GRIT OF THE SEA
Captain Stevens saw all he owned in the world go up in smoke—but took time to befriend a homeless, consumptive Cockney.
HE CAME on board the schooner Mulatto Maid at Fiji, half apologetically— a little Cockney with a death knell ringing in his hollow cough, and a cheery optimism that nothing could squelch. Though God knows he had little enough to keep him cheerful beyond his own unquenchable spirit.
“You the cap’n, guv’nor?”
David Stevens eyed the Cockney frowningly. Life had beaten the skipper pretty thoroughly and consistently until recently. If he was not entirely soured that was no fault of his ill-fortune.
“Wha’d you want?” The words came gruffly, as they naturally would from a wise Canadian captain to a tattered, amiable stranger at Fiji. A look of hurt and disappointment flickered for an instant in the Cockney’s eyes. He had come to ask a favor—a very great favor— ánd the prospect was discouraging.
“You’re sailing to-morrow for Quebec, ain’t yer, guv’nor?”
“Well—I want to go wiv yer, but l ain’t got no money to pay my passage.”
The skipper’s face hardened artificially as it frequently had hardened for years when the humanity within him was stirred.
.“I’ve got a full crew,” he said, giving an excellent imitation of a dross-grained old sea-dog.
The little Cockney kept a stiff upper lip.
“Blime, that’s tough luck. There ain’t many ships go from here to Quebec, and I’ve got a brother there I’d ha’ liked to see before I turn my poes up.”
“You can get a job here in Fiji.
Then you’d soon be able to pay for your passage if you couldn’t sign on a ship,” said the skipper, observing the little man much more closely than was apparent. The Cockney was twiddling in his hands that which had once been a cap. “Here,
Smithers,” the skipper called out to the steward, “give this feller a square meal before he goes ashore.”
Next morning on the wharf, just before the Mulatto Maid sailed, David Stevens ran across the Cockney. “Been sick?” the skipper asked bluntly.
“Lungs—me blinkin’ bellows ’ave gorn fluey,” came the reply.
“Thought I was. But the bloke up at the hospital ’ere says now that I’ll only last another couple o’ months if I’m lucky.”
The captain pulled hard at his pipe a few moments. “What d’you want to see your brother in Quebec for?” “Dunno, ’specially, ’cep’n I ain’t got nobody else. He ain’t a bad kid. Me an’ my partner, Bill Leyland, went broke in Australia. Bill’s going to South Africa.” “Would your brother look after you?”
There was something more quaint than pathetic in the pride which flashed into the Cockney’s bearing.
“Don’t want nobody to look after me,” he declared, torn pants flapping in the breeze.
“What’s your name?”
“Jones. ’Enry Jones.”
“Well, get aboard the schooner quick as you can,” said Captain Stevens. “I guess you can peel potatoes.” And then the skipper stalked off, wondering whether he ever would cease to make a fool of himself. He knew perfectly well that he ought not to have given Henry Jones or anyone else free passage to Canada. But he had a constitutional objection to seeing human misery: that was his sole reason and consolation.
VERY largely it was that same spirit which had prevented David Stevens from making at least something of a fortune during his fifty years at sea. Nominally the Mulatto Maid was his property. Actually she was mortgaged up to the last dollar, and only the stuff packed under her hatches was his. But luck, added to his knowledge of South Sea trading conditions, had at last raised his hopes.
In Beaumauris, on Lake Müskoka, there was a whitehaired woman who had prayed for two score years that his bad luck would change. 1 She had given him five children; now even the youngest of them, fully fledged, had married and left the parental roof. And Mrs. Stevens wanted her man to spend the evening of his days at home. Not more than David Stevens wanted it, but even a sea-going shell-back needs something other than memories on which to retire.
Since he last sailed out of the St. Lawrence in his sixty-second year, he had doubled and then trebled his little capital; and now by fortunate chance he had packed his holds with those trading treasures that may be gathered under the Southern Cross—spices, mahogany, copra, trocha shell and the like—merchandise which in due course would realize at least forty or fifty thousand dollars.
This burst of generosity on the part of fate seemed almost unbelievable. Scarce daring to do so, the skipper had written from Fiji to the woman who waited, saying he was coming back for the last time. Coming to stay, to grow corn and chickens, to sit with her by the stove on windy nights while some other fellow was out on the ocean wondering what folks were doing in the old home town.
At times, during the run from Fiji, he talked to Henry Jones, and marveled at the Cockney’s optimism. The little man was only thirty, and his ticket for the hereafter was already definitely booked. There was no question about that. It was doubtful whether he
would even live to reach Canada. And during all his thirty years, life had been one fierce scramble for existence. In the earliest days he and his brother had somehow survived neglect and want in the slums of London. Later they sold newspapers in the street and finally drifted away, separated, from their mother isle. Henry Jones had gone to Australia, there to find gross exaggeration in the statement that its streets were paved with gold. With no regular trade, he had done everything, from wharf lumping and working on sheep stations to running an elevator and gold prospecting, with one eye always so closely fixed on starvation that familiarity had bred contempt for it. He was apparently one of those figures doomed to pass through life slaving for the attainable, though never quite able to reach it. And yet even the crashing failure of all his hopes in one last venture on the gold fields in Australia, had left him with his humorous grin and easy optimism.
“Wot’s the good o’ burstin’ into tears abaht anything?” he said once to Captain Stevens. “If things are cornin’ out right they’ll come right; an’ if they ain’t they won’t. An' squealin’ don’t help nohow.”
Listening, David Stevens puffed away at his pipe thoughtfully. That, in a way, had been his own philosophy, and now things had come out right for him. He was gladalmighty glad—that he had toted the Cockney along. Henry Jones hardly seemed to have had one sensible wish gratified in life, and he did want to see his brother Jde before he plunged into the abyss. Besides, if he were going to hang on a while longer, he needed his brother to look after him. He needed that already, and he was going to need it a blame sight more toward the end. Hard luck on the youngster! Onlythirty, and not a chance. The skipper spat to looard splenetically.
During the second dog watch of the fifteenth day out from Fiji the Mulatto Maid ran into a thin haze within a few miles of the Punta Rocks, and the skipper altered her course a point for the sake of extra safety. Ten minutes later his body tensed as, with head slightly on one side, he stood listening.
“There’s a steamer ashore on the Puntas, Mr. Clegg.” he said, presently, to the mate. “Hard a-starboard. You’ll want an extra man on the lookout, or maybe we'll
get into a mess too.”
The dismal wail of the stricken ship grew distinct as the schooner ran further. Then the ghostly shadow of a stranded steamer loomed through the fog.
“And she’s there for keeps, Cap’n,” was the mate’s comment as soon as he could make the other vessel out clearly. “There won’t be much room for dancing aboard this ship when we’ve got that crowd with us.”
The schooner was manoeuvred close to the stranded steamer—a large freight and passenger boat carrying a couple of hundred souls. A great hole had been torn clean through her plates, and there was no hope of floating her again.
Two hours later the little schooner was again heading for Cape Horn, packed with human beings of a dozen nationalities. And at midnight a jumble of hoarse cries arose from the forecastle. Men, excited and half clad, tumbled up the companion ladder, yelling for water. The Mulatto Maid was on fire.
A hose was quickly passed below, but within a few minutes the forecastle was a seething furnace, dense smoke adding to the difficulty of checking the flames. Presently smoke began to trickle through the forward hatch covers.
“The old girl’s going,” Captain Stevens muttered grimly, more conscious at the moment of his responsibility regarding the living mass on board than of the disaster involved for him personally. With a considerable sea running, the schooner burning under their feet, and only enough small boats to carry about a fifth of them, the outlook was black.
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"Lay aft,” the skipper called to the mate, “and fix some rafts. And for God’s sake hustle.”
Steadily the fire gained, and the schooner began to settle down forward. The skipper barked quick orders. First the boats were filled, and then the men were herded on hastily constructed rafts. It was hazardous work in the semi-darkness, with the rafts and schooner pitching heavily, but at last there was nobody left on deck except the little Cockney and the skipper.
“If we’re blinkin’ well goin’ to git drowned,” Henry Jones said, climbing over the side, “we might as well do it together.”
The skipper’s only answer was to hasten Cockney over the side on to the last raft. A moment later he, also, was clinging to that frail refuge, watching flames lick their way along the Mulatto Maid. Gradually the schooner drifted off before the breeze. She seemed like a fiery ghost a couple of miles away when suddenly the glare about her subsided. The schooner had plunged to the bottom.
“That’s the finish of her,” said Captain Stevens ruefully, “and I’m afraid it won’t be long before we all go the same way.”
“Cheer up, cap’n,” put in the Cockney. “I ain’t got nothin’ to bet with, but I’d lay odds we git ashore. Yer see, I’ve been lookin’ forward so long to my blinkin’ bellows finishin’ me off that I’d be disappointed now if it didn’t happen that, way.” Then he began to cough.
The skipper did not answer. Now that the excitement was gone, the bitterness of it all was eating into his zoul. Fate was indeed kicking him hard. In common decency he had had to take that wrecked steamer’s crew aboard, and it was one of that crowd who had started the fire by upsetting a lamp. Then, phit! In an hour or two his whole life’s outlook had been altered. Forty or fifty thousand dollars worth of cargo—all he owned in the world —had been snatched away, and there was every chance that they would soon follow the schooner.
BUT, through his musing, and the effort of clinging to the raft, over which spray was continually swishing, the skipper was conscious of the Cockney’s cough. Poor little devil, he thought. He’d got his, coming or going, anyway. If by any chance he missed death now, there was another form of it awaiting him. And he was only thirty! Old Stevens put a hand on the little chap’s shoulder as though to comfort him during a particularly bad paroxysm of coughing.
“I’m all right, cap’n,” Cockney said presently. “Doctor recommended plenty o’ fresh air for my complaint.”
“Cold?” the skipper queried a while later. His own teeth were inclined to chatter.
“Sorry I left my fur coat on the pianna,” replied Henry Jones, “but I can stick it.”
Dawn came, raw and sickly pale. There was a driving rain and only one of the scattering rafts remained in sight. A few biscuits and a keg of water were all that had been fetched from the ship in the scramble. These were sparingly doled out, and the melancholy day drifted on. There followed a second night and a second day, and then, out of the cold, grey day break, loomed the bulk of a great steamer. She swerved just in time to avoid crushing them under water.
By noon the last of the rafts and boats had been picked up, and the steamer was churning ahead once more, with Quebec as her next port of call.
“I’ll see Joe yet,” said Henry Jones to Captain Stevens.
And Cockney didn’t die before they reached Quebec.
“Well, g’bye, cap’n,” he said, when they landed. “You been perishin’ good to me. Wish you could come along and see my brother Joe.”
The skipper was stroking his chin pensively. He wanted to get home, but he felt a sort of moral responsibility regarding Cockney. Henry Jones was very near to the Valley of the Shadow.
“Why, guess I can spare an hour for that,” observed the skipper, conscious that his own mind would be easier afterward if he knew Cockney was in safe hands. So, together, they went.
“Joe Jones?” said a woman at the address Cockney led him to. “Well, he did live here. But he doesn’t now.” “Where’s he gone?” asked Cockney. “Died a month back,” said the woman. Cockney leaned against the doorway. There was not much vitality left in his frail body to withstand shocks such as this.
“Dead, eh?” he said. “Poor Joe. Must ha’ been blinkin’ bad to ha’ died, ’cause 1 wrote tellin' him I was coming.”
“Got any other friends in Canada?" David Stevens asked as they walked away.
Cockney shook his head.
“Joe was the only one.”
' “Any other relations anywhere?”
“Joe was the only one,” Henry Jones reiterated.
“Then you’d better come to Beaumauris with me,” put in the skipper quietly.
AGAIN there flashed into Cockney's bearing a touch of pride that was more quaint than pathetic.
“What for?” he asked.
“Well, you’ve got to sleep somewhere and—and though you are a stubborn little brute, you’re not what I’d call exactly fit to tackle a hard day’s work.” This, if you will, was quixotry on the part of Captain Stevens, for he was now, indeed, a lame dog to help any lame dog over a stile; but that sort of thing had been characteristic of him for half a century.
“I don’t believe the poor gink can last more than a week or so,” he explained to Mrs. Stevens when they arrived. “Couldn’t very well leave him to starve. You see, it was my fault he came here at all.” And Mrs. Stevens, who had prayed and waited through long years for this hour in which her man had returned home to stay, was so filled with content that if he had brought half a dozen similar lame dogs home with him she would have befriended them in sympathy.
But the sands were rapidly running down for Cockney. Though he declared it was only a temporary set-back, he grew so weak that he could only lie in a hammock on Captain Stevens’ veranda. He fretted because whereas the skipper had already found a small job and was keeping things going, he himself was attacked by a desperate fit of coughing if he sat up for a few minutes. Once he even tried to crawl away to find work, but was himself found, in a state of collapse, fifty feet away. After that he lay very still most of the time, thinking. He didn’t cough so much if he lay still, and when he didn’t cough he could think better. The poor beaten little bit of human flotsam was wondering what he could do for fhe only man living, not counting Bill Leyland. who had ever treated him other than as a dog. There wasn’t much he could do. anyway, but he did it; and because he was an incurable optimist he was happy about what he had done, even as he passed into the unknown.
It was months later when a letter addressed in an uncouth scrawl arrived for Captain Stevens. It lay on the window sill all day until the ex-skipper came home from work. He turned it over and over, then slit it open and read the contents. He read them twice, and then passed the besmudged half-sheet over to his wife. The writer said:
Dere sir Henry Jones has writ me saying hes going out, an if ever theres any money from our mine on Wallaby Hill where we went broke together he wants his share divided atween me an you.
If hes still there tell him the week he left i found a fresh vein and I figger that Wallaby Hill is chiefly made of solid gold. It’s the richest strike in fifty years. If Henrys gone under píese write as one quarter share of Wallaby Hil is yours as per his wish. Yors obediently Bill Leyland.
“Mother,” said the broken old sailor after a while, “I guess I’m goin’ to walk up as far as Cockney’s grave. Mebbe he’ll know—and understand.”
“Yes, somehow I think he’ll know," said Mrs. Stevens. “Wait a minute, Dave, an’ I’ll come too.”