The Port Watch

Describing the lamentable fate of a sorrowful sailor, unjustly condemned to a pleasurable prison

ROLF BENNETT March 1 1931

The Port Watch

Describing the lamentable fate of a sorrowful sailor, unjustly condemned to a pleasurable prison

ROLF BENNETT March 1 1931

The Port Watch

Describing the lamentable fate of a sorrowful sailor, unjustly condemned to a pleasurable prison


IT WAS a chilly day when, happening to be in the neighborhood of the docks, I turned into a small refreshment house for a cup of tea. I had just given my order when a man who looked like a sailor entered and, seating himself on the opposite side of the table, called for a pot of tea and some toast.

"A cold day, mister,” he remarked affably, “and the wind veering round to nor’-east by the look of things.” ‘‘Yes, but it’s been pretty fine lately, so we mustn't grumble,” I returned.

"That’s a fact and all,” agreed the seafaring man heartily. ‘T believe in a bit of wind with a bite in it myself. Briskens you up like. Healthy, that’s what it is, and likewise good for the circulation.”

The waitress arrived with my tea.

"Tea and toast you said, didn't you?” she enquired of the seafaring man.

"Aye, that’s what I said five minutes and more ago,” he retorted. "These gels," he added, turning to me while he pulled out a watch from beneath his blue jersey, "they haven’t no idea of time. 1 lay I’ve been here nearer ten minutes than five.”

He glanced at the watch and was about to replace it, when he paused.

“Ever seen a watch like this before, mister?” he asked, holding it toward me.

It looked a rather cheap affair, but was unusual in that, instead of a second-hand, it had a tiny painted ship which rocked jerkily to and fro in time with the watch’s ticking.

"No,” I admitted,“I haven’t seen one like that before.” “Nor never will,” said the seafaring man, and added as he returned it to his pocket, “1 call it the ‘port watch’ because I always keep it in my port-side pocket. But the point about this watch Is that it’s got history. I reckon a book could be wrote about it by anyone gifted that way. It was given to a friend of mine who was hanged -leastways pretty nearly.

“His name,” went on the seafaring man, presumably referring to the former owner of the watch, “was Bill Jones and he had relations in Cardiff. But when I first met him he’d come down in the world. Once he’d been skipper of a pearling schooner, but she got piled up on a

reef, and when Bill got home again he found that his wife had run off with a Dutchman. That took all the heart out of Bill, and so he sank lower and lower till he became bos’un of a nitrate brig. And that’s what he was when I run against him in a little one-horse place on the Pacific coast called Chicoletta.

“He was playing poker, was Bill, with a big Portugee. There was a whole mob of Dagos watching the game, for Bill and the Portugee was raising each other to see which could bluff the longest. But at last the Portugee, he couldn’t stand any more of it.

“ ‘I’ll see you,’ says he and wallops down four aces.

“The Dagos yelled with delight, for they haven’t much love for the Inglese nor for the Americano, the Portugeeses haven’t. And Bill, he just sat there saying nothing at all, till the Portugee reached out to take the money.

“ ‘Not so pronto, old son,’ says Bill, and quietly covers the Dago’s four aces with a straight flush.

“Well, that just knocked the whole bunch silly. It did that, b’gee! They stood there with their jaws wide open and their eyes dropping out, but there was the straight flush all right and no two ways about it. And then all at once the Portugee who’d been playing leans across the table to Bill.

“ ‘You one big cheat, yes!’ says he, and whips out a knife.

“But he wasn’t quick enough, not by several fractions of a second. He’d just got the knife raised above his head and was about to strike when Bill’s gun goes off and down flops Mr. Portugee as flat as a jib down-haul. Well, right there the fight started. Naturally I joined in with Bill, and together we stuck our backs against the wall and every time we struck we hit something. It was a proper rough house for about five minutes, and then the police came rushing in.

“They didn’t bother about their brother Dagos, but just made straight for Bill and me. Eight of them there were, and each had got a gun apiece and a sword. Them Portugee cops don’t take any chances. Well, they shook us up good and proper, so they did, and we spent the night in the jug. Next day we were brought up in court and the whole pack of Dagos—them that wasn’t in hospital were there to give false evidence against us. The result was that I got fined for assault, while Bill was sentenced to be hanged, and that, mind you, in spite of the fact that the other feller had drawn his knife on him first.

AFTER they’d taken Bill back to jail to wait for the r*hanging, I went and saw him. I thought that maybe he’d have a last message or something of that sort.

“ ‘Mate,’ says he, ‘you stood by me proper, you did, and it isn’t your fault that I’m where I am. But we give them Dagos a proper dusting, I will say, you and me did.’

“We laughed and talked for a while, and then I asked Bill if there was anything I could do for him.

“ ‘If you could pass a bit of ship’s tobacco in, I’d take it kindly,’ says he. ‘The stuff they serve out here smokes like it was made out of a mixture of hay and gunpowder.’

“So next day I slipped the gaoler a dollar and he let me get past with a pound of ‘Lucky Hit’ under my jacket. Tears came into Bill’s eyes when he saw it, and for a minute or so he didn’t seem able to trust himself to speak. But he got over it, and after we’d had a smoke and a chat and just as I was leaving Bill handed me the watch I’ve just shown you -that sarre, identical watch.

“ ‘Take it, mate,’ says he; ‘it’s all I’ve got to give you but you’re welcome to it. It’s a nobby little watch and was given to me by the King of Spain for saving a man’s life in Lisbon harbor. There isn’t another like it in the world and it may bring you good luck. I hope it will.’

“Well now, that very night a revolution broke out in Chicoletta. There was firing and fighting till daylight, and several people got wounded and one man was killed by falling out of a window. It was the worst revolution, by all accounts, that they’d had in those parts for nearly a month. Anyway the rebels won, the old president was shot and the new one took his place. And, would you believe it, the first thing the new Government did was to abolish capital punishment!

“When Bill Jones heard what had happened and how the law had been altered, he was properly rattled. After having got comfortably settled to the notion of being hanged, it was a bit of a shock to be told that he was to be jailed for life instead. It made him feel, he said, as if he’d been fooled.

“ ‘They’d no right to muck about with the laws that way,’ says he, ‘and I’m going to put up a kick. Let them try their newfangled notions on somebody else if they’re so set on them.’

“He did put up a kick, too, but it wasn’t any use. He was told that the new law had been passed and couldn’t be altered just to suit his convenience, which was as good as saying that, if he didn’t like it he could lump it.

“Well, the long and short of it was that they told Bill he’d have to go to a little island some two or three hundred miles off the coast. It was a place where they sent political prisoners, but as the last one had died some time back there was plenty of room for Bill. And the reason for his being sent there was that they wanted to turn the jail into a new palace for the president.

“So they chartered a schooner to take him out to the island, but when she was all ready to sail they couldn’t find anybody to navigate her. The only man who could have done it was the man who fell out of the window and got killed in the revolution.

“They’d got a navy, of course, but she’d been moored, bow and stern, in the harbor for the last thirty years. And the admiral couldn’t do anything either for he’d only held his job three days, being a barber by profession and the new president’s brother-in-law.

“In the end they just had to ask Bill, who held a master’s ticket, to navigate himself in the schooner to the island where he was to spend the rest of his life. Bill said he would if they paid him, it being against his principles to work for nothing. Well, they held a cabinet meeting or something, and it was agreed to pay Bill fifty dollars to navigate the schooner. So they loaded up the stores and put a general on board to look after Bill and see that he didn’t make off with the schooner.

“All right; they pulled up the hook and the schooner left with a fair wind and all canvas set, Bill at the helm and the general standing by him in full uniform. And the people ashore fired a salute of seven guns, thougl whether it was for Bill or the general, I don’t know.

THEY had a fair and following wind all the way and made a good passage of it by all accounts, though Bill had to keep watch and watch with the bos’un, who was a Greek, them two being the only ones on board who’d ever been to sea before.

“But when they reached the island they found the prison was in ruins and that all the stores had been eaten up by the rats. Of course the general couldn’t leave Bill there with no shelter and no stores except the few they’d brought with them for the voyage, so he had to pay him another fifty dollars to navigate the schooner back to Chicoletta, which he did.

There was another cabinet meeting, and then orders were given that the schooner was to be loaded up with stores, building materials and such like, and they voted Bill another fifty dollars to take the hooker out again.

“So they weighed anchor again, and the army fired another salute of seven guns, and everybody cheered, and the Government passed the president a vote of thanks.

The schooner made a prettyfair passage of it, but there was a bit of head sea most of the time and the general didn’t show up on deck till they dropped anchor on the lee side of the island. The timber and building material and the stores were landed and then Bill was put ashore.

The general went with him to see that everything was proper and correct, and when he was satisfied he shook hands with Bill and wished him luck.

‘I reckon this little island’ll suit me fine, senhor,’ says Bill. ‘I’ve always had a notion I’d like to try farming and now it looks as if I’d get a chance.’

“So they shook hands again, and the general got into the boat and was rowed back to the schooner. But he’d no sooner got aboard than he remembered he’d forgotten something, which was that Bill was the only man who could navigate the vessel back to Chicoletta. The bos’un was a good seaman, but he knew no more about navigation than a new-born babe.

“So back goes the general to the island to ask Bill if he’d be so kind as to navigate the schooner back to Chicoletta at the same figure as before. But Bill didn’t want to go back. He reckoned that he could be very comfortable on that little island with a bit of garden patch, free vittles and nothing to worry about. Yes, he was properly wild, was Bill.

‘I’ll be blowed if I do,’ says he, ‘and I reckon you got a tidy nerve for to ask me. How do I know,’ says he, that if I go back to Chicoletta I’ll ever get away again? And even if I do, it’ll be too late to get the garden dug up and the seeds planted.’

Senhor, I implore you to take me back!’ cries the

general. ‘Think of my wife and all my little children. Come, Senhor Inglese, I will pay you one hundred dollars, yes.’

“Well, he sort of worked on Bill’s feelings, and what with that and the promise of a hundred dollars when they reached Chicoletta, Bill’s good nature got the better of«him and he agreed to navigate the general back.

“ ‘All right,’ says he, ‘have it your own way. I always was a soft-hearted fool and I reckon I always shall be. Back we go aboard.’

“ 'The blessings of a wife and mother and five small children will be yours, senhor,’ says the general with tears in his eyes.

“So they all went on board the schooner again and Bill lays a course for Chicoletta. As soon as they arrived, there was another cabinet meeting, for it looked as if Bill was going to be more trouble than a revolution and a mighty lot more expensive. They appointed a commission, the cabinet did, to sit on Bill, which it did. And in the end the commission reported that it would be cheaper to keep Bill in Chicoletta.

“For, you see, Bill was the only person doing a life sentence in Chicoletta at that time, and it was against the law for a lifer to mix with them that were only doing short stretches. So they had to buy a house for him, the Government did, and put a guard over it and hire a woman to do his cooking and make his bed.

“Bill didn’t take it at all kindly at first and reckoned he was being done out of his rights, which, in a manner of speaking, he was. But after a while he sort of settled down to make the best of it, seeing there was no hope of

his being sent back to the island. And it wasn’t long, either, before he was having a proper gay time, for he’d only got to slip the head gaoler a dollar and he could go down town whenever he liked and come back when he liked. And every Saturday night when the head gaoler got his week’s pay, him and Bill would play poker, and every Monday morning the head gaoler had to borrow a dollar off’n Bill. For he was a great hand at poker, Bill was, having what you might call a natural gift for dealing.

THINGS went on that way for a time, and then it looked as if there might be another revolution on account of Bill. People said they were tired of paying taxes so that Bill could be supported in idleness and luxury, and at last the Government got windy and held another cabinet meeting to see what could be done.

“Well, it didn’t look as if anything could be done, and all the cabinet was in despair till suddenly one of them had a brain wave.

“ ‘Why,’ says he, ‘shouldn’t we let him escape?'

“They allowed it was the best idea yet, and everybody wondered why nobody had thought of it before. So the chief gaoler, the one Bill played poker with on Saturday nights, he was sent for and his instructions were to let Bill escape at any cost.

“So the next day he remarked casual-like to Bill that he was taking a short holiday and hoped Bill would behave himself. None of the other gaolers, he said, was to be trusted and all the locks had gone bust and there was a steamer leaving for San Francisco that night.

“Well, come nightfall they left all the doors and windows open and the gaolers called out to one another

loud so as Bill could hear that they were going home. And they left a pound of ship’s tobacco on the front doorstep and all.

“But when they came back next morning the tobacco was gone but Bill wasn’t. He was still there all right, smoking his pipe and as happy as a cat in a creamery.

“ ‘Hope you had a good time last night, boys,’ says he. ‘And while I think of it,’ he says, ‘don’t any of you lads hang around here on my account. I won’t let you down, you may lay to that.’

“Well, they tried all they knew, the Government did, to get Bill to escape, but Bill just sat tight and went on having a gay time. So they called another cabinet meeting and decided to give Bill a free pardon. It was against the laws of the country to pardon anyone who’d been sentenced for life unless it came out that he was innocent. And nobody could prove Bill was innocent, for all that he’d shot the other feller in self-defense.

“So the president sends for Bill and says that, owing to his good behavior, the Government had decided to give him a free pardon and he was at liberty to leave the country as soon as he liked and the sooner the better.

“But Bill wasn’t going to be got rid of so easy as that. Not by a jugful, he wasn’t.

“ ‘That be blowed for a yarn,’ says he. ‘You can’t kid me with talk about free pardons. *1 read your laws,’ says lie, ‘and you can't pardon a man serving a life stretch. Try something else,’ says he.

“He’d got them fixed proper, and he knew it. They couldn’t pardon him without going against the law, and if they did that it would give the other side an excuse for starting a revolution. So they tried to bribe him and offered him a free first-class passage to anywhere he liked. But Bill knew he was on a soft thing and had no notion of being shifted. No, he just stuck to prison as tight as a barnacle to a rock.

“Things went on that way for a while, till one day he got a letter from his wife. She said that the Dutchman she’d run away with had died and left her all his money and would Bill come back to her?

“Well, Bill always was a tender-hearted sort of chap, he couldn’t bear the thought of his wife all alone and unprotected with the money the Dutchman had left her. He figgered out, Bill did, that it was his duty to forgive what was past and let bygones be bygones.

“So in the end he sold his job and perquisites to the general who’d been out with him to the island, and accepted a free passage home. But he was only just in time, l might tell you, for he hadn’t gone a fortnight before there was another revolution in Chicoletta. The Government was turned out, and the first thing the new one did was to bring back capital punishment—so the general didn’t-have much time to enjoy Bill’s job.

AND this,” continued the seafaring man, once more producing the watch with the little painted ship that rocked in time with its ticking, “this was Bill’s watch, the one he gave me when he thought he was going to be hanged. All the same,” he added with a sigh, “I got to part with it.”

“Why?” I asked innocently.

“Because, mister, times is hard and I haven’t been

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