A SLEEPING DRAUGHT
Concerning lone China seas, a shipload of cutthroat coolies mad for gold, and a shipper who found a friend
THE SHIP was pushing steadily through the solid blackness of a night as stifling and oppressive as only a night in the doldrums can be. It was time for me to turn in; but I stood in my pyjamas outside my cabin door and eyed that ovenlike interior with loathing. Its steel walls blazed raw-white in the glare of the unshaded electrics, and I knew the engine-room bulkhead beside my bunk was hot enough to burn the naked hand. A multitude of fat but active cockroaches disported joyously in this salubrious environment; and a sour nauseating whiff from the gaping mouth of a hold ventilator bore witness that our cargo of sugar was heating.
These things caused me to think regretfully of that clean and spacious liner's stateroom, with its whirring fans, the booking of which I had abandoned so recklessly at the bidding of my friend, the master of this unclean and ancient tramp. Across a gap of years we two had met again on the steps of the shipping office at Port I.ouis, and, after explanations, he had suddenly slapped me on the back and cried, “What! going Home in a gilded steam hotel? Why, we’re sailing for Dindon River the first thing in the morning. Now, why not come with me?”
He assured me that I should thereby see life, save money and be someone for him to talk to; and I had accordingly saved my money, and was now seeing life as it is lived aboard a strictly utilitarian and economical tramp upon the high seas. I was finding it a life chock-full of interest—and discomfort.
There were compensations, though. For instance, "Passengers are not allowed on this deck” is a notice which bars one from the most desirable portions of any passenger ship; but this S.S. IFisfry Ila!! was mine own. all of her, to do as I liked with. So I turned from that distressful cabin and climbed the ladder to the lower bridge in search of a draught of air. A cane chair creaked, and out of the darkness came the skipper's voice. "Ah!” said he, “I can't sleep either. 1 think this is the coolest spot in the ship; but. if you want to get clear of the smell, the crow’s-ne t is the place.”
"I'll never touch sugar again as long as 1 live,” 1 grumbled. “It's making me feel sick, and I can’t sleep. I only wish I’d known the ship was going to smell like this before I joined her. You ought to have told me, and then I shouldn’t have come.”
“Yes, it's pretty bad now it’s started to sweat,” said the skipper. “It’s a nasty cargo to live with is sugar—but I’ve known worse.”
“1 don’t believe it.” said I ; and I fear the ill-humor caused by my Ixxlily discomforts showed a little in my voice.
"Oh ! You get used to sugar in time and don’t notice it.” said my host soothingly. “There are worse cargoes—dye wood, for instance. I loaded a cargo of logs once at Puerto Caballos, and they fairly crawled with scorpions and spiders—not to mention snakes. You'd find ’em in your bunk. It was nasty. But even that lot was better than a live cargo.”
“Logwood sounds lively enough for me. But what do you mean by a live cargo. Cattle?”
“Well, cattle are bad. too. So are sheep. The smell from them’s so bad sometimes it almost blinds you. Really blinds you, I mean.”
“Lord!” said I. “I'm beginning to feel glad we’ve only got sugar aboard.”
“Yes. But I wasn’t thinkingof cattle, "went on the skipper. "It’s human cargoes I don’t like. Passengers are bad enough, and I wouldn’t command a liner for any money. But it’s a cargo of coolies we once had aboard this ship that I’m talking alx)ut. Chinese they were— 800 of ’em—and they were the limit.”
THE skipper paused for a little, and presently he surprised me by sighing profoundly in the darkness. I held my peace and waited. But nothing happened, so I became diplomatic. “They must have been bad,” said I, “if the thought of them makes you feel like that still.”
“Bad”’ said the skipper, as if the adjective hurt him. “Bad. Why, they were, without a doubt, the very toughest gang of roughs on record. If you sweep up the scrapings from the jails of ail China, it stands to reason you are going to get a precious collection of bad eggs. And if, on top of that, you go to work and sort out the worst specimens from your collection, you can then be certain you have achieved a most notable concentration of thugs. Well—that’s how my cargo of devils was raked up.”
"But how— it doesn’t seem reasonable,” I exclaimed.
“Maybe not; but it happened anyhow,” said the skipper. “Very reasonably and simply, too, if it comes to that. You see, the gold mines on the Rand ran short of labor, because the simple Kaffir is a wise man, and he won’t work unless he has to. He’d work until he’d earned enough to buy a wife to work for him, and then he retired sm ling. The mine owners were silly enough to oiler higher wages, thinking they’d attract more labor that way, I suppose; but the result was, of course, that the unmarried boys came in and earned their wife-money in less time than ever, and then they retired happy. After that the mines were in the cart— until somebody thought of recruiting labor in China. They went to the Chinese authorities for permission to recruit, and. you can believe me. the authorities were delighted. You know what the beggars are. They jumped at the chance. ‘Yes,’ they said. ‘You bet. And, what’s more, we will supply the men. You send your ships and we’ll fill ’em up with coolies’— at so many dollars a head. You note the graft? The result was that, when the ships turned up, they just emptied their jails into them, thus getting rid of their criminals, saving the expense of their keep, and making an honest penny or so for themselves at one sweep. You can’t beat a Chinaman at that sort of game.
“Well, that’s how the dregs of China came to be dumped into the Transvaal. I’ve heard they were fine workers, though. They’d drill two holes in a sh ft against a Kaffir’s one. and the mine people were mighty pleased with ’em. They’d escape from their compounds every now and again, of course, and then there'd lx? murder, robbery and rape round and about Johannesburg for a bit. I have heard, too, that it paid to be popular with ’em if you worked belowground, on account of a playful habit they had of signalling ‘Man coming’ on the engine-room bell, and then sending up your severed head in the skip. They were tough, all right,
but they did put their backs into their job, and the miners were mighty sorry when they had to send them all back again.
“You remember that Chinese slavery fuss in the Home papers? I never quite got the true hang of it myself; but it seemed to me the mine people were happy, and so were the coolies. Apparently the Home politicians weren’t, though; so those coolies had to be shipped back again. Some of them didn’t want to go at all, and they made trouble. They were mostly men who knew they’d be shot into prison the moment they landed in China, so you can’t very well blame them for kicking. And I must say I don’t blame the Chinese authorities either for wanting to make sure of those birds as soon as they arrived, for they weren’t the kind of lads any authorities, even Chinese ones, would care to have loose about the country. The Peiping Government didn’t want ’em back at any price, and I believe they said so officially. In any case, what with one thing and another, the worst bunch of the lot, about 800 of ’em, were kept back till the last shipload; and then, my luck being out as usual, this ship was chartered to load that unholy gang at Durban and take them to Ching-Wan-Tau. That’s how I got the most infernal mob of toughs on record loaded onto me. I told you that at first, and you didn’t believe it; but, ; s I said, the explanation’s simple.”
“I see,” said I. “They must have been a handful. Did you have much trouble?”
T DID,” replied the skipper. “And I didn’t have long to wait for it either. In fact, it started the moment the charterers took over the ship at Durban. They had to fit her up, of course, and they played Old Harry with her. The terms of the charter-party allowed them to do pretty well as they liked with the ship, you see, and left me powerless to stop ’em. They fitted the after ’tween-decks solid with wooden bunks, and ran up four tiers of berths in Nos. 3 and 4 lower holds. They even built a hospital on top of the wheelhouse aft; but, except for fixing a row of rice cookers the size of young donkey-boilers along both sides of No. 2 hatch, they left the fore end of the ship alone. Then they filled the main hold with stores, and put the ship down six inches by the head, and I went to the agent and protested.
“I raised Cain. I said they’d made the ship unseaworthy, and the beggar just laughed at me. He said that six inches out of trim wouldn’t hurt, and, anyhow', I’d have to lump it, because the fore part of the ship had to be kept absolutely clear of all coolies. ‘If we w-ere to give ’em a free run of the deck,’ says he, ‘it w-ouldn’t be long before they’d take charge of the ship. You’d find them roosting in your bunk, captain, and they’d certainly make trouble with your Lascar crew. They’re dangerous men,’ says he. ‘They aren’t safe, and that’s a fact. And that’s the reason we mean to make the after end of your ship a sort of prison for ’em. We’re going to fit an eight-foot iron grille right across your deck amidships, and if you take my advice you won’t let any of them get forward of it once you’re out at sea.’ Then he finished off by telling me that, instead of making difficulties, I ought to be grateful to the charterers for thinking of my safety and comfort—so I got the worst of it. That was the first time I’d heard I was going to ship a dangerous cargo, and I remember I w-ent straight out of that office and did something I’d never done in all my life before. I went and bought a revolver.
“When I got back aboard I had another surprise. I found the charterers had appointed a man to take charge of my cargo for me ! That’s just what it amounted to, and you can het I didn’t like it. And I knew', as soon as I saw the fellow they’d put in charge, that I shouldn’t like him either. He was the sort of man I haven’t got any use for. Finch was his name. A great big bucko of a man, whose only qualification for the job, as far as I could see, was that he could talk Chinese. He seemed to think at first, too, he was going to run the ship, and I had to show him right away there was only one master aboard her—and that was me. He’d brought a dozen or so assorted Chinks along with him— cooks and ‘orderlies’ he called ’em—and he comes along worrying me about where he was to stow them. So I told him to run away and ask the mate, and I could see by the look he gave me that I’d surprised him.
“Next morning our cargo arrived alongside—a trainload full; and it took Finch all day to get those coolies aboard. It seems he wasn’t taking any chances. He made the shore people march the beggars up our gangway one by one. and as each man reached the deck, Finch and his boys went through him. They did the job properly, t: o. They stripped every one down pretty well naked, and searched ’em and looked through their bundles of duds and things. I could see those Chinks didn’t like it a bit; and whenever Finch came across a knife or a bit of opium or something, they’d give him some mighty dirty looks. Not that Finch cared, bless you. He stood there looking as fierce and tough as he knew how, and every now and again he’d touch up any boy that showed signs of jibbing with his sjambok. And a sjambok’s a nasty thing to get hit with. It’s a strip of dried rhino hide, and a smack with one on the bare skin will drawblood quick if you aren’t careful. And Finch wasn’t careful at all. I didn’t like it; but that wasn’t the timebor the place to interfere— so I waited.
nPHE last man in the procession came up handcuffed -*■ betw-een two Kaffir policemen. He was a big man, but he didn’t look particularly dangerous to me. In fact, he had rather a fine-looking figurehead on him—sort of quiet and sad and gentle. But Finch gets into a great state about the beggar, and he comes bawling to me wanting to know where he is going to stow him. ‘The swine’s dangerous,’ says he. ‘He’s murdered three men down the Rhineveldt Deep, and the only reason his neck isn’t stretched for it’s because they badly vjant him for some other devilment in Tientsin. He’ll get his all right,’ says he, ‘when they get him ashore at the other end; but what I want to know is, what’ll I do with him now?’ ‘Oh, put him in your bunk,’ says I, ‘and good luck to him.’ And w-ith that I laughed, and went up on the bridge and got the ship under way.”
“You don’t seem to have liked that man much,” said I. “What did he do with his murderer eventually?”
“Oh, shackled him to a stanchion down No. 1 hold,” went on the skipper. “It was the mate’s idea, and the man was nice and snug down there, and well out of the way of everybody. And as for not liking Finch— well, he wasn’t my style; but he had his points, and I have to admit it. I had him up to my cabin the first night out, and went for him about the way he was manhandling the coolies. It was my idea to go easy with them and leave ’em alone and not stir up trouble, and 1 said so. I told him to take a close reef in that sjambok of his, or one night, as likely as not, he’d be getting his throat cut, to say nothing of the throats of the rest of us white men aboard. I gave him beans, I tell you.
“And then, when I’d quite done, he started. He told me some things that surprised me and made me feel mighty thoughtful. He said he mightn’t know much about ships, but he did know how to handle coolies, and that if I thought we would ever get to Ching-Wan-Tau unless he put the fear of death into those Chinks and kept it there, then I was an old fool. Yes. That man sat there in my cabin and called me an old fool ! And I sat and listened to him. 1 had to, for, you see, he was speaking the cold truth and it frightened me. I knew we had a bad crowd aboard all right, and that if they wanted to scupper us they wouldn’t have much trouble doing it; but I hadn’t worried much, because I never seriously thought they’d want to scupper us.
“But according to Finch, that was just what they were almost sure to do. Says he, ‘There’s over 800 of ’em, and they’re all bad; but there’s one gang a darned sight worse than the rest. They’re all due for the ciink as soon as they get ashore; but some of them are due for more than that. They won’t live long once their police get hold of them— and they know it. And if you were in their place, what would you do? Why, you’d get hold of the ship and run her in somewhere handy along the China coast and clear out.
It standi to reason; and it’s my firm belief that’s what they’ll try to do. And as for getting hold of this ship it’s easy. What does the crew amount to? There’s you and me and your three mates and the four engineers. That’s only nine of us whites all told, not counting the Doc, who’s a halfcaste Macao Portuguese, as far as I can make out, and not to be relied on. And you know better than 1 do what your Lascar crew is worth; but I bet, if it comes to a scrap, that they’ll lie low and try and save their skins and I don’t blame ’em.’
“Well, that was bad enough; but as soon as he had got me pretty near frightened to death with talk like that he started off again on a fresh tack. ‘Now, here’s another thing,’ says he. ‘These birds don’t get paid their wages till they get to Ching-Wan-Tau. That was a little scheme arranged by our Repatriation people. When I was wangling this job out of them in Pretoria they tried to tell me this bally scheme of theirs was a better insurance against trouble aboard the ship than the armed guard I was asking for. According to them, the coolies were all going to be good boys, because they knew if they weren’t they wouldn’t draw their pay. That’s why we haven’t got a guard. Can you beat it? The Chink authorities jumped at the idea, of course. They get the handling of the cash that way, and a fat lot of it our coolies are likely to see. The trouble is, the beggars know it. They know they haven’t a hope of ever touching a bean of their money. And d’you think that’s going to make nice good boys of ’em? You bet it isn’t. Why, they’re ripe for trouble. And the worst of it is that making trouble’s worth while for some of them. Knowing what they know, each man must have drawn an advance before they left Jo’burg. Wanted to make sure of getting something, I guess. Anyway, when I was searching them 1 found nearly every man jack had from five to ten pounds stowed away on him. It doesn’t sound much; hut it means there’s from six to eight thousand pounds loose aboard this ship; and what’s more, it’s all in round, yellow, g lden sovereigns. Now, Cap, you can believe me or not, justas
you like; but I know we’ve got men aboard here who’d cut every throat in the ship rather than let a sum like that get away from them. And yet you sit there and tell me to go slow and treat the lx>ggarseasy. Why, if 1 don’t show ’em, right from the start, that I’m top dog, and mean to stay there, then you and 1 and the rest of us white men would he wise to step over the side now. We’d be a darned sight more comfortable than aboard.’
'Y/'ES, that’s just about the way that man talked to me. I was scared. And when 1 had more time to think about things I was more scared than ever. You say you can’t sleep because of the smell of tliis sugar. Well, I tell you, with that cargo aboard, I didn’t dare sleep! What worried me most was that I couldn’t do anything about it. I knew, against that crowd of Chinamen, we nine whites were helpless. They could have knocked us on the head and thrown us all overboard any night they liked. That grille amidships the charterers were so proud atxrut was really as much use as nothing, because it didn't prevent anyone from climbing over the engineroom casing and dropping down on us from the top of the fiddley. Then, the Indian Ocean's a lonely place. Ships didn’t carry wireless then, remember, and there was no port I could run into. Even if there had been I didn’t see what excuse I could give for calling in anywhere. It’s a serious thing for a master to deviate out of his proper voyage. It means expense to the owners, waste of time and bunkers, with the insurance on the ship invalidated, and the lord knows what else. You’ve got to have some mighty good reason before you dare deviate—and what reasons could I give? I should have looked pretty blowing in somewhere, and saying I’d come because I was scared of what my cargo might get up to. No, I could see I’d got to get the ship to ChingWan-Tau or nowhere. You see, I was in a nasty fix—and no way out of it.
“For the first week things kept more or less quiet. There was a lot of grousing about the chow, of course, and a scrap or so at nights in the ’tween-decks; but nothing much happened to amount to anything until two coolies died of beriberi, and there was a riot because we dumped them over the side. It seems their friends wanted to keep ’em and bury them in China; but we couldn’t keep any corpses aboard, of course, and Finch had to climb up on the after-hatch and tell ’em so. Things looked nasty for a bit, but when they burst out laughing at something he’d said, I knew Finch had managed to fix ’em. He told me afterward what the joke was. T told ’em,’ he says, ‘we didn’t feel like keeping corpses about the place this hot weather, but the next man that died, his friends could have him—and welcome. And then I offered to bet ten dollars Mex. to a ticcy they wouldn’t keep him for more than three days. They saw the sense of the thing then, and that settled it.’ Finch said he didn’t mind that kind of trouble, and how it was simple enough to settle just ordinary foolishness like that with nothing ugly behind it.
“ ‘What worries me,’ he says, ‘is this small knife outfit the beggars have started. How they smuggled the knives through beats me, especially when I think of the way I went through ’em as they came aboard. I could have sworn there wasn’t a weapon of any sort on the lot, and now here’s these small knives turned up. I don’t know how many there are yet, or w ho’s got them; but I reckon there’s maybe a dozen or twenty coolies aboard each with a knife on him. And. Cap, these are the birds we’ve got to look out for. They’ll get together; and, in fact, as far as I can make out, they’ve formed thems Ives into a sort of a gang already. It’s in the nature of a Chinaman to do that sort of thing. A secret society's a regular institution with ’em. and a secret society’s just what these swine with the knives have formed. It’s secret all right, because I’ll be hung if I can find out who’s in it; but what they call themselves—to give you the English of it—is “Small Knife Society.” I’ve managed to find that much out. anyway. I was anxious enough about this trip of ours right from the start; but now this thing’s happened—-well. I’m scared, and I'll admit it. It's all very well to say they’ve only got little pocketknives, which is the onlykind of a knife they could have hidden; but the point is. they are armed. “In the country of the blind the one-eyed man is boss,” so twenty men with knives on ’em and working together are going to run the rest of this bunch. They'll run them like sheep. They’ll run them and they’ll rob them; and if anybody objects they’ll cut him up in small bits. I know these birds. Cap. I’ve worked with Chinese most of my life, and I can see what’s going to happen as plain as if I was sitting in a movie, with the picture running in front of my eyes and the man in the corner explaining it all through a megaphone. You mark what I say! . Before we get to Ching-Wan-Tau the men who’ve got the knives will be the men who’ve got hold of most of the money too. They know, as well as we do. the minute this ship arrives she’s going to be filled with police. Chinese police. And who’ll collect that money then? Why, the police; and you can’t tell me those Small Knife
blighters are going to wait for that. No* sir! As sure as my name’s Bill Finch* they’ll try to do us in and then pile this ship of yours up somewhere handy, and clear out with what they’ve got. That is, they will if I can’t stop ’em. I don’t know if I can; but I’m going to have a shot at it.’
“It was about then that I began to think a lot more of Finch than I did when I first saw him. I think, if he hadn’t been rash, he might perhaps have managed to settle the trouble. But he was rash. His notion was to jump right into the mi ’dle of a mess and try and clean it up that way, instead of skirmishing about a bit, like a wise man, and then putting his smack in where it was likely to do the most good. One morning he didn’t show up at breakfast. He didn’t turn up at all, although I turned the ship inside out looking for him. He just vanished.”
“Good lord!” said I. “What do you mean? What happened?”
T DON’T know,” went on the skipper.
“But I can guess. He must have made too much of a nuisance of himself for those Small Knife people, and I suppose they just laid for him one night when he was going his rounds, and then slipped him over the side. I should think that was about what happened. However, there he was—gone: and it seemed to me at first that it put the lid on things properly. The job was up to me then—and I couldn’t see how I was going to tackle it. The worst of it was, Finch was the only man in the ship who could talk Chinese, and I couldn’t find one coolie out of the lot who understood English. So there we were, you see, with the ship a regular powder magazine, a sleeping volcano and a tower of Babel all rolled into one, and me tongue-tied and pretty well helpless.
“And I tell you, with Finch gone and out of the way, things didn’t take long to warm up. The daytime wasn't so bad; just that crowd of yellow beggars squatting all over the after-deck and chattering a language that didn’t sound human. I'd go and take a look at them through the bars of that grille, and I’d say to myself, “There they are, my son. Just ordinary John Chinamen, taking it easy and doing nothing. No need to be scared of them.’ And then I’d catch the glint of an eye maybe, or a sideways look from a face chock-full of evil; and I’d feel like you do when you go to the zoo and look at the lions and tigers— specially the tigers.
“It was the nights, though, that got on your nerves. There was the devil to pay at night down those after-holds. You could hear it. I didn’t know what was going on, you understand, because we never dared go aft in the dark at all. But you could hear things happening all right. Plenty of things, and it was awful. Those Small Knife devils were doing it all, just as Finch warned me they would. I had plain proof of it. Da Silva, our Doc, was a better man than I’d thought. He wouldn’t face that hospital of his on top of the wheelhouse at night; but each rrtorning he’d go aft and attend to what would be waiting for him. And every day there’d be maybe six or a dozen poor devils, all cut about and bleeding, for him to sew up and bandage. I used to go aft too, and lend him a hand, and I noticed the wounds were all about the same—just slashes and long shallow cuts as if they’d been done with razors or small sharp knives. I don’t remember that we ever had a real deep wound to deal with; but all the same we had some horriblelooking cases. And five of ’em died—from loss of blood, I guess, as there wasn’t much whole skin left on any of ’em. That Small Knife lot was putting its trademarks on the rest of the bunch all right.
“It was plain enough what they were up to; just robbing the rest, as Finch said they would, and if anyone kicked or tried to make a fight of it, then they sliced him up, and Da Silva and me we’d have to fix up the results in the morning. At the rate they were working I could see it wouldn’t be long before they’d have every coolie in the ship cleaned out, and then, as likely as not, it would be OUT turn. If I could only have talked the lingo I might have done something. Roused up the rest of the Chinks, perhaps, and made ’em set about those Small Knife birds. Or at least I might have found out who they were, and then we whites could have had a go at them. As it was, I was helpless; but I did what I could, of course. I got the engineers to connect up some flexible hose to the deck steampipes. We led the hoses up on the bridge, so that if steam was turned on they’d squirt straight down both bridge ladders. We reckoned to gather on the bridge if things got desperate, and give the beasts a dose of high-pressure live steam, and boil a few of them at any rate before they scuppered us.
WITH all this worry and trouble on my mind I was a fine sample of a nervous wreck by the time we’d run across the Indian Ocean and raised Achin Head. One night, when we were about halfway down the Malacca Straits, I was standing up here trying to make upmy mind whether or not to take the ship into Singaix>re— and chance getting fired for it—when I caught sight of somebody leaning on the rail right up in the bows. It was dark, but I could make out the shape of the man against the sky, and I saw he was a Chinaman. It startled me, because the forepart of the ship wasn’t a place where any coolie ought to have been. I could see the man wasn’t one of the crew, for, even at night, it’s easy to tell the difference between a Chinaman and a Lascar. It wasn’t natural, anyhow, for any of the hands to be knocking about forward at that time of night; and you know our lookout man is stationed up in the crow’s-nest and never on the fo’c’sle head. Well, things being in the state they were, I thought I’d better go forward and see what the fellow was up to. I had on my carpet slippers, so I sneaked quietly along the deck; and when I tell you I felt in my pocket to see if I had my gun on me, you’ll understand the state of mind I’d got into during that last week or two.
“The chap was standing right up in the eyes of the ship, and I’d got about abreast of the windlass before he heard me. I startled him all right, and he jumped round and stared at me witli his mouth open. And then it was my turn to jump. I recognized him at once. He was the bird who should have been ironed to a stanchion down No. 1 hold—the murderer, in fact, that Finch had made such a fuss about when he’d first come aboard. I’d clean forgotten all about him, and it gave my poor nerves an awful shock to run suddenly up against the beggar like that. I suppose I must have got rattled, because, though I don’t remember pulling out my gun, I can still see myself jumping about behind the windlass like some fool in the movies and pointing my revolver in the general direction of that poor man. No wonder I scared him. He dodged about too. Then, ‘Don’t shoot!’ he sings out. ‘It’s all right. Don’t shoot.’ And I was so surprised at hearing English from him that I couldn’t have stopped him if he’d come for me. However, he didn’t show any signs of that, and when he’d got over his scare and I’d got over mine, we just stood there looking at each other and feeling sheepish—at least, I know I did. I think it struck both of us that a grown man can make a terrible ass of himself if he isn’t careful.
“ ‘Well, John,’ says I at last, ‘it may be very funny and all that; but you’re supposed to be a dangerous murderer, and what I want to know is how did you get on deck? And what d’you mean by talking English anyway?’
“He didn’t speak for a bit; just hung his head and backed away to the rail, looking sulky, and I was pulling out my whistle to
call the watch when he suddenly put out his hand to me and said. ‘Don’t.’ Like that he said it; just ‘Don’t,’ and there was something about the way he spoke that I— well, I didn't. 1 asked him again who he was and how he'd come by his English, and after a bit he went right ahead and told me his trouble. I can’t remember his words, of course, but if you'll believe me, he talked better English than I do myself. It turns out he’d lived in London for seven years or so, learning to be a doctor, which accounted for things. He asked me if I was an officer, and when I told him who I was he opened out a lot.
“He said an Englishman would give him a square deal if anyone would, and then he asked me to give him a chance. A few days after we’d started, it seems he’d discovered he could slip his wrist out of his handcuff. He was left quite alone down the hold, and the only time he saw anybody was when one of the cooks brought his chow down to him in the morning. He’d lie low all day, he said; but on some nights, when things were quiet on deck, he’d venture up for a hit and get some clean air. He said he’d made up his mind to wait and drop over the side one night and swim for it if we passed close enough to any land. It was a mighty slim chance; but the man was desperate, and I could see he meant to do what he said. I was the only soul aboard who knew he could slip his irons, and he begged me to say nothing and leave him to take his chance. In any case, he said he’d rather drown than be tortured to death, which was what he seemed to think he was due for if the Chinese officials got hold of him again.
“He didn’t tell me exactly what it was he’d been up to in China to make himself so unpopular with the authorities; but as far as I could make out he’d been what we’d call an agitator or something like that, and that’s a thing you know very well yourself the Chinese high muck-a-mucks won’t stand for at any price. He must have had some sort of following, too, in Tientsin, which was where he’d been at work, because they started to riot one day and did in a mandarin or somebody, and then this chap liad been arrested and tortured to make him give away his pals. He said he wouldn’t do it, and he’d been waiting and hoping for a quick death, when they surprised him by putting him aboard ship and sending him off to South Africa. I think the man must just have been a natural born kicker. I mean, if he saw any dirty work going on he was the sort that couldn’t rest unless he’d done his darndest to clean things up. He even gets into trouble again on his mine. He found a gang there who were running and robbing the rest of the coolies and doing ’em in with a steel drill or a charge of dynamite if they objected. He said he couldn’t stand it, so he got up a gang of his own. It was pretty much the same sort of tiling he’d done before in Tientsin, and there’d been scrapping, of course, and some more men killed. lie told me his lot had managed more or less to clean the other gang up; and then, with his usual luck, he ran foul of the Jo’burg C.I.D. They found out he had something to do with the business, but they got hold of the wrong end of the stick, because, instead of giving him credit for stopping the trouble, they reckoned he was the cause of it, and ran him in for murder.
rT'HAT was his yarn, or as much as I can remember of it. It was a hard luck tale anyhow, and I was sorry for him, and believed him. And his talk had set me thinking. I hadn’t exactly a plan in my head; but what he’d said about that gang down the mine reminded me of my own troubles. ‘If he managed to fix that lot,’ thinks I to myself, ‘then he might be able to settle these Small Knife beggars too.’ That was a good thought, and when I’d got it clear in my head I put it to him flat. I told him the state of things aboard us, and what I was afraid might happen before the ship got in. I told him everything, and then I said straight out that, if he thought he could settle the business, I’d see he got' his chance to get away.
** Tf you think you can do it,’ I said, ‘then go ahead. But you must understand I can't help you—-openly at any rate. You were put aboard here as a murderer. You’re in my charge, and my job is to hand you over to the police as soon as we arrive. But if you pull this tiling off for me, then I’ll give you every chance I can to get clear away from the ship before the police get hold of you. You’ll have to trust me,’ I said. ‘Will you do it?’ And T will,’ says he, straight out like a man, and I knew from the way he spoke that I could trust him too. He held out his hand to me on the strength of our bargain, like a Christian, and we shook.
“And then, for the best part of an hour I should think, we two stood there behind the windlass and planned things out. I was hoping to goodness all the while that no one would see us, because if one single soul aboard the ship ever got to know I was hand and glove with the man like that, his escape would look too fishy and more than I’d care to risk. He saw that point too; so we tried to settle things then and there, so as not to have to see each other again, that being too risky. Wre agreed he’d better stay down below in his irons during the daytime, and do what he had to do at night. He wouldn’t tell me how he was going to set about the job; but he seemed fairly certain that if he could get into the afterpart of the ship he’d be able to manage. I told him how he could do that by climbing over the fiddley and engine-room casing. Tf I can find friends aboard,’ he said, ‘it will be less difficult. But, captain, I must have a weapon. There is only one way to stop those men now,’ he says. ‘Captain—you must let me have your pistol.’
“Now this was something. I tell you, I didn’t like the thought of at all. Don’t misunderstand me I trusted that man, and I wasn't scared he’d turn my own gun on me. No. But I didn’t like to think what else he might have to do with it. He was as good as a self-confessed murderer, remember—in a gcxxl cause, maybe; but still —a murderer. And, believe me, it makes you think before you hand over a loaded automatic to a man like that. And I was thinking hard, and wondering what I’d better do, when he bent down and looked me close and straight in the eyes. ‘It’s either them or us, captain,’ he said, ‘and you must face it.’ And with that he took the thing gently out of my hand—and I let him take it. He balanced it in his hand for a little, and then he said, ‘Good. When the matter is finished, you shall have proof of it. Then you must tell me how to escape. ’
“ Tf the ship ever gets to Ching-WanTau,' I said, ‘that’s all the proof I’ll need; and the best chance I can see for you is to swim for it, as you meant to before. What else can we do? You’ll have to swim; but I’ll see the ship gets in to Ching-Wan-Tau Roads at night and I’ll anchor her as close as I dare to the land. I’ll try and see the way’s all clear for you—and the rest you'll have to do yourself. You’ll be in your irons down the hold, and, as soon as we anchor, you must slip up on deck quickly and drop over the side and swim ashore. Will you be all right if you do get ashore?’
“ Tf 1 can land without being seen,’ he says, ‘I’ve friends who’ll hide me. But how shall I know when the time has come— to swim?’
“ 'When the anchor’s let go,’ I said‘Then’s your time. You'll hear the chain running out all right. You'll hear that down the hold even if you’re asleep. Well —that will be the signal.’
“ ‘Good,’ says he again. 'But take the ship in very close to the shore, captain. I can't swim far; but I’ll trust you. You must trust me too. and when I’ve done what I’ve got to do. remember, I’ll be waiting and listening for your signal.’
“After that we shook hands again on our bargain, and I left him. I went up on the bridge and he went down the hold. I didn't see him again.”
'T'HE skipper’s long chair screeched as he sat up suddenly. For a while he said nothing at all; but when he spoke again his voice surprised me. “It’s not wise,” he said, “to put too much trust in any man. We trusted each other too much, and it isn't fair. We’re only human—and things happen; things you can’t foresee. And one forgets. Just for a second or two, perhaps; but one does forget—and then the trust is broken. No, it wasn’t fair.”
“Ah! I see,” said I. “So, your trusted murderer didn’t fulfill his bargain? Well, I must say, I’m not surprised.”
“Him?” went on the skipper. “Don’t you make any mistake, my friend. He didn't fail. No. He did all he said he would; although I don’t know how he did it. I can only guess, and go by the facts— as they appeared. For instance, you take the facts we’d find each day inside Da Silva’s hospital. The first few days after I’d made my bargain there’ll be the usual crop of victims—twelve to twenty poor devils, that is, all slashed up and bleeding. And then one morning Da Silva comes along, smiling all over his face. ‘They don’t fight no more,’ says he. Today there is no one cut.’ But next morning he wasn’t so happy. ‘Bad, captain, bad,’ he says. ‘Four men they bring me today. Four—all shot in the face and dead. It’s bad for us, captain, I think, now they begin shooting.’
“ ‘Maybe it’s not so bad as you think, Doc,’ I told him. And that’s all I’d say, for I guessed what had happened. And when I went aft and took a look at the corpses, I knew it was all right—for my partner wasn’t one of ’em.
“The next fact to appear was an old gunny bag. It was shoved through the jx>rthole over my bunk that same night, and it fell on me with a bump and a rattle that scared me out of the first good sleep I’d had since we’d left Durban. I switched on my light in a hurry and picked the thing up. It was heavy, and the mouth of it was tied up with a piece of twine. For a little while I just sat there looking at the thing, and wondering who’d thrown it in and what was in it. But when I did open it and spilt the contents out on my blanket, I understood at once. It was a message—to tell me one side of the bargain had been fulfilled. It was proof, too, that tumbled out of that bag onto my lap. Nineteen small knives and my Colt automatic were proof enough for me. The knives were just ordinary folding pocketknives, and the blades of four of them were broken; but all the rest were as sharp as razors. The barrel of the gun was fouled, and the magazine was short of four cartridges. It was good evidence; but I wasn’t keen on anyone else seeing it, so I put the things into the bag again, and went out on deck and dropped the lot overboard. For a minute or two I thought of going forward and paying my fpend a visit. I wanted to tell him I understood, and thank him, and try and make some better arrangements for getting him clear of the ship; but there was a bright moon shining full on the forward deck, and the officer on the bridge would have been certain to see me, so I turned in again — and slept.
“Next day at noon Cape Shantung was abeam, and we headed west to run through the Gulf of Pechili to Ching-Wan-Tau. That gave us 270 miles to go. and meant arriving about three o'clock the next afternoon. This wouldn’t do, and I saw I'd have to slow the ship up if I was to carry out my part of the bargain and get her in after dark. Now, you can’t go easing a ship down unless you’ve got good reasons for it. It all goes down in the log, of course, and when you get home they call you up to the office and want to know what you’ve been playing at. However, there it was, and I’d got to chance it. Slowed down the ship had got to be, office or no office, and I was trying hard to think of a good excuse, when the weather supplied me with the finest kind of a one I could have wished for. It came on thick. It started with some patches of fog closing down on us about four in the afternoon, and it got thicker and thicker, until by ten o'clock that night we
were steaming dead slow, and you couldn’t see the foremast from the bridge.
“The Gulf of Pechili’s a horrible place to be drifting around in in thick weather. When a fog shuts in properly there it’s apt to last for a long while, and the blessed tides run all over the place at the rate of knots, and you can’t tell where or how far they’re going to set you. By midnight I didn’t like the look of things. We’d been dodging along dead slow for hours, and I wasn't sure within twenty miles or so where we’d got to. Cape Lai Lee Shan was somewhere ahead of us, I hoped; but I didn’t want to hit it, so I stopped the engines and sent the second mate aft to take a cast of the lead. I did it because it never pays to take chances at sea, especially in a fog; but as a matter of fact I felt pretty sure we’d got plenty of water under us. So you can understand when that young officer of mine came running up the bridge ladder singing out he’d got bottom at eight fathoms, it gave me the deuce of a start. We’d been set to the devil and gone off our course, and there was only one thing to be done.
“I roused out the mate to stand by forward, and then took another cast of the lead This time we only got six fathoms, and I saw it was high time to bring the ship up and wait until we could see something. ‘Stand by, forward,’ I sang out, and ‘All ready, sir,’ answers the mate, ‘Let go, then,’ I shouted, and ‘Leggo, sir,’ says he. Then there was a squeak from the windlass brake and our cable roared out through the hawse pipe, shaking the whole ship as it went. ‘Give her thirty-five fathoms to the water’s edge, mister,’ I said, and then I walked to the binnacle to watch which way the tide would swing us. And the tide there must have been running like a race, for as soon as the ship brought up on her cable she swung round through nine points so quickly you’d have thought a tug had got hold of her head. I looked over the side and heard the tide regularly sluicing past us. ‘Hear that?’ said I to the second. ‘No wonder we’ve been set off to blazes.’ And then, in a flash, I understood what I’d done. I feared I was too late; but it wasn’t many seconds before I found myself on the foredeck, shouting down the hold to the man who’d been waiting there and listening for the signal I’d promised to give. I called and I kept on calling; but I got no answer. He’d heard the signal. He’d taken me at my word and gone overboard—with the ship somewhere in the middle of the Pechili Straits and a five-knot tide running past her straight out to sea.”
The awning bellied out above us and came down again with a smack on the spreaders, and a warm, brisk wind that I had not noticed before made my pyjamas flap about my legs. There are times when it is not well to talk, so I held my tongue and waited.
In a little while the skipper spoke again“You go and turn in,” he said. “There’s a nice breeze now, and your berth’s to wind’ard, so you ought to be able to sleep. And if you can’t, you can spend your time nicely thanking God there’s only the smell from some sweating sugar to keep you awake.”
Keeping Paint Brushes Soft
Y Y ril ILE still wet after being used for W painting, brushes can be preserved by storing them in a can containing vapor that keeps the bristles soft and flexible. It is seldom necessary to wash them and they are always ready for use without cleaning. Also, old and partly hardened brushes can be reclaimed and put back into service after a week in the conditioner. A slowly evaporating liquid in the container generates a heavy non-inflammable vapor, driving out all the oxygen and preventing oxidization of the paint. One pint of the liquid will last several months, since the brushes are not immersed in it but remain suspended in the vapor.—Popular Mechanics.