A Man's Death


A MAN'S DEATH

MORLEY ROBERTS

"OUR mate was a man, any way," cried Hillyard.

"What d' yer mean?" said Luker, sullenly; "he wiped me over the eye with a stopper and nigh blinded me. If I 'adn't bin a poor man, I'd "ave 'ad the law on 'im."

"You'd have 'ad thunder," said Hillyard; and he turned to the Others. They were sitting in the smoking-room of the Sailors' Home at Hull, chewing tobacco and the cud of dismal reflection such as comes up when times are hard and the weather beastly. For outside, Salthouse Lane was ankle-deep in slush, while rain and bitter sleet mingled upon an easterly wind fresh from the North Sea.

"Bah, shut the bloomin' door, can't yer?" said Hillyard impatiently, as a new-comer came in.

"I was shuttin' of it," said the other man. "Do you want me to shut it when I'm only 'arf in, or outside, mate?"

"No, but it's that cold, it would freeze the toes off of a North Sea pilot, and I'm just out of the Mediterranean," said Hillyard, more good-temperedly than he had yet spoken; for he was evidently the boss of the crowd by right of strength and a certain savage temper. He spoke with decision, and there was the salt of the seven seas on his tanned face. Not a craft afloat but he knew her; the paint and the funnel of a tramp were common inevitable knowledge to him.

"But I was tellin' you," he went on, "about Gordon, our mate in the Japan, when we went to Reval with a mixed cargo, what Eyetalians calls a fritter mister, and come back with rickers. He was a man. Now, wasn't Gordon a man, you Thompson?"

And Thompson nodded.

"You see what Thompson thinks," said Hillyard to Luker, "and what 'e says goes with me. I don't care if 'e did bung up your eye. If so be 'e'd bunged up mine, I'd say the same. 'Cause I knowed him long afore I ever clapped eyes on the Japan, with her bloomin' old eight-ton-a-day and eight-knot-an-hour steady crawl. I knew 'im in the W. H. Smith, out of 'Frisco for Ilo-Ilo. And 'e was afore the stick with me ('e 'adn't no second greaser's ticket' then), and I'm telling you it wouldn't 'ave bin 'Tom's bound to Hilo' with us if it 'adn't bin for 'im. I own that as a man in the fo'c'sle he was a bit of a sea-lawyer; but then, 'e 'ad eddication. I seed his sisters' photos, and the girls was daisies—quite the lady.

"But, as I was a sayin', 'e was a sea-lawyer, and when he shipped in the W. H. Smith he took it into 'is 'ead as she warn't seaworthy, and was too deep, and he tried to get us to skin out.

"Oh, but if Gordon 'ad the 'eavy 'and (when it was wanted, Luker) 'e 'ad a tongue, and he could make up any kind of a yarn as easy as make sennit, and 'e'd work round of a man before 'e knowed it, and 'e'd enough brass about 'im to sheet a cruising frigate with.

"Says 'e, one day, as we squatted in the fo'c'sle of the W. H. Smith, for we went aboard that time three days afore she sailed, hell itself not being fuller of devils than 'Frisco was of sailors, and the skipper being noways scared of our skipping; says he—Gordon I mean—'This bloomin' old hooker is a doomed craft, mates.'

"‘'Ows that?' I arsts 'im, for 'e spoke serious, and serious 'e looked.

"‘She is,' says 'e; 'she's that deep, and they've got her by the 'ead now. And at this season we shall get it stiff from the north-east, and the seas out yonder, when it do blow, why, they're short and steep, and she'll dive, and, what's more, she'll never come up no more.'

"‘You believe it?' says a Dutchman.

"‘I do, solemn,' says Gordon. 'I met a man as was shipmates in her on'y yesterday; and I says to 'im, "I'm in the W. H. Smith," and 'e says, "Do you know her?" And of course I answers, "No, what's wrong?" He screws his face up and says, "Well, she's rather a wet ship." "Wet, is that all?" I answers, and then he says, "She's worse than the Leander as washed over and killed more than seventy men in five years." And, what's more, I believe 'im, and I'm going to sling it, and if you bloomin' fools likes to go on a survey of the North Pacific deepwater soundings, you may.'

"That was the way Gordon slung it at us. And next day he gives us more. When I'd got to know 'im I believed as the man 'e'd met was never signed on no ship's papers. For the matter of that, I reckon he never met no one, nor ever 'eerd tell of the nature of the old hooker.

"But, Lord, how he did pile it on, and before we know'd it we'd all got a scare, and we funked the very notion of going to sea in her. You know, you chaps, 'ow it is with men. After all, we're on'y like sheep, that's my notion; and I've worked with sheep in Chile up beyond Santa Rosa de los Andes, where you started in my time for the Cumbre Pass over into the Plate.

"So there we was in a panic, so to speak, and when Gordon says, 'skip,' one night, why we was like kids at school, and over the side we tumbled.

"And who d'ye think we jostled agin but the skipper?

"‘What's all this?' 'e roars, for 'e 'ad a voice, though not so bad in 'is nature for an American shipmaster.

"And we shoves Gordon in front, and 'e lets out as we weren't on, and the skipper gets mad, and says, 'Oh, you ain't, ain't you?' And away 'e goes, and we goes into Brown's on the Front for a drink. And when we'd 'ad about three a policeman comes in, and then more; and the end of it was about twenty took us off to the ‘'Ouse of Correction,' where they corrected us on plank beds and skilly and cocoa for forty-eight hours. And they takes us on board with the irons on our 'ands, Mr. Billy Gordon among us.

"Laugh, you bet we laughed. It was a mighty fine joke, and Gordon, 'e goes at the 'ead of the percession, walking very proud, but making the bobbies die of laughing. 'E was a joker, and didn't mind it a bit.

"So we came on board, and the skipper, in his shore-going toggery and an 'igh 'at, gives us what-for in the perlitest way, making as if we was saloon passengers. And Gordon says, 'Much obliged,' just as a gentleman might. For, as I said, he was eddicated, and his sisters was good to look at—quite the lady, both of them.

"And out to sea we goes.

"‘You mind your bloomin' stops,' says the old man, 'and bygones is bygones. You was all skippers a while back, but I'm skipper now, and I'll skip you if you ain't good and smart. So now then, my bullies, you can turn to. Calashee watch till we gets outside the Gate.' For we lay off Goat Island another forty-eight hours.

"You'd 'ave thought Gordon would 'ave took it bad, being so euchred. But no, 'e didn't. I don't take no back seat when sailorising is on, not with no man, bar that I'm not so quick as I was; but Gordon—Billy we called 'im then—was up to my mark at everything, and over it on navigation, for that I know'd nothing of. And 'e was as quick as any cat, I'll say that; aloft as in jaw. And no man could best 'im with his tongue.

"Howsoever, we 'ad a good time for about three weeks, though the wind was light; and then it breezed up from the nor'-nor'-east and it began to look bad. She steered like a 'bus on a greasy road, and never a man but funked his trick at the wheel, till one day—and it was bad that day—Billy Gordon was takin' her, and I had the lee wheel.

"‘Steer small,' says the mate, a bit of a hard nut, and Billy answers 'im—

"‘If any man can steer small with 'er before the wind, I'd like to meet 'im. Sir,' says 'e, quite civil and anxious.

"‘Don't give me any back talk, sonny,' says the mate; and then the old man comes up.

"‘What's that, Gordon?' 'e arsts.

"‘I said. Sir, as no man could steer 'er small before the wind and a 'eavy followin' sea.'

"‘I can,' says the old man, for 'e'd bin 'aving 'is morning, and was feelin' good.

"And with that Gordon steps out a bit perlitely, and the skipper takes 'er from 'im; and Yates, the mate, lookin' as black as the nor'-east quarter, took the lee wheel.

"Gordon comes and stands by me, and 'e damns my eyes quiet for smilin'.

"‘Look solemn, you bloomin' idiot,' says 'e.

"And solemn I looked, though the old man was giving her twice the wheel that Billy give 'er. And though he got 'er at last fair in 'and, 'e 'ad two points off each way, and no nearer for his life could 'e get her, though 'e fair sweated.

"Presently 'e turned to Yates.

"‘Would you like to try, Mr. Yates?' says 'e civil. But Yates was quite sober, and 'e was riled at the skipper givin' 'imself away, and 'adn't no notion of doing it 'imself.

"‘Thank you, but no, Captain Greer,' says 'e, and with that the old man gives the wheel up to Billy, who got her a deal closer than 'e 'ad.

"And that night it blew a snorter that lasted full thirty-six hours. Some of you chaps know what it was like, and some of you don't. But the truth is, she was deep and a bit by the 'ead, and when she plunged there was the same 'eavy feelin' as a ship with half-a-dozen feet of water in her.

"The second night was worse than the first, and never a man turned in. Leastways, no man took more 'n 'is boots off. Though what good, I dunno. If so be she 'ad done an Atalanta we'd 'ave been left, for nothin' could 'ave lived in the sea. It was get through or bust, and it looked more like busting, I must say. For when they could 'ave 'ove her to, they didn't.

"Billy and me stood most of the night just aft of the deck-house, and with us was the bo'son's mate. I never seed anyone so 'appy as Billy was, for the worse it got, the more 'e cheered up.

"‘Let 'er rip,' says 'e, 'there ain't nothin' like excitement. It 'll be the death o' me one of these days. What cheer! go it, my beauty!'

"‘Oh, dry up,' says the bo'son's mate, who 'ad the fear of God in 'is 'eart. 'She'll go, she'll go. And this time. Oh, Lord!'

"And down went the W. H. Smith with a plunge that made me a bit sick. And she took it in over the 'ead, solid green it was, and it came over from the top-gallant fo'c'sle two foot deep, roaring like a cataract.

"The skipper yelled out from the break of the poop, and the bo'son crawled aft, hanging on to the rail.

"‘Get a couple of canvas bags and oil,' says the old man, ' and sling them over forward from the catheads.'

"‘Yes, Sir,' says the bo'son's mate. And me and Billy helps him.

"‘Who's going to bell the cat'ead?' says Billy. 'For the man as goes on the fo'c'sle 'ead takes 'is blooming' life in 'is 'and.'

"‘Yes, that's it,' says the other chap, lookin' pea-green by the light of the lamp in the bo'son's locker.

"And Billy laughs.

"‘I'll do one,' says 'e.

"And 'e looks at me.

"He forced my 'and, mates. And though I felt sick enough to believe that even a sailor-man's life was worth livin', I says, 'I'm on for the other.' And then the bo'son's mate looked a bit easier, and not so much like a Calashee in cold weather.

"But I'm tell in' you, it was a pretty job. It came out all right for me, for we waited for a smooth, and, though it was as black as the Earl of Hell's riding-boots, I nipped up quick and got the bag fast, with no more than one small sea over me. But the way she felt, and the wind and the blackness, rather cooled me down. And though I knew Billy was close 'andy on the starboard side, I couldn't see my 'and before my face. And the roar of her when she rose was deafenin'. But at last, back I come. I found the bo'son's mate peepin' round the deck-'ouse, and when I grabbed 'old of the rail there, says 'e—

"‘Where's Gordon?'

"And just then she yawed and caught a heavy one right on the port bow, and she rolled to port and then right over again. And near six foot of green water came over the starboard rail amidships and filled 'er up to the top-gallant rail, and as she rolled again it went over the port side. I 'ung on the 'and-rail aft of the deck-'ouse, and of a sudden I was caught round the waist by the bo'son's mate, as I thinks, and then, though I did feel as if the W. H. Smith was a clean goner, she began to recover, and got on an even keel, and rose again. I catches hold of the man as held me, and sets 'im on his legs.

"‘Oh, Billy's gone!' I cries out. 'He's gone, he's gone!'

"And the chap gasps. And then I seed it wasn't the bo'son's mate at all. It was Billy. He'd been washed overboard right at the cathead, and washed aboard again when the big sea came over the starboard rail.

"He tells me quick in my ear.

"‘And where's Higgins?'

"‘Where?' says I.

"But we never seed 'im again. The sea as put Billy on board took the bo'son's mate over. And 'e wasn't the only man, for the cook's mate went too, either then or later, and the mate 'ad 'is leg busted agin the signal-box.

"The oil for'ard did but little good. It made a bit of a smooth between the whiskers and the foremast, but not enough to stop the sea comin' in further aft thick and 'eavy. And the sea got worse and worse.

"‘Them little bags is just like spitting on a burnin' kerosene-cask to put it out,' says Billy. 'I'm goin' to get the two five-gallon cans with the taps, and set 'em goin' for'ard.'

"‘How get 'em?' I arsts. For Higgins 'ad took the keys with 'im.

"‘Very careless of Higgins,' says Billy. But he burst open the locker with a big splice-bar, and he got out the cans and shoved 'em in for'ard, in what Eyetalians calls retreaters, and turned on the taps at a fair, good, steady trickle.

"Now I'd 'eard tell often of oil, and what it does, but I never believed it before. After Billy 'ad set it flowin' we never took a drop abroad, and the quarter-deck fair dried up. I went aft and stood under the poop-ladder, and presently the second mate comes down.

"‘That scheme of them oil-bags works, don't it?' says 'e. 'I believe it was just touch-and-go when we put 'em over.'

"‘Yes, Sir,' says I. But I never told 'im about Billy, and I 'alf forgot to tell 'im 'ow Higgins was gone.

"And about four bells in the morning watch we was quite through with the thick of it, and the sea went down with the rain which come on then.

"But the bo'son was mad when he found his locker burst open and the oil-cans gone.

"He went aft flying, and makes a compliant to the skipper.

"‘Who done it.'" says the old man. And Billy, being then at the wheel, speaks—

"‘I done it, Sir.'

"‘Then, by the tail of the sacred tail, you—saved the bloomin' ship,' says the old man. 'I thought it was them bags.'

"But the bags alone wouldn't 'ave fetched us into Ilo, for the difference them tanks made was enough to make a man believe as a 'ogs'ead of oil would smooth all that lies between the Cape and the South Pole.

"At Ilo-Ilo, Billy skipped out, and he hooked it off into New Guinea, and 'ad three years foolin' round. I met 'im again right 'ere in Hull, and then 'e 'ad his second-mate's ticket. We went one trip together, me bein' bo'son, to St. Petersburg and back. And two years later 'e was mate of the Japan, and a thunderin' good man as mate 'e was.

"Work was what 'e loved, and when out of a job 'e was sick. At sea 'e was merry but not to be played with by no means. Between this time and his last trip with me 'e was in several lines, mostly in the Baltic, Mediterranean, and Black Sea trades. 'E was in every port in the Mediterranean, and to Batoum and Poti and Kertch, and Novorosisk and Sulina and Galatz, and Ibrail. But what I started out to tell you chaps was our trip to Reval this last time.

"We left this 'ere place just in about time to get there when the ice broke up and there was still plenty of it round. But the old Japan was built for such work, and she ploughed through ice that would have stove the guts out of a common Mediterranean fair-weather tramp. She came back right enough, or mebbe I would not be talkin' here. But just as we came away from Reval most everyone on board was queer. For that rotten disease they calls influenza was layin' 'em out in Russia like the cholera. Before we'd been three days at sea the old man, a thick-headed old snorter he was, was down with it, hollerin' like a man with delirious trimmings, and the third mate (she was a good boat for the officers, and 'ad three watches) he went down too. Criminy! they was bad. I 'ad a touch of it. And for three days I wanted to die and get out of such a black world. I 'adn't no more 'ope in me than if I was in 'ell on a grid. Frying it was, and 'elpless as a kid. Why, man alive, I cried! And then the second mate 'e goes under, fair knocked out; a rag of a man 'e was at 'is best, but no more in 'im when 'e 'urt himself than in an old soup and bully tin. So poor Billy Gordon 'ad it all to 'imself.

"You chaps, for all you're mostly chaps as never saw real tall water, knows what a blasted 'ole the Baltic is when it is bad weather. It was bitter then, and a north-easter as sharp as a razor, that went through a man. There was ice about even then, ice in bergs, and small floes drifted out of rivers. And it blew at least three-quarters of a gale all the time.

"So you may guess that poor Gordon 'ad an 'ell of a time on the bridge. What could 'e do with all the rest down? Why nothin', as 'e said to me, but stick it out. And 'e stuck it out like a man, as 'e was, and as I told you.

"Says I to him, 'For Gawd's sake, sling it, Mr. Gordon!' For I could see 'e was sickenin' for the flu. But he answers angry.

"‘And who'll be in charge of her?' says 'e.

"That night the fever got 'im. After 'e'd bin six-and-thirty hours on the bridge, with hardly a get-off for ten minutes all the while, he calls me.

"‘I've got it at last,' he said; 'now look you 'ere, Tom, I'm not going off. They're all down, and none of you knows nothing.'

"‘I knows the rule of the road,' I told 'im. And he laughed.

"‘You think so, sonny, but wait till you get into the thick of it, and red lights and green lights as thick as a chemist's shop, and your head 'll go. And so will the old Japan.'

"And 'e stuck on the bridge till 'e just couldn't stand. All the time the skipper was as weak as a kid, and would weep if the steward said a word to him 'e didn't like. And the second and third were real bad too. But I've my doubts if they was as bad as Gordon.

"For now 'e was lyin' on that freezing cold bridge, wrapped up in blankets, aching in every limb, and just 'orrid to look at. But 'e said, 'Don't you touch me. Just you tell me what's ahead.' I stood there most of the time watching 'im and lookin' out. And according as I told 'im what lights there was, so 'e said, 'Port, or starboard;' and then I saw as my rule of the road would sometimes 'ave cured 'im and me and the others of the flu, and any other troubles, too, for that matter.

"And now we was getting down to London River, where we was bound. But sometimes I did think as Billy would go out before we ever got in sight of the Nore. For he couldn't hardly speak, and he looked just pitiful and like a ghost. But he was true grit, and never even moaned, unless 'e slept for a few minutes. And all the time 'e should 'ave bin in 'is blankets, and even then it was a chance for 'im. And at last he fainted dead away, but not till I told 'im there was a pilot boat nigh handy. The old man was a river pilot, and so they didn't look for us to take one. But Billy says, 'Signal for one,' and he fainted as I rung the telegraph for them to ease 'er down.

"When the pilot came on board I took Billy in my arms—a skeleton 'e was—and carried 'im down below. I knew 'e'd never get over it; and 'e never did. 'E died inside of a week or so: one of his sisters wrote and told me. She was a regular lady, and I kept 'er letter by me a long time, until I got drunk and lost it. But if I did it couldn't be 'elped, and she sent me Billy's likeness. He was what I call a man, and not a thing in the shape of a man. 'E could 'it 'ard, and swear 'ard, and, at the right time, drink 'ard; but 'e knowed 'is work as few blooming officers knows theirs. And, when ninety-nine men out of a 'undred would 'ave caved in, 'e stuck there and done 'is duty; knowin', if a man could know, as it would be 'is death. A man, I say, he was. And if 'e did wipe you over the 'ead with a stopper, I dessay you desarved it, Luker."

"I dessay, too," said Luker. "I never said as 'e wasn't a good man. It takes a good man to 'it me."

"I done it myself," said Hillyard.

"Well, did I hever say you didn't?" asked Luker. "But there ain' no other bloomin' swine in this room as can say the same."

As they were all sober, and mostly Dutchmen, nothing came of the challenge.

"Hark! don't it blow?" said one. And the deadly north-easter roared down the dismal street.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1957, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.