago chap on the passage 'ere, then started on me. I cleared hout
'ere.--" "Left your dunnage behind?"--"Yes, dunnage and money," answered
Donkin, raising his voice a little; "I got nothink. No clothes, no bed.
A bandy-legged little Hirish chap 'ere 'as give me a blanket. Think I'll
go an' sleep in the fore topmast staysail to-night."
He went on deck trailing behind his back a corner of the blanket.
Singleton, without a glance, moved slightly aside to let him pass. The
nigger put away his shore togs and sat in clean working clothes on his
box, one arm stretched over his knees. After staring at Singleton for
some time he asked without emphasis:--"What kind of ship is this? Pretty
Singleton didn't stir. A long while after he said, with unmoved
face:--"Ship!... Ships are all right. It is the men in them!"
He went on smoking in the profound silence. The wisdom of half a century
spent in listening to the thunder of the waves had spoken unconsciously
through his old lips. The cat purred on the windlass. Then James Wait
had a fit of roaring, rattling cough, that shook him, tossed him like
a hurricane, and flung him panting with staring eyes headlong on his
sea-chest. Several men woke up. One said sleepily out of his bunk:
"'Struth! what a blamed row!"--"I have a cold on my chest," gasped
Wait.--"Cold! you call it," grumbled the man; "should think 'twas
something more...."--"Oh! you think so," said the nigger upright and
loftily scornful again. He climbed into his berth and began coughing
persistently while he put his head out to glare all round the
forecastle. There was no further protest. He fell back on the pillow,
and could be heard there wheezing regularly like a man oppressed in his
Singleton stood at the door with his face to the light and his back to
the darkness. And alone in the dim emptiness of the sleeping forecastle
he appeared bigger, colossal, very old; old as Father Time himself,
who should have come there into this place as quiet as a sepulchre to
contemplate with patient eyes the short victory of sleep, the consoler.
Yet he was only a child of time, a lonely relic of a devoured and
forgotten generation. He stood, still strong, as ever unthinking; a
ready man with a vast empty past and with no future, with his childlike
impulses and his man's passions already dead within his tattooed breast.
The men who could understand his silence were gone--those men who knew
how to exist beyond the pale of life and within sight of eternity. They
had been strong, as those are strong who know neither doubts nor hopes.
They had been impatient and enduring, turbulent and devoted, unruly
and faithful. Well-meaning people had tried to represent those men as
whining over every mouthful of their food; as going about their work
in fear of their lives. But in truth they had been men who knew toil,
privation, violence, debauchery--but knew not fear, and had no desire
of spite in their hearts. Men hard to manage, but easy to inspire;
voiceless men--but men enough to scorn in their hearts the sentimental
voices that bewailed the hardness of their fate. It was a fate unique
and their own; the capacity to bear it appeared to them the privilege
of the chosen! Their generation lived inarticulate and, indispensable,
without knowing the sweetness of affections or the refuge of a home--and
died free from the dark menace of a narrow grave. They were the
everlasting children of the mysterious sea. Their successors are the
grown-up children of a discontented earth. They are less naughty, but
less innocent; less profane, but perhaps also less believing; and if
they have learned how to speak they have also learned how to whine. But
the others were strong and mute; they were effaced, bowed and enduring,
like stone caryatides that hold up in the night the lighted halls of
a resplendent and glorious edifice. They are gone now--and it does not
matter. The sea and the earth are unfaithful to their children: a truth,
a faith, a generation of men goes--and is forgotten, and it does not
matter! Except, perhaps, to the few of those who believed the truth,
confessed the faith--or loved the men.
A breeze was coming. The ship that had been lying tide-rode swung to
a heavier puff; and suddenly the slack of the chain cable between the
windlass and the hawse-pipe clinked, slipped forward an inch, and rose
gently off the deck with a startling suggestion as of unsuspected life
that had been lurking stealthily in the iron. In the hawse-pipe the
grinding links sent through the ship a sound like a low groan of a
man sighing under a burden. The strain came on the windlass, the chain
tautened like a string, vibrated--and the handle of the screw-brake
moved in slight jerks. Singleton stepped forward.
Till then he had been standing meditative and unthinking, reposeful
and hopeless, with a face grim and blank--a sixty-year-old child of
the mysterious sea. The thoughts of all his lifetime could have been
expressed in six words, but the stir of those things that were as much
part of his existence as his beating heart called up a gleam of alert
understanding upon the sternness of his aged face. The flame of the lamp
swayed, and the old man, with knitted and bushy eyebrows, stood over the
brake, watchful and motionless in the wild saraband of dancing shadows.
Then the ship, obedient to the call of her anchor, forged ahead slightly
and eased the strain. The cable relieved, hung down, and after swaying
imperceptibly to and fro dropped with a loud tap on the hard wood
planks. Singleton seized the high lever, and, by a violent throw forward
of his body, wrung out another half-turn from the brake. He recovered
himself, breathed largely, and remained for a while glaring down at the
powerful and compact engine that squatted on the deck at his feet like
some quiet monster--a creature amazing and tame.
"You... hold!" he growled at it masterfully in the incult tangle of his
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