The Trimmer of the Ispahan
And the story of how he, a rum-sodden human derelict, met the ultimate crisis of the sea
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
THE waterfront drew him as a magnet, and he walked slowly down through narrow, sun-patterned streets, sidestepping rikshas and sedan chairs, and gazing with incurious eyes at swarming native shops. He paused, now and then, with practised whine, to cadge a coin from well-fed tourists, posing as a seaman in distress, then promptly spent the proceeds for strangling native whisky.
He wore a battered sun helmet, with a small, dilapidated hen feather in the band. The brave, if seedy, insouciance of him was expressed, too, in a certain brightness of cravat, and his white suit, soiled and wrinkled, was worn with as much jauntiness as a pudgy little figure would permit. His face, round and dewlapped was puffed with drink, and burned to a brick-red by the suns and winds of Asia, and a network of tiny purple veins covered his prominent and bulbous nose. The gray of Vs rather fine temples was distributed in silver stubole about his cheeks and chin, and the back of his Head, trimmed by an inadequate razor, presented much the appearance of an ill-fitting toupee. Touching the lobes of his generous, down-covered ears was a gaudy silk handkerchief, not over-clean, protecting a crumpled white collar. His voice was husky and low-pitched, with an occasional throaty chuckle, and as he chewed a philosophic cud hi3 shrewd, kindly eyes, of diluted, alcoholic blue, peeped cornerwise at the world, as though hoping it would accept him at a valuation somewhat in excess of his own estimate of his worth. He was a failure; he knew it, and he was not unhappy. But winter was near—and winter in Hongkong is no place for a white man, without money or a job.
He had had a job as engineer of a rusty little stink-pot, China coast tramp, and it was not a bad billet in its way. But faced with the alternatives of unemployment and comparative sobriety, he had chosen the lesser evil.
That was five months since.
Five months on the beach is a long time. One cannot cadge forever, and the conmissioner of police had hinted three times that it would be well to ship out.
He would not hint again.
The man was modest.
He did not expect an engineer’s berth again, for he knew that no reputable owner would employ him.
He had the qualifications; in
fact—but that brought up thoughts on which he did not care to dwell. A native owner was different. Up to a point he didn’t care who or what you were, or had been, or did, so long as you could keep your feet, and the propeller turned. Pride is relative, and there is a certain cachet among the ‘Brethren of the Beach,’ in being a bloke that even a native owner can’t stomach. But he was sick of the coast; sick of the whole Far East.
He wanted—comical thought—he wanted to go home.
The masts of sampan-town spiked above the curved tiles of a joss house, gay with lacquer and gilt, and he turned sharp right, to where bustling go-downs lipped the scummy tide. It was still fairly early, and the harbor was a curtain of mist, on which were sketched delicate studies in silver and gray, with a smudge or two of pastel; vague shapes of sampans and junks and red-funnelled ocean wanderers, lying at moorings or gliding past, half-apprehended, like, he thought—for he had once been familiar with such things—a Brangwyn Orient, seen through a silken screen. Across the water at Kowloom a clatter of pneumatic hammers indicated where a great Pacific liner was making ready for a greyhound run to Manila. No good trying there. He might know someone who—well, no matter!
A corner of the mist lifted and he saw lying in the stream, surrounded by barges and sampans, a stubby, black tramp ship, her hull spotted with red lead, and a thin waver of smoke and white vapor rising from her funnel, straight up, in the still air. Her cargo winches were clattering, but steam was up, and she was ready for sea. He could just see her name, Ispahan. He remembered her from the shipping column. She was loading for Tsing-tao and Vancouver. Vancouver wasn’t home, but it was near enough, and would do.
The fog drifted before a breeze, and as he saw her more clearly his sluggish blood thrilled, unaccountably, to some vague, old ghost of the past. It evaded him, however, and thinking was an effort. He felt in his pocket. Twenty cents left. He threaded down between two great junks, and a dozen sampans shot toward him, squabbling. He bargained, and awarding himself to the cheapest, stood up during the short passage to let the cool of the morning clear his brain.
The Ispahan’s gangway was high, and he had to jump for it, wetting one foot. He clumped up the gangway to the deck, an untidy litter of gear; snaking wire ropes, steel beams, hatch covers, clattering winches, hissing steam. He walked aft to the break of the waist. A stoker was sousing his head in a bucket on the after well-deck.
“Pley, mate, where’s the Deucer?” the derelict hailed.
The man raised his face, red and dripping, with heavy circles of ingrained coal dust around his eyes. He jerked a thumb forward.
“Up yonder in ’is room. Lookin’ for a berth? You
might get one; we’re short-’anded. Go arsk ’im—an’ be sure you give ’im ‘sir’,” he added affably. “ ‘E’s a bit peculiar, is the Deucer.”
Again, with that feeling as of something faintly familiar the job-seeker made his way without further direction to the cabin of the Second Engineer. The door was on the hook, and through the aperture he could see glasses, and a bottle of whisky. His knuckles tightened, and a wolfish fire gleamed for a moment in his washed-out eyes. Blue tobacco smoke drifted into the alley-way. Men were talking, and he caught a few subdued words before he rapped.
“We meet the lighters, and transfer—hello! Who’sthere?”
The door was opened, and the burly figure of the Deucer—the Second Engineer—faced him, barrel-chested knock-kneed, clad in dirty dungarees, and a cap with a broken visor, black with oil and grime, hung over one eye.
“What do you want? How long you bin standingthere?”
“Just come, sir, lookin’ to ship out. I ’eard you was short-’anded,” the applicant replied, in the lingo and accent of the f o’castle.
“ Hum\ Wait a bit.” He turned inside the room, “Feller wants a job, chief. We got to have one more. Can’t sail without, hardly. Come in, you—and mind you wipe your feet.”
On the settee was the chief, a small, furtive-eyed man, with four lines of purple-edged braid on his cuffs. He looked up, and surveyed the newcomer’s round shape with a scowl, noting the trembling hands, the faded eyes, and the fatuous smile of one who expects nothing, but hopes for the best.
“You look soft. Ever been to sea before?”
“Fireman on the Knight Crusader, sir, an’ the Biscay; oiler on fcke Star of Australia; donkeyman on the Manchester Exporter an’ Western Ocean packets, an’—”
“What’s your name?”
“Where’s your discharge book?”
“Well, I bin ashore for awhile, sir, an' I ’ad it pinched-”
He broke off suddenly, his eyes fixed on the whisky
bottle. The tip of his tongue moistened dry lips. The two engineers exchanged swift glances.
“Ever hold a ticket?” asked the Chief, suddenly.
“Holm beamed at this pleasantry, and permitted himself a respectful titter. “Wot—me a ticket, sir?” he said, with the air of a man who knows his place.
“All right. You’ll be a trimmer. Six pound a month. Got your gear? Away aft wi’ you then, and don’t get drunk.”
The newly-made trimmer escaped to the deck again. He was shaking, not because he had bagged a job in a port where jobs were scarce and coolie crews the rule, but because his booze-soaked fibres cried for further stimulant. He wished he had the time and money to return to shore for a last drink. Still there d be shellac and varnish in the paint locker. Better wait a bit, though.
The Ispahan was an old ship, with poor crew space, and the black gang’s accommodation on the port side under the poop was small, dimly lighted through inadequate ports, and reeked of coal dust, sour, dirty clothing, stale food and beer fumes, and the stench of sweaty, unwashed men. She had been seized at Basra for nonpayment of port fees, and on her release was manned with a scratch crowd, officers, engineers and men, for the balance of her voyage.
The trimmer entered the fo’castle, and it took him a minute to focus his eyes in the gloom, after the brilliance of the deck. A Liverpool fireman, black as the pit, was holding the floor, to the delight of his mates. ‘“My wot a nice little gel you’ve got,’ sez the visitin’ curate to Mrs. Donkeyman. ‘Come ’ere, Mary Ellen,’ sez Mrs. Donkeyman, ‘An’ cough for the bleedin’ gentleman.’ ”
In the roar of laughter that followed this witticism the trimmer moved forward and joined the group. A singer, half-maudlin, sat in his bare feet on a corner of the table, keeping time with a bottle. “Oh, it’s flashy compane-e, ’as been the ruin o’ me-e,” he chanted. Holm made for him. “Give us a drink, mate,” he wheedled.
The man whipped the bottle forward and smashed it across the other’s face, then jumped to the deck and shadow-boxed viciously in the murky light. “Want’s a drink, does ’e?” he snarled. “I’ll giye ’im a drink, I promise you!” The trimmer staggered in a blind circle, blood pouring from his scalp. Then he went down.
“Who is it?” someone asked, warding off the drunkard who still threatened with the broken bottle end.
“A beach-comber wot just signed on,” said the man who had directed Holm to the Deucer. “Stick ’im in a bunk till ’e comes round.”
They bundled the unconscious man on to an evilsmelling straw mattress in a vacant bunk and left him, while the Ispahan, a pilot aboard, and the hoarse boom of her siren echoing from the circling hills, dropped her mooring, and pushed her way north toward the Formosa Strait, and the Yellow Sea.
rT'HE weather rapidly grew colder. The trimmer, recovering from the vicious attack of his shipmate, lay in his bunk on the morning that the Ispahan cleared the tip of Formosa. The air was bitter, and no heat came through the defective pipes from the engineroom. There was a small bogie, but its radius was scant, and the damp chill rolled down the skin of the ship and gnawed at his bones as he slept. His total covering was the worn suit of tropic drill in which he had come aboard, and a motheaten blanket begged by a shipmate from a protesting steward. Still, it was warmer in his bunk than out, and Holm put off as long as possible the evil hour of turning
to. In the middle of the forenoon the Deucer entered the fo’castle, and the trimmer was aroused by a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“How much longer are ye goin’ to lie there, ye scrimshanker?” roared his superior. “Get out o’ that and into your clothes and below to the bunkers, or I’ll give ye something to lie in your bunk for! Come on! Out of it! I’ve got a bilge-divin’ job for ye if you don’t look smart!’
The trimmer raised a practised elbow to ward off the expected blow.
“You wouldn’t hit a man wot’s down, sir—” he whined.
“Flat or standin’ I’ll clout you plenty, if you’re not below in five minutes,” the Deucer promised, and banged out on deck, slamming the heavy door.
Holm climbed out. He was still weak and ill, but not so much from the effect of his injuries, as for want of the alcohol for which every drop of blood in his body hungered. Trembling with cold, he pulled on his coat—he was still dressed as when he had come aboard—and reeled out into the sharp, clear day. A stiff wind laced the rising seas, and spattered showers of icy spray across the decks. Off the starboard quarter Formosa showed, hard and clean, the hungry combers leaping like w'hite wolves at the throats of the headlands. The steady thrum-thrum . . . thrum-thrum of the propeller shook the steel plates, and far down in the belly of the ship the echoing clang of the stokers’ shovels signaled more work for the trimmers in the bunkers.
As he passed along the deck he was stopped by the Fourth Engineer.
“That all the gear you’ve got?” the fourth asked, amazed, even at sea, where any strange thing might happen, that a man should be going on watch in the bunkers in a white drill suit and topee. “Better trot along to my room when you come off watch, and I’ll see what I can fit you out with.”
A pleading look jumped into the trimmer’s eyes.
“Would you have mebbe a nip, sir, to set me up?” he ventured.
“That’ll do, now. Get away below with you,” the youngster replied, repenting his offer, and turned away.
The trimmer was grateful for the hot blast that smote him as he stepped out of the cutting wind into the fidley, and descended the ladder to the stoke-hold. The black gang greeted him with derisively good-natured shouts.
“ ’Elio, mates. ’Ere’s Lord Cecil rose from ’is
divan, an’ come to do ’is bit. Mind yer lily-white ’ands, sir.”
He answered them in kind, and went to his work in the bunker, feeding or trimming the coal aft, where it would be easy of access to the stokers at the fires. For a man, young, or experienced in heavy work, and in fit physical shape the job was not unduly severe. To the trimmer, w'hose whisky-soaked body had performed no useful work for years, it was killing. His hands, soft and weak, developed blisters that swelled and broke, and the water flowed with exquisite smarting.
Pulverized coal working in, added further
t runv. until the red flesh stuck to the shovel handle. The weight of the implement strained and tugged at unaccustomed muscles, and the loaded barrow pulled down on his abdomen until it seemed that his groin must burst. His knees shook, and sweat poured from him. He removed his coat and shirt, working halfnaked under the single dust-encased light, and at frequent intervals he rested, sitting on the coal, and spitting on his raw palms to ease the pain. But always the impatient clamor of the firemen's shovels banging against the bulkhead drove him back to it.
At the end of his six-hour watch, unable to grasp the rungs of the perpendicular ladder up the fidley, he went through the engineroom, to the easier ascent of the steps, and as he reached them the derelict stopped, and raised his head, and his battered nostrils breathed deeply of the hot smell of oil, and greasy waste, and warm steel; his weary eyes took in the polish and glitter of rods, and shafts, and pistons and cylinders: the greaser, going about his work in clean dungarees, skilfully tuning his arm to the movements of the whirling pounding machinery, feeling bearings and applying his long-spouted can. The failure listened: to the hunt of the dynamo, the deepthroated whirr of the forced draft fan. the rhythmic hammer and jar of the great connecting rods, the swish and suck and sigh of the air pump: to all the manifold sounds and sights and smells that go to make up the orderly inferno that is the engineroom of a deep-water ship.
The magic of old associations worked upon him. Unconsciously his chest lifted. Some spark, buried deep in his degraded flesh, was blown upon, and his dimmed eyes shone with a momentary brighter light.
But the distrustful gaze of the engineer was on him, so he turned, his fat torso sagging once more, and shambled painfully up the slippery treads.
DAY and night, six hours on and six off, the trimmer toiled in the gloom of the bunkers, while the Ispahan bucked her way toward the Shantung Peninsula, amid the savage thunder of breaking seas. He lost weight in a fashion that left the skin hanging in folds, but his hands healed and hardened, and muscles, long disused began to function without undue pain. Life in the bunkers no longer was the searing agony of those first days.
One thing, however, no amount of physical hardening could assuage—that terrible urgency for alcoholic stimulant that raged unceasingly through his depleted veins. The craving for drink became a mania, chewing at him like a voracious fury', clouding and coloring his thoughts a? he swung his shovel in the clangorous depths of the bunkers, and ravening him as he lay in his filthy bunk until he twisted and squirmed in agonized longing, and groans broke through his frothing lips.
In Tsing-tao, where the Ispahan completed loading, the crew were not allowed ashore. A few hours sufficed to sling the cargo aboard, and the vessel swung her nose past the Tuan-tau light, and dipped again to the cold, raw onslaught of the Yellow' Sea. Calm weather followed immediately', however, with lowering, snow-laden skies, and an event occured as the ship neared the Korean coast which served for a time to divert the trimmer’s mind from the full stream of his obsession, and set it to brief and puzzled speculation.
He was in his bunk at night, awake, and fighting his devils, when the faint jangle of the engineroom telegraph signalled ‘half speed’ then ‘stop.’ The steady throbbing of the great hull ceased, intensifying the silence of the calm, sea night. Men sat up in their bunks. “Breakdown”, someone growled. “More bloody work.”
“More days, more dollars,” the trimmer answered him, in the timew'orn idiom of deep water, Anything wTas welcome that broke the tedium of the passage, and he got into his coat and went on deck. As he did so, the bo’sun entered the sailors’ fo’castle and roused all hands.
omething more than a break-down,” the trimmer muttered, and waited for developments.
The Korean coast, poorly lighted and indifferently charted, with its precipitous cliffs, bays and crooks, and deep fjord-like indentations, is one of the most forlorn and dangerous on earth. They were near land, for the trimmer could smell it. The night was still, with a smooth sea and a light surface mist, and the gentle ripple under the Ispahan's bows ceased, and she floated motionless, except for a gentle roll, her riding lights reflected in broken
ruby and emerald and topaz, in a pool of blackness. Then, off to starboard a light flashed, went out, and blinked on.
Trembling with cold the trimmer returned to the fo’castle, but curiosity drove him forth again. The sea was alive with lights, that presently materialized into a fleet of junks, their great bat-wing sails, flapping grotesquely in the swell. They surrounded the steamer, but on the Ispahan’s bridge was no sign of excitement. The bo'sun worked with his men, knocking the dogs off the hatches of number four hold, lifting the hatch covers and beams with the aid of the winches, and exposing the baled and crated cargo. Cluster lights were rigged, and a chattering horde of Manchurians, clad in their thick, quilted clothing, swarmed aboard from the junks, and the work of transferring
cargo began. The trimmer questioned the bosun. The latter shrugged, and spat tobacco juice at a steel beam.
“Heavy weather in the North Pacific,” the Mate says, and the Old Man thinks we’re too deep for it. He’s sending part o’ the cargo back to Dairen. Never knew he was such an old woman. Damned silly I calls it. He’ll have us sleepin’ in life belts next.”
Helm watched for a while longer, as the baled silk and valuable Manchurian carpets and rugs were lifted out, then returned to his bunk with a distinct feeling that all was not as it seemed. He was still awake when the ship’s bell chimed, summoning him to his work in the bunkers. By daybreak the last of the lighters had left, the Ispahan steamed over the smooth sea, and Korea was a faint haze astern.
A few hours sufficed to drive from his thoughts the occurrence of the night. Again the drink craze beset him, and his frame trembled with the mounting intensity of it as the day wore on. By nightfall he was desperate, and ready for any folly that would promise him surcease. Tight-lipped, he stole from the fo’castle in stockinged feet, in his hand a short iron bar with a bevelled end. He was out to force the steward’s store. He knew—and did not question how he knew —that the liquor was stowed in cases beneath the pantry deck, along with the saloon supplies. The stewards would be asleep, and he would have to risk a bit of noise.
He moved like a shadow along the well-deck, and up the ladder to the waist, and halted by the corner of the engineroom casing. He would step inside for a minute, he decided, to thaw life back into his numbed toes and fingers. Within, a blast of heated air from the pounding depths below poured about him in rising waves as he stood on the iron grating. He shuddered luxuriously the greater to relish it, and allowed his gaze to wander about the clean, painted interior. It focussed upon a brass plate, screwed to the casing.
The trimmer stiffened. He knew without further groping why he had thrilled to the ship as she lay out in the stream that day in Hongkong; why he had felt an uplifting of spirit, and the measure of courage he so pitifully had needed, as he stood by the engineroom steps after that first nightmare watch in the bunkers. He read the plate again. ‘S.S. Glengorm— built in Greenock, Scotland’—followed by other particulars, the name of the makers and a date. The old Glengorm: original name of
the Ispahan—and the ship in which he had gotten his chief’s certificate, thirty years before.
Time rolled back, and visions of other days raced in wild chaos through his brain. Days of youth and buoyant hope, life, and the world, and an honorable career before him like a broad pathway of gold, shining down the vista of the future. Part of that bright, road he had trod —to what? To this—a broken, sodden wreck of a man— an old, worm-eaten hulk. A moment of weakness at life’s highest peak, too great faith in a junior, and swift ruin. He lived again that awful night of fog and dark when the Sumatra the finest East Indian liner of her day, with himself as Chief in her, went to her death in collision at the end of a maiden voyage, carrying down with her two hundred souls. His was the fault, they said, with his confusion of signals. He could hear the swirl of black water, the cries, the roar of escaping steam, again cries, fainter, swallowed up in the night and the sea. The cancelled ticket, and the wasted years; ‘Sumatra Jack’ Helm, tagged for all the world to know, drowning his shame in the slums of the Orient, not daring to go home. This was the end of the road; Helm, the trimmer, sneaking through the dark to soak his disreputable body in stolen booze. The man’s chin quivered, and his eyes filmed anew.
Wrapped in his memories the trimmer did not hear the approach of the Deucer, until a voice bellowed in his ears, and a heavy hand caught him across the face. “What are you doin’ in here, you bilge rat!” the engineer roared. “What do you mean by it— sneakin’ and pryin’ in the middle o’ the night, oh! Get to hell out o’ this casin’ before I maim you!” He flung the door open, and his heavy boot caught the trimmer a terrific kick in the back and launched him out on to the deck plates.
The trimmer lay prone for a minute, unable to move. Then he staggered to his feet, in his brain a deadly ferocity that shook him to the heels.
“Oh, my God,” he groaned, “me,, chief of this packet and a dozen smarter ones—Chief of the Sumatra—kicked out into the cold like a dog by a swine of a Deucer!” Stark murder gripped him, and securing his iron bar he re-entered the casing in search of his enemy.
His frenzy did not last. Gusts of emotion, sweeping through him, reacted and left him weak and afraid. Courage oozed under the cumulative indecisions of years, and vainly he strove to force it. A man might do it—but not he. He was about to make a cautious retreat, when through the hammer and clang of the engineroom sounded a minor note—a tiny alien sound—that his engineer’s ears unerringly caught. He listened, and his eyes peering through the grating, found the cause.
On a lower landing almost directly below him, the Deucer was working with breast-brace and bit, at a lower bracket which held in place the screw spindle of a watertight door. He toiled absorbed, with no thought of being observed. The trimmer watched him without sound or movement, and when at last he slipped away his pale eyes glowed, and for the first time in years he forgot to remember that he needed a drink.
Daylight orientated his life again. The emotions of an hour cannot obliterate habit, and on his way to the bunkers he passed the Deucer with an apologetic sidle, and his fat face wreathed in a propitiatory smirk. The trimmer was no hero, and the Deucer had wide powers.
Coming off watch later in the day he stood for a minute in the shelter of the fidley, idly watching the gulls as they fought for scraps of refuse near the galley. The sky was hard and clear and cold. Then he realized that the Deucer had come up, and was standing beside him. The trimmer flinched, but the other took no notice.
“Nasty bit o’ water, hereabouts,” he commented casually. “Awkward things happen. Just about here that Jap steamer was lost about a month ago, wasn’t it?”
“I ’adn’t ’eard about it, sir,” the trimmer replied, gratified at this sudden condescension.
“Aye. Struck an old contact mine from the German field off Tsing-tao, that’d been floating adrift since the war. Lost with all hands, she was. There’s more of ’em about they say. I don’t like it. We ain’t none of us ready for wings and ’arp yet, eh?”
He laughed, and the trimmer dutifully echoed him. After another aimless comment or two the Deucer went below.
Going aft just before dark the trimmer passed the Fourth Engineer and a fireman working on the shaft of a deck winch. They were trying to remove a collar in order to renew a pinion, and both cursed freely for the collar would not budge.
“How’d they get the damn thing on?” the Fourth growled. “There’s no screw pins, yet the hammer won't, shift it.”
The trimmer drew near, his professional interest aroused.
“It’s shrunk on, sir,” he said, diffidently. “P'raps— would you let me 'ave a try at movin’ it?”
“Go ahead,” said the Fourth, surprised, and faintly
Continued on page 46
The Trimmer of the Ispahan
Continued from page 10
ironical. “If you think you can do anything—”
The trimmer got the portable forge, and heated the shaft and collar red hot. Then he turned a hose on them. “Now try it, sir,” he suggested, handing the Fourth the hammer. A slight tap sufficed. The collar dropped off.
“You can put it back with a liner an’ screw pins,” he said, and was turning away when a hand was laid on his shoulder. It was the Chief, his eyes narrow with suspicion.
“Where’d you learn that trick, my man,” he said. “In the stoke-hold?”
“N-no sir. I learned it off a Chief I sailed with once.”
“Your name’s Helm, isn’t it?”
The trimmer swallowed. The Chief shot his head forward.
“ ‘Sumatra Jack’ Helm?”
The wave of colour that flooded the trimmer’s fat face was reply enough. The Chief’s lips compressed. He was about to speak, but thought better of it, and turned abruptly away. The trimmer, sweat standing on his brow, shuffled into the fo’castle.
That night, as he passed under the open saddle bunker hatch, wheeling a barrow of coal, a boiler hammer, thrown from above, whizzed past his head, clearing him by less than an inch. He dodged for cover in craven panic, and an hour passed before he got his nerves under control, but under the urgent clanging of the firemen’s shovels, returned to his barrow. When he had convinced himself that it was accident he felt better.
At ten o’clock the Fourth summoned him to the engineroom. The Fourth’s face was white and strained, his eyes anxious. “Come in here,” he shouted above the racket of the engines, and went into the work-shop. With the door closed it was possible to talk without screaming.
“You are really ‘Sumatra Jack’ Helm?” he began.
The trimmer’s round face set. “I am,” he said, with the inevitable slow flush.
The Fourth had difficulty in speaking. Helm read his thought.
“You didn’t get me in here to twit me with my past, son,” he said. “You are in trouble. What is it?” His kindly, dazed eyes were steady.
“There’s something queer afoot on this vessel, Helm. The Chief and the Second have been after me, hinting various things I don’t dare to question
them about direct, for fear of committing myself with them, I don’t like the way things are shaping at all. I’ve only been at sea a year. I like it and I want to make good. But they—they —” His nerve failed, and he could not get it out. “I won’t bother you with it now, Helm,” he said miserably. “Another time, perhaps.”
Helm spoke out of the wisdom of his broken life.
“I’m, a funny man to be telling you this, lad, perhaps, but if its a question of professional conduct there are only two roads—a right and a wrong. Don’t take the wrong. If you want a reason, look at me. Put your profession and your ship before self always. That’s simple, isn’t it? I wish to God someone had told me that years ago. Then perhaps I would have had the guts to say ‘no!’ Now, I’ll be going lad. It’ll not do for you to be caught talking with a trimmer in the engineroom. If I can help you, sing out. I’ll not presume on it.” He plodded back to the bunkers.
THROUGH the quiet night the Ispahan steamed up the Sea of Japan, for La Perouse Strait, and the long swing across the North Pacific. Stars winked and snapped in the frosty air, and the sea licked black and icy along the vessel’s side, and was kicked to foam in the frothing wake. The Old Man was out, pacing the lower bridge with restless step, the smoke of his cigar drifting up to where the Second Mate, bundled in his greatcoat, in a corner of the bridge, peered out to starboard for a glimpse of the lights of the Japanese coast. The ship dipped gently to the light swell, her hull shaking in ceaseless vibration from the beat of the engines. A trail of heavy smoke poured from the funnel, dropping astern in a long smudge, and the masthead light weaved endless designs against the sky. A peaceful night at sea.
The shattering roar of an explosion shook the vessel from end to end.
“My God, Mr. Price, we’ve struck a mine!” the Old Man bellowed to Second Mate. “Stop her!”
“A mine, sir! Good Lord!” the Second Mate bellowed back. He jumped for the engineroom telegraph, and set the indicator quartering madly across its arc. Bells jangled furiously in the bowels of the ship. The Old Man, on the navigating bridge by now, grasped the whistle cord, and the deep hoarse note of the Ispahan's siren blared into the night, summoning all hands to boat stations. The Chief, running for the engineroom, met the Deucer at the top of the ladder. The Deucer turned back.
Helm, awakened by the explosion, swung his legs out of his bunk and felt for his shoes. On all sides the black gang were tumbling out, frightened faces with coalrimmed eyes, shining in the gloom. They listened to the appalling note of the siren, strove desperately to collect their thoughts, still heavy with sleep.
The Third burst in on them. “Look alive, men!” he shouted. “We’ve struck a floating mine. Never mind your gear. We haven’t a minute to waste! Get out to the boats! Double up!”
They streamed out the door to the chill gloom of the deck. A similar procession ran from the sailors’ fo’eastle, one man, half-naked, clinging to a tiny chattering monkey. Shivering with cold and excitement they mustered at the boats, joined in a minute or two by the engineroom and stoke-hold crowd, Their boots were soaked, and water dripped from their trouser legs. The Old Man came out of the chartroom, his arms crammed with papers and instruments, followed by the Second Mate similarly laden. The Third Mate and the Mate were at the boats. Most unusual in vessels of the Ispahan's type, the boats were fully provisioned and watered, and ready for immediate use. The Deucer joined the group, running from the
engineroom ladder. His great voice boomed out.
“We’ve got to get away, Captain. The mine’s blown a hole in her tunnel well and the whole, bloody Japan Sea’s pourin’ in. There’s over a foot of it in the engineroom already. Nothing can save her!”
“Swing the boats out, Mr. Taylor,” the Old Man directed the Mate, promptly.
Years and adversity may corrode and destroy, but in every man is a vital spark that nothing ever can kill. It may be love, pride, honour, any one of a thousand things—but let the top of the world blow off, that one thing will remain steadfast. The trimmer, puttyfaced, panicky, stood at his lifeboat station, quivering with anxiety to be into it, and away from the sinking ship. At the Deucer’s shouted words he straightened. The years of failure dropped from his fat shoulders like a ragged cloak, and Helm, the Chief, stepped forth, a cool, determined man in the midst of chaos, flaming quick within him the one thing that had not gone— the undying instinct of a marine engineer. He walked directly up to the Deucer and faced him, speaking with an authority that made his shipmates stare. “What about the pumps and the watertight door?” he demanded.
The Deucer stepped back in amazement, but before he could reply the crew’s restraint snapped. Rodent terror seized them, and they made a rush at the boats, as the lights dimmed and the Ispahan lurched to starboard. Officers and engineers stepped among them with boot and fist, compelling order, and in the confusion the trimmer slipped away. A few minutes later the Deucer missed him, and unerringly followed. The trimmer already was at the bottom of the engineroom steps, and splashing about on the plates.
Water poured in a solid stream from the tunnel which housed the great propeller shaft, and over the coaming into the engineroom, thence to the stokehold. It was making, faster than pump or bilge injection could dispose of it. The trimmer worked with grim lips and quick, unhesitating movements. He put on all the pumps. They had not been tried before; he saw that in a flash, He opened the bilge injection and closed the main injection. No good. The water rose above the plates as he dashed about, the full remnant of his professional pride determined upon saving the ship of which he once had been chief. Madly he twisted open the valve of the auxiliary pump. Fear momentarily touched him, but he fought it down, and glanced at the watertight door, suspended over the entrance to the tunnel. It was the last hope. If he could drop the door into place he could shut off the flow from the tunnel, and confine the water there. If he did not, the Ispahan would founder. He splashed toward the ladder to gain the screw handle on the upper landing, just in time to encounter the murderous rush of the Deucer, as he jumped down the slippery stair.
Desperately they fought, grunting, punching, gouging, rolling over and over in the water, half-drowned, clawing, catching sobbing-breaths, while the stricken ship settled. The Deucer sought to use his bulk that he might bring into play the spanner he held in his right fist, but he dropped it in the water and it was lost. The trimmer underneath, and half strangled, battled for his life and that of his ship, bringing into play every foul fighting tactic he had ever known. But his body, sapped and vitiated by years of abuse was unequal to the strain. He relaxed, utterly spent, and the Deucer raised his great fists to smash and maim.
When he had beaten all movement out of the dripping body beneath him he rose to his feet. The lights were going out. The siren blared frantically overhead, then suddenly was cut off, and the vessel rolled, slowly, majestically,
and as slowly recovered. The Deucer, with the icy finger of terror touching his heart, raced up the steps to the open deck. In the gloom of the engineroom the water gurgled and flowed about a still, limp form.
The boats were over the side, and the inky sec reflected their glowworm lights as they rose and fell, eager to push off. “Come on,” someone yelled. “Where the hell have you been?”
The Deucer slid down the falls and took his place. The voice of the Old Man boomed from the other boat. “Give way there! What are you waiting for. Get away from her, quick, before she sucks you down!”
A whirl of flakes danced between them, blotting out the black hull of the Ispahan as she rolled idly across the snowing sky. Far down in her bowels the trimmer was struggling to his feet.
He stood swaying, spirit on the ebb, yet with a certain doggedness, almost sub-conscious, that would not acknowledge defeat. His spinning brain refused co-ordination with the overtaxed muscles, however, and again he slumped down into the water. The surge and wash of it as the ship rolled filled him with fear. But he fought it back, as he had done before. He, the trimmer, the failure, had stuck it, when sound men had fled, He had stuck it. Yes, and by God he was not done yet! He’d show them how a real engineer did his job! The thought lashed him to action once more. Muttering to himself, he clambered up the steps toward the landing, and the bracket of the watertight door.
He grasped the screw-handle but it refused to turn. He cursed the slovenly habit that had laid years of paint over the threads, then in a flash he remembered what he had seen the previous night. No wonder it would not turn-—for the Deucer, with brace and bit, had drilled through the nut and driven a steel dowel pin through nut and screw.
The energy of desperation seized the trimmer. There was a hammer and chisel on deck beside the winch, where the Fourth had worked the day before. He had seen them there later, and wondered at the carelessness that would leave loose gear about. Now he blessed it. He found the tools without trouble, and raced back, his shoulders snowpowdered, to the upper landing just off the deck, where an upper bracket held suspended the long screw spindle and the ponderous watertight door. A quick, skilful attack with hammer and chisel, and he split the nuts on the upper bracket and drove the bolts into the casing. The door dropped into place across the tunnel entrance with a thunderous clang.
The trimmer shuddered with the nearness of it, and a vast relief. Weakness overpowered him, and he staggered to the rail with violent, painful retching. He felt better after it, and turned his mind to his next problem. He was alone on the ship, alone—and the thought swept all others from him. By tremendous effort he might get her pumped out, and surely owners and underwriters would not prove ungrateful. For the first time in all those bitter years he was offered a chance to come back.
His agitation was broken in upon by a violent hammering in the forward part of the ship. His head jerked up, and he listened. Shouts, now, that came from the port alleyway flanking the saloon. He raced forward. The Fourth Engineer was locked in his cabin!
The key was on the outside, and the trimmer turned it. The Fourth jumped out into the alleyway, blanched with terror.
“Oh, the devils, the devils!” he raged. “They meant me to go down with her, because I wouldn’t join them. They were all in it—the Old Man, the deck officers and the engineers. They put an explosive in the tunnel well to blow
a hole in her, sink her, and lay it to a floating mine.”
Then Helm saw.
“That accounts for the lightened cargo?”
“Aye, that was it. They were in with a Chinese gang ashore; transhipped all the silk and rugs-—they didn’t bulk big, but their value would run into hundreds of thousands, I suppose. Then they’d whack up. 1 With the vessel sunk the owners and underwriters would be none the wiser, and so long as the owners collected the insurance I don’t suppose they’d ask too many questions. The crew would suspect nothing, with all that talk of floating mines.”
“It was lucky for you, lad, that they locked you in your cabin. For now you’re clear of it, and if we can get the Ispahan to port it’ll make you.”
“Get her to port?” questioned the Fourth increduously.
“It’s not impossible, if you’ll put yourself under my orders, lad. Will you do that?”
“I will, sir,” the Fourth replied.
“Good enough. Our first job is to pump out the sea water in the engineroom and stoke-hold. There’ll be a certain amount of leakage past the watertight door, but it won’t be serious, Then we’ll start up the fires and get steam up, and we’ll have a chance. It’s going to be hard slugging, lad, but with you below and me on the bridge we’ll fetch the coast, or hail the first vessel we see. Take the sounding rod, now, and see of there’s any water in the holds.”
SHORTLY after dawn of the second day the lifeboats of the Ispahan sailed through a cold, flat sea. Off to starboard, sharply defined, despite the distance, were the snow-covered hills of Hokkaido. The port of Otaru was eighty miles away. The horizon was dotted with the square sails of fishing sampans. Huddled in their wrappings the crew half dozed, or, with aching bones, cursed their misery, the cold and the damp. The sky lightened. Behind them, pale in the morning, rose the riding lights of a steamer, trailing a streamer of smoke. The Chief nudged the old man.
“Here’s a ship coming up, astern, sir. Shall we hail her?”
The Old Man jerked awake. “Aye,” he said, and fumbled for a rocket. Then he stopped. His jaw slacked and he grasped the Chief’s arm with agonized fingers. “Look” he muttered. “Do you see—is it—?”
It was. The Chief’s face went ashen in the hard morning light. “We’re done for,” he croaked. “Can you get us aboard, do you think?”
The other boat, too, had seen. One or two men stood up, took off their jackets and waved them, with wild, exultant yells, hardly crediting such good fortune. Both boats made a course to draw in.
Slowly the Ispahan overhauled them, steaming at half speed. She made no move to pick them up, and the cheers of the crew turned to puzzled silence. They could hear the ripple under her bows, and the double beat of the propeller through the cold, still air. The decks were deserted and she passed like a phantom ship, detached from men.
But as she drew abeam of the one ahead—the one containing the Deucer— a figure left the wheelhouse, where he had been regarding them through the glasses, and came out to the wing of the bridge. It was the trimmer, clad in the Old Man’s second best greatcoat, and wearing a battered pith hat. He stood erect as the Ispahan surged by, his flabby chin straightened 'into hard, grim lines. He raised both hands to his mouth and hailed.
“Ahoy, the Second Engineer,” he shouted, and his voice was deep and firm. “I’ll remember you to the consul when we get in.”