The world called him coward—but that was before the Talembang's boilers blew
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
THE DIM blur of the mate’s pyjamas stirred. His rattan chair creaked as he stretched, and the end of his cheroot made a bold red arabesque against the sky. “Excuse me, Doc.,” he yawned. “I’m dead for sleep.”
“Why don’t you turn in?”
“Oh—I don’t know; these sultry nights—and—” He interrupted himself to call, softly. “Doy ...” A Genoese steward appeared. “Whiskey-soda. Have a spot, Doc.? Two, Sali.”
He initialled the chit and sank back with a sigh, half content, half boredom. Far to port lightning forked incessantly over the jungle peaks of Sumatra. Distant thunder, infinitely prolonged, rolled under the land. From the native crew’s quarters for’ard, music drifted in a single whining octave, shot through with the monotonous tap of a drum. The mate yawned again.
“Funny coast, this; makes me restless,” he said at length. “Funny things happen on it, too. It’s a spot the ‘Missing Relatives’ columns of the home papers seem to have overlooked. Don’t know why. Everyone who’s ever disappeared turns up here sooner or later. I could tell you things—”
He scratched a match and the sudden spurt of flame painted his big, weather-beaten face, his corded neck, in ruddy contrast against the white of his night gear. His fine eyes were broody. I waited. Presently he went on.
T SUPPOSE that, because we’re fetching Singapore in -*• the morning, brings it back more vividly. The thing began for me at Singapore, several years after the war,
I was third mate of the Palembang, a Green Funnel tramp. We’d been barging about the western ocean until they shot us out here under special charter—Saigon, Malay States, Bushier, Aden—you know the racket, eh?
We were steaming into Singapore—just after dawn it was, i he sun rising like a new sovereign over the islands, the air still cool and fresh. There was a lot of sea traffic knocking about, I remember—big white American tanker with a clear sweep of deck; sampans; Dutch liner from Java, clean, fat officers in whites on her bridge, and striped awnings stuck along her sides like a row of blooming shops; filthy Portuguese barkentine, with a feller wearing ear-rings on her fo’castle head, taking his breakfast from a bright blue mug. Shook it at me, the saucy sweep, as we went by; launches; sirens blaring; white steam rising, smudges of distant ships following us in. Funny how you’ll notice those things.
I was on the bridge with the Old Man, already bellyaching about a quick turn-round. The city was emerging from a blur of brown smoke, and I’d just finished cursing out the drunken skipper of a China coast tramp, who'd nearly run us down, when I noticed a steamer coming out; black hull and red boot-topping, and the French tricolor at her stern. She was slowed down, right in the fairway, mind you, but what caught me was the police signal flying from her halliards.
“What the—” said the Old Man, as we watched. She’d her port gangway lowered, and the customs launch, with police aboard, was rolling at the bottom of it, the glass windows of her cabin flashing in the sun. At the head of the gangway was a little group, ready to come down; ship’s officers, two or three of the crew, two policemen and one other figure.
He towered over them by a foot, even though his head was bent. Bare feet, with native grass sandals, dirtywhite tunic far too small for him stretched across his frame; and my word, what a chest and shouldersl Beach-comber trying to stow away, but a white man and a gentleman; a lion, bursting through a jackal’s skin. He raised his head as we passed close by; then, as though he’d been stung, when he saw our eyes on him, he shot his hand up and concealed half his face. But the sun was full on him, and I'd have known him again, anywhere. You’ve seen em, Doc., sweepings of the seaports, men with a past, and without hope. He, too, was one of the lost sheep—with a difference.
When I was a kid there was a favorite picture of mine in an old book; Richard Coeur de Lion, standing with folded arms on the crest of a bare Judean hill. Behind him was a crusader, one of the captains of his hosts, with the face of an eagle of war. His head was rimmed in chain mail, his helmet an inverted steal bowl surmounted by a spike. He had a strong, curved nose, fine lips, and purposeful line of jaw; and his fierce hooded blue eyes were fixed, with inexorable resolve, upon the Holy Land. It was a face of extr’ordinary strength, and exceptional beauty. And though you may think me an inspired donkey, something of the likeness, and wholly of this par-
ei zular type, was the face of ray Singapore beachcomber.
The skipper was a fussy old ass making port, so I had to bottle my observations and keep my mind inboard until we were alongside the go-downs. What with making fast, breaking out the deck gear and commencing to work cargo, I thought no more about it. There was a fireman in a bad way, too, with septic hands, and I had to take him up to hospital. With this and that I had plenty to do without worrying about scapegoats.
About five o’clock, the chief being in his bunk with a touch of malaria, the second engineer sneaked off and went ashore with me. We got rikshas and went to the Hotel de Europe for dinner. We took our time over the meal, and afterward, the second, who was a lusty soul, having drunk more than was good for him, wanted to do Malay street. Every man is his own judge, of course, but I'm not awfully keen on that sort of thing However, some of the ship’s crowd—the mate, third engineer and the agent—came along about then, and took him off my hands. They pushed off together.
Being a comfort-loving beast, it wasn't long before I was stretched out in a chair on the verandah with a drink and smoke, talking to a Dutchman from Borneo. Sort of under magistrate, he was—an amiable tittle rabbit in wrinkled whites, and a gaudy handkerchief stuck in his collar-band. The sky was blue velvet, the air warm and scented, with a small breeze stirring, and we looked out over the harbor and watched the stars come out, and the great carved junks drift by, and hours passed. We dreamed and talked and dreamed. We got on to colonization toward the last—I remember, and ways of handling the natives. He compared the two systems ours and the Dutch.
"We do not put the natives to prison, same as you,” stays he. speaking pukka English. “No. The native is a simply mind, you comprehend me? To lock him up he does not understand. It makes him bitter—revengeful. V> e do not do such, we. No! We shoot him and,” continued this fat little Dutchman with indescribable ferocity, "if he is not dead, we shoot him again. Thus everybody is satisfied.”
I roared —I simply couldn’t help it—and he got a bit huffed. But whatever he was about to reply was suddenly bitten off short, and he sat bolt upright, ear cupped in his hand, listening. I suppose his benevolent tactics in the Borneo jungle had made him a bit sensitive to native sounds, for it was nearly' a minute before I, too, heard it—a faint racket, as of hordes of pariah dogs quarreling and yapping. You've heard ’em, Doc., up the banks of the Hooghly, eh? Well, that’s w'hat it was like. Must have been over near Chinnam street when we heard it first, and it grew rapidly' closer, a pandemonium of voices, yelling, hooting, jeering, a devil of a noise. Then we saw them, a seething mass of natives—Malays, Tamils, Dyaks, Chinese. There were a score or so of riksha coolies in the mob. and they' were wildest of all.
There was a world cruise liner in port, and a lot of her passengers were spending the evening in the hotel. They crowded out to the verandah to see what the excitement w-as about just as the riot surged up to the steps within the radius of the lights. Being a white man out on this coast nas its responsibilities, as you know. So you’ll appreciate what I felt—what we all felt on the verandah of that hotel—even the tourists, though they did not fully understand—when we saw between the shafts of a dilapidated riksha at the head of that frantic rabble, a giant white man. Two distracted, beseeching Sikh policemen clung to his arms, but he regarded them no more than the snapping rabble at his heels.
He stopped and laid down the shafts, and the crowd receded like a wave from a tidal rock, leaving him alone in a cleared space facing us. He straightened, took off a native conical grass hat such as riksha coolies wear and raised his head. ‘'Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, and I can t repeat h¡3 tone, 'T solicit your custom.” It was my beach comber friend of the morning.
Queer thing, Doe.’ I didn’t resent the fact that his action made the entire white population of Singapore lose ‘ace with the natives; that he’d let down his own race. It wasn t that at all. I didn’t give a curse for the residents. It was—it s hard to describe. There v/as something in the teller’s eyes—the magnificent pitifulness of a proud spirit beaten under by fate, making its last desperate stand, if you can understand me, that got under my chest. I m no longer a youngster, and when we get oíd we can t ignore the tragedies of life. I wanted, somehow. to shove a buffer between that poor devil and the hammering bitterness of his own heart. Regardless of wnat he d done he needed a white man to stand by him. I jumped over the verandah rail. Asinine? Maybe, or God s sake, old man—” I urged.
He was stone sober, which, somehow, did not surprise me. A wicked triangular scar branded him from his left %-.e r:° Tne C0!yj_er of his mouth. As my eyes fell on it he flinched, and nis hand shot up to hide it. Then, his face seri and he dropped his arm. “Where to, sir?” he asked and made to pick up the shafts.
The residents, on the verandah, did the only possible
thing, of course, and went inside. The tourists, not realizing, remained to watch. There was an ugly undertone in the mob when he moved, that spread to the white men left on the verandah—reckless young devils, mostly, down from the tin mines for a week-end lark, with four or five oldsters, who were feeling their position a bit. All the elements, you see, of a nasty row. An elderly, paunchy, butcher-faced man, with a monocle and a military set to his shoulders, tramped down the steps. He was mottled with passion.
“What the devil is the meaning of this unspeakable conduct?” he roared. “What do you mean by it, you fellow? Hey! I’ll have you clapped up!”
My elbow was a mite vicious at his barging in, I sup-
“Drop that damned riksha, old chap,” I murmured, “and come to some place quiet with me. We’ll have a drink and a chat, and get this business straightened away, what?”
He ignored me completely, but the scar on his cheek pulsed like a beating heart. He addressed the verandah.
“The Tuan wants to know what I mean by this.” His words fell like dripping ice. “I mean precisely what I said. I have been discarded by men of my own race; forced to the level of a coolie. Do you deny me even the coolie’s right to live? I tried to work. There was no work —for me. This morning I tried to stow away on a ship. I was brought back. s Even a coolie must eat. I solicit your custom. I sháll solicit it to-morrow, and next day, and every day, until I am given a job—a white man’s job —or jailed, or shipped out of the country.”
He replaced his hat, picked up the shafts and strode away.
Before my wits returned, he was around the corner. I scribbled a hasty message—‘If you want work, we’re a fireman short. S.S. Palembang, Tanjong Pagar docks. Sailing to-morrow.’—wrapped it around a pound note and sent it after him by a hotel servant, on the run. If five minutes the man returned and handed me back the pound note. He was indignant and dishevelled.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Sir, he belabored me with kicks,” the man replied.
\\7E GOT underway next afternoon.. The chief vv engineer still had his head down with fever when we sailed. We had bailed a couple of seamen out of the hands of the police, signed on a new fireman, and the rest of the crew were sweating the booze out of their hides after their night ashore. It is not customary, of course, for vessels plying the Eastern routes to carry white crews; but as I told you, we’d come straight off the Atlantic, and they had to make the best of it. We were bound for Basra, up the Persian Gulf.
Ever been up the Persian Gulf, Doc.? Whenever hell cools off there’s an earthquake, and a bit of the Gulf drops through to heat it up again. Even with boots on a white man can’t stand on the iron decks for very long. So you may imagine the engine-room and stoke-hold.
We cleared the Nicobars before the chief was able to get around. I was standing in the waist just abaft the engine-room housing overlooking the after well-deck, where the bosun had a wire rope splicing job on, when the chief, fresh out of his bunk, passed me on his way below for a look around. He stopped for a yarn and a smoke, and was about to turn away when two stokers coming off watch stepped out of the fidley and walked aft. Their faces were black with coal dust and reamed with sweat, and grimy sweatrags were twisted about their necks. One was a typical ‘Our Johnny’Bootle fireman, with the self-conscious swagger of his ilk. The other even in the anonymity of coal dust, arrested attention. He had the height and the chest and biceps of Antaeus, with wide shoulders that swept magnificently into a lean, muscular waist.
“Hello,” said I, “who is that—your new fireman?”
“Must be,” said the chief, who was lighting his pipe. “I haven’t talked to him. The second took him on.” He raised his eyes. “By George, what a whopper!”
The pair were then on the well deck, walking aft to the forecastle. The chief shouted:
“Hey there! Come back a minute, that new man.”
The fellow turned, looked up, ánd instantly clapped his hand to his left cheek. Subconsciously, I think, I had already recognized him, but was totally unprepared for what followed. As he walked slowly for’ard again to the foot of the ladder the chief’s eyes narrowed, then his head jerked up, He shot out his neck and glared at the man until I thought his popeyes would come adrift. His face went scarlet. I’ve never seen such rage.
“You . . . You . . . !” he choked. He looked ready to spit in the man’s face. Then he turned smart as a whip and hailed a passing steward. “Tell the second I want him,” he ordered. “Tell him to come down quick!”
The man on the well-deck was an ebony statue, chin up, eyes hard as diamonds under the hooded lids. But the scar on his cheek beat dull red under the coal dust and sweat.
The second’s quick steps clanged along the iron deck. The chief turned on him. “You sign that man on, Mr. Bates?” Bates was astounded.
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“Why—yes, sir. Of course, I did. You were down with fever, and—”
The chief cut loose. When he was through the second’s face was pallid. He answered not a word; but he surveyed the motionless figure below. His eyes were devils, his lip lifted off his teeth.
“You unspeakable swine! You let me in for this and never told me!” He leaned forward. “Listen! I’m going to pay you out for it. I’ll have you in my watch, and I’ll work you till your back breaks, and when that’s done, I’ll break your bloody heart. Phueu-u■—get away aft, you
He addressed the chief.
“I’m sorry, sir—more sorry than I can say. I never dreamed it was him. And I’d never met him before, so—I’d have cut an arm off afore I’d ever have let him put foot on her plates, if I’d known!” He ended wrathfully.
There was more back-chat. Then they conferred together in low tones, with minor explosions of rage.
Through it all the beach comber had not moved. He stood as though frozen, and I tried to look at him, but I couldn’t do it. I—could—not—do it, Doc.! Not for a hundred pounds would I have faced what was in that tormented beggar’s eyes. You’ve knocked about the sea a bit, so you’ll understand when I tell you. The beach comber was Funky Villiers!
rT'HE mate halted. He removed his cap and dropped it beside his chair, and his brow was beaded with sweat; and when he tried to light the stump of his dead cheroot his fingers shook. No wonder. As he said, I had knocked about a bit at sea—liners and tramps both—and one hears things. And the thing that Funky Villiers had done was execrated in English-speaking ships the world around.
“Well—!” I said. The mate took up the thread.
I WENT into the chief’s room that night and tried to straighten matters out. When I told him I was responsible for the man being aboard, all civility left him. It was like trying to reason with a madman.
“Answer me this,” he roared, hammering crazily on his desk with his fist. “Was Villiers, or was he not, second engineer of the Susquehanna when she foundered, torpedoed off Brest in early 1918? Yes— And when the submarine commander ordered the survivors out of the shelled boats on to the deck of the submarine was not Villiers the only living officer of the Susquehanna, engineroom or deck, and therefore responsible for the lives of those survivors. Was he or was he not?”
“Wait a minute! He spoke fluent German, didn’t he?”
“He went to school in Germany as a boy.”
“Exactly. And after the German commander laid his cheek open with the butt of his Luger and gave him a coward’s pennant that he’ll fly to his dying day, did he not, with a face as white as snow, according to the sole survivor of his fourteen men, speak a few words in German, which this man, a Dane, understood, offer ing to sell the layout of the British mine fields in exchange for his miserable life? And when the German asked him, what about his men, he said—the rat—‘To hell with the men!’ ”
“But he was an engineer. He couldn’t know the mine fields. He was just bluffing.”
“He did know them. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. He was a bloody spy! And then”—thundered the chief terribly, “after he was taken inside the conning tower, it immediately shut down and the submarine submerged leaving Villier’s men that he’d betrayed, my own blood brother among them, to drown in the icy
water, from which only one o’ them ever was picked up. No wonder that Judas’ scar o’ his flames whenever a man who knows, looks him in the face!”
“You forget,” I told him, and it sounded pitifully thin, “that Villiers was helpless on deck to do anything to save his men. He bluffed himself inside intending to tackle the sub’s crew single-handed, or do sufficient damage to her gear, if he could lay hold of a weapon, to prevent her submerging. He knew it was sure death for himself, either way, but he was willing to accept that. They happened to be too quick for him, and had him ironed out the moment he entered. It was all over in eight seconds. The court of inquiry absolved him, remember, when he returned home, barely alive, from his German prison.”
“Aye! Well—there’s one court’ll never absolve him, and that’s the court o’ seamen’s opinion. And what’s more,—” and here he shoved his face under my chin, “if you’re goin’ to defend Funky Villiers to me I’ll ask ye to kindly step out o’ my cabin!”
■pUNKY VILLIERS. The sea was all he
knew, but after the war he couldn’t get a ship, for his name, with its cruel schoolboy epithet of contempt tacked on, had gone the round of the shipping world and no owner dared have him.
He’d get a ship for a voyage, perhaps, like he got on the Palembang, but as soon as he was found out—and there were plenty to recognize him and to tell— they’d get shut of him. Pariah and outcast, he went down—down, from second engineer, in line for quick promotion, to donkeyman, oiler, fireman, trimmer—anything he could get that would keep breath in his body—and in his pride he supped such gall and wormwood as is given to few men to taste. Funky Villiers and his scar! He got the trick of hiding it with his hand. Try and figure out the psychology of that. Aimlessly, he beat about the world—his father—his girl—all cut off voluntarily, I’ve heard, for they would have stuck by him. Then he drifted out to the Malay coast—the last resort of the ’long-shore damned.
They lost no time starting on him, the chief, the deucer and the rest. His mates of the black gang kicked about having him in the fo’castle, so he took his mattress up to the poop and slept there, rain or shine.
I made myself extremely unpopular that voyage, I don’t mind telling you, trying to ease things for him a bit, for I believed in him. But it wouldn’t do. The engineroom doesn’t relish interference from the deck, any more than we would take it from below. So I had to sit back, finally, and watch them put my sad crusader through it.
From his face you might have guessed what he suffered, Doc., for they damned the articles and put him on double watches, knowing that no one, anywhere, ever would defend Funky Villiers. He grew haggard, and death-weary. His mates, of the stoke-hold, held their end up. They daren’t tackle him physically, for he’d have used them for sweatrags, and they knew it; still every trade has its tricks, and there are few places for paying out a man like the stoke-hold of a deepwater ship.
They reserved the more exquisite of their pranks until we’d passed up the Gulf of Oman into the Persian Gulf. Then, with the temperature a hundred and twenty-one degrees on deck, and God knows what below, they sent him bilgediving; down into the skin of the ship to clean out the loathsome accumulation of months-old scum and oil and grease and bilge water that lay in the bilges— a job that’ll turn a strong man inside out in ten minutes.
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After an hour and a half of it they let him off, but he didn’t eat for a day or so. Still, his expression did not change. He did what he was told and never a word of complaint—only that beating scar. Break the heart of Funky Villiers, those nagging monkeys? His lips curled a little, but I would not have cared for his thoughts in the long night watches.
The petty things they did! He was sent to polish the cylinder tops with the engines doing extra revolutions. Luckily, when he fainted he was on the grating, or he’d have dropped like a stone into the engineroom below.
\T0 MAN can stand that sort of thing indefinitely. Even on deck we were near helpless with the heat, and one day for the first time I caught in his eyes, as he passed me to go below, something— no, it wasn’t yielding, rather a disgust of life so profound that it shocked even me, who knew what he was going through. And, yet, he could summon the will to drop his trick of hiding his scar. For me, that had the effect of a powerful and definite gesture.
He came nearest to going under though, I believe, the day before we fetched Basra. After a short sleep, broken by flies and heat and general wretchedness, he went on watch. His great frame showed signs of cracking under the terrific strain of the double watches in such weather, and his knees gave a bit as he went below. Someone had opened the main stop valve on the top of his boiler and screwed down his mate’s, so that he had to work to supply steam for both, while his watch mate sat on his shovel and whistled. In normal times Villier’s training as an engineer instantly would have told him what was amiss, but what with heat and weariness and backbreaking work he reeled in a half stupor, and was half way through his watch before he discovered it. Too ill even for resentment, he equalized the valves, and scaring his mate half out of his wits, made him maintain both fires for the balance of the watch.
It was eight bells when he came topside, his huge chest working like a bellows, and stood at the rail near the ash chute trying to suck strength from the parched air. His appearance startled me. Under its coat of coal dust, his face was gray with fatigue. There were hollows in his cheeks, and deep recesses behind his ears. His shoulders sagged, and his eyes glowed in their sockets like seawood fires. The sun was going off watch too, and it laid a crimson carpet across the oil-smooth sea, dotted with native dhows. He stared out over the side at the loom of the land on the starboard bow. I thought again of that treasured picture of my boyhood, for far beyond the stretch of sandy coast, and the amethyst haze of the distant hills toward which his powerful profile was turned, were the sunbaked walls and ancient strongholds of old Jerusalem.
For some days past the circulating pump had been giving trouble, and as he stood there, the chief passed on his way below. He stopped, glaring under the shaggy eaves of his brows, then spoke to him. “What for are ye idling there?” he said. “Come below wi’ me. I’ll find you something to do.”
Villiers stared at him and through him, then led the way.
They had been gone only about five minutes, when it happened. A tremendous explosion shook the Palembang from truck to keel, followed by shouts and screams, piercing through a colossal roar of escaping steam. It was as sudden as that. Out of the fidley crawled a panic-' stricken fireman nursing a badly scalded arm. “A sludge door’s blown out with a full head o’ steam behind it!” he screamed.
I went a bit sick at my insides. It meant that the whole of the space below, engineroom and stoke hold was filled with live steam and boiling water, and that those who didn’t get out would be cooked alive. In five minutes the deck plates would be
hot enough to burn the soles off your feet, and hours would pass before she cooled off sufficiently to let us pump her out and go below.
The bellow of escaping steam was deafening. All hands swarmed out, terrified by the din, to join the little knot of men, some scalded, some not, who had managed to escape. Stamped upon their grimy faces was the fear of a horrible death. Out through the steam cloud staggered an oiler. His hands were parboiled, but he had managed to protect his face with a sweatrag. His lips moved, voice puny in the ear-splitting clamor of the steam. “Benjamin’s dead—so’s Evans, I think. The chief’s below—and Funky!”
Blank faces and horrified eyes; then they followed me at the double to the after door of the engineroom housing that led below. I don’t know what we hoped to do, if we did get in, for the mightiest efforts of men were but a baby’s breath against such a force. Clouds of steam billowed and poured up from below, hot as the breath of the pit. We tried to get inside, but again and again we were driven back. What could we do?
Mentally, we lived in that swirling white death far below our feet, imagining them groping, blinded, horribly scalded, sucking live steam into their lungs, overcome, and falling to quick death in the boiling water. I think that for a minute we all lost our heads; and we all got scalded more or less trying to pierce that dragon’s breath at the top of the grating.
Then, through the pandemonium, carried by who knows what freak of acoustic came a hoarse appeal for help—grotesque, unbelievable, cutting like a sword through the bonds of our hopelessness. A seaman yelled, “There’s someone down on the ladder!”
It was one of those moments when a man, if he is a man, must place his fears and his love of life upon the shelf. We got down to the first landing a half dozen of us, and there we found them; the chief— but you would have cried to see him; Evans, who was dead—and Funky Villiers!
He was on his way top-side when the thing happened, we learned later, sent up by the chief for some gear. He returned deliberately, knowing full well what it might mean. The damp had got into the dynamo and the lights were out. Fumbling about in the blackness and noise he searched, found them, carried the chief up, then returned a second time for the other man; got them almost to the upper grating, ladder after ladder, un til,.at last, strength failed. He lost a>foot, and his scalp, and most of the skin of his body. The doctors at Basra marvelled, but he lived. And the Board of Trade at home—
rT'HE Saloon door behind us opened -L quietly, and a big man, in beautifully fitting tunic of tropic drill stepped out. He walked with a slight limp, and his head, high domed and completely bald, gave the impression of a casque. Then, he noticed the mate, who had his fingers nipping on my wrist. “Hello, Tom, you night owl,” he smiled. “Dreaming of the Ritz?”—but his smile came a bit slowly, as as though tugging against stiffened tendons. The mate introduced us.
“Villiers, our chief engineer, Doc. He’s on his way home to be married, the fathead. Congratulate him.”
I did—with what deeper meaning he never knew. As his face came into the light I saw that the scar was gone, eaten away by live steam to a greater scar—a half mask of skin and bone, tight and red. I have never seen a disfigurement that so became a man.
He closed the door and leaned over the rail, his mutilated side turned to the understanding night, and as I watched the silhouette of his head and shoulders against the bright rays of the eastern stars, I thought of the mate's words.
“His head was rimmed in chain mail . . . and his fierce hooded blue eyes were fixed with inexorable resolve upon the Holy Land.”