FICTION

PRECIOUS CARGO

W. A. BREYFOGLE December 1 1934
FICTION

PRECIOUS CARGO

W. A. BREYFOGLE December 1 1934

PRECIOUS CARGO

W. A. BREYFOGLE

CALL IT SUPERSTITION if you like. It was a queer business from first to last. I don't know what we'd done to deserve it. You can’t say that we’d brought it on ourselves. I sailed seven voyages, out and back, with Captain Aikinson. There was not a more honest man afloat. And a more reliable ship than the Saracen I’ve never known. But there it was! It grew from a mere rumor along the waterfront to what I’m going to tell you, as if someone had been determined to play a senseless sort of trick on us. Everyone knows that gold in the cargo brings bad luck. Superstition, you say? Listen.

I met young Parker my last day ashore. We stopped in for a drink together. He’d been ashore for a month, and he knew all the gossip. The week I had I’d spent with my people, inland. I was grumbling, I remember, about the short leave. I said the Saracen would pay dividends, and no mistake. They took it out of her crew. Parker cocked an eye at me over the rim of his glass.

"Saracen?” he said.

“Yes, for Shanghai again, calling at the ports betw'een. What have you heard?”

“Oh, nothing much. But you’re taking out a shipment of gold, aren’t you?”

I stared at him.

"Not that I know of. Where did you get the story?”

“It’s common gossip,” Parker said. He had the decency to look sympathetic. "I don’t know where, or how much. Not a great deal, I fancy.” You could tell that he thought the Saracen of no great account. Parker was once third mate on a liner and he never forgets it. But partly, I suppose, he wanted to make me cheer up, too. I had to report aboard, so we tossed for the drinks and Parker paid.

The waterfront is full of gossip. You hear preposterous stories. But I couldn’t pretend I was not interested this time. I don’t know of anything that’s as much trouble as gold for honest men trying to make an honest living. The insurance people come down to ask you questions, and sometimes then'’s a strong room to lx* built. The owners are nervous and the whole waterfront points you out to the curious. It’s the devil.

When I went aboard Captain Aikinson was very downcast. It was true ! 1 ie seemed to feel a little better when he’d told me all about it.

“Of course, it’s a great secret,” the captain said. “The gentlemen in the office stressed that. It’s to be kept dark, eh, Mr. Mate? A shipment to their agents in Shanghai, strictly private business. No one to be told, Temlin. What d’you think of that, eh? Think you can keep a secret all London knows?”

“Did you tell them everyone knows, sir?”

“No U9e, Temlin, no use. They’d only fret. Or they’d think my nerves were bothering me.”

“It won’t be so bad at sea, sir.”

“How d’you know?” The captain was excited, but that was a reasonable question. "Oh, and we’re to get a new crew—hand-picked, none of your common cattle. University men, I shouldn’t wonder, or bank clerks. They come aboard tomorrow, Temlin -something special in seamen, every mother’s son of them. Are you sleeping aboard tonight, by the way?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good! So am I. But come and see the strong room, come and be dazzled, heaven help us all !”

The bullion room was not very imposing. It was a small space to disturb us as much as it did. They had sheathed it, sides and floor and ceiling, with steel plate. The door had half-a-dozen big padlocks.

I ought to explain the Saracen’s deck plan, perhaps. She had a long, open waist. The crew bunked over the propellers. We had our cabins, as usual, under the bridge.

What was strange was that the galley and the cook’s storeroom were there as well. The men had a long way to come at messtime. They had put the new bullion room under the bridge, too. It had once been a part of the doctor’s dispensary.

("V-D DR. GARROD had a good deal to say about it. I was busy, so he poured his woes into the ear of Fife, the chief engineer. Fife had come aboard early to look after his stokers. They were lascars, and he used to worry about them in port.

But there they all were, right enough, in their quarters below. Those brown men had a queer sort of reverence for old Fife.

He took great pains about their special rations. We used to twit him about it, but he was an imperturbable old fellow. He called them his “bairns,” and the little English they spoke had a ridiculous Clydeside burr in it. The second was a Scot, too, a red-headed fellow named Stewart.

There were four of us at dinner that night; the doctor, the chief, the captain and I. Others had come aboard, too, during the afternoon. Peters, the cook and cabin steward, was a Limehouse man. He said he’d “ ’ad words with ’is missus” and was glad to get away. There were three seamen - Mahud and White and Madell. Their papers were in order, and I sent them aft to their quarters. The bo’sun took them in hand.

He was our old bo’sun ; he went with the ship. Everyone called him simply Sweyn. Wasn’t there once a king of Denmark by that name? But our Sweyn was very plebeian. He had enormous bony hands, and next to no teeth, and a kind of surly fidelity about him. He was a good bo’sun. While we were at dinner and cheerful enough, Peters came in to say Sweyn was asking about the cat. We had a cat, of course, for the luck it brought. She was a great pet of the bo’sun’s; usually she found him as soon as he came aboard.

No one else remembered having seen her, but I thought I had, and I was trying to recall where it was. All at once it came to me.

“She was rubbing against my legs, sir,” I blurted out to the captain, "while you were showing me the new strong room !”

Captain Aikinson gave me a startled look. He had the keys, and we went along and unlocked the place. The gold hadn’t come down yet, but there was the cat! She came out the door in a flash, spitting, and ran off to Sweyn, I suppose. But the captain was gloomy. It was a bad sign, when you think of it—the ship’s mascot getting herself shut up in there before the voyage had started, even. But I tried to tell myseif it meant nothing.

I was curious about the rest of the crew the owners were sending down to us. They came aboard in the morning. I had their papers spread out before me on deck Henderson, Sullivan, John Caid, Karol, Matt Johnson and Dunnett. Johnson was a negro. The rest were all white, and I am bound to say they looked alert. They hadn't been boozing, not lately anyway. But what astonished me were the discharge papers those six men had. 1 he last four ships were the same on every one! They’d been together tliat long. Often you find a pair of seamen doing that, for one reason or another. But six ! On a tramp steamer like the Saracen it was unheard of. I sat trying to puzzle it out. They all had too. The men grew restless, being kept waiting, called Caid asked, quite respectfully, whether amiss. Nothing, of course. Even a seaman is

allowed lasting friendships if he can manage them. I told Caid it was all right. Sweyn took charge of them. They were his pets, really. No need for me to trouble myself.

That voyage we were bound for Shanghai, but we had to call first at Singapore, Batavia, Manila and Hong Kong. It meant a great deal of handling cargo. The gold was for Shanghai. It had come aboard, and the captain took me in to have a look. Not that he was proud of it ! But there the stuff lay, in twelve boxes. Their careful workmanship was the only clue to the value of their contents. They had comers expertly dovetailed and were bound with heavy straps of iron. I have no idea what the gold was worth. To us it was nothing but an annoyance, and we said so. But we locked that strong room very carefully when we went out. There were people somewhere in the world to whom that item of our cargo was precious. We had to see that they got it. The worry it caused us was nothing to them.

WE GOT AWAY from London on a rainy afternoon in time for the ebbtide. No one had come to see us off. There was nothing dramatic about us. We swung about and headed down the river. It was like any other sailing. The pilot said we were lucky to be going, with winter coming on and all. But Captain Aikinson simply stared down the channel and made him no answer.

It’s strange how you get the idea you’re in for some bad luck. It was that way with Captain Aikinson and our gold. He couldn’t seem to rid himself of the obsession. Gold has a bad name among sailors, and maybe there’s something behind all the talk. The captain kept poking about, as if he had been watching the ship for a sign. If he had been imaginative I should have paid no attention. But I knew him to be hardheaded, a plain seafaring man.

The Saracen herself could never look sinister, even to the wildest imagination. She was dumpy and old, steady in rough weather and easy-going in calm. She’d roll her rails under in a heavy sea, and come up smiling. Or in fair weather she’d waddle along comfortably, and you wouldn’t have to w'orry your head about her. She did her steady ten knots, and nothing happened.

Nothing happened? That isn’t quite true. Captain Aikinson was still gloomy, and the rest of us sometimes

caught the mood when we were with him, though there was nothing to make us apprehensive. I tried to cheer the captain up by telling him what a good crew the owners had given us —things like that. Anything that might divert his mind I passed on to him. Once Caid ran a knife into his hand. “But he’s back at work already,” I told the captain. “Garrod says he’s a model patient. Takes an intelligent interest. He even remarked that the size of the dispensary must hamper the doctor in his work. Garrod liked that.”

“Caid’s a smart man,” the captain admitted. “The dispensary was larger, of course, before they cut it up for that confounded strong room.”

"Yes, Garrod told him that.”

“Did he, indeed! He had no business to, then. It’s no affair of the crew’s what cargo we carry. I’ll tell Garrod so.”

“In my young days,” the captain grumbled, “the seamen didn’t come asking questions. A smart man’s one thing, but an inquisitive man’s quite another.”

He stalked off to the far end of the bridge.

I’d had no notion he was that suspicious. He’d never been a man to order his crew about before, and we’d had worse crews by far. In a man so kindly by nature the change argued anxiety of some sort. It couldn’t be set down to mere bad temper.

It made me anxious myself. That evening I came down the bridge ladder as darkness was gathering. I stopped at the foot to light my pipe, and while I stood there I heard a strangled sneeze near me. It made me jump. Caid stepped out of the shadows near the doctor’s quarters.

“Was it you sneezed?” I asked him. “What were you doing there?”

“Polishing up the brasswork, sir.” He held up a rag he had, to show me. “The polish must have got up my nose. It’s very penetrating, sir.” “You had no business to be at it at this hour,” I told him sharply. “How could you see?”

“Oh, 1 was just finishing, sir. It seemed a pity to let a little bit of it go till morning.”

I turned away, angry with myself for seeing anything to suspect.

“It’s not your watch,” I said. “You ought to be in your quarters.”

“Yes, sir.” He walked off very submissively. The captain leaned over, above me, and asked what was up. I told him, making light of it. But he gave me a surprise.

“It’s a queer place for you to be taking the air yourself, Mr. Mate,” he said. “I thought you had gone to your cabin.”

If Caid heard that he must have chuckled. For a moment I was furious. But it’s not wise to answer your superior in that mood. And by next morning the tension seemed relaxed somewhat. I think the captain was sorry for speaking to me as he had. He made an effort and showed himself more cheerful. The weather may have had something to do with it. We were getting into the tropics.

AT SINGAPORE we discharged part of our cargo— machinery of one sort and another. There was nothing for us to pick up but a little rubber. When the hatches were on again in the evening the man named Dunnett came up to ask for shore leave for those six who were ahvays together. All quite regular, and I told him to run along and to behave themselves. He touched his forelock. Dunnett was a big, clumsy sort of fellow.

“No fear but we will, sir,” he assured me. “The only reason we’re going is, it’s Mr. Caid’s birthday.”

It sounded innocent enough. But—Mr. Caid ! It’s strange to find a seaman that punctilious in speaking about a shipmate. I didn’t call him back, of course. But, leaning over the rail in the darkness, I began to think about Mr. Caid. I wasn’t going ashore myself. I’d seen all I ever wanted to see of Singapore.

Mr. Caid ! A youngish man, not over the middle height. His nose had been broken, though he didn’t look a brawler. In fact, he was as soft-spoken a fellow as I’d ever had on a deck under me. Hair and eyes both dark, held himself very erect, a bit of a dandy in his get-up. Now that I thought of it, of those six he seemed to be the acknowledged leader. On all occasions but tonight he had been their spokesman. Delicacy this time, no doubt. He didn’t want to ask off for his own birthday. Very proper feeling, too, and did him credit. Well, I thought and I thought, but I could see no harm in it anywhere. If he had some sort of ascendancy over the other five, if they wanted to put a handle to his name, you meet with stranger things at sea. I let it go at that and turned in.

At Batavia we took on coffee and rattan. At Manila it was hemp and tobacco. That gives you an idea of the line the Saracen was in. She’d handle anything, to tum an honest penny. The crew were worked hard.

"It’s the curse of a general cargo and calling at all jjorts,” the captain lamented. "What we need is stevedores, not seamen. The owners have us carrying simply anything, from armchairs to elephants.”

"Even a bit of gold,” I said maliciously. That was one item we had to handle very little, but we didn’t like it just the same.

The captain was peevish.

“I wish we were rid of it,” he growled. “It won’t bring us any good, Mr. Mate, and that’s a fact !”

From Manila we crossed to Hong Kong, and there we began to feel better. Two weeks and we'd be homeward bound. Less than a week and the gold would be off our hands. Do you know, even in Batavia and Hong Kong we heard people talking of that precious cargo of ours. I suppose the rumor had spread from the consignees in Shanghai. It’s little wonder that we wanted to be rid of the stuff. But at Hong Kong we had not much longer to put up with it. And there, to distract us, we took on an even stranger burden for the old Saracen to carry. They sent us thirty Chinamen. They were alive, all but one, and him they kept in a heavy, teakwood box, watched very carefully by the others. Those coolies had been working under contract for three years in the South, so we were told. Now they were going back to their own places, and the agents had booked passage for them with us. The captain was furious.

“Turn my ship over to yellow boys!” he cried. “What if they get fighting among themselves, Temlin? What if they get drunk? And where are we to find quarters for them all, eh?”

‘They look a quiet lot,” I said, though I knew nothing about Chinamen, quiet or turbulent. “There’s plenty of room in the after hold. They’re used to sleeping on hard boards. We’ll rope off a section of deck, and Sweyn can rig a ladder for them to come up and down. It’s only a few days, sir.”

You see, I was eager to reach Shanghai. The captain finally fell in with my plan. We had a ticklish job lowering the coffin with the dead coolie in it. His friends insisted on having it down with them. We rigged a block, and let it down gently. Caid and Sweyn paid out the rope. Once the coffin began to slip, and all the Chinamen shrieked. But we got it down at last. Naturally, with thirty men down there, we left the hatches open. There was no sign of a storm anyway.

Continued on page 29

Precious Cargo

Continued from page 17—Starts on page 16

It was dusk as we turned up Formosa Channel, and very peaceful. Peters was just washing up in the galley. Some of Fife’s lascars lounged in the waist, talking in their own tongue. Dunnett had the wheel. It was the captain’s watch, but Allen, the second mate and I were on the bridge as well. There wasn’t another ship in sight. I noticed some of the men, aft, grouped around Caid. He stood under a lantern and he seemed to be talking to them. I was thinking what a queer lot we had aboard, what with lascars and Chinamen and our motley crew. Eight bells went: eight o’clock. I saw Caid and his men moving forward, in no particular hurry.

Then, all at once we heard a scuffle in the wheelhouse and a shout from the captain. When we ran in, he’d grappled with Dunnett. A revolver went off. Allen grabbed Dunnett’s wrist and twisted the gun from his hand. He hit him over the head with the butt. The man let the captain go and slumped to the floor. Allen handed me the revolver and took the wheel. We were falling away from our course. A great commotion went up on deck, just below and behind the bridge. We ran out to look.

Violence, when you get a first glimpse of it, is often very unconvincing. The lascars had let their jaws drop. They were simply staring. And, for a moment, so were we. There were Caid and his men, all hammering away like mad at the strong-room door. Captain Aikinson shouted at them. They stopped battering at the door, and one of them took a shot at us.

I can understand now, that they were amazed to see us. Dunnett was supposed to account for the officer on watch. They could not foresee that three of us would be on the bridge at the same time. But they were in it now, for better or for worse.

“It’s the gold they’re after,” the captain said quite calmly. “Why, by heaven, it’s a mutiny !”

Then a ludicrous thing happened. I’ve said little Peters was washing up. When he heard the shots and the shouting he peeped out. Peters was no fool. He saw what was up before we did. He did a very brave thing. He took that great pail of hot, dirty water and let drive with it, right among them all. Then he banged the galley door and fairly scuttled. For a moment they were unnerved. And Peters, darting through the pantry and the dining saloon to the captain’s cabin, snatched up a couple of rifles from a rack against the wall and fled up the bridge ladder like a monkey. On the China coast it’s a good thing to have a few rifles in the officers’ cabins. He thrust one of them, butt-end first, at the captain. All Peters said was:

“Oh, cripes, sir!”

The men below had not seen where he went. They didn’t know about the rifles. Captain Aikinson shouted to them again; roared, rather. I won’t reproduce his language.

“Lay down your arms at once,” he commanded them. “Do you realize this is mutiny?”

In a moment of silence the smell of dishwater hung in the air, very workaday and reassuring. Then a voice, Caid’s voice, called out:

“Captain Aikinson !”

“What is it?” the captain asked.

“The game’s up, captain. We’re armed, and we mean to have the gold. We heard all about it, before ever we shipped for this voyage. We know what we’re doing. Stay where you are, or we’ll have to shoot. Give us half an hour and we’ll be off in one of the boats. Don’t make us shed blood. Is it a go, sir? You must see that you haven’t a chance.”

They had planned it well. Just where we were then, between Amoy and Fuchau, would have been a good piece of the coast for their landing. They could have disappeared inland. No hope of ever finding them or the gold. They stood on deck, out of all shelter, quite confident.

“Listen to me,” the captain said, and he wasn’t shouting now. “I’ll give you ten seconds to start for your quarters. Leave your arms where you are standing. At Shanghai I’ll hand you over to the police. Is that clear?”

Instead of replying, they made a rush for the bridge ladder. The captain fired, and one of them shrieked and dropped back. A head appeared at the top of the ladder and I struck it a glancing blow with Dunnett’s revolver. It didn’t occur to me to shoot. Peters fired and missed. But I think they must have been daunted to find us armed. They dropped off the ladder, and gave us a ragged volley from the deck, from behind winches and the hatch coamings.

We went on firing, and they broke and ran. We saw them tumble into their own quarters aft by the light above the door. All there but Dunnett, so none of them was badly hit. Caid stopped under the light, with a sort of bravado, and fired a last shot at the bridge. It went singing over our heads. And there was the Saracen, with civil war aboard her, all in five minutes!

C WEYN HAD turned up from somewhere.

0 I set him to rig searchlights and we lit up the whole waist of the ship. Peters slipped down and brought up four more rifles—all there were—and all the ammunition. The mutineers gave no further sign. But Caid would be a fool not to make a break for it, and he knew that. In Shanghai the best he could expect was a long term in jail. He must be furious, too, at having his plan fall through. If I knew anything about men of his stamp, Mr. Caid would be in a dangerous mood.

I tell you, that was an awful night ! You could feel the devilment brewing on that placid old ship. We leaned over the bridge rail, glaring across the lighted deck until our eyeballs ached. Once Sweyn threw up his rifle, but it was only the comer of a tarpaulin flapping in the draught from a ventilator. He made us all jump. When I thought I saw shadows moving I waited before telling the others, to be sure. One of them moved into a patch of light, and I saw it was a man.

“Here they come, sir !” I said. Or perhaps

1 croaked the words. My throat was dry.

I worked a cartridge into the breach. “Shall we fire?”

“Wait!” the captain said, leaning out. “No, don’t shoot. It’s one of the Chinamen.”

“Two,” Sweyn said. “No, four of them.”

“More than that. It’s the whole gang! And they’re making for us. Blaze away !”

No wonder they’d taken such care of their dead companion. That box had their arms in it—swords mostly, and a few old guns. They didn’t spare themselves. They came pell-mell up the bridge ladder and swarmed on every stanchion. Sweyn pitched one of them to the deck, but it only made room for more. The wheelhouse was very solid, or we could never have stood them off. As it was, every window was crammed with chattering, grinning yellow faces. You didn’t have to aim. Allen had possessed himself of a fire axe and was doing wonders with it. They came all in one rush. It was the bridge they were after. With the wheel in their own hands, they could have run the ship aground and stripped her at their leisure.

I began thinking of a gang of them at our throats, when we'd used all our cartridges. There were Chinamen everywhere. It wasn’t pretty, and it was anything but quiet. Sweyn got a knife in his cheek, and he was roaring with the pain of it and with rage. The wheelhouse doors were tearing away from their hinges. The glass was gone from every window. A big pirate leaned in and drove the butt of his musket in Peters’s face. The little cook went down as if he’d been pole-axed. Captain Aikinson shot the Chinaman; who fell with his body blocking that window, blood spurting out of his head. It didn’t matter. The air reeked of blood, anyway. I heard the captain gasp out that it was his last cartridge. He clubbed his rifle. Beside me, Sweyn slipped and fell. The floor was very slippery. Their next rush would be the last of us, I knew. It wouldn’t take long. I remember thinking, in some irresponsible cranny of my mind, that if the gold had been mine I’d have given it to the besotted Chinamen. They could have killed each other for it, instead of us.

And then, all at once, they weren’t coming quite so hard. I heard a burst of firing on the deck. A Chinaman threw up his skinny hands to the back of his head. He looked incredulous but he went down. And the captain was roaring: “It’s that man Caid! By heaven, Temlin, it’s Caid !”

But it wasn’t over yet. The last of that fight was the worst. The pirates who were left fought like demons. Two of them threw themselves on the negro, Johnson, as he came up the bridge ladder. They went to the deck all in a crashing heap. I think Johnson’s neck was broken by the fall. He never stirred. They tore at him like harpies till Caid shot them both. Allen drove his axe through the skull of another. His face was twisted as he struck, and he kept babbling something about “yellow scum.” Yet I Allen was a kindly young fellow.

I Captain Aikinson whirled his clubbed ! rifle like a dervish. We plucked up heart and j burst out of the wheelhouse. Three China1 men jumped down to the deck, where Caid and his fellows dealt with them. Some others dived headlong overboard. The few that were left drew back to one end of the bridge and there we shot them down. Caid came up to see that there were no more. He had a sword-cut across his forehead. He was a sight.

They were gone. And that was the hardest of all to believe. We stood gaping. Bloodshed had become natural to us, you might have thought. We didn’t expect it would ever end. Caid looked at the captain, and, “What happens now, sir?” he asked.

There was little to choose between them. Captain Aikinson’s tie and collar were gone, and his jacket was soaked through with sweat and spattered with blood. He w'as a full-bodied man, and he breathed hard. Afterward he admitted he could think of nothing but how good bottled beer would taste. But he had to decide about Caid. Not to embarrass him, I went in and took the wheel. But I could hear everything that was said.

“You know the penalty for mutiny?” the captain asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ve admitted that you shipped for this voyage with that in mind?”

“No good denying it, sir.”

“But you’ve helped us out of a bad fix. I don’t ask why. I prefer not to know. One of your men died while you were about it. Caid, I think you’re a thoroughly bad sort, but it’s not for me to condemn you. If you want to take one of the boats, I ’ll report in Shanghai that the pirates went off in it, that you were killed and your bodies flung overboard.”

“You’re very good, sir,” Caid said.

“I’ll not have you thanking me!” the captain cried. “One of your gang’s inside there. See that you take him along. And, Caid, if our paths cross again it will be the worse for you. Now go !”

They extracted Dunnett from the welter in the wheelhouse. He’d been badly trampled, but he was still alive. They took Johnson’s body with them, too. We helped them lower a small boat, and they rowed away into darkness. They were lucky. It wasn’t even far to the shore. As for us, we proceeded to Shanghai. We still had the gold. That was the essential thing.

In Shanghai there was an investigation. It was established that the Chinamen were pirates. Two or three of them were known to the police, it seemed. The opinion was that they had heard the rumor of our cargo as it spread out from Shanghai, just as Caid had heard it in London. We were congratulated on our courage, our devotion, I don’t know what all. But do you know what they decided at that investigation? Why, that thenceforth, when the owners had bullion to be carried they would send it by a mail steamer! We weren’t good enough for the job, they intimated. It was a mercy we hadn’t lost the stuff this time.

Garrod was there, and he spoke up at once. He wanted that strong room taken out, and his dispensary restored to its former size.

They were so glad to have their gold, they agreed to that without a murmur.