The Devil and the Deep Sea
The Graphic, vol. 99, issue 128 (1895)
NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.
Introductory Note: Characteristic of exploratory adventure fiction prevalent in the era, this short story details the marine activities of Mr. Wardrop, the captain of the Haliotis, and crew members, who are illegally pearl-hunting in Indonesia. Though the tale relates the adventures of the captain and crew, at the center of the narrative is the resilient ship herself, re-named and re-purposed to suit the nefarious needs of her crew.
The Graphic was known for its masterful engravings, and this story was beautifully illustrated by Frank Brangwyn, who later became well known as a Royal Academician and a mural artist.
Advisory: This story contains mentions of slavery.
“All supplies very bad and dear, and there are no facilities for even the smallest repairs.”—SAILING DIRECTIONS.
HER NATIONALITY was British, but you will not find her houseflag in the list of our mercantile marine.1A houseflag is the distinguishing flag of a shipping company, or of a vessel’s owner. She was a nine-hundred-ton, iron, schooner-rigged, screw cargo-boat, differing externally in no way from any other tramp of the sea. But it is with steamers as it is with men. There are those who will for a consideration sail extremely close to the wind; and, in the present state of our fallen world, such people and such steamers have their use. From the hour that the Aglaia first entered the Clyde—new, shiny, and innocent, with a quart of cheap champagne trickling down her cut-water—Fate and her owner, who was also her captain, decreed that she should deal with embarrassed crowned heads, fleeing Presidents, financiers of over-extended ability, women to whom change of air was imperative, and the lesser law-breaking Powers.2The River Clyde referred to here is near Glasgow, a major shipbuilding center in Scotland. Her career led her sometimes into the Admiralty Courts, where the sworn statements of her skipper filled his brethren with envy. The mariner cannot tell or act a lie in the face of the sea or mislead a tempest, but, as lawyers have discovered, he makes up for chances withheld when he returns to shore, an affidavit in either hand.
The Aglaia figured with distinction in the great Mackinaw salvage case. It was her first slip from virtue, and she learned how to change her name but not her heart, and to run across the sea. As the Guiding Light she was very badly wanted in a South American port for the little matter of entering harbor at full speed, colliding with a valuable coal-hulk and the State’s only man-of-war, just as that man-of-war was going to coal. She put to sea without explanations, though three forts fired at her for half an hour. As the Julia M’Gregor she had been concerned in picking up from a raft certain gentlemen who should have stayed in Noumea, but who preferred making themselves vastly unpleasant to authority in quite another quarter of the world; and as the Shah-in-Shah she had been overtaken on the high seas, indecently full of munitions of war, by the cruiser of an agitated Power at issue with its neighbour. That time she was very nearly sunk, and her riddled hull gave eminent lawyers of two countries great profit. After a season, she reappeared as the Martin Hunt, painted a dull slate colour with pure saffron funnel and boats of robin’s-egg-blue, engaging in the Odessa trade till she was invited (and the invitation could not well be disregarded) to keep away from Black Sea ports altogether.
She had ridden through many waves of depression in the shipping business. Freights might drop out of sight, Seamens’s Unions throw spanners and nuts at certificated masters, or stevedores combine till cargo perished on the dock-head, but the boat of many names came and went, busy, alert, and inconspicuous always.3Spanners are wrenches. Stevedores are people employed or contractors engaged at a dock to load and unload cargo from ships. Her skipper, who in a spasm of pride had compared her to a servant girl in a house of ill-fame, made no complaint of hard times, and port officers observed that her crew signed and signed again with the regularity of Atlantic liner boatswains.4a ship’s officer in charge of equipment and the crew. Her name she changed as occasion called; her well-paid crew never, and a large percentage of the profits of her voyages was spent with an open hand on her engine-room. She never troubled the underwriters, and very seldom stopped to talk with a signal-station, for her business was urgent and private.
But an end came to her tradings, and she perished in this manner. Deep peace brooded over Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australia, and Polynesia. The Powers dealt together more or less honestly; banks paid their depositors to the hour; diamonds of price came safely to the hands of their owners; Republics rested content with their Dictators; diplomats found no one whose presence in the least incommoded them; and monarchs lived openly with their lawfully wedded wives. It was as though the whole earth had put on its best Sunday bib and tucker; and business was very bad for the Martin Hunt. The great, virtuous calm engulfed her, slate sides yellow funnel and all, but cast up in another hemisphere the steam whaler Haliotis, black and rusty, with a manure-coloured funnel, a litter of dingy white boats, and an enormous stove, or furnace, for boiling blubber on her forward well-deck. There could be no doubt that her trip was successful, for she lay at several ports not too well known, and the smoke of her trying-out insulted the beaches.
Anon she departed, at the speed of the average London four-wheeler, and entered a semi-inland sea, warm still and blue, which is, perhaps, the most strictly preserved water in the world. There she stayed for a certain time, and the great stars of those mild skies beheld her playing puss-in-the-corner among islands where whales are never found.5Puss-in-the-corner is a solitaire card game. All that while she smelt abominably, and the smell though fishy, was not whalesome. One evening calamity descended upon her from the island of Pygang-Watai, and she fled while her crew jeered at a fat black and brown gunboat puffing far behind. They knew to the last revolution the capacity of every boat on those seas that they were anxious to avoid. A British ship with a good conscience does not, as a rule, flee from the man-of-war of a foreign Power, and it is also considered a breach of etiquette to stop and search British ships at sea. These things the skipper of the Haliotis did not pause to prove, but held on at an inspiriting eleven knots an hour till nightfall. One thing only had he overlooked.
The Power that kept an expensive steam-patrol moving up and down those waters (they had dodged the two regular ships of the station with an ease that bred contempt) had newly brought up a third and a fourteen-knot boat with a clean bottom to help the work; and that was why the Haliotis, driving hard from the east to the west, found herself at daylight in such a position that she could not help seeing an arrangement of four flags a mile and a half behind, which read “Heave to, or take the consequences!”
She had her choice, and she took it, and the end came when, presuming on her lighter draft, and international etiquette, she tried to draw away northward over a friendly shoal. The shell that arrived by way of the Chief Engineer’s cabin was some five inches in diameter with a practice, not a bursting, charge. It had been intended to cross her bows, and that was why it knocked the framed portrait of the Chief Engineer’s wife, and she was a very pretty girl, on to the floor, splintered his washhand-stand, crossed the alley-way into the engine-room, and striking on a grating, dropped directly in front of the forward engine, where it burst, neatly fracturing both the bolts that held the connecting-rod to the forward crank.
What follows is worth consideration. The forward engine had no more work to do. Its released piston-rod, therefore, drove up fiercely with nothing to check it, and started most of the nuts of the cylinder-cover. It came down again, the weight of the steam behind, and the foot of the connecting-rod, useless as the leg of a man with a sprained ankle, flung out to the right and struck the starboard or right-hand cast iron supporting-column of the forward engine, cracking it clean through about six inches above the base, and wedging the upper portion outwards three inches towards the ship’s side. There the connecting-rod jammed. Meantime, the after-engine, being as yet unembarrassed, went on with its work, and in so doing brought round at its next revolution the crank of the forward engine, which smote the already jammed connecting-rod, bending it and therewith the piston-rod cross-head—the big cross-piece that slides up and down so smoothly.
The cross-head jammed sideways in the guides, and, in addition to putting further pressure on the already broken starboard supporting-column, cracked the port, or left-hand, supporting column in two or three places. There being nothing more that could be made to move, the engines brought up, all standing, with a hiccough that seemed to lift the Haliotis a foot out of the water; and the engine-room staff, opening every steam outlet that they could find in the confusion, arrived on deck somewhat scalded but calm. There was a sound below of things happening—a rushing, clicking, purring, grunting, rattling noise that did not last for more than a minute. It was the machinery adjusting itself, on the spur of the moment, to a hundred altered conditions. Mr. Wardrop, one foot on the upper grating, inclined his ear sideways and groaned. You cannot stop engines working at twelve knots an hour in three seconds without disorganising them. The Haliotis slid forward in a cloud of steam, shrieking like a wounded horse. There was nothing more to do. The five-inch shell with a reduced charge had settled the situation, and when you are full, all three holds, of strictly preserved pearls; when you have cleaned out the Tanna Bank, the Sea-Horse Bank, and four other banks from one end to the other of the Amanala Sea—when you have ripped out the very heart of a rich Government monopoly so that five years will not repair your wrong-doings—you must smile and take what is in store. But the skipper reflected, as a launch put out from the man-of-war, that he had been bombarded on the high seas, with the British flag, several of them, picturesquely disposed above him, and tried to find comfort from the thought.
“Where,” said the solid naval lieutenant hoisting himself aboard, “where are those dam’ pearls?”
They were there beyond evasion. No affidavit could do away with the fearful smell of decayed oysters, the diving-dresses, and the shell-littered hatches. They were there to the value of seventy thousand pounds more or less; and every pound poached.
The man-of-war was annoyed, for she had used up many tons of coal; she had strained her tubes, and, worse than all, her officers and crew had been hurried. Every one on the Haliotis was arrested and rearrested several times as each officer came aboard; then they were told by what they esteemed to be the equivalent of a midshipman that they were to consider themselves prisoners, and finally were put under arrest.
“It’s not the least good,” said the skipper, suavely. “You’d much better send us a tow—”
“Be still—you are arrest!” was the reply.
“Where the devil do you expect we are going to escape to? We’re helpless. You’ve got to tow us into somewhere, and explain why you fired on us. Mr. Wardrop, we’re helpless, aren’t we?”
“Ruined from end to end,” said the man of machinery. “If she rolls, the forward cylinder will come down and go through her bottom. Both columns are clean cut through. There’s nothing to hold anything up.”
The council of war clanked off to see if Mr. Wardrop’s words were true. He warned them that it was much as a man’s life was worth to enter the engine-room; and they content themselves with a distant inspection through the thinning steam. The Haliotis lifted to the long easy swell and the starboard supporting-column ground a trifle, as a man grits his teeth under the knife. The forward cylinder was depending on that unknown force men call the pertinacity of materials which, now and then, balances that other heartbreaking power, the perversity of inanimate things.
“You see!” Mr. Wardrop hurrying them away. “The engines aren’t worth their price as old iron.”
“We tow,” was the answer. “Afterwards, we shall confiscate.”
The man-of-war was short handed, and did not see the necessity for putting a prize-crew aboard the Haliotis. So she sent one sub-lieutenant, whom the skipper kept very drunk, for he did not wish to make the tow too easy: and, moreover, he had an inconspicuous little rope hanging from the stern of his ship.
Then they began to tow at an average speed of four knots an hour. The Haliotis was very hard to move, and the gunnery-lieutenant, who had fired the five-inch shell, had leisure to think upon consequences. Mr. Wardrop was the busy man. He borrowed all the crew to shore up the cylinders with spars and blocks from the bottom and sides of the ship. It was a day’s risky work; but anything was better than drowning at the end of a tow-rope; and if the forward cylinder had fallen it would have made its way to the sea-bed and taken the Haliotis after.
“Where are we going to, and how long will they tow us?” he asked of the skipper.
“God know! And the sub-lieutenant’s drunk. What do you think you can do?”
“There’s just the bare chance,” Mr. Wardrop whispered, though no one was within hearing. “There’s just the bare chance o’ repairin’ her if a man knew how. They’ve twisted the very guts out of her bringing her up with that jerk; but I’m saying that, with time and patience, there’s just the chance o’ making steam yet. We could do it.”
The skipper’s eye brightened. “Do you mean,” he began, “that she is any good?”
“Oh, no,” said Mr. Wardrop. “She’ll need three thousand pounds in repairs at the lowest if she’s to take the sea again, an’ that apart from any injury to her structure. She’s like a man fallen down five pair o’stairs. We can’t tell for months what has happened; but we know she’ll never be good again without a new inside. Ye should see the condenser tubes an’ the steam connections to the donkey for two things only. I’m not afraid of them repairin’ her. I’m afraid of them stealin’ things.”
“They’ve fired on us. They’ll have to explain that.”
“Our reputation’s not good enough to ask for explanations. Let’s take what we have and be thankful. Ye would not have consuls remember’ the Guin’ Light an’ the Shah-in-Shah, and the Aglaia, at this most alarmin’ crisis. We’ve been no better than pirates these ten years. Under Providence we’re no worse than thieves now. We’ve much to be thankful for, if we ever get back to her.”
“Make it your own way, then,” said the skipper, “if there’s the least chance——”
“I’ll leave none,” said Mr. Wardrop, “none that they’ll dare to take. Keep her heavy on the tow for we need time.”
The skipper never interfered with the affairs of the engine-room, and Mr. Wardrop—an artist in his profession—turned to and composed a work, terrible and forbidding. His background was the dark-grained sides of the engine-room; his material the metals of power and strength, helped out with spars, baulks, and ropes. The man-of-war towed sullenly and viciously. The Haliotis behind her hummed like a hive before swarming. With extra and totally unneeded spars her crew blocked up the space round the forward engine till it resembled a statue in its scaffolding and the butts of the shores interfered with every view that dispassionate eye might wish to take. And that the dispassionate mind might be swiftly shaken out of its calm, the well-sunk bolts of the shores were wrapped round untidily with loose ends of ropes, giving a studied effect of most dangerous insecurity. Next, Mr. Wardrop took up a collection from the after-engine, which, as you will remember, had not been affected in the general wreck. The cylinder escape-valve he abolished with a flogging-hammer. It is difficult in far-off ports to come by such valves unless, like Mr. Wardrop, you keep duplicates in store. At the same time men took off the nuts of two of the great holding-down bolts that serve to keep the engines in place on their solid bed. An engine violently arrested in mid career may jerk off the nut of a holding-down bolt, and this accident looked very natural.
Passing along the tunnel he removed several shaft coupling-bolts and nuts, scattering other and ancient pieces of iron underfoot. Cylinder-bolts he cut off to the number of six from the after-engine cylinder so that it might match its neighbour and stuffed the bilge and feed-pumps with cotton waste. Then he made up a neat bundle of the various odds and ends that he had gathered from the engines—little things like nuts and valve-spindles, all carefully tallowed—and retired with them under the floor of the engine-room, where he sighed, being fat, as he passed from manhole to manhole of the double bottom, and in some fairly dry submarine compartment hid them. Any engineer, particularly in an unfriendly port, has a right to keep his spare stores where he chooses; and the foot of one of the cylinder shores blocked all entrance into the regular storeroom even if that had not been already closed with steel wedges. In conclusion he disconnected the after-engine, laid piston, and connecting-rod, carefully tallowed, where it would be most inconvenient to the casual visitor, took out three of the eight collars of the thrust-block, hid them where only he could find them again, filled the boilers by hand, wedged the sliding doors of the coal bunkers, and rested from his labours. The engine-room was a cemetery, and it did not need a bucket of ashes tipped over the skylight to make it any worse.
He invited the skipper to look at the completed work.
“Saw ye ever such a forsaken wreck as that?” said he proudly. “It almost frights me to go under those shores. Now, what d’you think they’ll do to us?”
“Wait till we see,” said the skipper. “It’ll be bad enough when it comes.”
He was not wrong. The pleasant days of towing ended all too soon though the Haliotis trailed behind her a heavily weighted jib stayed out into the shape of a pocket; and Mr. Wardrop was no longer an artist of imagination but one of seven-and-twenty prisoners in a prison full of insects.6The jib is a triangular staysail set forward of the forward-most mast. The man-of-war had towed them to the nearest port, not to the headquarters of the colony, and when Mr. Wardrop saw the dismal little harbor, with its ragged line of Chinese junks, its one crazy tug, the boat-building shed, that, under the charge of a philosophical Malay, represented a dockyard, he sighed and shook his head.
“I did well,” he said. “This is the habitation o’ wreckers an’ thieves. We’re at the uttermost ends of the earth. Think you they’ll ever know in England?”
“’Doesn’t look like it,” said the skipper.
They were marched ashore with what they stood up in, under a generous escort, and were judged according to the customs of the country, which, though excellent, are a little out of date. There were the pearls; there were the poachers; and there sat a small but hot Governor. He consulted for awhile, and then things began to move with speed, for he did not wish to keep a hungry crew at large on the beach, and the man-of-war had gone up the coast. With a wave of his hand—a stroke of the pen was not necessary—he consigned them to the blakgang-tana, the back-country swallowed them up—all the crew of the Haliotis.
Deep peace continued to brood over Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australasia, and Polynesia.
It was the firing that did it. They should have said nothing about it, but when a few thousand foreigners are bursting with joy over the fact that a ship under the British flag had been fired at on the high seas, news travels quickly; and when it came out that the pearl-stealing crew had not been allowed access to their consul (there was no consul within a few hundred miles of that lonely port) even the friendliest of Powers has a right to ask questions. The great heart of the British public was beating furiously on account of the performance of a notorious racehorse, and had not a throb to waste on distant accidents; but somewhere deep in the hull of the ship of State there is machinery which more or less accurately takes charge of foreign affairs. That machinery began to revolve, and who so shocked and surprised as the Power that had captured the Haliotis? It explained that colonial governors and far away men-of-war were difficult to control, and promised that it would most certainly make an example both of the Governor and the vessel. As to the crew reported to be pressed into military service in tropical climes it would produce them as soon as possible, and it would apologise if necessary. Now, no apologies were needed. When one nation apologises to another millions of amateurs who have no earthly concern with the difficulty hurl themselves into the strife and embarrass the trained specialist. It was requested that the crew be found if they were still alive—they had been eight months beyond knowledge—-and it was promised that all would be forgotten.
The little Governor of the little port was pleased with himself. Seven-and-twenty white men made a very compact force to throw away on a war that had neither beginning nor end—a jungle-and-stockade fight that flickered and smouldered through the wet hot years in the hills a hundred miles away, and was the heritage of every wearied official. He had, he thought, deserved well of his country; and if only some one would buy the unhappy Haliotis, moored in the harbor below his verandah, his cup would be full. He looked at the neatly silvered lamps that he had taken from her cabins, and thought of much that might be turned to account. But his countrymen in that moist climate had no spirit. They would peep into the silent engine-room and shake their heads. Even the men-of-war would not tow her further up the coast, where the Governor believed that she could be repaired. She was a bad bargain; but her cabin carpets were undeniably beautiful, and his wife approved of her mirrors.
Three hours later cables were bursting round him like shells, for, though he knew it not, he was being offered as a sacrifice by the nether to the upper millstone, and his superiors had no regard for his feelings. He was, said the cables, an ass who has exceeded his power, and failed to report on events. He would, therefore—at this power, and failed to report on events. He would, therefore—at this he cast himself back in his hammock—he would produce the crew of the Haliotis. He would send for them, and if that failed he would put his dignity on a pony and fetch them himself. He had no conceivable right to make pearl-poachers serve in any war. He would be held responsible.
Next morning the cables wished to know whether he had found the crew of the Haliotis. They were to be found and freed and fed—he was to feed them—till such time as they could be sent to the nearest English port in a man-of-war. If you abuse a man long enough in great words flashed over the sea-beds things happen. The Governor sent inland swiftly for his prisoners, who were also soldiers, and never was a militia regiment more anxious to reduce its strength. No power short of death could make these mad men wear the uniform of their service; they would not fight, except with their fellows, and it was for that reason the regiment had not gone to war but stayed in a stockade, reasoning with the new troops. The autumn campaign had been a fiasco, but here were the Englishmen. All the regiment marched back to guard them, and the hairy enemy, armed with blow-pipes, rejoiced in the forest. Five of the crew had died, but there lined up on the Governor’s verandah two-and-twenty men marked about the legs with the scars of leech-bites. A few of them wore fringes that had once been trousers, the others used loin-cloths of gay patterns; and they existed, beautifully but simply in the Governor’s verandah, and when he came out they sang at him. When you have lost seventy thousand pounds’ worth of pearls, your pay, your ship, and all your clothes, and have lived in bondage for eight months beyond the faintest pretences of civilization, you know what true independence means, for you become the happiest of created things—natural man.
The Governor told the crew that they were evil, and they asked for food. When he saw how they ate, and when he remembered that none of the pearl patrol-boats were expected for two months, he sighed. But the crew of the Haliotis lay down in the verandah and said that they were pensioners of the Governor’s bounty. A grey-bearded man, fat and bald-headed, his one garment a green and yellow loin-cloth, saw the Haliotis in the harbor and bellowed with joy. The men crowded to the verandah rail, kicking aside the long cane chairs. They pointed, gesticulated, and argued freely without shame. The militia regiment sat down in the Governor’s garden. The Governor retired to his hammock. It was as easy to be killed lying as standing, and his women squeaked from the shuttered house.
“She sold?” said the grey-bearded man, pointing to the Haliotis. He was Mr. Wardrop.
“No good,” said the Governor, shaking his head. “No one come buy.”
“He’s taken my lamps, though,” said the skipper. He wore one leg of a pair of trousers, and his eye wandered along the verandah. The Governor quailed. There were cuddy campstools and the skipper’s writing-table in plain sight.
“They’ve cleaned her out, o’ course,” said Mr. Wardrop. “They would.”
“We’ll go aboard and take an inventory. See!” He waved his hands over the harbour. “We—live—there—now. Sorry?”
The Governor smiled a smile of relief.
“He’s glad of that,” said one of the crew, reflectively. “I don’t wonder.”
They flocked down to the harbor front, the militia regiment clattering behind, and embarked themselves in what they found—it happened to be the Governor’s boat. Then they disappeared over the bulwarks of the Haliotis, and the Governor prayed that they might find occupation inside.
Mr. Wardrop’s first bound took him into the engine-room, and when the others were patting the well-remembered decks they heard him giving God thanks that things were as he had left them. The wrecked engines stood over his head untouched; no inexpert hand has meddled with his shores; the steel wedges of the storeroom were rusted home; and, best of all, the hundred and sixty tons of good Australian coal in the bunkers had not diminished.
“I don’t understand it,” said Mr. Wardrop. “Any Malay knows the use o’ copper. They ought to have cut away the pipes. And with Chinese junks coming here, too. It’s a special interposition o’ Providence.”
“You think so,” said the skipper from above. “There’s only been one thief here, and he’s cleaned her all out our side.
Here the skipper spoke less than the truth, for under the planking of his cabin, only to be reached by a chisel, lay a little money which never drew any interest—his sheet-anchor to windward. It was all in clean soveriegns that pass current the world over, and might have amounted to more than a hundred pounds.
“He’s left me alone. Let’s thank God,” repeated Mr. Wardrop.
“He’s taken everything else—look!”
The Haliotis, except as to her engine-room, had been systematically and scientifically gutted from one end to the other, and there was strong evidence that an unclean guard had camped in the skipper’s cabin to regulate the plunder. She lacked glass, plate, crockery, cutlery, mattresses, cuddy-carpets and chairs, all boats and her copper ventilators. These things had been removed, with her sails, and as much of the wire-rigging as would not imperil the safety of the masts.
He must have sold those,” said the skipper. “The other things are in his house, I suppose.”
Every fitting that could be pried or screwed out was gone. Port, starboard and masthead lights; teak gratings; sliding sashes of the deck-house; the captain’s chest of drawers with charts and chart-table; photographs, brackets, and looking-glasses; cabin doors; rubber cuddy-mats; hatch-irons; half the funnel-stays; cork fenders; carpenter’s grindstone and tool chest; holystones, swabs, squeegees, all cabin and pantry lamps; galley fittings en bloc, flags and flag locker; clocks, chronometers; the forward compass and the ship’s bell and belfry were among the missing.
There were great scarred marks on the deck-planking over which the cargo-derricks had been hauled. One must have fallen by the way, for the bulwark rails were smashed and bent and the side-plating bruised.
“It’s the Governor,” said the skipper. “He’s been selling her on the instalment plan.”
“Let’s go up with spanners and shovels and kill ’em all,” shouted the crew. “Let’s drown him and keep the woman!”
“Then we’ll be shot by that black-and-tan regiment—our regiment. What’s the trouble ashore? They’ve camped our regiment on the beach.”
“We’re cut off, that’s all. Go and see what they want,” said Mr. Wardrop. “You’ve the trousers.”
In his simple way the Governor was a strategist. He did not desire that the crew of the Haliotis should come ashore again, either singly or in detachments, and he proposed to turn their steamer into a convict-hulk. They would wait—he explained this from the quay to the skipper in the barge—and they would continue to wait, till the man-of-war came along, exactly where they were. If one of them set foot ashore, the entire regiment would open fire, and he would not scruple to use the one cannon of the town. Meantime food would be sent daily in a boat under an armed escort. The skipper, bare to the waist, and rowing, could only grind his teeth, and the Governor improved the occasion, and revenged himself for the bitter words in the cables by telling what he thought of the morals and manners of the crew. The barge returned to the Haliotis in silence and the skipper climbed aboard white on the cheek bones and blue about the nostrils.
“I knew it,” said Mr. Wardrop, “and they won’t give us good food either. We shall have bananas morning, noon, and night, an’ a man can’t work on fruit. We know that.”
Then the skipper cursed Mr. Wardrop for importing frivolous side-issues into the conversation, and the crew cursed one another and the Haliotis, the voyage, and all that they knew or could bring to mind. They sat down in silence on the empty decks, and their eyes burned in their heads. The green harbor water chuckled at them overside. They looked at the palm-fringed hills inland; at the white houses above the harbor road, at the single tier of native craft by the quay, at the stolid soldiery sitting round the one cannon and, last of all, the blue bar of the horizon. Mr. Wardrop was buried in thought, and scratched imaginary lines with his untrimmed finger nails on the planking.
“I make no promise,” he said, at last, “for I can’t say what may or may not have happened to them. But here’s the ship, and here’s us.”
There was a little scornful laughter at this, and Mr. Wardrop knitted his brows. He recalled that in the days when he wore trousers he had been chief engineer of the Haliotis.
“Harland, Mackesy, Noble, Hay; Naughton, Fink, O’Hara, Trunbull.”
“Here, sir!” The instinct of obedience waked to answer the roll-call of the engine-room.
They rose and went.
“Captain, I’ll trouble you for the rest of the men as I want them. We’ll get my stores out, and clear away the shores we don’t need, and then we’ll patch her up. My men will remember that they’re in the Haliotis—under me.”
He went into the engine-room and the others stared. They were used to the accidents of the sea, but this was beyond their experience. None who had seen the engine-room believed that anything short of new engines from end to end could stir the Haliotis from her moorings.
The engine-room stores were unearthed, and Mr. Wardrop’s face, red with the filth of the bilges and the exertion of travelling on his stomach, lit with joy. The spare gear of the Haliotis had been unusually complete, and two-and-twenty men armed with screw-jacks, differential blocks, tackle, vices, eye-bolts, and a forge or so, can look Kismet between the eyes without winking.7Kismet means destiny or fate. The crew were ordered to replace the holding-down and shaft-bearing bolts, and return the collars of the thrust-block. When they had finished Mr. Wardrop delivered a lecture on repairing compound engines without the aid of a dockyard, and the men sat about on the cold machinery. The cross-head jammed in the guides leered at them drunkenly, but offered no help. They ran their fingers hopelessly into the cracks of the starboard supporting-column, and picked at the ends of the ropes round the shores, while Mr. Wardrop’s voice rose and fell echoing, till the quick tropic night closed down over the engine-room skylight.
Next morning the work of reconstruction began.
It has been explained that the foot of the connecting-rod was forced against the foot of the starboard supporting-column, which it had cracked through and driven outward towards the ship’s skin. To all appearance the job was more than hopeless, for rod and column seemed to have been welded into one. But herein Providence smiled on them for one moment to hearten them through the weary weeks ahead. The second engineer—more reckless than resourceful—struck at random with a cold chisel into the cast iron of the column, and a greasy, grey flake of metal flew from under the imprisoned foot of the connecting-rod, while the rod itself fell away slowly, and brought up with a thunderous clang somewhere in the dark of the crank-pit. The guides-plates above were still jammed fast in the guides, but the first blow had been struck. They spent the rest of the day grooming the donkey-engine which stood immediately forward of the engine-room hatch. Its tarpaulin, of course, had been stolen, and eight warm months had not improved the working parts. Further, the last dying hiccough of the Haliotis seemed—or it might have been the Malay from the boathouse—to have lifted the thing bodily on its bolts and set it down inaccurately as regarded its steam connections
“If we only had one cargo derrick!” Mr. Wardrop sighed. “We can take the cylinder-cover off by hand if we sweat, but to get the rod out o’ the piston’s not possible unless we use steam. Well, there’ll be steam the morn if there’s nothing else. She’ll fizzle!
Next morning men from the shore saw the Haliotis through a cloud, for it was as though the deck smoked. Her crew were chasing steam through the shaken and leaky pipes to its work in the forward donkey-engine; and where oakum failed to plug a crack, they stripped off their loin-cloths for lapping, and swore, half-boiled and mother-naked. The donkey-engine worked at a price—the price of constant attention and furious stoking—worked long enough to allow a wire-rope, it was made up of a funnel and a foremast-stay, to be led into the engine-room and made fast on the cylinder-cover of the forward engine. That rose easily enough, and was hauled through the skylight and on to the deck, many hands assisting the doubtful steam. Then came the tug of war, for it was necessary to get to the piston and the jammed piston-rod. They removed two of the piston junk-ring studs, screwed in two strong iron eye-bolts by way of handles, doubled the wire-rope, and set half a dozen men to smite with an extemporised battering-ram at the end of the piston-rod where it peered through the piston, while the donkey-engine hauled upwards on the piston itself. After four hours of this furious work, the piston-rod suddenly slipped, and the piston rose with a jerk, knocking one or two men over into the engine-room. But when Mr. Wardrop declared that the piston had not split, they cheered and thought nothing of their wounds, and the donkey-engine was hastily stopped, for its boiler was no thing to tamper with.
And day by day their supplies reached them by boat. The skipper humbled himself once more before the Governor, and as a concession had leave to get drinking water from the Malay boat-builder on the quay. It was not good drinking water, but the Malay was anxious to supply anything in his power if he were paid for it.
Now when the jaws of the forward engine stood, as it were, stripped and empty they began to wedge up the shores of the cylinder itself. That work alone filled the better part of three days—warm and sticky days when the hands slipped and sweat ran into the eyes. When the last wedge was hammered home there was no longer an ounce of weight on the supporting-columns; and Mr. Wardrop rummaged the ship for boiler plate, three-quarters of an inch thick, where he could find it. There was not much available, but what there was was more than beaten gold to him. In one terrible forenoon, the entire crew, naked and lean, haled back, more or less into place, the starboard supporting-column, which as you remember was cracked clean through. Mr. Wardrop found them asleep where they had finished the work and gave them a day’s rest, smiling upon them like a father as he drew chalk marks about the cracks. They woke to new and more trying labour, for over each of those cracks a plate of three-quarter-inch boiler iron was to be worked hot; the rivet-holes being drilled by hand. All that time they were fed on fruits—chiefly bananas, with some sago.
Those were the days when men swooned over the ratchet-drill and the hand-forge, and where they fell they had leave to lie unless their bodies were in the way of their fellows’ feet. And so, patch upon patch, and a patch over all, the starboard supporting-column was clouted, but when they thought all was secure Mr. Wardrop decreed that the noble patchwork would never support working engines. At the best it could only hold the guide-bars approximately true. The dead weight of the cylinders must be borne by vertical struts, and therefore a gang would repair to the bows and take out, with files, the big bow-anchor davits, each of which was some three inches in diameter. They threw hot coals at Wardrop, and threatened to kill him, those who did not weep (they were ready to weep on the least provocation), but he hit them with iron bars heated at the end, and they limped forward, and the davits came with them when they returned. They slept sixteen hours on the strength of it, and in three days two struts were in place bolted from the foot of the starboard supporting-column to the under side of the cylinder. There remained now the port, or condenser column, which, though not so badly cracked as its fellow, had also been strengthened in four places with boiler-plate patches but needed struts. They took away the main stanchions of the bridge for that work, and, crazy with toil, did not see till all was in place that the rounded bars of iron must be flattened from top to bottom to allow the air-pump levers to clear them. It was Wardrop’s oversight, and he wept bitterly before the men as he gave them the order to unbolt the struts and flatten them with hammer and the flame. Now the broken engine was underpinned firmly, and they took away the wooden shores from under the cylinders and gave them to the robbed bridge, thanking God for even half a day’s work on gentle, kindly wood instead of the iron that had entered into their souls. Eight months in the back-country among the leeches at a temperature of 84 degrees moist is very bad for the nerves.
They had kept the hardest work to the last, as boys save Latin prose, and, worn though they were, Mr. Wardrop did not dare to give them rest. The piston-rod and connecting-rod were to be straightened, and this was a job for a regular dockyard with every appliance. They fell to it, cheered by a little chalk showing of work done and time consumed which Mr. Wardrop wrote up on the engine-room bulkhead. Fifteen days had gone—fifteen days of killing labour—and there was hope before them.
It is curious that no man knows how the rods were straightened. The crew of the Haliotis remember that week very dimly, as a fever patient remembers the delirium of a long night. There were fires everywhere, they say; the whole ship was one consuming furnace, and the hammers were never still. Now, there could not have been more than one fire at the most, for Mr. Wardrop dinstinctly recalls that no straightening was done except under his own eye. They remember, too, that, for many years, voices gave orders which they obeyed with their bodies, but their minds were aboard on all the seas. It seems to them that they stood through days and nights slowly sliding a bar backwards and forwards through a white glow that was part of the ship. They remember an intolerable noise in their burning heads from the walls of the stokehole, and they remember being savagely beaten by men whose eyes seemed asleep. When their shift was over they would draw straight lines in the air, anxiously and repeatedly, and would question one another in their sleep, crying, “Is she straight?”
At last—they do not remember whether this was by day or by night—Mr. Wardrop began to dance clumsily and wept the while, and they too danced and wept, and went to sleep twitching all over; and when they woke men said that the rods were straightened, and no one did any work for two days, but lay on the decks and ate fruit. Mr. Wardrop would go below from time to time and pat the two rods where they lay, and they heard him singing hymns.
Then his trouble of mind went from him, and at the end of the third day’s idleness he made a drawing in chalk upon the deck with letters of the alphabet at the angles. He pointed out that, though the piston-rod was more or less straight, the piston-rod cross-head—the thing that had been jammed sideways in the guides—had been badly strained, and had cracked the lower end of the piston-rod. He was going to forge and shrink a wrought-iron collar on the neck of the piston-rod where it joined the cross-head, and from the collar he would bolt a Y-shaped piece of iron whose lower arms should be bolted into the cross-head. If anything more were needed they could use up the last of the boiler-plate.
So the forges were lit again, and men burned their bodies but hardly felt the pain. The finished connection was not beautiful, but it seemed strong enough—at least as strong as the rest of the machinery; and with that job their labours came to an end. All that remained was to connect up the engines and to get food and water. The skipper and four men dealt with the Malay boat-builder by night chiefly; it was no time to haggle over the price of sago and dried fish. The others stayed aboard and replaced piston, piston-rod, cylinder-cover, cross-head, and bolts with the aid of the faithful donkey-engine. The cylinder-cover was hardly steam proof, and the eye of science might have seen, in the connecting-rod, a flexure something like that of a Christmas tree candle which has melted and been straightened by hand over a stove, but, as Mr. Wardrop said, “She didn’t hit anything.”
As soon as the last bolt was in place, men tumbled over one another in their anxiety to get to the hand starting-gear, the wheel and worm, by which some engines can be moved when there is no steam aboard. They nearly wrenched off the wheel, but it was evident to the blindest eye that the engines stirred. They did not revolve in their orbits with any enthusiasm as good machines should. Indeed, they groaned not a little; but they moved over and came to rest in a way which proved that they still recognised man’s hand. Then Mr. Wardrop sent his slaves into the darker bowels of the engine-room and the stokehole and followed them with a flare-lamp. The boilers were sound, but would take no harm from a little scaling and cleaning. Mr. Wardrop would not have any one over-zealous, for he feared what the next stroke of the tool might show. “The less we know about her now,” said he, “the better for us all, I’m thinkin’. Ye’ll understand me when I say that this is in no sense regular engineerin’.”
As his raiment when he spoke was his grey beard and uncut hair they believed him. They did not ask too much of what they met, but polished and tallowed and scraped it to a false brilliancy.
“A lick of paint would make me easier in my mind,” said Mr. Wardrop, plaintively. “I know half the condenser-tubes are started; and the propeller shaftin’s God knows how far out of the true, and we’ll need a new air-pump, an’ the main-steam leaks like a sieve, and there’s worse each way I look, but—paint’s like clothes to a man, an’ ours is near all gone.”
The skipper unearthed some stale ropy paint of the loathsome green that they used for the galleys of sailing-ships, and Mr. Wardrop spread it abroad lavishly to give the engines self-respect.
His own was returning day by day, for he wore his loin-cloth continuously; but the crew having worked under orders did not feel as he did; the completed work satisfied Mr. Wardrop. He would at the last have made shift to run to Singapore, and gone home without vengeance taken, but the others and the captain forbade him. They had not yet recovered their self-respect.
“It would be safer to make what ye might call a trial trip, but beggars mustn’t be choosers, an’ if the engines will go over to the hand-gear the probability—I’m only saying it’s a probability—the chance is that they’ll hold up when we put steam on her.”
“How long will you take to get steam?” said the skipper.
“God knows! Four hours—a day—half a week. If I can raise sixty pound I’ll not complain.”
“Be sure of her first; we can’t afford to go out half a mile, and break down.”
“My soul and body, man, we’re one continuous breakdown fore an’ aft! We might fetch Singapore, though.”
“We’ll break down at Pygang-Watai, where we can do good,” was the answer, in a voice that did not allow argument.
“She’s my boat, and—I’ve had eight months to think in.”
No man saw the Haliotis depart, though many heard her. She left at two in the morning, having cut her moorings, and it was none of her crew’s pleasure that the engines should strike up a thundering half-seas-over chanty that echoed among the hills. Mr. Wardrop wiped away a tear as he listened to the new song.
“She’s gibberin’—she’s just gibberin’”—he whimpered. “Yon’s the voice of a maniac.”
And if engines have any soul, as their masters believe, he was quite right. There were outcries and clamours, sobs and bursts of chattering laughter, silences where the trained ear yearned for the clear note, and torturing reduplications where there should have been one deep voice. Down the screw-shaft ran murmurs and warnings, while a heart-diseased flutter without told that the propeller needed re-keying.
“How does she make it?” said the skipper.
“She moves, but—but she’s breakin’ my heart. The sooner we’re at Pygang-Watai, the better. She’s mad, and we’re waking the town.”
“Is she at all near safe?”
“What do I care how safe she is! She’s mad. Hear that, now! To be sure nothing’s hittin’ anything, and the bearin’s are fairly cool, but—can ye not hear?”
“If she goes,” said the skipper, “I don’t care a curse. And she’s my boat, too.”
She went, trailing a fathom of weed behind her. From a slow two knots an hour she crawled up to a triumphant four. Anything beyond that made the struts quiver dangerously and filled the engine-room with steam. Morning showed her out of sight of land, and there was a visible ripple under her bows; but she complained bitterly in her bowels, and, as though the noise had called it, there shot along across the purple sea a swift, dark prau, hawk-like and curious, which presently ranged alongside and wished to know if the Haliotis were helpless.8A prau is a type of sailing boat originating in Malaysia and Indonesia that may be sailed with either end at the front, typically having a large triangular sail and an outrigger. Ships, even the steamers of the white men, had been known to break down in those waters, and the honest Malay and Javanese traders would sometimes aid them in their own peculiar way. But this ship was not full of lady passengers and well-dressed officers. Men, white men, naked and savage, swarmed down her sides, some with iron bars red hot at the ends, and others with large hammers, threw themselves upon those innocent inquiring strangers, and, before any man could say what had happened, were in full possession of the prau, while the lawful owners bobbed in the water overside. Half an hour later the prau’s cargo of sago and tripang, as well as a doubtful-minded compass, was in the Haliotis.9Tripang is a word for sea cucumber. The two huge triangular mat sails, with their seventy-foot yards and booms, had followed the cargo, and were being fitted to the stripped masts of the steamer.
They rose, they swelled, they filled, and the empty steamer visibly laid over as the wind took them. They gave her nearly three knots an hour, and what better could men ask? But, if she had been forlorn before, this new purchase made her horrible to see. Imagine a respectable charwoman in the tights of a ballet-dancer rolling drunk along the streets, and you will come to some faint notion of the appearance of that nine-hundred-ton well-decked once schooner-rigged cargo-boat as she staggered under her new help, shouting and raving across the deep. With steam and sail that marvellous voyage continued; and the bright-eyed crew looked over the rail, desolate, unkempt, unshorn, shamelessly clothed—beyond the decencies.
At the end of the third week she sighted the island of Pygang-Watai, whose harbour is the turning point of a pearl sea patrol. Here the gunboats stay for a week ere they retrace their line. There is no village at Pygang-Watai; only a stream of water, some palms, and a harbour safe to rest in till the first violence of the south-east monsoon has blown itself out. They opened up the low coral beach with its long mound of whitewashed coal ready for supply, the deserted huts for the sailors, and the flagless flag-staff.
Next day there was no Haliotis—only a little prau rocking in the warm rain at the mouth of the harbour, whose crew watched with hungry eyes the smoke of a gunboat on the horizon.
Months afterwards there were a few lines in an English newspaper to the effect that some gunboat of some foreign Power had broken her back at the mouth of some far-away harbour by running at full speed into a sunken wreck.
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16 July 2020
29 March 2023
|↑1||A houseflag is the distinguishing flag of a shipping company, or of a vessel’s owner.|
|↑2||The River Clyde referred to here is near Glasgow, a major shipbuilding center in Scotland.|
|↑3||Spanners are wrenches. Stevedores are people employed or contractors engaged at a dock to load and unload cargo from ships.|
|↑4||a ship’s officer in charge of equipment and the crew.|
|↑5||Puss-in-the-corner is a solitaire card game.|
|↑6||The jib is a triangular staysail set forward of the forward-most mast.|
|↑7||Kismet means destiny or fate.|
|↑8||A prau is a type of sailing boat originating in Malaysia and Indonesia that may be sailed with either end at the front, typically having a large triangular sail and an outrigger.|
|↑9||Tripang is a word for sea cucumber.|
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