Merchantmen on the Seven Seas
II—Spindrift and Spun Yarn
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
TWENTY days out from Panama— and in all that heaving expanse we have not sighted another ship. Far over to port is the black, jagged outline of Rapa Island, an almost forgotten volcanic height, away out here in mid-Pacific, rising sheer from the ocean floor. Even at a distance of eighteen miles we can make out the hungry leaping of the surf. It is sinister in its loneliness. Behind, the sky is a vivid uncanny green, for we have had troubled weather and nature loves to paint sea and sky in accord with her moods.
“Sailing Directions” gives us some information about the place; not much, but sufficient to set our fancy going.
“. . . . there live about 170 natives and one Frenchman the chief product is taro root. . . a French warship visits the place four times a year ...”
Picture that solitary Gaul—an old boulevardier, perhaps—who, years past, was wont to sit within cry of the Arc de Triomphe and watch the colorful life of the Avenue' des Champs Elysées in the golden October sunlight of his beloved Paris! How he must dream, that Frenchman, in his little kingdom, amid the bronzeskinned remnants of a dying race.... !
But the mate will have none of this. He snorts in derision when I unfold my fancy.
“Not him!” he declares emphatically. “You’ll never drag a true boulevardier away from the streets of Paris to rot out here in this God-forsaken stretch of water! More likely he is some glorified plumber obscurely related to the government who thought he could make a wad of easy money sweating the niggers!
.. . Why, here, I’ll bet if you landed on Rapa you’d see a porky little Frog dressed in a pareu and a straw hat with a couple of native wives and an odd half-dozen of pot-bellied brown kids. . and you couldn’t pry him loose from Rapa with a siege gun!”
Perhaps he is right. I hope not.
A BOARD ship, things run smoothly. There •**■ have been no complaints and the food has been excellent. The water issue was restricted for a few days as a precautionary measure for we are 4,000 miles from Panama, but the pump is again open and the supply no longer is supervised.
To-night, I sit in a deck-chair out under the stars, and dream. What a compact and interesting little world is a ship. Forty-odd men living together in a space so confined that the faults and virtues of each are as visible to his fellows as the clothes he wears.
There is such diversity in character and type.
An hour ago a few of us were in Cameron’s cabin. It was the usual evening gathering —Cameron, Mac., the Chief, the Third,
Sparks and myself. Cameron is a bit of a blade and his cabin fittings reflect it. Rose shaded lights, a thin stripe of gilt on the moulding, silken cushions, a few photos of •extraordinarily pretty girls suitably framed, and artificial flowers in a silver vase. It was the after-dinner hour. We lounged •comfortably, smoking. The conversation •drifted, as inevitably it will with sailormen, to women. Opinions were exchanged,
•challenged or accepted. They had met. women of all the world, these wanderers,
■and although their experiences had been mainly with the type which frequents the
docks of great sea-ports they were amazingly lenient. But it remained for the Cameron to express the thought that was deep within all—and it seemed peculiarly fitting
that he, the sensualist’ should voice it, for it was the simple creed of simple men, washed clean by the
“Woman,” said he, “is God’s visible sign of redemption.”
The “Proper Twister”
PECULIARITIES and 1 traits are as accentuated in the fo’castle as in
the saloon. Two days ago I walked aft to glance at the patent log on the poop. On number five hatch sat a seaman off watchHe was the hardest ease in the sailors’ fo’castle—“a proper twister” the Mate called him—a man for whom life held no keener joy than a drunken row with the scum of a wild sea port; yet there he sat, oblivious of all save the book he held —a book that I recognized as one I had sent into the fo’castle some time before. The print was so fine as to make reading an effort, yet here was this salt-bitten rover up to his scrubby ears in the delicate beauty of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”! His face as he read was a study. Lowering brow, ugly smashed nose, twisted mouth all bespoke intense concentration. At certain passages he tongued the words, his pale eyes sparkled and his grubby forefinger jabbed at the page. He is but one of many ship-board incongruities.
There is weather in the air. The Second Engineer says so, and generally he is wrong— but this time the barometer is his ally—and the sky. It is a yellowgreen of most unpleasant hue with a streak of lean red at the horizon.
Overhead are scurrying rain-clouds and the force that propels them is wild and strong. Yes, we are in for a blow!
It came. For two days we have been plunging through it—no sights taken—the sun invisible—wet, dark days and wild black nights! We have lost forty tons of coal from the after well-deck—swept away by a single sea.
Look for’ard! A great smashing grey-beard fills the ship to the waist with creaming brine! It boils about the ladders and before the spouting scuppers can clear it.... a thud.. and another is aboard! Up—up—go the bows.. .NOW THEN! a tremendous sheet of spume.. the surge of tons of green water on the rolling deck. .. again her bows are buried and she rises dripping white!
The whole frail shell of her trembles at intervals to the racing of the screw. Far below, in the bottom of the ship, stokers slip and curse on the polished fire-hole plates and bruise themselves fearfully against the bulkheads. Like tortured pigmies they seem, bodies black and glistening with sweat in the glare of the furnaces.
The vessel is tumbling so that I have difficulty in hitting the keys of my typewriter. Salt spray rattles like birdshot on the saloon ports and streams down the glass. The song of the gale is deafening.
All morning I have been on the deserted deck. These are the days to make the blood race!. . . . Great, vivid, shouting days!.... men clinging to and houses with bire toes and bursting .... all about, the thunder of half-mile seas. mad! thrilling in their wildness!, eyes filled with faces numb with the sting of needle
Ten thousand devils shriek through the funnel stays.. beating into the lungs, buffetting strangling—so that there is a constant fight for breath! It is blinding!. . vital! . elemental. . time, distance, proportion are lost in the sweep of the gale! Down. . down, into the trough. . . now on the crest of a dizzy peak, with the swing of the ponderous combers towering on every side. . Screaming albatross, the souls of dead sailors, wheel and swoop into the very teeth of the blow.... HOLD ON!.... here comes a big one!. . Lord! see it smoke!. the fo’castle is lost in the smother!
I am soaked to the skin, along with most people aboard, but no one seems to mind. The Steward’s force is sweeping up broken crockery in the pantry. The French-Canadian deck boy is in his bunk, sick as death.
Ah, this is living! Life and action in every breathandatom of the storm!. . and there is color, too, even in this drab chaos of sèa and reeling sky! Far on the horizon,
Neptune’s White Horse Cavalry ride in endless squadrons to the edge of the world!
The wind, howlling, whining, moaning and screaming again spreads a great number of weird tales of lonely ships battling in the freezing seas off wild Cape Horn—for it is a dreaded Southerly Buster, this gale, and in its desperate path has laid in ruin many a tiny atoll in the wastes of the Southern Ocean!
Who would live ashore when such days as these stamp wide across the universe! Doors are slamming! Men are shouting but cannot be heard! Cascading seas are leaping with wind-drunk fury on the decks!
Mac. has just looked in, his oilskins streaming and the salt drops rolling down his reddened face. He wishes me to join him on the bridge. Righto. Mac.! Be up jn a minute!
ONCE more, a smooth seä'Jiight and the old ship rolling along under the glinting sky-dust. The Southern Cross sparkles low in the heavens, straight over the rail on the port beam. The moon is not yet up and phosphorescent scimitars curl gracefully from under the bows.
The Sky and the Orient
It is warm. The Chief has shed his tunic and sits in his singlet, a dim wrhite blur in the depths of his deck chair. He leans back and blows smoke rings. His head stays uptilted, in silent contemplation of that star-hung space. There will be a yarn forthcoming, presently... hello!. . . here it is! His head is back to normal but his eyes are still lost in stellar distances.
“D’you know.. ” he pauses. “—I have often thought . how like is that great dome above. . to the most interesting race on earth, the Chinese. See the points they have in common. Their mystery—or mysticism however you w ant to call it; oh, yes, I too have met men who claim their imperturbability is a veneer that covers nothing, but that is all rot!. the immensity of that space and its billions of pin-lights. China’s history, evolved from the mists of antiquity, and her crowded millions; their aloofness; China’s polished social intercourse as against the gaucherie of our Western w'orld, and the completeness of the ether; the stark immutability of the sky, and the unchanging fatalism of the Chinese. We may observe and draw conclusions about both, but when all is said, who, what Occidental, 1 mean,
. can say with perfect truth T know the secret of Celestial Space. I know the Chinese.’?
“A few years back I was Second Engineer on a small tramp-ship, trading on the China Coast. She was a tidy craft and could worm into many places where larger ships could not go.
We ran up a tributary of the SiKiang river to a place named Yang-Hoy, some distance above Wu-Chow. Yang-Hoy was a miserable scattering of filthy huts, inhabited by still filthier coolies. There was a compound in the centre and a spindlelegged jetty ran into the stream.
The water was sluggish and muddy All about, and for miles back, ran rice paddies and swamps. The river’s edge was
operated for miles along the river and it was common to see the bloated and mutilated bodies of their victims bobbing down the current to the sea.
“The governor of the local province had sent a dilapidated gunboat with us for protection, although we did not fear an attack. They seldom attacked whites.
fringed with tall reeds. Numerous shallow' creeks ran through the flat country and emptied into the
"The place was infested with river pirates—treache r o u s halfnaked dogs, with skins glistening under a coat of oil, coarse black hair lashed in a tight coil onto the tops of their ugly skulls and wearing bright blue, yellow and scarlet loincloths. They were armed with a variety of weapons, although the favorite was a thin stabbing-knife. They
“/~\NE night, the moon arose, large, clear and of a deep ^ orange. It tinted the murky stream to the color of blood. The air was sultry and flies and mosquitoes buzzed and stung so that it was vain to think of sleep. We sat—the Chief, the Mate, myself and one or two others— on the upper boat-deck, with no energy for speech. Upriver there was a clear stretch for a quarter of a mile or so, and under that sinister lantern of a moon the slightest ripple was visible. Crickets chirped and were silent. Frogs croaked in the marshes.
“Suddenly the Chief touched me on the arm. At the end of the river’s path floated the grotesque bulk of a native trading junk. . .and hiding in an inlet just beyond our bows was a horde of murderous d'evils, in wait for just such a prize as this!
“We jumped to the rail and watched. Some of the younger chaps went below for pistols, but older counsel prevailed. It was none of our pigeon—and we had a coolie crew. It was useless, too, to sing out in warning, for the men on the junk would not understand us. It was urn nerving to watch that ship, with greatstaring eyes painted on its bows—eyes that were to enable it to see danger in the night—gliding blindly to its fate!
“Nearer it came. The bamboo sail slatted against the mast. We caught a wisp of joss-scent. A bar of coral light streamed from a latticed window. We could hear chanting and the hard rattle of tiny sticks, punctuated by high hiccoughing as they sang. It was queer—like
watching a play......Now we could make out the Iran
at the tiller, silhouetted against that awful moon.
“There came a spot of flame from
the marshes! A sharp crack!......and
the steersman crumpled on the deck, rose to his knees and pitched over the stern into the yellow flood. Then... ‘he-yah!. . he-yah!.. he-yah!.. ’— cau-
tious chant of native oarsmen, and from the purple shadows of the reeds shot three ' sampams crowded with men. They made swiftly for the yawing junk. Her people were alive by now, and rushed to repel the attack. They were armed with everything from old time chasse-pots to modern automatic pistols.
“The pirates were too many for them! The sight of those lean, naked shadows swarming over the low sides of the junk, and the glint of their weapons under the moon was a nightmare!
“Then the fight! Screams, .shouts. ..the scuffle and thud of blows .the clash of swords, the bark and crack of firearms.. the "flash of stabbing blades. a squealing as of cornered pigs. . the bubbling scream of some poor devil pinned
through the throat......!
“It soon was over. They drifted around the bend, still fighting. Twenty minutes later the sampams returned, laden with spoil. The smoke and flame of the burning junk were lurid in the lower reaches of the river. The marauders had but two boats left—and these had lost a number of men. That junk must have fought like hell!
“In all that shindy, the gunboat did not make a move. There was no sign of life on her decks, yet we knew she must have seen and heard. The junk was of another province. Piracy was an ancient if not an honored calling. It had been the scourge of the river for countless generations. The shrug of the Orient! Piracy was an institution. That is how they reasoned—if, indeed, they thought of the ethics of their lassitude. A few more men done to. death, well,, it was ordained!. .. .let be. . !” The Chief’s voice trails to silence.. His pipe is out.
The sudden flare of a match brings into strong relief his rugged face against the velvet sky. The water sobs under the bows. Still I can picture those poor devils, helpless under that swift attack! Chinese river pirates! Merciless! Cruel without compunction! Murder, their vocation! Profit, the pleasant appendage!
The moon arises in gleaming splendor and the shadows of the Samson posts lie black across the hatch. I glance again at the Chief.
“How long ago was that, Chief?"
“Ten years. . and it is the same to-day!"
We sit in silence. A breeze springs up, bringing with it a hint of chill. Ragged clouds appear and promise rain. The Chief stirs slightly in the depths of his chair, then stretches, yawns widely and guesses that he will turn in. So will I.
Continued on page 50
Continued from page 50
THE fingers of two hands count the number of days to land. . and then, New' Zealand. To-day, there is a long, heavy swell, but not a ripple on the surface. Great clouds drift across the sky, turning the blue of the ocean to violet and white. Shoals of flying-fish leap into view, leaving a wake of glittering drops as they skim the rollers and disappear with an audible plop.
Peaceful though the long voyage has been, all hands begin to feel the strain of
endless days at sea. There is an almost imperceptible curtness of reply—an involuntary resort to taciturnity. The evening gatherings in the cabin of Fahie, the Third Engineer, are more welcome events than even at first. The gramaphone has grown serious. Caruso has his innings and “Nobody’s Baby” is tucked away at the bottom of the pile.
All sailors have a streak of melancholy. Perhaps it is engendered by lonely seanights or by long separation from homes, families and the things that most men count worthwhile. Certain it is, that they can drop trivialities and enter without effort into discussion of subjects which no landsman would dare to approach without preliminary meditation.
Ask a sailor what he thinks of the hereafter. Mention international problems that vex the diplomatists of the world. Enter upon nature—psychic research— what makes good music—God’s artistry in the sea and sky about him. Here you will get no ponderous assumption of knowledge culled from the printed opinions and conclusions of other men. Instead, you will be given simple words which will convey to you like large distinct type, ideas that hit at the root of the thing you wish to know. There will be an unconscious earnestness of reply, and a conviction of the verities of life, born of solitary nightwatches under the stars and the swinging sky and of communion with the direct and goodly things of earth. Solitude is the womb of thought.
We begin to have mental pictures of cool, green shores, stable footing and fragrant smells. There is that in the thought to make the heart leap.
Tobacco issue tonight! Are you fed up with caviare, cabarets, motoring and the roof garden? Have the amenities of life ashore lost their charm? Does it take the unusual—the bizarre—to arouse your jaded mind to interest? Come with me around a corner of the deck-house. Sit on the rim of that hatch . and receive a lesson in contentment. Realise how happiness may come from little things.
A broad shaft of light from the open store-room door lights upon a number and variety of forms. They are burly Scots and English firemen, tall Newfoundland sailors, and brown-skinned natives of the middle-East; Joseph Hassan, the Egyptian; Ali Ahmed, from Aden; Peter Alex, friend of Hassan, and ex-Canadian soldier also from the sunny land of the Pharaohs; and the squirming, half-naked person of Nago Pitchy, a son of Ceylon, who is a startling combination of smiles, wriggles and glistening brown skin.
Watch them—white men and brown— as they step up to the counter behind which sits the Chief Steward, and receive the issue of tobacco or cigarettes. Note the varying signatures on the Steward’s book as each man writes himself responsible for the amount drawn. Here is the broad sweep of a “Glasgae” hand—a bit irregular, perhaps, but put down with a Scotsman’s directness; there, the more hasty but better formed letters of a careful Englishman—with, now and then, a name which shows schooling and which might tell a tale or two. Observe the abrupt turns and angles of the Canadian sailor—a chirography which hints of wellfilled days, a careless heart and no thought for the morrow; next isAli Ahmed hls (X) mark, then the weird and wonderful printing of Nago Pitchy. Nago’s signature generally starts off with a small and neatly formed “N”, but the succeeding letters, swelling, like their creator, with pride of achievement, inevitably end in occupancy of more lines than fashion demands. The concluding “Y”, particularly, is a marvel of fantasy. Not for wealth would Nago let other than himself inscribe his name, nor would he be content with a cross and a touch of the pen. To sign is an event with him: a ceremony to be attended with due pomp and appropriate muscular contortion of the tongue and cheek, for by this weekly ritual, mark you, he exhibits and maintains his superiority over his enviouseyed Eastern brethren. He is educated. He can print his name!
The Chief Steward is responsible—with a legion of other things—for the correct keeping of the tobacco account. The value of each man’s issue is noted and at the end of the voyage the sum is totalled and deducted from the wages due him. By this system a steady supply of tobacco is assured each man while at sea, whether he has money or not. In port, the tobacco is placed under bond, not to be opened again until the vessel is clear of the coast.
The efficacy of tobacco in the maintenance of discipline was established beyond cavil during the war. Its effect is as marked on the conduct of a ship’s company at sea. Its judicious distribution has checked many an embryo row, and the satisfaction which its use dispenses is evident, as men of the fo’castle lie smoking about the hatches during their watch below. Those out-stretched forms and thin wreaths of blue smoke under the broad Southern sky denote calm contentment and an easy mind.
Roll on, New Zealand!