"We'll take a whirl for'ard," says he. "I'll give the bums a sweat at the braces so they won't think I'm asleep."
I had moved away from the shadow of the round-house, and was revealed, as I stood, to any eye looking over the poop rail. I was in a ticklish position altogether. If braces were to be tightened, the lee of the roundhouse would be a poor hiding-place for me. In fact it would be no hiding-place at all. But get out of sight I must, and quickly, or suffer the unpleasant consequences of discovery.
I heard boots clumping on the poop deck. There wasn't time for me to escape forward. So I darted aft and flattened myself against the cabin wall, in exactly the same position, and in very nearly the same spot, as that occupied by the fellow I had scared away. I was not a second too soon. Sails and Chips came down the port ladder, and paused on the main deck, almost within arm's reach of me, waiting for the mate to join them.
If they had glanced in my direction they must have seen me. But they were looking forward, and were also occupied with talk.
Said Chips, "But what's the game? He's working up trouble, that's plain. But what's he after this time?"
Said Sails, "He's after that fellow in the Greaser's watch, or I'm a damn bad guesser. But, his game—well, ask me something easy. Did you ever know anybody to fathom his game?"
This I heard with one ear. At the same time my other ear was getting filled with different kind of talk. Aye, my post was between two conversations, and I found myself eavesdropping in two directions.
This wall I hugged was the forward wall of the sail-locker, which, in the Golden Bough, was a large room in the cabin space, and as I stood, my starboard ear was but a few inches distant from the sail-locker door. This door was in two parts, and the upper half was barely ajar. Through this narrow slit I heard—I couldn't help hearing—the murmur of low-voiced talk. Two people were in the sail-locker, talking. Oh, aye, I had discovered Newman. I recognized his voice. I recognized the other voice—the lady's voice.
"Oh, Mary—little love—it doesn't seem to matter any more. When I am with you, it is just a hideous dream from which I have awakened." It was Newman speaking, and in a voice so tender, so vibrant with feeling, it was hard to believe the words came out of the mouth of the foc'sle's iron man. "But now I wish to live again. Ah, little love, I have been dead too long, dead to everything except pain and hate. But now that I know, now that we both know—oh, Mary, surely we have earned the right to live and love. God will not hold it against us, if I take you from that mad beast. God—I am beginning to believe in God again, Mary, when I am with you."
"I, too, wish to live—and in clean air," came in the lady's voice. "Oh, Roy—five years—and the piling up of horrors—oh, I could not have stood it very much longer, Roy. But now—we can forget."
"That lad for'ard is all ready to slip his cable," came from the other direction, from Chips. "The steward says he's all set to go."
"He's been all set for a fortnight," was the other man's comment, "but he hangs on. Takes a lot to kill a squarehead. Most likely he'll be hanging on when we make port."
"Not if I know Fitz and—him," said Chips. "You don't think they'd leave evidence of that sort for a port doctor to squint at. Remember that Portagee, last voyage, and how he finished?"
"Aye, it was hard on the lady, that job was. But he—he's a devil, sure. No use standing out against him."
"Five years! My God, how have you been able to stand it, Mary?" said Newman. "Five years—and most of them spent at sea in this blood ship!"
"It has been my penance, Roy. It has seemed to me that in sailing with him, in lessening even a little bit the misery he causes those poor men, I have been atoning, in a little measure, for my lack of faith in you. Oh, it was my fault in the beginning, dearest. If only I had had faith in the beginning, if only I had trusted my heart instead of my eyes and ears. I might have known that time that Beulah was lying."
"Hush. How could you know? It was my stubborn, stupid pride. If I had not rushed away and left the field to him. And I never knew, or even guessed, until Beasley told me."
"If I was that big fellow, I'd just hop over the side and have it over with," came from Sails. "If the Old Man is after him, he's bound to get him, and making a quick finish himself would save a lot o' bother all around."
"What's it about, anyway?" says Chips.
"How do I know?" answered Sails. "I don't go poking my nose into Yankee Swope's business, you can bet your bottom dollar I don't. I take my orders, and let it go at that. Same as you. Same as the others. There's Fitz up there now, chinning with him, and I bet Fitz don't know much more of his game than you and me. He takes his orders just like we do."
"That's right. We ain't hired to think. Not in this ship," agreed Chips.
"Do you think, Roy, that Beulah—that she jumped—herself?" The lady's voice was trembling.
"I don't know, dear. I think maybe she did. But Beasley thought—oh, well, what does it matter now?"
"Beasley thought he did it. I knew—I felt it was him, oh, long, long ago. It would be like him, Roy. He has never dropped a hint that would incriminate himself, but I have known his guilt of the other thing—for which you suffered—ever since our marriage. When he dropped the mask, revealed himself in his true character—oh, I knew he must be guilty. And I was helpless."
"My God, five years!" muttered Newman. "How could you stand it?"
"It was not so hard, except at first," said the lady. "Too much horror numbs, you know. And one thing made it endurable—he has spared me the intimacy of marriage. It is true, dearest; I am as much a maid as I was five years ago. He is that kind of a man, Roy. It is not women he lusts for, it is—oh, it is blood. There is something horrible in his mind, a diseased spot, an unnatural quirk, that drives him to abominable cruelties. It is some tigerish instinct he possesses; it makes him kill and destroy, it makes him inflict pain. Oh, Roy, it is his pleasure—to inflict pain."
"Lynch doesn't like it," said Sails, in reply to some question I had missed hearing.
"Little good not liking it will do him," was Chips' opinion. "He'll do what the Old Man wants him to do, just like the rest of us."
"Has he ever used you—as victim?" said Newman, a new, hard note in his voice.
"No, no, not in that way," answered the lady. "It is to the crew he does that. He has never hurt me physically."
"But mentally, eh?" remarked Newman, "He enjoys refinements of cruelty, also? Mental torture, when he finds a mind intelligent enough to appreciate subtleties? That is it?"
"Yes, that is it," said the lady. "It was horrible at first. But afterwards, when I had found my work, I did not mind him very much. He let me go on playing doctor to the crew because he thought it hurt me to see and handle those poor creatures. Oh, it did hurt! But the work, the being useful—it has saved me, Roy, it has kept me sane."
"He's a good man, none better," said Chips, still talking about Lynch, "but he's too soft for a bucko's job in this wagon."
"Five years; good God! The prison was heaven compared to what you have lived through. Oh, my poor darling! And he—the vile brute——"
"No, no, not that attitude! You have promised—" exclaimed the lady.
"He's not soft," Sails disputed with Chips. "He's as hard as they're made. But he's a square-shooter, Lynch is, and the rest o' us ain't. That makes the difference. Now we got good reasons to do anything the skipper says, we being what we are, and him being what he is, and we knowing he can turn us up, and will, if we don't suit. But Jim Lynch—not Swope, or any other man, has a hold on him."
"No man, maybe," says Chips. "But in the other quarter, now. If Lynch ain't soft there, I'm a soldier."
"Who ain't a bit soft in that quarter?" Sails demanded. "I'm mighty sorry for her, same as you are, same as everyone is, save Fitz. If it wasn't that Swope has me body and soul, I'd side with Lynch, b'Gawd, in anything he wanted to start."
"Shut up!" exclaimed Chips. "That's damn fool talk to come out o' your mouth."
"Oh, you have softened me, Mary, you have unmanned me!" I heard Newman say. "I came to this ship to kill, and now—there is little bitterness left in my heart. I am only eager now to be gone with you beyond his reach."
"I am glad, more glad than I can tell," the lady told him. "His lies have ruined your life, and mine, but I do not want you to stain your hands with his blood. Oh, there has been so much bloodshed! You must not; you have promised!"
"Yes, and I will keep my promise," said Newman. "But you have promised, too, and you know how I qualified my promise. We cannot take too many chances with him, and you know that he has no scruples about shedding blood. He knows, he must know, that I do not intend to leave you in his hands; he must realize, also, that now he is not safe so long as either of us is alive and at large. Why, dear, you know the trap he is preparing!"
"Yes, yes, I know," was the response. "But my prayer is that we may get away before he is ready."
"It is my prayer, too," said Newman. "I gladly give up my revenge for your sake, little love. But I intend to protect you, and myself—that, too, is my promise."
"Here comes Fitz now," said Sails.
It was touch-and-go with discovery a second time as Mister Fitzgibbon stamped down the ladder. But he was already bawling for the watch, and had his eyes fixed straight ahead; and immediately he went forward with the tradesmen at his heels.
I waited until the mate's bellow sounded well forward, and I was sure my retreat would be unobserved. Then I placed my lips to the opening in the sail-locker door and called softly, "Newman! Come out of that at once; you are spied upon!"
I heard the lady gasp, and knew my message was received and understood. I waited for no other response. I scuttled away from that perilous spot as fast as caution permitted my legs to travel. Jack Shreve was no Newman; I had not his cool nerve when it came to flouting hell-ship rules. In truth, I was in a blue funk all the time I was aft, for fear I would be discovered. And there was another reason for my haste in getting forward. There was a sudden uproar in front of the foc'sle that bade fair to carry through the ship.
There was trouble in the air; I could sniff it as I ran. Although time enough had elapsed since the mate sang out his order to man the braces, the watch was not yet at the rail; and this was a strange thing in a ship where men literally flew about their work. The trouble was in the port foc'sle; I could see the crowd bunched on the deck before the door, and Mister Fitzgibbon's voice had risen to a shrill, obscene scream as he poured blistering curses upon some luckless head.
I dodged across the deck and around the starboard side of the deck house, and thus came upon the scene in a casual manner, as though I had just stepped out of my own foc'sle to see what was wrong. I mingled with my watch mates, who had turned out to a man to watch the row.
Over on the port side of the deck a royal shindy seemed to be preparing. Aye, the mate had at last struck fire from his squareheads! They were on the verge of open rebellion. The stiffs of the port watch had fallen to one side, and stood quaking and irresolute, but the squareheads, all of them, were bunched squarely between the mate and the foc'sle door, and to the mate's stream of curses they interposed a wall of their own oaths. Mister Fitzgibbon had his right hand in his coat pocket, and all hands knew that hand was closed about the butt of a revolver; moreover, the tradesmen stood on either side of him, prepared to back him up in whatever course he chose to take. They were good men, those tradesmen, fighting men, and skilled in just such battles as this promised to be. The port watch Sails, who stood nearest to me, was armed with a heavy sheet pin, and he stood with his face half turned towards the starboard side. Aye, they were canny fighters—if it came to blows they would not be taken in the flank by surprise.
Mister Fitzgibbon was swearing over the heads of the squareheads. He threw his words into foc'sle. He was calling upon Holy Joe, the parson, to come out of it blasted quick and be skinned alive, b'Gawd! Broken bones were being promised to poor Holy Joe. That was why the squareheads were showing fight—not to protect their own skins, but to save the parson from the mate's wrath. For their little Nils was dying, and Holy Joe was by his side, praying for his passing soul. As I learned afterwards, when the mate sang out for his watch to man the braces, all jumped to obey save the parson; he stayed with Nils. His absence was noted immediately, for the mate was lynx-eyed; and Fitzgibbon was all for invading the foc'sle and hauling out the truant by the scruff of the neck. Aye, Mister Fitz was all for teaching a lesson with boot and fist, for Holy Joe was a small man and a pacifist, fair game for any bucko. But the squareheads would not have it so. For Nils was dying, and Holy Joe was praying for his soul.
Suddenly Mister Fitzgibbon stopped cursing, and in a voice that meant business, ordered the watch aft to the braces. The stiffs tumbled over themselves in their eagerness to obey; but not a squarehead budged. They still stood between the mate and his victim. So he drew the revolver out of his pocket, and pointed it at Lindquist.
"Lay aft—or I'll splatter lead among you!" he said.
He meant it. He would have shot Lindquist, I am sure, for winging a man, or worse, meant little to the mate of the Golden Bough, and the squarehead bravely stood his ground. But the threat to shoot into the men who were shielding him had the effect of drawing the parson out of the foc'sle. He suddenly appeared in the lighted doorway.
"Oho, that brought you out of it—hey, you sniveling this-and-that!" hailed Fitzgibbon. He lifted his aim from Lindquist, and brought the weapon to bear upon Holy Joe. "Step aft, here, you swab, or I'll drill you through, s'help me!"
The words brought a menacing growl from the squareheads; there was a stir among them, and they seemed about to fling themselves upon the trio. But Holy Joe checked the movement with a word.
"Steady, lads," said he. "No violence; obey your orders. Spread out, there, boys, and let me through; I will speak with him."
That was what he said, but it was how he said it that really mattered. Aye, Holy Joe might have been the skipper, himself, from his air. He spoke with authority, in a deep, commanding voice, and the squareheads instantly gave him the obedience they had refused the mate. They did not, indeed, tumble aft in the wake of the stiffs; but they did spread out and make a lane through their midst down which Holy Joe advanced with quick and firm step. Right up to Fitzgibbon he walked, and stopped, and said to the bucko's face,
"Put away that weapon! Would you add another murder to your crimes?"
To me, to the mate and his henchmen, indeed, to all hands, it was a most astounding situation. And perhaps the most surprising element in it was the fact that Holy Joe was not immediately shot or felled with a blow, and the additional fact that none of us expected him to be.
It was the stiff, not the officer, who commanded the deck that moment. By some strange magic I could not as yet fathom, the little parson had assumed the same heroic proportions Newman had assumed the day he chased the skipper from the poop. Oh, it was no physical change that took place; it was rather as if the man doffed a mask and revealed himself to us in his true self. There he stood, a full head shorter than his antagonist, with his head tilted back to meet the larger man's eyes, and Bully Fitzgibbon quailed before his gaze.
I watched the little man, awe-stricken. I had been bred to worship force, it was the only deity I knew, and Holy Joe was in my eyes the symbol of force. He radiated force, and it was a strange and wonderful force. I had glimpsed this power in Newman; now, for the first time in my life I saw it fully revealed. The only kind of force I had known or imagined was brute force, the kind of force Mister Fitzgibbon epitomized; but now, in this duel of wills that was taking place before my eyes, I saw another and superior power at work. It was a force of the mind, or soul, that Holy Joe employed; it was a moral force that poured out of the clean spirit of the man and subdued the brute force pitted against him.
"Put down that weapon!" Holy Joe repeated.
Slowly, the mate lowered his arm.
The parson turned to the squareheads; aye, he turned his back full upon the bucko, and the latter made no move against him.
"Obey your orders, men," Holy Joe said to the sailors. "Go to your work as he commands. I will stay with the boy."
The squareheads obeyed without question. They knew, just as all of us knew, that their little champion was in no danger of mishandling, at least not at that moment. They trooped aft, heavy-footed, murmuring, but docile, and joined the stiffs at the lee braces. Holy Joe, now alone on that deck so far as physical backing went, turned again to the mate. But indeed he needed no physical backing; his indomitable spirit had cowed the bucko.
"Your men will give you no further trouble, sir; they are at their stations," said he.
It was the first time he had used the "sir." For an instant it seemed a weakening. It gave Mister Fitzgibbon the heart to bluster.
"I ordered you aft with the rest," he began. "What d'ye mean——"
"I have other work to do this watch—as you know," interrupted the parson. He said the words so solemnly and sternly they sounded like a judgment; aye, and they nipped the rising courage of the mate. He could only mumble, and stammer out,
"You—you refuse duty?"
Holy Joe was silent for an instant. All of us were silent. One could have heard a pin drop upon the deck. Then, out of the port foc'sle, a dreadful sound came to our ears, a low, strangled moan. It stabbed the vitals of the most hardened of us; with my own eyes I saw the mate tremble. Aye, in some way Holy Joe had sent a fear into the brute soul of Fitzgibbon; in some way he had sent a fear into the brute souls of us all, and, at least in my case, a great wonder. The pain-filled wail of Nils, coming as it did, seemed magic-inspired to light for me a universal truth. I felt it crudely, saw it dimly, but there it was, dramatized before my eyes, the age-long, ceaseless battle between the Beast in Man and the God in Man, the resistless power of service and sacrifice. Aye, and Holy Joe's softly spoken reply to the mate's words confirmed what I saw and felt.
"You speak of my duty, sir," said he. "I see it—and do it!"
With that he turned on his heel and walked into the foc'sle.
When he had disappeared something seemed to have gone from the air we breathed, something electric and vitalizing. There was an immediate let down of the nervous tension that had gripped us, a common sigh, and a half-hysterical snigger from some fellow behind me. Mister Fitzgibbon seemed to come out of a trance; he shook himself, and stared at Sails and then at Chips. He glared across the deck at us of the starboard watch. He even swore. But there was no life to his curse, and he made no step to follow the defiant stiff into the foc'sle. Instead, he went to the job at hand, and quite obviously sought to regain mastery and self-respect by sulphuric blustering towards the men bent over the ropes. He was a defeated man. He knew it, and we knew it.
A hand fell upon my shoulder. Newman stood behind me.
"A brave act and a brave man," said he. "But they will not let him keep his triumph." After a pause he added, "They dare not."
I seized Newman's arm and led him aside, intending to impart my news. But eight bells struck, and while they were striking, Mister Lynch's voice summoned the starboard watch to assist in the job the mate had started. We hurried aft with the crowd, and I found chance to say to him no more than,
"Be careful; someone is spying upon you. Boston told me—and I saw him."
"I couldn't see. It was too dark, and he cleared out on the run. Ask the Nigger."
When we had belayed, the watch was relieved, and Newman went aft to the wheel. Lynch kept the rest of us on the jump, as ever, and I had no chance to steal a word with the Nigger when he came forward. At four bells I relieved the wheel. I found Captain Swope and the mate pacing the poop with their heads together. As I took over the wheel, Newman whispered to me, "Keep your weather eye lifted for squalls, Jack!"
I did not need his warning; the mere presence of either of the pair was sufficient to keep any sailorman wide awake and watchful of his p's and q's while steering her. There was nothing uncommon about the Old Man's presence; he was in the habit of appearing on the poop at all hours of the night, though he never went forward. But for the mate to give up his sleep in fair weather was unprecedented. There was something in the carriage and attitude of the two, as they slowly paced fore and aft, or stood at the break staring forward, that gave me a feeling of impending disaster. Aye, I could smell trouble coming.
Captain Swope could smell it, too. That is why he walked the deck with Fitzgibbon by his side. I could feel the alertness of the man. Yankee Swope had his finger upon the pulse of his ship. A mutiny, however sudden, would not catch the master of the Golden Bough napping. That is what I thought as I watched him, and Boston's vague scheme became harebrained in my eyes.
The second mate was seldom aft during the two hours I stood at the wheel. The times he did appear, he engaged in conversation with the Old Man, beyond my hearing. But near midnight be clumped aft hurriedly, bringing the tradesmen with him. The strollers happened to be near me at the moment he appeared, and he came towards them, speaking.
"Well, sir—he's gone," he said.
So I knew that Nils was dead.
"Very good," said Swope. "And the hands?"
"All quiet, sir."
Mister Lynch's voice was quite respectful, but I fancied I detected in it a note of contempt.
"There was danger of trouble, even before the boy went out," he went on. "Morton stood by the door and heard it all." This Morton was the sailmaker in the starboard watch. "The big Cockney in the port watch was all for trouble, a rush aft of all hands; he said he had the backing of my watch. The squareheads were willing; they want revenge. But the big jasper in my watch, Newman, went into the foc'sle and squelched the scheme with a word. He clapped a stopper on the Cockney's jaw, and told the squareheads there was to be no trouble. So there will be none, Captain."
A black curse slid out of the skipper's mouth. Aye, the man breathed fury.
"So—he commands for'ard, eh?" he said. "Well, I command aft." He seemed to think over the matter for a moment, and arrive at a decision. "Well, Mister, if it doesn't happen to-night, it may happen another night," he said. "Tell your men to keep their eyes and ears open. And—better have that body carted aft, and your sailmaker fit him to canvas. We'll dump him at dawn."
"Very good, sir," replied Lynch, and he went forward again.
The Old Man and the mate immediately went into conference. They moved over to the rail, and spoke in soft tones, so I overheard nothing they said. A ray of light from the companion hatch fell upon them, and watching them furtively, it seemed to me that Captain Swope was laying down the law to Fitzgibbon, giving him certain orders, to which he at first objected, and then agreed.
It looked wicked to me, this secretive conversation. My excited mind saw evil in it. I smelled evil, tasted evil, the very skin of my body was prickled with the air or evil that lay upon the ship. A case of nerves? Aye, I had nerves. Most sailormen had nerves when they were within sight of Captain Swope. This night he seemed to drench the ship with evil, it poured out of him as ink from a squid, it was almost something tangible. Somehow I knew that Newman's long grace was ended. This black villain had prepared a net to trap my friend, and was even now casting it. Somehow I knew that fresh wrongs and miseries were to be heaped upon the wretched foc'sle. As I watched Captain Swope out of the corners of my eyes, God's truth, I was afraid to my marrow.
Presently the second mate returned aft. "You may have your trouble now, Captain, if you wish," he said in the same clear, carrying voice he had before used, as he approached the skipper. "The squareheads won't give up the body. They'll fight if we take it. They say they'll drop him overside themselves."
The captain appeared pleased with this news. He laughed, that soft, musical little chuckle of his that contained so much malice and cruelty. "Oh, let the dogs dispose of their own offal, Mister," he said, carelessly. Then, when Lynch went down to the main deck, Swope spoke eagerly, though in low voice, to the mate. Aye, the Old Man was gleeful, and the mate received his instructions with servile pleasure. Presently, they went below, and the yelp of the cabin boy—roused from sleep, doubtless, by the toe of the skipper's boot—and the subsequent clink of glasses, told me they were toasting the occasion.
I was consumed with dread. But just what to dread, I could not guess.
The Cockney took over the helm at midnight. I hurried forward, eager to see what was happening in the fore part of the ship, and anxious to speak with Newman.
The air of unease, of expectancy, which I had felt so strongly aft, was even more evident forward. My watch, though off duty, did not go below directly. Men were standing about whispering to each other. The wheel and lookout had been relieved, but the mate did not summon his watch to labor, as was his custom; he kept to the poop, and we heard not a peep from him. The squareheads had taken a lamp from the lamp-locker and a sack of coal from the peak, and Lindquist had the body of Nils upon the forehatch preparing it for sea-burial. He stitched away in silence, his mates watched him in silence. But it was not a peaceful calm.
I found Newman in the port foc'sle, talking to Holy Joe. When I entered, I heard Newman say: "They are good, simple lads—use your authority as a minister. Reason, command, do your best to convince them they must be obedient. Tell them they will be the ones to suffer in case of trouble."
"I will do my best," the parson answered. With a nod to me, he went out on deck.
"Who was he?" I asked, when we were alone.
Newman looked blank.
"The spy," I added. "Didn't you ask the Nigger?"
"Oh, that—I have been too busy to bother about it," was the careless response. "It really doesn't matter, Jack; I dare say it was some one he set to dog my heels." He inclined his head aft to indicate who "he" might be.
"But—remember what happened that night on the yardarm! And—I heard some of you talk aft there; I couldn't help hearing! I tell you, Newman, the afterguard is awake and waiting; the Old Man is afraid of trouble. I think he is afraid you will lead the crowd, and try to take the ship."
"No; he is afraid I won't," said Newman.
I blinked. The words struck me with the force of a blow.
The big man smiled at my puzzled expression, and his hand clapped upon my shoulder with a firm, friendly pressure. "Strange things happen in this ship, eh, Jack?" said he, in a kindly voice. "No wonder you are stumped, you are too young and straightforward to be alert to intrigue. You do not understand, yet you are eager to risk your skin in another man's quarrel? And you believe in me, eh, Jack?"
I felt embarrassed, and a little resentful. I did not like to be reminded so bluntly of my youth and inexperience.
"You saved my life, and I don't forget a debt like that," I growled, ungraciously.
Newman gave a little chuckle. He knew very well it was liking, not debt, that made me his man.
"I want you to know, Jack, that your friendship is a strength to me," he said, with sudden earnestness. "It is a strength and a comfort to her, too. Your unquestioning faith in me has given both of us courage. You have helped me regain my own faith in men and in right. Heaven knows, a man needs faith in this ship!"
Oh, but I was exalted by these words! I was in the hero-worship stage of life, and this mysterious giant by my side was my chosen idol. The lady aft had quickened into activity whatever chivalry my nature contained, and it was pure, romantic delight to be told I had served her by loyalty to the man. Aye, I felt lifted up; I felt important.
"You can count on me. I'll back you to the limit," I said. Then I rushed on, eagerly, and blurted out what was on my mind. "You are in danger; I know it, I feel it. That Old Man is planning something against you. Remember that night on the yardarm! Remember the lady's warning! Look at Nils! I tell you, we'll have to fight! You can depend upon me, I'll back you to the limit in anything. So will the squareheads—you know how desperate and bitter they are. So will the stiffs—they are just waiting for you to say the word. Every man-jack for'ard will follow you!"
He checked me with stern words. "Put that thought out of your mind!" he exclaimed. "There will be no mutiny, if I can prevent it. If one occurs, I shall help put it down."
I was astonished and crestfallen. But after a moment he went on, more kindly.
"I know you are thinking of my safety, lad, and I thank you. But you do not know what you are proposing. Mutiny on the high seas is madness, and these jail-birds for'ard would be worse masters than those we now have. Besides, you do not understand my situation—an uprising of the crew whether or not led by me, is the very thing the captain expects and wishes. You are quite right in thinking he intends to kill me—and not me alone—but at present he is checkmated. I am an able seaman, I do my work and enjoy the favor of my watch officer, and both Lynch and the tradesmen revere the lady and hate, while they fear, their master. But in case of a mutiny—why, Jack, those fellows aft would unite, and back up Swope in anything he chose to do. Their own safety would depend upon it. He would have his excuse to kill."
"But if we win—" I commenced.
"We would be murderers, and our necks would be forfeit," he interrupted. "Put away the thought, lad, for only evil can come of it. A mutiny would mean disaster to the crew, to you, to me, and above all, to her. For her sake, Jack, we must prevent any outbreak."
"For her sake?" I echoed. I was aghast. Somehow, it had never occurred to me that the lady might be in any danger. "You don't mean that she would be harmed!" I exclaimed.
He nodded, and there crept into his eyes an expression grim and desperate. "I have cursed myself for giving way to the storm of hate and passion that brought me on board this ship," he said, moodily. "And yet—it could not have been otherwise."
He observed my questioning face, and added, "Swope knows we have talked together, she and I. He knows he must extinguish us both if he would rebury for good and all the truth he thought was already buried."
"His wife—his own wife!" I exclaimed.
The words probed the quick. For a minute Newman's reserve was gone, and the tormented soul of the man was plainly visible.
"It is a lie, a legal lie!" he cried.
He calmed immediately. His self-control took charge; it was as if his will, caught napping for an instant, awoke, and drew a curtain that shut out alien eyes.
I was dumb, ashamed and sorry to have unwittingly hurt my friend. But now he was speaking again, in his accustomed sober, emotionless voice.
"Of course, I trust you absolutely, Jack. I'd like to tell you the whole story. But—I am not free to talk——"
"You don't have to tell me anything," I blurted. "I know you are my man, and you know I am your man."
"You are a friend!" he exclaimed. "But I will not sail under false colors in your eyes, lad. I am a jail-bird, an escaped felon."
"Oh, I knew all about that long ago," I said, carelessly.
He looked his surprise.
"I heard that bum's story through the wall, that night in the Knitting Swede's," I explained. "I didn't try to listen, but I couldn't help hearing him. About the frame-up they worked on you—Beulah Twigg, and Mary—that's the lady, isn't it?—and the one Beasley called 'he'—I know 'he' is Yankee Swope. Oh, it was a dirty trick they played on you, Newman. I'm with you in anything you do to get even."
He shook his head, smiling. "What a young savage you are, Jack!" says he. "An eye for an eye, eh? But you guess wrongly, lad. That treachery you heard Beasley explain was but the beginning. I was sent to prison for a murder, the brutal and cowardly murder of a helpless old man."
"I know it was a frame-up," I cried. "And, anyway, I don't care. I know you're on the square, and that is all that matters with me."
"If I were not, your faith would make me on the square," he answered. "But—I was not guilty. I came on board the Golden Bough intending to become a murderer—but that madness is past. Now I am anxious to prevent killing—any killing. Now I am determined to preserve peace in this ship.
"For she is safe so long as I am alive, and he cannot easily dispose of me so long as the crew is peaceful. You can understand that, can you not? Angus Swope is a fiend; he is more than half-insane from long indulgence of his cruel lusts. But he is cunning. I am a menace to his safety, and now he knows that she is also a menace. But he will not offer her violence or do her any harm while I am at large. By God, it would be his death, and he knows it. I give him no chance to strike at me alone and openly, so he is striking at me through the crew.
"For he must consider the attitude of his second mate. Lynch is her friend, remember that, Jack. He is an honest man. He is bluff and harsh and without imagination, as brutal a bucko as one is likely to find In any ship, but he is 'on the square,' as you put it. Also, he has more than an inkling of the true state of affairs in the ship. He knows who I am, and he guesses why the captain fears and hates me. I wish I could tell you what he has done, and is doing, in my—no, in her behalf. And in spite of his bucko's code. He would not lift a finger to aid me in case of trouble (you remember the warning he gave us that day we were in the rigging) for he is an officer, a bucko, and I am a hand. But he would not stand for another such attempt at murder as Swope made the night we were aloft. He told Swope he would not stand for it, he would not keep silent. It was a brave thing to do, to defy such a master. This is Lynch's last voyage in the Golden Bough, as he well knows. So our canny skipper set to work his crooked wits, and for weeks he has been fomenting a rebellion of the port watch. Mister Fitz is a more pliant and obedient tool than Lynch."
I was excited, wide-eyed. For I was suddenly seeing a light. The words I heard were truth, I knew. It explained what I had seen and heard that night upon the poop. This trouble that threatened was made to order, to the captain's order; even as Newman said.
"Good heavens—then Nils' death—and the hazing"—I could not continue. The heartlessness, the malignant cruelty of the man who had ordered these things was too horrifying.
"Nils' injury was unpremeditated, I believe," said Newman, "but leaving him die without attention or nursing was a calculated brutality, designed to inflame the boy's mates. Fitzgibbon's bitter hazing, without distinction or justice, was for the same purpose. They kept a close eye upon the boy's condition; they evidently figured that the hour of his death would be the hour of explosion. As you know, it very nearly was—only the parson's courage averted trouble in the dog-watch, and but a little while ago I had to quiet a storm. But the danger is passed now, I think. The little fellow's mates are naturally quiet, law-abiding fellows."
"The squareheads may be kept quiet," I said, "but how about the stiffs? How about Boston and Blackie?"
An expression of disgust and contempt showed in his face as I mentioned the names. "I will attend to them if they try any of their tricks," he said.
"But they are, and have been, trying their tricks," I persisted, "and for some reason they are eager to have you know what they are up to. Boston told me to tell you." I repeated Boston's gossip. "He knew about the spy," I said.
He nodded. "I know; I have had an eye upon them. What Boston told you about the treasure is quite true; the ship is carrying specie. And they are precious rascals, capable of any villainy; I know them well, they—they broke jail with me. But they have wit enough to know that their gang of stiffs could put up no sort of fight, unless backed by the sailors in the crew. It is loot they are after, and there will be trouble from them before the ship makes port; but now we are in mid-sea, and they realize they would be quite helpless with a ship on their hands and no navigator. That is what they want of me. A pair of poisonous rats, Jack!
"But they will keep quiet. They had better. I promised them I would kill them both if they disobeyed me!"
I gazed at the big man with admiring awe. He spoke so coolly, was so conscious of the strength and power that was in himself. Here was the sort of man I should like to be, I thought, here was the true hard case, no bully, no ruffian, but a man, a good man, a man so hard and bright, so finely tempered, he was to the rest of us as steel to mud. Oddly enough, as I had this thought, it also occurred to me that there was a man in the ship who might with justice claim to be Newman's peer, another man of heroic stature—poor meek little Holy Joe.
"If Swope does not interfere with the decent burial of that poor boy, there will be no outbreak," added Newman.
"He will not interfere," I was able to assure him. I repeated the skipper's words to Mister Lynch. "'Let the dogs dispose of their own offal!' is what he said."
To my surprise Newman was disturbed by this news. He stared at me, frowning.
"Swope said that?" he exclaimed. "Now what is he up to?"
He sat thinking for a moment, then he said:
"The burial of Nils is the weak point in my defense. If Swope offers an indignity to the boy's body, even I will not be able to restrain Nils' mates. Surely Swope has guessed that. I have planned to bury the lad from the foredeck just as quickly as preparations can be made; that is why Lindquist is at work on the forehatch. If Swope is overlooking this chance, he must have something else up his sleeve."
He got to his feet and moved toward the door.
"Lindquist must be nearly finished. I will carry out my plan at any hazard. Common decency demands we should not let the boy be cast into the sea by the very men who murdered him."
At the door we were met by Olson, one of the squareheads, come to tell Newman that all was ready for the burial. So we joined the crowd, and Nils was put away, in the dead of night, by the light of one lantern and many stars. The hum of the wind aloft and the purr and slap of the waters against the bows were his requiem.
That scene left its mark upon the mind of every man who took part in or witnessed it—and every foc'sle man save the helmsman saw Nils go over the side. It was already late in the middle watch, but no man had yet gone to his sleep; and, considering the habits of sailors and the custom of the sea, this single fact describes how disturbed was the common mind.
Yet the putting away of Nils was peaceful. We knew that the mate was not alone upon the poop, that the men aft were alert and must know what was going on forward; but, despite Newman's fears, there was no interference from that quarter.
Nils' bier was a painter's stage, and four of the lad's shipmates held the plank upon their shoulders, with the weighted feet of the shrouded form pointed outboard. The rest of us, sailors and stiffs, stood about with bared, bowed heads; aye, and most of us, I think, with wet eyes and tight throats. It seemed a cruel and awful thing to see one of our number disappear forever, and Holy Joe's words, spoken so softly and clearly, were of a kind to squeeze the hearts of even bad men. That parson had the gift of gab; he was a skilled orator and he could play upon our heartstrings as a musician upon a harp.
Yet he did not preach at us, or even look at us. He wasted no words, and the ceremony proceeded with the dispatch Newman desired. All Holy Joe did was lift his face to the night and pray in simple words that Nils might have a safe passage on this long voyage he was starting. The words seemed to wash clean our minds. For the moment the most vicious man in that hard and vicious crowd thought cleanly and innocently. Our wrongs and hatreds seemed small and of little consequence. Aye, while Holy Joe prayed for the dead we stood about like a group of awed children. When he was finished praying, he recited the beautiful words of the Service, and raised his hand—and the pall-bearers tipped their burden into the sea.
Silently we listened to the dull splash, silently we watched the four men lower the stage to the deck. It was over. The parson fell into step with Newman, and the two paced up and down, conversing in low tones. The crowd dispersed.
Some of my watch went into the foc'sle, to their bunks. Most of the men sat about the decks, and smoked and talked in whispers. But the topic of Nils was avoided, as was talk of mutiny. The squareheads did not mutter threats, the stiffs did not curse. The spell of the parson's words was still upon us, and peace reigned.
Newman had won, I thought, and danger was passed.
I found the Nigger seated upon the fore-bitts, whetting his knife upon a stone. There was something sinisterly suggestive about his occupation at that hour; it was the first break in the strange calm which had fallen upon the crew.
"Tell me, Nigger, who's the man that's spying on the big fellow?" I said abruptly, as I sat down beside him.
Nigger did not pause in his work, but he turned his battered face to me. A couple of days before he had fallen afoul of the mate's brass knuckles for perhaps the twentieth time since he had been in the ship, and his face was a mass of bruised flesh, a shocking sight, even though his color hid the extent of his injuries.
The Nigger had been, perhaps, the worst misused man in the crew—and this notwithstanding the fact he was by far the best sailor in the port watch. But Fitzgibbon hated "damned niggers," especially did he hate "these spar-colored half-breeds," as he was fond of calling this fellow. I do believe he chose the Nigger for his watch so he might pummel him to his heart's content. Beat him up he had, constantly, and without cause, and as a result Nigger had become a surly, moody man.
"Who say dat Ah know?" demanded Nigger, in reply to my question.
"Boston said so."
"Dat man's too free wif his lip. Ah don't tell him Ah knows who's the spy; Ah tells him Ah knows dey is one."
I waited patiently, for Nigger's temper would not bear pressing. He reversed his stone, spat upon it, and resumed his monotonous whetting, then, after looking around to make sure he could not be overheard, he explained what he did know.
"Night befoh last Ah was hangin' 'round aft——"
"What?" I cried, surprised. "Hanging around aft—what for?"
"Dat's my business," he told me, curtly. Then, after a moment, he added, "But Ah don't care if yoh know, because Ah knows yoh ain't no snitch. Ah was hangin' 'round waitin' to meet Mistah Mate when he ain't got them othah two debbils wif him. Ah was waitin' 'round to meet dat man alone. And he come to de break ob de poop wif de Old Man, and de Old Man say, 'Ah got a good man watchin' every move he makes; he can't turn around in de foc'sle wifout me knowin' it. We'll be wahned befoh it happens.' Dat's what de Old Man say to Mistah Mate. And Ah knows he mus' be talkin' about de big fellow, and so Ah tells Boston about it."
"But didn't you hear any names mentioned?" I asked him.
"Dat's all Ah hears," he answered. "Den dey went away."
I was disappointed. The Nigger's news amounted to just nothing; we already knew that a spy was watching Newman. But indeed this fact seemed not so threatening as it had a few hours before. Newman's careless contempt of the spy had made me contemptuous, too. And, indeed, what could a spy report against the big man that could injure him? Newman was openly working for peace, counseling obedience. His actions invited scrutiny.
I voiced this thought to my companion.
"Well, anyway, a spy can't hurt Newman. He is doing nothing underhand, or wrong. He's keeping peace in this ship."
Nigger gave a queer little hoot of derision. "Does Ah look like peace?" he said. "Dis am a debbil-ship; Ah tells yoh dey can't be no peace in dis ship nohow."
I gestured towards the forehatch. A dozen men sat upon it, quietly smoking and gossiping. "The squally weather is past," I said. "Those lads don't want trouble. A few hours ago they were all for fight—but now they've settled down. And don't you try to start trouble! The big fellow wants peace, the lady wants peace, we must help them to keep peace. Don't you want to help the lady and the big fellow?"
"De lady been awful good to me," said Nigger, in almost a whisper. "Ah gone crazy long ago if it ain't foh de lady." He stopped his whetting and tried the edge of the blade with his thumb; then, suddenly, he reached out and clutched my wrist, and continued in a voice so charged with pain and grief, that I was appalled.
"Ah'd do mos' anything foh de lady, but, Shreve, it ain't foh me, and it ain't foh any of us forward to say what's goin' to happen in dis ship. Ah ain't no sea-lawyer; man and boy Ah've gone to sea twenty year, and Ah ain't nebber made no trouble in no ship, no suh. But, oh mah Lawd, yoh knows what all's happened to me in dis ship! Dey won't let me be a man. 'Yoh niggah, yoh black beast!' Dat's what dey calls me, and dat's what dey makes me! Ah wants peace, yoh wants peace—but does dey want peace? No, suh! Yoh say de ship peaceful now? Dis am a debbil-ship, and dey's a king debbil aft! And dey's a shark overside, and he wasn't waitin' foh what jus' went into the water, no, suh! Yoh ebber sail out East? Yoh ebber see de quiet befoh a typhoon, so quiet seems like yoh can't breathe? Dat's de kind ob peace dat's on de Golden Bough. Ah don' want to make no trouble no time, but, oh mah Lawd, when Ah does mah work right an' gets hazed foh it, when dat mate makes a beast out ob me—does yoh think Ah stand dat fohebber?"
I had no answer of good cheer. What could I say? The man's wrongs were too bitter, his hurts too constant, to be glossed over or soothed by any words I could think of. For I knew he still had weeks of brutal mistreatment ahead of him. This Nigger was a man who would not, perhaps could not, cringe and whine—and so the mate was "breaking" him.
But after all Nigger gave me the promise I was after. "Ah nebber talks trouble. Ah nebber wants trouble, and Ah nebber stirs up no trouble."
The day following Nils' death was the most peaceful day we had had since leaving port.
There was less cursing and driving from the men aft, and less wrangling among ourselves. But it was a strange peace. An air of suspense lay upon the ship; we went around on tiptoe, so to speak. The quiet before the typhoon—aye, Nigger's phrase just about described it. We went around telling each other that the trouble had blown over, and nothing was going to happen, and all the time we were watching and waiting for something—we didn't know just what—to happen.
During the morning, Mister Fitzgibbon and his bullies came swaggering forward and into the port foc'sle. Now that was a moment that very nearly saw the calm broken; for an instant I was sure there would be a grand blow-up. For the mate was after Nils' belongings, his sea-chest. Even though it was the custom to take a dead man's gear aft, the squareheads resented the removal of Nils' effects. Especially did they resent Fitzgibbon's part in the removal. The lads in my watch crowded the door connecting the rooms, and the port watch men collected on deck and glowered in at the proceedings.
The muttered curses grew in volume. Oh, it looked like trouble, right enough—-for just a moment. Now that I was enlightened as to the skipper's game, I could see what the mate was up to. He, who was largely responsible for Nils' death, had come forward upon this errand because he knew—or Swope knew—his presence would enrage Nils' mates. The Chinese steward, or the tradesmen alone, could have taken Nils' gear without raising a murmur from the squareheads, but quite naturally they would resent Fitzgibbon's pawing over the poor lad's treasures.
But Newman took the sting out of the mate's visit, Newman and Holy Joe, working separately, but with a common end in view. Oh, it was rich—but you must know the foc'sle mind to understand how rich we thought it was. It was nothing subtle, nothing above our heads. Newman made us laugh, at the mate's expense, and—presto!—impending tragedy was turned into farce.
Fitzgibbon, himself, was overhauling Nils' gear. The tradesmen stood idle and watchful, one near either door of the foc'sle. Out on deck, Holy Joe was busy; we could hear him urging his crowd to be quiet and peaceful. Newman pushed through our crowd until he was fairly into the port foc'sle, and there he stood, filling the doorway, and effectually blocking any attempt on the part of those behind him to rush the room.
Well, Newman looked down at the mate, and he commenced to chuckle very softly to himself. After a moment we began to chuckle too, every man-jack of us. We didn't laugh out loud—not one of us, except Newman, who had the nerve to laugh out loud at Blackjack Fitzgibbon—but, hidden behind the big fellow's back, we chuckled and snickered readily enough. And the butt of the joke was the mate, himself.
It was the mate's behavior. Anybody could see with half an eye that the fellow was looking for trouble. He expected trouble, and it made him nervous. He was determined he would be ready for it. So he kept one hand in his coat pocket, where he carried his gun, and tried with the other hand to cast adrift the lashings that held the chest to the bunk posts. It was a two-hand job, and he made slow work of it. But he wouldn't call one of his tradesmen to help him—that would have left a door unguarded, you see. Nor could he fix his attention upon the job; he kept twisting his ugly face this way and that way until his head looked as if it were on a pivot.
If Newman hadn't pointed it out, I doubt if any of us would have seen the humor of the scene. But Newman's chuckle forced it upon us. Mister Fitzgibbon did look ridiculous—fumbling blindly with the ropes, and at the same time trying to keep both ends of the foc'sle in sight at once.
"I'll lend you one of my hands, Mister," said Newman, suddenly.
The mate glanced at him, startled, but before he could open his mouth, Newman stepped past the tradesman and bent over one end of the chest. "It's neatly wrapped; the lad would have been a good sailorman, Mister," he remarked as he undid the lashing.
The mate realized he was at a disadvantage. He glared vindictively at the big fellow, and snarled an oath in reply. Then he drew a knife, and committed the lubberly act of cutting through the lashing at his end of the chest. Newman had finished undoing the rope at his end, and now he stepped back into the doorway.
I've never been sure, but I think Newman did it purposely. The rope's end was spliced about the handle of the chest, and when he cast the rope loose, it trailed upon the floor. Newman left the bight turned about the bunk-post, and in such fashion that it would tighten into a clove-hitch.
Now that it was a case of our laughing at him, the mate was eager to get out of the foc'sle with as little loss of dignity as possible. He started to walk away, dragging Nils' chest after him. The clove-hitch checked him. He jerked, with all his strength, and his strength was enormous—there was a crack like a pistol shot as the bunk-post snapped, the chest leaped like a live thing at the man, and Fitzgibbon's heels flew out from under him. He landed upon his back, and the chest landed upon his stomach; and the wind went out of him with an explosive oof!
Oh, it was rich. Aye, it was the kind of joke the foc'sle could appreciate. We did appreciate it. We did not quite dare roar our laughter, but our chuckles would have shaken windows ashore. Even the tradesmen grinned—behind their hands—as they lifted the chest from off their boss, and him to his feet. He needed assistance, too; he had no wind for curses, and bent double nursing the injured spot while he grunted at the tradesmen to pick up the chest and carry it aft. He paid no attention to the rest of us, but as he hobbled out of the foc'sle in the wake of the others, he gave Newman a look of such malignant hatred that we all knew just where he placed the blame for the episode.
It did not bother Newman, that look. He was on deck at the mate's heels. Bravado, I thought at first, and I was close behind Newman, for I wanted to have a hand in any further fun. He followed the mate aft, at a respectful distance. Suddenly, I understood his action, for I saw how warily he was watching the hands, the port watch squareheads, particularly, who were bunched about the foredeck. Newman wasn't following the mate to make sport for us; he was seeing that the mate, and the tradesmen, got aft without trouble. He was seeing to it that no one on deck gave the bucko the excuse to start trouble that had been denied him in the foc'sle. Aye, Newman was a wise lad; he would not be caught napping.
Yet, despite his care, he nearly lost. Mister Fitzgibbon brushed past Cockney, who was standing alone by the forward end of the deck-house. He croaked something at the man, an oath, I thought. Cockney waited until he passed by, and then suddenly whipped out his knife and drew back his arm to throw it at the mate's back.
Newman might possibly have reached Cockney. But he did not try. Instead, he leaped in the other direction, a cat-like bound that took him over to the rail, as far away from Cockney as he could get. It was Holy Joe who spoiled Cockney's knife-play. He was standing behind Cockney, and, quick as Newman himself, he leaped forward and struck Cockney's arm. It spoiled the aim. The knife did not go in the mate's direction at all; it went flashing across the deck, and stuck quivering in the rail.
"You fool!" cried Holy Joe.
The mate wheeled about at that. Aye, and he had his pistol half out of his pocket as he turned. We could see by his face that he understood what had happened; indeed, he would have been blind not to have been able to read the meaning of the scene—Cockney still bent in the attitude of throwing, and the parson clutching his arm. I expected—we all expected—he would shoot Cockney. Surely, this was his chance, if he wanted trouble.
But he hardly glanced at the man. His eyes passed him by, and darted about until they spotted Newman lounging over there by the rail, with his hands in his pockets. I guess it was an unpleasant surprise to find Newman over there, just opposite to where he expected to find him. The knife was sticking in the rail close by Newman's shoulder; there could be no connecting it and Newman—indeed, Newman's own knife was in plain view, in its sheath.
Newman shook his head. "Not this time, Mister," says he.
The mate was stumped, and enraged. His face grew actually purple with his choked rage, as he glared at Newman. But he did not draw the gun free of his pocket; he had no excuse to offer Newman violence, and he did not deign to notice Cockney. He did not even seem to notice the naked knife. Slowly his hand opened, and the butt of the weapon dropped back into his pocket. Then he turned, and went aft.
I breathed again. So, I guess, did the others. When Fitzgibbon was beyond ear-shot, Cockney began to damn Holy Joe for spoiling his aim. But he didn't get very far with his tirade before Newman had him shouldered against the wall of the deck-house.
Cockney changed his tune then, and mighty quick. For Newman looked as he had looked that day in the Knitting Swede's; aye, there was death in his face.
"Ow, Gaw', 'ear me. Hi didn't mean no trouble!" Cockney bleated. "Hit was the nyme 'e called me. 'E myde me see red, that's wot."
"Would have been a damn good job if he'd landed!" cried Boston's voice. There was an emphatic chorus of approval of this sentiment from the hands, from squareheads and stiffs both. "We'd have been rid of one o' them, anyhow!" piped up Blackie.
The backing gave Cockney heart. "Hi'd 'ave spliced 'is bleedin' 'eart but 'e spoiled me throw, the blarsted Bible shark, the——"
"That will do," said Newman quietly, and Cockney shut up.
"Cockney has the guts, anyway," says Boston.
"The bucko hain't; he backed down," says Blackie.
"That will do you," Newman threw over his shoulder, and they shut up.
"If I were sure—" said Newman to Cockney. He left the sentence unfinished, but he must have looked the rest for Cockney fell into a terrible funk.
"Ow, s' 'elp me, Hi didn't mean no trouble. Hit was the nyme 'e called—'e called me old mother hout o' 'er blinkin' nyme, that's wot! Hi didn't mean for to do it—but me temper—the wy the blighter's used us blokes—hand the nyme on top o' that——"
"Well, remember, if I thought for a moment—" broke in Newman.
I thought Cockney would flop at the big fellow's feet this time. But he recovered quickly enough when Newman turned away, without further words, and without offering to thump him. He slouched forward, and immediately became the hero of the hour with the gang. Aye; I was even a bit envious. It took a hard case to heave a knife at a bucko—even at his back.
"But why didn't he shoot Cockney?" I asked Newman. "Didn't he see him?"
The big man glanced at Holy Joe, and smiled. "Perhaps he didn't want to see him," he replied.
And I was so thick-headed I didn't understand. But it really was a peaceful day. After Nils' chest went aft, we might have been a comfortable family ship so little were we troubled by the afterguard. Lynch, of course, kept his watch busy while it was on deck, but he didn't haze; and Fitzgibbon all but forgot he had a watch. It was a queer rest. It got upon my nerves, this waiting for something—I didn't know what—to happen.
It carried over into the night, this unusual quiet. Aye, Captain Swope kept the deck that night in the first watch, as well as Fitzgibbon, and not a single man was damned or thumped. When we turned out for the middle watch, we found the port watch lads crowing that they had farmed away their hours on deck.
Well, we didn't farm, by a long shot. Trust Lynch to keep hands busy. It was rule number one with him. He sweated us up in the usual style, yet his manner was milder than usual and he didn't lay a finger on even the most lubberly of the stiffs. Aye, for the first time during the voyage—perhaps for the first time in the life of the ship—a full day passed in the Golden Bough and not a man felt the weight of a boot or a fist. It was an occasion, I can tell you!
Yet, for all of the afterguard's surprising gentleness, that mid-watch was a nightmare to me. Newman disappeared.
Ever since the night at the beginning of the voyage when Captain Swope tried to snap us off the yardarm, I made it a practice to stick close to the big fellow during the night watches. I owed him my life, and, anyway I was eager to give him the service of a friend, of a mate. I was always dreading that Swope would try again some dark night, and with better success. It is so easy to do things in the dark, you see; get a man separated from the watch, beyond the reach of friendly eyes, give him a crack on the head and a boost over the rail, and then what proof, what trace, have you? Just a line in the logbook, "Man lost overboard in the night." Aye, many a lad—and many an officer—has had just that happen to him.
So it was that in the night watches I became Newman's shadow. It was literally shoulder to shoulder with us, we handed the same lines, bent over the same jobs. Newman never mentioned it, never asked me to stick close, but I knew he welcomed the attention. He knew the danger of walking alone in the dark in that ship. Mister Lynch kept his word and never again sent either of us aloft at night. In fact, the second mate did more than that; from that night on, whenever Newman had a night wheel, Lynch stayed aft on the poop during the trick. Oh, there was no friendship between the two; I know that for certain. Lynch was an officer, and Newman just a hand. But he was a square man, and he was seeing to it that Newman got a square deal, at least in his watch. And, I guessed, the lady had something to do with Lynch's attitude. She was not friendless in the cabin, as I had discovered.
This night Newman had no wheel. Neither had I. During the first half of the watch we touched elbows. As usual, the second mate worked sail and kept us dancing a lively jig. He made work, Lynch did. He would walk along the deck and jerk each buntline in passing—and then order lads aloft to overhaul and stop the lines again. He would command a tug on this line, a pull on that; no sail was ever trimmed fine enough to suit him. Oh, aye, he was but following his nature and training; he could not bear being idle himself, and he knew that busy men don't brood themselves into trouble. And running a watch ragged was hell-ship style.
We were aft on a job—brailling in the spanker, I recall—when I missed Newman. An instant before we were together, we had handed the same line; suddenly he was gone from my side. At first I thought he had passed around to the other side of the mizzenmast, for we were coiling down gear that had been disarranged during the job, and I was not worried. But when the second mate ordered us forward to another job, my friend was not with the gang.
The second mate left one of his tradesmen aft, and during the remainder of the watch kept us forward of the waist of the ship. He drove us, kept us jumping, at perfectly useless jobs on the head sails. It was as plain as the nose on my face that he was purposely keeping us forward. Something was going on, aft there by the boat skids, by the break of the poop; it was a moonless night, but once or twice I saw shadows flitting about the main deck.
I was in a quandary. Something was going on aft—but what? Newman was missing. The bucko knew he was absent from the gang, he must have known. Yet he ignored his absence. Was it treachery? Was Newman in trouble? Had he and I been mistaken in our judgment of Bucko Lynch? Oh, I was tormented with fear—and with doubt. I wanted to gallop aft and lend him a hand, succor him, at least help him to put up a good fight. But I wasn't sure he was in trouble, that he would welcome my advertising his disappearance. Perhaps he was keeping a rendezvous, with the second mate's aid.
That was what the other lads thought. Oh, aye, they missed him too. But they didn't have wit enough to realize that Lynch also had sharp eyes; they thought Lynch didn't know Newman was gone. They thought it was a great joke, a score against the cabin. They thought Newman had boldly slipped away from work to meet the lady.
"The Big Un's queenin', b'gawd, right under the Old Man's nose!" That's how Boston put it.
I did nothing. I made no break. Luckily. At seven bells, Lynch marshaled us aft again, to set the spanker this time. As we worked, Newman slipped into the group as quietly and unobtrusively as he had slipped out nearly two hours before. Coiling down gear, I discovered that the running part of the spanker vang was off the pin, and trailing over the side. It dropped down past the open and lighted porthole of one of the cabin berths. Whose berth? Well, I thought that Boston had the right of it. Newman had been "queenin'," with his feet in the ocean, so to speak.
But he had been up to something else, as well. As he and I walked forward, after the watch was relieved, we were overtaken by Lindquist, who was coming from the helm.
"Vat you ban doing mit da longboat to-night?" he asked Newman, curiously.
"Nothing, lad. You must have dreamed at your Sybeel—understand?" was Newman's prompt reply.
It took a moment to filter into the squarehead's mind. But he got it. "So—ja, it ban dream; I see noddings," he said.
"And you say nothing?"
"Ja, even to mineself I say noddings," promised Lindquist.
At the foc'sle door, Newman placed a detaining hand upon my shoulder and held me back.
"Was there much comment among the hands?" he asked.
I told him what Boston had said, and that it was the common opinion.
"That will do no harm," he remarked. "So long as they did not see, or guess—yes, it is a good blind."
I was a little resentful, and showed it. "You know I don't want you to tell me anything you don't want to tell me, but I think you might have dropped a hint In my ear. How was I to know that the greaser hadn't played a trick on you, and given you over to the Old Man? I don't know what game you're playing, and if you don't want to tell me I don't want to know—but I tell you I came pretty near spoiling it, whatever it is. I was on the verge of going aft and raising a row, just to find out what had become of you."
"Jack, it isn't my mistrust that keeps you in the dark," says he. "You know I trust you absolutely. But I cannot explain—others have that right. But, lad, I can tell you this—things are moving, aft there, and the sky is brighter for me—and for her. And, you must not worry about me if this should happen again, some other night. I shall be safe; don't come hunting me, it might ruin everything. You will know soon just what is happening. And you already know, Jack, how I count upon you—and she, too. If things should go wrong, if he outwits me, it is your head and arm I count upon to aid her."
"Anything, any time," was my eager response. "Oh, I want to help."
I found my hand being tightly squeezed in his, and there was a little catch in his voice. "A thick-and-thin friend, eh, Jack? I've learned something about friendship since I have known you."
This strange peace, this interlude of quiet, lasted for several days. It was a curious time, a period of uneasy suspense for me, for I could feel hell simmering beneath the smooth surface of the ship's life, but I could not see it, or guess when or where it would bubble over.
Even Lynch toned down his adjectives, and slackened his driving. He was commanded to do so by Captain Swope while the watch was within hearing. The Old Man told him to "go easy with those boys, Mister; we've made it too hard for them this voyage." Aye, that was a nice bitter pill for Bucko Lynch to swallow before his watch; oh, the lads enjoyed it, I can tell you.
Fitzgibbon, the roaring lion, became the bleating lamb. He hardly worked his men during those days, let alone haze them. He let Nigger alone. He stopped swearing at Holy Joe. Why, a man might fancy from his manner that he had become afraid of his men. Aye, a man might fancy from their behavior that the lot of them aft possessed a sudden fear of the crew. Even the tradesmen were publicly ordered to treat the men with civility. But I didn't fancy they were afraid. I knew better. It was part of the game Swope was playing.
"I took the trick when Nils died," explained Newman, when I asked him what the new program meant, "and now our sweet captain is dealing a new hand, from a cold deck. He is nursing the scum, because this time he will strike through them, instead of through the squareheads."
By "scum," Newman meant our unsavory mob of stiffs. And indeed they were being "nursed," and without even suspecting it. Inevitably, the unwonted gentleness of the men aft was interpreted as weakness and fear, and of course their stiffs' courage mounted and slopped over. Aye, he was a canny brute, was Captain Swope; he knew just how to play such a crowd as we were. And I think he thoroughly enjoyed such a cat-and-mouse game.
There was valorous talk in the foc'sle, and half-veiled insolence on deck. These cringing stiffs began to swank and swagger. They began to bluster openly about what they could do and would do; they began to tell each other how easy it would be to "dump 'em over, and take charge o' the hooker." That's the sort they were. It took bucko methods to keep them decent.
Blackie and Boston were plainly jubilant over this turn of events. Now they were fairly shrewd men, even if they were damned rascals, and one would have thought they possessed sufficient insight to at least be suspicious of the skipper's sudden 'bout-face. But they were not. They were just as convinced as the rest of the stiffs that the afterguard had suddenly become afraid of the foc'sle. Just lack of imagination, I suppose; I've read that it is usually a characteristic of professional criminals.
They ceased hinting darkly and whispering in corners, and came out fiat-footed with their great news. Aye, and it was a weighty argument with the stiffs. Even though they knew about it already—as most of them did—it was a delight to talk about it openly. There was money in the hooker. That is what made their tongues wag. Aye, money; kegs and kegs of shining trade dollars, aft in the lazaret, to be had for the taking by lads with stiff backbones. And their backbones were stiff enough for the job. So Boston and Blackie told them, so Cockney told them, so they told each other.
It surprised me that Newman ignored this state of affairs among the stiffs. He could have clapped stoppers on Boston's and Blackie's jaws by just telling them to shut up. They stood in such awe and fear of him. He could have as easily silenced Cockney; aye, and the gang, too. We all stood in awe of him. There wasn't a man forward who would dream of opposing him openly.
But Newman was contemptuous of stiffs' talk. "Oh, let them blow off steam," says he. "Big talk, small deeds; that's their caliber, Jack. They'll have their sauciness hammered out of them quickly enough when Swope plays his next card."
"Aye, but what if Blackie and Boston, or that Cockney, make trouble? They are bossing the stiffs."
"Those two jail-birds know what I will do to them if they go beyond talk," said Newman. "As for that Whitechapel beauty, he is quite harmless, I think. They would not follow him into a fight; they know he is scum, like themselves, for all his bluster. They would follow me, or you, if we led the sailors aft. But so long as the sailors are quiet, there is no danger. That scum would not fight alone. And, as you know, our little friend has his Norsemen eating out of his hand."
This last was certainly true. By "our little friend" Newman meant Holy Joe. The squareheads idolized him. For one thing, his being a parson gave him, from the beginning, standing with them. They were decent, simple villagers, with an inbred respect for the cloth. But more important, was the service he had rendered their dead shipmate. They were not the men to forget a thing like that, or fail to be impressed by the fine courage Holy Joe had exhibited when he faced the angry mate.
Now there was a curious thing. The decent men in the crew gave Holy Joe unstinted admiration; his bravery that day clinched his authority over the squareheads. They would have done almost anything for him; aye, they loved the little man, and admired him. Yet the stiffs were not much impressed by what Holy Joe did to the mate. I guess they simply couldn't understand it. But Cockney's trying to stick a knife into the mate's back quite captured their fancy. Aye, that attempted murder was a great deed; it made Cockney their hero. I won't say that the rest of us damned Cockney. We were, after all, foc'sle savages, and our hatred of Fitzgibbon was very bitter. But it took the stiffs to honor Cockney for that knife-play.
Well, Newman might dismiss this fellow with a contemptuous word, but I couldn't. Cockney had become a rival I must reckon with. I didn't like the way he lorded it over the stiffs in my watch, even if the stiffs themselves did like it. I didn't like the noise he made in the starboard foc'sle, or the hard case airs he assumed. I was number one bully in my watch, and intended to remain so. I was, in fact, cock of the crew (Newman excepted, of course) and I thought that Cockney's chesty boasting was in a way a defiance of me.
No doubt I was right. As I discovered in time, Cockney had a good reason behind his blatant tongue. It was necessary that he accustom some of the crew, even a few stiffs if no more, to follow his leadership. But he couldn't blow big in his own foc'sle, because Holy Joe wouldn't allow it; and he didn't dare lay a curse or a finger on the little parson because he knew if he did the squareheads would jump him in a body. So he ventured into my bailiwick, hoping, I suppose, that the open support of Boston and Blackie, his size, which matched my own, and his newly got reputation as a bad man with a knife, would bluff me.
It didn't. His dirty and violent talk sickened and wearied me, and just as soon as I had a reasonable pretext I ordered him out of the foc'sle. This wasn't as high-handed as it sounds, for Cockney had the gall one afternoon to leave the deck during his watch out, and break into my watch's rest with his obscene gabble.
He was disposed to dispute my order, and the stiffs backed him up with talk. So I turned out and turned to. I slapped a few stiffs, and threw Cockney through the door. He invited me out on deck, and of course I accepted. We had a nice set-to before all hands. Even the tradesmen came forward to see the sport.
Well, Newman's estimate of the man was correct. Cockney was scum, yellow scum. His fighting methods were as foul as his tongue; he tried all of his slum tricks, the knee, the eye-gouge, the Liverpool-butt, and when he found I was up to them, and the stronger man in the clinches, he wanted to call enough. But I was too incensed by this time to let him escape easily, and I battered him all about the foredeck. Finally he turned tail and fled aft. Of course I did not pursue beyond the deck-house. His fleeing the battle really pleased me more than knocking him out. I felt sure that such an ignominious defeat would cook his goose with the stiffs.
It did. Boston and Blackie stopped grooming Cockney for mob leader; they had seen that he lacked guts in a pinch, and that finished him with them. The other stiffs still welcomed and admired him (for, although he was a good sailor, he was one of them at heart, and, after all, hadn't he tried to stick the mate?), but he was no longer their hero. Aye, it was quite a fall for Cockney; he lost a lot of face when he ran away from my fists. He kept out of my foc'sle thereafter.
I mentioned that this fight started because Cockney came into our foc'sle during his watch on deck. Now, that illustrates the surprising slackness of discipline in the port watch. Just a few days before the mate was ready to shoot Holy Joe for going below during his watch on deck, but he never bothered his head about Cockney's much worse offense. In fact, during these strange days he seemed not to bother his head about anything his men did. He promenaded on the poop during his watches on deck, alone, or arm-in-arm with the captain, and just about left the ship to sail herself. No wonder the stiffs commenced to believe they could take liberties; in fact, they could take them in the mate's watch, and get away with it.
But they couldn't take liberties in the second mate's watch. You bet they couldn't! Bucko Lynch curbed his vocabulary and stopped using his fists, as the captain ordered, but he didn't stop working his men. There was no slackness in his watch; he kept us up to scratch. That made the starboard stiffs especially bitter against him. They felt themselves cheated of the easy times Fitzgibbon's men were having.
But the sailors didn't feel that way about it. They were worried, just as I was. The sailors knew ships as the stiffs did not. They could feel ships. Those dumb squareheads could not reason it out as I could (with Newman's assistance), but they could feel the undercurrent of intrigue. They were glad to escape the thumpings to which the mates had accustomed them; but they were not satisfied with the new order for they could feel that this strange peace was unreal, unhealthful. Aye, the calm before the typhoon. They felt it just as I felt it, just as Nigger felt it. As for pessimistic Nigger, so strictly did he mind his own business these quiet days he was like a dumb man, a silent brown shadow. But he went on sharpening his knife.
To heighten the squareheads' foreboding, and to scare the wits half out of us all, Nils' ghost visited the ship. You know what sort of men we were in that foc'sle; save Newman and the parson, we were ignorant men, and superstitious. We all believed implicitly in ghosts, I, and the squareheads, Nigger and Cockney, and even the stiffs who had not the sea in their blood. Aye, even Blackie and Boston believed in haunts. It seemed reasonable to us that Nils should come back to the scene of his earthly misery. Reasonable, and fearsome.
Nils came at night, in the middle watch, always in the middle watch. That circumstance might have aroused suspicion in sceptical minds. But we were not sceptical.
Lynch had us busy forward this night. Aye, it had become a practice with him to keep us busy in the fore part of the ship during the night watches. One of his tradesmen, Connolly, kept the poop watch for him. No, we did not think this arrangement odd; we worked too hard to think.
Newman had the first wheel. At four bells, a lad named Oscar went aft to relieve the big fellow. A moment later he reappeared forward, wild-eyed and spluttering his own lingo. Oh, he was a frightened squarehead. All we could understand of his speech was the word "Nils."
The word was enough. We didn't need the commotion and consternation among Oscar's countrymen to help us interpret. He had seen Nils.
"What's the matter with you?" demanded Lynch.
Lindquist answered for Oscar. Nils was at the wheel. Oscar had gone aft to relieve Newman, and he had seen his dead shipmate at the wheel, steering the ship. He was afraid to relieve a ghost.
"Oh, rot!" says Lynch. "Here, come along aft with me, the lot of you. We'll lay this ghost."
Oscar did not want to go aft again, but he had to. It was better to face a ghost than disobey Bucko Lynch. That is what the rest of us thought, too. We were all afraid to go aft, but more afraid not to. So we huddled close upon the second mate's heels, and clumped noisily upon the deck, as though to rout the wraith with our racket.
Perhaps our racket did send Nils away. It certainly aroused the men sleeping in the cabin, and the roundhouse. But we saw Newman at the helm, not Nils.
"Well, m'son, where's your ghost?" demanded Mister Lynch.
Oscar was still too frightened to muster his scant English, but Lindquist talked for him. "He say like dis, sir, Nils ban at da wheel when he koom aft, oond den he yump vrom der wheel oond run for'ard yust like da time da captain thoomp him."
"Rot!" says Lynch. "My man, have you permitted a ghost stand your trick at the wheel?" This last to Newman.
"Hardly a ghost, sir," answered Newman. We could not see his face, but from his tone I knew he was smiling. "Do I look like one? Not yet, I hope. I was just about to turn over the wheel to the lad, sir, when he shied—at the shadow of the mizzen stays'l I think—and rushed away forward."
"What is wrong, Mister?" inquired the captain's soft voice. Aye, we all jumped as if it were the ghost talking. Captain Swope, with Mister Fitzgibbon behind him, had popped up from below as quietly as If he were a ghost.
"Nothing wrong, Captain," replied Mister Lynch. "One of my jaspers declared he saw the little squarehead's ghost dancing about the poop, and now the lot of them have nerves. I brought them aft to teach them better in a peaceful way."
This was a straight dig at the Old Man's "be gentle" orders, but it didn't pierce his skin. Swope laughed, genuinely amused, his soft, rippling laugh that always frightened us so much. "Peaceful, eh? By the Lord, Mister, it sounded like an army overhead. And it was no more than a ghost!" He peered aft, and discerned Newman at the wheel, recognizing him by bulk, I guess, for the binnacle lights were half shuttered and Newman's face invisible. But I'm sure he recognized him, for he pursed his lips in a way I had seen him do before when he looked at Newman. He strolled away forward, to the break of the poop, glancing this way and that, and back again to the hatch. "If it were moonlight, I'd say your man was touched," says he to Lynch. "But I suppose he was half asleep and dreaming."
"I'll wake him up and work the dreams out of him," promised Mister Lynch.
"But no hazing, Mister. The men are in bad enough temper as it is."
Aye, thus to Lynch, as though the rest of us were beyond ear-shot. But all the time his eyes were upon us, measuring the effect of his words. Oh, he was a sly beast, a "slick one," as Beasley said.
"Which is the lad who beheld this—ghost?" he added.
The second mate shoved Oscar forward so that he stood in the light that streamed up from the cabin.
"So one little ghost scared you, eh?" says he to poor trembling Oscar. "Why, my man, if all the ghosts in this ship were to begin walking about, we living men would be crowded into the sea." With that he went below, laughing, as though he had just made a fine joke, and leaving us more frightened than ever.
The mate went below again also, but he wasn't laughing. We sensed that the news worried Fitzgibbon, and that strengthened our conviction. Blackjack Fitzgibbon had cause for worry. So we thought. Wasn't it he, as well as Swope, who mishandled the boy to his death?
That ended the scene aft. Oscar relieved the wheel; he had to. Lynch put the rest of us to work again, and during the balance of the watch we saw ghosts in every corner.
When we went below at eight bells, we held a grand talk in the foc'sle, a parliament that practically all hands attended. Aye, we were quite convinced that the ghost was abroad. Oscar stuck to his yarn, and embellished it, and left no room in our minds for doubt. Newman laughed at us, and denied the presence of a spook on the poop; that done he turned in and slept. But his evidence didn't shake our belief. Oscar gave too many particulars.
The compass had not been shuttered when he went aft to relieve the wheel, and he had seen Nils standing in the light. He couldn't be mistaken. "Yust as plain like a picture." He knew him by his boyish stature, by his beardless features, by his clothes. He was wearing his Scotch-plaid coat and red tam-o'-shanter; Oscar couldn't be mistaken in them, because he had helped Nils pick them out in a Glasgow slops shop "last ship." Didn't his mates remember those togs?
His mates remembered them. So did the rest of us. That coat and cap had hung on the wall opposite Nils' bunk all during his illness. He was very proud of these colorful garments. Of course, we told each other, he would appear in them after death. And, of course, he was bound to come back. Didn't murdered men always come back? So we assured each other; and the older men began spinning yarns about other ghosts in other ships. Aye, we talked so much we were afraid to turn in. Captain Swope's words about the ghost crew in the Golden Bough impressed us mightily. We told each other that many men must have died cruel deaths in this notorious hooker; very likely Nils' spirit was but one of many. Some of the lads recalled mysteries of the night that they had encountered in this ship, shadowy things melting into darkness, strange noises, and the like; and always they had seen or heard these things aft, around the break of the poop or beneath the boat skids—in just about the spot where Nils had been beaten up, first by the skipper and then by the mate. Aye, Nils gave us the creeps. Another herald of storm, I felt.
Next night Nils did not walk, though the lads in both watches insisted they saw and heard things that were not right or natural. The night following in the midwatch—our midwatch—half the watch swore they saw him flit across the main deck and disappear behind the roundhouse.
The next night marked Nils' last and most startling appearance. In the heart of the middle watch, while my mates were sound asleep, the ghost walked into the empty port foc'sle.
That is, the port foc'sle should have been empty, since the mate had the watch out. But it happened that Nigger, coming from the wheel, seized an opportunity to slip into the deserted room for a quiet smoke-O. It was a liberty he was safe in taking, now that the bucko mate had reformed.
My bunk in the starboard foc'sle was handy to the door connecting the two rooms, and when he burst terror-stricken through that door my unconscious head was right in front of him. I awakened abruptly to discover Nigger clawing my hair; aye, and when I looked up and saw his convulsed face and gleaming, bulging eyes, I knew at once he had seen Nils.
He was too scared to talk; he could only stutter. "Gug-gug-gug-God!" But he pointed into the other foc'sle.
Well, my bowels were water, as the saying is, but nevertheless I turned out promptly. I had to. Other men were waking up. Even Newman, in the bunk opposite, had his eyes open; and he was regarding me in a very curious way. So I couldn't hold back. I was bully of the crowd, and I would not let the crowd think I was afraid to face anything, even a ghost.
Out I rolled, and into the doorway I stepped. There I stopped. God's truth, I was frozen to the spot with terror. For Nils' shadow lay athwart the floor of the port fo'sle, his moving shadow. It was this shadow coming in through the deck door that had frightened Nigger. He recognized the shadow as Nils because a tam-o'-shanter crowned the silhouette, and Nils had owned the only tam on board.
I recognized that awful shadow, too. But I saw more than the shadow. I saw a white hand appear on the door jamb. A ghost-like hand, it was so white and small, a patch of plaid cloth, a little bare, white foot lifting above the sill, and then the tam and the white face beneath it. Aye, that white face with its great, staring eyes!
So much I saw during the instant I stood in the doorway. Then Newman pushed past me and crossed the port foc'sle in a bound. He joined the white face in the other doorway, and disappeared with it into the outer darkness.
Not a man save I—and Newman—had had nerve enough to turn out. Not a man save I—and Newman—had seen that white face. Even Nigger had not seen it; he had run out on deck through the starboard door. But my watch-mates were awake and eager. "Is it gone?" they chorused.
"Yes," I answered gruffly. I rolled into my bunk, and turned my face to the wall. My wits were still spinning from shock, and I didn't want to answer questions.
"Where did Big 'Un go?" came from Blackie's bunk.
"How do I know? Stow the guff, the lot of you; I want to sleep."
But I didn't sleep. I lay there thinking about the face I had seen. Nils' shadow, Nils' clothes—and the lady's face! The ghost that had scared all hands was the lady dressed in Nils' clothes!
The lady brought Newman bad news. As I afterwards learned, the steward overheard a conversation between the captain and the mate, and reported it to her, and she immediately risked her masquerade forward to carry the tale to Newman.
During the morning Newman said to me, "Watch your step to-day, Jack. Trouble brewing."
I watched my step, but not until the middle of the afternoon watch, when I went aft to relieve Newman at the wheel, did I see any indications of a coming breach of the afterguard's own peace. I sensed it then, before I saw it. Aye, as soon as I stepped upon the poop I smelled the old air. The very carriage of the officers said that the old times were back again.
Newman gave me the course. I repeated it aloud, as is the custom. Then he whispered, hurriedly.
"I think he intends to lock me up. Help Deakin keep peace for'ard. Remember, lad, my life—and hers—may depend upon it."
He started forward. I wanted to call after him, run after him, ask him a score of questions and directions.
But I was chained to my task. I dare not leave the wheel. Neither dare I call out. For Captain Swope had appeared on deck. He stood lounging against the companion hatch, staring aft, in our direction. Bucko Fitzgibbon stood by his side. They had suddenly appeared from below as the helm was changing hands.
Aye, and as soon as I clapped eyes upon them I knew that at last hell was about to bubble over. They had thrown off the masks of meekness that so ill fitted them. Fitzgibbon was truculence personified. The expression in Swope's face when he looked at Newman was so terrible it might almost of itself make a lad stop breathing—an expression of gloating, pitiless, triumphant cruelty.
Lynch, in charge of the deck, stood apart from the others, but he too was looking aft, not at me, but at Newman. There was something in his bearing also which declared plainly that some ugly thing was about to happen.
Yet Newman was permitted to pass the companion hatch without interference. In fact, the pair turned their backs to him. I had, for an instant, the wild hope that Newman was mistaken in his fears. But only for an instant. Because, when Newman neared the forward end of the poop, the two tradesmen of the port watch suddenly popped up from the ladder and confronted him. Sails carried a sawed-off shotgun in the crook of his arm, and Chips had a pair of handcuffs dangling in his grasp.
Newman stopped short. Who would not, with the muzzle of a shotgun carelessly pointed at his breast? No order to halt was needed.
Suddenly I saw through the skipper's game. Aye, and the devilish craft of it horrified me, and wrung a cry of warning from my throat. For when Newman halted, Swope and Fitzgibbon turned towards him, and, while Swope continued to lounge against the hatch, the mate closed in behind Newman, and I saw a revolver in his hand. At the same time, the man with the shotgun said something to Newman, something that angered the big fellow, I could tell from the way his shoulders humped and his body tensed. Squarely behind him stood the mate.